Composer Q and A

Q and A with Aaron Holloway-Nahum
Chicago, IL
Founder and Director, Riot Ensemble (London, UK)

Did you always want to be a composer? What first drew you to composition?

Actually I came to composition (relatively) late – I didn’t write my first piece until I was 17 (hold for gasps). That actually came about because I was looking to make some arrangements for my A cappella group, and a teacher gave me Walter Piston’s Orchestration book. I think he had a different idea for me, since that book really has nothing to do with arranging for voice but he wasn’t wrong because honestly, as soon as I started writing music that was it. Within about a year I’d completely stopped all other performing and was just composing non-stop.

What musical instruments do you play? 

Well, I used to be a singer and I can (theoretically) play the piano, but my wife is a wonderful concert pianist so I tend to do more listening at home these days. Practically, I’m making music most often as a conductor, and I also work as a sound engineer.

Can you give us a glimpse into your composition life? Do you write at the piano? By hand or at the computer? How do you first start a piece?

I used to have such good, clean answers for this. For years I woke every morning at around 4.30 or 5 and wrote music for a few hours. It’s an amazing time to work. I used the piano often, not always. Having kids absolutely blew this up. Now I block out some amount of time at some point in each day. Sometimes it’s only 20 minutes. Sometimes I do have some hours. But I’m always looking forward to it. 
I do write everything by hand at least once (often twice) and then I’m doing another editing/creative pass as I enter it into the software.  

What are some influences-musical or otherwise-that impact your work?

I think the largest influence on me over the past decade have been the musicians at Riot Ensemble. Working alongside them concert by concert, I have just been endlessly inspired and deeply shaped. I have the sound of their playing in my ears, now. And I love them so dearly and love making music with them so much. It has just increased and impacted everything about my world. 

Outside of that, I am really influenced by poetry. My titles almost all come from poems that have deeply affected me, and these poems are starting to become really concrete elements in my work over the last years (as it is with this piece!)

In addition to music, you are a conductor and a recording engineer. Do you approach music differently, depending on the job you are doing? Do you priorities shift?

It really seems to me like the answer should be yes – but at the end of the day when I really start to answer this question I can’t really find differences.  Music is always at the heart of what we’re doing. I just love music, and making it, and sharing it. And in all these roles that’s the heart of what it is. That and the musicians who make it. As a composer I hope I am challenging and rewarding those musicians. As a conductor and recording engineer, leading and advocating for them, helping them to make the very best work they possibly can.  

Your harp parts have prepared harp effects, including gong sounds, nail scrapes, and a honey spoon. What inspires your sound world while you’re creating music?

I think the word that really matters to how I think about all these sounds is play. Of course the music is sometimes very serious. I hope the sounds are rich, grainy, messy and beautiful. But, at heart, I think of them the way children approach instruments. I guess you’ve probably taught young kids, too?  I used to teach piano to 6 year olds and they just LOVED making crazy sounds on the instrument. Exploring it. Poking it. Proding it. Playing on it. To find what it could be in their hands. It’s really, at heart, such joyful fun – and for me each of those sounds has that all behind it. 

What are some exciting projects that you are looking forward to? 

I’m just nearing the end of a new trombone concerto for Ivo Nilsson and gageego! That concert (which I am conducting) will be such a joy – in the gorgeous city of Göteborg – with two of my favourite composers (Ann Cleare and Clara Iannotta) rounding out the programme. Later this year I’ll be writing works for harpsichord/accordion/bass clarinet and a new piece for trumpet. The details for those aren’t out yet, but suffice to say they are both just wildly exciting projects to me.

With Riot we’re about to give new premieres to work by Jasmine Morris and Alex Paxton, we’ll be in London, Berlin, Vitasaari, Harstad and some other places this year. It’s really an amazing year ahead and we’re hugely excited for it. 

And then, as a recording engineer I’m working on the final parts of my friend Sarah Saviet’s immense solo CD, the final mix of Riot’s next studio album, and helping the Laefer (Saxophone) Quartet make their debut album in the coming months. Then I have the real joy of being on the sound team at Darmstadt this summer. I just can’t say how much I’m looking forward to that. It will be a time filled with friends and absolutely wild music. I can’t wait! 

Where is the best coffee in Chicago? In London?  

In Chicago, I really have no idea! I didn’t drink coffee until I was nearly 25, so I’m not at all aware of the scene here. 
I am sure there’s many great options!

In London, I can say that my favourite coffee around the Royal Academy of Music is Saint Espresso at Baker Street. Yum!
In Woolwich we rely on Jade’s, which is also great, and has amazing cakes!

Electronics are a vital component to Everything Around Me is Crying to Be Gone. How did you create the sounds? What is the process for electronic creation versus writing for acoustic instruments?

This could be a highly technical answer!! But I’ll try not. 

Basically, everything comes from the recording of the poem you first sent me (of the poem from which the title is taken). I used a computer to transcribe your reading, and then also transcribed a (simpler) version by ear. A lot of that material makes its way into the piece, and then I used that reading – tuning it, filtering it, basically playing with it in the computer to make the sounds. 

The main difference, of course, is that with an electronic sound you (the composer) can make the exact sound. Every element of it is within your control. That isn’t the case with acoustic instruments (especially ones you can’t play) as you have to use notation to try and communicate the sound you want to someone else. Now, of course you can learn to be pretty precise with notation (especially with colleagues you work with a lot), but there’s still this major difference. 

Can you tell us a little about the piece, its inspiration, structure, etc?

It’s hard to say about its inspiration because we’ve been dreaming about this piece for so long that it’s honestly changed shape and form a few times down the years. Had I written this when we first had the idea, it would be a completely different piece. But the one thing that’s constant, and I do mean this honestly, is that the inspiration for the piece is in your playing. I am clearly not alone in being someone who is amazed by your artistry, precision, virtuosity, care, commitment and just the flat out amazing sound you draw out of the harp. When I wrote the first bar where you really play (bar 4), I had this huge smile and happiness because I knew how great it would sound when you played it. (And it does!)

I didn’t know Michelle at the very beginning of this, but similarly, her playing (which I listened to via recordings) – and the ability that you two have to create sharply drawn characters and – as one example – to sing together while playing, has also had a massive impact on where my imagination could follow the piece. 

In terms of structure and technique and tone, I have all my plans at home of course, but as we put this all together I’m still discovering the piece myself, so it’s a little hard to say exactly. It has a lot of different speeds in it, like life. 

How does it feel returning back to Northwestern (your alma mater) for your latest commission? 

It’s an honour. It’s really very touching to me, as I owe so much to this place, really.
When I lived here (very near where the music school now is), my friends and I had this tradition – once a quarter – of staying up all night, going to see the sunrise, and then going downtown in the city. This morning (fuelled by jet lag) I drove down a couple hours before our rehearsal and went walking on the lake fill and watched the sun come it. It was really very special to me. 

I am especially happy to see how far the whole University has come, especially in new music. We didn’t have this amazing ensemble, Ben, Alan, the institute, Hans (who leads the institute), etc…And I’m just amazed at what they’ve built and accomplished here. It’s very special and I’m really happy to come back and be a part of it during this week.