Interview with Margen Music Magazine (Spain), 2003
(translated from the original spanish)
Margen: Can you tell us something about your backround and, more importantly, your musical influences?
Marc Mellits: I feel that my music is just that, “my music.” Having said that, there are certainly musical influences in my music that I feel are strong. We have an enormous history of music before us filled with fantastic ideas and inspiration. The trick is to let our influences find what is inside of us, musically, and not simply imitate. Bach is more than likely my strongest musical influence. He is a composer that is impossible to ignore, and had a tremendous influence on all music that followed him. Vivaldi I also feel very close to and find quite influential. Stravinsky and Bartok are, or course, tremendous forces in our own century whose impact is still being felt. Shostacovich, Corelli, Brahms, Beethoven, Ravel, Bruckner, I never tire listening to this music. But most importantly are the composers that I admire that are still among us, as their influence is more relative to our lives. Steve Reich will go down in history as one of the most important composers of our time, and I adore his music. I also love the music of Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolff, Louis Andriessen, the early works of Philip Glass, Dominic Frasca, Chris Rouse, Martin Bresnick, Steve Martland…there are so many composers that I listen to, and I guess, in a way, am influenced by all of them and none of them, if you know what I mean. Dominic Frasca, in particular, has been a monumental influence on me, musically and otherwise. He has the unique ability to nourish the music that is inside of me and help me bring it to fruition. We also do some collaborations together, and I cherish these.
Margen: Can you name any possible periods in your life in music when you felt a rise in level of your creativeness?
MM: I have felt a steady rise throughout my life, so, in that sense, I would say I am at my most creative now.
Margen: I think you are a new figure for “post-minimalism” and the contemporary music. In your music we hear the melodic suggestion by Glass, the baroque orchestrations by Nyman, the complex rhythm by Reich... but you have developed all these influences into a different style. I would you have strong rock and NYC downtown scene influences as well. Are you OK with this opinion?
MM: That seems like an excellent assessment to me. I would agree entirely. The first time I heard Reich and Glass, I could not believe my ears. Up to that point, I had been writing two kinds of music: the one that I showed my teachers in music school, and then another type of music that I only showed my friends. When I heard Reich and Glass for the first time it gave me confirmation. I could not believe what I was hearing because it, in fact, shared some similarities with what I was writing. I no longer felt scared of the music I wanted to write.
Margen: I am very intrigued with your polyglot musical vocabulary. I'd say your personal style is in the limit between popular and "serious" music. Your music shows a sophisticated composition in a hallucinogenic way. Are you OK with this opinion?
MM: I am not sure what you mean by “hallucinogenic way”, but maybe my music might fall in that crack between “popular” and “serious”, but I have never thought about it in those terms before. “Serious” is a ridiculous term that we use sometimes, and I think by this we actually mean to say “Classical”, which I am all for using, because that is exactly what I am writing. Just because I use Electric Guitars and amplification, the “folk” instruments of our time, does not necessarily mean I am no longer writing “Classical” music. And all music is “serious” to me. Further, yes, my music is definitely influenced, in some ways, by rock music. It is something that is here with us, and to ignore it seems unnatural.
Margen: I'd say you don't think in terms of harmonies, rhythms or textures when you are composing, but you see the sound as a conceptual subject. What do you think?
MM: I would have to disagree, but I am delighted that you focus on the sound! I definitely think in terms of harmony, rhythm, counterpoint, instrumentation, idiomaticism, form, color, even mathematics. However, the trick is to try and pull all these aspects together into one coherent idea. They must all come at the same time and they each affect one another. Then you will have the right resulting “sound.” The pitches must be the “right” pitches, that only work with a particular rhythm, at a certain point in the form of the work, with just the right instrumentation, and so on. I know this might sound a little mechanical, and constructionist, but to me, that is how it works. Every composer works differently. I always feel as if I am constructing something, building something, in writing music; taking each small piece and putting it together so that it fits just right. An important aspect of composing, to me, is the idea of idiomaticism. This is where I start. Somehow, for whatever reasons, this is something that I think has been lost in writing music today. Yes, of course, composers will always feel need to push the musical envelope, but we must always be concerned with writing music that is idiomatic for the instruments. From this starting point, we can proceed to realize the pitch content, the rhythm, the harmonies, the instrumentation, and everything must remain together and organic. Easier said than done, but nonetheless, extremely important. If we always keep this in mind, our music will never sound awkward. I love to cook, and I often think of the connection between cooking and writing music, because to me, they are almost exactly the same. You start with a small idea, or some garlic and olive oil, add some harmony, add some carrots, maybe a touch of more rhythm here, maybe some cream as well, and in the end you have either a symphony or you have soup! But both are made in the same way, of combining small parts, like melody, rhythm, harmony, or in the case of soup, whatever the ingredients you used to make it. The final result is much more than just the simple combination of those various items, it achieves something higher, something greater, it communicates, and in the case of soup, doesn't leave you hungry afterwards.
Margen: I think your music is very impressionistic as well. I hear Satie and Debussy echoing in some sections of your music.
MM: Thank you for those comparisons, not bad company to keep! Certainly Satie, yes, I feel absolutely close too. But I do not hear my music as being impressionistic, but, as you say, maybe there are echoes of this in some sections.
Margen: It's strange you have had only one CD out until now. Why?
MM: It is not something I have pursued, but it is something I am interested in. I suspect that record companies are more likely interested in making money (as they should be, it is a business after all), and my music might not be a top seller! However, there are some CD's in the works. My own ensemble, the MELLITS CONSORT, is currently recording our first CD and it has been a lot of fun to record. And American Baroque, a wonderful ensemble, just released a stunning and brilliant performance of my “11 Miniatures for Baroque Ensemble” on a CD entitled “The Shock of the Old.” It contains works written by the Common Sense Composers Collective, of which I am a member, and is much better than our first CD.
[this interview was done in 2003. As of 2006, there are:
Commonsense Composers Collective (Polysorbate 60)
Shock of the Old - American Baroque and Commonsense Composers Collective (11 Miniatures)
Deviations - Dominic Frasca (Dometude, Minetudes)
Real Quiet Trio - due out spring 2006 (Tight Sweater, Fruity Pebbles, Disciples of Gouda, Agu)
Mellits Consort - due out 2006]
Margen: What are some of your different creative approaches to writing music? Are there any usual procedures? Is improvisation important in your writing process?
MM: I sit at my desk, next to my piano, and I write. It is a very solitary and lonely experience. There is nothing I would say is unusual about it. I like to think through my fingers. I often have my hand over the keyboard, thinking and playing, and composing, and even improvising on what I have already written. It is then the process of working out these ideas on paper that really interests me. Of course, it always helps to have a bottle of red wine near by.
Margen: What is the key element in your music?
MM: I have no idea. Some people say rhythm, above all else. Others tell me it is the pitch content. Still others focus on the harmony. I can't tell you. In fact, I have no idea of how I write it in the first place. I like to think of these elements that I mentioned earlier, counterpoint, rhythm, harmony, idiomaticism, etc., but, as I mentioned, they must all come together; the idea must be organic in this sense. How I get there I really just don't know and this is something that frightens me horribly. Most importantly, I always try to be true to the music, to find it behind the staff lines. As a sculptor looks for the image inside the rock, we must find the music behind the silence.
Margen: How do you know when a piece is really done? Have you ever looked on a finished piece with regrets about a particular detail?
MM: I never know when it is completely done. When I put the final barline on the paper, it is at least done enough for me. In every piece I have written, I can find the places where, today, I would have written it differently, and it drives me crazy. I always remind myself that, at the time when I finished a piece, I felt confident that is was “done,” and not to start tinkering after the fact.
Margen: How will be the music be in the next century (well…in this century!)? Are you searching for the reply to this question with your music? How do you view the current new music scene and where do you see it going in the next 10 years?
MM: I certainly cannot predict the future, and I don't even want to try. The fact is, I don't think much about what is happening now, I never do. It is not that I am not interested, I am interested, very much so. I am not trying to make any statements with my music other than communicating musical ideas from the stage to the audience. As I said, composing is a lonely and solitary act. I think only of the music when writing it and am not trying to think of anything else, especially how it fits in to anything, other than the performers hands. Where my music, or any music for that matter, fits in to the grand scheme of musical activity I can't say, and is something I simply do not think about. I have no idea where music is going but I am most happy to watch it grow.
Margen: At this point in your career as a recording artist, you've spread your stylistic boundaries further than most would ever dream. What other musical realms await a sonic explorer such as yourself? What should we expect from your next works?
MM: I am very excited about the CD my ensemble is recording now, and it is the most recent music of mine to date. I hope to do more and more with my group, always performing in it as well. The whole idea of starting this ensemble was Steve Reich and Dominic Frasca's. They both told me it was very important that I “take control” of my own music by forming my own ensemble, writing all the music, and performing in it as well. It has been an absolute blast, the group is so much fun to work with, and very enthusiastic. I have always found it very important for a composer to get on the other side of the stage once in a while and perform their own music, to find out what it takes to bring a piece to concert level. It is equally important that all performers compose, even if it just for themselves, to understand the process of composition better. I will continue to write for my group and hope to continually add performances in the future. I am also busy writing music for many different ensembles, other than my own. Among others, I am currently writing a string quartet commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, which should take me through this year. I spend each summer in Transylvania, Romania, where I have a little studio set up in the mountains among the sheep and gorgeous scenery. I leave in just a few weeks for the summer and plan on composing a good amount of the Kronos Piece there. I am also currently working on a theatre piece called M/W for a group in Paris called Lelabo, a work for the Manhattan New Music Project, and a piece for the combined forces of the Canadian Brass Quintet and Nexus Percussion Ensemble.
Margen: Tell us something about the tracks we'll publish in "Music From the Edge Vol. 6", the CD which comes out with this issue (selections from "Five Machines" and "FruityPebbles")
MM: 5 Machines was commissioned by the Bang On a Can Peoples Commissioning Fund. It is in 5 movements, or machines as I call them. The must itself is very much constructed, built, put together like a mechanical machine. The individual parts themselves only show a small part of the picture and do not give any clues to the overall music going on. Only when you hear the instruments combined do you get a sense of the overall music that is happening. Each instrument “plays off” one another, and fills in the gaps that the other leaves open. Fruity Pebbles is an 8 movement piano trio commissioned by the Talesin Piano Trio. These two pieces, like most of my music, are written in multiple short movements. It is a form that I am most comfortable with.