Q&A with Alum and Composer Eric Nathan

Headshot of Eric Nathan

From the Top with Host Christopher O’Riley first aired in the year 1999. We love to go back to those early days of the show to see what our very first alumni are up to now that they’ve truly reached adulthood. In the case of composer Eric Nathan, age 30 (Show 56, October 2001), his accomplishments are quite substantial!

When Eric appeared on the show he was 17. He played his own composition, entitled “Proclamation for Trumpet and Piano”, which he performed with Host Christopher O’Riley. Since then he earned his undergraduate degree from Yale, a Master of Music from Indiana University, and his doctorate from Cornell. Today he is a talented composer with many accomplishments under his belt. In fact, the Boston Symphony Chamber Players recently premiered his Boston Symphony Orchestra-commissioned work, “Why Old Places Matter” for oboe, horn, and piano. The performance featured Principal Oboist John Ferrillo, Principal Hornist James Sommerville and pianist Randall Hodgkinson.

From the Top’s Janet Fagan caught up with Eric in late October 2014 for an interview:

You were on one of our early shows, Show 56, which aired in October of 2001. What kind of impact did being on From the Top have on you back then?

It was thrilling to be on the show! At that point I had applied as a trumpet player. But then From the Top agreed to let me play my own composition. The piece I wrote was called “Proclamation for Trumpet and Piano” which I performed with Christopher O’Riley. It was the first time a piece of mine was performed by a professional musician. The experience of sharing my music as a musician and a composer with both the live audience and the radio audience was very emboldening, especially having an incredible professional like Christopher O’Riley perform with me and take my music so seriously. I also remember the way all of the musicians there really bonded with each other. We were from all over the country and came together over the music.

How did you get into composing?

The trumpet composition I performed on the show was my very first notated composition. I was inspired to write it because I wished a piece like it existed that I could play. So I wrote it myself. I was at The Juilliard Pre-College program at the time. On the first day there I saw that a composition class with Ira Taxin was being offered, so I decided to take it. I had composed music before, but had not notated it. I had previously been using a sequencer on the computer and layered tracks on top of each other. But in my composition lessons I learned to notate by hand, which was an important experience for me.

I started by writing pieces for the trumpet. Ira Taxin soon encouraged me to branch out and write pieces that included other instruments besides the trumpet. I began to write a few chamber music pieces, and then I wrote my first piece for full orchestra. Eventually I had the great joy of hearing The Julliard Pre-College Symphony perform my piece. It was so thrilling and it was one of the first times I realized I wanted to become a composer.

Another instance also comes to mind. During college I was in many different ensembles at Yale. I found that while I loved performing and rehearsing with ensembles, I couldn’t get myself to practice for more than 45 minutes a day. But I felt like I could compose all day long. It was then I realized that my true passion as an artist lay in composing. However, I still love to perform and find it to be an important part of my compositional process.

Can you describe the composing process for a more recent work?

Last year I composed the trombone piece “As Above, So Below” for Joseph Alessi, the principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic. It was commissioned by the Philharmonic and premiered at their inaugural biennial this past June (2014). The piece is for unaccompanied trombone. I was working on it while living in Rome during my 2013 Rome Prize Fellowship at the American Academy there. I didn’t play trombone but felt I needed to experiment with it to compose the piece. So I ended up buying a trombone on Italian eBay and I worked on teaching myself to play. My playing was not very good, but the physicality of trying things out greatly influenced my composition and it was helpful to be able to tinker with the trombone while I composed. One aspect of the piece that is unusual is that for the entire piece I asked Alessi to remove one of his tuning slides. That way when he pressed down on the valve, the sound shoots out of the back of the trombone and creates a tiny muted trombone sound. In essence this created a duet for solo trombone that projects the sound out of the front and the back in antiphonal dialogue. If I hadn’t bought the trombone and tinkered with it, the piece would have turned out differently.

Being able to collaborate with Alessi was so important to me. I grew up listening to him play with the Philharmonic so it was thrilling and such a privilege to work with him. The brass sound I had in my head growing up as a brass player, and still have now as a composer, came from hearing him and principal trumpeter Philip Smith play with the Philharmonic. I’m pleased to share that Alessi has agreed to record my piece on my new CD coming out in September 2015.

Would you describe your music as avant garde, lyrical, or a bit of both?

My compositions, though at times having avant garde elements and sounds, all have a very strong lyrical and melodic component that is inspired by older music from the classical tradition that I also love. My works have both unusual sounds and more familiar sounds, but there’s a sense of melody that always comes through.

You are teaching this year at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. What’s that like for you?

This is my first academic teaching position. I am a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Music. I’m loving it so far. The students are incredibly engaged and excited about getting into the material, and I’m greatly enjoying teaching them. I feel music is about sharing with the audience, and teaching is a natural extension of that. I aim to share my knowledge and passion with my students. This semester I am teaching two introductory courses, including music theory and the History of Rock Music. I try to open my students’ eyes to the building blocks of music, why and how the music we know and love works, and how the popular music of the twentieth century developed hand in hand with American history. Some things I share with them includes how the Beatles were influenced by Stockhausen and how Ravel’s Bolero influenced Jefferson Airplane.

What advice would you give to young aspiring composers who might appear on the show today?

To young composers I would say write the music that you feel you “must” write, not the music you feel that you “should” write to please others. If it’s meaningful and important to you, chances are it will be to others as well. Your own voice is unique and deserves to be heard. And don’t be afraid to take risks. Experiment with new sounds and ideas and have your music performed. Experiencing how a piece works (or doesn’t work) in performance is worth a thousand words and can be a terrific learning experience.

We are proud to share that Eric was also a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow, and has garnered acclaim internationally through performances at the New York Philharmonic’s 2014 Biennial, Carnegie Hall, Aldeburgh Music Festival, Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music, Aspen Music Festival, Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Ravinia Festival Steans Institute, Yellow Barn, 2012 and 2013 World Music Days, and Louvre Museum. His music has additionally been featured by the Berlin Philharmonic’s Scharoun Ensemble, Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, American Composers Orchestra, Omaha Symphony Chamber Orchestra, A Far Cry in Boston, and the JACK Quartet.

Recent projects in addition to the commission for the New York Philharmonic include commissions from the Boston Symphony Orchestra for its Chamber Players, Tanglewood Music Center, and violinist Jennifer Koh for a new solo work to premiere in 2016-17. Nathan has additionally been honored with awards including ASCAP’s Rudolf Nissim Prize, four ASCAP Morton Gould Awards, BMI’s William Schuman Prize, Aspen Music Festival’s Jacob Druckman Prize, a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Leonard Bernstein Fellowship from the Tanlgewood Music Center. This year Eric is working as a visiting professor at Williams College.

In 2015, Albany Records will release a debut CD of Eric’s solo and chamber music, “Multitude, Solitude: The Chamber Music of Eric Nathan,” produced by Grammy-winning producer Judith Sherman, featuring the Momenta Quartet, trombonist Joseph Alessi, violist Samuel Rhodes, oboist Peggy Pearson, pianist Mei Rui, and trumpeter Hugo Moreno.

For a comprehensive list of Eric’s compositions and accomplishments, check out his website at www.ericnathanmusic.com.

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