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Q&A: A Conversation with Composer Christopher Stark

By Eric Dundon

Composer Christopher Stark grew up surrounded by the austere and expansive surroundings of western Montana. He uses nature and our relationship with nature as the inspiration for much of his work.

Composer Christopher Stark during his 2019 trip to Asia.

On March 8-9, his work 2nd Nature for solo violin, electronics, and video, will receive its world premiere performance by SLSO violinist Shawn Weil on the SLSO’s Live at the Pulitzer series—a 17-year collaboration with the Pulitzer Arts Foundation that presents bold and adventurous chamber music by composers of today.

Stark and Weil, also friends, ventured to Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan in summer 2019. While there, they recorded sounds and videos, and gained inspiration, for 2nd Nature.

This interview with Christopher Stark was condensed and edited for clarity and length.

SLSO: What is your musical history?

Christopher Stark: I first got into composition in during my undergraduate studies at the University of Montana. I was always interested in writing songs. When I was much younger, I played guitar and sang in metal bands, so I found my way into the studio side of making music. That always fascinated me. I had a hack copy of Pro Tools when I was in high school in the '90s, on an old Mac computer. That's when I first started recording sounds, putting sounds together, and building that skillset. That's always been a fundamental part of my music-making.

SLSO: How did you make the jump from the studio to composition?

Stark: I had to study the trombone as an undergraduate because there wasn't a guitar teacher. That gave me insights into playing in an orchestra, jazz bands, and all that stuff, which was important. Halfway through my undergraduate, I said, "OK. I want to be a composer. This is obviously the impulse of why I'm here."

SLSO violinist Shawn Weil.

SLSO: SLSO violinist Shawn Weil, who is also your friend, is giving the world premiere of your piece 2nd Nature at the March 8-9 Live at the Pulitzer concerts. What’s the backstory of the piece?

Stark: Shawn and I wanted to travel, and we thought, "We really want to see some part of the world we've never seen. How cool would it be if we went to Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan, and just putzed around in Asia over the summer while we have time off?" We got a composition grant from the Barlow Endowment and we used the grant to fund our travel. We used the trip to get to know one another and our qualities better, to talk about music, and to record sounds and videos.

SLSO: How did this trip affect your relationship with Shawn?

Stark: I feel like I know his personality. I know that he would want a piece that he could really dig into. He's an athletic guy, an energetic guy. He wants to play something that has a lot of energy in it. The idea of this solo violin piece that's 20 minutes long, that's filled with notes, was exciting for me to work on with him.

SLSO: How did the trip inform your compositional choices?

Stark: Shawn and I are very similar in that we want to do as much as possible when we're traveling. The piece reflects that. For a 20-minute-long piece, there are a lot of inspirations. There's the nature inspiration. And most of my work, just on a meta level, involves stuff around climate change and landscape.

SLSO: You approached this trip with the intention that a composition would come out of it. Did you have any preconceived ideas of what you thought a piece would be? Or did you let your experiences dictate how the composition evolved?

Stark: Sort of a combination. I'm a big believer in the compositional process. And I'm a big believer in listening. So, I always build into my process some element, which is discovery or exploration. I knew that part of this piece was going to be traveling to Asia, a place I've never been. I wanted to just experience what it felt like to be there, listening to what it felt like, and use that in the piece somehow.

SLSO: How did that approach manifest itself in the piece?

Stark: Here’s an example: there is this one insect sample from Northern Thailand, which is this high-pitched cicada. And I use the computer to EQ. We really narrow in on that sound, and then pitch it, slow it down, so that you can bring it down into a level that's more in-line with the violin. And it just has this incredibly far-out sound.

SLSO: That’s a fascinating example.

Stark: Also, it's a more tropical environment there. I'm not sure we have anything that borders on the kind of heat and humidity we experienced in Vietnam. So, with that, comes a sonic landscape, that's just much more intense, insect-wise and vegetation-wise. It's an incredibly sticky, humid, hot, very active, sonic landscape. It's amazing. There’s much more sound, or much more loud sound. I don't even know how to describe it.

SLSO: Some of your other pieces are inspired by landscape and nature, particularly of the American West. What similarities, or differences, did you find in drawing inspiration from Asian locations compared to American landscapes?

Stark: A student once heard a piece of mine, and it had these noisy and weird sounds in it, and I told them I was inspired by nature. They said, "When I think of nature, I think of really beautiful string chords, and brass melodies of the mountains, and this kind of stuff. Why does your piece sound noisy, and crinkly, and weird?" I responded, "Well, do you actually go outside and listen to nature?" It's beautiful, but also chaotic. So, in a way, it's a kind of realism, similar to photorealism in painting, or something. It's almost trying to exactly represent nature with sounds, with instrumental sounds. And I always try to reserve the most far-out sound in a piece for a natural sound. In that way, my approach to nature is similar.

SLSO: What did you hope to communicate to the audience? Or what do you hope an audience will take from the piece? Because sometimes, those are two different things.

Stark: I often find that composition is tricky because you have intentions when you're writing, but then the work can take on a life of its own. With the field recording part of it or the nature part of it, I want to communicate listening more closely to people, listening to their environments. Our environments are rapidly changing. So, usually, I'm just asking people to listen a little more closely. Maybe at the core of both of these things is a sense of patience and observation.


Eric Dundon is the SLSO’s Public Relations Manager.


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