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Q&A: Pierre Jalbert

In his music column Guts & Rosin, violinist Gary Levinson talks to the composer who has written a new work for the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth.

published Monday, February 26, 2018



When it comes to living composers, few are as successful and universally acclaimed as Pierre Jalbert. A man of youthful charm, he has been a faculty member of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University since 1996. Pierre’s musical language has always been noted as distinctive, but many have also noted that said distinction is organic, not artificially meant to draw the listener’s attention to an aspect of work or another. Instead, his music draws you into his world, a world that is mystical, driven, often riddled with sounds of nature. Having been both a composer in residence for orchestras and chamber groups has yielded a catalog of richly embroidered works which provide a glimpse into his compositional mind, a place of vibrant ideas and picturesque music written by a master craftsman.

The Renzo Piano Pavillion at the Kimbell Art Museum, will be the site for the world premiere of his Piano Quintet that was composed for the 30th anniversary of the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth. CSMFW was one of the  co-commissioners for this occasion, partnering with the LaJolla Music Society and Arizona Friends of Chamber Music. Jalbert will be at this performance in person and will be part of the popular preconcert conversation with Laurie Shulman and yours truly, which takes place 1:15-1:45 p.m. on April 7, 2018. The concert is at 2 p.m. I decided to ask him questions about his career and this work.


Gary Levinson: You’ve been an acclaimed composer both on the stage and in the academic community. Are there watershed events you can point to which led you to your esteemed present status in the industry?

Photo: Richard Bowditch
Pierre Jalbert

Pierre Jalbert: I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to work with many terrific performers over the years and through performances and recordings the music has gone out to a wider public. In terms of watershed events, prizes are the things that seem to get the most attention. For me, it was the Rome Prize, the BBC Masterprize for orchestral music, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s Stoeger Prize for chamber music that helped in that regard.


Do you perform as a pianist? Tell us about when you knew you would be a full-time composer?

I don’t perform much anymore, but for many years I performed my own works for piano and it was through the piano that I first became interested in composition when I was quite young. In my formative years, I would write small pieces for piano and then sometimes orchestrate them for our school ensemble. Copland was a big inspiration at that time as he was the only composer I knew of that was actually making a living writing concert music!  I knew pretty early on in my teenage years that I wanted to be a composer. I eventually went on to study piano and composition at Oberlin and then on to the University of Pennsylvania for grad school.


So much of your music is spiritual. How much of spirituality is present when you construct your compositions? Are they inspired by events, places, combination of both?

I grew up hearing chant and liturgical music from the Mass service and I’ve used Gregorian chant as a motivic source in some of my music. There’s something about that music that touches the deepest part of who we are. It’s always been part of my musical language.


How are commissions different from your other works? Are there certain parameters that you wish would be absent from commission agreements?

At this point in my career, I’ve been fortunate that pretty much all of my works are commissioned. I find most of the parameters outlined in commissions to be helpful as it gives me a starting point. Typically, the parameters tend to be the instrumentation and the duration of the piece. Other than that, it’s usually pretty open, and that’s the way I prefer it.


When you write for a soloist, how closely do you work with them as the composition takes place? Are there examples of changes that you made on the advice of a soloist? Or refused to?

When writing for a soloist, I love the collaborative part of the process. I generally have a good idea of the whole piece before I show them sketches. At that point, they might make a few technical suggestions as to what works well and what might work better. Making the piece idiomatic for the instrument is very important to me, so I always take the soloist’s suggestions to heart. Also, I like to know the playing of the soloist, as that affects the outcome of the piece — what they like to do, and what they do well. No one has ever tried to change the nature of the music — I think that’s the only thing I would ever object to.


The Piano Quintet is a work of wonderful contrasts. How did it take shape?

With all my works, the creative process begins with sketching — coming up with lots of musical ideas and seeing what sticks. Over the years, I’ve come up with a musical shorthand with which to sketch; it’s a kind of rhythmic and contour sketch that gives me the overall longer picture, but leaves out many of the details. It’s a way for me to get down a lot of ideas quickly and then go back and refine them.

I knew I wanted a large overall structure with contrasting movements. The first movement, “Mannheim Rocket,” acts as a short, furioso prelude to the rest of the work. When sketching the piece, I was hearing all these fast-rising figures, becoming higher and higher and it reminded me of the 18th century so-called Mannheim Rocket rising figure used by composers of that era. Being in the 21st century, I thought that these figures could get high enough that they become static and float, representing a launch into space. High string harmonics are used at this point. That was the original idea for the movement. The second movement simply uses the first three notes of a traditional Kyrie chant and builds longer lines based on it. It also builds in intensity throughout the movement so that eventually the whole quartet plays the melodic line forcefully and in multiple octaves until a quiet return to the opening material. The third movement is based on call and response between the quartet and the piano, both serious and whimsical. Sometimes the back and forth is surprisingly quick and animated. It’s very much a Scherzo with a contrasting trio section in the middle. For the last movement, I wanted an exciting finale to the piece, something with non-stop rhythmic vitality. The contrast of the static and constant rhythm versus the shifting note patterns is the focus of the movement. 


Is there an instrument or group of instruments you feel more comfortable with as a composer? Was this group always the same or has changed over the years?

Actually, this kind of group, one that consists of piano and strings is one that I feel very comfortable with. I’ve had many colleagues over the years who were wonderful string players, and I’ve written quite a lot of string music (from solos to trios and quartets to string orchestra) so I’ve had a lot of practice you might say!  Just as with everything else, you only get better as a composer by practicing your craft.


You’ve taught at Rice University since 1996. How have the composers who have gone through your studio changed in the past 22 years? Certainly technology is a factor. Can you speak to how it effects your students and are those effects a positive for them?

I don’t think the students have changed much at all, but yes, the technology has. The younger students typically come in with limited exposure to the classical rep and contemporary concert music. It’s just not that prevalent and easy to find in our culture. You have to go looking for it. So the first couple of years they are here, they do a lot of listening to lots of different music. The grad students coming in have already gone through this process, so they are more looking for their own voice in music.

One of the drawbacks of technology is that some composers rely on it too much. It can be a great tool, but sometimes, it can give a false sense of the music and prevent you from learning what’s actually possible with all the nuances on an acoustic instrument. That’s why we want the students working with live musicians as much as possible.

I also try to get my students to sketch away from the computer — trying to listen to their mind’s ear in silence and get a sense of the larger structure. If your computer screen is small (and most of my students have small laptops), you can only see a few seconds worth of music on the screen. I try to have them sketch on large 11 x 17 pieces of paper to always keep the larger structure in mind.


Any good George Crumb stories? How was his sense of humor?

Apparently, he did try to play a CD on a turntable when CDs first came out (I was not a witness). George was always down to earth, he speaks with a long West Virginian drawl, and loves a good laugh. One of his favorite TV shows is Fawlty Towers with John Cleese.


What is the outlook of new music from where you are? Who are the mavericks of the next generation of composers (under age 40)?

I think the outlook is very positive. So many small new music groups are popping up in the major urban centers of the U.S. and some are quite successful and have turned it into a full-time gig. With younger composers, they are stylistically all over the map as was the previous generation, from tonalists to ultra-modernists and everything in between, which I think is healthy. As far as what will stick, it’s anyone’s guess.


» Gary Levinson is the Senior Principal Associate Concertmaster for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the artistic director for the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth, and he helps program the salon concert series Blue Candlelight Music with his wife, pianist Baya Kakouberi, the artistic director.

» Guts & Rosin runs on the third Monday of the month on TheaterJones (or the fourth Monday in the case of February, 2018)



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Q&A: Pierre Jalbert
In his music column Guts & Rosin, violinist Gary Levinson talks to the composer who has written a new work for the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth.
by Gary Levinson

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