Bruce Quaglia on Composer/Performer Collaborations

Another audio interview with Utah composer Bruce Quaglia- here he discusses the collaboration between composers and performers when staging a world premiere. This segment includes clips from a rehearsal with pianist Jason Hardink and discussion on how to best realize certain aspects of the piano part to his new chamber concerto, L'Acqua Alta.


Audio Preview of Quaglia's Passaggio Scuro

 Bruce Quaglia composed his virtuoso solo piano piece Passaggio Scuro in 2005 in response to a commission from Jason Hardink. Click the link to hear a performance of the work in anticipation of Sunday's NOVA concert, an event which includes 3 works by Quaglia.


Notes on Mozart and Johnston

The music on this coming Sunday’s NOVA program unites works by Mozart with those of two very different Utah composers, Bruce Quaglia and Corbin Johnston. The juxtaposition of Mozart and Quaglia’s music is no accident. Quaglia’s Passaggio Scuro employs glittering virtuosity and allusions to dance rhythms of earlier classical styles, while Through the Dark Passage conveys a graceful lightness of texture. He writes music that one could interpret to be very much engaged with the classical tradition, and his own compositional lineage can be traced back to an American school fostered by Arnold Schoenberg’s teachings in the U.S. Johnston’s works, on the other hand, are the result of too many evenings spent performing in the smoky underground jazz scene of the East Coast during the 1980s. His short and decisive pieces are influenced by the cryptic lead sheets and hysterical improvisations of Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and Cecil Taylor.

Notes on the Quaglia pieces appeared in a previous post. What follows are remarks on the works by Mozart and Johnston for Sunday’s concert.

Mozart’s Serenade in E-flat K. 375 was among the first works he wrote as a new citizen of Vienna. During the summer of 1781 he was dismissed from his post at the court of Salzburg, a circumstance that freed him to pursue a career as a composer and pianist in the musical capitol of the world. The K. 375 Serenade represents Mozart’s earliest attempts to gain favor with the court of Emperor Joseph II. Originally conceived as a wind sextet, Mozart added 2 oboes during the summer of 1782, hoping that it would be performed by the 8-piece court band (it wasn’t). During the five years that separate Mozart’s Serenade in E-flat and the “Kegelstatt” Trio of 1786, Mozart married Constanze Weber and pursued an active career as a pianist/composer through a series of concerts designed to promote his piano concerti. The year 1786 marked a return to opera and a new collaboration with the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. Le nozze di Figaro was premiered in May, and before starting work on Don Giovanni, Mozart spent the summer writing chamber music. The unusual scoring of the “Kegelstatt” work leads one to assume that the intended performers included Mozart on viola and Anton Stadler, dedicatee of the clarinet concerto and quintet, on clarinet. This was not a work intended to garner publicity or money. It was rather an intimate creation meant to be enjoyed in the company of friends.

Corbin Johnston composed Viola and Piano: One Application in 2005 for Brant Bayless. Johnston describes the piece as “an improvisational structure, based on two theme groups and one sub group (Bridge) that delineate the form for improvisation.” The improvisations are incredibly frenetic, always with the intent that the original melodic motives should “disintegrate beyond recognition.”

5.3 |2| blind date  came with the following instructions from Johnston: “No rehearsal necessary. The notion behind this is that of a blind date. No one will have any idea of what their colleagues are going to be playing. So you’ll be hearing the other parts for the first time at the concert, while you are playing your part. Creating sort of an aural blind date. The improvised part is your reaction in the moment.”


- JH, 4.25.14

Bruce Quaglia on L'Acqua Alta (World Premiere)

Utah composer Bruce Quaglia has composed a new work for the NOVA Chamber Music Series to be premiered this Sunday. L'Aqcua Alta is a new chamber concerto for solo viola, solo piano, and an ensemble of winds and percussion. What follows are Bruce's notes on the new work as well as his remarks on two earlier pieces that will be performed on Sunday.


L'Acqua Alta is the name given to the periodic tidal surges of the Northern Adriatic that have, throughout history, caused Venice and other parts of the surrounding Veneto to become partially submerged for weeks at a time during the winters of some years. It is a fact of life in the region which stands in a direct relation to the quality of timelessness that has so often been remarked upon by visitors to La Serenissima. But my chamber concerto is not intended to be programmatic in the manner of, say, Debussy's piano prelude "The Sunken Cathedral," a piece about a mythic temple that emerges from the depths of the ocean every one hundred years. Instead, my title references only the impressions that I received while travelling for work during the period in which the piece was conceived and initially composed. It is therefore a manifestation of the creative diary that I always keep when travelling or composing.

I spent a month in Venice during the spring of 2012 (when there was no flooding), and then in the fall of that same year I visited post-Katrina New Orleans for the first time. In both cities I was struck by the profound beauty of the culture, of the people who lived there and the food, drink and music that made each place unique. And in each city I was also profoundly conscious of the high water, of the history of floods that marks life there. I fell deeply in love with both places during my relatively brief visits to them, and I have found that they now each occupy a place in the geography of my interior imaginative life. My dreams are often now set in relation to these places, and I often think about them in my waking life too. Only the red rock wilderness of Southern Utah has carved out a similarly deep impression within my internal creative imagination, and I have spent a much greater amount of my time in its canyons during the past twenty years by comparison.

So, while the piece is not really intended to evoke the specific locations of Venice or New Orleans, there are associated feelings and ideas from my travels that are present in the music. First, there is Time: the longer cycles of history and natural time and then the shorter increments of time with which we mark our individual lives. The former is dizzying to contemplate, the latter is fragile, it engages our emotions of love, fear and vulnerability, which then seem as nothing when compared to the larger cycles of time into which our lives disappear. The ensemble parts are mostly uncomplicated individually, but their relation to the ensemble is both fragile and delicate, the ensemble is a complex organism that develops various relationships to the soloists. In the third movement that organism evolves: it splits into two distinct units which then reorganize their relationships to one another and to the soloists.

The second idea is more technical, and so I will only explain it briefly and by analogy. The materials of L'Acqua Alta, specifically the pitch materials, conceptually engage the full range of possibilities that are present in chords and scales of different sizes, and most importantly, these are all thought of as cyclical, in accordance with the ideas about time and nature that I have described above. The most basic material of the piece is a 55 note chain that contains every possible six note chord type within it (there are 50 such hexachordal types in equal-tempered music). Naturally they overlap one another to fit into such a compact chain. The chains run in cycles that close larger loops and so they form a substrate out of which the details of the music then emerge. Everything is possible, but not everything is literally present as a musical detail. So it is with time and with nature.

L'Acqua Alta was commissioned by the Nova Chamber Music Series for soloists Jason Hardink (piano) and Brent Bayless (viola), each of whose artistry directly inspired the music that I composed. The piece is dedicated to my friend and mentor, the American composer Charles Wuorinen on the occasion of his 75th year.


Passaggio Scuro is a solo piano work that was commissioned by Jason Hardink of the Utah Symphony in 2005. The title of the work puns on that of another piece- Through the Dark Passage and the Canyon Below…, a chamber trio for which the composer received an Individual Artist’s Grant from the Utah Arts Council/NEA just a few weeks before the Hardink commission in the summer of 2005. The two pieces were thus conceived as “siblings” that share certain familial traits and generative materials. The family resemblance may or may not be immediately apparent to the listener. In each work I was concerned, although in different ways, with presenting a distinctive rhythmic character and a transparency of texture. These works, when taken together, form a snapshot of the midpoint of my twenty years in Utah as a composer. 

The shape of Passaggio Scuro was conceived as a recursive musical structure in which levels of the form mirror musical materials that are presented simultaneously at several levels of time and space. The listener need not be conscious of this compositional technique to enjoy the work however, because the resultant structure creates a sturdy container for the musical ideas of the piece to then be cast within. The intended effect is that of a compelling and dramatic shape presenting a sweeping expressive energy. Passaggio may have been planned with various formal processes to be enacted both openly and covertly, but it was mostly composed in response to the brilliant musicality of the pianist to whom it is dedicated: Jason Hardink.  It is offered as a point of expressive discourse between the composer and performer wherein the performer may subsequently bring the audience into that same dialogue.

By contrast, Through the Dark Passage and the Canyon Below… is a more sectional work that incorporates some of the raw materials that were used in Passaggio, but to different ends. During the summer months that I wrote the trio, I was listening almost exclusively to the music of composer Allen Anderson, a former teacher whose music I greatly admire. His music does not receive nearly as much attention as it deserves and I was planning to write an article that focused on the ways that his compositional techniques reflected earlier traditions of his own teachers, particularly Seymour Shifrin. Unfortunately, I never finished writing that article but I later realized that the trio itself was a pithy essay on those features of Anderson’s music that most engaged me as a listener, its clarity and certainty of expression.

- Bruce Quaglia

An Interview with Composer Bruce Quaglia

Our season finale this Sunday features music by Mozart and Utah composer Bruce Quaglia. Listen to Bruce discuss his chamber concerto, L'Acqua Alta. This new piece is a NOVA commissioned work for viola and piano soloists with an ensemble of 12 wind players and 2 percussionists.

Chopin and Italian Opera

A discussion of Italian opera's influence on Chopin's style and the works on this weekend's NOVA concert.

Chopin's Chamber Music

NOVA Artistic Director Jason Hardink dicusses the works he chose to pair with chamber music by Chopin on this weekend's concert.

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