Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
My parents, amateur musicians, were always most supportive. I had wonderful teachers in a music program in the Philadelphia public schools that was nationally famous. The two musicians who inspired me the most at an early age were my junior high school orchestra and band conductor, Joseph Simon, and my high school orchestra director, Henry Pearlberg.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
Composer Joseph Castaldo, on the faculty of what was then the Philadelphia Musical Academy (now the University of the Arts), was my first composition teacher when I was in high school. He opened the door to thinking about what musical creativity meant. Composers Samuel Adler and Joseph Schwantner were my most influential teachers at the Eastman School of Music; both were vigilant in their instruction, and also enthusiastic advocates. In Sam’s case, he became a life-long friend and mentor. Gunther Schuller, with whom I studied at Tanglewood, was an enormous influence, not only through his music and teaching, but by way of suggesting how each career in music might be a unique one. Fred Lerdahl, at Harvard, in graduate school, opened up the world of music theory for many of us, and taught us how one might think abstractly about music.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
The lack of funding in the United States for large artistic projects, and the relative lack of government support of the arts.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
In terms of pleasures: writing for people whom I know. The more you have collaborated with someone in the past, the more you begin to write a piece for them with ideas already in place. The music often seems to float out, thinking about their idiosyncratic ways of making sound, their predilections, and their technical strengths.
In terms of challenges: finishing a piece and making sure that every detail is “right.” You’re always left wondering if some small aspect—the place where you took a great risk to try out something that seemed completely new, for example–will sound as you hoped.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
The music world is very unusual. People travel a lot. Colleagues do not see each other for years, and then they suddenly find themselves working together on a new project or the repeat of an older one. When this happens, it often feels as if you are picking up just where you left off with no time in-between. You remember details of a past collaboration, even if it was five years ago, and just begin to build on that foundation. It’s strange, but also wonderful. I wonder if this happens in any other profession.
The challenges arise if you are working with an unfamiliar group, in an unfamiliar situation. It is scary at first—you do not know how well parts may have been learned, or whether the group uses rehearsal time efficiently, but once the rehearsal begins, you know almost instantly how the project will go.
Of which works are you most proud?
I would guess my extended vocal-instrumental song cycles, American Visions and Orpheus, and my two operas, Romulus and Jane Eyre. But then there is my Third String Quartet, and a work called Ancient Scenes, and of course, I always love the piece I’m working on at the moment…. right now, it’s a new piano sonata.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
Not easily. I’d rather leave it to other people. But I’ve tried to assimilate much of what has come before, historically, and I appreciate it when people point out the combination of old and new in my music.
How do you work?
The mornings are the best time for me. I habitually awaken at 5:30 AM and have honed a routine so that I can compose without waking up anyone else in the household. My “best case” scenario is to simply work with breaks through the day. 4:30 PM is a nice ending point. This does not always happen, though—there are many distractions in real life, and then there is teaching, etc., so I try to be realistic as well.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
I like composers who also perform—similar to what I do, myself. I’ve admired, first of all, Charles Wuorinen, an early inspiration, for his vibrant music, but also for his ability to project his own work as pianist and conductor. Among younger composers, Oliver Knussen, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Matthias Pinscher all incorporate performing as an ancillary part of their compositional work. Ollie and Matthias I have known, and we’ve compared notes occasionally. My interest in opera has led me to especially wonderful works of Kaija Saariaho and George Benjamin, additional composers I admire greatly.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
As composers, we work in a rather rarefied world, I think—not so much from the standpoint of being divorced from reality or thinking that we understand complex concepts more easily than other musicians—but rather from the situation of working alone so much of the time, and then waiting months, or in some cases, even years for a premiere. Therefore, we need to imagine a lot. I think a large component of success depends on the composer’s own attitude towards his or her work: if the composer genuinely thinks the piece is a success, he or she should “go with that” and be happy–it’s a great feeling. Public vindication may be years away—and composers should be careful not to let too much ride on immediate acceptance by audiences or critics.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Primarily that music should inspire. Whether this is through performance or composition does not matter; the principle is the same. Music should never be routine, it must always be special.
The double CD album of Jane Eyre, a new opera in three acts by Louis Karchin, will be released on Naxos, on August 8. Based on Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, with a libretto by Diane Osen, the recording features the original cast from the 2016 Center for Contemporary Opera production
Over a career spanning more than four decades, composer LOUIS KARCHIN has amassed a portfolio of more than 85 compositions, appeared as conductor with numerous performing ensembles, co-founded new music groups, including the Chamber Players of the League-ISCM, the Orchestra of the League of Composers, the Washington Square Ensemble, and the Harvard Group for New Music, and overseen the formation of a graduate program in Music Composition at New York University. His works have garnered distinguished honors, including three awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, three National Endowment for the Arts Awards, and Koussevitzky, Barlow, and Fromm commissions. A citation from the American Academy praised his Songs of John Keats as “a striking conception, in which the sonic properties of the poetry interact with musical material in unprecedented fusion.” Critic Andrew Porter, writing in the New Yorker, hailed Karchin as a composer of “fearless eloquence.” The British music journal, Contemporary Music Review, singled out Karchin as one of twenty-five of the most exciting American composers born in the decade of the 1950’s, and he was selected as one of 53 composers to represent New York at the turn of the millennium in the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s “Great Day in New York” Festival at Alice Tully Hall.