Composer Erik Ulman on Writing Music and His Inspirational Friendship with Cy Twombly

Erik Ulman is a modern composer whose works have been performed in concerts and festivals across the U.S., Europe and Australia; a lecturer in the Department of Music at Stanford University; and an accomplished violinist. He was also for many years a close friend of artist Cy Twombly, and it’s this last role that brings him to Houston for Da Camera’s innovative program “Cy Twombly and Music.”

Taking place in The Menil Collection’s Cy Twombly Gallery on April 2-3 (the performances are sold out), the program will feature Ulman sharing his personal reminiscences of his friendship and correspondence with the artist and two of his compositions, including one new work, performed by virtuoso flutist and MacArthur fellow Claire Chase.

Q: The Da Camera program on April 2 includes two of your works, including a new composition. When writing a new piece, where do you begin?

A: Usually some brief musical idea—a melody, a bit of a texture—will come to me pretty spontaneously, often in response to a poem, as a kind of secret setting or commentary; and the poem will help me imagine the piece’s mood and eventual shape. (Sometimes too I’ll respond to some existing piece of music, as my Pan does to Debussy’s Syrinx.)

But it’s rare that I’ll find the piece right off. Usually the process will take many detours and many disparate attempts, which gradually accrete and suggest new derivations, commentaries, and connective tissue.

Q: When do you know the piece is completed? When do you know when you’re finished editing?

A: Those are good and very difficult questions. Composing and editing aren’t sharply distinct for me. I’m always reading and re-reading my drafts, and as I read I revise sometimes I adjust tiny details, sometimes I make large changes, shuffling or adding or rejecting whole sections.

When I have the luck to find a good rhythm of invention and criticism, I start to feel that I’m hearing what the piece wants, what its logic is, what it’s able to bear. The piece grows more stable: the adjustments it seems to ask for are more subtle, or else more decisive; and when it remains the same on reading after reading, I judge that it’s done.

But I might be wrong. I often do make small adjustments in rehearsal, and sometimes I go back even years later to open a completed work back up, if I think that now I have a better sense of what it really is and which I didn’t quite find the first time around.

Q: Does knowing the performer inform your compositional style?

Yes, it does. I hope other performers will want to take up the piece too, so I don’t only tailor it to a given person’s strengths; but a particular style of performance, such as the intensely expressive and athletic character of Claire Chase’s playing, may indeed make me want to explore or emphasize particular energies. And as both composition and interpretation are very intimate and full of risk, I feel very lucky when I can work with friends, or when a friendship is born of collaboration.

Q: The program, titled “Cy Twombly and Music,” explores the dialogue of art and music. Sometimes art influences music, sometimes the opposite. Are you influenced by other art forms? Any artists/creators that inspire your aesthetic?

A: My music is always in dialogue both with earlier music and with other arts, especially with painting and poetry. Cy was actually a friend, and his work has been a central source of inspiration for me for many years—its freedom, its intensity, its range (between extremes of austerity and exuberance), the surprising ways in which it effects a renewal of traditions of myth and representation.

A lot of Abstract Expressionist painting and the work done in its wake has been directly relevant to my practice, but I draw on much else too that might seem more remote: Cy and I shared a love for Poussin, for example. As for poetry, again there are many who inspire me: I’d say that Hölderlin and Mallarmé are the two to whom I’ve been responding most directly and consistently in my recent work.

Q: What is it like for you to listen to your own compositions live for the first time?

A: Oh, for me it’s usually an anxious experience! Is it music? Is it speaking? My expectations and reality never exactly coincide, so is the piece less than what I thought it would be, or more? But of course it’s exciting when it works, and especially when a performer brings out some essential energy and character, maybe even things of which I hadn’t been aware.

I think my music is Romantic music, however unfamiliar and “modern” its vocabulary might be; and it requires of its interpreters not only enormous technical skill but also a constant and sensitive emotional engagement, which of course I hope it also rewards.

Q: One of your works in this program is titled Lacrimosa, which is part of the Dies Irae in a Requiem mass. How is this composition “tearful,” as the Latin name implies?

A: Well, I feel the piece does have a restrained but plaintive quality; and the allusion to the Requiem mass is quite deliberate. Cy asked me to write him a “three-minute flute Requiem,” and the only explanation he’d give was that the Mozart Requiem was his favorite piece. So I turned to my favorite part in the Mozart, which is the Lacrimosa; and I started by composing some variations on its soprano and violin lines, especially their sighing gestures, and then building on these variations to make this work.

I sent the manuscript and sketches to Cy and he liked the look of them; but only when he died a couple months later did I fully understand what he had asked of me.