What happens when you juxtapose Ludwig Van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, an orchestral masterpiece whose sublime grandeur seems impossible to rival, with contemporary composer Kevin Puts's much gentler (albeit not that gentle) Symphony No. 2, a modern orchestral work written in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks?
Audiences will find out tonight, January 27, and tomorrow, January 28, when the Colorado Symphony performs both, conducted by Music Director Designate Brett Mitchell.
Puts, who will attend the symphony's second performance, has long addressed the world's biggest issues in his music. Yet he is still figuring out how to respond, as a composer, to what he describes as the "tragedy" of President Donald Trump's election.
Westword spoke with him on the phone about how he composed Symphony No. 2, the role of the composer in this particular political moment, and what it's like for him to see his symphony sized up next to Beethoven's masterwork.
Westword: How did Symphony No. 2 come together?
Kevin Puts: I had to leave for Rome to spend at year at the American Academy in Rome the day after September 11 — like September 12. It might have been two days after, but I think it was the day after. I was living and teaching in Austin, Texas. As soon as I got to Rome, where I was going to spend a year just working, I had to finish three orchestra pieces within a few months. When I got there, I had to start one of them. September 11 was all I could think about. It was all anyone could think about. It was a pervasive feeling, even in Rome. Of course, I was at the American Academy, so there were Americans everywhere. But I couldn't imagine writing music with anything else as the inspiration or the catalyst or whatever you want to call it. I didn't have any big plan, except one day I started. I think for me, the place that I went to musically and emotionally was sort of like a sanctuary. It was comforting, just for me, to be in those harmonies, with that kind of affect. It was the place I needed to be. As the piece progressed, I realized that it could be loosely divided into halves. The music in the first half...is not patriotic but lyrical in a way, and unsuspecting. I took the same materials and put them through a different lens in the second half. It would change the emotion into the kind of atmosphere that we were currently experiencing. That's how it developed. I wrote it really quickly when I first arrived in Rome.
When you say quickly, what do you mean? How quickly?
Oh, maybe a month or so. Three weeks or a month.
The country was embroiled in patriotism post-9/11, but Symphony No. 2 doesn't strike me as that at all.
No, it's not. There've been so many reactions to it. Of course, people hear [Aaron] Copland in some of the harmonies, and so they have tied it to patriotism. But where it came from is nothing about that. It's about my own response, my own feelings about what had happened and this paradigm shift we were faced with — the kind of shock of it all, and the thought of what the families were going through, and also the awareness that we are, and continue to be — and were at that time — unaware of the feelings of any kind of point of view but our own. I think that's a big problem. I certainly don't think it's going to be improved with the administration that just started.
Has the election impacted your work as a composer?
It very much has. I'm not exactly sure how yet. I think many of us who are creative don't know what our reaction is going to be, what the best place is to be creatively. What can we do? It's maybe an exaggeration to compare it to post-World War II. Of course, everybody had a reaction to World War II. How do you write music after such atrocities? How do you write beautiful music? I don't think we can compare it to that at this point. If you write optimistic music, which I suppose is a good thing, it's hard to feel optimistic. It's so natural to feel hopeless. But do we want to project hopelessness? Do we want to dwell on it? It's a hard thing to figure out.
There is a sadness to my music, but a lot of it is upbeat and sunny. You know, I love Mozart. Mozart is one of my favorite composers, but it's naive to write music like that at this point.
Right now, I'm orchestrating an opera. I've already written all of the music, and I've spent several months orchestrating it, which is actually fine with me. It's practical; it's not emotional. It doesn't come out of my soul. It's just like, how do these instruments need to play this music that has already been written? I'm happy that I have that time as a buffer to think about where I want to be creatively and expressively in the wake of these shocking and horrific events and this situation we're in.
I think that if composers think at all about their audiences — and of course no composers talk about their audiences, because they think they're not allowed to think about their audiences — but if they do at all, what could we use right now? I suppose we could use comfort. We could use a musical balm. That's a place I can go. Maybe that's where I went with [Symphony No. 2], and that's where I'm going to be over the next few years, unless there are significant changes. I don't know. It seems like we're stuck with this. Hopefully that begins that discussion.
Symphony No. 2 and the Ninth deal with huge, sweeping feelings and issues. Have you thought about those two pieces side by side?
No, I never do. It's like the fate of the modern composer. We're always put up against masterworks that have stood the test of 150 years. Of course they're amazing — they're the best works ever. So it's just life, you know? I know composers who have scores of great music next to them while they're writing, just so they can be reminded of the level of craft that's possible. I'm striving for a very high level of craft so that my works can at least stand next to these without being completely embarrassing. That piece (the Ninth) is one of those pieces for me that's like a religious experience to hear. It's like a gift to humanity. I really think of it that way. Ultimately, as a composer, that's kind of what you would hope for — that you might leave something that is important to people when you're gone. It's not that you think about that with every piece. You don't try to calculate it. But it is an amazing thing that these composers worked so hard and they poured their souls out — and in Beethoven's case, he edited and edited it, and he wasn't happy about things he wrote. And then he came up with something that we treasure. It's kind of an amazing thing you can do, and it's an experience to hear that piece. You're giving people an experience.
Do you feel pressure?
I've been writing a lot of operas, and it's very different. With opera, it's the only thing on the program. If people are there, they're there to hear the opera. With orchestra concerts, usually, with the new piece, most of the audience is skeptical or, "Oh, we'll give it a chance," but we're really here to hear the Beethoven or Dvorák or whatever. That's just the attitude of most orchestra concerts. People are always kind of surprised when they like something of mine, and that makes me happy.
That's funny, because as contemporary composers go, you're pretty high-level. You're at the top of the game.
Well, it's still very museum-like. The orchestral world tends to be very backward-looking. The thing is, [Colorado Symphony Music Director Designate] Brett Mitchell, who I've known for quite some time, he and I love works of the past. We'll sit there, talking and playing them on the piano for each other for hours. I'm most interested in what is possible today, what can be said today, the music that hasn't been written yet or that is being written right now. Brett is a real advocate for new music. It's not something he just thinks he should do. He really believes it.
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You won't be conducting Saturday night, so what will you do?
I sit there by myself, really nervous. Then at the intermission, I hang out by myself, and people may notice that I'm the guy that wrote that last piece, and they might talk to me — or maybe not. I don't know. I go to support the orchestra and Brett because he's programmed my piece, and that means a lot. It's tough. It's so competitive to get programmed on an orchestral concert. Like I said, it's mostly old music — especially a symphony. It's not just a concert. That's important, so I really want to be there.
Colorado Symphony will play Puts's Symphony No. 2 and Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, January 27, and Saturday, January 28, at Boettcher Concert Hall in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. For more information, go to the Colorado Symphony website.