First Take: Andrew McIntosh on Bonnie and Clyde

Andrew McIntosh

Andrew McIntosh

If you’re in new music in LA, you probably know the name Andrew McIntosh. His skill as a violinist and violist is invaluable as a member of the Formalist Quartet, wild Up, and others. He’s a co-founder of populist records. And his music, as a composer, is gorgeous. He’s also the final composer on our series of interviews about The Industry and wild Up’s First Take, which takes place this Saturday at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. You can read all of the interviews at newclassic.la/firsttake. Here’s Andrew, on his opera Bonnie and Clyde.

Describe the work you’ll be presenting at First Take.

In creating Bonnie and Clyde, our goal was to start from what is known about the infamous couple and work our way backwards through the stories of people around them who left first-hand accounts. Melinda Rice, the librettist, has done incredibly extensive research, sifting through biographies of family members, police officers, government officials, and friends, as well as historian’s accounts. Together with Berlin-based artist Claudia Doderer we’ve designed an experience that functions like a gallery of images of Bonnie and Clyde, filtered through the subjective eyes of the people around them. In a way, Bonnie and Clyde are not illuminated by this opera, but are left open as characters that the audience can find for themselves. In portraying this story, there are a few questions that are explored. What is it about their lives that has come to symbolize freedom and love in popular culture, when the actual lives that they led were extremely unglamorous, tedious, and full of poverty and tension? Since the accounts that have been left behind are sometimes contradictory, how do we attempt to portray a factual representation of important events in their lives? Why has our society been so fascinated be them, even 80 years after they lived? Is there something universally human about their characters that makes us identify with them?

Musically, the score reflects Bonnie and Clyde’s lives on every level. The shape of each layer and corner in the music is a reflection of the tension, the openness, and the unexpectedness of their lives. Bonnie and Clyde are embedded in the score in other ways as well. Clyde played the saxophone and a large feature of the orchestration is a pair of antiphonal saxophones (although I didn’t know that Clyde played saxophone at the time that choice was made). A classic American steel-string guitar is also prominently featured in the orchestra, as are piano and vibraphone. The only thing Bonnie was afraid of was thunder, and their deaths are represented by the use of thunder sheets. The passage of time can be felt on multiple levels as well, often with a layer that is moving very slowly underneath layers that move at more active pacing, with voices sometimes floating on top in yet another layer of time. I think that this might have been my subconscious way of expressing the constant tension between open field and city that defined their daily existence.

What’s your background in writing opera, or for voice?

This project is the culmination of several years worth of attempts at translating my musical language into something vocal. It is certainly a different language than my comfort zone of instrumental writing. That instrumental relationship to sound has developed during 25 years of playing the violin, and it’s difficult to transcend that. Writing for singers feels naked and vulnerable, and I am in awe of the power and depth that words and human voices bring to music.

I have immersed myself in the land of performing with singers very heavily over the past few years through the work that I do as a period instrument baroque musician, working with Bach Collegium San Diego, American Bach Soloists, LA Master Chorale, Tesserae, and other early music ensembles. Also, during my undergraduate degree I spent two seasons as a violist with the Nevada Opera. I derive a lot of inspiration from studying and performing old music, and the performance aesthetic around it as well. In general, the performers tend to have common interests in creating something that is highly emotional through the use of subtlety, nuance, color, and shape; interests that I also share. I first met several of the singers in Bonnie and Clyde through working in the early music community and I am incredibly happy with the entire cast of Bonnie and Clyde.

I also just recently invested a huge amount of energy into another Industry project (Hopscotch) writing for another singer that I met through the early music community, Estelí Gomez from Roomful of Teeth. Every aspect of the vocal writing was written specifically for Estelí’s remarkable voice and unique talents. I find it incredibly helpful to have a specific singer in mind and write for that particular person when I’m writing for voice. It definitely changes what comes out on paper.

Does/did your composition process change at all when writing for this medium?

I don’t know that it changes my process very much, but I feel changed as a person. I still use a pen and a ruler and start with drawings of the forms of the works on blank paper, finding patterns and symmetries in the content of the material and making maps of the harmony (more or less my typical process). The only significant difference in process is that now the very first step consists of writing out the text several times by hand. I have to write it myself on paper in order to internalize the rhythm and flow of the words.

It is hard to describe exactly how I feel changed since the change is still quite new and also ongoing, but I feel that working with words and voices has unlocked something in my writing that I have been trying to find for a long time. It’s actually quite emotional to hear music that I composed come directly out of other humans’ voices – more so than hearing it through the filter of an external instrument. I don’t know where it will lead, but I have a feeling that all the work I’ve been doing with singers over the past year will have a significant impact on the future of my writing. 

What else are you working on that you’d like people to know about?

I recently completed a 40-minute commissioned percussion quartet for the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, which will be premiered at Zipper Hall on April 10. They are exquisite musicians, and it took me over two years to write the piece, so I feel quite invested in this performance!

I’m also working on a small piano concerto for Richard Valitutto and wild Up, which will be premiered on April 26 at UCLA, as well as a chamber piece for MUSA Baroque in San Francisco, and of course Hopscotch, the upcoming collaborative Industry project.

Check out more of Andrew’s music at septimalcomma.com. Full details on First Take are up at http://theindustryla.org/projects/project_firsttake15.php. While Andrew is the final composer in this year’s First Take series, there’s still one interview yet to go: The Industry’s artistic director, Yuval Sharon, who will be featured here tomorrow at noon. See you then.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: