Influences and Process: “Lucid Dreamer”

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“I think the new chamber music piece is more complex, musically complex, than anything I’ve ever written. I don’t think it’s less accessible, but it has a lot more complex parts,” says Jens about the piece that took more than a year to write for The Kruger Brothers and the Kontras Quartet. The title of the new composition: Lucid Dreamer.

When he started to compose the piece Jens thought he could follow the same pattern that he had with his last two compositions because, “I established a pattern of finding musical themes that fit images that I would collect for my new piece. Because it has a title you try to find the theme for it. There are also these images that fit the theme, and I try to collect them like pictures that I put together. I think it’s like, one picture covers one atmosphere and another picture covers another atmosphere.

“Each picture becomes sort of a landscape, more details, and I find these musical themes that go in there, and once I have all the landscape mapped out with all the different features of melodies and little snippets of things, I have a feeling that I have enough material to fill a half hour piece. That’s how we did it for Spirit of the Rockies, Appalachian Concerto, and Music from the Spring.”

For those pieces Jens and Uwe wrote and orchestrated, “…from the first note all the way to the last, from the beginning to the end.” Not so with Lucid Dreamer because, as Jens puts it, “For some reason it wasn’t that predictable; it was more zigzagging around with things, orchestrating this part then that part, then fitting them all together.”

One reason for this departure from his normal composition pattern had something to do with the new composition sounding so different than anything Jens had ever composed. Even though he was near to completing the piece when I spoke with him in mid-May, he expressed the need, “…to go back and change things because I want it to fit the later part, so it’s not been just straight forward like the last work. It’s been a different experience, but it feels like this is the right way of doing this cHaber mucks piece, because the theme is a different one. In the Appalachian Concerto, it was about moving from one place to another and relocating, the key word being the locating part. But now I’m located here and looking from here into my new environment.

FLYING

“When I look at my life as a musician, Uwe, Joel and mine, we are traveling musicians. We go into the world – we just went from Australia to Alaska to Europe – through all these different places, and when we travel we see the world, a lot of times from above, from the plane. We travel to see all the different people and societies – their social behaviors and how people interact.

“Seeing that and playing with the Kontras, with Ai (viola) from Japan, Francois (second violin) from South Africa, Dmitri (first violin) from Russia and Jean (cello) being mid-western. This atmosphere that we have together, with Joel being Jewish from New York, Uwe and myself from Germany, my wife from Switzerland, Uwe’s wife from North Carolina – all melts together, and we feel as musicians like we are free floating – floating around, as we always say, like ghosts – rattling our chains and haunting people in one city, then on to the next.

“When we travel we meet people, but there is never enough time to actually bond with them. Sometimes there is eye contact that you will not forget for a long time, wondering if you could connect with them, but not really having the time to have deeper conversations. So, for us this is a really interesting way of living because we meet so many people and don’t meet them, if you know what I mean, and so it’s not like we are located at one point – it’s like we are visiting these people; it’s like we are haunting these people, then we go flying around, and that’s the theme of this piece.

“The name of the chamber music piece is Lucid Dreamer which means that you are able to control your dream while you’re dreaming. I would like to extend this idea to the fact that I look at this life like a dream, and if I conduct my life I become a lucid dreamer of life. So I like that idea, and that’s how I really see Uwe, Joel and me – like lucid dreamers – looking at life as a dream – not the dream only as a dream but the entirety of our existence so to speak. And so that’s what this music is reflecting – that’s why a lot of the music is very complex and dreamlike and flying like the motion of traveling, not being grounded on one spot.

ZIGZAGGING

“So the music moves constantly, constantly on the move, and it changes its shape and color and goes all kinds of places, interesting places, but doesn’t remain there too long. All these changes make it really complex, and I’m really excited about it. This also explains the zigzag units of the composition process itself.

“There is a part that sounds a lot like I imagine where Ai comes from, and there is a part where I imagine where Francois comes from. I included a lot of these cultures, but most of them are hidden and not as you might typically hear them. But they’re in there; they’re definitely in there. And we have one part that sounds like how my father would sing it. When I wrote the part, it really struck me because it sounded like my father was singing it to me. This is exactly how my father would approach it and sing it. It never occurred to me that it would be that strong coming out someday, somewhere.

UWE

“Uwe hasn’t heard the orchestration yet, but he has been exposed to all of the themes for quite sometime, listening to me on the road and before concerts, in the dressing room or backstage, rehearsing, developing, and practicing my themes. He pretty much is aware of what is coming at him, but he hasn’t heard the orchestration yet, and for me it’s exciting because I can’t wait to show him what’s going on. And Joel, who knows his instrument and register so well, is very active in taking responsibility for his bass part. I write out the notes for Joel so the bass part is written in sheet music. But we all sit together and we change notes, and Joel will do double octaves and all kinds of things that he thinks as a bass player would work. He usually doesn’t change the written notes, but he may change the approach or the octave of the note.

“In the middle there is an orchestration where I tried to emphasize different emotional intentions. That’s where Uwe shines. Uwe is probably the highest musical person that I have ever come across; I have never met anybody who has a higher musical level – not just on the execution but the understanding. Uwe has the sense of how to put the structure together for himself as a guitarist, and this is a very time-consuming process. We sit down and then Uwe has to compose the entire piece for himself over again.

“Once the bass and the banjo interact, Uwe can put his orchestration in, and then he has to really think about all the movements and the economy of fingers and of what he would like to hear, what voicing he would like to hear – from the guitar – what sounds go in between the banjo and guitar. And he is a master of that.

“It’s not just chords; Uwe is never strumming. He plays arpeggios in broken-down chords and it becomes very interesting. He listens to the banjo, listens to the bass notes, and he makes the glue in between. I’m always astounded at how amazing Uwe puts his guitar part together, because if you just listen to the bass and the banjo, the music becomes very structured – its beautiful and it’s very correct.

“Uwe brings a glue and magic in there – another dimension. It’s really a different dimension. As soon as Uwe plays along with the guitar and has his part figured out, the music becomes really three-dimensional. That process takes a long time. In the beginning, Uwe is concerned, thinking, ‘This is a lot of chords – this is a lot to learn.’ This is an amazingly vast field, because he cannot hold himself on the melody. He has to go from one color to the next.

MANY DAYS OF TIGHT REHEARSALS

“We plan many, many days of sitting in tight rehearsals. The longest rehearsals are actually with Uwe trying to get his own voicings, and that will glue us together as a trio. That process makes us realize what we want to do. I can instantly give Joel a printout, and I play the banjo and it sounds okay, but the process that we go through with Uwe is the process that makes the piece a Kruger Brothers’ piece.

“And based on that, then the orchestration that I’m writing will work. I know that, because Uwe will listen to the orchestration then he will understand what he needs to do. This is something that I’m looking forward to.

“With the Kontras we’ll rehearse maybe five or six days to get ready for the premier, but they’re all playing every note from sheet music. We go on through the emotions, through all the fortes and pianos and the ritardandos together. I can write that all in, but writing it in is not enough; you have to play it together, to get a feel for it because we don’t have a conductor. We have to emotionally agree on that, so it will take about six days with them.”

Listening to Jens describe the long, re-focusing process involved in composing and rehearsing the piece, I just had to ask if he ever gets tired of hearing it:

“No, because every time Uwe plays I hear something new, because Uwe starts to add all these things that only my brother can add, and that makes it very special. So, I’m really looking forward to this process, and so is Uwe, because Uwe has watched me work on this so long, and he’s ready – ready to learn this new piece and climb this mountain…..which it is, because you have to invent new things. So this is exciting for all of us, it really is.

“We’re going to have the first rehearsal with the quartet in June. Now with Spirit of the Rockies we didn’t have to do any corrections; I didn’t go back to change a single note, well maybe I had to change two or three notes, but that’s nothing compared to the hundred thousand or two hundred thousand notes.

ALMOST FINISHED

“With this piece I know that I will talk to Dmitri, who will have some ideas of how he would embrace this or do that, and then we’ll maybe change a little bit. Or in Ai’s solo, she may want to add or change a few notes. So, I’m sure that we will come up with a few little changes here and there.”

Being familiar with the Appalachian Concerto, I asked if this piece will also have three distinct movements:

“It’s very similar to the Appalachian Concerto. This new piece has basically four parts. It’s similar – the movement is less complex during the end of the piece. I think it has to be a little bit light.

“But it starts off with a slow movement, starts off really folk, in a sense, and rhythmic also, and then it goes into this more fiddleish-like atmosphere, and then goes into Baroque music –sort of classical – goes back and forth with these, and then there is a slower movement. I have a piece that sounds a little more Japanese, and then I have a piece where there is a really slow banjo number. And I have quite an upbeat piece for the ending.”

I have to confess that Jens has played parts of Lucid Dreamer for my wife Kathryn and me, and what we heard was captivating. It will be such a perfect complement to his other classical compositions. And I for one am a great fan of the Kontras Quartet, so it’s the best of both worlds for me.

This commission by the Kontras Quartet has been made possible by the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program, with generous funding provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Chamber Music America Endowment Fund.