In February, Paul Wiancko and I were bubbled together in Vermont, where we had organised a winter residency for Owls, our new, soon-to-be-announced quartet. He sat down with me to talk about X Suite, and his inspiration and process:
Alexi Kenney: Thanks for joining me today. Could you give us an overview of X Suite for Solo Violin to start off?
Paul Wiancko: This is my first piece for solo violin, and I’m extremely honoured that this piece was written for you. Logistically, it’s been an amazing piece to work on because I think very highly of your violin playing, and I knew that from a composing standpoint I had no technical, musical, emotional, or physical limitations in terms of what I wanted to express through this piece. I knew you would be able to make anything that I write come to life, and so it was a great joy to work on knowing that I had that sort of freedom. And that freedom allowed me to pull from any musical influences I wanted to, so you have a lot of folk influence, and there’s all of my childhood favourite solo instrumental music: Bach, Kodály, Bartók, etc.
AK: I feel like this piece uses techniques that I haven’t seen before. It seems to really transcend just one violin, and I think that’s the greatest quality for a solo violin piece to have. Was that a conscious thing? Was that a struggle for you?
PW: That was actually a great joy, to be able to write a longer-form piece for you, and to put it in the format of a pseudo-suite. That sort of came about organically as I was writing the piece. I kept writing something and then trashing it, and starting something completely different and trashing it. I just couldn’t decide on a particular way forward at many different times while writing the piece, which is why it took me so long to write it, I’m sorry! Thank you for waiting years. Having it be a suite allowed me to travel in many different directions, and many things that I trashed originally came back to life in different ways. You wouldn’t know it while playing or listening to the piece, but there are a lot of ideas on top of ideas, which is partly how the name “X” came about for the suite, the old way of crossing things out like on a typewriter before we had delete keys, just to go back and just type “X” over each letter so you can actually see the underlying mistake. It still exists, just with an X over it.
AK: Maybe that’s a metaphor for deriving things from the past, and yet putting a contemporary sort of vivid spin on it.
AK: Playing the piece, it feels like all of these influences are whizzing by, and yet there’s nothing that’s directly derived from anything else.
AK: There’s certain things, like in the Canon movement, for instance. It’s a very simple concept: a canon for two voices at the unison, played on two strings, each string is its own voice. But that’s something that, to my knowledge, doesn’t exist in solo instrument writing. Also in the Bourrée movement, an octet of voices that is distilled into one. You usually write for more than one instrument. How do you actually attempt to morph multiple voices into one, or is that even part of your consciousness?
PW: Absolutely. For better or for worse, I approach everything I write as chamber music, because that’s the type of music that I feel most deeply as a performer, so it’s almost inescapable. When approaching this piece, I thought I would apply as much of what I’ve learned as a composer writing chamber music to this piece as possible. I thought it would be an interesting challenge to see how many voices or individual characters or separate entities that you can cram into one performer of one instrument. And it turns out it’s a lot. You’re doing things that I’ve never heard anyone do before, like this movement for basically eight different parts that you’re playing alone. I didn’t know it would actually be possible.
AK: Well, let’s talk about that for a second! After you sent me the score, it was maybe two or three weeks later that I got an audio file from you of a fully formed performance of the piece. I listened through it and I was like, Wait a minute, who got to play this before me? I asked you about it and you said, Oh yeah, I just did that playing a violin on my lap.
PW: If you were to come in and look at the recording session and see the screen, you would see many more than just one audio file. Many many layers. But I tried to fact-check all of the different interplay between those parts to make sure it was sort of possible-ish. And then we had a little bit of back and forth on that, which was nice. And you blew my mind when I heard it for the first time.
AK: I want to ask, because you are also such an accomplished cellist: Does your knowledge of cello music, cello tradition, and cello playing at all influence your writing for violin?
PW: That’s a good question. It must. Obviously I run into physical limitations when I’m just playing violin myself, since I really sound like I’m in second grade and it’s a struggle. But of course when you can record one note at a time you can make it sound okay. But there are limitations to thinking about music from a performer’s perspective while you write, and that’s something that I’ve had to learn over the years, where I hit that ceiling of, Am I limiting myself based on what becomes too much of a challenge to play, and is that inhibiting the music that I actually want to write? I’m sort of aware when I’m around that level like, ‘Ooh that’s hard but I don’t want to really make you have to practice that much because I hate practicing, but in this case it’ll be worth it’. But in general, the things that I love to play on cello aren’t necessarily the most difficult things, and I love the feeling of being free and feeling like a piece is something that you can speak, rather than something you have to decipher and then translate for a listener. So I try to think of composition along those lines.
AK: To me, one hallmark of your music is it feels so effortless and it feels so natural. I don’t mean just from a technical perspective, although that too: it has such incredible virtuosity and really exploits each instrument so beautifully. But I also mean it from an energetic standpoint, an emotional standpoint. For instance, in X Suite there are seven movements. I feel like in many pieces there’s a movement or two that falter in the long scheme of things, but I really feel the arc and the emotional journey of this piece. I wonder if you could elaborate a little bit on that. Is that something that you work on, or is it innate, or a bit of both?
PW: That’s the part of the piece that you don’t see, is all of the little snippets and edits and themes and melodies that kind of fall onto the editing room floor. I think I probably wrote maybe 40 minutes of music for this piece. What ended up in the final piece based on how the whole thing is structured—so you do have a feeling of being taken on a journey—meant that I had to cut out a lot of potential music. So there might be actually an X Suite Two coming at some point. The deleted scenes.
AK: I hope so!
PW: Like I said, I was kind of overcome with the amount of ideas that were bubbling up for this piece. Not all of them good, and some of them okay, but they had no place in the dialogue and journey of the piece. That’s something I thought about a lot, was to try to create a coherent experience for the listener, because I know from personal experience that it’s really really hard, as both a listener and performer, to keep someone in the moment for 20 minutes as a solo instrumentalist without losing the intrigue or interest. Of course, sometimes it’s a fantastic experience to let your mind wander in a performance, but you don’t want it to be because the music is boring.
AK: Yeah, and on the flip side of that, within each movement of X Suite there’s so much content that if you were looking at it on the page not having heard it, you might think it would be too much to comprehend. But in real life, because I think there’s also this underlying connection between the themes, everything feels very cohesive and of one journey.
PW: The way the piece was laid out, again it comes back to getting rid of things, X-ing things out and then resurrecting them. And so to have all of this material to draw from and sculpt this piece out of, so much of my experience writing this piece was just listening back to it, or doing run throughs in my mind and realising ‘oh like this theme or this chunk of music goes by quickly, I need to hear that again to fully understand and develop a relationship with the melody, or the syntax, or the phrasing’. So very often in this piece I bring things back. Just in case you don’t get to hear the piece again, you can at least hear these complicated things more than once. That’s a structural technique as old as time, but it’s still I think totally valid, and that was a fun thing to play with too.
AK: I want to briefly address the X Suite: Visual Album, which pairs each movement with seven contemporary sculptures, many of which have commonalities of reflective surfaces and pattern and lots of interesting abstraction. I wonder, because your music is so vivid and so architectural—is art and sculpture at all in your thought process?
PW: I think it was a beautiful idea to perform these in and among sculptures. I think it makes perfect sense for the music, and as a composer I think about sculpture and architecture all the time. My fundamental approach to composing is actually almost based on sculpture. This seed of an idea was implanted in my mind years and years ago, something that the poet Rilke said about when he’s creating something. The idea that first you meticulously create a sculpture, and then you imbue it with life. That’s sort of how I approach composition, is to first create a very meticulous structure and then bring it alive, or imagine what I need to write in order for you to bring it alive.