Channeling the muse: An interview with Etan Nasreddin-Longo and Hugh Keelan
Windham Orchestra conductor Hugh Keelan, left, and composer Etan Nasreddin-Longo of Newfane, as seen at a recent rehearsal.

Channeling the muse: An interview with Etan Nasreddin-Longo and Hugh Keelan

BRATTLEBORO — The Windham Orchestra's “Listen Local” programs, with the aid of a grant from the Vermont Council on the Arts, commissions new works from local composers.

As a member of the first violin section, I had the pleasure to interview both the composer and the director of Lucifer's Love Song for the Lord, the song-length new work by Newfane composer Etan Nasreddin-Longo.

Here is a summary of the conversations I had with Nasreddin-Longo and Hugh Keelan, the Windham Orchestra's musical director. I asked Etan to talk about his piece, and I asked Hugh to talk about what it is like to direct a newly written composition for orchestra.

Nasreddin-Longo: Lucifer's Love Song for the Lord is a self portrait. I was re-reading Milton's Paradise Lost when I wrote this. I had been wanting to write about Lucifer. Hugh asked me for a song - 12 minutes only! - and the two things came together.

Milton reads Lucifer as the most human, humane.

The parent-child relationship of God and Lucifer is so ugly. Lucifer asks why do you need Jesus when you have me? God aren't good enough. Lucifer becomes enraged, rebels, gets kicked out of heaven. His love for God is overwhelmed by his rage. His profound love was rejected, scorned, the tension and torment is too much and Lucifer re-creates himself as King with his fellow fallen angels in the city of Pandemonium.

Lucifer's Love Song for the Lord was never heard by God -ۥ it is for the Lord, not to - if Lucifer had been able to tell God this song, Lucifer never would have said, “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.”

Keelan: The text is a specific road map with sign posts heading to a destination unknown. I am at the helm, building interpretation for a compelling experience for players and audience.

My relationship with the music is fundamentally different from the composer's relationship to his work. I am fussy, obsessive about the text. Etan gave us the text. The first thing I do is understand the parameters of those marks on the page - to make the connection, to communicate the power, passion and emotion, from the page to life.

Nasreddin-Longo: The oboe's high G-sharp is Lucifer's scream of agony, his cry of despair and rage, of decision to become outcast. It is an ugly sound, and is exactly the sound I want there.

The song form is clear, and the lyrical English horn solo sections are interrupted by the harsh, edgy heterophony [the simultaneous playing of the same melody with slight variations] of the strings and winds. These B sections are about longing, and of a love that cannot be expressed.

The beautiful horn is repeatedly overtaken by Lucifer's rage -ۥ the agitated, harsh anger sounded by the strings and winds as they climb and fall in those passages heavy with accidentals and in 5/8 time. C-minor is the key signature - key that expresses struggle and victory - ۥlike Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

The piece expresses my own anger. I'm at a point of looking back at my life and at things done and not done.

Three times God has tried to kill me. The first when I was a boy. My relations rejected me - when I was a young boy, my uncle told me I wasn't wanted - that was the first time. Then came the bout with cancer in the 1990s. That was the second time He tried to kill me. Now I have a heart issue - ۥa mild form of heart failure.

The third time. Lucifer's Love Song for the Lord is a reflection of that -ۥ Lucifer's anger was mine. Reflecting the complicated relationship between God and his offspring.

Keelan: I just re-barred sections of the score, to make some of it easier on the players. That's all I do to a text - once it is read-through, the hard parts come out. Must mark it so that players don't have a hard time wrapping their heads around the time signature, for instance.

And to get into the piece - there is, dare I say it, an erotic, a sexy feel to the woodwinds lyric sections, and that needed to be clearer on the score.

Nasreddin-Longo: Players do a favor to the composer - the players gift their experience to the composer's vision, make the imagery in my head/ear a real thing. I extend my hand to the players and the audience, and you can choose to take my hand.

Keelan: With the players it becomes real as we read the new piece together (any piece - ۥI come to each program as new and clear as possible). We create from wonder, from beauty, from excitement. To find out what it is all about. So that the music becomes more than its parts. I access it by taking a hard look at the road map. It is alive in the moment, an emergent phenomenon.

Nasreddin-Longo: I like tunes. I love a melody. Hearers like a tune, to tell a story and to be able to relate to it - tone poems, I used to think, were boring and simple. But when I was teaching Liszt's tone-poems [Franz Liszt wrote works for the piano], I came to realize the power (of tune-full pieces).

New music should be a conversation, and you have to care about your audience, that they can access the music. Modern composers who don't care about the audience are misguided, in my judgment. You must give the possibility to audience members - a “perfect” listener is willing to be moved, willing to have their head stretched, I want to push the boundaries gently.

Keelan: I want to create the space for the possibility of breaking down artificial barriers between art and life. Give the opportunity, the space and the choice to experience. ... Art, music are the natural forums for the expression of human emotion. I want to pose the question: Why come out to a concert? and create the space for connection, not to prescribe, but to allow.

Nasreddin-Longo: People need to know it is okay not to like something. Not to feel bad that they “didn't get it,” or feel “uneducated” or stupid for walking out of something. I don't want them to walk out, but to understand that it's okay not to like it.

I ask them to sit through it and try to figure out what/why they don't like. And it's all okay!

I don't want to be a dictator as a composer - not the dominant personality of the experience. I invite players and audiences to listen and share with me. Modern composers need to be aware that not all ruminations should be played /published. They should ask “should this go before an audience?” before anything out of the sketch book is shared - ۥof what interest is this to the world?

Keelan: We give the audience the permission to like or dislike a song. We co-create, rather than give or receive - create the environment for intrigue, not explanation - ۥthe act of playing, or listening, or directing, is to invite the question - ۥto appeal to the direct human experience without telling you what you should be hearing or feeling.

Nasreddin-Longo: Lucifer's Love Song for the Lord came to me whole. First gestures, then the notes, and key - C-minor - ۥthen the form: a song. As Hugh was asking me to write for the orchestra, he could see it, already working in my head.

I hear the canons and the tunes. Then I go to the computer and wrestle with it to get the program to do what I hear. Then I give it over to the players. I hand it over and invite them to join me in creating this piece.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates