Podcast transcription: Scott Holden
Glen Nelson: Hello everybody and welcome back to another episode of the Mormon Art Center's Studio Podcast. Two nights ago, Scott Holden stepped onto the stage at Carnegie Hall's beautiful, new jewel box Zankel Hall for a recital that would have sounded preposterous even a few years ago, a survey of classical music by Mormon composers performed in the most important music building in America. It's weird, Scott, now that I hear myself saying that out loud, it seemed almost too grand, but describing it any other way, shortchanges the historical moment it represented for me and the tremendous efforts behind it. So today Scott and I are sitting down together to listen to excerpts from a baker's dozen of LDS composers represented on the program, A Century of Mormon Music, and to describe what it was like to discover and champion these composers' works. Welcome.
Scott Holden: Great to be here. Thanks Glen.
Glen Nelson: First of all, how did it feel to come back and perform at Carnegie Hall? You made a joke from the stage that you are on a cycle of performances there.
Scott Holden: Yes, I played a solo recital there--I guess my official debut there--in 1996 as a prize from a competition I had won. So yeah, I'm on the 22-year cycle, which means I'll be back when I'm almost 70.
Glen Nelson: Well, knock wood. So what did it feel like?
Scott Holden: Well, you know, I felt quite a bit different than the last time I played there, and I'm not gonna lie, it's a high-stress situation, but to play all this music that was very personal to me but also to be a little bit of memory lane. So it was really a lot more fun this time and of course to walk out in the audience to see a lot of familiar faces. And before I was about to walk out, I just thought to myself, "I'm about to play at Carnegie Hall and this is going to be fun actually." Yeah. Not just, "Okay, try and survive. This is very stressful."
Glen Nelson: Well, the first time at the beginning of your career, you probably felt this kind of pressure, "Like if I mess up..."
Scott Holden: Yes. I knew there was going to be a reviewer there and I was being showcased as the winner of this competition, so there was a lot of pressure. Of course, there's still a lot of pressure this time, but I had a lot more fun. I mean, I think I was willing to allow myself to have more fun.
Glen Nelson: Well you're old. You don't care now....
Scott Holden: I'm working on it. That's right.
Glen Nelson: Okay. So what I thought we would do for our conversation is use the actual concert itself as an architecture, and we'll talk about a little bit of each piece, play a brief excerpt from it, and then we'll use those pieces as an example of how a pianist puts together a program and gets it ready. Does that sound cool?
Scott Holden: Great.
Glen Nelson: So there were seven works before the intermission. The first four felt to me like classics.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: But that's kind of weird because most of those are unknown. I mean, I don't think people really know them. So "classic" in a traditional sense, it doesn't really apply.
Scott Holden: Well they're unknown in the sense the people won't know the music, but I think they'll actually know the composers, to some extent, but in other contexts.
Glen Nelson: Yeah. So these composers were Arthur Shepherd, Leroy Robertson, James W. McConkie and Merrill Bradshaw. Do you think these pieces deserve to be more widely known than they are?
Scott Holden: Oh, absolutely! Especially the Arthur Shepherd piece, which I think is a first rate piece of music, shocking to me that, well, it was never published, but the piece was composed by Shepherd, and at some point it was lost. It's really well crafted. I don't think there's an extra note in the piece and I was thinking it's kind of like a mix of Charles Griffiths with a little hint of Fauré. Shepherd wrote this piece and it was lost, and then it was given to Grant Johannessen because Shepherd spent a lot of time in Cleveland, most of his professional career in Cleveland. And Grant Johannessen was director of Cleveland Institute. At some point, it was donated to the BYU library. I was looking through Shepherd scores and trying to find the right one. And then I heard the Grant Johannesen recording of this piece, And I thought, "Oh this piece is fantastic. This has to be my first piece on the program." But it turned out it was misfiled at the BYU library as a vocal score, and they had sent me score after score after score, but they hadn't sent me that one. I said, "Just check on this one because I think it might be wrong." And sure enough.
Glen Nelson: It was Grant who told me about this, before he passed away. We were worked together on his memoir, and he loved Shepherd. He performed him quite a bit, and he was close friends with Shepherd's brother, I believe, who was a really well known violinist at the time, and I think they might've even performed together.
Scott Holden: There's an Arthur Shepherd Violin Sonata which I hear is great, too. I've been stockpiling Shepherd pieces now.
Glen Nelson: He said to me once that he thought that the Piano Quintet was the strongest piece by an American before 1950.
Scott Holden: That's an incredible endorsement.
Glen Nelson: Let's listen to just a fragment then of From a Mountain Lake by Arthur Shepherd [excerpt played].
Glen Nelson: In your emails to me over the last year as you been working on this, I could tell the excitement was building and this was one of these pieces you wrote to me about, how you thought, you know, there wasn't a single extra note, but you were also saying, "It's 5:00 in the morning, I'm already the keyboard," and at some point, you were practicing seven hours a day. What was it like for you to build a recital program from scratch? You had only played a couple of these pieces before. Is that right?
Scott Holden: That's right.
Glen Nelson: So what was it like to build this from scratch? How did it actually happen: the selection of works and so on?
Scott Holden: It was a long process choosing the music, and I've had a busy professional year playing other programs and other concertos and a lot of music to take care of. So the BYU library kept sending me more and more and more music. They just had kind of an open invitation to send me things, in addition to the digital files I was getting from composers. But in the fall I played the entire book of Rachmaninoff Etudes, and then I had a few concertos to learn besides, so a big program this year, or lots of big programs. This is in addition to my normal teaching and playing other chamber music and such. So I had a stack of music at least two feet high on my floor and probably a digital stack on my computer, about two feet high of scores to go through. So when I would have time, I would find pieces. At some point, I remember you were in my office and we had it spread around, and we were making piles of lists of things, you know, to definitely include, to maybe include, and then things that we weren't so sure about. So it took a number of months to find the program.
Glen Nelson: You're a great sight reader, so you're putting scores on the piano that you hadn't seen before. Playing a few pages, seeing if it struck you. And so I think there are probably quality issues that came into play, but also you wanted to tell a certain kind of story? Like you were mentioning to me that you found enough music that you could have done multiple performances of the same quality with different composers.
Scott Holden: Yeah. This was a pretty historical event, and I really wanted to show composers that I thought both fit the trends of the 20th century or 21st century in addition to composers that fit somewhat at least, the demographics of the Church. So which is a kind of a polite way of saying I just didn't want to choose all composers from Utah because these composers have had a breadth of career that covers continents and certainly not just focused in my current stopping ground in Utah.
Glen Nelson: You know, I was aware when I asked you initially if you are interested in this project, what it meant, like what it would require. And I was a little embarrassed to ask you because I mean, I think anyone who plays music knows that in a high pressure situation, all this new music, a lot of eyes on it, to do that at a certain level that's not embarrassing you have to crank out the hours just to do it. And I knew that your life is busy. So I felt really honored that you would even say yes in the first place to it.
Scott Holden: Well, an invitation to play at Carnegie Hall is hard to turn down, but in a lot of ways--and I hate to sound self-aggrandizing--but I feel like I was kind of prepared for this because I've always tried to choose some repertoire that is totally unknown. I love finding gems that nobody plays and having pianists saying, "Wow, that's a great piece. What is that piece?" And then of course to do something so personal involving LDS composers. And then I've also played a fair amount of contemporary music, although I don't think I'm a specialist in that. So this really combined three different aspects of my career but all focused in one gigantic program.
Glen Nelson: Well, let's say a pianist wants to work up new music, would pieces like this even be in Hinson's Guide to the Pianist's Repertoire?
Scott Holden: Um, I would guess.... And just for our audience to know, Hinson's Guide is like the bible of piano repertoire. It's a big fat book that he's trying to categorically list every piano piece, basically, ever published. Shepherd is in there, but this piece is not because it was never published. I don't think there would be a single piece in there, I'm guessing.
Glen Nelson: So you're rewriting it.
Scott Holden: That's right.
Glen Nelson: Dear Maurice Hinson...
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: Alright. So let's move onto Robertson. I might be misremembering this story, but what I heard about this Etude in G Minor is that he had observed--as you mentioned in your beautiful program notes--he had observed Hitler closeup in a stadium, was so revolted by it, he left the stadium shaking.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: He had blank music paper in his pocket, and he got on a street corner, and he raised his leg up on a, like on the window of a store, and using his knee as a desk wrote this piece out from start to finish.
Scott Holden: This is a true story. And his brother, I'm sorry, his son actually sent me an email. It's a kind of a hideous story, but there's one, a little bit more charming bit of it at least. In 1933, he'd taken a leave of absence from BYU and was studying in Berlin just at the rise of the Third Reich. So he hears Hitler is going to be speaking, and he's curious. He wants to go see this. And it's at some giant sports stadium for like 100,000 people. So he forges fake press credentials with a BYU colleague who's also there, J.J. Keeler. And they pretend like that they're media from the LDS Church, and he brings his copy of, I guess, The Improvement Era to show them this is their gig, you know, and they seat him right above Hitler's box. So he sees the fury of the speaking and then the massive embrace of the crowd. So you can hear this in the music. There's a kind of a--I joked in my liner notes that he was not so much in the key of G Minor as in the key of fascism. So there's a kind of militaristic feel about it, and a delusional feel, and you can hear these swells of the crowd.
Glen Nelson: It's really propulsive, too. Very turbulent.
Scott Holden: Very driving, yeah. And really quite prophetic in a way. I mean, the piece ends both in G Major and G Minor at the same time. He seemed to be very aware that this was a very uncertain future ahead of him--although the G Major chord holds a little bit longer, but it's a very powerful and a perceptive piece.
Glen Nelson: Let's listen to just a section of it [excerpt played].
Glen Nelson: Next up: James W. McConkie. Had you heard McConkie's music before you tackled Sonatina?
Scott Holden: I had never heard a note of his music. Aand that's mostly because it's just completely unknown.
Glen Nelson: I did a podcast with his grandson.
Scott Holden: It's a great podcast.
Glen Nelson: Thank you. And actually your page turner...
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: Was she a student of yours? It was Jamie's wife.
Scott Holden: She was never my formal piano student, but she was in our program.
Glen Nelson: She performed the same piece that you play.
Scott Holden: She plays the last movement. I think so. Oh, you know, I take that back. I actually gave her some lessons on the last movement, so I had heard some of his music.
Glen Nelson: When we sat down together, Jamie brought the score, and it's really hard. That piece is hard.
Scott Holden: Yes, and the funny thing is it's marked Allegro Moderato, but there's an old recording of James McConkie playing it live on the radio from the early 1950s, and he does not play it Allegro Moderato; it's like Allegrissimo Vivace. He really flies through it.
Glen Nelson: He flies through it. It's almost scary.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: He has a deep Bach love.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: And so there's a lot of stuff going on, and he just rips through it. It's kind of like thatis sort of mid-century playing like, you know, Horowitz, you make some mistakes, nobody cares. It's more about the fire and fury.
Scott Holden: It's a tricky piece, and there's measures that I practiced multiple times every day for months...
Glen Nelson: To try to get it into your fingers?
Scott Holden: Yes. And I was..., not to denigrate him, but I liked that least on his live recording that he was missing some of those same places that I struggled with, so it made me feel a little better.
Glen Nelson: So it brings to my mind the question of when you're putting together a program, you want to show works quality and you want to show works of difficulty in some cases, but how much is too much? How did you decide, okay, there are a lot of notes here or technically the demands are really challenging?
Scott Holden: That's a great question. I'm not sure if I know what the answer is.
Glen Nelson: For you, you probably know your own answer.
Scott Holden: But I like to choose..., I like to space things in an order so that on the program that there's some pieces that I feel like I can relax a little bit and not just relentlessly technically driven.
Glen Nelson: And for the audience too, that becomes a little grinding. The pacing really comes into play.
Scott Holden: Another hard thing though, which was really unusual about this program was that normally I play complete works or large groupings of works, so you get to kind of sink into the world of that composer for longer...
Glen Nelson: Multi-movement sonatas...
Scott Holden: Yes, yes, but when you're switching composer after composer and you do 13 of them in a row, it's harder to kind of sit in that world before you're off to another one.
Glen Nelson: It seems to me that a survey like this is more like snapshots and more than a recital of, you know, larger-scaled works. With shorter pieces on a concert, you start comparing and contrasting more because they're still in memory, so you know, you have one piece, it's still ringing in your ears, and you have this next piece come along. And I think for me it was exciting to kind of see how these match up, how they share ideas or how they differ from each other.
Scott Holden: Yeah, and I think also to show the trends of their day because the McConkie piece is in what we would call neoclassic style...
Glen Nelson: 1952-53?
Scott Holden: Yes, very common. Even written, I think, starting in the late forties, but very common writing style between, especially between the two wars but also after the second war.
Glen Nelson: Yeah. Let's listen to a section of it [excerpt played].
Glen Nelson: I was really pleased that you chose a work by Merrill Bradshaw. Let's listen to an excerpt from Toccata [excerpt played].
Glen Nelson: Tell me a little bit about the music we just heard.
Scott Holden: Well, this is the Merrill Bradshaw Toccata. This piece is a handful. And when I first looked at and I thought, "Oh, this piece is going to be great, it looks really driving and pianistic and it'll be fun to play--very athletic writing and full of dissonant, Bartok-like types of harmonies." But this piece was very difficult. The first thing I do when I learn a piece of music is I get out my pencil, and I start coming up with fingerings, and I'm obsessive about this. And if you look at any pencil in my office, especially recently, they're covered with teeth marks. It's like it's been attacked by like an army of beavers because I'll have my pencil in my mouth, and I'm writing out fingerings, and it's just a bad habit of mine. So I came up with the fingering and I started working on it...
Glen Nelson: Because none of these is published so they wouldn't have any kind of editorial fingering?
Scott Holden: Correct. Yeah. Yeah. So I came up with a fingering and worked on it with that, and after a few weeks I said, "This fingering is just not very comfortable." So I came up with a different fingering, and I stuck with that fingering for about two months, but I was not having great success with that fingering either. Literally a one morning at about 4:00 AM after laying awake in bed for a probably an hour and a half awake, thinking about this piece, it just very stubbornly dawned on me, "That fingering's not going to work either, Scott, you better try another one." So I literally got out of bed and went to work and came up with another fingering, which was my final fingering.
Glen Nelson: Grant Johannesen used to tell me that on airplane flights--that's when he would do his fingerings.
Scott Holden: I know pianists like that, and I'm much more tactile. I have to be at the piano. It's odd, you know, I've spent tens of thousands of hours at the piano, but I like being at the piano when I do this.
Glen Nelson: Well, we can't talk about Bradshaw without talking about the Mormon connection and his training a generation of composers. He himself was a Webern scholar and was an, you know, academic guy. I mean, he was demanding. He wanted to--I think maybe out of frustration for the quality of music coming out of the Church--he wanted to uplift it and to make it stronger. One of his students was a friend of mine, and they had a combative and wonderful relationship.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: Because they butted heads all the time which drove them both to higher ground, but he started writing to this friend of mine a series of letters and they ended up being collected into a book called Letters to a Mormon Composer. And so I have a brief excerpt here. I think it's worth reading:
Glen Nelson: "This is a letter to you and others like you who are developing your skills as composers and your desire to serve the kingdom. If you will permit me, I would like to share some ideas that may help you to find yourself in relation to your music at Church and your testimony." This is not the kind of thing that you know you get at Juilliard if you're a composition student. "Our task as composers is to find the hidden fire or the expressive contours of our spiritual impulses and embody them in sound. That is rather easy to put into words, but much more demanding to put into action. The process consists of relating your sensitivity for sound to your sensitivity for the spirit." Sort of interesting, isn't it? "Third, you must always remember your audience. Nevertheless, it is not your task to only do what they want you to do. Your task is to inspire them with insights into eternal things. Audiences tend to like only that which they know already. A composer has no prospects for success if that tendency is not challenged. To challenge it successfully, you must capture the hidden fire so vividly that the lethary of the audience is overcome, and they feel the emotions of the spirit in spite of themselves."
Scott Holden: I love it! This should be a manifesto for all LDS composers.
Glen Nelson: Isn't that fascinating? I mean, I know in the era, you know, this is sixties, early seventies when the Mormon Arts Festival at BYU is really beginning, and it was just all in the air: this idea that through the arts we can elevate our whole culture, and it'd become a beacon for the world, and so on. But he was not patronizing to these composers. He was like shaking 'em up.
Scott Holden: Yes. And this piece is not patronizing at all. It has very dense harmonies.
Glen Nelson: Yeah. We performed at the Mormon Arts Center Festival a year ago a piece of Bradshaw's, a string quartet, played really beautifully by the Desert String Quartet, and at the intermission, Craig Jessop was in the audience, a former Tabernacle Choir conductor and a really well-known and regarded choral conductor in around the world. And he came up racing to me, with this giant grin on his face, and he said, "I had no idea." Like, so these names were all familiar to him.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: But they were probably more familiar from works that a large choir would have performed or a hymn.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: Not the concert works.
Scott Holden: Absolutely. I mean Leroy Robertson has eight of his hymns are in our handbook. But here's this really militaristic piece set in a kind of shocking context. So it was really fun for me to get to know the other side of these composers.
Glen Nelson: Exactly. You know and for them, they didn't see it as sacred/secular. I mean, in some of their writings, they were putting their spiritual selves in every concert work just the same way that they were putting themselves into every hymn that they were writing or every orchestration...
Scott Holden: Absolutely.
Glen Nelson: Or arrangement for the Tabernacle Choir. You know, after the concert, I spoke with Bradshaw's wife, who was there, Janet Bradshaw Izatt, and I was practically in tears talking to her, trying to imagine what Merrill would have thought. You know, he was an aspirational person, and his music was never performed in Carnegie Hall. And you know, to think what he would have relished from that experience was just really gratifying for me.
Scott Holden: It was really gratifying to me, as well. I had the same experience with the McConkie family. And on the podcast about him, you know, he died so, so tragically at 32 of polio, and for years they said that the music was, well, it was just such a painful loss that a lot of his music was just kind of boxed up, and they wanted to move on with her life. But it was so difficult to think about. So I felt, in addition to be honored, I felt a significant amount of pressure to really do justice to these composers whom maybe justice was not done to in life.
Glen Nelson: Right. That was literally the next question that I had written down to ask you: the burdensome aspect of that. You were sort of settling scores, as it were, trying to make up for these years of neglect. You have a lot of influence because as a teacher you have all these students, and you teach at BYU, so there's a built-in interest in Mormon composers potentially, although that doesn't always translate, but potentially it's there. Do you imagine that performing works like this can have an influence over future pianists who say, "Wow, I should be playing that, too"?
Scott Holden: Oh, absolutely. And I've already had students say, "Oh, I really liked that piece." And then I say, "Well, come talk to me. I've got some good fingerings."
Glen Nelson: What pieces in particular?
Scott Holden: The Bradshaw piece, the Shepherd piece, Larry Lowe's piece. Actually I've had comments on all the pieces, Doug Pew's piece.
Glen Nelson: That's just heaven to me to hear that because it's an exposure issue. I would love to have more pianists who are LDS reclaim their legacy.
Scott Holden: I completely agree. And this has been kind of transformational for me as I've thought about this. I've pushed really hard at BYU to make sure our students are not provincial, and I've pushed hard for them to make sure they know, of course, the standard repertoire and find other interesting pieces. And I've always required my students at some point while you're here, you have to play a piece by a living composer. The chance to work with living composer is really illuminating because I think it makes you appreciate other ways you can approach kind of the sacred cannon, which sometimes we hold on such a high and immovable pedestal. I find the majority of the time when I'm working with a living composer that when I say, "What if..., what do you think about this, if I played it this way?", which is not necessarily the way it's notated. Ninety percent of them say, "Oh yeah, that will be great." And yet we look at what's called the urtext score, this very pure, perfect score with no extra editorial markings of one of the giants, you know, Bach or Beethoven or someone. And we feel like, "Oh, you can't do that." But I think inasmuch as I tell my kids, you better get a nice urtext score, I think there's a lot more flexibility in the older pieces than maybe we give them justice for as opposed..., which I've learned from playing new music. But to follow up on that, I've pushed hard for my students, make sure they're not provincial and I think there's a difference between..., I mean we should celebrate our own culture without fear of being provincial because there's so many great treasures there for the taking. And I think this is a really common cycle. Sometimes, I know that when Dvorak came to America and heard all these spirituals...
Glen Nelson: Sure.
Scott Holden: And he thought, "This is fantastic music," and the people around him and said, "Oh, we hadn't noticed."
Glen Nelson: The Ninth symphony is just packed.
Scott Holden: Exactly, or the Japanese composer, Tōru Takemitsu was trying very hard to not write Japanese kinds of sounds, and John Cage came and said, "Hey, this is amazing stuff. It's been influencing me." And he went, "Oh, maybe I should look into this." And then it changed his career. So I think I've tried hard to push and look as broad of right as possible, when in fact there was actually all these treasures right in front of me the whole time. So this has given me a chance to explore this repertoire. And I'm thinking I might modify my students: you need to play a living LDS composer. We should celebrate these people.
Glen Nelson: Well I'll give you a blank check.
Scott Holden: All right.
Glen Nelson: You know, No, there's an aspect of, when you're speaking about provincialism, just an aspect of insecurity there. That you wonder, "Oh, is there anything worth it?" You know, good enough? So I think when we start thinking about some of these works as works just from a certain region or a certain culture that it might be a healthier approach to it, but I think that somebody has to come along first and prove that the work is worth it.
Scott Holden: Oh, it's absolutely worth it. And I don't mean that we should play LDS music just out of some kind of nationalistic patiotism for our religion.
Glen Nelson: But there is a time for that.
Scott Holden: Well, yes, but first and foremost, it's great music, and the fact that it happens to be by an LDS composer this is, this is an added bonus, but it's something we should be invested in.
Glen Nelson: I think of our American music, let's say, and it was just so derivative of European music for a long time until that Emersonian desire to be American. And so you had these early Americans, you know, after the initial colonial composers. Yeah, I'm thinking let's say Ives, you know, who just says, "I'm going to break it."
Scott Holden: Yes. He's the first truly American composer, the generation before him, Edward MacDowell, Amy Beach, Horatio Parker--all these--they write good music. But what you did at that time was you went to Europe, you trained with a good German composer, and you came back, and you basically wrote German-sounding music. Ives was the first one to completely break out of that, and it's so radical, passionate, and without any strings attached to really anything else that was going on at that time.
Glen Nelson: And Shepherd was part of that movement. So when he went to the New England Conservatory, there was this group and it had been--the Conservatory was very German at the time...
Scott Holden: Yes. Yes.
Glen Nelson: And this group said, "Let's explore what we can do." And so he was aware that his music was not as as modern, but he said, "I want to make music that speaks to me." And so for him to do that piece of, you know, From a Mountain Lake... And he's from... is he from Bear Lake in Southern Idaho?
Scott Holden: He's from Paris, Idaho, which I call the lesser of the two Parees.
Glen Nelson: All right. So those are the first four composers. I think we're going to run out of time if we don't zip along a little bit.
Scott Holden: Yep.
Glen Nelson: You mentioned Larry Lowe. He is someone who's unfamiliar to me. What is his music like? And you have a relationship with him. Did he write this piece for you?
Scott Holden: He did write this piece for me, and in fact it was one of the few pieces of this whole program that I'd already played before. Larry is an interesting guy. He's a French horn teacher at BYU, a French horn virtuoso, and in his midlife he took up composition. He'd always been teaching music theory, so he has a really deep grasp of harmonic structure, and harmony, and tonality. And he had initially written a number of pieces for French horn-kind of centered. I'd played a few of his French Horn sonatas and a fair amount of his chamber music, but he writes extraordinarily well for the piano for a French horn player, and he actually plays the piano fairly well. So I had said, "Larry, I think you have a solo piece for me in you somewhere." So he wrote this piece, which was a real pleasure to play. Larry likes to joke that he writes in the ultra-avant garde language of Romanticism, and very tonal. So he writes big sweeping melodies and big sumptuous harmonies, full of deep humanity and romanticism. I was quite moved actually playing this piece in New York. Pieces two, three and four were very difficult, but I got to Larry's piece. I felt like, "Ah, I can breathe a little bit here."
Glen Nelson: I think the audience felt that way too. Those first four were a real statement and this next piece--it was just lyrical and expansive--there's a lot to, you know, grab onto, though. Let's listen to a section of it [excerpt played].
Glen Nelson: I've never spoken to anybody who doesn't love Dave Sargent.
Scott Holden: Yes. One of my favorite people.
Glen Nelson: I don' t know what that is. We've worked together on a couple of projects, and he's just the most wonderful, wonderful person. How would you describe him and his music?
Scott Holden: Well, I worked with Dave for a number of years before he retired and yeah, everybody loves him. He always has a twinkle in his eye and a funny joke, but he is not a clown. He's a great composer with an incredible ear, and he has the most original ear for overtones. And in this piece, like others, there's these combinations of chords that when they sustain, you can just hear these--I don't know how to describe it--otherworldly swirling combinations of overtones.
Glen Nelson: It's just ringing out into the audience. I was center toward the back.
Scott Holden: Yes. It's like half psychedelic, half transcendental: a spectrum of colors from these overtones and as the sound continues, you can hear different overtones are merging.
Glen Nelson: Speaking of merging, so this piece was written for, it was at the hundredth anniversary...?
Scott Holden: The 150th anniversary of Chopin's death.
Glen Nelson: Is it quoting from Chopin or...?
Scott Holden: It's Chopin-like. He uses a lot of Chopin's mannerisms and his lyricism. Chopin, I always say, is the chromatic composer, and part of Dave's brilliance is his ability to combine these chromatic overtones. So he very effectively goes between Chopin's style and his own style, which, at times it's like an interruption. It's like a conversation that's almost jarring. And David's music comes out, it's like a--I call it--like a spectral visitor. But at the end, the two styles fuse really poignantly.
Glen Nelson: For me in the audience, these Chopin-like moments--it was almost like I felt the ghost of Chopin or something. I felt like the ghost was there somehow [excerpt played].
Scott Holden: I have a very funny Dave Sargent story. But I don't know if you have time.
Glen Nelson: Will, I've never turned down the road words, "I've a very funny story...."
Scott Holden: So Dave has a legendarily acute ear. I have pretty good ears too. Actually two stories. But David takes it to a whole other level. The piano technician at BYU had heard that he had particularly a sensitive, perfect pitch. And so he gave Dave the tuner's hammer to the piano and said, "Okay, this note A is a slightly out of tune. See what you can do." And so he worked at it a little bit. And A is 440. And he got itvery close. He moved the hammer back and forth, back and forth, and he said, "You know, I don't quite have the technique that you do to get it in one spot exactly correct." But the technician checked, and it was at A439. He said, "I know it's close, but it's... But I can't quite move it." Another funny story was that I guess at one point Dave's car, the speedometer was broken, but he could keep track of how fast he was going by the pitch that his car was making. So one day he gets pulled over, and the policeman said, "You know you were going 48 in a..., whatever, and he says, "That's impossible because it wasn't going to have a G sharp.
Glen Nelson: Yeah. What a delight he is. The last piece before intermission was by Jeff Manookian. Had you ever played his music before?
Scott Holden: I had never played his music.
Glen Nelson: So he is the nephew of Robert Manookin.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: Who was sort of the yin to Bradshaw's yang at BYU for a long, long time. And he's of Armenian descent. He's from Salt Lake City originally. Jeff now lives in Argentina, and he's the conductor of the National Orchestra of Tucumán, and I follow him on Facebook. We're friends, and it's like he has a premiere every week. I mean, a ton of his music is performed, and he's constantly writing new work, and he likes the piano.
Scott Holden: He writes very effectively for the piano [excerpt played).
Glen Nelson: This work is connected to Sargent in the sense that it's using other music or another musical style as a basis for it. This work draws a lot from Bach. What is the piece that it's quoting from?
Scott Holden: It's drawn on the very famous Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, but it's reworked in a very original way. It has all of the kind of bravura of a Bach-Busoni transcription, but there's a third level of transformation, and that is it's very freely dissonant, but at the same time it's highly respectful of the music. I think it shows all of the profundity of that piece, especially towards the end, but it's full of fire and drama in the middle. It has an Ivesian expressionism in it: very raw and powerful and biting. But at the end it's very poignant and profoundly moving. I really enjoyed playing this piece and it made a great closer because its depth of expression--a closer for the first half of the program.
Glen Nelson: I saw him at intermission. And these composers, many of them and their family members, came to New York on their own dime.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: And so he came all the way from Argentina. I said, "All right, how did it go? How did you like it?" Oh, he was overjoyed, Scott.
Scott Holden: Oh, I'm so glad.
Glen Nelson: He loved it so much. He was so excited.
Scott Holden: Again, that was... I was aware that these composers were flying from around the world to come hear their piece at Carnegie Hall. So, you know, there's just a little bit of pressure there.
Glen Nelson: Like they're going to stand up, "Boo!"
Scott Holden: I don't know if you've ever read Berlioz's memoirs, but, he frequently this did at concerts.
Glen Nelson: What, stand up?
Scott Holden: Yes. In the middle of the concert, "That's played wrong!"
Glen Nelson: So then it was intermission. I always want to know what performers do during intermission. Alright. So you've just finished; everything went well. What did you do during intermission?
Scott Holden: You know, I've never liked intermissions because I feel like I'm now starting to hit my stride, and I just want to keep playing. I don't want to now take a break. I always have enough energy. I don't need to like sit back and, you know, take it easy. So yeah, basically I sit back and pace, and I'm just anxious to get back out there.
Glen Nelson: So it's not helpful?
Scott Holden: It's..., no, I don't generally find it helpful. I think it's helpful for the audience, but I'm there to play and not to now wait around.
Glen Nelson: I was backstage with you before the concert began and you know, you can hear quite a lot.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: You can hear the crowd out there, and it seemed to me pretty buzzy.
Scott Holden: Yes, I was surprised. I thought, "Wow. There's a lot of people out there."
Glen Nelson: Yeah. And not just the number, which was nice--the hall seats 599, I think is the number--but they were friends with each other and connecting with each other and making new relationships. And so there was a lot of chatter, but at intermission it seemed to me that that shifted. They were all talking about the music, and so there was surprised in their voice, you know.
Scott Holden: Good.
Glen Nelson: I was wondering for you backstage, is it kind of like when a sports team comes out on the field and you hear this roar of the crowd? Does that kind of pump you up when you hear the audience's involvement?
Scott Holden: Yes, but not from the first note, only after I've played for a while.
Glen Nelson: I can understand that. I noticed that you had scores in front of you, but especially in the first half, you weren't looking at them that much, from what I could tell. How do you decide what to do regarding memorization?
Scott Holden: You know, I always play by memory, but I played this entire program from the score. Now why is that? The idea of going to Carnegie Hall and bringing... Normally if you're going to play in a venue like this, you bring your oldest, best friends that you play better than anybody in the world...
Glen Nelson: And in some cases you've been playing them since you were 14.
Scott Holden: ...pieces that you've played for decades, exactly. So the idea of going to Carnegie Hall like, "Oh, why don't you learn this entire new program, and play in this high-prestige venue, in front of the composers, and knowing that this is a historical event that's never happened before?" That's a lot of pressure, and I really wanted to be able to focus on the music and not worry about memorization, which is generally not an issue with memorization, but it's a little bit like a kind of the trapeze artists with no net. And in addition, this is all, I mean, not just new music for me, but it's contemporary music and a lot of it literally meaning by my contemporaries. And it's a little bit of a double standard in the concert world. When you play this kind of repertoire, it's very common to use music. Some of the pieces I don't think I possibly could have memorized solely, but most of the music was basically memorized, but I wanted to be able to focus on what I was trying to do musically and not have to worry about this added dimension.
Glen Nelson: That's right. During intermission, something was going on inside the piano itself. What was that?
Scott Holden: Yes. The first piece after the intermission was for prepared piano by Leilei Tian, and that included a lot of playing on the inside of the piano and then some small preparations including layers of tin foil on the bottom strings and certain strings that were muted, in addition to placing the different mallets and things I needed to play the piece with.
Glen Nelson: I go to a lot of new music concerts and extended techniques like that aren't particularly new to me, but I loved the Asian/Western mix of it.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: Were you playing with chopsticks or something? My eyesight isn't good enough to see exactly what you were using at that one point.
Scott Holden: Yeah, it's a great question. She asks..., well when you played new pieces... I love doing things that I'd never done before and being slightly uncomfortable because it's fun to figure out things like, you know, I know how to approach a Beethoven Sonata, but when you're playing new music, especially for prepared piano, you can't just like go down to your local music store and say, "Oh, I need this thing." You've got to build all this stuff yourself. So she asked for certain dowels to strike--wooden dowels, and then a metal tipped mallet hammer to strike, in addition to a few other things.
Glen Nelson: And you're plucking sometimes too, or is that what you call striking?
Scott Holden: Yeah. But you know, the logistics of where you play change. So she wanted me to play, to strike the string with a metal dowel, excuse me, with a wooden dowel, but in a larger space like that, it turned out--I did a sound check and you couldn't hear it at the back of the hall. So I had contacted her and said, "What if I use... I've got some dowels with screws in them and I use that because it'll make a little bit more percussive sound?" And she was just fine with that.
Glen Nelson: You know, when you say that she wanted this or she wanted that, you had correspondence with her but also in the score... Contemporary music also often has information on how to play that thing.
Scott Holden: It's very specifically notated, but I still needed clarification. So yeah, we exchanged a lot of emails.
Glen Nelson: What did Carnegie Hall say? Did it bother them that you were using and you're messing up their piano?
Scott Holden: Well, this can be a tricky thing, and I wanted to make sure I wasn't getting any hot water. So I sent them photos of the score of the specific requirements. They were actually quite liberal with it and so it was fine, but they did say, "But if there's any damage, you'll have to pay for it."
Glen Nelson: I'm glad that you didn't pass on that note to me. Speaking of pressure.., let's listen to a piece of that [excerpt played].
Glen Nelson: I had this image with you sticking your head in the piano--because in some parts of the performance, one hand is on the keyboard, another hand on the strings and things. And I thought, "Oh, that lid is just gonna fall down and like, you know, is there a doctor in the house? Nevermind."
Scott Holden: Gruesome end at Carnegie Hall.
Glen Nelson: Let's move on to Doug Pew. I was curious to know how you decided on the works in the second half itself. It seemed to me that you are doing a globetrotting thing. You know, you were telling stories from composers who live in various places, far flung places, but also the pieces of music themselves are describing landscapes.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: So what is the Doug Pew piece about?
Scott Holden: Doug's piece is based on both the life and poetry of Pablo Neruda, and he has a five-movement suite, and it's fantastic. I chose two of those movements and in Llueve, which means "it rains," it was based on Neruda. In the last week of his life, he was walking along, thinking very nostalgically about his life and its meaning as he walks along in the rain. I actually played this piece for a friend of mine who's Japanese, and he said in Japan there are 80 different words for "rain" and he said, "I hear are all these different kinds of rain in the piece."
Glen Nelson: Really? Very cool.
Scott Holden: This was, the Llueve movement, was a piece I'd played before, and I knew right away I wanted to play this piece. It was so satisfying and in some ways I felt like was kind of the spiritual core of the recital: such a depth of expression and solitude and quiet. It's a tricky piece to play. There's a repeated C that happens fairly evenly for the length of the entire piece. And then there's all these kind of swirling slow moving melodies on top and occasionally below it. It's written sometimes in three staves. And, it's a little bit tricky to keep track of all those things, but the sonority and depth of expression is such a pleasure to be part of.
Glen Nelson: Well, this was a winner. It sneaked up on me though, because of the two movements that you played, the first one really does have this tranquility, this mental probing to it. The fourth movement begins in a similar way, but it ends with this great grandeur of sunrise in Chile...
Scott Holden: On the ocean, yes. And he's actually walking towards the ocean, and you can hear these distant waves, and you can hear the moment when he actually sees the ocean, then you can see about that he's really right on its edge, and it's glorious.
Glen Nelson: Let's listen to this section of it [excerpt played].
Glen Nelson: We've been talking about the difficulty of some of these pieces. In some ways you're kind of.., it's like you're opening the door to discovery of some of these pieces. Let's say the Francisco Estévez piece that came next, a Spanish composer who's from Africa, trained in Germany, so again, this globetrotting idea. This is not his most difficult piece by any stretch...
Scott Holden: No.
Glen Nelson: But I think the concepts in there are so intellectually exciting that somebody who hears that music will say, "What else is there?"
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: Did you feel like there was an element of the concert that was a sampler, that you were hoping that people would say, "Wow, I want to know more about that piece"?
Scott Holden: Oh, absolutely, for every composer because, I mean, every composer represents just a gateway to a whole other body of work, with each one of these pieces.
Glen Nelson: There's so much there. Let's listen to a piece of it [excerpt played].
Glen Nelson: It was nice of you to note that that's dedicated to Nate Thatcher and myself. We had some communication with him, and he could not be more a more generous human.
Scott Holden: He sent me the most gracious email when I sent him my recording, which was so meaningful. My recording process was insane. There were days where I would spend several hours just going through the previous takes and do what I call paper editing, where I'd say, "Okay, I like take two here and then we'll edit into this section here," and then I would spend a few hours with the editor itself and make these digital changes, and then I would do..., by early afternoon, then I would start practicing for my recording session that night, and then I would practice at the end of the recording session for the next day's events coming up. So it was very, very intense.
Glen Nelson: It's so immersive, the kind of work that you're doing.
Scott Holden: And brutal too, because it turns out that the microphone doesn't lie. So I mean it's all out there, and it has to be both passionate and yet precise.
Glen Nelson: Yeah. So back to Estévez, we had some communication, and he just sent this piece.
Scott Holden: Yes, it was written just about a year or two ago.
Glen Nelson: These Nanopreludios. "Nano" like an nanosecond. Yeah. So preludes. There were just these very short preludes, and then Nate had a baby, so he added one and dedicated it to her.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: This last piece, so it's like 19 + 1. With the survey concert like this, do you choose the best works by given composer that you can find or was it more to tell on overall story?
Scott Holden: What I love is that I choose the best works that I can find, but what I'm keenly aware of is that I am sure there are other great works out there. I love living in the west, and I love the open landscapes because sometimes you see some little dirt road headed out into the desert and I go, "I wonder where that goes." And a lot of these conversations is a little bit like that. Just sense of like, "I'm sure there's some amazing dirt road to some other composition that I'm not even aware of."
Glen Nelson: I was in church a few years ago and a Julliard pianist was getting her master's degree--Jenny Naylor--and she came up to me and she said, "For my graduate recital, I would like to play a piece of Mormon music, but I just, you know, that wasn't part of my training. I just don't know where to begin. Where should I go? Where is the Mormon repository of music?" I said, "Oh, there is no such thing. There is no official archive." Like you can't go to Salt Lake's, you know, Church Office building and find this thing, and libraries have finite space, so it's an increasingly difficult thing. So exposure is going to be a challenge. It's going to take someone who has a curatorial bent. It's a big challenge to find music.
Scott Holden: Well, the CD I hope is at least a small repository representing lots of different styles and composers. So I hope that this will be a micro-repository of many possibilities.
Glen Nelson: Yes, it's like if you like this novel, you should see... like at Amazon's bookstore.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: Okay. To Ethan Wickman. Let's listen first to a piece of Occidental Psalmody and then talk about his music [excerpt played].
Glen Nelson: This piece has a little bit of storytelling in it. What is the piece about? In your program notes you mentioned landscape.
Scott Holden: Yeah. Occidental, meaning west, and Psalmody, meaning like a psalm or kind of hymn of praise, so it's his praise to the west. He writes in his notes of the piece that as a kid he would make these kind of epic western road trips to visit all the relatives that were spread around the western U.S., going... and you'd see the Pacific Ocean, which the piece starts with, but the amazing, grotesque desert landscapes and the craggy mountains, so it's his hymn of praise to the west and its diversity of landscapes. I have to say this was a piece that he sent a digital score. I'm sorry, digital score and a digital record of,
Glen Nelson: By digital recording, you mean like a Finale-generated midi...?
Scott Holden: No, somebody else said it already recorded it. And I was on an airplane coming back from Asia going through some of these recordings, and I hear this piece. And I went, "This is fantastic." So I'm writing him an email as I'm listening to the recording, "I really liked this piece. I think this is on my playlist." And you know, I'm a couple more minutes in, and I'm sending you another email, "I really like this piece. I'm definitely playing this." But I was on the airplane, and there's so much white noise, so I was just sticking my headphones about as deep into my brain as possible so I could hear it better. But I knew when I heard this, right away, "Okay, I have to play this piece."
Glen Nelson: I'm aware of another work of his, Ballads of the Borderland, this oratorio. He lives in Texas. He teaches there, and he seems to be really attuned to political things as well. This Ballads from the Borderland has texts from both sides of the border.
Scott Holden: Wow.
Glen Nelson: And so you have coyotes bringing people into the U.S., you have people who were trapped on the Mexican side of the border, you have Americans dealing with the consequences of immigration--so this was written not too long ago, but a few years ago. It's just had a few recent performances, and everywhere it's performed, people are just going crazy for it. I mean it's very topical, but your work doesn't have that element of political to it, but it's a big, big work.
Scott Holden: Meaty. In fact, I was kind of shocked when I recorded it. It was only seven and a half minutes because it feels about... There's so many notes and it's quite difficult, but it's fun to play. It's very athletic, great harmonies and highly virtuosic. I had fun recording it because I told him I'm really gonna push to the virtuosity aspect.
Glen Nelson: The program ended with two world premieres, which is just an extraordinary thing--as if you hadn't done enough already.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: How did these come about? You had written to some composers and said, "I would be interested in performing some of your music. What have you got?" And then in addition to that then you asked a couple of people...
Scott Holden: Yes, I knew Lansing McLoskey's name, but we'd never met, and you had said, "Oh, you've got to get a premiere him if he's willing to do it and, and you'll love this guy. You're going to really hit it off." And yeah, we had a lot in common.
Glen Nelson: Well, regarding his piece, it isn't on the recording because it came late. Let me tell a little bit of backstory about that. On facebook--again, that's the only way that I actually speak to people--he wrote on May 28. (So, you know, note that day.)
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: This is what he wrote: "That time when you're weeks late on a deadline for a really important commission and you realize that everything you've written is pure garbage and fiendishly difficult garbage to boot. So after working 60+ hours in the past week alone trying to make it work, you trash everything and start from scratch." Actually, he told me after the fact, he literally hit the delete button not knowing what was coming next.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: He continues here, "And then after the painful press of the proverbial delete all button, you lie in bed in a hypnagogic state all night and the piece just comes to you. Bam." And then he gives three little lessons from this experience: "Number one, don't desperately hold onto mediocre material and try to make it work. I should know better. Number two, the pressure of trying to compose a masterpiece is lethal to inspiration." Wise advice, I think.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: "Number three, in the big picture, it doesn't matter. Take a breath." And I have to add quickly, at the festival at the end of June, he was speaking to some people, and he added this spiritual component to it. He said that after he hit the delete button and had absolutely nothing, he fasted and prayed and then he probably told you what happened next. What was that?
Scott Holden: Well, the piece came to him in the course of a couple of nights, in the middle of the night. And I have to say, you know, I'm on facebook and I saw that post, and I was very anxiously waiting for his piece to arrive.
Glen Nelson: Anxious in a panicky kind of way?
Scott Holden: In a panicky way...
Glen Nelson: Because you had no idea how, how much time that would require?
Scott Holden: I had no idea, and the same time I was just stretched to the limits for all these other, what I call my needy children--all these other pieces that required so much time and difficulty. But at the same time I was so consumed with those, I thought, "Well the longer he doesn't send me the piece, then there's something else you don't have to worry about." But you know, the pressure was building for both of us. He wanted something he liked, and I wanted to get it as soon as possible. So the piece came to him in one of these quasi half-awake, half-asleep dream states. And I could completely relate because I thought every night, "I'm in the same stage," because I was going, "When am I going to get the piece, and what about all those other pieces, and what about the fingering on this piece?" And so when the piece actually came and you know, he sent me the digital file, and I looked at right away and I thought, "Oh Lansing, thank you!", because he written on May 28th that he'd written something so difficult and this is what I was really fearing. And so the piece looks very simple and it was these kind of five fragments, practically sight-treadable, I mean very sight-readable.
Glen Nelson: Is it like one page or less each?
Scott Holden: It's two pages with a lot of instructions. And then as I read through the instructions, it said, it turns out you play all of these movements, the five movements, at the same time. Wow! This is mind blowing...
Glen Nelson: And cool.
Scott Holden: And very cool. Yeah. I think one of the most original pieces actually on the program. I'd never played anything like this. And again, I always like doing something that is unique for me, but it's also a challenge because there's a lot of ways you can order or layer these. And there's no..., it's a very mobile-like piece. There's not one kind of set form, but it can always shift.
Glen Nelson: Does that mean that you get to make some decisions on where...
Scott Holden: I get to make a lot of decisions. How you play it simultaneously is up to you.
Glen Nelson: So if you played it tomorrow, it might be different than if you played it yesterday.
Scott Holden: Ideally, yes. And that is actually so counterintuitive to my kind of obsessive-compulsive, controlling, micromanaging of every note. So this was very virtuosic, but in complete opposite way of something like Ethan's piece, which is very traditionally virtuosic; this is virtuosic because there's so many unknown factors.
Glen Nelson: He's an award-winning composer and a really, really brilliant guy. The music is accessible to most people because the concept of it is so strong. Once you hear that concept in a sense...
Scott Holden: Yeah, and the genius of it was that you can layer, that you could actually layer five things, and have it go in many different ways, and always actually have it sound good. And yet still hear these different layers all happening simultaneously and be able to recognize them as separate entities that work still, they're able to combine.
Glen Nelson: I went to a concert of his up at Columbia University at the Miller Theater a few years ago, and the piece was for a small chamber ensemble. And the way it was structured was the ensemble started playing a Webern score.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: Super thorny...
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: Really difficult, and then Lansing's music kind of is overlaid on it. And then the Webern drops away completely, and it's just Lansing, kind of commenting on it a little bit but not like in a derivative way. And then at the end of the piece, the Webern comes back and replaces Lansing's piece. And I was thinking, "This audience loves this work and they get it. If you just played the Webern, they would be walking out." So he really has this way of pushing forward what music can sound like, but not forgetting the audience.
Scott Holden: Yeah. I think, understanding the context of this piece in terms of what he's trying to do, any audience member could understand it.
Glen Nelson: Very cool thing. The final piece on the printed program was a premier by Lisa DeSpain. Now your relationship with her, it goes back a little bit further.
Scott Holden: Oh yeah, I mean I lived in New York for a long time, and I knew her in the old singles ward here in the 1990s nineties.
Glen Nelson: And so what is she like? What kind of music does she compose?
Scott Holden: Lisa's a terrific jazz pianist and one of the things I loved about playing them was--because there were a lot of these composers that I know personally and knowing how much of their personality was in their music just embodied--and when you look at Lisa and you see her smile and the glint in her eye. I mean, you hear this in her music.
Glen Nelson: Well, she's just beautiful, and she's so full of energy.
Scott Holden: So full of energy. Yeah. And this piece just swaggers with jazz propulsion and these bebop licks. She had sent me the copy of the score, and I immediately knew, "Okay, this has to be the program closer." It's fun and very accessible. But with lots of sharp nine chords and stacked fourth chords and lots of jazz harmony, and great pianistic writing. So it's kind of a hybrid of jazz language, but set in kind of a virtuosic style.
Glen Nelson: She burst onto the scene in New York because she had a connection with dance.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: There was a guy, Donlin Foreman, I think his name was, who was a former star of Martha Graham's company and formed his own company, and he fell in love with some of her music. So he choreographed a work to an existing piece, and the Times just went crazy, just crazy for the music and the choreography. And it was performed at the Joyce Theater, I believe, downtown. And then he started commissioning works from her. And he did a series of pieces from her. Some of them... she was always in the pit at the very least, sometimes on stage performing. And when I hear her music, you can't sit still. There's a kinetic feel to it. You move around.
Scott Holden: Oh yeah, yeah.
Glen Nelson: She's like that as a performer too, you would have to superglue her to the piano bench to be still. And I also spoke with her after the concert and she was just over the moon.
Scott Holden: Well, that's great, and I've actually had a similar experience because we were already planning on future collaboration. She wants to write a whole suite of these jazz etudes, which I would love to play and also have my students play.
Glen Nelson: Oh, fantastic. I can't imagine a student who wouldn't want to play that.
Scott Holden: You know, they've got all the technical chops, but students are frequently living in the world of Germanic... so to get to play kind of hot jazz, but everything's notated, so they get to kind of live in the best of both worlds [excerpt played].
Glen Nelson: I wrote to you about a week before the performance and I asked you a question, I said, "Are you the kind of performer who likes to know about VIPs in the audience or doesn't want to know?" And you wrote back in full caps, "NOOO!" So what I wasn't telling you is that we had had an email from the chief music critic of the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini, who's...
Scott Holden: Huge.
Glen Nelson: About as big as it gets the music world.
Scott Holden: Into the critic world, this is a kingmaker.
Glen Nelson: Yes, exactly. And he's been around for a long time. He's a concert pianist himself. He's written three books, and whatever. And so he had requested two tickets and also that the Times' photographer, who's been in the business for 20 years at Carnegie Hall, accompany him.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: I had really mixed reactions to this news.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: And it frustrated me that I couldn't tell you, but obviously...
Scott Holden: I didn't want to know.
Glen Nelson: Obviously couldn't tell you. My first question was how did he even hear about this?
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: My guess is the 80-inch poster outside of Carnegie Hall was one way, and it was on the website, and I'm sure he follows that kind of thing, and the Mormon Arts Center sent a press release about the full festival, but it wasn't a press release just about you. My guess is that he saw some of these pieces with some of these earlier composers like Shepherd and Robertson and others and said, "Well, I'm really interested about that." Because his beef with the classical music world for decades has been that it's too insular, that we play the same 10 pieces over and over and over.
Scott Holden: Oh, he would not find that at this program.
Glen Nelson: Exactly. So I think that would be really appealing to him. Unfortunately about one day before, he wrote, and his people wrote to us, "I'm so sorry, Tony had did leave town. He won't be able to attend." So we're just going to send him a copy of the recording.
Scott Holden: Well, I hope he enjoys it. There's some real treasures there.
Glen Nelson: You can't put yourself in the mindset of a critic like this, but when you are a performer at your level, you do take into account the potential critical reaction. So what were you imagining a critic might say about this? Let's leave your performance level aside. What would a critic, do you imagine, say about the music that you were performing?
Scott Holden: Well, that's a great question. Because I was actually a little concerned about this. Not so much the music critic, but you were very adamant that this was going to be called A Century of Mormon Music. And I was a little hesitant because I thought, "This is not going to sound like Music and the Spoken Word." There's no hymn tunes, and there's nothing that's directly doctrinal related to our faith, and a lot of this..., for instance, several weeks before, my ward music chair said, "Oh, why don't you play one your pieces of the sacrament meeting?" And I said, I mean, I think Doug Pew's piece would be fabulous in sacrament meeting, but I don't think most people the audience wouldn't have in my congregation would relate to that.
Glen Nelson: Well, you need a new congregation.
Scott Holden: Yes, exactly. And I actually liked to push the boundaries of what should be played. So I was a little bit not sure how the audience would take the context of this as being Mormon music, but essentially sounding like a recital of contemporary piano repertoire surveying a lot of the styles of the last hundred years. And then in terms of the critic, I wasn't worried about what a critic would think of the music because I think there's really first rate music. I'm probably more selfish. I would've been probably more worried what the critic would have thought of me.
Glen Nelson: That makes some sense. Well, I know we can't end this without me just saying how grateful I am to you. I mean, what a gift this is! I have been thinking for years, partially just out of curiosity, "How good is good? What kind of Mormon music are we really talking about in a potential elevation of our culture?" Like, is there music that really stands up? And, you know, if you ask the composers, of course they'll say, "Oh yes, my music is fantastic. I'm like a genius," because all artists are like that, otherwise they couldn't get out of bed in the morning. There's just too many reasons not to compose.
Scott Holden: Well, they are a little bit of both--they feel strong about their music, but also it's always a struggle. I mean, you hear Lansing wrote this long complicated piece and he's like, "I'm deleting the entire thing."
Glen Nelson: For me though, an additional aspect of this is if you're only hearing your music played, let's say by a student who hasn't had much time with the piece, at a concert where you teach, I wonder if you even know how good your music is. I mean it's in your head, but it's difficult to make a good case for music that's new without having first rate people perform it, it seems to me.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: And Merrill Bradshaw talked about this sometimes. And before he passed away I had a conversation with Bob Cundick about this, and I noticed that a lot of his scores were written for kind of wacky combinations of instruments, and I said, "Why did you do that?" And he said, "Because those were the only performers around."
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: And so I wonder if this performance at Carnegie Hall might be a gateway for the composers out there who say, "I need to push myself more. My music could be better."
Scott Holden: Well, I hope so.
Glen Nelson: Finally, while you were rehearsing and getting ready for the concert, you were also getting ready for a recording, so let's talk a little bit about the recording...
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: Which comes out in August. It's called the Unknown Galaxy: A Century of Mormon Music, and all of the works on the program except for one are part of this recording. Can you tell us how the recording itself came about?
Scott Holden: Yeah. There is a label at BYU called Tantara Records, and they do all kinds of projects for BYU faculty and ensembles. I made another CD with them before, but within that there's a sub-label called the Heritage Series, and they're specifically funded to promote LDS composers or past LDS composers. And so I feel really fortunate that I contacted them, and they said, "Yeah, that fits our agenda perfectly." This was just here on my own, practically the floor of my building that I can do this.
Glen Nelson: You're really lucky. I mean, at the University you have gorgeous instruments, great studios...
Scott Holden: I'm playing on one of the best instruments in the intermountain west and in a great hall with world class recording equipment.
Glen Nelson: Where did you perform it?
Scott Holden: In the DeJong. The acoustics are fantastic. There's not one bit of digital reverb added to this. It's all natural, and they used this very sophisticated recording system with nine microphones placed around the hall, and then world class editing, and all at my fingertips. So I was really fortunate.
Glen Nelson: Well, one of the challenges of getting new music recorded is that recording is really expensive.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: And so if the piece doesn't have name recognition, it's difficult to pitch it to a producer.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: And so as a compromise, a lot of composers of new music try to somehow get a recording together--if you have a premiere and you hurry before the musicians leave and try to capture it somehow, so it's almost like a live performance.
Scott Holden: Yes.
Glen Nelson: But no one seems to be wholly satisfied with it other than the idea that you're documenting and preservisng it.
Scott Holden: I like the recording process, and as exciting as it was to play in Carnegie Hall and really meaningful to me to play these pieces, I think, frankly, the real fruit of this whole project is the recording because it's permanent, you know, my recital at this point has evaporated away.
Glen Nelson: I can't remember half of it...
Scott Holden: But there it sits forever that people can enjoy. And of course, I'm not a controlling person, but in my world of performance, I'm a control freak, so I love that I can come up with what I hope is a definitive version of these pieces.
Glen Nelson: There are so many risks involved--breakneck speeds, a million notes, let alone all the interpretive stuff--so you just have to have a mindset of control; otherwise I think you would just fall apart.
Scott Holden: It's a totally opposite process of performance versus recording, where I'm going to be as precise... I mean you're trying to feel passionate but precise, and for probably a reaction to recording situation, I'm feeling precise and passionate, and in a performance situation I'm feeling passionate and precise. I'd rather go for it and try things, take chances on stage. And it's a little bit opposite in a recording studio.
Glen Nelson: Well, I've listened to the recording. It's a stunner, and it will be available on Amazon and also it will have digital; there'll be a download. There's actual physical CD that's available from Tantara. Tantara has a great reach marketing-wise, so people can get this quite easily.
Scott Holden: They make a great product. And I had complete artistic license. In fact, as I was looking for cover artwork, I thought, "Well I need to have an LDS artist." And I found this great painting that I thought fit the music. It's full of energy and vibrant. Our listeners can think of... it's kind of Jackson Pollock-like in a way. The painting is called The Unknown Galaxy, and it was by this Iranian LDS convert who's 80 years old. And her idea of the painting was that God has created these other worlds that exist that we don't see, but they're there with us. And I thought, "That's perfect. That's exactly what this music is." It's the whole other world of these LDS composers, many of whom we know from their hymn tunes, but this is the other galaxy, and again, as we talked about the beginning, I recognize there's so much of this music that's out there and again, exciting to me because I think I know a lot about it now, but I think there's just as much that I don't know that I want to find.
Glen Nelson: Exactly. I can't help but think this is a breakthrough moment, and that years from now we'll be looking back and say, "Wow, that was quite an opening to this discovery of composers."
Scott Holden: I hope it is. I hope so.
Glen Nelson: Well, it's been great having you here. Thanks so much. On behalf of the Mormon Arts Center, I want to thank you all for listening, too. This is Glen Nelson in New York. Goodbye.
Scott Holden: Thank you, Glen [excerpt played].