Nature and Composition: A Conversation with Robert Honstein

Robert Honstein is a Boston-based composer whose work has been performed by ensembles including the American Composers Orchestra, Cabrillo Festival Orchestra, Albany Symphony Orchestra and New York Youth Symphony among others. He is a founding member of the New York-based composer collective Sleeping Giant.

Honstein’s piece “This is Not Mother Nature” will be performed by the Connecticut College Orchestra on May 4 at 7 PM in Evans Hall in a program that also features Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, the first two movements of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major “Pastoral” and two arias from George Frideric Handel’s Giulio Cesare sung by Stephanie Foster ’18.

Voice staff writer and CC Orchestra principal clarinetist Saadya Chevan recently had a conversation with Honstein about the upcoming performance.

The College Voice: So I’ve read your blurb about the background of the piece, but could you just reiterate it for our readers?

Robert Honstein: Well, I wrote it in 2011, and during that summer I was inspired at an artist residency in Nebraska. There was major flooding of the Missouri River. It was really dramatic. When I flew into Omaha, the plane was able to land, but when you looked out of the plane, as far as I could see, there was water everywhere. Parts of the highway were submerged. You could see roofs peeking out, and these fields that were clearly covered because once in awhile there would be a little tree that would pop out. It was a dramatic sight. I had never seen flooding on that scale before, so that really got my mind thinking. Then coincidentally that was the summer of Hurricane Irene on the East Coast, and I spent a lot of time in Upstate New York. My family has a little place up there. Even though the hurricane didn’t hit Upstate New York, the heavy winds and rains got really far north and caused a lot of flooding in Upstate New York and Vermont. Some friends of ours who own a family business marina, their whole place flooded out, so we spent time helping to clean that up.

Anyway, that whole summer, there were lots of floods, and it got me thinking about flooding and natural disasters and sort of became inspiration for the piece. And the title, “This is Not Mother Nature,” actually when I was researching the flooding that was going on in Nebraska, I came across a YouTube video of a farmer who was up in a plane surveying the damage, and he was saying a bunch of stuff. At one point he was saying, “This is not Mother Nature, this is not Mother Nature.” What he was referencing was that, there are a lot of potential causes. Obviously, there were heavy rains and blah, blah, blah. But I mean, the literal cause, it kind of gets complicated, there are a lot of dams and stuff on the river, and it was in South Dakota, the Army Corps of Engineers decided they needed to release one of the dams, or else risk the dam flooding, which I guess would have been even more catastrophic. Because they released the water up north that directly caused the flooding further down south in places like Nebraska. Technically speaking, the flooding down in Nebraska was man made because the Army Corps decided they needed to release some of the water, but the Army Corps only did that because it was the lesser of two evils I guess. It was just interesting because that phrase was literally referring to the actual reason of the flooding, but also it kind of speaks to the larger issue of the storms and the flooding and whatnot potentially being caused by climate change or manmade causes. It’s an evocative phrase, and I took it as the title of the piece.

TCV: I find it interesting how you’re talking about the flooding in Nebraska being man made by the Army Corps, but also stemming from natural causes. That dam is manmade but at the same time if there weren’t dams up in South Dakota, what would happen to South Dakota? Do you have any ideas?

RH: I’m not an expert and I couldn’t tell you all the reasons why they did what they did, but what I understood is that their job, the Corps, is to manage the water system through their system of dams and levees and whatever else they have. They’re trying to manage a water system. From their perspective, if there wasn’t anything then there would have been big problems up where they decided to release the water. It’s kind of like a damned if you do, damned if you don’t once the flooding has already happened. I don’t know you could go deeper into whether or not the dam is needed or whether or not that was the correct choice at the time; if that was the best way to actually manage the crisis. I don’t know. I wasn’t so interested in the specifics of that decision, I was just more interested in the larger issue of our environment and how we relate to it, and the potential sort of crisis that can happen from that relationship.

TCV: And you’ve talked about climate change quite a bit. How do you think that fits into the piece? Do you think this is more a piece about man-made natural disasters, and that some of this flooding ultimately can be traced back to changes in the climate that have been happening? We can look at this winter as a bit of an example.

RH: Yeah, February was pretty clear. Then we got all this snow in March. I do think in some regard, the piece is about climate change, in the sense of it’s a real thing that’s happening, and we are a part of the cause. It’s going to have a big impact, and that’s definitely something that was on my mind. You know music is abstract, so I’m not sure what exactly is happening in my music to say that. I think I’m more in the music painting narrative about a specific kind of experience, but it’s all in the context of these issues. These are the things that are sort of swirling around in my head while I’m writing it. You know what I mean?

TCV: Definitely, I’m wondering, maybe you could also talk more about how this subject: “This is Not Mother Nature,” influences, I guess, the choices you make. It’s a 10-minute piece, and as an orchestral player, I think of this as one of those pieces where it’s pretty simple, but everyone has to have their part down, in order for it to work. It’s one of those pieces where it works when everyone knows what they’re doing.

RH: Yeah, that’s true.

TCV: So could you talk a little about how you come to a piece like that through the compositional choices you make?

RH: Sure. We talked about the swirl of ideas and the concepts that were in my mind as I was writing, but I mentioned earlier that the piece itself is kind of telling a specific story, and that’s how I approached it. I was thinking about my own experience from the perspective of an airplane looking down and seeing all the water. I was also thinking about the YouTube video of this pilot saying “This is not mother nature.” I guess I’m trying to tell a story. It’s an abstract story, and I don’t necessarily say what this story is in the program note. You know different people take different things from music. I’m not trying to tell people how to listen to it.

In my mind, it’s like the piece begins with big chords, or these violent hits. I was imagining a dam or a levee being under a lot of pressure from all these rising waters, and each hit is a crack or something. Eventually, a little bit of water streams out, and that’s when the violins enter. There’s these little glissandos that start happening, and that little teeny stream starts to get bigger and bigger. Finally, it breaks, it ruptures. That’s when we get to the middle part where it’s in the changing meters, and it’s much more exciting, and stuff is happening. To me that part is the action sequence. The dam is breaking, and you’re getting wood splitting, things gushing and lots of percussion. It’s supposed to be a massive force, and things are breaking, and waters rushing. That comes to a climax, and then we get to the end part, which is much more serene and calm. And to me, that end part is like the perspective I had when I flew in because there’s this really strange tension about the whole thing when you see it from above. It looks beautiful because it’s stunning, it’s surreal. You’ve never seen anything like it. It’s civilization submerged underneath water. Everything is calm and still. It’s like the calm after the storm, and there’s a kind of beauty to it. But, every once in awhile, little echoes of what happened before pop through. But, for the most part, it’s this zoomed-out perspective, where you zoom out from the actual chaos of the flooding itself, being on the ground. There’s this beauty but there’s also an awareness of the kind of crypto-tragedy of it. That’s the kind of narrative, in my head that I was going for. I don’t actually put that narrative in the program, though, because I don’t necessarily want to tell people what to listen to. But that’s kind of what I’m thinking about.

If I were at rehearsal—if Mark [Seto] asked me, ‘Hey, could you say few words about the piece?’ That’s the kind of thing I might say to you guys, the orchestra, because I think it would be cool for you to know the narrative. But it’s not the kind of thing I would necessarily tell the audience. I might talk more about just the stuff’s that’s in the program. Just give a little bit of a broader context, and then give kind of space for people to read in what they want.

TCV: So thinking about other pieces on the program, are you at all familiar with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite?

RH: Yeah—I actually have no idea what else is on the program. But I love that piece. It’s a great piece.

TCV: [The concert’s program is] the five movements of Mother Goose Suite, first two movements of the Pastoral Symphony. When I was preparing for this interview, I was actually thinking of the Storm Movement, which we’re not doing.

RH: Oh, funny.

TCV: Yeah it certainly fits right in!

RH: So my movement can kind of function as a storm, I guess.

TCV: Yeah. Also thinking of the Mother Goose Suite, I would say it’s like what you’re doing. It’s very abstract, but at the same time, it gives very specific storylines that remain unclear when you listen to it, especially in the fifth movement: The Fairy Garden; no one’s quite sure what that’s about. Some people say that’s when Sleeping Beauty awakes and all the happy endings magically follow.

RH: Yeah, I love that Ravel piece, and [his] idea of having a story behind the music but not necessarily spelling it out every step of the way to the audience. Leaving a bit of abstraction or a bit of room to kind of guess, that’s definitely what I’m doing. I think Ravel is emblematic of that kind of impressionism, and lots of Debussy pieces too. Strauss wrote all those tone poems, like Don Juan and Don Quixote. Those, I think, are more literal: here’s a hero scene, here’s a love scene. It’s almost like film music without the film. The music itself is so clear in telling the story, and that’s amazing. That’s not at all what I’m trying to do. It’s more of an impressionistic thing where I want to create a feeling and I want to create a sense of a narrative, an arc. There’s clearly a beginning, middle and an end. Stuff happens, but it’s not so-so literal that you’re told and know exactly what’s happening in every step of the way, which is fun actually because when it’s played, different audience members will concoct their own stories. Sometimes people will tell me what they heard, and I’m like, ‘That’s amazing. That’s not at all what I was thinking, but I love that you have that idea. That’s great.’

TCV: Do you have any good stories from audience members?

RH: Oh. The only one that sticks out in my mind was that someone came up to me like, ‘I thought it was a Star Trek movie, and there was the fight scene, and then they were in outer space.’ I was like, “That’s so great. I used to watch Star Trek when I was a kid. That’s not at all what I was thinking about when I was writing this, but so glad you heard that.’

TCV: I actually wrote program notes for the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, the local professional symphony, last summer, and one of the pieces I had to work with was the Fanfare and Klingon theme from Star Trek V. [Writing a note on that music] requires a lot of creativity in terms of thinking of what you can say about Star Trek and also the music of Star Trek. They have so many amazing composers on Star Trek and so much interesting music that comes out of its soundtracks.

RH: Yeah, so I was flattered. As a composer I want the audience to engage. I’m happy if the music provokes a reaction. That could be positive. That could be negative. I mean, that’s what I want. The worst outcome is if someone just doesn’t even care. If it did nothing for them, negative or positive, that’s the worst outcome. So if someone comes up to me and tells me this is what they felt in some story: I love that. I think that’s amazing. Even if someone comes up to me and is like, ‘This is a piece of garbage. I think what you’re doing is terrible.’ That’d be cool, too, because a lot of things you don’t care about enough to even feel that strongly one way or another.

TCV: So what do you think about coming to Conn?

RH: I’m actually really excited. My little sister is a graduate of Conn which is kind of fun.

TCV: Oh wow!

RH: Yeah. I actually was there a few years ago. My music was played there. Do you know this violinist Daniel Lee? I don’t know if he still teaches there.

TCV: He left at the beginning of this year—he retired—no he’s moved on.

RH: He retired?! He’s too young to retire, but he moved on?

TCV: Yeah. But he was here up until last spring.

RH: I did a project. He has a baroque ensemble called The Sebastians, which I don’t know if you were around then. This would have been probably like five or six years ago, so I’m sure you weren’t around back then. He brought up the Sebastians, I wrote them a piece, and we played it there. I think in your chapel. I don’t remember exactly, but it was really nice.

TCV: There was a discussion over using baroque bows for the Giulio Cesare, and as I understand it, the seniors were the ones who had done that with him.

RH: Oh. Cool.

TCV: So it must have been three years ago.

RH: Yeah. Maybe it was then. I’ve been to the campus a couple times and I’m excited to go back. I always love working with college orchestras. I think it’s really fun to work with students because there’s usually great energy. Usually the people who are doing it they really want to be doing it. I have fun with that and I’m really looking forward to seeing you guys too.