Christopher Theofanidis

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Interview with Christopher Theofanidis

By Billy Reisinger
May 1, 2004

Christopher Theofanidis, an American composer of Greek descent, was the recent winner of the 2003 Masterprize for his orchestral work entitled Rainbow Body. Theofanidis holds degrees from Yale, the Eastman School of Music, and the University of Houston, and has been awarded the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Barlow Prize, six ASCAP Gould Prizes, a Fulbright Fellowship to France, a Tanglewood Fellowhship, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters' Charles Ives Fellowship, to name a few. Theofanidis is currently a professor at both the Peabody Conservatory of Music and the Juilliard School.

Despite his many accomplishments, Dr. Theofanidis is easy-going, humble, extremely optimistic, and personable. Many of his musical works have been praised for similar qualities, including Rainbow Body and Peace, Love, Light YOUMEONE. Though the composer's use of direct harmonic language and transparent texture has won him critical acclaim, his portfolio contains many works that reflect a more introspective, dissonant character. The overlying qualities of his music seem to be the attention to clear phrasing and a Romantically-inspired balance of tension and release. ComposersOnline set out to find out who the real Christopher Theofanidis is.

CO: Can you tell us where you were born and where you grew up?

Christopher: I was born in Dallas, Texas on December 18th, 1967. I grew up mostly in Houston, Texas, though when I was very young I also lived in Greece. My father's Greek, so we lived there for a brief period when I was quite young - an infant - so I don't have strong memories about it, but a few memories remain. And then we returned, and we lived in Houston for a while, and I spent most of my years there until I was 22. So it feels like home more than any place else.

CO. What part of Houston did you live in - that's a big city!

C. Very big city... I grew up in what used to be, literally, one of the cow pasture suburbs called Alief on the other side of Sharpstown. Now it's just a medium-level suburb. Houston has no natural boundaries, so it sprawls in all directions, and you can drive, literally, from one end of the city to the other in about an hour. Maybe, if you're lucky, driving 65 miles and hour.

CO. Talk about your father's ties to Greece. He was a composer, too. Can you talk a little bit about him?

C. He was actually born on a small island in Greece called Samos. An amazing kind of immigration story in a way, he studied at the Athens Conservatory as a pianist. Prior to that he had thought he was going to go into law, so he was a law student - and also and amateur poet. But he always played the piano, and he was offered a scholarship at the Athens Conservatory, so he went there, and from there he applied to a major conservatory in Vienna. He started taking music very, very seriously. He came to the United States on a Fulbright, to the Manhattan Conservatory, as a pianist. He was here to make ends meet. He started to play cocktail piano in a lot of places, and also jazz, he was a player of jazz. He ended up playing at some great places: he actually played for many years at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in a group, and got into that whole line. He had actually started conducting and was at the conservatory, and became protege of Dmitri Mitropoulos, who conducted the New York Philharmonic for many years. In fact, my father briefly entertained the idea of going into conducting seriously, and was actually offered a job as the conductor of the Vancouver Symphony...

CO. In British Columbia?

C. Yes... So he had a number of possibilities to pursue there. And he ended up doing some composition for a number of different kinds of things, mostly popular songs, which he had always written when he lived in Greece. In fact, he and his brother wrote a couple of popular songs in Greece that are still in the juke boxes there. So, he did write popular music, 40's, 50's 60's style, classic, Sinatra type of stuff...

CO. Yeah, you mean like Big Band stuff...

C. Big Band stuff. And he also wrote music for film. One of the interesting things is that he wrote music for a film called The Naked Brigade, which was a war movie, a B-grade war movie, and the theme for that was: [here Theofanidis hums a tune for several moments, and awaits my reaction]

CO. Sounds familiar....

C. Yeah, Charlie's Angels.

CO. [laughs]

C. So he wrote that theme, and then one day he heard it on Charlie's Angels. He did go through a lawsuit with them, and ended up losing, because you have to prove that the person had access to the music. Of course it was such a low-level kind of war movie, that there was no proving that. It could have been coincidence, but it - it was the music... So there's really a lot of interesting stories, there.

At a certain point, he met my mother, in New York. And when they got married, they decided that they didn't want to live in New York to raise a family - so that's when they started looking elsewhere. And at that time, Texas was a big, booming oil state, with a lot of money, a lot of opportunity. He was attracted down there to Dallas. That's when they moved down to Texas, and they remained there. My father always worked doing similar kinds of things, always doing a little bit of musical theatre stuff, and he did one or two classical types of compositions, and playing the piano. He had a great life, actually, playing from 6:00 or 7:00 in the evening to 2:00 in the morning at these very swanky, very nice places. And he was around for us, also, we saw him a lot growing up...

CO. That's amazing! So there's a real, deep tradition of composition and performance in your immediate family.

C. I suppose. He was a very practical person, so I think in some ways, growing up around that was good for me too - I didn't have the illusion of the artiste kind of thing, I knew what the day-to-day life was like.

CO. You've been to a lot of schools, and you have a lot of degrees. Was there a teacher in your history as a student that really stuck out as a good teacher or that really influenced you?

C. I think, one way or the other, you can always point to every teacher you've had and say that they have had some influence on you. Teachers have a profound influence on you, just by virtue of the fact that they are your guru. I can tell you specific things about different teachers, you know. My first composition teacher, David Ashley White [at the University of Houston], is a wonderful human being, with such a great love for the art and composing. Sam Adler had very concrete technical things about development and form, and very concrete things about technique that were useful, too. Jacob Druckman, who was one of the most polished people in the art form, he really knew how to behave, in a way...

CO. What do you mean?

C. Well, he knew what to say, what not to say, and when to say things. He was supportive of a lot of different kinds of people, regardless of style. He was kind of a model in that way for me. There was a sense of refinement about the way he acted as a professional. That stuck with me. I mean, I didn't learn so much from him, musically; he would make one or two comments [about my music], and they were usually very detailed comments about using a sforzando-piano, or this, or that, but there weren't many substantive musical comments, and that's the way he was. There are things you take away from teachers, at different levels, that are very useful.

CO. I know that, on some level, when you're in the presence of a teacher, they're more than your teacher, they become somewhat of a guide in your life.

C. In a way, maybe subconsciously, whether or not you believe in the art form. If someone doesn't particularly believe in what they are doing, it becomes like a parental relationship, like a person growing up around really negative parents. That's going to have a profound effect on the way you deal with life. And that kind of thing, subconsciously, rubs off in a big way. I think the best thing you can do is surround yourself with people who love what they are doing, on some level. Because it's subliminal, the way you view life. Even if it's not obvious at the time.

CO. You have a way with words.

C. [laughs] It's the beer.

CO. Besides hard work, and determination, and obviously talent, how would you say that you are where you are know?

C. It's really hard to know. I don't mean to be particular about it, but things happen in very strange ways, and you can't predict them. And the only thing you can do is to put out a lot of good will, and just hope that you get it right or that things go in your favor. In the long run, they do, one way or another, because a lot of people end up dropping out - partially because of this kind of bitter attitude that I've mentioned. And in a way, there are not so many people left at a higher age or level of composition. So in a way, part of it is perseverance, and part of it is putting out all the good will you possibly can and not taking anything personally, which is very hard for somebody who's sensitive to do.

Keeping the business aspect of what we do as just that - a series of rejections. But if you are really connected to the music, in the end, apart from all the other stuff, you're gonna do something good. I really believe that. You have to understand a lot of stuff about time, and about harmony, and the way all that stuff works. And that comes over a lifetime, it matures. But the general impetus to create music, to remain connected to that, in the long run, I think it's actually what creates opportunities. I have to believe that, it's the way it goes. I think part of it is staying positive and putting good will out there, in every situation that you find yourself, whatever it happens to be. My friend Shafer Mahoney - we started at the same place, same time, same page. And for a while, my career really took off, and his was less rocketing. But I knew, I knew he was going to be just fine, because, in the long run, he's got it. And, he is! In fact, in the last few years, he's really been doing great things - he's getting a lot of performances and good things are happening to him, but, the music is good, you know? And he's the kind of person who's searching, he's not arrogant with what he's doing, in his own personal struggle for whatever he's doing. And that's the most exciting thing apart from the successes. I mean, you can always find work, you can always find something to do. My grandfather, who had a doctorate in music, always used to tell us this story that, back in the 20's and 30's, he worked as a janitor for many years (in the post-Depression era) and it didn't bother him. He made good of that. In a way, you can always do that.

CO. You can always rely on...

C. You can always find something to do, if you need to. I'm not looking down on that, it's something to do, you know? It's part of what makes it more precious when you get to the point to where you are either in an academic situation or a composer in residence or you're doing stuff which is allowing you to make ends meet. I was really touched by a guy who applied to Eastman while I was there. He was in his mid to late 40's, and he wanted to come back to school. He had been a private investigator down in San Antonio, and he had amassed a small wealth for himself, and he had decided that he would take a couple of years and go back to school and do composition. And he had been composing all along, just paying professional players every once in a while to play and record his works. That was the great thing - he was able to keep the flame alive in himself, and not worry. In the end, it is about that connection with yourself that makes it work.

CO. The will to be a composer?

C. Yeah, the will to create something.

CO. How do you describe your music to people who are not musicians or composers when you're asked?

C. Of course we all have that experience, I mean everybody always asks, and nobody knows what the heck we're doing. I usually say what seems really obvious to me, which is the music is based on melody - it's kind of a Romantic sensibility - but there's often kind of a story line or drama that unfolds, that tells a story. Personally, I'm very interested in color. I like to think about sonority and sound as also very, very central to this kind of thing. That's about what I say, mostly, it's kind of a short and to the point description. And, by the way, I might even say that to a musician.

CO. What do you think about form?

C. You know, a lot of people talk about form. It's probably the most abused subject in music history. People talk about it infinitely. In reality, a lot of form is really hard to read in real time. I mean, we could talk about it forever. But in the end, is something structurally perceptible? I was very struck by John Corigliano when he came down here last year [to the Peabody Composition Department's weekly discussion seminar] to do this presentation about his piece Vocalise [for Soprano, Electronics and Orchestra]. He had a fantastic scheme for this piece, it was beautiful, formally very well considered. Had he not told me those things beforehand, I would have heard it in a completely different way. In a good way, I like the piece very much. But I would have heard it completely differently. So his idea of form was, fundamentally, not what I was reading. Still, when he explained it, I could see it quite well.

So the point is, you have to concede that, what you do formally may not be readable by a listener. I try to make it very obvious. And to me it's partly what keeps me engaged, that guides the form, in the end. And a lot of that comes from micro-decisions, moments. Steve Mackey was a professional freestyle skier, and he used to say that he likes to think of composing form as his experience in freestyle skiing. He said that in freestyle skiing, you don't know what you're going to get, you just start going, and you react to those big mounds of snow that appear before you rather suddenly. You're forced to adjust in the moment to that thing. He said that's the way he thinks about form. He basically starts, and he goes, and then as tension points build up, he reacts to those internally. I'm somewhere in between that and putting a few guideposts in along the way. There are a couple of peaks that I know probably will happen in the piece. Psychological peaks. And those things are what I work towards, I kind of navigate my way through the brush, and I get there eventually. And then when I get there, I know how to react to it, because of what happened up until that point. Probably the biggest lesson I learned from Sam Adler is that when you are composing, you have the possibility to work backwards as much as you do forwards. So amidst all these decisions you make up to a certian point, you might realize the potential of some material that you didn't recognize early on. So you go back to the beginning of the piece and you alter the material so that it fits into that mold. You're kind of adjusting the form as you go, in a way. So that's the way I think about form. It's ultimately a very flexible, very general thing that I can work towards and away from.

CO. You have some works that are, on one side of the scale, harmonically complex, like Statues [for solo piano] or your Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra, and on the other side of the scale, you have some works that are based completely on a C major scale. Can you talk a little about how harmony plays a role in your music?

C. Now see, you have a very good way with words, too. [laughs] That's exactly right. It's a funny question. The harmonic pallate, for me, is based on consonace and dissonance, in a tonal sense, and in some ways, in a modal sense. I kind of fluctuate between those things to guide direction in the music. Certain aspects appeal to me that are better realized in C major than they are in a chromatic language - like the state of bliss. You can't create that state in... well, you can, actually... I can imagine a state of bliss chromatically. But, that's not necessarily what comes to mind when you think of that way. It kind of depends on the state. The worst thing to do would be to limit your emotional expression based on that.

CO. Based on...

C. Your reaction to that. I generally love pieces by Boulez, I generally love pieces by Steve Reich, I certainly love pieces by Messian, and by Tchaikovsky, you know, so those things feel available to me, in a way. And frankly, some things speak better in different ensembles. Harmonic time breathes differently in an orchestra than it does in a chamber ensemble, like a trio. So you follow that muse a little bit, too - with the ensemble that you're writing for.

CO. You were saying that there are some emotions or feelings that certain harmonies are better suited for. Can you elaborate on that?

C. Sure. If you take an emotional state, like the state of grace, or anger, or being out of control, those have certain feelings to me that are multi-dimensional. They're not only one thing. On the one hand, if you were going to describe them, how would you describe them? Those are part of who I am, personally, and I wouldn't want to deny that. I'm truly an idiot sometimes, and sometimes, I have moments of pure happiness, and humble moments of sorrow, and that kind of stuff. Composers who are admired on a global level often have that sensibility. I think it's because they feel it, because of the way they live their life and they feel those ranges of things. That's why those emotions feel like they are underneath the music in some way. That's what I go for, it appeals to me. I couldn't write all happy music. I couldn't write all dour, chromatic, cluster music. I couldn't do it, it would be against the way I feel, and I would not want to live my life like that, anyway. The harmonic language is the result of that particular thing. It's not a result of the choice that I make - it's kind of the state of the piece. If I write one too many happy pieces that are kind of overblown, then I think, "Well, it's time to write something more introspective." And I kind of go in that direction. It's kind of a very basic reaction almost drawn on a piece-by-piece level.

CO. Your recent Masterpize winning work, Rainbow Body, features some material that's based on a Hildegard von Bingen chant. I know that there's some music in your bassoon concerto that's influenced by the bassoon, accordion, and percussion group Archipelago...

C. That's right, that Georgian folk song.

CO. So you really have a wide range of stuff coming in and out of your music. Obviously, you don't systematically look for stuff to be influenced by - but how does influence play a role in your music in general?

C. I think what happens is that, if I love something so much, I don't want to do anything different or better, and it strikes me as a particular basis for something. In the case of the Hildegard, I just love that music. It's so perfect. Inalterably perfect. I don't want to mess with it, I don't want to get under the hood and do something different, I don't want to comment on it, in the kind of parody way, or "look at me, I can do all these different things with this thing," I mean I just love the tune. It's a great tune. That's what inspires it. I'm not trying to do it secretly to find something good. Just a genuine love for that material, as with that Georgian folk song - there's just somehting about it, the richness of the bassoon tone, perhaps, that really appealed to me. So that's where it comes from, primarily, is if there's a tune I like very much. I actually haven't done this all over the place, those are two particular examples, and in my piano quintet, O Vis Aeternatis [1999], I used the opening three intervals of a Hildegard chant - but it was something that seemed natural to me, you know, it didn't seem forced, it didn't seem...

CO. Well, the opening three intervals, it's kind of hard to pick that out, if you're someone who hasn't listened to much Hildegard, like myself.

C. Right.

CO. Are you the kind of composer that feels like you're heading in a direction?

C. Well, in personal growth, I think a couple of things come to mind. One, it's not like I see myself in a new direction or old direction, but in a sense of growth, in terms of directionality, the things that I'm moving toward and trying to understand are good taste, and big moments versus inferior moments within a piece, and it takes a while. The most immediate gut reactions to things I have may not always be in good taste. So understanding that musically is the direction I'm trying to move in. And balance and scale. These larger pieces that I have been working on in the last two years - I've been taking on larger and larger projects - that I understand the shape of those large things, and on that scale. In proportion within the larger structures, that's an evolutionary thing that I'm working on, in a way. Harmonically - again, the balance of tension and sweetness in harmony, those things are very important...

CO. The classic "tension and release?"

C. Yeah, yeah, the balance of things. I think, naturally, I'm drawn to modes - they are very seductive. In a long-term sense, they can be very unsatisfying. You can drown in them if you don't have some sort of inner discipline. Those balances are all very important to where I would like to be heading. That's the direction I hope to be moving toward.

CO. I think that's the fisrt time I've heard somebody comment on being able to drown in the idea of tension and release, really getting stuck in that.

C. Oh yeah. It's the difference between a nice parlor song and the chromatic tesnion in Schumann of Wagner or something like that. There's a discipline in that - knowing the balance of tension and ease, and the proportion of those things in a piece of music. It's not to say that a piece of music can't be pure something, it can be. Over a lifetime, maybe that's hard to do.

CO. Do you have a sense of what your generation is contributing to the literature of contemporary music, especially Americans your age?

C. This is something that one of my teachers, Joseph Schwantner, said: my generation is the first generation of composers that is free of the stuff we have been dealing with for the past 40 or 50 years, psychologically speaking - the issue of communication and connection with the public. Those things are maybe the biggest contribution, in a way. The performability of things, the practical nature of things, that people write for performances, they don't write gigantic, six foot scores with 150 staves on each page, for three orchestras, and that kind of stuff. They're writing things that are meant to be played by very standard groups, such as string quartets, and acknowledging that that's a very rich tradition, and not turning their backs on it completely.

That seems to me to be very valuable, ultimately. That these things are integrated - the idea of trying things out (the Modern) and the idea of connecting with the past seem to be much more integrated in our generation's music because of the movement towards that. I think, in some ways, that's due to America. America is ultimately a very practical culture in some ways... no nonsense. That attitude is probably going to help be counterpoint to the sense of complete artistic exploration - to enclose larger groups of people into their compositional styles. So maybe that, just creating a body of literature that potentially could be performed multiple times in the future [laugh].

CO. It certainly draws what composers have learned in the past 100 years together as well.

C. This isn't a philosophical conundrum. Each of these pieces doesn't have to redefine what the art is, it's not struggling for it's own individual definition. It's sort of a collective. That's an important thing. You can reconcile the rhetoric with the past, world music, with a lot of different things and it will be ok.

CO. Not only are you a composer, but you're a teacher, at both Julliard and Peabody - and you're very busy doing that. You teach a lot of composers. Do you have a sense of what today's student composers are going to be contributing to new music? Or is that too hard to tell?

C. That's a good question. I think the best you can hope for somebody is that they're doing something for the right reasons. Really, the sustainable happiness, or fulfillment is maybe a better word, is important. Seeing the incredible diversity of students here [at Peabody] - and by the way, more than Julliard, the diversity is much greater here. Somebody like Justin Godoy, who wrote a piece for the recorder and choir, and mixes on turntables and all this kind of stuff, somebody like Angel Lam, there are so many different composers with really radically different styles. People are following their own muses, in a way. I think that ultimately bodes very well, as a societal thing - that sustainable kind of thing, to be a creative artist in that way. Whereas, somebody who's writing in a serial way for 40 years, because that's what they grew up with, becomes embittered - and that's not good for the art! Bitterness is really bad for the art form. In terms of what they're contributing, in some ways, i don't like to look at that question in a traditional sense, because "what people contribute" sounds like an invention, or something that you would add to something already there, which to me is fundamentally irrelevant. I would like to think that, in the end, people are following this because it really engages them, in an honest way, and not in an arrogant way. Understanding that there are many great things that happened before them, and many great things will happen after them. That's what they can add, is that recognition, that balance of humility and going forward in what's honest with themself. And when they get bored with something in themself, they do something different. That's the muse that they have to follow. That's the true sense of themself, is going forward. Hard to get a hold of that one [laugh].

CO. Right... especially seeing students go through things that young composers do - they try new things a lot, trying to discover their voice....

C. The funny thing is I was talking with my friend Shafer [Mahoney] who came down here last week and was speaking. The questions that were happening in the forum had a subtext: "What if people don't like me because of what I'm doing?" - which is stuff that I dealt with, of course, when I was 21, 22 years old, 23 maybe - and I'm happily very free of that thought process, the sense of worry. You know, I see a lot of the students who are really, very talented, man. If I put it in perspective, these guys could go much farther than I went, or am going. I genuinely mean it, I'm not just saying it to spin my wheels. I genuinely think that. I don't have half of the counterpoint chops or the other stuff of a lot of these guys. And part of it is what's sustainable in a lifetime, and getting past some of the hurdles of self-consciousness, of being looked at. And really, sticking with the things that, at the end of the day, you love, by yourself, that keep you engaged.

CO. If you had advice to give to young composers (which you do on a regular basis), what would you say?

C. Know what you love, in a precise way, because from that, you deal with yourself. It's very hard to know those things. They can change throughout your lifetime, there's no question. But you have to know them, and start to build from them for yourself, to be true to yourself. And stay connected to what you love throughout your life, because it's the ultimate source of energy, regardless of what happens, and a constant source of renewal, apart from those things. In a nutshell [laughs].

CO. What's in your cd player?

C. People send me a lot of stuff. I'm listening to a French Lebanese composer named Bechara el-Khoury who sent me this material after the Masterprize - very Romantic, but also has a very interesting and different harmonic language. You know, I teach this "Music Now" class here, so every week I talk about a composer. Last week was Stockhausen. I listen, on a weekly basis, kind of intensely, to that repertoire, which I've known for many years, but maybe not known the most recent pieces. But I'll check them out, and figure out what's going on in the new stuff. So, through teaching, I stay connected to a lot of stuff that I think I know, or had known, or i'm building a knowledge of. And I just listen to what people tell me to listen to... like Shafer [Mahoney] will come to me and say "you gotta check this out, it's off the wall" or something. There are a couple of people like that to whom I'm connected to, and they tell me tell me to listen to stuff, and I'll know it's probably worth listening to. And then, I just love listening to classical music, too, you know, Ravel, Bach, it's all there, and it's a real pleasure when I have time to set aside on the weekend, even if it's in the background, whatever it is, it's a pleasure if it's there.

CO. Great, thanks alot for speaking with me!

C. Thank you, my pleasure.

About the Author: Billy Reisinger Billy Reisinger is Co-Founder and Editor of He is a composer who has earned degrees from the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University and Tulane University.

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