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EXCLUSIVE: Classicalite Q&A with Composer Trevor Gureckis on 'Potential Energies' Ballet Premiere at Brooklyn Academy of Music

By Logan K. Young l.young@classicalite.com on May 29, 2014 01:46 AM EDT

This Thursday--May 29 at 8 p.m. to be exact--the Nouveau Classical Project, a contemporary production hub that puts, quote, "a new face on classical music" (at least according to NPR Music's Deceptive Cadence), presents the world premiere of a new modern ballet entitled Potential Energies at the newly opened Fishman space at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Fort Greene.

The hour-long piece, choreographed by Barbie Diewald to the sounds of one Trevor Gureckis, will be featured in a one-off performance by the Nouveau Classical Project and the TrioDance Collective.

In advance of the movement, Classicalite spoke with Gureckis--the composer behind it all. And as you can read below, he had a lot to say about collaboration, costumes and the role of any composer at large.  

Classicalite: Let's talk about the initial creative stages--the origin story of Potential Energies. How did you and Nouveau Classical Project artistic director Sugar Vendil meet?

Trevor Gureckis: We started working together on a project called Lost Generation that was commissioned by the JFund and premiered at Symphony Space. It was a concert piece of about 15 minutes, a collaboration with designer Heidi Lee.

We had talked about doing something bigger, but it wasn't "sit down meeting" serious until 2012. At that, point she had come up with the idea of having dancers share the stage with her musicians. We didn't know what we were going to say, but we had the physical premise.

Clite: Of Potential Energies, Vendil has talked about wanting to mimic the natural choreography of musicians while they play. And the trailer for the production (watch it HERE via Clite A.V.) certainly seems to mimic that. How did choreographer Barbie Diewald, co-artistic director of TrioDance Collective, contribute to this notion?

TG: Barbie and her dancers watched a lot of videos of musicians playing and explored ways to incorporate some of the movements into her choreography. At the same time, since the musicians were on stage, Barbie needed to incorporate some of the dancer's choreography into what the musicians were doing while playing, to meld the two together--one of the major points of the ballet.

Clite: Vendil's recent work has been particularly fashion-conscious, perhaps fashion-forward even. And you've got Atelier de Geste handling costuming for this performance at BAM. It's not too often that composers get to work with a first-rate fashion designer. Could you talk a bit about that process?

TG: Atelier de Geste's designer, Beau Rhee, is best known for her Teatro Two-Tone tights. They've been seen all over the place (including Pharrell's most recent music video "Marilyn Monroe"). But Sugar knew her as a friend first and foremost, so they always talk about what they're working on (by the way, Sugar is actually in her most recent look book). Besides this, we were all drawn to the tights aesthetically because the dual nature of their design--which is part of the story of the ballet. The artist, their dreams and whether or not they will achieve them. Beau was also a dancer herself for Bill T. Jones. So, in terms of designing for [Potential Energies], she knew what she was doing. She was the perfect fit.

Clite: You've written a lot of symphonic music, and it's been performed by large ensembles like Minnesota Orchestra, New York Youth Orchestra, etc. And you're making waves with your electroclash outfit My Great Ghost. How does your approach, compositionally, differ from orchestra to duo to modern chamber dance?

TG: People always talk about the pop music/classical music dichotomy as being a cultural battle between ideas and philosophies: the traditional view being that pop music is lesser than classical music. In my experience, people who work exclusively in pop music have never heard of this discussion. It's not even on their radar.

As I see it, they're two different playing fields with different goals which only cross lines in the minds of composers, musicians and listeners of both. We all love different kinds of music; I think often times composers look for ways to combine their passions. I've seen it both literally with a drum set hitting a rock-like beat or in a more nuanced way with art songs set to more pop-like production and sounds. It gets to a point where the only difference is in the out-of-the-ordinary harmonies, complex rhythms and art poetry.

Something always feels weird about that though. Because if you muted the vocal part and got rid of some of the funky notes, you'd have a good pop song. Why not just let it be what it is? It's almost like pop music plus some other stuff to make sure it doesn't sound uneducated. You really need that strange twist to show your passion and knowledge of Stravinsky. That may not be the intention, but that's my impression.

All that being said, my thoughts on this subject lead me to have completely different approaches to My Great Ghost and to the music I wrote for Potential Energies and other classical music.

When I'm writing a song with Drew, the singer in My Great Ghost, we usually stick to verse-chorus-verse-chorus. And the chord progressions are not at all shocking. I try to make a good sounding song that's supposed to live in the world of the current electronic/pop music. I wouldn't do a live set of our songs next to a string quartet of mine. Pop music is production, production, production--most certainly in electronic music. If you don't do it 'right' no one will listen. There's a threshold. From there you can explore ideas, but you need that grounding or your just being disrespectful to all the artists out there who spend hundreds of hours working on their sounds. Let alone the majors like Kanye West who have put in their 10,000+ hours.

It's the same in classical music. There is such a thing a poorly executed orchestration and voice leading. And no one will take you seriously if you fail at that.

When I write classical music, I have a different process and different priorities. I start with a bigger picture. In Potential Energies, we have very specific goals in every scene. We talked about the different points in an artists' life, what those feel like. We have a string duo that we nicknamed 'Rude Awakenings.' It's about the moment you begin to question whether or not this is going to work out. Whether or not all your hard work is really going to pay off. It begins with a melancholy melody that is then ripped apart, and the dancers push and pull the musicians as they try to play. Then we return to that melody--again reinforcing your attempt to make this work. Nonetheless, the music takes off and you are beat up again. It's pretty intense in person. In this example it's programmatic. That's the goal.

C: Potential Energies will be one of the first moving works presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Fishman Space. How's the new space? What should we expect of the venue come Thursday night?

TG: I honestly haven't seen in person, but we have a really talented lighting designer, Dan Ozminkowski, who is going to take the ballet to the next level! They have top notch equipment.

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