How a former mathematician’s curiosity shines a new light on the process of composing
“Music was always around me. But, as far as playing music was concerned, it was never on the cards. As a kid I was a maths prodigy. It was always assumed I would grow up a scientist, or a mathematician, or at worst a physicist.
Composer Alexey Shor speaks matter of factly about his transition from ‘prodigy mathematician’ to composer when we meet during the Malta International Music Festival.
“I started writing music very late in life and mostly for my own entertainment. And then by pure accident it got noticed by David Aaron Carpenter and he started playing it in all of his concerts and it went from there.”
He speaks softly, with a mildly percussive edge. There’s a simplicity to his tone. Dark eyes and a half smile give him a childlike look – someone curious about a new world.
He leans in to speak into the microphone. I do the same.
His ability to learn a new discipline quickly set him on a new career path six years ago.
“I always loved music. I’m a concert junkie. I probably go to two concerts a week when I’m in New York. At some point I was curious just to see how it is that music is written down.
“You go to a concert and its like an ocean of sound. I was just curious what those dots on the paper mean. So, I read a book about music theory. Then I thought, let me see whether I can remember what I read in that book. So, I wrote variations on a theme of Happy Birthday. It was so new and so entertaining to me that I could actually create music that I kept doing it without any ambition to be professional.”
Since then the American-Maltese composer has had his music recorded by various orchestras and now features on releases on Warner Classics with viola player David Carpenter.
Shor epitomises the on-demand information age we now live in: curiosity-driven learning that highlights the rarefied regard in which we hold the creation of art. There’s usually an answer to be found on the internet for any challenge we might be posing. A shortcut perhaps.
Using a book to crack the musical code seems in comparison like a retro-approach to feeding that curiosity. But there are plenty of other composers who have spent years studying and practising their craft, following conventional learning paths who, for one reason or another, give up on their craft. Has Alexey Shor found a different way of learning the creative process?
Possibly. What he also illustrates is a scientific perspective on the process of composing.
“What really surprised me is how coherent music theory is. It’s not created by scientists. It’s not created by people who since the age of five are being yelled at for every single logical mistake. There’s a body of good music written by some people, and then other people try to formalise it and turn it into a bunch of rules. That sort of endeavour by itself seems doomed to failure.
“You have a large body of work – take Shakespearean poetry. Then you tell someone who is nowhere near Shakespearean talent – take that poetry and work out how to write in that style. Probably nothing good is going to come out. But music theory is a good product. These people who were not Bach, they did formulate rules. You follow those rules and music comes out. It may be good music or bad music, but it is tonal music. I think it’s amazing that music theory exists.”
This different perspective challenges my own path to understanding and appreciating music and music history. Is there, it now dawns on me clawing for a well-worn British phrase in my head, more than one way to skin a cat.
“People who wrote the best music ever – like Bach – he was not aware of these rules. We don’t know what was in his head. Somehow people distilled his work down into a bunch of rules. Usually when that happens you end up with something like ‘Here is the rule but there are hundreds of exceptions, and even if you follow it nothing good will come out.’ But music theory does work. Chord progressions sound like they go somewhere. You can hear proper counterpoint versus wrong counterpoint. I was just amused and amazed that such a thing exists.”
“Do you consider yourself a rebel?” I ask Alexey.
Unlike other living composers, describing Shor’s music is by comparison unusually demanding. Comparisons often used to help prepare newcomers to a musical genre – a way of preparing the ear for something unusual to come. Music is either judged by its popularity or artistic merit, with popularity held in less regard. In an increasingly fractured on-demand world, labels have become a necessity. That labelling is problematic because of the conventional history of music we assume: one of ‘progression’. Progression is the is the story humans understand. But when the music seemingly subverts that story of progression by what has gone before to create something that appeals to as wide an audience as possible now, describing it isn’t just difficult but risks judgment.
You go to a concert and it’s like an ocean of sound. I was just curious what those dots on the paper mean. So, I read a book about music theory. Then I thought, let me see whether I can remember what I read in that book.
Shor’s music is rooted in tonality. It’s melodic. It’s easy on the ear. It follows convention. And it also sounds familiar. When I first hear it I can’t quite determine whether I connect with it or not. And that makes writing about it challenging.
Shor is forty-eight years old. Before that he was a mathematician, the son of two scientists in a family of non-musicians. His mother was reportedly shocked when he turned his back on science.
“My Mum said that when I was a kid she could have named twenty things I could have potentially been good at but music wasn’t on that list. Everybody was so used to the idea that things technical came easily to me and I enjoyed them. So given those things why would I do anything else?”
What was her reaction to the variations?
“She was amused. She was like ‘OK, so he has read another book and he’s remembered another bunch of things.’” Does that reaction bother him? “No, nobody expected it to go any further.” And when it did go further? “Then they were surprised.”
The turning point for Alexey was the discovery of his music by viola player David Aaron Carpenter who sought out the composer and asked him to arrange a piece for viola and orchestra.
“I couldn’t do it, but me and a friend did it together. David kept writing from the tour that he played the music on that it was going well, and that it was being asked for two or three times over, and that there were standing ovations.
“I thought, like, ‘OK, musicians. They’re prone to exaggeration.’ So, me and my parents went to one of David’s concerts at the Metropolitan Museum. Once he played that one piece of mine – he calls it his ‘replacement Cazardas’. It was a little shocking to me and my parents. That was the moment when it dawned on me, ‘maybe this isn’t a joke, maybe I should take it more seriously. It’s an amazing thrill to this day that my music is played.”
“I love writing for the orchestra. You’re not limited by anything. The orchestra can create all sorts of sounds. Whereas even if you’re writing for a piano, you’re still limited by what a human can do. I love the variety you can get out of the orchestra. I don’t know I would call it a machine like you say or a spectacle. It’s more the infinite variety I like.”
“Melancholy is very common for my music. Some kind of sadness is present in my music and life in general. This is all wonderful but this is all going to an end – that’s always in the background.”
Miran Vaupotic conducted the final gala concert in the Malta International Music Festival. We met shortly before the concert.
“Alexey’s music lacks pretension,” he explains. “It’s music people enjoy listening to. And the musicians who play it recognise that the audience are enjoying it.”
Our brief exchange about Shor’s work marked an important shift in my thinking. Classical music lovers and performers strive for a listening experience where a connection is established in the moment. Implicit in that hope is the expectation that establishing the connection will require active engagement in the art. Once the connection is established the pay-off is rewarding for both parties.
What if an audience member isn’t striving for a hard-fought emotional connection? Material that creates a connection between performer and listener that takes the latter where they want to go as quickly as possible seems like a perfectly reasonable proposition. It’s good business sense too. Live performance doesn’t necessarily mean being transported to another astral plane every time, does it? I know plenty of live performers whose repertoire pays tribute to particular genres or bands. They play to sell-out audiences, rocking, tapping, or fist-slamming. Why should classical music be any different?
Shor draws on the music he responds to and composes in such a way that evokes all of those styles. The first music I heard by him mid-way through the festival had a curious quality to it: melodic material that conjured up multiple eras all in one cell – the musical equivalent of a video jump cut. It worked, even if instinct suggested otherwise.
Later in the interview, I ask Alexey about his compositional process. I feel uncomfortable being quite so nosey. If anyone asked me how I wrote a blog post in an interview I’d feel slightly put out.
“Sometimes I have a lot of clarity about what it is. Sometimes I’ll have a musical idea and I don’t know what it is. Maybe a day or so later I look at it again, and most of the time I just delete the file. Sometimes I’ll look at it and think maybe this should have a life. In some way I write for an audience of one which is me. I imagine myself in a concert hall and think, ‘if I heard this would I enjoy it? Would I ever want to hear it again?’ If the answer to all of those questions is yes, then maybe this piece has a future.”
I can’t argue with this logic. I adopt the same stance myself in my creative endeavours. If the output doesn’t satisfy you as an audience member, then who will it satisfy?
But Alexey’s compositional process exposes another outdated assumption I hold about creativity: creative ideas are seemingly only valid if they exist initially on paper. Despite knowing that composers use Sibelius and other music-writing software, I’m aware that I’m making an unconscious judgment about those who do. Why can’t writing music be approached in the same way as a recipe, or writing computer code?
Members of the Trio Wanderer – three Parisians on their first visit to Malta performing a programme of Schubert and Saint-Saens – help me contextualise Shor’s writing with reference to the seven-piece Trio they were playing in the concert.
In the last movement – Schubertango – Shor takes familiar Schubertian melodies and gives them both a Latin American feel. Every now and again, melodies I recall from my student days seem to bound and flash around like a television being tuned from the 1960s.
“It’s an odd thing,” I say to pianist Vincent Coq after the Trio’s rehearsal, “I hear the melodies and it’s almost like as soon as I’ve heard them they’re snatched away from me again. It makes me want to reach out for the original. I can’t put my finger on what it is.”
“We hear it as a musical joke,” replies violinst Jean-Phillipe. “The composer is taking fragments of melodies he likes and playing with us. It‘s very effective. I think it’s an homage to Schubert. An homage to all the composers Shor likes.”
The word ‘homage’ resonates with me. A sort of musical fanboy creation. The kind of creation that perhaps we don’t get to hear in the UK classical music scene. Suffocated before its given air to breathe.
There is an evident resourcefulness to Shor’s methodical and process-driven approach. Throughout the Malta International Music International Festival, we’ve heard not only musical references to composers of the past, but repurposed material by Shor himself.
The first movement of the ‘Seven Pieces for Piano Trio’, for example, entitled Addio – a tender melody exchanged between violin and piano – becomes a heartfelt pang for soprano and orchestra. Whilst the Trio Wanderer’s expressiveness created character in the melodic lines, the orchestral setting in the gala concert gave a fuller, more satisfying feel to the end product.
Indeed, in most regards the larger the forces, the easier it is to discern the intent, material, and the form. Another song in the gala concert – Natalie’s Waltz – part Viennese, part Italian Verdi-esque cast an unexpectedly captivating spell over the audience at the Mediterranean Conference Centre. Sweet and touching, if you’d have looked at the list of programme listed in the programme and seen Shor you’d be forgiven for thinking he was alive at the same time as Verdi.
And that surely is the rather astute thing.
In an ever fractured on-demand world audience requests are demanding ever more specific requirements and more quickly. If the existing ‘standard’ repertoire comes with a perceived knowledge requirement, maybe it’s perfectly pragmatic and eminently business-like to write music in a language that appeals to audiences quicker. Perhaps the answer isn’t that marketers need to find the answer to the impossible question of how best to sell high-art music to the newcomer, but instead commission and perform music that the newcomer is most likely to enjoy and pay tickets to listen to.
And that’s one aspect of Alexey Shor’s ability that I admire and am possibly a little jealous of too. Just like the peer at school who was able to listen to a piece of music and play it from ear, Shor possesses the ability to capture the characteristics of a genre, mechanics of a framework, or the style of a melody, and recreate it in a format that audiences will respond to.
If there are people who want to enjoy an orchestral experience but want the music they hear in it to get to the point quickly, then there’s a need for composers to write in a style that’s accessible for just the right amount of time. The skill is delivering the right product under those particular constraints. That’s just what composers of British Light Music achieved in the 1940s and 50s. Why not now?
Dreams and aspirations
“Where would you like to go next?” I ask Alexey.
“It would be nice to write an opera, but even if I had an offer, I’m not sure I would take it. If you mean dreams then opera is an amazing dream to have. It may never happen.”
I ask him about what the motivation is behind that dream. Is it about scale or legacy?
“I love opera. I love the sound of human voice. At the same time, it is much easier to sit down and write an orchestral piece, than write a collaborative work. That’s why it’s more of a distant dream.”
“There are a lot of things that need to happen before an opera can happen. If I was in this world for 50 years as opposed to 6 then chances are I would have all sorts of friends amongst whom there would be a librettist with whom we see eye to eye. Then there is a question of language. Italian is an amazing language for opera, but I don’t speak Italian.”
On my journey home I’m reminded of something else conductor Miran Vauptic mentioned in my interview with him. We raised the point about how if Alexey Shor was writing film music then I wouldn’t feel the need to ask how others should be categorising his output. “What he needs next,” said Vauptic, “is a commission for a TV soundtrack.”
When the plane touches down at Gatwick Airport, a message pops up on my phone. A tweet from Scala Radio, advertises their chart show rundown on-air later in the morning, featuring “classical and classical-inspired music”. Is this the label I’ve been looking for all week?
Quotes from this article are taken from a podcast recorded with Alexey Shor on Wednesday 7 May 2019. The full podcast interview will be released as a Thoroughly Good Good Classical Music Podcast in the coming weeks.