A Conversation with Lowell Liebermann, Composer of the Music for Viscera

Post by Rebecca King, Corps de Ballet

Miami City Ballet will be premiering Viscera, a new work by emerging young choreographer Liam Scarlett this Friday, January 6, 2012!  On the first day of rehearsals for Viscera, Mr. Scarlett told us that the music was his main source of inspiration and gathered us around him to just listen to the entire work.  Three weeks later, upon the ballet’s completion, he left us with an extremely musical piece to sink our teeth into.

In anticipation of the World Premiere, I’d like to give you a sneak peak into the orchestra pit for a discussion of the music, Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra, with American composer Lowell Liebermann. Mr. Liebermann composed this work in 1983, at age 22. This was his first time combining a piano with an orchestra.  In the orchestra pit there will be strings, a piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, an English horn, two clarinets, a bass clarinet, two bassoons, a contrabassoon, four French horns, three trumpets, three trombones, a tuba, and a percussion section with the timpani, a small triangle, cymbals, a suspended cymbal, a bass drum, and a ratchet!

In order to find out more, I spoke with Mr. Liebermann about the piece:

RK: First off, could you give us a little bit of your personal history with Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra?  What were you looking to accomplish with this work?

LL: It’s actually hard for me to remember where my mind was that far back!  I do remember that I wrote the work in a white heat during the summer in Southampton.  The whole piece was written and orchestrated in 11 days.  The second movement was inspired by a passage from De Quincey’s “Confessions of an Opium Eater” called “Dream Fugue.”  And all three movements quote a tune from the “Anne Cromwell Virginal Book” called “Fortune is my Foe.” The last movement, called “Maccaber’s Dance” was written after reading an account of the Black Death, which told the story of a Scotsman named Maccaber, or MacCawber, who moved to France in medieval times and instituted a Dance of Death to try to ward off the plague, which came to be known as the “Danse Macabre.” Evidently I was a quite serious 22-year-old!

RK:  How do you orchestrate a 20 minute piece in only 11 days?!
LL: By staying up all night and drinking heavily.

RK: On average, how long does it take you to compose new works?
LL: It depends on the length of the work, but I am a procrastinator, so I tend to think about pieces for a very long time, and scribble them down on paper in a very short time.  Nowadays the process of orchestrating and copying is much speeded up by music notation programs, but when I wrote the 1st Piano Concerto, that was all written in pen and ink.

RK: During the writing process, did you ever envision ballet being set to this piece?
LL: No, not at all.  But ballet was actually my first big love: my introduction to classical music was with some old 78’s I had as a 5-year-old of the Nutcracker Suite. I would put them on the record player and attempt to pirouette and mimic ballet steps that I saw on TV. I wanted to take ballet lessons at that age, but my parents wouldn’t let me…

RK: In 2002, Robert Hill choreographed a ballet on American Ballet Theatre set to this piece of music.  What was it like to see your work come to life through ballet?
LL: It was exhilarating! Normally a composer doesn’t see physical manifestations of the effect of his music, so to see all those bodies set into motion is a wonderful thing.

RK: Has technology changed the process of composing in recent years as compared with the year 1983 when you wrote this 1st Concerto for Piano?
LL: It hasn’t changed the process of composing at all:  I still compose at the piano with pencil and paper.  But again, the process of orchestrating (which is a much more mechanical thing than composing) and copying are much speeded up and enhanced.

RK: What is now playing on your iPod?
LL: I’m not even sure where it is right now! The only thing on it is actually my own complete works: I only use it when travelling to do a residency at whatever university or school so that I don’t have to lug along a suitcase of CDs. Otherwise, since I spend my working days either composing or practicing for performances, I tend not to listen to a lot of music in my down time. And when I do, I prefer it live.

Come and experience this powerful piece of music come to life through Miami City Ballet’s World Premiere of Liam Scarlett’s Viscera! For ticket information, click here.