From Too Many Ideas to a “Simpler Theme”

by Brie Stimson May 30, 2017


music_myriad-trioAvner Dorman, an American-Israeli composer who lives in Pennsylvania, just wrote an arrangement for Art of Élan which will be played by a harp trio on June 17 at Qualcomm Hall. The professor, conductor, music director and father of a 6-year-old budding musician spoke to the San Diego Jewish Journal about his life, his process and the new composition “Variations on a Simple Theme.” The interview has been edited for length.

San Diego Jewish Journal: Can you start by telling me a bit about the music that you write? What inspires you?

Avner Dorman: It’s a variety of things… it usually links to my own life. A lot of times when I write a piece I kind of look for my personal connection with either the group that I’m writing for or the instruments or the medium … I actually try to forget that someone asked for a piece … I will put that aside and be like where would this piece have been, where would I have come up with the idea of writing this piece?

If the question is more what the music sounds like, I think that’s a tough one to explain, but people always comment on my music being quite energetic and also expressive … I believe in being able to take from anywhere – ancient Europe or folk music – a lot of things can go into the piece or in between pieces.

SDJJ: Does having grown up in Israel shape your music?

AD: Certainly… In Israel the pop culture is very much Middle Eastern. A lot of their pop music sort of has that, but also Russian influences. My teacher back in Israel, he immigrated to Israel from the Republic of Georgia in the ’90s so I ended up learning a lot about Central Asian music … The fact that Israel is such a melting pot I think definitely is a big part of my work and my music.

I can say that the main stamp on my music from a national point of view is Israeli because when I left Israel I was 27 and that’s kind of too late to grow up somewhere else, so I certainly think that it’s very influential. Whether every piece, someone could tell that it’s an Israeli composer I don’t know, but I also think the language, having Hebrew as my mother tongue certainly influences the way I think.

SDJJ: How did you get started?

AD: When I was a kid I started playing the cello and my dad bought me and my brother these mono tape recorders like a radio tape recorder. And I realized that you can play something into one tape recorder and then play that back and play something new over it and record it with the other one. And so when I was about 9 years old I created a bunch of pieces this way. I didn’t have the tools to write anything. I would sit and mess around on the piano, although I didn’t ever write anything, but this way I could sing and play the piano and add some cello and add some noises from the radio and I ended up with this sort of layered approach to composition, and I really got into that.

I did start studying piano, and I would always improvise. I would never play basically what the composers wrote. Early on I would say this was the part of music that interested me – was to create. For my Bar Mitzvah I got a computer that had notation software so that was when I actually started writing things down.

When I went into the army I became an arranger for the army band and army chamber orchestra. I only started formally studying after the army at the Tel Aviv University. I think nowhere else in the world could this have happened … I think that sort of left a strong stamp on my thinking and the energy I liked … It would have been much harder to learn the craft [without the army.]

SDJJ: You seem to keep very busy, musically. Do you ever stop?

AD: I have a 6-year-old so, you know, I stop for her. I would say they help with one another. It’s common to get stuck in writing, but then if I go and teach the concept the next day and analyze some music with my students that might sort of give me another perspective or give me another direction. And the same goes with the orchestra. Just like it was when I was arranging with the army, here it’s even more immediate. I have to rehearse music with these musicians and they’re fabulous musicians … It makes the whole experience of writing for an orchestra very organic.

I don’t perform much on the piano, but I will play and my daughter is learning the violin so I’m learning violin with her. She’s really determined and actually really good. She somehow really likes it and she wants to practice. Again I didn’t know [children] that age can learn [so fast]… It’s extraordinary to see it first hand. So I’m a little behind her on the violin.

SDJJ: How did you get involved with Art of Élan and tell me about “Variations on a Simple Theme.”

music_avnerdorman2017_2AD: I think the connection came through people at the San Diego Symphony, and I think maybe Julie, the harpist of the ensemble. They had a conversation [about] using one of my pieces, and if I might write something … I started writing this piece and I realized that I wanted to write like 20 pieces with this ensemble. I didn’t want to write one. And so this idea of writing a theme and variation it’s almost like being able to get away with doing everything that I want to do cause it’s a lot of short variations and the variations can change the texture of the color. The technique can change dramatically.

It is a very simple theme like a tune that you can whistle. Then the variations aspect is to be able to do everything that I wanted … It’s a flute, harp and viola [ensemble] … They’re called the Myriad Trio. They’re part of Art of Elan and I believe they’re also players in the San Diego Symphony.

SDJJ: What is your writing process?

AD: In this case, I’ve always wanted to write a piece with this ensemble, the trio of harp, viola, flute … When I started writing this piece I had too many ideas. How am I going to put all this stuff into a 12, 15-minute piece? How’s that going to happen? I felt like it was going to be two hours. [laughs] Cause I thought about this ensemble and the variety of combinations for so long that it was almost like things were already there. And the main challenge for me was how to organize them [for] it to actually make sense as a piece of music and not me just wanting to write all these things, and I found the variations to be a sort of perfect vehicle for that.

Art of Élan will play the world premiere of “Variations on a Simple Theme” as part of their 10th anniversary celebration at Qualcomm Hall on June 17, 7:30 p.m.

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