If you’ve been to any of this year’s Spoleto Festival USA chamber music concerts, you’ve probably seen the tall, slender, curly-haired fellow grooving along on his double bass at the Dock Street Theatre.
If not, you still have time to see composer-in-residence Doug Balliett in action. The 35-year-old Juilliard professor, who earlier wowed Spoleto audiences with his evocative medieval “Gawain’s Journey” and his rapid-fire Greek mythology rhymes of his piece “Daphne,” still has a pair of works on tap for the festival’s last three days.
First up is the world premiere of the Fanfare for Trombone, Double Bass and Bass Clarinet, along with his 3 Barizo Songs, to be performed by tenor Paul Groves. Then for the last eclectic program of the series, audiences will be treated to his arrangement of the Queen song “Who Wants to Live Forever.”
The Post and Courier talked to Balliett about teaching, singing while playing and hearing his works for the first time.
Q: How does working with students at Juilliard influence your music making?
A: Just hearing yourself have to explain something, how to do something, gives you a lot of personal insight into not just how you are doing things but how you should be doing things. For example, there’s two ways to hold a bass bow. And one student was a French bow player, but I made him learn to play with the German style because that’s more historic. It was a lot of explaining physically what to do with the bow, and a lot of times I was saying, “Man, that’s great advice, I should follow it all the time!”
Q: What attracts you to medieval and Greek mythology as backdrops for your music?
A: For one thing, it is a hook you can hang your music on, like a shelf you can put it on. In human history, it’s some of the first literature we have that tackles some of the biggest, most important themes of what it is to be a human being — something that’s never going to not be relevant. I also just love putting myself in a past time period.
Q: Can you describe your composing process?
A: I usually do a draft by hand at the piano. As I get it into the computer, I elaborate it. I get all the detail worked in on the computer.
Q: Is it difficult to sing while playing bass, as you did on “Daphne”?
A: It’s pretty hard. When I was little, I was always jealous of those people. The older I got, the more I realized you can separate your brain once you get it going. I’m not a trained singer, so it’s hard for me in the sense that I have to practice a lot just so I can be, like, an acceptable level of in tune. The only thing that’s really hard is some of those pages of fast words. That feels like I’m swimming a couple of miles.
Q: What’s it been like hearing your pieces premiered at Spoleto?
A: It’s cool. That’s really the composer-in-residence experience. You choose a number of your works. I didn’t know the audience in Charleston, and I think I chose pretty well. It’s so much to look forward to, and there’s so much anticipation and (excitement) and nervousness before any piece, even when you know it’s going to go well.
Q: Have you learned anything about yourself as a musician and composer as this year’s composer-in-residence?
On a very practical level, I learned a lot about how to write a string octet. I discovered that keeping all four violins in the extreme upper register is not always a good idea. I edited that piece a lot as we were rehearsing it.
Jonathan Williams is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.