Stephen Prutsman is no newcomer to the Spoleto festival. In fact, his name can be found in many programs from years past, playing the piano in the chamber music performances or presenting original jazz compositions.
This year, however, Prutsman is departing from his usual role as performer to present a new chamber music composition, which will be performed in the second program of Spoleto Festival’s Music in Time series.
Originally commissioned by a friend for use as an anniversary gift, the piece includes over 100 musical quotations from songs, and even the sound of Donald Trump’s voice, paired with a string quartet. It's all meant to capture some essence of America.
Q: You’ve been involved with the Spoleto Festival in years past and this year you’re part of the Music in Time “Green Rebellion” orchestra performance. Can you tell me more about the piece for string quartet you composed for this performance?
A: So the is piece entitled “An American Kaleidoscope,” it's for string quartet and audio, which is pre-recorded. It was commissioned by a good friend, Michael Hostetler, who was interested in celebrating his 30th anniversary with his wife in a unique way. ... Its concept was pretty clear in his head. And that concept was that it was in three parts, representing the past, present and future, having a theme of our country, America.
I had done previous project many years ago with this kind of composition, which is what I like to call musical pastiche. (There are many) musical quotes, little motifs if you will, of not just popular music throughout time, but classical, indigenous music of our country and so on. So it's a piece of real Americana. It’s a nonstop barrage of little bits and pieces of American music.
It was very difficult to (decide) what sound could represent our country in the present sonically. There really isn't any music you can pinpoint that everybody would recognize as the the beginning of the 21st century. However, there is a sound that everyone will recognize as being part of our country at this time.
Q: What is that?
A: Donald Trump’s voice. I couldn't find anything else that would be instantly recognizable.... So the middle section has a lot of his now-kind-of-very-famous little soundbites throughout time. And it's not a political piece by any stretch of the imagination, but, you know, it's one of the reasons why we're still divided. These soundbites are embraced by one part of our country and kind of hated by the other.
It's not a political piece, it's just kind of a mirror showing how this time and country is really different. Not just a different kind of morality, but also the ... type of rhetoric that is acceptable now.
Q: You chose a lot of non-musical or non-traditional sounds to create what you thought was the sound of America. How did you choose which sounds to use?
A: There are two things. One, there’s timbre tones, like Native Americans' drum beats. Then there are musical quotes which is like little snippets of melody, taking a snippet of, you know, Judy Garland saying something, or the orchestra part of "Rhapsody In Blue." Making a collage is a very organic process. It's a very lengthy process, a fun process, but it's a messy one.
Q: You’ve been to Spoleto a lot in the past, how do you think audiences will receive this new piece?
A: I don’t know because people don’t react as one entity. With classical music, you really know how people will feel. I mean, if people come and they don't like a particular piece of Beethoven's, well then what are you going to do? Most of the time, people who come to hear Beethoven like Beethoven. But new music, contemporary music, there are so many different languages. ... Nobody else has heard this before. I do think people who are Americans will recognize the quotes, like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." So they'll get the sense that this is representative of our country now and will find it interesting.
Mary Walrath is a Goldring arts journalist at Syracuse University.