Timothy McCormack : music on a geologic scale

Timothy McCormack

Timothy McCormack’s music centers on the idea that sound has mass and is experienced as a physical object. His work also aims to create intimate social environments which prioritize communication, listening and responsibility towards one another.

He has been commissioned by ensembles and organizations such as Ensemblekollektiv Berlin, the ELISION Ensemble, the JACK Quartet, musikFabrik, the [Switch~ Ensemble], the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik, and the RMIT University Sonic Arts Collection. His music has also been performed by Klangforum Wien, Ensemble Recherche, Ensemble Dal Niente, Ensemble SurPlus, the Talea Ensemble, Ensemble Nikel, and ensemble hand werk and programmed on the Wien Modern, Darmstadt, Huddersfield, Maerzmusik, Witten, TRANSIT, Tzlil Meudcan, and Weimar festivals.

He has won the George Arthur Knight Prize in 2014 from Harvard University for his piece you actually are evaporating. In 2017, he won the John Green Fellowship for his “demonstrated talent and promise as a composer” from Harvard University, as well as the Impuls International Composition Competition, which results in a commission for a new piece for chamber ensemble from Vienna’s Klangforum Wien to be premiered in 2019.

McCormack is a PhD candidate at Harvard University, where he studies with Chaya Czernowin. He also studied at the University of Huddersfield with Aaron Cassidy and Liza Lim as well as at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music with Lewis Nielson and Randolph Coleman. He participated in the Schloss Solitude Sommerakademie in 2009, and the Tzlil Meudcan Summer Courses in 2012. He has studied in masterclass or private lesson settings with Steven Takasugi, Hans Tutschku, Roger Reynolds, Mark André, Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Amnon Wolman, Jason Eckardt, Olga Neuwirth and Philippe Manoury, and has given presentations on his music at Wesleyan University, the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg, and the Universität der Künste Berlin. From 2014-17 at Harvard University, he was the director of the Harvard Group for New Music, organizing concerts and residencies with ensembles such as Ensemble Dal Niente, the JACK Quartet, Ensemble Recherche, musikFabrik, the ELISION Ensemble, and many others. In addition to music, McCormack has also studied contemporary dance with Jill Johnson and has worked in masterclass or choreographic settings with William Forsythe, John Jasperse, Christopher Roman and Riley Watts.


What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past few years – early experiences that have proven significant in some way. There are three that stick with me: 

The first isn’t so much an experience as much as a circumstance, and it isn’t even musical. My oldest brother, 13 years older than me, would often take me to museums when I was very young, maybe 5, 6, or 7 years old. We went to the Cleveland Museum of Art often, and spent a lot of time in the 20th century collection. I credit these early experiences in this art museum for helping me develop a sensitivity towards art, sensation, abstraction, etc…, at a young age. To this day, I often think about music through metaphors relating to other artforms or more generally to the physical world, and I trace that back to my early exposure to 20th century art with my brother. 

Years later, as a teenager, I was at the Cleveland International Piano Competition where someone was playing Messiaen’s “Regard de l’Esprit de joie” from the Vingt Regards. I had never heard Messiaen – or anything so ecstatically dissonant – before. I spent the entire 10 minutes of the performance growing more and more embarrassed for the performer, thinking that they just kept hitting wrong notes. Immediately after the performer finished, the entire audience jumped from their seats in standing ovation. It was one of the most profoundly confusing moments of my life (“not only was this performer not making mistakes, they were apparently performing this music really well!”), and was the first music experience to truly challenge me. I left that performance in a daze, realizing more acutely than ever before that there was more to this stuff than I understood. 

Lastly, when I was 18, I heard the Cleveland Orchestra perform Strauss’s Metamorphosen under Christoph von Dohnányi. I had come to hear the other piece on the program (Beethoven 9), but the Strauss left an enduring impression on me. In many ways, the piece encapsulates many of what would later become my compositional interests: constant transformation of material; seething, molten textures; monolithic, slow-moving forms which have a high degree of smaller, internal activity; homogenous ensembles and textures; etc. … 

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work?  Has this changed over time? 

Like many composers, I’ve been heavily influenced by artists outside of music. Choreographer William Forsythe and painter Gerhard Richter have both been enduring influences on my work. Brian Ferneyhough and Helmut Lachenmann were both important early discoveries, as was the recorded output and unique performance practices of Australia’s ELISION Ensemble. These days, I draw a lot of energy from the work of my peers, colleagues, and collaborators. Composers Michelle Lou, Sabrina Schroeder, and Cat Lamb have been important for me, as have collaborators like trombonists Weston Olencki and Matt Barbier.

How do you approach the question of “form” especially for longer works?

Form is one of the main focuses of my work, and I see it as being distinct from “structure.” Form for me has to do with how the material behaves, and how this behavior induces a sensation for or subsumption of the listener. I think about form as both an object and a space. A piece’s form is whatever shape or thing has been imprinted upon the listener’s memory that encapsulates the whole experience (an object, a sensation). Form is also the world or ecology that the piece builds for itself, within which the listener hopefully feels a part of (a space that subsumes them). In composition, form is directly tied to material, and it is the sounds and instruments themselves that engender the form. Form is also shaped through the modulation of density of texture, resolution of sonic grain, or rate of material through time. With form, I am often going for something that seems to exist at a super-human, geologic temporal and physical scale. 

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process?  What other technology, if any, do you use? 

I wish I could develop a more structured composition schedule. I am either easily distracted and get very little done (usually at the beginnings of a project), or I am overly disciplined and at my desk all day (usually at the middle and end of a project). Neither mode is healthy. 

I do use a computer for both composition and notation, as I find that it helps me organize time with more certainty than pen and paper, on which everything seems to float around the page, making it difficult to keep temporal proportions consistent. This might have more to do with my handwriting than with the pen and paper themselves. A finished piece is a cobbling together of written notes, instrumental charts and maps that I have to make myself, and my own work with whatever instrument I’m writing for.

My phone has become a pretty important tool, as the heavy documentation of things that come out of the collaborative experience has become more and more crucial throughout the composition process. My phone allows me to quickly take videos, recordings, and photos if something unexpected comes up. This type of documentation has become more central to my writing process in recent years.

Please describe a recent work.

I wrote The Chain of the Spine for the Swedish ensemble Faint Noise (Karin Hellqvist, Anna Petrini, and Malin Bång). The instrumentation is pretty strange: violin, Paetzold contrabass recorder, and acoustic objects. While I’m typically drawn to more homogeneous instrumentations, I had an strong and immediate sense of what a piece for this trio could be: the sound world, its behaviors, its form …. 

I think of the instruments in this piece as being somewhat unaware of each other, yet generating an almost palpable intimacy amongst each other. All three instruments have highly defined sound worlds and behaviors in and of themselves. Their proximity creates a relation; they may not touch each other but they create a form, a shape, a world together.

From the program notes: Strange alignments emerge between the instruments, but these alignments occur over protracted, warped, smeared swaths of time. Each vertebrae links to another as in an inexorably tangled spine. 

The weird instrumentation encouraged me to take risks that I hadn’t before. I’m thinking specifically of the section that occurs about a third of the way through the piece and lasts for 6½ minutes. Throughout this passage, the musicians abandon their instruments and use glass bottles to create a continuous granulation while a sine tone cluster emerges from silence and grows louder. This is the first time I’ve introduced a self-contained thing, the materials of which are not found anywhere else in the piece. This passage drifts into the piece from another place altogether, and once it ends, the piece picks up where it left off, more or less unfazed by the preceding six minutes.

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