GNE reprised its performance of composer Jonathan Newman’s These Inflected Tentacles, which is based on the observations of Charles Darwin as noted in his book Insectivorous Plants, in which , as Newman says, “he documents the discovery, dissection, and subjection of various meat-eating flora to 19th-century experimentation ranging from the curious to the cruel and unusual. The book documents a lifetime of indefatigable dedication to the Scientific Method, but one cannot help smile at the man’s poking and prodding, dipping and burning. In four short movements, the quartet quotes Darwin recording his observations as he gleefully drops bits of meat, eggs, glass, hair, and anything else he can think of on his plants. Just to see what happens.”
After reading those program notes, how could you not want to know more about the composer who set those images in music? We interviewed the composer to find out more:
GNE: What inspired you to become a composer?
Newman: All through middle and secondary school I basically took every opportunity available for music-making available to a teen in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Even as a child I wrote little pieces for myself to play on piano, but later, starting in high school when I had some theory under my belt, I began writing pieces for my chorus to sing, or my friends and I to play together, or arrangements for my jazz band and such…but becoming a “composer” (like the only ones I knew at the time–Sondheim, or Billy Joel) didn’t occur to me until I was finishing up high school, and I was trying to put together what, exactly, I would do in music. Like an epiphany, I realized I could compose, like I had been doing all along, and that activity would encompass everything I enjoy and do well in music. I immediately applied for programs, and never looked back. So I was pretty focused, even fairly early on.
GNE: What type, style, or genre of music being created right now (be it classical, pop, country, Broadway, whatever) inspires you or interests you the most? In other words, what artists and composers are speaking to you most with their new work
Newman: I’m actually particularly interested in playing with “style” in my writing, that is, using a particular musical or cultural style as a starting off point for a specific work. So my shifting interests, along with the needs of the pieces I’m writing, tend to always be broader than what’s specifically happening right now. But as far as new work, I find myself getting excited about the cabaret music of Jason Robert Brown, the bluegrass of Nickel Creek, or the bubble gum pop of Pink, as much as I am with the music in the concert world. There are certainly constants there, though, for instance, I am always pulled back to composers from a generation or two above me, like John Adams, John Corigliano, Michael Daugherty, Steve Reich, Annie Gosfield,, David Lang, Steve Reich, or Michael Torke–many of whose scores tend to end up on my desk as I’m writing or orchestrating. But I’m also very keen on keeping up with my immediate peers, most of whom are writing stuff I desperately wish I had written.
GNE: What was your inspiration for composing the piece we’re featuring and what kind of process do/did you go through when composing it or similar pieces?
Newman: I was approached by the New York chamber ensemble Avian Orchestra to write them another piece, and they tend to do themed concerts. This one was based on botany; a show called “Vegetative States”. Carnivorous plants seemed the most fun way to go, and since I’m happiest when I’m doing research, I found a way to do that and found Darwin’s 1875 book, Insectivorous Plants, which is brimming with evocative descriptions of his poking and prodding and dipping and burning and dissecting all kinds of meat-eating flora. The phrases and quotes I highlighted in my reading not only filled a notebook, but also showed me an obvious shape of a chamber piece in short movements. The soundworld of the piece came as a direct reaction to these expressive images and phrases I had found in Darwin’s book.
Come out and hear Newman’s These Inflected Tentacles tomorrow night at Catholic University: for more information, check out the page for GNE@CUA.