Friday, January 30, 2009

Food for your Ears

Marc Mellits stirs the pot with his personal recipe for composing and naming music.

The following interview is distilled and edited from a 40-minute telephone conversation I had with composer Marc Mellits on the evening of Tuesday, January 27, 2009
    On Monday, February 2, Mellits performs excerpts from his “paranoid cheese” CD as guest composer/keyboardist with Sonic Generator ( at the Georgia Tech Alumni House.
    Mellits first met Sonic G members Tom and Jessica Sherwood last September at New Music Detroit's 12-hour “Strange Beautiful Music II” marathon held at MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit).    A few months later, while Mellits was visiting family in Atlanta, the Sherwoods invited him to take part in the upcoming concert.

Mark Gresham: As a composer, Marc, you've been described as both post-minimalist and rock-influenced. How would you describe your own music?

Marc Mellits: I can tell you how I write music. But when people ask me to describe my own music I am totally at a loss. Music is its own entity, and if I try to describe it in words, I always fail.
    The only thing I can do is compare it to other people, and I don't think that's fair. In the end, the best thing I can say is that I feel is my music is me, maybe the best version of me that there is.

MG: But even if you don't like labels, given that other people have used the term, is postminimalism a fair assessment?

MM: Any term, any time you label label something, in art in general, that tends to pigeonhole it. Then you start to think of it in that way. That's what scares me the most. If you say, “Oh, I'm a post-minimalist composer,” then you start writing post-minimalist music. I've seen it happen.
    But for lack of something better, I think it kind of makes sense—sort of the handle on the cup, trying to scoop up all of these different composers who certainly write repetitive music and were influenced by the minimalists. Yeah, I hate being labeled anything. Then I feel like that's expected of me. Even thinking of it myself, that's the biggest danger.

MG: But you've been influenced by rock music as well?

MM: I think I've been influenced by everything. I listen to all kind s of music, from Corelli to Coldplay and back. I feel that rock music is really today's folk music, and to ignore it would be ridiculous.
    I grew up with classical, came to rock music much later—in college. So when I approached it, I came to it with a different mindset.

MG: Do you think that your music influences rock music?

MM: Oh, I don't know if that even happens!

MG: Im thinking specifically of Electric Kompany, which has created their own versions of your music, and I hear a few people speak of having encountered it first though Electric Kompany.

MM: Oh, yeah! I love what Electric Kompany is doing with my stuff.

MG: What about how you approach performing your music via the Mellits Consort, as in the “paranoid cheese” CD?

MM: The music that we play, it may sound a little different from my chamber music, but in the end it's all written the same way. I try to keep everything together generated from a certain cell. Every piece of mine is based on an idea that is kind of turned on its head. In other words, I'll start with an idea, a cell, that is germinating ideas for the entire work. What happens in the sort of small area, even in a measure, also mimics what's happening in the larger form.

MG: So you start with an idea and then the composition is a process of transformation?

MM: You got it! That's exactly right. And the idea I start with is rarely at the beginning of the piece. I don't work linearly. I tend to work in the middle and then I work on the beginning, then between the middle and the end, and them maybe something after the beginning. The music is sort of constructed, built up, and when all the dots have been connected I know I have the whole piece.
    I like to think of it from a construction point of view—like buildings. My grandfather was a carpenter. That was a huge influence on me and everything I do. I think of building music much like I would build a house. There's a frame, and there's the underlying counterpoint and harmonic movement. Then there's everything you put on top of the frame, what we actually hear. You don't actually see the frame, but if it's well-constructed, the house will stay. It's exactly the same thing in music. You don't really notice what's behind everything, but if it's well-constructed and well made, the piece is going to work from beginning to end. Working that way, middle, beginning, end, helps me build that frame.

MG: Do you imagine the piece “all at once,” so have a snapshot idea of the whole in advance?

MM: I usually do, and it doesn't necessarily hold. It often does. There are pieces where it would morph into something else, and that's ok. I have learned to try and trust the music and trust the idea, and when it wants to go someplace else to help it go there. As composers we're just helpers, trying to help the music come to life—but it's already there.

MG: When you say composers are “just helpers,” I get the impression the process of composition for you is intrinsically connected to the process of performing.

MM: If you're saying that it's connected to performing idiomatically, and how it ought to be played, than I think you're absolutely right.

MG: I'm thinking again of transformation of your music under the hands of a group like Electric Kompany, versus how the Mellits Consort might perform it, versus a traditional chamber ensemble like a piano trio.

MM: I've thought about this a lot, and it's an ironic thing that I've tried to resolve. The odd thing I've noticed is if I'm very careful writing in that idiomatic [manner], writing a piano trio and thinking very much for piano, violin and cello, it might can actually be [more successfully] transferred to another instrumentation. If I'm writing strictly from a point of view of the notes themselves, and not worrying so much about who's playing it, then it might work well for that one instrumentation but not another. I've never been able to figure out why this works, but at least it works in my music. Isn't that weird?

MG: So if a rock group like Electric Kompany reaches a different audience, all the better.

MM: I hope and strongly believe that music is coming back to the people. Contemporary classical music, western art music, has been away from the common man for a long, long time. Composers like Steve Reich and Phil Glass started to open up the doors and bring it back. I think we're going to see more and more of a morphing between classical musicians who are going down that road and rock groups like Coldplay or Radio Head that are moving back towards us. Somewhere in between that is the future, I hope.

MG: There is a naturally tangible, corporeal element indigenous to rock music—certainly other than what one might call purely formal interest in compositional process.

MM: Two things I always think about, and this may help: On the one hand, writing music to me is like construction, building a house, but also (you're going to laugh) I always think about food. You can probably tell that by my titles. To me, music is very much like cooking. Composers are chefs, and we combine ingredients the same way a great chef would combine ingredients. That's how I think about combining harmony, counterpoint, combining eggs and chicken stock—you might end up with soup, you might end up with a symphony, but everything is combined in the same way: You produce something greater than just the sum of parts.
    Even with all the different lines and layers in a piece of music, I'm hoping to get at something beyond all that. The same with a great dish, when all of the ingredients combine into something that's beyond them.

MG: The tile “paranoid cheese” seems to go beyond food, but unusual implications related to the food.

MM: [The story is that] “paranoid cheese,” the original slow movement [from the CD of that title], was written for Rob and Victoria Paterson. She's a violinist and he's a marimba player and composer. They perform together, and I had written them a piece. They're both vegans, and I was thinking to myself, “If you were cheese in their house, you might be paranoid because nobody wants to eat you.” I had this long conversation with Rob about food, and what kind of food would get left in their refrigerator.
   The titles for my music are not always chosen by me, they're often chosen by my friends, like Dominic Frasca, who has a way with words.
    Here's the thing: I'm always looking for titles that are short and descriptive, but are descriptive of multiple things, on multiple levels. I'd rather have something like that, because it gives a listener just anything, something to base it upon, when listening to the music other than “Sonata No. 3.”I prefer to have something food-related. It's rarely going to be exactly what I'm trying to do in the piece, because I don't want to give it away,. If I title a piece exactly [based on] what I'm trying to do musically, I don't see the point, because then I'm just telling you how I hear the music. That may not be how you hear it, and I don't want to influence you at all.

MG: “Sonata” is one that tends to suggest certain expectations.

MM: Which is exactly what I don't want to do. I don't want to influence listeners at all. I want them to come to it pure and fresh, to put the music in their ears and let them decide. Let them give it a chance on its own rather than immediately try to tell them through the title what the piece is about.

MG: So for your own part as a listener, too, you'd prefer composers avoid titles that lead toward narrow preconceptions about their music.

MM: [Unfortunately, some] composers try to go even further in the program notes. They try to describe everything they're doing in the piece, when I just want to close my eyes and hear it. ■

—Mark Gresham, composer/music journalist 30 January 2009

Marc Mellits' artist website can be found at

Monday, 2 Feb. 2009 @ 8:00pm, Georgia Tech Alumni House, 404-385-7257,


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