On Theater

While composing, I tend to function in part as an actor or dramatist. This is especially true when I’m composing music for an opera, but this frame of mind carries over to other genres.

When composing an opera, I try to get inside the character’s heads so the vocal lines and musical textures can aptly express their feelings as individuals. When I compose orchestral music I typically have poetic concepts, expressive moods, or imaginary scenarios in mind. For vocal and choral works I hunt for texts that can be treated dramatically.

This theatrical approach also colors my treatment of materials. For example, in my mature works I often use the rhythms of social dances—from ancient to modern—to evoke their associated qualities of energy, ambiance, and sense of human action. I tend to treat all elements of music (timbre, texture, register, dynamics, articulation, and so on) as means of expression, particularly dramatic expression, from comic to tragic.

In retrospect I can see a tendency toward dramatic expression in some of my earliest compositions. But I didn’t fully appreciate my natural inclination to approach composing from a theatrical viewpoint until I was in my mid-thirties. After that, the more that I embraced this tendency, the more I enjoyed being immersed in process of composing, and the more deeply connected I felt to the works in performance.