The CultureMap Interview
Shades of Memory: Pierre Jalbert's former teaching assistant quizzes him on hisHouston Symphony premiere
When people experience traumatic events, sharing through creative mediums can begin the process of healing. That's why as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 was approaching, major arts organizations made plans to honor and memorialize the tragedy through their respective art forms.
The Houston Symphony chose to do just that. Calling on Pierre Jalbert, on faculty at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music, the nonprofit commissioned the internationally-recognized composer to design a musical memorial fit for the occasion.
"Hans Graf has a deep respect for Pierre's craftsmanship and his beautiful use of evocative colors and textures in writing," says Aurelie Desmarais, the Symphony's senior director of artistic planning.
The premiere of Shades of Memory on Friday night at Jones Hall will not be the first time Jalbert's works have been featured by the city's premier classical music ensemble.
"Other compositions of Pierre's — like Les espaces infinis, In aeternum and big sky (commissioned by the Houston Symphony) — gave all of us confidence that Pierre was one who would do musical justice to such an important memorial composition," Desmarias says.
Jalbert is one of the nicest, most chilled personalities you'll meet. He doesn't say much, but what he says, is important. So you had to pay attention. As his teaching assistant, I understood how to learn from him. The trick was to pay attention to the minute details, ask questions and listen. The same is true for his music. Nothing is accidental. Everything has a purpose, meaning, a rhyme or reason.
Days before the premiere, I sat with my former professor to go in-depth into his compositional technique, the meaning of his work and his approach for tackling such a project.
CultureMap: How personal was this project for you? Did you have any personal losses that would shape your journey as you wrote Shades of Memory?
Pierre Jalbert: I didn't know anyone that lost their life in 9/11. But like most of us, I knew people who knew people. Most of my family lives in New England.
My brother was on a plane during the attacks, so you can imagine how nervous we all were. He eventually landed in Cleveland, rented a car and drove back to Vermont.
Months after 9/11, I remember ridding the subway pass where the the train used to stop for the World Trade Center. There was a woman talking loud to herself saying, "I don't want to stop here, get me away from this place." I will never forget her expression and the sound of her voice.
That reminded me that even now — 10 years later — it is still a very raw memory. People know exactly where they were when it happened. It changed some people's lives more than others, though there is still a overwhelming emotional gut reaction when anyone relives such an experience.
CM: Given that, what was your approach to the composition? I imagine that this felt like a huge responsibility. When taking projects with such emotional content, is it challenging to get started?
PJ: It was quite difficult at first, I didn't know how to wrap my head around it. I felt like an outsider looking in. Yes, it was a national tragedy that changed things personally, nationally and internationally, but my exposure to it was limited.
I came up with the idea to write an elegy, a type of musical memorial. Music happens in time, it's temporary. The memorial will exist for 13 minutes and the experience of listening to it serves to honor those who lost their lives.
I knew early on I didn't want to craft a tone poem, or something that would pictorially represent 9/11 like Penderecki's Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. That's not to say I would stay away from dissonance. There's plenty of that in Shades of Memory.
CM: How did you begin your process? Is there anything that the audience will recognize in the work?
PJ: I used Gregorian chants as a basis for thematic material, something I do often with some of my other compositions. When I decided on this approach, two chants immediately came to mind. Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) describes how we all felt 10 years ago — like the end of the world where no one knew what was going to happen next.
The work concludes with Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), which contains the words Dona Nobis Pacem (grant us peace).
The sounds offer a sense of hope without resorting to using the text. The chants symbolize the journey from fear and confusion to hope and healing.
CM: Is the piece emotional?
PJ: Yes, the piece is highly emotional. I think it is. I know stories of musicians in New York who helped simply by showing up at fire stations and first responder sites and began playing. They really appreciated the gesture; music really helped them. Its power has the ability to heal.
CM: During the piece, what are some unique and interesting compositional techniques you employed? Is there anything unusual, surprising?
PJ: There are antiphonal chimes at the beginning of the piece playing the Dies Irae. I don't intend for people to recognize the melody, I use it more as a point of departure for the composition. The same chimes toll the Agnus Dei softly at the end of the work.
From a musical standpoint, the middle is where the whole orchestra starts to build, just like one would physically build a memorial. I didn't have any specific images in mind, but I felt it needed to be something big and monumental.
I use lots of percussion and that includes bowed vibes and crotales. The timbre is colorful and atmospheric.
The other important melodic fragment I used appears in a backstage trombone solo. Think of a lone voice for afar sailing over string chords.
CM: Why the trombone? I always associate trombone with Mahler Symphony No. 3 or the middle section of Rossini's William Tell Overture — in orchestra works, rather strong, impassioned and somewhat menacing.
PJ: Funny you ask. I was visiting the University of Arizona at the time, talking to students about my music. As I was walking through the music department, I overheard a trombonist practicing from a stairwell. The sound was beautiful and reverberant. It struck me. I was looking for just that.
CM: Shades of Memory is obviously a time-specific composition. What are your hopes for the work?
PJ: Musically, it can stand on its own outside of its commemorative spirit, not unlike Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 which is dedicated to victims of Fascism, for example. I'd love to see it performed more. But whether it will be is not up to me. That's up to others to decide.
Pierre Jalbert's Shades of Memory will be premiered by the Houston Symphony this Friday and run through Sunday at Jones Hall. Along with Brahm's Violin Concerto and Dvorak Symphony No. 6, the program commemorates the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased by calling 713-224-7575 or by visiting houstonsymphony.org.