Composer Joel Puckett, a writer of hauntingly beautiful new music, including “This Mourning,” dedicated to the memory of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and “Shadow of Sirius,” a concerto for flute and wind ensemble, will bring his ideas and talents to UW-Madison in early December as part of a residency sponsored by the school’s concert band program.
On Friday, December 6 at 8 pm, the UW Wind Ensemble, conducted by Prof. Scott Teeple, will perform two of Puckett’s works: “Southern Comforts,” a work for solo violin and wind ensemble, and “Avelynn’s Lullaby,” written in honor of Puckett’s then-infant baby daughter. “Southern Comforts” recalls Puckett’s memories of his youth in Atlanta, Georgia (“Movement 1: Faulkner. Movement 2: Football and the Lord. Movement 3: Lamentation. Movement 4: Mint Julep) and will feature Felicia Moye, professor of violin, as soloist. The concert will also include the music of Gabrieli, Holst, and Skrowaczewski. Admission is free.
Joel Puckett is professor of music theory at the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University. His three-day visit here is part of “Circa Now,” a concert and residency series within the concert band program that features the music of living composers.
Writing about a performance of “This Mourning,” a work for chorus, orchestra, tenor and 40 wine glasses, the Baltimore Sun’s Tim Smith wrote, “The third and final movement reaches profound heights. As the chorus intones Dickinson’s lines, “There must be guests in Eden, All the rooms are full,” a cathartic, almost ecstatic rise of melody and emotion unfolds. Throughout this movement is the otherworldly haze produced by 40 crystal glasses, tuned to different pitches — the composer’s most inspired touch. The effect of hearing those delicate tones dissipating one by one as the work ends is as subtle as it is touching.”
We asked Joel Puckett a few questions about his life and works. Enjoy, and please join us on December 6!
How did you get interested in composing?
“My father used to encourage me to make up my own versions of the pieces I was learning at the piano. Whatever it happened to be, he thought that if I had a better idea, I should change it. (This, by the way, was when I was very little and was playing Hot Cross Buns. He didn’t have me changing Beethoven!)”
What influences you as a composer?
“My life. I just try to look around me, see beautiful things and respond in the most honest way possible.”
Are there certain genres/styles/composers/artists to whom you gravitate and, who might have had influences on your compositional style?
“Sure, I listen to almost everything. With the two little ones (three years old and another who is thirteen months) we listen to lots and lots of folk music, activity songs and standard concert music of all periods.
“In my own professional listening, I try to listen to something brand new every day. Most of the time this will be something from the very recent past, say within the past year or two. This is usually something that would fall under the heading of concert music, but frequently I find myself digging into something outside that world. Right now, for example, I am devouring the last few Snarky Puppy discs. And before that I was going through the recent music of William Bolcom.
“My teaching also keeps me exploring the concert rep for pieces that I don’t know but are worth digging into.
“And then on the way to work every day, I tend to listen to 70s funk or holiday music (regardless of the season)! I find they are both excellent antidotes for the ridiculous morning commute traffic.
Your works are performed all over the globe; you teach at a prestigious institution (Peabody Conservatory), what makes you want to write for wind-band medium?
“Why wouldn’t I?!? I know that my music will be taken care of and rehearsed thoughtfully. I know that the players are enthusiastic and excited about new music! I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t make writing for wind-band a part of their output.”
Knowing that you have also written for strings and various other ensembles, are there benefits to writing for wind ensembles that you don’t experience in other areas?
“Well, every ensemble has inherent limitations. The goal is to turn those limitations into opportunities. With a wind ensemble the limitation is that everyone has to breathe. I feel like dealing with that issue inspires me to find creative solutions to make it seem as though they don’t have to breathe!”
One for the pieces programmed by the UWWE, “Southern Comforts,” is for solo violin with wind ensemble accompaniment. The pairing of a wind ensemble and violin soloist is not common. How did you come upon the idea of writing for two such disparate groupings?
“I have always thought that the most effective concerti were the ones where the solo instrument was absent from the backing ensemble. If let’s say you are listening to a trumpet concerto with four trumpets also in the ensemble, there is the distinct likelihood that there will be confusion as to which trumpet is in focus as the soloist.
“So, for that reason, I have always been attracted to putting strings up front in a concerto situation paired with a winds only ensemble. (I actually have a string quartet concerto, Short Stories, that is for winds only in the backing ensemble.) I found that this allowed me to keep the violin in focus.”
(Hear the world premiere of “Southern Comforts” by the Baylor University Wind Ensemble in 2009):
What were some of the challenges when approaching this combination?
“Balance issues are always in issue with a soloist against a wind group. But I worked hard to make sure the violin is always clear when it is intended to be soloistic.”
Tell us how “Avelynn’s Lullaby” came to fruition?
“My daughter was born in the spring of 2010 and it was the happiest day of my life. I had recently gotten a commission for an eight-minute piece for the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music in Long Beach, California and was riding high on fatherhood when I began work.
“Our nighttime routine has been set in stone for a long time. I give her a bath, put her in her pajamas, and we read a book or two. And then we come to my favorite portion of the routine: the lullabies. Doing my part, I sing her slow lullabies while rocking her, and she does her part, fighting the onset of sleep. By far her favorite lullaby is the one my mother used to sing to me: ‘Sail Far Away, Sail Across the Sea, Only don’t forget to Sail, back again to me.’ At least, I thought it was the one my mother used to sing to me. I got curious about the rest of the verses and found that the piece was written in 1898 by Alice Riley and Jesse Gaynor and has only a passing resemblance to the song I remember my mother singing to me. Better yet, it has virtually no resemblance to the lullaby I had been singing to Avelynn! So, Avelynn’s Lullaby is both a journey of daddy trying to coax daughter to sleep and a journey of daughter enjoying the song, fighting sleep, and eventually succumbing to slumber.
“And now that Avelynn is three and we have a new little guy, she sings him the lullaby every night before he goes to sleep. It has been fun to watch her take ownership of the song.”
Listen to more of Joel Puckett’s music on SoundCloud: