Andrew Waggoner on the Many Meanings of Down and Up

Andrew Waggoner is a critically-acclaimed, prize-winning composer who has been praised by the New Yorker as “a gifted practitioner of a complex but dramatic and vividly colored style.” Born in New Orleans, Andrew is currently Professor of Music Composition, Theory, and History, at Syracuse University’s Setnor School of Music. His work has been commissioned and performed by the Academy of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Saint Louis, Denver, Syracuse, and Winnipeg Symphonies, the Cassatt, Corigliano, Miro, and Villiers Quartets, and the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, among many others. Winsor Music is honored to be premiering his latest composition, Down/Up for oboe quartet, on our Spring Concert next Saturday, April 12, 8:00 PM, at St. Paul’s Church in Brookline. For more information, including Mr. Waggoner’s full biography, discography, and much more, please visit his website,

Mr. Waggoner took some time recently to speak with Katie about his style, his thought process, and the new piece for Winsor, in a thoroughly enjoyable conversation that spanned topics as diverse as pop/rock and thirteenth-century mystics.

How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it?

I think the thing the thing I most want people to feel about my music is that it's strange-- something they haven't heard before-- but beautiful. I like the idea that someone who doesn't know anything about contemporary music can still come away from one of my pieces feeling like they've heard something beautiful, that moves them, but something that recognizably takes them out of their comfort zone, or their zone of familiarity.  


If you had to choose one piece you've written (or that someone else has written) to describe your style or sound, what would it be?

One of the best examples is a piece that's on my most recent CD, also on my website: Livre, and to get a complete picture (downloadable): Inventory of Terrors. Those two pieces, in the context of each other, I think give a pretty complete sense of who I am and what I'm about. Livre is mysterious, but also very sensual, and very joyful. It's very much love music. Inventory of Terrors is about as opposite from that as you can get. What I like about them is how similar they are in certain respects, even though one of them is quite pretty and the other is quite dark and at times violent. Although there are passages from Inventory of Terrors that I find quite beautiful, but maybe in a way that's unique to me, I don't know...   


What can you tell us about the piece you're composing for Winsor?

It's called Down/Up. I think if people actually do check out those other two pieces, then they'll have some sense of what this new piece is about- it's certainly about contrast, as you can guess from the title. A lot of registral contrasts, very low and very high. It's not so much happy/sad as it is down in the earth and up in a less bounded, less restricted sort of space. I think the title hit me from two different directions. There's a great quote from the wonderful 13th-century mystic and theologian Meister Eckhart: "one has to go down to go up." Specifically, he was talking about the imagery around baptism-- the whole idea of going down into water is that you're going down into hell, into the water to be cleansed, and then coming back up. But he wasn't really concerned with hell- he was interested in the totality of the experience. You couldn't really experience heaven unless you'd experienced the earth. You couldn't really experience your spiritual nature unless you'd experienced the physical; good, evil. That's kind of what's driving the piece; that's a lot to lay on a piece of music, but that's what's sparking it.  

And the other thing has more to do with contemporary music  — this is kind of unformed. If people listen to the other two pieces, I think it will be clear that I take this stuff seriously (and myself probably too seriously sometimes!). And I take musical transcendence really seriously; the art that I love the most is transcendent. At the same time much of the music that I love is pop, or folk, music that is thought of being vernacular. The old way of talking about it would be that these kinds of music were low, not high like Bach or Beethoven or Stravinsky. But it's had a big influence on my music in ways that I understand, but I think most people wouldn't get that from hearing my work. Frankly, I don't like most classical music that deliberately imitates pop music; for a lot of reasons, some of which are more easily substantiated than others. And so I was interested in exploring that ambivalence in this piece. To some extent, then, the piece involves a degree of stylistic juxtaposition (high-low). But the end result is less about stylistic crosscutting than tends to be the norm right now.  Something about the notion about having to go down into the earth before going up into the spirit, and figuring out how to wrestle with my own dislike of much so-called crossover music, stuff that really explicitly imitates pop music- I've tried to exorcise that demon for myself.


Where do you see this piece in relation to your other work? Does it fit into the "big picture", or is it something completely different?  

It definitely fits into a continuum, but it also represents something new for me. With each new work I generally set myself some very specific technical challenge, something that forces me to deal with something I haven't before. This spiritual underpinning is something I've drawn from a lot over the years. But with this piece, dealing with my own reservations about a style of music will push the spiritual dimension in a whole new direction. The string quartet that I wrote around 2000, called Legacy — it's directly inspired by both old rhythm and blues and also by Hendrix. When it was written, it was kind of, in its own humble way, on the edge of thinking about this whole new style of music. But it was also unapologetically concert music. At that point, I was exploring those kinds of connections a lot, but in ways that I found interesting. What's happened in the intervening years-- I think that people would hear that piece now and think that the way in which it deals with rock music is kind of quaint. It doesn't bend genres at all. So this piece for Winsor is really the first piece since then that tries to deal with that kind of issue. In the end, though, it's chamber music, which rock is too, at its best. Maybe that's the most important connection between these different genres: people get together, they listen to each other, they try to do their best.