Meet Composer James Primosch

When honoring him with its Goddard Lieberson Fellowship, the American Academy of Arts and Letters noted that “A rare economy of means and a strain of religious mysticism distinguish the music of James Primosch… Through articulate, transparent textures, he creates a wide range of musical emotion.” Among the honors he has received are a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim Fellowship, three prizes from the American Academy-Institute of Arts and Letters, a Regional Artists Fellowship to the American Academy in Rome, a Pew Fellowship in the Arts, the Stoeger Prize of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and a fellowship to the Tanglewood Music Center where he studied with John Harbison.

Mr. Primosch has written a lyrical, lively, and wonderfully expressive oboe quartet for Peggy Pearson and Winsor Music, which will be performed by Peggy and members of the Apple Hill String Quartet at Winsor Music's final concert of the 2014-15 season: Sunday, April 26 at 7pm, at St. Paul's Church in Brookline. Tickets can be obtained here. 

Read our interview to learn more about the new piece, how the composer arrived at his unique compositional voice and philosophy, and why he enjoys writing for Peggy and Winsor Music. 

Where are you from, and where are you based now?

Originally I’m from Cleveland, Ohio. I presently live and work in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania. 

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

Really, the music is diverse; it depends on the piece. There are some pieces that are very lyrical and other pieces that are more abstract or angular. The piece that I've written for Peggy is more on the lyrical side, although it does have its edges as well.

If you had to pick one piece that you’ve written that would encapsulate who you are as a composer, what would you pick?

If I had to pick one sound file I would email to someone, it would probably be of a song called “Cinder” which is from a set of songs for voice and piano called Holy the Firm [Click the link and scroll down to the fourth title on the audio samples page to hear this track]. It’s on a text by Susan Stewart, who’s a wonderful poet. This song seems to strike a chord with people. A number of singers have taken it up. In a very short time, I think it reflects my concern to try and do something that sings, that really has an intense, tightly lyrical line, that also has something fresh about it in the harmonic treatment, and is also emotionally touching. I would say all of those elements come into play in that two-and-a-half or three-minute song. That’s probably something I would call to people’s attention if I had to send out an mp3.


You started to talk a little about the piece that you’ve written for Winsor. Could you elaborate a little more, please?

It’s just called Oboe Quartet, and it’s in five movements. I first got to know Peggy, and her oboe playing, through Emmanuel Church/Emmanuel Music, so I was hearing the Bach cantatas with all of those fabulous oboe obbligato parts that she plays so beautifully. So, while my piece doesn’t sound Baroque at all, I don’t think, there’s basically a lyrical.. a singing conception more than a dramatic one — not that the cantatas aren’t dramatic, but I think of this piece as a set of songs or arias rather than a sonata or symphony kind of take. It’s dramatic, but it springs from a long line of vocal conception. The last movement is more of a dance than song, but that also is part of the Baroque tradition where the stylized dance is part of a multi-movement piece. 

Photo by Emmanuel Church, Boston

Photo by Emmanuel Church, Boston

Other than the elements you’ve just spoken of, what do you take into consideration when you’re writing for the oboe, or more specifically, for Peggy? Or for oboe quartet as opposed to a string quartet?

The oboe quartet as opposed to a string quartet: that was an interesting problem for me compositionally, because my first sketches — actually, some of my later sketches as well — it was kind of an oboe concertino. The tendency was to foreground the oboe rather than make it more of a chamber music quartet piece. I have a draft of the first movement where the oboe has the tune all the way through, which would have been lovely, but I revised some of that so the violin gets a portion of the tune at least once. So, yes, the obvious contrast of woodwind color and string color did lend itself to putting the oboe in the foreground, but I recognized that that was happening and I did try making more of a four-player game rather than having one hero in the spotlight. There are four relatively equal players now in what I’ve come up with. So, yes, oboe quartet was an interesting problem.

When it comes to Peggy’s playing: Peggy has greatly influenced what I’ve done with this piece, not only with her playing at Emmanuel, but also — this is the second piece I’ve written for her. Winsor Music did a collaboration with the Cantata Singers in commissioning this piece called Matins [Click the link to hear this track; it is the first piece listed on the page], and that featured the oboe; it had an introduction that is oboe and strings. Part of my reflection on the oboe was thinking about that piece and it required a little bit of effort to not rewrite that piece, because she did a really beautiful job with it, and there’s always the temptation to say, “Well, that worked! Do more of that!” But that’s a lazy thing to settle into too eagerly, although I think composers are kidding themselves if they think they’re getting a totally fresh conception all of the time. When you’re working on a piece, you think: “Oh yeah! I never thought of this before!” You think: “This is fresh, this is new,” and then you hear the piece, and you realize: “You know, I kind of re-wrote that older piece, didn’t I?” I certainly had that piece in the back of my mind.

Peggy has this gorgeous sound, such a beautiful tone, she just gets this amazingly beautiful sound on the oboe. She shapes phrases eloquently: so this means the variety of articulation and attack, how she’s able to connect musical gestures or set them off as the context requires, and then there’s also just virtuosity as far as her nimble fluidity and facility getting around the instrument. I really didn’t think about “Is this hard?” although Peggy might wish that I had! Of course I thought about whether it was practical or not, but it wasn’t a huge consideration, because I think she can do anything you could ask of an oboe, and do it beautifully.

Where do you see this piece in relation to your other work? It sounds, from what you’ve said and referenced already, as if this piece is thoroughly related to your other work. Do you have a body of quartets that this is being added to, or is this different in any way from the rest of your portfolio?

I have a couple of string quartets. I think those pieces are more narrowly focused in their expressive repertoire. The second quartet is a single-movement work, and it lives in the same expressive atmosphere for the entire movement. The third string quartet is also — well, there’s more variety there — but it’s more “of a piece.” This oboe quartet is a little more varied. If I had to relate it to pieces in my catalogue, it’s a little bit more on the eclectic side, a mixed grill, a little bit of this, a little bit of that; I think it still hangs together, I would hope. It all belongs in the same piece, and there is an expressive arc to it. The darkest movement is in the center, and in the first and the last movements, there is material that is recalled. I think it’s somewhat broad in its expressive range rather than so tightly focused.

You had made mention of this before; in that way, is it closer to some of your song cycles than to some of your quartets?

It is a little more like a song cycle, really in two ways. One is that there are a variety of expressive moods that are set, and also my cycles are definitely cycles, not just a set of songs, and there’s some sense of dramatic arc across these five movements. 

I gathered from your website that sacred music is a central theme in your work, which you presumably were led to by your experience as a church musician and various compositional influences. Of course, classical music as we know it was developed and evolved through the patronage of the church, and most composers up to a certain point in time wrote sacred music because it was a natural part, if not the bread-winning part, of being a composer. However, it seems to me that at some point after the Enlightenment, there was a gradual shift towards art for art's sake, a general societal shift away from organized religion, and therefore a shift away from every composer necessarily being a composer of sacred music. I've heard other composers express transcendent aspirations in or influences on their work, but I think that you are the first composer that I have spoken with that is so explicit about being a composer of sacred music as well as a composer of "contemporary" or "new" classical music. Given the current compositional culture, do you feel that you have a foot in two different worlds, or has it been a uniform experience for you?

I’d approach the question from a couple of different angles. On principle, I would hesitate to endorse a separation of the sacred and the secular. For me, there is no such thing as the secular realm. It’s all about the sacred. Everything that is, is holy. Which is not to say that we can’t have any fun… I don’t mean a pious turning away from the world. It’s an embrace of the world in all its beauty and wonder, in a state of gratitude for the world. The other angle I would approach the question from is this: I was raised Catholic. I’ve worked as a church musician really from high school on, and practically speaking, there was no explicit connection between my faith, my practice, my work as a church musician… between those things and my concert music. A friend — a soprano — in the early 1990’s asked if I would do an arrangement of folk songs for a recital that she was giving, and I wasn’t into folk songs, but I thought about using old sacred melodies. I made her a set of what I called Three Sacred Songs. They’re arrangements of two plainchant melodies and a medieval carol. They’re all tunes I had learned in my work as a church musician in New York, so that was definitely a connection being made, or a hand being stretched across the gap. Not long after that, the second string quartet was a piece — in conception, an abstract instrumental piece — yet it’s kind of a meditation on the hymn “Let all mortal flesh keep silent.” That tune, and the motives of material that make it up, permeate the quartet.

So there was a kind of — breakthrough is a strong word — but I made an explicit connection between the sacred and the abstract. I’ve since done a lot of pieces where there are old sacred melodies more or less explicit in the piece and the other way that sacred connects is in the text. The cycle Holy the Firm — they’re not conventional biblical texts, although I have set biblical texts — they’re not highly orthodox, traditional religious texts, but they’re definitely concerned with the spiritual. They’re not inconsistent with my own upbringing and my own practice as a Roman Catholic. There are now eight motets that I’ve written that have been done at Emmanuel Church/Emmanuel Music — thank you, John Harbison, for the invitation to do that! My most recent CD is called Sacred Songs and all of those pieces, from one point of view or another, some in a darker light than others, are engaging with the challenges I encounter with the sacred. It’s been a varied range of approaches. The motets for Emmanuel, I think of as liturgical music — I’d love to hear them done in a concert hall, but they were really written to be done at Eucharist. One has been done at a Catholic church in New York a couple of times. I’ve also written some things for congregational singing, more in a popular vein, for the person in the pew. It’s a wonderful privilege to be able to create concert music, where you’re free from practical constraints, but there is also something wonderful about meeting people where they’re at and being able to facilitate the process of their prayer. 

Is there a different approach or intention for you when you’re writing explicitly liturgical music as opposed to concert music, even that with a religious influence as in the second quartet?

I don’t think there is a big stylistic difference between the pieces that are liturgical or concert music-explicit sacred or concert music-non-explicit sacred. I think they’re all pretty much within a certain breadth and variety of expression. There isn’t really a different approach. I don’t think: “Oh, well, I can’t write those chords” because I’m writing for a certain situation. You try to serve the expressive impulse. If I’m setting a text, it’s really text-driven and about what the text needs. How can I serve the text? It’s not about me imposing a language upon it. I wouldn’t say that there is a different approach. It doesn’t matter if it’s an arrangement of a plainsong chant or a romantic song. Ultimately, it’s all about praise. It’s not explicit in some situations, or more explicit in others. In a sense, there is no non-sacred music in my catalogue. I hope that no one’s put off by that, or gets the idea that it’s all candles and incense.