Behind-the-Scenes of Revelations: A conversation with Su Lian Tan

Su Lian Tan
Su Lian Tan

Su Lian Tan is a much-sought after flutist and composer whose music has been described as “the stunner of the evening,” (Washington Post) and “…refined, cultured compositions… Rewarding for everyone…A must-own for flutists and flute enthusiasts” (Fanfare Magazine). Tan is also a Professor of Music at Middlebury College in Vermont. Arsis recently featured three of her chamber and piano works, performed by The Jupiter String Quartet and pianist Bruce Brubaker, on a new album, Revelations (CD 181), which already received praise from both Gramophone and Fanfare magazinesSu Lian Tan gave us a a behind-the-scenes look at working on the album, along with insight into her musical background and interests.

1. What was it like to work on Revelations with The Jupiter String Quartet and Bruce, and to see them in action?

The Jupiter String Quartet

Recordings are an amazing opportunity, and when you get to work with inspired people like The Jupiter and Bruce, it becomes a joint adventure. Bruce and I are friends from Julliard days, while The Jupiter and I met and became friends very quickly. The album came together in terms of the musicians. Then, of course, everyone was fully booked and scheduling became quite the issue. But we all hung in there, I’m glad to say, and when you hear the album you’ll know why. Together, we pushed each other towards gold!

2. Tell us a little about the works included on the album and where you found inspiration for them.

Bruce Brubaker

These are powerful musicians at the height of their game, as are the dedicatees of the works. For example, Life In Wayang was commissioned and toured by the Takacs String Quartet. At the time, their repertoire often comprised of Beethoven and Bartok string quartets, which I admire greatly. They are unique in many ways as well, so a lot of the beauty and refinement of their playing and the serious depth of understanding was on my mind. You can also imagine that The Jupiter was an excellent choice for recording it, being such wonderful musicians and establishing a marvelous sound of their own. The piano quintet, Revelations, was dedicated to Sophie Shao and my friend and colleague Paul Nelson, the former director of the Performing Arts Series at Middlebury. Many of the cello solos were meant for a cello voice which is lyrical, mellifluous and full of nuances. It is wonderful to hear Daniel McDonough take over those sections and own them, expressing opera through the cello. Bruce became the obvious choice for the pianist because he is one of those rare musicians who encompasses the broadness of Brahms, undesrtands a huge spectrum of idioms, is profoundly intellectual, and now enjoys rock-star status in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. He would know what to do with a piece dedicated to another wonderful intellect, who among his other interests, is a scholar of Aristotle.

3. What is your favorite thing about recording an album?

I love being in the sound booth and being the one to capture what audiences will hear. When I recorded my flute album at WGBH, I had both Antonio Oliart and Bob Schuneman listening to me. I know how great it feels to have support and not to feel left out in the cold when recording. My husband, Evan Bennett, listens to all of my music with such care, too, and advises me in a way only a person who understands my assertions and goals can. He is the person I trust most with supporting the creative process in all its layers, from the initial counterpoint to aspects of performing and performance, so that I can be confident about my output. When my opportunity arrives, I try to act as if I’ve been “coach” all along. I’m also quite a freak about careful and specific microphone placement to get good values to work with. That way, the engineer who masters the album (in this case David Trembley) has enough material to create the best possible sound. He developed an exponentially wonderful architecture here. At the risk of sounding boastful, many musicians regard me as one of the best producers around (and apparently conductor, too). Although I know they are teasing me about it, I’m getting ready to produce for The Jupiter’s next album…hopefully Beethoven!

4. So, how did you get your start both in music and composing? (Answer excerpted from October 2010 Flute Talk Interview with Tan)

I went to elementary and high school in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), and that’s where I started playing and studying music, first the piano, then the violin, and finally the flute. I had always wanted to play flute. The British Council had a nice recital space, and I heard a concert there performed by a glamorous American flutist. I was just enchanted. But with wind instruments, you have to wait for your lungs to grow a little bit before you start. I started it last, and ended up with the flute as my main instrument. I could have played on Malaysian and Chinese flutes, but the sound of the Western flute was what I was always after. My father would only have been comfortable sending me to an English-speaking country for college, as I was a little bit under-age. We chose Bennington College for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it was such a highly artistic school. We knew I would get to perform there, and that the teachers would be fantastic. I composed at Bennington College (Vermont) because I had to. Everyone in music there had to compose and know what all of that was about. This is so valuable and that’s why we have implemented the same concept here at Middlebury College. My first class was with the great Vivian Fine. It could not have been more inspiring for me to hear and see the music of a female composer. At the same time she was so full of gravitas and fun. What a character! Exactly as her music is.

5. Describe your compositional style. What inspires your music? (Answer excerpted from October 2010 Flute Talk Interview with Tan)

Somewhere between By Leaps and Bounds and Autumn Lute Song (available from Theodore Presser), I started writing in what would become my voice. I didn’t know it was my voice yet. It was Milton Babbitt at Julliard who encouraged me to be all that I am. When you are young, you try to learn the theory and philosophy behind Western music. But that wasn’t all that I was. By Leaps and Bounds is the first piece in which I unmistakably let the Asiatic roots show, in the form of gamelan influence. Autumn Lute Song also has that voice in which the Western philosophies fuse with Chinese idioms and gestures.

6. What is your process for writing new music?

Recently, if I’ve agreed to compose something, it means I’m awfully inspired by the dedicatee(s). Their personalities, style of playing, and uniqueness soften translates directly into gestures, and sometimes note palates, that then evolve into musical material. Sometimes these thoughts and observations inform the larger view of the piece as well.

7. You are a Professor of Music at Middlebury College. How do you balance life as a composer with your teaching?

My students keep me on my toes. In fact, they are usually so cool that they make sure I am, too. They have a way of keeping everything fresh and new, a constant sharing of ideas and art. I’m very lucky to have had such a good time with so many wonderful musicians at Middlebury both current and former students, and of so many different genres. Here’s a short list; concert composers include Christina Whitten Thomas, Mary Montgomery Koppel, and Matthew LaRocca. Indie artists and jazz musicians include Dispatch, Anais Mitchell, John Colpitts (of Man Forever), and Jason Ennis (of La Voz Tres). As I mentioned…..I’m lucky!

8. How do you spend your time when you’re not writing or teaching music?

I eat good food!:) And a little known fact (but not exactly a secret either) is that I’m an award-winning leather artist. There’s always an art project on my mind: cowboy boots or a western-inspired evening clutch, which I’m intending to make with my sister.

Leather Clutch
Leather Boots

9. Is there any recent or upcoming news you want to share?

So happy that Revelations, this labor of love, is finally out. I’m starting to talk with Carol Wincenc and John McDonald about a new album of flute music. Recently, I discussed doing a piccolo concerto with Nicola Mazzanti, who is such a fine performer. I’m truly excited about this! A CD release containing my cello concerto Legends of Kintamani (concerto coming soon from E. C. Schirmer) is due to be released imminently. I am so pleased about how it all turned out. Tim Weiss and the young musicians at Oberlin gave it a fantastic go. Both Revelations (the album) and Legends of Kintamani were also submitted for a Grammy!


Revelations
Click here to learn more about Revelations.
Click here to learn more about Su Lian Tan.
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