This Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Music Director Robert Spano will present the world-premiere performances of “… of shadow and light … (incantations for orchestra),” by Atlanta-based composer Richard Prior and commissioned by the ASO. Prior is director of orchestral studies at Emory University and music director of the Rome Symphony Orchestra.
ArtsATL recently met up with Prior on the Emory campus and talked with him about his new composition.
ArtsATL: Could you give us some insight into this new work for the ASO as it relates to who you are as a composer and your compositional style?
Richard Prior: It’s intentionally very lyrical, as is most of my style. I have a strong choral background, [so] there is always the belief that there should be some element of salient melody in there. But it’s also a journey. What I hope to have done is create a linear structure in which people are engaged from the beginning, and are taken through a number of shifting events and emotional platforms and states. At the end of the piece, you should really feel like you have traveled with that music.
ArtsATL: You’ve described two elements of personal style, but what motivates that style? What’s really at the heart of your compositional creativity?
Prior: I’m a great believer in the human experience. Personal relationships, with individuals or the human condition, are very important to me. I’m 47 now, and there’s been a lot of maturing of not just musical style but also my own experiences. I’m at the point where, inevitably, you have friends or family who pass on, and that has a massively shaping impact. It defines your own mortality and makes you constantly reappraise who you are, what you’re doing and what’s important. I’m just at a point where I’m getting a better grasp of those things. Life is definitely this patchwork of those experiences, moments of ecstatic joy and moments that really stop you in your tracks and make you think.
I am trying to embody that more and more in my music, actually, without the virtue of a text. I’ve written a fair amount of choral [and] choral-orchestral music. If you have text, the text shapes the music, everything from passing moments of word painting to the bigger architecture. It is easy to hide in the text or speak from somebody else’s text in music. When you don’t have the text, you’re left with just you. Do you pander to falling into an established language and gesture, or do you really try to seek your own path through it?
ArtsATL: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that your Symphony No. 3, written in 2011 and which led to this commission, was a creative turning point for you.
Prior: The Third Symphony was interesting to me in that it didn’t have a “program” and yet all of this music was pouring forth. What I’ve decided it was about is [that] I’m reconciling to reach probably deeper inside than I’ve ever reached before and was finding the core of what I’m about. Really the new piece [for] the ASO is an extension of that discovery. Even though they’re abstract in the sense that they don’t have words, they’re probably the deepest and most personal pieces I’ve written to date.
ArtsATL: What can you tell us about the first reading of “… of shadow and light …” that took place during the ASO’s first week of rehearsals?
Prior: [It] was the second day the orchestra had come together since the new shell [was installed]. They read through once; Robert made a couple of observations. They read through again after he had rehearsed a couple of [sections], then on to the next piece. For me sitting out in the audience, the vast majority of what I’d written sounded exactly how I imagined it would sound.
I’m grateful for Robert’s commitment to new music. I think that’s a very laudable pathway in this day and age. It’s really hard to strike a balance between keeping the classical canon alive and vital within a large city such as Atlanta, but at the same time, as they would say on WABE, “all music was new music at one time.” I think Robert’s done a really good job of keeping that in the public ear.