Eric Nathan, Toy Soldier Composer by Alexander G. Ariff
Nathan speaks with us about ephemeral inspiration, FAO Schwartz toys, and intention in composition Eric Nathan’s musical compositions have been performed in various festivals internationally, including at the Alderburgh Music Festival (UK) and at Shanghai Conservatory New Music Week. Nathan is currently the 2013-14 Frederic A. Juilliard/Walter Damrosch Rome Prize Fellow in composition at the American Academy in Rome. He has previously served as Composer-inResidence at the Chelsea Music Festival (NYC) and at Chamber Music Campania (Italy).
BP: In your topics explored in ‘Toying’, what brought you to visions of toys at this point in your life when toys may seem like a distant memory?
EN: I got a commission from a group Le Train Bleu, which Ransom Wilson directs and the piece was commissioned for this concert that was going to be on the theme of toys. So each piece responded to toys in different ways. They had a piece by Thomas Adès, which was called “Living Toys”, and then there’s a piece by Matt Marks that was inspired by sex objects. And so they said, feel free to respond to theme in whichever way you chose. So I was thinking of the trumpet as I’m a trumpet player. I could write a piece for trumpet and electronics, or just unaccompanied trumpet. So I wanted to challenge myself to write a piece for unaccompanied trumpet, that would be, in a sense a duet. A trumpet would be in dialogue with itself, in some way. So, I was treating the trumpet like a toy. In the first movement, I was just playing around with my trumpet and I unscrewed the valve caps and it makes a clicking sound when you press the valve up. It’s loud so when you put a silent mute it really amplifies it. You can hear this clicking against the very quiet sound of the trumpet so that brought to mind
a wind-up toy. After that I thought of other possible toys for the other movements. The second movement I thought of a toy soldier. As a kid, I thought of playing with these toy soldiers and I thought of this movement as an elegy for a toy solider kind of like taps. For that movement I changed the trumpet in some way by taking out the valve slides, and it makes a sound like a toy trumpet talking to a toy solider in some way. Then the last movement was a ventriloquist. I took off with my jazz roots and used the plunger mute, which can create lots of vocal effects. So it kind of came out of this original concept and I ran with it. I’m pretty visually inspired in lots of my pieces, so images of things inspire me.
BP: Did you have the visuals beforehand or did they come into clear view once the music was written?
EN: When I started writing the piece I actually took a trip to FAO Schwartz and went through all the toys they had there like puppets and slinkees- I bought a slinkee-trying to figure out things to make my piece about. There are a few wind-up toys there