Neely Bruce Composes a LOT of Music During the Pandemic
Neely Bruce, Professor of Music, is a composer and performer who has worked with a variety of compositional styles, including chamber, electronic, operatic, and music for documentary film scores. Despite performance restrictions due to the pandemic, Neely has managed to compose approximately five hours of music over a ten month-long period! We had the opportunity to interview Neely to learn more about his process and adjustments made due to the pandemic — check it out!
Thus far, you have composed approximately five hours of music throughout the pandemic, including orchestra, chamber, piano, and choral music. How do you decide which musical structure is most appropriate for each piece of music?
“When you are setting a text, the structure of the text determines the structure of the music, to a large extent. When you are writing instrumental music, the process is more complicated. I do a lot of internal singing. If you sing what you’ve written, it’s easy to sing what comes next. When you have assembled enough material, you use whatever techniques you have at your disposal to build larger structures with it.
One of my pandemic compositional tasks was completing a concerto for Libby Van Cleve and Charlie Suriyakim, our Wesleyan oboe and clarinet teachers, to play with the Wesleyan Orchestra. It’s based on unaccompanied duets for two woodwinds I wrote decades ago. Basically, I am recycling this material, and attending to unfinished business. The early duets were the building blocks, but the architecture had to be newly determined.”
Can you tell us a little bit about your artistic process?
I write every day, first thing in the morning. If I don’t have any ideas, I do necessary editing (adding dynamics, checking bowings, etc.). Before I go to bed, I review any compositions I am currently working on. That puts the material into my subconscious, which composes as I sleep.
A case in point is a collection of fugues I have been writing since 2004. They are based on people’s names. I use an eighteenth-century system of musical cryptology to convert the various letters of the alphabet into musical notes, to which I can then give a melodic and rhythmic profile. These become fugue subjects, admittedly arbitrary ones, but quite pleasing. I had 33 of these at the beginning of the pandemic. Going through old notebooks I found seven sketches that were sufficiently interesting, and developed enough to warrant finishing. I played through them at the piano, then also in the computer. For several weeks, every evening I would play through at least one of these fugues before going to bed. Every morning I would write a bit more. Before I knew it, they were all done. Now I’m doing final edits for the collection: Forty Friendly Fugues.
Has your relationship with composition changed over the course of the pandemic, if at all?
“Yes. Not particularly because of the disease, but extraordinary circumstances have given me time to think. For example, I have wanted to play through the Beethoven piano sonatas for years. The pandemic has given me time to do this. Reacquainting myself with these masterpieces has given me lots of ideas about structure.
The biggest change in the last ten months is my new focus on chamber music for strings. In 2010–11 I wrote “A String Quartet for Alvin Lucier,” my first venture into a medium that used to intimidate me. In the past two years I have written five more sizeable quartets, several short ones, a 37-minute string sextet, and a handful of other chamber works for strings plus other instruments.”
As a musician, what has been your biggest challenge when working in isolation?
“I am a born performer, and I miss the audience. One of the piano teachers of my youth, Roy McAllester, put it this way. “Neely, you are a money player.” By this he meant I would never practice if I don’t have to play in public. Of course, with the pandemic there are no paying gigs for anyone, and no faculty recitals to goad me into action. To combat this, I’ve started playing mini-recitals at home, for my wife and two invited guests.”
Recorded in 2015, one of your most famous pieces is “The Bill of Rights: Ten Amendments in Eight Motets.” What inspired you to set this document to music, and what motivated you to expand upon this work by setting the three Reconstruction Amendments to music during the pandemic?
“My setting of the Bill of Rights (mixed chorus, with or without instruments) has been performed 35 times. I wrote it because it seemed urgent to make our citizenry more aware of this precious text. I have also set the Nineteenth Amendment to music, which guarantees women’s suffrage. For years people urged me to set the Fourteenth Amendment. It’s a very long text, and I said no for that reason. However, after repeated urging, and a growing sense that it was an important thing to do, I decided to set all three of the Reconstruction Amendments, for mixed chorus and string orchestra. This turned out to be very timely.
The Thirteenth abolishes slavery. The Fourteenth grants citizenship to anyone born in the United States, including newly emancipated slaves, and specifically disenfranchises the leadership of the Confederacy and others who participate in insurrection. The Fifteenth guarantees the vote to all male citizens regardless of ‘race, color, or previous condition of servitude.’ The events of January 2021 have brought these issues into sharp focus.”
What do you feel makes music an accessible framework through which these documents and democratic ideals can be revisited and analyzed?
“Music is so powerful that many are afraid of it. Starting with Plato, many have felt it has to be handled with care, or commodified, or otherwise defanged. Singing a text gives those words more power than ever. And if you sing a text enough you will remember it your entire life. Sing the Bill of Rights! Sing the Nineteenth Amendment! Sing the Reconstruction Amendments! And rejoice in these precious documents.”