Fanfare Magazine, Interview with Composer Curt Cacioppo and Choral Director Nathan Zullinger, Issue 44:2 (Nov/Dec 2020)


I would like to begin with a few questions for Curt Cacioppo, the composer. I find your music unique because of what seems to me your ability to wed past traditions with techniques and musical grammar of today in a way that appears seamless to me. Is this conscious on your part?

CC: There are commonalities between different styles, different musics, that invite synthesis and transformation. The principle of quodlibet is primary, and so often serves as my guide. I love the idea of diversified layering, whether lateral, vertical, or radial, and the erasing of historical boundaries. This was true for Debussy, for instance, and Rachmaninoff gives us a monumental example in his Paganini Rhapsody: it’s at the same time a free-form work and a carefully structured set of variations, a concerto and cyclical symphonic poem, based on pre-composed material that antedates it by more than a century and a quarter, which traces the metamorphosis of the minuet into the scherzo, turns the Gregorian Dies irae into a big band number, uses permutational devices to generate the most Hollywood of romantic themes, mixes choral and instrumental/sacred and secular traditions, and integrates a plurality of harmonic idioms.

Again, for Curt: Who would you say are strong influences on your music?

CC: “Who” could be so many—within the field, teachers, historical role models inspiring performers. I was very captivated by the music of Giya Kancheli, whom I met in Leningrad during glasnost. Since then, I would say that increasingly throughout the last decades, influences outside the field have had the greatest impact on me: people in other arts disciplines, people within the Native American community, people with an inclination toward social justice.

This one is for both Curt and Nathan Zullinger, who leads the chorus in the major work on the disc: Women of Ancient Greek Myth is a wonderful, imaginative, and ultimately both powerful and beautiful work. I have the sense that the collaboration between composer and choral director in preparing this recording may have been closer and more intense than the norm. Could you both speak about that process?

NZ: It’s always challenging to lead the premiere of a new work—and even more so when it is being recorded. Future performers will use the recording as a jumping off point, so it is important that the composer’s musical ideas are presented as intended. There is so much that isn’t in a musical score, and since I had Curt just upstairs in the music building, it made sense to seek his guidance as much as possible. He also took time to explain some of the very subtle references in both text and music. And, of course, we also worked very closely on securing funding for this project and numerous other production details.

CC: Nate received the score in January 2019—one year in advance. We started Q& A over email in September 2019, if not before, and in person meetings took place early in the fall. One interesting thing that we did for the singers was to ask the poet, Cerantola, to record himself reciting the texts so that they could hear his pronunciation and inflection and internalize his voice. Also, it was something of a mission to find just the right pair of shears for the cadence of Atropos.

(Again for both): It strikes me that there are some very real challenges for choral preparation of this work. Careful shading of dynamics and careful balancing of voices, which are always important in any choral performance, seem to me even more critical here. How did you both go about addressing these issues?

NZ: I think I approached this exactly the way I would any other piece. First, carefully analyze the entire score and the text. Second, look for spots where balance might be tricky or voices could be redistributed, as well as any difficult transitions, complex rhythms, unexpected tonal shifts, and challenges for each voice part. Third, look at the balance and shape of the piece overall—no small trick in music this complex. Finally, I took my initial interpretive instincts and compared notes with Curt to see how close my ideas were to his original conception.

CC: I provided Nate with midi realizations of the motets to post for the singers, and he and I spent a number of sessions together at the piano. Also, I had a recording of the earliest piece from the set, which had been performed by the college ensemble, and that offered another reference point.

(Again for both): How did the two of you discover each other, and in what ways beyond this recording have you worked together?

NZ: I was hired in 2018 to teach at Haverford College, and Curt was a member of the search committee. I liked him immediately and came to know his music during my first year on the faculty. I was completely taken aback that he would entrust me with this project, but it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional career thus far.

CC: This was our maiden voyage. We definitely don’t want this project to wind up a Vasa, and despite COVID we will seize any opportunity to work together in the future.

For Curt: In the program notes for the Third Symphony, “Tuscan Folio,” you confront some very important social justice issues. You indicate that after spending a month in Tuscany, as a native-born American, you began to see both the ideals on which the United States was founded as a country and the troubling instances of it falling short of those ideals. Music—particularly instrumental music—is an abstract art form, although composers throughout history have used it to express emotions and sentiments. Could you speak about the relationship of those issues to this symphony?

CC: In the first movement I am looking at the U.S. from my perch in the Apennines. This was just after we had bombed Libya in Operation El Dorado Canyon, ordered by Reagan. Having been a freshman at Kent State in 1970, and witnessing first-hand what errant firepower can do, I felt deep concern. This combined with pangs of conscience I already had regarding slavery and genocidal policies toward First Nations, and found expression in “America: a prayer.” The second movement gives over to the lyrical and festive spirit of Tuscany. The third, “Sarbaggiu,” sweeps back into aggression and struggle, savage violence, and resultant lamentation. Here, though, I am considering the unjust conditions of impoverishment and intimidation that drove my Sicilian ancestors from their homeland to the U.S. a century and a half ago. And yet there is so much beauty throughout Sicily—Greek, Arab, Norman, and especially Baroque. I might say that the Folio tends to reflect the last: the opening movement is a big sarabande, the second a more transparent and lyrical arietta; the fast sections of the third follow a ritornello development, with the slow middle episode built on a ground bass.

(For Nate): The Viva Voce Chamber Singers is a fairly new group, apparently specifically organized to participate in a concert of music by Curt Cacioppo. I was very impressed by the polish and security of the group given how new it is. Can you speak a bit about the group, its history, and the kinds of projects in the planning stage?

NZ: We assembled this group for the recording, knowing that we would have 12 hours of rehearsal, 12 hours of recording, and then a concert. It was an insane schedule, all accomplished in four days. These were the best choral musicians that the Philly area had to offer. Besides being outstanding musicians, they are all extremely intelligent and intuitive, all of which helped the process immensely. The soloists were particularly skillful in projecting the mood and the narrative of the various movements; it seemed that there was nothing they couldn’t do, and I remain in awe of their work ethic and talent. There is something about being involved in a major project with not quite enough time that can bring out the best in people—or at least it did on this occasion! It was so successful that we are planning to get back together for a new project when the world opens up again.

(For Curt): I was also very taken with Armed and Dangerous, the first work on the disc, for solo piano. You call the work “Fantasy-variations on l’homme armé.” In some ways this is an immediate indication of what I observed in the beginning of this interview—its wedding of the past and the present. It begins with a fairly straightforward statement of that famous French medieval tune (really Renaissance, c. 1450), but as the piece builds it grows in complexity. Could you speak a bit about this piece?

CC: Something I haven’t mentioned is that the slow variation is a requiescat in pace for my mother, who passed away some months before I wrote the piece. She had always wanted to attend Westminster Choir College, and had given me my first piano lessons. But more to your point of melding disparate elements together, I tossed the question to Emanuele Arciuli, who performs “Armed” with such intimacy and power.

Emanuele Arciuli [Pianist for whom Armed and Dangerous was written]: I became acquainted with Curt Cacioppo in 2009 as I was writing my book Piano Music in the United States. I found that, along with his passion for Italy, Curt also shared my interest in Native American culture. After performing his Lyric Visions from the Pawnee, I asked him to compose a new work for me.

Armed and Dangerous is a theme with variations, written with an intimate knowledge of the piano (Curt is a formidable pianist), of piano literature, and a true mastery form. It is demanding to play, especially because it requires great clarity in the counterpoint, but also sensuality and beauty of sound. I look forward to future performances of this magnificent composition, which deserves its place in the repertoire.

(For Curt): What are you working on now? What can we expect from your pen in the near future?

CC: I have written a cycle for soprano and pianist entitled Songs with and without Words, a new string quartet based on Wolf’s Wohl kenn’ ich euren Stand, and another piece for Emanuele entitled Pandora’s Box, along with some smaller works, which I hope will be able to be premiered soon. And I am composing a Violin Concerto for Italian virtuoso Francesco D’Orazio, on the theme of resurrection.

(For both of you): Do you both have plans to work on any particular project together?

NZ: Naturally! Curt retired to Cape Cod this spring, but we remain in touch on a very regular basis. I know he has other choral works that we could do in the future, and it wouldn’t surprise me if a new piece surfaces at some point in the next few years.

CC: I am anxious to see what Viva Voce will do next, and will be delighted to see the group advance. Any collaboration with Nate and these marvelous singers will be a great joy.