Q&A with Composer of a New Work Inspired by a Famous Edward Hopper Painting at Phila. Museum of Art

Jul 19, 2018

Edward Hopper’s 1962 painting, Road and Trees, now on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, finds musical expression in a new work for chamber orchestra, which Network for New Music premieres Sunday, July 22 at the PMA. Composer Pierre Jalbert talked with WRTI’s Susan Lewis about his three-movement piece for woodwinds, strings, and percussion: Light, Line, Shadow.

A dense forest of leafy green rises up to a soft blue sky. Planted along a narrow strip of roadway that stretches across the canvas, the thin sturdy trunks and leafy boughs of the outermost trees seem to catch the light and nearly shimmer, as if viewed by a moving car.  

Composer Pierre Jalbert wrote his 15-minute chamber work, Light, Line, Shadow in response to Edward Hopper’s oil painting, Road and Trees. The first Hopper painting acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Road and Trees was donated by the late Daniel Dietrich II, in whose memory the musical premiere is dedicated. 

The idea for the concert, part of  the PMA's Music in the Galleries series, was conceived by Linda Reichert, co-founder and longtime artistic director of The Network for New Music.  She says Dan Dietrich was a  "good friend and supporter" of the  20-member ensemble, which  includes musicians who also play in the Philadelphia Orchestra, Opera Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Ballet, and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. 

The concert on Sunday, July 22, 2018  features the following Network for New Music musicians: Jan Krzywicki (conductor), Bob Butryn (guest clarinet), Eric Derr (percussion), John Koen (cello), Hirono Oka (violin), Edward Schultz (flute), Burchard Tang (viola), and Nate West (double bass).

Pierre Jalbert’s many works for orchestra, chamber groups, and voice, have been inspired by nature, poetry, and his own experiences. Light, Line, Shadow, a work in 3  movements, explores a range of moods and emotions, using flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, doublebass, and percussion.

The movements are titled:  I. Landscape in Motion, II. Brush Strokes, and III. Open Road.

WRTI’s Susan Lewis spoke with the composer about how he writes, and the relationship between his music and the art.

Composer Pierre Jalbert
Credit Richard Bowditch

You've composed for orchestra chamber groups, voice. What drew you to composing in the first place?

I started playing the piano when I was very young and in my family neither one of my parents were musicians. The extended family all played instruments by ear, so every time we'd get together as a family we'd always have guitars and the piano out, singing all sorts of American folk songs, French Canadian folk songs, a huge mix of things.

That got me started; then I studied classical piano, but also played some jazz.  Piano always remained my main instrument, but I also picked up percussion so that I could play in the orchestra and I think I learned a lot that way.  I got into composing actually fairly young and I started by composing short piano pieces, imitating different styles.

When was that?

I composed my first piece around when I was 11 or 12.

What styles were you imitating?

Well, mostly classical styles, composers like Chopin and Prokofiev, the composers I was playing. I continued to write for ensembles  I was playing in,  and then it just sort of grew from there. After that, I went to Oberlin and continued to study both piano and composition.

A lot of your works have been inspired by your own personal experiences, or by nature or poetry.  Do you view music as a way to express the way you experience the world?

I think so. As you said, many of my pieces have been inspired by extra musical kinds of things, but I do have pieces that are 'absolute music', that is, just abstract. The music forms on its own terms, like a symphony, a sonata, or a concerto. You never quite know what experiences in life will inspire a certain musical image or a certain way of thinking about structure, it could be a lot of different things. I find life in general has a way of inspiring different kinds of reactions and produces different kinds of music.

Do you gravitate towards certain non-musical activities that you find particularly inspirational?

Well, I would say when I'm dealing with text, especially with writing for voice -- that certainly has a big impact on the music.  There's always imagery in a text that will suggest certain kinds of things.

This painting by Edward Hopper, Road and Trees,  certainly suggested lots of different kinds of ideas. I divided the piece in three movements;  there are lots of different kinds of musical reactions to the painting.

In contrast to the pieces where the subject comes totally from you --  what was your process with this particular commission?

Yes, this is a little different …. I did some research on the life of Edward Hopper.  I live with the image for awhile before I get started and see how I want to divide the piece in terms of musical materials. So that's the difference in the process: there's sort of a pre-composition research,  before I start putting pen to paper and writing musical ideas down.

Did you think about what Hopper was saying  -- you said that you researched him -- or do you respond purely to the imagery?  It sounds as if it might be a combination of both?

Yeah, it's really a combination. I don't know exactly what he was thinking when he was doing this, but this particular painting is late in life for him, and reading about some of the sketches that he did for it also contributed to my reaction to it. 

What do you mean "his sketches contributed" to the way you thought about it?

Well, he had some original sketches for this particular painting. The painting is Road and Trees. Basically it's this open road surrounded by this vibrant green. In the original sketch there was a car and I read that one of the things that Hopper liked to do was to take rides in the automobile.  Seeing America, seeing a landscape by car,  is a concept that struck me and part of this piece responds to that idea.  

The three movements are Landscape in Motion, Brush Strokes, and Open Road.   

Right. So the Landscape in Motion -- even though that particular part of the piece begins very softly and slowly, it quickly accelerates into this very dynamic, motion-filled music that I'm trying to give the feel of. You have fast motion, but then the landscape is going by in slow motion. And that's sort of the way I thought about that whole first movement.

In the second movement, Brushstrokes, I was looking at the trees and the forest and the layers of paint and imagining what the brushstrokes would be like to produce those layers. And so that particular movement is darker, because the strokes themselves create this darker forest in the background of the painting. The second movement actually becomes quite frenetic at one point at the end where I can just imagine him doing some of this in a fast sort of white heat!  

The third movement is called Open Road. The painting also strikes me as kind of spiritual. It's thinking about the open road and you almost have this idea of isolation. [It] starts out very slow and contemplative, but then the music from the first movement -- Landscape in Motion -- comes back. The third movement is really about the interplay of those two different kinds of music:  this fast ‘in-motion’ music versus this more spiritual, contemplative kind of music.

So your music takes you through a variety of emotions. 

Right -- and I think just talking with you about this -- it makes me realize it's the music that brings out different aspects of the painting, but it's almost like looking at it one day and then coming back to it a month later and then seeing something completely different in it.  And then at another time, seeing it again and seeing something [else].  Since the music is happening through time, you can  focus on different aspects of this one work.  

You're a pianist. When you're thinking about, and hearing this music in your head, how do you decide how to orchestrate something like this?

Well, that's a great question. I actually do a lot of my composing away from the piano because I am a pianist. I find if I do too much of composing at the piano, I end up writing piano music (which most of us pianist tend to do).

It's a lot of back and forth between trying to hear in my mind what I want to hear, and putting that down, and then checking myself at the keyboard.  I have this sketching process where I use this musical shorthand.  I try to get musical ideas down fairly quickly so that I can then go back and really refine them -- at the keyboard and also away from the keyboard. So right from the beginning of the process, I'm trying to hear the instruments that are playing, so that it's not just pianistic.  

There's actually no piano in this piece. It's for a couple of winds, flute and clarinet, some strings and percussion. So I'm very much thinking about the instruments, the tambours, the color qualities of each of the instruments,  and how they blend together, right from the beginning of the process.

When you respond to a painting with music like this, does that music then take on a life of its own?

This piece will always have that relationship with the painting because that's where the ideas come from. But I hope it will take on a life of its own and will be a concert piece with that reference.

The premiere of Light, Line, Shadow takes place Sunday, July 22, 2018 at 3 p.m. at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.