Interview with a Balliett

Where are you from and what do you do?

I come from a town in central Massachusetts called Westborough, went to school in Cambridge, MA, and lived for several years as an orchestral bassist in San Antonio, TX. Tired of playing the same old rep, I moved to New York City in 2010 to join Juilliard’s new Historical Performance program, and I’ve made NYC my home ever since. In general, I split my work into four broad categories: performing historical music on bass, violone, and gamba; performing contemporary music on the double bass and the guitar; creating projects with my band, The Oracle Hysterical; and composing music, most of which is vocal.

What is a rap cantata?

A rap cantata is a new way of presenting a dramatic work. It takes the traditional cantata, as codified by the masters of the 17th and 18th century, and infuses it with today’s language–rhyming verse for the recitative, and song for the arias. In some ways I’m inverting the original proportions; most of the story is told through the rhythmic language, while the songs are reserved for the characters’ reflective moments. It is intended, as opera originally was, to capture the essence of Greek tragedy–a form of fireside storytelling that combines speech, chant and song.

Why the Ovid Metamorphosis?

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as poetry, is inherently dramatic.On my first read-through, it seemed perfectly suited to a treatment as a series of interlocking rap cantatas. In particular I was attracted to the way Ovid seamlessly moves from story to story with sometimes the most tenuous of connections. I excitedly imagined a large-scale work with ever-shifting instrumentation that would tell these stories in the same brilliant arrangement that Ovid created. “Actaeon”, my first piece for New Vintage Baroque, will be the eleventh in this series. I’ve found that writing these cantatas has helped sharpen my compositional language and given me some much needed experience writing dramatic music.

How do you start your compositional process?

I always begin with the libretto; a translation of a translation as it were. I take the original Ovid text and a very literal translation (I like Frank Miller for his rigorous representation of the Latin) and turn it into rhymed verses that are intended to be by turns, thumping, pathetic, or whatever the story calls for. There is a great deal of thought about meter and subdivision, but never for the sake of regularity. English is an irregular language, and while poetry made this development in the 20th century, hip-hop lags behind. This is why I call my verses “prose-hop”–allow the rhymes and alliteration to fall where they may, and put clarity of story and emotional intent at the forefront.

Once the libretto is finished, I hammer out a short score of through-composed accompaniment at the piano. Now I can compositionally dance on that first product. Most of the texturing comes at this orchestration stage. Once this is done, it’s simply a matter of tying up loose ends, and the rehearsals can begin.

What are some composers or artist you draw inspirations from?

The short list would include Monteverdi, Wagner, Schumann, Joanna Newsom, The Beatles, and Aesop Rock. The complete list is much longer!

What do you hope to achieve through your story telling?

These stories are timelessly engaging and instructive. I don’t think anybody would argue with that. On the modest side I’d say I hope to entertain, and, (dare I suggest it?) to move. On the less modest side, I like to think that this new genre could be picked up by other composers to drive the art of dramatic music-making forward as Caccini, Monteverdi, and Wagner all set out to do.

In light of this modern age why write for historical instruments?

The Renaissance of historical instruments has, in effect, given composers a whole new set of tools and colors to use in their work. A baroque violin with gut strings has a radically different color than a modern violin with steel strings, and a traverso is an entirely different sound than a flute. Why on earth should we composers limit ourselves when every day new virtuosos are born on these old instruments?!

What’s your favorite thing about New York City?

John Lennon, in 1970, described New York as the contemporary Rome. I think that assessment is still valid today. What he meant, of course, is that much of the world’s artistic and political energy radiates from this center. Like many artists I suffer from FOMO (“fear of missing out”), and every single evening in New York City is an absolute smorgasbord of inspiration and event. It is incredibly energizing to live in a city where one can choose from a variety of world-class happenings every night.