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Eric Nathan Compiles Texts for a Song Cycle Inspired by Historic Correspondence

April 22, 2014
Eric Nathan at Basilica Santa Sabina in Rome (Photo: Luyuan Xing)
Eric Nathan (center) conducting Scharoun Ensemble Berlin (Photo: Markus Wiedmann)
"LUMEN" (2014) created by Rome Prize Fellows Catherine Wagner (artist), Thomas Kelley (architect) and Eric Nathan (composer) and landscape architect Loretta Gargan. Photo: Altrospazio
Eric Nathan (right) with violinist Xiang Yu (left) and pianist Mei Rui (middle) after the premiere of "DUO" at the Louvre Museum in September 2014
Eric Nathan (left) performing in the Academy's salone with Scharoun Ensemble Berlin's hornist Stefan de Leval Jezierski (right) and bassist Javier Moreno (middle), composer fellow at Real Academia de España en Roma (Photo: Markus Wiedmann)
Eric Nathan working in his studio in Casa Rustica at the Academy. Photo: Arianna Gullo
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Eric Nathan is the winner of the Frederic A. Juilliard/Walter Damrosch Rome Prize in Musical Composition and a Composer from New York City.

What part of the United States did you come from?

I grew up in Larchmont, NY, but I have been living in New York City for two years prior to my coming to Rome. Upon returning to the U.S. I’ll be moving to Williamstown, MA, where I will be assuming a teaching appointment at the Williams College Department of Music as Visiting Assistant Professor in Composition for the 2014-15 academic year.

Why did you apply for the Rome Prize?

I applied for the Rome Prize in part because of the precious time the fellowship affords one to devote to creative work, but also for the opportunity to be immersed in such a vibrant interdisciplinary community of artists and scholars who are all actively creating. One of my favorite aspects of the fellowship has been the opportunity I have had to engage with the other fellows and visiting artists. Our conversations have provoked me to see and understand my work from new perspectives and the collaborations that the Academy helps foster between Rome Prize fellows have been some of my most rewarding experiences here.

Describe a particularly inspiring moment or location you've experienced in Rome thus far.

There are too many to list – the solemnly beautiful grove of umbrella pine trees at Villa Doria Pamphili that inspired my trombone work, experiencing Borromini’s church Sant’ Ivo alla Sapienza for the first time, or getting happily lost wandering through Rome’s winding streets. But one that stands out as particularly special was a visit to see both Michelangelo's and Sangallo’s wooden architectural models of their proposed designs for St. Peter’s Basilica, which are stored in a chamber above the main space of the basilica. Sangallo’s is incredibly well preserved, meticulously detailed and large enough to walk through – but, most inspiring was experiencing walking through the space of this model that “didn’t make it,” and which has, with a few exceptions, been hidden from public view for the past four hundred years.

To what extent, if any, has your proposed project changed since your arrival?

My projects have remained the same for the most part, but I have enjoyed the opportunity to embark on additional projects in collaboration with the other Rome Prize fellows. Two such projects have been an interdisciplinary immersive installation, “LUMEN,” created with artist Catherine Wagner, architect Thomas Kelley and landscape architect Loretta Gargan for the Academy’s art exhibition “CINQUE MOSTRE,” and a collaborative, semi-improvised silent film score I created with composer Dan Visconti to an excerpt from Reynold Reynold’s film the “The Lost,” that we performed at the Nuova Consonanza Festival.  These projects have led me to experiment with my music in new ways and have sowed the seeds for some potential future collaborations.

Have you had any "eureka!" moments or unanticipated breakthroughs in the course of your work here?

One such moment occurred in composing my work for unaccompanied trombone, “As Above, So Below,” commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for Principal Trombonist Joseph Alessi. In September, I bought a trombone on Italian eBay.  In experimenting with the trombone, I completely removed one of the tuning slides so that when a valve is pressed, the sound either projects forwards out of the trombone's bell, or backwards from the opened tuning slide, creating two very different types of sound. My learning to play and experimenting with the mechanics and physicality of the instrument led me to realize that my work should be a dialogue between these two “instruments” housed within the single trombone.

What part of your project has been or do you anticipate will be the most challenging?

The most challenging aspect of my project has been creating and compiling the texts for my song cycle inspired by the correspondence between Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. I compiled and placed in a narrative various texts written over the period of twenty years, some of which I had to “create” myself by excerpting lengthy essays or diary entries of prose to form poetry that could be more easily and effectively set to music. This was the first time I had done something like this and to this scale, but I’m very excited with the result and can’t wait to finish setting the texts to music.

What's surprised you most about living in Rome?

Coming from New York, where most of the architecture in the city is relatively new, and when buildings fall to ruin they are more often than not torn down and rebuilt, I was struck by the contrast in Rome, where there is an embrace of ruins and the process of ruination, and that these ruins are incorporated into the basic fabric of the city. Surrounding me in Rome is a daily reminder of the past. A great example of this was a visit to Basilica San Clemente, which is built on top of two previous temples created hundreds of years apart, the earliest dating back to the first century. Being able to descend the stairs between the churches felt like going back in time.

How do you anticipate your Rome Prize Fellowship will influence future work?

I think that the physical engagement with instruments in music making, through the jazz performances that I have given in live concerts in Rome, but also the experimenting I have done as part of my compositional process, has enhanced an experimental quality in my music – mining the musical potential of the limitations and unexpected uses of an instrument’s mechanics, with regards to texture, timbre and tuning – that I think will continue to play a role as part of my musical language. In addition, after completing interdisciplinary collaborations with some of the other fellows this year, I very much hope to incorporate more site-specific, multi-disciplinary projects into my creative work going forward. Living and working in this creative community has also enriched my thought and life in so many ways – I don’t yet know how all my experiences will affect my future creative work, but I know that there is no way that the experiences here cannot but continue to influence my work later on. I look forward to finding out.

What is your favorite spot at the Academy? or in Rome?

My favorite spot is the fourth floor terrace that has a spectacular view of Rome and the mountains beyond. I like to go up there in the mornings before composing – it helps to center my thoughts and get me ready to write some music.