Sputter Box’s debut album, Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box, features more than 25 brand new miniatures, each scored for bass clarinet, voice, and djembe.
“A Pool” is Track 18 on the album.
NATASHA NELSON: Would you begin by speaking about your inspiration for “A Pool,” written for Sputter Box?
JOHN SECUNDE: The poet who wrote the text, H.D. – Hilda Doolittle (1886–1961) – is one of my favorite poets. I really liked this poem, but it’s very, very short, so I didn’t really have any context in which to set it that would make sense, other than a very short piece. When I saw this new opportunity, I thought this is the perfect use for this poem.
Have you written for Sputter Box’s instrumentation previously?
JS: I have written for voice in other sort of small chamber contexts, but not this particular trio.
And what’s your primary instrument?
JS: I studied saxophone.
Was composing for this instrumentation different from your approach to other compositions? Did any challenges arise?
JS: I think that so often we’re used to hearing voice with piano or a large ensemble—a fuller sonority. It’s an interesting challenge to have voice in a chamber context, when you’re also trying to make sure the other instruments are playing an active role, too – like in typical instrumental chamber music – so that everyone feels like they have an important part.
How was this process of collaborating with an ensemble remotely different from workshopping a piece of music in person?
JS: If you’re in the room with an ensemble, you can test things out, ask questions. But I think being a wind player, I had a general idea of how things play on the clarinet. I’ve played clarinet before and I also have experience doing some percussion, so I have an idea of what it’s like playing the drum.
I’m looking at the score, and I’m really curious about this initial marking – “Bright, but cautious” – and how it might relate to the mood of the piece, or to the text in particular.
JS: Sure. The text is very abstract, yet clear and specific. It’s not really clear what Doolittle is describing in the phrases:
“I touch you. You quiver like a sea-fish”. . .”What are you—?”
The only [more concrete] description of the thing she’s talking about is “banded one” at the end, which doesn’t really tell you a whole lot. Therefore, “Bright” is sort of descriptive of the fuller-thinking motion, but “cautious,” as sort of unsure.
What was it like writing this type of miniature structure of a piece?
JS: Actually, over the last year and a half or so, I’ve been finding myself more and more drawn to this sort of miniature, aphoristic style of pieces. And so I think this opportunity fit perfectly within that context. It’s an extension of what I’ve been drawn to.
You mentioned H.D. is one of your favorite poets. What draws you to either the poet’s work, or to this poem, in particular—or both?
JS: More broadly, with regard to the poem: it’s very detailed, but it’s also very narrow in focus. Generally, there’s a single object [as the main focus], a lot of the time.
Doolittle was part of this school called Imagism. That’s sort of the whole point of that school of thought: focusing on a very specific, small, single object, and treating that as its own, whole world, which also reflects my interest in the miniature.
Find John Secunde’s website, including recordings of musical works by the composer, at johnsecunde.com.
This article is part of a series, featuring interviews with 16 composers whose work is featured on Sputter Box’s debut album. Read the feature article here!
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. #ShelterInSound