Q&A: Samuel R. Mutter

Composer Samuel R. Mutter discusses “The Spice Cabinet,” featured on Sputter Box’s debut album.

Samuel R. Mutter. Photo: Sarah Mutter.

Sputter Box’s debut album, Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box, features more than 25 brand new miniatures, each scored for bass clarinet, voice, and djembe.

The Spice Cabinet” is Track 27 on the album.

NATASHA NELSON: For how long have you been composing?

SAMUEL MUTTER: Probably about three or four years now.

Is there a style or instrumentation that you particularly enjoy writing for?

SM: I really like writing for as many different instrumentations as I possibly can. If I had to pick one instrumentation to write for, it would probably be string quartet. In terms of style, mainly contemporary classical, but I like to mix in folk influence, and sometimes some jazz.

Was “Spice Cabinet” your first composition for Sputter Box’s specific instrumentation?

SM: Yes. I’d written for bass clarinet before, but I hadn’t really written much for voice, and never for djembe, so that was a cool experience.

Was there anything surprising or unexpected about that process?

SM: It was interesting how for this piece, I had trouble at first coming up with ideas, because it was such [an atypical] instrumentation to work with. I couldn’t necessarily find the right inspiration for it, so I sat down at the piano like I normally would do; I improvised and played around with melodies and harmonies to see what I could come up with. Eventually, I started coming up with some material that I thought [could work]. I think that with most pieces, you have the feeling and the emotion you’re going for before you sit down to write it. For this one, I had to find that as I was writing it, and that influenced the lyrics a lot.

The lyrics actually came up after I wrote most of the melody for the soprano voice. I was snacking on some sort of spicy chip while writing, and I thought, “It’s a one-minute piece . . . Why not make it about spices?” And so I went over to my mother’s spice cabinet, opened it up, and looked at the different things and pulled some names that I thought would fit well with the rhythm of the singing. It basically came from that.

Have you written for voice before, and is this the first time you’ve written text for a composition?

SM: I’ve started writing some various jazz-inspired type tunes for a friend of mine who’s a singer, but because of the pandemic never really got to finish those. This was really the first time that I had a completed work for voice. I’ve played around with writing text for a piece, but this is the first complete text that I’ve written.

What instrument (or instruments) do you play?

SM: I play piano and trumpet.

After sending the score to Sputter Box, was the ensemble’s finished recording the first time you heard the composition in full?

SM: Pretty much. I was using Finale – a music notation software – to write it, so I was able to hear the MIDI sounds, but it’s really not the same because there were some extended techniques that I added that you just can’t get from the MIDI sounds. The first time really hearing the full thing was from Sputter Box playing it.

That leads me to this next question: What kinds of extended techniques did you include in the score for “Spice Cabinet”?

SM: For bass clarinet I added slap-tonguing, which creates a percussive effect while also sounding whatever sonority is written. For djembe, I didn’t really [include] any extended techniques; I was just playing around with how to notate it well to go with the different types of drumming that Peter could do. For voice, I added a version of slap-tonguing for voice, in which [the singer] would click her tongue as she sang a certain sonority. Then there was another point in which I had the singer do vibrato by using her hand and cupping it over her mouth.

And one last question: Did a specific idea inspire the decision to add those particular extended techniques? Are they included to primarily help fashion the timbral quality of the piece?

SM: I think it was mainly for the timbral quality, particularly with the beginning part, which is where most of the extended techniques are used. It was creating this atmosphere of mysteriousness – “What’s going to happen?” – especially because there were no lyrics to go with the beginning. [The opening] is mainly vowel sounds for the voice. You’re not really sure what this is going to be about, and then it kicks into high gear a few measures later.

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

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