Q&A: Isaac Mayhew

Composer Isaac Mayhew discusses “what a time to be alive,” featured on Sputter Box’s debut album.

Isaac Mayhew. Photo: Nina Sultan.

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

what a time to be alive” is Track 25 on the album.

NATASHA NELSON: Thanks for joining me today for this interview about your composition “what a time to be alive,” written for Sputter Box. Is this miniature the second score you’ve written for the ensemble?

ISAAC MAYHEW: Yes. I got in touch with Sputter Box through the Millennium Composers Initiative which is a composers’ collective that sets up collaborative concerts. The president, Josh Trentadue, is another composer who participated in the “Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box” project. MCI has a number of composers, spread out all over the country. There are also a couple international members now.

The idea is for composers who are young, at the gaining-a-foothold stage of our careers, to help each other out. The main thing that the group does is put on collaborative concerts. One of those concerts was set up with Sputter Box. [The concert was postponed due to COVID.] This is my second time writing for the ensemble, and the first time I’ve heard them play my work.

How does the miniature written for the “Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box” project contrast from the first score you wrote for the ensemble?

IM: The first piece, “Hide and Seek (a colony of trees),” is much longer. It’s more structured around the vocal part. The piece incorporates a poem that a friend of mine who I work with here in the Twin Cities, Xander Gershberg, wrote. I structured the piece around that poem, whereas the miniature is much more centered around Kathryn playing clarinet. In “what a time to be alive,” the miniature for the “Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box” project, there’s just one little vocal line, which is the title of the piece. It comes in right at the end.

What inspired the miniature’s title?

IM: We’ve now been social distancing and locked down on various levels for two or three months, and so things have kind of begun to feel normalized. But essentially, while I was working with the text back when this piece was written, everything was super new. And so it’s one of those things: you can tell that we’re all living a historic path right now, which I guess I’ve personally never quite felt to the extent that I have in the last couple months.

Would you describe your inspiration for writing the score, and anything in particular you’d like to share about it?

IM: Sure. It’s a one-minute miniature. The piece came together super-fast. Sputter Box put out their call announcing “Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box,” and I remember reading the project’s details, thinking the whole project felt super-clever. I remember feeling really energized. I think that comes off a lot in the clarinet part, which is super hard.

I wrote the piece in a day. It’s a short, repetitive piece. The first third – or half – of it is basically solo bass clarinet. The idea is that it’s feeling its way into this leap-y, mixed-meter groove, that the other parts of the ensemble eventually join in. In terms of starting the piece, the process of composing the miniature was first coming up with that groove, then figuring how to fit in the percussion part, and then going back from there and developing into that section.

A piece that I really like in terms of inspiration is press release (1992), a solo bass clarinet piece by David Lang. The bass clarinet’s an instrument that has the ability to play extreme ranges and has very distinct timbres in each range. Writing in that style for me is really taking advantage of that. That’s something that I tend to gravitate towards when I write for the instrument.

“The bass clarinet’s an instrument that has the ability to play extreme ranges and has very distinct timbres in each range. Writing in that style for me is really taking advantage of that. That’s something that I tend to gravitate towards when I write for the instrument.”

What’s your primary instrument?

IM: My primary instrument is trumpet. I started composing formally when I was in sixth or seventh grade. Trumpet was my first introduction to reading Western music and being educated in that tradition.

What’s the instrumentation for “Hide and Seek (a colony of trees)”?

IM: For that one, it’s soprano, bass clarinet, and a pretty simple percussion setup, as well—mostly toms and some cymbals.

One of the things the poet, Xander, and I were talking about before either of us had started the process, was that we were interested in the idea of connecting two ideas which are super different from one another, and finding a through-line for them—but not necessarily connecting them. And so he went through the poem and deconstructed its language. The first section of this poem is about a boy hiding in a tree, listening to his parents fight. The words of the poem are – literally – deconstructed, and then reconstructed into a completely new section about a forest. It has a different tone. It’s very different also in subject.

Those two sections are really tenuously related, but literally, the language that is being used is the connective tissue. I tried to mirror that in the music and I felt like percussion-wise – for the second section, especially – the strength and power of a tree is an important feature that I wanted to pull out somehow. I thought drum-kit percussion would be a good way to evoke that.

For “what a time to be alive” – the miniature – did you begin with its text, which we hear at the end of the piece, or did that come later?

IM: The title came first. My composing style generally tends to be stream-of-consciousness, and this is definitely another example of that. I started writing this bass clarinet line because it’s really effective and fun, and then pieced together the [rest]. I had just been working from home for my day job for the third day, or something like that. Where I live in the Twin Cities, in Minnesota, we were early on into people feeling the everyday effects of the pandemic, and what that would mean for normal life. In not including the vocal line for anything other than that last section right at the end, there’s a little bit of almost humor that I’m hoping to pull out through the piece: everything is getting started and all of a sudden it’s over. It’s one minute long and it really develops into itself: there’s four measures of that and all of a sudden, the piece is over. It’s supposed to become a little bit ridiculous. The times we’re living in are ridiculous, you know? In a more serious way than that, obviously.

When we think about how a composition’s text or musical content can take on new meanings in different contexts and at different times, how do you feel that might relate to this piece? Given this specific inspiration for the composition’s text, and how it’s integrated into the score in this way, do you feel that this text should always be interpreted in a very specific way as related to the times in which it was created (and to which it reacts)?

IM: That’s a great point. No. I think that if you were listening to this piece, maybe in another time period in the future, I think it’s clear from the context of how this piece came about, given the project that Sputter Box put together, that it’s about living through the COVID-19 pandemic. But, it could just be about living in a very uncomfortable time, you know? I don’t think it needs to be – and actually maybe I prefer that it not be – interpreted like that. I like the idea that any listener can transpose it onto their situation, regardless of what that is.

What’s another project you have in the works currently?

IM: As a trumpet player, I’ve put out a call of my own to have a bunch of local composers write trumpet miniatures. The title of the project is “Walking Songs.” A composer from the Twin Cities area submits a piece titled after the neighborhood or the area that they live in or have spent time in, especially during the lockdown. Once the pieces are completed, I’ll record them and release them in the same format that Sputter Box has been doing. The project on the whole is like a collage of the Twin Cities.

The project “Walking Songs” is now an album, a musically-inspired collection evoking the Twin Cities, each performed by Mayhew. The 13-track album of miniatures was released on November 6, and is available on Bandcamp.

The above interview took place on May 31, 2020. For more music by Isaac Mayhew, visit isaacmayhewcomposition.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