Q&A: Apollonio Maiello

Composer Apollonio Maiello discusses “Sing Swan!” featured on Sputter Box’s debut album.

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

Sing Swan!” is Track 15 on the album.

NATASHA NELSON: Would you first talk a bit about your piece “Sing Swan!” and your choice for its text? What was your inspiration for the composition, and why did you choose the poetry featured in the score?

APOLLONIO MAIELLO: So first of all, it was my first time working with a text which is not my own. I feel like poets oftentimes deal with similar issues as composers: it’s basically composition with words, in a way. We deal with internal rhythm, even how [text] sounds, phonetically speaking. So it always seemed really hard to me to take someone else’s text, who I don’t know personally, and then put it into music.

However, for some reason when I read that text – I have dozens of poetry books by Rose Ausländer, so I was basically reading through all of them – that one really spoke to me. Rose Ausländer, who is the poet in this case, wrote most of her poetry in German. She grew up in a German-speaking society, in the Bukovina, which is now basically the region between Ukraine and Romania. Most of her poetry’s in German, and then there’s also a large part of her work which is in English because she used to work in New York, and she lived there for a good amount of her life.

I guess it’s one of those things that are always a little hard to really point at: the one thing that made me feel like that was the right text to choose. But there was something in the internal rhythm of the text which made me realize that this seemed to be a good text to start working with by composing for voice. And then there’s also something oddly romantic about that text, which I could see somehow putting into music.

“D – A – N” (2020), composed by Maiello for flute, clarinet, and alto saxophone, and recorded by a single performer. Daniel Roncari plays all three instrumental parts, heard here.

Is the poem as set here a translation from German by Ausländer, or did she originally write this particular poem in English?

AM: That’s an original text. It’s written in English.

Have you written your own texts or other vocal music previously?

AM: I haven’t written any other vocal music, but I do write texts as another form of expression. I’ve just finished a piece two days ago for an orchestra in Belarus. It’s an orchestral piece, but the musicians in the orchestra have to whisper a text at some point—that’s a text written by me. It’s easier to put that into music because I already know how it’s sort of supposed to navigate, and what the internal rhythm is—the flow of the text just feels more natural to put that into music.

Oddly enough, this was the first time I had worked with a singer before—it’s odd because my dad is a singer, my sister is a singer, and it just feels very unnatural to me for some reason, although I’m constantly surrounded by singers. My mother is a recorder player. We’re all musicians in the family.

Oh, wow! What was your process for setting the text in “Sing Swan!” in terms of writing for those three instruments (djembe, bass clarinet, and voice)? Do you often work by immediately notating, or at a piano? Do you approach one line first?

AM: I try out different things every time, but I do tend to write on the piano, or to at least start sketching there. Then I usually record myself or notate the staff immediately. I move fairly quickly to a notation system and elaborate the sketches a little more. Then I usually get back to the piano and start improvising and sketching it out.

Now with the text in “Sing Swan!,” I improvised imagining each phrase as a melody, but I also tried to find chords and colors that appealed to me, and then figured out why they appealed to me, and how a melodic line could navigate in that color. That’s gradually how I approached it: to find the right notes at the right time, basically.

I saw an interesting note in the preface to your score for Sputter Box, indicating the use of paper with the djembe, which, of course, you can see and hear in the video recording. Would you describe your inspiration for that choice?

AM: The basic, simple answer would be that I really like the sound of this paper scraping on the drum. But my main idea was to find another way to work with a djembe. I had never worked with one before, and I’m sure it might take a little while for me to work with a djembe again just because it’s not frequently used in Western music.

I think I saw another composer [add that effect] – it might have been Hans Abrahamsen in Schnee, which is a marvelous piece of music – and I really like that sound because it’s a very objective sound. It doesn’t really say too much, but it creates a beautiful atmosphere without implementing one emotion. And I really liked that.

“I really like the sound of this paper scraping on the drum . . . it’s a very objective sound. It doesn’t really say too much, but it creates a beautiful atmosphere without implementing one emotion. And I really liked that.”

I felt like it also fit the text because at one point it’s about breath—it’s about breathing. One could see that sort of movement on the djembe with the piece of paper as a – I’m always hesitant to say imitation – but it sounds like a human, continuous breath. It felt right to use that in this piece. It’s a very subtle sound, but it seemed to work perfectly.

I was really interested to see on your website that you had written a piece for theorbo, viola da gamba, and soprano recorder. Did you write that piece in an early style?

AM: This was for an early music festival in Italy. I had never written for a theorbo before. To answer your question, no. It’s not written in an early music style. I am very interested in composing for early music instruments, or Baroque instruments. Also, in the Netherlands there’s a huge early music scene, so I have access to that, as well.

I try to be as non-idiomatic as possible—to approach it in the way that comes most natural to me, without thinking too much of what has been written for that instrumentation before.

Did your ideas or process for writing for early instruments in that case differ from your approach to writing for modern instruments, such as in this case, for a contemporary classical ensemble?

AM: I think the answer is no because in the end, there’s so much history for those instruments that you can revisit and study. Maybe there’s a temptation to sort of look at it in a different way than, let’s say, more [frequently] used classical instruments. An instrument is an instrument, and it doesn’t really matter when it was created first, or if it’s 200 years old, or 300 years old. I just try to approach it pure and simple. So I guess the answer is no.

In a totally different vein, I saw on your website that you’ve also composed a piece for toy pianos! I was interested to hear more.

AM: Yeah, sure! That’s for a great piano quartet from the Netherlands—Horizonkwartet. Those are supposed to be toy pianos; now, because of the pandemic, they’ve had to practice on whatever they could find. I think they’re practicing it on two pianos and two sort of MIDI-keyboards—something like that. But it’s supposed to be four toy pianos.

“I always wanted to write something for toy piano, and then I thought, ‘Well . . . I have the option of writing for four toy pianos, so why not do that?'”

I always wanted to write something for toy piano, and then I thought, “Well . . . I have the option of writing for four toy pianos, so why not do that?”

Wow! What interested you most about writing for toy piano? Was it the timbre?

AM: Yes. There’s something really beautifully naïve about the sound of a toy piano. It’s never really cute, you play with what you get. And I like the percussiveness of the toy piano, as well.

Interesting! Are there any particular combinations of instruments you tend to write for most frequently?

AM: There are instrumentations that I don’t tend to write for. For instance, although I’m a pianist, I’ve never written a piece for piano, because as a pianist, I do a lot of improvised music. It’s really hard for me to find a reason to notate something on piano just because the approach for me is more of that of an improviser. But other than that, I’m open to whatever instrumentation is available.

I’m composing a piece right now for two friends in Australia for viola and double bass, which is interesting. There’s not a lot of repertoire for a duo like that.

>>rooms<<, composed by Maiello for mixed jazz ensemble and electronics. Recorded at Theaterhaus Stuttgart.

Did the goal of composing this work (“Sing Swan!”) specifically for a digital medium change anything in your approach?

AM: In this case, yes. There were things I had to consider—for instance, that [the musicians] couldn’t be in the same room. That’s the biggest thing, I’d say. I didn’t want to do a lot of things where they had to be together, so they could just record it on their own. I also figured to not focus too much on specific sound qualities, just because I didn’t know which mics they’d use, and how the room was going to be where they recorded. And then, figuring out how to convey a musical idea in one minute. So, those were just things I had to consider.

Does the score for “Sing Swan!” incorporate extended techniques, apart from the indication for the percussionist to use a sheet of paper on the djembe?

AM: Not really. In the end of the song, it says “Voice almost breaking.” I liked [that indication] because it helps fading out in a way. The last two words are “Sing Swan,” so it’s almost as if, then, something should actually happen . . .
. . . Let’s say the swan could start to sing, after the human voice breaks. I liked this feeling of constant expectation, you know? I always imagined it as a gateway for something else to happen.

This interview took place in June 2020. For more music by Apollonio Maiello, visit apolloniomaiello.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