The seed for the piano quintet Clancy Newman will premiere Saturday as part of the UBS Chamber Music Festival of Lexington was a single sound. It all began with a melody the cellist had in his head.
The trick is, though, he first heard it when he was nine.
“It’s just one of the most extraordinary things,” said Newman, the festival’s composer-in-residence and a 2004 Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient. “It’s that moment of inspiration, where your mind is at that moment.”
If the melody for Dream Sequence – the piece that will be premiered as part of a Saturday evening festival program that will also include works by Haydn, Enescu and Dvorak- came to Newman when he was a child, where did the inspiration emerge from? He began playing cello at the age of six and wrote his first musical composition at seven. So what ignited the creative impulse that yielded a full melody when Newman was nine?
“Cartoons. I would say that maybe it came from the world of cartoons,” he said. “The melody is spooky in a sort of cartoon like way. As the piece develops, the melody changes. It becomes almost fugal at times. In other instances, there is almost a jazz influence. There’s maybe even a rock ‘n’ roll influence. It’s all over the map.”
But then Newman has been all over the map a bit himself. He holds dual citizenship in the United States (being a native of Albany, New York) and Australia (where his parents reside). He, in fact, composed much of Dream Sequence while spending the late winter and early spring in Melbourne.
Similarly, Newman works today out of New York City. He was one of the first students to graduate from a five year exchange program between The Julliard School and Columbia University. But he is also a member of the Chicago Chamber Musicians.
“Basically, my life is a lot of traveling,” Newman. “Just in the last year, I’ve been at home in New York far less than 50% of the time. I’m always traveling all over the world. Of course it’s difficult to compose when you’re traveling. So since my parents have a house in Australia, I have a place I can stay that is somewhat isolated. I can get a lot of work done there.”
Newman has traveled a bit stylistically, as well. While studying at Columbia, he performed in New York, especially in Greenwich Village haunts, as part of a rock band playing amplified cello. It was a fun experience, but also an eye-opening one that left Newman with little respect for the business avenues of the pop world.
“I learned a lot from the experience, about the pop world vs. the classical world. It made me somewhat cynical of the pop scene, though. The amount of pressure you seem to be under to sell out and lose your integrity is great. I think it is extremely rare for a pop artist to emerge who hasn’t submitted to that pressure in some way.
“I still listened to rock music and enjoyed it. I’m still a fan of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd. So it’s possible, I suppose, I might have still arrived at some of these same places with my music if I hadn’t played in that group.”
Newman hesitates for a moment before divulging the name of “that group” where he amped up the cello. Then, somewhat sheepishly, he comes clean.
“It was called Clancy. But that makes it seem like I was more involved in it than I actually was. Really, the lead singer ran the show. He asked me if it would be OK if the band used my name. I said yes, but I’m not sure whether it was such a cool idea or not.”
For now, the former Clancy member and present day Newman is exploring chamber compositions that offer challenge for the artist and accessibility for the audience.
“There is always a desire as a musician for music that is challenging and interesting. It’s OK to challenge the audience a little bit, too. But I think it’s also important to have the audience leave satisfied enough that they will want enjoy such an experience again. Certainly when I write my own music, I think a lot about that.
“I think the pendulum is swinging now toward music people actually want to listen to. And, judging by history, it will probably swing too far in that direction. Nonetheless, it’s definitely important to find that balance between the simple and the complex. But that balance is not easy to find. Not at all.”
The UBS Chamber Music Festival of Lexington will be held at 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday at Fasig-Tipton Pavilion, 2400 Newtown Pike. Ticket are $15 and $30 tonight and Saturday; $10 on Sunday. Call (859) 225-0370 or go to www.chambermusiclex.com.