Composing for the Future: Interview with Troy Herion

Posted September 5th, 2017

Troy Herion is a composer and filmmaker whose works unite contemporary music with visual arts through film, theater, dance, and concert music. His  compositions range from classical and avant-garde orchestral music to intricate and melodic electronic scores. He has teamed up with Dan Rothenberg (director) and Mimi Lien (design) for Pig Iron Theatre Company‘s A Period of Animate Existence, which has been dubbed “a work of symphonic theater” and premieres at the 2017 Fringe Festival. Period is structured as five moments and tackles questions about the future of life in such turbulent times. It also features more than 80 performers including  children and elders, as well as The Crossing, Contemporaneous, and members of the Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale and Philadelphia Girls Choir, and Philomusica. Troy shared some of his thoughts with us on the creation of A Period of Animate Existence earlier this year.

FringeArts: What does the title A Period of Animate Existence mean to you? And how did you first respond to it?

Troy Herion: When you look up the word “life” in the dictionary, one of the definitions you will find is: “a period of animate existence.” Our piece looks at the concept of life from a zoomed out perspective—one that tries to consider where life came from and where it is going. When I think of the dictionary definition of life—a “period” of animate existence—the word period implies something with a beginning and an end. The period of my own life is barely conceivable—to think I have a beginning and an end. But when I zoom out and think about the period of life on earth, or life in the universe, the origins and the future trajectory of this continuum of life are entirely beyond my imagination. When we consider the idea that life is a continuum, that all living things on Earth are part of an unbroken chain going back to the first emergence, and continuing into the future from generation to generation, then the period of animate existence is really on a timescale beyond comprehension.

FringeArts: How do you incorporate or consider the other artistic processes happening on this show when composing?

Troy Herion: I’m sort of obsessed with the ways music combines with things like images, environments, and story. I tend to work holistically by imagining music in some sort of context, which has led me to some more interdisciplinary projects like my visual music films. I’m interested in synesthesia, and I experience music as a very tactile thing. Sounds have color and weight, they can travel like objects in space with momentum and friction. So my music is definitely inspired by colors, textures, brightness, and movement. A Period of Animate Existence is a unique project in that we are writing (and revising) the music, story, choreography, and visual design simultaneously. I tend to be inspired by a concept or an image from Dan or Mimi, and then will write an unfinished demo of music. We then try to combine the music and design sketches, so that each can be influenced by the other.

One of the most exciting and surprising things about music is how it combines with other art forms. When music and images combine, they both completely transform. So I try to keep an open mind while composing, and I wait to see some of the early music-image-story combinations before I truly know where a composition is going to end.

FringeArts: What does the five-movement structure force you to consider? And what does it creatively enable you to do?

Troy Herion: The five-movement structure is something I’ve used in a number of my previous music and film pieces, and it’s really grown on me. I was initially introduced to multi-movement form through baroque and classical music. The classical symphony, which is usually four movements, creates this really wonderful experience of accumulation where each movement is very different than the other, but they complement in mood, tempo, and texture. Our five-movement structure comes from this same idea—to break a theme into five unique perspectives. Maybe each movement could stand on its own, but that would be coincidental because they are designed to complement each other as single courses in a larger more complete meal.

Especially in a piece like PAE, it is nearly impossible to get across complex thoughts and feelings in a single gesture. Each movement is very different, with a unique ensemble, expressive language, and visual design. One of the exciting things about this approach is that we as artists get to explore very different sides of our own minds and feelings. It’s pretty common for me to think: I want to express this in a huge, loud gesture. But maybe it’s better to say it in a whisper. With a multi-movement form you have a chance to do both. The different movements speak through different genres, with their own unique rules. Writing simultaneously in five unique expressive languages—for five completely different ensembles—is a major artistic challenge, and that excites us.

FringeArts: What have you been discussing the most now with your collaborators?

Troy Herion: Early on we spoke a lot about the difference between a “musical” attention and a “theatrical” attention. In other words, the audience experiences a symphonic concert differently than a dramatic play. But what happens when a symphony is performed in the midst of a dramatic play? How can we lead the audience through these very different styles of attention? These questions have influenced us, and we are interested in shifting between musical and dramatic attention throughout the piece.

This project is so big that our conversations are hardly able to keep up with the creative and logistical demands of the day. With each movement there are very different needs—sometimes we are discussing actor facial expressions, or the ways different types of mylar can reflect light, and other times I’m finessing details of the clarinet in a larger orchestration. We are forced to swing pretty dramatically from big picture issues to very detailed decisions.

FringeArts: What makes tackling questions about life, or considering those questions, through performing arts, compelling for you? 

Troy Herion: We’re living during a time when it is difficult to avoid big questions on the future of life. The stability of the ecosystems on which life depends are seriously threatened, and the evidence has become part of mainstream culture. When representing big topics through art, the usual advice is to find some microcosm—find a small example to sit in for the big concept. And we have certainly gone that route with sections of this piece. But I also believe music itself has a special role in communing with big or abstract ideas. I’m thinking about instrumental music—music without text—and how its ambiguities allow the listener to explore thoughts and feelings freely. As a lover of music—especially instrumental music—I have long associated listening to music with a sort of wordless meditation that can lead me to some of the deepest feelings I’ve ever experienced through performing arts. A Period of Animate Existence is genuinely influenced by “musicality” throughout not only the sounds, but the text and design as well.

FringeArts: How has this show pushed your own artistic boundaries?

Troy Herion: Pig Iron is a devising theater company—which means they don’t start with a script. Instead they start with a concept, and as a team they build material through discussion and structured improvisations. It is not uncommon to start a rehearsal with a provocative phrase, and ask actors to build physical and dramatic interpretations for days before building scenes based on some of the discoveries. Classical musicians tend to work very differently. A completed score is expected at the first rehearsal, and the composer’s notation is followed literally down to the smallest detail.

Pig Iron challenged me to adapt some of their devising methods for my work with our musical ensembles. That meant stepping back a little bit as a composer and leaving creative room for the musicians. Over the course of numerous workshops, we developed structured improvisations for up to 15 musicians. Some of our work was abstract—creating sonic interpretations of colors, textures, and gestures. Other times we worked more like a band might—with me bringing in a musical sketch having other musicians suggest additions.

Ultimately I found a way to blend the fruits of our devising sessions with traditional composing to create a lot of the finished score. Composing in the traditional method can be an isolating experience. Essentially the composer sits alone in deep concentration, trying to imagine all sorts of complex sounds before they exist. The devising process is an inspiring alternative—not only do we get to hear the music as we make it, but there is much more opportunity for the music to take unexpected twists beyond what I could have imagined alone.

A Period of Animate Existence
Pig Iron Theatre Company

Sept 22 at 8pm
Sept 23 at 2pm + 8pm
Sept 24 at 2pm + 7pm

Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Zellerbach Theater
3680 Walnut Street
Wheelchair accessible

$39–$49 (general)
$27.30–$34.30 (member)
$15 (student + 25-and-under)

—Interview by Josh McIlvain, May 2017.

Show photos: Maria Baranova

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