Madeliene Richter-Atkinson: What inspired you to pursue composition?
Joel Puckett: My dad’s a musician, and when he had me in piano lessons as a kid I would make mistakes and rather than admit my mistakes, I would just sort of go with them. Dad was great in encouraging me to nurture those mistakes and create new things out of the wrong notes, so it was nurtured from an early age by him. I didn’t think much about it, about writing pieces and creating things, until I got to high school and wanted to impress girls. I had a choral director who would let me write things for the group and then conduct them...and that seemed to get the attention of the people who I wanted to get the attention of!
MR: What makes your compositions unique from other composers?
JP: I think the easy answer is that I wrote them. All of my personal biases and all the things I like in music show though. But a little broader answer would be that I believe that every new piece is required to teach the listener in real time how to listen to it. In other words, you’re coming to a concert, you’re about to hear a piece you’ve never heard before, that you have no context for. So I believe it’s my job and responsibility all along the way to take you by the hand and reassure you that you’re in good hands, and I’m going to help you understand this new experience. Now, some composers don’t feel that way, and so regardless of what kind of story I’m telling, I feel pretty comfortable that someone who comes in and sits down and is a careful listener have a good experience with one of my pieces.
MR: What does your music have to offer to your audience, and what do you want them to take away from it?
JP: I’m always just trying to relate myself to the listeners, so I’m just trying to connect with people on a personal level. It depends piece to piece, but most of my pieces have some kind of very personal, relatable experience that is more or less common to most of humanity, I think. My flute concerto is about the loss of a child. I think most people can relate; if they’ve lived long enough they can relate to losing someone who they love. Speaking honestly about that, and speaking musically honestly, and trying to lay bare the intention and at the same time doing what I was talking about before (trying to lead people into a journey where they can be vulnerable in their listening), I feel a real mission to try to help people understand that music can be a healing process, not unlike religion. It can really bring about a feeling of peace and hope and even despair. The communal act of performing and listening really is a healing process.
MR: What was involved with the process of making your September 11th piece “this Mourning”?
JP: I was pretty young when making that piece. I mean, older than you , but still fairly young. I think I was still in my doctorate when that happened. The opportunity came, and I was in no position to turn it down, being fairly young, but it was a really daunting process. You have an event that is so...it’s a transformative event, and there were lots of pieces being written at the time. I’m sure you don’t remember this, but there were pieces written at the time that I felt were kind of exploitive of the moment in time to try to make a little hay off the back of other people's misery. I’m not talking about John Adam’s masterpiece, “On The Transmigration Of Souls”, but I’m talking about other pieces. For that reason, what I wanted to do with that piece was not write a piece specifically about September 11, 2001. I wanted to write a piece that was more about losing hope and then finding hope, so I chose texts that were either vague or timeless. I chose to frame the piece with an Emily Dickinson chorale, and I laid the first movement, and I let the choir sing the first line, and then there’s an orchestral interlude, and then the choir begins chanting the Lux Eterna text. Timeless. Then the second movement is a poem about Abraham Lincoln and his assassination, but never mentions him, and ultimately just talks about that as America losing a deity...what that means is when America loses the spirit of a great one, we can look at nature and see that nature doesn’t really care. It just moves forward. Then I come back to the Emily Dickinson in the third movement. I think that that...I mean, I like to think that I achieved what I set out to do in that piece, which was write something that’s ultimately really sad, but the third movement takes a turn towards the idea that we can grow out of that terrible event and be better for it.
MR: How has your personal life influenced your art?
JP: It influences everything. I don’t understand people who don’t include their personal lives in what they do. Lots of composers do not on the surface include their personal lives, and I just can’t understand that. I can only understand making my life into what I do. Even down to the big project I’m working on right now: this big opera about something that’s a hundred years old. It’s the chicago Black Sox scandal of 1919, and that seems pretty far removed from my personal life, but ultimately that story is about a bunch of over-talented people who are undereducated being taken advantage of by the 1%. Not that I feel like I’m being taken advantage of by the 1%, but I certainly can look around the the people where I live and the people I care about in my family who certainly are not members of the 25%, who are struggling and being taken advantage of by powerful interests, and it makes me invested in telling this story that is a hundred years old but is incredibly pertinent right now. I think that’s the key for me. I try to tell stories and write music that’s a story of me right now, cause that’s really honest, and I feel like if we all just talk honestly about who we are and where we are, it’s much more relatable than anything else we can talk about. We’re all going through the same stuff.
MR: If you could compose for any event, thing, or purpose, what would it be and why?
JP: That’s a great question. I feel like I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing write now, writing this piece for the Minnesota opera, but if I could go back in time I really wish I could have written something for the 2008 inauguration. I really would have loved to be able to do that. But that was not in the cards. I wouldn’t mind being asked to write something for the 2016...2017 I guess, but I don’t think that’s gonna happen, either.
MR: Which is your favorite piece you have composed and why?
JP: Oh, of mine?
JP: Well, I have two answers.
One, my favorite to listen to as an audience member is a piece I wrote called the “Billytude”, which is a short, almost inconsequential piece, for solo piano. It’s maybe 5 mins long, but it’s...do you know who Billy Joel is?
JP: So Billy Joel was a big popstar in the 70s and 80s. He wrote songs like “The Piano Man”, “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant”, “Uptown Girl”, “Tell Her About It”….he was a big deal. Anyway...for me he was very important because his primary instrument was piano. Not like Alicia Keys or Lady Gaga. I mean, this guy can play the fucking piano. He can play, y’know? I mean, really play and really write interesting things. And his voice is really like bronze. It’s amazing. So that’s where I learned my chops. I grew up playing at piano bars in high school, playing Elton John and Billy Joel, and in graduate school playing at dueling piano bars doing the same thing. I wrote this piece that’s basically an etude for anyone who wants to learn how to play like Billy Joel. But it sort of took a hard right turn and became an etude that Liszt probably couldn’t play. I mean, it’s really hard. So it went from etude to fantasy really quickly. Anyway, I like to listen to that.
There’s another piece — the 2nd movement of my flute concerto. The concerto is called “The Shadow of Serious”, and the middle movement is called “I Have Shadow”. Although I have a hard time listening to it, because I become sort of emotional, writing that movement saved my life because I was in a pretty deep depression, and the process of writing that movement saved my life, without any exaggeration, so I have to say that that’s my favorite.
MR: Who are the composers you are influenced by?
JP: The people I studied under in graduate school were people I sought out because I admired their music so much, so I’ll say Michael Daughurt and William Bolcom. Both of them I’d known about when I was in high school, and I’d really wanted to study under them, so after my undergraduate I sought them out and they happened to be in the same place. Another composer I really admire is Hans Abrahamsen. He’s an unbelievable composer, and I feel a real kinship to him and what he’s doing, at least in the last five years. He just won the Grawemeyer.
I also find lots to admire in my friends’ music. I don’t necessarily align with it aesthetically, but I just find lots to admire in it. Carter Pan is one of my favorite people, and the next visiting composer to UT, DJ Sparr, is my very best friend. We’ve known each other nearly twenty years now. In fact, he piece that the New Music Ensemble is going to play of his, “The General Electric”, he wrote in my basement. There’s just lots of people like that that I just admire...Christian Fanini, Kevin Putz….
MR: If you could write for anyone, who would it be and what would you write for them?
JP: Well, I don’t know if you came to my talk at UT, but I’m a big believer in dream boards. A dream board is a board where you put up pictures of things that you want, and most people will think of materialistic stuff, so they’ll put up a fancy car or fancy house or whatever. But for me, those aren’t the things I’m interested in. The things I’m interested in are working with exciting people; people who make me want to be better, who inspire me. So most of my previous projects have started high in the sky dreamboard posting. I’d love to tell you who’s on my dream board right now, but I really, really believe that if I say it out loud the universe starts working against me. I know that makes me sound like a cook, but I can tell you the previous people who have been on it. I had Anthony McGill on my dream board, and about 6 months after I put him on my dream board I ran into him on the street, and I wrote him a concerto a year later. Now he’s the principal clarinet of the New York Phil. So...let’s put it this way: I figured out a way to work with the people I have dreamed about working with. If you look back at the people I have worked with, I expect at some point they were in my wildest dreams. So now my wildest dreams are up on my board, and if I talk with you in about two years, I can tell you about the wildest dreams I have.
MR: Well then I’ll have to catch up with you in two years and finish this!
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