by Mike Telin

Monica Houghton’s Songs Without Words will be one of the featured works on Sunday, February 20, 2011 at 3:00 pm, when the Cleveland Composers Guild teams up with the Cleveland Classical Guitar Society for “Guitar Plus” (music for guitar and other instruments) at Christ Episcopal Church in Shaker Heights. We spoke with Monica Houghton by telephone.

Mike Telin: Is this your first work for “Guitar Plus”?

Monica Houghton: I have never written for the combination of guitar and flute before. I have written some pieces specifically for the guitarist Don Better, who I met in graduate school at CIM, and he is a colleague of mine now. I wrote some songs for soprano and guitar, as well as a solo piece for Don, which he has played quite a few times.

MT: How did Songs without Words come about?

MH. Don asked me to write a piece for him and a friend who played five string electric bass, but that project didn’t work out so well because the bassist did not read music. So we got in to this sort of never never land. I kept thinking that I would just play through the part and he could get it, but it just doesn’t work that way crossing between the classical world and the jazz world. It can be an interesting experience for both sides I would imagine. Anyway, I really liked the music, and the piece was based on a poem from the Chinese Tung Dynasty poet TuFu. He is one of the greatest poets of all time. So this was a poem that I liked called “New Moon”, and that was what I had based the piece on, I thought I didn’t want to let the piece go, so when this concert opportunity came up, I thought ‘oh well, I wonder if I just took the bass part and put it above the guitar part and messaged the music a little bit, I could make this a piece for flute and guitar?’, because for some reason, the sound of flute and guitar seemed to fit the poem. It is odd to think that you could turn a piece for electric bass and guitar into a piece for flute and guitar, that you could perform that translation without having major damage. But it seemed quite natural, and I was surprised. So I went with that, but then I saw the piece was a little short so I wrote two other pieces to go with it, which are also sort of riffs on TuFu poems.

Rather then get into the whole thing about which poems to set and getting permissions to use texts and all that stuff, I just called them songs without words. I do think that a lot of times it’s just nice to let the listener hear the music for it’s own sake. A composer has to get their inspiration from a source, but you don’t have to have a huge amount of depth about the process of composing. I think people are curious to know, but they don’t necessarily want to know the whole nine yards.

MT: You have your Bachelor’s and Master’s in Chinese and East Asian Studies from Harvard.

MH: Yes, I have always been interested in that part of the world, especially the poetry.

MT: When did you begin composing?

MH: I didn’t start composing until about 20 years ago. I guess I have an affinity for it in that I do enjoy a creative life. It just suits me. Maybe I am always thinking about things, and I am always processing them in some way that translates into music.  And Once I discovered composition, it seemed like a good fit for me. And I guess you could say that I have never looked back.

I think music is a wonderful art form unlike any other. It is not that our society is particularly excited about the kind of music that I write, I guess, but they really don’t let you know about how excited they are. It doesn’t pay well and you’re never going to become famous. Well there might be one or two contemporary composers that have become “famous”, but still the man on the street is not going to know who they are. Even someone like John Adams. So I guess that one just does it.

MT: You have an extensive catalogue with a variety of combinations and genres, but, aside from the opera, the longest piece is only fifteen minutes. The majority are under ten minutes, and the majority of those are five minutes or less. It appears as though you know what you want to say and you say it, not feeling a need to drone on. Am I correct?

MH: Actually, yes you are, and I do tend to have this idea that it is better to leave people wanting more rather then trying to make a piece longer then it needs to be. At the same time, I think I would like to write longer works, and in some ways maybe it’s a question of building up to it. At some point I would love to write a concerto, but it seems like a huge undertaking, and it would have to be a larger statement. Obviously the opera was a large statement, but that was something that I wrote of a period of several years.

It is interesting that you ask this, because I was just thinking about how it would be great to write a larger piece. The other issue that is connected to that is that normally I do not write a piece unless I have a performing ensemble or a commission, a venue or an artist in mind, so I can be sure there is going to be a performance. And when you are not a well known composer, writing shorter works often means that you have a greater possibility of them being programmed, because people are looking for a starter on an orchestral program, for example, which is usually about seven to eleven minutes. In the case of chamber music, my major outlet for performances has been the Cleveland Composers guild, and their standard concert format is pieces that are ten minutes or less on average. So maybe that is also a reason why my catalogue so far looks the way that it does.

I also like to write music that people will enjoy performing, so that they will perform it again. So when I write, I tend to think a little bit about what the performer might get out of the piece. Of course I also think about the audience and I want to try to communicate to the audience. I want them to walk away from the concert thinking Wow! that was neat, or I really liked that part of that piece. As a listener, I resent pieces that I think are rambling, and so I try to avoid doing that to other people with my music.

MT: As a writer, many times it is not writing 3,000 words that is difficult, it is writing 500.

MH: That’s interesting, and yes, even before I became a composer I always had a thing for less is more, and not just in terms of length but also things like the complexity of the music itself. I am often on a quest to try to say something in the simplest possible way, the clearest and most direct way. I grew up in the high desert out West and think that esthetic has always been part of my artistic thinking.

Read the preview of the Cleveland Composers Guild Concert on here.