Composer Timothy Andres
Timothy Andres cooks up "Comfort Food" for Present Music's Thanksgiving program.
Don’t make it corny.
That thought popped into the mind of composer Timothy Andres when Present Music commissioned him to write a piece for its annual Thanksgiving concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. (4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 18).
“Thanksgiving music is not a typical thing,” Andres said, over lunch Thursday.
“I’m kind of obsessed with food,” said the young composer, who cooks seriously. “Every culture in the world celebrates with food. It stands in for what the holiday is really about. You might spend more time sourcing a Christmas ham than you spend pondering virgin birth. Preparation of food items is a ritual and definitely what I associate with this holiday — recipes my family has made since I was a little kid.”
Thanksgiving means harvest food, comfort food. So Andres decided to follow that idea to his text. He surveyed family, friends and MCA’s singers about their favorite comfort foods.
“It turns out everyone has different ideas of what comfort food is,” Andres said.
The replies to his query fell into three categories: The concrete and earthy, such as chicken noodle soup; the depressive, meaning alcohol (“red wine and whiskey seem to be comfort foods,” he said); and the spiritual or abstract, and in any case not food at all:
“Solitude,” Andres said. “Cats. Walking.”
The results gave him a text, comprising verbatim lines from a variety of people. The text is a list, not a poem. The categories gave him a natural progression for the music: Earthy to Depressive to Spiritual.
“That’s how I structured the piece,” he said.
The spiritual responses got him to thinking about his own abstract “comfort food”: Prokofiev’s rarely played Symphony No. 7.
“I listened to it a ton when I was a senior in high school,” said Andres, who is almost 27. “I associate it with a time when I knew I’d be leaving home soon and was excited and scared. People dump on the Seventh a lot. It’s very late Prokofiev, when people think he went a little soft, stylistically. It’s like an old-time movie score, and some people think it’s schlock. It’s extremely consonant, and it has some of Prokofiev’s best tunes. It doesn’t get the respect it deserves. I find it comforting, like a warm bath. It always gives me a good feeling.”
Andres appropriated a snippet of Prokofiev’s slow third movement.
“I derived the opening of the piece from that,” he said. “You won’t hear it and think ‘Prokofiev,’ but I kept the intervalic content and some of the harmony.”
He disguised the Prokofiev snippet until the very end, when the literal melody weds to his own line of text — “Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 7” — in the litany of comforts. Rather than extracting rhythm from speech patterns in his text, Andres wrote music and selected text that works with a given musical phrase or moment.
“I assembled the text from the surveys as I wrote the piece,” Andres said. “I don’t like the form of the text to determine the form of the music. To me, that’s a cop-out.
“Harmony is the first thing that attracts me to music. I always do it by ear. I have a good ear for harmony, and I don’t want to fall into some sort of theory. Harmony associates with mood in Comfort Food. I remember thinking what’s the warmest, soupiest harmony can I dream up for chicken noodle soup?”
Comfort Food is Andres’ first choral piece since he composed one as a 10-year-old for his boy choir. That affected the outcome. He described Comfort Food as rather more traditional in its harmonies than much of his work.
“Massed voices singing in functional harmony makes one of the most beautiful sounds,” he said. “Why fight it?”
Timothy Andres vitals: Born in California, grew up in Connecticut. Wanted to be a classical pianist from an early age and continues to perform a great deal — he’ll play the third movement from Ives’ Concord Sonata Sunday at the cathedral. Mother an English teacher, father an editor and writer in the computer technology field. Prefer nickname: Timo (short i, as in “thin”). Studied composition and piano at The Juilliard pre-college school. Bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale. Lives in Brooklyn, NY., and makes a living playing and composing.
For tickets and further information, visit Present Music’s website or call PM at 414 271-0711 ext. 2. In addition to the Milwaukee Choral Artists, Vocal Arts Academy of Milwaukee and the Bucks Native American Singing and Drumming Group will perform at this annual Present Music event.