In the Musical Toy Box: Columbus Composer Richard Jordan Smoot on The American Sound

Jun 11, 2015

In more than three decades composing new music, Richard Jordan Smoot has seen contemporary music embrace every possible mode of expression and medium of presentation. And he hasn't just witnessed this profusion of creativity, he has contributed to it with original scores ranging from all-out electronic music to tonally based music for orchestra and chamber ensembles to full-scale multimedia projects.

"I guess I'd say my aesthetic is like the Wild West," Smoot said in a recent interview.

Hear Smoot's Concerto for Guitar and Chamber Orchestra 6 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Tuesday on The American Sound on Classical 101 in a special festival of central Ohio composers and performers in celebration of the Columbus Arts Festival. 

The concerto's first movement sets the stage with a rhapsody of elusive, winding melodies and a pensive cadenza for the solo guitar. The second movement, Smoot says, has a "longing soul." The third movement is a flamenco fiesta, inspired by a party of flamenco musicians he attended after a concert by a well-known flamenco guitarist.

"It was an extraordinary experience of all this energy, and there’s a spiritual value that is present in the art of the true flamenco, as they say, and it was in the room," Smoot said. "When I wrote the third movement of the concerto I was harking back to that experience."

Quartets

Smoot's Concerto for Guitar and Chamber Orchestra is now one of his established works. In 2004 Smoot turned to composing chamber music and has penned, among other works, three quartets that have been recorded for release during the coming year on an all-quartets CD.

The first of these quartets, for clarinet, violin, cello and piano (2006), started germinating in Smoot's mind many years earlier when he heard clarinetist Richard Stoltzman in a performance with a quartet of the same instrumentation.

"I remember he was playing Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, and of course there was that beautiful solo clarinet (movement), Abyss of the Birds, and I remember just sitting there going, Oh my gosh, I'd love to write for this man someday," Smoot said.

That opportunity presented itself years later and resulted in Smoot's Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano, a work with a discursive opening, a "moonlight" second movement and a third movement that Smoot calls "very rock 'n' roll."

"And I was able to work with an individual I consider to be one of the most gracious and extraordinary performers of our time," Smoot said.

Smoot composed Seize the Day (2010) and, two years later, his Khabiri Quartet for the Carpe Diem String Quartet. For the latter, Carpe Diem had asked Smoot to write a work to be premiered at A Persian Musical Feast, a festival presented in Columbus in 2012 and devoted to explorations of Persian culture. Smoot's Khabiri Quartet, named after his friend and guitar student, Hooman Khabiri, a physician at Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center, evokes traditional Persian folksong, whirling dervishes and the general wonderment a modern-day Westerner might experience on a journey through ancient Persia.

Faust in the Toy Box

As the quartets recording rolls through production, Smoot continues work on Faust, J.D., a work he started in the 1980s and that has undergone a number of transformations as changes in technology have influenced Smoot's artistic vision for the piece. Smoot originally conceived the work as an opera that would package some of his personal experience with academic politics in the personages and conflicts of the Faust legend.

"It's this basic idea of the artist versus the lawyer, the legal versus the creative," Smoot said.

Faust, J.D. transformed into a dance opera with a score rich in electronic sounds, including pre-recorded material. The work was performed in that guise in 1997, then ended up on the back burner as other projects took flight. Meanwhile, Smoot has continued working behind the scenes on Faust, J.D., creating what he now calls "a huge archive of material" for the work, including original video and electronic music.

"What has happened is as I've watched the technology change and the opportunities for presenting work, even work that might have something of an operatic nature, there are wonderful ways of working with technology now," Smoot said.

Smoot is applying all of this material to Faust, J.D., which he says will likely see completion as a multimedia work. And all of this playing with media, all of this tinkering with musical style and modes of expression, seems to fit for a composer for whom the world of sounds, images, lights and movement has always been his oyster.

"My creating as a composer grew out of what I started to do as a child, which was to pick up tools and play with them and try to find a way to communicate ideas that reflected my pursuit of self-understanding," Smoot said. "So it's always been like a kid in a toy box for me."