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Peter Askim: Where the New Happens

by Kevin T. McEneaney
Thu May 24th, 2018

Peter Askim at Music Mountain

Peter Askim grew up in Cumberland, Maine. He attended Yale as an undergraduate and emerged with a doctorate. Being a composer, he acquired another doctorate—in composition from the University of Texas at Austin. Currently he is Conductor of the Raleigh Civic Symphony and Chamber Orchestra. He has been Composer-in-Residence of the Idyllwild Arts Academy (halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego). As a musician, conductor, and composer he remains unusual because his work includes both classical music and jazz. His East Coast summer project is the Next Festival of Emerging Artists that kicks off on June 1 at the Egremont Inn and Music Mountain on the following day. Both events are free and open to the public.

KM: How did you choose the double bass as your instrument of choice?

PA: It was the instrument that underlies all kinds of music, the underlying structure that holds everything together—rhythm, harmony, the secret drama of music. It’s not the showboating instrument out front, but the foundation of all music, whatever the genre, whether classical, jazz, or pop.

KM: When you compose, how do you work? What instrument do you first play a composition on?

PA: Well, I’m working with something in my head, and then I’ll go to the keyboard like most composers. I start with a seed and end up growing a forest, and then I’ll try to talk to a single tree and hear what it is saying, especially the emotional implications of it, the nuance and direction, the implications. The singularity and the whole must be on the same page, so to speak.

KM: What inspirations compel your own creations?

PA: I’m especially inspired by nature, landscape, the visual. Also painting, poetry, literature and even everyday sound in general. Sounds sometimes appear to possess an interior language that reflects emotion, an ephemeral resonance.

KM: Who are your favorite contemporary composers?

PA: Haha, there are too many to name. What is comes down to is who I am working with now. Conducting is am immersive experience. At the moment I’m working with a Finnish composer, Liisa Hirsch. Her “Ascending/Descending” is a marvelous work. I’m excited to be doing it.

KM: Why is there such great contemporary music coming out of Finland which has such a tiny population?

PA: It’s obviously the culture, the string educational system they have there. Music is an integral part of the early educational system.     

KM: What else are you working with for the coming Next Festival which emphasizes current creative trends in music?

PA: There will be twenty string players from Yale, Julliard, and other great music schools. I’m working with the soprano Tony Arnold who works with the International Contemporary Ensemble. She has a wonderful voice and is a pleasure to work with. (Editor’s note: Arnold has recorded over thirty discs of music.)  Arnold is always interested in working with what is new. And we are doing a new piece by the Australian Brett Dean. He has done a well-received opera on Hamlet and now we will perform the World Première of “And once I played Ophelia” for soprano and string orchestra. This composition has drama, emotional narrative, new interesting sound, a portrayal of deep emotional states from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There is both dissonance and distinctive lyricism. I’m also working with violinist Jessica Meyer who is a resident artist and fabulous performer.

KM: What advice do you have for young musicians?

PA: Number one: be dedicated to your art. Excellence is the jumping off point for a career. Number two: develop relationships with other musicians, with people you want to work with. Music is a collaborative endeavor and if you can establish relationships with others, those relationships may last a lifetime and become part of your own creativity.

KM: Hope to catch you in Egremont on June 1st for the kick-off of the Next Festival of Emerging Artists.

PA: That would be nice, that venue is just a sampling canapé. The real concert takes place at Music Mountain on June 2nd when we will have the whole orchestra playing the new works that we have been so ardently rehearsing.

A video of a composition by Peter Askim appears below.