Alexei Shor is one of the most prolific and widely-played contemporary composers of our time. Currently living in New York, he was the Composer-in-Residence at the 10th edition of the InClassica International Music Festival in 2021 which took place in Dubai, UAE a few months ago. His Concertos for Violin, Piano and Cello, as well as various symphonic compositions were performed by renowned soloists from all over the world, including Mikhail Pletnev, Maxim Vengerov, Daniel Lozakovich and Alexander Kniazev. Our regular contributor Yulia Savikovskaya met with Alexei to talk about his life and work, as well as his participation in InClassica.
Yulia Savikovskaya: Alexei, how important do you think the profession of a composer is for humanity at large?
Alexei Shor: Composers are needed for music to exist, and music is an inherent component of our nature. I think that people started writing music around the same time that they started painting animals on cave walls. There is no other function of a composer for humankind, in my opinion.
Yulia Savikovskaya: I know that you became a professional composer quite late in your life. Where do you find motivation within your own life experiences to create new music?
Alexei Shor: I just enjoy writing music, and naturally the fact that audiences like it and performers play it is a huge motivation for me. But even if it wasn’t the case, I would still be writing music, but probably not as diligently.
Yulia Savikovskaya: Tell me about your process of creating music. What goes on in your head while you are composing? How do you line up and plan the days, the months, the years that lead up to the completion of a music project, to a concert, to the day when we hear that piece of music?
Alexei Shor: My working days are very different. Sometimes there is a lot of inspiration and you want to write new music, sometimes fatigue sets in and you just want to check previous notes. I think you should always work when you have the opportunity. Depending on what the mood is, I do this or that in the sphere of my musical plans and ideas. If I feel really tired, I just sit and read other people’s scores. But I’m always doing something; I think it’s very important to be immersed in music all the time.
Yulia Savikovskaya: What motivates you to write? And what events, on the other hand, can stop you abruptly and make you pause?
Alexei Shor: What motivates me is having contact with musicians and audiences during concerts of my music that I manage to attend. There are no demotivating things in particular, sometimes I am just not in the mood.
Yulia Savikovskaya: How important is it for you to be in the middle of the latest developments in the music world, to know what your colleagues are doing? How much did you travel and listen to new works in different parts of the world before the pandemic?
Alexei Shor: I love listening in general, going to concerts, and not only those where my music is played. I used to go to a hundred concerts a year before the pandemic. I get pleasure out of almost any concert – if I like the music I rejoice, if I don’t like it, I ponder on how it’s written, I search for unexpected harmonies. There is always a source of pleasure. Yes, I follow contemporary music and I am interested in the development of my colleagues.
Yulia Savikovskaya: Which contemporary composers do you look up to?
Alexei Shor: I personally focus on composers of the 18th and 19th centuries. But nowadays there are also many very interesting composers that I listen to with great pleasure. Arvo Pärt, Alexander Tchaikovsky, Tigran Mansurian, Giya Kancheli and Nikolai Kapustin who has passed away recently, and in the younger generation I like Pavel Karmanov. I am sure I have forgotten or missed out many other important names.
Yulia Savikovskaya: I have noticed that many of your pieces are related to the experience of reading books or viewing paintings. How do you transpose other art forms into your music?
Alexei Shor: Whatever happens in life, it is important that some kind of emotion runs through you in the process. It can be an emotion from something as life-changing as the birth of a child, or it can be an emotion from something as trivial as playing tennis and your back hurts. If there is emotion, chances are there will be inspiration to write something. Things like books and travel are the most normal source of new emotions, which is why my works related to reading, watching paintings and travel were formed. The Childhood Memories suite was created when I had young children and my own childhood memories began to surface in my mind.
Yulia Savikovskaya: Please tell us about your residency at the InClassica International Music Festival in September 2021 in Dubai. What are your thoughts about the works that were performed? How has this experience helped you as a composer?
Alexei Shor: It was very important for me to communicate with the performers during the festival, as it was a strong source of inspiration and brought ideas for future. Sitting in on rehearsals has also been useful to me – noting what I sometimes did not like about the sound, seeing things that cause difficulties for the orchestra, and also enjoying the concerts themselves.
Yulia Savikovskaya: Had you previously known or collaborated with the soloists performing your works at the festival? Is there a history of meetings with them?
Alexei Shor: With Maxim Vengerov, we have known each other for many years. I’ve never been to a concert where Alexander Kniazev performed my works before the festival, but he has played them many times. Daniel Lozakovich has also performed my works many times, he’s a very talented young man. I met Mikhail Pletnev at this festival, I’m very happy about that. And speaking of work, I have an endless respect for these people as professionals – my job is to write, theirs is to perform. I don’t intrude with my own advice and suggestions, but if they ask, I’m always ready to discuss, if they don’t, in terms of performance their opinion is certainly better than mine.
Yulia Savikovskaya: What is the audience like in Dubai, apart from those associated with the festival? What are the kind of people who come to the concerts?
Alexei Shor: There is the impression that many people chose concerts according to the principle of ethnicity or nation – at the concert of a Turkish performer there were a lot of Turks, and Armenians came to the concerts of an Armenian conductor, while Russians flooded in when there were Russian musicians present at the festival. Otherwise, there were both tourists and locals. Here, only ten percent of the population is local, and the rest are foreigners, so there is a very strong community of newcomers and nationalities, and the festival reflected this situation.
Yulia Savikovskaya: To what extent do you perceive yourself to be a citizen of the world on the one hand, and on the other hand, how much do the cities where you have lived – Moscow, Kiev, Haifa, New York – influence you in your composing process?
Alexei Shor: I am currently living in New York City. Visiting new places is a source of new emotions leading to new musical ideas, but I don’t see a direct link between music and geographical places, to be honest. I don’t think that when I am in Moscow I am inclined to write music that sounds Russian, and when I am in Israel I want to do a klezmer. New impressions give you new music, and there is no national connection, in my opinion.
Yulia Savikovskaya: Are you part of the contemporary music scene in New York?
Alexei Shor: The Shed (a new concert hall) in New York hasn’t played my music yet, but Carnegie Hall has, and many times. Before the pandemic, New York was one of the focal points of the world in terms of new music – the opera there is the best in the world, Carnegie Hall is one of the best halls with a terrific programme, and a few years ago you could choose from three or four excellent concerts a day. It has changed now, unfortunately.
Yulia Savikovskaya: How has the pandemic affected your schedule? Has your travel been reduced?
Alexei Shor: Travelling just disappeared during this time, the trip to Dubai is my first trip abroad since it started. But unlike performers, I don’t have to travel. I can sit at home and write music in peace. So professionally I am not really affected by the pandemic.
Yulia Savikovskaya: Are you thinking about hybrids, crossovers of some kind in your work? How do you define yourself? Are you a composer of classical music or do you want to go beyond that genre? In your work Crystal Palace you have combined ballet with opera, is that a transitional genre?
Alexei Shor: Crystal Palace was in fact a fairly traditional ballet, we have just inserted a bit of opera into it – historically it has more often been the other way round, a bit of ballet has been inserted into the opera. But mostly I am drawn to concert music, and it is the kind of music I write. Of course, in New York the question of writing something for Broadway is up in the air and there have been offers, but so far there has been no desire on my part to try it, maybe in the future I will come to it. At the moment I’m continuing to do symphonic works and concert music, and there are many projects ahead.
Yulia Savikovskaya: What do you think about the trend of introducing new technologies into classical music? Have you thought about using artificial intelligence or virtual reality in your future works?
Alexei Shor: To be honest, I’m indifferent to it all. There were a couple of occasions when there was some kind of video installation behind the orchestra, but at those moments I just closed my eyes. I think music should be listened to, not used as accompaniment to visuals – at least in a concert hall. In cinema, of course, the situation is different, but I am not a film composer.
Yulia Savikovskaya: What advice would you give to young people who may be interested in becoming composers? This profession seems magical and mysterious, the barrier to it is insurmountable. But still?
Alexei Shor: I don’t think I’m the right person to give such advice. There are some absolutely wonderful books to use in becoming a composer. Many people like to learn through personal contact, then you have to find a good teacher. If there is an inclination to learn from books, there are plenty of them. Learning individually worked for me.
Yulia Savikovskaya: You also have a PhD in mathematics. There are some who believe that the areas of the brain responsible for mathematical and compositional activities are similar, as they are related to structuring elements, finding harmony and calculations. To what extent do you consider yourself a mathematician, and to what extent a composer? Are those areas complementary to each other?
Alexei Shor: I think they are more or less independent. At the stage of learning composition mathematics is very useful, because a person with a mathematical background gets it all into his head quickly. When there are bright kids who don’t really know what to do, and they have to choose what to learn, I always advise maths, because then when they figure out what they really want, with maths it will be easy to switch to anything. It’s the same with music – at the learning stage I think my maths background was very useful. Now I don’t think it’s important anymore, because mathematical knowledge doesn’t help to write a good tune.
Yulia Savikovskaya: Does the structure of a work come through inspiration only, or does it take time and reflection to create a piece of music?
Alexei Shor: Reflection is definitely needed. I don’t know if it should be linked to mathematics in any way. At first I have some musical ideas, passages, then I think about the overall musical structure of the piece, and then I start to write it. Then all these initial plans often fall apart, and something else comes out in the process. But, nevertheless, you have to have an initial plan. You know, like in playing chess – there is a plan at every moment, but it is almost never implemented.
Yulia Savikovskaya: I read that, partly due to social media there is a rapid decrease in attention span among young people. Do you think this will interfere with their ability to appreciate music? Or could music be a cure to protect young people and develop their concentration skills?
Alexei Shor: I think there is undoubtedly such a problem nowadays. I’m always thinking about the audience, trying to figure out whether at some point the listener will get bored. To write a ten-minute slow introduction is a show killer, it would not occur to anybody these days. I understand modern listeners’ peculiarities, I don’t let them dominate my music, but it’s impossible to ignore them either. I can, however, get distracted quite quickly if I get bored with a piece, so I try to make my music interesting for others not to get distracted. So it is always a compromise with new tendencies; yes, you cannot overlook them, as these new generations become your audiences.
Yulia Savikovskaya: Does music entertain or educate?
Alexei Shor: Music doesn’t have to entertain; it doesn’t have to educate. First and foremost, it has to evoke some kind of emotion. It can be evoked by short pieces or half-hour concerts, always in different ways.
Yulia Savikovskaya: What projects can we expect from you in the future, where can people listen to you soon?
Alexei Shor: I’m preparing a violin concerto. Other projects are still in process, can’t talk about them.
Yulia Savikovskaya: Thank you very much for taking part in the festival and this meeting!
Alexei Shor: Thank you, it was a pleasure!