With his daring electro-acoustic chamber classical album Loving the Chambered Nautilus still ringing fondly in our memory, PopMatters takes Brooklyn-based composer William Brittelle to task with our 20 Questions.
As co-director of New Amsterdam Presents and its record imprint New Amsterdam Records, William Brittelle likely has many things occupying his time. New Amsterdam is one of America’s most exciting record labels, releasing everything from “indie classical", sophisticated art rock, and in one particularly daring instance, a pop opera satirizing the sexual repression in the Evangelical community. (The latter is Matt Marks’ The Little Death: Vol. 1, and yes, it’s as awesome as it sounds.) With their musical and lyrical interests covering many broad topic areas, their level of consistency is nearly unmatched by any record label, major or independent.
Brittelle’s music can count itself amongst New Amsterdam’s best. His 2010 album Television Landscape was an art-rock affair of the first order, a lush set of nostalgic songs that revealed his ability to work in tasteful, forward-thinking classical arrangements within typical pop structures. His songwriting took a turn for the eccentric in this year’s Loving the Chambered Nautilis, a chamber classical recording with a concept so daring that most would falter before even putting the pen to the staff. A union of chamber strings and ‘80s synth textures, Loving the Chambered Nautilus overcame any conceptual obstacles in its way and has became one of 2012’s most memorable efforts. (My review of Loving the Chambered Nautilus for PopMatters can be read here.)
With the excitement of this release still in the air, PopMatters have taken Brittelle to task with our 20 Questions. Anyone who name-drops Prince and de Kooning as influences without a hint of pretentiousness is about as sophisticated as a modern musician and composer can get, and as you’ll see from his answers below, he draws from sources disparate in many ways as well as unified through bonds that you might not have thought of before. Like he did with Loving the Chambered Nautilus, Brittelle's answers show off perhaps the greatest of his skills: finding ways to bring together the things we may see as oppositional.
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1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Just Kids (book) and Women in the Dunes (book/movie).
2. The fictional character most like you?
There's a private detective in a Richard Brautigan novel called Dreaming of Babylon who is obsessed with a made-up universe in which he is the hero. Whenever things get boring or stressful, he retreats to his inner world and lives through fantasy, usually missing his bus stop in the process. I have a very powerful, almost intoxicating inner world, I think it comes mostly from being an only child. It's really easy to retreat into it when I don't feel like dealing with something.
3. The greatest album, ever?
I think if you put Purple Rain, Pet Sounds, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Thriller, and Dark Side of the Moon together you'd have the perfect pop/rock album, but that would leave out incredibly amazing jazz and classical music, which I also love dearly. So, I guess my answer is that it's yet to be made.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Can I say the Road Warrior?
5. Your ideal brain food?
Seeing the de Kooning retrospective at MoMA was endlessly inspiring. The development of his work, the courage he possessed in continually re-inventing himself, even after he had developed notoriety for a particular style of work, was incredibly powerful brain food.
6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I think I'm proudest of taking my education into my own hands, and still finding a way to build a career as a composer, especially in the orchestral world -- a world I've just recently started to gain entrance to. I never really thrived in academia, especially grad school, and always felt like I had to define myself against the "establishment", which ends up being pretty creatively stifling. David Del Tredici, who I ended up studying with privately for a number of years, helped me realize how important it was to take responsibility for one's own learning process. By dropping out of school I was able to study intensively with jazz arrangers, work in rock clubs, play in bands, and continue composing music without "answering" to anyone but myself, which was really vital to me. It's not that I think academia is, itself, bad -- many composers I know really thrive in that setting, and certainly a lot depends on the individual program -- I've just learned that I'm hypersensitive to the expectations of others, and I need to go to fairly great lengths to protect my creative process.
7. You want to be remembered for...?
I think above all, I'd love to be thought of as having the same kind of courage that de Kooning displayed in his work. For having the capacity for continual growth and reinvention. For always chasing new inspiration, even if it's incredibly inconvenient. I'd also love to be associated with the dissolution of genre in some way, especially in the classical world -- with the destruction of the idea that there's a right way and a wrong way to compose music, stylistically speaking. Above all, I detest the pressure composers are often under to conform to certain standards of creation based on the confines of the "industry" or the conservative agenda of certain figures in the classical establishment.
8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?
De Kooning, Monk, Prince, Coltrane, Ravel, Debussy, Brian Wilson, Matthew Barney, David Lynch, Bach -- the usual suspects.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
I can't imagine writing other people's music, so that's tough to answer. I'd love to be able to paint or create visual art or write really, really good poetry.
10. Your hidden talents...?
The ability to stare at a wall for hours without being bored. And ESP.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
The best advice I ever got was from Richard Lloyd. He was producing a record of a band I was in, and he came to see us play. After the show, we asked him what he thought, thinking he'd be blown away, and he said, "You guys are fucking terrible. All you do is stand there trying to look cool, like you don't even give a shit about what you're playing. How the fuck to you expect anyone to give a shit about what you're doing if you don't." He said that with Television, if they weren't all rolling around with joy on the floor by the end of a song, completely ecstatic, then they knew it wasn't going to mean shit to anyone. I've really tried to carry that lesson with me. Not necessarily the rolling around on the floor part, just the idea that you can't phone things in, or temper what you're trying to do in any way, and expect it to have a real emotional impact on anyone.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
This wasn't really bought or stolen, but when I was about 11 my cool uncle -- he'd been in "acid rock" bands in the '70s and had long hair, which totally blew my mind -- made me a mixtape of awesome prog rock. Pink Floyd, early Genesis, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer. I grew up in rural North Carolina, a very insular, inward looking place, so this tape was my first real exposure to anything beyond hair metal (which I love), classical music from two hundred years ago (which I also love), or the terrible shit that was on the radio (which I still kind of like). I keep coming back to bands like Yes -- one of my favorite moments from the tape from one of their 20-minute tracks, where, out of nowhere, a huge pipe organ solo comes in. Like, why the hell not? It was so album-oriented, that music, it was composed for the studio, an idea I still very much hold with me. There was a high level of virtuosity, but it was always in service of the music. And there was such synergy between the musicians. Such lofty aspirations. I feel like now, with most indie rock, the bar of aspiration is relatively low. The aim is often to give one a vaguely nostalgic feeling or disorient slightly or get you kind of pumped up about stuff. So much of the music is, to me, hazy and half-meant. I just can't get into that. I miss giant, total sincere pipe organ solos and full choirs and theremin solos and twenty minute songs. I miss the sense that mainstream artists are trying for something truly grand and transcendent, even if they fail wildly.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or...?
Somewhere in the middle.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
Without a doubt, Prince. There was something about making music, about moving people, that he innately understood like no other being on earth. Like "I Would Die for You". It's basically the perfect piece of music. It's astoundingly strange when you really listen to it. There's basically very little happening for most of the song. And the things that do happen are just brilliant. The lyrics are incredibly simple, yet sophisticated and moving. Millions of people have made out on the dance floor to it, and you could easily write a doctoral dissertation on it. It's sculptural but immanently funky. Every artist, I think, has to have their basic central truth, their through line, and to me, Prince's is Funky. Every note he wrote/played/sang was Funky.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
Yes yes yes. I'm kind of obsessed with it. I love reading general audience-type physics books and thinking about the outer realms of the universe. I think I would choose to visit the distant future, a time in which humans have terraformed other planets. The idea of living on another planet is totally fascinating to me. Like, the clouds above the surface of Venus, for example. Apparently, if we could build floating platforms, the clouds above the surface of Venus would be a pretty OK place to live. I'd like to travel to when that's happening.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or...?
For better or worse, I really don't have any vices at this point. I basically got all my "vicing" in between the ages of 16 and 26.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
The desert. Particularly southeastern California, Death Valley, Utah. I don't think I could ever live there, but I find it totally inspiring. The place I'd most like to live would be Savannah, Georgia, where I was married. I feel more at home there than anywhere in the world (Brooklyn being close second).
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
If you don't take responsibility for our role in the destruction of the environment, and demand that other countries like China start making drastic changes to the way the create and consume energy, our world is going to be a truly miserable and awful place in the not so distant future.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
An orchestra piece for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and my next big project/album, a series of electro-acoustic art songs tentatively called "Spiritual America", hopefully including a fully produced live component, plus a couple other collaborative projects.