Composing a Novel in Song: An Interview with Violinist Charles Wetherbee

Note from the author: Charles Wetherbee and the entire Carpe Diem String Quartet joined me May 20-22, 2016 for a “Book In Concert” at the McConnell Arts Center of Worthington, Ohio. 


Violinist Charles Wetherbee recently composed “Tasa’s Song,” based on my novel of the same name. “I am thinking of the violin line as Tasa’s voice as she plays her violin,” he tells me.

A devoted chamber musician, Chas is the first violinist and founder of the Carpe Diem String Quartet, one of America’s premiere “indie” string quartets performing today, now in its tenth year performing around the world. “Tasa’s Song” will have its world premiere in Columbus, Ohio at Carpe Diem’s tenth season finale concert weekend, May 20, 21 and 22—as part of a collaborative program also presenting readings from my novel (whose protagonist is a violin prodigy) and musical selections featured in the novel played by Carpe Diem, including works by Paganini, Shostakovich, Smetana, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, and Beethoven.Charles Wetherbee

Chas has performed throughout the world, including in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Canada, Mexico, and the United States. He has appeared at festivals from Aspen to Nice, France; the embassies in France, Germany, Austria and The Netherlands; and esteemed venues such as the Kennedy Center, the National Gallery, and The New England Conservatory’s Jordon Hall. While touring Asia in 1988, he performed in Seoul, Korea as part of the Olympic Arts Festival. That same year, as a participant in the American Music Competition, he made his New York debut at Carnegie Hall to critical acclaim.

A native of Buffalo, New York, Chas began playing the violin at age five, and gave his first performances at age six. He is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied with Aaron Rosand.

I recently spoke with Chas to learn about composition for violin, and about composing a “novel in song.”

What have you previously composed for violin?

I’m hesitant to define myself as a composer. I’ve played violin since I was five, but have come to composition late. I see composers as those who began composing while very young.

162920_750When Carpe Diem formed ten years ago, we found that we had interests, curiosities, and desires to perform outside the standard quartet literature—from popular pieces to classical genre that were not written for string quartet. So there was a need for arrangements—adaptations of the original music for string quartet—and I began to arrange out of necessity. That was my first step into writing music.

My first composition, in 2010, was a soliloquy for violin. It was five minutes
in length. A short while later, Tim Veach, Artistic Director of Columbus Dance Theatre, asked me to write a score of original music for the ballet, Cleopatra. It was successful so two years later, he asked me to write the score for CDT’s 2015 performance of Anne Frank performed in the Lincoln Theatre in Columbus.

I’m now working on a piece for strings and native American flute, called “Anthem for the Ancestors.”

What are the fundamental differences between learning to play violin and learning to compose for violin? Where does one learn composition, and are there different paths to writing music? I compare this to the paths to creative writing—some writers get MFAs, while others learn from reading, practicing the craft, and attending workshops, and do not have the academic degree.

When you are in music school studying the violin, you also study music theory and techniques of form through the centuries. So you’ve learned the grammar, but when you compose a piece of music, you have to have something to say, similar to learning syntax and grammar in an English class. You will know how to write, but you need to have a story to tell.

Composing music is similar to creative writing, in that some go to school to get a degree in composition, and that gives you tools, but then you need to have story to tell.

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Is there a historic burden in writing a unique piece of music in the 21st century with so many pieces of music out there? How have classical compositions evolved?

It depends on how you look at it. During the 20th and into the 21st centuries, it has been a great difficulty for many composers—there was the pervasive attitude that everything with traditional harmony and chord progression had already been said, had been used too many times. So composers began to create abstract pieces, music with atonality. The need to constantly invent new languages or grammar became an end unto itself, and something that is not only a burden to the composer, but also at times a side road that is not productive.

I don’t see the need to reinvent the musical language. I feel that whatever my inspiration is, I’ll try to write it. It could contain elements drawn from various musical traditions, but it will be original in the way I say it.

From where does your inspiration come, and what vision did you have when you began composing “Tasa’s Song?”

Inspiration comes from a lot of different places. For me, I collect kernels of ideas in the back of my head.

I’ve had a few ideas and images kicking around in my head since we first talked about doing “Tasa’s Song.” The first is this young girl playing the violin who becomes a virtuoso, who has a real command of the instrument. Then there’s the fact that she was growing up in Poland in the middle of the century, so certain musical traditions come to mind and will inform the piece. Even the kind of folk music and classical music Tasa was exposed to in central Europe at that time feeds into this melody and harmony and structure.

Finally, I thought about a musician of around this time, Shostakovich, who has used letters of a person’s name as an inspiration for some of his music. I wanted to use the letters of Tasa’s name, TASA, and am exploring distinct pitches for those four letters. All of this is feeding into how I put notes to paper.

But, the important task is to make the music sound good for the audience, because the idea itself it not enough. I’m not interested in just composing from a good idea, because that’s not always a piece of art, it can be flimsy. Like John Cage’s 4’33”, which stands for four minutes and thirty-three seconds of a composition, during which time musicians entered the stage, sat down, didn’t play their instruments, and then exit. The audience only heard “sounds of the environment.” I want my audience to have a pleasant experience listening to “Tasa’s Song.”

How does this process of composition manifest itself? What goals or parameters did you have when you began composing “Tasa’s Song,” in terms of style, form, length, and rhythm, for example?

Sometimes I’ll sit down at the piano and play some harmony as I work these ideas and images out. I almost never pick up the violin at this stage except to see how my hands feel playing the sound—but this happens late into the composition.

I am glad to have the novel as a starting point, as an inspiration. I like to have some image or character as an inspiration to begin a composition. Without that spark, I would find the task of composition too formless.

In terms of parameters, right off I knew that it would be scored for quartet, with an emphasis of having a solo melodic role for the violin. I felt it would be the length of a single movement and would be in the four-minute range. It might have a little bit of a dance feel, but not straight-laced like a waltz—a little less regular, a rustic or folk underpinning of the rhythm.

As a writer, I’d like to understand the similarities and differences between writing a novel or short story, and writing a musical composition. For example, when you compose a violin solo, would that soloist be considered the “main character” who then interacts in dialogue with the other members of the quartet or orchestra, who expresses or reveals his most intimate feelings and thoughts? What about the “voice” of the composer? Is that where virtuosity plays a role—the precision, nuances, color?

In the case of “Tasa’s Song,” I am thinking of the violin line as Tasa’s voice as she plays her violin: the budding virtuoso girl who, in a moment of wild improvisation, might play something in the dead of the night. So this might be compared to a character’s voice in a novel.

But there are times when specific lines of music don’t pair off with individual voices or characters. When I wrote music for Cleopatra, I didn’t think of the instruments aligning with characters. Then with Diary of Anne Frank, I wrote Anne’s theme, her mother’s theme, and one for the boy.

Who are your compositional inspirations?

I couldn’t name one. I think Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms are my inspirations. After 200 years, they still are considered the greatest because they were.

About the author: I began my career as a magazine writer and correspondent for regional and national publications. My debut novel, Tasa’s Song, was inspired by my mother’s early life in eastern Poland, and won a Bronze Medal for Historical Fiction from the Independent Publisher Award Program.