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Modern composer Pierre Jalbert talks about his work

Luke Quinton
Rice University's Pierre Jalbert is the visiting composer at the University of Texas Butler School of Music. Luke Quinton

Composer Pierre Jalbert is slim and unassuming. He's in town to teach master classes and work on the final touches of three of his pieces as the University of Texas Butler School of Music's visiting composer.

In a dress shirt and green winter coat, he taps his hands on the table at Walton's Fancy and Staple for emphasis.

The following day, Jalbert was headed to New York, where his cello sonata was being prepped. "And I'm sure they'll play it well, but they'll be rehearsing together, basically two days before the concert."

Modern (award-winning) composers lead modern lives: traveling to performances, teaching and community outreach. Jalbert has been teaching composition at Rice University for 14 years.

"And it's work!" he says. His day is a typical 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. of teaching and trying to compose in his sound-insulated office.

Universities have become the playground for new work. "They have, usually, a lot more rehearsals. So sometimes it ends up being a really terrific performance," he says.

Short practice time is a mark of the world's premiere ensembles, yet, Jalbert says, "That's why orchestra players, many of them, have problems with new music.

"You know, they've played the Beethoven Fifth a thousand times. They don't have to work or think about it too much. They just kind of sit down, get the particular conductor's take on it, and then they perform it."

With a new piece, "Everybody is approaching it with a clean slate, and it takes some time and some effort."

"Luckily there are plenty of orchestral musicians who love playing new music," he says. "Not quite as many as I would like to see, I guess," he adds, laughing.

Raised in New Hampshire and Vermont, Jalbert is of French Canadian stock, but spoke English at home, and the family's name took on an American pronunciation.

He began playing and composing on the piano, and later took up percussion to get into band. After the director heard he'd written a piano piece, she asked him to arrange a version for band. He was in sixth grade.

"I had no idea what I was doing." Every week she'd come and ask, "Are you done yet?" But making a full score is hard work. "So she started exempting me from rehearsal and sent me to the cafeteria with this score paper."

It was his first success, but his father had some doubts. "He thought I should be a dentist, just do music in my spare time," Jalbert says with a grin. When he got a full ride to study with George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania, his parents were mostly appeased.

Jalbert's minimalist music is very engaging, and he writes for a variety of instruments, from saxophone and marimba to opera and the full symphony.

His works, such as "Icefield Sonnets," are like an aural landscape painting.

"Having lived in Houston for so long I think I was sort of nostalgic for Vermont in the winter," he says. The piece skillfully evokes a crisped, ice-covered panorama.

And these connections to the real world are important. "When you tell people what it's about and how it was inspired, they can sort of see where those sounds are coming from."

That piece has a few atonal bits, he says, but, "They're not just an attempt to make weird sounds." They have a connection to the landscape.

Music's challenge, he says, is that it's "an art that goes through time." Unlike a painting or sculpture, "you have to sit through it."

The key is connecting new music to contemporary life. "The music of Beethoven, the music of the Romantic composers reflects, in many ways, the time that they were living in. And that's fine, that's great stuff, but why wouldn't you want to hear music that reflects your own time?"

Masterpieces are being composed today, he says. "To me, in order to keep classical music alive and relevant and well, you've got to do new music. Otherwise it just turns into a museum."