Upon being commissioned to create a new orchestral piece for the Seattle Symphony, composer and clarinetist Angelique Poteat, who turns 29 this month, immediately set to work immersing herself in the oeuvre of her musical inspiration: Pearl Jam.
Having grown up listening to the band as a rock fan, she spent last January listening to the albums as a composer, working out the essence of “what makes them Pearl Jam.” Poteat paid attention to musical gestures, stylistic affinities, polyrhythms, metric modulations, structures and instrument roles. “I did a month of analysis,” she says, “the same way I’d analyze Bartók.”
The completed piece, Beyond Much Difference, will premiere this month as part of the symphony’s popular Sonic Evolution program, which presents new compositions based on work by Seattle music legends. Past shows have included work inspired by Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, Bill Frisell and Sir Mix-A-Lot. Also on this month’s bill are world premieres by French composer Yann Robin, whose piece Ashes is rooted in Nirvana, and guitarist Mike McCready, whose piece Waking the Horizon is based on his decades spent with bands such as Mad Season and Pearl Jam.
All the composers, however, are specifically prohibited from “quoting” any recognizable strains (so if you’re hoping to hear a strings version of “Jeremy,” think again). Instead, the task is a much more creative challenge: Deconstruct the band’s music and put it back together in a way that reflects all of its elements, but sounds entirely different.
It’s a tall order, especially for a relatively new composer. Poteat, who now lives in Greenwood, grew up near Maltby and on Whidbey Island with a mother who liked country western music and a father who preferred rock. “But if I had control of the radio,” she says, “I’d always turn it to classical.” She ascribes her early interest in part to the 1992 HBO kids’ movie Beethoven Lives Upstairs (“It stuck with me,” she says, a bit bashfully) but more importantly, to being exposed to classical via the music program at her public elementary school. As early as age 8, she started writing songs—usually two-part compositions exhibiting “a Baroque flair”—on a Casio keyboard at home.
In elementary school, she also started playing clarinet, although she admits that was somewhat by default, as her school didn’t have a strings program. But she took to it readily, eventually studying clarinet and composition in the music program at Rice University in Texas and earning a Master of Music degree at the College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati. Her specialty is the bass clarinet, a rarely played instrument that she says is “the cello of the woodwind section,” adding, “no offense to bassoons.”
Poteat’s composition work started to take shape during her sophomore year in high school, when she was accepted into the Seattle Symphony’s Young Composers Workshop. The program (which she attended through her senior year, in 2004) requires students to write and submit music for weekly workshop critiques. Poteat says she started out writing “pretty conservatively with a few quirks,” but then-director Samuel Jones didn’t try to change her style. “He taught me how to arrange music, how to perfect my craft, while suggesting, ‘Now try writing in this scale.’” By the end of three years, she says, “my music language was very different.”
Today, Poteat’s compositions are often sparked by natural phenomena. (Past works have been titled “Diurnal Tides,” “Coastal Meander,” “Resonant Mist” and “Cerulean Landscape.”) A cyclist and nature lover, she says she enjoys sitting at Maxwelton Beach on Whidbey Island, listening to the water, the birds and the wind. “Wind creates moments and gestures,” she says. “Not specific notes, but feelings.” If she likes what she hears, she writes down an impression of it. She talks about creating a “cloud of different sounds that shoot in and out of the texture…an emotional cloud for people to connect with.”
In other words, composing is about more than getting all the notes in the right place. Many contemporary orchestral compositions sound like a densely woven fabric—much more so than classical works. Poteat says that’s because the focus is often on pacing and texture and timbre (sound quality), more than transforming a melodic theme to a conclusion. Her own work spans melodic chamber pieces, moody soundscapes and experimental electronica. “It’s important to change music, because people don’t listen in the same way; we aren’t writing for the same people Beethoven was writing for,” she says. “We don’t have the same music education system, even from when I went to school, so we have to captivate the audience in different ways.”
Poteat, who plays clarinet in several orchestras, including the Seattle Modern Orchestra and Yakima Symphony Orchestra, is currently at work on another new piece, for which she recently earned a City Artist grant from Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture.
This time her research involves talking to middle and high school girls about “what they’re dealing with,” from pop culture to peer pressure. She’ll excerpt their words for the text of the piece, which will be performed by the Northwest Girlchoir and Seattle Collaborative Orchestra in mid-November at Roosevelt High School. “This project strikes a personal chord,” she says, noting that she is one of very few female composers. “I’d like to encourage girls to see that you can make advancing your mind a priority over dressing the way you’re supposed to, or fitting into a clique.”
She hopes to make a difference—which brings us back to Pearl Jam. The title of Poteat’s Sonic Evolution composition is a riff on the band’s song “Indifference,” which, she says “is about trying to make a difference in the face of indifference.” Poteat finds the band’s activism and commitment to political causes integral to the music, and she aims to reflect that in her piece. “The storyline is about creating change,” she says. It starts with an unsettled sense, then, one by one, people start jumping in to help. The energy builds until finally, she says, in rock ’n’ roll style, “The last section is a riot.”
Hear Seattle Symphony perform Beyond Much Difference, Angelique Poteat’s world-premiere composition based on the music of Pearl Jam. 1/30. 8 p.m. Prices vary. Benaroya Hall, 200 University St.; 206.215.4747; seattlesymphony.org