Chris Pratorius on the art, community and addictive quality of writing music
“Composing is addictive,” admits the man at the keyboard. It can start with a poem, or a melodic idea. From there to keyboard, to written score, to computer editing, and finally a print-out of the musical score. Move over Beethoven—this is the new era of musical composing and Chris Pratorius is in the thick of it. Currently revising one of his operas, Pratorius recalls a recent commission for vocal ensemble set to poems by Federico García Lorca.
“I looked for a thread in the poetry,” explains Pratorius, an acclaimed Santa Cruz-based composer who teaches music at UCSC and Cal State University, Monterey Bay. “I spoke the words over and over, looking for a thread, for interesting rhythms and flow. Then I wrote one of the melodies on old-fashioned music paper,” he grins, “just focusing on one melodic line at a time.” Adding harmonies at his electronic keyboard, he then divided the music into vocal parts, guided by intuitive feel and deep background in composing and music history. His initial drafts of pencil on lined staff paper look like calligraphy augmented by areas of sheer graffiti—the first draft of a working composer.
After annotating the written score, Pratorius then inputs the draft into his Finale computer program. “The primary reason to put music into a computer is to create musical scores,” he explains. “It’s also a way to do editing, to create another draft, and to make audio files to send to potential music publishers and commissioning agencies.” The keyboard, console and work table fill the entire dining room space of his vintage apartment in downtown Santa Cruz.
The song cycle Contraponientes is set to modal harmony which allows for many flavors of sound, he explains, and “a lot more variety” than traditional Western classical music.
“You’re always starting from within a cultural context. That makes new music like mine different from sampling, which references or collages other work.” Something like the difference between Pollock and Warhol. The composer agrees that “people have always had trouble listening to new music. In the past, even if we hadn’t ever heard a piece, there was at least a shared musical language. Now I’m writing in a narrow tradition—this music is no longer the center of culture. But at least that means there are no restrictions,” he says, smiling broadly.
Pratorius’ maternal family comes from Guatemala, and although he was born in Houston, the composer moved often as he grew up. Guatemala, Colorado, Mendocino, Texas, and in 1991 to Santa Cruz, where he went to Cabrillo, discovered that he was good at music, and got serious. After a master’s degree in music from UCSC, Pratorius realized that he was also good at teaching, which he admits is a lot easier than composing.
Currently, Pratorius is adapting his own score for a children’s opera, My Head is Full of Colors (to be premiered next month with conductor and artistic director Nicole Paiement’s opera Parallele), into a work for a full chorus UCSC production in spring. He opens the score on his computer, selecting sections to back so that we can hear it on “fake instruments.” I spot frequent use of dissonant chords which proceed into lyrical passages and moments of resolution. Pratorius claims to have no preference as far as compositional topics. Right now he’s saying yes to all commissions, while maintaining the “day job” that most artists require in an era that lacks royal or ecclesiastical patronage. “The coolest part of having a work performed is meeting with the players, working on interpretation—you get to be part of the community of music making.” When pressed, Pratorius describes his own work as “lyrical, colorful, with bits of Moorish and Spanish. I’d say that I’m good at melody and mood. My music also contains some bit of darkness.” He plays me an audio file, segments of a large harp concerto commission he wrote last year. It brims with huge orchestral tides, colors, and textures—surprising tempo changes—the harp turned into a fresh, new instrument in dialogue with great banks of other stringed instruments. It is gorgeous, both classically and in terms of offering glimpses of the composer’s own sense of the poetic. Pratorius likes what he hears, but also confesses that he would have liked it to be even bigger in scope and duration.
“Even though I hear that little voice telling me I should be in Manhattan, Santa Cruz is a good place to be.” For now, Pratorius enjoys composing on every scale. “You choose your canvas,” he smiles. “Even a small canvas can be monumental.” Since I am in the midst of rehearsing his song cycle Contraponientes—to be performed by the UCSC Concert Choir on Dec. 6—I can readily agree. Given enough intuitive resonance between words and music, Pratorius can conjure up haunting worlds.
My Head is Full of Colors was composed for Opera Parallèle by Chris Pratorius with a libretto by Nicole Paiement. The opera, based on the beloved children’s book by Catherine Friend, will be performed during National Opera Week, on Nov. 1, in the San Francisco Public Library’s Koret Auditorium. Free, open to the public. PHOTO: Chris Pratorius’ electronic keyboard in the dining room of his downtown Santa Cruz apartment. CHIP SCHEUER