VQ Composer Spotlight #4: Henry B. Stewart and "Threnody/Images"

Henry B. Stewart and "Threnody/Images"


Whenever we learn a new work from the great quartet repertoire, we always look forward to finding each composer's signature voice--the way they create melodic lines, or end cadences, or have distinctive rhythmical patterns.  It's also fun to discover how composers influenced each other, and to hear references made to their teachers or colleagues.  Which tricks did Mozart learn from the Haydn quartets, for instance?  Or how did Shostakovich create his rhythmic pulses differently to Bartok's?  For young composers, finding one's individual voice takes years of practise and experimentation.  From all of the entries we received, we were impressed by how much we could learn about the composer's personality through their music.

The quartet Threnody/Images came to us from Henry B. Stewart, a student at Goshen College in Indiana.  Written in two movements, Henry sent two images to accompany his score.  These two images were central to the inspiration for his piece.  The first movement, "Threnody I" was accompanied by a photograph of a woman.  Photograph by Gary Goldberg:

The second movement was based on a hallucination of a fire that Henry experienced during a state of delirium as a child.  Henry explains of his experience, "My vision was of a great, terrible, black fire on the horizon of an empty plain.  The [second] movement begins by falling into delirium, then the unsettling plain is heard in the syncopated section, followed by the building intensity of the fire to its full, raging power."  Digital sketch by Mohammad Mahdi Rassoulipour:

In Henry's music, we found much of this intense power as part of his composer's voice.  His music immediately captured our attention not through loud noises or musical pyrotechnics, but rather through an uneasy quietness and sense of foreboding in his piece.  We recorded the first movement of Threnody/Images with its quietly dramatic opening. The cello begins with a low C drone, followed by a haunting viola solo that takes shape over tremolando effects in the violins.  The opening of this movement reminded us of Shostakovich, sparse and cold, before warming up and developing into an angst-ridden climax of chords in the upper registers of the strings.

Henry is a sophomore at Goshen College, where he is dual major in biochemistry and music composition.  He is a composition student of Dr. Jorge Muñiz of Indiana University South Bend.  Threnody/Images is his first work for string quartet.

Henry B. Stewart Q&A

Where are you from?
I was born and raised in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
What got you hooked on composition?
It was writing a piano trio in my freshman year of college (under the instruction of Dr. Jorge Muñiz) that consummated my love for composition.  After writing the trio, and now Threnody|Images, I understand that I compose because of the fundamental power of sharing an idea, aesthetic or emotion with others through music.
Who have been your biggest musical influences?
I grew up listening to Rachmaninoff, Dvořák, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and the Beatles. Penderecki, Schönberg, Sibelius, and Shostakovich have been recurring influences for the last two years.  Also, I tend to derive a lot of influence from film scores, such as Johnny Greenwood's score for There Will Be Blood, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's score for The Social Network.
What are some of the advantages or challenges in writing for string quartet?
As a chamber group, string quartets have impeccable control over corporate expression.  I think both my greatest fascination and the greatest challenge for quartet writing is incorporating and balancing polyphonic and symphonic textures.

Anything else you wish to say about your piece "Threnody|Images"?
Threnody|Images was written about two images.  I have found that these images are very central to the perception of the music.  They are viewable here: http://imgur.com/a/WrVRB.