Jonathan Sheffer

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Jonathan Sheffer, conductor and composer, founded the Eos Orchestra in 1995 as a ‘laboratory of new programming ideas’ and as part of his ongoing quest to address the question of what constitutes a concert of classical music in contemporary times. When Eos closed in 2004, he went on to work with Red {an orchestra}, which continues to work with this theme and he continues to compose and work on other projects.

He’s unnervingly intelligent, his calm, comprehensive answers to our questions showing immense command of his field. His house had not one, but two grand pianos and the most books we have seen so far – all of them by the best writers on the planet, not a piece of trash in sight. There was lots of homoerotic art, all of it beautiful or unsettling, or beautifully unsettling, but again everything had been chosen with a fiercely discerning eye.

Was closing down the Eos Orchestra indicative of the place of classical music in contemporary times?

Er … well there’s a short answer and a long answer to that.

Give us the long one.

My programming really sought to address that very problem: Where is classical music? My main interest was in, what is the experience of people listening for people who are not experienced in classical music? What do they understand and what don’t they understand? All the programs were designed to make them understand something. I very often used film and puppeteers and actors, anything I could to draw people in to an idea.

But this sort of programming required support … to the extent that we existed for ten years, there was that interest but art like this that’s really questioning the mainstream will always need support. And when that support wasn’t there, the experiment was over.

L. to r.: In a corner of Jonathan’s living room hangs a favorite painting by an unknown artist.; Looking out the window towards West 11th Street.
On the left side of the west wall of the living room hangs a photo by Adi Ness.
A chandelier by Droog, ’85 Lamps’, makes a statement in the dining room.
L. to r.: A mirror by Phillippe Starck hangs above the living room fireplace mantel. The pet photo is by Val Shaff.; A self-portrait is by Jack Pearson.
The stairs were painted following an impression left when the ornamental wood was removed in renovation.
Atop the coffee tables is a collection of sculptures and art books
L. to r.: Dining room art shelves including works by Alex Katz, James Nares, Weegee and John Singer Sargent; Dining room art shelves include work by Pavel Tchelitchew, James Nares, Donald Bachelor and Ross Bleckner.

What has happened to our appreciation of classical music—it is waning, isn’t it?

Well, it’s really taken a huge hit from the stay-at-home entertainment that we get digitally. It’s very hard for people to go out into an atmosphere where they are uneducated and expect to have a meaningful experience. And to be patient enough to sit for two hours …

It’s patience. What is going to happen to our culture if we don’t have the patience to read books or listen to long pieces of music?

Well, the news isn’t all bad! We have already made a transition past the kinds of culture we’ve been talking about. We have already come to a place where people who want that [books, classical music] can find it. Do people find their way to what they’re passionate about? Yes. Can the Internet facilitate that? Yes. If I’m a person who’s passionate about Victorian aquatints, I have much greater access now to my passion. Where do those passions come from? They come from your home life, your education.

The 4th floor, recording studio.

How musical are we though? My father grew up very poor, working class, Irish and they had no toys but they did have an old piano. He and all his siblings learned to play by ear. No one seems to do that now. And then I wonder about the death of whistling … you don’t hear it in the street any more.

That’s fascinating. Well, the piano really disappeared as a piece of furniture at the end of World War II and chamber music went with it, as did singing in churches. I grew up in the suburbs with people who routinely sat around a piano and sang Gershwin or whatever the current vogue musical was at the time. But I think that has been replaced by sort of homemade musical culture. Anyone can record an album now at home.

There’s another big meta-thing going on, and that is Asia is really taking over our Western musical tradition. I think in the next 25 years, it will be a complete shift. They’re so fascinated with this Western culture. Korea has routinely been supplying a large percentage of our conservatory students. They have extraordinary talent and they have this amazing appetite for it.

Jonathan’s atelier faces north towards the Empire State Building.
Editing music copy; the writing desk on the piano is custom made.
The south corner of the atelier.
L. to r.: Jonathan’s atelier desktop.; A zebra-patterned chair sits in front of custom bookcases in the west wall of the atelier.
Northeast corner of atelier.
The ‘dinosaur collection’ of LPs. The steel bookcases were designed and built by John Ryman.
Jonathan’s vast collection of CDs.
Inscribed manuscripts from Michael Tilson Thomas, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, David del Tredici.
The south side of the atelier.
Work in progress.

I do wonder why they have such an appetite for 18th and 19th century German composers?

Well, why do Americans? [I know] they don’t have that symphonic tradition but I often compare it to any orthodox religion in that it’s very hard to sort of get to the core of, it requires lots of training, so I think that this is great tradition that is now available to them and it’s a universal language. There doesn’t have to be a geographic or cultural line … [music] is this unquantifiable addition to your life. It adds something, but you cannot say what it is.

Tell us about your own process of composing music for films. I read a quote where you where describing scoring a movie and you said ‘Dying is easy, comedy nearly impossible.’

[Laughs] That’s true. I’m not the first person to say that but in terms of movie music it’s very easy to put music to something that is either incredibly expressive, emotional or violent or, a tragic scene, there’s always room for music in that. It’s very hard to add to something that’s funny.

The guest room.

Clockwise from above left: The ‘stairway to heaven’; The back stairwell. A mid 19th-century genre painting hangs on a wall above a rope banister from Jean Michel Frank; A close up of the mid 19th-century panting that belonged to Jonathan’s grandparents.

Can you give us an example of where music and comedy was done well?

Some of the funniest music I can think of was Danny Elfman’s for Peewee’s Big Adventure. If you try to interfere with dialogue, it’s very hard to have the music really help. Music is in movies to help.

Well that’s the interesting thing about the art of scoring for movies. It seems to be an impossible task …

It is.

You’re not supposed to tell the viewer what to think, because music is so powerful that it can be too much, it becomes like propaganda.

It very often does too much. I have a rule which you can now apply from this interview, which is that I can tell if I’m going to enjoy a movie by the first piece of music in the movie. I could walk out of most movies after five minutes, purely based on the music. If the choice of the music is bad, you can pretty much guarantee that the choices of the script, the acting and everything else is bad.

The dining room.

The ground floor kitchen.

Oh give us an example!

Oh now that would get me into trouble! [off the record he does tell us, and we agree with him]

Give us an example of a movie that was scored well, then.

I think The Hours is a movie that I have often tried to argue for because the music was very controversial by Philip Glass. Not only do I really feel he scored it extraordinarily well, and I’ve worked with Philip, but it suited the movie, the sense of this timelessness.

Lucy at the top of the stairs.
Views of the garden from the kitchen. The garden was originally designed by Madison Cox. It was radically replanted in 2007 with the help of designer, Jack Ceglic.

What do you actually do when you have to start the process of scoring movie, how do you begin?

You can read a script, you talk to the director and then you see a rough cut and you begin to talk about where and what and how, and then you go off and try to have that wonderful meeting of the right moment with the right kind of music … trying to translate what you see into what you think the audience should be feeling. The picture may have hit points. A montage is very different from a dialogue scene. With a dialogue scene you have to be like a fly on the wall, you have to buzz around the emotions as they go back and forth. You take your basic vocabulary as a composer and you say hmmm, for this bit this harmony needs to be a little uncomfortable here and this needs to get a little busy in the middle range, and then [for example] they go outside and you need add some high strings so you have a sense of the open …

Can you tell us about conducting. What is going on in a conductor’s brain while he is up there in front of the orchestra?

I would say 90 percent of it happens before you walk out there. You have to learn how to study a score and to really understand what each of those players is experiencing, what notes are difficult to play, what notes will naturally be sharp or flat in certain chord, what bowing works and to understand the complex problems of each person in the orchestra. And then you have to have a sense of how you hear the music yourself, how do you want the audience to feel?

Custom plywood squares line the walls of the master bedroom.

L. to r.: Art by William Burroughs and Michael Bilsborough sit atop the fireplace mantel in the 3rd floor office. ; Jonathan’s 50th birthday invitation includes photos from childhood to present day.
Jonathan back at work.

So in some sense you’re hearing each individual note, played by each individual member, all at the same time … and then you have the entire arc to thing about as well.

Yes. But you have to be practical. Sometimes you say I will never be able to fix that. But I can tell you, if the conductor were to walk off the state, the music would come to a grinding halt in less than ten seconds.

You must do something musical every day. What kind of things do you listen to?

I don’t listen to a great deal of music because I work with my own music. I don’t have it playing in the house very often. If I want to listen to music, I go to where it is being performed.

Do you hear birdsong differently to us?

There’s a lot of music in nature but we’re the only ones who have thought to organize it.

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