NU Cello Ensemble Series: Interview with Zachary Wadsworth

This article is part of a series centered around the members and work of the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble.
Zachary Wadsworth’s “vivid, vital, and prismatic” music has established him as a leading composer of his generation. An arrangement of his choral piece, Three Lacquer Prints, will be featured on the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble’s upcoming album (to be released in the spring of 2016 by Sono Luminus). Recently, Dr. Wadsworth took the time to answer some questions regarding his music, his life as a composer, and more.
Zachary Wadsworth

Photo Credit: Dallas Southcot

Q. Do you have any advice for aspiring young composers?

A. Listen to anything and everything. Absorb inspiration like oxygen and breathe new life into the old. Embrace community and nurture relationships. Be joyful, and rejoice in the success of colleagues. Accept failure, but never allow it to shape your path.

Q. Although you originally wrote Three Lacquer Prints for a choir, you made a special arrangement for the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble. Despite the absence of the lyrics, how well does the cello ensemble represent your musical intentions in the piece?

A. I strive to write choral music that is rich enough to survive without its lyrics. But in this case, removing the lyrics has special resonance. The poems of Three Lacquer Prints, written by Amy Lowell, are poetic recreations of Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints. My musical setting, like Lowell’s poems, paints a picture of these printed scenes. So removing the words was a good test to see whether my music was vivid enough to communicate these mental images. I think cellos render these images marvelously. String instruments can create sounds (like pizzicati and harmonics) that voices cannot, so I added these to this arrangement to further deepen the visual impact.

* The original choral setting of Three Lacquer Prints

* An excerpt from the cello ensemble version of Three Lacquer Prints, performed by the NU Cello Ensemble

Q. What are some of your interests outside of music?

A. I enjoy running, swimming, doing puzzles, and watching films.

Q. Do you find any similarities between writing for strings – specifically the cello – and writing for voice?

A. Great cellists breathe through their instrument, just like great singers. So when I compose for cellos, I shape phrases that rise and fall with the breath. Ideally, I want my string music to sound just as organic as a mother singing to her child.

Q. If you could collaborate with any individual musician in history, who would it be and why?

A. I would go back to Leipzig in 1723 and sing in Bach’s choir. Seeing all of that incredible music come to life (with the benefit of knowing its future importance) would be profoundly inspiring.

Q. What are some particularly memorable moments from your musical career?

A. The most memorable moment from my career so far has been hearing my composition Out of the South Cometh the Whirlwind performed in Westminster Abbey in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II. Hearing my music sung so beautifully by the Abbey choir in that ancient and incredible space is a memory that will never leave me.

Q. Performers spend countless hours refining their technique, enhancing their own interpretations of their repertoire, and striving for consistency in their playing. What similarities and differences are there in the working life of a composer?

A. Technique and consistency are equally important to composition. Sometimes these are artistic matters: for example, despite writing in an often-atonal idiom, I still follow the rules of counterpoint quite carefully. At other times, these are pedantic: for example, for some reason I can only compose on Archives music paper with a Pentel “Quicker Clicker” mechanical pencil (and I promise these are not sponsors!).

But, perhaps unlike for performers, there is a subtle fear of stagnation, or even of growing too comfortable with one’s approach to composition. We can see this particularly in Stravinsky’s music; at times, he is clearly suppressing his older techniques and tendencies in search of newer ones. This keeps things fresh, to be sure, but it can also be exhausting: each new piece is a blank canvas, ready for new inspiration and a new approach.

Q. Despite already being highly accomplished, as a young composer, you still have a long and promising career ahead of you. What long-term goals and ambitions do you have?

A. I’ve had wonderful experiences writing shorter forms, but I would love to focus more on longer ones: operas, cantatas, sonatas, and symphonies, to name a few. Having a larger canvas allows for more space to explore deep ideas. Just last November in Canada, I had a chance to stretch out in this way; the wonderful choir Luminous Voices premiered my work The Far West, which is a large cantata about the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s.

Q. From where or whom do you draw your inspiration?

A. I gain the most inspiration from listening to music and reading poetry.

Q. Who are some of your musical influences? Are there any particular composers that you especially admire?

A. My “three Bs” are Bach, Brahms, and Britten, all of whom have been very inspiring to me over the years. But I’ve loved (and stolen from) many other composers: Tallis, Handel, Ravel, Stravinsky, Berio, Reich, Adès, and many others. If I had to choose only one composer as an influence, it would have to be Bach. I listen to his music more than anyone else’s, and I’m constantly blown away by his inventiveness and elegance.

Q. We live in an era of unprecedented musical diversity, with all kinds of repertoire growing prolifically in many different styles. Amidst all of this, what do you as a composer value in your own compositional voice, and how do you convey this in your music?

A. When I’m composing, I’m ultimately aiming for two things: emotional resonance and structural elegance. While I always intend for a performer and a listener to find deep emotional messages in my work, I am always vigilant to make sure that the music hangs together in a well-organized and elegant way. Of course, other composers approach their work very differently, which is a beautiful testament to the freedom that we all enjoy as creative artists in the twenty-first century.

Visit Zachary Wadsworth’s website at

The Northwestern University Cello Ensemble is currently working on their album Shadow, Echo, Memory. Please enjoy this sneak peek below, and be sure to become a fan on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.


3 Responses to NU Cello Ensemble Series: Interview with Zachary Wadsworth

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  3. 人々が常に感じイギリス男の人がやっと紳士らしい、実は言えない。カルティエ時計コピー男も紳士らしい、代表のは1種の教養で、このような教養に国境はない。选択項は紳士特質の時計との組み合わせが重要、私たちをよく見てこのと紳士腕時計の徳制ゲーラ苏蒂Observer 1911。

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