Art Talk with Composer Jeffrey Mumford

By Rebecca Sutton
Man with white beard and glasses

Composer Jeffrey Mumford. Photo by Irene Haupt

It would not be unfair to say composer Jeffrey Mumford has his head in the clouds. Since he was a child, Mumford has been fascinated with the patterns and variations of clouds and sunlight, which he transforms into compositions that are as textured, mesmerizing, and expansive as the natural world he observes. Bearing poetically lyrical titles such as of fields unfolding…echoing depths of resonant light and verdant cycles of deepening spring, his work is frequently described in terms of color, poetry, and sonic imagery, a nod to the deeply sensory, experiential quality of his compositions.

A prolific composer for orchestras, chamber music, and soloists, Mumford has seen his work performed and commissioned across the world, including by the San Antonio Symphony, Vienna’s Haydn Trio Eisenstadt, Iceland’s Duo Harpverk, Chicago’s Fulcrum Point New Music Project and the Meet the Composer commissioning program, the latter two of which received NEA support. He has also received a Guggenheim Fellowship, an ASCAP Aaron Copland Scholarship, and was the inaugural winner of the National Black Arts Festival/Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Composition Competition. In the edited conversation below, Mumford talks about his creative process, the challenges of being an African-American composer, and the most important lesson he can teach his music students.

NEA: What was your road toward becoming a composer?

JEFFREY MUMFORD: Music was always a part of my life. I grew up in a house in DC where my father had a huge Count Basie collection. Those kinds of sounds formed a great deal of my sonic library, as I call it. We used to trim our Christmas tree to Billy Taylor and Ramsey Lewis. My father also played “Emperor Concerto,” and Messiah by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, not realizing how over-the-top the performances were back then. So there was always music in my house. It was very important. I started playing clarinet in the fourth grade.

I also loved to paint and draw. I ended up going to college as an art major but I took a lot of music courses. I was mentored by a composer there named Peter Odegard. He took me under his wing, and saw something in me and was very generous in his time and supported what I was doing. At the time I was an art major, but I had a painting of mine sabotaged by someone—I don’t know who. It made me very upset, and I kind of ran to the music department for solace. They embraced me there. Maybe it was the best thing that happened to me, to have this painting sabotaged. [Music] became my mode of expression, and I realized that was my voice.

NEA: As you mentioned, you studied painting. You’ve also had a residency at the National Gallery of Art, and many titles of your compositions read like lines of poetry. Can you talk about how other art forms might influence your music?

MUMFORD: Certainly they do. My work is very influenced by cloud imagery, time of day, and gradations and intensities of light. I spent a lot of time looking out the window of my room in high school in Washington, DC, where there are thunderstorms in the summertime. The sky would turn awesomely purple and green, and I was fascinated by seeing these incredible colors and these amazing cloud formations and how they unfolded.

I also spent countless hours at the National Gallery. I was particularly drawn to the 17th-century Dutch landscape school, and the Impressionist school. I spent hours and hours and hours in those galleries. Holland being a very low country, the canvases of Dutch landscape paintings are three-fourths full of clouds. It made a big impact on me. My music is very influenced by that kind of experience.

NEA: Where else do you look for inspiration?

MUMFORD: Ways of experiencing light: light coming through a window, light glistening off of trees after the rainfall, light filtering through trees as you drive past in a forest.

Also, interactions with people. One of the analogies I use in my work is a cocktail party, where someone is holding court with varying degrees of success and other people are trying to get a word in edgewise. The person holding court could be a soloist, or it could be a group of instruments. The other people are trying to come in on the ongoing conversation, again, with varying degrees of success. That kind of dramatic scenario is very appealing to me structurally and narratively.

NEA: How do you translate what you see in the light or clouds into a piece of music?

MUMFORD: I set up layers of musical ideas. Sometimes these ideas will get interrupted by other ideas. Sometimes I’ll work on defining foreground, middle ground, and background, not unlike a painting or being in a landscape physically and having these things vie for prominence as the piece unfolds.

NEA: In looking at your bibliography, I noticed many of you works include revision dates. What makes you decide a piece needs revision, and what is that process like?

MUMFORD: I encourage my students to start a new piece instead of trying to rework the old piece constantly. It’s something we all struggle with as artists: When is this piece completely finished? Are you satisfied with it? But sometimes there are certain things you can see that will make the piece speak more clearly, and achieve the objective that you set for it originally. I choose those things very carefully, and that’s on a case-by-case basis.

NEA: How do you choose the objectives for a particular piece? When do you feel it’s become a successful piece of work?

MUMFORD: It’s a very intuitive process. Physically, if I’m writing the piece, I will sometimes walk around the room trying to imagine how long a certain passage should go, imagining myself as an audience, getting it in my body. I want to make sure it works as an experience to transform the listener and take them someplace other than where they are when they walk into the concert hall—hopefully a good place. I want them to have a significant experience.

So I put a great deal of thought into the material. I go through a pretty elaborate pre-compositional process devising the harmony, motifs, and thematic material that will be the subject for discussion. A lot of my work is an ongoing set of variations that unfold from other things which have source material. The source material is referred to in different places, so the listener has a sense of arrival. It will be as if that layer is continued, even though the other material is evolving around it.

I think that works pretty well for the listener to sense they’re part of the evolutionary process of the piece. In older times, a form like rondo would have an A-theme and a B-theme and you come back to A and then you have a C and you come back to A. “A” is always a reference point—an anchor for the listener. I don’t do it as rigorously as that, but it’s similar to some extent in taking the reference point in different contexts as the piece evolves.

NEA: You’ve taught music at the university level for many, many years. What do you feel is the most important lesson that you can impart to your students?

MUMFORD: That they be themselves. I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to write in a style or listen to someone else’s voice to stunt theirs. It’s very important that people develop their own language.

In my artist statement, I say, “As an African-American composer, I take my position and responsibility seriously. When I teach, I encourage all of my students to speak in their own voice and not to succumb to the limitations others may try to give them. I believe that for too long, African-Americans particularly—and many others—have been pigeonholed (both by their own constituency and others) by limited assumptions of the scope of their creative activity. I want to explode this. I believe the artist must be a citizen aware of the context in which he or she lives both politically and culturally. That he or she must define his or her own world with frames of reference unique to him or herself and invite people into that world at appropriate times.”

What I mean by that is that for many people, they hear the words “Black composer” and all kinds of preconceptions come to their mind. Thankfully, a large percentage of them are incorrect.

NEA: I wanted to ask you about that—how you feel your experience as an African-American man has or has not affected your career as a composer?

MUMFORD: I feel like classical music saved my life. It touched my soul and continues to do that. I found an ever-expanding world of invention and sonic inspiration. Then when I discovered there were other black people through Columbia Music’s Black Composers Series back in the ‘70s, I felt that I wasn’t alone. That was huge for me. People like George Walker, David Baker, Olly Wilson, Ulysses Kay—these were people that were included on these records and this opened up worlds for me.

The idea of otherness is something that many people struggle with. But other than what? Other than white? All of us live in this world and we hear many kinds of music, many kinds of modes of expression. We pick and choose those things that make the most sense to us and we create our art accordingly. So what’s the point of departure? What defines the baseline? What is the other? Each of us, no matter what color, is unique in our experience and that’s what defines us.

Right now I teach a course in music appreciation and we have a textbook which is fine, but woefully inadequate in discussing music by musicians of color and women. There are pieces that deserve to be in this book that are not. Another thing that I found quite absurd is that one of the editions of the book had a [female] Finnish composer, Kaija Saariaho whose work I teach in my class. Another edition came out, and she was replaced by Tania León who is a fantastic composer, a woman of color. You can’t have two women—it’s one or the other. I thought that was really cynical in a way.

But as African Americans, or composers of color, we come from a long line of people who work in this genre. The composer Chevalier de Saint-Georges is known as the Black Mozart. More and more research is going into discovering and unearthing works of his. George Bridgetower, the collaborator on Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, there’s more research coming on him. He was a composer/performer of African descent who was part Polish.

NEA: The statistics for people of color and women are pretty grim in terms of classical music, as they are in many art forms. In your opinion, what more can be done to help make classical music a more equitable field?

MUMFORD: I think getting music on the radio is a good way of doing that. Even the most conservative classical stations can play the work of Chevalier de Saints-George. It’s 18th-century classical music. Who could be harmed by that? William Grant Still has a beautiful piece called “Summerland” for violin and piano, a gorgeous piece. It’s a piece that can play in any radio format.

So we can be playing this music, putting it on the radio, discussing it intelligently, and not apologizing for it. And not making it something that’s special only for February. There’s a composer named Hale Smith who would tell people, “Don’t call me in January or February. There are ten other months of the year. I do not want to be pigeonholed.” I understand that sentiment. I’m happy to get performances where I get them, but this repertory needs to be played all the time, contextualized, and intelligently programmed throughout the year. Period. People of color and women need to be played on every concert with people who are committed to celebrating diversity, and to celebrating the myriad voices that make this world up, and particularly this country up.

I had a piece commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra to celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday back in 2007. Every year they have this concert in January when they open up Severance Hall, which is one of the most beautiful halls in the world, to the public. You have never seen so many Black people. Where are they on other days at other concerts? [Usually,] they don’t see people onstage that look like them, and they don’t see people in the program who look like them. So I think there’s a great deal of disillusionment that this music isn’t for them. Bring them into the concert hall. Bring them into your world. Play the music written by people who look like them, of which there are—no pun intended—scores and scores and scores. Make them aware, reassure them that this music is as much theirs as anyone else’s. Brahms is for them and so is Olly Wilson. Beethoven is for them and so is George Walker. The list goes on.