5 Questions to Jeffrey Mumford (composer)

Composer Jeffrey Mumford is a Distinguished Professor of Music at Lorain County Community College, near Cleveland. He was an aspiring painter before he turned his focus to music while an undergraduate. His works employ complex layers of sounds and he gives them poetic names that could easily be titles of paintings. Boston-based Castle of our Skins is about to present a composer portrait concert of Mumford’s work for strings. 

How did you get involved with Castle of our Skins?

When I was approached by violist Ashe Gordon about being on the board of Castle of Our Skins, I was quite honored, particularly knowing her and the foundation’s commitment to the legacy of our work as African-Americans in the field of classical music — something I have been advocating for more years than I can count — and her dedication to living composers. She is quite an impressive person for someone so young. She and composer Anthony Green have created something truly special and I am delighted to be of whatever help I can. I am doubly honored, of course, that they are presenting my work in their first “Composer Portrait” concert!

Sound Energy String Trio

Sound Energy String Trio (photo by Monika Bach Schroeder)

What works will be featured on that Composer Portrait program?

Ashe and her trio Sound Energy (with violinist Micah Brightwell and cellist Benjamin Swartz) have championed my string trio in soft echoes . . . a world awaits. What more could a composer want? It is in fifteen short movements, each featuring a particular instrument, and it explores many timbral and articulative aspects of this combination of instruments. The work expands from the opening movement’s A-flat/B-flat major second motive. Interspersed as part of the work’s ongoing development are recurring and unfolding pizzicato movements marked Capricciosso, which act somewhat like a palindrome as they expand and then contract as the piece develops. The title, to me, suggests the image of a world that results from the resonance of the reflected light within clouds. I’m also very happy that the concert will include my string quarter a veil of liquid diamonds. It’s not played as often as my two more recent quartets, and it will be wonderful to hear it performed live again.

What can you tell us about your music aesthetic and process?

My work is inspired by cloud imagery, the qualities of light, and time of day. I am fascinated by the layers that form, and I am compelled by the speed with which clouds move, splitting off and recombining with one another, reforming and sometimes dissipating entirely. This, I think, is an operative analogy to the approach I take in my work.

Recently, I have focused more keenly on gradations and intensities of light as communicated by sound. I imagine distinct worlds within clouds as they define distance, which greatly fuels my imagination. In particular, my most recent works attempt to address these elements, such as my ‘cello concerto of fields unfolding . . . echoing depths of resonant light (in memoriam Elliott Carter), which was written for ‘cellist Christine Lamprea and commissioned by a consortium of orchestras. Analogous to my fist impressions of and inspiration from Mr. Carter’s ‘Cello Sonata, my concerto builds on materials from an earlier work of mine for ‘cello and piano, and weaves the ‘cello’s opening solo passage into an ongoing developmental scenario. Two more recent works, currently in progress — verdant cycles of deepening spring for violin and orchestra and unfolding waves for piano and large ensemble — are also based on earlier works.

Speaking of Elliot Carter, how did he come to be such an important influence on your work?

I first came to know Mr. Carter’s music as an undergrad at University of California Irvine while I was working in the music listening lab. I practically lived in that lab, and working there gave me the opportunity to help build my knowledge of repertoire. One night I happened upon Mr. Carter’s Piano Sonata, and that led me to his Cello Sonata and 1st String Quartet. I fell in love with his work immediately upon hearing it, and it changed how I thought about writing my own music.

Lawrence Moss, with whom I studied privately for two years, was a colleague of Mr. Carter’s at Yale in the 1960s, and saw my increasing interest in Mr. Carter’s work. He graciously suggested that I might want to contact him. So I did, and I found both he and his wife, Helen, quite charming and welcoming to a young composer they didn’t know. Mr. Carter taught me for three years, not charging me a cent, and words cannot express my gratitude for his belief in me and my work.

What else do you have coming up this season?

I am completing a concerto for ‘cello and chamber orchestra, of radiances blossoming in expanding air, for ‘cellist Deborah Pae. I’m in the midst of composing verdant cycles of deepening spring, which is for violinist Caroline Chin. And I’m still working on unfolding waves which will be premiered by pianist Pina Napolitano and the SMASH Ensemble in Spain.

The “Signature Series” I curate at Lorain County Community College, will present four concerts this season, each of which include recently-composed work, as is one of the missions of the series. The November 3rd concert features Deborah Pae, for whom I am writing that concerto. This is our annual concert in memory of the late Eva Hornyak, who mentored me many years ago, working for a concert series at the University of Maryland, College Park. I learned so much from her about concert presenting. The May 3rd concert presents Sound Energy (with Ashe Gordon), featuring a performance of in soft echoes… with brilliant video realizations by my LCCC colleague, artist Gregory Little.


Saturday, September 24, 2016 at 7:30 PM: a veil of liquid diamonds: Music of Jeffrey Mumford, presented by Castle of Our Skins at Roxbury Community College Media Arts Center, Boston.


Jeffrey Mumford: through a stillness brightening

Jeffrey Mumford: the promise of the far horizon

Jeffrey Mumford: the focus of blue light