Math With Heart: an interview with composer Alexander LaFollett
I've known my friend Alex and been a fan of his music for years. When I first met him, he was 16 years old, newly graduated from Western Oregon University, already a gifted composer and theoretician and both astonishingly intelligent and remarkably humble--two traits he has never lost. Long fascinated by modes, Alex's music is both brand new but hauntingly familiar--as if he has captured something in sound that I once knew but had forgotten. His works seem to access the primal foundation of music, and his meticulous structure contains this sound universe in a way that performers and listeners can comprehend it. A quirky sense of humor and edgy rhythms keeps his music from becoming weighty and serious. In other words, his music satisfies the brain and the ear and is a delight to perform.
In the middle of composing, writing articles on modal theory, and working to keep a roof over his head, Alex agreed to be interviewed for No Dead Guys. Here are his thoughts on composing, modes, and how to bring new music to new audiences.
One of the things that attracts me to your music is how it sounds unfamiliar yet accessible—almost like haunting melodies I should know but I don’t. How much of this is because of your use of modes?
I would say a great deal of it is indeed because of my work with modal harmonic syntax. I immersed myself in understanding the structure of the modes I use, and reverse engineered common practice tonality, keeping what I felt worked, and discarding what didn’t. The result has been new analogues to tonal “functionality” within the modal realm, often involving non-tertian harmony (chords built out of intervals other than thirds).
I do also have surprisingly strong neoclassical tendencies as well, which perhaps heightens that sense. One of my former composition professors, upon hearing my piano trio from a few years ago, remarked something to the effect that it sounded “as if it came from some alternate universe in which the Habsburg Empire never existed, or was defeated earlier.”
Most piano students learn 7 modes. You have discovered (and named) 462 of them. How did you do this, and how many of them are useful in composition?
While I’m not the first to determine that there are 462 heptatonic modes available within 12-tone equal-temperament, I did independently figure out those modes on my own in my teenage years, and have arguably invested considerably more into them than anyone before me. After feeling really restricted by tonality, I gravitated toward the familiar seven diatonic “church” modes as my next step, and then quickly started to realize there were many other ways of assembling different sizes of steps together. And of course, I proceeded to go hog wild with it.
The whole naming side of things was one to which I put a lot of thought. The current state of affairs beyond the standard diatonic modes (i.e. Dorian, Phrygian, etc.) is a complete and utter trainwreck—there are some modes that have 17 different names in the literature, and many others that have none. So, I just went back to the original tradition—ancient geography—to try to tie everything together as a consistent, unified whole. Browsing my modal catalog, one will encounter things like Thracian, Spartan, Dacian, etc. I was almost a chemistry major, so the periodic table was an inspiration.
As far as how many of them are useful, the only real limit is one’s imagination, and ability to holistically look at the overall harmonic palette of each mode—not just the triads and the seemingly obvious stuff. Some are definitely easier to use than others, but with enough creativity, one can figure out some really striking and unusual harmonic paradigms with the less familiar modes. Going back to the chemistry parallel, people used to think you couldn’t form compounds with the noble gases . . . but then, Neil Bartlett figured out that xenon will form compounds when exposed to platinum hexafluoride, and it all spiraled out from there.
What is “heptatonic modality” (and why should we care)?
Heptatonic modality refers to a type of modality in which the modes consist of seven unique pitches per octave. C Ionian (AKA “C Major” in common practice tonality) contains seven unique pitches—C, D, E, F, G, A, and B—and so does the mode I call G Carpathian—G, A, B♭, C♯, D, E, and F♯. Our entire note naming system is based off heptatonic modes being the norm, in fact. None of the 462 heptatonic modes are “modes of limited transposition”, so each one can be transposed a full twelve times without pitch duplication, meaning there’s the equivalent of 5,544 “keys” available. Personally, I find that fascinating.
It’s a way of using a very familiar gateway to get to some surprisingly unfamiliar places. (And yes, I’ve been told many a time I need to write a piano prelude in all of these “keys”—I’ve done 15 to this point, so only . . . 5,529 to go.)
I’m proud to be included in an impressive list of individuals and ensembles who have performed and recorded your music (fEARnoMUSIC, Third Angle New Music, So Percussion with the Pacific Rim Gamelan, and the Portland Youth Philharmonic Young String Ensemble, among others). How have performers responded to the expanded tonality you use in your compositions?
Most of the time (and especially more recently, as I’ve refined my approach), they appreciate it. Occasionally, I will encounter some skepticism, and allegations that I’m some sort of “system composer” who elevates technique above expression, but all that technical, mathy stuff is precisely because of expression.
It’s math with heart. And it has given me a way to be very precise in terms of how I control the sense of light and shade in my music, and the range that I’m allowed in those dimensions. One of the possible meanings of the Latin root modus is “mood”, after all.
If they give my music a chance, it usually wins them over in the end—and my crazy expression markings almost always help my case.
Some of your sounds may be unfamiliar, but you always give listeners a great tune and some really funky beats. Tell me about your use of rhythm.
One of the key things with my approach to rhythm is that I’m not at all opposed to things having a dance-like sensibility to them. In fact, one musician I’ve worked with quite a few times over the years has asked me, “is this supposed to feel like a dance?”, with nearly everything of mine he has encountered. Even when it isn’t on the forefront of my thought process with a piece, it somehow just ends up in there.
Screwed up waltzes, minuets and more recently, tangos, show up all over my music, and I also find the strange grooves that asymmetrical meters create to be weirdly infectious. 13/8 being perhaps my favorite, in no small part due to my being incredibly fond of the number 13 (I’m a true triskaidekaphile), and the multitude of ways one can divide it. Not surprisingly, I’m a pretty big fan of prog rock groups like Yes, King Crimson (especially Larks’ Tongues in Aspic), ELP, and The Mars Volta.
Tell me about your current and future projects. Which ones have you the most excited?
My most recently completed project was a piece called Cyan Egg Music, Op. 59, which was commissioned by the new (mostly) Seattle-based wind trio Onomatopoeia (Cassie Lear, flute, Soren Hamm, saxophones, and Rebecca Olason, horn). With the whole pandemic situation right now, they just did a “virtual” premiere of the piece, and are hoping to do a live premiere in Seattle once things calm down. They’re really a phenomenal group—both as musicians and as people—and I’m absolutely thrilled to have them playing my music.
Minus some final edits and revisions, I also completed my first symphony (legal name Symphony No. 1 in C-sharp Locrian, Op. 58), something I’ve wanted to do since I started seriously composing at age 14. Since it’s just for string orchestra, and I happen to play all those instruments, I started doing some self-recording to get that piece out there (got the first movement and started the second before COVID-19 shut down my recording capacity). And it’s been really gratifying as I’ve been doing that, hearing that all the crazy harmonic stuff I did involving the Locrian mode actually works—frankly, better than I even anticipated.
Then, there’s the Modal Tangos, Op. 57 for piano. The third one, the “shark tango” (“Tiburónga”), was especially fun to write. That idea was so completely ridiculous that I kind of just had to try it, and to my pleasant surprise, it seemed to work!
As far as what’s next, I’m still formulating what Opus 60 will be in my catalog—I have some sketches on various things and am playing around with them. I’m also working on getting my harmonic theories out there more—I did a presentation for Cascadia Composers (the local NACUSA chapter) in February, and have been working on a new draft of my long-in-progress book on it (something I have been able to do during this pandemic), which has been going well. I’m hoping to turn it into part of a music theory YouTube series as well.
How do you think you and other contemporary classical composers can best reach new audiences?
The biggest hurdle, I’ve found, is visibility—getting people to know that I, as a composer, exist, and am creating things they should check out. I think that’s the hardest problem for anyone in this field. It’s still something I’m admittedly in the process of figuring out for myself, but I’ll share what I’ve discovered thus far.
One of the key things I have really noticed has helped is finding a way of branding what I do, that is true to me, and to the point. I started using the phrase “strange, but accessible” a few years back, and it’s been quite effective in getting people to relate to my music.
I’ve also found that there are ways to be as geeky about the technical, theoretical side of my music, as I am, and do so in such a way that it’s entertaining, not alienating—former theory students of mine remarked that I’m basically the musical equivalent of a character from The Big Bang Theory (I’m kind of a Leonard, especially with the whole cello thing). The article I wrote on my site about my findings with the Locrian mode has actually been a pretty decent traffic draw, and some people have found it by Googling for (of all things) “Locrian black metal”.
Even with all that, the “lo-fi” side should not be ignored, in my experience. I’ve also been increasingly open in casual conversation about what I do . . . people are surprisingly interested, and that can build up an audience out of places where one might not otherwise expect.
Although it’s impossible to do right now with everything being shut down, attending concerts and festivals that genuinely interest you helps quite a bit, too. Not only will you hear some great music, but you’ll also get to meet performers, talk shop with other composers, and converse with general audience members. That on-the-ground presence, even as subtle as it may be, will leave you all the better for it.
Alexander LaFollett (b. 1985) (pronounced La-FALL-it) is a composer, music theorist, and educator, based in Oregon.
Most of LaFollett’s work is in instrumental genres, characterized by a strange but accessible style, featuring an extensive, modally-based harmonic vocabulary. His catalog of works currently includes nearly 60 works, including an ongoing cycle of orchestral pieces based on the periodic table of elements, and thirteen string quartets. Primary influences include Darius Milhaud, Igor Stravinsky, and Béla Bartók, Eastern European music, various strains of progressive and alternative rock, and early video game soundtracks. His music has been performed by fEARnoMUSIC, Third Angle New Music, So Percussion with the Pacific Rim Gamelan, violinist Wyatt True, and the Portland Youth Philharmonic Young String Ensemble, among others. His most recent works include a commissioned piece for the West Coast-based wind trio Onomatopoeia, and his first symphony.
LaFollett earned his Ph.D. in music composition and theory from the University of Oregon in 2013, studying under Robert Kyr and David Crumb. He has served on faculty at both Western Oregon University and Portland Community College, in addition to offering private composition instruction.
For more information, visit alexanderlafollett