March 4, 2015

Composer Eric Nathan Musically Explains "Why Old Places Matter"

  • By: Julia Rocchi


Sometimes, the experiences that move us most are also the ones that go beyond words -- and that's where composer Eric Nathan finds his richest inspiration. Take, for example, his time spent in the Eternal City as a 2013 Rome Prize Fellow, where Nathan met our National Trust colleague Tom Mayes (a fellow Fellow) and became intrigued by Mayes' exploration of why old places matter.

The result of their conversations? Nathan's composition "Why Old Places Matter," a 12-minute piece for oboe, horn, and piano that was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the Boston Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players. In this piece, he evokes place, continuity, and memory -- all without words.

We caught up with Nathan to learn more about his creative process, his time in Rome, and his own relationship to old places.

What was your goal at the start of your 2013 Rome Prize fellowship? What were you hoping to learn and/or create by the end of your time there?

I applied for the Rome Prize in part because of the precious time the fellowship affords one to devote to creative work, but also for the opportunity to be immersed in such a vibrant interdisciplinary community of artists and scholars who are all actively creating. My goals were to learn from and engage with the other fellows intellectually and creatively and to also gain inspiration from Rome itself.

I have always been musically inspired by a sense of place, and many of my pieces have been inspired by various trips, so I was excited to see what impact Rome would have on my music.

It was in Rome that I met Tom Mayes and was introduced to his work in his Rome Prize project, “Why Do Old Places Matter?” which then later inspired my work “Why Old Places Matter” for the Boston Symphony Chamber Players.

You write in your program note of the “profound influence” that the Basilica of Santa Sabina had on you. What about the space spoke to you?

I visited Basilica Santa Sabina numerous times while I was in Rome, and it became one of my most favorite places there. I was immediately captured by the enveloping sense of tranquility, solitude, and sheer beauty that fills its dark, cavernous space, which was in such contrast to the brilliantly bright Roman light that shines atop the Aventine Hill and also the bustle of the city that surrounds the hill. The windows are made of translucent stone and they transform the bright Roman light into glowing hues. It was magical to watch this warm light dance upon the walls.

The Boston Symphony Chamber Players -- John Ferrillo (oboe), Randall Hodgkinson (piano), and James Sommerville (horn) -- performed Nathan's piece "Why Old Places Matter" in Boston on January 11, 2015.

What was most emotionally and spiritually inspiring to me was to realize that while the experience of being outside in Rome has changed so much since the church was built in the 5th century, I was experiencing a similar sense of space as those who had been in the church when it was built. The idea that there is some continuity between what I was experiencing and what people over a thousand years before me likely experienced made a powerful impression on me. I felt as if I had a window in to life in the year 400 and that I had a shared sense of experience with those who lived then.

Tell me more about the way you structured “Why Old Places Matter.” How does the form of the piece underscore what you experienced in Rome?

The piece is structured in two movements of contrasting character. The first movement is quite frenetic and playful, while the second is slower and has more of a sense of solemnity. Musically, the second movement returns to places encountered in the first movement, as we might in recalling a memory, trying to live in a space again and for longer, the memory becoming a new “old place” of its own.

I purposefully try to abstract meaning and my personal experiences in my music so that multiple interpretations and reactions are possible. I feel that as an audience member when possibilities for interpretation are left open I have a greater chance for a more personal response to a piece, since I am drawing on my own personal experiences, instead of trying to imagine someone else’s.

While my work takes my visit to Basilica Santa Sabina as an initial spark of inspiration, as I composed the piece the music began to take on its own life, and I tried to listen to where the piece wanted to go and feed in my memories and experiences along the way to help it grow into something new, something that I could not have foreseen when I started. I didn’t only draw on my experiences in Rome; while writing the piece I would go sit in old spaces at Williams College for inspiration, such as in Chapin Hall and Thompson Memorial Chapel. So all these experiences, and my emotional reactions and the ideas generated from experiencing these places, are bottled up in the piece in various ways.

I also find that I can never completely relive the special sense of space I feel in a place with a photograph or a video, but that music gets me the closest to reliving or understanding that experience emotionally. And while the emotions of my experience are unique to my own memories, I hope that they can speak powerfully enough to others to share in that experience or create new experiences for them of their own. So in writing this piece, it also serves on a personal level too, allowing me to find a way to keep returning to these old places that I have found inspiring.

Eric Nathan (far left) joined the musicians onstage after the premiere.

How do you personally connect the ancient beauty and history of Rome to the beauty and history of old places in the United States? What lessons can we take away from Rome?

Coming from New York, where much of the architecture in the city is relatively new, and where buildings that fall to ruin are more often than not torn down and rebuilt, I was struck by the contrast in Rome, where there is an embrace of ruins and the process of ruination, and that these ruins are incorporated into the basic fabric of the city. Surrounding me in Rome was a daily reminder of the past.

Both cities have such a unique identity, and I wouldn’t recommend that either city change since these characteristics are what makes each so special, but I think we can use these two examples as a way of finding a balance in our own lives and in how we engage with our communities to understand our past and present. We should celebrate and encourage the creation of new architecture while also realizing that old places, and even ruins, can give us incredible insight into our present and future by allowing us to connect with our past. Creating new artworks that engage with this is one way we can start this dialogue.

How would you answer if someone today asked you, “Why exactly do old places matter?”

If I would try to give an answer with words, I would say that old places matter because they put our lives and the present in a larger perspective, and connect us with history and lives of those who came before us.

But I also feel that I’m still figuring out exactly why and how old places matter to me. My piece was one attempt to try to understand that. So, perhaps my “wordless” answer in my piece might better speak to my evolving emotional engagement with old places.

Listen to an excerpt from Movement 1 of Nathan's composition "Why Old Places Matter":

Bonus: Here's a video of the full piece as performed by Peggy Pearson, oboe; Laura Weiner, horn; and Mei Rui, piano, at (le) poisson rouge on October 12, 2015.

Julia Rocchi is the senior director of digital marketing at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and gawks at buildings.


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