By Tim Hansen

One afternoon in the summer of 2012, JFund awardee Eric Nathan arrived in Aldeburgh in England, to participate in the eponymous annual music festival established there by British composer Benjamin Britten. By all accounts, Aldeburgh is a place of desolate beauty, prized by Britten for being rugged, rural and – most importantly – remote, situated as it is in a far-flung corner of Suffolk on the edge of the North Sea. At dusk Nathan found himself wandering along the pebbly beach beside the village, the ocean crashing against the coastline while seagulls circled in the evening sky.

“I was captivated by the peacefulness and beauty of the moment, the solitude I felt, but also by the multitude that accompanied me,” recalls Nathan. “Two or three gulls flew overhead, and then hundreds more joined, creating a dense constellation of birds, reaching as far up as I could see. The sea itself was a vast multitude, breaking on the thousands of shingles on the shore”. It was an experience that resonated deeply with Nathan, and, unbeknownst to the young composer at the time, was to be the seed for an important new piece in the future.

A year later, Nathan had commenced working on his proposed JFund piece for the Momenta String Quartet. Inspired by Baudelaire’s poetic description of city life as “Multitude, Solitude”, the original premise of the work was the dramatic transition Nathan had undergone in his recent move from Ithaca in upstate New York to New York City. However something in the piece wasn’t gelling: “I tried unsuccessfully for a month to write a piece based directly on my project proposal,” says Nathan. Yet he persisted, and during his toils the memory of his evening on the beach at Aldeburgh resurfaced. “At the time I was composing this piece that memory resonated emotionally with me very strongly”, he says. It was an important moment for Nathan: once he had made the decision to shift the focus of the piece from New York to Aldeburgh, the music began to flow.

In the brief period between Multitude, Solitude’s premiere in June 2013 and today, his string quartet has had a vibrant life as part of the Chelsea Music Festival, the Kimberton Village Chamber Music Series, the Turtulia Music Series and Scharoun Ensemble Berlin’s residency at the American Academy in Rome. The concept of solitude is at the very core of the work, and Nathan says that every implication of the word, “from peacefulness to loneliness and everything in between” is touched upon. That the piece started its life as telling one story and ended up telling quite another is not unusual for Nathan, who describes a core component of his compositional process as a “conversation between the conscious and unconscious mind”.

The conversations extend beyond the composer’s internal discussions, however. “I think of music as communication – between my music and the audience, between the performer’s interpretation and my own, and between the various performers in my piece,” continues Nathan. “I get excited by the individual touch a player will bring to my piece, and imagining this in the writing process inspires sound in my head.” Interestingly, Nathan is also moved to write by what might be dismissed by other composers as being inconsequential, such as photos of musicians – any musicians – practicing their art. “I am so visually inspired that I use this as a compositional tool, thinking of various performers as I write a piece, and this usually inspires sounds or ideas in my mind that I would not have happened upon otherwise”.

But most important to Nathan’s work is the conversation between himself and the piece he is writing. For him, “the mystery of not knowing exactly what turns a piece may take from the start is what keeps me going and yields the most interesting results – allowing there to be a dialogue between myself and my music.”