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Composer Child offers insights on music

New work to premiere at Kresge Oct. 15

"Punkie Night," a Halloween-like custom in parts of England, is the inspiration for a new piece with the same name by British-born Professor of Music Peter Child. The piece will receive its world premiere by the New England Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of music director Richard Pittman on Oct. 15 at 3 p.m. in Kresge Auditorium.

The recipient of numerous prizes and commissions, Child recently returned from an artist's residency in Alaska, where his commissioned work, "Promenade," received its world premiere at the CrossSound Music Festival.

He is currently the "Music Alive" composer-in-residence with the Albany Symphony Orchestra, which will premiere another of his works in spring 2007. Other upcoming premieres this season include commissions by two local ensembles, Boston Musica Viva and Winsor Music.

Mary Haller of the Office of the Arts recently asked Child about "Punkie Night," his music and his MIT teaching.

Q: Tell me a little about "Punkie Night."

A:This is very much an audience-friendly piece. It belongs in a genre of other orchestral works that depict the Gothic and the supernatural--including, famously, Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, which will also be performed at the October 15 concert. It is spooky and--hopefully--fun to listen to.

Q: What do you say when you're asked to describe your music?

A: There is a pronounced tendency toward transparency and directness in my recent music, both in terms of its form and its emotional rhetoric. I have also become very interested in folk themes and incorporating these into my pieces. I think that in both of these respects I am influenced by my English upbringing.

Q: Do you consider the audience when you're working on a composition?

A: Very much so. I see composing as a communication process among composer, performer and listener--and not just a one-way communication either. I am attentive to how players and audiences respond to my music and what those responses can tell me about my own music.

Q: Do you have suggestions about how to listen to new music?

A: Listen with an open mind and an open heart. Be curious. Accept some disappointments in the service of those moments in listening that will give you unexpected pleasure, provoke unexpected thoughts.

Q: What is some of the advice you give to your composition students?

A: First, that "form" is a verb, not just a noun: Think of musical form as a process that has to be reinvented every time, rather than as a mold into which you pour your ideas. And, second, a composition is never completed until it is performed.

Q: Are there aspects of the MIT environment that contribute to your work as a composer?

A: The entrepreneurial and creative atmosphere is contagious. I find it liberating.

Q: What do you learn from your students?

A: Because they are generally so inquisitive, intelligent and challenging, what I mostly learn is how to rethink the fundamental principles that I teach them. MIT is a special place, of course, and I do enjoy those moments that happen frequently to me--as an artist teaching at a preeminent science and engineering school--when the roles of teacher and student are reversed, when they share their knowledge and expertise about biology or computer science, etc., with me.

Tickets for the Oct. 15 concert are free to the MIT community with ID and are available at the door. Regular prices are $25, $20 senior citizens, $15 students. For more information, call 617-868-1222.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 4, 2006 (download PDF).

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