A conversation with….CHRIS BERG.

September 30, 2013

Composer Chris Berg

What was your journey to becoming a composer?  How did you discover it?

Well, I started playing the piano when I was about five years old and as I continued, I played it by ear because I liked to play the Broadway show songs.  I didn’t want to buy the music because the music I learned didn’t sound like the orchestrations at all.

Did you go to a lot of shows?

Not too many because we lived in Detroit, but I went to a few.  I saw the original production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ before it came to Broadway and things like that.  And I only gradually realized that I wanted to compose when I was about twenty years old.

Were you already studying music at that point?

Yes, I was studying piano.  And I had an interesting theory teacher in high school so I was doing exercises.   Then I started working with singers and I wanted to write songs for them.  So I started with Gertrude Stein and from there moved onward to other poets.

Where do you start from when you compose?  Do you start from the text?

Oh yes, always.  If there’s a text I worry over it for quite some time and almost always there’s some motivic idea that comes to me pretty soon.  And then structuring the song becomes what the work is.  I’ve got the motif and sometimes I think, “Oh well, it just keeps repeating, I can’t tell where it’s going.”  And occasionally the song just turns into the same motif over and over again in different keys, for instance.  But usually it’s the poem and then one small idea.

Do you ever get frustrated with your work?

Constantly.

How do you deal with it?

I do other things.  There are a lot of things I’m interested in so I read, I see a movie…but the actual frustration just sits with you while it’s there.  There’s nothing you can do except live in the frustration.  I don’t enjoy it.  Who does?

The last thing I wrote was one of those where the idea came to me and it was a little vague and needed a lot of tweaking.  It was a very simple (sings a melody) poem.  And I thought, “It could all go that way, the whole thing” and after one verse I said, “Now I have to go somewhere else” and that was pretty clear.  And then the third and fourth verses I had no idea where to go, and that’s when I had to sit down at the piano and actually start improvising and really go somewhere else.

But you tend to go away from it and then come back to it.  Does that refresh you?

Yes, definitely.  I mean, if it reaches a point where nothing is happening you just have to go away.  Say goodbye, maybe this won’t work out; goodbye, it’s been lovely knowing you but maybe I don’t like you after all.

Like love!

A little like love! (Laughs)

If you could travel back in time and meet yourself twenty years ago, what advice would you give yourself, if any?

Oh gosh, that’s a very hard question.  And I have to imagine my historical self…. I would advise myself to get out and see the world.  And that’s not coming from a place of regretting that I didn’t; it’s coming from a place of having done it and being very glad to have done it.  But it’s funny, I should be able to think of something that would actually turn my life in a different direction and yet I don’t feel inclined to do that.  It’s strange.

You’ve met my mother Hilde – she says there are no mistakes, that you’re exactly where you’re meant to be at any given time.

Of course, she’s right.  It’s hard to believe that all the time.  But it would really be a good idea to do so!  It would get rid of all that regret!

What was the last performance you saw and adored?

I saw The Nance on Broadway with Nathan Lane and this young guy, Jonny Orsini, who was also fantastic.  Very talented.  And the play was wonderful.  It closed in August.  But it was recorded for public television and should be coming out next year.

And one of your favorite poems?  I know you have many.

Well, the poem I just set to music is really quite wonderful.  It’s called Ballade of the Junk-Man.  It’s by Richard Le Gallienne, who was the father of the great actress Eva Le Gallienne.

Upon the summer afternoon,
Wafted across the orchard tress,
There comes a ghostly travelling tune,
Blent with the sleep drone of bees;
Elfin, aërial it is,
Like shaken bells of silver rain,
And creepy as old melodies—
The junk-man’s coming down the lane.

The ancient hat, the worn-out shoon,
The broken-hearted fineries,
The yellowed news, dead as the moon,
The rust, the rubbish, and the lees,
The tarnished trophy, gallantries
Gone to the moth – this clouded cane!
This buckle brave!—for such as these
The junk-man’s coming down the lane.

Oh thou that wooest deep in June,
Hearken! And thou so fain to seize
Joy, and to hoard it, late and soon,
Thou lord of many locks and keys,
Thick lies the dust—though no man sees—
Upon thy dream; Time sees it plain
On the bright wings, long ere it flies:
The junk-man’s coming down the lane.

Prince, ‘tis a thought our veins to freeze:
Time doth all hallowed things profne,
And toss about the centuries—
The junk-man’s coming down the lane.

Isn’t that gloomy?!  That’s Eric’s life philosophy and he wants it for the end of the program.  He says, “Human kind can’t get itself off the face of the earth fast enough.”  He’s generally not a gloomy type but….basically he is – he’s Norwegian.

Haha! That explains it, does it?

It explains something!  He prefers very, very cold weather to the summer.

What’s your dream for the next three years – do you have a big dream that you want to see fulfilled?

Yes, I want to move to Westbeth in Greenwich Village.  It’s not a big, big dream but I want to put my focus on that because it’s been a long time I’ve been on a waiting list and it’s becoming a real possibility.

What’s your favorite thing to do in New York City?

My very favorite thing to do if I had to pick one thing would be to go to Shakespeare in the Park on a beautiful night and see a really good production, which happens quite often!

 

Click here to watch “SONGS OF CHRISTOPHER BERG” from the Trinity Concerts at One series.

With baritone Jesse Blumberg, mezzo-soprano Naomi O’Connell & the composer at the piano.

Recorded at Trinity Church, New York City on February 28th, 2013.  Repertoire performed includes ‘Not Waving, but Drowning,’ the Frank O’Hara songs, Les Loisirs de la Poste and selections from Portrait en Miniature de Madame de Sévigné.

 

For more information on Chris Berg, click here to visit his management page. 

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In the title role and looking delectable, Naomi O’Connell’s creamy tone and elegant phrasing ravished the ear.

Seen & Heard International, 2012