Indie rocker Jeremy Podgursky turns classical composer
10:07 PM, Dec. 11, 2011
At a time when a handful of orchestras across the country struggle financially, naysayers proliferate with their calls of the demise of classical music in America. But still, there are those who are working to build careers as composers in the field who find inspiration in the classics but also in the sounds of the pop music of today.Count Louisville native Jeremy Podgursky among them. In November, the doctoral fellow and associate instructor of music composition at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music received an unusual envelope made of a heavy-grade paper.
“All I had to do was read the first sentence before I felt the jolt,” said Podgursky, 35.
That’s when he found out he is among 12 composers nationwide receiving $10,000 as part of a prestigious award from the Fromm Music Foundation Commission based at Harvard University.
The accomplishment might not be one most would expect of a musician who spent his youth playing guitar and singing in hardcore and indie bands. But that was Podgursky. In the 1990s, he emerged as a recognizable name in the local band scene, first in a hardcore group called Dybbuk and another called Lather.
It was, however, in a band formed in 1995 called The Pennies where he began to work even more at his craft of making music. He and his bandmates played gigs and recorded music that sparkled with pop, all while he was earning a degree in music from the University of Louisville.
Back then, he worked hard in school, but said he really focused on his music with the band, describing this extracurricular activity as a form of rebellion. Still, his music studies did further his work with the band, allowing him to add string and brass arrangements to some of the songs.
On to Chicago
Then in 2002, the band broke up. Podgursky found himself not knowing what to do next. So he packed up and left town.
“I moved to Chicago to be an observer, a fly on the wall. I wasn’t really writing any music,” he said. “I was just going to these concerts and teaching piano and guitar to help me make a living.”
He also made his living via an administrative job in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s box office.
“I went to all their concerts, and that in and of itself was an education,” he said, but it wasn’t enough.
During the festivities associated with the opening of Chicago’s Millennium Park in the summer of 2004, he went to see the Grammy-winning Chicago-based sextet eighth blackbird perform a concert on a rooftop.
“They just blew my mind,” he said. “There was such a captivated audience there, and I thought if this stuff is done well, it can get through to anyone regardless of their background.”
He said he remembers telling himself right there, “I have unfinished business.”
By the following year, he had enrolled at U of L to get a master’s degree in music. During his time there, he studied with the music composition faculty, including Steve Rouse.
“Jeremy always had an instinct for effective and satisfying dramatic structure in his music,” Rouse said. “And over time he developed a deep sensitivity for the surface sensuality of the music. I think he managed to blend both of those characteristics to create moving music that isn’t cloying or typical in any way.”
During his second round at U of L, he entered his compositions in competitions at the school and beyond, receiving accolades and awards along the way. In 2008, just after Podgursky received his master’s degree, the classical music website Sequenza21 chose his “Nonsense or Sorcery?#%*!” for piano trio from a call-for-scores.
The contest included having the piece performed by a group called the Lost Dog Music Ensemble, the resident chamber ensemble for the Astoria Music Society in Queens, N.Y. It got Podgursky a mention in The New York Times, which described the piece as “tangled clusters of notes unfurled into strands of modal melody and pinwheeling rhythms.”
After beginning his doctoral studies at IU’s renowned music school, Podgursky continued to enter his work into competitions and receive recognition. His pieces were premiered and read by professional groups, including Alarm Will Sound, the California State University Northridge Symphony, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Kansas City’s newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, and the New York-based North/South Consonance chamber orchestra.
In the past year, the accolades have included being one of the honorable mentions for the chamber music composition he submitted to the Finale National Composition Contest judged by eighth blackbird. And the Lost Dog Music Ensemble invited him to create another piece for it. The piece called “Ouroboros” — the word for the ancient symbol of a serpent or dragon devouring its own tail — had its premiere in New York in April.
“His music has lively rhythms to it and a sense of motion and direction. It’s very dynamic with a positive energy, even when it’s dark,” said Lost Dog member and violinist Miranda Cuckson.
The ensemble learned the first piece without having the composer on hand, she said, but in preparing for “Ouroboros,” Podgursky was in New York to work with the musicians during rehearsals. Cuckson said she got to know the composer a little and found him funny with “a pretty colorful imagination.”
Podgursky was helpful, she said, as this piece has “more aspects that were difficult to line up and work out — all these tempo changes and the pace.”
Podgursky said he was “blown away” the first time he heard Lost Dog perform his work and was thrilled to get another chance to work with the ensemble this past year. Because of that budding relationship, he proposed in his application for the Fromm Foundation prize to have Lost Dog perform the piece. The foundation requires all applicants to name a group that will premiere the piece that is proposed, and the award includes funding for expenses incurred from the premiere and recording of the piece.
Cuckson said hearing that Podgursky had won the award was good news by itself, but she also sees Lost Dog’s involvement in this project as benefiting the ensemble.
“It’s an indicator that we are involved in supporting talented contemporary composers,” she said, musing that it could help the ensemble gain greater attention.
Podgursky’s application to Fromm also included details about the piece he has already begun to write. It’s based on ideas he developed after reading the nonfiction book “The Holographic Universe,” which includes interviews with scientists and argues that the universe is one huge hologram, thus helping to explain out-of-body experiences, quantum theory problems and the paranormal.
Podgursky said his effort to depict the idea of a hologram using sound began by thinking about organizing the piece with what he calls “strings of intervals in time.” Those intervals, he explained, would create distance between melodic notes. Then he came up with patterns of intervals about five notes long. In doing that, he found harmonic fields that he arranged with musical notes.
“It just so happens that the way these harmonies interlock with each other in these chains or overlapping intervals, I was able to explore different registers and gestures, and that influenced the rhythm,” he said.
A wide range of influences
How does this new piece relate to the other work he has created?
Podgursky became a bit coy with that question.
“I’d say if you want to find one common thread through all my pieces, it’s that I wrote them,” he said. “If you find something else that’s common, then let me know because I don’t have time. I have to get going on the next piece.”
He also counts a range of influences in his work, saying “my head’s a musical blender.” Works he wrote last year, for instance, were influenced by Charles Mingus and crazy caper music from movies. A piece he’s writing now has been inspired by “everything from Miles Davis and Brian Eno to (Hungarian and modernist composer György) Ligeti.”
“You cannot help but be hyper-influenced (in today’s culture),” he said.
Honing his skills with IU’s Baker
But he credits one dominating force for helping him hone his creativity and sharpen his writing skills: Claude Baker, composer and IU composition professor. Baker taught at the University of Louisville from 1976 to 1988, and for eight years in the 1990s he was composer-in-residence of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
Baker called Podgursky “an accomplished professional even before he arrived to do his doctorate here,” also praising the instruction and faculty at U of L.
“He has such a wonderful musical sensibility, and there’s a real depth of feeling in every one of his pieces,” Baker said. “Even if there is a constructionist sort of concept behind the piece, it never negates the intense musicality that every one of his works exhibits.”
He said Podgursky’s achievement in having work recognized by the Fromm Foundation bodes well for his future and success in the field.
“To get one of these commissions will almost invariably lead to another,” he said, “because you have proven yourself and have been vetted by a prestigious organization and a panel of professionals.”
Podgursky won’t predict that this signals success, but he does hope that it will help him land a university teaching job after he earns his doctorate. That’s his goal, he said, not because he aspires to be an academic but because it can allow him to continue to compose and because he “loves to teach.”
He said he even sometimes entertains the idea of a music education program in Louisville that could include students from grade school through high school.
“Truth be told, there’s not enough education,” he said, adding that most students don’t have any background in anything but pop music and music education isn’t valued in American society anymore.
At the same time, Podgursky said that he holds some pop and rock music in high esteem and that if students listened they could hear the influences of the classics there.
“If you can get students to listen to Wu Tang Clan, and even when they listen to 50 Cent, they’ll find some of the samples have elements of Bach. Then maybe they’ll have a better appreciation and realize the many different dialects in the language,” he said.
But even though Podgursky can wax eloquently about education and music composition, he still describes himself in one succinct sentence.
“I’m a rock ’n’ roll dude,” he said.