Changing The Focus: An Interview With Antiphone Composer Trey Pollard
More than most genres, classical musical strikes me as revealing of the people who compose it. From the perspective of an observer, the decision points seem infinite. Instrumentation. Form. Melody. Mood. Given the vast array of possibilities, and the way choosing one path closes the door on another, publishing a classical piece can put your internal world on display in a unique way. You’re allowing strangers a good, hard look at so many of your impulses and instincts. Your likes and dislikes. What makes you you as a musician.
Trey Pollard is poised to take the spotlight in exactly this way. He’s part of the team of visionaries who have led Richmond’s Spacebomb Records along an impressively ascendent course, and he’s lent his talents for playing, arranging, and conducting to tunes by the likes of Natalie Prass, Foxygen, and Bedouine, not to mention Spacebomb founding frontman, Matthew E. White. The depth of Pollard’s musical toolkit would appear to be limitless. He’s joined tours in support of recordings he helped shape. He contributed to the score of the hit S-Town podcast. He wrote arrangements for standout Richmond artists like Clair Morgan and Tim Barry when they graced the stage of the Richmond Symphony for the thrilling “RVA Live!” program.
Antiphone, Pollard’s upcoming album of contemporary chamber pieces being released on November 16th, promises to provide the clearest line of sight yet into one of this city’s most brilliant musical minds. Pollard and I spoke over lunch recently at Whisk, and he generously answered questions about being at the center of a release cycle, the role of classical in today’s culture, the relationship between music and space, and what this moment means for Spacebomb.
How is it starting to see the tracks from Antiphone out in the world?
Being with Spacebomb, I’m used to the album rollout, but [this is] different. I’ve never really done it before. I have a limited expectation of what weird contemporary classical music is going to do. For me the whole thing is part of a process, from writing the music to now. “OK, this the next thing that happens.” It’s cool to watch it. I’m getting texts from people. It feels nice to be in this position where the music is out but it’s got my name on it.
Andy Jenkins was just in a similar situation, going from a behind-the-scenes role to his own album rollout. What did you learn from Andy’s experience?
I text with Andy when [I’m asked], “You have to write a little thing about your music and send it to this guy.” I text with Andy a lot about that because he’s really good with words, but he’s also newly been in that situation… [I text] with Matt, too, because even though Matt’s been doing it longer, I know Matt from before he was Matthew E. White. To me, we have that sort of relationship. “OK, when you’re pretending to be this other person, this Matthew E. White, how would you say this? How do you go about conveying those kinds of things?” I work with so many people who do this, who are the artists… For me, there’s much less hanging in the balance. It has a ceiling, this kind of music. [But] I do look to those guys for [how] to walk that line, that forward-facing thing.
How do you see classical music’s role in culture now?
You write strings for a record, or arrangements — that tradition is very old. That tradition comes out of when turn-of-the-century classical music was the popular music, until pop music started… In the entire canon of pop music, that kind of thinking about the way an orchestra works, for example, and how it interacts with songs — I don’t want to say it’s not changed, but it’s been present… When I think about what I do as an arranger, that to me is all connected directly to romantic era classical music and previous.
When you take the songs out — when you take the pop music element out — to me, it’s essentially the same thing. I think about music as being one thing. [Classical and pop are] not essentially different in the way they function, but you’re sort of choosing your audience. If we just focus on this one aspect, which is the compositional qualities of whatever this thing is, or we’re dealing with form, or we’re dealing with harmony or melody in a way that doesn’t fit into pop forms, essentially you’re saying there’s a whole swath of people who aren’t going to give it [their] time because they’re not interested in that, and that’s OK… You’re changing the focus a little bit, on more esoteric, nuanced details of the music, [and] that allows you to write music that doesn’t have all these things that people are going to expect. If they only listen to pop music, they’re going to expect X, Y, and Z, and you don’t have to do that. So, as far as who do I hope listens to it, or who do I hope hears it, I don’t know. I haven’t thought about that. In the process of writing, in the process of recording, it’s kind of neither here nor there.
I do feel like there’s value in it… I think there’s an element of classical music now, or contemporary music, whatever you’re going to call it, that’s even more devoid of an audience than it was in the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries, because that was the music people were going to hear, and would play in their house. So now, it’s purely music for its own sake, truly. And there’s the good and the bad that comes with that. And I hope my music focuses on the parts of that that are redeeming and valuable.
In that sense, do you think there’s a purity there, given that it’s closer to creation for creation’s sake?
Maybe. I don’t know if I would put it up on a pedestal. I would maybe just say that it’s different. It’s focusing on different things. I don’t think that one is necessarily purer. But I think that people who have an audience — pop stars, or people who have a history — they have something special. And some of them feel like communicating with that audience is a part of their work. And that’s valuable. And then sometimes people don’t have that, or they don’t care about the audience, and they just do what they want to do. So I’m not sure they’re necessarily purer. The focus is different.
I think truly the audience that I was writing for is the people who were playing. There’s an element of writing for players, and when you’re doing arranging a lot, your jobs are to serve the music and to serve the greater piece. The song or the artist or whatever the image is supposed to be — all you’re doing is supporting that. But aside from that, it’s about communicating with the players… I feel like that is really my first audience — those people who are performing. Hopefully that translates to the recording, and that translates to the people who are just listeners, like “I see how there’s a relationship between what the person conceived of and how they wrote it for this instrument.”
Because writing for an instrument is so narrow. We think of it as being “Oh, you can write anything you want. It’s your record. You can do anything.” Not really. I’m writing for this person to play this particular instrument that works in this way. All of arranging, and really producing records, is about that. It’s about who are the humans who are making the music? How do we communicate with them, and what are we going to say to them and give to them to create the thing that we want to create? So in that way, it’s identical to making a pop record, or a noise record, or whatever the record is. Just communicating with the people.
That’s a really interesting idea — composition as communication. When you were writing for the record, did you have specific players in mind?
Maybe not for exactly specific people, but for a group of people, which is this Richmond string community, generally… There are like 20, 30 string players I work with a lot. Treesa [Gold] I work with very closely. Treesa basically contracts everything I do. Even though I know all the string players, too, it’s just easier to say “Hey Treesa, I have this session coming. Can you put together a group?” And she knows what I like, and who gets on with the music I write, and she puts it together. So the big group on the record, she basically contracted.
The smaller group was a little more particular — just people who have played my stuff a lot and [who] I’ve had more time with… I know what they’re good at, and I’m trying to write to their strengths in some ways, and also push them in other ways — things they don’t normally do, because someone playing something that’s really easy for them all the time is not particularly compelling. It’s pushing the edge of what you can get. So having that relationship with those players over the last several years allowed me to write up against the edge. And that’s what it sounds like to me. The performances on the record are really good. It sounds to me like it’s right at the edge of what was possible to do in the amount the time and money and those kind of things. And that’s cool to me. I like that sound.
Absolutely. For me, composing, or really dealing with music in any way, is about uncovering something in whatever it is you’re working with. You have a small germ of an idea, some musical piece, just a little something, and you uncover it, somewhat, to see what it is…
I feel like a lot of times what people do, and what I do, and what everyone does, because there’s an audience, [and] because it’s pop music, you have to say “OK, this is what the thing is, but what I need it to be is this.” So you let it be a little of what it is, but you force it to [be] this other thing, because that’s a quote-unquote better thing. A better song. “This song is better by doing this to it. This is a cool idea, but it has these flaws that I’m going to fix.” [These] pieces in particular, I wanted to let them be whatever they wanted to be. A lot of the music on this record is that way. I feel like each individual thing has its own character that I have no control over. It just is what it is. And I’m using my abilities and my skills to flesh it out, to finish it, and to help it be what it wants to be.
Where did the germs of ideas for Antiphone come from? Were they collected over time, or did they come over the period of time after you set your mind to recording the album?
I had stacks of paper on my piano from, at this point, almost three years ago. I really started making the record last October — basically a year ago now. But up to then, I had two years of stuff. Ideas. We’re talking about 10 seconds of something, or two seconds of something. Just stacks and stacks of paper. It would come from working on other people’s music — you have an idea and it’s cool, but it doesn’t work for this thing and so you throw it away. Most of the music I write is thrown away. Most of it becomes nothing.
So I took a big stack of things and did a session about a year ago. It was actually a little bit before I decided to make a record. I had a group in the room and we read through everything and I recorded it. None of these were finished. They’d play for 12 seconds, the notes would stop, and they’d stop… I wanted to react to it sonically. “What do I think of the way this sounds? Forget how I wrote it, forget what’s happening logically in the music. What does it sound like?” From there I narrowed in on a few ideas that I thought were most compelling to me sonically.
Is that how you decided on the forms you used — allowing individual ideas to be developed?
It’s partly why I chose, for the bulk of the record, this prelude and fugue thing, because it allowed me to decide what the end result was. “OK, so I’m going to write 16 two-minute things, basically…” When you’re arranging, someone gives you the song. “Here’s the start, here’s the end, here are the chords, here’s the melody. Make it great.” It’s easy. But when you can do whatever, you can do anything. I could take these ideas and turn them into orchestral, synth… they could be anything. So deciding [on] the fugues and preludes made it possible for me to finish, because I had an end in mind.
And then there are the two larger pieces, which came much later. I knew I wanted to do something else that was bigger. That was a little more organic. I kind of let [them] germinate. I had a lot of ideas that I knew were bigger than the string quintet could handle — musically there was too much happening. I wasn’t sure what those were going to be. I thought originally they were going to be two pianos and a harp… What ended up seemed like the right fit.
I saw a picture on Instagram from when you shared Antiphone with VCU jazz studies founder Doug Richards. Can you talk a little about how he’s influenced your musical thinking?
You come across people in life who are just really good at things, and who see through the bullshit. When you’re going to school, especially for music, there’s a lot of bullshit involved. You’re trying to learn this thing that’s very complicated. Music is complicated — there’s a hugely long history, and it can be so many things. And then you’re dealing with all the stuff about music that’s bad, like expectations of things to be this way or that way. In jazz, in classical, in pop music, there are expectations about what things are OK, what things aren’t. But for me, Doug — and other people, too — but Doug specifically was one of these guys who could see “This is bullshit. Don’t pay attention to this. This is the stuff that’s important.” And it was always about the qualities of the music. It was about the quality of the art…
My first string arranging lesson was from him. We studied the Ravel string quartet… He knows a lot about jazz music obviously, but he knows a ton about Western European art music. Those things are all so genre specific, [but] even if I’m learning about Thad Jones, Duke Ellington horn charts, it’s more about the way [Richards] listens to music, the way he thinks about music, the way he cares about, and always talks about, craft. Matt and I talk about it a lot. The craft of what you do is important… It’s about how you go about it — caring about the details, caring about the parts that make up the bigger thing. So no matter what kind of music we’re talking about, no matter what kind of music I’m working on, I’m thinking about [Richards] because he always does the best thing he can possibly do no matter what the situation is. And that’s actually really rare.
Since I got out of school, we’ve shared music with each other. He sends me stuff that he’s listening to — most often now, it’s some contemporary classical music. So we geek out in those nerdy ways, and talk about jazz in nerdy ways, and talk about things that uniquely [he] and I like.
Was it rewarding sharing the piece with him, given how you’re getting to use the most complex aspects of the musical education he helped you gain?
It was rewarding for sure, [but] that wouldn’t be the top-line emotion I was feeling. That emotion was fear. I knew that Doug would get it, you know what I mean. Of anyone I could show it to, he knows my musical taste pretty well, and we have a similar aesthetic that we like in that kind of music. I knew he would get it in that way, and obviously I respect his opinion. He’s at the top — his opinion of what is good or isn’t good…
I brought the score for the whole thing, and we put the first track on, and I was expecting we’d just sit and listen to the record. We played the first line and he went up and stopped it. He [said] “Can we hear it again?” I think we listened to it four times — just the first track. He wanted to give me his opinion… It was a nice moment. It was a nice time, and I do feel like he liked it, so that’s good. I think I came out of it relatively unscathed. I was for sure nervous about it.
I guess in a way he is the audience, or someone like that is the audience — someone who appreciates [that] sort of things. I do think it’s aesthetically fairly pleasing, most of it. Some of it maybe isn’t, but a lot of it is fairly pleasing in a way that normal people could listen to it and not be offended by it. That was a little bit of a goal of mine. I didn’t want it to be offensive in its nature. But I do think that someone more like him is probably the audience.
How did you decide on Montrose as the setting for recording Antiphone? Was it Adrian Olsen? Was it the room?
I have a lot of respect for Adrian. He’s a really good engineer, [and] he’s a really natural musician. And I mean that in the broadest sense of the word. He just has big ears. No matter what we’re doing, I feel like the thing I’m thinking is the thing he’s thinking about the way it sounds…
I know the way that room sounds really well for strings because I [record there] so much, so I knew it would sound good in there. I knew there was enough room, and I wanted Adrian involved, because I respect his ears, and I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to focus on the sound at all because I needed to be in the room to make sure that we were getting it — pulling the notes off the paper. So I needed someone in there I could trust. And Matt was in there too as a producer. What does a producer do in that situation? Just be in there and listen and let me know if things are fucked up. So for me doing it at Montrose — Adrian is comfortable there, it’s a big room, I trusted him…
There’s an element of it [where] I wanted to feel like we were making a record… If I’d done it at a concert hall or something, it would have been a different vibe. To me, the recording sounds like a recording. I like that. I wanted it to be a recorded work. It can be performed live, too, and hopefully it does get performed in those kinds of settings, but for this, I wanted it to sound like a record.
You can feel that sense of presence on the album, especially in quiet moments.
I like it to sound a little more up-close, a little more inside than it would be if it was just a concert hall. I wanted it to feel a little more tactile, is the only word I can think of.
There are classical recordings I love where reverb plays a big role, but the notes and the ideas themselves on Antiphone are communicated so directly and immediately. It’s like the difference between being part of a conversation and observing people talking from afar.
I think that’s a pretty good analogy. I think sonically, that’s just what I was hearing. I think there are situations where the other way might be what I’m hearing, and I will do it that way next time. But I think for this, that’s what I was imagining, and Adrian did a really good job. And we recorded a lot of mics — we had options. We ended up getting rid of a lot of stuff we didn’t need. I really like the way it sounds. It came together.
Do you tend to see music spatially?
In arranging, I do a lot. I think all the time about depth… You’re dealing with things that have a foreground that is not your thing. You’re writing arrangements, you are not the foreground. Almost always. Maybe moments, but I think about that a lot. And I think about how do certain gestures, or certain types of sounds — how do they sit in a field of other sounds. This music is funny because there was nothing else to compete with, so I didn’t think about that at all. But it’s a good question. I do. In any of the other work I do, a lot of the thinking is about that. What’s the picture? What is the picture if you step away? What do you remember? As long as you’re getting that right, you can do whatever you want in the details of the picture, as long as the image stays the same.
I think at Spacebomb, our M.O. is to do as much as we can in the background and the middle ground to push what can be happening there. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fall short at that, but that has been our way of going about it… Can it be very involved and maybe complicated or strange, whatever the adjectives happen to be, and still have the picture out front be the same? I think about that all the time.
Does this strike you as a turning point for Spacebomb? Given Andy’s record, this album, and the opening of the new office, does this feel like a new chapter?
I don’t know. I don’t tend to notice when the moment is happening. I feel like there’s so much work involved, of course, [and] when you’re focused on the work, you’re just focused on doing [what] you’re doing. To be macro, and to step out, is a difficult thing.
The other day I was telling someone [about how] we did this show in London about a year ago, a Spacebomb revue, where we had all of the Spacebomb artists, and a bunch of artists we had worked with… It was massive. It was great. We did it at the Barbican. I basically was the MD [musical director] for the show, which means that I did all the charts, I prepared everything, interacted with all the artists, picked the songs, rehearsed the band. If it failed, it was my fault. If it was a bad show, it was my fault. I just knew at the time “I’m not going to enjoy this. I’m not going to enjoy the show. I’m going to enjoy the moment right after the show.” I feel like that’s a smaller version of what we’re talking about now…
Putting out a record is a little different, because I’m done with it. I’ve finished it. Now we’re talking about it. Now it’s coming out. But I’m not involved so much in the coming out of it, because that’s someone else’s job. I have a little more perspective on this moment in that way, as far as the way my record interacts with it. But I feel like, at some point, [Spacebomb] kicked into going down the hill, [into] moving. For a long time, it was an idea, and we had done a few things, and it sat a little bit. But [for] several years now, it’s constantly felt like [things are] increasing. So I don’t really feel a moment right now. Maybe there is.
Antiphone by Trey Pollard comes out on November 16th through Spacebomb Records (pre-orders available at this link). Before that, Pollard will perform alongside a live string quartet at the The Hofheimer on November 13th, with Matthew E. White accompanying him on the bill. For more information on that show, click here.