Department of Music

Eric Nathan Recognized in IMPACT: Research at Brown for his Contributions as a Major Composer and as an Educator

Assistant Professor of Music Eric Nathan was recently recognized in a story published in the printed journal, IMPACT: Research at Brown. The online version of the story follows below. Bravo, Professor Nathan!

Music faculty member moves into leading rank of new classical composers

By Allie Reed, Class of 2021, for IMPACT: Research at Brown

Assistant Professor of Music Eric Nathan earns accolades from critics, composers and professors alike.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — On a September night in 2019, Eric Nathan received a standing ovation as he stood on the stage of Boston’s Symphony Hall. The Boston Symphony Orchestra had just played the world premiere of his "Concerto for Orchestra."

For many months preceding the performance, Nathan, an assistant professor of music at Brown University, had been developing his latest commission from the BSO (the third in the past five years), researching and building the piece. The roots of his concerto actually went back much further: The first score Nathan ever bought was Bartok’s "Concerto for Orchestra," and his fascination with the concerto form came together when, as a teenager, he saw the BSO perform the Bartok at Tanglewood.

Nathan’s creative world advanced as he started taking violin, piano and trumpet lessons at an early age. He discovered that, while he loved to perform, he hated to practice. Yet composition, he found, was something he could do “all day long.” And he wrote his first composition, "Proclamation for Trumpet and Piano," while in high school.

When Nathan composes, his studio may look similar to that of a historian writing a book. The room is covered with scores by other composers, which he uses to research how they dealt with similar issues. He also listens to music and fills notebooks with ideas before writing.

“When I’m writing,” he said, “I’ll have ideas of the larger-range picture or gestures,” usually sketching them out by hand, sometimes using words to describe what he is going for. “Then I hone in on rhythms, pitches and creating motives. Once I’ve composed a motive, I find that it usually then starts to take on its own life and presents new questions and ideas that can help lead me forward.”

He uses many methods to “coax out ideas.” Sometimes this means looking at pictures of conductors or performers.

Other times, as with his Emily Dickinson song cycle that premiered in Dallas in January 2019, he finds inspiration from on-the-scene research. “There is something powerful about a sense of place that can help one feel connection to the past,” Nathan said.

Another piece, "the space of a door," a 2016 Boston Symphony commission, was based on his emotional experience visiting the Providence Athenaeum for the first time.

Nathan, who joined the Brown faculty in 2015, said he’s found techniques to work around roadblocks, like listening to his composition in a new space, with others, or while lying down or walking around. “If I invite someone in to listen with me, I listen completely differently than when I listen alone,” he said.

Nathan thinks of his method of composing as a dialogue between what he wants on a conscious level and what the piece wants on a subconscious one.

For instance, after immersing himself in Dickinson’s world by experiencing the sense of her house and standing in the room where she wrote her poetry, Nathan wrote a song cycle based on Dickinson’s Civil War-time correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson. He used their letters to “tell a story through music, about Dickinson’s struggles as a woman poet and Higginson’s struggles for the abolition of slavery.” The 45-minute piece had a series of premiere performances in 2019, culminating in going “home” to near the Dickinson Museum in Amherst.

Robert Kirzinger, associate director of program publications for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, said he is “continually impressed with Eric’s ability to unlock the personalities of the instruments and ensembles he’s writing for,” expressing a wide range of emotions in his work, from humor to grief.

Nathan said it took him time to let go of the idea of the “genius composer,” whose ideas flow seamlessly from head to page all at once. Instead, he said, “I’m experimenting, I’m failing, I’m learning and meeting these musical elements anew each time I write.” 

Nathan is known in the music world for his adventurous spirit.

"As Above, So Below," commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in 2014, is a duet for a solo trombonist that Nathan describes as “a dialogue between two sides of the same instrument.” The performer physically removes one of the trombone’s tuning slides, to “project the sound forwards out of the trombone’s bell, or backwards from the opened tuning slide.” The result is two distinct characters that can be put into conversation with each other, despite the voices coming from just one performer.

Nathan’s "Missing Words" series pays homage to Ben Schott’s book "Schottenfreude," which is a collection of German words created for the modern world. Each piece is based off a word, which Nathan uses as a lens to find new sounds.

The critical response to Nathan’s latest concerto was positive; Boston Globe critic Zoe Madonna wrote, “I’d happily have heard it over again as soon as it ended.”

The BSO’s Chamber Players will reprise Nathan’s "Why Old Places Matter" (2014) in March 2020.

John Harbison, a Pulitzer- and MacArthur Fellowship–winning composer and professor of music composition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he believes Nathan will be “an important American composer for many years to come.” He also praised Nathan’s teaching for inspiring students to make a mark in the “fascinating and competitive world of new concert music.”