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Why did you end up in Math, rather than music?

I knew for many years that I had an aptitude for both of them and at some point I had to make a choice. Even if I did manage to make a career out of my music it would have to be at the expense of not doing math. And I can make a living of one, and a reasonable showing of the other.

What was your musical background?

My mother was a piano teacher, so there was piano music all the time. I started playing piano at three, and taking lessons in composition - I was putting notes on paper just a few months after starting to play.

So you were four?

No I was still three.

I started getting actual training in composition and theory at about 6. I was in Israel at the time.

Isn’t it unusual to compose so young?

Not unusual if also starting to play the piano at an early age. Children learn everything by imitation.

Were you influenced by your early teachers?

That’s how everyone from before Palestrina got started.

What was your first real composition?

What I usually label Op. 1 was a piece I wrote between six and seven in memory of my grandmother. It was a five-miniute piece for piano.

Was Chopin an influence?

There were lots of early influences. There was a Viennese sonatina which takes after Mozart, a prelude which takes after Debussy, a string trio after the manner of Schonberg, although I didn’t enjoy it then and I don’t enjoy it now - I was 10 or 11 at the time.

What are your current inspirations

They’re all over the place. I’ve been introduced to music from before Bach from choruses. Bach, Brahms, Chopin as a pianist, Shostakovitch, Schubert and certainly Mozart. I omit Beethoven - I’ve great respect but haven’t been able to assimilate it yet. Of the more moderns: Bartok and especially Britten.

What drew you to Yossele Solovey?

It’s little known that Sholem Aleichem was himself a great afficianado of music. There are lots of specific events in the novel that have specific musical references - and there’s the whole fact that the lead character is a cantor. Towards the end Schmulik is giving what is normally a very cheerful blessing in mournful tunes of lamentation; it’s another thing to hear someone do it. The story has shows a wonderful panorama of Jewish life and aspects of vanishing Shtetl life.

What was your musical approach?

There are all these tunes, musical concepts that I had swirling in my mind. Someone heard a bit of the music here and thought of Mozart doing Fiddler on the Roof. I haven’t much performed Mozart, but if one’s going to write opera that’s where to go to see how it’s done. There are these various unifying musical ideas that are drawn from Jewish music but treated in other ways. The first few notes are from Havah Nagilla - in a key not normally done. The main Kaddish tune comes from the cantilation from Bereshit [Genesis].

What’s significant about Bereshit?

The whole musical picture there is of the primordial we have injected into this Yossele who has this incredible talent and is driven by it to break the bounds of the society

What’s special about the art of music?

With music you can say things that you cannot express in words. Specifically this is a story about a musician and how wonderful his music is, music of a great cantor, music of an almost-lapsed Jew. Writing the music is like me being an actor and doing part of the interpretation.