DOWNEY -- Lars Clutterham’s motor is always running. It’s not just the inaudible thrum of energy you detect under his skin, it’s the polyrhythms of contained impulses competing for expression as he leans forward and his hands and shoulders and upper body move to shape his thoughts and feelings. It’s no surprise therefore to learn that at 68, he’s been a lifelong musician. Music is visibly alive in him.
It’s no surprise either to feel an even higher level of enthusiasm as he contemplates the upcoming October 22 Downey Symphony world premiere of his most ambitious composition, Suite for Orchestra, aka Downey Celebration Suite, which will share the bill with Gustav Holst’s epic The Planets.
Cutterham’s peripatetic career, which has taken him from Illinois to Florida to Paris to San Diego, had kept him locked down in the Hollywood film industry work for years.
“I’d been living in Downey for a long time and wasn’t doing any writing, “ he says over lunch pecan pie a la mode at Carrows.
“My wife’s family had season tickets to the Downey Symphony. I thought I’d write an encore piece for them, and sent it on to [Musical Director] Sharon Lavery at USC. It was a tonal scherzo piece, accessible and straightforward. ‘I like it,’ she said. I didn’t hear any more about it until I thumbed through the program for this season and saw my name on the bill. Then she said, ‘I need seven more minutes.’ So I wrote them for her.”
Clutterham’s local emergence seems a long time coming. For a lengthy period during his 18-year Downey residency, which he began as music director at Downey United Methodist Church in 1992, he worked as a copyist and proofreader at the Twentieth Century Fox Music Library in Culver City. Sometimes, improbably, he bicycled to work—an hour-and-a-half each way—his head filled with musical ideas. Most of his work involved the minutiae of music preparation for film scoring, which includes orchestration, conducting scoring sessions, and transcription. This last category is crucial. An accidental dot left in the wrong place can change the duration of a note and completely alter a musical score.
“I must’ve worked a thousand scores,” he says. “One day I’m sitting with my feet propped up on a paper stack. ‘What am I using as a footstool here?’ I wondered. It was the score for ‘E.T.’ Another time I worked on a score I thought had the dumbest name. It was ‘Forrest Gump.’”
Whether the stresses of film work caused a bout of Meniere’s disease, which begins with dizziness and vertigo and proceeds to severe hearing loss—catastrophic for a musician—he decided to cut back. Major shifts in the directions of his life were no new thing; once his father earned his Ph. D. in computer science at the University of Illinois, he moved his family (Clutterham has three younger siblings) around the country before settling in Orlando, Florida. Fortunately, music was their constant companion; his mother and siblings all played. One sister became a ballet dancer.
“I went to four high schools in four years,” Clutterham says. “One of them was in Chatsworth. I was comfortable with the changes. I don’t remember ever meeting a new person or making a new friend. Music was my substitute for all that.”
For a while Clutterham took his piano studies with the highest seriousness. At age 12 he did well enough in a piano competition to play a Beethoven piano concerto with the Florida Symphony (“That was good for my little ego”), but shortly afterwards adolescence hit (“sports, girls”). He lost the stomach for discipline and turned to pop music. He made a stab at it again at Cornell College in Iowa and, after graduating, a year’s piano study in Paris under the no-nonsense tutelage of Blanche Bascourret De Gueraldo at the Ecole Normale de Musique.
But in the high-pressure, highly competitive world of the musical soloist, you can’t miss a step along the way. It was a restless time. The whole western world, it seemed, was in ferment over the war in Vietnam (Clutterham possesses a strong social conscience). He taught for four years at a Quaker school in Pennsylvania, but couldn’t shake the idea of writing film scores and worked his way into the industry after writing commercial music in San Diego and moonlighting as a club pianist.
Now he’s back where he feels at home.
His description of the Serenade’s opening movement seems to mirror his restless nature as various solo woodwind instruments skip across a full orchestral landscape.
“The second movement is slow, with two things going on, the progression of a sunrise and a lyric idea spelling out the name of Downey. The third has an urgent rhythmic passage in a minor key, with acknowledgment of the Latino community—the theme makes use of Latin percussion.“
Asked about his musical influences, he mentioned the choral austerity of Poulenc and the harmonics of Debussy.
“Yeah, I can live with that.”
His face brightened.
“This pecan pie is pretty good. I think I’ll have another slice.”
Everything seemed bright at the moment.