After our Sept. 6th Champaign-UrbanaSymphony Orchestra’s “Legends” concert, in which I was officially welcomed to the Champaign-Urbana community in my new role as Composer-in-Residence of the orchestra, several inquisitive audience members asked me an assortment of questions. I realized shortly afterward that three particular questions came up quite frequently over the course of the evening. Actually, I often get asked these questions at other musical events too, enough so that I’m devoting today’s blog to supplying answers.
Audience Question #1: What instrument do you play?
I started taking piano lessons at the age of five. In high school, I wanted to join the marching band, and the director convinced me to play “marching bells” with the percussion section (think of a glockenspiel with straps that cross on your back and hold the instrument parallel to the ground). But the bells were so darn heavy that, after one season, I picked up an alto saxophone and marched with the woodwinds instead. I also sang in choirs from elementary school more or less through my masters degree. By the time I began an undergraduate degree as a music composition major, I realized that while I was doing well in understanding how to write music for piano, voice, and saxophone, I had no idea how string or brass instruments worked, and that this lack of understanding was hampering my ability to write effectively for these instrumental families. So I took a semester of lessons on the French horn and another semester on the cello. I also took a class that taught rudimentary percussion (this was technically a class for music education majors, who would eventually need to teach youngsters how to play percussion), and managed to get a few lessons on harp too.
In other words, I can play a little of a lot of instruments. While I don’t sound particularly great on any of them, having a firm understanding of each instrument’s characteristics - how it produces sound, how the tone of the instrument changes over its range, what special colors and sonic attributes the instrument possesses, how easy or difficult it is for a performer to play at the instrument’s extreme ranges – has immensely helped me to compose more effectively.
Audience Question #2: How do you know what the music is going to sound like?
The short answer is…years of practice! Actually, that’s the long answer too. But what does “practice” mean? Several meanings and methodologies apply:
• Score study. One of the best ways to understand how various instruments sound when played alone or when combined with other instruments is to study musical scores. I have spent countless hours poring over scores written by a wide range of composers, sometimes with a recording to hear the work out loud, and sometimes without. One effective score-study exercise is to concentrate on a small section of a piece without the recording to see if I can internally imagine what it will sound like, then follow this up by listening to a recording of it. I view score study as a lifelong activity – composers can perpetually work on developing our “inner ear” as well as increasing our overall knowledge base.
• Going to rehearsals. Nothing else quite compares with seeing how the sausage gets made! As a composer, I can hear what parts of a piece the musicians sound glorious, as well as what parts they struggle with, what precisely is creating issues for the performers, and how they solve these issues. This is particularly useful when the rehearsal is of one of my own works, and the musicians and I work to problem-solve issues together. The more I understand what works well and what doesn’t (and why), the more I can avoid issues in future pieces.
• Experimentation with performers. Every now and then, I’ll purposely include something in a piece that I may not be sure how it will work – such as a percussionist rolling an upside-down suspended cymbal on top of a timpani while activating the drum’s foot pedal to change the pitch – just to see what happens. I try to run these experiments with performers outside of rehearsal time – perhaps by Skype, or meeting a musician prior to the rehearsal to test things out – in order to expand my knowledge base. Sometimes these experiments work, sometimes they don’t; if they don’t, then I rewrite the music to something that will work. But if we composers don’t tinker, we won’t expand our sound palette.
• Computer playback. I’m probably among the last generation of composers who were composing strictly by pencil and paper when I first began, due to the fact that music notation programs hadn’t been invented yet (we’re talking mid-1980s). Somewhere during my college years, notation programs became commercially available; several are thriving on the market today. These programs not only help a composer create a beautifully engraved finished score, but can also play back the material as we write it. This is both a blessing and a curse, for while these programs can correctly play back our pitches, rhythms, and tempi to give us an overall sense of how the piece will function, they can never truly capture what the music will actually sound like. For instance, when I use a notation program’s playback to listen to an orchestra piece through my speakers, the flute is magically balanced with the tuba! Sonically, this is just not possible. So, while playback can be helpful, a composer has to be mindful of where the differences lie between the capabilities and limitations of a computer program, and what musicians will actually produce.
All of these activities help me to add information to my mind’s “database,” which I can subsequently draw upon when working on a new piece. The more information I learn, the more my database grows.
Audience Question #3: What does a Composer-in-Residence mean? Are you living in Champaign-Urbana for the next two years?
In the broadest sense of the term, a Composer-in-Residence refers to a composer who is associated with an organization for a specified period of time. My residence with the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra is sponsored by the Music Alive Program (which is funded by the organizations New Music USA and the League of American Orchestras) and is for a total of three years. Technically, we’re already in the second year of the residence, as the first year was a planning phase, whereas the second and third years are when we carry out our residence activities. I won’t be living full-time in Champaign-Urbana during these two years, but will be making 7-8 trips a year and staying for several days at a time while I carry out residence activities.
But what does a Composer-in-Residence do? My CUSO activities cover a wide range, all with the goal of increasing the community’s access to new music and to me: workshops (i.e. orchestral reading sessions), rehearsals, and performances of my works with the orchestra; mentoring college composers in the craft of composing via composition lessons, as well as giving seminars on my music and the business of being a composer; and offering educational outreach programs at local organizations and elementary, middle, and high schools to help students learn about what composers do. We have launched the Overture Composition Competition for composers between the ages of 8 and 108 who live within a 200-mile radius of Champaign-Urbana. We’ll also hold a Composer Institute for college students next year; students will have their pieces workshopped, and they will attend a number of seminars run by Maestro Stephen Alltop and myself. Additionally, I am planning on working with the community in creating a Green Living Project, which will bring the farming and music communities together. Many of these activities will be open for the general public to attend. Ultimately, the goal of this Music Alive Program is for the composer to feel fully “embedded” with the orchestra and its surrounding community. From the amount and variety of activities we are planning, I am feeling very embedded already!