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by Kenneth Thompson

December, 2002

I am fascinated with the process of composing, but as a conductor I have always felt my job is to transmit the composer's musical thoughts to the audience. The evolving repertoire for wind conductors is growing at a rapid pace and today is one of the most exciting times to be a part of the wind band movement. Many musicians, if asked what they do for a living, will often reply with ideas dripping with philosophy, pedantic rambling, or more often than not, grandiose representations of musical creation. Actually, the answer for me has always been simple...I teach music. No matter what level musicians you work with, as Richard Bach states, " Teaching is reminding others that they know just as well as you. You are all learners, doers, teachers." We simply try to direct and redirect everyone's musical thoughts to convey what we think the composer's feelings happen to be at any given time. The thoughts and feelings of contemporary composers then represent the changing musical world in which we live.

With this in mind, new literature is a critical key in the continued development of the wind repertoire (with "repertoire" meaning the body of works being performed, not the "literature" representing all music available). It serves as the vehicle to pass on musical experiences from composer to performer to listener. This music is our only textbook, and through its study we must realize there is a big difference between reading and comprehension. We must take the composer's work, bring it to life, and give it to others, not simply provide stale performances of stodgy works with no meaning for our modern audiences.

I was fortunate to be able to sit down with two of the brightest composers working in the wind band medium at a recent Midwest Clinic. I have known Eric Whitacre and Steven Bryant for several years, and am continually impressed with quality and innovation their new creations embody. They graciously allowed me to drag them away from the BCM International booth for enough time to complete the following interview.

What is the most exciting part about being a composer in today's constantly changing world?

Steven: One of the most exciting things about being a composer, period, is the creative challenge every time. That excitement and euphoria when you solve a puzzle or create something - and that's pretty constant across all genres - whether I'm creating electronic music or works for winds. That's probably the initial spark that got me to compose in the first place back when I was in junior high school. Interacting with the people that play your music is also important, but that's a newer thing; obviously there was no one playing my music when I was in junior high. It's a whole added dimension. When someone really appreciates a piece and knows the work and has had a great experience with it, it's a great feeling.

Eric: I love being a composer because for the first time in the history of music genre is not an issue. It is completely blown apart and anything goes; any style, anything you want to say, it is completely free - you can borrow from the past, invent the future, create strange hybrids - I love it.

How do you view the evolving role of the wind ensemble as an artistic medium and what changes do you see through the repertoire?

Eric: My impression is that finally it is loosening up a bit. The literature for wind band has been pretty straight for the past 50 to 75 years. And finally, it seems that more composers are beginning to come and write for winds. It's all about possibility.

Why do you think this change is taking place, though?

Eric: The answer is easy; people will play the music. If I were to write an orchestral piece I would probably kill myself trying to get one more performance after the premiere. With symphonic wind music, I can't keep band directors away. There is no other ensemble that is as hungry for new music and I think composers want to be relevant; they want to have their music heard.

Steven: I have written one orchestral piece, Loose Id, and it has been performed one time and not from a lack of trying to get it into other conductor's hands. It's four minutes and totally high energy. I have written several band pieces, and I have lost track of the number of performances of Chester Leaps In. It's wonderful and has been a fantastic experience because when you get to hear your music repeatedly you grow faster as a composer. There is no better way to grow, and Francis McBeth ingrained this idea into me. You grow through hearing your own music. You hear the mistakes you have made and you learn from them. If you write a piece and put it on the shelf, you don't grow.

Eric: You also gain confidence as composer because people want to play your music. It lets you approach the next piece with a certain amount of fearlessness.

This really applies to the two of you. Most music written today is programmatic. Is there an eventual turn back to absolute music, or do you think it even matters?

Eric: I think people like good music. I think much of it is programmatic today probably because people's experiences with music used to be primarily in the concert halls. Today, most people's general experience with music is in the movie theatre. We're all just making little movies and I think it helps the audience relate and makes it easier for you to express whatever it is you have to say to them. I don't think one or the other is better, but rather a matter of what works today.

Steven: It is not really a pendulum swinging back and forth, but a function of the multiplicity of music today. There is an abundance of all sorts of music, even types of music most people aren't aware of, yet will still have an impact in twenty years because of technology. I'm not even really talking about electronic music. Technology is consuming everything, but I don't mean destroying music - it is changing the ways in which we experience music. The concert hall is not going away, it is an indestructible physical structure and environment, yet it will evolve along with technology because it is embedded into everything we do. This will have to have an effect on acoustical classical music, but I think it will only create more possibilities.

Many composers of orchestral music would be surprised to find out what pieces have remained popular, such as Carnival of the Animals and the 1812 Overture. Assuming that your best works might not be remembered, in 100 years what will you be remembered for and why?

Eric: Our legendary good looks (laughs). It's hard to tell what people are going to like. Take the movie Amadeus for example. Salieri was the hottest thing in his day, so in 50 years we may be asterisks in some list somewhere. With that being said, I don't try to write music that is going to endear. I hope that it is good enough that people will continue to want to play it, but it is certainly not a goal. One of the easiest ways for me to freak myself out while composing is to start thinking about my place in history. You've got Bach and Stravinsky looking over your shoulder saying "no, no."

Steven: I agree. If you think in those terms, you'll never write anything. You are dying for us to name titles, though (laughs). I would hope that a work like Alchemy in Silent Spaces would have enough weight and interest to continue being played. I am really proud of it, and by no means is it perfect, but it's not just a short work or piece of humor and I really like it.

Eric: If I knew that Godzilla Eats Las Vegas was being performed in 100 years...that would be the funniest thing I'd ever heard. That would make my day.

What is BCM International?

Steven: BCM International is a group of like-minded composers who write music for winds. We all write different kinds of music but BCM International focuses on the wind medium.

Eric: Jonathan Newman, Steve and I went to school together at Juilliard. James Bonney, we all knew through other connections. He attended the Cleveland Institute of Music and is also an audio engineer. Mostly, we're just really good friends and like to hang out together.

Steven, did you enjoy writing Interruption Overture for young band? What were the challenges of writing music at that level?

Steven: As I have said many times, it was one of the most difficult projects I have ever taken on. You would think that the back- breaking work of something like Monkey, where there are more notes than there should be, would be more difficult but that's not the case. With Overture it is the limitations you are working with that makes it difficult. The things I like about music- the contrast, the virtuosity, wide dynamics and tessituras, and the high energy usually come from strong players and strong ensembles. For Overture I had to strip all of those things away. I could only use notes that had been learned in two years because this was written for a 6th grade band, so I used one of my favorite elements of music - really sharp contrast, and then tried to take the others and make them accessible to young students. If I had a piece like this when I was in 6th grade band I would have loved it. I would have said, "You mean I can play any notes I want here?" Aleotory - what a cool idea. Really dissonant chords but scored easily to play. You can have dissonance quite easily, so it was put in a context that would be more familiar to their ears and band directors ears. I wanted to create a familiar fabric from which I could make abrupt shifts, and Overture was the solution. It's a difficult process, but I really was happy to be able to create a piece I was musically content with but could be played by young students.

Eric, I just had a colleague tell me he was going to turn Godzilla Eats Las Vegas in to a marching band show. Considering that Ghost Train has already been adapted for marching band, with the increasing level of the marching band and drum corps "artistic productions" do you see a niche for composers to write exclusively in that genre and how do you feel about your own works being performed in this medium?

Eric: Anywhere that music and art is relevant you are going to find composers writing, so the more relevant it becomes, the more composers are going to be doing it. Me personally, I would not even know where to begin writing for a marching band. I am astounded every time I watch one. I just saw a performance of Ghost Train being performed at Bands of America and my jaw was on the floor. It seems like a completely foreign planet to me.

Are you happy with what you saw, though?

Eric: There's a joke that Philip Sparke told me. He said someone called and said they were playing his music in a marching band show. Philip asked which movement, and the person replied, "the third movement, no wait, the second movement, well, now they are on the fourth- wait, the first...well I'm not sure what that is now." It is this weird cut and paste thing, so it ends up being more of music inspired by your piece, which I am completely flattered by. It is just like a remix, but I am totally ok with that.

Are there any special considerations to be given when performing your works?

Steven: No, just play them perfectly (laughs).

Eric: Yes, and it is funny Steve says it that way. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the issues I have when people perform my works are that they are too careful. They seem too concerned about playing just the right note, with just the right rhythm, with just the right intonation and phrasing, and frankly, I don't care. You can miss notes - it can be sloppy - but it must have spirit, life, and energy. I prefer that over a technically perfect performance.

Steven: When you hear a piece in your head, it is anything but sterile. It's life and energy, and I am bouncing around the room, sometimes even in a sweat. I want the audience to feel that, because that is what I am tying to create. All of those notes are just an approximation of that experience, and if you lose that experience then you have lost the piece.

Many people would probably consider your personalities to be eccentric. How much does this impact what you write?

Eric: For me it is the best position to be in because I can get away with anything. People don't know what to expect, so you can be whoever you want to be.

Steven: I don't really set out to be that way, and I don't think it consciously happens.

Your personalities come out so well in your work, though, when you hear a piece it is like sitting down and having a conversation with you. That's how unique it is to my ears, and probably to the others that know you and your work.

Eric: I only write music that I would want to listen to in the concert hall. One of my credos about making art is don't bore the audience. I hate being bored. I just try to sit in the concert hall, or try to write and create what I would want to hear.

Steven: I just try to write whatever I am in the mood for, and try to write what I would want to hear. I even put my works on, especially if it has been a while since I last gave it a listen. I don't really view that as eccentric. Sure there are quirky titles like Monkey and Godzilla, but I don't think it is eccentric.

No, I don't mean your works; I mean your personalities. I think we are arguing about semantics (laughs).

Eric: In that case, I think I would consider myself sassy (laughs).

How fortunate are we to have computers? Not just as a compositional tool, but also as a way for you to have your works heard?

Eric: We could talk for the rest of the day about this. I publish all of my own music. We both do, and it is only recently that I have had someone else do the printing work. That is unbelievable - I am printing scores. My website and Napster have been the greatest things that have happened to my career. MP3's - it's astonishing, and in terms of writing, we both use the computer. Equus, I wrote with pencil and paper but I sequenced every single note so I could hear what those textures would sound like before they went out. This way, I could write things I could not have come up with without the computer.

Steven: Exactly. I have been able to catch some big mistakes that I might not have ever caught until I heard the piece. I get to hear it even though it sounds like crap because of the MIDI instruments, and I would not play it for other people, but I can get a definite sense of the flow and experience of the piece over time. You can't create music in your head and listen to it at the same time. I work so much faster with the computer, which is probably self-fulfilling, but it does enable me to work efficiently.

Eric: You also can hear if the architecture is effective. One of the problems of the new openness of music is that there are no more set forms. Again, the reason programmatic music is so popular is it offers some sort of artificial form the audience can follow. Computers help us to go back and say, you know, I'm bored here. Two minutes and thirty seconds in, I have got to fix that spot. However, with all that being said, I still write everything with pencil and paper.

Michael Daugherty recently said in an interview that he creates a title first, and uses this to set the tone for the entire piece. What do you think about that?

Eric: I do exactly the same thing. This gives me a concept of the work before I write a single note. Title is also important to the success of a piece. I think it helps the listener. Another of my credos is to make the audience feel smart. If you say Ghost Train and people hear it and say, "I get it, it sounds like a ghost - train" you have them. Once you're there you can get away with any amount of crazy dissonance and rhythms. They will buy anything because they are already on board and get whatever it is you are trying to do.

Steven: I do the same thing, but there have been occasions when there was no title, but the concept is still there. Then somewhere in the process of composing a title makes itself known. Sometimes this might even force me to go back and change large portions of music.

How do you keep you compositions fresh considering the amount of music you write?

Eric: I have a drawer full of ideas, some of which I have been carrying around for ten years. When the right situation comes up, I use one. If anything, I don't have enough time to write down the great ideas I have.

Steven: I feel very much the same way, and yet I always want to try something new. There are those times when I feel stuck, or feel dead, and I step away from whatever genre I happen to be working with for a short time. For example, I have wanted to write a piece for winds and electronics. I have been talking about it and mulling over it, but I think it just needs more time to gestate. My ideas are better when they sit with me in my head for a long time. Then by the time it is ready to be worked out, the possibilities are almost endless.

What is the biggest challenge when writing a commission?

Eric: The biggest challenge for me is that they are paying me a lot of money. Also, people don't just have you write a commission. It is for the celebration of the 100-year anniversary of a music school or in honor of the greatest man who ever lived, so the music has to be a glorious event. It's a big premiere and everyone shows up saying "we paid so much money - what did we get". Then you ask people what they want...they all want Godzilla Eats Ghost Train. The hardest thing is not to buy into the pressure and just write the next piece in your cycle, the next thing for you to write in order for you to grow as an artist. It's hard not to buy into the hype that wants you to write the piece that will bring world peace every time.

Steven: There is pressure because, yes, they are paying you lots of money, and you want to create a masterpiece. You want to give them something amazing, and if you don't it's not because you didn't try to do that. If you start thinking in those terms, you definitely won't. That's the one sure-fire way to totally screw up a piece.

What composers have had the most influence on your work?

Eric: I get asked this question a lot. I would say I have two kinds of biggest influences. In terms of classical composers I love Stravinsky, Debussy, Bartok, and John Adams, but equally strong are artists like Sting and Peter Gabriel, most 80's pop, the Beatles, and the Bee-Gees. I consider those as integral to my musical language as the classical composers. I feel that I get most of my harmonic language from pop music. Most people I know who are classical musicians don't listen to classical music very much. When you are driving around in your car you may occasionally listen to classical music, but most of the time you listen to K-Rock or whatever.

Steven: You just named almost everyone I was going to say. Stravinsky and John Corigliano have been my big influences. I went to Juilliard to study with him; I was totally consumed with his music, especially his First Symphony. I have also been influenced by pop music. It's hard to separate pop from classical because they both lump together so many things I think are important. I'm really into Aphex Twin (Richard D. James) right now. It is a lot of electronic music but his latest album uses prepared piano. He doesn't care about boundaries - he just cares about creating good music.

Are there any closing thoughts you would like to share?

Eric: Buy more Ovaltine.

You can't see this, but Eric did use his Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder Pin to come up with that (laughs).

Eric: I would like to say to everyone that I am tremendously honored to be a member of the wind community. I feel blessed with the success that I have had, and am grateful to all of the people who have played my music. I am constantly moved by every performance.

Steven: I agree. Our livelihood is based on a reliance of the people who dedicate themselves to their programs. I know how much work it takes. My father was a band director, so that's how I knew I did not want to be one. I saw the work and dedication it takes...teaching children - it is the hardest job on earth.

Dr. Kenneth Thompson teaches in the band and music education areas in the College of musical Arts at Bowling Green State University and serves as Associate Conductor of the St. Louis Wind Symphony. Along with St. Louis Wind Symphony Music Director/Conductor and Washington University professor Dan Presgrave, the St. Louis Wind Symphony is dedicated to promoting and championing wind literature as a serious artistic medium and enhancing music education at all levels. The St. Louis Wind Symphony is proud to have performed new works by Eric Whitacre, Steven Bryant, and fellow BCM International composers Jonathan Newman, and Jim Bonney for local and regional audiences.