Posted on May 18, 2022 at 2:00 am
One of my kids’ camp counselors needed to interview a composer for her school, so I got volunteered. I ended up kind of liking what I had to say, so I thought I’d post it here in case it gives a little inspiration.
Q: What is your background as a composer?
A: I started off wanting to play the piano when I was seven years old. My parents found an old piano and I immediately sat down and started making noise. Making my own music seemed like much more fun than playing what was on the page, so I started writing songs. As my ear got more sophisticated, I got more ambitious about what I wanted to write, and eventually evolved into this hybrid whatever-I-am thing, a singer-songwriter who also writes Broadway musicals and also writes chamber music and symphonic works and also writes jazz. And my favorite thing about music is being able to go in all those directions; versatility just means fewer limits to my ability to express myself. Ultimately, I did study composition at the Eastman School of Music for two years, which was great for exposing me to new work and different compositional techniques.
Q: What did you know about being a composer when you first started compared to now?
A: I think when I was at Eastman, I thought “composer” was a very strict term: someone who put notes down on paper for other musicians to read was a “composer.” Anyone else might be a musician or a songwriter, but “composer” was a very lofty title. Now I think that’s nonsense; anyone who creates music can be a composer if that’s what they want to call themselves. On a technical level, I’m obviously a much more assured composer now than I was thirty years ago, but it’s all incremental – I’ve gotten incrementally better at structure, at development, at orchestration, at vocabulary. I just keep writing and keep trying to get better.
Q: When you’re in the early stages of composing something, what is your process?
A: Since most of my writing is for the theater, my process always starts with story and character. Where in the story does this moment come, who is telling the story here, and what language would they use? Does this moment want to be a country song, or an Irish jig, or a Gregorian chant? How do I filter those genres through my own voice and the voice of the character? And how does it all connect to the larger whole? Within all of those questions, a groove might emerge, or just a motif, and then some words that may or may not be the title of the song, and then I just chip away at the marble until something recognizable emerges.
Q: What are things within composing that you didn’t think about before starting as a career?
A: Sometimes making a living doing the thing you love can be more depressing than doing the thing you love as a retreat from your everyday life. Commercial entertainment concerns itself with a lot of different things, but sometimes the actual music is the thing that people care about least. You can knock yourself out creating something beautiful only to find it relegated to the background or dismissed entirely because of factors completely beyond your control. I wish I hadn’t spent so long thinking of the music business as a competition between musicians; it’s really a competition between corporations who use musicians as their soldiers. I don’t much like being a soldier for a corporation; I’m far happier (and generally far more successful) when I just walk my own path.
Q: If you were going to train someone to become a composer what is the most important thing to work on?
A: A willingness to revise, to keep pushing, to expand your ear, not to settle, not to give up. Persevere not for the sake of your career but for the sake of your music. Make better music. Make music that is full of your own heart.