Composer Talk

Composer Talk

NewMusicBox would like to welcome composer, conductor, and educator Rob Deemer to our Chatter pages. Deemer is currently assistant professor and head of composition in the School of Music at SUNY-Fredonia, and he has begun work on a new book focused on contemporary composers. He’ll be sharing the progress of that work and gathering feedback in this space each Friday. —MS

Who would want to sit down and read what fifty composers, all born in or after 1960 and from every corner of the country, would have to say about art, process, inspiration, doubt, learning, teaching, and making a living? Hopefully, you would. And several thousand of your closest friends. That would make the project I’ve taken on very meaningful. And slightly lucrative. But very meaningful.

You see, I’m writing a book. Well, not writing per se, more like…making a book. This book, which I am calling Untested Waters until I come up with a better title, will be the result of hours upon hours of interviews with folks who are exploring what it means to be a composer in this day and age. Some of them you’ve heard of, others may be new to you. They write music for opera, band, chamber ensembles, orchestras, jazz ensembles, gadgets, computers, singers, vocalists, and choirs. They collaborate with filmmakers, choreographers, librettists, and theatre directors, as well as with other composers. They are very much like the composers you’ve read about on NewMusicBox…and in fact many of them have been featured here at one point or another.

Why go to the trouble of interviewing so many composers, you may ask? (Go on, ask…you know you want to.) I have several reasons. First, it’s fun! Actually, it’s about the most fun I’ve had on any project in my life so far, and I’m only half-way done with the interviews. Second, these composers have a helluva lot to say! I ask them all more or less the same twenty questions, and it usually takes them about an hour just to get through the first three. Third, with the ephemeral world we now live in, with blogs and Facebook and PDF scores and MP3s and everything you’ve ever written residing in a thumbdrive on your keychain, the idea of creating a book that you can hold in your hands, digest at your leisure, and use to learn about some incredible people and fill that gap right over there in your bookcase when you’re done just seems like a good thing to do. Finally, and most importantly, there’s so little out there written about composers of our generation that it very much needed to be done.

While writing a book about music and composers in public isn’t new (see: Ross, Sandow), the book and subsequently this column won’t emphasize my own biases—we have plenty of good columns here that do that already (see: Gardner, Smooke, Visconti, Holter). I would much rather focus on the individuals who will be featured in the book, especially some of the fascinating similarities and dichotomies that arise as more composers are interviewed, as well as the many questions and issues that have presented themselves in putting the list of composers and list of questions together.

It was these reasons and others (see: tenure dossier) that goaded me to apply for some of those academic grants you hear about folks receiving when they ask nicely. I must have asked nicely, because back in April I was suddenly in the position of not only dreaming about the project, but I now had some funding and the pressure to deliver that came with said funding. Fast-forward six months and after having interviewed 28 composers and my comfort level rising with bringing the process of putting this project together to the public eye, now seems a good time to begin discussing it here at NewMusicBox.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

13 thoughts on “Composer Talk

  1. Tom Myron

    Roll the Presses!
    I LOVE composer interview books. Sincere thanks in advance for embarking on this epic and much-needed project.

  2. maestro58

    Composer Interview Books?
    How many composer interview books are there? The only one I really know is “The Muse That Sings” by Ann McCutchan. It is a really good starting point, and my favorite interviews are with Bolcom, John Adams, Reich, and Sebastian Currier.

  3. mclaren

    Who’d want to read a book like that?
    Me, for one. Great snapshot of contemporary music. Invaluable. Look forward to it.

  4. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    For the past few years I’ve been working our Kalvos & Damian interviews into a book as well. This is gonna be fun!

  5. danvisconti

    Hi Rob, really looking forward to this book!

    Re. other composer interview books, there is a nice one of interviews with songwriters including Marvin Hamlisch, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Todd Rundgren, Aimee Mann, and many others; it’s called “Behind the Muse”.

  6. holbrooke

    And of course there is Paul Zollo’s Songwriters On Songwriting. Its fourth edition has 62 interviews.

    I wonder Rob, if you plan on interviewing any composers who work with song forms.

  7. pgblu

    My comments presuppose two things:

    1. This column is not just publicity for the book, and
    2. The book is not just publicity for the composers being interviewed.

    To the first point, I hope this column will be an opportunity to discuss concerns about the purpose of the book, how necessary it actually is at a time when every composer can expound on their methods and opinions to their heart’s content by having their own website. To that end, please share with us your twenty stock questions so we can talk about them, about what they will achieve, and what pitfalls, if any, they might have.

    The fact that they’re stock questions at all brings me to the second point: What sort of editorial authority will you exert? If a composer makes a claim about what is important to them, how that thing manifests itself in their work, and what its significance is in a wider context, then it’s the job of the interviewer to critically question those things, to stand in for the skeptical reader. That is not ‘bias’. Equating editorial authority with bias is a big mistake.

    But both of my presuppositions are quite possibly out of place, since evidently you’ve already done the conceptual groundwork on the book. You say that ‘now seems a good time to begin discussing’ your project. If your intention is to start a dialogue, then I completely disagree. At this point, what you’re making is an advertisement. Not that I have a problem with that – but let’s see it for what it is.

    I will definitely read the book when it comes out – in fact I’m very curious about it – but I expect to be a little frustrated. Composers telling us what they think of their own music is important, but I’m not optimistic as to whether it’s going to make any difference in how new music is viewed and appreciated by a larger public.

  8. Rob Deemer

    Hey all! I very much appreciate the warm welcome, and I’ll try my best to keep up with future comments.

    Maestro58: there are several good books that include composer interviews…in addition to the others mentioned, I’d add Trackings by Richard Duffallo, Soundpieces by Cole Gagne & Tracy Caras, Composers Voices from Ives to Ellington by Vivian Perlis and Libby Van Cleve, Talks With Great Composers by Arther M. Abell and New Sounds, New Personalities: British Composers of the 1980s by Paul Griffiths. I will admit from the get-go that Ann McCutchan’s book was a big inspiration for this project and I’ve received both support and advice from her as I was making the initial planning stages of the book.

    Pgblu:Thank you for your insights. I can safely say that both of your presuppositions are correct; this is neither a a simple advertisement for either the book nor the composers I have decided to interview. Obviously it’s a good thing to have folks know about the book when it finally comes out, but my hope was for this column to use the act of putting together such a project as a springboard for the type of discussion you’re looking for. I’m sure if I get overly “hype-y”, y’all willl keep me in line, and for that I’m grateful.

  9. philmusic

    “..the book and subsequently this column won’t emphasize my own biases..”

    Robb, why not? I can’t think of any work of non fiction that does not in the end reveal the authors biases. What would make any like book rewarding to me are the insights filtered through the lens of the authors point of view. Perhaps I’m being a Devil’s advocate but your age restrictions already creates one such lens.

    Why not embrace it?

    Phil Fried

    Phil’s Bias against Bias’s page


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