Turning the Page

Turning the Page

I’m not sure if other composers find themselves segmenting their careers into “chapters” or other similar ideas, but I think I may be turning a page or two into a new chapter myself. As I find my own composing opportunities gently shifting from chamber works to pieces for large ensembles, I am enjoying the exploration of musical territories that I haven’t ventured into in several years. In addition, as the nature of the ensembles for which I find myself composing expands, the challenge of writing music for drastically different performers and audiences while at the same time writing music that still reflects who I am is becoming ever more apparent.

If I were to divide my career as a composer/arranger over the past 25 years or so, it would probably look something like this:

Chapter 1: Writing for Big Band (1988-2000)
Chapter 2: Scoring for Film (1995-2001)
Chapter 3: Writing for Large Ensemble (1997-2005)
Chapter 4: Writing Chamber Music (2002-Present)
——Sub-Chapter A: Strings (Begins in 2002)
——Sub-Chapter B: Brass (Begins in 2004)
——Sub-Chapter C: Voice (Begins in 2007)
——Sub-Chapter D: Woodwinds (Begins in 2009)
Chapter 5: Rediscovering Large Ensembles (2012-Present)

Not exactly the most linear of career arcs, I’d be the first to admit, but each chapter did lead into the next more-or-less organically. These new “chapters” were generated by a number of different factors, including interest, location, environment, instructors, exposure to new ideas, and opportunity. Several of these are made clear if one overlays where and what I was doing during those years:

1988-1994: Undergrad studies at Northern Illinois University, performed in jazz ensembles
1995-1998: Studied film scoring at USC and freelanced in Los Angeles in film/theatre work
1998-2001: Graduate studies at NIU, graduate conductor for wind ensemble and orchestra
2001-2005: Doctoral studies at UT-Austin, assistant director of new music ensemble
2005-2007: One-year teaching stints at University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City U.
2007-Present: Began teaching at SUNY Fredonia (first time living near East Coast)

Those factors I listed are, of course, intertwined…I was interested in writing for big band during my time in an environment where there were lots of top-notch big bands to write for, same for film scoring, and so on. As my interests evolved, I moved to those locations and environments that allowed for the best exposure to new ideas and the greatest amount of opportunity I could find…at least until I finished my studies.

Once employment became a factor, my ability to choose where I lived was limited, but around the time that I began teaching professionally I also began to be commissioned by performers in other regions of the country, so location became less of a determining factor; this became amplified as I met more performers through social media during this same period. Most of these external commissions were for solo and chamber works, so it made sense that the past eight years or so have been primarily geared towards writing music for those ensembles and exploring musical concepts within those contexts.

I bring all of this up because this year feels really different than in years past, specifically due to the fact that I’ve already written two works for band—one for the San Diego State University Wind Symphony and one for the Williamsville East High School Wind Ensemble near Buffalo—and have a couple more wind band works and an orchestral work coming down the pike. These opportunities are exciting, of course, but musically it feels like I’m going up to the attic and pulling out some old clothes I haven’t worn in quite some time; I’ve gotten so used to working within a constrained chamber palette that getting to work with a band or orchestra is a significant mental gear shift.

That shift, however, is not as great a challenge as the fact that while I’m writing for these larger ensembles (many of which are in educational institutions and are made up of pre-college or college-age students), I’m still writing chamber works for professionals who have particular wheelhouses within which they reside. These projects are forcing me to really stretch myself artistically and conceptually as I attempt to write something significant and appropriate to the stature of the performers.

This layered environment, where I find myself writing several different works that are all “mine” but which run the gamut from a high school band to a high profile cellist with electronics is a relatively new “chapter” in my career. It’s not often that you realize you’re in a time of personal transition—often you only realize that the transition has happened after the fact—but when it does happen it allows for both self-reflection and dreaming of where that transition can take you in the future.

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6 thoughts on “Turning the Page

  1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Thanks for that interesting piece. My compositional life hasn’t had nearly the number of divisions as yours, or perhaps I don’t divide them as finely. Also, with far fewer opportunities, my approaches often overlapped. Mine looks more like…

    1964-1973: Juvenilia and learning stuff
    1969-1979: Large/small ensembles, street/performance art, electronic, experimentalism
    1977-1993: Large/small ensembles, software/hardware
    1991-2007: Large/small ensembles, electronic
    2007-present: Dunno yet

    Unlike you, my work doesn’t line up with my formal education. I’ve always been an independent composer with no ‘network’ — meaning no performances in the first full 20 years other than those I organized myself. Driving a truck and running a printing press or typing in a secretarial pool were not likely to garner performances. Plus my departure from NY/NJ for Vermont in 1978 was a career disaster (with no money, it was a one-way ticket) because there was no ‘tail’ for my work with the New York avant-garde that was already collapsing and was unknown in the Green Mountains. (I had been a regular at Charlotte Moorman’s avant-garde festivals, for example — in fact, my only NY Times review was from one of them — and organized the Delaware Valley festivals in the 1970s.)

    Once ‘external’ performances started happening (through a lot of dogged work), they pulled my approaches in different directions. Those who knew me as the avant-gardist expected that; those who knew my electronics wanted that; chamber and large ensembles with different approaches expected those. It meant compositions like a half-hour cabaret in 1986 with “Beepers”, a half-hour of orchestral/choral high minimalism in 1986 with “Mantra Canon”, a half-hour of orchestral quasi-spectralism in 1991 with “Softening Cries”, an hour of multichannel electronics with string quartet in 1999 with “Zonule Glaes”, the entirely mad ‘We Are All Mozart’ project of 2007 with its 100 commissions, an hour of chamber opera in 2010 with “Erzsébet”, and my next project for 600 musicians over 12 hours for 2015 called “In the Days of the Radioactive Rain”. None were exactly like the others, and by now there are nearly 1100 of them.

    I guess that the large overlap and lack of “turning the page” have actually freed me from worrying about this kind of timeline, and I’m somewhat typing aloud after reading your column today…


  2. Armando Bayolo

    Thank you for sharing your “book,” as it were, Rob. I think it’s interesting to see other composers’ perspectives on their own work. I think of my own all the time, but never really share that with others myself, because, well, no one ever seems to share their own path either.

    Interestingly, I would’ve thought of my creative life in chapters while still a student, when I had a plan (a variant of the South Park Underpants Gnomes plan: step 1: get BM, MM and DMA degrees; step 2: get teaching job; step 3: profits!). When step 2 in that plan became the proverbial question mark of the South Park episode I referenced (a reference which I hope other readers get, since it’s quite dated now), my plan got thrown into disarray and I was forced to improvise, leading me in a career path that I wanted but wasn’t really expecting, if I’m honest with myself.

    Musically, I have never really liked being pigeonholed, though. While I’ve seen a similar arc in the music I write (solo and chamber works for friends/fellow students leading to more ambitious works for larger chamber ensembles that were regular collaborators or which I actually ran moving on to works for very large wind and orchestral ensembles that, somehow, have gotten wind of me and want pieces from me) I’ve always been attracted to projects that teach me something new (hence why I’m developing an opera, since I’ve always been interested in the genre but have never worked within it as a composer).

    Anyway, thanks for the self-reflection AND the opportunity to engage in it ourselves.

  3. Matt Schoendorff

    Great post, Rob! I’ve found that the single most influential factor in my evolving writing style has been the company I keep at any given time. Open ears and an open mind have allowed me to befriend some people wholly unlike myself, at least at first, which then broadened my own palette considerably. Social media has made this process a lot easier, and also a lot faster. This “Oh, neat! What is that? Let’s poke it with a stick and find out!” attitude has served me well, so far. While each new influence may not necessarily open up a new chapter for me, it certainly clears a new path I had not yet considered. In that sense, I guess I see my career less as a series of chapters and more as a gradually growing tree with ever-reaching branches.

  4. chris Sahar


    1970 to 1986 – Juvenilia, fitful bursts of study and then abandonment. Best thing I wrote was a Chopinesque piano prelude that was quite neat but lost. Other than that countless trees died needlessly for sonic junk.

    2004 to 2006 – My first large scale piece that was for piano. A disaster but at least it had a beginning and an end – and a few usable sections.

    2007 to 2010, Auditioning with one of the few good parts of the piano debacle, I got into Conrad Cumming’s composition class which led to a period of study. Tons of solo instrumental work, wrote a 4 mvmt string quartet, and vocal music. One of the vocal pieces was done for a small opera outfit and led to a commission for a short opera work.

    2011 – wrote an opera scena for aforementioned opera outfit. Could be considered vocal chamber but for me my first success at larger scale pieces.

    2012 to Now – working to rebuild savings and prepare for grad school. Plans: Write a Mass or large scale choral work. Take a stab at orchestral writing. Finish a set of solo viola pieces I started 2 years ago as a way to hone my writing for a variety of song forms. Oh, did I mention save money doing editorial/secretarial/church music … work?

  5. Nickitas Demos

    Wonderful post! Enjoyed the peak into how you divide the chapters of your artistic life. It got me thinking about how I categorize my career to date. For me, there are 6 very clear segments:

    1. Juvenilia; basically my elementary – high school years (1960s -1970s). I wrote lots of pseudo-classical sounding piano pieces and a lot of pop/rock stuff.

    2. Undergraduate years (1981-85); where I really learned about form & counterpoint in a very serious way. I credit my first real composition teacher, Roger Hannay, with really training me well with a great set of foundational skills as a composer.

    3. Graduate work (1985-1992); where I encountered new composers and began a lifelong fascination with sonority in acoustic music. I credit my great mentor, Donald Erb, with really opening my ears and giving me permission to develop my own distinctive voice.

    4. Early academic career (1993 – 2004); where I began to learn how to create my own opportunities and learn how to fit in composition while trying to first get on a tenure track line then trying to get tenure! Most importantly, learned how to be my own composition “teacher.”

    5. Associate Prof years (2004-2010); where I began settling into my profession and when commissions became a bit more plentiful. I won my first significant prizes and became a more confident writer during this time.

    6. Full Prof years (2010 – present). Trying things I have not done before: writing for ballet and commercial films as well as blogging among other activities. These years have also been characterized by a sudden increase in compositional output. Not sure how long this heightened activity will last but I’m enjoying the ride so far!

    Thanks for a great article and the opportunity to be part of the discussion!


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