Not a Vacation In Rome: Charles Norman Mason and Susan Botti head for the American Academy
“Just having the time to compose is good enough, but being able to do it in Rome is great,” exclaims Birmingham, Alabama-based composer Charles Norman Mason, one of the two composers among a group of artists and scholars from all over the United States chosen for an 11-month residency at the American Academy in Rome next year. The residency provides room and board, a stipend, and a studio in which to live and work on music, presumably uninterrupted. It’s a rare gift in these days of the multi-tasking composer.
“Right now I get three hours a day, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday,” confesses Mason, who also devotes a great deal of his time to his students at Birmingham-Southern College where he teaches composition and theory. “This semester’s hard; in the past I had at least two hours every day. In Rome, I imagine working eight hours a day, five days a week.”
For Susan Botti, the other composer who will be heading to Rome this fall, time is less of an issue even though she is also an assistant professor of composition at the University of Michigan School of Music in Ann Arbor. “The most challenging aspect of being a composer is time management, and I’m very organized in my process. But I don’t keep track like that. Sometimes it is so continuous with me. Rome is not going to be much different.”
For both composers, however, the experience of being in Rome promises to be transformative on a variety of levels, both artistic and personal. “Just being among the ruins and seeing art work that took centuries to make will somehow have an effect on how I look at my music,” muses Mason. “I imagine that living in our throw-away society in America has had an influence on me. This will be a springboard to help me move on.”
For Botti, the connection is even more basic. “I’m of 100 percent Italian heritage, but I’ve been to Rome only very briefly and the times I’ve been there have had a deep resonance for me. I think the sense of ‘being present’ that the Italian temperament expresses is something that is integral to my music.”
Both composers plan to use their time in Rome to continue and complete projects that are already in the works. “Everything I’m planning on writing is vocal,” says Botti who is also an accomplished soprano, although not all of what she will be working on will be for her own singing voice. “I’ve been writing really big pieces for the past two years, so I’m really looking forward to writing chamber works.”
Mason also has several chamber works on the back burner. Only one involves electricity, though, despite his having previously created many electronic music compositions. But don’t assume this is due to any lack of state-of-the-art technology during his Roman sojourn. “I used to use C-Sound, but now I use a program called Reactor on my laptop.” Instead, Mason will work on a piece for the piano, saxophone, and clarinet trio Thelamas from Belgium, another for the Four Horizons Quartet, and a duet for electric violin and electric cello—written for cellist Craig Hultgren, who is based back home in Birmingham (“I’m trying to get him to go over to Rome”)—plus possibly “a string quartet, my first since graduate school. But they have so much literature, so I don’t like to write anything that doesn’t have a guaranteed performance.” Perhaps the most ambitious project Mason will embark on will be a concerto for four guitars and chamber orchestra, written for the Denmark-based Corona Guitar Kvartet, a group that has previously performed the composer’s guitar quartet Filibuster.
Perhaps what makes this year’s duo of composers different from all of the composers chosen to go to Rome in previous years is that both are married to composers as well and both of their spouses (as well as children) will be joining them in Rome, in essence resulting in four composers in residence at the Academy next year. “They call them Fellow-travelers,” says Botti whose husband, Latin jazz composer/drummer/producer Roland Vazquez is equally excited about being in Europe next year. “The timing is great for Roland. We’ve already made some contacts in Europe, and there will be opportunities to both of us to perform while we’re there.”
“Originally my biggest fear was that I’d have to be away from my family,” admits Mason who is overjoyed that his wife, Dorothy Hindman, who also teaches composition at Birmingham-Southern, will be making the trans-Atlantic journey with him and will also benefit from the additional time to compose, even though the children are coming along too. “We’re going to hire a nanny and are hoping she’ll get at least three hours a day to herself.”
For Botti, composing will just be one of many activities that will occupy her time. “I’m also looking forward to researching, spending swaths of time listening and delving.” And of course, performing. “I asked, ‘Will it OK for me to practice in there?’ And they said ‘You can tapdance on the ceiling if you want.’”