“Write what you know” is a commonly heard piece for advice for artists, but composer Joel Puckett has taken to heart a slightly different version of this sentiment, which could be stated, “Write what you live.” He finds inspiration for his compositions from events in his own life, and is refreshingly open about the motivations for his pieces, which are often highly emotional. For instance, his work The Shadow of Sirius, a concerto for flute, flute choir, and wind ensemble, is about losing a child through a miscarriage that his wife and he experienced, and he says the process of “getting those emotions out in the music” helped him heal.
“It has to be about the things I’m feeling,” Puckett says of his musical output. “The music I write is a time capsule of how I was feeling while I was working on it. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I really can listen to these pieces and remember in some cases things like what I had for breakfast that day, a conversation my wife and I had… for me, the moments are right there on the surface.”
Those moments are most often created for large ensembles such as orchestra and symphonic wind ensemble, to which Puckett has always gravitated, generally preferring the “big crayon box” as a means to recreate the multi-layered textures he hears in his imagination. His background as a singer also informs his composing process, and recording his own vocal improvisations is the primary method he uses for generating musical material. During a three-year residency with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra he composed Concerto Duo for brothers Demarre and Anthony McGill, on flute and clarinet respectively, which featured all the ensembles under the CYSO umbrella (that’s six different orchestras) on one stage. But while he loves creating beautiful sustained textures and webs of counterpoint through the natural reverberation of large instrument groups, he is also highly attuned to the individuals within those groups, and the practicality of what he is asking them to play.
Not a whole lot of people talk about the physical demands that are being placed on the individual—not the instrument—the individual who happens to be putting the instrument to their face. If you’re not thinking about the person, then the parts are just paint by numbers/Connect Four…. It’s not real music until you’re thinking about the individual. And if you’re thinking about the individual, you’re thinking about the fact that they have to breathe; how much air does it take to play this note? How much velocity does it take to do this? Am I really taking care of their arm, or their physicality in this passage if they’ve been doing four-string cross string arpeggiation patterns for eight minutes before that? It’s not a question of can they do it. Of course they can do it. But is it going to put them in the best position possible to succeed?
Puckett’s sense of practicality also extends to the business side of his musical life. He says the question he is asked most often is how he gets so many performances—hundreds each year—and he says that it’s essentially about making real connections with people who share similar musical interests and values. He has a firm grip on what he is doing, what he wants to do in the future, and those clear perceptions allow him to find the people and organizations that are a good fit for him and his creative work. His goal is to gather a community of people who believe in his work—and vice versa—that will enable him to continue to write the best music he possibly can, and to continue growing as an artist for years to come.