The seasons have shifted again, as temperatures in many parts of the country seem destined to reside permanently in the triple digits and the trials and tribulations of the previous winter and spring months have been intentionally forgotten. As many families head for the beaches or other vacation spots, we have reached that time of year where many composers literally head for the hills. Some remove themselves from their typical day-to-day experiences in order to quiet their minds and allow themselves to create undisturbed as well as commune with other like-minded artists at an arts colony (as David Smooke told us about last summer). Others, such as myself, choose to immerse themselves in guiding younger composers during that particularly American rite-of-summer: summer camp.
Last year I had the luck and privilege to join the composition faculty at one of the oldest and most well respected of these institutions, the Interlochen Summer Arts Camp in northern Michigan, and this summer I’m back again. While I had attended many summer camps in my younger days, I had never studied composition or seen it taught within the camp context, so I was curious to see how such a program might work. I also had quite a bit of experience with pre-college composers through my work with the NYSSMA Composition/Improvisation Committee, but there would be many differences between a couple of clinics at NYSSMA’s Winter Conference and six weeks teaching both classroom courses and private lessons five days a week.
The composition program at Interlochen is a whirlwind experience, which is one of the aspects I like the most—it forces the students to write a lot and quickly, but with the opportunity for quick feedback through performance readings and concerts. Each student has two hour-long lessons a week with one of the four composition faculty members (Robert Brownlow, Leah Sproul Pulatie, Reinaldo Moya, and myself), as well as courses in composition techniques, theory, orchestration, music after 1900, and electronic music. Projects come in three different guises—reading sessions, student composer concerts, and interdisciplinary collaboration—and while students aren’t required to take part in anything other than two readings and one concert, many choose to throw themselves into as many projects as they possibly can.
The reading sessions alone are immensely valuable for a number of reasons. We’re lucky to have a number of talented student chamber ensembles on campus that are made available to the composers to work with, including string quartet, woodwind quintet, saxophone quartet, brass quintet, percussion ensemble, and piano trio, and twice this summer all of the students will get to write a two-minute work for one or two of these groups. In addition to the immediate feedback these performances give the student composers, they allow the faculty to customize the learning experiences of the students by forcing them out of their comfort zones—if they’re pianists with little experience with wind players, they’ll be asked to train creative muscles they didn’t know existed through such projects.
Some of the more experienced composers will only write for one chamber ensemble, but that’s because most of their summer will be taken up with writing a short work for choir, band, or orchestra. Most of these students have had works performed live, but have never worked with a large ensemble or a conductor, so they’ll not only be meeting with their composition instructors many times over the first few weeks, but will also have meetings with the conducting faculty (Jung-Ho Pak, orchestra; Donald McKinney, band; and David Fryling, choir) where they will be given critiques and suggestions before scores are finalized and parts distributed. All of the large and small ensemble readings are recorded, and many of the students from last year used those recordings as part of their undergraduate audition portfolios.
One of the biggest surprises I experienced last year was how intensely the students threw themselves into the student composer concerts. Allowed to program anything they had written, either before or during camp, several students took it upon themselves not only to write a new work for large ensemble—separate from whatever they were working on for their readings—but also to track down and cajole student performers to perform these pieces on their concerts. More than once did I have a student ask me to conduct their orchestra…or their concert band…or their mixed choir…that they had put together on their own. Watching (and guiding) the interactions between the composers and performers was one of the most satisfying aspects of the entire session.
If those projects weren’t enough, we brought yet a third ingredient into the composition curriculum through interdisciplinary collaborations. Starting slowly last year, we paired up our student composers with a claymation class taught in the visual arts division by artist Terri Frame; organized within a very short time frame, the students were asked to write a very short vignette based on an animal, after which the vignettes were strung together, recorded, and used as the soundtrack for an animated film. This year we’re already looking at other collaborations within the visual arts division, as well as working with student poets in the creative writing division.
Guest composers are also an important part of the program—working with the faculty on a regular basis is really helpful for the students, but it brings something new to the table when they get to meet some very well-known guest composers. Last summer the students spent several days with Libby Larsen and John Mackey, both in classroom situations as well as informally during their residencies. John in particular couldn’t believe the level of the composers in the program; like myself, John had never had a chance to be exposed to composing in such an environment at that age, and I know we both felt more than a little jealous. We’re looking forward to having Joel Puckett coming to work with the composers and ensembles next week—I’ve already met Joel through my composer interviews and I know the students will get a lot out of his music and advice.
As for my own experiences here so far, it’s more than a little awesome; I’ve made quite a few lasting friendships with some amazing performers and creative artists in other fields that have already borne fruit. If there will be one challenge this summer, it will be to balance the professional and social opportunities that tug at me every day with my composing responsibilities and preparations for my work back in Fredonia this fall. Nonetheless, as crazy as it sounds, even with the dorm living quarters and cafeteria food (not to mention the powder-blue uniforms), summer camp promises to be a very satisfying place for a composer.
Other summer camps for composers:
Brevard (includes both HS & College)
John Adams Young Composers Program @ Crowden School (SF)