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.