What music do you write?

“Oh, you’re a composer. So, what kind of music do you write?”

I’m often asked this question when meeting new people. It’s usually either preceded by, “so, what do you do,” or if they know I’m involved with music, “what instrument do you play.” To the latter, I usually playfully respond, “I play the composer.”

“What music do you write,” is a question every composer is bound to be asked. It can be difficult to answer, and it makes many squirm. Nevertheless, it is an opportunity to present oneself on one’s own terms. It’s so easy to be taken out of context. Every person approaches art with their own unique set of experiences and assumptions. Humans have evolved a tendency towards automatic categorization. We like to place people and things neatly into boxes. While this is neither good nor bad in itself, it sometimes keeps us from taking in the whole picture. Being ready to answer questions about what you do is a chance to choose your own box.

So, what music do I write? I find it intriguing and amusing people have, at different times, called me a (brace yourself) :

Modernist, Postmodernist, Impressionist, Minimalist, Postminimalist, sound mass composer, Romanticist, rock’n roller, broadway-composer (whaaat???), experimentalist, classicist, symbolist, neo-symbolist, a badass, a gentle soul, and the devil himself (no joke).

Because each person (myself included) builds their interpretations from prior experiences, they often hear what is familiar and ignore the rest. I am every one of the above (perhaps even the devil) and also none of them. I write the music I want to hear, and synthesize my own listening experiences into new works. I do like sound mass music (listen to my Conversations w/ Ligeti…), I have an electric guitar inspired concerto for Violin and Viola, and my newest work, A Tale of Nine Coins, is intentionally written with broad, singing melodies in mind. As an artist, my output has range.

The quick and easy answer to the question depends on the audience. Generally, I write new music for classical instruments that is compelling, colorful, meaningful, and ecstatic. By ecstatic, I mean that it takes listeners out of their place and time through absorbing them. I have a tendency toward lurching syncopations and metric surprises (perhaps because I have never got over Stravinsky’s Augurs). My harmonic language can be all over the place, but I prefer diatonic collections-often clusters-while avoiding functional tonality. My harmonic rhythm varies from the seemingly static to passages that are constantly fluctuating. My textures range from rigorous homorhythm to micropolyphony. However, please don’t get caught up in the what of what I write. It’s better to instead consider how and why.

Judge me based on my approach and my attitude towards music. I am primarily a listener, and everything I write is grounded in producing the sounds that I want to cast out into the room. As an aesthetic outlook, I see Modernism as moot: everything is available for use in composition (including the techniques that are the fruits of the modernist outlook!); what is considered to be progressive is subjective and not necessarily the good-in-itself; and all music does not need to be viewed as being part of a single metanarrative. Instead, Art is an open, ongoing project. My compositional approach aims at being constructive and sincere, rather than deconstructive and ironic, which is why I wouldn’t call myself a postmodernist per se. This requires me to be bold and standup for what I value rather than play-the-victim by bemoaning the times in which I live and hiding behind the guise of cool cynicism.

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