Meet the Composer
“I think to really truly say the most influential musicians to me have been the ones I've worked with and collaborate with. And I think those are the ones I've learned the most from” -Ed Martin
Speaking with composer and professor of music at the University of Wisconsin- OshKosh, Ed Martin, was a memorable experience in that the conversation was one of those rare opportunities to pick the brain of a truly intelligent individual. An advocate of incorporating electronic sounds into music for acoustic instruments, Dr. Martin is likewise a gifted storyteller. In fact, the primary element which has drawn me to his music is the depth of detail given to each moment, each character, and each emotion felt throughout the narrative.
Before delving into the electronic soundscape with which Dr. Martin is often paired, I would like to take a moment to explore an entirely acoustic work, “Awakening” for thirteen-piece saxophone choir. This compelling composition relies on attention on sonic space, asking the performers to sit, not only in a specific order, but in a triad of groups labeled “left, center, and right.” The result is an almost hypnotizing progression of a passing motive through a surround sound effect. Each of the thirteen parts is unmistakably independent and individual, but equally reliant upon all its adjoining parts. The piece itself doesn’t have an immediately recognizable or charismatic melodic line; however, the beauty of the work lies in its detailed awareness of the listener’s perception of sound and the six-minute journey the same listener must take to experience the wide array of emotions within the work. In addition, in such a trance state, the listener must further understand and gain full consciousness of the storyteller’s emotions. In the program notes found on his website, Dr. Martin explains this range of emotions as “both invigorating and incredibly daunting.” (For those of you keeping the score at home, this particular work follows the story of Dr. Martin’s relationship with his young son– a relationship filled with abundant love and wonder, but also elements of fear.) Dr. Martin continues, “...he [my son] is forever watching, listening, and learning. The repeated tones represent the father striving to project stability for his child while maintaining balance in his own life. The surrounding tones portray the child slowly assembling a world image that he will carry throughout his life (and pass onto his own child), and the child's being gradually enveloping the father's consciousness with love and awe. This music celebrates, in a deliberate manner without fanfare, the father's and the child's awakening to one another.”
If the composer is the author and the performer is the storyteller, as Dr. Martin stated in his interview below, then what an incredible writer/teller pair are Ed Martin and J. Michael Holmes. “Flurry,” scored for soprano saxophone and fixed media electronics is an immediate standout with its crystal clear narrative and an impeccable recounting of the tale. The electronic tape envelops the listener in an aural environment, sometimes directly reflecting a particular setting, sometimes discreetly suggesting a mood or feeling. Regardless of the momentary purpose of the electronics, the narrative is always palpable; the listener can easily follow the rise and fall of tension surrounding the composer’s memoir of an old (and often returning) friend and/or enemy: the snow. In the interaction between the live musician and the fixed soundscape, we can hear the howling of the unforgiving blizzard and the screaming of the wind, all the while forming images of the gently falling snow and the laughter of rosy-cheeked children forming snowballs, cloaked in the hushed innocence of youth.
Nature seems to be a continuous theme, particularly in another work for fixed electronics and (tenor) saxophone, “Biota.” Also composed for J. Michael Holmes, this work’s subject matter is a bit warmer: “a massive tree in an ancient forest. The music depicts a journey up, down, and through the tree, exploring life in its deepest roots to its uppermost leaf.” Again, Dr. Martin has gifted the listener with a cogent narrative, despite the broader subject matter. Although the piece does not include many opportunities for improvisation, the rubato nature of the work allows for and requires, for that matter, a great deal of carefully thought-out interpretive decisions from the performer. Difficulties for the performer lie in the need to perform a calculated, rhythmic line in a rubato style while aligning it with a click-track belonging to a metrically-loose electronic accompaniment. It seems fitting to have the metrically fixed elements of the instrumental part enveloped in an uncertain soundscape, as the piece illustrates the amazement and mystique that lives in our very existence.
Saxophonist Michael Bovenzi premiered “Apparitions,” scored for alto saxophone and fixed media electronics, at the 2004 NASA National Conference. The piece features a plethora of extended techniques, including but not limited to, growling, slap-tongue, quarter tones, and glissandos/pitch bends. The varied sounds of the live saxophones lay amidst a collection of electronic saxophone sounds, which follow the live performer closely throughout the work in an almost mocking manner. These echoing saxophones or “ghost saxophones,” as Dr. Martin refers to them, “become increasingly agitated and torment the soloist as the piece builds to its climax.” Whether such sounds represent literal ghosts or the figurative ghosts of our own pasts, presents, and futures, the anxiety builds until the live saxophone becomes consumed by the emblematic ghost sounds in which it has been enveloped.
‘“Break,” scored for baritone saxophone and fixed electronic media, is, in essence, a study of the harmonic series built from the saxophone’s written low-A. Unlike the pieces I have discussed so far, this more ambiguous narrative provides the performer with an entirely new set of freedoms. The work instead relies upon the stark juxtapositions of different timbral effects and techniques to drive the narrative forward. Many of these juxtaposed sounds started as experiments in a recording session with saxophonist Drew Whiting, for whom Dr. Martin composed the piece and whose recording of the work will be released on his new album from Innova Records titled "In Lights Starkly Different" in 2020. (At this point, I would be remiss not to note Whiting recorded each and every saxophone effect appearing in the electronic part.) Since Whiting is a skilled improviser, the composer included frequent “ad-lib” markings throughout the score and multiple opportunities for the performer to exercise artistic liberty. In addition to the harmonic effects in all registers, the work also includes techniques such as multiphonics, aleatoric passages, pitch bends, and key clicks. When coupled with sharp and sudden contrasts between the extremities of dynamic and articulate possibility, the narrative comes alive in a way that is both distinctive and genuine to each individual listener.
Transcribed Interview with Ed Martin
The Saxophonist: If you just want to start by talking a little bit about your compositional background, beginning with your career and education…
Ed Martin: I had a kind of traditional music background. I started saxophone back in fourth grade and picked up piano pretty soon after that. I went through middle of high school just traditional–played in concert bands and jazz band. I started choir in high school and orchestra, so kind of by the time I was in high school, I did all the ensembles. And when I was ready to go to college, I wasn't really sure what I was going to do but I looked at a few programs and I went to the University of Florida. I went as music education but switched over to composition pretty quickly when I was there. I had a really really good mentor there whose name is Jim Sain who's still teaching there.
He worked with me a lot in transitioning to composition and going through that program. I went on to University of Texas in Austin for a Masters and then got a doctorate at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. And I guess that's the short version… but I was kind of writing you know, so I was writing music …I guess I started out, honestly, when I was in middle school before piano lessons. I just sat down at the piano and would improvise things or just write songs which kind of continued through high school. And actually my piano teacher in high school was a very supportive teacher who encouraged me to compose music from time to time. We entered a few things in a competition here and there and it wasn't really formal, but she just kind of encouraged me to write some music down and I did. You know, she gave me encouragement there so…I don't even know if I have any of that stuff anymore or if I want anybody to see it… But it was good to get that kind of encouragement really early on. So it just kind of started from there. I remember writing things with some friends. We would play things that I wrote and that just kept going once I got to my undergrad. So, yeah, I just haven't really stopped.
TS: Well the best thing to do is just keep writing…
EM: Yeah, yeah.
TS: So I've been really excited to talk to you specifically about electronic music because that's that's a lot of your shtick here. I think goes without saying that electronics are a huge part of your toolbox that you use, but I want you to talk a little bit about what you feel you can accomplish with electronics that you can't do with acoustic instruments themselves. What do electronics add to that the musical texture?
EM: Oh yeah. Good question. First of all, I think I can accomplish a lot with just instruments and I do write a fair amount for just acoustic instruments too. And sometimes I think about a lot of the same ideas in terms of texture in terms of timbre when I'm just writing for acoustic instruments: how can I get the most out of that? But with electronics, I think using electronic instruments or computer or whatever it is just opens up a whole new color palette a whole new set of possibilities that as a composer is really intriguing to me. I really like doing that quite a bit.
So, it's kind of like I don't necessarily think about it when I'm writing for something with electronics that it's necessarily more or something that I can't do an acoustic music, but rather, I think whatever medium I'm working in–I think about getting the most out of that medium. And I enjoy working in electronics because there's a lot you can explore with that. So, I think to think a lot about different timbres that I might be able to get that I could maybe get with an acoustic instrument, but maybe more than that, it’s kind of almost that I think of the electronics as extending the possibility of an acoustic instrument– because most of what I do with electronics is for electronics and instrument. So I'd like to think of it kind of like extending the possibility of the solo instrument.
So, usually as I start writing the piece, I still think of the instrumentalists and the human aspect as the center of the piece and the electronics are used just to extend those possibilities– so almost like a bionic instrument in a way. So, as I'm writing for saxophone and electronics, the saxophone will still be the center of it, but the electronic sounds will enhance or extend those possibilities. Often what I'll do is I will –in my electronics– almost all of them come from the music con crypt tradition which is where you compose with recorded sounds and recorded samples and manipulate those samples to create a composition. So, what I usually start with is whatever instrument writing for, I’ll just do a recording session. This is usually with the person who's commissioning the piece or I’m writing for, which is a really good collaborative thing, will go to a recording session and just record all kinds of sounds on the instrument. It might be just regular notes or extended technique sounds or even just like breathing kind of sounds and then I'll have this whole bank of sounds that the actual performer had made with the saxophone. Then we'll use those sounds in the cut position to kind of build upon the live sound. Like I said, it’s almost like extending the possibility of the instrument, but I always think of the acoustic instrument at the center of it.
TS: Yeah yeah that's a great answer. And it kind of goes into my next question, which is how your compositional process differs if you're writing for electronics or just acoustic instruments. I don't know if there's anything else you want to add to that since you just touched on it quite a bit…
EM: It's pretty much the same to be honest; it’s just kind of an extra step. Usually it's working– if it's writing the piece for somebody or commission or something like that–I usually start by talking to that person and getting an idea about what I think they will be looking for/what the outcome is going to be at the performance that we're writing for. Or more, what does the person like to play? That’s a big part of the collaboration aspect, so it always starts with that. If it's an electronic piece, I'll do often do the recording and think about that, but once I have all that material, it’s pretty similar. I think it's just that extra step on the electronics. If I was using electronics I would usually start with actually writing the instrument part or at least starting the instrument part first. I usually do that and then I think about, with all these electronics sounds I have, how can I enhance that instrumental part? So, it’s kind of an extra step. Yeah, I guess that's the best way to describe it. It's not necessarily different per say, but I think it's just more more steps in the process maybe. And you know this really takes more time; it definitely takes more time. It's a whole other thing to deal with the technology aspect of it and then make the electronics sound good. It takes a lot of time to do mixing, editing, and mastering all that stuff.
TS: Sure; earlier you mentioned collaboration and going into that aspect of the music, as I was looking through your scores, I was really interested in the balance you find between giving the performers liberties and then also very specific notation and very specific wording of what you want. And there's a really, at least in my opinion, a really nice balance between that. So, my question is: in your personal opinion as a composer, how much of the decision making about the narrative should be left to the performer? In whatever story you're trying to tell, is the performer more of an interpreter of that story or is the piece them telling their own story with your words? Can you speak about the performer’s role in the process?
EM: I mean that's really different for every composer, every context, and every situation. I think what I've mostly been through is more of an interpreter role, I think. I guess I see my role as kind of writing the story and then the performers telling the story. I think anytime there's usually– in my music at least– when
the performer has flexibility or the performer gets determined aspects of the music, it's usually honestly for more of the effect. For example, if I think improvisation can tell the story better than something I can notate, then sure, I'll use that. If you look at “Break,” the piece I wrote for bari sax and electronics, it's a kind of a lot of back and forth where there are some elements specifically notated and there are a lot of elements that are left up to the performer to some degree– and a lot of this is just because I think that's the best way to get the musical idea across. I know other composers might have more or less improvisation for other reasons and there's a lot of reasons that you could have more or less. But for me, I think it's just the best way to get the musical idea across and identifying that a performer could improvise something that sounds way cooler than I could ever write it. Part of that actually comes in the initial stage when we're doing those recordings sessions for the piece; a lot of that's improvisations so you get a sense of what that particular performer can improvise, what they're capable of, or what they're interested in and build from there. If you know that the performers really interested in improvisation, you can build a little bit more of that into the piece.
TS: So a lot of it for you is about who you're writing for?
EM: Yeah, definitely. That's doubly true. That's important to me: that whole collaborative aspect of writing. I think the improvisation aspect is just from piece to piece depending who I'm writing for and depending how specific I want to be with the notation, but usually it ultimately comes down to the sound of the music. I ask: can I get the sound I want by telling a specific rhythm or is it better to give a kind of shape or description and have a performer improvise? I think a lot about that. What's easier for the performer and what's better for me?
TS: Absolutely. Backing up for a minute, you mentioned “Break,” and when I was looking through that score I was thinking a lot about juxtaposition. Kind of characters you have this kind of (I know it’s a strange pairing of words), but an ethereal and creepy character going on and then you have that groove that comes out of nowhere on the low A. I know from reading the program notes this piece is largely about messing with the harmonics on the A. That said, how often are you thinking about juxtaposition specifically?
EM: Part of it comes out of the whole initial recording session. The saxophonist for that piece is Drew Whiting, who I worked with on that piece a lot. So, that one in particular– the collaboration was really, really important. When we first decided on baritone saxophone, we had a recording session where he just played all kinds of different techniques. So, that piece is really taking all those techniques and putting them together in different ways. The idea of juxtaposition might be just this one technique he did and juxtaposing that with another technique. So, I guess the simple answer is I do think about that quite a bit– just juxtaposing different ideas together and seeing what kind of relationships come out of that. Maybe what's most important though is I think a lot about narrative when I'm writing, making some kind of dramatic arc or narrative through the piece, even if it's a story that's not a program necessarily, I usually have an idea at least of a really abstract kind of general story about how things progress. Then from one moment to the next, we’ll kind of follow that arc in the piece. So, like you're saying, there's different characters. I actually do write that way and they kind of tell the story of the piece. Sometimes they're different and are presented differently and sometimes they're juxtaposed and sometimes one changes the other or their relationship changes over the course of the piece. So, yeah I think I think about that a lot. I think you're right on .
TS: So, when you're thinking about these narratives either thematically and conceptually, where do you go for inspiration? (whether it's figuratively– just like a mind space– or what do you go to maybe in literature or nature for this inspiration?)
EM: With these pieces, not so much literature. I mean, a lot of it just kind of happens organically ,I think it just begins with kind of a rough idea of where I want the piece to go dramatically and it kind of happens organically. Most of the time, one section builds to the other but I'm always kind of thinking back–where’s it from and where I go next. So, I think of it loosely like that.
In terms of nature, I think about nature often and often will be kind of inspired just by the sounds you hear out in nature things such as, wind or waves in the ocean, that kind of stuff. I will try and emulate those kind of sounds. I guess I don’t really think about that much, but I think I do that, that I kind of emulate those kind of sounds Like the building of a sound like a thunderstorm building and then passing over and and leaving. There's that kind of narrative. So, it's not so much literature or a real specific programs in the music, but just more general narratives.
TS: Do you ever have moments where you get kind of stuck in your narrative and trying to figure out where it's going next? And if so, what’s your process for getting through that? How do you go about getting yourself back on track or finding some source of inspiration for continuing the narrative?
EM: Let’s see. I mean, I don't know if I have a single process for that. I wish I did. I would use it every time. I tell my composition students: often it will pass. First of all it just takes time. Sometimes you just have to write and if you get stuck, you just have to give it time as you probably know. I can't purposely rush that process. I have to have enough time. I have to have composing time, and a part of that is just sitting there thinking, you know just brainstorming and thinking time. It's not always writing notes. I mentioned I play piano as my main instrument, so if I get stuck a lot of times, I'll just just start improvising on the piano and I'm just trying to find something even loosely that might come next. So, if I get stuck in a certain spot, I can improvise the previous section a little bit or play the previous section and try to improvise different ways through that section– that helps me quite a bit. One thing I always tell my students, which is hard and I try to do, is if I get stuck in a section, I'll try and think forward in the piece about where–not the next section will be–but maybe where it will be two or three sections down the line or where is it ultimately going or even where the ending is. I skip forward and if I can get an idea for that part of the piece, sometimes it helps to bridge the gap from where I'm stuck to where it's going. So it's not really that I would say there’s one answer to that because that would be great. It really just kind of depends on the subject. And so you know, sometimes I will say it's gotten easier the longer I've done it. I've been composing for for a while and when I first started, that thought would happen and I wouldn't know what to do. And as I've been doing it more, I feel like I get stuck less now or at least I kind of can find my way out of it more quickly. I don't know. I guess I've been doing it more or more so it happens less frequently, which is nice. Sure. So, I guess it'll stay that way. I don't know about you. Do you have any good ideas?
TS: Not particularly; I mostly just go on walks or things like that and try to clear my brain. That's just me though. I have two dogs, so I usually try to get outside with them and forget about things and then go back to it.
EM: Yeah, now you mentioned that– I mean, that's something. I have a dog. So walking the dog is a good distraction or I jog a lot. Actually that helps sometimes. Well, when I'm jogging I never listen to music, but I'll go on like a four mile run. And I'll just kind of think. Sometimes about the music I'm writing and then just kind of let my mind wander. And that actually helps too.
TS: I'm sure you hear a lot of nature sounds and stuff as you're running that help inspire your work too…
EM: Exactly. So, actually just changing the environment or getting in a different space and doing something different could be really, really big help or you know if I'm working on the computer, I’ll just check my email, do something different for a bit.
TS: Just switch it up?
EM: Yeah, exactly.
TS: Sure. So, my next question is about extended techniques for the saxophone. Obviously, you use extended techniques quite a bit. And I'm curious when you first heard these sounds on saxophone and how you knew that this is the vehicle for a lot of your music, because you've written quite a bit of saxophone music specifically (you’ve written a lot for other instruments too.) But, when did you first hear those sounds in context and thought "this is something I want to latch on to”?
EM: I think like a lot of composers hear these sounds in various pieces. I mean, as an undergraduate, or even when I was a kid, I'm sure I played around on the inside of the piano. I played with the strings and got some cool sounds. In my undergraduate study, there was a pretty active composition program and good teachers. We actually had an electronic music festival that was hosted at our school every year, so I got to meet a lot of composers. It was really a great program. Part of it was just hearing a lot of music and hearing a lot of what other people are doing.
I don't remember specifically, but along the way I heard a lot of traditional music and I heard a lot of experimental music and so I just kind of absorbed those sounds. At the beginning, I was probably just thinking this sounded cool and that's all it was. I remember early on like studying George Crumb’s “Black Angels” or something like that and hearing all those extended techniques and thinking they sounded really cool. Saxophone– I don't remember the first time that I heard them for that instrument, but I'm sure pretty early I did. I think I just enjoyed the sound of them and it just expanded the…. I guess a lot of my ear when I listen to music, my ear is often drawn to timbre in music and tone color and combinations. I really like orchestration actually. I just like combining different instruments to see what it sounds like. And I think part of extended techniques is related to that. I just extend the colors of the sound. So I think it's related more to color than necessarily the technique itself. So, when I think going back to the question– when I'm using them in music, I guess I don't think I would use them for the sake of using them. They’re always related to a specific sound or particular color that I'm after. So, that piece “Break” has the most extended techniques, and it goes back to working with a particular performer, Drew Whiting. He loves improvising playing style technique. So, part of it is for him. I wanted to write a piece for him to utilize those. But again, in the whole initial part of the project he just played a bunch of things for me and then I got to hear what they sounded like and what kind of colors they could be. Then that became part of the motive. The main motive of the piece used extended technique so in telling the story, they weren’t used for the sake of using them so much as I just thought they were kind of interesting. And I guess that just became part of the language of that piece.
I think early on I started using some quarter tones which worked really well on the saxophone. I think the first time I used any of those was just because I was thinking of passing tones I wanted more passing tones between two notes, so I tried some quarter tones and the section was working with that and the saxophone could play it really well. And in another piece, it’s divided in half and a quarter tone is in the middle and just creates an interesting harmony. So, it's always something musical; I usually don't just use them for the sake of using them.
I really enjoy that I enjoy learning new things about instruments. Working with performers, collaborating with performers, you really enjoy doing those kind of things. It’s a lot of fun because when they are learning something as they're playing the piece too or when they’re playing a certain technique in a certain way that hasn't been played. I don't know. It's pretty fun.
TS: I think the last element of your your musical toolbox that I wanted to draw on from looking at your scores was texture. And I was thinking particularly of the saxophone choir piece “Awakening” and you use a lot of really interesting textures in that, utilizing all the saxophones to create something that sounds to me much larger than just a group of saxophones. And I don't know if I have an exact question about it, but if you want to talk a little bit about your thoughts on texture specifically and when you're thinking about a saxophone choir or quartet, what are those textures that you feel you can get out of this particular group that make it compelling to write for?
EM: For sure; I do think about texture a lot. I think for that piece in particular, you got it just right that I was thinking about texture. I wasn't thinking about 13 individual lines in counterpoint, but I was thinking about how those work together. A lot of points or subsets of them, but where they can work together to create one kind of texture. I think about that actually quite a bit in my music when I'm writing for ensembles or or even electronics. How can a lot of individual sounds kind of work together to create a single texture? You know, a lot of composers do that and I think the one that I listened to a lot as a student and I still do listen a lot was Ligeti and he does that, of course, in his music a lot where we have all these individual lines that are heard as one texture.
TS: Kind of like thinking about the aggregate?
EM: Yeah, exactly. So I think about the aggregate of all those individual things working together. And I like to do my music quite a bit.
All the parts contributing to that aggregate texture, that’s definitely something I'm thinking about in the electronic music. I mean I think I did a lot with texture there. And again it's kind of taking the solo instrument as the centerpiece, but using the electronics to kind of using the solo instrument as the center and just kind of building onto it you know and building the texture out from that. And that works. And by the way I work, recording the solo instrument, I have these recordings that I can have playing along [with the live instrument.] So it's basically taking the one instrument and making the whole ensemble out of it and that's the way I think about it. So it’s the same kind of thing as the saxophone choir piece. Doing that with electronics, I can use that texture and kind of morph that along through the piece in different ways. So yea, I do think a lot of texture and how it changes too. Sometimes it can be really active, with a lot of little fragments in it. I do a lot of granular synthesis kind of techniques where there's a bunch of little grains that work together to create a texture or going back to your juxtaposition question, just kind of layering different elements on top of each other to create some interesting textures.
TS: The next two questions are about teaching. The first one is regarding a lot of people in universities working towards teaching in some capacity, but they're also artists or composers and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your life with balancing a teaching career as well as balancing being an active composer. What are the struggles with that and how do you overcome those?
EM: It’s hard. I don't know if I have managed to overcome them. I really love teaching. I had great teachers and it's something that I really discovered and loved in my doctorate when I was lucky enough to have a teaching assistantship and have some good mentors. And then I'm just really lucky that I'm able to teach and make a living doing that, but also that the job lets me compose as well. But finding that balance is hard.
And it seems to be getting harder. I also have two kids. So that makes it difficult. And it's become even harder to fight. You know, I think part of it is just carving out time in your schedule. That's just what you have to do. So I try and leave time as much as I can open on certain days to compose, but definitely that gets taken taken up. I mean, this week I didn't have any composing time. Next week I hope to. I've cut back on my projects a little bit in the last few years. When I was in my doctorate or when my kids were younger, it was actually easier to find time. As they're getting older, it’s more difficult to find time to run them around to different places and there are a lot of activities and that's all good– that’s fun at this part of my life. I would expect a few more years I'll get back some of that composition time. So it really changes depending on what stage of life I was in or am in.
In the summer, I don't teach which is when I do most of my composing or sometimes over holiday. We have a nice long break in our schedule between our fall and our spring semester. We have several weeks actually. So, that's a good chunk of time. I can get some composing done in the beginning in January. So, yeah, when I'm teaching it's hard because I want to do the best I can for the students. I want to devote a lot of time to that. I don't want to do it halfway. It's hard, but I just try my best. When I was younger I was composing late at night, but I can't do it anymore. I fall asleep. Now I like to compose in the morning.
I don't know if I can find a balance. I don't know. It's ebbs and flows and a lot of times I find squeezing that composition time in certain times of the year is what I just have to do. I wish I had better advice on that one.
TS: I've noticed that you you teach theory as well?
TS: So how much would you say your experience as a composer gets into your theory teaching? Depending on who you talk to with theory pedagogy, composition is either a really big part of it or it's a completely separate thing. So how much is composition a part of theory for you and vice versa? How much is theory a part of teaching your composition students?
EM: That’s a great question. I think one definitely helps the other in terms of teaching in the theory class. t I think just getting the students to be creative with the topic is important to me. I think it helps them become a little bit more invested in what they're learning. We talk about rules and there are conventions, historical conventions, and students think of them as rules and what I always say is that if they're writing their own music, they can do whatever they want. That's fine when they're composing, but in learning, it’s historically based. So we need to learn that stuff as well. For teaching composition, I guess I encourage my students to be pretty analytical. So in terms of critiquing their own music, a lot of times what I'd suggest is writing a bit and then taking a step back and analyzing it as if you were somebody else looking at the music. I think that's a good way to take stock of what they've done up to a certain point of the piece and think of possibilities for what comes next. So, they're not just writing from beginning to end but they're writing a little bit and then stepping back and analyzing what they've done, because my observations about it is I think it helps going forward in the piece.
TS: Is this mostly for clarity or is it to actually change anything that they're doing? Or is it just so that they're aware of their style?
EM: I think for both of those things: So they can be critical of what they've written. And maybe it’s just a provision but also being aware. Being aware of what they've done will hopefully help students think of what to do next, which could also help with writer's block. I think it’s taking a second to think of where you come from. With the teaching, I think actually–I teach theory and aural skills– and I just write all my own aural skills exercises. So as a teacher, you're composing all the time.
TS: Could you talk about your biggest influences in three categories: Composers that have influenced you most? And then musicians that are not composers but that maybe you've listened to or collaborated with that inspire you? And then people that inspire you that don't have to be musicians or composers at all?
EM: Composers. Well that's the easiest one. Just thinking back of the ones that have been most influential, I think I mentioned Ligeti as being a pretty big influence. I'd listen through my development especially when studying in my doctoral program. I listened to a lot of his music and a lot of his ideas were pretty influential. Olivier Messiaen’s music was pretty influential to me, especially more so for the piano music. I've written a lot of piano music too. Some of the French kind of spectral composers Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail were some pretty influential composers to me as well.
But a lot of it is just people. A lot of my teachers–I was lucky to have some some really good teachers over my education that have been pretty influential and I didn't really have any teachers who forced me to write in any particular way. I think they encouraged me to find my own voice and encouraged me to kind of realize what that was and how to make it better. That was really beneficial in my development as a composer too.
Musicians, let's see. Oh there's so many. I've always been kind of influenced by Frank Zappa. I think he's pretty fascinating. I’ve listened to a lot of his music, read his biography and just learned about his life which is really fascinating to me, which is not at all like my music. It's not like my music at all but there’s this kind of influence there. I mean, I could also think of some big name famous people. But I think to really truly say the most influential musicians to me have been the ones I've worked with and collaborate with. And I think those are the ones I've learned the most from. You know like the Drew Whiting sessions to work with that piece, “Break.” We worked together a lot and I think because of that, we've learned a lot. I learned a lot from working with him. Really, in some ways, the most intellectual musical relationships I've had are with the people I've worked with really closely. So somebody like him. Or other collaborations with Michael Holmes.He's a teacher now at Roosevelt University in Chicago. We collaborated on quite a bit of music. The saxophone Professor at Illinois is Debra Richtmeyer. I had the chance to work with her and learn from her. I actually didn't play saxophone at that point, but I had a lesson with her as an accompanist to one of her students on a piece of mine, and I think that was he best lesson I ever had in my life was the accompanying one of her students on a piece that I wrote. I still remember that to this day as being really, really influential in my performance. I don't play that much anymore, but yeah, I think it's kind of little people I've worked with that have really been most influential.
For people that aren’t musicians at all, I think again of mostly people I know who I've worked with, not necessarily like any big names or anything like that. I mean, there's certainly people who everybody would know who I think to do good work in their fields and I respect them and they are good people. But the most influential people have been the people I know and get to work with every day– and they might be in music or they might not be.
TS: Within your whole compositional career or even your teaching career, what's the thing that you're most proud of that you've done?
I think in teaching, it’s mentoring. There are some students I can think of along the way where I've mentored students and they didn't think they could compose and then we learned that they could and then they wrote some music that was really good that they'd never thought they could. There are few cases I can think of like that.It’s really satisfying to help somebody realize a potential they might not know they had. The same thing goes into theory teaching. Sometimes your students would come in and say they're not good at theory but maybe have never done it before or learned it the right way. So I actually think the most fulfilling things in my career are usually working with students and helping them realize that they can be really good at those things and good musicians and can go on and do really good things.
There's a lot there's a lot of other things. I think probably the thing I was most proud of in composition was last year I collaborated with a pianist [Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi] and we released a solo album [Journeys] of my piano music and that was a long project and a lot of work. It was a great experience; I got a really good collaborative experience with that particular pianist. When that was finally done, I was pretty proud of that work so I was really happy about that. I was just relieved to be done. We worked on that over over quite a few years. So between writing all the music for it, doing the recording, doing the editing, mastering, all that stuff, it was a really long process but really fulfilling in the end. So, that was that was pretty exciting.
You know as we're talking, I was thinking how important the whole aspect of collaboration is to me as a composer. Most pieces I write are done with somebody else or for somebody or with somebody and that's really inspiring to me. It's just working through the composition process with somebody else. Like I said, beginning the piece kind of just going through like an improv session with someone or just sitting, bouncing ideas off of somebody as I'm writing and then putting the whole piece together is really exciting.
Oh, and I really am proud of what we do here. I'm involved with this organization called the Wisconsin Alliance for Composers; it's a couple composers, kind of a loose professional organization here. One thing that I started a few years ago, and now I think we're in our fifth year, we started doing a student composition project and student composition contest and concert. So, every year we have a call for scores that goes out to students which could be elementary through college. We get the submissions and they get judged and the winners get picked and performed in concert. It's really fun; their families come and they get to premiere pieces and that's something that is really fulfilling. We’ve had fifth graders win this; we've had middle school. We've got some college students, but it’s especially for the really young kids. And what I found every year, especially the younger ones, say that there's no other opportunities like that.
So, that's actually one of the things I think I'm proudest of in my work I do here. That’s always really fun. And it's an opportunity I didn't really have as a kid, like I said I had a piano teacher who was supportive of me, but there was nothing really like this. So I'm happy that we can we can offer that kind of opportunity.