Berklee today

JUN 2015

Berklee today is the official alumni publication of Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. It is a forum for contemporary music and musicians.

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How did you develop the skills to become a composer? My frst proper lessons were with a Berklee grad named Eddie Marino ['76], a jazz guitarist and composer. I was playing in rock bands and reading chord changes, but not reading melodies at that point. Eddie got me work- ing on Bill Leavitt's guitar books, jazz repertoire, music theory, and counterpoint. He also introduced me to the music of Bartók and Stravinsky. These were very solid music lessons. I studied with him for several years and he encouraged me to go to Berklee to study composition and continue with jazz guitar. In high school, I was interested in writing, especial- ly as I learned more about the composers of the 20th century. There seemed to be a connection between the advanced harmonic language of jazz and that of 20th-century composers. In my playing, I was always drawn to things that were edgy and complex. For me, there was a progression from the Beatles and Rolling Stones to Miles Davis and John Coltrane to Bartók and Stravinsky. I always liked playing jazz and played through my college days. To this day, I love improvising. Were there composers from the past that were especially infuential for you? It's hard to say because things change over time. But since my childhood, J.S. Bach has been a favorite. His music never ceases to amaze me—the variety of music, the detail, and how compelling it is. Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Ives, and Bartók were enormous infuences. I pull out scores and discover things in the music of Debussy, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Sibelius, and Strauss. I have studied the symphonies of Sibelius, Shostakovich, Bruckner and Haydn over and over. When I was younger, I'd make a 90-minute cassette of music and listen to it continuously. I'd fall asleep lis- tening so the music got into my head. I did that with Allan Holdsworth's [guitar] solos, I could sing them. I also loaded recordings of Bruckner's symphonies onto my listening device and looped them. Wherever I went I had the headphones on. I got to where I could sing through all of them. Can you talk about your composition studies with the late Tom McKinley? He was a great teacher. He wanted students to just do the work and write a lot. He had great facility at the piano and could play anything you came in with. After he played your piece, he would give his gut feeling about it. He suggested a lot of repertoire to listen to and books to read—from philosophy to music history. It was a broad education and he talked a lot about little details of the pieces I brought in. It was interesting that after I'd fn- ish a piece and have it performed, he would rip it apart in terms of its long-range aspects. I wondered why he hadn't mentioned these things as I was working on it, then real- ized that this was how he worked. He didn't revise he just went on to the next piece. He advocated writing yourself into shape and not worrying about whether your grand statement was working. He took particular interest in my work and showed me a lot about composition. In my other classes I studied species counterpoint, harmony, and orchestration. What prompted you to re-examine your approach and let your jazz and rock roots have a place in your concert pieces? When I was younger I unwittingly decided that my jazz and rock playing was a separate part of my musical being. I was misguided in my thinking that composition should be more erudite. I got heavily into 12-tone music and got a lot out of it. But it wasn't until about 10 years after I received my master's degree that I felt I didn't have to pull punches any more. If I wanted to do something with a jazz groove, I'd do it. The frst piece I wrote after deciding everything could be mixed together was called Grooved Surfaces in the mid-1990s. I had to suppress some things to learn others. I wouldn't trade the pitch manipulation ideas I learned from being a 12-tone composer for anything. It was kind of severe at the time, but looking back, I see that it has informed me about all kinds of music that deals with 12 notes, whether it is diatonic, pentatonic, or something else, it's all part of the same big family. Now I can move between the worlds easily. So if I had not shut out some things to learn about that I wouldn't be able to do what I do now. I'm not regretful about it. I was able to move beyond the myopic view that a sin- gular kind of thinking brings on. When you started, did you look at the economic realities of a career as a composer? I think I was crazy enough when I was younger to not worry about things like how I would pay my rent. I've been fortunate. I tell my students about how naive I was, and maybe that is important. Being too careful could be detrimental. You can't play it safe. You have to go for it but you don't want to become destitute. I tell my stu- dents that they are good musicians, they play an instru- ment, and can do things that others in society can't do. Maybe you take this for granted because you hang around with musicians. But, you have unique talents: use them. I used to play with a classmate who was a fut- ist for bar mitzvahs, weddings, and G.B. gigs all over the place. I taught guitar lessons at my house and traveled to students' houses for a while before I got a job teach- ing at Phillips Academy. I also copied music by hand. I did anything I could that was music related for a long time to support myself as a composer. So I think you have to be a little naive, but you also need to be resourceful. You can't write 24 hours a day, so practice and do the other things musicians do. We can all survive and be successful in our time. Some will get commissioned quickly, for others it will take 15 or 20 years. Though it sounds like a cliché, perseverance and belief in yourself are also part of the game. When the bell rings, you need to be ready. What's most impor- tant is that you write pieces. It's not about knocking 14 Berklee today

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