I had a really fun time doing some oral history interviews on the student composers of the American Art Song Festival. I gotta admit, I was a little nervous going into this whole thing because I’ve never really held interviews for anything before and had no idea how it was gonna work out. I kinda felt like I was being thrown in the pool to learn how to swim. Anyway, the three composers I interviewed were Cortlandt Matthews, Patrick Dunnevant, and Ian Good. Cortlandt’s an undergrad who isn’t even a composition major. He’s studying sacred music and composes for fun on the side. The others are both graduate comp majors. I think getting to interview three different people was pretty neat, because each had different previous experiences and each had different styles of composing.
I went into the interviews having a good idea of the way I wanted them to go. My goal was to gain some insight on their academic background and their composition experiences, and then to work my way into their compositions for the song fest. One of the things I asked which I thought was obvious is what they were studying in school. This is how I found out Cortlandt was actually a sacred music major, which is sad on my part- I didn’t know that after being in his class the past 4 years 🙁 I didn’t realize how much arranging and composing Patrick and Ian did outside of school, especially for other groups other than the ones here on campus. I also learned that Patrick has a great interest in conducting, which he’s doing as much now, if not more, than composing. This was particularly interesting to hear because I ended up going to Patrick’s grad composition recital soon after our interview and in addition to hearing a wide variety of his works, I got to see him conduct all of his own choral arrangements. I hope to make it to Ian’s recital too! (I think the two of them are the entire second-year graduate composition class, lol)
Once I got to talking to each composer about their songs for the festival, I started asking questions that I had no idea what their answers might be. This is when I realized how interesting and creative composers are. For example, Cortlandt explained to me that the inspiration for writing his “Two Love Songs” was an E.E. Cummings poem. He originally wrote the second song to this text. When I asked why he wrote two songs, his answer was simple: The first song he wrote was short and he wanted to make it longer, so he wrote another one and plans to write a third as well to make it more substantial. I asked Patrick why he wrote his song for tenor, expecting some crazy compositional reason. His answer, “I don’t really have an interesting answer for that.” This was funny to me after hearing about all the specific reasons he set the music to paint the text the way he did. I guess in the back of my head, I was expecting everything to have some sort of logic behind it. I was going to ask Ian the same question: why did he set his score for soprano? I learned that not only did he do it because he had a specific soprano in mind to perform it, but much of the compositional technique involved revolved around what this voice was able to do as opposed to strictly painting the text as in Patrick’s piece.
I could go on forever about all the interesting things I learned about how these guys went about composing their songs–like how Ian’s accompaniment was based off of pieces of recorded improv–but I’ll maybe save that for another time. Next time you’re hanging out with a composer, start asking them lots of questions about their process, and you’ll see for yourself just how interesting composers are.