When charged with the task of interviewing a Princetonian on the subject of “The Sounds of Princeton”, my brain made perhaps the single most obvious potential connection: I decided to interview someone from the Princeton Sound Kitchen (PSK). PSK brings renowned ensembles to Princeton University in order to give graduate composition students a chance to write for and work with these performers. While I have never attended a PSK performance, the concept intrigued me (particularly as they have featured two of my favorite ensembles, The Brentano String Quartet and Roomful of Teeth). Wally Gunn, the coordinator of the project, graciously obliged my request for an interview.
As I come from a highly structured musical background (thanks to a childhood spent immersed in Suzuki violin and Anglican church music), Wally’s story was refreshingly different from my personal experience as a musician. In addition to being the coordinator for PSK, Wally is first and foremost a composer. He first began exploring composition in a decidedly not-classical context: his high school punk rock band. It was during this time that he began to develop his unique sound language and forged relationships that led to his first composition degree. While completing this degree, he also began to explore collaborations with theater companies. Although this initial collaboration was a “trial by fire,” it has had a lasting impact on Wally’s approach to composition. He still regularly works with theater companies and incorporates theatrical elements into his own works. Here is one such work for percussion ensemble, entitled “Vicious Children”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QkX5BSeal9I
After completing his undergraduate studies in Australia, Wally worked in Melbourne for a period of time, primarily as a composer for theater companies. Later, he pursued a Master’s Degree in composition from the Manhattan School of Music, where he worked with one of his compositional idols, Julia Wolfe. Reflecting on this experience, he stressed the importance of her approach on his development as a composer. One of her most valuable contributions was the encouragement to “find the wild” in every musical work, something Wally continually strives for in his composing.
Now, Wally balances his time between living and composing in New York, working on his doctoral degree at Princeton University, and coordinating Princeton Sound Kitchen. This position has given Wally a creative outlet as well as an opportunity to work with the logistical side of music-making, which he greatly enjoys. The importance of relationships with other composers and performers was a common thread throughout Wally’s musical history. In particular, he noted the importance of the supportive community in the composition program at Princeton University. In fact, his initial interest in Princeton University began through a friend and former composer from Australia who continues to be a supportive presence in his life today.
See the entire interview here.