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Band Composer Series: Frank Ticheli

April 11, 2012

I recently had the honor of interviewing composer and teacher Frank Ticheli. In addition to composing, he joined the faculty of the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music in 1991, where he is Professor of Composition. He is well known for his works for concert band, many of which have become standards in the repertoire.

However, as you will read, he is an extremely prolific composer of many musical genres. He received his doctoral and master’s degrees in composition from the University of Michigan. His works are published by Manhattan Beach, Southern, Hinshaw, and Encore Music, and are recorded on the labels of Albany, Chandos, Clarion, Klavier, Koch International, Mark Custom, Naxos, and Reference Recordings.

When did you begin in music?

By age nine, I had already been exposed to a lot of early jazz music. I grew up near New Orleans, and my father would take me into the jazz clubs, and play lots of records of traditional jazz. When it was time to get an instrument, my father took me to a pawn shop in the heart of the French Quarter. In the shop window was a beautiful used clarinet for $80 that really got my attention, and an old beat-up trumpet that looked horrible, but was selling for $45. My dad said, “Sorry, Son, you’re going to play the trumpet!”

Did you have a specific “a-ha” moment when you knew you wanted to be a musician?

There were many signal moments, starting with my early exposure to New Orleans Jazz. At age 13 my family moved from Louisiana to Richardson, Texas, jolting me from a very modest music program to the powerhouse program at Berkner High School. I had no idea kids my age could even sound that good. Going straight from playing out of method books in Louisiana to playing very high- level music in Texas was a culture shock to me. It lit a fire in my belly that has never been extinguished.

What inspired you to become a composer?

The above-mentioned culture shock had a lot to do with this. I remember fantasizing about creating music that sounded as good as the stuff my high school director, Bobby Floyd, exposed us to. I also began lifting music off of records — mostly Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson recordings — to see what made the music tick. An assistant director, Jerry Brumbaugh, told me that what I was doing was unique, and suggested that I had the ear of a composer. Dictating music came very naturally to me, and I thought any musician could do it. But he pointed out that no, most musicians could not write down whatever they hear, and that it was a kind of talent that composers need to have. It really got me thinking in that direction.

When did you start composing and what instrument or ensemble did you start writing for?

When I began my undergraduate studies at Southern Methodist University back in the mid-1970s, I applied for the major in composition; however, because I had not yet composed any real music, I was told it was too late for me! This, of course, made me want to work even harder to prove the professor wrong, and fortunately for me, I was admitted to the program by my junior year. My first official piece, Trio for Brass, is a little suite built from quartal (4th-based) harmony. It was okay for a first piece, but, like all of my undergraduate works, lacked formal tension and any sense of urgency. It took a long time for me to learn how to compose music that deserves to have a life. It takes most composers a long time to learn this.

Do you have a mentor, or someone who has influenced your style of writing the most? If so, who would that be?

I did my graduate studies in composition at the University of Michigan, where I had the privilege of studying with William Bolcom, Leslie Bassett and William Albright. I’ll never forget my first lesson with Bill Bolcom. I showed up with what I thought was a respectable amount of music for a first lesson. Bill proceeded to read it flawlessly at the piano, casually saying, “Ah, yes, it’s a sequence; it goes up. But what else do you have to show?”

Ouch!

In a flash, I learned that if I wanted to call myself a composer, I’d better start composing!

Another signal moment occurred not with a teacher, but with a fellow student, Mark Kilstofte (now a successful composer at Furman University). When we were just 23 or 24 years old, I said to him one day, “I think I’m going to quit composing altogether; I’m not even the best student composer here at Michigan, so how on earth am I going to make it in the real world?” His reply possessed the wisdom of a much older person: “Frank, we don’t compose to be the best. We do it because each of us is different; each of us brings something unique to the world of music. Stop wasting your energy on trying to be the best; instead, spend it on getting to know who you really are!” Thankfully, I listened to him.

What would you say defines your style?

I’m actually uncomfortable talking about my musical style. Music takes us to a place that transcends words. If it didn’t, there would not be much point in writing the music. I will say that, like so many American composers, I’ve been influenced by a whole gumbo of musical cultures: early jazz, Cajun/Creole, folk, popular, European modernism, classical. It’s all there; I just don’t like analyzing it too deeply. I prefer to just do it.

What are you working on now?

I just finished Songs of Love and Life for soprano and small wind ensemble (18 players), based on poems by four contemporary American poets. It’s for my dear friend Allan McMurray, who recorded it with his terrific Colorado University Wind Ensemble and soloist Jennifer Bird-Arvidsson for the Klavier label (I think it’s coming out in the fall.) Eugene Corporon is also releasing a recording sometime in early 2013. If all goes well, my wonderful publisher, Manhattan Beach Music, should be releasing it later this year. I’m very excited about this work.

But now, I’m right in the middle of a big choral symphony, The Shore, to be premiered next season in celebration of the Pacific Chorale conductor John Alexander’s 40th anniversary season. It’s based on four terrific poems by poet/colleague David St. John. The Pacific Chorale and Pacific Symphony are recording it for the Delos label, and I can’t wait!

It’s ironic that many who will read this blog know me only as a composer of band works. My last three commissions have not been for the traditional band medium. I love the band medium, but I also love wearing different hats.

Do you have one of your own works which you would call your favorite?

 

Each work is kind of like a child, and it’s always difficult to pick a favorite child. But as a conductor I love how Angels in the Architecture covers this huge expressive range, from very personal private moments to public gargantuan moments. It’s so much fun to conduct when performed well. I enjoy Blue Shades , and American Elegy is very special to me because of its connection to Columbine High School. My choral work, There Will Be Rest, is very special as it is dedicated to the memory of the son of one of my dearest friends. Finally, my new Clarinet Concerto, composed for soloist Håkan Rosengren, is perhaps one of my very best works to date. Each of the three movements pays tribute to a different American icon: Rhapsody for George (Gershwin), Song for Aaron (Copland), and Riffs for Lenny (Bernstein). For whatever reason, the concerto ended up meeting, even exceeding, my expectations. Sometimes we composers get lucky.

Do you have any advice or tips for those interested in composing?

Listening to music by the masters, preferably with the score, is just as important as composing. I encourage my students to find moments from the repertoire that particularly speak to them, then take the time to make a score reduction of those moments. They can then bang the music out on the piano and discover why they love it. A licensed mechanic needs to take a car apart and put it back together again to really know the car. We do not do this enough as musicians. Isolate the music that you love, reduce it, take it apart, and take the time to really find out why you love it.

Listening to rehearsals and live performances of your own music is also important. A 45-minute rehearsal session can teach a young composer more about their music than an entire semester of private lessons because it can produce instant epiphanies. You can sometimes hear in an instant why a whole section doesn’t work, or, on the other hand, why one isolated measure is good enough to inspire the entire next piece!

Would you say your music comes to you more often through slow, careful planning, or by sudden inspiration?

Yes.  (laughs)

Sometimes music arrives in bursts where my pencil can’t keep up with my imagination, and sometimes it seems as though it will never come. Sometimes a short motive or even a single chord can inspire a whole piece. Other times, it may just be a vague feeling, and then I need to find the music to fit that feeling. It’s more an art than a craft, more a mystery than a method, and with every new piece, I feel a bit like a beginner again. I really don’t trust anybody who claims to understand how one composes. Music is mysterious, elusive, hard won. I used to try to ignore the difficulty, but I’ve since come around to celebrating it. It’s these very mysteries and challenges that draw us to music.

Do you have a specific type or style of work you prefer to write for?

I would love to write more chamber music, and also an opera set in old New Orleans.

What is your favorite aspect of composing?

I love doing the work! I go to my backyard studio every day and ask myself, “what if?” Some days are better than others, but I can’t wait to get out there. The fact that I get to create something that hasn’t been heard before is amazing. They pay me for this? I feel very lucky. I also love it when gifted conductors and performers show me another correct point of view about my own music, something I hadn’t thought of. I love those who are not afraid to show the heart and soul of the music, the human vulnerability that lies behind the notated page, the excitement, sadness, joy, fear, darkness, light. It’s the subtlety, the poetry of music that turns me on, not the literal stuff.

Could you tell me something people don’t know about you?

I love languages. I have studied Italian for 12 years. I speak German, badly, but enough to get by. I’m currently studying Mandarin Chinese, and I love the tonal aspect of that language. I also love history, and am an obsessive reader of nonfiction. We live at the foot of a very large mountain, and I love to hike it with my wife and kids.

“Inside the Actors Studio”-Type Questions:

  • What is your favorite word? – In Italian: “Andiamo! ” (“Let’s go!”) In English: “Epiphany”
  • What is your least favorite word? – “Like” (as overused by so many young folks)
  • What sound or noise do you love? – Offstage trumpet
  • What sound or noise do you hate? – My current trumpet sound
  • What is on your iPod? – Most recently:  David Diamond symphonies and Piazzolla tangos
  • What profession, other than your own, would you like to attempt? – Cooking
  • Is there anyone you would like to collaborate with, living or dead, that you haven’t yet? – More poets
  • If you were stranded on a desert island, and could only have the music of one composer, other than yourself, who would that, be? – Beethoven (oh, how cliché of me!)

 

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