Have you ever wanted to learn more about your favorite composers? We did too, and hope you enjoy Choral Conversations, our composer interview blog.
Joseph Martin, composer, pianist and director of Sacred Publications at Shawnee Press, writes music that speaks to me. He can turn simple folk tunes and hymns into breathtaking masterpieces. Joseph is a pianist by training, and still plays over 70 concerts a year. He generously took time from his busy schedule to speak with me this week. Here are the highlights of our interview (all answers are paraphrased).
What are you working on right now?
I have a Carnegie Hall debut coming up this weekend. I was commissioned to write a new choral work for young voices based on the writings of Mattie J.T. Stepanek, a young man who had a rare form of muscular dystrophy, and wrote these books called Heartsongs that became bestsellers. They are tremendous texts. I took some of his lyrics and combined them with my music and wove them together into a 35-40 minute work that will debut this weekend in Carnegie Hall. They are also doing the 10th anniversary of Sing for the Cure, something I was involved with through Shawnee Press and the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation.
When did you begin in music?
Practically at birth. My father was a preacher and my mother a church pianist, so the music and faith elements were always there. I began to discover my musicianship and my faith probably around the age of 5 or 6. There was a sense of partnership between those two areas of my life very very early on, and it was quite natural. My mother was probably my first piano teacher. I always kid people and tell them that I began violin at 7 and quit at 7:30.
What was your inspiration to become a composer?
During my time at Furman, a man by the name of Milburn Price was a composer and fine choral musician. I found myself drawn to his philosophy. The way that he combined his creativity with rehearsing the choir was quite exciting and different from the things I was doing at the keyboard. I loved the power that words and music joined together created. So, I sat there at the piano and began to experiment with vocal music and began my composition.
What kinds of things inspire you?
Wow, that’s a great question, because I write all the time. I’ve always felt my role as a composer, not meaning to sound noble, as service to others through the music. I try to keep in the forefront the needs of the groups that I’m writing for. I like writing with the purpose of meeting someone’s need through whatever gifts I have. On a personal level, it’s sort of like journaling your own life story or your faith journey. Some of my most important works have been me struggling with things I have experienced or celebrating the things that have been joys in my life. I want people to fall in love with what their own song can bring to their lives. I want them to enjoy discovering their musicianship, very much like I did.
Tell me one thing that people might not know about you.
Let’s see what would be an unusual thing. Well, I played baseball in high school and college. Oh, I own 10,000 comic books. I collect comic books. I started collecting when I was a kid and I’ve maintained my collection through the years. And I have literally tens of thousands of baseball cards.
What is your all-time favorite piece by another composer?
I thought this would be a tough one, but the one that has been steadfastly encouraging to me through the years is a very obscure work by Beethoven called the Choral Fantasy. It’s a piano concerto with choir. Every time I hear it, I want to go run the marathon. I love that work. It is actually a kind of sketch for the 9th Symphony. I don’t think I’ve ever turned the channel when that one comes on.
What would you say defines your style?
I love movie scores. The sense of bringing theater or drama into the music. I write more from the heart than the head I think. I want the cinema or the drama of the words to go first. So, I find myself drawn to film scores because they are decorating the action of the film and they create a certain emotional connection to a character or to an emotional moment in the film. I like to listen to that and how those two things intersect with each other. Purposefulness with artfulness — that really is sort of my deal.
Do you have any tips for people interested in becoming composers?
Yes! I have a composers symposium that I do every year in June. I gather together a lot of different directors and composers from various publishing companies and we all get together and try to help young writers and pay back those that have helped us. I think it is important to find a mentor or someone who can help you learn to direct and focus your creativity. When you can balance your creativity with your usefulness, you can really have an impact. Write with a purpose and try to meet a need when you write. Collaborating with someone can be a good thing too, rather than writing in a practice room only, so you can have a sounding board. It’s possible to write in a practice room only, but it’s not something that has been successful for me.
Are there any authors whose words speak to you, almost begging to be set to music?
I love great poetry. I just lost my best friend J. Paul Williams. He and I published over 400 pieces together. There was something that we enjoyed the collaborative process. We would get into the process of writing and we wouldn’t let go until we had the answers. I think that some of my best work was written with him, we worked together almost 20 years. I feel a little bit of a void without that energy that took place between he and I and the way we worked. I think if I was going to direct some young creative person into an area, that I think the publishing industry is needful in, it would be the idea of lyrics. So many songs say nothing beautifully instead of saying something significant. There is a real challenge to find poetry that makes sense to be set musically too. And I think what worked so well for Paul, was he was a musician and understood that certain words just didn’t sing well. So he wrote lyrics versus strait poetry. We could sure use some more poets that understand function and also understand the depth of what it is to write a great poem.
Quickfire Questions (partially stolen from James Lipton on Inside the Actor’s Studio)
What is your favorite word? Quintessence
What is your least favorite word? Violence
What sound or noise do you love? My children laughing.
What sound or noise do you hate? Those European emergency vehicles.
What profession, other than your own, would you like to attempt? Major-league baseball, or architecture
What is your favorite piece you have composed? The Awakening
Is there anyone, living or dead, that you would like to collaborate with, that you haven’t? Steven Spielberg (Call me!) or Beethoven
If you were stranded on a a desert island, and could only have the music of once composer, who would it be? Beethoven
Joseph Martin is a very kind, warm, friendly person, qualities that came shining through in this interview. If you enjoyed it, let us know. If you have other people you would be interested in learning more about, let us know.
Click here to listen and browse through music by Joseph Martin.