Larry Clark’s pieces have been performed internationally and appear on numerous contest/festival lists. He is an ASCAP award-winning composer with over 200 titles in print and is in high demand to write commissions for bands and orchestras across the country.
Larry has presented clinics recently at the Midwest Clinic; the New York State School Music Association conference; the Texas, Ohio, and Wisconsin Music Educators conferences; as well as numerous national guest-conducting appearances. Recently I had the privilege of interviewing Larry Clark about his musical experiences from his earliest days until now, and I’m sure you will enjoy reading about his musical journey too.
When did you begin in music? What instrument did you begin with?
My father was a band director, so I have been in music as long as I can remember. He taught me to read music before I could read. My first instrument was drums in the first grade. I later learned to play the trombone starting in the fifth grade.
Did you have a specific “a-ha” moment when you knew you wanted to be a musician?
I resisted thinking I was going to go into music for a long time. When I was in junior high and early high school I was trying not to do or be the same thing as my father, but when I was a senior in high school I became the drum major and student conductor. My band director let me really rehearse the band – a lot. At that point I was hooked!
What inspired you to become a composer?
It was kind of an accident. I was a middle school band director first and started writing arrangements of pop tunes and movie themes for my band. I think they were pretty bad, but my students liked to play them, so I kept doing it. Later on I started to try to write original pieces for them and it just sort of progressed from there. I guess I would have to say that I was inspired to become a composer by my father. As a band director he was always writing music for his own groups and he also wrote a lot things for his church choir. He taught me to love music.
When did you start composing and what kind of ensemble did you start writing for?
As I stated in the previous question I arranged music first and then started composing music for my middle school band. It was nice to have sort of a lab group to learn from! I guess that is why I have been successful writing music for middle school bands.
Do you have a mentor – or someone you would say has influenced your style of writing the most, and if so who would that be?
I have had lots of great mentor/teachers. First off, my dad; then later in college Dr. Bentley Shellahammer, who was the associate director of bands at Florida State University, encouraged me greatly. In graduate school Dr. Pat Rooney was a big influence on me and he played my arrangements with the James Madison University Marching Royal Dukes and helped me to get my first arrangement published. When I went into publishing I was highly influence by Sandy Feldstein. Sandy was a great musician, music educator, author and composer. On top of that he was a great human being. I learn so much from him. As for composing, I had the good fortune of having Robert W. Smith as one my teachers and later a good friend. Certainly my music was influenced greatly by his example. I also like to think of myself as a product of the school band and my musical style has been very much influenced by composers of great band music like Percy Grainger, Vincent Persichetti and William Schuman, to name just a few.
What things inspire your writing?
Lots of different things. I do not usually like to write programmatic music that follows a story line, but people, happenings, events, etc. do inspire me. I think that the music I write is a reflection of me at the time I am writing a piece. Kind of like a photograph. It is a snapshot of who I am at the time I was writing the piece.
What would you say defines your style?
First and foremost, melody. The tune comes first most of the time for me. I want my pieces, especially the ones for younger students, to be tuneful. I want the students to enjoy playing it and that starts with the tune. Other than that, I think there is an eclectic mix of rhythmic drive and lush harmonies that define my style. I love full band sonorities and work to make at least one moment in each of my pieces that has a lush full sound.
Tell me something people don’t know about you (that they might find surprising).
I have five sons, two of which are adopted from the country of Haiti.
Are you in the middle of any writing projects currently, and if so, would you mind telling us about them?
I am always in the middle of writing something. I was going to say above that what inspires me sometimes is a deadline! When you work in the publishing business, you are always chasing a deadline to complete something. I just finished a piece I am pretty proud of called Resurgence. It is a more difficult work that was commissioned by the Savannah River Winds. It is a fast and furious piece of around five and a half minutes and moves along at 184 beats per minute. It is pretty exciting, I think.
What is your favorite band piece (by another composer)
Variants on a Medieval Tune by Norman Dello Joio. There are lots that I like, but this piece has really influenced how I write music for band.
Do you have one of your own works that you would call your favorite?
That is difficult, because all of them are special in a certain way, kind of like your children. If I had to pick just one – well, I can’t. How about two? One is called Quintus. I think it is one of my favorites, because it seemed to just jump out of my head and on to the page. I wrote that piece in two hours. It felt like true inspiration. The other piece is called Whispers. It was written for Sandy Feldstein when I learn of his terminal illness. It is a very emotional piece and it means a lot to me.
What advice or tips would you give to an aspiring composer?
The most important thing is to be true to yourself. You should write music for yourself first and foremost and if other people like it, well then that is just an extra-added bonus. In terms of getting your music published, I would say that you have to network. You have to meet people and figure out who makes the publishing decisions for the various publishing companies. Then you must take a risk and start submitting your music. Be prepared, you will get rejected, but keep trying. Believe in yourself and don’t give up.
Does your music come to you through slow, careful planning, or by sudden inspiration, or a combination of both?
It happens in all different ways. Every piece is different. I have had some pieces like I described above that just flew out and others that I have struggled with for years. I have to say I am not much of a planning composer. I don’t write an outline or come up with a form I want to write in or something like that. I just get started. Usually first with a tune and then go from there.
Do you have a specific type or style of work you prefer to write for?
No, I really don’t. Being an arranger first and then a composer has given me the opportunity to write tons of music in every style imaginable. I enjoy the variety in that type of work and I try really hard not to write the same types of pieces over and over again. It is difficult when you become popular for one thing or another, but I really try to resist and just do something new. I guess Mozart still sounds like Mozart too, so I am sure there is something that is similar about all of my pieces. I am not sure that can be helped!
What is your favorite aspect of composing?
My favorite part is when I first get to hear one of my pieces performed by real live musicians. Before then the piece only exists in my mind and in my computer. It only becomes real to me when it is performed for the first time. After all of these year I still get a thrill out of that.
Do you have the opportunity to rehearse and/or conduct your works with various groups, and if so, do you enjoy the experience? Why or why not?
I have had the good fortune to conduct my music all over the world. It never gets old and it is exciting every time. The people I meet and get to work with are always hospitable and work very hard to make the performances of my music a success.
“Rapid Fire” Questions:
What is on your iPod?
A little bit of everything. Classical, rock, pop, jazz, country — you name it.
If not composing or performing, what profession could you envision yourself doing?
I think it would still be something that is creative in some way. Like I love to work with wood and make things. I have also become very interested lately with website design.
What is your favorite composition? (of any composer, in any medium)
Talk about an impossible question. Okay, well if I have to pick just one – here it goes: The Nutcracker. I just love Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece. I never get tired of it. It just has so many great tunes!
Is there anyone, past or present, that you would like to have the opportunity to meet?
Thomas Edison. That guy was amazing!
If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have the music of one composer, other than yourself, who would that be?
I guess to go along with the question above I would pick Tchaikovsky.
Other than writing music? Well, I absolutely love college football.
Performer or composer?
I am definitely not a performer, so yes I am a composer.
Many thanks go out to Larry for his time in answering these questions and thereby sharing his story of his musical journey with our readers.
Click here for more works by Larry Clark.