An active composer, conductor and performer, Brian Balmages’ fresh style of composition has put him in high demand for his wind, brass and orchestral music worldwide.
Mr. Balmages’ compositions have been performed at events such as the College Band Directors National and Regional Conference, the Midwest Clinic, the International Tuba/Euphonium Conference, the International Trombone Festival and the International Trumpet Guild Conference. His active schedule of commissions and premieres involve groups ranging from elementary schools to professional ensembles. Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Brian Balmages and asked him a few questions pertaining to his music career from his early days to the present.
When did you begin in music? What instrument did you begin with?
I began playing trumpet when I was very young – early elementary school. My father recalls my buzzing on a mouthpiece when I was younger, but I didn’t actually start playing trumpet until a bit later. Both my parents are Peabody Conservatory graduates so there was a lot of music around the house. My father also played trumpet and was actually my elementary band director – and was also my wife’s elementary band director!
Did you have a specific “a-ha” moment when you knew you wanted to be a musician?
I always knew I wanted to be in music. It was just in my blood. I played piano all the time growing up and just loved how making music impacted my life. However, when I was younger, I originally thought I would become a music teacher like my parents. That changed in high school when I got more involved in both performance and computer music. I also started having interests in film scoring.
What inspired you to become a composer?
This has always been a tough question to answer. I did not major in composition, nor did I really study composition much at any point in my education. I was mostly focused on trumpet performance for a while. I think the main inspiration to compose came from my inner understanding that I am not able to express myself any other way. It took me a while to figure that out, which is probably why I didn’t start composing with any seriousness until graduate school.
What things inspire your writing?
Anything can inspire my writing, but it almost always winds up centering on an emotion. If a piece is programmatic, it still has to be based on emotion in order for me to truly invest myself in the work. Otherwise, it just feels meaningless and I throw it away. And if a piece is non-programmatic, the same can still apply – I need to feel an energy or emotion. The question simply involves the trigger for the emotion. It could be a letter a young girl writes to a soldier overseas about how she misses her dad (Journal for a Soldier) or just a concept of silencing the world because everything is just so loud (Silence Overwhelmed)… wherever inspiration comes from and the emotions it brings, I accept it and write accordingly.
Tell me something people don’t know about you that they might find surprising.
I have never formally studied composition. In fact, I did not major in music education, performance, composition or conducting – yet these are the things I do most often. (My undergrad was in music industry and my master’s was in media writing and production.)
What is your favorite band piece by another composer?
Wow – that’s a tough one. I recently became reacquainted with Illyrian Dances by Woolfenden and have fallen in love with it all over again. I’m also a big fan of David Maslanka’s Song Book for Flute and Wind Ensemble (almost an hour long!)
Do you have one of your own works that you would call your favorite?
One of my personal favorites is a piece for brass ensemble called Ite Missa Est. It’s a four-movement work, about 18 minutes long. As for band pieces, I really am partial to a more recent piece of mine, Journal for a Soldier. It’s extremely emotional – it was inspired by a letter I read from an 8-year-old girl to a soldier overseas. It made me think about my own kids and what it feels like when I’m not able to tuck them in at night. I released all of that emotion into the music itself. I’ve never made it through the piece without tearing up – even in a reading session. And that’s how it should be.
What advice or tips would you give to an aspiring composer?
Write from within. Don’t try to tailor pieces to publishers – just let yourself develop. Otherwise, everyone’s music would sound the same. Get your music played as often as possible, whether in performance or just a reading session. You will learn more from that than almost anything else.
Do you have the opportunity to rehearse and/or conduct your works with various groups and if so, do you enjoy the experience?
Yes, I conduct quite often. I actually enjoy the conducting aspect of things more than the composing process. I feel that conducting is where the music actually happens. I can compose all day long, but no one can hear what is in my head until I get in front of a group of musicians and get them to understand what I was after musically when I was writing. And to have that interaction with the group that is performing is a wonderful experience.
“Rapid Fire” Questions:
What is on your iPod?
Nickelback, Guns n’ Roses, Sting, Metallica, Linkin Park, Pearl Jam, Matchbox Twenty, and Rush, to name a few…
If not composing or performing, what profession could you envision yourself doing?
I have no answer to that – I can’t envision doing anything else. Music is my life.
What is your favorite composition? (of any composer, in any medium)
Mahler’s Symphony No. 2
Is there anyone, past or present, that, if possible you would like to have the opportunity to meet?
John Williams. He inspired me growing up. He got me into orchestral music and his music got me excited about conducting. I also admire how he conducts and composes both for orchestras and for film.
If you were stranded on a desert island, and could only have the music of one composer, other than yourself, who would that be?
John Adams. His music makes me think. I find it quite listenable yet I never quite know where it is going. It’s extremely compelling and would be great company.
At this point in my life, kids! But when we have a break, I love going to the gym and rock climbing.
Performer or composer?
One of Balmages’ latest compositions, entitled simply Dreaming, is scored for string orchestra and was inspired by an image of his two sons sleeping peacefully at night. You can hear a sample of this latest original on his Facebook page.