I have always been hesitant to call myself a composer. Looking through scraps of manuscripts saved from my college years and my high school journals, it’s obvious I’ve always aspired to be one. Thankfully, it wasn’t some misguided pursuit of fame or fortune that drove me to compose. It was a spark of inspiration that often seemed to come out of nowhere — a brisk fall breeze, a bumpy bus ride home from school, being afraid of the dark — all of these things eventually transcribed themselves in my head as tunes needing to be written down.
As a kid, I composed tunes on my tiny Casio keyboard; I never wrote them down, I just kept them in my mental repertory. In early high school, I began creating my own staff paper — one line at a time — using a ruler, a pencil, and some typing paper. It would be an embarrassingly long time before I discovered or had opportunity to buy manuscript books (where the staves are already printed for you!). Between my slow, uneducated process and my unending obsession with perfectly parallel lines, it’s a wonder I ever committed anything to paper at all!
All of this scribbling eventually led to an event that forever changed my life. On October 23rd, 1996, one of my compositions was performed by a local university’s wind ensemble. My high school band director, who loaned me his old orchestration books (most of which flew right over my head at the time), urged me to enter a national composition contest and arranged for my piece to be recorded.
To properly set the scene, I should also mention I’d set aside my saxophone a few months earlier to start playing oboe (poorly). Nonetheless, I had great affection for the oboe and featured it rather prominently in my composition. Just days before the recording session, the conductor called my band director to inform us the university’s oboist would not be able to perform for the recording. He was wondering if I would perform with the group. Suddenly, writing that big oboe solo in the opening few measures of the piece seemed less than inspired. Did I want to perform oboe on the recording? I wasn’t sure I wanted to play oboe ever again! But, it was my oboe or no oboe, so I agreed.
The big day came and I was onstage in the massive recital hall with all of these college people. It was my music sitting on their stands (all the lines were perfectly parallel). I had my cheap oboe reed and my school’s janky student-model oboe in my lap. I was trying to keep my cool while the musicians were warming up. I could hear random bits and pieces of my composition flying all over the place.
The pianist came over to me and very politely mentioned that — for my next piece — I should be sure all the beats line up together in both staves for the piano part. I was wide-eyed and nodded in agreement… in time, I would also learn that dots always go to the right of the note-head and flags always fly to the right regardless of which direction the stem is pointing (or which way the wind is blowing).
Finally the conductor gave that first downbeat…
For as long as I live, I’ll never forget the feeling. It was as though the room was spinning while sound was coming from all around me — not just any sound, but a “living sound”. It was more than sound, it was colorful and vibrant — almost tangible, as if every particle in the air was vibrating, coming to life, glowing. The sound was more alive than anything I’d been able to imagine while making all those scribblings on my homemade staff paper.
When the time came, I played the oboe solo to the best of my ability… my warbly, reedy, sharp, unrefined ability. As much as I should have been afraid, there was an energy inside that swirling sound that buoyed my sunken confidence, overshadowing my worries about how unqualified and unworthy I was. Music really is a miraculous thing.
I didn’t win the competition, of course. I didn’t even get an honorable mention. It was a national competition. I was from a very small public high school (fewer than 300 students). I’d never had an opportunity to write a large-scale piece before; my high school band was never more than about 25 students. I’d never had a music theory class or used music software. I had so much to learn! Rather than being disappointed, however, I was hooked: the spark from that first downbeat forever branded me a composer.
I listened to the recording every day for a long time. I kept wanting that feeling of the initial downbeat to come rushing over me again. I quickly learned it is a very elusive feeling, one a recording cannot capture. When I listen to that cassette recording, now — almost 20 years later — that piece, that day, that oboist, all seem so distant, unreal. I also understand the biting, cringing feeling of regret and remorse that drives some composers to destroy their early compositions!
Fortunately, among the musicians of Manitou Winds, I have found an opportunity most composers would envy: living, breathing musicians who willingly play any scribblings I place in front of them. I have the honor of learning from their experience while getting to enjoy that elusive “living sound” far more often than I would have ever imagined.
For our Spring 2016 concert, we will be presenting a program entitled “New Voices” — highlighting new composers and music written within the past 20 years. Along with a list of very talented composers’ works, one of my pieces, Three Narratives (2014) for flute, clarinet, bassoon, and piano, will be on the program.
Today’s recipe, the final one from our series of “Notable Breakfasts”, is one of my personal favorite breakfasts. You can easily put it together the night before and then adorn it with whatever goodies you happen to have on-hand, depending on the season and your mood. No cooking required!
1 cup old-fashioned oats
2 teaspoons honey
1/2 cup milk
a tiny pinch of sea salt
1/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup raisins or dried cranberries
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/2 medium apple, diced
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice* or ground cinnamon
In a medium bowl, combine the oats, honey, milk and salt; stir until combined. In a small bowl, combine the orange juice and raisins. Cover both the oat mixture and the raisin mixture; refrigerate overnight.
Divide oat mixture, soaked raisins, and any remaining orange juice into two serving bowls. Divide yogurt, apple, walnuts, vanilla, and spice between the two bowls; fold the mixture together. Serve chilled.
*Jason’s Mixed Spice
Yields about 4 tablespoons
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon ground nutmeg
1/2 tablespoon ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
Combine the spices in a small bowl or jar and keep in an airtight container. More exciting than plain cinnamon and more complex than pumpkin spice; you’ll find lots of opportunities to use this blend.
Looking for more recipes? Check out the other recent Woodwind Gourmet series: