Our first season composer, Shawn Crouch, gives us a an inside look at his multifaceted composition style, why he loves writing for percussion, and breaks down our commissioned work, “Time Management”.
Is there anything or anyone that inspired you to become a composer?
Yes, there are many influences and role models that led me to being a composer. One of my earliest musical memories is that of the Towson State Big Band in Maryland under the direction of the composer/arranger Hank Levy back in the early 80s. Hank used to write for Stan Kenton back in the 1960s. My older brother, trombonist Jeff Chiaverini played in the band, and I remember going to those concerts when I was around 9 years old and being totally blown away by the sheer volume and intensity that the ensemble could produce. Levy’s arrangements were always in these complex changing meters of 9, 7, 15 even. He messed with your mind as far as meter was concerned and really influenced my early attempts at composing.
Later, in high school I went to the Walden School for Young Musicians, which is a small summer program for young composers in New Hampshire. There I met a number of visiting composers who were actually living, teaching, and working as composers. In particular Lee Hyla and Martin Bresnick, both of whom I studied with later on. They had a profound impact on my life as a composer and still do to this day.
How would you describe your music or style?
My musical style is a little bipolar. My choral and vocal music tends to me much more harmonically driven and consonant. Part of that is due to the limitations of the voice. I have been very lucky to work with some of the finest professional ensembles in the U.S. and in Europe which has allowed me to push the limits of my choral writing, but I’m still very aware of how the voice works, its limits, and how to best write for the instrument.
My instrumental music is much more gestural, dissonant and aggressive. I love being able to push the performers technically and enjoy creating instrumental sound worlds that the voice simply can’t do.
What do you like about composing for percussion?
I love writing for percussion. Two reasons in particular: One, because of the vast amount of timbral choices and techniques that are available when composing for percussion, I found that a close working relationship with the performers is a must. I love to work with the performers in finding the best way to create the sounds and gestures that I’m hearing. The second reason is that percussionists spend an infinite amount of time carefully choosing an instrument’s sound. I have learned to totally get lost in the variety of timbres of different size tam-tams, or how the slightest variation in cymbals can totally change the sound and direction of the composition. Each performance of a percussion work is unique based on the instruments that the performer chooses to use. I love that variation in timbre, even when it is the same piece.
What are currently your main compositional challenges (if any)?
I just finished a large 45-minute long concert Mass setting for SATB choir, two mezzo-soprano soloists and two pianos. The biggest challenge for that work was making the large scale form, which stemmed partially from the text, work in such a long piece. How does each of the movements fit together thematically? What are the harmonic connections? How do I best serve the text and still be original?
I’m now looking forward to investigating large scale form in purely instrumental or electro-acoustic music. It is always a challenge for me to find the form of a work when there isn’t a text to help guide the composition. This is my current challenge.
Is there anything you haven’t explored compositionally (for percussion or otherwise) that you’d like to in the future?
Yes, I’d love to write more for large ensembles (both orchestral and large chamber works). As the Artistic Director of the White Ibis New Music Ensemble at the University of Miami, I have been able to conduct works that are for large ensemble (16 or so players) and I love the infinite variety of sounds that you can get from the different instrumental combinations. I would like to composer more works for that size ensemble and incorporate some electronic elements into the timbre.
What is your favorite food and drink for composing?
Well, there is food and drink while composing, and then there is food and drink that inspire you to compose. While composing I drink hot black tea, sometimes Jasmine tea, and eat whatever is on hand so that I can get back to composing as fast as possible. I love to cook, and I have found that cooking is so much like composing, only the results are a lot faster. Cooking complements composition, and I love taking time after a day of composition to unwind and make something I’ve never tried before. Some recent dishes: New Orleans shrimp and grits, short rib, all things Italian, and smoked meets using my smoker in my back yard. Current drink favorites: A good martini (Titos Vodka), and Camp Fire Whiskey.
What piece of yours do you feel most attached to? Why?
Tough question. Each piece is unique, and we as composers all hope that our new works enter the rep and have a life of their own. I’ve had a number of compositions that have made the rounds with different ensembles. My “Paradise, A Motet for 12 voices” was originally composed for Chanticleer, and then rewritten and recorded by the new music choir Volti. That work was very important to my growth as a composer and employs many composition techniques that nod to Renaissance vocal writing. Two early works are close to my heart because they opened up paths into the composition world: One, “Suspended Contact” for sax and percussion was one of the first works that I had real success with and is in a musical style that I still use today. And two, “The Road from Hiroshima, A Requiem” for choir, soloists and orchestra commissioned by Seraphic Fire was my first attempt at large scale composition. More recently, my “Lew Beach” for Eb clarinet, amplified cell, piano and percussion and “Time Management” for percussion trio has marked a new direction in my instrumental music.
We talked about this on your trip to Seattle, but can you tell us a little about how you actually composed this piece and the concept behind it?
“Time Management” is a study in form. The first movement is in a type of sonata form, but everything is rearranged. The work opens not with expositional material as might be expected, but with developmental music that a listener would expect from the middle of a sonata. I want the listeners to feel as through they have been dropped into the middle of a performance. From there, the movement explores two different timbral worlds, a non-pitched drum based world, and a pitched percussion world, each with their own musical motives. The movement ends with the clearest statements of the musical material heard up to that point in the composition, but the listener has already heard all the different permutations by the time the pure form of the motives are heard.
The second movement explores the compression and contraction of time through the use of canons in mallet instruments. Through the entire work, there is a constant juxtaposition of different times through the use of metric modulation.
When you started composing this, did you know you were going to flip all the pieces around, or did that come later?
No, actually, the first draft of the work was in an almost traditional sonata form. But I wasn’t happy with it, it was too predictable. By rearranging the sections the piece took on a whole new direction, and I started playing with the idea of expectation in the listener. The central theoretical focus of the work is how does the listener make sense of the material if it is out of a traditional order?
The piece begins and ends with the performers “playing together” in silence by ghosting over the instruments. Can you talk about this and how you anticipated it would affect the audience?
Yeah, the piece begins and ends with the performers playing their instruments without making contact with their instruments (completely notated). I want the audience to be confused at the opening of the work. When the performers suddenly start playing it’s as if someone suddenly turned on the volume. Again, it’s as if the listener walked into a performance of the work that had already started. The ending is meant to feel like the listener left the performance before the work was completed, as if the music continues far after the listener is in contact with the experience of listening to the composition.
The piece requires a number of instruments – how did you start the process of deciding what to use? Did you select all the instruments and write for them, or did this process evolve and more instruments were added as the piece was composed?
For this I actually decided on all of the instrument ahead of time and sketched a percussion setup so that I knew how each performer would move around their instruments. I then stuck to that instrumentation. For future performances I’m looking to play a little more with the instruments and change out some instruments for others. I’m also open to performers using the instruments I have chosen as guidelines, allowing each performer to interpret the instrumental suggestions on their own terms. This would give a variety of interpretations and keep the piece fresh and alive with each new performance.
Learn more about Shawn at www.shawncrouchmusic.com.