Brian Cobb

March 10, 2017


What inspired you to become a composer?


My initial inspiration to become a composer stems from the affect music had on me at an early age.  Music cut within me emotionally and led me to ponder a wide array of concepts, not necessarily connected to music itself - topics like life, love, death, and nature.  Once I began to gather the necessary skills to perform music I started composing from that point forward.  With each musical discovery I turned a new corner in my compositional development.  This spark of original inspiration has never really left me; the experience of life keeps my passion for composing new music burning bright.  


What experiences have had the biggest influence your approach to composition?


A few experiences come to mind as guiding influences in my creative life.  First, would be the wonderful teachers that I have had the privilege to work with over the years.  Klaas de Vries, Salvatore Macchia, and Diane Thome, come to mind, all were influential to me in their own way.  Some focused on technique, others on time/head space management, I just took it in.  Second, would be the generous collaborators and artistic friends that have passed through my life over the years.  I’ve been extremely lucky to be connected with people that are adventurous, dedicated, and honest.  Having the ability to try new ideas without judgment was (and still is) extremely important.  Third, being open to as many aspects of creativity and creative fields as possible has been very important to me throughout my life.   By creative fields, I mean: music, all mediums of Art, science, philosophy, marketing, strategy, sports, etc.  This love of creativity without medium is what drew me to my wife of twenty years and has remained charged; I believe there’s an elemental bond between open-minded creative people if one chooses to see it.


Tell us about your process when composing for percussion.


At first, composing for percussion was quite a challenge in regards to coordinating my ideas.  Since I choose non-pitched instruments, I found the freedom of not being locked into pitch schemes to be liberating.  My choice of instrumentation was focused on material first (membrane, wood, and metal) then relative range (low, medium, high) then collections of timbres for gestures.  My guiding process to composing was a narrative approach that ebbed and flowed between the duo, both reliant on the other.   In other works, such as my song-cycle Campfire Songs, my decision on percussion timbres was directed by the world within the composition.  In Campfire Songs, the percussion choices were based on objects could have been found in a pioneer wagon (hammers, wood planks, spurs, bolts, pots & pans), body sounds, as well as traditional percussion instruments.


Is there anything you haven’t explored compositionally that you’d like to in the future?


One area of compositional expression that I haven’t embraced thus far is chamber opera.  This compositional void is of my own doing, but I think I would feel incomplete as a composer if I do not venture into that area at some point.





Let us in on your creative process and environment.


My creative process begins with a lot of brain storming away from the desk.  Although the time spans change with each project, my objective is to find the guiding concept, because once I find that the music will fall into place quickly if I have the time to sit and notate it.  Some pieces have demanded a lot of sketching, but overall I’m an over-planner.  I like to compose with a clear path and system in place, I usually will stop and recalibrate if those two things are not clear.  I like to be as efficient as I can when I’m in the notation part of the process.  This version of my creative process has taken many years to emerge. 


My composing environment is simple: a corner of a guest bedroom, a pad of over-sized score paper, my laptop, and a snoring pug by my side.  I usually compose at night after my two children have been tucked in and I can concentrate for long spans of uninterrupted time. Coffee and Pinot Noir, and the occasional peanut-butter pretzel nourish me.


Which of your compositions do you feel most attached to and why?


I will limit myself to two.  A past composition I am attached to is my song cycle, Campfire Songs, which I composed during my doctoral studies at the University of Washington.  This work provided me with an opportunity to deeply ponder the American pioneer experience, to gather disparate poetry into a narrative that acknowledges both tragedy and hope, collect a unique collection of instruments, and the opportunity to embrace my favorite work, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.  I think of Campfire Songs as Pierrot on the Prairie.


On the other end of the spectrum is recently completed collection of lullabies for my daughter, titled “Good Night, Darwin.”  I started the work the day she was brought home from the hospital and have chipped away at it over the years.  The music uses pitches extracted from my daughter’s full name and there is a lullaby composed for each day of the week.  In many respects this music embraces the parent more than the child.  All in all, the music was designed to provide a dream palette/spark for the child and as an engaging, but simple, listening experience for the parent.  In the early years of parenthood, soothing a restless child to sleep takes dedication and stamina; I hoped to make that process a little easier to bear.



What sort of philosophies guide your compositional style? Do you follow certain principles or a specific school of thought?


I’m not a subscriber to any particular compositional style per se.  My catalog is diverse on that front, but I have tended, over the years, to connect with early 20th century free atonal sounds & methods.  I enjoy the limited freedom and possibilities of controlling consonance and dissonance.  A more important influence on my compositional process/principles would be the possibilities found in evolutionary biology.  I would say the most influential object on my creative life would be Charles Darwin’s treatise, On the Origin of Species.  I find the descriptions of evolutionary processes irresistible and, for me, an infinite source of ideas.  When I read On the Origin of Species I can’t help but hear musical possibilities - since 1996 this has been my well of inspiration.


If you had to write a piece for one percussion instrument, which would it be and why?


The tam-tam would be my choice.  That large resonating body provides a composer with a huge dynamic range and a wide variety of timbral shades.  Beautiful instrument. 



-Regarding your NWfPP commission "Rival" for percussion duo-


This is your first composition written exclusively for percussion. Tell us about the process of tackling this new idiom. Were there any challenges or unexpected road blocks? Moments of clarity?


Writing solely for percussion has been both daunting and invigorating for me.  Being rookie in this medium I felt a strong need to give each attack in Rival a true purpose.  This led me to consider and embrace the narrative of rivals.  Throughout the composing process, I would forge ahead then stop and refine.  The road blocks I encountered revolved around preserving the narrative and the building of two equal rivals through rhythm, dynamics, described body language, and timbral unison and contrast.  The unexpected emerged when I wholeheartedly fell in love with the concept.  After that point the narrative and the composition’s proportions, sections, transitions, and climax was clearly in view.   With my family and academic duties pressing, the realization of the music took longer than I thought.  I knew the concept was strong when the gaps between composition-time did not sway me, this would be my moment of clarity.  The un-notated music remained locked until its completion.  I guess the world around me kept that fire burning.   


You crafted a unique concept in this composition, can you break down how this idea of rivalry was realized?


The concept of Rival initially emerged from the consortium’s request for a theatrical/kinesthetic quality in the work, as well as a request for fun and challenging interplay between the two duo members.  Given the social/political climate over the past year, the idea of a competitive rivalry seemed fitting.  The aura of the work should not be heard/viewed as bitter or overly serious on my part.  Competition is inherent in all aspects of nature, life, relationships, and society, it’s all-consuming if you give it a second thought.  Rival does unfold like a match or game in that the performers have a self-constructed persona; the “competition” is displayed through antiphonal gestures, which were designed to convey shifts of confidence, doubt, lost and victory of both duo members over the course of the “match.”  Over time tempers flare, intimidation occurs, and each emotional/kinesthetic move is matched with shifts of timbre, implements, tempo, and meter.  Listening to the work, you’ll notice a constant volley, which is enhanced and embellished throughout.  The challenge for me was to capture velocity and the physics of interaction.  The challenge for the performers will be to convey that natural energy, ebb and flow between two true rivals (equals.)


Does performing with a improvisatory ensemble effect the way you approach your compositions? If so, how?


It sure does.  Some of the most amazing experiences I’ve had as a musician have come from within improvisations. What affects me the most are moments of surprise, the realization of beautifully layered interconnections, and structural group-intuition.  These sublime moments don’t come around often, but I believe they can be nurtured under certainly circumstances and amongst like- and open-minded collaborators.  For me, my experience with the Tom Baker Quartet (Tom Baker, Greg Campbell, and Jesse Canterbury) provided me with these moments.  This group banded together with a quartet of dancers (a group known as Radiosonde) and brought me to some of my most long ranging experiences of intense, beautiful improvisation.  As a composer, I think the natural and spontaneous flow of improvised music is challenging to attain in solely notated works, but it is certainly a quality I look to harness in much of my music.  Being able to straddle the line between the determinate and indeterminate has been so useful to me.  Creating music that is exciting, well-paced and proportioned, and gives the illusion of spontaneity is often my goal, certainly with Rival.  My hope is that the listener experiences the shifts between the determinate and indeterminate as seamlessly as possible.






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Founded in 2014, the mission of the New Works for Percussion Project is to advance percussion repertoire and build community through commissions and original content.

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