NWfPP is thrilled to present this bit of insight from our interview with percussionist Brain Nozny:
What inspired you to begin composing?
"I’ve always enjoyed creating since I was young. I remember going to a band concert when I was a child. After a piece was over and everyone was applauding the performers, I couldn’t shake the thought of “Yeah, that’s great and all, but some guy wrote that! Where’s his credit?!” Funny thing is I had that thought very early on, but didn’t actually start writing music seriously until college.
Tell us about composing for percussion.
"Usually my writing process begins in one of two ways: One way is through a commission by someone and if they have specific ideas that they want to bring to the table. My latest piece, Convex, was like that. Mark Ford, who commissioned it for the University of North Texas Percussion Ensemble, requested an ensemble piece of 5 – 7 players that incorporated steel pan into the ensemble. So that request for pan has a definite influence on where the piece was going to go.
The other way is if I have a specific concept in mind. Usually if someone commissions me and they don’t have any specifics on what they want, then I’ll go in a direction I’ve wanted to go with one concept or another. My piece Sharps would be a good example of this, where seeing a man covered in tattoos made me wonder if I could somehow musically tattoo an audience.
What I love about writing for percussion is the infinite amount of colors you can get from any single instrument. One example might be my piece Lament for Paper and Pen that is part of a collection commissioned by Keith Aleo for solo pieces using only cymbals. My piece uses a single wind gong, and then three suspended cymbals. It was so much fun to experiment and see how many different sounds I could get out of a single cymbal. I have a white board in my office that was covered with sound ideas, and in the end so many of them didn’t make it into the piece just because I needed to set a limit or I’d never stop writing!
Let us in on your creative process.
"My process involves a lot of self-evaluation. I’m constantly listening back to what I already have and editing things to make the piece the strongest it can possibly be. In the beginning of a piece I’ll write about a minute or so of music, and then go back and listen to it over and over. The ideas in that first minute that I feel are the strongest are usually what I base the piece off of.
I’m almost always composing on my laptop, so my environment can be anywhere, but I prefer to be in my home studio where I have some decent monitors and instruments in case I want to try something out. Water or coffee is a must depending on the time of day. Other than that, my biggest requirement is usually just time. I like having at least a few hours when I sit down to write so I don’t feel rushed and can let ideas and the piece develop naturally instead of feeling like I have to force it.
Watch: "Parallel" by Brian Nozny [CSU Percussion Ensemble]
Which philosophies guide your compositional style?
"I’d say my guiding philosophy is to always try to take as few materials as possible and see how far I can stretch those materials. Typically, my pieces are only made out of two or three core ideas, and then everything else is some sort of modification of one or more of those core ideas.
You have a piece coming up that features bodhran-soloist Andy Kruspe.
Tell us a bit about this commission.
"Andy and I met through a mutual friend at PASIC a few years ago and hit it off. Last year he wrote to me about a desire to commission a piece that featured the bodhran within an ensemble setting that wasn’t the more traditional groups that it’s usually found in. I was really intrigued by the idea, and it took off from there.
One of the concerns I had about the piece though was all of the “baggage” (for lack of a better term) that comes with the Irish Bodhran which is what Andy plays. There’s so much culture, history, and musical conventions already associated with that instrument, that the first thing I knew I wanted to do was take us as far away from that as possible. To do this I ended up planting the instrument into a completely different culture: South India. The piece is based off of South Indian rhythmic vocalizations called “Konnakol”, so by transplanting the Bodhran into that different culture I was able to completely circumvent all of that baggage I mentioned before while still being able to let Andy do what he does.
I have to say that writing this was one of the most satisfying projects because of the collaboration between Andy and I. So many times, when you’re writing for someone and you ask them for feedback their response is “I like it, keep going!” While that’s nice, I truly want someone to feel like they’ve had a voice in the piece, especially if it’s a piece they will actually be performing as opposed to say an ensemble piece. Andy was great about not only showing me all of the things he can do on his instruments, but giving me suggestions as to direction of the piece, form, colors, etc. It really was a back and forth project that in the end made it so much more satisfying.
Watch: "55 Bells" performed by Brian Nozny and Matthew Geiger
It's rare that we interview a jack-of-all traits like yourself, so we have to ask: How did you become a glass wind-chime maker?
"That was just a random series of events really. When I was in grad school at the University of Kentucky we were performing David Skidmore’s piece Whispers which calls for glass wind chimes. Jim Campbell knew I was handy with tools and mentioned me making some, and I just happen to live near a stained-glass shop, so I stopped by to get some scrap and see what I could make. The first set is still at UK and while it sounds good, it looks AWFUL! Hot glue everywhere, it’s a mess! But from there I made a second set that was better looking and sounded good, and from there people started to notice them, and it took off from there. Now I make glass chimes, key chimes, and tuned metal pipes for pieces like Paul Lansky’s Threads and a couple of my own pieces.
Know an artist who we should interview? Send them our way! We're always looking for up-and-coming composers and performers of new percussion music.