The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: How do composers compose? John Stevens talks about his own music and methods. Part 2 of 2.

May 6, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

John Stevens (below)  is a professor of tuba and euphonium at the University of Wisconsin School of Music where is a member of the Wisconsin Brass Quintet and the newly elected director of the school.

Trained at Yale, Stevens is also a nationally known composer and arranger. So it was natural that the Wisconsin Foundation for School Music, a statewide organization headquartered in Waunakee, would turn to him for a commissioned piece to honor Marvin Rabin (below), the 94-year-old founder of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras.

Rabin, who will receive only the third Lifetime Achievement Award from WFSM (the others were electric guitar pioneer Les Paul and legendary UW band director Mike Leckrone), will be honored at a banquet at Cherokee Country Club on Saturday, May 21, starting at 5 p.m. (Tickets are $40.) Then the piece commissioned from Stevens, “Fanfare for an Uncommon Man,” will be premiered at a WYSO Youth Orchestra concert in Mills Hall the next night, on Sunday, May 22, at 7 p.m. (Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for youth through 18.)

For more information about the events and reservations, visit WYSO at:

You can also call the Wisconsin School Music Foundation for reservations and information at (608) 850-3566.

Stevens (below) recently granted a Q&A interview about composing and about the Rabin commission to The Ear.

Today, in the second of two parts,  he talks about composing in general.

Composing is a mystery to many non-musicians. How do you go about it? Do you have a method? A schedule? Or do you rely on inspiration?

I’ve been fortunate to have many opportunities to talk about composing and I very much enjoy doing so.  I agree that it is a mystery to non-musicians, but I would go further to say that I believe it is equally mysterious to many fine musicians as well.

Composing music is not much different from writing a paper, short story, novel, etc.  Here are a few things I believe:

It is important to create a space in which you are comfortable writing, and to sit down in that space regularly (or when working on a specific project) and write.  Divine inspiration is all too rare.  We have to prime the pump by treating composing as a project – again, much like writing words – and just writing away.  I compose fairly slowly, but I revise as I go, so when a piece is done it’s done!

I also do all my composing in paper and pencil – without the use of a computer.  Two things are important to me about that process: 1) I enjoy the artistic element of putting notes on paper; and 2) the time it takes to do so helps me write at a pace that gets me the results I want.

I always say that the most challenging aspects of composing are beginnings, endings and transitions.  (I think that’s true of writing words as well.)  I usually look for some kind of a handle or a germ of an idea to get me started, and then it just evolves and develops.  I rarely do sketches – I start at the beginning and compose to the end.

To me a piece of music is very much like a novel.  One creates a “plot” that has a pace, structure and form to it that makes sense and “feels right.”  I tend to think in an organized, structured way about most everything, so that just carries over to my approach to composing.  I never start a piece with a specific “form” in mind, but as the music evolves and develops, natural forms simply occur to me as I’m writing.

I do try to set as many parameters of a piece as possible before beginning.  Not all, but many of my works are like movie scores without the movie.  I have a program, depiction, inspiration, mood, personality, or just an energy in mind from the start that guides the process.

Quite often the title and “personality” of a piece are the starting points, and I always decide on a set instrumentation before I begin.  (I’m willing to be flexible with myself about that, but even changes that I decide to make in orchestration are usually made before I begin writing.)  Just as a visual artist (say, a painter) has a palette that they work from, I have a group of instruments or voices that form my own musical palette.

Every piece of music I’ve every heard, in any and all styles, informs my composing.  Only occasionally will I study particular works or composers prior to composing a particular work of my own.  Mostly I’m just building my own vocabulary by listening all the time.

It has gotten much more difficult to compose music that doesn’t sound like it was written by someone else.  (Wow, that sounds just like Copland, or Bartok, or… whoever…) And I believe that is most every composer’s greatest goal to find their own voice and develop their own, recognizable style.  I take it as a compliment when someone says to me “Yep, that certainly sounds like a John Stevens piece!”

In the case of this particular work, I knew that I wanted to compose something that would have a sense both of honor (reverence or respect) and excitement (celebration). Using the material – especially in the timpani – from the earlier EYSO work was the germ that got the ball rolling. Once a work is underway, each measure that I write informs the next, and so on.

How would you describe the music you compose?

When I began composing in the early 1970’s, my stated goal was that I wanted to write music that would be enjoyable or meaningful to audiences and equally enjoyable and meaningful to the players.  That outlook has never really changed.

I would describe my music as being quite tonal – but with a bent toward obscuring obvious key centers and harmonic and melodic traditions.  (I write a lot of fourths, whole-tone scales – that sort of thing)  It’s very driven by rhythm, but I also enjoy finding ways to muddy those waters too  (lots of mixed meter, quintuplets and septuplets, etc.)

Larger “non-musical” concepts like mood, emotion, personality, character, direction, energy, color, contrast, story, etc. are generally more important to me than melody, harmony and rhythm.

Form and structure are also quite apparent in my works; it’s easy to hear the ties to the traditions of classical music.

Why will it appeal to young people and is it designed for students to be able to perform it?

In my opinion, one of the most important tasks for a composer is to take into account the nature and skill level of any ensemble for which a work is being written.  Preparation time and other logistical considerations are important to deduce up front as well.

So in this case, knowing I was writing for the WYSO brass and percussion sections was a start.  I then spoke with Jim Smith (below), the conductor of the orchestra, about specific strengths and characteristics of each section from the orchestra that I would be employing.

Keeping all that in mind, I endeavored to compose a work that would be challenging and interesting for the players, but also within their ability to render well from both a technical and dramatic point of view.  We’ll see how that works!

It is my hope that the music will appeal to the performers because it will challenge and interest them and, at the same time, they’ll be able to give a terrific performance of the piece.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

No, except to thank you very much for asking me to do this and providing an opportunity to talk about the new piece.  I’m looking forward to the premiere, which I will be conducting by the way.  It’s rare for a composer to have two pieces being premiered on the same day in completely separate venues!  I can tell you that May 22nd is starred on my calendar for sure!

Posted in Classical music

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