Viet Cuong: Game for Anything
Although Viet Cuong’s compositional output began with works for wind ensemble, he has branched out into numerous other mediums including chamber and orchestral music.
Composer Viet Cuong says that he is very impatient, but you’d never know it upon meeting him. His outward persona is relaxed, warm, and friendly, and at the same time he is bristling with enthusiasm and refreshing ideas about music. When challenged on this self-characterization, he laughs and says, “Maybe I’m just so impatient in my music that I can’t be impatient anywhere else.”
Although Cuong’s compositional output began with works for wind ensemble, he has branched out into numerous other mediums including chamber and orchestral music. One of his most recent works, Re(new)al, is a concerto for percussion quartet originally commissioned by the Albany Symphony and General Electric (GE) Renewable Energy. The original version was written for Sandbox Percussion and Albany Symphony’s Dogs of Desire, and the piece has since taken on multiple forms with versions for percussion quartet and full orchestra, and for band. Re(new)al is an ideal example of the playful-yet-substantive character of Cuong’s music that incorporates refreshingly imaginative ideas that fit effortlessly into the music without being gimmicky. He is currently at work on a piece for Eighth Blackbird with The United States Navy Band, saying, “To bring these two groups together is going to be a beautiful thing.”
We chatted inside the lovely orangery (the small greenhouse where plants and small trees are kept over the winter) of Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., where Cuong is serving as the Early Career Musician in Residence. He talked about growing up as a “band geek“ and the importance of band music in his life, his work bringing together different musical worlds, the nuts and bolts of incorporating extended techniques into his music, the realities of self-publishing, and more.
I grew up as one of the biggest band geeks your school would have.
There’s nothing worse than a joke falling flat, especially in a piece of music!
To get a Navy Band commission—the 14-year-old Viet would freak out. ... [Y]ou have Eighth Blackbird on the flip side, and 20-year-old Viet would freak out. ... [T]hen ... bringing them together and so now 29-year-old Viet is freaking out!
You don’t have to be told how to listen to something. No one’s telling you that you have to experience it a certain way.
After working on it for a week and you still don’t like it, then you can move on to something else.
From when I first started writing music when I was like 11 or something, I had Finale notepad and I was writing straight into the computer, so it’s just been what I’ve always done.
I don’t know if 14-year-old Viet really had any idea what he was getting himself into. ... I think he knew that composers were living beings because he was in band.
I remember Googling things like how to staple in the middle of an 11 x 17 sheet.
Read the Full Transcript
Video Presentations and Photography by Alexandra Gardner
Transcription by Julia Lu
Alexandra Gardner: Here we are in Washington, D.C., at Dumbarton Oaks, where you are having a residency. I know you very recently arrived, but can you talk a bit about what’s it like so far? What are your feelings about being in D.C. at this time.
Viet Cuong: Yeah. It’s called the Early Career Musician in Residence. I’m the one professional musician alongside about 20 other fellows who are Byzantinists, or working in garden landscape studies, or pre-Columbian studies scholars. I’ve had a lot of really good conversations with people about what they do and they’re really curious about what a composer does. I think Dumbarton Oaks just wanted to have a composer here, or just a musician in general to enrich the community, and there’s a history of music here.
Stravinsky has this piece called Dumbarton Oaks that he wrote for the place. I always assumed it was a place in the U.K.. I always loved the piece, but didn’t really know much about it, so, when I heard that a place called Dumbarton Oaks was interested in inviting me to be a fellow here, I was surprised and I’m really grateful to be here. It’s really nice. They really wanted to give the musicians in residence what they call the gift of time, so we can just work on whatever we want while we’re here.
AG: Amazing! Having people from all kinds of different disciplines at the table must make for some good dinner parties. What do you tell people when they ask what a composer does? Or what it means to be a composer?
VC: I usually tell people that I write concert music, and so I write for ensembles that you think of when you think of classical music. So orchestras and chamber music, and wind ensemble, too. A lot of people have experience with wind ensemble or band, because a lot of people were in band when they were younger, so I feel like that’s usually a good way into the conversation. Even the IT guy here who was setting up my wi-fi the first week asked me what I did, and I said, oh I’m a composer. And he’s like, “What do you write?” And, I said, right now I’m working on a piece for wind ensemble. And he’s like, “Oh, I loved being in symphonic band! I was a trombonist.” So it’s not as hard as you might think to get a conversation going!
AG: That’s awesome! You move very fluidly between the wind ensemble world and the orchestra music world, and although it’s becoming less unusual for a composer to do that, you seem extremely comfortable with the back-and-forth of working in both mediums. In the past, orchestra and band tended to exists in very separate silos, but that is (happily) starting to break down. You came to music from being involved in bands, so how did things evolve for you, post-high school?“I grew up as one of the biggest band geeks your school would have.”
VC: I grew up as one of the biggest band geeks your school would have. I loved being in band and marching band, and I was in percussion ensemble. I loved it all! And I really feel like my high school band room was where I found my place as a person. It’s where I felt that I could fit in and belong somewhere. So when I was writing music in college—I went to Peabody which isn’t necessarily a place you think of when you think of wind ensemble, even though they have a really great wind ensemble—I just always felt at home writing for wind ensemble because in a way it was my home, many years ago.
And so even now as a professional composer, I feel this kind of obligation to write for band, and to write the best music that I can for all the different grade levels just because I know how much of an impact it has on kids. And how much of an impact it had on me. So it just feels right. I had never really written an orchestra piece until maybe five years ago. I didn’t write any orchestra music when I was in college just because I always felt that wind ensemble opportunities were more available. I was able to get two wind ensembles pieces of mine performed at Peabody while I was there, which wouldn’t have happened if I wrote two orchestra pieces.
AG: That’s great. And now you have lots of wind ensemble pieces, with more on the way. You’re also part of Blue Dot Collective. How did you all find each other?
VC: Blue Dot was the creation of composer Ben Taylor. He had been working in the wind ensemble world for a while, and I didn’t know him personally, but he called me one summer—I want to say five years ago now—and asked if I was interested in being a part of something that was kind of like BCM back in the day—which was Eric Whitacre, Steven Bryant, Jonathan Newman. He was interested in creating something like that, and he was telling me other composers he knew who were interested in it, and I knew some of them.
I knew Roger Zare. I knew David Biedenbender, and I knew Jess Turner as well. I think I knew everyone except for Ben. And recently Jennifer Jolley and Omar Thomas joined. I’m really proud of everything that we do and of our mission as Blue Dot. I really love being able to have friends in the band world who are similar in age and kind of in a similar place in their career, and we feel like we can ask each other questions about things you don’t learn in school. And it’s been really great.
AG: What is the Blue Dot mission?
VC: We all just want to create the freshest music we can for the wind ensemble world. With the goal of inspiring everyone from performers, to band directors, to the people who go to the concerts, and just to also be an approachable sort of entity for people who want to get to know composers—for people to know that we’re all just people, and we’re here writing music that hopefully you want to play and we’re an email away.
AG: Awesome. I recently watched the video of your piece Re(new)al—the wind ensemble version— which is wonderfully creative. There are numerous versions of it—there’s a chamber orchestra version, a full orchestra version, one for wind ensemble. Let’s talk about that piece because it has so many incarnations.
VC: Re(new)al came about because the renewable energy department of GE wanted to commission someone to write a piece about renewable energy. They’re right next to the Albany Symphony in Schenectady, New York. They approached the conductor of the Albany Symphony, David Alan Miller, who had asked me if I was interested in writing a piece for their new music ensemble, the Dogs of Desire. I said yes, of course, because I had never had a commission from a professional orchestra and so I was game for anything really.
Originally, that piece was just going to be about water, because the theme of their season that year was water—since they’re right next to the Hudson—and he had seen the crystal glass piece that I wrote for Sō Percussion. I had an idea to use crystal glasses somehow in this piece, too, and eventually it became this piece that was about water as well as wind and solar power, and it was fun to write a piece that had such a specific goal in mind. I think when you are just asked to write a piece, it could really be on anything, so to have a mission that I set out to accomplish was fun.
Another stipulation was they wanted the piece to be a collaborative piece with the symphony and something else. I had known Sandbox Percussion since my college days. I was on the same floor in the dorms as Terry [Sweeney]. We had talked about my writing a concerto for maybe a year at that point, and so I was like, “Well, this is it. This is the concerto.” And they were really excited about it. I remember going to their studio and we tried stuff out and came up with the instruments that we used in the piece. I remember thinking, this piece is going to be about these different forms of renewable energy, but I also wanted it to have another secondary element to it, which was the idea of collaboration, synergy, and cooperation. I remember when I went to Schenectady to visit the GE renewable energy headquarters and they showed me this room that had all these computers in it that control wind turbines all around the world. I thought to myself, how many people are working together to make all this possible.
So that’s l the core message of the piece. I also wanted the piece to have an optimistic ending at least, to show that when we do cooperate with each other, things are a lot more optimistic than when we don’t.
AG: Do you usually work so closely with whomever you’re writing for?
VC: Yeah. Just because I don’t play every instrument! I play percussion, and I grew up as a percussionist, but I’m not a good percussionist. So to think of other ideas that are things I wouldn’t have thought of myself, it’s really important at least in the beginning stages of the piece to get in touch with the performers. Especially lately, I’ve been interested in extended techniques, so those always require an extra level of collaboration.
AG: Yeah. Like the piece that you wrote for Gregory Oakes? The clarinet solo?
AG: That seemed like it must have been a very close working relationship.
VC: Yeah, and actually I play clarinet, too! I had a clarinet which was luckily the same model as Greg’s. And I would try out these multiphonics myself. I remember recording myself doing some of the stuff and sending it to him, and he would try it and be like, “Oh, I really like this one. It works well.” Of course, he sounded much better on them than I did. There are certain things in the piece where you go between a multiphonic and a regular note and he does it much more convincingly than I ever could. Sadly, I still haven’t heard that piece live yet.
AG: I did! It’s great.
VC: Thanks. I remember I was really sick with this flu thing.
AG: Oh no.
VC: But right when it was performed, I started getting all these Twitter messages saying that it went really well, so I’m glad it did. That piece was really fun to write, and Greg is amazing. I’m very grateful to have gotten to work with him on that.
AG: Do you feel comfortable talking a bit about your working process?
VC: Yeah. Well, I have to say, every piece is really different. Like the crystal glass piece, it’s kind of in this category of pieces where I let the instruments tell me what to write. Where I have used crystal glasses, the percussionists are basically playing Patty-Cake. I had to come up with configurations of who is playing which ones obviously, but once you figure out the patterns it’s like the melodies just came together on their own.
And the clarinet solo that I wrote for Greg, the clarinet multiphonics—there are a multitude of multiphonics, but at least having that as a starting point I then had to figure out if I start with this one, which one do I like to come after that one? I almost created a chord progression of multi-phonics. I’ve written a lot for double reed instruments lately where I let the multiphonics tell me what notes should be in the melody. I wrote an oboe solo for a really amazing oboist in New York, named Stuart Breczinski, and then I wrote a double reed quintet that he played in as well that uses some of the same multiphonics, and then I wrote just recently a double oboe concerto.
Basically one of the oboists wants to play normally and the other oboist wants to goof off. Or not even goof off but rather go against the grain. So it’s a back and forth. It’s like a conversation between the two. It’s meant to be humorous. And I got laughs which is good because there’s nothing worse than a joke falling flat, especially in a piece of music! So yeah, in those cases, the instruments tell me what notes to write because there are certain multiphonics in the oboe that I love—the beating multiphonics which are kind of in the lower register.“I got laughs which is good because there’s nothing worse than a joke falling flat, especially in a piece of music!”
The melody in the piece is this Baroque-like descending chromatic fourth thing. And there’s harpsichord in it. It’s like basically as if I was a Baroque composer for the first two minutes, and then after that, the rest of the piece is kind of a theme and variations. I like using the theme and variations idea because it’s a really clear way to develop material for a listener. On their first listen they can clearly hear what’s happening, especially when you introduce things like multiphonics which for most listeners is a very foreign thing. So give them kind of a starting point with the clean version, then you have the more rowdy version with the multiphonics. I think it’s just a really fun way to write as well because it makes it feel like the multiphonics are organic for me as well as hopefully the performer and the listener.
AG: It’s so great that you’re so very hands-on with your material.
VC: Yeah. I think in some ways it’s just easier because then you’re not just staring into complete space when you’re starting a piece.
AG: We were talking while I was setting up about the sort of uncomfortable spot in a piece where things get hard. You said you’ve been experiencing that in different sorts of ways.
VC: Yeah. I think there are some pieces that are a lot harder to write than others, and not necessarily for reasons that you might expect. Like a large ensemble piece is harder to write than a solo piece. Not necessarily, you know. Sometimes, it’s really based on the project itself and how much it means to me. I don’t want to say that some projects mean more to me than others, because I take every project very seriously. But I’m doing this piece for Eighth Blackbird and the Navy Band and obviously it’s Eighth Blackbird and the Navy Band! Those are really amazing groups, and you want to write something really good for them. Symbolically what this piece means to me is so many things.
Just even to get a Navy Band commission—the 14-year-old Viet would freak out. So that’s something already. And then you have Eighth Blackbird on the flip side, and 20-year-old Viet would freak out. And then you have the idea of bringing them together and so now 29-year-old Viet is freaking out! And symbolically what the piece means to me is bringing these two worlds together and like you said before, the band world in the past (not as much now, but still a little bit) has been very siloed off from the new music world.“To get a Navy Band commission—the 14-year-old Viet would freak out. … [Y]ou have Eighth Blackbird on the flip side, and 20-year-old Viet would freak out. … [T]hen … bringing them together and so now 29-year-old Viet is freaking out!”
Eighth Blackbird is one of the most visible new music ensembles we have. To bring these two groups together is going to be a beautiful thing. I also think it’s a great opportunity for people in the new music world who don’t know much about the band world to maybe be nudged to explore it. And also for band kids, who are some of the most passionate, enthusiastic musicians who play new music, and there are so many of them, how many of them know who Eighth Blackbird is? How many of them know who JACK Quartet is? How many of them know who Sō Percussion is?
To be able to write a piece that can shed light on the new music world for them is really exciting. So many band kids know who Joe Alessi is, you know, principal trombonist of the New York Phil, just because John Mackey wrote a concerto for him. And so I’m hoping it’ll have this sort of like melting pot effect.
AG: Yeah, it’s a really beautiful way to bring the two worlds together. I think that a lot of times the new music world forgets that so many young people are in bands, and are so into music, and there are so many interesting things that they would freak out about as you were saying. It could be so amazing for a 14-year-old to hear JACK Quartet playing a John Luther Adams piece like The Wind in High Places.
VC: Yeah. And I don’t know if I do this consciously, but like you mentioned the fluidity that I have in the projects that I take on, going from one world to another—I’m really proud of that. Because I hope that when I go to a middle school in Texas, and they play my piece, that they will like it enough, or are interested in it enough that they will go to my website and see what else I’ve done. And then they’ll come across you know, JACK Quartet or Sō Percussion, and they’ll explore everything else they’ve done. Not just what I did for them, but to see the breadth of what they do as well. And it could really open up ears for a lot of people. So I hope that—not just me—but a lot of composers start to have the same fluidity. Many composers before me have done that as well, but I think of myself as part of that mission to connect people.
AG: There’s so much music now written about really intense, difficult, personal experiences—capital “T“ trauma, global crises of all sorts, you name it. I think those are genuinely important topics, and it’s important to have people who feel really strongly about addressing them. At the same time, there has to be some positivity in music, too. They balance out.
VC: Yeah. Lately, I’ve been really having a lot of fun writing more whimsical, light-hearted music. I think sometimes that’s what we need right now.
AG: I feel the same way. I think it’s really important.
VC: At least, concerts for me are oftentimes an escape from the craziness of the world.
AG: I don’t want more of the world in that experience.“You don’t have to be told how to listen to something. No one’s telling you that you have to experience it a certain way.”
VC: Exactly. It’s a time where I don’t have my phone in my face. I don’t have a computer in my face. I can just sit there and enjoy what’s happening and hopefully experience something else with other people who probably don’t agree with me on a lot of things. But we all are there just to enjoy this experience together and escape the disagreements that we all may have. The other thing with music that I think is great, especially music that doesn’t have text, is it doesn’t have to say anything necessarily that specific. I think that’s a nice quality about music. You don’t have to be told how to listen to something. No one’s telling you that you have to experience it a certain way. And it’s not as cut and dried as things in real life where there’s a decision of one person in the White House. Nothing bad is gonna happen if you agree about liking a piece or if you interpreted something different than someone else. You know? That’s why I enjoy the concert experience. I think having light-hearted music is never a bad thing in order to escape.
AG: I totally agree. It’s good you have a community of other composers and musicians who are into that.
VC: For sure.
AG: You have another piece that I really enjoy called Wax and Wire that has very intricately connected lines between instruments. It’s a slightly different take on the “everyone working together” atmosphere of Re(new)al.
VC: I’d say Wax and Wire was a really big turning point for me. It was the first piece where I used extended techniques as a highlight of the piece. One of the main ideas of the piece is the clarinet quartertone scale. But there’s filling in of the chromatic scale in the piano, which is filled in with the glissando in the violin. And that’s the first piece too in a chamber setting where I kind of created a meta-instrument with these three instruments together creating this one thing. It’s like an autotuned glissando.“It’s like an autotuned glissando.”
Then I thought, not everything in the piece can be that, so I’ll have other ways to create other meta-instruments within the ensemble. It’s also the first piece where I really did the interlocking hocket stuff. The hockets have become a way that I really enjoy orchestrating—taking a single idea and distributing it between a lot of different colors keeps a musical line alive and vibrant. And I love when you’re listening to these really fast hockets, and you start to not be able to tell which instrument is which. I think it’s also really fun for the performers, too. When they first see the music, they think it’s really gestural music or something. And in a way it is, for their individual part, but then when they figure out how they fit into this big jigsaw puzzle, it’s a rewarding thing for them maybe.
AG: That’s great. I want to go back to something that you said earlier about your process, and you wondering if the music is okay for the piece. Or rather, if the music is enough.
VC: Yeah. I think the beginning of the piece is always the hardest part for me, because every piece I write I want to be my best work, and I want to be proud of it. So when I’m starting it, it’s hard because you come up with stuff in the beginning that isn’t good or you don’t think is good enough, and you just immediately want to throw it away, because it’s not good enough for this piece. Or it’s not right. It doesn’t feel right. But we have to get over the hump to think ”Okay, it’s not good enough right now, but maybe in a week it will be.” After working on it for a week and you still don’t like it, then you can move on to something else. But for me, I’m impatient with myself, and I want it to be good right away.“After working on it for a week and you still don’t like it, then you can move on to something else.”
Getting past that stage is hard. But the other thing is, I think the way a lot of my pieces work is I like to be really economical with musical ideas, so when I do find something that works, I will use it until it doesn’t work anymore. I like to have that cohesion in a piece. I think part of that is just because it’s so hard to find something that works, and when I do find it, I don’t want to have to find something else! It’s almost like my musical voice is a product of my impatience or something. Impatience with myself.
AG: You don’t seem like an impatient person at all…
VC: Oh really?
AG: …so that’s surprising to hear.
VC: Oh, that’s funny.
AG: It’s an internal thing for you though.
VC: Yeah. Or maybe I’m just so impatient in my music that I can’t be impatient anywhere else.
AG: Haha! So do you write straight to computer; how do you get ideas down?
VC: Well, I use my iPad as staff paper, which I’ve been doing for maybe four years now, and I really like it because then it’s all in my iPad and I don’t need to find things. I’m not looking for a stray piece of paper that may or may not exist anymore. And so usually I’ll start, depending on the piece—if it’s a piece with pitch—oftentimes I’ll start at the piano.“From when I first started writing music when I was like 11 or something, I had Finale notepad and I was writing straight into the computer, so it’s just been what I’ve always done.”
I’ll come up with something. And then write it down on the virtual staff paper, and then move on to the computer pretty shortly after that. It’s a lot of back and forth between the two computers and staff paper. From when I first started writing music when I was like 11 or something, I had Finale notepad and I was writing straight into the computer, so it’s just been what I’ve always done. It feels natural to me that way because it’s what I’ve always done. If I had to write a piece completely by hand, it would be almost like re-learning how to write music. But no one’s ever forced me to do that.
AG: That’s good!
VC: I think it’s an important thing for a teacher—I say this and I haven’t taught a ton, but I think it’s important to realize that what worked for you isn’t going to work for someone else. I hope to teach more in the future and to help to find what works for students—help them discover what works for them. I don’t think any of my teachers I studied with on a regular basis ever told me how I should write music. They were always very encouraging with what I brought in, trying to figure out how to make it better, or figure out when the piece was done and I didn’t have to fuss about it anymore. Teaching is a strange thing I think, but all those teachers I’ve had, I feel really lucky that they’ve always been really supportive and never told me how I should write or what my process should be.
AG: That’s really healthy, and that will make you a good teacher.
VC: I hope.
AG: Well, you’ve been teaching for a while now.
VC: Yeah, and I’ve had some private students along the way. It’s so rewarding when you’re a part of someone’s journey. Just a small little part of it, and it’s also cool to see someone start to find their footing with what they’re doing and to create stuff they’re proud of. I hope I can do more of it in the future. We’ll see.
AG: Yeah. It’s really wonderful to see like the light bulb turn on. To see them get excited about what they’re working on and the possibilities for it.
AG: Or just be really happy with something that they created.
VC: Yeah, and I think one of my favorite things as a teacher is when they’ll show me something they’ve worked on, and I just try to think of any sort of direction to go. Try to give them as many ideas as possible. Or try to inspire them to come up with their own ideas in so many different ways. And when they leave the lesson feeling excited to try out a bunch of stuff, I think that’s one of the most fun things about being a teacher.
AG: Absolutely. What about 14-year-old Viet? What would he think about 29-year-old Viet?
VC: I don’t know.
AG: Did he have a plan?
VC: Yeah. I think maybe because I’m turning 30 this year in September, I’ve been thinking a lot about the past ten years. It’s been a little over 10 years since I started college. When I was preparing to move here, I had to go through all my stuff and figure out what I was going to bring here, what I was going to put in storage, and what I was going to throw away. I went through this big drawer of scores that I had of my music that has piled up over the years. It’s almost like geology or something. Like you have the top, which is like all my recent pieces, and then you go down, and I actually had in this drawer the pieces that I applied to Peabody with!
Thinking back to what 17-year-old Viet was proud of and thought was good to send off to a school to get into a composition program—well, my music’s improved a lot, I think. I’ve learned so much along the way, and I don’t know if 14-year-old Viet really had any idea what he was getting himself into. I don’t think he did. I think he knew that composers were living beings because he was in band. And that in itself was a big step. But I didn’t know the scope of what a composer can do. I didn’t know what chamber music was. I didn’t know the rep. I didn’t know who Prokofiev was. I didn’t know anyone who wrote aside from piano music or band music. I would’ve told him to buckle up. Get ready to learn a lot.“I don’t know if 14-year-old Viet really had any idea what he was getting himself into. … I think he knew that composers were living beings because he was in band.”
I feel like I’ll always be learning stuff. I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’ve learned everything there is to learn. I don’t think anyone could ever feel that way. I’ve gotten a lot more into orchestral music in the past five years. And that’s been really exciting too, because, I thought to myself that I’d be okay if my only large ensemble stuff was wind ensemble. They seemed to like performing my music, and I’ve always had really good experiences working with wind ensemble, and so I was like that’s fine. But somehow I’ve gotten more and more orchestral opportunities which has been really fun. And it’s also improved my writing for everything else. I think my writing for band has made my chamber music better. My writing for chamber music has made my band music better.
My writing chamber music has also made my orchestral writing more imaginative, and I think writing for orchestra opened up my ears to things I could try in band music as well. So like having Re(new)al be a chamber orchestra to full orchestra to band piece was so fun because what I was thinking of in a chamber orchestra setting, I wouldn’t necessarily have thought could work for orchestra. And then, the orchestra stuff has all this like glissando stuff that I had to find solutions to create in a band piece. I would have never thought that I could use four piccolos in a band piece, but I had to translate all these really high string harmonics into a band piece and so that was my solution.“It’s basically like a G-major chord, melting down to an F-sharp major chord, and then going back up.”
I’m really happy with how the last movement turned out in the band version. It’s basically like a G-major chord, melting down to an F-sharp major chord, and then going back up. It was just the idea of this big string triad that melts. It’s like melting in the sun. It melts down to an F-sharp major chord. It obviously didn’t have strings in the band version, but I brought it down an octave and put it in the trombones. Things like that I wouldn’t have thought of if I was just writing a band piece from the start. So everything kind of works together to make my music and all the different mediums more interesting.
AG: It’s so fun—like a game of Tetris or something.
VC: Yeah. I think by the time this interview will be published this will be announced… it seems like I’m going to be writing a short, little piece for the LA Phil to pair with Sousa. Apparently Gustavo Dudamel is a big fan of Sousa, so he’s commissioning composers to write these little pieces to pair with Sousa marches. I’ll probably turn that into a band piece. It’s almost like even before I’ve written it, it feels like a band piece in my head that’s going to become an orchestra piece and then goes back the other way. I think that’ll be a really interesting kind of experiment.
AG: Have fun!
VC: Yeah, it was the second time where one of these dream projects happened because of my experience in the band world. I was on the phone with the person at the LA Phil who oversees programming, and one of the first things she asked me on the phone was, can you tell me about your band music and what you’ve done with band? I remember thinking, “That’s interesting. Why is she asking me that?” But it also makes me feel like the stigma about band music is starting to melt away. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but it definitely feels like certain people look down upon wind ensemble music, like it’s not as serious as orchestral music or something. Or that if you write it, you’re not a serious concert music composer or something.
AG: Or that you’re only trying to make money.
VC: Oh yeah. That you just see dollar signs or something. I think all of it is frankly kind of ridiculous because of course there are composers who make money writing band music, but it’s not like I’m rich off of it. It’s not as simple as you just write a band piece and suddenly you are driving a Tesla. It was a lot of work to get my band music out there, to have people trust me in the band world, and to even know who I was. And it wasn’t just one piece. It’s been many pieces. It’s been ten years now of working in the band world. It’s all been worth it. It’s all been so fun. It’s all been music that I will present in a composition seminar alongside any of my other music for other mediums. It’s all me, just different instrumentation.
And you know what’s funny? When other composers meet me, I think a lot of times the first thing that comes to mind is band. Even though it’s this thing that I do alongside other things, or maybe just because it’s something that not all other composers do. Most composers who have been on the track that I’ve been on, going to school and everything, that I’ve met in school or summer festivals and things, they write chamber, solo, orchestral, electronic, that sort of stuff. But band seems to be less common. I think it’s changing. It seems like a thing that fewer people have tried. I encourage them to try it. Or if anyone ever is interested in writing a band piece, I’m always happy to connect them with a band director or someone I know who would be interested in trying it out. Because I think sometimes that’s just the barrier itself. It’s not a stigma, it’s just they don’t know anyone in the band world, and I’m lucky that I did.
AG: Well and it’s a great way to try out writing for a large ensemble. There are band directors who would be happy to read the piece through and send you a recording.
AG: Who does that? Orchestras don’t do that. Even university or college orchestras don’t normally do that. Sure, maybe they’ll read a chunk of a piece, but the whole thing? It’s the most wonderful learning opportunity.
AG: I’m glad that the distinction is melting.
VC: Me too. And I think even in the past ten years, so much has changed. In another ten years, who knows, maybe the Midwest Clinic might be a completely different experience, which would be so cool.
AG: You self-publish your band works?
VC: Yeah, it’s been a big learning experience over the years. This piece I wrote almost ten years ago, which was called Sound and Smoke, was the first band piece that kind of gradually caught on with band directors and wind ensembles. Through that piece, I learned how to publish myself. Because it’s not something you really learn in a school setting—at least, not when I was in school. I’m sure there are programs now that are doing it. But, I remember Googling things like how to staple in the middle of an 11 x 17 sheet. Oh! There’s a thing called a saddle stapler. Cool. And I remember Googling an 11 x 17 binding machine because for whatever reason, most office printing places (even though they have the same machine) don’t get the training on how to do it.“I remember Googling things like how to staple in the middle of an 11 x 17 sheet.”
And then okay, how do I set up an online store? I remember it was just PayPal for the longest time, and there are all these things that you learn along the way. Even things like: oh, this high school honor band is doing my piece, and they need a mechanical license because they’re going to sell CDs of the performance to the band parents as a keepsake. What is a mechanical license? All this stuff I’ve learned along the way. It’s been fun to learn, and also there are so many composers who are willing to share their tips on how to do it. Like John Mackey has always been very supportive and like an open book to me about most things.
AG: He’s very, very generous with his information.
VC: Yeah. And that’s been a big help. Even things like, this high school marching band wants to use my piece in their marching production this year. What does that mean? Do you charge for that? Because in a way they’re buying your music to perform, but it will be an arrangement. All these sorts of things that once you’ve been asked to do any of them, you have to figure out a solution or figure out how you want to approach it. So, it’s all been really fun, and it’s helped with my orchestra music, too. Not like the music itself, but how I distribute that and how to work with a librarian. It’s different, too.
AG: The rental process.
VC: Yeah. Band rentals work differently than orchestra rentals, which is something that I’ve learned as well. But even just having done rentals before, knowing what kind of envelope or box works best to ship a set of parts. That’s something you’ll eventually have to learn. And it’s been really good to learn all this stuff through the band publishing.
AG: What do you think the biggest challenge has been?
VC: Well, I had written this middle or high school piece for band called Diamond Tide. I remember for a couple years, it wasn’t really a piece anyone knew, but recently it got onto the Texas list. Even before it got on Texas, there was momentum building towards that with the piece, and I remember one week I got ten orders for it. For someone like John Mackey, ten sets is like whatever, but I was in school at the time. I was like: I have to go print ten sets and hand staple, and hand foId—I don’t even know—like hundreds of parts.
And it was hours. I was just sitting there like watching TV, folding parts before I stapled them. I was like: I need to figure out a way to do this better. So the biggest thing was getting orders out in a timely manner, because usually people don’t order music until they need it. And when they need it, they need it. Then also balancing my work at school with my composing schedule. Sean Murphy and Murphy Music Press is now my distributor. He’ll print and ship orders for me and that’s been a huge help.
If anyone reading this has any experience with making a set of orchestra parts, think about doing that ten times in a week. It’s a lot. So. Yeah. And the thing with that piece is it’s not a rental, so I didn’t have just a set sitting around. Some of my other band pieces are rentals. Usually for those, I’ve shipped enough now that I have some sets ready to go. But not with the ones that are sold.
AG: When you start having to put out that much volume, that’s a lot of work.
VC: Yeah, but now the piece is distributed through Sean, and it’s on this website J.W. Pepper, and most band directors have a vendor relationship with Pepper. Most of the time they order the music off there. An unfortunate part of outsourcing the work now is I don’t know how many people are ordering it. Or, I know how many, but I don’t know exactly who’s doing it. The sad part of when you aren’t doing everything yourself is you don’t oversee everything as closely as you used to. But I just don’t have time to do it. So it’s a trade-off.