Finale National Composition Contest Finalist: Nathan Shields

Photo by Hannah Shields

In February we announced the three finalists in the 2012 Finale National Composition Contest: Taylor Brook, Michelle Lou, and Nathan Shields. All three have subsequently written pieces for the JACK Quartet that will be workshopped and performed in New York, this Friday, September 14, 2012.

This week we’ll meet Nathan Shields, who is currently a CV Starr Doctoral Fellow at the Juilliard School.

Scott Yoho: How did you get started in composition?

Nathan Shields: I started playing the cello very young, and I was a very undisciplined cellist. Usually, when I should have been practicing etudes and scales or working on the piece I was supposedly learning, I would find myself noodling around and improvising instead.

It never really occurred to me, back then, that this was something that you could actually do, that you could make up music yourself as opposed to relying on somebody else to provide it. I thought of my improvisation as simply a kind of idle musical daydreaming. But at some point I realized, or maybe someone pointed out to me, that in fact you can do this for a living. You can write this music down.

I was entranced by the idea, so I started to put my music down on paper, and to take composition lessons. Of course, for years it was dreadful, but gradually it got better, I hope.

SY: So the results were dreadful or the instruction was dreadful or both?

NS: No, the instruction was great. The results were dreadful. But you have to start somewhere.

SY: Were there educators that were particularly influential or were there musical role models –

NS: Absolutely—too many to do justice to, probably. The first person that I studied composition with in a real way was Barbara Mallow, my cello teacher when I was in high school, who is a remarkable woman and a fabulous cellist. She had been a serious composer herself as a young woman, had studied with Martinu and with Nadia Boulanger, and though I took cello lessons with her for several years, I think it became clearer and clearer to her that what I really loved was composing and improvising. I think it was she who first proposed to teach me composition, and I have an enormous debt of gratitude to her for that.

Later on I went to New England Conservatory in Boston, where I studied with Lee Hyla, a fantastic composer and a person of remarkable musical and intellectual integrity. He introduced me to an incredibly wide range of music, and was probably more important than anyone else in shaping who I became as a composer.

As a graduate student at Juilliard I was lucky enough to work with Milton Babbitt—I was one of his last students, I think. Those lessons are something I really cherish. I remember being quite intimidated going into my first meeting with him; you hear all these stories about the bad old men of modernism, and a good number of older composers seem to feel that Milton and others like him forced serialism down their throats. My experience couldn’t have been further from this. I’m not a serial composer and never have been, but he was always extraordinarily supportive of my work, really believed in what I did; and he had this astonishingly wide body of knowledge and, even in his nineties, a razor-sharp intellect that cut to the heart of all the music we discussed, whether it was mine or Cole Porter’s.

And finally, Sam Adler, who took me on after Milton retired, is a truly wonderful  teacher and, I am convinced, one of the all-time great mensches of the classical music world; I don’t think I’ve ever met a teacher who cares more deeply and genuinely about their students than Sam does.

SY: When you compose today, do you reach for the computer or the manuscript paper first?

NS: I reach for manuscript paper, partly because I like to be able to shape my thoughts entirely of my own accord without having to worry about what a computer program wants me to do or not do, and partly for the simple reason of expedience. If you have a notebook and a pencil, you can write your ideas down wherever you are, whenever they come to you. Though if you carry manuscript paper and a pencil around with you everywhere, people tend to think that you’re a bit odd, for some reason.

So I compose the whole piece by hand, in my indecipherable chicken-scratch, then put it into Finale and make it look pretty. It’s a very inefficient process.

SY: What do you like about Finale?

NS: The amount of control you have over the appearance of your score, over even the smallest details of it, is to me extremely important, probably because I’m a bit of a control freak as a composer. Everything has to look exactly how I want it to look or I won’t be happy. I feel that, with time and care, Finale has the power and flexibility to let you do exactly what you want to do, at least once you really know how to use it.

SY: Maybe you could talk a little bit about your reaction to discovering you were a finalist. Did you have a piece in mind or was it like, “Oh, crap, now I have to write something?”

NS: Definitely “Oh, crap, now I have to write something.” I was in the midst of finishing up a huge piece for mezzo-soprano and orchestra that I’d been working on for the past two years, and my mind was still very much in the quasi-operatic world of that piece. So I had to finish it and then very quickly shift gears—for me, at least, when I’m working on orchestral music I’m in a very different headspace than when I’m working on chamber music, and it generally takes some time to make the adjustment. With this piece I didn’t have that luxury.

But I was also thrilled, because getting to write a piece for Jack is a pretty amazing opportunity. The performers you’re writing for—their musical personalities, their capabilities—can be a big source of inspiration in and of themselves, and that’s a large part of what got me going on this piece. You don’t often get to write a piece without having to constantly balance practical concerns against your musical desires; and of course that’s always going to be necessary to some extent. But writing for the Jack Quartet is a bit like being a kid in a candy shop, because you know that if what you’re doing is feasible they can play it.

SY: Can you tell me a little about the piece you’ve written for the Jack Quartet?

NS: This piece was unusual for me, in that I actually started with the climax. I’m normally very much a beginning-to-end kind of guy. I had just finished the big orchestral piece, and felt pretty “composed out,” so I was trying to find sources of inspiration for the quartet. To write the beginning of a piece can be one of the most difficult things, because you’re trying to create a world, in some ways, and to set the stage for everything that’s going to happen later.

So with this quartet I thought, well, maybe I’ll start with what’s going to happen. Maybe I can start with the crux of the piece, where everything draws together and moves toward a point of apotheosis, and then work back from there; and then I’ll try and figure out what initial sounds, what sort of world, this could emerge from. What I ended up composing first, then, was material very near the high point of the piece, where all of its different thematic ideas have already proliferated and become distinct.

I’ve always felt that everything that’s going to happen in a piece is in some sense already implicit in the beginning. This sounds I suppose like a very traditional, early-modernist way of looking at things, but what I have in mind is somewhat looser—not that you need to lay out all of your thematic or motivic materials right at the start of a piece, but simply that there is a certain mood that you conjure up in the beginning, of which everything else has to be a potential consequence. You have to be able to get there from here.

As I searched for this beginning, I found myself grasping towards something that was of an extraordinary contrast with the close of the piece—something murmuring, rapt, and really mysterious. And this was, I think, the key that unlocked the rest of the piece for me: creating a sense of mystery in which there is so much that can potentially arise; and then tracking the growth and proliferation of a whole musical world from this. . . I don’t want to say nucleus. Rather from a kind of energy—an electric, powerful, but subdued sense of expectation at the opening.

Well, I’m intrigued. I’m looking forward to hearing the music of all three finalists, and I plan to share details and results of the September 14 performances very soon.

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