Finale National Composition Contest Finalist: Taylor Brook

Taylor Brook photo by Mira Benjamin

In February we announced the three finalists in the 2012 Finale National Composition Contest: Taylor Brook, Michelle Lou, and Nathan Shields. Their pieces will be workshopped and performed by the JACK Quartet, in New York City, on Friday, September 14, 2012, after which the contest winner will be announced.

This week we’ll meet the first of these composers, Taylor Brook. Taylor is a student at Columbia University in New York City. Learn more at his website and by reading our interview below.

Scott Yoho: How did you get started in composition?

Taylor Brook: I started getting serious about music when I was a teenager. I got into playing the guitar and I wanted to play in bands. I began writing music for whatever group I was playing in. It developed from there, because I didn’t much like performing: I preferred the writing part.

SY: Did you work with notation when you were writing for your teenaged rock bands, or did that come later?

TB: Notation was a part of it from the beginning. At first it was just coming up with a few little riffs for everyone to improvise on, or something like that. It quickly became more and more about notation.

SY: Today do you compose via software?

TB: I always write on paper first, and then I only use, really, Finale for final scores. I’ve never composed directly onto Finale. It’s always been after writing the first or second sketch.

SY: Do you compose at an instrument or is it all just on the page and in your mind?

TB: I compose mostly on the page and imagination; though, if there is an instrument that I can play in the group, I’ll usually try out the part. But, that will be after. It won’t be playing and then writing down what I just played and back and forth. It will be a way to check afterwards.

SY: Has that always been your work flow or did that come with study?

TB: For a long time that’s been my work flow, yeah. I find it too distracting to have an instrument in front of me.

Scott: Were there role models or were there particularly influential people that helped guide you towards contemporary classical music?

TB: Yes, definitely. I’d say the very earliest was James Tenney. He was never a teacher or anything. I was good friends with his daughter in Toronto. From hanging out with her and meeting him, I realized that the music existed.

Then, during my undergrad and master’s (at McGill University in Montreal) my main teacher was Brian Cherney, and his music has been super influential. I’d say he’s been the most influential teacher for a number of reasons. I studied with him for so long; maybe three or four years of composition lessons.

SY: What other composers have been largely influential to you?

TB: One that hopefully I’ll be studying with soon is Georg Friedrich Haas, the Austrian composer. Recently I’ve been studying with George Lewis, and I’ve found his ideas in music quite influential. For older influences, there were times when I definitely followed Ligeti and La Monte Young fairly intensely.

SY: You mentioned you’ve completed your contest piece. What can you tell me about it?

TB: It’s called Arrhythmia. Arrhythmia is heart murmurs, basically, irregular heartbeats. It’s a musical reference, first of all, because the irregularity in the beat, of the pulse. Then also, it’s a reference to Mahler who had heart murmurs and died young as a result of a weak heart. He had arrhythmia.

The connection with Mahler is that this piece is based on the first movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. It’s part of a theme that I sometimes do in my works where I try to reimagine pieces of the musical canon. I did a piece that was based on Schoenberg’s “Farben” from the Five Pieces for Orchestra. With that piece and with this piece, it’s a kind of a reimagining. It’s maybe what the composer might have done if they were writing today using the same materials, but a completely different piece.

So I look at things like how harmony is being used, how motives are being used, things about texture, affect, and to completely saturate the new work with ideas from the other work, but the connection is not super obvious, because you don’t actually hear that many quotations or anything like that.

SY: Your website mentions a propensity for microtonal writing – are there elements of that in this piece

TB: Yes. I always come at harmony from a just intonation point of view, extended just intonation.

SY: Do you notate that?

TB: Yeah, I use 12th tones, that’s the approximation I use. So that’s 1/6 of a semitone. So it’s very finicky, precise notation. This is a specialty of the Jack Quartet, just intonation. They’re very comfortable with just notation. They use a different notation system than I use, but I have good argument to why I like mine, so, I’m sure they’ll understand. Basically, in their system, your root note needs to be one of equal tempered pitches, one of the piano notes. And in my system, you can have the root of a chord be a quarter tone between notes and it doesn’t make the notation really, really difficult.

I think that’s boring stuff. I notate the precise microtonal thing. And also, the “C” strings of the viola and the cello are retuned: They’re both tuned 1/6 of the tone flat, which means that that “C” is slightly flat, which makes it the seventh partial of the “D” string, the open “D” string. So I make use of that. At the end of the piece, the cello retunes again, but. . .

SY: You have a different system of sharps and flats to indicate the microtonality. Is that something that you conjure up in Finale?

TB: Yes. I have a font called Accidentals, and Finale makes it pretty easy to use the font. In the Document Options you set that font. And then what I do is I set the double sharps and double flats as quarter tones and then the parenthesis as sixth of tones. If I want to do the twelfth of tones I have to do that manually, but it’s fairly easy. It’s a whole extra bit of work on a score, but it’s not that bad. Finale makes it pretty easy.

SY: What do you see as some of the greatest strengths of Finale?

TB: I like how finely you can manipulate things. You can really go into the program, change every font, control how expressions lock. You can get a very, very high level of control. It doesn’t have one answer for everyone, a “you can’t change it” thing. You can really individualize how your scores look.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. I want to wish Taylor, as well as the other two finalists, the very best in the upcoming contest reading sessions this September.

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