Meet composer Isaac Roth Blumfield. Isaac is a five-time first-place winner of Minnesota Music Educators Association composition awards, an MMEA Composer of the Year, and a three-time Schubert Club Composer Mentorship participant. He’s also a student at Central High School, in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Isaac and I spoke recently about his music, inspiration, plans, and Finale use.
Scott Yoho: What was your introduction to composition?
Isaac Roth Blumfield: I first started writing little ideas I had down around third grade. Back then, I just wrote things by hand, but didn’t really imagine sitting down and writing a whole piece. Then, in fourth grade, my band director, Maggie Burton, introduced me and a few other kids to Finale. Suddenly, the idea of writing a real piece of music wasn’t nearly as daunting. After messing around with the program for a few months, I wrote a little piece called “Chamber Sonata” for my school band. I didn’t really know much about music theory at that point, but using MIDI playback, I more or less wrote the piece by ear. Our director did the parts and, to my delight, had the band perform the piece. That experience, of my classmates performing my own music, totally turned me on to how fantastic being a composer could be.
SY: How would you describe your compositional style?
IRB: I’m hesitant to name any specific genre of contemporary classical music to identify with, mostly because I’m still right in the beginning of my compositional life and am still trying on different styles. My biggest influences, though, are probably mid-20th-century American composers, like Copland, Schuman, and Bernstein, and contemporary Americans, some of whom are often dubbed neo-romantics like Corigliano, Rouse, and Kernis, as well as so-called minimalists like Reich, Glass, and the whole Bang-on-a-Can type of sound. A lot of what I focus on in my music is the tone that I’m conveying. I try to use my rhythmic and tonal language in a fresh, almost informal way. I figure, if I’m only 18, my music should have the same young energy that I do!
SY: What is your creative process today? Do you sketch on paper first?
IRB: Generally, I like to think big picture at first, and have a concept and direction for the piece before I begin writing it. It’s good to know whether it will be multi-movement, what the mood will be, what forms I’ll use, etc.
Once it comes to the actual writing, I start sketching in total abstract. I write down little phrases I like, any idea I have, and just collect material and concepts before I start to organize. Recently, I’ve started sketching on paper first. It’s a bit more challenging, because all of the sounds are only in my imagination, but it definitely is helpful in terms of being able to think outside the box. Often I’ve found that there’s some crazy notation thing I want to do that I wouldn’t think of while I’m actually at the computer.
However, once it comes time to engrave the music, Finale is totally able to notate anything easily, which is extremely helpful. I use Finale for all of my engraving, and use Human Playback a lot as well to give me a more precise and accurate of how it will sound.
SY: What do you like about Finale?
IRB: One of the main reasons that I use Finale is simply how beautiful and clear the music looks. It looks very professional and straightforward. I also love how easy it is to use and how flexible it is. Like many contemporary composers, I like to use somewhat unconventional notational practices from time to time, and Finale lets me do that easily. Another great benefit is having wonderful MIDI Human Playback recordings of pieces. While nothing beats working with musicians, Finale does a pretty incredible job of rendering life-like, extremely usable recordings, which is a huge help.
SY: Have a Finale tip to share?
IRB: One of my favorite things to do in Finale is to set the Human Playback channels to instruments other than what I’m writing for in order to hear the piece in a new way. I’ve found this is especially helpful for choral music, or anything where all parts have similar tone qualities, in order to differentiate the parts. It’s a fun way to hear different textures and view your work from a new angle.
SY: I understand you recently completed six weeks studying under Sam Adler, former professor of composition at Juilliard. How did that come about? Can you tell us what it was like?
IRB: I studied with Dr. Adler through the summer composition course at Freie Universität Berlin. I met with Dr. Adler for the first time last October, and he told me about the program. I applied, and I ended up being lucky enough to participate.
It was pretty surreal to have the chance to study with such a legend. I mean, this is a composer who studied with Copland, Hindemith, and Koussevitsky, etc., knew Bernstein, and wrote one of the most ubiquitous music textbooks, “The Study of Orchestration.” Having him look at my work felt like a dream come true.
One of the most inspiring things about Dr. Adler as a teacher was how remarkably invested he was in our works. Whenever I brought in music I’d written, he would go through it carefully, checking every single note and detail to make sure that it was correct. Even in busy, chromatic contrapuntal sections, he still paid amazing attention to harmony and texture. He has an amazing ear and incredible knowledge of all things musical. Most of all, he is really dedicated to making his students the best composers they can be.
SY: What are you working on now?
IRB: I just finished editing and preparing parts for an orchestral piece, “Open City,” which will be premiered by the St. Paul Central Orchestra this December. I’m writing a choral setting of “Before the Summer Rain,” a Rilke poem, for the choir that I sing in, the Central Chamber Singers. I’m also working on a viola sonata for one of my friends from school, and a horn trio that will be premiered by Melange a Trois next April as a part of the Schubert Club Composer Mentorship program.
SY: What plans to you have for the near and distant future?
IRB: I’m currently in the process of applying for college. Wherever I go, I’m planning on being a composition major, and after that, most likely graduate school for composition. I’m trying to leave a lot of options open though. I also sing and play piano, so hopefully I’ll be able to incorporate those somehow into what I do. I also took a conducting class recently and loved that, as well, and I’m a total music theory nerd, too. I’m not totally sure what combination of those I’ll end up doing professionally, so for right now, I’m trying to learn as much as I can about all facets of music, and leave a lot of doors open.
I’d like to thank Isaac for sharing his time with us and I’d like to wish him the best of luck in his application process. I like concluding our interview with his open door metaphor, as think of Finale as an open door that can lead us anywhere.
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