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Robert Paterson Interview

Posted on 26 February 2013. © Copyright 2004-2020 Composition:Today

C:T talks to Robert Paterson, composer, percussionist and artistic director of the American Modern Ensemble.

Robert Paterson

Tell us something about your background.

I am a composer and live in New York City. I also conduct and play percussion - mostly marimba, and with six mallets - but I definitely spend most of my life composing. I am also the artistic director of the American Modern Ensemble. I currently don't teach during the year, although I did, for many years, and might again someday, if the right opportunity arises. I make my living as a composer, and via "composer-related activities."

How did you start composing?

I began composing when I was thirteen. I was playing percussion in an ad-hoc percussion quartet at my school in Buffalo, NY, and we didn't have anything to play, so the other percussionists and I decided that I would go home that week and write something. Once my parents figured out what I was up to, they suggested I take composition lessons, so I began studying with William Ortiz, a Puerto Rican composer who was a graduate student at SUNY Buffalo at the time.

What drives your work, what are you passions?

The four ancient elements - earth, air, fire and water - have provided programmatic underpinning for many of my works. Other ideas that inspire me range from environmental sounds or sounds derived from nature-thunderstorms, wind, rain, the ocean, for example - to scientific or technological ideas, such as robots or space travel. Icons also interest me; for example, Thomas Edison provided programmatic inspiration for my Sonata for Bassoon and Piano. My Sextet was inspired by a criminal on the run on iconic Route 66 out west in America.

I am also obsessed with resonance, and bell sounds in particular, but also with creating works that have a strong sense of form. I am also obsessed with harmony, but that's mainly because I feel like I have to overcompensate for being a percussionist! As a kid, I grew up playing drums in rock bands, and I was certainly not steeped in harmony, although I did take piano lessons for many years. It was more about rhythm and sometimes melody.

Lately, I have been obsessed with vocal music, whether operas, choral music, or chamber music with voice. I spent so many years exclusively writing chamber music that once I began writing for singers, I became addicted.

Tell us something about your working method as a composer. Give us something that might be or might have been a starting point for a piece.

I generally begin with a concept, or even a title for a work, and then work from there. For example, I am working on a song cycle right now entitled CAPTCHA, based on CAPTCHA texts (those little phrases you type in online forms to prove you are human). Perhaps strangely, I often draft program notes for a piece even before I begin composing the music, which is a little bit like putting the cart before the horse. So right now, even though I am still in the process of writing CAPTCHA, most of the program note is complete. I almost always sketch by hand first, with pencil and paper, and then input the final score with Finale. Some composers will probably consider this a bit old school, but I like the process of working with paper, at least initially.

After I have a concept or title, I work from top to bottom: large-scale structure and issues first, smaller details as I progress. I might come up with a form first, at least in a loose sense, and then begin writing the piece. I almost never wed myself to a form; I like to leave myself room while composing to go in another direction if everything is progressing differently than I originally anticipated.

One aspect of composing I am obsessed with is thinking through my works in real time, to make sure the form is compelling from beginning to end. I hate dead time in anyone's work, where your mind begins to wander more than it should, so I try to prevent that as much as possible in my own work.

Which non-musical influences have affected your music most?

Other than what I mentioned earlier, I am also inspired by visual art, and recently, more provocative subjects, particularly with one of the operas I am working on. My tastes are quite broad, so sometimes inspiration is derived from the musicians I am working with, current events, or even literature, particularly with regard to vocal music.

What is your musical philosophy?

More than a musical philosophy, I think of it more like a mission: I really want people to feel engaged when listening to my music, and to feel like it resonates with them. My goal is to always write music that is compelling on the surface, but also interesting to look at under the hood, so to speak.

Who has been the greatest influence on your musical style to date and why?

It is really difficult to single out just one composer who has been influential. But if I had to name a few, they would include many of my teachers-Christopher Rouse, Steven Stucky, Roberto Sierra, Joseph Schwanter, Samuel Adler, Aaron Kernis, for example-but also Steve Reich, John Adams, John Cage, Ligeti, Bartok, J.S. Bach, Stravinsky-some of the typical composers many composers mention as influences. I think if I had to pick one, it might be Christopher Rouse, in terms of scope, timbral color, instrumental virtuosity, breadth of compositional voice, and how he embodies humanity in his music. But really, I am a polyglot when it comes to compositional influences, so there are probably many influences in almost every work I have written, but hopefully the finally result sounds like me.

What advice would you give to a young composer just starting out?

Be rigorous in how you approach composition. Do not take the easy way out. Write from your heart. Be yourself. Always think through your music in real time. Always be a good citizen and supportive of your peers. Always begin conversations with performers and other composers by seeing it from their perspective first. This is the single biggest mistake young composers—and in fact, most composers in general—make, is that they only think of themselves. Of course, you will always have your interests in mind, but remember: everything is a team effort, unless you hole up in a shack and write for computers, then I guess you can get away with only thinking of yourself.

What's the strangest idea for a piece you've ever had?

There are so many! I'm a pretty weird guy. I think some of the pieces I'm working on right now are quite odd: CAPTCHA, for example, but there's also within a recent piece I wrote entitled for Duo Scorpio entitled Scorpion Tales, one of the movements is about a hot pepper. Then there are the pieces I want to write, but haven't found a commission for yet. I would love to write a piece for orchestra and chorus about death and the L.A. Freeway in California. That's pretty strange, I think.

Which work are you most proud of and why?

I am proud of all of my works, for different reasons, but I think a recent, completed work I am particularly proud of is A New Eaarth, for orchestra, chorus and narrator. It's a thirty-five minute work, and is meant to bring attention to climate change, something that as a vegan and environmentalist at heart, I am incredibly passionate about. It was an ambitious project but went extremely well, so now we are shopping it around to try and secure more performances.

Tell us about American Modern Ensemble. What are your ambitions for the group and what drove you to set it up

The American Modern Ensemble is a chamber ensemble with a core group of over twenty-five musicians. We program thematic and instrumentation based concerts of works by American composers (North, Central and South America). I initially formed the group because at the time, I wasn't receiving as many performances of my chamber works in New York City as I would have liked, so I figured I would form my own ensemble to accomplish that. I also wanted to support my peers and composers I believed in, and present works by living American composers, particularly those that few people know about, but who are excellent. That has been one of my favorite aspects of AME: that we have opportunities to expose people to composers and works they've never heard of.

Tell us about the Rocky Ridge Music Center, where you are composer-in-residence.

The Rocky Ridge Music Center is a summer program for instrumentalists and composers. I am head of the composition program that is part of the Young Artist Seminar, which is for composers ages 15-24. RRMC is located in the heart of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, near Estes Park. We are very excited because beginning this summer, we are expanding the program, adding new facilities for composers, as well as master classes, seminars and performances by RockME, the new music ensemble in residence. It's really a fantastic opportunity, and you really couldn't find a more beautiful place to spend a summer making music. We also have an assistant spot for a talented, emerging composer. There are more details on their site. Anyway, I hope composers who think this would be fun will check it out.

What does the future hold for you?

The two largest projects I am working on right now are two operas, currently in the development stage. One is entitled Invisible Child, an opera in two acts, the other is entitled Three Way, and is a trio of one-act operas. I am also working on a commission for the Albany Symphony, and a consortium commission for a new wind ensemble work entitled Firecracker Alley.

In chamber music land, I am working on a small, birthday piece for Ensemble Aleph in Paris. It is their 30th anniversary, so they invited a whole bunch of composers from around the world to write birthday pieces that are thirty-seconds long. My piece is entitled Shard. At only thirty-seconds (hence the name "Shard"), I'll be looking for a commission to expand that into a full-length chamber piece, so if anyone is interested, definitely let me know.

Please list anywhere online where your work can be experienced

People can find out more about me on my site,, and also via Bill Holab Music, where you can find my sheet music. Many of my albums are available from American Modern Recordings (AMR), and also on Amazon, iTunes, and everywhere digital downloads are sold.

Please list any useful resouces/links

I think Composition Today is a particularly useful site. I also find NewMusicBox it's affiliated sites quite interesting.

Interview by Composition:Today © Copyright 2004-2020

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