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The Composers


The Composers
UMaine student musicians put their own spin on sounds

About the Photo: Clockwise from upper left: Robinson Marks, Philip Trembley, Sara Richardson and Seth Morton

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Some of them hear our world differently. Others just communicate most effectively through notes. The best know instinctively that they can build a better mousetrap.

They all think outside the box.

The result: inventions with the potential to add to the repertoire.

Composer Beth Wiemann knows these enterprising students well. If serious student composers are at the University of Maine, they eventually end up at her office door in the School of Performing Arts, armed with a portfolio of compositions and arrangements that they started in high school or completed in the beginning of their college careers.

These are the students "predispositioned" to putting their own spin on sounds.

"Some are naturally drawn to playing with noise," says Wiemann, a UMaine associate professor of music who offers advanced courses in composition for students with portfolios. "Composing is having fun with sound."

For other music students, Wiemann also teaches a general music composition course in which each has to write a woodwind solo, a song and a chamber work for more than two instruments. Students also have to develop an electronic piece from sounds that they record and modify themselves.

The bottom line is how to effectively communicate through music.

Composing and performing are not always symbiotic. Typically, performers interpret the music on the page. Seeing and hearing music often triggers a different response in composers.

Wiemann remembers being a junior high school student contemplating becoming a singer/songwriter until she found herself in the choir and thinking, "Some of this music doesn't work and I can do better."
Many a composer starts just that way.

In any given year, Wiemann has three or four student composers who come to UMaine with portfolios and a desire to perfect their passion with her mentoring and the advice of other School of Performing Arts faculty. Each comes with different skills, educational needs and repertoire.
Wiemann mentors one-on-one, com-poser to composer.

"I respond to what they do, suggesting ways to make (the music) clearer and better for the performers," Wiemann says. "They have to write with the goal of satisfying the performers, the audience and themselves. For instance, if they're writing music to portray a certain mood, they need to be sure the performers are getting that off the page and can then get that across to the audience."

Some student composers Wiemann has taught have gone on to careers in music. They include Juraj Kojs, who was introduced to electronic music studying with Wiemann and who is now completing a doctorate in composition and music technologies at the University of Virginia.

For other young composers, writing music remains a preoccupation.

It's hard to predict how much composing will be part of a student's life once he or she graduates, Wiemann says. Few composers make a living at writing. They arrange, teach, perform. Often composing is what they do on the side.

Not all student composers are music majors. But if Wiemann mentors them, they are serious about fine-tuning their art.

Student composers' works debut on campus in UMaine musical ensemble performances. This spring, a student composers' concert featured new and original works by artists that included junior Sara Richardson and seniors Philip Trembley, Seth Morton and Robinson Marks.

The musical styles varied widely. The works were short, no longer than eight minutes. One or two of the pieces brought to mind works by established artists.

"Young composers have been inspired by various people and that's OK," says Wiemann. "Part of this has to do with learning as they're doing.

"It doesn't matter that it's all new. The minute the piece is finished, it's not new anymore any way."

Success is "getting pieces off the ground." The composers cross their fingers that the new media technology in the electronic pieces doesn't glitch and the performers don't look at the music and say it's too difficult or unworkable for their instruments.

It's a "grounding" experience for any composer.

"For some of them, this is a way of communicating, contributing and making connections with colleagues, with faculty members and performers of their music," says Wiemann. "Getting people to play the pieces and writing for pre-established ensembles are the basic ways composers interact with the musical world."

Philip Trembley is a percussionist and a composer. But ne'er the twain meet.

He is passionate about percussion because of its diversity, versatility and challenge. Percussion instruments from timpani, tambourine and triangle to marimba and vibraphone provide "a full spectrum of sound." A percussion performance is as exciting to hear as it is to watch.

"You have to practice 10 times more because of the different instruments and their respective techniques," says Trembley, a fourth-year music major who came to UMaine from Newport, Vt., to study with percussionist and Professor of Music Stuart Marrs. "I spend time learning to play rather than composing for it."

When it's mood and emotion he wants to evoke, Trembley prefers to compose for other instruments.

"It's hard to get emotions out through percussion instruments," Trembley says. "It's always good to walk out of a concert hall having heard a piece that sounds cool, but it's a whole other thing to hear a work that moves you to tears or makes you think. That's the kind of music I'm drawn to personally and what influences my compositional style."

Trembley, whose influences include composers such as Philip Glass, Rachmaninoff, James Horner and Ihsahn, who founded the Norwegian black metal band Emperor, writes most in the 20th-century contemporary classical genre, but also actively performs and composes within the underground rock and metal genres.

"My compositions tend to be on the darker side," Trembley admits. "I'm more attracted to darker sounds, which is why in percussion I'm drawn to timpani the most. If you hear one of my pieces, chances are you'll hear it in a minor as opposed to a major key."

For Trembley, composing often begins by making two decisions: the mood to convey and instruments to use.

"I like to play the melody in my head, starting on piano. Then I switch through brass and woodwind and strings, hearing what strikes me as the best sound for this particular melody. The best part is I can do this while driving or walking to class."

The piano was the instrument that started Trembley in music. When he was 7, his mother suggested piano lessons as "an important part of growing up."

"I didn't agree then, but I do now," he says.

From piano, Trembley moved to the saxophone and other instruments. But at 12, he informed his parents he wanted to be a drummer.

Then as a high school junior, Trembley took a course in the use of Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) and wrote his first compositions. In Terrorem for string quartet was performed in Vermont as part of the MIDI project. One of his favorite compositions is a work for brass quintet called The Alarum, depicting the heat of battle.

When he graduates next year, Trembley plans to attend graduate school to pursue his other passion digital recording. His goal is a career that would allow him to be a freelance performer, composer and recording engineer.

"I'm particularly interested in the technology behind recording. It's great as a composer to come up with an idea, record it and be able to change this or that. It's all connected."

When Seth Morton enrolled at the University of Maine in 2002, he was torn between two passions. He majored in music his first year, then "chemistry won out." Sort of.

"I can't imagine not doing music," says the fifth-year senior chemistry major from Lewiston, Maine, "but I decided I was more interested in writing stuff so others could sound really good. I'm not a soloist. I have a band sound. It's like how some choral performers sound better in a group than by themselves."

Morton is a tuba player in four UMaine music groups the Pep, Marching and Symphonic bands, and the Brass Ensemble. At UMaine athletic events, the Pep and Marching bands have performed nearly 30 of his musical arrangements.

Last November, the 63-piece Symphonic Band debuted his original composition, The Passing of the Torch, a work depicting the setting of the sun and rising of the moon that took him a year to perfect.

"The Passing of the Torch is my favorite because I put so much into it," Morton says. "It also was outside of the box for me. In the words of Beth Wiemann, I'm usually very conservative when it comes to composing: I like to stay in one key, maintain a very simple chord structure and stay with things I know. With "The Passing of the Torch," I tried to move away from that and get out of my comfort zone. What I wrote is a very difficult piece. I put it in a key with a lot of flats and intentionally wrote hard parts for effect. I wanted it to be challenging and fun for the band, and exciting for the listener. I want it to produce goose bumps."

Morton has been composing and arranging music since ninth grade, about the time he turned from his sax to a piano. "I'd practice," Morton says, "but not what I was supposed to. Instead of classical pieces, I'd usually make up things. I was listening a lot to Jim Brickman at the time, playing in his style."

One day he asked his school's band director to let him borrow a tuba for a week. With the help of one of his uncles, Morton learned to play it in that time. The tuba quickly became his favorite instrument because it has "the lowest voice in the band."

"It's got a very dark sound and a huge range for a brass instrument," Morton says.

In his junior and senior years in high school, Morton did an arrangement of Amazing Grace for the school chorus and wrote A New Day on Saturn, an original composition, for the band. They were his first large works incorporating more than one texture or instrument.

For Morton, composing and arranging is a colorful process.

"I visualize my music just as I do chemical structures," he says. "Both have color. Different chemical compounds I assign different colors depending on what's in them or what they do. In music, there are colors in my head depending on the mood or key or style."

Following graduation this spring, Morton is headed to graduate school. But again, he's torn between fields of study chemistry and nuclear engineering.

His goal is to one day teach general chemistry at the college level. And to get some of his arrangements and original compositions published.

"Musically, my goal is to have some band call me and say they really like my stuff. Even if it's an elementary school band. In fact, I would like to write elementary band music because there's just not that much good stuff out there. It's like drawing rainbows with three colors instead of a box of 64 colors."

Sara Richardson knows the million-to-one odds that a young artist can make it as a singer and composer.

She just doesn't see any reason she can't be that one in a million.

"From my dad, I learned that anything is achievable," says Richardson of her biggest musical influence, who is a pianist and singer. "Both my parents are huge supporters, making it easier to believe."

Richardson has been singing all her life, but it wasn't until her junior year in high school that she really found her voice.

"Before I got a lead in a play, I'd been an extra all my life," She says. "I started taking singing lessons to keep up my voice for the show and that's when my teacher said I've got something."

Richardson studied music at Wheaton College for one semester before transferring in 2005 to UMaine, closer to her Washington, Maine home.

Richardson's first original composition was performed in public last winter.

The piece, Untitled, which she performed on piano accompanied by two of her friends, was written after a relationship breakup. The new music took her five minutes to compose.

"It's kind of beyond my control," says Richardson of the process of writing music. "I don't necessarily think of it as a conscious effort. Usually, I get a feeling that I have to write a song, and I go find the chords on the guitar.

"I find I can only write the words after I've found the music," she says.

"Music is a language in itself. Once I find what I want to express in musical notes, I can back it up with the lyrical elements."

Richardson is a soprano in the folk/Indie tradition whose music is as thoughtful as it is optimistic and sometimes whimsical.

"I see life as something we shouldn't waste trying to figure out. There's energy wasted being confused and depressed," says the junior majoring in music. "I hope listeners feel at peace with my music. I hope it allows them permission to relax and a chance to take a deep breath."

When she graduates next year, Richardson is bound for Boston or New York City. She hopes to perform and find a record label.

"Music has an important role in my life. I've come to terms with that fact that it's my first love. I would not be complete without it. It's something I know I'm supposed to live for."

Ten years from now, Richardson says with a laugh that she hopes to be picking out a dress to wear down the red carpet at the Grammy Awards ceremony, or deciding what song to perform at the Lincoln Center at the honorary concert of her idol, Joni Mitchell.

"We all have control of our own destinies," Richardson says. "My contribution would be living proof that if want to, you can be anything ever want. Absolutely."

Even though music has always been part of Robinson Marks' life, his quest to find his place in it and finally appreciate its depth and breadth took a circuitous route.

The California native grew up hearing classical music recordings and his dad's stories of being a rock drummer. But it wasn't until Marks was a member of a church choir for five years beginning at age 7 that he got his first "rigorous immersion" into powerful musical performance.

In instruments, Marks first took up the trumpet in grade school. In high school he got a guitar from his father which he started to play more and more. Later, piano and drums.

In high school in Orono, Maine, he formed a rock band, Husqvarna, that performed some jazzy fusion that "was like James Brown and Hermann Melville together in the same room" Marks also started writing.

Marks studied at McGill University for three semesters. Afterwards he joined a band named Shoot the Piano Player and played drums. When the power-pop-styled group relocated to New York City, Marks studied at the Institute of Audio Research in Greenwich Village for a year.

"I was learning about recording music and the different techniques that influence the ways music comes out of the speakers," says Marks. "But I came to realize that I wanted to delve more into the purely musical side of things. That's when I came back to Maine to finish the degree I started in Montreal."

Since enrolling at UMaine in 2004, Marks says, "I've been exposed to a huge variety of music. Sometimes it feels daunting as a composer, trying to assimilate all that, but really I like all the variety too." On any given night at his part-time job as a dishwasher in a local cafe, Marks is listening to rock by My Morning Jacket, the music of Steve Reich's ensemble, songs by Beach Boy Brian Wilson and melodies of Raymond Scott, which were adapted to countless Warner Brothers cartoons.

"I like the idea of doing a lot with a little," says the senior music major. "Some might call this minimalist, but really the idea is at work in all sorts of music-- not only some classical--folk, hip hop, and of course pop music does that too. Recently I've been interested in emulating Steve Reich's music, and also Bartok's to some degree. The concept makes sense to me especially because I'm not super virtuosic at any one instrument."

For a student composers' concert on campus, Marks contributed an electronic piece for keyboard. He's thinking about writing a work for a jazz combo. And he plans to compose a trio for piano, cello and violin, the instruments his mother and two brothers play.

"My musical inspiration has come from different composers, bands and music teachers. But a fundamental influence was my dad. I'd be playing drums with him, and he was always saying to keep it simple, to stop doing crazy drum fills and keep the beat solid."

by Margaret Nagle
May-June, 2007

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