top of page

music/Maker with Tyler Kline

  • Writer's pictureTyler Kline

music/Maker with Tyler Kline // Episode 2

Updated: May 1

Unraveling Musical Truth with Baljinder Sekhon


Headshot of composer Baljinder Sekhon with an overlay saying "music/Maker with Tyler Kline, Episode 2: Unraveling Musical Truth with Baljinder Sekhon."


 


LISTEN


 

On today's episode of music/Maker with Tyler Kline, Tyler is joined by composer Baljinder Sekhon.


“Clearly knowing the power of sonority,” Baljinder Sekhon's music has been presented in over 600 concerts in 26 countries. From works for large ensembles to solo works to electronic music, Baljinder’s music demonstrates a wide range of genres and styles. He is Associate Professor of Music Composition at Penn State University.


In this wide-ranging conversation, Baljinder traces his journey from when he was a kid searching for something in his house that sounded like a snare drum, to his role as a percussionist for most of his early musical life - and why it took him a while to admit to being a composer - and how all of that has lead him to think about sound and music in some really fascinating ways.


Other topics of discussion include how he thinks about the business of composition, his work as a professor and teaching young composers not just how to compose, but how to be a composer holistically, and much more.


Complete show notes for this episode, which includes a transcript and additional helpful links, can be found at https://looseleaftransmissions.com/musicmaker


Baljinder is on the web at https://sekhonmusic.com/


Find out more about the Penn State Composition Studio at https://sites.psu.edu/pennstatecomposition/


 

Media mentioned in this conversation


 

Transcript

Disclosure: links to products that appear throughout this interview may be affiliate links. By purchasing an item discussed in this interview via one of these links, you support this podcast and network.


Tyler Kline

Baljinder, it's really great to have you on board and I appreciate you taking the time to chat about your journey, and your process, a little bit today.


Baljinder Sekhon:

Absolutely, it's my pleasure. Thank you.


TK:

Yeah, so just as a disclosure so folks know… I studied with you during grad school about ten years ago. So, a lot of these questions are informed by our time together then and I'm also kind of curious in that regard like how things have changed for you, because we don't get to catch up too often.


BS:

Right.


TK:

But I also have to go on onto the record to say that, because of that, I don't think this podcast would exist if it weren't for the role that you've played in my life.


BS:

So it's my fault?


TK:

It’s your fault. Yeah, so not to start this in any kind of weird sentimental way. But I just think it's just the truth. It's accurate. And, yes, it's your fault that I'm putting myself through this.


So yeah, I'm interested in getting to know more about your formative years as a composer, so I just want to start out by asking you: What is your earliest artistic memory as a composer or anything that kind of deals with putting music together?


BS:

Oh, gosh. Well, artistic memory as a composer. It's really hard to pinpoint these things because you start… you know, our musical lives typically start in performance in some way, you know? Well our musical lives really start with listening. Right? And we learn to listen. And we when we learn to listen sometimes we learn to expect things, and that's what makes some things a surprise to us.


So, I would say being surprised by things that I've heard were probably my first years of artistic experience of being a composer because I was actively listening to something in a different way. Although I didn't make it.


And everyone has stories about banging on pots and pans or something at home. When I was seven, I joined a community drum group - it was like a drum corps - in Northern Virginia, and I was really excited about the snare drum sound. I wasn't playing the snare drum, I wasn't good enough. But I was really excited about the sound. And I remember going home and finding… I was determined to find something that sound just like a snare drum. I had a a tin Charlie Brown lunchbox… like, now it’s an antique lunchbox. I still have it and it has dents in it from where I was convinced that it sounded so much like a snare drum that I brought it with me to the next meeting and showed the teacher this thing. It was like, “I found something in my house. It sounds just like a snare drum!” So I've been practicing snare drum parts.


But, I didn't have snare drum parts to practice. So, I made up my own. And at that time, it was like cadences, right? This is like a group that would march in parades… like a bunch of little kids with the baton twirlers and flags and a little drum line.


So, I distinctly remember sitting there playing on that Charlie Brown lunchbox making up music… Not really realizing that I - you know, I wasn't trying to compose necessarily but I was imitating the things that some of the older kids were doing that I remembered from like being in that rehearsal.


That was second grade. It wasn't until sixth grade that I decided I should write some of these things down. So, I actually wrote my first piece in sixth grade that was fully notated. It was a snare drum solo. I was studying then… at the time, I started taking private lessons with the same teacher who was running that community group. He became my private teacher, and I brought him a piece of staff paper with my pencil writing on it that was a snare drum solo I wrote and I was really excited to show it to him and we played it together.


TK:

Oh that's awesome.


BS:

And actually, I mostly had the right amount of beats and all the measures and stuff, you know?


That's my earliest memory of composing… of like organizing music in my own way. You know, it doesn't have to be on a piece of paper. But for me, it turned into me notating on a staff paper. I don't even know where I got the staff paper from. I think my older sister's boyfriend gave me a piece of staff paper. Or, maybe my older sister did, she was in high school band at the time.


But I should say, that teacher who I met when I was 7 I studied with weekly until I graduated from high school. It turns out I got really lucky in that and the area that I grew up in I was surrounded by members of various military bands. We were in Northern Virginia right outside of DC, and this guy, whose name is Miles Overton, was a percussion section member of the US Army Band Pershing’s Own. And he was just working with this group as a volunteer. He was just giving his time to this little community drum group and I had no idea I was like… in the presence of a completely legitimate and outstanding musician. So, I had the fortune of studying with him all the way through high school, eventually adding a second teacher.


At the time I was I was gonna be a drummer. I was gonna be a percussionist.

I was composing… I wrote a little snare drum piece in sixth grade. I wrote a couple other pieces. I wrote a bunch of percussion music and then eventually I wrote a solo piano piece. I remember the title but I won't say it. It's embarrassing. It was a kind of title you think that like an eighth grader would come up with.


And then when I started learning about music theory, somehow or another one of the music teachers at my school suggested that I write a song for voice and piano. I was also really into poetry and reading pretty much all through high school and even eighth grade onwards. So, I set a poem by William Blake called “A Poison Tree,” and that was my first art song. That was my first like…. song that I wrote that wasn't for me, because I wasn't a singer and I wasn't a pianist. And somebody in my like theory class performed it for the class, and that was the first time I had the experience of writing something that I couldn't do, giving it to someone else, and then hearing them do it. And that was that was a lot of fun.


But, that's what it was. It was fun. Composing was always fun for me. It wasn't a… it wasn't really a choice. It wasn't something I decided like I want to be a composer, you know? I was a percussionist I was a musician and composing was something I did for fun. I used some of those skills that I gained as a musician and through theory classes and playing in various school bands and stuff like that to, on the side, write some things.


TK:

I want to kind of go back to something you started out saying and you kind of glossed over it. But that was, our earliest our earliest encounters with music…. It's like this, setting up expectations and then acts of defiance against those expectations.

I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that? What kind of music were you exposed to in your early days as a composer and when did when did that start… I don't know, being defied?


BS:

Well, yeah. I don't know if I would say defied as much as surprised. I mean, I think those are kind of different things.


TK:

Yeah, yeah, sure.


BS:

What I was saying was… I started off and I said, “well, our earliest experiences are typically as performers,” but I was wrong, because it's as listeners.


And, as a listener, is the first time that you potentially have an experience of being surprised, and people take those surprises in different ways.


Listening to music as a young person has the risk of setting a groundwork for truth. Where then you think you know what music should be because, “oh, I've heard all this music and that's what music is,” and things that fall outside of that aren’t. Or, things that fall outside of that aren't good. A lot of times when people say that something isn't good, they mean it doesn't sound like the things they already like. And so, we we can learn to be listeners that listen to things with an open mind without those expectations, but that's difficult. It’s especially difficult if you are also a performer who has been performing a certain kind of music, and that you've accepted that as the music that you like. And you accept that as the truth of what music is. That could be anything though. That could be classic rock. That could be jazz. That could be some non-western music.


You know, my father's from India, and growing up in India and listening to Indian classical music would potentially mean that classic rock sounds wrong. Or bad. Or surprising. Like, “oh, what is that?” You know, different people react differently to it. Is your reaction like, “Wow! What is that? I've never heard anything like that," or is your reaction like, “Ugh. That's not what I'm used to.” You know what I mean?” So practicing being wowed by things that you've never heard is sort of like a foray into being creative with your listening, you know?


So, what kind of music did I listen to growing up? Well, I mean, Michael Jackson, Beastie Boys… you know, like this is elementary school. I remember my sister got a couple vinyl records she had Thriller and I would go in her room and put it on. And she had a Beastie Boys record, and my parents had an 8 Track player and they had a Queen 8 track cassette. And I listened to that thing constantly.


It was a lot of popular and rock and hip hop music for a long time for me. Really, until probably when I was 13 or something. I really wasn't interested in, or hadn't been exposed to really… it's not that I wasn't interested, I hadn't been exposed to classical music - you know for the lack of a better term right now - until I was about 13.


But, in ninth grade I asked for a recording for Christmas of the New York Phil playing Shostakovich 5 with Bernstein conducting. I wanted that recording. I had heard it. Someone who's a senior in high school had that recording and I listened to it once and I was like, “wow, I need to hear that some more," and I got that for Christmas.


From that point forward, I mean I didn't turn into a Shostakovich fanatic. That was a piece in my early experience where I fell in love with classical music. I realized, I was surprised by it! That's why. It didn't sound like Michael Jackson. I was surprised by it and so, “wow, there's these things?” My family… my parents weren't classical musicians. They weren't playing classical music around the house and stuff like that. So, when I had discovered that world, I took off with it and it was a whole different place for me to be and I wanted to find out as much about all of that as I could.


We didn't have internet then to find it out. There was a used bookstore in town and I accidentally picked up Aaron Copland's What to Listen for In Music book. And, I actually didn't know who Aaron Copeland was, I was just looking for music books. I was looking for stuff. I wrote an orchestra piece - I'm just fast forwarding a little bit here because it's all kind of related - but I wrote my first chamber orchestra piece when I was in high school, and I didn't know anything about string instruments. In fact, no one told me the double bass transposed, and I just knew what the sounding range of it was. So, my whole orchestra piece is full of these ledger lines in the bass part, and I showed it to the orchestra director at my high school and I remember him looking at it and saying, “you know, the bass can't play that low,” and I was like, “yes, it can.”


“But it's written an octave higher. You don't need all those ledger lines below the staff.” And so, I then realized like, what have I been doing not learning these things? I need to learn these things. So, I went to a bookstore and I found the orchestration book by Sam Adler. But I couldn't afford it. It was too much, so I read it in the bookstore when I could and eventually - that bookstore was a Borders Books and Music store - and, in the meantime, I had started a duo with a friend of mine where we would play all different kinds of stuff: pop music, rock, experimental things… and we booked a gig at the Borders Books and Music store where the payment was a gift certificate.


And as soon as that gig ended, I took the gift certificate and went back to the bookshelf that had that book on it, picked it up and bought it.


Then I started learning about instrumentation and orchestration and instrument ranges and dynamic tendencies and all that stuff. I was determined to write for all these instruments, but I still wasn't going to be a composer. It wasn't my thing. It was just fun. It was kind of a side hobby.


TK:

You're you're talking about what I would describe… it sounds like voraciously kind of seeking information. But when was the first time you actually encountered a composer in real life? And I guess, the other part of this question would be, what was your first encounter with a living composer's music?


BS:

Well, I have two answers to that. One of them is that the person who I met when I was seven, Miles Overton, who became my teacher, was also a composer. But really only a composer of percussion music that I knew of. And so a lot of the music I was playing was music he wrote.


So, in some ways, seeing someone like that write music that we were learning was kind of a composer experience, right? But that was so normalized for me. I saw that guy every week. That didn’t seem like, “oh, I met a composer.” The first time it was like, “oh, I met a composer,” and this composer came and we played their piece, it was a composer named Mark Camphouse who writes a lot of band music.


Mark Camphouse actually didn't live far from us. He lived in in Fairfax, Virginia and we lived in Woodbridge, about 15 minutes away and our band director at my high school was connected with him. I guess there were friends or something or colleagues? And so we would always do Mark Camphouse pieces, and he would come to our high school and give feedback and stuff like that. And I remember becoming kind of a fan of Mark Camphouse - “oh, Mark Camphouse is coming here? You know the guy that wrote this stuff?” And that's the first time I remember meeting a composer who I had been… We had been working on a piece of his and he came and gave us feedback and it was sort of magical. And I liked the music, so it was like, “wow, this person is here and that's something someone does."


That also sort of like…I had said that it was so normalized already with Miles Overton in my experience there. But, maybe because of that, that also immediately became normal to me, too. Like, “oh, there's all these people out there composing music… and folks are playing it and sometimes they go like help them with it and stuff.”


TK:

What was the was the point that it… because you're talking about, you know, it was always this thing you did for fun growing up… at what point did it shift into, this is what you wanted to pursue as a career?


BS:

Yeah, a way later. Not even in college at first. I didn't go to college as a composition major. I don't know if you know this or not…


TK: Did you have the option to? Because, I didn't even have an option initially.


BS: Oh, yeah. I did an undergraduate degree in composition eventually after I changed my major twice.


I went to school as a music ed student. That lasted a year, and then I…


I was a very serious percussionist, Tyler. Like, I was a very serious percussionist. I was doing music ed because that was the typical like, I was advised to do that, for employment and things like that. And that's good, you know, it's fine and I was doing that. But, I was really serious, even in high school I was a very serious percussionist. I mean, I was an all-state percussionist and all that stuff, and I practiced every day. I had two teachers. I had an orchestral teacher, I had a drum set teacher. This was like… that became pretty clear to me early that I was somehow gonna be a percussionist or drummer or whatever.


And a music ed degree at school gave me a chance to continue practicing and doing all that stuff and I had gone through like the public school music education system and I liked that. I thought, “I could be a part of that.” And so, after a year I changed to percussion and that lasted for a semester. And what happened was, I was taking these class piano classes. Like I said before, I wasn't a pianist. I did end up taking piano lessons for two years in high school, but I never got to be that good. But, in college, everyone had to take these keyboard skills classes where you just learn basic keyboard skills. And I think it was three semesters of keyboard skills, and one of the last exams was you pick a solo from one of these books - you know, a piano solo - or, you could write your own solo and I did that. I was like, “oh, why would I pick one of these when I could just make one up?”


I wrote it out. I learned it. I played it for the exam and one of the piano professors who was at the exam… The way they did it was like a panel of three people. It was like way too serious probably for what it was. One of the piano professors came up to me right after I finished playing, was asking me about the piece, and assumed I was a composition major. And said, “Wow, It's so great to hear a composition major play one of their own pieces for these. I don't know if we've had that before,” and I was like, “oh, I'm not a composition major,” and he seemed very surprised.


And he said, kind of off the cuff… “You should be.” When I said, “I'm not a composition major,” said “you should be.” I tell you what like, that that was that was really serious for me.


TK: Those 3 words.


BS: You know, like my whole mentality… my whole life changed, when he said, “you should be,” because I said to myself, “should I be? Like, maybe I should be.” I’ve been doing this for fun all this time but you know what I'm I'm pretty… I don't know if I'm good at it or not, but I'm pretty prolific. I compose a lot. I was composing every day for fun, mostly wasn't showing anyone stuff.


The next day I was in the advisor office at the University Of South Carolina where I was doing my undergrad, looking into changing my major to composition. She had advised me to go meet with one of the composition professors, which I did, and he told me the process. I got all my scores together. I went to a Fedex-Kinkos Copy Center in town. I got scores like printed out all the wrong way, of course, and poorly bound and had the plastic cover, like a science fair project cover over it. And I brought them all back to the school of music and that was my portfolio. But I had already written all these pieces and it was like… there was an art song in there, there was percussion ensemble piece, there was a string orchestra piece, there was a solo piano piece, a couple other things.


I had all this music and I was like, “oh yeah, I have a portfolio.” I submitted it and the next fall I started as a composition major and even got some scholarship money added to what I had already, which was nice, from the composition area. But I'll tell you what, that wasn't though when I - it's a long answer to your question - that wasn't when I decided that I wanted to be a composer. That wasn't it. That was when I decided I wanted to devote more time to the thing that I was having a lot of fun doing, but I was still… and in my mind and out loud… a percussionist. That was what I was going to do, I was going to be a percussionist, but hey, I always wanted to learn more about composing, and here I am doing that.


It kind of didn't matter to me what degree I ended up with. No one seemed to really care. I knew it was in music, whether it was music ed, performance, composition… I didn't drop the percussion degree, though… yet. I eventually did. I eventually did, but I was a double major for a year or something in composition. It was a composition theory degree and percussion performance.


So, that was it. I started taking composition lessons. That year that I became a composition major, the university hired a new composition professor and there were three composition professors… There were four composition professors there. And the new person they hired is the person I ended up studying with… who, really, you know… took my thinking to the next level. Exposed me to things I never would have known about. Really challenged me… and his name was John Fitz Rogers.


John Fitz Rogers was my first, real private lesson composition teacher that I ever had… like junior year of college, you know? From the end of my second semester sophomore year… it was off by a semester, I ended up graduating December. I don't remember what happened, but I was switching, not at the end of years, but like at the end of semesters, mid academic year.


So, yeah I studied with John Fitz Rogers. I was playing percussion as serious as ever. I had formed a rock band, we were touring in the summers… kind of like, regional tours between anywhere from Jacksonville, Florida up to the New York area. That band was a band that I was playing drum set in and also songwriting with. It was a really collaborative kind of group… and I was playing, at that time, with three different professional orchestras as a sub. And eventually graduated with the composition degree as someone who was mostly active as a percussionist.


TK:

Hearing you describe this - and when I say what I'm about to say, one, I don't mean any kind of criticism towards the group of people I'm going to describe, and I'm not going to name names. But I'm sure that you will think of some as soon as I say it…


Hearing you talk about this… It's amazing that you didn't end up being that kind of specifically percussion composer that is so prevalent these days What -


BS:

Oh yeah, that was already a thing. Sorry, I don't mean interrupt -


TK:

- no, no. I was going to ask, what kept you from going down that path?


BS:

What kept me from doing that was me not wanting to be that kind of a composer. In fact I have a story about that, which is that I intentionally stopped writing percussion music. I was writing a lot of percussion music. You know, during undergrad I had percussion in everything… I mean my friends were all percussionists, I was writing pieces for them my whole senior year both of my roommates were percussionists. One of them was Andy Akiho and one of them is a drum set player named Ron Wiltrout and we had a little townhouse we rented together. They both played in pieces of mine.


So, I was I was kind of going down that path, actually, and what I realized was that I was kind of cornering myself. My curiosity for creating new things wasn't being fulfilled, because I was doing a lot of the same stuff - things I was already good at, really. I was like, “oh, I understand all the percussion instruments. Why keep writing for them?”


Instead of sort of capitalizing on it or something, I made the decision one day that I'm not going to write percussion music anymore. I'm going to write music for strings, I'm going to write music for French horn… I have several French horn pieces. French horn was my instrument for a little while, which I can tell you about. I was gonna write music for oboe and I was gonna find things that I didn't know anything about. I was gonna write some more art songs and I was gonna write for that stuff.


So, I didn't write for percussion for years. From 2002 until 2006, I have no percussion music. No, actually, 2003. I did write one piece in 2003. 2003 to 2006, I have no percussion music. That's totally intentional. I stepped away from that world - as a composer, not as a - I was still percussionist, though right? But as a composer, I stepped away from that world for four years, because also I knew… As a percussionist confronted with all the literature that was being developed in that field and having guest percussion composers come through at my university and stuff like that, I just didn't want to be that. But, I also felt like composing for percussion as a percussionist, my creativity was limited to what I was good at doing as a percussionist, and I didn't like that. And I actually recognized that like, “I'm kind of writing all this music for me as a performer," right? For me to play, even though I'm not always the one playing it.


I kind of didn't like that. I felt like, I'm not imagining all these other things that other people can do or want to do, and so I stopped doing it. The next time I wrote a percussion piece, it was a piece for solo cello with percussion ensemble. That was my next time I wrote it, and it was nothing like any of the percussion music I'd written prior. Of course, I'd learned a lot in those four years about other things and had found a way to be more creative.


TK:

Is this something that you now encourage your students, like an exercise, you encourage from your students, who… I'm sure often play an instrument and often compose for the instrument that they perform on… Do you push them to to kind of quit altogether for a while?


BS:

No… maybe graduates, maybe like master students. If we have a new masters student and I look at their list of works, and I know that they're a euphoniumist - God forbid - and all their music is tuba/euphonium music, then yes. The answer is yes. I tell them, “let's write for an instrumental configuration that you've never written for before. Let's learn about the instrumentation of something that you've never been confronted with. You're really great at writing for tuba and euphonium. As good as one could be for the…” you know, I'm picking on you because I know that you played euphonium… but… so, like my student who's a triangle virtuoso, for example. I won't have them writing all triangle music. I'll tell them, in fact, not to write any triangle music. They're already good at that.


But, that's a pedagogical thing. I mean, they don't need me to help them with things that they probably know more about than I do. You know, like my euphonium composer students know more about the euphonium than I do and what am I going to do to help them? I mean, there's all the other aspects of composing. But, I’m really interested in students being outside their comfort zone, because that's where I put myself.


So, I guess what I would say then is, it's not that I tell them not to compose for their instruments, the way that I told myself… But, it's that I tell them to step outside of their comfort zone and do something different. That that could include doing something different with the instruments that they are already composing for, because you have to get into process and technique and all the different compositional approaches that one may or may not encounter. I want students to encounter those things.


So, for me, it was it was kind of instrument specific. But for someone else it might be style specific. It might like be like, “hey, stop writing waltzes.” You're really good at waltzes, and you don't need to do those for the next two years. Take some time off, you know?


TK:

Yeah. I'd like to dig a little bit deeper into your process as a composer, and how it's evolved over time. And I'd like to start by sharing a story from a group composition lesson with you, years ago, where you drew this analogy between composing and making pizza and this kind of touches on some stuff we've already talked about.


But, basically what you said was, with pizza we can add so many different kinds of toppings and change it in so many ways that it's effectively not pizza, at a certain point, but people are still convinced that it is pizza. And, similarly, that should be our goal when we compose. So, this is still something I think about every day when I compose, and in other facets of my life. When did you start thinking about music in this kind of way?


BS: Well, I'll say a couple things. One, I don't know if I would say that should be our goal when I compose but we should be open to that. Also, it can go the other way. It can say, not just adding things, but we start taking things away. If it's just the dough, you know, is it still pizza? And so this goes back to one of the first things we were talking about, which is expectation and surprise… and the truth.


So, we know what pizza is, right? I mean, it's a concept that we understand. And I can show you a cheeseburger and ask you if it's pizza or not, and you'll say “no.” I can show you just a ball of dough and say, is this pizza? and you'll say, “no.” Not you - I mean, I don't know, maybe you think that is - but, the point is like there's a thing that's defined and we accept that as the truth, and other things that fall outside of that truth are not good or are wrong or are not attractive to our intuition because they don't align with the thing that we already love.


That's really what that analogy is all about, I think, is figuring out that the truth in music is fluid. That there isn't a truth in music. That you can take pitch away, that you could take time away, that you could take timbre away… is that even possible, right? That you can remove parameters of music or add different combinations of parameters of music together in a creative way and still have music.


But, this sort of exercise of just being creative and accepting sound in all of its different organized forms as music is really difficult, for even young composers. Forget about like people who aren't musicians. But there's even young composers who are resistant to things. I mean, I teach an electronic music composition class right now and we have weekly listening assignments where students have to write their reactions to things, and these are really creative people. You know, young people who are engaged in new music and they don't always agree that things are music.


We had Alvin Lucier “I am sitting in a room” as an example of something that was on this list that they listened to and responded to and they had to learn about how it was made and what happened… and there was not agreement among musicians that it was music, because it wasn't aligned with the things that they've already accepted.


And so this sort of hierarchy of musical truth is also reflected in other places in our culture. You know, um, the other. The idea of the other. The thing that is not what I'm used to.


This surfaces in racism. This surfaces in all types of discrimination. Where this thing, whatever it is, is the normal thing, and those things are not the normal thing, and I think this one's the normal one because that's the one that I'm used to. So, our perception of music also can follow something similar to that. Where, if it's not tonal, it's not good. If it's based on noise - and when I say noise, I mean like white noise - if it's a noise-based piece… well, it's not pleasant. “Because I've heard pleasant things and I know what those things sound like,” you know?


But then, when I hear something that sounds like something else that I already love… of course, I'm saying this hypothetically, right? This is not my my view. When I hear something that sounds like something that I already love, I don't even recognize that it's reminding me of that thing. I say, “oh, that's so beautiful.” Why is that so beautiful? Because, I've already decided it was beautiful a long time ago, when I heard something else that sounded like it that I thought was beautiful.


TK:

Can you pinpoint when you began thinking about this as a concept in your work and also in your teaching? Because I'm sure this is a big part of your teaching.


BS:

You know, I kind of a victim of musical truth - of my own musical truth - for a long time. Even when all the time, all my descriptions of how I was composing for fun, I was curious, and I was trying to learn about things. I still was a victim of my own musical truth. There were things that I disregarded as - even at college level like musician - as a composer things that I disregarded as you know good or beautiful. I did have this sort of set of experiences from an early age that gave me a truth of what music was and wasn’t. That allowed me to decide.


What I never realized, though, was music's ability to structurally reflect things that aren't music. Not just cinematically or emotionally, or metaphorically… but structurally. And the piece that - or maybe not even structurally, maybe I'll say behaviorally, where the music has the ability to behave like something that's not music and we can hear that behavior. It’s sort of rhetorical sometimes.


And the piece that I experienced as a percussionist was “Rothko Chapel” by Morton Feldman. Between my undergrad and graduate school, I took three years off of school. Mostly what I did was be a percussionist. I was playing with a hip hop group, I was playing with the rock band, I was playing with orchestras, I was playing with local theater pit. And John Fitz Rogers, again, at the University of South Carolina… since he had come there started a new music series called the Southern Exposure Series and it was supposed to be a series of music that you never hear. It was. Not just supposed to be - it turned into a series of music that you would never hear on that campus by composers who you'd never encounter and expose people to all this other stuff.


He decided to program the Rothko Chapel by Morton Feldman as part of that series. I was already graduated from school. I was freelancing in town and he contacted me and said, “you know, we could hire you for this gig. Would you play percussion on this piece?” I had no idea what the piece was. I had a degree in composition already. But I didn't know Morton Feldman… and, yeah, I'm a freelance percussionist, I'm free those dates. I'll play the thing.


So I played this piece, and I remember the first rehearsal the first time the choir sounded… and if anyone listening knows this piece. They know. Like, “whoa, what? Hold on now… wait, what is that? Is that supposed to… is that right?” Then they would continue on and I'm sitting in front of this choir with this percussion setup and all I wanted to do is listen to them. It was that surprise. You know?


It was that surprise, though, that's like, “Wow!” and you know… we never stop having these surprises. Even now, I recently had this surprise again where it's like that moment where… it’s rare. But I'm looking for that new thing. It's like, “Whoa, what is that?” and so it was that surprise. It wasn't like, “whoa, that’s great.” I didn't know if I liked it or didn't like it, but I knew it wasn't like something I'd heard before.


That's all I knew at the time, and so I was like, “I need to find out about this music.” And a friend of mine… I had mentioned to a horn player friend of mine, whose name is Robert Rearden, who I had written several pieces for. He was one of the people who I was writing for when I was insisting on not writing percussion music. I had mentioned this to him. “Do you know this composer?” and he bought me a book as a gift… and it's this book, Give My Regards to Eighth Street, by Morton Feldman. I have the one that he bought me here. It says 12-2003 in it.


This is the one. I started reading this book, and when I was reading Morton Feldman describe music in ways that I hadn't heard it described before. And beyond like the Varese organized sound kind of idea, but also in aligned with that. Not just organized… based on. Like, he would say, “Rothko's paint…. bleeds to the edges of the canvas and you don't know where it ends, and we describe it as ‘blurry’ and then say the choral music in this piece bleeds to the edges. We don't know where it starts and ends.”


And I'm thinking like, “What is that? What kind of connection is that between this painter and his work, and sound?” I just hadn't experienced that kind of a musical connection before. This was beyond like a cinematic metaphorical connection to music, and it was like behavioral or structural and it was like the music is acting as if it is the paint on the canvas.


That really changed everything to me… like, music can do that? Can I make music do that? Like, “oh wow, there's all these things that I love. Now I want to turn them into music.”


And I started to ask those questions like what would that be like if it were music? And most of the time the answer wasn't aligned with other music that I had made or known about or played. And that was when I decided that I was going to… well, actually I shouldn't say that was when. I did this for about a year. I started writing totally different pieces. Pieces that I’d never written anything like this before. At the end of that year is when I decided I'm definitely pursuing this. I’m going to go to graduate school in composition and try to be a composer.


That was the first time. That Morton Feldman experience, which kicked off this little like year-long journey of experimenting, was when I decided I was going to be a composer. I had a composition degree already. But that's when I decided, I was going to be a composer. There is enough to fill up the rest of my life here with exploring, learning, music making, and… the diversity of possibilities is enough to keep it fresh.


So, that was kind of it. I had been a composer… I’ve been admitting to being a composer ever since then.


TK:

Well as as soon as you brought up “Rothko Chapel,” I mean, I immediately thought of that book.


The thing that sticks out to me is the story about Morton Feldman meeting Varese on the street and asking Varese, “what's advice that you would give me?” and the advice was something like - I'm paraphrasing, I haven't read it in a while - but, the advice that Varese gave to Feldman was basically, “orchestration has to do with the the space between the instruments and the back of the hall. And when I read that, I was like, “oh. oh yeah, this is… okay this is changing the game for me.” So yeah.


BS:

But you know, I'll just say, that was also when I started making connections between the sounds of music, the way that it moves, like the behavior of music, and what it means… because I had never seen a piece that stood for something, that represented something, in such a structural way. And I thought, well, that's an interesting way to put something together.


This thing has three components to it. It has sounds, pitches, and so forth. It has a behavior - which later I might describe as a technique or something - it has a behavior. It has a technique that is based on this thing that's not music, which are these paintings. And all three of those things are tied together into a single experience that is this piece, that also represents - it means something. It's about something. But not just because we say it is, right, because it’s like a version of this extra musical thing that's been brought to life through sound and it behaves… it moves through time in a way that mimics and is modeled after this other thing.


For me, that was like… totally new and I wanted to explore that more. I wanted to do things like that.


TK:

So, one of your - at least I think it's still the case - one of your compositional interests is creating systems in your music as a way generating and organizing material. When and why did your interest in systematic composition begin and how has it changed over time? How do you approach this system building in your music?


BS:

When I first learned about 12-tone serialism, I was really taken by the organization of it. I'm a pretty organized person most of the time - 90% of the time. And, regardless of the surface of the music or the sound of the music, and, you know, 12-tone music, it’s just a technique. It's not a style of music. There's 12-tone pieces that sound drastically different than others.


So, regardless of like, whatever pieces we're talking about… I'm not talking about whatever someone might associate with 12-tone music sounding like. I'm talking about the organization of 12-tone music, the system in which the music is derived. That was really attractive to me as a sort of architectural scheme from which music could come, and that's not totally unrelated to the Morton Feldman situation, where I was looking for ways to control music that would align itself with something else, right? And so, the 12-tone system was a system of control - is a system of control.


And I recognized that I had already been learning other systems of control when I learned the 12-tone system. I was like, “oh, so it's like a fugue,” right? And then I realized, “oh, so it's like functional tonal harmony," another system of control. Some of these systems, to me, had kind of been intuitive. But what I was really interested in, that I didn't even realize until 12-tone serialism came up in my life, was organization of musical parameters. Not just pitch, anything.


Some folks describe those various things as compositional systems. A system is sort of like a subset of a process, just like technique is like a subset of a process. Compositional process is vague and and sort of like encompasses all of the ways in which you might creatively make music or put it together, and there's techniques. There's systems that we might use in conjunction with techniques. I mean, we don't know what any of these things really mean, right?


Which is what's so beautiful about it. I mean, if we knew what all of these things were and which ones worked and which ones didn't all of our music would be the same. But things aren't the same. People aren't the same. Music's not the same. Cultures aren't the same. You and I aren't the same. My pieces aren't even all the same. You know what I mean?


TK:

Yeah, right right.


BS:

And it's in that spirit of sort of just diversity of experiences that I realize that anytime I wanted to say something as a composer through music, I needed a language to say it with. Sometimes an existing language was sufficient enough, you know? Sometimes I found that I could express this - I could express myself with this language, this musical language that I know. Sometimes I struggled to do that and I thought, you know what, I need a little bit different language to express what I want to say. So, I'm gonna have to make one.


This one might be based on this other one that I already know about, and some of the syntax has changed, or it might be an entirely different one. But, one thing I knew is that I needed to be organized in the language of my music so that I could effectively express what it is that I wanted to express. I needed to be willing to find a new language that someone else maybe had already developed that works for that piece that I'm working on, for that thing that I wanted to say, or open to developing a new one of my own.


And that's where you go down the path of developing compositional systems. An example of a system that I developed that is based on one that already existed is this folding array system that I made when I was a graduate student, which is a… I loved the organization of the 12-tone system, but I didn't love the cardinality of 12 always being the same. I found that to be an issue for me creatively, or at least for a piece that I was writing. That's what's important - I had an idea of what I wanted to do already.


And the 12-tone system almost worked ,but not quite, so I developed a system - which I really don't want to get into the details of that without visual aids and stuff - but essentially, it’s a system that was organized like the 12-tone system but had collections of pitches of varying cardinalities. One that had a 6-note collection, one that had a 4-note collection, one that a 12-note collection, right? That allowed me to have the kind of different phrase lengths and organization, unfolding of pitch, that I needed for this one piece. So, I developed that thing. I've gone back to it from time to time, when I'm like, “oh yeah, there's that one language I know how to speak that I can use to say this thing,” and it's a matter of recognizing what you need.


You know, as composers, when we have ideas we ask ourselves, “What do we need? What do I need to accomplish that?”


And that's difficult. It's difficult to effectively identify all the things that you need to successfully express your ideas. Sometimes you have to just make your own tools, and so yeah, I'm still very much involved in thinking about and developing and teaching and employing compositional systems in my music.


TK:

I think for a lot of musicians or people familiar with 20th-Century music and onward, who might be listening, I think the association with 12-tone music like Schoenberg…. is it's highly dissonant or, to a greater degree, when we get into serialism or total serialism like Messiaen and Boulez, that’s like some pretty obtuse, angular…. It can be harsh music and I think that's often the association but you know-


BS:

Well, it's that association for all reasons that we talked about. Because it doesn't sound like the music that people already love, right?


TK:

Well, yeah, exactly. But I would say that your music doesn't sound anything like that. But you’re organizing it, you’re building these systems that are based off of… I mean, does that factor into it as well? Like, the harmony that you derive from what you create and these systems, is that a consideration? Or is it just, no I just want to see what the result is and deal with it?


BS: Is the harmony a consideration? The harmony is part of my imagination and so I guess one thing I should say is that the music that I make is music that I imagine, first.


The systems that I use are used to support my imagination, not to surprise me. Not to pull a lever and see what comes out, you know? They're a way to organize the things that I'm imagining. So, my imagination primarily is intuitive.


TK:

That's a perfect segue to my next question because I was going to ask, how do you balance intuitive composition with more process-oriented systematic composition in your work?


BS:

Yeah, I mean, how does one balance those things? The thing about intuition is that, your intuition is essentially a synthesis of all of your experiences, memories of music, feelings of music, right? Associations with music, and all of this stuff that we have gathered over years of listening to music and playing it and making it. And this informs our intuition. We're not born with this. So, it's learned. All of this stuff is learned.


This is one of my primary objectives for my students, actually, is that they realize that, and then they're motivated to work on their intuition by learning more, by listening more, by going outside their comfort zone. That's also for me something. So, I actually don't draw a big distinction between my intuition and what we're talking about with systematic composition. Because the systems that I develop are developed intuitively based on other systems that I've studied and learned. It all started with things that weren't mine, right?


None of this was mine to start with. None of the music that I was playing when I was seven, none of the music I was playing when I was teenager, and none of the music that I played in college and studied and analyzed in theory classes and all that stuff, that stuff wasn't mine. And when I say studied and analyzed, I mean I'm talking about the systems. Not just what it sounds like. Not the style. That stuff contributes to intuition, as well.


But, picking it apart, analyzing it, figuring it out, putting it back together. How did it come up? Reading Ligeti’s analysis of Boulez “Structures 1a,” for example. That's not me. I didn't do that. I'm reading about another composer's description of another composer's system of composing music. Well, guess what? I loved reading about that, and that's part of my intuition now. So, intuition also informs the development of my compositional systems which is just really the organization of my imagination.


In my imagination is me. No one else’s. It’s my specific synthesis of experiences. You know what I mean? And so I recognize that it's not mine. I recognize that those experiences were someone else’s doing. But, no one has that no one has the combination of those experiences that I have, just like they don't have the combination of them that you have, and that's what makes it unique for me.


And so then my job as a composer - part of my job as composer - is to organize that. To recognize it, one. That's the biggest problem is that we don't recognize it and we just think that we're magical or something or like we're a receiver with music.


TK:

Right? The cherub comes and kisses our forehead.


BS:

Yeah, yeah. So, the first thing is recognizing like that's not the case, and organizing it in a thoughtful, methodical way… oftentimes, which causes us to stumble upon something “new,” right?


Because now that I've said all that, I can't claim to have ever done anything.


TK:

It's all just an extension.


BS:

But that's what's so great about music, is that when people talk about “the trajectory of music through time” or like “the thread,” right? “The thread of…,” stuff like that, I mean that's kind of what they're referring to is, it’s like one big, long research project.


We're all collecting all of the things that we can that's been done, and it's filtering through us. As individuals, we also have our own life experience. Not musical experience, but life experiences. Feelings about things and reactions to things and value systems and we're able to take all of that stuff and filter it through our personal beings and make something that expresses what it is that we want to say. All of which could not be done if we didn't have those experiences that inform our intuition.


So, the intuition the intuition is something that we love. But also that we hate.


TK:

Yeah, that's the most succinct and accurate thing I've ever heard said about intuition.


BS:

I wish I had this on hand…. Carl Jung has a quote that I read recently about intuition though. That said something like, “learn to recognize and control your intuition, or else it will control you and you'll call it fate.”


TK:

I love that. That's awesome.


BS:

That's paraphrasing. I don't have it in front of me. It was something like that. But it was like, yeah, we can be tricked into thinking that we're doing something that we're not.


You know, the first person that sparked all of these ideas in me was Mario Davidovsky. I took lessons with Mario for a year and he said to me one time, "none of us have ever come up with any new ideas. The human mind is way too interesting and complex for us to understand that what we're doing is actually something that we've already experienced. And we don't even recognize it because our minds are so brilliant.”


I kind of liked it being put that way. It's like, “oh, you know, your use of your intuition isn't you being sort of dumb and uninformed. It's that you're so brilliant, you don't even know what's in your head and it's like this stuff is all coming out of your mind. Isn't that amazing?” That was the way he kind of put it, was like, “isn't that amazing?”


TK:

Yeah, well what is it like only 10% of our brain activity is actually consciousness? The rest is like subconscious -


BS:

Right? Yeah, who knows what kind of crazy stuff's happening. It's great.


TK:

That's why we're composers and not neurologists, I guess.

I think one of the biggest impacts that you've had on on my own compositional work is your approach to timbre, or instrumental color. So, how do you think about sound and timbre? Such as, the blending of characteristics between seemingly disparate instruments like… a snare drum and a bassoon, for example.


BS:

Oh, that's a good combination.


I love sound, and this whole thing started off with me telling you that I had found that Charlie Brown lunch box that I would play on. And I mean it. I thought it sounded like a snare drum. So that was my mind remembering what a snare- I didn't have a snare drum, I remembered what it sounded like and I was comparing… I was hitting things and comparing them to what was in my head, and saying, “oh, this sounds like that thing… this one doesn't quite sound like that thing.”


I love listening to sounds and comparing them. You know, for whatever reasons I might have to do that, and saying, “oh, this particular part of this sound sounds like this particular part of that sound…” Like, they have the potential to latch onto each other. Or, “gosh, these sounds have nothing in common. You know, the format and the quality of the brightness of this sound is completely out of whack with this other one, I don't see how those could happen in conjunction with each other. So we're going to put them together,” or you know, whatever it is.


But as a percussionist who played a lot of non-pitched percussion instruments in orchestral and other settings, I listen to a lot of different sounds. That's opposed to other instrumentalists who mostly listen to their instrument’s sound. I mean, not to pick on euphonium players or anything, but if I played euphonium in college and I played in the marching band or whatever, in the concert band - and they don't let you all in the orchestras - but you know, other places… If I played euphonium and I was serious about playing euphonium, I would hear a lot of euphonium. I would hear recordings, I would probably listen to recordings of other people playing euphonium.


As a percussionist, that wasn't my experience. It was that, I hear thousands of different sounds in a week and have to be intentionally listening to the quality of them, and I guess that led me down to my interest in orchestration and combination of different things and the particularities of timbres. I wish I had time to do more electronic music. You know, no one commissions you to write fixed-media playback pieces. I've never been commissioned, or I don't know who that would be, like some AI would commission you to do this thing or something. But I would really love to explore more sounds through the medium of electronic music, through spatialization.


I mean, we have a Dolby Atmos system here at Penn State… I could spatialize in that. I would love to spend more time doing that, because I love sound so much. But, I'm writing pieces that I'm collaborating with other people on, mostly pieces I've been commissioned to write and nobody wants a fixed media playback piece.


So, I can explore sounds in other ways. You know, I really love the music of Helmut Lachenmann. I'm really inspired by the treatment of instruments and the variety of sounds. I don't write music like that. Maybe I should.


But that's the other thing, I don't write music that sounds like all the music I love. My music also doesn't sound like Morton Feldman's music. You know, I'm a huge fan of Anthony Green. Anthony Green is a much different composer than I am, so… Somewhere along the line, there’s a separation between the music that I love and the music that I write, and the music that I write is all different from piece to piece which is one thing about my performance experience that informs my composing.


Having performed so much in so many different settings, different styles, different settings with different ensembles, I performed virtually every kind of music. Every kind of western music, at least. And a lot of non-western music, but not all. But I loved all that stuff. You kind of have to as a performer. You know, you have to do a good job performing this music, you have to get to know it, you have to practice it, and I developed, somehow, a way of loving all the music that I was playing. I don't remember having to play something that was like, a gig or something, where I was like, “well, it’s a gig, I got to do it… but oh God, I hate this.” That was never me. I loved all that stuff.


So, the problem is now, as a composer, I still love everything. That has kept me from having a voice. That means that if you listen to my piece “Dreamer,” and you listen to my piece “...into emptiness...,” it sounds like they're by two different composers. And I love both of those pieces. They both sound like me to me, but they really sound like they're by different composers.


TK:

I think it's interesting, because I wouldn't say they sound like different composers. I know it's your music when I hear it, but the versatility is fascinating to me.


BS:

Well, they both have saxophone, so… you know.


TK:

I know we've kind of probably touched on this a little bit, but I want to ask you more directly… What would you describe as the primary pillars of your creative practice?


BS:

Oh, I don't even know what that means, but I'll tell you what… I'll interpret it.


There's two sides to that. One would be my approach to composing that I think of. When you say “primary pillars,” I think: what is my basis for composing? From a technical standpoint, from a metaphorical standpoint. And the other thing is, what is it that drives me? These are two different things.


So, one thing that I alluded to earlier is the connection between composition process, musical material, and representation. Imagine a triangle, with three points… which triangles have. And one of the points is representation which is like… This triangle is a piece, representation is like what is it that this piece is dealing with or representing, if anything. Doesn't have to be something.


Another point is process. That includes the technique of the composition, right? The approach to composing it. The things that aren't dealing with, “what does it mean?” But I view the technique as the “how” and I'll tell you why in a second.


And the third part is the musical material. So, I might have some pitches that I'm interested in using, a pitch collection, or maybe a harmony, or maybe a rhythm, or maybe just a timbre. Those things don't necessarily have extra musical meaning inherently, and they also aren't brought to life through the animation of some kind of technique or behavior. They're just abstract musical sounds or ideas.


So the question is, how do you bring to life this musical material so that it represents this other thing that you're inspired by, if there is another thing… And the how is the technique. “How do you do that?” The answer is always going to be the technique. That could be very highly systematic, or It could be fairly intuitive, which I also view - now we know - is also systematic.


So, that obsession with the connection of those three things, I would say, is a pillar, if you will. But the other thing, then, is people.

People are important to me composing. I'm inspired by people who are around me. I have a lot of pieces that are based on people. I have a piece called “Lou.” People think that piece is dedicated to, or written for, Lou Harrison, but it's actually not.


That piece is written for my grandfather Louis T Pape ,who died the year that I wrote that piece and his nickname was Lou. And he used to always say, “you should use more Indian music in your music,” and stuff like that. He was not from the Indian side of my family, but he said that several times to me. Something about using… like, he didn't say the words “non-western,” but you know that's what he was referring to. Like, “oh, you should incorporate these other things."


That's the first piece that I did incorporate those other things. That's also the first piece I wrote after my four year hiatus not writing for percussion, and it happens to use the same instrumentation as Lou Harrison's Concerto for Violin and Percussion Orchestra, except instead of violin, it’s cello. So, I let the assumption be that this piece is dedicated to Lou Harrison.


I have a piece called “Gogi,” an orchestra piece. Gogi is a typical nickname in India, like a pet name that people have. That's my dad's nickname, like his family… we call him Gogi. Of course, my dad's name is Baljinder, same as mine.


And I have a piece called “Two Trees.” I don't know if it's odd or not, but kind of oddly enough, my wife's name is Theresa and my mother's name is Theresa. Do with that what you will. This piece is really about the two of them, two trees, but it's also this piece that deals with this concept of two different things kind of mixing together and becoming part of the same family. Which is what happens when you get married. And so, a lot of my pieces have this family kind of drive behind them that a lot of times I don't even talk about.


TK:

Yeah, actually now that you mentioned it, does your Indian heritage, does that manifest in your music in very overt ways? Or, is it more people related, like about your father?


BS:

Yeah, I mean, overt ways… there’s two ways that it would manifest. One is technical, like the first manifestations wasn’t - I don't know if I would even call it a manifestation - it was like, I learned about the Korvais. I learned what a Korvai is, that concept is really interesting, I'm going to use that in my music. It's not… I could have, you know, not had a father from India and still done that. It wasn't because of that.


So I don't know what the manifestation of it would be except, of course, I grew up very exposed to that culture and listening to music from India. I mean, I said my parents weren't classical musicians playing classical music. That's true. But my dad listened to Indian music… music from India, I should say, all the time, including Bollywood type music, and all of that's part of that intuition. You know it's part of my intuition. I mean, I hear this sort of ornamentation a lot…


I have I have a piece called “Sutra," that's a solo piano piece that was composed for this Beyond Bollywood show that was presented in New York. Arunesh Nagir, the pianist who premiered it, commissioned this piece to be a piece that is an expression of Indian art, Indian music, that’s not Bollywood music. And so, this piece uses an Indian scale - as much as I could use an Indian scale on a piano. You know what I mean? So, there's various examples of that.


I mean my piece “Compass,” with the 8 movements, each movement is a different direction like Niruthi, and Vayu, and Yama. These are Indian architectural directions, like things that are facing South, Southwest, Southeast, all these have different meanings. So, there's various ways that I've tapped into that, but I wouldn't say overtly. I wouldn't say… that's not my thing, you know what I mean? Like, it's not something that I'm setting out to do in the way that some other composers might. And might do it more effectively than I would, because I didn't grow up speaking the language necessarily, or just listening to music from India, and so it's a small part…. It's half of who I am, you know?


I remember saying my solo piano piece “Sutra”… it's a half Indian piece by a half Indian composer and if you listen to it, it kind of sounds halfway Indian and that's me.


TK:

Yeah, that's cool. I mean, we've been talking about your influences plenty, but I want to ask you about your influences a little more broadly, and I know that one book that has played an important role in your creative work is Carlos Castaneda’s Journey to Ixtlan.


I know that you have at least one piece that draws on this book… I'm thinking of your piano concerto, “Death is an Advisor,” and I'm sure there are other examples across your portfolio. But what has. been the impact of “Journey to Ixtlan” on your work and your process and your practice?


BS:

Yeah, you know, when I got tenure at Penn State there was a tenure ceremony and everyone who got tenure that year had to pick one book that the library would buy your edition of - the edition that you owned. And they would put it on display with a statement underneath it that you wrote about answering this question, basically. I don't remember what I wrote, but this is the book I picked.


I picked “Journey to Ixtlan.” I remember going to the ceremony. It was like, there's my book that I picked and it's the same edition of the one that I own. Which, you can't see, but I'm holding this up and I have this… I've had this book for a long time. So, you're asking me a question about this book's influence on my music or what I got from this.


Carlos Castaneda was an anthropologist and a lot of his writings are accounts of his studies that often center around, essentially, challenging reality. I mean one of his books, not this one, is called “A Separate Reality.” So, this book, “Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan,” he was a sort of an apprentice to Don Juan who was a Yaqui Indian “shaman” or “sorcerer,” right? And he would spend time with Don Juan, learning his way of life and culture, and this book is an account of lessons that he learned from Don Juan.


A lot of these lessons are really lessons about challenging yourself. I mean, before, we were talking about musical truth and the danger of thinking you know what music should be. And this is kind of like that, but not necessarily music.


But understanding your intentions and having expectations of yourself that go outside of what you might typically imagine. Being open to alternate realities. I mean, stopping the world is a really great concept. Well, you mentioned “Death is an Advisor," but I also have a piece called “Stopping the World” that is based on the stopping the world lesson in this book. That's something I thought a lot about. Death is an advisor is also one of the lessons, which is the lesson that essentially says, everything that you do, all those decisions you make in your life are based on the fact that you know that you're gonna die, and it could happen anytime. But you aren't conscious of that. Your decisions, even subconsciously, your decisions are made even on the idea that you know subconsciously that you're gonna die. And that advises you on the things that you do.


That's kind of an interesting idea that you're being advised by your fate all the time. And there's kind of sub lessons to that that are in this book. But you know, I guess… I mean, I read this book- the first time I read this book I was eighteen. It was recommended to me by an English teacher at a community college, who was like, “I think you would like this book.” I can't remember even why she recommended. I Wish I remember who that was so I could thank her. But I went and found the book at a used bookstore, the same one I got that Copland book from, and I read it and, to me, it was kind of really magical at the time, you know.


I've since found out that there's all kinds of interpretations of these concepts, not just magical ones. But I found this to be really magical, and I guess as an eighteen year old that was great. It's gone from being magical, though, to me, to being more like experiential in a conscious way, where it's like, “oh, I understand why that was magical before.” So, stopping the world, for example, and flow, if you know the concept of flow… Flow is like the scientific version of stopping the world. Flow takes into account brain capacity and things like that. Somewhere in between that would be mindfulness, right? So, I guess it's all of those things that this book has spawned those interests in me, and understanding myself, and that's really what it is. It’s that the book challenged me… challenged who I thought I was. It still does.


TK:

I'm not sure if I'm outing you when I say this, but… you gave this book to me as a graduation present. I don't know if you did that for anyone else.


BS:

I didn’t. I don't think so. I don't think I did… I might have, but I don't think so.


TK:

I found it to be really important-


BS:

I don’t think I've given anyone else a graduation gift. You should edit that out.


TK:

Oh, okay. Well, I just want to say that when I first encountered this book it came at this transitional point in my life, and I thought that was really… it was a really important time for me to read it. And so… I haven't read it since then, it's been about 10 years. Maybe I should…


BS:

Yeah, read it again. You know, I did that. I pick it up sometimes and I read it years apart. Every piece I write isn't based on something in this book. In fact, I'm about due! Thanks to the reminder. I think it's about time. Funny enough, I need an idea for a piece that I have coming up, and so maybe I'll pick this book back up and look at that.


So my next piece that I'm writing is kind of full circle in some of my experiences that I've described today. I'm writing a piece for the 100th birthday of the University Of South Carolina School of Music, that will be premiered on the Southern Exposure Series concert in October. That was where I made all of my discoveries that changed to my life, really. That was John Fitz Rogers’ series. He's no longer directing it. He's still there. Mike Harley is now the director of Southern Exposure. Mike Carley was the bassoonist - is the bassoonist for Alarm Will Sound, and I'm writing this piece for a group called the Black Box Ensemble in New York City. That's the piece that I'm getting ready to start on and now maybe I'll pick this book up and find something that I can manifest into the piece that's meaningful.


TK:

So, I frequently talk with my composer friends and peers who attended a number of different schools, including a significant number of folks with terminal degrees from high profile programs. Which I won't name. But these are people who never encountered anything related to the kind of business side of being a composer in their studies.


Every time this comes up, I have to tell people about you. Because you've developed this curriculum for composition students that touches on every aspect of what it means to be a composer today. You teach all of these career building, or business-oriented, activities and you do it without sacrificing an actual music composition education. And people are blown away by what I tell them my experience in just two years-


BS:

Right? Well, because you’re probably teaching these people how to do things with their music that they didn't know they should be doing.


TK:

That's also true. So, I’m wondering what prompted you to develop the curriculum that you use with composers today. Were these skills that you had to figure out on your own, or is it more an amalgamation of skills that you’ve picked up from composers you've studied with over the years?


BS:

I would say they're mostly skills I figured out on my own out of necessity. I’ll say this question's funny, because today I got three texts today from three different former students letting me know, “hey, I got my ASCAP royalty,” because yesterday was a distribution day for publisher royalties for ASCAP. And so my students… I have people like, randomly texting me like, “hey I got my ASCAP royalty, thanks again for teaching me how to do all that stuff.” That's great. That's the necessity I mean.


I'll tell you two things. One is, yeah, these are skills I've slowly realized I needed to have as a composer, regardless of my students or the teaching part of it or anything like that. There's things that I found myself doing more and more often or learning about as a composer that were useful to my career and to my well-being and to my survival, that I viewed as just another kind of thing that a composer should know about and do. And so when it came time for me to teach composers, that just seemed like such a normal thing to teach.


I always tell people that I don’t teach people how to compose music, that I teach people how to be composers. Being a composer means so much more than just composing music. There's other things that being a composer includes, right? So, I like that idea of being a composer, of doing all the things that composers do, not just composing music. I like the idea of teaching people how to be composers, which includes, of course, primarily a focus on craft of composition. But there's a whole lot of other things that I do as a composer that are outside of just composing music why would I not also teach those things to students?


One of my professors in graduate school once said… we were talking about commission fees. And I would say that Bob Morris, probably more than anyone, Bob Morris instilled, at least, the sense that there's a need for me to care about the business part of my composition career and pay attention to it. But only for the reason that I was deserving. And this - I'll never forget this. There was a meeting and we were talking about commission fees and we're talking about royalties and asking for payment for things… We ask- As composers who write the kind of music that we do and with the kind of backgrounds that we have, young composers oftentimes will feel like they're not deserving or that this isn't the kind of music that makes money, so I'm not going to ask for money. “Oh I'm just happy to get the performance.”


So we were talking about this and Bob Morris was citing different pop stars. I'll never forget - it was like, “well, so and so made this album that generated you know $6 million for them that year. How long… how much time and effort do you think they put into making that album to make $6 million from that album? Okay, and compare that time and effort to the time and effort that you put into your recent orchestra piece that you wrote. Do you feel like your time and effort isn't as deserving as as theirs? Because you're wrong if you don’t, because it is deserving.”


It was in a class, actually, and he said “You all deserve to be compensated fairly for the music that you're making that no one else can make.” And, you know, maybe not $6 million - of course, maybe you deserve that. But that's not the expectation… but, don’t feel like you should be hesitant to advocate for yourself when it comes to the business of your compositions. And so, we didn't learn how to do those things in that meeting, but that was the time that I realized I should do those things. I need- actually, you know, we're all struggling… gosh, I had no money at all, you know, and I was working so hard. I was like, “why am I working so hard for no money?” I could have been getting money. I could have been, at least to buy food, you know?


So, I started paying more attention. I didn't dive deep into music business or something and run off and get a degree, but I did start paying attention. I started reading more - we had the internet by then - so I was able to look things up. And I started benefiting from that, actually. From that effort to pay more attention to the business part of what I was doing. I started benefiting from it. When I say benefiting, I mean the way that you think I do. I made some money. Not a ton, but it was like, “that's possible.” It's possible to do that. And when I first started teaching, I didn't think about teaching that stuff. Until I saw students struggling the way I was struggling financially, which was right when I started teaching, by the way.


You know, I realized, “oh, all these people are in the same position that I was in. I should tell them what I did.” Not that it solves all your problems, but you know, hey, I should make them aware of this thing and that thing and this grant and that thing over there and have them… I should make an assignment where they all write a grant proposal that's a fake one, but then they know how to do it. And then a contract for a commission, then they know what to include or not to include in it. They should know how to organize a consortium commission. They should know how to report performances to a performance rights organization. They should know how to investigate performance rights organization so they know which one to join and how to register the pieces.


And the list goes on. It’s like, composers need to know how to do these things. Why are we not teaching all of them how to do it? So, I made a sequence of class assignments that are actually… you know, aren't really assignments. They're real-life things and when my students do these assignments they might make a little bit of money. Nothing groundbreaking, but then they learn how to do it. If they want to go bigger with it later, they have skills. They have the documents, they have the knowledge.


So when I said it was out of necessity I really kind of meant that. Like I needed that for myself as a composer and then I recognized later we all kind of need this and I should be teaching this to people. It's part of composing. Otherwise, you might find yourself doing a ton of work, putting a lot of energy into composing music, and struggle to survive - like literally… like, “I can't spend time doing that anymore because I need to buy groceries, and to buy groceries I need to go work at this other place or something.”


But, you know, maybe you can do that. Maybe you deserve to be able to do the thing that you're spending a lot of time and energy on and there's ways to find support for it. This isn't me saying it's easy to be a freelance composer. I'm not a freelance composer. I don't know if I could be a freelance composer and survive like in a comfortable way. I know how. I know what the system is like. I’d have to teach some lessons and do some other things but I want my students to know what the system's like as well. So they can navigate it and benefit from it when the time comes.


TK:

The other facet of this that I love about what you do and what I loved about being a student of yours was that it's not like this was all separate from… the main thing. Like, this was all integrated into composition lessons, in addition to - for example - I know at a lot of places, orchestration class is its own separate thing, but that was-


BS:

Oh gosh, don't get me going on that.


TK:

Yeah, but you know, you integrated that, as well. It wasn’t like… here's a bunch of spokes in the wheel, go take the class it was-


BS:

When I came to Penn State I had already been at USF, and we got rid of the orchestration class. Paul Reller is also partly, or equally, deserving of credit for getting rid of that orchestration class. But when I came to Penn State, the first thing I did was I canceled the orchestration class. I said, there's not going to be an orchestration class at Penn State, no instrumentation orchestration class. And everyone was like, “what?? How are they going to learn… like you don't want the composers to learn…?”


And my stance was, instrumentation and orchestration, is way too important to have a one or two semester class on it. It's way too important for that. We're going to study orchestration and instrumentation - for the undergrad level - we’re going to study for eight semesters. They're gonna have exams and quizzes every semester for eight semesters on instrumentation and orchestration to the point where they're going to be fluent in that information when they graduate. They're going to see the major benefits of knowing that information when they compose. They're not going to need to look things up in books.


They're not going to take an orchestration class and tell me all the ways to say the instruments in German and get an A, and then tell me all the ranges, sounding and written, of all the orchestral instruments and get an A. And then go on to the next semester and not think about that stuff anymore, and then in three semesters have to write a piece for saxophone quartet and they don't know the ranges of them or how they transpose, even though they got an A in the orchestration class, you know?


That was also part of the curriculum design. I mean, we're kind of talking about curriculum design here. And the curriculum that I am running has four components to it:


The composition component, which is what we're all doing. That's the main focus. That's what we want to get better at. There's the career building component, which is the things that you need to know about as a composer. How to disseminate your music, how to collect some income from it, all that stuff. Business stuff- so, composing, the business stuff - which I just call career building - things that build other parts of your career. Then there's weekly readings and those weekly readings include readings from orchestration books… learning instrument ranges and translations and also readings of writings by composers. We do a different book every semester, every year. Like, “In Her Own Words,” we do the Duckworth "Talking Music,” and there's a whole set of books they get through. And then there's the listening. And the listenings are listening to music and looking at scores by composers, usually the ones who you're reading about, so it's all kind of really integrated. It is a weekly… so when you have a lesson that week, all of that stuff is expected and it is kind of like integrated and connected to each other.


Again, these are all things you just need to be a composer, you know?

TK:

When do you - and that can be you specifically or like when you advise people, I suppose, as well - When do you know when to be independent with your work? Like, for example ,self-publishing sheet music… versus, reliant on other institutions or organizations. Like, using a record label for releasing music? And those are just two quick examples that spring to mind. I'm sure there are others.


BS:

Oh yeah, that's a good question. I mean, skill set has a lot- skill set and time. For me, time is more of a factor here. But do I know how to self-publish a piece of music of mine and sell the sheet music to it and distribute that and then do I I understand how to collect like the publisher royalties on performances of that? Like, that's skill set stuff.


Two: time. Do I have time to field orders of my music people are buying it? Am I going to put it in envelopes and send it to them? Do I have time to do all that? If I have the skills and I have the time, I'd rather do it myself, right? I'd rather be the one doing that and receive all the financial benefits of doing that. But also, stay in control of my music. That’s… you know, the same questions can be asked of something like recordings being released. Do I know how to get recordings of my music placed on streaming platforms and in the hands of the right people? If I'm looking for advertising or reviewers or whatever it is. Like, yeah, do I have the connections to do that? So, maybe the skills, connection, then time in this case, because recordings are different. Because connections are a different thing.


And so, really, I think those are the questions, and the answer of whether you should do it or get someone else to do it depends on your answers to those questions. My recordings tend to all be released by record labels. You know, the two albums that are dedicated to my music are both on Innova Records. They have the knowledge, they have the skills, right? And that's their thing. So, of course, they have the time to do that. They do things that I couldn't do and I recognize that and that's when I decide to hand it off.


There’s fourteen other albums that have my music on it. All except three of those, I think, are also on record labels. Two of them are albums out of Portugal and the saxophone and piano duo who put out these two albums, they figured all this stuff out. They're dedicated to it. They have time to do it. They're sort of self-released. They get features and reviews and stuff like that. Honestly, I don't know if I could do that. I could release an album. I could get it on streaming platforms and things like that. But, the promotion part of it…


TK:

It's like a full time job. Yeah.


BS:

It's like a full time job. That's different than promoting sheet music, because sheet music is kind of promoted by performances or emails. I mean, it's really easy to promote music.


TK:

Yeah, set up an SEO on your website and let people figure it out, right?


What do you think you'd be doing if it wasn't making music? And, I say making music, because you know, when I've asked this question to people they might say, “well, I would be performing. I wouldn't be a composer.” So, if music was out of the equation altogether, what do you think you'd be doing?


BS:

This is a really tough question because I also don't know when I decided to go into music. I never chose, so… you know, I started doing this when I was seven, and by the end of high school, I was still doing it and it was like the it was like living, you know what I mean? Like I couldn't imagine… it was part of my daily routine. It was part of life. So, I never chose to go into music. I told you about the moment I chose to be a composer, but I was already into… You know, I was gonna be in music, for sure. So I never chose to go into music.


So, what would I have done… I didn't have a second choice, really. So it makes it a little difficult to answer this, except what could I imagine myself doing?


I played a lot of sports when I was younger. I always thought - not when I was younger - but now, when I think back, like I always think like… I could have kept playing baseball. I was pretty good. I was a catcher. I also had a home run record of the little leagues that I was on. I could hit. I really wanted to be a wide receiver. But I wasn't allowed to play football. My dad wouldn't let me play football… that wasn't like part of- he didn't understand that part of the culture, at the time, I think. It wasn't something everybody did and so that was kind of a bummer, because I think I could have been a wide receiver. I always say I could have been a wide receiver in the NFL, you know. I’m the right height, I was quick… like, if I had just kept working out and doing it and was allowed I could have done that.


So, who knows? I might have done something in sports. Which there's a lot of similarities between being in sports and being in music. Maybe I would have been a coach instead of a professor of composition. Otherwise, it's hard to imagine what other skill sets do I have that I also have a love for the thing. There's not a lot there. You know, I mean, there's not a lot there because it was always occupied by music… aside from you know, sports.


I could have gone into a workforce that didn't require college education. That's probably what I would have done. I probably would have done something like what my dad did. He worked for a natural gas company in Washington, DC his whole career was with that company. And I probably would have tried to work for that, dealing with like natural gas infrastructure and stuff like that.


TK:

Yeah. I can't imagine that.


BS:

Yeah, that would have been great. I have a uniform, I have the shirt that says “Baljinder” on the name tag, that was my dad’s… that’s the natural gas worker.


TK:

Is there a tool that you use in your practice that you think everyone should know about? And I'm sure there's a ton of tools, but can you pick one that everyone else could benefit from?


BS:

Oh, I don't know… I mean, everyone's different. So, no.


But, I will say that I would encourage everyone to think about that connection between compositional technique, musical materials, and what your music represents. I just find when my students focus on, that they come across ways of composing music and expressing what they want to express that I think are pretty unique.


And people aren't conscious enough of thinking about the how. How do you take this chord that I love and bring it to life? And how how do I do that? What is the approach? What's the process? What techniques do I need, what language am I going to speak when I say this thing? And I would say everyone can relate to that, because there’s - dare I say - no piece of music that starts in a place anywhere other than those three places. With musical material, with a technical idea, or with a metaphorical idea. What else is there?


So, I think everyone could probably at least relate to that concept.


TK:

Yeah, I know when I learned about it ten years ago, it changed my life… changed my work.


BS:

Well, it makes you ask questions and that's what's so great about it. So, the tool that I would say everyone could use, is ask questions. Not just ask questions, but question what you're doing. Is it right? Is it the best? What if?


TK:

My final question and - you know, we've talked about a lot of different things and I've learned a lot about you through this conversation…. so, maybe there is no answer to this. But, I have to ask you anyway. What is something that you've never had a chance to say about your music and your art that you've always wanted to share with people?


BS:

Well if I wanted to share something, then I probably have already shared it. But, I'll tell you something I think about a lot that I don't say out loud. Which is that, the pieces that I'm most proud of and that I feel like are the most interesting and unique and express ideas that I have about life and other things, are the pieces that never get played. No one plays my favorite pieces of mine.


I could say what they are but you're not going to be able to find recordings of them because they don't get played, and I kind of wish… the the way that composers’ curiosity drives them in these interesting different directions, I wish all performers - because we already have a lot of performers who do - but I wish all performers would have a curiosity for performing things that are also going in those different directions and discovering.


I'll write a piece that maybe isn't completely adventurous. You know, like I can relate it to some other music like, “oh, this piece kind of reminds me of this other thing.” That's a piece that's going to get played a lot. I write a piece that I think, “I've never seen anything like this before,” and then no one plays it.


TK:

Yes, I feel that.


BS:

I have this piece called “Show Us How to Live” that I had a premiere of it, and it wasn't recorded, and there's no record of this thing existing and there's no score to the piece because it's a video score that you have to do in real time. And I just can't get anyone to do this thing. Like, I'm gonna have to pay some people to do this piece?


But, I think that's a thing. I said that once to one other composer who said, “same with me,” and so that might just be a thing for us… is like, what can I do to further share and promote the pieces that I am most proud of hat no one is paying attention to?


You know, maybe they're just for me, though.


TK:

Yeah, oh man, that's that's good stuff.


Well, Baljinder… I know that we could talk forever about this kind of stuff. But we'll quit while we're ahead and I just want to thank you for your time. Thank you for sharing and I'm really excited to share this with- I think a lot of composers are going to get a lot out of this.


BS:

Great. Well, thank you so much for asking me to do this and it's always nice to talk with you.


 

music/Maker with Tyler Kline on the web: https://www.looseleaftransmissions.com/musicmaker


Follow us on social media!



107 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page