My Top 10 Composers

*Disclaimer: This list tends to fluctuate on an almost a weekly basis as there are numerous composers that I admire and respect. The composers that have made this current list are the ones that end up on this list most often when someone asks me this question and are in no particular order of ranking .  When you reach the bottom, I encourage you to comment on some of your favorite composers and add to the discussion. That being said, lets get on with it.

#10: Gustav Holst

Who are they: An English composer responsible for the first original concert band piece  (Suite in Eb)and composer of The Planets among other fantastic works.

Why is he/she a favorite: He wrote some of the first band music, my favorite large scale orchestral piece (The Planets) and was also a trombone player. His story of how hard he worked in his lifetime by teaching himself to compose, deal with  having a weak constitution, and teaching many, I find inspiring. Also,I love his sense of melody and use of folk tunes in his works.

#9 Joe Hisaishi

Who are they: The composer behind much of the wonderful music in Hayao Miyazaki’s films. For Example: My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, Howls Moving Castle, and Princess Mononoke.

Why is he/she a favorite: Many of his melodies are breathtakingly beautiful. I was first exposed to his music when watching anime such as My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited away, and Howls Moving Castle. When I saw him playing the piano AND conducting his own pieces simultaneously thanks to you tube, he instantly became one of my favorite living composers. He not only writes notes, but knows how to make music as well.

#8 Igor Stravinsky

Who are they: The composer responsible for the alleged May 29th, 1913 riot. It was all his fault for composing The Rite of Spring.

Why is he/she a favorite: I am a sucker for rhythm and rhythmic gestures. That being said, Stravinsky’s music captures my attention in a way that most music evades. I can also appreciate how he as a composer evolved from his early Firebird Suite days and developed a distinct voice that is heard in his ballets Petrushka and The Rite of Spring and in  Histoire du soldat . Incidentally, he was also one of Frank Zappa’s favorites as well.

#7 Koji Kondo/ Junko Tamiya/Hirokazu Tanaka

Who are they: Composers behind the music for various Nintendo and Capcom Titles. To name a few: Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda (Kondo), Bionic Commando, Little Nemo, The Dream Master (Tamiya), Metroid and Super Mario Land (Tanaka).

Why is he/she a favorite:  Having grown up in the era of the Nintendo Entertainment System, I was exposed to the 8 bit music of these games on a regular basis . Composers for these games had to be extra creative because they had a much more limited sound palate and range  to work with and had to create music that looped indefinitely. Although the  midi “instruments” sounded like beeps and boops (which probably helped earn  its passe reputation with more “serious” music critics) some of these melodies are surprisingly harmonically complex.  Kondo and Tamiya and Tanaka   are grouped together because it was their music that I was first inspired to pluck out on the piano  Many of my earlier compositions (and some recent) echo their influence.

#6 John Mackey

Who are they: Self made composer known for writing lively pieces with lots of percussion and ostinatos.

Why is he/she a favorite:  Did I mention I love Rhythm?  Also, his blog is a bowl of fun to read and he has an adorable cat. Musically speaking, I remember playing “Strange Humors” for the first time in All College Band and thinking “Woah!,  You can use Djembe in a band piece? And, I’m really allowed to gliss on my trombone? So this is what modern  band music sounds like.” Besides the fact that I enjoy his compositions, I admire him for the fact that he has literally made composing music his day job and does both the creative and business sides of music himself.

#5 Claude Debussy

Who are they: French composer labeled as an impressionist, although he probably would have disagreed with that label, according to a music history professor of mine. he Wrote the infamous Clair De Lune and  Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

Why is he/she a favorite:Because he dared to be different and not follow the conventions of Western music that he grew up with and still made beautiful music. The colors and scales he uses in his music are what draw me to it.

#4 Frank Zappa

Who are they:Composer known for his sensational stage antics, complex rock, Jazz, Classical and everything in between, and knowing everybody.

Why is he/she a favorite: Yes, I know that many people look at Frank Zappa the person and are instantly turned off by the absurdities or look at some of the vulgarities in his lyric content and are too disgusted to consider listening to the music. Just as many are probably intrigued. Personally, I try to ignore this when applicable and try to focus on the music only. That being said, he was very eclectic and resourceful, drawing on several influences, sound palates and styles. This is  a strategy I try to emulate with my own music but in my own way. Many are also unaware that he wrote classical music as well. The  style transitions in his music are also genius.Fun fact: Although he is no doubt eccentric, he did not support drug use and was relatively clean, aside from liking his Smoke and drink.

#3 George Gershwin

Who are they: A composer who successfully fused American Jazz, Tin Pan Alley and Classical and is known for Rhapsody in Blue, Porgy and Bess and An American in Paris.

Why is he/she a favorite: This man’s music is Fun to listen to. I’ve Got Rhythm, Swanee, and the tune from Rhapsody in Blue all got stuck in my head at one time or another and, unlike most ear worms, I was OK with it. Also, although I did not list any more jazz composers on this particular list, Jazz  is a genre that I enjoy listening to and it is interesting to hear the obvious influence in his music.

#2 Ralph Vaughn Williams

Who are they: An English composer who was a friend to Gustav Holst and wrote some gorgeous orchestral music in my humble opinion.

Why is he/she a favorite:  Three words: The Lark Ascending.

#1 Me…….Just Kidding

The actual # 1 is Bela Bartok

Who are they:Hungarian Composer who gathered Folk melodies, wrote pieces for students and professionals alike.

Why is he/she a favorite: As an avid lover of Folk influence in music, he is a composer up my ally. Plus, in theory classes, I sincerely enjoyed analyzing his music. It was fun to see how much thought was put into his music and it still sounds musical to me. Unlike many other pieces that I have studied, his have always been like putting a rewarding  jigsaw puzzle together. After doing the academic work to find the visual pattern on the page, the resulting sound “picture” was not torture to the ear, even with the amount of sophistication in the pieces studied. Also as a teacher, he knew how to write music that was geared towards teaching students that was also not corny (like many tunes in student level books) to listen to when playing through it. On top of that, his last name is just plain cool;cool enough for the white bat in Anastasia to share the same name.

Help to get your Creative Juices Flowing Again (composition edition)

Anyone who has done  a large amount of composing knows that  from time to time,  a creative rut can occur. But have hope. These mental blocks can’t last forever and there is help out there. Here is  a list of ideas to help with getting rid of writers block that I’ve learned over the years from others as well as from personal experience.

1) Pick an instrument and give yourself a time limit to compose (I usually do 45 minutes to an hour). After the time is up, do not touch the piece for the rest of the day. Repeat several days in a row with a new piece each time.

The best thing about this exercise is that, though whatever comes out of the session may not be a masterpiece, it gets you in the habit of writing every day and may even help you develop a more efficient way of writing down ideas and coming up with them quicker. Also you can always take fragments of these bits later and use them in a larger work. Many thanks goes to fellow composer Dan Brandt for showing me this exercise.

2) Read a book and envision a movie score.

This works best with Fiction Novels. As an example, Of Wizards and Dragons is inspired by events of the first book in The Enchanted Forest Chronicles.

3) Get a list of random subjects and pick them out of a hat.

Whatever you pick is the subject for your next work. (similarly, you can do this by putting instruments into a hat and repeating the same process) Here is a list to help you get started.

4)Step away from the Music and give your mind a break.
Sometimes doing something non-musical like taking a walk or attending a scientific lecture  can inspire in unexpected ways. When I studied with Dr. Gwen Rollin, she recounted how her former  composition teacher, Iannis Xenakis, once required his students to drive a long way to a lecture about celestial bodies. His justification : inspiration for a piece can come from any source and educating the mind is always beneficial.

5)Ask a musician friend for an assignment

…or what it is they want to hear for their instrument and write it for them. Bonus: There is a greater chance that your piece will be performed.

6)Pick 3 instruments/ styles that you have not written for yet and write a trio.

You can also apply this exercise to time signatures and voices you have not used yet in a piece.

7) Reverse your Process

If you are used to writing the melody first and then the accompaniment, try writing the accompaniment first next time. Or, vice-verse.

8)Pick 5 notes at random

This is your melody. You can further challenge yourself by allowing these to be the only pitches allowed in the piece.

9) Mirror Image

At a keyboard,  pick two pitches, preferably at least an octave apart. When one pitch goes up a third, the other pitch goes down a third for example. Try playing with various combinations. I have “accidentally” come up with germ  melodies and harmonies this way.

10) Close your eyes and don’t look at what you play.

Let your musical ear and creative heart be the only things that guide you. Don’t forget to record yourself in the process.

Most importantly, remember to Always Be Open, as anything may prove to be an inspiration for a piece.

If my fellow composers have any other suggestions to add to this list, please leave them in the comments below. And as always, Happy Composing!

Matt’s Music

I know this is old news but it is also good news. Back in early February 2013, my mom approached me over the phone and asked me to write a brass piece for students to play for the 50th Anniversary Celebration of Matt’s Music Store in Tonawanda NY. Gladly I obliged not knowing what I was getting into. For this piece, I got to practice writing music for a student level ensemble for the first time. This is something that I hope to do many more times in the future and this was a great opportunity to do so.

While I was beginning to construct the piece, it was requested that the piece be fun, attention getting, and that it include some of the music that students studying their instruments would be practicing and subsequently, the staff at the store would hear on a constant basis during student’s lessons. I then came up with the Idea of beginning with a Fanfare that made use of common chord structures and melodies like Do a dear. I then decided to make the piece go into a Polka that includes the infamous “Hot Cross Buns” because Mr. Matt is an avid accordion player who has appeared on the Lawrence Welk show. The piece then evolved into an eclectic style medley of swing (referencing the fact that the Store has a Jazz band) pop songs quotes that you may hear through the walls,and other typical lesson book songs.

All though composing this I had to keep the ability level of the players in mind and there were some things that initially did not work because of this. However, it was the process of changing things to make them more idiomatic for the students where I learned the most from this piece (thank you Mom for the guidance). Even though I was not able to be there for the premiere, I am told that the students had fun playing it and that Mr. Matt and the Audience enjoyed it. Also, it helps that those kids did a fantastic job, and my mom did great coaching the quintet, Without them, this would not have happened. All in all, it was a very rewarding experience that I am proud of and I had a BLAST doing it.

P.S. if you read this whole post and watched the video, you are AWESOME! Also, remember, Feedback is always welcome and much appreciated.