Best of Scene

The art of composition in PLU’s celebrated music department

By Barbara Clements
The four notes in front of Jim Brown are supposed to sound like a blooming sunflower.
Greg Youtz

Podcast: Greg Youtz

But when he hit “play” on the computer screen, Brown, PLU’s vocal studies chair, cast an apologetic glance over his shoulder. No, those odd metallic chords coming out of his computer weren’t quite it.

“Here’s what I heard in my head,” Brown said, walking over in a long stride to the baby grand tucked in the corner and splaying a hand that looked more like a boxer’s than a musician’s across an octave.

Rich, burnished tones float from the keyboard and unfold into the picture of a sunflower.

David Joyner

Podcast: David Joyner

And that’s it for now. When Brown spotted me scribbling down the key, a shadow flitted across his eyes. You see, he said, this is a germ of an idea he has for a larger piece. He doesn’t want anyone else to take the same triad and rush it into publication.

Welcome to the world of composing. It’s competitive.

“I tell the worried parents who come to see me after their child decides they want to become a composer, it’s like wanting to become a poet – they may want to have a backup plan,” laughed PLU’s chief composer, Greg Youtz. “Like teach or maybe drive a forklift.”

Jim Brown

Podcast: Jim Brown

Composing is a solitary craft, one where the muse visits at odd times: during the morning commute, just as sleep blurs the conscious mind or in a stolen snippet of time before class. Inspiration can come from just about anything. From another song, such as the piece Brown fiddled with, to jackhammers, the revving of an engine, dripping of the rain or the growl of a dragon.

When the muse does come, she doesn’t tarry long. Some have resorted to pushing the memo button on their cell phone to hum a few notes while driving and others quickly scribble riffs into tattered notebooks.

Most composers won’t let you watch as they fiddle with stray notes that dart into their heads. Composers consider watching them at work about as exciting as watching compost mulch.

Clement Reid

Podcast: Clement Reid

“My kids have been watching me do this for years, and mostly all they see is me sitting in silence,” Youtz said. “It’s all going on inside of my head.”

It’s also a rather odd craft to explain. When pushed, many composers stall as they try to translate how an initial idea becomes an orchestral or a jazz piece.

“It’s a lot of staring out the window for hours before you finally start writing something,” said David Joyner, PLU’s director of jazz studies. “Then you just have to reach down and pull it out.”

Or not. Joyner and others admitted that sometimes the ideas and notes elbow each other to get onto the page. Joyner recalls once writing an entire piece in 45 minutes. Some composers work from a small collection of notes to a larger piece or, like Youtz, begin with an entire orchestral piece chiming in their heads.

“I guess a true composer believes against all common sense that making a piece of music is an important act,” Youtz mused. “It’s an important act, worth all the time and sweat, where you lie awake at night thinking about it.”

Often those commissioning the composer set the boundaries of what they want. The artist then has to make the notes fit to cartoon characters, the mood of the movie or the sleek car whizzing by on the TV screen.

But even here, composers find ways to bend the rules.

David Robbins, music department chair, remembered a piece he was commissioned to write for the Bicentennial in 1976. Rather than go the John Philip Sousa route, he chose to craft a piece around Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, “The Bells.” Not exactly toe-tapping stuff.

With a commission often comes a deadline. Most composers will tell you there’s nothing like that date circled in red to get the muse coyly shimmying into the room.

About 15 years ago, a colleague asked Richard Nance, director of choral activities, to write a piece for a Puyallup choir. The structure and notes finally began to emerge during Christmas at his sister’s house in Wyoming. Nance tried to tune out the homey laughter upstairs as he mulled over his piece, eventually named “The Magnificat,” in the downstairs den. Sis had no piano, so

Nance had to compose the piece entirely in his head.

“Still, I think now, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” Nance said, as he reads through the piece, now, on an autumn afternoon. The Virgin Mary’s part, crafted by a lyric soprano, floats up and pirouettes between late fall sunbeams.

This is a profession dominated by men. All those interviewed for this story, save one – Cindy McTee ’76, a PLU alum now at the University of North Texas – were men.

“Whenever I tell people what I do for a living, I’m not sure they are more surprised by my profession or that I’m a woman composer,” McTee said.

McTee focuses on orchestration for wind instruments. Composing, she noted, is a bossy profession.

“You have to assert how a person will play this note or that note,” McTee said. “You have to tell them how fast, how loud, and frankly, boys are encouraged to be more assertive than girls in our society.”

At this point, McTee quickly backtracks and points out she received plenty of encouragement and support from the men at PLU. She is now counted as one of the first, and one of the most prestigious, graduates of a PLU program that has gained national and international recognition.

Both Youtz and Nance have become well known in national and international circles for their work in band and choral composition, respectively. In the late 1960s, Joseph Schwanter, who would later go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for “Aftertones of Infinity,” taught at PLU.

Graduates, such as Brad Bodine ’87, have also won national acclaim. His work, called “Kaleidoscope: Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra,” was recorded by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, and will soon be released on the MMC label.
The genesis of PLU’s composition program came out of one man’s love for odd tunes.

While many composers trek through teaching and academia – the mortgage must be paid regardless of the muse’s calling, after all – Robbins took a slightly different path. He graduated with a degree in music and entered grad school at the University of Michigan when William Bolcom, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1988 for “12 New Etudes for Piano,” and Ross Lee Finney taught there. The hallways were filled with advant garde notes that Robbins was sure his parents would never understand. “Moon River,” yes, this stuff, no.

Robbins tried commercial composing – think of that catchy tune for green beans – for a big-name company, but he found the competition and back-stabbing distasteful.

Truly it was “insert peppy music here,” he recalled. “So you’d come up with something like ‘digga, digga, digga’ for the pictures of industrial machines.”

He arrived at PLU in 1969. With the blessing of his predecessor as department chair, the late Maurice Skones, Robbins started the composition program.

He seems to collect talent at PLU as one might collect choice Chihulys. Youtz, McTee, Clement Reid and Gregory Bowers. Other professors – such as Brown and Joyner – compose as well. That makes PLU unusual, Youtz noted. Typically, composers are considered the class nerds by the rest of the music profs and are generally ignored or avoided.

“This is a very friendly place to be,” Youtz said. “Everyone is interested in the act of composition.”

Youtz speculated that many composers end up in the trade because they play an instrument no one bothers to write for. In his case, it was the bassoon. He remembers listening to a piece written by a classmate for a woodwind quartet in high school and being astounded.

So he went home, wrote a piece for the bassoon and flute and woke up the flutist, his sister, insisting they give it a run through that very night. His sister, reluctantly, complied.

Composers are obsessive that way.

In college, Youtz trekked home to Olympia on breaks and spent his entire vacation copying some score that had caught his ear. His parents didn’t understand why their son didn’t relax.

“Day after day, I’d be twiddling these notes on a page with an ink pen, and it looked like an amazing amount of tedium to them,” he said. These stray scribblings and musings often hold the seeds of some of the best pieces.

Youtz tried to drive home the point of great things coming from snippets of ideas at a musical composition workshop tucked in a corner of Eastvold Hall on a rainy Tuesday night. After drawing a purple squiggle on the whiteboard, he tossed the pen to one of 10 students in the room.

As each student took a stab at enlarging the squiggle, the drawing began to look a bit like an Etch-a-Sketch that’s downed too many espresso shots. However, Youtz patiently complimented each student’s addition, and finally brought the whole exercise to a halt by drawing eyes and teeth among the random lines, revealing a hidden dragon.

Game over.

He called himself on providing a “cheap ending” to this piece and hummed out “shave and a hair cut, two bits.” Don’t do this with your compositions, he told the group. While a piece may “quote” from Stravinsky or Tchaikovsky, a composer can’t bail on the piece, write the musical equivalent “ta da” and expect it to work.

Doodling out the nut of an idea – for example Beethoven started with da-da-da DUM for his Fifth Symphony – is a good place to start, he said.

Youtz said he can draw inspiration from nails clinking together or water dripping into a koi pond. He’s constantly playing tunes in his head. He rarely turns on the radio in the car – much to the annoyance of his wife – since the tunes are already coming through loud and clear.

Of late, he’s drawn much of his inspiration from the Far East, taking two sabbaticals to China, the first by happenstance in 1992 and the second by invitation in 2005. Chinese music focuses much more on string instruments and blurs the boundaries between different pitches more than its Western counterpart.

“The most we see that happening in Western music is on the violin or in opera, where a singer may scoop up a note,” he said.

His travels to China are evident in his piece on water dragons. The notes twist and undulate with a sinewy and slick undertone in the background, and the image of a dragon gliding through water appears.

Just what separates the good from the bad in music? This brings a long silence from the PLU composers. One gets the feeling that either they think you’re an idiot, so why bother, or that there are so many answers, crafting a response is overwhelming.
To some, it’s a matter of taste. Joyner, who has written the book “American Popular Music,” said there is no such thing as a bad piece of music.

But good music, really great music, will evoke a reaction in the listener, be it classical, pop or just strange. There will be emotion, foot pounding or tears. A good piece has pacing, a tension, a climax and lulls. It asks more questions than it answers. Like a lover, it knows how to push your buttons.

Robbins, who wrote that piece for the Bicentennial 30 years ago, hoped to evoke all this when he premiered it for a music symposium in Ellensburg, Wash. The piece broke all the rules. It had a joyous beginning, a wedding movement, one of war and then a funeral wrap-up. The climax was at the middle instead of the “golden section,” usually marked two-thirds of the way through a piece. It was a percussion piece coiled together with electronic, new age sounds.

All this for a largely silver-haired audience, with a few locks tinted light blue. When he walked into the room, Robbins looked up to see eight-foot high ceilings capped off by tiles. The acoustics are going to be awful, he thought.

Robbins was certain this was going to be a disaster. Still, he worked gamely through the 10-minute piece and wrapped up the long meditative ending. The tape clicked off. Total silence.

“I just started to walk out of the room when the applause started, and then they got to their feet,” Robbins said.
All the heartache paid off. One lady approached Robbins afterward and thanked him, telling him the piece was wonderful and reminded her of her “Aunt Bertha.” After checking her face to make sure she liked this Aunt Bertha, Robbins realized she was giving him a compliment.

Now, 30 years later, Robbins holds the lessons of this odd composition close to his heart.

“It showed me that any serious music can find an appreciative audience,” he said. “It can cross the generations.”