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PLU prof gets students, parents to face the music

July 8, 2008

Face the Music

Inevitably, worried parents will arrive on music professor Greg Youtz’s office doorstep after their child has announced they want to become a composer. “Now what?” the parents ask

Charged with running the university’s composition program, Youtz usually succeeds in calming the parental fears during such visits. No, composing isn’t exactly a growth industry, but for those who are called to compose, there’s really no escaping the urge.

“I tell the worried parents that come to see me, it’s like wanting to become a poet, they may want to have a backup plan,” Youtz laughed. “Like teach or maybe drive a forklift.”

Of the 700 students involved in PLU’s music program each year, maybe 160 of those are actually music majors. Within that group, there are maybe five composition majors. Many go on to attain master’s or doctorate degrees and end up teaching at universities.

Or some may decide to keep the degree as a hobby.

For Youtz, composing has always been in the forefront of a career choice. He received his bachelor, master and doctoral degrees in composition from the universities of Washington and Michigan. He arrived in 1984 as PLU’s first full-time composer.

Youtz speculated that some of his ilk ends up in the trade because they play an instrument ignored by most. In his case, it was the bassoon. He remembers listening to a piece written for a woodwind quartet in high school by a classmate and being “astounded” that he had never thought of this himself.

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

Composers are obsessive that way.

At a musical composition workshop in Lagerquist recently, Youtz used the whiteboard and a purple pen to demonstrate what goes on in a composer’s mind. He started the drawing with a purple squiggle and tossed the pen to one of 10 students in the room.

As each student took a stab at enlarging the squiggle, it began to look a bit like an Etch-A-Sketch on too much caffeine. However, Youtz patiently praised each student’s addition, explaining how each changed the whole emerging “composition.” He brought the whole exercise to a laughing halt by drawing eyes and teeth into the lines to bring out a dragon – one  of his favorite creatures.

Composing is usually a solitary craft. While some composers work from a small collection of notes to a larger piece, others, like Youtz, have entire orchestral pieces start playing in their heads.

Inspiration can come from just about anything, from another song, the revving of an engine or wind howling through the trees.  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 say that sometimes the ideas and notes elbow each other to get out of their heads and onto the page. Joyner once recalls writing an entire piece in 45 minutes. Some composers work from a small collection of notes to a larger piece or, like Youtz, have entire orchestral pieces start playing in their head.

About 15 years ago, a colleague asked Richard Nance, director of choral activities, to write something for a Puyallup choir at Christmas. The structure and notes finally began to emerge during Thanksgiving, in Wyoming,  in his sister’s basement. Nance tried to tune out the homey laughter upstairs. 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,” said Nance.

Of late, Youtz has drawn much of his inspiration from the Far East, taking two sabbaticals to China, the first by happenstance in 1992, the second by invitation in 2005. He visited the country a third time recently.

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

“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, even when you lie awake at night thinking about it.”