Kenneth Fuchs, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

After my family moved from northeastern New Jersey to Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1966, I took seriously my interest in music. I began singing in church choirs and school choruses from the age of ten. I also took piano lessons. This was an important first step on my journey to a life as a professional musician. I believe that all composition is a vocal utterance – no matter what the instrument – and the experience of vocalizing sounds at a young age was seminal to my musical development. I began to notate music during my freshman year in high school. Through the encouragement of my high school band director, Dr. Bentley Shellahamer, my interest in composition developed quickly. By the time I was a senior in high school I was composing large-scale pieces for symphonic band. One of my pieces won a composition prize from the Florida Bandmasters Association, and I was hooked! I decided that I wanted to be a professional composer, and I entered the University of Miami School of Music as an undergraduate major in composition. Thanks to Dr. Shellahamer, I was prepared to do this.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

Undergraduate Education 1975 – 1979

Alfred Reed was my first composition teacher. I studied with him for four years as an undergraduate major in composition at the University of Miami School of Music (Coral Gables, Florida). I became very close to Reed and his wife, Margie. I sometimes traveled with him to his professional engagements around the country, observing him conduct collegiate and honor bands, listening to him discuss his music. He was a masterful orchestrator for winds, brass, and percussion, and I learned how to compose for the band medium from him.

Reed believed in the power of critical acceptance, and he wanted to compose music that pleased his audiences. He did not pander to audiences, but he was just as happy if they left the concert hall whistling one of his tunes. I learned a great deal from him about writing music that communicates ideas clearly. He believed in creating music that has a clear formal structure that listeners can comprehend on first hearing, and he instilled that belief in me. This is important because music exists in time, and it has to be understood as it is happening.

Reed was an early pioneer in teaching courses about the business of music. I learned a lot from him about entrepreneurship and how to promote your work as a composer. He founded the Music Merchandising program at the University of Miami in 1966. That program has since grown into one of the most respected educational programs about the music and entertainment industries in the United States today.

Graduate Education 1979-1988

Immediately after I graduated from the University of Miami I moved to New York City. I wanted to attend The Juilliard School and study with Vincent Persichetti. I had also developed an interest in music administration, and Peter Mennin was president of the School. William Schuman, whose music I admired, had been president before Mennin and he also served as the first present of Lincoln Center.

I studied at Juilliard for nine years and received both my master of music and doctor of musical arts degrees in composition from the School. Initially, Vincent Persichetti’s studio was full, so I studied first with David Diamond, for two years. Diamond took his role as a teacher very seriously. He was a taskmaster and could sometimes be a difficult personality to deal with. We were not very close. The atmosphere at Juilliard was extremely competitive, and it stood in sharp contrast to the warm and supportive environment I had experienced under the tutelage of Alfred Reed at the University of Miami. Diamond used the masterworks of Western music as models to discuss compositional procedure. He was devoted to form and counterpoint. Our weekly lessons included discussion of my music as well as various other musical scores he suggested that I study. I began to address lacunae in my knowledge of repertoire, especially the music of Schoenberg, Berg, Weber, and other post-tonal and serial composers. It took me several years to absorb this music and its procedures and to ultimately determine what validity it held for me as a composer, if any at all.

Diamond sometimes assigned exercises in counterpoint and melodic writing. Diamond knew many of the great musicians, visual artists, and writers of the 20th Century, both in Europe and the United States, and he talked often of his encounters with Nadia Boulanger, Ravel, Gide, Cocteau, Bernstein, Copland, Rorem, and many others. As a result of living in New York City and attending a school that was located at Lincoln Center, I gradually began to meet some of the most prominent musicians, dancers, actors, and playwrights of our time.

After two years of tough love, Diamond’s didactic approach began to wear thin for me. Fortunately, Persichetti’s studio opened up and he took me in, and not a moment too soon. I needed a more open and less constrictive student-teacher relationship. The five years I spent with Persichetti were a revelation. He treated me as an equal and put no pressure on me to compose in any particular manner or style. I finally felt free to compose what I was hearing in my head, without worrying about whether or not he would make a value judgment about the music I was writing. I wrote a lot of music that I have now discarded, but it was an important time for me in terms of establishing my own creative voice and building my self-confidence as a composer. Persichetti was a remarkable musician and had total command of the literature and materials of music. He was a facile keyboardist and could read a full orchestral score at sight.

I was very sad when Persichetti died in August 1987 from lung cancer. He set me walking straight on the rocky path of becoming a professional composer, and we had become friends. I still had questions, though, about the kind of music I wanted to compose, and I was fortunate that Milton Babbitt accepted me as a student during my final year of doctoral study. I told Babbitt that I was not pleased with how my music moved forward. He asked me “What are you not pleased with, how the music sounds on the surface, or how it is structured underneath?” I responded the latter, and we began to analyze the later works of Stravinsky. I also took very seriously the organizational principals that Charles Wuorinen set forth in his book Simple Composition. I had also developed a serious interest in musical theater. Babbitt loved and knew well the music of the American popular songbook. Given the style of music he composes, few people believe this, but it is true. His most famous student, from the mid-1950’s, was Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim was at the pinnacle of his success at this time, and I knew virtually every note of all his work. By this time, Babbitt and I had become fast friends and we talked for hours about Sondheim and the repertoire of American musical theater.

My encounters with the music of John Adams – particularly Harmonium and Harmonielehre were life altering. I became enthralled with his approach to minimalism and incorporating it into a Romantic-chromatic harmonic vocabulary. I spent a lot time studying his scores to understand his working method.

Looking back on all the music I wrote at Juilliard, a suite for chamber ensemble that I wrote in 1985 called Out of the Dark (After Three Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler) was my Janus-headed creation. I attempted to seriously incorporate elements of what I had learned about twelve-tone and serial composition, yet also incorporate the lyrical and diatonic music I had composed as an undergraduate student. It is my “opus 1.” Little by little, and over the years, keeping in mind all of the music I had studied, and all the conversations I had with Babbitt, Diamond, Persichetti, Mennin, and Schuman, I began to develop a method of organizing pitch and rhythm that I felt comfortable with.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

The challenges are a gift. The opportunities for American symphony orchestras to program music of living American composers are limited. Composers of contemporary American music must cultivate a communicative individual musical voice and develop a resourceful understanding of the entrepreneurship skills required to succeed as a contemporary composer.

Someone once asked me, “What is it like to be a composer in the 21st century?” My reply follows:

“The words that immediately come to mind are liberating, enlightening, and challenging. Liberating, because a composer no longer has to be doctrinaire. From one piece to another you can cross stylistic boundaries, or combine technical procedures and stylistic elements within one piece, or after having absorbed elements of several stylistic developments choose to amalgamate those influences into a homogeneous style. Enlightening, because it’s fascinating and inspiring to see and hear the technical proficiency and creative energy with which contemporary composers often wield disparate stylistic elements to create meaningful and communicative musical statements. Challenging, because there are so many available styles to master and assimilate into one’s own composition—while finding one’s own voice. The field of contemporary composition is extremely competitive. It takes intense discipline to be a professional composer. This discipline extends beyond writing music on a regular basis to entrepreneurship: promoting your music through publication, personal appearances and online media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube; recruiting conductors, singers and instrumentalists to perform new works; and raising money and engaging producers for recording projects, and so forth.”

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

The joy, most always, is to conceive music especially for the particular talents of the soloists and ensembles who have invited you to compose music especially for them. They have invested their time, talent, financial resources, and emotional energy to invite you to compose for them, so it is important to create a work that is crafted as carefully as possible for their talents

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Artistic collaboration is one of the joys of my creative life. Paul Silverthorne, principal violist of the London Symphony Orchestra, and I consulted for months by phone and e-mail during the composition of Divinum Mysterium, the viola concerto I composed especially for him, and which he recorded on my third Naxos album with the LSO. He would be either in London or on tour with the LSO and I was in Connecticut. We sent score files back and forth to one another. I would write something, send it to him, and he would send it back with annotations or call with suggestions. No point was too small to consider. Toward the end we got down to specific 16th and 32nd notes! I wanted to take full advantage of his virtuoso talent and make the work as idiomatic as possible for viola.

When I was a graduate student at Juilliard (1979 – 1988), I became friendly with Thomas Stacy, English horn soloist for 38 years of the New York Philharmonic . During our time together at Lincoln Center, I learned by listening to this master musician what the English horn can really do. Tom’s sound has a soulful, searching quality that is especially beautiful. I have composed four works for him. When we recorded his concerto Eventide with the LSO in 2003, Tom came into the recording studio at LSO St Luke’s on Old Street in London—never having performed the work in public and without prior orchestral rehearsal—and delivered with JoAnn Falletta and the orchestra accompanying him the definitive performance of this work, for which he received a 2005 Grammy nomination in the category Best Instrumental Soloist with Orchestra. Amazing!

Of which works are you most proud?

I have several personal favourites, but I will discuss two here: Falling Man and Atlantic Riband.

Falling Man, Don DeLillo’s 2007 novel about the events, aftermath, and changed lives of 9/11, enthralled me. I was riveted in particular by the dramatic opening prologue, in which the novel’s protagonist stumbles out of the falling rubble of the World Trade Center. DeLillo’s unflinching description of raw terror and absolute chaos provided a standpoint from which I could begin to come to terms as a composer with the shocking and world-changing events of that fateful morning.

Falling Man is cast in the form of a dramatic scena for baritone voice and chamber ensemble. The work’s principal melodic and harmonic elements are organized around a falling twelve-tone theme, fragments of which emerge at the outset, first in the orchestra and then with the setting of the first line of text, “This was the world now, a time and space of falling ash and near night.”

The compositional manipulation of the theme’s twelve individual pitches does not strictly adhere to classic dodecaphonic procedures. The pitches and their permutations are taken up in various melodic and harmonic combinations and provide the basis for musical development and transformation over the course of a through-composed vocal aria interspersed with vocal recitatives and instrumental interludes.

The great ocean liners of the Twentieth Century made a lasting impression on me. As a youngster growing up in the 1960’s, I made many visits to the piers of New York Harbor. Standing on the edge of the sea wall and gazing up at the massive prow of a liner preparing to set sail across the Atlantic was an unforgettable experience.

I can still smell the ocean brine, the oil, and the rope. I can see the bustle of activity on the pier and the Moran tugboats positioning themselves to move the great liner out into the Hudson River. And I can hear the deafening blasts of the ship’s horn, as the moorings were unfastened.

I visited all the great flagships of the Cunard Line, French Line, Italian-American Line, Holland-America Line, and United States Line. I had a special fondness for the S.S. United States, a marvel of American engineering and technology, which captured the Blue Riband on its maiden voyage in July 1952. The ship crossed the Atlantic from New York to Southampton in three days and ten hours, breaking all previous records, making it the fastest ship afloat. To this day, that record has never been broken.

The quest for speed across the Atlantic was the principle reason these ships were built. Until the jet age overtook them, they were vessels of commerce, industry, and travel. In the words of maritime historian John Maxtone-Graham, they were “the only way to cross.”

Although it is a purely abstract musical composition, Atlantic Riband pays tribute to an important era in United States history. In the form of an orchestral showpiece, I wanted to create a work that expresses the energy and optimism – as well as a sense of foreboding, mystery, and danger – of the ocean-going enterprise. The shipping lanes of the nearly unfathomable North Atlantic were not only crucial to commerce and industry, they also held promise for millions of immigrants. It is their hopeful struggle and ultimate victory of crossing the Atlantic in search of a new life that I wish to express in music.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

With each of my works I hope to express a clear emotional idea and musical point of view. The optimistic vigor and stylistic influences of the 20th-century American symphonic school dominate most of my orchestral and concerto scores, including An American Place, Atlantic Riband, Discover the Wild, Divninum Mysterium, Glacier, Rush, and United Artists. Recent works such as Falling Man (an 18-minute work for baritone voice and orchestra based on Don DeLillo’s post-9/11 novel) and chamber music growing out of the Falling Man theme all have a darker and grittier musical vocabulary, incorporating elements of post-tonal procedures. I am most impressed by music that shows craft through contrapuntal technique and inventive formal structure. With that as a guiding principle, I set out to compose music that is colorful and emotionally direct. I employ whatever stylistic elements and technical procedures I need to express my ideas.

How do you work?

When I am working, I put myself in the place of a listener, imagining what it is like to experience for the first time the piece that I am writing. How long does it take for a musical gesture played at the back of the orchestra to resonate out front? Does it happen too quickly, or is it a few seconds too long? The balance of getting the composition right, along with idiomatic orchestration, and giving the players and conductors something interesting to play is a fascinating process to me.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I am deeply grateful to the many gifted soloists, orchestral, and chamber musicians who commission, perform, and record my music. I am also grateful to the music industry executives who support and promote my music through publication, recording, and broadcast. As for composers, I return to Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Ravel, Dutilleux, and many composers of the American symphonic school and American popular songbook.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

The definition of music itself: to create musical sound moving through time in order to produce beauty of form, harmony, expression of emotion, and a meaningful response in the listener.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Music that is preoccupied with its own mechanics, or doesn’t seem inevitable, or doesn’t appeal to the human experience of listening, perceiving, and responding, isn’t going to have much staying power. Listen carefully, with patience, to your emerging musical voice. Keep writing, and have the courage to bring your music forward!

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

At least halfway through my list of “must write” works!


Kenneth Fuchs’ fifth American Classics album is available now on the Naxos label and represents the continuation of more than 30 years of musical collaboration between Fuchs and conductor JoAnn Falletta

Kenneth Fuchs has composed music for orchestra, band, voice, chorus, and various chamber ensembles. With Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson, Fuchs created three chamber musicals, The Great Nebula in Orion, A Betrothal, and Bronto­saurus, which Circle Repertory Company originally pre­sent­ed in New York City. Fuchs’s operatic monodrama Falling Man (text by Don DeLillo, adapted by J. D. McClatchy) was presented at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in commemoration of the 15th anniversary of 9/11. His music has achieved significant global recognition through performances, media exposure, and digital streaming and downloading throughout North and South America, Central and Eastern Europe, Asia, and Australia.

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Artist photo by by Dario Acosta

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