Edward Smaldone, composer

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

That would have to be some combination of the Beatles, the Allman Brothers, Blood Sweat and Tears, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Sessions, Carter, Weinberg and Perle. And somewhere along the way Heinrich Schenker (through studies with Carl Schachter) had a powerful impact on the way I hear music (both my own and that of others.) A very powerful influence on my music has also been performance. I have been a professional guitarist, piano player (not a pianist) and singer for 50 years. I also did a lot of choral singing as a student that had a strong impact on my thinking. Everything should sing, rhythm and “feel” are incredibly important features of compelling music.

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

Time. There never seems to be enough, and the composer requires so much alone time. I have been extraordinarily fortunate in my musical life, with outstanding mentors, wonderful colleagues of both composers and performers. Trying to find the balance in life of artistic pursuit and the everyday is a challenge. That said, the joys of my family are well worth the time and have a powerful impact on my work as well.

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

It is a joy to write a commissioned piece, because there is a clear light at the end of the tunnel, shining on a player or ensemble waiting for my score. The challenge is meeting a deadline, but the pleasure of working toward a specific goal with a specific performance is exhilarating.

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

This follows directly on the previous question. Knowing that I am writing for a particular player also inspires me because each player has a specific set of skills and strengths that can be exploited. It is a particular pleasure when we can both shine through the medium of a new piece.

Of which works are you most proud?

I’m proud of them all, the way a parent is proud of each child. Like members of a family, each piece has its own personality. Each piece (hopefully) traces back to the common ground of my imagination, but also expresses itself on its own terms. I would say that I am typically most proud of whatever I have just completed. The act of completion in and of itself marks a moment in the life of a new work, similar to the birth of a new child. Those are special moments. It is also a special pleasure when an older piece (like an older child) “resurfaces” and stands on its own two feet without compromise or excuses.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

My compositional “language” involves a rich chromatic palette. These are just the kinds of sonorities I am drawn to. In working with them, I try very hard to create a musical fabric that captures both the immediacy of a distinctive gesture, and then puts that gesture on a journey that includes elements of tension and resolve; motion and arrival; and a clear sense of large scale architecture (yes, I know these are very traditional features!). My lifelong love and work in areas of improvised music (especially jazz) also brings an element of spontaneity and improvisation to much of my musical materials.

How do you work?

I work best with a deadline. I’m an early adopter of Finale, so I tend to notate my scores as I am composing. I usually start with improvisations and pencil and paper sketches, but very quickly putting thing directly into the computer is the fastest way to manipulate my musical ideas. (And, when I have a deadline, I’m usually composing from 6 AM until at least 10, daily.)

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I would measure my success by the steady creation, performance and recording of my works. I am exceedingly fortunate to have an academic position (at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, CUNY), so I don’t have to rely on commissions and performances for income. This provides an enviable level of artistic freedom. I feel the most “successful” when I have finished a piece, and it gets a great performance, and it is slated for a recording. It is the satisfaction that work is strong that makes me feel successful. I am especially encouraged by multiple performances and even multiple recordings of several works. It is exciting to attend the 10th performance of something. I am also very gratified by the work of other composers and the performers who I get to work with. The shared camaraderie of musicians, both composers and performers, has been a gift.

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

Set the bar high and the rest will follow. There are no short cuts. The most potent combination is talent, ambition, and hard work. You need all three. Also, treat every musician and every musical situation with respect: be prepared (actually, be over prepared) and don’t be a jerk. People hate jerks.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

I think that audiences are very open, as long as they are not patronized, as long as the performances are really excellent, and especially when they can make a personal connection with the artists (both the composers and the performers.) People often don’t want to take a chance with music that is unfamiliar, but if the circumstances are right, new music (of any style) can provide a rewarding experience for the audience. Really terrific performances are crucial.

Beyond this, the personal connection between the people on stage and the people in the audience has a powerful impact on the experience. I remember many “Meet the Composer” grants that included a requirement that the composer talk to the audience. I witnessed quite a number of completely dreadful “composer talks.” The composer would struggle to say something meaningful, and end up being incoherent, or vague, or obtuse. And yet, without fail, the mere fact that there was a living composer making an attempt to communicate, was usually enough to bring the audience a little closer, and make them a little more sympathetic to the effort the composer was making with his music. The personal connection made all the difference.

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

In 10 years’ time I’d like to be overseeing lots of performances of the works in my catalogue, along with a steady flow of new performances, pieces, and recordings.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I’m not so sure it exists. Like a good piece of music, life needs tension and struggle. Maybe happiness is a good balance of good times and tough times.

What is your most treasured possession?

My family. They are not actually a possession, but the joy that comes from the complex interaction of the people in my family, over a long period of time is truly a treasure. I’ve been married for 40 years and have three grown up children and an extended family of dozens of cousins and other relatives.

Edward Smaldone’s latest album ‘Once and Again’ was released on 14 August 2020 on the New Focus Recordings label. ‘Double Portrait’ features music by Edward Smaldone and Douglas Knehans.

Further information

Edward Smaldone (b. 1956) received the Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1993, launching a steadily growing career that has garnered many other awards, commissions, performances and recordings. Other awards are from ASCAP, the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo Corporation, the Charles Ives Center for the Arts, the Percussive Arts Society, and the American Music Center. He was named 2016 “Composer of the Year” by the Classical Recording Foundation at their annual Gala at National Sawdust, in Williamsburg.

His most recent commissions (2019 and 2020) include a Clarinet Concerto (Murmurations) for Søren-Filip Brix Hansen and Den Kongelige Livgardes Musikkorps, (the Wind Orchestra for the Queen of Denmark), premiered in Copenhagen, and a Piano Concerto (Intersecting Paths) for Niklas Sivelöv and the League/ISCM Orchestra, premiered in New York City. 

Other notable performances include the Munich Radio Orchestra, Denver Chamber Orchestra, Memphis Symphony, Queens Symphony Orchestra, Oberlin New Music Ensemble, The New York Virtuoso Singers, the Florilegeum Choir, League/ISCM Chamber Players, Peabody Camerata, Stony Brook “Premieres!” Ensemble, Oratorio Sinfonica Japan, the EOS Orchestra of Beijing, China, the Chicago Composers Orchestra, and many other soloists and ensembles in the United States, Canada, China, Japan and Europe. 

Smaldone is Professor of Music Theory and Composition at the Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College, having joined the full time faculty in 1989 and was the Director of the School from 2002 – 2016. His music is recorded on the New Focus, CRI, New World, Capstone, Ablaze and Naxos labels.

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