William Villarreal, composer

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

I’ve always been interested in the abstract; in areas of life that give evidence to things that are not evident. That’s what drew me (pardon the pun) to art. Certain areas of science, also. Speculative math in particular. Which is ironic, considering the fact that it is all I can do to apply the necessary math skills to balance my checkbook. But it is the romantic idea of speculative math that fascinates me. The idea of sitting with nothing but pencil and paper and formulating equations that can create an entirely new reality blows me away. I can’t achieve that experience with math, but I can with art. Art can demonstratively create new realities: take people to places they would otherwise never go. Not as a depiction of a new reality, but as a dynamic way to actually experience it.

So I look for things that point to, or better yet, accomplish this. Looking at the scientific side of art, and the artistic side of science is one way, and as far as the romantic mind can take that idea, I am inspired.

Anything that gives evidence to things that are not evident – that by its’ own example encourages me to realise possibilities, inspires me.

Pursuing that, however, is not without its’ challenges and frustrations.

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

As you may have gathered, I am a bit esoteric. I am cloistered with my work and the conditions I find suitable and quite necessary to produce that work. Don’t get me wrong, I am actually a very sociable person, but the idea of social networking terrifies me. Until now, I have managed to coyly avoid it, but the realities of today’s protocol have caught up with me. I feel the pressure to be comfortable and fluent with things that I am not – and that is a challenge.

Frustrations come the moment you take action to launch a project. It is rare to find a cog in the machinery that doesn’t cause some form of grief. This is lessened with experience, when you can accept without flinching and can anticipate the ways of world and the business model.

But one good cog, that shining except to the rule, can make up for the rest. The effect is the same as having the pain of a series of failures numbed by experiencing that one success.

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

I’m making no direct comparison, but when you meet the orchestra for the first time, it’s sort of like the first day of school when teacher and class meet for the first time.

You may ask of them; “How many of these people are smarter than me?”

Half of them may ask of you; “I wonder what I will take away from this?”

The other half bemoans; “Why the hell am I wasting my time here?!”

That division in sentiment doesn’t change, by the way. Throughout the session, half will be tapping their feet, the other half will be looking at their watches. The challenge is to get beyond all that so that the work gets done. Though there may be differences, instances of tension to some and entertainment to others, at the end of the day you are working with real professionals. And that is a pleasure.

I will always be humbled in the presence of orchestral musicians. I know of the commitment, the hours, the years of training, the education and pressures of juried advancement that is behind them, and the skill and discipline required to keep their chair. To know that they bring all this to bear on the music I hand them is something beyond words. It’s a wonder they’re not all sceptical at the prospect of working with someone like me. I would be….

I have a candid photo of Michael Schmidt, who played first violin on “Secret Stirrings”. I saw the photo after returning to New York. It was taken during a lunch break when everyone else was in the lunch room. He is standing behind the conductor’s podium, violin at play, looking over the conductor’s score, taking that time to become more familiar with the job at hand. Looking back, I’m glad I had an opportunity to thank him for his work. I felt his performance was exceptional, and I wanted to let him know. I had no idea how invested he was in it.

Of which works are you most proud?

I am happy with any work that reaches the point of completion. Like any good parent I have no favourites.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I have to follow a narrative dictated to me by the music as it progresses. Instrumental voices are cast according to the scene, emotion or characters presented. Once the story unfolds the composition needs to support it. Employing the skills necessary to execute this process is why it’s called a ‘work’.

How do you work?

The best thing for me to do is get out of the way and let the music tell me what to do next. In that way I avoid the temptation to be moved by academic correctness or trend, or conversely, the impulse to shake up the musical world with something new and challenging. Every piece has its own identity and set of demands, and I immerse myself in the process of meeting those demands. In my world the music will always be the Master, and I am happy to act as Steward to it. The degree to which success is achieved will be measured by the effect it has on the listener.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

If my music triggers a sense of wonder and magic, it is successful.

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

Everyone should have an aesthetic they can commit to. The sooner it’s found the better. No point of view is global, and since you are the one responsible for your music, no one else has to understand or agree with it as long as it works for you. Hold to your conviction and do due diligence to prove that it does. That aesthetic will be your compass, and not only will it fuel your work, it will be its’ signature.

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

That’s been a concern for some time now. I remember in New York ideas were proposed ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, with some solutions destined to throw the baby out with the bathwater. At the end of the day nothing was ever seriously implemented, so the problem remains.

I was writing my first compositions at that time, and I took this concern into consideration. It seemed to me that if I could do anything in my limited capacity to help spur the growth of classical music audiences it could be something as simple as giving them something they may want to hear.

I love the classics of classical music, and the audience for that I’m confident will hold. The best way to grow from there is to provide new material to a potential audience that is true to the spirit of classical music, but compelling to contemporary sensibilities. Experimental music and the avant garde has a home in the Classical music repertoire, but outside of academic focus it is not suited to spearhead a campaign to encourage popular opinion and interest.

I don’t presume to know what it would take to spearhead an effective campaign to grow classical music audiences, greater minds than mine have tried and are still attempting…but I am doing my part.

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