Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
Learning Webern’s op.27 for piano when I was 18 and hearing Xenakis’ Pithoprakta when I was 20. They opened up new sound worlds for me and new ways of composing.
In my early teens, I wrote tunes and improvised in the style of McCoy and Herbie. But I also studied and played other styles like Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans and Chick Correa. I also delved deeper into the standard Eurocentric piano literature – Bach, Clementi, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Debussy, etc. – while working with a variety of great teachers.
Recently, my high school jazz ensemble director, Roger Mills, and past members of the band put together a website and on it I reminisced about that experience and my early studies. You can also hear what I sounded like at 17 for example, with a solo on a chart called “infusion” (starting at 4:40) Roger started this program in 1966 when he was still in his 20s, having just completed some tours in a USO band in Viet Nam. I started in my high school jazz ensemble when I was 14 in 1974. It was an innovative program designed like El Sistema, a music education program developed in Venezuela, but Roger did it 10 years earlier. It left an indelible mark on me as well as on high school music programs throughout the U.S.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Deciding to write an opera about Henry Ford, which I’ve developed with librettist Stuart Rojstaczer, and trying to get it produced. It has generated interest, and a portion of it was performed at Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers Showcase.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
The pleasure is that there is a performance on the horizon and you are compensated. The challenge is that often you are following constraints e.g., instrumentation, duration, and sometimes, when I write music for a film, a particular sound the director/producer feels compelled use. However, the discipline that comes from working within a framework or boundary of a commission can provide a sort of freedom.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?
The pleasure of working with particular musicians is developing a rapport and deep communication over time. You can write to their strengths and they know your style. The challenge can be keeping everyone engaged.
Of which works are you most proud?
In the past 10-15 years I would have to say my series for piano called Quiet Rhythms and an ensemble piece called Camille. Pieces from Quiet Rhythms have been performed by many pianists and Camille was recorded by Piccola Accademia degli Specchi and Octet Ensemble. Also, I wrote music for a documentary called Native New Yorker that has gone on to become a seminal work in experimental film.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
My sound world is firmly rooted in the rhythms and harmony of jazz as well as non-Western traditions. The music is distinctly American, and one could call it a post-minimal mélange of sounds and influences in which jazz has played a major role. It is a mixture of highly energetic grooves and hypnotic modal-based harmonies. My toolkit uses an eclectic array of devices, from medieval isorhythm and hocket to Afro-Cuban clave and montuño rhythmic patterns.
How do you work?
Slowly. Sometimes at the piano, sometimes with a pencil and paper, sometimes at my computer, writing directly into music notation software or a sequencer. It depends on the project.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
For now, it is the ability to continue to research, learn, create and collaborate with others.
What advice would you give to young/aspiring composers?
Always write what is true to you at that moment in your life. Do not try to copy or emulate others because someone tells you that is what is current or necessary. My student compositions in the early 80s were firmly rooted in mid-century modernism. Yet, none of my composition teachers said stop writing like Xenakis or Ligeti. I loved that sound world but as I wrote more my own voice gradually emerged. So, by my late 20s my music was drawn from my life and my music experience.
It also helped that Xenakis saw an early chamber orchestra score of mine that I wrote when I was 20. Essentially, he wrote back that I had promise but this was a student piece. He did not mince words and was direct and honest. He was right on the most fundamental level: the piece was from his sound world. It was advice filled with wisdom. And, over time, I found my own voice.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?
This is not an original idea but, somehow democratize the process of getting music performed. The conductor or music director of an ensemble or opera company typically has the power to choose the repertoire. I am not sure that this dynamic – dating back centuries – is a sustainable model, and new approaches are worth investigating. Perhaps a grant system weighted more towards premieres and second performances.
Also, experiment more with less-rarefied venues than a concert hall. These formal venues can often appear stuffy and self-serious. It is not necessarily the case that an enriching musical experience must take place in a building designed around a past tradition, just as having a deep spiritual experience in not predicated by one’s presence in a building designed for religious practice.
What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about but you think we should be?
The streaming platform system has eliminated fair reimbursement to artists for their recordings. And, their “taste” algorithms are focused on what you already like as opposed to discovery.
What next – where would you like to be in 10 years?
Continuing to learn, create and perform music.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Sharing music that I love with family and friends.
What is your most treasured possession?
A 1928 Steinway piano that belonged to my grandparents.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Engaging in an activity that enriches my life and perspective other than music composition, be it something with family, friends, a movie, play, novel, poem, concert, museum, etc. Because everything one does – outside of the act of sitting down and creating – contributes to and shapes their art.
What is your present state of mind?
American composer William Susman has created a distinctively expressive voice in contemporary classical music, with a catalog that includes orchestral, chamber, and vocal music, as well as numerous film scores. In addition to his work as a composer, he spearheads the contemporary ensemble OCTET and Belarca Records. AllMusic calls him an exemplar of “the next developments in the sphere . . . [of] minimalism,” and textura describes him as “not averse to letting his affection for Afro-Cuban, jazz, and other forms seep into his creative output.” His music has earned praise from The New York Times for being “vivid, turbulent, and rich-textured,” from Gramophone as “texturally shimmering and harmonically ravishing,” and from Fanfare for being “crystalline . . . and gloriously lyrical.”