Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
The New England Conservatory has had the most phenomenal influence on my life in music. I began in their extension program at age 12 as a virtuoso trumpet player and continue today studying piano, music theory, composition and conducting with world class professors. Here are the teachers who had fabulous and inspirational influences and whose memories I will always treasure.
Miss Colescott. 7th grade music teacher, Wellesley Junior high School. Opened my eyes to classical music. Best teacher of all time
Richard Drew. Epic orchestral leader, Wellesley Junior High School. Inspired so many of us
Paul Gay, trumpet teacher, NEC. First Trombone Boston Pops
Nathaniel Bowden, Conductor, NEC. Played first chair trumpet for him
Katie Salfelder, composition, NEC
Kati Agocs, composition, NEC
Paul Burdick, composition, NEC
Charles Peltz, conducting, NEC
Marc Ryser, Piano, NEC
Aaron Israel Levin, Composition, Yale
Justin Weiss, Music Theory, University of Chicago
Historically, the artists of the First Viennese school have had the greatest influence on me with their stunning command of music theory, structure, lyrical melody, disciplined chord progressions and cadences, setting the stage for next 250 years.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
Here’s my biggest frustration. The grand music theory of the first Viennese school and Romantic eras is everywhere we look today in fresh, new, invigorating compositions which the public adores. In fact you could call it the greatest era in history for classical music everywhere….but the concert hall – Classical harmonic progressions, written by todays composers, are heard in the movies by John Williams and Hans Zimmer, in video games and even Rock and Roll by the Rolling Stones …again…..everywhere but the symphonic concert hall. Massive young audiences should be streaming into concert halls to hear music that inspires them by todays composers…but they’re not. . Major symphony orchestras should be playing the spectacular compositions of current artists instead of rejecting them for a nearly exclusive concentration on the great masters, show tunes and music from the movies. When I hear a pops concert with tunes from the musicals, it frustrates me that there isn’t a barrage of amazing compositions by today’s artists. An intriguing new book, the War on Music and the Wall Street Journals Barton Swain have the most interesting take on why.
“The rise of the 12-tone compositional method, invented by Schoenberg and elaborated by his many imitators, produced nothing of greatness and signified a sickness at the heart of Western music.”
Perhaps a Third Viennese school to bring classical music back to its former greatness and health with newly composed classical music embraced with the same zeal as rock and pop! That’s whjy I’m embracing a the idea of a third Viennese school and the mission I’m undertaking with many other far more talented of today’s composers.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
Working with a collegial team and learning so much more about orchestration, harmonic progressions, playability of instruments. The constant feedback just keeps you so excited and motivated. One of my colleagues, Aaron Israel Levin told me. Look Bob. You can make something great out of anything, so take what you have outlined and make it great!!!!! I had a score I didn’t love, but laboured over it till I did. It worked!
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?
I take lessons in piano, flute, violin, trumpet, cello and drums to better learn what great players want to play and learn the articulations that work best, collaborating with them on what they most like to play. It’s that collaboration that is the greatest pleasure. And the thrill of a lifetime hearing top Czech Philharmonic players record my first three works.
To think of the decades of practise and study they have devoted to becoming the best in the world. So humbling to think they would take a day to record my compositions. Coming from a very collaborative background in medicine, film, television and publishing, I love harnessing the artistic power and brilliance of a team to create amazing music.
Of which works are you most proud?
I’m proud of my double concerto for Trumpet and Violin. First, it’s a great device: duel between the two instruments for the greatest mastery, technical prowess and virtuosity. As a lifelong trumpet player, I hope it sets a new standard for trumpet concertos, using full symphonic form with Sonata as first movement, Andante, Minuet, Trio and Rondo. At the end of the recording session of the concerto the whole orchestra stood and applauded their own soloists. Standing on the great tradition of Haydn, this concerto delivers a new level of athletic performance not seen before, requiring the players to not only be great artists but fabulous performance athletes as well.
However I’m proudest of Wild Midnight Ride, Great Spirits on Haunted Mountain. This was an extremely difficult work because of the number of leitmotifs involved It’s an Orchestral Fairy Tale like Peter and the Wolf and takes the listener through a wild and terrifying midnight ride through a haunted mountain village. There are several interesting devices. As opposed to Beethoven’s sixth or Mahler’s first, where the listener passively observes nature, in Wild Midnight ride, the listener vicariously participates as the main leitmotif is a rider, struggling through a long difficult climb and then challenged by ghouls and spirits rising from a village of the dead. This tests the rider with terrifying apparitions. The rider has to dig deep for the resolve to push through and triumph. Only on reaching the summit does the rider meet the Great Spirit and conquer the darkest fears.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
Mozart wrote flawlessly in part because he had an incredibly sophisticated working knowledge of advanced music theory. I’m in a daily quest to add fabulous new tools across the spectrum from the great masters, the chromaticism of Saint-Saens, the orchestration of Rimsky Korsakov, the B♭ Mixolydian harmonic progressions of the Rolling stones Jumpin Jack Flash, cluster chords, Debusssy’s 13th chords and Messiaen’s own set of modes. I start by establishing harmonic progressions and a logic to the key changes for the development piece of the sonata form. I change the speed and complexity of the harmonic rhythm to drive the listener through the development and increase the length, speed, power and complexity of cadence. Then I choose rhythms I love and being to compose a melody. Finally I orchestrate. I find writing a melody without a harmonic underpinning less satisfying and without the rigor of great music theory. As an athlete who still competes at the world championship level, I love the discipline and rigor of the Sonata form and symphonic form to frame my compositions.
How do you work?
I spend a month sketching out the work on paper. I look at new elements I want to incorporate and learn them. For instance, in my next symphony, I’m designing dramatic, moving baselines for the entire work. I’m adding the chromaticism of Saint-Saens and novel hew harmonic progressions form the Romantic period and even the Rolling Stones. Unknown to many classical fans, the Stones have fabulous Harmonic progressions, an equal to some of Mozart. For instance they use a B flat Mixolydian harmonic progression in Jumpin’ Jack Flash. Then I choose a logic for the keys I want to move through in the Sonata form with a great progression through many minor and major keys, model mixtures, use of III and VII chords in minor and pivot chords, then I choose a rhythm I like for each of these keys and write a melody inspired by the harmonic base. I work starting on paper, then Piano. Then I move it to Sibelius where I can game out dozens of different iterations to find the perfect one. Once the score is finished, Cliff Bradley, Aaron Levin or Justin Weiss do a fabulous job of making the score ready to print for the conductor and musicians. I review with the producer and conductor for playability, dynamics and the feel of the piece. During the recording with the Czech Studio Orchestra, I look for missed notes (rare) a change in tempo, balance. Afterwards the tracks are edited. Then I’ll send a final set of notes. Then large files are created and sent to master a CD. From their Phoenix distributes them to classical radio stations. I put them up on the popular platforms like Spotify with a mixture of Sound Cloud and CD Baby. Finally, I look for live premier opportunities. Since it’s nearly impossible for beginning composers to be premiered, I’m putting assembling a symphony orchestra to play my compositions and those of other young composers who otherwise would not have a chance to be performed for a large public audience.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Instilling a sense of the courage, boldness and nobility into the lives of listeners and inspiring them to do great and heroic things in their daily lives. I have had the privilege of working with the most wonderful of humanitarian organizations worldwide for decades across most of Africa and the Middle East. I’m now on two humanitarian boards, helping bring relief efforts to Ukraine, Healthtech without borders and Global outreach Doctors. It’s why I’ve dedicated my first symphony, Heroine, to the brave women of Ukraine. I’ve served on the boards of Save the Children and UNHCR (USA) and seen first have seen the inspiration and courage of so many in the most awful of circumstances from the Rwandan Genocide to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur and Somalia.
I embedded with the US Marine Crops for the liberation of Iraq, The US Army in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US Navy fifth fleet and US Air Force in Northern Iraq to see first-hand the ravages of war and the bravery and dedication of our service women and men. The whole world sees terror of the savage war against the people of Ukraine but their stunning bravery and resilience rise above the terror to inspire us all.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Work hard, dig in and great things will happen. Learn all the music theory that you can. Each day, pick a score, analyse it for chord progressions, melody, ornamentation, rhythm and orchestration, reach out to as many teachers as you can. On line, I’ve been able to study with many of the greats from NEC, Yale, Chicago, Harvard, Julliard. Virtu Academy is a great site find high level conservatory instruction. NEC has a wonderful continuing education program which I’m still part of. The composers of the first Viennese school were enveloped by music. With amazing on line resources, tremendous conservatory quality instruction, great classical streaming sites like Idagio and stations like Sirius XM Symphony Hall, we have much of the same opportunity today. Whenever I drive, I have Sirius Symphony hall on the radio and feel I know the hosts as family friends. Spotify has fabulous classical playlists.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?
I want to see a third Viennese school return to the core theoretical principles of the first Viennese school and adding the more advanced harmonic progressions of the romantic composers and their orchestrations. Adding to that the 13th chords of Jazz, the church modes of the Rolling stones, cluster chords, Messiaen scales. So much wonderful colour to be added and so many fabulous ideas.
Digging deep into the brain for existential inspiration for composition can be like listening to fingernails scraping across a blackboard which can be discordant and hard to listen to and that’s where music went wrong during its existential era.
Beethoven had all kinds of turmoil around him. His city was captured by the French. Disease was everywhere. He suffered terribly. Threat was always on the horizon, yet he wrote great heroic works.
Modern classical music has lost the listening public. Every time a pops orchestra plays a show tune or movie, it’s a failure of classical music. Our concerts should be packed with listeners who love and are inspired by the staggeringly beautiful theory set down by the artists of the Viennese school but composed today. It’s time to return
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I’d like to study hard and work hard every week for the next ten years, incorporating more and more great ideas into my compositions, expose myself to the greatest composition and theory teachers and inspiring people to be their best and to believe the noble, courageous and bold spirit of the human condition. I’ve written 15 books, many best sellers. I spend decades as a chief correspondent on television networks, from NBC to CBS. That was a golden era when the public largely trusted the media. Now with the tremendous discord in modern media, I feel motivating, encouraging and inspiring people is best done through music which is why I’ve embraced music composition as my main aspiration. Music should make people feel happy, worthy, inspired and motivated to achieve, making this world a better place. I’d also love to see today’s artists embraced and treasured in the great concert halls of the world and want to work hard to help these deserving young artists.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Crafting an ingenious harmonic progression then writing the perfect lyrical melody that inspires others to greatness
What is your most treasured possession?
My Bösendorfer Viennese Concert grand piano. I have the most fabulous professor in NEC’s Marc Ryser and am learning to perform Beethoven’s Fifth Piano concerto for technique and sight reading all of the Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn piano concertos to help my composition by learning the chordal structures of these works with Marc’s great eye for both music theory and performance piano. The Bösendorfer makes the music incomparably great
What do you enjoy doing most?
Being with my children. Having new melody emerge from a unique new harmonic progression. Competing internationally in ski mountaineering racing, stand up surfing and Nordic skiing. Helping our Healthtech without borders group deliver outstanding medical care to the peoples of Ukraine.
What is your present state of mind?
My worry is that music has been a reflection of the turmoil, anxiety and struggle of an age rather than a blueprint for a more heroic and hopeful future. Music may reflect the tragedies of the day but also project the grand triumph of the human spirit over adversity. I work every day on bringing health technologies and US expertise to the healthcare crisis in Ukraine. This war is desperate and depressing, but inspiring to see all those who have come to help. So I’m energized, enthusiastic and hopeful for the future. Every day I wake up hoping to be inspired to write great music and help make the world a better place through many humanitarian efforts …and composition.