Michael Torke, composer

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

While I was in college, I noticed the composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass lived in New York City and had careers as professional composers. This inspired me to believe that for a concert composer teaching wasn’t the only option, as I was told to expect back in the early 80s. I have always believed composition can’t be taught, so I didn’t want to engage in what seemed to be a contrived occupation, and I wanted to compose full time.

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

Flexibility with a constantly changing world. How music is made, promoted, consumed, and regarded is always shifting, so you must be nimble and on your toes to keep one’s “nose above water.”

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

It’s obviously flattering if someone pays you to write something before it even exists. But there are drawbacks – the payment is consideration forr ights you give that party, like the first performance or the first recording, and that can sometimes obstruct or hinder one’s own plans.

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

The pleasure of working with other artists is that there is so much talent in the world and you can bask in their light and radiance. Composing is a solitary act, so any chance at collaboration is very much welcome. It helps to make what we are doing so satisfying.

Of which works are you most proud?

You always think the recent work is the best, but over time, certain pieces will stand out. It is remarkable that the highest royalty earning pieces are far and away higher than the lowest earning pieces—it’s a geometric difference rather than an arithmetic one. But what I am most pleased with is the piece for which no effort was made to promote when it came out, and overtime it keeps being performed. It’s as if the music is speaking, rather than the campaign.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

In my personal life I may come off as cynical and dour, but many have said my music is optimistic, joyful, and buoyant. I try write music that makes people feel good; for me music is not about personal expression or an attempt to describe the horrors of existence.

How do you work?

I put one note in front of the other.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Durability. Isn’t that what we dream of? To write music that transcends the time we live in.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring composers?

The punchline is always,“Do something else!” But when I was growing up, I didn’t want anyone telling me that! I guess I would say to a young composer, there are no rules. To write something that is unique means you can’t fulfil anyone’s expectations, which takes bravery, and thinking independently.

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

Stop worrying. Everyone wrings their hands moaning that classical music audiences are a bunch of old people dying off. I say, the older generation is the greatest demographic we have! They have the most disposable income, the most free time to attend concerts, and are the most appreciative in finding culture that nourishes them. That’s like worrying that hospitals will go bankrupt because they are serving too many senior citizens!

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about but you think we should be?

Audiences are smarter than the experts believe. Audiences know what they like, they know when they experience great beauty and emotion. Stop telling audiences what is good for them, both in terms of styles of music, and specific demographics of music makers, defined by gender, race, or religion.

What next – where would you like to be in 10 years?

Alive, and thinking clearly.

TIME, Michael Torke’s most recent release

Michael Torke’s music has been commissioned by such orchestras as The Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the San Francisco Symphony; by such ballet companies as New York City Ballet, Alvin Ailey, and the National Ballet of Canada; by such opera companies as the Metropolitan Opera, Théâtre du Châtelet, and the English National Opera; by such large ensembles as the London Sinfonietta, Lontano, and De Volharding; and such small ensembles as the Smith, Ying, and Amstel Quartets.

He has worked with such conductors as Simon Rattle, Kurt Mazur, Edo de Waart, and David Zinman; such choreographers as Christopher Wheeldon, James Kudelka, and Juri Kilian; and collaborated with such librettists as A. R. Gurney, Michael Korie, and Mark Campbell; and such directors as Des McAnuff, Bart Sher, and Michael Greif.

He has been commissioned by entities such as the Walt Disney Company, and Absolute Vodka; worked with such soloists as Tessa Lark, Christopher O’Reilly, and Joyce Castle; and written incidental music to such companies as The Public Theater, The Old Globe Theater, and Classic Stage Company; and been composer in residence with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

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Photo credit Bryan Hainer