UpFront Q&A: Frank Ticheli

Mike Lawson • ChoralRepertoire • July 18, 2013

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Composer Frank Ticheli discusses trends in new music for concert band

By Eliahu Sussman





Having written significant works for orchestra, concert band, chamber groups, and choirs that have been debuted and performed by major ensembles worldwide, Frank Ticheli is a prolific force in modern music. Currently a professor of composition at the University of Southern California, where he has taught since 1991, Ticheli has been the recipient of numerous accolades and awards, including the prestigious “Arts and Letters Award” from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2012.

SBO recently caught up with the composer to discuss his thoughts on current concert band music, his approach to composition, and what he looks for when evaluating repertoire for “Frank Ticheli’s List.”


School Band & Orchestra: Thinking back to when you were a student, could you describe the point at which you realized that you wanted to be a composer? What led you to that decision?

Frank Ticheli: By age nine, I had already been exposed to a lot of early jazz music. I grew up near New Orleans, and my father would take me into the jazz clubs and play lots of records of traditional jazz. When it was time to get an instrument, my father took me to a pawnshop in the heart of the French Quarter. In the shop window was a beautiful used clarinet for $80 that really got my attention, and an old beat up trumpet that looked horrible, but was selling for $45. My dad said, “Sorry, Son, you’re going to play the trumpet!”

There were many signal moments [about my desire to become a composer], starting with my early exposure to New Orleans Jazz. When I was 13, my family moved from Louisiana to Richardson, Texas, jolting me from a very modest music program to the powerhouse program at Berkner High School. I had no idea kids my age could even sound that good. Going straight from playing out of method books in Louisiana to playing very advanced music in Texas was a culture shock to me. It lit a fire in my belly that has never been extinguished. I was still in high school when a very astute teacher said to me, “Have you thought about composing? You have a good pair of ears, and that’s one of the most important assets a composer has.” He planted that seed in me very early on.


Taking an overall look at the genre, how has music for concert band evolved in the past several decades?

FT: The music has become more diverse, with a far greater number of interesting works (and uninteresting works, too) coming out in any given year. During my younger years, there were fewer composers actively composing for the medium. While there were really terrific masterworks being created back then – Husa’s “Music for Prague,” Schwantner’s “…and the mountains rising nowhere…” and Maslanka’s “A Child’s Garden of Dreams,” to name a few – the sheer number of composers creating good stuff is so much greater today. There are so many smart young composers coming up now; it’s more difficult to keep up with the latest great work. That’s a pretty exciting problem to have.


What trends in concert and symphonic band do you think are most important for educators to be aware of?

FT: The definition of what a wind band is, and what it can do, is broadening. More and more composers are turning to the band medium. They’re hungry; they are looking for commissions; and they are looking for collaborators. They are open to using technology as a tool and as an expressive source. They are more likely to form collectives, groups of like-minded artists working together toward similar goals and philosophical ideals, such as the current Brooklyn movement – a group of young composers who, among other things, tend to combine rock and pop influences with more traditional styles in imaginative and compelling ways without pandering or creating artifice. Composers today are challenging notions of what “new classical” music can be. In short, it’s a pretty exciting time; there is so much going on right now.


Where do you draw inspiration from when coming up with themes for new music?

FT: Inspiration comes mostly from doing the work itself, from putting in the time day after day. That’s not a very fun answer, but it’s the truth. Most composers who complain of writer’s block are usually denying the simple fact that they are not putting in the time. It is similar to the life of an athlete: you can get out of shape after only one or two days off, but you can get back in shape pretty quickly.

I will say that, like so many American composers, I’ve been influenced by a whole gumbo of musical cultures: early jazz, Cajun/Creole, folk, popular, European modernism, classical – it’s all there. I just don’t like analyzing it too deeply. I prefer to just do it.

In the end, it’s very simple: I go to my backyard studio everyday and ask myself, “what if?” Some days are better than others, but I can’t wait to get out there. The fact that I get to create something that hasn’t been heard before is amazing. They pay me for this? I feel very lucky.


Have the difficulties faced by many of the world’s top classical music organizations impacted your decision-making as a composer?

FT: I don’t think so. My new choral symphony, “The Shore,” for example, was commissioned by the Pacific Chorale and just had its premiere this past Saturday by them with the Pacific Symphony. It was one of the great moments of my career, not only because it is one of my best works, not only because it was performed beautifully for a wildly enthusiastic audience, but also because they had opened the door for something so big to happen. They didn’t think small by asking for a safe and short work. They asked for a major work – it’s 35 minutes long. They secured funding, including a huge NEA grant to record it for a Delos label CD featuring all of my choral music. Having survived these recent lean years (2008-12), they never stopped thinking big. More importantly, they never lost the courage to see their ideas through. They’re not just alive and kicking, but also still passionate about taking on new adventures and blazing new paths. Organizations such as theirs inspire me to continue to do the same


What are the key musical elements you look for when selecting core repertoire for “Frank Ticheli’s List”?

FT: I don’t have a set list of “key musical elements.” There is no formula for selecting works. Quality in music, as in all art, is more elusive, more subjective.

To be sure, there are certain basic skills to look for: skill in harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration, and a good sense of line. But these are just initial prerequisites. Beyond that, at a deeper level, I am looking for things that are less tangible, such as a sense of urgency behind the notes: Do they seem motivated, one after the other? Is there a sense of inevitability, a sense that every single note had to be there, that every marking on the page contributes to the work’s overall meaning? Or do some indications distract from its overall meaning? Is there a compelling sense of drama? Are the formal architecture and pacing clear and compelling?

Finally, I look for a ring of authenticity, a sense that the work deserves to have a life beyond its initial hearings.




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