Sunday, January 30, 2011

Interview with Tom Myron

Composer Tom Myron

The job requirements of a working composer are elusive, perhaps especially for composition students enrolled in University degree programs that fail to provide graduates with the interpersonal and business skills necessary for survival outside the walls of academia. One student composer told me recently: "We are all being trained to teach." Woody Allen famously said: “Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym.” But those who compose and don't teach do find ways to sustain themselves and their passion for music through a variety of collaborative and creative means, some perhaps less "traditional" than others. With this in mind, let's have a chat with my friend composer Tom Myron.

The range of Tom Myron's work as a composer includes commissions and performances by the Kennedy Center, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Portland Symphony Orchestra, the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, the Atlantic Classical Orchestra, the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, the Topeka Symphony, the Yale Symphony Orchestra, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the Bangor Symphony and the Lamont Symphony at Denver University. He works regularly as an arranger for the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall, writing for singers Rosanne Cash, Kelli O'Hara, Maxi Priest & Phil Stacey, the Young People's Chorus of New York City, and the Quebec folk ensemble Le Vent du Nord. Le Vent du Nord's new CD Symphonique featuring Myron's orchestra arrangements is receiving an incredible amount of positive press throughout Canada and will be available for purchase in the U.S. soon. A video preview of the recording is included in this interview.

His film scores include Wilderness & Spirit; A Mountain Called Katahdin and the upcoming Henry David Thoreau; Surveyor of the Soul, both from Films by Huey. Individual soloists and chamber ensembles that regularly perform Myron's work include violinists Peter Sheppard-Skaerved, Elisabeth Adkins & Kara Eubanks, violist Tsuna Sakamoto, cellist David Darling, the Portland String Quartet, the DaPonte String Quartet and the Potomac String Quartet.

Myron's current projects include commissioned work for the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra and creating arrangements for Joe Jackson's music-theater piece Stoker inspired by the life of Bram Stoker author of 1897 Gothic novel Dracula.

Tom (I'll call him Tom now) graciously took time out of his schedule to answer a handful of questions including several having to do with the "business" of making music.

Chris Becker: You arrange and orchestrate music for a variety of artists and have a career composing concertos, string quartets, and various settings for voice. Are these two separate careers that you have to juggle? Or do they intersect providing you with even more musical opportunities than if you were focused only one or the other?

Tom Myron: From a purely logistical point of view it's a juggling act. Both types of work tend to lead to more opportunities within their respective areas, but there isn't a lot of overlap. That said, they DO intersect for me on a more personal, creative level. I love getting to know all kinds of musical idioms in a very practical, mechanical way. I also love just about everything that goes into handling, preparing and rehearsing music for live performance. My training in composition and the orchestral repertoire has benefited my commercial work by giving me the flexibility to consider (and rapidly execute!) multiple solutions to specific problems. The commercial work in turn informs my composition by instilling a disciplined work ethic and keeping organization and clarity of intention foremost in my mind.

CB: How did you get a grip on the business side of music?

TM: I'm still not sure that I have one! You pick this stuff up as you go along and I think that, to some extent at least, you have to have a real interest in it. The main thing is to make it your business to be where the music that interests you is happening on a professional level. I had the good fortune of being associated with the Portland Symphony Orchestra for the 13 years that I lived in Maine. That was where I started learning everything that I could about how the business works. ASCAP, both in person and via their online resources, have also been very helpful in this regard.

CB: How did you learn how much to charge for one job over another?

TM: In the commercial world in large urban centers you generally charge by the number of bars (horizontally) and lines (vertically) with rates set by the AFM. I'm affiliated with AFM Local 802 in NYC. Their website has a page that breaks down the rates for orchestrating across a range of venues. Depending on the job and my relationship with the client I charge some multiple of the 802 base scales.

CB: Do you do your own negotiating when it comes to fees, deadlines, and creative control?

TM: The type of negotiating that a situation requires depends on the scale of the project and (especially) its potential ongoing life once it's been completed. In a lot of cases I still do my own negotiating, which suits me temperamentally but probably isn't for everyone. For complex projects like Joe Jackson's Stoker or the latest Le Vent du Nord CD I have a very good agent/lawyer in NYC. I'll call him when a project has a.) the potential to earn income over time and b.) a lot of different 'players' (meaning producers, writers, director etc.) In that type of scenario you absolutely must have someone who really knows what they're doing representing your interests. It's not adversarial, it's purely practical.

Deadlines can be anywhere from a week to several months and almost never have any relationship to the amount of work that needs to be done. For instance, the New York Pops will often know months in advance that they'll be needing a specific treatment of a specific song. This is terrific because I can happily spend months polishing and tweaking three or four minutes of music. It also gives me the luxury of being able to put the thing aside for a little while and come back to it fresh. On the other hand, I might turn out eleven complete charts in six or eight weeks on a gala where the guest artist list is in flux until the last minute!

In my experience the phrase "creative control" is more journalistic than practical. If you've been hired for the right reasons by people who know your work the potential for aesthetic discord is pretty small.

A video preview of Le Vent du Nord's CD Symphonique, arrangements by Tom Myron.

CB: And how do you handle a project like your collaboration with Le Vent Du Nord where the performances and recording are happening outside of the U.S.?

TM: That project just grew with every step we took. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation did not go into this with the intention of making a commercial CD. I had already connected with Le Vent back in 2006 through the Portland Symphony. Maine has a very deep Quebecois history and Le Vent has a big following there. The Maine Humanities Council got us funded to do four arrangements with the PSO. It was a blast. We sold out two shows and Le Vent's management saw a potential new venue for the band. When, in 2009, the Quebec Symphony asked them if they could do a whole evening with orchestra they called me. Initially, I did my own negotiating, both with the band and the orchestra. I made it a stipulation that I retain 100% ownership of my orchestrations and all associated rights. I then set out to make every bar of every chart sparkle and pulse with excitement, exactly the way the band does with each song. I learned a huge amount listening to those guys.

While I was busy writing, it was pointed out to someone that we were the first people ever to combine Quebecois Trad. with Symphonic Trad. The CBC then decided to record the concert live for Radio Canada. The National Theater of Quebec, where the concerts were held, is basically their Kennedy Center, so some serious technical resources were deployed. They mic-ed up the stage like it was a Hollywood Scoring session. As you saw from the video, it went very well. When the CBC realized that they now had a highly sale-able live recording on their hands, the fact that I had retained complete ownership (read: control) of my contribution to the project meant I was able to stipulate how I would be credited, where I would be credited and in what size typeface said credit would appear. I then called my agent in NYC and he handled the actual record deal.

Violinist Kara Eubanks tracking the cadenza from Tom Myron's Violin Concerto #2, 3rd movement.

CB: You’ve composed many works for soloists, including your Violin Concerto No. 2, Viola Concerto and Käthe Kollwitz for string quartet and soprano voice. How do opportunities to compose for specific soloists or ensembles come to you? Are these musicians who hear about you from other sources? Or are the connections more personal than that?

TM: There is a lineage that connects every one of my works from about 1994 onward to every other. Interestingly, it was a Schubert arrangement for soprano and string quartet that I wrote (very informally) for the Portland String Quartet that led them to commission Käthe Kollwitz. A friend of the quartet's then recommended the work to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and they programmed it on their chamber music series. Steven Honigberg, cellist and artistic director of the series, actually formed the Potomac String Quartet specifically for the occasion. In addition to Käthe Kollwitz, they've since gone on to record the complete string quartets of David Diamond and Quincy Porter for Albany Records. Tsuna Sakamoto is the violist in the group. She liked her part in Käthe Kollwitz so much she asked me to write her a concerto that she could do with the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra. Elisabeth Adkins is the concert master of Eclipse, and she liked Tsuna's concerto so much she wanted one of her own!

CB: I’ve been enjoying your 2002 score Wilderness & Spirit: A Mountain Called Katahdin. It’s wonderful to hear a score for an independent film played by a full orchestra! I haven’t seen this film. Are there long musical cues accompanying the images? How did you go about matching musical passages to edits in this particular film?

TM: Ironically, the piece for full orchestra only appears on the soundtrack album, not in the movie! (Editor's note: Whoops!) We did the strings in the actual film by overdubbing a quartet about 30 times. Huey, the film's director, wanted to release a soundtrack CD along with the film but I wasn't so interested. Then the Portland Symphony asked me if I'd like to take my favorite parts of the soundtrack and make a symphonic suite, which they would commission. That piece became Katahdin (Greatest Mountain) and they programmed it to coincide with the film's release. This gave us enough money and (barely) enough time to have Toshi record the piece in the Czech Republic, produce a soundtrack CD and have it on sale in the lobby at the premiere.

Working with a documentary director, particularly on a feature length project, is very different from working on a dramatic film. Huey spent five years working on Wilderness and Spirit. He felt that specific sections of the film had very specific moods and emotional textures. He was more interested in hearing what kind of music I would come up with by thinking about the emotional textures that he was describing than by showing me actual footage. He'd been living with this material for years before I had signed on and he wanted the ability to look at it with fresh eyes- to try out whatever music he wanted, wherever he wanted it. One of the best things about working with seasoned pros is that they have the confidence to work like this. I wrote a bunch of mini pieces and mocked them up in MIDI. He listened to them and picked the ones that he wanted elaborated. I wrote short, medium and long versions of the cues he'd chosen, booked a studio and hired the players. At the end of each day someone would drop by the studio and pick up a CD of what we'd done and take it to Huey, who would then edit all night. I didn't see any pictures with music until I was in the theater!

CB: I don’t remember when, but you and I did meet via the Internet. I’ve also met and developed both working and personal relationships with other composers, dancers, visual artists and even writers all via blogs and Facebook. How do you feel about all of the “social networking” that is nearly ubiquitous in American life now? Is it more helpful for an individual artist or a band like Le Vent Du Nord as opposed to a conductor or composer?

TM: As a way of staying in touch with a wide circle of people, obviously there's nothing like it. And I continue to make a few key connections/friendships along the way (you being one of them.) For an artist with an existing fan base, my sense is that social media is the living end. But for the kind of artist I am, not so much. I haven't touched my My Space page in years and I can barely even bring myself to blog on Sequenza21 anymore (as much as I love S21 itself, BTW.) (Editor's Note: NO OFFENSE GUYS!) These days I try to make my own use of the Internet as utilitarian as possible. The fact that it let's me move literally tons of printable music instantly is where it's at for me.

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