On 30 April 2009, my friend, conductor Peter Stanley Martin, recorded and transcribed an interview with me. A version of this interview was published in the Journal of the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles, Volume 16 – 2009, Dr. William Berz, editor.
Peter Stanley Martin: So, let’s just start from the beginning, so you were born in 1972 where and was anyone in your family a musician?
Jonathan Newman: I was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, which is in northeastern Pennsylvania, and no, in my immediate family I was the only musician. There has been sort of an exhaustive search of all areas of both sides of the family to find the musicians. Ones that sort of came to like music and treated it as an important thing and a few have been found, but nothing…there’s no direct line of musicians. My mom played music and played the piano and we had a piano in the home but other than that, I am the one that demanded lessons. All the music activities that happened throughout schooling, my parents were very, very supportive, probably a little baffled, but I enjoyed it.
PSM: And how many siblings do you have?
JN: I have an older brother, that’s it.
PSM: In high school did you automatically have an interest in music and, if so, what instruments did you play?
JN: Yes! In high school I did everything: I sang in chorus, I played piano, and I was quite serious about playing trombone in orchestra, in the bands, and in jazz bands. I was very into jazz in high school. The first theory I learned was jazz theory. Music camps in the summer and even high school I started writing.
PSM: What type of music were you writing in high school?
JN: Well I don’t know what “type.” Juvenile I would say. I would write things for my band to play. I remember I wrote a trombone quartet that I was playing with my trombone friends to play at regional bands, that kind of thing. I would write things for my chorus to sing. The stuff that I was in, it wasn’t much. We’re talking about a handful of pieces that actually happened over the course of four years, and really only three because you know as a freshman you’re too busy with your head in a locker, but it was enough that I actually had a small portfolio when I applied to college. I was pretty focused pretty early on.
PSM: Well clearly. You have a nice segue here because you have your bachelor’s degree from Boston University where you studied with Richard Cornell and Charles Fussell.
JN: Oh right, you know Charlie Fussell!
PSM: Yes, I know Charlie! He’s a fantastic person and composer. What made you decide to go to Boston University? Were you going there to study with those people?
JN: I also studied with Bob Sirota who is now the President of Manhattan School of Music.
JN: How did I choose BU? I wanted to be in a city and the music school there was one of the better options for that within the certain parameters that my parents had set. You know I couldn’t move to LA. So, I loved Boston. It was a good fit. If I remember correctly it was a choice between Oberlin and BU. I didn’t want to be in the middle of a field in Ohio.
PSM: And that is not slighting Oberlin’s music program, it’s just a personal choice right?
JN: No, Oberlin is great, but there is nothing to do in Oberlin, Ohio except study.
PSM: Do you remember the small portfolio that you had sent to Boston? Was it this trombone quartet and choir piece?
JN: Yeah. I’m sure I sent the trombone piece, which if I remember correctly, was about the tearing down of the Berlin Wall which dates me. I’m sure that I also sent the choral work that I had written for our graduation ceremony.
PSM: So now you did your time at Boston and you’re going to The Juilliard School for your masters where you get to study with David Del Tredici and John Corigliano. Was there a ‘big city’ influence that made you want to go from Boston to New York or was it reputation of Juilliard.
JN: It was things that I had done and people that I had met over the course of living in Boston. Juilliard started because of Aspen. The first time I went to the Aspen Music Festival was 1993 as a junior. I think I had just finished my junior year. And Aspen, as you know, is sort of like “Juilliard West.” The faculty is all Juilliard; the students basically move out there and play in the orchestra, and much of the staff. So I had started to meet the faculty and a lot of the other students who were Juilliard students, I liked them, I was rooming with them there and so then it sort of became an option when I was looking at schools and I was looking at people I wanted to study with. I would come into New York sometimes when I was in Boston for a day trip with some friends. By the end of my time in Boston I was pretty excited and focused that I wanted to go to grad school in New York. I even applied to CUNY as well. I didn’t get in.
PSM: But you got into Juilliard?
JN: Yeah. I didn’t get in to CUNY. I got my rejection letter – the first rejection letter. I got into MSM. The choice was between Juilliard and MSM. I also got rejected from Michigan. I didn’t even get in the door. I didn’t even get an interview.
PSM: Wow! You said you’ve been a composition student at the Aspen Music Festival, but weren’t you also at Tanglewood for at least one session?
JN: Yea, well not as a fellow, but as a kid.
PSM: As a kid?
JN: I went to Tanglewood in the summer of 1990. BU runs a summer program for high school-aged kids. I did that and was in the composition class with other high school kids. That composition class, by the way, has a lot of people, I think most of them are professional composers now.
PSM: In the ‘kid’ session?
JN: Yea, in that class in 1990 Roshanne Etezady was in that class. She is at Arizona State doing great. She just had a piece played at the recent CBDNA conference. A fantastic composer and a great person. Dalit Warshaw that I ended up going to Juilliard with and now she teaches at Boston Conservatory. Jonathan Leshnoff who teaches compositions at a school in Maryland. Everyone was pretty focused early on. Yea, I was at Tanglewood in 1990 and then I taught there for two other summers.
PSM: Really? You taught the high school program?
JN: I was teaching the class that I used to be in. Ear training, counterpoint, stuff like that.
PSM: So now steering this conversation in a different direction. I know that you compose primarily at the piano. Correct?
JN: Yeah, there’s a process, but let’s say yes.
PSM: Well, I was going to ask what your compositional approach is.
JN: Well, it depends on the piece, but it does involve some piano work. I’d say it depends. Well, if you’re working on a large ensemble work there is only so much you can do at the piano. But yes, most things start at the piano. Sometimes they don’t…
…No! They don’t start at the piano. I was a Corigliano student and his process is sort of fixed in my brain. No, the first thing you do is you sit down and you think for weeks, and months, and in some cases years just about the form of the piece. The architecture of the piece. The sound world of the piece. The kinds of sounds that you want to immerse yourself in. The harmonic language that you want to immerse yourself in and then there is a process of notes. I mean written paragraphs. Writing things out and pictures and graphs and then there is a period of research. Once I figure out what I’m kind of want to do I do a lot of listening and score study to try and, you know, steal things. If you want it to sound like “A,” then go look at “A.” Over the course of a piece I might have written down 18 different sound worlds that I’m interested in combining in some way. The research goes on for months, too. At a certain point in the research you get so immersed in that you have to sort of say “All right, that’s enough. Now it’s time to sit down and write.” Then you start getting some notes together. Notes are not the first thing that happen at all and the notes come from the piano. Harmonies, general harmonic language, and then step away from the piano, work some things out for a while and then it is a process of going back and forth between a piano and a table.
PSM: Now, the curve. Do you remember how you and I first met?
JN: Um, yea sure! It was at NYU’s only band concert!
PSM: Yes, it was. We met through John Corigliano and at the time John knew me from my work at Schirmer and how I was going to be going back to school to get my degree in conducting.
JN: You weren’t at Rutgers then.
PSM: No, I wasn’t, but John knew that I was going to go back and one of my previous conversations that I had with John at that time was about his “Circus Maximus.” Do happen to remember how he introduced us? This is something that has always stuck in my head.
JN: No I don’t, but I think he probably would’ve said something like “You guys should know each other” or something like that?
PSM: Yea, he did. He actually said “Band conductor meet band composer: Peter this is a former student of mine Jonathan Newman, a wonderfully talented band composer.”
JN: Yeah. That drives me crazy that he said that.
PSM: Now I know that John did not mean any sort of knock to either of us especially with how outspoken he has been in support of the wind ensemble movement.
JN: And sort of embarrassingly so…
PSM: How do you feel about that title “band composer?”
JN: How do I feel about it? I know what John meant, but as a term I think it is just awful. I actually sort of fall back a little bit when I hear that. I guess because part of me feels that maybe he’s right? Do you know what I mean? You always resist the things that sound too true to you that you don’t want to be true. I have written a lot of band pieces in the last eight years or so, and it is just because it is how it happened and that is where the jobs came. I don’t have more of an interest in wind ensemble music than I do in anything else. I do enjoy working with winds very much and I love the active professional life you can have writing music for them, but I do very much try to balance things. It doesn’t always work out, but I make an effort to do that mostly so that I never hear that phrase. But you know what? Labels happen whether you like it or not.
PSM: Now, when I was asking you about your studies and your applications to Boston University and Juilliard and Aspen, you were at The MacDowell Colony for two weeks and you’ve been awarded a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Were all of these accolades accomplished by composing “band” music?
JN: I guess there was no band music in those applications. I really didn’t know that was an option. BU had no band and Juilliard certainly has no band. I mean they do for one concert a year that they put together something and play Bill Schuman and be done with it while everyone complains that they are not playing in the orchestra for that concert. I might have sent something that was wind ensemble music with the MacDowell Colony application, maybe other things, too.
PSM: Whether we use the word “wind” or “band,” both four-letter words, but just for the sake of continuity, how did you first get introduced into composing for the wind medium?
JN: Eric Whitacre. That’s an easy answer.
PSM: And this was through your composition studio at Juilliard.
JN: This is at Juilliard. I met him my second year when he came in and he was studying with David Diamond and all the composers were friendly and very supportive and a nice group. I got friendly with Eric who at that time only had one band piece.
PSM: And that was “Ghost Train.”
JN: Right, that was “Ghost Train,” and he was a bit of a proselytizer. When we would get together he would say “Listen, these guys love new music. They have no literature and they are an entire musical culture based on new music and they have a ton of percussionists and they have some money. They have budgets.” I think I resisted for a while. You’re sort of trained in the very classical training that it is a third-rate ensemble. You don’t touch it. That probably had something to do with it. I would also say that I think some sort of fear of success had something to do with it.
PSM: You didn’t want to succeed as a “band composer” at that point in your life.
JN: I’m not sure I wanted to succeed as a composer at all. It’s very hard to be a composer. There are a lot of issues. You know this – your mid-twenties are a very difficult time. You’re trying to figure out who you are, what you want to do, and you’re on your own for really, essentially, the first time in your life. It was hard. I’m not sure I was ready. I thought “that could probably work” and that I’d probably do well. It wasn’t a fear of being a band composer, but it was that things would start to happen and I’d actually start to do this. And then I’d actually have to do it, I wouldn’t be able to just talk about it or be in school studying it and that is a very, very scary realization to come to. That you now have to follow through. That’s what it is, a fear of following through. You know, you’re waiting for somebody to expose you as a fraud.
PSM: Well I guess that just plays into all of our insecurities.
JN: Eventually I did though and through Eric I did a transcription of a piece I wrote in Aspen. A septet I wrote for the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble and blew it up for wind ensemble and Eric’s alma mater, UNLV, premiered it and brought me out and it was a great experience. That was the beginning of that.
PSM: And the name of the piece?
JN: That was “OK Feel Good.”
PSM: This is now the name of your publishing company.
JN: Yes, it is the name of my publishing company.
PSM: Get rid of “band composer” for a bit, but just how hard is it to be a full-time composer at this point? Your mentors in Richard Cornell, Charles Fussell, and John Corigliano all still have university positions and, quite frankly, not many composers these days are full-time composers – for whatever reason, family, benefits, etc. – but you choose to have your studio in New York City and work as a full-time composer. When did you make that decision and/or is eventually obtaining a university post of any interest to you?
JN: Well of course it’s of interest. I don’t have a DMA so I can’t get that job unless someday somebody calls and say we’ll give it to you – we want you. I can’t even apply; I can’t even get in the door. I would love it. I do enjoy teaching. I did teach at Juilliard theory, ear training and stuff, the usual for a composer, but when it came time to decide if I was going to do a DMA I decided I didn’t love teaching enough to spend the next four or five years getting a degree that I didn’t particularly feel I wanted and that would qualify me to apply for a job at “State University of Southern West Nebraska at Hoople” for the position of “Adjunct Whatever” and be competing with 600 other people more qualified than I am. I just didn’t want to do it. I did other things: I was a music copyist for about 10 years, I worked for a music publisher, and I worked at a concert hall for a while. I was a young buck, I was a kid. I did the copying a lot and then it was just copying and writing, and then when the writing got to a certain point then the copying got to the point that I was tired of it and I stopped. Let’s just say I have a very supportive family. My wife is very nice. She wanted me to stop copying before I did because I was miserable. How am I doing it? Some months are better than others, Peter.
PSM: Okay. Speaking of your publishing background, but not your experiences there, with the exception of two pieces you do self-publishing and rentals for everything else?
JN: Yea, it was a process of years figuring out the best way that would work for my catalog and it really did take a while to figure out what that would be. First I sold my stuff by myself, then I got most of it distributed through Hal Leonard and they sold it. One piece is commercially published. And then once I saw how few copies were selling I decided to take them back and rent them myself. It’s for lots of reasons. The ensembles that would actually play that music rent music. The ensembles that buy music don’t play that music. So, it took me years to figure it out, but now I’m happy about it – everyone seems happy about it. I’m happier because the stuff is being distributed and I’m getting performances in a home that suits the works more than they did when they were commercially available.
PSM: With your little composer consortium of BCM International…
JN: You make it sound so diminutive. “Your little consortium.”
PSM: It is only four people. It is yourself, Eric Whitacre, Steven Bryant, and Jim Bonney. According to my knowledge it would be two out of the four publish everything commercially through Hal Leonard and the other two, yourself included, do more rental than commercial publishing.
JN: Who’s the other, Steve?
PSM: Yes, you and Steve tend to do more rental and Eric and Jim do more sales with Hal Leonard.
JN: That probably highlights the difference that I was saying before where the music finds a performance home with ensembles that are more comfortable renting their works directly from the composer or something like that than a wider selection of educational groups that are more comfortable buying their music from a retailer.
PSM: Do you feel in any way that with the technology that we have today that you have gotten any sort of negative feedback that an ensemble or a conductor said “Well we really want to rent your works, but for some reason we can’t get a hold of you.”
JN: Yes, but not so much anymore. In the beginning when I was first doing the switch there was a transition period when I would get some flack for the rentals. People would say it’s difficult to do the rentals or it’s so expensive, but not so much anymore. I find if people want to do the piece they’ll rent it. The fact is that it is a little backwards because rentals traditionally are a higher fee for less. What you’re getting is one performance for a higher fee and then you send the material back, you don’t get to play it again, and if you want to play it again you have to rent it again. What that means is that you’re basically paying a premium for the privilege of playing something that not everybody can play. You’re playing something that is a special, or niche group. You’re a special group for being able to perform it, for being able to afford it, for being able to play it. Real music is less of a “one in a herd.” I think of it like that and the guilt goes away.
PSM: You know especially with your catalog now, like your new symphony, where you’re getting commissions by 20+ ensembles.
JN: Well that is also a necessity thing where everybody goes in on the fee. The number of ensembles goes up if everyone cannot afford a higher fee.
PSM: According to your website you currently have six orchestral works available. How often do those pieces get rented compared to your wind ensemble works? Also, you can choose to answer this or not, being very critical of yourself, do you feel that those works – the orchestral ones – are some of your better ones?
JN: One or two of them are some of my better works.
PSM: At this point we have said how were reluctant, at best, to come into this medium at times, but do you feel that you are more comfortable at this point writing for the wind medium?
JN: Well, I have a lot of practice at it, but no I’m not more comfortable. I do sort of feel that anytime I sit down to write something that I reinvent the compositional process. “Wait, how do I do this again?” “Wait, I’ve done this before, what do I do?” So I mean, it doesn’t matter what you’re writing for. I do feel like some of those [the orchestral pieces] are my better works, but the problem is in the last 8 or so years, or however long that I’ve had more work writing for wind ensembles, that my style has sort of focused a little more and I feel like I have honed in on the way I want to write. I mean, it sounds stupid, but the voice I feel I have become comfortable with wasn’t there in the earlier stages. So some of those pieces, the chamber music and orchestral music and the older works, was when I was still floundering around basically trying to figure out how I wanted to write. Some of them are very worthy pieces, I wouldn’t have put them up and available if I didn’t think they were, but if I were to write those pieces today they wouldn’t necessarily represent how I would write. The wind ensemble stuff, because it’s more recent, probably represents much more of how I want to write my music. I am actually quite excited to do more, now that I have sort of figured that out, to do more chamber music and orchestral music and especially vocal music, that is why I started the opera project. I hadn’t written vocal music in years and years. I was a completely different composer the last time I wrote vocal music. That was really interesting to me. Now that I write like I do now, or think I do now, how it would work with the vocal music. There are a couple pieces in the “orchestral section” of the website, as you say, or in the catalog, that are the more modern voice.
PSM: I know that you’re writing an opera called “Carnival of Souls.” As far as I know, you’re writing this without a commission and you’re clearly enjoying the experience and the process. Is it being scored for a typical opera pit orchestra or will this be the next Daron Hagen “Bandanna” where it is an opera scored for wind ensemble and staged singers?
JN: That is correct, but there is no orchestral score yet. I have no idea how it will be scored. It will be scored for whoever wants to do it and how we work out how it will be scored. Right now it is just a p-v [piano vocal score] and it will remain a p-v until we have some idea what production is going to happen and what forces that we will need.
PSM: So have I just tainted your thought process?
JN: No, no, no. I mean, if somebody said “We’ll do a production but it has to only be winds in the orchestra.” I would probably fight that only because I don’t think it would fit the piece very well. Not because I think that is a particularly bad idea, but because I don’t think it is that kind of a piece. I have sort have been thinking about how some things would be scored and the kind of sound world that I would have. It wouldn’t be a chamber orchestra – it is a bigger piece than that, but it doesn’t necessarily need a huge, lush string section either, so I don’t know. The only stuff I’m thinking about right now is getting notes down.
PSM: Okay. Are you at liberty to say what commissions you have on the horizon?
JN: Sure. I’m writing a commission for, it sounds odd, but for a euphonium and piano sonata.
PSM: That’s not too odd.
JN: You know euphonium players don’t have a lot of literature and I wanted to write more chamber music and I figured it would be something that would be fun to write, something smaller and something that might have a performance life after it is finished. There’s a percussion ensemble piece that we are still trying to put together the full funding for, but we have some excellent, excellent percussion ensembles on board. The euphonium piece and the percussion ensemble piece both got pushed off a bit because the symphony grew and got out of control so a couple projects got postponed. The percussion ensemble will be about a nine-player, 10-minute piece. There is the opera, of course, which I have another, maybe, 10-to-15 minutes more to do to get it to where I can do something with it. And there is a band commission for 2010. The Central Oklahoma Directors Association commissioned me to write a piece for their honor band.
PSM: I don’t mean to humble you, but you’re clearly regarded as one of the young, exciting composers of this medium.
JN: I would take the “clearly” out of there. It is nice to hear and you’re my friend so I don’t believe you.
PSM: Well, it is you as well as some of your close friends who are part of this highly regarded, young band movement of composition. I think I sort of know the answer, but are you trying to move this medium in a forward direction and where do you see it going?
JN: The short answer is yes. We are just trying to do our thing and we are just trying to write music that we like to hear and sort of using the wind ensemble as the boat to get us there. The result is that some interesting, exciting music is being written because for some reason no one decided to write interesting, exciting music for wind ensemble before? I’m not sure.
PSM: There was the educational movement during the 1950s and the 1960s and that is how you have “George Washington Bridge” by Schuman and different educational band pieces for high school band.
JN: Is “George Washington Bridge” considered an ‘educational piece’? See, I consider that a “piece.” Do you know what you mean?
PSM: I know exactly what you mean and I agree. It is a piece by a very serious composer that chose to write a piece that happened to not include strings and it stands on its own. The aesthetic value is there, but it was written for amateur instrumentalists and Schuman saw the band as a way to expose young American instrumentalists and audiences to contemporary music.
JN: Certainly the Persichetti “Symphony” is not an educational piece.
PSM: Well, high school bands are playing the Persichetti “Symphony” not the Hindemith “Symphony” so I would be prone to say that the Persichetti “Symphony” is an educational piece, not so much as “education” is involved, but more as a piece that would be played in an educational setting.
PSM: After the 1950s and 1960s educational push we don’t have a great deal of music that has stuck around for the wind medium. We don’t have repeat performances of things that were happening in the 1970s and the early 1980s, but now we have this influx again.
JN: There’s a lot of reasons for this I think, but I think we’ll need a little more distance from it before we really know.
PSM: Time is the ultimate judge.
JN: Yes. They include the fact that the theory of the serious concert music world has fewer and fewer opportunities for composers. Economic reasons. Cultural reasons. So composers have found, especially the young ones who don’t really have the baggage that the generation before us has, to do our thing, write in the style that we are comfortable in without any repercussions. Composers just want to write music. Of course they all want to write orchestral music, but if the door is locked then, you know, you’re going to find another door if this is what you want to do. I’m not saying the door is completely locked to orchestral music, there is a lot of stuff that is still happening, but for younger people it is the lucky few that can manage to get in and I have counted myself lucky on occasion. That has definitely been a part of it. I’m sure that the people that have been running the wind ensembles, the directors and the conductors, have been very amenable to this influx; they have been very excited about it. It is a musical culture that is unbelievably based on who is new, what is new, what is the next piece, who’s the hot thing? I mean, it’s a terrible thing to say, but that’s the exact opposite of concert music where you are a sycophant begging to have your work played and you turn around and there are wind ensembles that treat you like a professional and make you feel like a composer. It is sort of a win-win, I think it is a very symbiotic relationship and it is working out for everyone. Now we are seeing our teachers start to turn their heads and see what their students are doing and think “these guys are actually having performances around the country and around the world and the pieces have life? I’ll do that, too!”
PSM: And you have to look at somebody like John Corigliano who has “Circus Maximus” and not every ensemble in the world will be able to play that, ever, but he has become one of the greatest proponents of the wind ensemble medium. Now we have just had William Bolcom write his “First Symphony for Band” and we are having these luminaries of the “serious concert world” saying “you have to pay attention to this” and I think we’re certainly in this very exciting, but grey area of where things are going to go. It can change in the next five or ten years, but it is certainly propelling in a forward direction and I have to count you up there as part of this younger generation of composers that have not only accepted it, but are thriving in this medium and are not looking at it, as you said earlier, as a ‘third-rate ensemble.’
JN: Right and I appreciate that. Even in the time I have been paying attention it has gotten better. When I was first coming in, if a so-called ‘orchestral composer,’ which is just as bad as saying ‘band composer,’ or lets just say a ‘normally well-respected composer,’ did a band piece it was a transcription of one of their popular orchestral pieces which drove me bananas! Now at least I’m starting to see that people are kind of sick of that – which I’m surprised they weren’t to begin with – and they are actually writing for the ensemble. You get better music that way, you get an actual repertoire that way, and that is what is going to get composers on board, actually writing – not transcribing their catalog – for the ensemble. I hate to harp on it, but I don’t understand why that even happened, why wind ensemble conductors even wanted that to happen. It seems like they were doing themselves a disservice by even asking for that to happen. Anyway, we are seeing Bill Bolcom actually write the piece, and Del Tredici write the piece, and Corigliano write the piece. Maybe Adams will eventually.
PSM: Well the closest thing we have from Adams is his “Grand Pianola Music,” but you need two piano virtuosi to play that one.
JN: Right, but I also heard that somebody was working on some sort of commission. I don’t know what the deal is.
PSM: The only other pieces I know of are the Odom arrangement of “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” and “Scratchband,” which is for a chamber ensemble.
JN: Right, and “Short Ride” is a piece that is transcribed and it works well, but that is another example that it is still a transcription. Torke has been doing it, too [writing original works for winds], and I’m a fan, and I think he’s been writing some fine music. So that is the direction I see it going, even since I’ve been paying attention, and I like that direction.