An Interview with Composer James Grant
by Mark Nelson
For three decades, James Grant has been commissioned by individuals, choruses, chamber ensembles, and orchestras who have performed his music throughout the world. As a composer of choral music, he has taken First Prize honors in three international competitions, and his orchestral overture Chart won first prize in the 1998 Louisville Orchestra competition for new orchestral music. In 2002, Grant was one of five American composers to win the Aaron Copland Award; and, in 2004, he won the Sylvia Goldstein Award, sponsored by Copland House. Recognized by Cornell University’s Graduate School of Humanities and Arts and by the Vermont chapter of the National Music Teachers Association for exceptional contributions as an educator, Grant continues to be active as a lecturer and private teacher of composition.
Grant’s colorful musical language is known by musicians and audiences for its honed craft and immediacy. After the May 2003 Kennedy Center premiere of his 55-minute work for chorus and large orchestra based on the writings of Walt Whitman, Such Was The War, the Washington Times declared it “a work of outstanding power and breadth of emotion.” The Baltimore Sun wrote, “the sincerity is never in doubt, and there’s an unmistakable, cumulative power generated by the text and music. Such Was the War makes an honorable contribution to the choral repertoire.”
Composer James Grant
Grant’s ability to compose music appropriate to specific levels of experience has found him working with groups ranging from professional orchestras, choruses, new music ensembles, and ballet companies to community choruses and youth orchestras. His music is regularly programmed at music festivals, symposia, and clinics, and his Tribute for orchestra was a featured work at the 2002 Midwest Conductor’s Clinic in Chicago, performed by the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra. Recent orchestral commissions include: Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra, for virtuoso saxophonist David Stambler; Eja! Eja! for symphonic chorus and orchestra for the Choral Arts Society of Washington; Scout, based on texts from Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill A Mockingbird, for narrator, mezzo-soprano, and chamber orchestra, commissioned by the Great Lakes Chamber Orchestra; Concerto for Chamber Orchestra, also commissioned by the Great Lakes Chamber Orchestra; and an extended work for narrator and orchestra commissioned by the University of Mary Washington (Fredericksburg, VA) in celebration of that school’s centennial in 2008. Recently, works by James Grant have been recorded and released in separate projects by clarinetist William Helmers, tubist Mark Nelson, violist Michelle LaCourse, and by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in Australia. In 2004, Grant moved to Toronto, Ontario, where he keeps his studio and lives with his wife, fine-art photographer Elizabeth Siegfried.
The interview took place over several days in the spring of 2007 between Mark Nelson and James Grant. A few grammatical considerations from various phone and e-mail interviews have been modified to fit the print media.
MN: Tell our readers some of your background in music including education, early composition experiences, shaping events, and employment experiences.
JG: OK, that’s a big, loaded question. Here’s a “Reader’s Digest condensed” answer: I took a handful of piano lessons when I was in 3rd grade, then refused to go back because the teacher treated me like I was eight years old (which, of course, I was). At age 11, I became a choirboy and sang throughout high school, with another stab at piano lessons (slightly more successful) during my 8th-grade year. After high school (1972), I went to college for three weeks and dropped out, then played piano in a rock ‘n’ roll band for a few years. In the fall of 1974, I worked construction (hauling sheetrock) for a week and promptly decided it was time to go to college. Was accepted into and completed in two years a self-designed program in composition and choral conducting at Hampshire College (I believe I hold the record for what is usually a 4-year program), then spent three years traveling, working as a baker, and composing a lot of choral music. In 1981 I completed my M.A. in Theory and Composition at the University of Iowa, then spent another three years baking and composing, then started the D.M.A. program at Cornell (in composition, not baking), which I completed in the spring of 1988.
That fall I started work as an Assistant Professor of Music at Middlebury College in Vermont, a position I held for four years. Within days of successfully passing my 4-year faculty review at Middlebury, I had something of an epiphany at a stoplight: How would I feel if I ditched my academic gig and composed full-time? I came up with two answers: liberated and poor. I decided to put more emphasis on liberated, tendered my resignation from academe in 1992, and created a business plan. I haven’t looked back one nanosecond, though I do miss the classroom.
In 1993, I moved to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and began a three-year position as Composer-in-Residence to the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra in Virginia, followed by a five-year position with the Bay-Atlantic Symphony in New Jersey. During this time I also learned how to work a backhoe and helped a friend install septic systems, punctuated by swimming in the ocean year-round with a wetsuit (there’s nothing like floating quietly on your back in the 34-degree Atlantic Ocean in February) and kayaking the inland waterways of the DelMarVa Peninsula. In addition to composing, I spent time researching and preparing my pre-concert lectures for both Fairfax and Bay-Atlantic, often presenting some offbeat material that had nothing to do with the concerts—like comparing the “Allegro” movement from Edison Denisov’s Sonata for Clarinet Solo with Walter Becker’s guitar solo in Steely Dan’s Gaslighting Abbie. The audiences, shocked though they sometimes were, seemed to appreciate my lectures. (As I recall, one reviewer referred to them as being “sprightly.”).
During the ten years that I lived in Delaware, before moving to Toronto in 1994 to marry fine-art photographer Elizabeth Siegfried (www.ElizabethSiegfried.com—the ‘Betz’ in my piece Waltz for Betz [distributed by Tuba-Euphonium Press]), I fulfilled a number of commissions for orchestras and recitalists, including a big choral symphony for the Choral Arts Society of Washington Orchestra and Chorus at the Kennedy Center, had a few pieces recorded, and widened my network. I’ve been fortunate that performances of my music over the years often have generated further performances, as well as new commission opportunities.
MN: You have to have one of the most unique backgrounds of any composer I have ever been associated with! What kinds of important events or situations influenced your compositional style?
JG: What has influenced—and continues to influence—my compositional style the most is my interaction with musicians out in “the real world” of being a composer in the marketplace. This has exposed me to the fullest imaginable spectrum of technical skills and artistic sophistication, and I have found this to be enriching beyond words.
Each commission places me within a new and challenging set of technical and aesthetic parameters—a situation which I find liberating, never restricting. For example, when I craft a piece for a youth orchestra, I am mindful of a certain set of stylistic and technical parameters within which that piece should remain. When I craft a piece for a professional soloist or organization, the stylistic and technical parameters appropriate for that level allow me to spread my creative wings in a more substantive way. No matter who it is I’m composing for, I never feel as though I need to “write down” or “write up.” I simply write the music that I believe will be appropriate and desirable for their needs.
MN: Your entry into writing solo music for the tuba was a while ago. Can you describe for our readers how that started?
JG: Well, actually, you should be the one answering this question, since it’s your entire fault to begin with! As I recall, it was in January of 1993 when you asked me if I had time to write you a short piece for unaccompanied tuba so you’d have something you could easily put together for a tour you were doing in Japan later that spring. Because I’d only written for tuba in its orchestral capacity, I’d never considered its capabilities as a solo instrument; so I signed on, not at all sure of how the piece would turn out.
What an awakening I had! I remember spending an animated few hours with you in your home in Burlington, VT, during which you showed me what the tuba was capable of doing; and it absolutely blew me away. I was stunned by how flexible and nimble and expressive the tuba is, and I remember thinking that if I combined those qualities with your advanced chops, I could come up with some pretty engaging music.
So, I went home and a few weeks later came to your office at the University of Vermont and handed you a final draft of three short movements for unaccompanied tuba. You read through them, hurled a few good-natured expletives in the direction of both the music and the composer, laughed a lot, cried some, offered some invaluable technical feedback, and within the week you had in your hands the final score to the Three Furies. I can’t tell you how gratifying it is when I get emails from students and pros alike who are learning the Furies, expressing how much fun they’re having with the piece. In a very real sense, Mark, I’ve always viewed you as a co-author.
I’ll mention a little known factoid here: there is a concerto version of the Furies, which you performed in 1998 with the Minneapolis Pops at the ITEC at the University of Minnesota. Another close tuba pal of mine, Mike Bunn, did the heavy lifting for the premier performance (under my dubious direction) with the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra in 1996. Tim Buzbee has played it with the Acapulco Philharmonic, as well. The orchestral parts are a snap to put together, so once you’ve learned the Furies, you’ve also learned a concerto that can be put together quickly by any college or university orchestra (not to mention a professional group). For the time being, I self-publish the piece, so anyone who is interested can contact me directly.
MN: You and I have been friends and colleagues since that first tuba composition. I have always admired your grasp of how making a living as a composer works. How does it work? Can you describe some of your projects over the years that have been funded outside of the tuba world?
JG: Again, this is a hugely complex question. The quick answer as to how it works is this: Receive a commission, write a successful piece, sell the music to others who want to play it, receive multiple performances, and harvest performance royalties. Da capo senza fine.
Here’s a longer answer: In order to be a successful composer in the marketplace (i.e., be able to pay bills), one must first and foremost develop and maintain a versatile and dependable track record. Plainly speaking here, commissioning entities, whether they are individual musicians or large orchestras, want to know that by investing their hard-won funds they will be rewarded with a well-crafted product appropriate to their needs. Such an investment is always going to be speculative, but it does not have to be a gamble.
This makes perfect sense to me, so the first thing I always do when I am approached for a commission is to spend significant time designing with the commissioner a kind of stylistic and technical blueprint for the piece. This helps me customize a compositional palette, as it were, so that I will know precisely the parameters within which this new piece needs to operate. So, the biggest—and ongoing—project I’ve had over the past few decades has been to develop and maintain a versatile and (what I intend to be) dependable track record.
I say versatile because I receive commissions from both amateur and professional organizations. Case in point: A few years ago I wrote a piece for a youth orchestra that then was premiered in the local school gymnasium. The next month, I wrote a piece for the Choral Arts Society of Washington Orchestra and Chorus that then was premiered in the main concert hall at the Kennedy Center. Composing for all levels and feeling comfortable in a variety of compositional dialects—and, I’ll say it again, developing and maintaining that dependable track record—is a reality of making a living as a composer outside of academe. I, for one, thrive on it. For all intents and purposes, my day gig is keeping track of the business side of things, corresponding with performers, conductors, and composer colleagues, and ensuring that my “In Box” is suitably full and manageable for the foreseeable future.
As for some specific projects over the years, one of the most successful artistic and entrepreneurial approaches I continue to use is that of creating a commissioning consortium. For example, back in the ’90s I brought together six orchestras and three concert pianists to commission and premiere a piano concerto. The commission fee was spread out among the orchestras, making the project financially feasible for all concerned when it otherwise would have been impossible. The eight performances of the piece generated multiple royalties, and the music was heard in five states (and ultimately in Prague, where it was recorded by the Czech Radio Symphony). As an added bonus, a choreographer from the National Ballet of New Jersey who happened to be in an audience one night ended up creating a ballet set to two movements from the concerto. I’ve always felt that the consortium approach is a winning scenario for all concerned, artistically and financially.
MN: One of your many links to tuba and euphonium players around the world has been through your extensive website, which includes audio clips, pdf files, and program notes for your various compositions. Can you remind us why it is so important to contact living composers with programs and information about their works being performed?
JG: This is such an important issue, and I’m glad you’ve brought it up here! I’m always so grateful when I receive in the mail or over the Internet notification from a performer that one of my pieces has been programmed on a recital or concert. There is a ‘Performance Notification Form’ on my home page [Editor’s Note: www.JamesGrantMusic.com] that takes about a minute to fill out and costs nothing. After I am notified of a performance, I send in that information to ASCAP and receive credit for it. Many school or university performances of recital music fly under ASCAP’s radar screen; consequently, sending notification to me ensures that I can get that performance on record at ASCAP and receive appropriate credit, and likely payment. Performance royalties can make up a significant portion of a composer’s income stream.
Equally as important, though, is simply making the connection between performer and living composer. A few weeks ago, I received in the same batch of email a performance notification and accompanying note from a D.M.A. student who had just performed the Furies and another performance notification and similar note from a high school student who had just performed a slightly less thorny work of mine for unaccompanied tuba, Stuff. In both cases I wrote back immediately, thanking them for performing my music and for taking the time to let me know about it. You know, composers live pretty solitary lives—at least I do. So this kind of interaction with musicians is, in fact, dear to me.
MN: You and I started a trend in solo composition writing called a consortium commission. Can you describe that process and how it applied to first Sultry and Eccentric for tuba and piano and later to the famous (or infamous) 2001 Solstice/Equinox Commissioning Consortium for Tubists project?
JG: You and I had a brainstorm: Why don’t we design with tubists what I had put together with orchestras in my piano concerto consortium? You put the word out to see if there would be interest in the tuba community to “co-commission” a two-movement recital piece. Much to my amazement and delight, 50 tubists (including three university tuba studios) came on board. Each chipped in a modest amount of money, and the result was this quirky piece that asks the tubist to be one part torch singer and one part schizophrenic.
With the success of the S&E consortium, I came up with the idea to design a slightly more ambitious project, a sort of “time-released” consortium commission in which each co-commissioner would receive in the mail four non-virtuoso recital pieces over the course of the year, one delivered at each solstice and equinox. This time, there were 78 participants representing 31 states and three countries. I had such fun writing these works (especially Endorphins, I must say), and I can tell you that a number of friends who play other instruments have asked me to fashion versions for their instruments. What I love about this consortium approach is that it creates and celebrates community while also adding new works to the tuba repertoire. In the end, we’re all making this music together.
MN: You and I have talked about creating another consortium commission for a major tuba-euphonium ensemble work for 2008. Can you tell us more about how that process is working?
JG: Sure. I guess it was a couple years ago that you first suggested that I consider writing a piece for tuba-euphonium ensemble, and we immediately latched on to the notion of putting together another consortium. So, what we are hoping is that we can attract 75 participants, ensembles, or entities to chip in $100 each to commission a multi-movement major new composition for two tubas and two euphoniums suitable for the college/university/professional market. While I can’t define exactly what the language, structure, and stylistic trajectory will be, I’m betting it will be lyrical, fun, quirky, and suitably challenging.
As for the nuts and bolts of this venture, here are the details we’ve designed: The consortium commission will be limited to 75 participants, ensembles, or institutions. As I just mentioned, each will contribute $100. You have kindly offered to be the Administrative Czar and have opened a special bank account and will handle all transactions. Thanks also for making a webpage explaining all of this and how to become a consortium member. [Editor’s Note: http://members.aol.com/mnelson921/grant.htm]. Once 75 commitments have been made, the commission closes.
A receipt will be sent back to each participating individual or entity with a copy number assigned in order of payment received. A first “private edition” of 75 copies of the new piece will be printed and numbered, individually autographed by me, and sent out to the commissioners no later than June 2008, in time for the International Tuba and Euphonium Conference in Cincinnati. Later that fall, a non-numbered, non-autographed edition will be available through Tuba-Euphonium Press. I always feel a bit funny talking “business” like this, especially with friends and colleagues—but in the end, it’s all about making new music together, and this is how we get it done. I’m very excited about this project!
MN: Thanks for detailing how this process works and describing this opportunity for our readers. I too am quite excited about this new consortium commission project and am happy to facilitate the process! I personally appreciate the enormous commitment you have made over the years writing new literature for the tuba and euphonium and I admire your personal commitment to being a full-time composer and all that it entails. It has been my pleasure interviewing you for the ITEA Journal.
Appendix I: Chronological Listing of Works
A chronology of compositions featuring the tuba and euphonium by James Grant is listed below. All compositions are published by Grantwood Music Press and most are distributed by Tuba-Euphonium Press.
1993: Three Furies for Solo Tuba distributed by Tuba-Euphonium Press
1995: Quintet for Brass published by Grantwood Music Press and available from the composer
1996: Three Furies for Tuba and Orchestra available from the composer
2000: Sultry and Eccentric for tuba and piano (also for euphonium and piano) distributed by Tuba-Euphonium Press
2001: 2001Solstice/Equinox Commissioning Consortium for Tubists:
Stuff for solo tuba, High Autumn for tuba and piano, Just a Thought for tuba and piano, Endorphins for tuba and piano (all also available for euphonium) distributed separately by Tuba-Euphonium Press
2002 Chocolates for tuba and piano distributed by Tuba-Euphonium Press
2002 Waltz for Betz for tuba and piano (also for euphonium and piano) distributed by Tuba-Euphonium Press
2007: Mark My Words for tuba and piano distributed by Tuba-Euphonium Press
Appendix II: Discography
1996: Aboriginal Voices CD recording featuring Mark Nelson, tuba
Three Furies by James Grant
Dr. Mark Nelson is currently the Chair of the Performing Arts Department at Pima Community College and the Arizona Music Educators Association Vice President for Professional Development. He is also the Music Director of the Northwest Intergenerational Community Orchestra in the northwest Tucson area. A frequent performer on tuba, he plays solo recitals every year, has two solo tuba CD recordings, and edits the New Materials column for the ITEA Journal. He has commissioned and premiered nearly thirty compositions for the tuba and has written over two-hundred music reviews, many articles, and a book during his twenty-five year teaching and performing career. Previous appointments include Director of Orchestras at Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale, AZ, Professor of Music (tenured) at Millikin University in Illinois, and Associate Professor of Music (tenured) at the University of Vermont. His doctorate was granted by Arizona State University where he studied with Daniel Perantoni.