Interview: Suzanne Gilchrest & Scott Brickman
SG: Why did you choose to become a composer?
SB: My older brother played drums in a Rock Band. He was 13 yrs. older than me – from my Mom’s first marriage. So, there were a lot of guitars, basses, keyboards and drums around our house when I was a preschooler.
My father loves music. He would have liked to be a musician, but WWII and family finances and attitudes interfered. When I was around 10 yrs. old I became interested in the Beatles. I tried taking guitar lessons, but in retrospect my teacher wasn’t attuned to young people. A bit later my Dad started buying a collection of classical Lps that were available at our local grocery store. He bought me a piano as an early 8th grade graduation gift. I started taking piano lessons, getting interested in classical music, and my music study progressed.
At this time, my musical interests were understandably split between rock and classical music. The Beatles and Beethoven. Sometime around the age of 12 I saw a televised concert by Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony. I think they played Schoenberg, Ives and Stravinsky. I though this music was great because it created a connection between what I was hearing in Brahms and Sgt. Pepper. The grocery store lps were themed by composer. The Beatles wrote their own songs. Naively, I assumed that all musicians were also composers. So, I began to write music. I also listened quite a bit to WFMT classical radio in Chicago. This was around 1976. There were bicentennial commissions, a Columbia boxed set celebrating Aaron Copland’s 75th birthday, a Charles Ives centennial had recently passed; all of these were very inspirational to a young, aspiring composer.
I was extremely fortunate to have a great high school musical experience. I went to a run of the mill public high school in Chicago. However, we had three full-time music teachers. I played violin and viola in the school orchestra, piano in the jazz band, and had two years of AP Music Theory. In 1982, the year I graduated from High School, an organization called Urban Gateways sponsored a composition contest for Cook County Students. My Fanfare for Wind Quintet won, and was performed by professional musicians at the Chicago Public Library. I was hooked.
SG: Do you have a specific process when you compose?
SB: The impetus for my work is ordered 12-tone sets. That Fanfare I wrote in High School, it was a 12-tone piece. When I was in graduate school, in the early 90s, I began working with octatonic hexachords. Octatonic derived sounds attract me. So pitch, melody, harmony and counterpoint, are my primary concerns.
I get my ideas from a whole slew of different places. Other pieces of music obviously, other genre of music; sometimes, reading about music or talking to people about music gives me ideas. Recently, as I’ve been more able to have some perspective on my music, even my own older compositions sometimes give me ideas for new pieces.
SG: Can you tell us about the composers and styles that inspire you? Perhaps also expand on the styles of popular music that you love so much and why.
SB: My musical influences at first were the pre WWII modernists, both Americans and Europeans: Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok (thanks to Ernie Kovacs), Ives, Varese (thanks to Frank Zappa), Ruggles….
Later I became interested in the post war modernists: Boulez, Cage, Feldman, Berio, Stockhausen, Babbitt, Shapey, Xenakis….
Since then my influences have understandably varied and expanded. Crazy as this may sound, I am often influenced by music that I genuinely do not like. In fact, one of my pieces was a “refashioning” of a piece I heard and really detested. Over all, I find I still genuinely like modernism. I joke a lot, but seriously, there’s nothing I enjoy more than sitting down and listening to Luigi Nono or Mario Davidovsky.
As for pop music….maybe because so much of my time is spent with vernacular genres, I find I don’t love it as much as I used to. My tastes are very quirky. I’m a big Weezer fan. I also love Sondheim.
SG: Chet Biscardi was one of your teachers. I studied contemporary music performance with him at Sarah Lawrence College and remember him quite fondly. He was a great teacher and role model many ways. What was it like to study composition with him? How did he influence you?
SB: Chet was great. I worked with him when he was in residence at Wisconsin writing his opera “Tight Rope”. He was the first “real” composer that I felt took me seriously. I worked with Yehudi Wyner (Chet’s teacher from Yale) at Brandeis University as a graduate student. It’s odd, but both Chet and Yehudi are very different composers than I am yet I feel I really learned the most from them.
SG: What else in life influences and inspires you?
SB: Baseball. I had great teenage years that revolved around music and baseball. I’m lucky in that baseball has come back into my life. In 2006 at the invitation of the former High School baseball coach in Fort Kent, I began to throw batting practice to the High School team. My oldest daughter played four years of varsity softball in High School. In 2009 I initiated intercollegiate club baseball at UMFK. Though the club is inactive, I’ve been able to jumpstart girl’s softball at the college. And, as you know, I may be playing baseball in a Canadian Men’s league next year. So, I say baseball because it reminds me of the music learning I did as a teenager. I like to think I’m a life long learner. I’m a more experienced composer now. Let’s hope I’m also a smarter pitcher.
SG: I've written a bit in my intro to this interview about your French Suite. You are also just finishing/recently finished composing a second work for us plus a pianist. We're looking forward to getting started on it. What can you tell us about it? What inspired it?
SB: Hearing Eight Strings and a Whistle inspired it! Also, hearing Ina play my viola and piano piece was very encouraging. The piece is in 5 movements. Movements 1, 3 and 5 are short, angular and dramatic. The 2nd and 4th movements are longer, more lyrical, and meditate on a single idea. Subconsciously, I suspect that hearing you guys play the Erlking arrangement inspired the last movement.
SG: I have noticed that while you may be a university professor you are very involved musically with the community in Ft. Kent as a whole. You are often involved with musical productions that involve the high school or others outside the university. I just love that you do that - you have the potential to effect and influence so many people with your enthusiasm and love for music. It's another way to keep this art form relevant and alive. Can you tell us a bit about what that is like for you?
SB: Well, it’s certainly not what I imagined myself doing! I imagined I’d be a theory prof somewhere, grade my part-writing homework and go home. Again, that fantastic diversity of music activity I had in High School has come back to benefit me with my current job. It’s nice in the sense that musically, I get to do a lot of different things. The obvious draw back, is that I’m not able to really polish any one activity. However, to an extent the musical theater collaborations with Fort Kent High School are coming closer to an activity that has more of a focus.
SG: What are your thoughts on new music in general?
SB: My thoughts are like what John Reed supposedly said when he witnessed the birth of the Soviet Union: “So this is what a revolution looks like. I never imagined it would look like this”. Ok, I know this will sound like SNL’s “Deep thoughts with Jack Handy”, but we never know what the future will look like. Not that I thought about this in 1976, but, I could at the time never have imagined minimalism, the move to multiculturalism in the early 1990s, Arvo Part, etc.
When I teach music history, we talk about style periods lasting for either 75 or 150 years. If this is generally the case, then 1975 would be a boundary. However, I suspect that economics and technology have more of a stake in music history as drivers of style change. Then, music technology may be the significant change we experienced in and around 1975. I could never have imagined, in 1975 with my upright piano, Lps, and staff paper, that 25 yrs later I’d have a polyphonic electronic keyboard, download music and produce my scores digitally.
New Music – enjoy the moment!
SG: What do you think the role of the arts and new music is or should be in today's world?
SB: Ultimately the arts and new music should ornaments for Mets and Rangers games. HAH! Wouldn’t that be awesome? “The first 15,000 fans at today’s Mets-Phillies game will receive a recording of Suzanne Gilchrest and Beth Levin playing Scott Brickman’s Wind Power for flute and piano”.
Ok, music is a social act. Music and the arts should bring people together; help them celebrate their diversity and minimize their differences. I think of all the wonderful people I’ve met through my association with Eight Strings and a Whistle, and, of all the great times I’ve had. To quote Maine’s motto, that’s “The way life should be”. That’s the way it should be for everyone.
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