At a mixing session for OCTET at The Site in San Rafael, California
MSO’s Opus One will be performing William Susman’s Zydeco Madness in the upcoming performances with Marcela Pinilla on March 1 & 2 at the Rumba Room. William Susman lives in the San Francisco area. His composition, Zydeco Madness, was dedicated “to the forgotten of Hurricane Katrina” in Louisiana. With the recent Mardi Gras celebration, and the fact that it’s awesome to be able to interview a living composer, I thought you would all enjoy hearing what William Susman has to say about being a composer and particularly about the piece the MSO musicians will be performing next week.
Tell us about your background: where did you grow up, and where do you live now? How did your musical career begin?
I grew up in a suburb of Chicago and now live near San Francisco. I did my undergrad work in music at the University of Illinois and went to grad school at Stanford in order to work at CCRMA (Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics). I’ve lived in the SF Bay area since then. As a teenager in the Chicago area, I studied with a variety of teachers in classical and jazz piano and, counterpoint. I also played in my high school big band and gigged with jazz combos. My influences back then were all the jazz greats such as Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Bud Powell, Monk, Miles, and Coltrane.
My first big break was when I got a BMI award for a large divisi work for soprano, choir and orchestra (Pentateuch) which also happened to be my Stanford master’s thesis. At the BMI award ceremony in New York, I met one of the judges, the seminal American composer Earle Brown. At the ceremony, he said “I had to fight for your score. No one wanted to look at it because it was too big. I was the only one willing to spread it out on the floor!” (that was before you could reduce things cheaply at Kinko’s. I had made copies of the score at an architectural blueprint shop. Not long after BMI, I was staying at the Chelsea Hotel and met Virgil Thomson who lived there. He gave me the practical advice of, “The print is too small and the score is too big!”)
excerpt from PENTATEUCH (1983/84) for soprano, 3 choral groups and orchestra
It was very exciting to have a composer of Earle’s stature champion me. He helped secure a Fromm Music Foundation commission. I wrote a chamber orchestra piece (Trailing Vortices) with that commission and it was premiered at the Aspen Music Festival. It was also selected for the Gaudeamus Festival in Holland and was performed by the VARA radio orchestra (now Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra) conducted by Ernest Bour. Bour was a legend with the European avant-garde having premiered many works by Berio and Ligeti among others. Needless to say, I was honored to work with these musicians while in my mid-20s.
Read the whole interview Opus One Memphis
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