K- Thank you for allowing the Flute Examiner to interview you, Stephen. It is always a pleasure to get a composer’s point of view. If you wouldn’t mind, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
S- Thank you for having me. I direct the choral program at Slippery Rock University, and teach theory, conducting, and some other things. My training in is composition; I took a somewhat unexpected detour into conducting, but it is something that has very much become a part of me. As a composer, I have been fortunate to have written music for all kinds of different groups and individuals: orchestra, bands, choirs, chamber groups, short films, and definitely flutes!
K- You’ve written several pieces for the flute and flute ensemble. Is there something that drew you to the flute or inspired these pieces? As a composer, how do you approach writing for the flute?
S- I can’t say anything necessarily drew me to the flute. I’m an equal-opportunity composer; I like writing for everything. But at Slippery Rock, my colleagues Cassandra Eisenreich and Kathy Melago, both excellent flautists, have been very generous with asking me to write for them, and that has resulted in a lot of music for flutes. They often ask me to write something with a particular theme or vibe, so in most cases the pieces are inspired by that.
When it comes to writing for flute (or really any instrument), my experience as a singer and choral conductor affects my compositional thought to a high degree—so, I am almost always thinking in terms of line and singing. Of course I want to write idiomatically for it, though, so I’m also aware of the “not like singing” things it can do. Having written for flutes quite a bit now, I can say one thing I really enjoy is the gamut of extended techniques available. There really is a wealth of effects, and that is very attractive. I often try to incorporate some of these into the pieces I write.
K- You’ve had one of your works premiered/performed at the Salt Lake City National Flute Association convention. I know you were there for that performance. How did it feel to hear your piece performed at our largest flute event in the country?
It’s a great honor! It’s very rewarding to have music I composed presented at such an important venue, and affirming to know musicians want to perform it at these types of events.
K- I am personally a big fan of your piece, Sunburst Flights. It is so full of energy and momentum, what inspired this work and how did you approach writing this piece?
S- I do rather like that one. For Sunburst Flights, I was asked to write a concert opener type of piece. I often title a work after it’s written, and often that title doesn’t overtly “name” the piece or overly describe what it’s about—I prefer something that’s more evocative than it is definitive. The title came about as a result of what I had created. It has a very bright feel, lots of activity, flourishes, and uplift in the key shifts—it does strike me as being “sunny” and in flight. But I wrote what I thought would be fast and exciting—trying to take advantage of the agility and brightness of the instrument—and the title came later.
K- As a composer, what is your creative process? I know that is a loaded question, but are there consistent points within your process or approach that jive with your style?
S- My process is to repeatedly bang my head against the desk until I get an idea.
But seriously, I do a lot of sketching. On paper. I am old enough that I started writing before computers and notation programs came along. They are great—I’m a super nerd techie—but they’re dangerous for composers in some ways. I learned to compose by working in my head and at the piano, finding sounds and writing them down, exploring them by sketching variations and further ideas on the page. For big ensembles I write short scores and then blow them up into full orchestration. Opening up a notation program and starting from a blank screen doesn’t cut it for me.
There’s a lot of “percolating” that goes on up in my head. All the ideas bounce around up there, sometimes for quite a while. When I’m ready to write, then I’ll go to the computer. Once I’ve worked things out in my head and on paper, I typically write very fast. But the ideas continue to evolve, so the piece changes as I continue to write. I guess a piece is done when I make myself let it go, so it can go out and have whatever life it will in the world.
K- Another heavily loaded question, but how would you describe your style?
S-If I had to put a word on it, I’d say eclectic. I’m fortunate to write music in a time where we have so much available material to draw from. I can use whatever tools I choose to make a piece work. With me, one piece doesn’t necessarily sound like others that have come before it. For example, three of the pieces for flutes that I have written are all very different in content and character: Sacrifice is pagan and Stravinsky-like, L’effet papillon is romantic and unabashedly lush, and Evocation is more esoteric and perhaps a little bit avant-garde. Their harmonic and rhythmic worlds and structuring are all different. But, they all have tunes in them, melodies. So, perhaps that is a unifying feature—I’m a melodist, I suppose. Also, I don’t like to repeat myself very much. I like to explore different things every time I write. I want all paths open to me.
I do like to incorporate aleatory procedures into my works. I was able to briefly study with John Corigliano at the Aspen Festival in 2006, and just looking at his scores and hearing him describe his process kind of blew my mind. I had never written anything aleatoric before then; now, I use it quite often.
I’ll listen to almost anything and can be inspired by it. Debussy and Vaughan Williams are the two “classical” composers I listen to most. But I also love Corligiano, Copland, Gorecki, Ravel, and many others. I enjoy some minimalism (mainly Phillip Glass). I’m a choral guy, and in my opinion Randall Thompson was the best American composer of choral music, hands down. I adore Renaissance music and like Baroque quite a lot. But just as much, I love film composers like John Williams and Howard Shore and Alan Silvestri. I listen to songs by groups like Coldplay, Panic! At the Disco, Glitch Mob, Alan Walker (my son might have gotten me a little hooked on EDM)…I grew up listening to soft 80s and 90s rock, groups like Genesis, and I love synthesizers and all manner of sound you can get from a computer or other digital source. Any and all of that, and more, can influence a piece I write.
K- We have discussed the possibility of writing something for piccolo in the future, but do you have any other flute related works in the works?
S- Cassandra and I are talking about doing something. She likes doing off the wall things, and at this point I would really like to explore that more. Like I said, I don’t like to repeat myself and I’ve gotten a bit tired of doing typical acoustic stuff. So, maybe something with electronics of some sort…or maybe something accompanied by jug band (seriously, I’ve entertained it!). Can we use some stomp boxes for your piece? 😉
K- Last question Stephen, I promise. Do you have any thoughts on how this pandemic has changed what you do, and what we do for better or worse? Any words of advice for our readers on moving past this pandemic-enforced musical hiatus we have all had to endure?
I suppose my advice is keep performing, keep doing music, any way you can. I think the isolation has hurt musicians in so many ways. We thrive on collaboration and not only music itself, but the personal interactions that take place when we are performing it. With my choirs, we’re now able to sing safely in half hour chunks, and many of my singers are beyond thrilled just to have that. Personally, I’ve spent a lot for time in Studio One (my digital audio program of choice) just tinkering and learning and experimenting.
I think the exploration of virtual technologies for collaboration is something that’s going to continue being very important long after this. It was already a thing before COVID, but its development has been accelerated by all of us looking for solutions. The real-time virtual rehearsal, with no latency, that’s the holy grail. Methods do exist for this, but I’m not aware of any perfected solution that works for all or most people. There are too many variables that haven’t been solved yet.
About STEPHEN BARR
Stephen Barr is an award-winning composer and conductor working in Pittsburgh, PA. He writes in a variety of mediums, from modern concert music of all genres to contemporary film score and music for media in orchestral and orchestral-electronic hybrid styles. His concert music has been performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Florida Orchestra, American Academy of Conducting Orchestra and Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, and the Air Force Band of the Golden West, university instrumental and vocal ensembles, and has appeared on the programs of numerous regional, national, and international music conferences.
Stephen is Assistant Professor and Director of Choirs at Slippery Rock University, where he teaches all levels of music theory and analysis, music technology, arranging and orchestration, independent composition and conducting lessons, and conducts two choral ensembles. He holds degrees in Music Composition from Westminster College (BM), the University of South Florida (MM), and West Virginia University (DMA). His primary teachers in composition included John Beall, James Lewis, David Taddie, and Douglas Starr. He has been a resident at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, working with avant-garde composer Robert Ashley, and the Aspen Music School and Festival, where he studied composition and film scoring with John Corigliano, Jack Smalley, and Jeff Rona. He has studied conducting with Kathleen Shannon, Don Wilcox, William Wiedrich, Robert Page, and René Clausen.
Stephen’s music is published by See-a-dot Music Publishing, Selah Publishing, ALRY Publications, Euphonium.com, and Murphy Music Press.