Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Trey Makler in Conversation with Christian Baldini

Christian Baldini: I am thrilled that young composer Trey Makler has written a new work that we will perform with the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento, in a program that includes Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6 and Korngold's Violin Concerto with Kinga Augustyn. Working closely with a composer on a world première is always a very exhilarating experience. In this case, we have had the luxury of having Trey in several rehearsals, which was very helpful for a work of the nature of "false starts, missed connections", in which Trey has orchestra members inhabit quite a different world from what they are usually asked to do in more 'traditional' settings. Trey, in this work you ask orchestra members to sing, play in unsynchronized ways, and you also make unusual and beautiful requests with regards to character and/or sound production, such as "flickering", "stutters", "a mobile with many parts", etc. Please tell us, what is behind this work? How did you come up with these beautiful and very free ideas?

Trey Makler: Thanks, Christian. It's been an exciting journey working through this piece with everyone. I commend the orchestra on all of their efforts, especially with the new techniques! In many ways, this work was made as a joke with myself. I've been writing quite a bit of music over the past year, and this is actually the second piece for orchestra during that time. Writing for orchestra is daunting—there are so many moving parts, and I feel it's really important to try and give every player something interesting to do so that everyone can feel that their role is valuable in bringing the music to life. This final version of false starts, missed connections is actually my fifth or sixth attempt at the piece, so pushing through my initial block became the impetus for the entire piece: gestures will burn bright and quickly die out, or players will have quasi-unisons that never seem to align. All of my decisions were channeled into writing a piece about how hard it is to write a piece, and finding some joy and playfulness in that situation. 
     As for some of the techniques and free gestures, I go back and forth between writing fixed and free music. I have only ever written really tight, heavily notated music for orchestra, but my chamber music has gotten far more open. So, I wondered what it would be like to give a large ensemble a more open approach that isn't so reliant on rigorous precision and virtuosity; in many ways, I turn precision and virtuosity on their heads in this piece, and reimagine them in radically different contexts. With this approach, I get to be a little bit more involved in rehearsals, too, and I think that's extremely important, that I'm not just a random person dropping off a score and parts and then circling back to hear the result at the end. 
     And finally, I spend an incredible amount of time determining the language I use in the score. Notes are rarely enough, and in the whole creative process I will discover these tiny bits of phrases, descriptors, or images that act as mental placeholders for the music, so that I can quickly recall ideas. We're all people with rich and varied lives, so I like to think that precise and colorful language allows the players to more fully imagine the music, whether it be melodies, textural gestures, or the full narrative unfolding of the piece.

CB: What should people know about your music in general? What are your main goals, and what defines you as a composer?

TM: I try to always take a risk, and to treat every piece as an opportunity to grow. Recently, nearly all of my music has featured the voice, despite there rarely being a vocalist. There is so much beauty in hearing a person's normal, everyday, singing-in-the-shower voice, and it always brings me back to memories of my grandma working around the house and singing or humming under her breath. I think we can all relate to each other through singing. 
     Formally speaking, I keep accidentally stumbling into writing pieces that are essentially in two, mostly unrelated, parts. false starts, missed connections is like this, too! I think this has something to do with imagining a before-and-after in a narrative, with some sort of rupture that occurs and changes everything. If a main "theme" comes back, it's often quite disfigured and fragmented, like a memory that keeps getting further away. 
     I'm defined by a desire to write serious music that doesn't take itself too seriously. My music is always playful and has a sense of humor, and I think it's important that everyone involved is able to enjoy themselves through the music—the audience can always hear if the players are in it, or if they're just playing the notes, and I think this responsibility is in part on the composer to curate a positive experience. The world is a really scary, challenging place sometimes, so I try to resist replicating that darkness in my music. It's just not interesting to me; I'd much rather imagine a sparkly utopia that shows hope on the horizon. 

CB: Who are some composers from the past that you love, and why?

TM: Stravinsky always comes to mind immediately. Everything he did was so bold, and no matter what "style" he wears, be it Russian, neoclassical, serial, etc., it sounds like Stravinsky. He is one of the first composers that I spent considerable time with when I began formal study in college, and I have made so many meaningful relationships through his music. Lully is really fabulous, it's such bouncy music with lots of frills and ornaments, which have absolutely rubbed off onto me. Ligeti has been deeply impactful, too, particularly his approach to color, texture, and gestural freedom. 
Sort of a "hidden gem" for me is Henning Christiansen, who was a Danish composer associated with the Fluxus and New Simplicity movements. I did a research project on his music when I first began my PhD at UC Davis, and I was blown away by the clarity of his vision, and his concern for making music that didn't seek to emotionally manipulate the audience. Plus, some of it is really wild! There's a great story about his dismissal from the Royal Danish Academy of Music that I won't recount here, but find me after the concert and I'll share it with you! I think my gravitation towards musical mobiles comes in part from his music. 
And while not a composer per se, I also heard a lot of oldies growing up; my grandma had an Aretha Franklin greatest hits album that she would play constantly. I love the declarative melodies, extended harmonies, and high-energy rhythms, and they creep into my music every now and then. 

CB: Who are some living composers that you admire, and why?

TM: Hans Abrahamsen is definitely one of my favorites. Another Danish composer and a student of Ligeti, he composes with such intention and restraint. Schnee, Let Me Tell You, and his wind quintets are such incredibly intense pieces, but it's a different intensity, really unlike the typical approach. Often quiet, really delicate.  His music is always evocative to me, conjuring mental images of vibrant, snowy landscapes.  Plus, he interacts with the past in really interesting ways that draws attention to the constructedness of composition; composers can wear all sorts of styles, and sometimes more is more.
     Gloria Coates, particularly her String Quartet no. 9, is stellar. She detunes half the quartet by a quarter tone, and repeats these haunting melodies over and over again until they're eaten up by glissandi to create a Shepard's tone. It's otherworldly and I can't get enough of it. 
     Steve Reich is another go-to of mine. I think I have a bit of a minimalist urge when I'm writing, and I blame his music! It's infectious, and if you keep listening these gorgeous hidden melodies start to reveal themselves from the repetition, even in his early tape music. If I had to pick a favorite piece of his, it would probably be Tehillim.
     I have to also mention that I was absolutely obsessed with Japanese Role-playing Games (JRPGs) as a kid, so the music from video games like the Final Fantasy series (Nobuo Uematsu, and others more recently) and Chrono Cross (Yasunori Mitsuda) has a deep impact on me. Also, all of the cute little melodies from the early Pokemon games (Junichi Masuda). When you're playing a game of this genre, there is all of this musical repetition, and tons of themes. It's almost like a Wagner opera! But you will hear them so often that they become a part of you, and to this day I can recall so many emotional narrative arrivals from these games that are really uplifted through their scores. 
   Talking composers can turn into purgatory because it will never end, so I'm exercising some restraint, but of course this list can go on and on and on.

CB: Tell us a bit about your education. You and I met at UC Davis, where you are now completing your Ph.D. in composition. You came with a very strong background having studied at the Juilliard School in NYC. What are some of the most important formative experiences you've had? Are there any mentors that were particularly positive in your early stages?

TM: Well, I grew up on ten acres off a gravel road in rural southeast Missouri, and fell into music by accident. I played oboe and a bunch of other instruments in concert/jazz/marching bands throughout middle and high school, and then joined choir towards the end of high school. I was a little scared of going too far away from home for college, so I ended up at the University of Missouri (Mizzou) for my undergraduate study, which is another hidden gem. It has an incredibly well-supported new music initiative, plus was the first music school in the country to offer a certificate in music entrepreneurship. Of course, I had no idea what any of this really meant at the time—I didn't really know anything from the "canon" as we think of it in classical music, nor did I have any concept of what a professional life in music looked like outside of teaching high school band, which was my initial calling. I just liked making music, and I had twiddled my thumbs in Finale, a music notation software, for several years. The first mentor that I shared this secret hobby of mine with was my high school choir director, Sue Bauche. She encouraged me to apply to the composition program at Mizzou, and helped record and premiere my very first piece, which was for choir, so that I could have at least one real recording for the application. She unfortunately passed away from cancer the summer after my freshman year of college, but I think of her often. She is a huge reason why I am on the path that I am. It's worth noting that after I realized how I would approach false starts, missed connections, I got very emotional on a drive home thinking of her, and that inspired me to include the singing at the end of the piece. 
     During undergrad, I had two composition teachers who were really impactful: W. Thomas McKenney, and Stefan Freund. Tom was so sweet and supportive, which I really needed to get over my imposter syndrome. I think any young artist has to face those demons, and it's so much easier to do it when you have a mentor with a lifetime of experience who recognizes that you really can make your dreams come true through hard work and dedication. Stefan was really important in linking me up to the greater "new music scene," as he is a member of Alarm Will Sound and that gave me a glimpse of the long term new music life. Plus, he guided me through some dark mental health struggles, particularly during my graduate auditions, which can be such a grueling process.
     I did my Masters at Juilliard, where I studied with Pulitzer Prize winner Melinda Wagner. She was absolutely the best part of my experience in New York City. She pointed me towards John Waters movies, deepening my appreciation of camp, and showed me the joy of taking inspiration from things that might not be so serious. In one lesson, she explained how she was inspired by cartoons from her childhood in writing a piece of hers, Wick, that I really love. She also told me to take risks, because when one puts their neck on the line, the universe recognizes that and responds. She's such an amazing composer, too; I just recently heard a relatively new piece of hers, Dido Reimagined, performed by Brentano String Quartet and Dawn Upshaw in San Francisco, and it was one of the most powerful pieces of new music I've heard in a long time. 
     Mindy was also the person who recommended UC Davis to me, and now, here I am in year four of my PhD! We have five composers on faculty, and they all bring something different and vital to the table. I've had the luxury of working with them all in some way or another, and they've done an excellent job of creating a wonderful, welcoming, and supportive environment. Mika Pelo instilled in me some work ethic strategies, like approaching composition twice a day: in the morning with a clear goal to achieve, and in the evening with no expectations, just presence and curiosity. Pablo Ortiz offered a flood of support during Zoom-school, which was a really challenging time for everyone, and was a period of trying new things for me, with some successes and some failures. He has this really poetic way of approaching music that resonates with me, and he's also really fun and brilliant. Sam Nichols is currently shepherding me through improving my electronic music chops, which has been arduous, but he's a really patient and attentive pedagogue with a great sense of humor. It really helps to be able to laugh off the things that I find really challenging, and I find myself always revisiting his metaphors. Laurie San Martin was my guide through my qualifying exam, and I deeply respect her directness. There have been moments where she helped me reorient and find my path forward, and probably didn't even realize she was doing it. We're always sharing little laughs and chatting about pieces (if only there was time to listen to all that music!). My current teacher and dissertation advisor is Kurt Rohde. He has helped me understand what my process is, why my process is, and truthfully pulled me back from an edge where I wondered if composition was really the path for me. I am grateful to have a mentor with whom I can be fully vulnerable and transparent, which has direct implications for my dissertation project, too. I couldn't have embarked on this final journey in my education with just anyone because it's so deeply personal. Through our work together, I have found who I am as a composer in a way that feels intentional and honest, which is really important to me, yet has always felt difficult to articulate. Kurt is truly my safe space, which is absolutely invaluable for a young composer.

CB: Lastly, what is your advice for young composers, what has been most helpful to you?

TM: We are often told that our careers are advanced through luck. I don't buy it. It is through dedication, relentless overcoming of obstacles (some of which we erect ourselves), nurturing relationships, and showing up for yourself. Composition has this mythology of being a purely isolated, lonely activity, but when I look back on my life as a musician, I see a kaleidoscope of friends and near-strangers who have helped me clear hurdles when I felt that I couldn't, and who believed in me whenever I found it hard to believe in myself. Make the music you want to make, and find joy in what you do, and never back down. If making music brings you joy first, it will radiate out and bring joy to those who play and hear your music. I know it's cheesy, but I believe that music transforms lives, and it has transformed mine. 

CB: Thank you for sharing your wonderful insight; I very much look forward to conducting your beautiful music in Sacramento!

TM: Thank you, Christian, and I'm looking forward to hearing the orchestra bring false starts, missed connections to life!


The music of composer Trey Makler explores the human situation of musicking while imagining alternative worlds and bonds.  Melodies and other musical objects are conceived almost as people, with their own socio-musical interactions and identities shaped by circumstance and environmental influence.  These objects are woven together playfully, and often rest within hyperactive mechanisms that are activated through dense counterpoint, rhythmic vitality, and long, expressive lines. 

Trey’s music has been performed by Alarm Will Sound, Berlin PianoPercussion, Empyrean Ensemble, The Great Noise Ensemble, Juilliard Orchestra, NEO Sound Orchestra, The University of Missouri Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera Workshop, and members of the St. Louis Symphony; he has received commissions from Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, the Mizzou New Music Initiative, the New York Choreographic Institute, Camellia Symphony, and Vallejo Symphony.  Notable presenting venues have included Alice Tully Hall, Areté Venue and Gallery, the Empress Theatre, National Sawdust, Sheldon Concert Hall, and the Jewel Box in Forest Park (St. Louis), among others.  Trey has been the recipient of the Arthur Friedman Prize in Orchestral Composition (The Juilliard School) and the Sinquefield Prize (University of Missouri), and was selected as the winner of the first annual Boston New Music Initiative Young Composers Competition.  His dissertation research on the aesthetics of AIDS and the lived experience of musical form has been generously supported by a Bilinski Educational Foundation Dissertation Writing Fellowship.

Trey is a PhD candidate in Music Composition and Theory at the University of California, Davis.  He holds degrees from The Juilliard School and the University of Missouri.

Trey Makler (courtesy photo)

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