So…. Why DID you do it? Or… aren’t you a little old for this? Guest Post by Paige Garwood, ’16

Approximately 2 1/2 years ago, this newly-minted 60-year-old student stood on stage at the Vermont College of Fine Arts to receive his Masters Degree in Music Composition. It was a time of reflection – this was probably the last formal education I would receive. After all, I WAS 60 years old, at a time in life when retirement is considered the norm, not going back to school.

So why DID I go back to school to get a grad degree at the age of 58? There are two reasons that came to mind readily and one more reason which has become the overriding reason. The first reason for me was simple… I was intrigued. I am primarily self-taught as a musician (aside from a 6 month stay at the Armed Forces School of Music). Do I actually know enough to get into a program like this? I had my doubts. The second reason was akin to the first – where do I fit into the musical food chain? I have been a big fish in a series of small ponds my entire life. What would happen when I got into a bigger pond? Can I hang with the cats in Vermont? I have been a musician ever since I can remember, and self-employed as a full-time musician since 2002. What would happen when I got to VCFA?

So glad you asked.

In short, I found out that I could indeed hang with those wunderkinds up there in Vermont. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t even CLOSE to being the big dog on the porch, but at least I was on the porch. That was enough. What WAS surprising was that I didn’t really learn anything new MUSICALLY  – if you are simply talking about notes, music theory, and the like. What DID happen was that I was introduced to the fine art of discovery in music. I discovered my “process” (being able to turn on inspiration – or get my muse to come out and play). I discovered that the music I write is worth defending (thank you Diane Moser and Roger Zahab) and that it wasn’t a sin to believe in myself and the music I write. I re-discovered that music is the art of self-expression, not a contest between musicians. I am not a Margie or a Garrett (two of my youngish new and wonderful VCFA friends – both incredibly talented and beautiful human beings)… but then again – they ain’t me. I discovered that I REALLY loved choral music – especially that from the late Medieval or early Renaissance. Who cares that nobody is writing that way anymore – I embraced my new obsession and it found its way into each of my VCFA-related compositions. Finally, I can say I discovered a renewed passion for music that has since surprised me with its intensity. Every day I wake up and look for a moment or two when I can write something musical. Every day… For the last 2 1/2 years since graduating… I have several projects in the wings right now that I cannot wait to get started on. This last year has seen me write the music for two dance school programs, a short film, along with the odd string quartet or two, and an experiment with writing hymns.

So now we come to the over-riding reason for my attending VCFA at what is probably the waning years of my musical career. It’s a simple reason. Perhaps it is the most profound reason. I love music. I love all things music. After 50+ years as a musician, I…love…music. And in the end, that is still what drives me. I love nothing more than to sit down in front of a blank piece of score paper, and ask that piece of paper… “I wonder what’s going to happen NOW?”

Being immersed in an environment where everyone around you gets you – where everyone around you loves music at LEAST as much as you do – that is an experience worth chasing down.

So there you have it. VCFA. Me. Why.

Someone asked me since I graduated “Do you regret not doing this sooner?” I thought briefly and responded “Nope. VCFA came at just the right time. It’s the perfect capstone for my career in music.” You see, being an elder citizen had prepared me for the diversity I found in this school. Having a half-century of music experience under my belt prior to VCFA gave me a musical context that allowed me to truly enjoy my stay there.

I am under no illusion that I will be the next Mozart or Bach. I don’t believe that I will be “discovered” and become the next great thing in scoring movies. But what will I be? A lover of all things music. I will write music – I will play music – I will sing music right up until the time God takes me home. It’s good to be me.

The Magic That Happens In A Week

In an article for NewMusicBox, alum Garrett Steele (’16) describes his first visit to VCFA, what made him enroll in the MFA in Music Composition, and why he keeps returning to our immersive week-long multi-genre music composition residencies every semester even though he graduated more than two years ago.

Garrett writes: “VCFA is a swirling vortex of bizarre, beautiful convergences, built on the idea that it’s all music. Maybe, in the end, everything is.”

Read the article HERE.

Michael Garrett Steele is your friend. He writes concert works, including the video-game inspired saxophone quartet “Water Stage,” and “Pedal Tone Study for Voice and Electric Toothbrush in C.” His scoring work includes the Boston-based webseries Allston Xmas, rescores of classic Winsor McKay cartoons, and work in both indie and AAA game titles.One time he accidentally broke into the grounds of the Vienna National Gallery, but in his defense, they left the gate open.

Photograph of composer Aaron Wyanski

Aaron Wyanski (’15) Finishing DMA Dissertation for University of Hartford

by Cameron Finch

Aaron Wyanski, who graduated from the MFA in Music Composition program in 2015, recently returned to campus – this time in a slightly more unique capacity. Living in the VCFA dorms, he created his own six-month low-residency program for one. The time and space provided to him by VCFA enabled him to work on one of his most experimental and out-of-the-box compositions yet.

After receiving his master’s degree, Wyanski moved to Hartford in order to pursue his Doctorate in Musical Arts (DMA) at the Hartt School of the University of Hartford. Now that his coursework is complete, he is working on his dissertation piece: “a semi-dramatic work for two sopranos and chamber ensemble, set to an original text culled from the first twelve Sherlock Holmes short stories.” Through a very particular set of circumstances, Wyanski ended up back in Montpelier to make headway on the project.

Working with Jonathan Bailey Holland, John Mallia, and Roger Zahab during his time at VCFA, Wyanski confesses: “I was somewhat unusual. I was relatively new to composition at that time.” A piano player himself, Wyanski’s background was in jazz and improvised music. “Maybe a year before [my MFA], I had started writing my first little dinky pieces. When I was having problems with pain in my arms while playing (which eventually went away!), I couldn’t practice at all. But I could write music.” As he became more interested and confident with composition, Wyanski searched for a degree program in which he could build a body of work, network with professionals in the field, and absorb everything he could about the art of composition. “Quickly, it was obvious that this was what I should I do.”

Wyanski’s Soundcloud account showcases a large scope of his work, with about half of the pieces composed during his MFA program. His pieces range from chamber quartets to vocal ensembles to electronic ditties. However, there is a familiar soundscape present in all of his work. “There’s this thing that I do, which feels hyper specific, and I just try to trust that more and more. Some days, I think, ‘I’d like to write a piece that was fast or loud.’ There are these certain affects that aren’t as natural to me.” He describes melody as something that happens to him, as opposed to it as a starting place in his pieces. “For me, it’s so much more about gestures, the inertia of those gestures, and the accumulation of these little microgravities.”

This “Wyanski-ness” which permeates his pieces is the musical equivalent of an inherent feeling of unease. That sudden smothering of tension is a thread needling throughout all of Wyanski’s works. For example, in his piece, “Everything’s Fine and Nothing’s Ever Been Wrong” (performed by The Amaranth Quartet), the musicians crunch their bows on their strings, imitating the creaking of a door. The suspense builds. The audience waits, knowing there’s something behind that door. The musicians collectively breathe, then slip to silence, and so on. Wyanski describes this state of tension as “the uncomfortable threshold between past and future that is the present moment.”

Which brings us to Wyanski’s present project: his doctoral thesis, “And Yet You Have Seen.” The project was sparked by the simple thought: “It might be cool to do something with the text from Sherlock Holmes.” Written for flute, bass clarinet, vibraphone, piano, two soprano voices, and strings, the composition (when completed) will attempt to create a “surreal, dreamlike version  of the formulaic trope employed by Doyle’s prose,” while exploring themes of alienation and connection.

Using a carefully orchestrated system of dividing each of Arthur Conan Doyle’s twelve short stories into twelve equal parts, Wyanski systematically chose sentences from each story to include in the patchwork dialogue accompanying the music. He was careful to deliberately omit any names from the text. “Two speakers are clearly not Holmes and Watson,” he states.

Wyanski marks Max Ernst’s collage novel, Le Semaine de Bonte, as a major influence for his project. “When you look at those Ernst pieces, they are so clearly of that Victorian era,” he says. At the same time, Ernst takes that zeitgeist culture and pushes it into another realm, a subverted Victorian world. Aaron goes on, “When you look at the novel, you’re not thinking, ‘What are these two Victorian people doing?’ It has its own dream and logic.”

When asked why he chose to write a nuanced version of Doyle’s beloved detective, Wyanski smiles,“Because I love it! [The world of Sherlock Holmes] is this closed universe that I wanted to spend more time in. It’s super hermetic. Each story in the Sherlock Holmes canon are these little trapped cycles.” His dissertation advisor, Ken Steen, describes the piece as “a diorama,” comparing the intimacy between Wyanski’s two leading characters with the closeness of two people in a little cardboard box.

Wyanski is now back in Hartford to complete the final touches on his Holmesian endeavor. However, he credits VCFA as a major factor in the production of the piece: “I wouldn’t have been able to work on this without the space this school has provided for me. VCFA is magical.”

Keep your eyes and ears out for the work of Aaron Wyanski: a talented composer with a uniquely ethereal style, a creative risk-taker, an explorer of thresholds. In his newest piece, “And Yet You Have Seen,” he doesn’t present us a mystery to solve. He provides us the opportunity to step inside a dream.

About the Author:

Cameron Finch is a first-year MFA in Writing & Publishing candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is the managing editor of Hunger Mountain: The VCFA Journal of the Arts and an intern for the VCFA Publications/Marketing Dept. In addition to writing creatively, she also freelances for Michigan Quarterly Review and Buzzworthy Media. Learn more about her at ccfinch.com.

Diving Into Everything Part 2: An Interview with Carla Kihlstedt

by Cameron Finch

Our interview with MFA in Music Composition faculty member Carla Kihlstedt about her latest  multimedia work, Black Inscription, continues.

Where did the title Black Inscription come from?

I credit two people for the inspiration of Black Inscription: Natalia Molchanova and Rachel Carson. Rachel Carson made her mark much like Natalia, by not only being a profound observer of the natural world and humans’ impact on it, but by having the ability to put those multifaceted observations into words so moving and accessible to all. It was both of these women ability to communicate that solidified their influence on their communities and on our culture at large.

When I read the term ‘black inscription’ in Carson’s description of the universal line of microplants that lives everywhere the sea touches the rocky shoreline, it clicked. It felt like an invitation to all of us. An invitation to do some work, to decipher, to investigate the clues we get from the ocean. Great scientific discoveries have been made by studying the smallest traces and evidences of the processes of the natural world. You don’t have to see the whole picture in order to begin to understand. No one will ever see the whole picture. But the better we get at sharing our clues, the more of it we’ll understand.

I’m much more aware now, after having created this piece, of the symbiotic relationship that the expressive arts and the sciences have. Scientists get deeply into their studies because they are moved and fascinated by something they observe. That is the same part of the brain that activates when we are moved and engaged by a compelling piece of art. It’s all storytelling…. not to imply at all that it is shallow or fictional, but that the storytelling parts of our brain are where we engage our sense of wonder, awe, excitement and pathos. Often scientific discovery is conveyed as a series of dry facts, because the process of analyzing observed facts is critical for deep scientific understanding and verification. But translating those observations back into something the story-telling parts of our brains can indulge in is critical for motivating people to be curious enough to learn more and ideally, to take responsibility for their own actions. Science and art need each other. They are two sides of a coin.

How has the piece changed throughout the course of making it?

For the first 18 months, I didn’t know how to introduce the audience to their protagonist. I tried all kinds of things in my mind. None of them were satisfactory. Essentially, she dies in the first scene of the play… there’s an unspoken rule in theater that you’re definitely not supposed to do that. Especially if you want people to follow her in her implied afterlife. I built a fence around this empty space at the beginning and waited for the answer to fall from the sky. And one day it did. A radio producer friend sent me a link to a beautifully written and produced radio piece on BBC Radio called Jump Blue.

It is a 20-minute piece that imagines Natalia Molchanova’s final dive from her perspective. It is extraordinary. Fiona Shaw is the voice of Molchanova. And it quite literally ends where our first song begins. I reached out to the author, Hannah Silva. She not only agreed to edit a version of her text specifically to fit as an intro to Black Inscription; she’d also write a new text that would reconnect with us near the end of the piece. Her words bring such depth to the piece, both as a live experience, and on the album. I am so grateful for that twist of fate and serendipity. I will forever believe in the power of patience!

I read an article that stated that Black Inscriptionturns Molchanova into an immortal creature who is able to guide the audience through the depths, past the point of safety, and through a world that has never before been experienced. ” Can you discuss the importance of immortalizing the life of deep-diver Natalia Molchanova? Of immortalizing people through art, in general?

Molchanova spoke of wishing she could simply stay in the depths. She felt such clarity, calm, and focus when she dove, and had conflicting emotions at the point at which she knew she had to return to the surface. When I discovered her poems on her website- http://molchanova.ru/en/verses – it was the first time I felt like I had a point of view to work with. Here’s a character through whose eyes we could explore the ocean. There also seemed to be some poetic justice in imagining that she was simply able to keep swimming as she had always fantasized about. My intention is not to take away from the obvious tragedy of losing her. She meant so much to so many people, both family and fans. Now that her diving records are being broken, as is the way with records, it feels even more important to help continue the message of her legacy.

Stories are the way we remember who we are. They are all that’s left of our lives once we are finished living them. In a way, mythologizing someone is the act of celebrating them by making them larger-than-life. It is the act of taking the bit of magic that existed at the core of their lives, their passions and their choices, and turning it into a prism… projecting it on the wall expanded and magnified. It is not that her earthly deeds, words and records were not enough in their own right. We’re connecting to her deepest intention—and therefore to our own deepest intentions—when we indulge in a bit of mythologizing. Anyone who has ever read a fairy tale to a child or made up a bedtime story knows the power of connecting our experience and our imaginations.

If you could bring Natalia back up from the deep, what question(s) would you want to ask her?

Writing the songs was my way of asking her. And in her own way, she answered.

You mentioned in the Art More Than Ever podcast that Natalia’s “sense of vanity dissolved during her dives” and “returning to the surface was always a bit of a disappointment” to her. I definitely feel this way when I find myself in almost maddening fits of writing, where words are flowing out of me and I lose a sense of time. Do you see diving and art-making as having overlapping qualities? If so, how?

Even though she was writing about diving, her words connected deeply with me across disciplines. That’s the magic of poetry. A poem is like an outline, like a constellation. It is an outline of a shape, and with a great poem, the reader can fill it with pictures from her own experiences.

Natalia’s poems are not just about diving. They are about the search for self, for the dissolving of ego, for belonging, for freedom, for connection. They are about both losing and finding one’s self, as we do when we go deeply into anything. I think that’s why this piece works, because it is an odyssey about diving into the ocean, but also about diving into everything & anything. She is Natalia, but she is also everyman/everywoman. Her point of view is specific, but her message is universal. For me, the creation of the piece was about having the courage to reconnect with my life as a creative artist in the wake of becoming a mother (I have two kids, ages 8 and 4). Ideally, everyone will have their own version of what it is about for them.

Have you noticed any changes in yourself from tackling this project?  

Yes! It has significantly made my work a much more holistic part of my life. I no longer think about writing songs and music as something separate from how I walk through the world. Now, when I walk on the beach, or anywhere really, it’s like I’m collecting colors, ideas, rhythms, words… Do you know that kids’ book by Leo Leonni called Frederick the Mouse? That was always one of my favorites. And now it’s like I’ve stepped into my role as Frederick in a more conscious way.

Your lyrics and music will be presented visually in Black Inscription performances, correct? Why did you choose this multimedia format? Do you see all of your music as having visual representations?

Visual art is never very far away from my process. I’ve always included it, either as part of my own process, or as a part of the final product. It’s just the way I’m wired. The more connections I can make between mediums, the stronger the weave of my work feels to me. In this case, as we were working, I kept on thinking about my friend Lisa Carroll, a visual artist whom I’ve known for years. She is a very intuitive artist and is deeply connected to the natural world.

Something kept her name in my head as we wrote these songs. So finally, I called her up and asked her if she was willing to do some artwork to accompany the piece. She said that she had just been getting deep into working with water imagery, and had begun to do meditations by water that she would then translate into drawings. (Again, that great feeling that something bigger than any of us was at work!) We decided that she’d do a drawing for each song. I sent her my lyrics, the songs, and my rambling thoughts and inspirations. She took them and ran in her own direction. What she came back with was simply stunning.

I think I can speak for us all that we can’t wait to see the finished product. How and when will we be able to access Black Inscription?

The album comes out on World Oceans Day on June 8, 2018. We’ll also be donating 50 percent of the digital sales on World Oceans Day to several oceanographic organizations.

There are several ways we are selling the album, ranging from digital track downloads to CDs and LPs (available on rabbitrabbitradio.com) to what I call the “pretty silver envelopes,” which will contain liner notes, artists notes, lyrics for each song, a CD, a download code for the digital tracks, and a hand-pulled screen print of each of Lisa Carroll’s drawings re-created by Jay LaCouture at AntiDesigns in Boston.

Thank you so much for chatting with me, Carla! I just have to ask: do you have any advice for budding artists/performers?

Be careful of what you tell yourself. You can do more damage to your own sense of possibility, of who you are and what you are capable of than anyone else on the planet possibly can.

Give yourself some time in the sandbox, time when it’s ok to not have the answer, but you can play with all kinds of answers. Not having the answer is a beautiful feeling. Get comfortable with it!

Hold on tightly, but let go lightly. Be willing to sacrifice everything for your vision, and then drop it all if a better way emerges. (You are made of ideas…they are not scarce. You’ll know the ones worth ditching it all for!)

For performers, you are a surrogate, a conduit, a stand-in for the audience, a docent for their experience. They look to you to know how to feel, where to put their attention. That’s a big job. Enjoy it!

Renee Baker Took Flight in New Directions at VCFA

Renee Baker was already forging new paths in music by the time she came to VCFA. She had established herself as a strong musical force, with her Chicago Modern Orchestra Project. She went to the school seeking credentials to aid her in the cut-throat world of art music. And she found that. But she also found an environment that let her explore all of her wildest creative impulses—and an unexpected partnership that sent her off in a whole new direction.

“The teaching part of my life was long over,” Renee says. “I was 55 when I applied to this school. I don’t think they knew why I wanted to come here.” But Renee knew exactly why. “What you are purchasing is the affiliation, the ability to attach the identity of the business to your name. This is the be-all and end-all of what colleges are. When you go into it with that in mind, you go in trying to grab everything you can. It’s like the blue light special at Kmart. I’m taking my buggy and I’m grabbing as much as I can as fast as I can. That’s how I approached it.”

And she did grab everything. Renee was hoping to learn more about nontraditional notation, and more avant-garde methods of composition. “Everything I submitted was , but I knew when I came that I wanted to spend some time studying nontraditional notation. And that’s where I dove in feet-first, head-first, butt-first. Because I felt that was a safe environment to explore it in.”

She made friendships with her mentors that have lasted to this day. She credits her first mentor, Jonathan Bailey Holland, with setting the tone of the program for her. That first semester, she was working with a unique system of graphic scores—gorgeous, vividly painted works that guide performers through a piece under her guidance. These paintings don’t look anything like traditional music scores. She came in that first semester with 16 paintings, 19×30 each, as her piece to be performed. Jonathan found the unique approach interesting, and was eager to hear the results. Renee knew it was unorthodox.

“I said ‘I promise I won’t leave you with egg on your face. I know what I’m doing.’ And it was a huge hit and it kinda set the pace. After that, I felt free.” She cites Jonathan’s openness to exploration as a huge part of the program for her—perhaps even the most important part of the student/mentor relationship. Renee’s directness and clarity of vision are legendary, and Jonathan trusted that and let it flourish. She says, “VCFA meets the student wherever they are in their compositional life, and gives each student wings.”

Renee was tearing through new ideas at a speed all her own, staying up late and poring over rare scores and books in the library. But then a faculty member sought her out with a proposal she wasn’t expecting. Don DiNicola wanted her to score Body and Soul, a 1925 “race film” by Oscar Micheaux. She’d actually had producers pitch her the film before, and nothing had come of it. Don’s sincerity won her over, but she had a condition. She wasn’t going to try her hand at snippets or scenes. She was going to score the entire feature-length film. It was unheard of in the program and wildly ambitious for a six-month workload. But Don dove right in with her.

Renee’s scoring is bold work. Rather than rely on themes for individual characters, like you might see in a John Williams score, her music cuts straight to the heart of a scene’s emotional struggle. She goes past the surface-level interactions and into each character’s inner turmoil. “Don was really responsible for helping my ideas to crystallize. He’d send me pieces (of the film) in small batches and I’d send something back. It was that partnership that really helped formulate the truly abstract nature of how I think, and distill it into film scoring. That really is my nature. Don’t let the housewife disguise fool you.”

“This man taught me so much about how to look at film, how to look at what’s going on in the background, things that normal viewers don’t even see. He had me studying what was on the walls, the shoes they had on. The tables, and chairs, and then at the end of that process he said, ‘So you know you’re a film composer, right?’ I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ He said, ‘You’re also a filmmaker. I listened to your comments, and everything you said, and you’re a filmmaker.’ I said, ‘Nah I don’t wanna make film.’ But now, of course I’ve got probably 20 experimental films in rotation. Because Don took the lid off and gave me permission. You can open something here. I came in really wanting to look at extremely contemporary classical music, and develop my vocabulary for graphic scores, and then meandered over the line, crossed the lane into the film scoring.”

At the time, Baker was working on an opera, Sunyata—another point of synchronicity with Don DiNicola. “I told him, ‘it’s about the time period after you’re pronounced dead, to the time that you’re actually gone.’ He said, ‘oh, you’re talking about the Bardos!’ Next thing I knew, Don gave me this fabulous translation of the Tibetan book of the dead, the source material my opera was based on.”

She was already talking to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago about producing the opera. But when they learned about her Body and Soul re-score, they jumped at the chance to premiere that, as well. It was a hit. And it sparked a massive jumping off point for Renee, who never does anything in half-measures.

“When I’m interested in something, I exhaust it before I move on. At this point now, I’ve probably scored over 150 silent films. I’ve actually developed 14 film festivals. I developed themes crossing all sorts of boundaries. Ethnic boundaries, geographical boundaries, and matched films that you normally would not see together. I took the first one to Indiana University last year. They did a four-film festival of my work. And that precipitated another invitation. I just got back from an almost two-week residency at Indiana. They wanted a score to The Scar of Shame, a 1927 silent, using the orchestra from the Jacob School of Music, interaction with people in the jazz department, lecturing on film and sound design to film classes and taking in my own experimental series into their Black Experimentalist classrooms. It was amazing. They said, ‘We need you to touch all the areas.’ I talked to composition students, film students, jazz students, orchestra students.”

She also puts on screenings locally with the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project

“It’s from an ugly period in our history, but didn’t Charlottesville just happen? It was such a challenge for me, and I put it in the can. Then Charlottesville happened, and when the ACLU called me, I said ‘I have just the vehicle.’ This is information. We need to see it. Especially in light of the fact that it was the first feature-length film shown in the White House. And Woodrow Wilson thought it was a masterpiece, with the KKK saving the white people from us. The score brings it to today.”

The film scoring has blown up in a big way for Renee. From her screenings in Chicago, to residencies at universities, to screening at film festivals across the world, it’s taken her already-booming career to new heights. She credits the combination of her self-starter attitude and VCFA’s openness.

“What impressed me was a comment Jonathan Bailey Holland made. He said, ‘This is your program.’ I am 2,000 percent a self-starter. I left there with nothing I wanted to explore left unexplored. Go knowing what you want to get out of a master’s-level program. For me, I wanted validation of concepts, of research, of exploring. I wanted it validated for a program of this time. This program left me open. There were no closed doors.”

 

You can stream and download tracks from the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project at their Bandcamp page here.
Renee’s website is here, and includes a store where you can check out her recent film work.

How Scott Barkan Rediscovered Himself at VCFA

Scott Barkan came to VCFA for the stability a master’s degree could offer, but he found a musical journey that helped him rediscover his passion for composition. His degree helped him land a university position that allows him time to compose, and gave him a rekindled flame for the music that he loves most.

Scott Barkan had always made a living playing guitar. He taught the occasional private lesson, but the bulk of his work came from touring and recording. He was a sought-after session player, and toured with the likes of Marian Call and Howard Fishman. For 20 years, it was enough. But a few years ago he’d started wondering what was next. “Assuming I don’t ever have a big break, and reach a point where I can expect to indefinitely sustain myself just playing guitar and writing songs, what else could I do? The only thing that really added up to me was teaching on a college level.”

But that meant pursuing a master’s degree. And Scott’s schedule kept him touring constantly. “I was also hoping to find a program in songwriting. And at the time there was only one, maybe two in the world, and they were both overseas. I did entertain it, and I did reach out to those schools, but ultimately I couldn’t do that.”

When he found VCFA, he was excited, but hesitant. “It seemed at the very least like the essence of what I was trying to find. I was very concerned about the legitimacy of the program, to be perfectly honest. But I gradually transitioned from highly skeptical to super excited about it during the first week, and it wound up being a great experience. It wound up being what I was hoping for it to be. I was able to get the degree without abandoning my current career, and I had an excuse, I had permission to dive deep into things I’d wanted to dive into. I couldn’t budget time for it earlier, but getting the degree meant ‘Well, I have to do this now.’ And that was great for me.”

His initial plan was simply to get credentialed to teach and get out, but he wound up finding more than just credentials. “I was prepared to go through the motions, in a way. But I wound up being very inspired by the process. I became excited about the creative potential as it went on.”

Over time, Scott had drifted from avant-garde, jazz-inspired work to more mainline pop songwriting. He’d long wanted to marry the two styles, but he hadn’t figured out how to do so. And he hadn’t really had time to devote to figuring it out. VCFA gave him that time. He started expanding once again from his pop style into something fuller. He moved from writing on his guitar to writing sheet music again, and found joy in the expansion of possibility that happens when you’re not just thinking about what’s easy to play on the instrument you’re writing for. He also learned a lot from his mentors. John Early and Don DiNicola helped him on the songwriting front, but he was most surprised by John Mallia, who challenged him often.

“I also feel that my work with John Mallia was pretty formative and instrumental for me. His area of expertise is incredibly broad. But the stuff he’s deeply into, that I knew nothing about as far as modern compositional ideas, really put my head in a different place than it ever has been. And his feedback was so far from my own thoughts about things. Just the way he phrases things, and looks at things, is so different from the way that pop music is structured that it helped me get my head out of that space.”

All of that culminated in a bold, multi-movement thesis piece with some pretty unorthodox instrumentation. “I think it’s my favorite thing I’ve ever written. But it’s extremely niche. That’s a piece that’s so tailored to my individual taste that I’m constantly surprised that anyone wants to listen to it. But for what I want to be doing, I love it.”

Scott’s latest record, Good at Goodbye, scratches the surface of that avant-garde streak as well, albeit in very subtle ways. “I think it’s present in a good portion of the new record…I think it still errs on the side of songs, but there’s certainly evidence of it in there. People have responded to it in that way, though, maybe more than I was thinking. I think I’m immune to what’s on there now since I’ve spent so much time with it. But most of the feedback I’ve gotten has been that it’s a more adventurous electric guitar record. Which is what I wanted. But I still think that there’s a long way to go between that and the thesis.

But most of those songs were written early in his time at VCFA, and he promises that he’s going to keep pushing boundaries—especially once he gets his feet under him at his new gig. Scott landed a teaching position at Rowan University almost immediately.

“It’s great. I feel like I’m amazingly lucky to have gotten this gig so fast. Certainly if I hadn’t gotten the degree, I wouldn’t have gotten the job. I got the gig within a week after graduating. Within a week, I was hired. Subsequently in my second year, I’ve been hired by two additional schools in the Philadelphia area. So obviously that would have been impossible.”

As it turns out, the program had some unique needs, and thanks to his VCFA experience, Scott was uniquely equipped to fulfill those needs. “A big part of it was that I was able to say that I specifically had a degree in songwriting. The director of the program that hired me basically said, ‘I didn’t know that was even a thing it was possible to have.’ So on the one hand, I was incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time, but on the other hand, if I had gotten the degree from another school that didn’t have that focus, it would’ve sent a different message to the department that was looking for a songwriter.”

The university has him teaching classes in songwriting, as well as courses on the business aspects of the music industry. But they also support his work in much the same way you’d expect a university to support a researcher. He’s still getting his feet under him, but he’s excited for the future. “At this point I wouldn’t say it has enabled much beyond stability, as far as musical output. But I think that is inevitably part of the future, and the reason to do this. This job was forgiving enough that I could go on tour for most of October (with Marian Call) and that not be an issue.”

“So once I get the learning curve out of the way, I see it as the perfect gig to support the other work that I want to be doing creatively. Which does take the pressure off of having to take any old gig. I hope to able be to put the energy I spent into just surviving into a meaningful, thoughtful creative process.”

Scott’s music is heart wrenching, emotionally honest, and bold. The emotional gut-punch that he achieved with his thesis piece was staggering. Scott is now armed with his renewed passion for bringing the weird back into everyday life in a palatable way. And he’s working a job that offers him the perfect combination of stability and freedom. Good at Goodbye is just the beginning, and we can’t wait for what’s next.

 

How Richard Tuttobene Found His Voice at VCFA

After decades scoring TV and film, Richard Tuttobene wanted more. He wanted to be himself. His craftsmanship and drive had kept him working since 1989. But after years of chasing an artistic satisfaction he just couldn’t find, he turned to VCFA.

Richard has had a strong career. His music has shown up on ESPN documentaries, and in the feature film After Image, with John Mellencamp and Louise Fletcher. He was also the go-to composer for Tollin/Robbins Productions, which means that he scored a ton of classic Nickelodeon shows from the ‘90s. All That, Kenan & Kel, and The Amanda Show all featured music by Tuttobene.

Outside of film, he’s accomplished as a jazz performer, composer, and arranger and New York studio pianist, having played on many commercials and records. Hal Leonard has published several of Richard’s jazz band arrangements, orchestral arrangements, over 20 jazz piano transcription books of the recordings of Bill Evans, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, and Herbie Hancock, to name a few, and his composition “Tuzz’s Shadow” was a mainstay of Steely Dan tours for years.

But part of the scoring business means being asked to ape other composers, and he found himself having to do that more and more. He spent a lot of time riffing on classic themes for comedy sketches. He was taking cues from directors who wanted their score to sound like whatever composer was hip that year. Richard was paying the bills with his art, and being heard in millions of homes. But he wasn’t really doing what felt right to him.

Around this time, Richard started noticing a trend in films like There Will Be Blood and Birdman. Auteur directors were seeking composers with unique voices. They were using music to enhance the mood of a film, without hammering on the plot beats the way a traditional score does. Richard felt he had it in him to be a concert composer first, and a media scorer second. “There’s an authenticity there,” he says. “There’s a freedom for these composers.” It was exactly the approach he’d always wanted to take, and he could see that it was about to have its moment in the spotlight. But after years of being asked to mimic others, he wondered what his own, authentic voice sounded like—or whether he even had one.

Richard was looking at getting a composition teacher, when a friend pointed him toward VCFA. To this day, he remembers the conversations that he had with Sarah Madru when he called. “It was intriguing how well she understood what I was saying, and the openness and the care in the conversation about what might be good for me.” After some long conversations, he decided to give the school a shot. “It wasn’t until I got there that I really realized the magnitude of how idyllic it was. I’ve been doing this for many years; I’ve grown very careful about how my time was spent. But this sounded like it would be perfect for me.”

His very first advisor was John Fitz-Rogers, who immediately introduced him to new ways of conceiving a new piece. “He has a very methodical approach, the approach of a serious concert composer.” Fitz-Rogers advised him to plan things out non-musically first—to figure out the story you’re telling in a graph for instance. Then start writing it out, but be free about it. Don’t worry about bar lines, or tempos. If you only have pitches, or only have rhythms, don’t worry about the other piece yet.

It took five weeks for Richard to overcome being “terrified” at trying to do things this way, but when he showed Fitz-Rogers what he had, his advisor was supportive. “I’d gingerly show him something and he gave it permission. He validated that it could be something that could work, could be meaningful.” And when Richard stressed about veering from the plan, Fitz-Rogers told him “Nobody follows the plan. The plan sets the stage for the beginning of the process, but then the music tells you where it wants to go.” It changed the way Richard composes. Even when he’s facing deadlines, he finds that Fitz-Rogers’s methods of planning a piece produces results. It changed the way he saw himself, too. Even though he’s been composing professionally since 1989, he says “Working with John was the beginning of my accepting of myself as a composer,” he says, “and believing that I had what it takes.”

Richard describes the process as a journey of continual discovery—both of himself and his teachers, who always hold more depth than you really have time to uncover during a residency. “You work with them, or you listen to their lectures, and you realize the breadth of knowledge and experience with all the faculty is very wide, and enormous. So one of the things I almost regret is, I wish the program was longer, so you could work with every one of those advisors. Because there’s a real wealth there.”

But did VCFA help Richard meet the goal he set himself? He thinks so. “I came out of it with a lot more courage, and a lot more investment in the music itself, rather than sculpting the music to fit what I think will work in the business. I’ve started trying to approach things from a more organic place, and in consideration of my voice instead of what someone else would do in my situation.”

It’s started getting him noticed. “One of the people on the board of directors for the Roger Wagner chorale has heard the concert music that I did at VCFA. They’ve been around since the early 1900s. They’ve toured all over the world, and now they’re looking at becoming less traditional, and performing more cutting-edge, progressive concert works.” They asked Richard to arrange a Japanese song for their tour of Japan and Korea. “I’ve been trying to maintain the integrity and character of it, but doing it through my own voice. Which is more of a challenge, but from what they’ve heard so far, it’s what they want. They want my voice.”

He’s also noticing strong reactions from his friends in the television world, as he sends them cues that he describes as a departure from what he was doing before VCFA. “I’m getting very good reactions, so relying on my own creativity is definitely starting to attract some attention.”

It may be paying dividends, but Richard isn’t slowing down any time soon. “Once you fall in love with your work, you’re kinda screwed. If you start thinking, ‘Oh, this is a beautiful, wonderful thing,’ you stop questioning. And it can lead to complacency. You say ‘I know how to hit this scene; I’ll just hit it,’ instead of asking how it can work better.” His work ethic brought him to and through VCFA, and it won’t fail him now.

To listen to selections of Richard’s music, visit this page.