Michael Torke is a composer based out of Las Vegas, NV who is probably best known for a piece called Javelin, originally written for the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta. Often referred to as a minimalist in terms of writing style, pieces such as his Saxophone Concerto also reveal a jazz influence.
I first heard his music at a concert here in Columbus when our symphony played a piece of his called Run. After that, I picked up his album, Three, which includes Run, Javelin, his Saxophone concerto and a few other pieces. (I especially like Charcoal!)
Originally from Wauwatosa, WI, he grew up playing the piano, after having dabbled with the viola and sax in grade school. Through high school, he played the bassoon, something he also played in the Youth Orchestra in Milwaukee.
At the Eastman School of Music, he studied piano and composition, majoring in both. Afterwards he started grad school at Yale before commissions started coming in from New York where he eventually relocated.
Now living in Las Vegas, Michael Torke took some time out last month to speak to me over the phone. A lot of fun to talk to, I learned a lot about a composer’s perspective in the music industry. Here’s our conversation as well as a treat at the very end!
Right place at the right time
How does it work as a composer? Do you write just to write and then hope someone picks it up? Sometimes you’re at the right place at the right time. Back in the early 80s at Yale, I studied with Jacob Druckman. Unbeknownst to me, Druckman wanted a composer to write a piece in honor of Aaron Copland so he nominated me and I was eventually chosen. Brooklyn Orchestra played the piece, Ecstatic Orange, with Copland in attendance. Ecstatic Orange is still being performed today. Written in 1984, it premiered in 1985.
How hard is it to get your music on a classical music program / performance schedule? Soon after – the classical music publishing company, Boosey & Hawkes, was looking for a young composer and decided to sign me. They have a worldwide presence, so once they took me on, they started promoting me.
In 1986, the New York City Ballet’s #1 composer was Stravinsky. A big reason for that is because Stravinsky’s music was with Boosey & Hawkes. Peter Martin called them up for a new composer. I then did five collaborations with the NY Ballet. By 1989, Decca Records would record everything I write. That all added prestige, increased my visibility. By the mid-late 90s, I was established in the classical music world.
In the late 1990s, Michael Eisner wanted to commission a composer to write a millennia symphony. He hired a French guy as a consultant and my name came up and I was one of two composers commissioned. Four Seasons premiered in 1999 with the NY Philharmonic under the direction of Kurt Mazur. Four Seasons – Oratorio for a chorus, 4 soloists, large orchestra and chorus.
Is your work primarily commissioned work? Since 1985, about 99% has been commissioned.
Michael explained to me that commissioned work means he gets an advance, plus the royalties. He went on to say that commission work is nice in that the commissioner also arranges for the first performance. It’s built in that you get a public presentation. Arranging a performance on your own would be the huge challenge.
What do you say to people who aren’t sure about classical music? This comes up all the time at the poker table. ‘What do you do?’ I write classical music. ‘Oh – film scores!’ ‘Oh – the stuff Sinatra sings!’ ‘Is there any money in that?’ Everyone PRETENDS that they like it because it sounds prestigious. ‘I thought the definition of classical meant it was written by dead people!’ At the (poker) table a lot of guys like sports, so they don’t really know what you’re talking about.
Folks are often unsure about modern-day classical music – this blog author included. Michael jokingly said about modern-day classical “People think they are subjected to this evil new music!” He told me that, “When the Philadelphia orchestra played Ash, it received many compliments. It surprised them that someone living today could write something they like.”
What’s the best thing about hearing your music performed? Thinking wow! I wrote that! There’s nothing better – when you see all those musicians, working together and turning the notes on the page into something real! Having the music be realized… I’m not doing this just to get applause.
Do you ever get nervous? Oh yeah – think about it. If I were playing, I’d be in control – mistakes would be my fault. I have no control whatsoever – what if they play really badly and I have to sit through it? Operas, especially are hard. Everyone can be performing really well, but what if everyone hates it? What do I do? It’s out of my hands!
Do you read concert reviews after your music is being performed? Oh sure! Don’t believe anyone who says they don’t read reviews! I hope that it’s a frame-able review. I read one review where the critic wrote: “His music was like ‘urine being poured out of a window!’” If bad, then it touched a nerve. The worst review is one that is indifferent. As an artist, you want to make some kind of impression. Great, terrible, but not indifferent.
What do you hope is gained from your music? I hope that they gain what art is supposed to do. Why do we have art? It fills our souls, lifts us up. It’s this amazing, transformative thing that can do good for people.
“Who needs psychotherapy when you have the Bach B-minor mass?”
– Michael Torke, 1990
When I listen to Bach, my brain cells regroup. I feel this peace and well-being. Isn’t it amazing that art can do that? I hope I can write something that’s transformative to others.
A goal of mine is that…one of the great things about art, is that it’s supposed to last over time. Dickens is still read today. There are probably a lot of authors though from his time that we’ve since forgotten about. My goal is to write music that’s still interesting and listened to when I’m dead and gone. I got a lot of attention in my 20s, 30s, so what now in my 50s? I’m grateful that orchestras still play my music. There’s something that maybe transcends the immediate time and if that’s true, then I’ve accomplished my goal.
What do YOU gain by writing music? It lets me pay the bills. I meet a lot of people. I don’t think of work as the drudgery. My work IS music and the most fun I can ever imagine doing is involved with music. It’s nice for your profession to be the central thing that you love. I’m also a workaholic. I want to keep doing what I love, but I work really hard since composing is labor intensive!
Any memorable performances or premiers? Each of my pieces is like a kid – no one is more memorable than the next.
Many of your song titles are simplistic – just one-word titles: Javelin, Charcoal, Run, etc. Why is that? Ideas and music – THEN Title. 1-word is easier to remember, stronger. I wrote a woodwind quintet – Two Girls on the Beach. Now it’s Two Girls.
What drew you to composing? Just before I was 5, I started piano lessons, so I’d change the pieces around. Teacher would write the first bar, and every other bar would be empty. I had the right kind of support from my teachers.
What inspires you? Artistic expression doesn’t have to be a reaction to something. I have a friend who’s a great improvisor. He reacts and then improvises. For me, it’s like I was born with all this energy inside. Music lets me be expressive in a way that people can understand. I don’t really need inspiration, I need to focus. But there are periods when I don’t feel like writing, other times it pours out.
Hard to say what inspires me. Sometimes it’s a project that’s interesting and weird. A lady in Florida started an organization of 10 pianists. She asked if I would write a 45 min piece for 10 grand pianos. Sure! I’m working on it right now. It will be premiered in Miami next April.
What other composers have influenced you? (I could hear a little bit of John Williams-type feel in a couple of your songs on Three (Javelin, Run) as well as a bit of a Stravinsky-esque opening on Charcoal.) Yes – just about every composer is influenced by Stravinsky in some way. Stravinsky, Ravel, Steve Reich (minimal composer), Tchaikovsky – I’ve REALLY studied his orchestrations, and his approach to thinking about harmony and melody. Beethoven – his temperament and expressivity.
There are apparently lots of modern technology tools for composing and recording. Do you find they’ve made things easier or more difficult to create quality music? I can write a whole score using my computer with these notation programs. It’s good for me, so I don’t have to hire someone to write out the parts. Before, a $20K commission would all be spent on music copiers. (Technology) has changed the economics – it’s made things easier and better for me.
The recording industry used to be huge. Now, it’s gone. It’s killed off what used to be very lucrative! Doomsday was predicted. Live music has taken on a new, cool thing. We’re all kind of sick of things that can be reproduced on line. I’m hopeful that classical music will continue to do well in the future and that I can continue to have a career. (Knock on wood!)
Cosmo: A talking picture, well that means I’m out of a job! At last I can start suffering and write that symphony!
RF: You’re not out of a job. We’re putting you in as the head of the new music department.
Cosmo: Well thanks, RF. At last I can stop suffering and write that symphony!
– RF Simpson and Cosmo Brown (Millard Mitchell and Donald O’Connor) in Singin’ in the Rain
What’s your process? Do you wake up in the middle of the night and jot down melodies that you heard in your head? How much of your writing is out of pure emotion vs. more of a pure technical perspective? (Realizing both are needed, of course) With no technique, you can’t express anything. It goes hand in hand with emotion. Technique gives us the ability to better convey the emotions so that they can be understood and felt.
I love printing things out and reviewing what I’ve been writing while on a plane.
How hard is it to write on a deadline? At first – I didn’t handle deadlines very well. After a while, I learned how to manage my time – how much is thinking, how much is writing. Now it’s so much easier. The experience I have makes composing a little easier.
Can you change your deadlines? You can – if need be – call the commissioner and attempt to reschedule. Deadlines inspire me! Some of the most successful music was written with a short deadline. Javelin was written with a 4-week window. The Sax concerto – was a fun project. Had to think about the form – if the music could orchestrate itself. With two years, it might not have been as original or striking.
Who’s your favorite (non-living) composer? Beethoven, Bach – I’m completely enamored with J.S. Bach He’s one of the all time greats.
What’s your favorite musical era? If I could live in any time period, I’d like to have lived at the turn of the century, in the time of Richard Strauss. If I were just coming into my professional life in the 1890s, the great thing was that classical music was at its height. EVERYONE went to concerts, opera, played instruments. To be a composer, you’d be on top of the world. Now? Composer? What does that even mean?
Stravinsky – Genius? Or just plain weird? Genius – He’s such a classic. Went beyond the romantic traditions. He achieved a lot.
What’s your favorite piece of music that you’ve written? The most popular is Javelin
What’s your favorite instrument to write for? The entire Orchestra
Do you ever think you’ll go the route of the movies? I’ve never written for film. Maybe someday, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Who are some (up and coming) living composers we should check out? Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams….always good. British Composer – John Tavener. Younger composers include Kevin Puts and Chris Theofanidis. These are guys who are doing amazing things.
I’d like to extend my thanks to Michael Torke for taking the time to talk to me as well as giving me permission to use these pictures off his website. If you’d like to learn more about Michael Torke and his music, please visit his website at www.michaeltorke.com.
Now here’s the treat I promised you, a link to hear Michael Torke’s latest piece, Oracle. This was premiered this past October by the Quad City Orchestra under the direction of Mark Russell Smith. Enjoy!