Scott Steele is one of Kansas City's premier new music composers. His music is innovative, ecstatic, and award-winning, reaching such diverse ensembles as Trillium Ensemble, Music From China, and many others. Steele is just as passionate about new music advocacy as he is about composing. He is a co-founder of the Kansas City-based FuseBox New Music composers collective, which champions new music by providing composers with commissions, performances, recordings, and collaborative opportunities, with a special focus on emerging local composers. For this edition of Listen Local, Steele shares, among others things, some insights into his creative process and his affinity for the works of Debussy and Kurt Vonnegut.
Introduce yourself. Where do you live and work? What does a typical day look like for you?
I'm originally from Pittsburgh, PA, but now live in the Brookside neighborhood of Kansas City, MO. I am a composer, teacher, and new music advocate. Typically, I do my composing in the morning and with coffee. The coffee is a must, and I've been using the same old French press for years.
You’re involved in many different music-related projects. Not only are you a composer, you’re a conductor, educator and “new music advocate.” Tell us about the New Music scene in and around Kansas City. Whose work are you really excited about? Where are the best venues for this music?
One of the joys of being an active, living composer is being part of a community. The notion of being locked away in a room in an Ivory Tower seems not only unappealing but inhumane. All Art reflects its origins: the artists who make it, the world they live in, the people they know. Being part of a larger community helps me to write richer music.
For Kansas City, the New Music scene is healthy and growing all the time. There’s a necessary diversity and each group fills an important niche.
My newest project is FuseBox New Music. It was co-founded a few months ago by Zane Winter, Ted King-Smith and myself. Through FuseBox, we work to promote new music by providing composers with commissions, performances, recordings, and collaborative opportunities, all with a special emphasis on emerging local composers. Our inaugural concert is October 1, at Prairie Logic downtown, which is a beautiful venue. We will be presenting a multi-composer collaborative work based around Claude Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp.
The longest standing professional group in Kansas City is newEar. They tend to focus on “modern classics” (an oxymoron, I know!), which are works of the past few decades that have been accepted into a new Canon of masterworks. They also play local “big names” like Jim Mobberley or Chen Yi.
The Blackhouse Collective was founded by Hunter Long and Russell Thorpe. They do many worthwhile projects a year from new chamber operas to workshops for composer/performers. Blackhouse performs all over the place. From art galleries to the KC ballet, they always seem to have an appealing venue.
KcEMA is Kansas City’s go-to organization for electronic music. In addition to their focus on local, electronic composers, they often feature guest musicians from out of town.
Mnemosyne Quartet is relatively new, but they’re one of the groups I’m most excited about. They are an improvisation group comprised of saxophones, bass clarinet, and electronics. Having heard them play already, I’m looking forward to their upcoming August performance at Prairie Logic.
Here are links to the various new music groups in KC:
Describe your creative process. What tools do you use?
I use a keyboard, pencil and paper, a computer, and my ears. I always consider for whom I’m writing. The instruments that I’m using play a big role in determining the music. For example, if the piece is for cello, the music will be crafted out of what the cello does really well. On the other hand, I am still open to a sort of cross-pollination between instruments. It’s so much fun to reimagine the cello as an electric guitar or a drum. This approach leads towards music that otherwise might not have been written.
Often, I’m doing prep-work for 2-3 pieces that are to be written in the coming year; actively composing one; and doing detail work on publishing the previous piece. It’s a cycle.
When it comes time to begin actively composing, pieces often start out on a blank sheet of 11/17” paper. With no lines, I am free to draw whatever I want. Often, I think in big, formal shapes and what the overall character of the piece will be. I’ll write out all the important pitches, rhythms, and colors. This is all a global way of thinking about the piece as a whole. It’s a “getting to know you” phase as I start to understand what the piece will be like in ever-increasing resolution.
Next, I begin fleshing out specific passages. Rarely do I ever write the sections of a piece in chronological order. After the first draft of a passage is complete there’s editing-lots of editing. I hardly ever get things right the first time, yet every part of the process is enjoyable.
As mentioned with FuseBox, we are presenting pieces based on Claude Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp. In preparation for my contribution to the concert, I have been listening to Debussy’s music as well as the music that influenced him; reading up on the historical/social context in which he was writing and considering what musical statement I can make that would resonate well with his work. He composed this piece in the summer of 1915, and so it is exactly 100 years later that we are composing music for the same instruments. It’s thrilling. It’s been on my mind for months and I am just now on the verge of grabbing a sheet of blank paper and diving in.
How do you break through creative blocks?
I’m so glad you asked this question. The answer is simple: write what you know.
Don’t try to break through creative blocks. Instead, write what you already know about the music and in the process of doing so you may discover the missing answers to questionable sections your piece. For example, if you know how the piece ends but not how it begins, write the ending first. The end may unlock the beginning.
Sometimes, my initial sketches look so skeletal that they hardly resemble the final product. Yet, certain aspects are there in their essential form. They’re incomplete because that’s all I knew about the music at the time of the sketching. If you listen carefully, these initial clues always suggest more beyond themselves.
What advice do you have for younger composers?
Listen. Always remember that you are working within a sonic medium. The music should be grounded in how you want it to sound. No extraneous concept can make up for an inconsiderate soundscape. You are doing your job if like what you are hearing.
When you write music for live performance, be keenly aware of the people who will be playing it. Too often I encounter pieces by composers who have somehow forgotten that they are writing music for other human beings to play. The best way to get a sense of how to play with others is to do it yourself. Go play in a band or a large ensemble or a chamber group. These experiences will teach you how to play well with others. Let THAT inform the way you write. I learned most of what I know about music through playing it.
Only you can write your music. Only you can decide what is valuable. Only you can define what success means for yourself.
Be a big picture thinker. Understand that many projects take a couple years to get off the ground. Most of my 2015 projects are the products of work done back in 2014 or even 2013. Be patient. Go to concerts. Don’t meet others merely to “network.” Instead, really get to know people. Be part of a community; nurture your professional friendships with sincerity and compassion; give back to those who have been generous to you.
Who or what inspires you?
That's a broad, broad question. Our lives are so interconnected with everything else that every experience I've had has helped shape the composer I am.
Books inspire me all the time. I feel like I can't manage to compose a cohesive piece if I'm not actively reading a book. Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse V was the first work of art that inspired me to think about form. To this day, I think I've learned more about form from authors than composers.
Color is very important in my music. I'm synesthetic, which means that certain sensory inputs trigger a specific response from other senses. In my case, I hear sounds and see colors. Every piece I write is composed in colors. Looking at one of my works-in-progress is like standing in a three-dimensional workshop with all sounds represented spatially. Do I think this makes me a better composer? No. It's just what works for me, and it's not important for listeners to try to imagine the colors. They should just listen.
My most recent musical developments have been shaped through talking with Jun, my partner. She's a flutist, and her aesthetic tastes are polar to mine. She's a capital R Romantic, whereas I am someone who falls after Post-Modernism (we shouldn't write post-post-post...etc.) and my tastes, though varied, tend towards more recent works. I'm grateful for our differences because they make for engaging conversations. While I do still enjoy building up large masses of sound, she has helped my music to sing. It's more melodic now because of her.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Abbey Road by the Beatles
Amnesiac by Radiohead
Tre Voci,: performances by Tre Voci of Claude Debussy, Toru Takemitsu-san, and Sofia Gubaidalina