I: What inspired you to do a self interview for your blog?
E: I was inspired by my friend Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi’s interview about performing the Beethoven Violin Concerto that she put on her blog. I have been practicing the Beethoven Violin Concerto during the past week or so, and I thought it might be a nice starting point for a discussion.
I: Are you working on it for a particular performance?
E: Oh no! I’m working on it partly because I want to become stronger playing in the violin’s high register, and that piece requires real strength up in the higher ledger lines of the treble clef. I’m actually playing two concerts this fall of music by 20th-century British composers who love to write in that register. As a violist who plays the violin for fun, it’s a real challenge to find comfort in the flute register.
I: Didn’t you used to play the flute?
E: It’s a very different experience playing up high in the flute register from playing up high on the violin. It’s almost like they are opposite experiences. It requires real strength to get a good sound in the violin’s high register, while the flute’s high register just requires a bit of force and a lot of support. It’s almost impossible to play a true pianissimo above high G on the flute, while there are a whole range of dynamics below mezzo forte in the register surrounding high G on the violin. Dynamic levels above mezzo forte in that register, with my fiddle, are still something I hope to be able to reach.
I: You seem to add tools for musical expression every ten years or so. You started playing the violin at 7, stopped at 11, started flute at 13, added recorder at 21, added baroque flute at 25, went back to violin at 31, added viola at 33, began composing seriously at 40, and added viola d’amore at 48. Do you have any reasonable explanation for this pattern?
E: I’m fickle and restless. Because I live in a place with little stress, and I'm often underemployed, I need to do things that stimulate my mind. I usually concentrate on practicing one stringed instrument at a time (I never touch the flute, unless I’m writing music for it). I play my recorders and my viola d’amore every Friday with my collegium.
I: Your collegium?
E: Yes. I meet with a group of 6 or 7 friends, and we play Renaissance and Medieval music.
I: How do you find 6 or 7 people to play Renaissance music on recorders in your remote Illinois town of 20,000 people?
E: One is my recorder student, and another is my former composition professor. One moved back to town after many years away (once, many years ago, this town was a relative hotbed of musical activity). Two others (a married couple) are instrument collectors. Both were music majors in college and graduate school, but ended up doing other things for a living. The last member of the group is a university student. He's a euphonium player who appreciates the real musical education he gets from playing great music on recorders and his new rackett.
I: And you also play in a string quartet?
E: Yes. We have played together for years, and because we are dispersed between Illinois and Indiana, we now play mainly for weddings. I enjoy making arrangements for the group. I find that writing arrangements is a wonderful way to exercise creativity while not really being bound to do anything really original. I find it a relaxing pastime, and, because the people in my quartet are such fine musicians (they really are) the arrangements always sound good. They make the people getting married and their guests happy, and they make us happy.
I: Do you find that it is work to write music?
E: I find that it’s a wonderful pleasure to write music. When I am writing something I can make all sorts of decisions without having to compromise or consult with anyone. I am the CEO of my musical domain. I can also be expressive and critical at the same time, and I can allow myself to feel the physicality of what I am writing. If I’m setting a text, I allow myself to explore that text much more deeply than I would if I were simply reading. I also get a real kick out of the idea of making something totally new; something that has never been written before. I often have to make sure that a significant amount of time passes between finishing one piece and beginning another, just to make sure that I'm actually writing something new and not just an extension of my last piece.
I: Would you like to be able to make a living from your compositions?
E: I would love to, but I know that it is a total impossibility. I consider myself an accomplished composer, and I’m very proud of the work I have done, but I find it very difficult to think of it as something of a set monetary value that I can sell. I have a lot of music published by publishers that own the rights to what I have written. From that I see very little in the way of royalties. Royalties for composers come to about 10% of the price that a person buying a piece of music pays. When I began working with my first publisher, Raoul Ronson, I saw considerable royalties. My first royalty check, which came after 6 months, was for $500.00, which meant that the music I wrote generated $5,000.00 in revenue. This went on for a while, but after Raoul Ronson died, and his company, See Saw Music, was sold to Subito, royalties have trickled down to around $25.00 every year or so.
I: Have you thought of starting your own publishing company?
E: I have. I even thought of a good name. But I don’t have any sort of business sense, and I'm sure that I would fail as a publisher. Publicity and promotion is the way of the 21st century, and the closest I can really get to self promotion is by posting this interview with myself on my blog. I have always believed that if what I write is of any quality, and if it is the kind of music people will want to play, they will seek it out if I make it available without selling it. I make everything new that I have written available in the Werner Icking Music Archive, which is now about to merge with the ISMLP's Petrucci Library. I do hope that musicians won't think less of me as a composer because I do my work in a non-commercial way, and do not spend the money that I would otherwise make (perhaps) on hiring a professional publicist and someone to do my accounting.
I: Isn’t composing without monetary compensation doing a lot of work for very little in return?
E: Absolutely not. The greatest return for me is to hear a performance of something I have written. It is far more valuable than money. Unfortunately success has come to be measured in dollars and cents (not so much cents anymore, I suppose), but I don't measure it that way. I measure it through doing something that gives me true satisfaction. Another benefit I find (in the abstract much of the time) is to help people communicate with one another musically, and perhaps even communicate with me. I keep hoping that some old friend will come across a piece of music I have written, will play it, and will get in touch with me. People so often think of composers as dead people or people who are inaccessible. I pride myself on my accessibility and enjoy the fact that I’m still alive.
I: That’s probably a good place to end this interview. I’m glad you took the time to talk with me.
E: I enjoyed our conversation too.