Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
It was a slow process, with music growing into such a presence in my life that midway through college I realized it had taken over, so I switched from pre-med and never looked back.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
That has changed many times: As a teenager I tried to play piano like Erroll Garner, then more like Keith Jarrett. In college I fell in love with the music of Edgar Varese and Stefan Wolpe, but listened about as much to Bonnie Raitt and the Band. In more recent years my work in opera led me to Verdi and my work in ballet to Prokofiev. Next week I might mention different names, but just now these are the influences that spring to mind.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
My challenges are the same as those of most composers: almost all orchestras and opera houses pay lip service to the importance of new music but in practice consider it a risk to their box office. So our work as composers is marginalized, perhaps set apart as a prestige item; classical music as a whole is correspondingly impoverished. Wonderful music is being created and performed all over the world, but you wouldn’t know it from Lincoln Center or similar places.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
I find it most inspiring to be given very specific guidelines, such as “an oboe quartet of about 15 minutes, to be paired with the Mozart for the same ensemble.” Or “5 minutes of fight music that becomes a love duet, for changing numbers of dancers.” These are both challenges and pleasures.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
For most of us this is the usual situation, and it’s a healthy one, because as a composer I don’t write for the audience – I write for the performer, who in turn shares the music with the audience. Performers can do that best if I can write effectively for them – show off what they do best, while giving them something a little unlike the rest of what they perform. I love tailoring the music in that way; it also offsets the essentially solitary nature of composing.
Of which works are you most proud?
My four operas, because I think the way I combine the various elements that make up opera (text setting, stage timing, vocal deployment, use of the orchestra) is not like anyone else’s, and works better than most. Each of my operas is full of the most radical music I could think of, and at the same time each one reaches out passionately to the largest possible audience of non-specialist listeners. I try to combine those goals with anything I write, but opera feels particularly congenial.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
I’m a “notes and rhythms” kind of composer. There is lots of life left in traditional musical devices, in fact more life than there is in straining for extremes or following musical fashions of any kind. I enjoy inventing unusual melodic lines, finding surprising moments for traditional chords, and combining fairly simple rhythms in unexpected ways.
How do you work?
It depends on the piece. If I have a text, that helps me to organize the music. A dance or film scenario gives me another kind of structure. A portrait done from life is a combination of meditation and improvisation. A tribute usually starts with some sort of core of pre-existing music around which I spin other notes and rhythms.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
I return over and over to the music of a few composers of roughly my own generation. In no particular order: Judith Weir, Stephen Hartke, Lee Hyla, Arthur Levering, Poul Ruders, George Benjamin, Chen Yi, Scott Lindroth. I’ve also played and conducted music by most of these composers, and highly recommend any of them to listeners looking for a fresh musical experience.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Here are a few: Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony when I first heard it live; Sibelius 6th symphony live; The Band in concert; the opportunity to conduct Ramifications by Ligeti and Corpus Cum Figuris by Poul Ruders.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Composers should write what they actually want to hear; performers should play and sing what passionately inspires them; audiences should demand excitement, not settle for what the PR agents are peddling that month.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Writing more music, probably in New York.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Coffee and composing in the morning, friends and a good meal in the evening.
What is your most treasured possession?
Nothing physical – I treasure my family and friends.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Besides composing? Playing tennis, I guess, if I could only find the time to do it more.
What is your present state of mind?
Opening out to new possibilities.
Scott Wheeler’s new album ‘Portraits & Tributes’ (works for piano 1977-2014), performed by Donald Berman, is available now. Further information here