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William Price
25 Dec 2009

An Interview with William Price

Composer William Price was born in Missouri (1971) and raised in Alabama, where he is presently professor of music theory at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

An Interview with William Price

Inteviewed by Tom Moore

Above: William Price


His advanced study in composition took place at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Price has a large and diverse body of music to his credit, including work for orchestra, chamber ensemble, and electro-acoustic music. We spoke via Skype on September 21, 2009.

TM: How did you get started with music? Everyone has a different trajectory.

WP: Especially now — a lot of students get into music through playing guitar in rock bands. I guess I was drafted into it. My sister was in the high school marching band. I was 11, and went with her to a band booster function, and the band director asked if I wouldn’t mind playing cymbals. I said “Sure! What’s a cymbal?” I didn’t have a clue. So I was holding the cymbals for the first couple of games, and then my band director told me that whenever the drum major pointed at me, I was supposed to crash the cymbals, which doesn’t work too well, because there’s a delay, and an eleven-year old boy doesn’t always have his attention focused on the conductor. I had my first bout of performance anxiety when I realized that everybody in the stadium knows “The Star-Spangled Banner”, and where the cymbal crashes should go. They also neglected to tell me that it was in 3, and not in 4…..

TM: It was your sister that dragged you there?

WP: Yes, and my mother. My parents are non-musicians. My father was an aerospace engineer, and my mother was a home-maker. My dad took piano lessons when he was a kid, and my mother took violin lessons, but they weren’t musically active as adults. They were always supportive of any kind of musical endeavors that my sister and I participated in.

TM: If I think of aerospace and Alabama, I think of Huntsville.

WP: Actually my dad was in the Air Force. He received his aerospace engineering degree from the University of Alabama, and then entered the Air Force. My family moved around quite a bit. And then, after my father left the Air Force, we moved to Alabama.

TM: How did your sister get into music?

WP: As I recall, when she was in the fifth or sixth grade, she wanted to take guitar lessons. That lasted for about six months. Later, she decided to try out for the beginner band on trombone, and then eventually she switched to clarinet. She was musically active in high school and college.

TM: Your family is originally from Alabama.

WP: Yes.

TM: In addition to the marching band, what was the musical environment like in Alabama when you were growing up?

WP: Limited. I am from rural Alabama — central Alabama between Montgomery and Birmingham. Jemison, Alabama at the time had a population of about 3000 at the most [2000 census: 2248]. My experiences were limited to the marching band and concert band.

TM: You moved on from cymbals, of course. What was the next thing?

WP: Bass drum! And then snare drum. A little bit of mallets later on. Similar to most high school programs, you learn four or five tunes for the semester, either for the half-time show or for the concert season. The amount of literature we were exposed to was limited. At the same time, we were encouraged to progress on our instruments. Our band director would have us pass off pages from the Rubank Intermediate and Advanced method books for our grades. Every six weeks we had to pass off six pages. By the time you graduated you were almost finished with the advanced Rubank book. Our director was committed to the program and to our musical education. He didn’t have an assistant — We had about 120 people in the band, in a school with roughly about 600 people students. It was a very successful program. It was a fun environment — we worked really hard.

TM: Did you have All-State and district bands?

WP: Our director encouraged us to attend honor bands and compete at solo and ensemble competitions.

TM: You must have had other music activities in high school as well. What were some of those?

WP: I performed with quite a few rock bands while in high school, playing mostly covers and some original music. Usually, my friends and I would get together and try to write our own songs. And even though I didn’t play guitar, keyboards or bass, I would sing what I was thinking at the time, for the transition or the bridge or the chorus, and usually the guitar player would pick it up and work with it. I think those experiences shaped my early interest in composition. While I was still in high school, and later in college, when I was teaching different percussion ensembles in the summer, most of the band directors would ask me to write a solo or two for their group. Most of the percussionists that I’ve known, especially those in high school and college, began composing quite early. They were always writing cadences or percussion features for their marching band.

I was also active in my high school stage band. So, I was exposed to different styles of music — jazz, Latin, rock, Broadway musicals.

TM: Percussion is a characteristically 20th-century ensemble, something that is only developed as part of classical music in the twentieth century, so that by definition almost all the repertoire for percussion is post-WWII. If you are a percussionist you are automatically involved in contemporary music.

WP: I think so, although I don’t write much for percussion. I’ve tried to focus more on writing for winds and strings.

TM: Take us back — did you begin to study music as a major at the university level?

WP: Yes. I attended the University of North Alabama in Florence. Most people know that area of Alabama due to popularity of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and their recordings from the sixties and seventies. UNA had an attractive music program that offered a commercial music degree. At the time, they offered courses in publishing and audio recording — and so I decided to attend UNA and double major in music education and commercial music. I was in the marching band, the jazz band, jazz ensemble, concert band, percussion ensemble, and almost any other ensemble where they needed a percussionist. It was a very busy schedule — plus all my classes. About halfway through the program, I had to make a choice between education and commercial music — I was taking too many classes at a time, 25 hours each semester, so I decided to stick with the music ed route.

Anytime there was a performance opportunity I would try to take advantage of it. It was a good program to be involved in — it taught me how to be a professional. The band director at the time — Ed Jones — was a serious taskmaster. He expected all of his students to act like professionals, during rehearsals and at the gig. We didn’t talk during our rehearsals, and if Dr. Jones was on the podium, nobody spoke, for an hour and a half. We were attentive, and knew where we were at all times in the music. It was intense.

TM: Tell me a little about the music you were playing in these groups.

WP: In the big band we played a lot of swing — Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Harry James charts — a few Latin charts, not a lot of rock, funk, or progressive jazz — it was mostly big band charts. In the jazz combo, we played mostly tunes out of the fake book. In the concert band we would play the standard rep and a lot of marches. Dr. Jones was fond of galop marches — really fast marches in 1 — Carl King marches. For the basketball pep band he would just bring a smaller version of the concert band to the arena, and we would sit up in the stands and play marches to entertain the crowd. We weren’t playing “Mustang Sally” — we would be playing really fast marches. And you had to be on top of things — if there was a break in the action we would immediately start playing. I don’t think the crowd understood or appreciated what we were doing.

While I was in marching band, I remember that every year during the homecoming half-time show we would segue from the opening theme from Jesus Christ Superstar to the theme from the movie Patton. I always thought “that is one strange transition.”

TM: It reminds me a little of Frank Zappa, with the shows or tunes moving abruptly from one feel to another feel.

WP: At the time I couldn’t understand what Jesus Christ Superstar and Patton had to do with each other. But it was fun to watch the crowd’s reaction.

TM: Was there a composition component to your music ed program?

WP: No. I was composing on my own. A few years prior, a friend suggested I pick up a copy of Frank Zappa’s album, Joe’s Garage, and take a listen. I fell in love with the music. I didn’t understand it at the time — I didn’t realize that popular music could be that intricate. It was a rock opera — I was used to standard rock and roll tunes, and here was something with greater structure in a style I was familiar with. I knew about Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Who’s Tommy, but Zappa’s album hit closer to home. After that, while I was at UNA, Zappa’s Yellow Shark album came out, and it just blew me away. I loved it, and I said to myself “I want to do that. I want to compose.” So I started composing on my own.

An important turning point for me was when a visiting saxophonist/composer came in for UNA’s annual jazz band camp. I asked if I could show him some of my music, and so I took it by his hotel room. He looked at these unfinished fragments, and all he said was “finish them.”

After I graduated from UNA, I started applying for graduate school, but I couldn’t decide if I wanted to continue my education in musicology, ethnomusicology, or composition. I applied to three different schools, and LSU accepted me into their composition program. I had a few non-percussion works at the time — a chamber piece for strings, percussion, guitar, and woodwinds, and a piece for solo tuba. Fortunately, Dinos Constantinides and Stephen David Beck took a chance and accepted me into the program, even though I only had three pieces in my “portfolio.”

LSU was quite an awakening — meeting people who had undergraduate degrees in composition, and who took it seriously. It was eye-opening. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Schoenberg, or Webern, or much of Stravinsky’s later work.

TM: When you began to be exposed to this repertoire, what was it that really grabbed you?

WP: Just being exposed to different styles, and figuring out how to say what you want to say with notation. I was exposed to Crumb for the first time at LSU — I couldn’t believe what was on the page, and what I was hearing. I was fabulous, not only in terms of the aural landscape, but in terms of the notation. How did he get what wanted out of the performers? He was so explicit. Then, on the other hand, if you look at Morton Feldman’s scores, he was very general, but getting some amazing sounds out of the performers. Berio, Cage — suddenly there was all these new languages and voices.

An important moment for me was looking at Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies for the first time. The score itself is pretty messy, but what he requires from the performers is amazing. How does Davies get the vocalist to do what he wants him to do? That is important lesson for a young composer. I think all the time, “How can I manipulate the performer to get them to do what I want?” If I write “sing like Robert Plant” in the score, a vocalist probably won’t do it because they are afraid they’ll damage their voice, but if I notate the proper multi-phonics and use general expressive markings, maybe I’ll get the desired “Robert Plant” sound. Notation is communication, manipulation, and interpretation.

My teacher Dinos was fabulous. He would look at your music, and ask you to sit at the piano and play it, if you could, at least the chord changes, and then he would bring in some masterworks, and relate them to your piece, usually Bartok, Schoenberg, or Webern. He exposed me to so many different composers, styles, and techniques. At the beginning, he asked me to write a twelve-tone string quartet. I didn’t know anything about twelve-tone music — what better way to learn than by writing a string quartet?

Most importantly, Dinos might have your piece played. He is the conductor of the Louisiana Sinfonietta, so he has access to some great players. That was the best workshop for a young composer. Additionally, the composition studios at LSU worked with the LSU New Music Ensemble. When I arrived at LSU, the ensemble consisted of mostly composers and a few performers who enjoyed performing contemporary music. So, the instrumentation was ad hoc, it might consist of guitar, three clarinets, percussion, and tuba. And of course, writing for such an ensemble presents its own set of challenges; however, it was a wonderful learning experience.

TM: At what point did you say to yourself, “Now I am a composer!”

WP: I haven’t said it yet. I feel like I am starting over with every piece. I don’t adhere to a system, and I am trying to write more intuitively now. I think I started to realize that I could do this in my first year at LSU, when I premiered my first “real” piece. After every performance I would ask myself “why did that piece work?” or “why didn’t that section sound like I thought it would?” I think I learned more about timing and gesture than anything else. Dinos helped me understand the importance of the grand dramatic gesture, and how to push the envelope. Dinos was also keen on development, and writing effective transitions. I started concentrating on “how do you get from point A to B?” Sometimes a direct juxtaposition can be effective, but most young composers don’t understand how to write a transition. Over time, I was working on transitions so much so that they became more interesting than the A and the B.

TM: Please take us from LSU to where you are today, and perhaps you could talk about early pieces at the beginning of your catalogue.

WP: When I finished my masters at LSU, I started looking for doctoral programs. In the meantime, I applied for and was awarded a doctoral fellowship at LSU. Due to the terms of the fellowship, I was to focus solely on composition. I wasn’t allowed to teach. Fortunately, as I crept closer to finishing my dissertation, I was asked if I would stay on and teach two or three courses electro-acoustic music. Stephen Beck had been asked to direct the Louisiana Center for Arts and Technologies, so he needed two people to teach his classes and his private studio. I took over Dr. Beck’s electro-acoustic classes, and Liduino Pitombeira taught his composition students.

For those four to five years, I started thinking more deeply about my work– I had more time to compose and try new things. I had some breakthroughs in terms of timing and gesture. I started working on a piece for saxophone, percussion, and piano called Pushover. I would write a section and think “How far can I take this? Where are the extremes? How loud and how soft can I make the gestures? I started thinking about generalities, rather than specifics. Prior to this piece, I had been worried about every little note on the page, so much so that I was losing sight of the grander scheme of things. Instead of looking at the overall structure, I was always focused on the minutiae.

TM: There seem to be two different types of composers, those who come from the details outwards, and those who imagine the structure, and then fill in the details. It sounds like you were moving from an organic to a more architectural approach.

WP: That’s a good way to phrase it. Whether one note is right or wrong doesn’t matter in the long run. I continued this thread in my next work for saxophone, Hook, Line and Sinker, which I wrote when I got back to Alabama. At the time, I had just graduated from LSU, and like most young academics, I thought there would be a job waiting for me, but there wasn’t, so I moved back to Alabama. My wonderful and supportive wife told me “You’ll get a job when you get a job.” So I stayed at home and composed all day, and I treated it like a business. I would compose in the morning, answer emails in the afternoon, read scores and listen to music in the later afternoon, and maybe compose a little after my wife went to sleep.

As it pertains to Hook, Line and Sinker, I tried to think about how I could write a specific gesture in such a way, so that I could get a more immediate response, not only musically, but also from the performer. I started thinking about using style and expressive markers to get an emotional response. In one part of the piece, I instruct the clarinetist to distort their sound. Asking an instrumentalist to distort their sound is heresy to begin with, so I marked the passage “Play it antisocial, à la Sex Pistols”. The clarinetist who premiered it is Japanese and I think at the time had no idea who the Sex Pistols were. She went and found a couple of recordings and came back and said, “I understand what you mean now.” I wanted an extreme sound. I also marked the saxophone part “Play like a blend of Shostakovich and Jimi Hendrix”. These sorts of markings are fun to work with. They allow me to experiment with the abrupt juxtaposition and superimposition of dissimilar moods and styles in a very general way. Something aggressive and violent, with something subtle. Something very chromatic and something modal, something rhythmically complex with something more free-form, more fluid.

Hook, Line, and Sinker was a breakthrough piece for me as a composer. It was premiered at the University of Montevallo in Alabama. The university has a very live recital hall. It’s a small space, and the sound bounces off all the wood and brick, which provided more immediacy to the piece. In that type of environment, an aggressive work can keep a listener on the edge of his or her seat. And since I explore the extremes of range and emotion in the work, it can be almost like walking a tightrope for the performer and listener. “Will they hit the note or not?” The piece requires the listener to be an active participant; they have no choice.

TM: Let’s connect that to your electroacoustic music. Some of the transitions in theme and mood seem almost cinematic, with a sardonic kind of humor.

WP: Before attending LSU, my experience with digital technology was limited to say the least. Although I took several recording classes at UNA, the studio was all analog. This was in ‘93, ‘94. I started to use Csound and digital recording technology when I moved to Baton Rouge. Stephen Beck used that program as an introduction to electro-acoustic music. I had an important breakthrough during the course of that first semester; time is a canvas that I am free to paint upon. The overall musical gesture can be any length without having a specific meter imposed upon it. And of course, I could arrange these gestures anywhere in the temporal plane. Usually, before I started a work in the studio, I would sketch a graphic representation of the overall “idea”. Then, I could go back and fill in the texture, the gestures, and timbral contrasts.

I think my first electro-acoustic piece, Let Freedom Ring, was a subconscious response to my induction into the marching band as a cymbal player and playing “The Star Spangled Banner” in 4, rather than in 3… When I began the piece, I knew that I wanted to transform the important motives and phrases in the work. For example, the second cymbal crash breaks in into hundreds of tiny fragments, leading to a softer and isolated soundscape. Also, the work tends to provoke an immediate response from most audiences. Because American audiences are so ingrained in hearing the work as an aural souvenir and musical icon, that whenever they hear the piece transformed and manipulated within a much different context, no matter what the overall social intentions maybe, it tends to put people off. Some of the audio samples were taken from marching band recordings, and others from orchestral recordings, so that I could use the strings when needed, and explore the common timbral relationship in the woodwinds and brass. It’s a piece that is a hybrid between electronic sounds and musique concrete. I’ve tried to incorporate the temporal freedom of my electro-acoustic composition into my instrumental works. Four-four over four bars is not interesting to me — when I listen to a group of improvisers, they play with a more fluid approach. If I want to represent the fluidity of an improvisation, I have to experiment with time and meter. Trying to get someone to sound like they are improvising while they are reading a traditional notation is a difficult thing to do.

TM: Please talk about Sans Titre II [for unaccompanied saxophone]. It’s a long span for a single line, but the progression from A to B to C works very well, and the use of tessitura is very effective.

WP: Prior to Sans Titre II I had written a solo flute piece, Strata I, a serial piece based on the manipulation and development of a single chromatic fragment, C-C#-D. Through the permutation and transposition of that cell fragment, I started to observe how I create other sets from that three-note cell. However, while I was working on Sans Titre II, I was studying the Bach cello suites, and examining his compound melodies. Throughout each movement, the tonal goal remains true; there is always direction. And just by studying those pieces, it made me realize that I could combine my serial experiments with traditional tonal devices, and hopefully create an interesting multi-narrative.

In the first part of the piece, I explore the low and middle ranges of the instrument in such a way as to create a compound narrative. Later, I insert “interruptions” — secondary melodies that interrupt the initial, legato narrative. The primary narrative is interrupted twice by these secondary gestures, but as the work continues the interruption becomes the primary narrative. But it too is interrupted by the faster second part. For the second part, I wanted to provide a metrical contrast to the fluid nature of the first part and second part.

TM: What is coming up next for you?

WP: Fortunately, I always have a few ideas, and when they are not right for the moment, or ready to work, I’ll write the idea on a scrap of paper and put it in a file folder.

For contemporary music, it seems like the next work is always a chamber piece. At the moment, I am working on a piece for percussion ensemble. And the piece after that will be a short movement for flute and piano.

I’ve also been thinking a choral work. In the past, I’ve a hard time finding a text that speaks to me, one that emphasize the universal “we” as opposed to “I.” I’m thinking about setting three or four quatrains of Nostradamus’ prophecies. Something interesting, maybe something that people are familiar with. I haven’t decided if I will set the work in French, use an English translation or combine the two.

Also, I’ve been commissioned to write a short piece for concert band. It will be a new experience for me, so I’m excited about this particular project.

TM: Who will perform the work for flute and piano?

WP: The flute and piano piece will be premiered in April 2010 at Samford University as part of a Birmingham Art Music Alliance concert. The working title is “Ich bin Maroon” — “I am maroon”, which comes from a Frank Zappa skit entitled “Once Upon a Time.”

I also want to write a one-act opera based on the writing of Chuck Palahniuk — the author of Fight Club and Choke — and maybe something based on transgressive fiction of William S. Burroughs. I have always thought an opera exploring that kind of fiction and character development would be interesting. Transgressive writing and dramatic opera seems to fit. Finding the proper text is the difficult thing. And then trying to find someone to mount a production is next to impossible, especially if the work were to be based on Palahniuk’s or Burroughs’ work. Naked Lunch would be a great opera.

TM: What is your greatest concern as a composer?

WP: When I do workshops with composers and musicians, I ask them what their biggest fear is. I tell them that my biggest fear as a composer is rejection. As musicians we can be afraid to take chances because of our fear of rejection. I tell the composers I work with that not every piece is going to work or be accepted by an audience, so we might as well take risks in our art. We don’t create to make a mirror for our society, but rather to be a counterbalance. Art is not about playing it safe, whether you are a painter or an instrumentalist, a composer or a film-maker. We should take those chances. If the piece doesn’t work, you can write another one. If the performance doesn’t go well, play it again. There’s always a second chance. If I hadn’t taken the chance to apply to the LSU, maybe I wouldn’t be a composer. I might be an accountant, and always wish that I were a composer. People have regrets because they didn’t dare to try to do what they love for a living. I’ve been fortunate to do what I love. I get to compose, analyze my favorite works and write about them, and I get to teach. If I hadn’t taken chances, it would not have worked out that way.

TM: You have to be courageous to follow your dream.

WP: My students have dreams, and they may not have supportive people in their life to tell them that they can do these things, but I tell them all the time, “work hard, write a bio, and be ready when opportunity knocks.”

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