The Interview Project: Brandon Scott Rumsey, Composer

[The following post is the first installment of my Interview Project.  If you would like to be a part of this project, feel free to contact me.  Be prepared with a way to present your media to me somehow, through a website or other means.  There are absolutely no restrictions as to media or aesthetic.]

Brandon Rumsey, Composer

unprofess headshot2Brandon’s interest in music was sparked when he was a child, but he didn’t start taking piano lessons until he was 10.  From this stage, he developed a passion for learning to play several wind instruments and organizing students to play in little ensembles together.  At 13, he became interested in composition when he started playing with music notation software and MIDI sequencing to create amateur experimental pieces.  He is currently a student at the University of Oregon and is an undergraduate composition major, studying composition with David Crumb, saxophone with Idit Shner, and bassoon with Steve Vacchi.

JMG — Sound byte:  Sum up your entire artistic self up in five words or less.
BR — Embracing life, color, and harmony.

JMG — Tell me about the music you can’t live without lately.
BR — Lately?  James Horner.  I’ve been re-exploring his film scores.  They make me feel like a child again!  They had such a huge impact on my musical self when I was younger, and I’ve recently found a nostalgic comfort in listening to his scores from the last 10-15 years or so.  In his music, I find that there’s a real beauty that lies within simplicity and getting caught in the moment – something that seems to be more a more uncommon trait in the world of composition as an academic practice.

JMG — Now tell me about some music you hate lately.
BR — I honestly don’t “hate” any music, and this isn’t just my “Sunday school” answer.  I feel that anyone who creates has something to say.  And there’s a certain amount of respect to be had for that, even if it makes our brain hurt or fall asleep completely.  I feel that when it comes to music, there is always something we’re looking to connect to that makes us like/dislike that particular… [insert musical creation here].  Something could relate to a large mass of individuals in a certain way… Lady Gaga, for an obvious example, or relate to a small[er] group of people (Gubaidulina) – both of whom I love, by the way!  So, I suppose the best way I can answer this hefty question is that there is music out there by certain composers or groups that I just can’t seem to “relate” to; Hindemith, Andrew Lloyd Webber, or demonic heavy metal for instance.

JMG — What is the least-musical influence that you feel influences your music?
BR — My music is subjectively inspired by non-musical stuff depending on the situation.  Three Ideal Situations was inspired by three not-so-ideal situations all of which involved random details that I remember about events that were not so memorable.  There are three movements, the first is inspired by a steel toe shoe and blindness, the second is inspired by the smell of flowers at a funeral, both of which are radically non-musical.  The play I’m working on for VLT, The Clean House is inspired by several things such as cleaning supplies, nostalgia, and love.  So the range of non-musical influences in my music can be from senses to objects to emotions and back again.

JMG — As an undergraduate composer at the University of Oregon, you’re still quite early in your training as a composer.  It can be a very exciting time; describe some of your more interesting discoveries that you’ve made so far.
BR — I’ve really discovered what it’s like to be myself.  Some of us don’t feel comfortable in our own skin as it is, due to life experiences, insecurities, or whatever.  But when you’re forced to be someone else artistically, what are you left with!?  At first, I was under the impression that if I pursued a composition degree in 2010, I was going to be blasted with ideologies that weren’t my own.  This was a complete misconception.  I’m not here to learn how to compose, I’m here to learn how to express the music that is inside of me to the satisfaction that I deserve as an artist.  Whether it’s the place I’m studying, or the people I’m working with, I feel that I’m able to do just that, and it has been an extremely rewarding experience.

JMG — When one listens to your Theme and Variations for Saxophone Quartet, and then listens to your newer work, they’ll notice a marked difference in harmonic language.  What do you attribute this to?
BR — Really?  This surprises me!  The first variation is very different, yes, but the second, third, and fourth use a lot of the same harmonies that I find comfort in today.  I guess I could attribute any marked differences in that piece to having listened to, studied, been inspired by, and written a vast majority of music over the last couple of years.  And being in school especially allows large shifts in “style” to happen very quickly.  Theme and Variations was in a way a ‘variation’ from the preceding and my current use of harmonic language.  For example, you could listen to a particular piece from 2002 and hear some of the same things you’d hear in Transprisma from 2009, but I can’t say that anything I’ve written thus far comes close harmonically to the sax quartet.  Texturally, I use similar techniques as in my other pieces, but yes, harmonically, I suppose it is somewhat unique.

JMG — I’ve noticed a certain trend in your choices in instrumentation.  You seem to favor mixed ensembles, with an emphasis on mid-range instruments.  Is there a reason for this?
BR — There are many many reasons for this!  It is a subject that I’m relatively passionate about.  I won’t talk about them all, but the primary reason is the idea of experimental chamber orchestration.  I love using instruments like ingredients in a stew.  And a great deal of my music explores this idea of synthesizing (referring to acoustic composition!) instrumental timbres.  In September for septet, I really run with this.  I even break the rule of “score order” in the way the instrument staves are arranged on the score.  A few people hated that I did that by the way!  It was kind of naughty!  Anyway, I pair clarinet with violin, alto sax with viola, bassoon with bass, and the piano just kind of holds everyone together.  Another experiment is the piece that’s currently in the rehearsal stage for flute, alto sax, baritone sax, cello, and vibraphone.  Yes, the baritone sax sounds lovely by itself, but hey, throw a cello into the mix, and I have a completely different timbre to work with.

JMG — What composers/music do you think influences this tendency for you?
BR — Many.  One great example is Jennifer Higdon… I love her.  I had the opportunity to hear Higdon speak at a little master class for UO composers when she came to Eugene last year, and was incredibly inspired.  Not only was I introduced to her colorful music, rich use of orchestration, and admirable presence, but the way she spoke about collaboration really made me get off my lazy ass and start throwing friends together for pieces…  I think this is where the “mixed ensemble” idea sort of began actually.  And trust me, I get plenty of skeptical comments from peers and mentors for mixing more than one saxophone with “orchestral” instruments – but I think it works out just fine, especially with the right players!

JMG — Tell me about your goals in the entertainment industry.
BR — Let me tell you, these have changed over the years.  This is how it started for sure; I was a little 13 year old band geek listening to Danny Elfman 24 hours a day and making “orchestral” music (meaning that the whole orchestra plays 128th notes, out of range, at the same time, with no rests) with my little MIDI keyboard and cakewalk home studio 9.  I wanted to be famous, write for the movies, and go to CalArts like John Debney or USC like James Horner.  It would be extremely rewarding to write for a feature film or television, but I would be fine not being famous.  The instant gratification would be like… woa!  which is something composers really love.  Piece done! Print! Rehearse! Perform! Record! Sell!  Actually, this is something I’m sure most creators find really satisfying whether you’re a painter, designer, writer, professional Etsy jewelry maker, or whatever – to physically hold your finished creation in your hands.  My current goals include continuing theatre work beyond just community theatre, scoring for film, screen, stage, concert hall, ballet, opera, experimenting with audio production and sound design… basically I really want to experience as many aspects of music in the entertainment industry as possible.  I haven’t really found a niche because I’ve loved everything I’ve done so far, and I doubt I’ll be able to choose one road in the future.

JMG — A comparatively large focus of your work is on incidental music for stage in the greater Eugene, OR area.  What is it about this work that you find fulfilling?
BR — Working with friends and creating something beautiful together.  I’ve really tried to bring original, live music into the theatre scene in Eugene, and it is really making a successful impact.  This has allowed me to work with and get to know many people that make up the thriving theatre community here – many of whom consistently work on most of the productions in town at several different theatres, often concurrently.  And in my opinion, I’ve had the opportunity and am currently booked to work with some of the best directors around.  It is also fulfilling to experience the live aspect of theatre.  You show up, present everything live – it all happens right there!  The actors, the lights, the music, the set changes, everything going on behind the curtain, the organization; it’s all truly magic.

JMG — Your work for stage also forces you to collaborate constantly.  What are some of the issues that arise for you when working as part of a creative team?
BR — I think the primary issue that I experience when working with a creative team is sharing and understanding artistic ideas.  I strive to capture what the director is looking for early on (meaning before the show is cast, when I’ve read the script a couple times), using any means possible.  The first thing I ask is what songs have inspired them.  Some are inspired by historical events, paintings, colors, or random sounds.  Sometimes the director actually has to hear something from me to get their wheels turning as well.  I also try to attend auditions and rehearsals.  Hearing voices and understanding the psychology of the characters helps me create a clear picture of what I am looking for.  Then communicating this to the director, taking in ideas from the set design, lighting design, costumes all involve people creating something that will in turn influence how the music will work for the production.

JMG — In composing music for stage, what do you consider to be the dominant partner?  Could your music stand alone in performance, or is the rest of the production integral to your work?
BR — So far, nothing I’ve done could stand alone as a concert piece.  It would take a bit of re-scoring and re-orchestrating since the ensembles I use are pretty puny.  The reverse of this is that I started an orchestral piece a year before I started scoring Humble Boy.  Nothing came of this piece, but the theme ended up being the perfect fit for the show.  I adapted it and used it in and out.  It was extremely malleable, worked beautifully scaled down to three instruments, and is definitely the strongest emotional attachment I have to any theme I’ve written thus far.

JMG — How do you feel about the composer’s role in society?  Where does your art fit in with the rest of the world?
BR — I feel that the composer has no defined duty.  It is up to him/her, in my opinion, to find their purpose.  I’m still searching for my place in the rest of the world as an artist.  Right now, I’m here to learn as much as possible, write good music for my friends, and continue having a great time working as a composer and musical director for shows in Eugene.

JMG — Narcissism:  What do you want people to think when they hear the name “Brandon Rumsey?”
BR — “He sure loves what he does!”  This thought crosses my mind when I think about Jennifer Higdon.  She loves composing, is self-published, and makes a living composing.  I want this to be me.