A few years ago, one of Ina's teaching positions included a chamber music class at The City College of New York. It was structured such that the students who signed up for the class got placed in one, maybe two or even three ensembles. The class time itself consisted of a combination of rehearsals and coaching sessions. It attracted a variety of instrumentalists with different levels of expertise and experience. Given the wide enrollment and range of instrumentation, Ina had to be creative in creating ensembles and assigning repertoire –– often including interesting arrangements of standard (and not so standard) repertoire.
Spencer Snyder signed up for Ina's class in Spring 2015. He was working towards his Master's in composition at the time. Spencer had started off in undergrad (New School) studying jazz as a drum set major, found his way to composing and joined Ina’s class as a pianist. It so happened that six, yes six!, singers had decided to take the class that semester as well. Ina was stumped – how was she going to be able to place all of them?
Fortunately, Spencer had made it known that he was a composer. Never one to waste a potential opportunity, Ina asked Spencer what he might have. Lo and behold, he had written, An Open Letter to Time Warner Cable, an unaccompanied work for five singers! I think the title speaks for itself – a good time was had by all, I am sure!
Fast-forward to the planning of our 2017 benefit. As many of you know we have decided to start a composer competition. Established composers have been so generous in writing works for us in the past, and it is time to start encouraging future generations. At our benefit, we wanted to get our donors excited about this project, and thought a short work by an up-and-coming composer might help. Ina immediately thought of Spencer and Red and White, which he had sent to us earlier in the season.
We enjoyed working with Spencer so much that we’ll be playing more of his work at our concert at the Tenri Cultural Institute on October 27 as well as in Cuba in November! We were also intrigued by what he had to say about his experiences in school and learning to compose chamber music. Given that we will begin accepting submissions for the 8SW Composer Competition this coming September, interviewing Spencer for our next featured composer article seems to be more than perfect timing. I hope you enjoy Spencer's sense of humor and practical outlook on his budding career!
Suzanne: How did you become interested in composing? Please describe your experience with making the transition from being a drum set major to composing.
Spencer Snyder: Film scoring was my bridge into composition. I don’t remember why I suddenly became interested in it but it became a big focus of mine at Berklee. Once I transferred to the New School I continued pursuing it. I think I knew that I wanted to write concert music but I didn’t know enough about it. I felt as though anything I wrote would be invalid because I knew so little about the literature. Film scoring was easier because so much of what you have to do is laid out already in the film or in the director’s notes; “this scene is sad, make it sound like that one Postal Service song, can you have it by Friday?”
Compared to the creation of composing, drums were less satisfying as a creative vessel. I started feeling like my role was obligatory and my playing in one tune could be swapped for my playing in any other tune in the same tempo. Drums felt like the flour in the cake; and if I felt that way, whether or not it was true, I shouldn’t have been playing drums.
Because I was at the New School for Jazz, I was able to take classes at Mannes College of Music, part of the New School. The Mannes classes were sort of my gateway into more classically oriented music. Classical music was barely talked about at the jazz school. When it was discussed it was framed more as a curiosity, or maybe a quirky influence of a specific jazz musician. But there were a couple of experiences that helped push me over to the other side of the bridge. A friend invited me to see the American String Quartet play Ravel, and another friend lent me a recording of Boulez conducting Mahler 2. After Mahler, drums were just done for me. I bought every Mahler biography, every score, started learning German, and stopped practicing drums.
SG: You have mentioned that writing for non-standard instrumentation, such as 8SW’s, is what most/or a lot of composers end up writing for in the earlier stages of their career. Can you comment on your own process with this? Tell us about your experience learning to compose for more standard instrumentation as well as non standard instrumentation.
SS: I think it’s interesting that the topic of writing for chamber instruments effectively hasn’t been as formalized as other topics. A curriculum could be devised on how to teach it in a class, but it would be hard because the principles would be broader. In symphonic orchestration you learn things like typical doublings and how to arrange notes in the right order for a particular choir. It’s easy to break down the effects and the colors and learn how to use the choirs and the appropriate doublings. While orchestral writing is drilled into students, it is something only a tiny minority of composers actually get to do. Composing for non-standard smaller ensembles, on the other hand, are going to be the bulk of opportunities after school, but the process doesn’t follow typical orchestral rules.
Orchestration for small ensembles is hard to teach because of the varied nature of chamber music. You would have to have a class on string quartets, a class on ensembles featuring piano, a class on strings plus a single wind, etc. The coloristic choices of chamber music are subtle and less uniform and relegated to case by case. Appropriate couplings change in the context of something written for piano, violin, cello and flute, for example. How to use each voice effectively and how to have the piano part fleshed out with multiple voices but still have the other instruments participating in a meaningful way, is difficult to teach in the context of symphonic orchestration. Every voice is distinct. Having a multitude of lines becomes incredibly important. Private lessons are mostly where you get tips on how to negotiate these territories.
Everything sounds great when it’s played by an orchestra, but getting a satisfying sound out of something small is something different. You are no longer able to hide behind the power of 40 strings. The music has to speak for itself a little more.
SG: Tell us about your studies with David Del Tredici and any other composers who have influenced you.
SS: The foundation of my musical understanding was jazz so of course I do draw influence from it. I could circle the places in my scores that come from Wayne Shorter or Brad Mehldau. A lot of my rhythmic tendencies are lifted straight from Elvin Jones.
I got incredible and invaluable instruction from Del Tredici. It is immediately apparent that he is a master. His knowledge of the literature is staggering and he uses compositional devices with absolute autonomy. Del Tredici taught me how to be objective. He gave me more concrete instruction as well, (repetition, invention, orchestration) but most importantly he helped me understand the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of a piece of my writing.
SG: What compelled you to take Ina’s class?
SS: Ina’s class was the first time I had ever played chamber music, so through her and her class I got a lot of insight into navigating the actual interaction with the other players and what’s expected of me as a pianist. I wasn’t good enough at piano to have played any chamber music in my undergrad, and nobody was playing it anyway. I mainly joined the class because I wanted to experience that side of the music.
SG: Was it difficult to get readings or performances of your music as a student? How have you gone about that since being in school?
SS: Readings and performances in jazz school aren’t really a thing. It’s common to bring in a lead sheet to the ensemble you’re playing in, but that’s about it. Then at City College readings and performances weren’t really a thing because the department basically had no resources. Although at the end of each semester Del Tredici would get a chamber group together for a reading.
Performances post-school haven’t been that tough actually. Showing up to concerts, being cool with everyone, and organizing concerts yourself will at least keep you writing as much as time will allow.
Spencer Snyder (b. 1988) is an American concert composer from New York City. Spencer began his professional studies at the Collective School of Music in Manhattan. Then, after a brief stint at Berklee College of Music in Boston he went on to the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music where he completed a BFA in jazz performance. Most recently he earned his MA in composition from The City College of New York. He has studied with such distinguished composers as Conrad Cummings, Charles Fussell, Sonny Kompanek, and David Del Tredici.
Spencer’s concert works have been performed by The Manhattan Symphonie, Ensemble Mise-En, Eight Strings & a Whistle, The Mother Falcon String Quartet and many others. Upcoming premieres include a chamber opera with The Fresh Squeezed Opera Company and a piece for flute and piano by Novelette13. For more information please visit Spencer"s website here.