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Artist Spotlight: Composer Andrew Faulkenberry's big debut

The title of “composer” is one, that from the outside looking in, can seem imposing. Terms like “musician” and “producer” are more familiar, but “composer” recalls the greats of the Western canon, like Mahler and Mozart. But, to be a composition student in college is much less glamorous. 

Andrew Faulkenberry, a Mason Gross School of the Arts sophomore studying music composition, is the average student by any measure. Even though the concept of learning how to write long form pieces of classical music may seem hard to grasp for some, the same things that plague the average student are concerns of Faulkenberry as well.

Of course, there are a few moments that are outside of the norm. Faulkenberry recently had his composition selected to be performed in a concert alongside famed American composer William Bolcom. I caught up with Faulkenberry to discuss his coursework, inspiration and musical opportunities he has had during his time at Rutgers.

Jordan Levy: So what drew you to music composition?

Andrew Faulkenberry: I grew up doing band and everything like that, so that was part of my life. My first instrument was guitar, so my first foray into composition in the classical sense was songwriting. So that’s kind of where I started, and I grew up on classic rock and that kind of music. That was kind of my gateway and then from there I started to get more into the stuff that I was hearing in band and everything like that, from there I got drawn to classical composition. That’s what has gotten me to where I am now.

JL: Any formative pieces from those years that you can remember distinctly?

AF: High school, I think the more formative pieces — because I didn’t really listen to a lot of classical music at all growing up — that I really got to know and kind of sealed the deal for me was Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. That was one that kind of really drew me to, “I want to know how this works.” That got me into thinking about this more seriously.

JL: So the more serious part came when you arrived at Mason Gross?

AF: Yeah, most definitely. 

JL: How’s the (music composition) program here?

AF: It’s good because there are a lot of opportunities that I don’t think exist at other schools. There’s a certain form called “Rutgers New Music Ensemble,” that basically, if you write a piece, you can have a performance of that piece. For that particular form you have to find your own players, but if you write a piece and your lesson teacher approves, you’re able to have it on a concert and have it in a public setting. 

There are also various other new music ensembles. There’s one resident chamber orchestra that accepts submissions every semester. Every year the orchestra does readings of orchestral pieces, which is really good, because with an orchestral piece it’s tough to tell what it’s actually going to sound like when you’re just working with a Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI). So that’s really an important thing that they provide, and they record it as well. You can splice together a decent recording. By and large, the music composition program has been very helpful for me, with the connections I've had as well. 

JL: What are you looking forward to when seeing the (Rutgers Wind Ensemble) play your music?

AF: I’m really looking forward to (getting) the really nitty-gritty musicality out of it. I think that’s the fundamental thing that you’re missing when you’re just listening to an MIDI rendering, it’s more square.

JL: Unless you do some very intense automation.

AF: Yeah and, for my purposes, it’s not worth it. Getting phrases exactly how I want them and hearing actual sounds, being able to relate with people that way and have more human impact is what I’m looking forward to. 

JL: You’re not conducting at the concert, right?

AF: No, not all.

JL: Is that something that you’re interested in doing in the future?

AF: I do want to try my hand at conducting, the thing is I haven’t taken the courses for that yet. Next year I’ll be starting with conducting, and hopefully I’ll be able to take an independent study with conductors. Because I think that’s an important skill, for a conductor to be able to whip out a baton. 

JL: On the program itself, William Bolcom, a very decorated composer, has a Pulitzer, Grammys, all that stuff. Are you excited to be meeting him?

AF: It’s going to be cool because I’m going to working with him twofold. Because he’s the composer in residence, all three (orchestral) bands will be doing a piece of his, so he’ll be in all of the rehearsals. So I’ll get to work with him as a performer and then also work with him as a composer. It’ll be good to get both sides of the picture. To get how he works with an ensemble, and just discuss with him, the composition itself and larger aesthetic goals, will be enlightening I think. 

JL: I hope so. Well, “Symphony No. 1” (Faulkenberry’s piece), if you had to describe it in a few sentences … 

AF: It is … big. I think what I really tried to do with that piece is just explore the emotions I was feeling at the time I was writing that. There was a fair amount of frustration in my life, and it’s interesting, because a lot of the emotions that went into writing this piece were due to the piece. A lot of the frustration that went into not getting what I want out of the music itself is in the piece. Even furiousness is in there. It really was a very intuitive, organic exploration of my own emotions in a more classically informed format. 

JL: Were there any (musical) periods you were drawing on in the piece?

AF: Formally, it draws a lot from the Romantic Era, with more modern harmony. There’s a little bit of jazz harmony and a little bit of atonal stuff as well, it’s kind of eclectic. I’m hoping that it’ll come across well. 

JL: It’s like the 1800s onward.

AF: Yeah, I kind of just picked up whatever I liked from that time period.

JL: Speaking of more modern music, what do you like listening to today? People often think composers are just stuck listening to Shostakovich all day, but that isn’t the case. 

AF: No, it’s a wide variety of stuff. I still enjoy classic rock and stuff like that. I really like jazz, and those are really the two (genres) I grew up on. Some folk stuff is pretty cool. But I’m really open to a lot of different genres.

JL: Cool. Any closing statements about the concert, Mason Gross, anything?

AF: I’m just really thankful, because this sort of thing just doesn’t happen very often. From a personal standpoint, but also a broader standpoint of new music, having a large ensemble at a major university playing only live composers is pretty unique. It’s a good testament to the school’s dedication to the student composers and to cultivating this environment in which new music can thrive. 

The debut of “Symphony No. 1” will be this Friday at Nicholas Music Center. 

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