A public conversation and words and music: WordSong's co-founder, composer Tom Schnauber

Not everyone has the vocabulary to speak about music, but most can speak about words.  This simple concept forms the foundation of WordSong's choice to commission new music around existing texts and then presenting the pieces in interactive events.  I'm grateful to 
composer Tom Schnauber, co-founder of Boston's interaction and innovative WordSong concert series for agreeing to be interviewed for No Dead Guys as part of my series highlighting composers and performers who are finding new ways to bring new music to new audiences. 

How would you describe your compositional style, and why is it so difficult to describe new music to non-musicians?

As it happens, I wrote an article about these exact questions nearly four years ago for a music journal.  2400 words, and I still didn’t arrive at a satisfying answer.  The short version is that my style varies depending on what kind of piece I’m writing, from rather dissonant to flat-out tonal.  Nearly all of my music, though, is, on some level, tonic-oriented (I called it “post-atonal, tonic-oriented panmodalism” in the article, but that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue). When people ask me what kind of music I write, my short answer is “contemporary classical”, though that really just sounds like a contradiction in terms.

The main reason that it’s so difficult to explain new music—or, for that matter, music of any kind—to non-musicians is that there is no common vocabulary in every-day language for music. Conservatory-trained musicians have a whole battery of technical terms that we can use, but they’re all more or less “in house,” i.e., only other, similarly trained musicians will understand them.  Everyone else tends to talk about music in terms of other music that they already know; so if you’re trying to describe music that sounds rather different from what they’ve encountered, it’s very difficult. 

Many art music composers find themselves working in a closed system where they only present their work to other art music composers.  How can this music break out of its artistic circle and reach a larger audience?

Very true, and we have our early-to-mid-20th-century forebearers to thank for that.  As new and enticing types of popular music were flooding the nascent airwaves and recording studios, art-music composers basically closed themselves off in ivory towers and wrote ever more esoteric music for their small circles.  And when broader audiences didn’t react well to the music, these composers decried their ignorance rather than trying to engage with them.

Breaking out of this circle is just a matter of having the will to do so; but finding a substantial audience outside the circle is a real challenge.  There are any number of institutions and art organizations that have come up with many and varied ways to capture new listeners.  To me, though, it all boils down to audience engagement and, more importantly, participation, allowing listeners to feel that they are part of the music that’s happening on the stage rather than passive receivers of it.

We’re living in a society that asks composers to not only create the music, but to actively promote it as well.  How challenging is it to balance your creative work with marketing efforts?

I am a terrible self-promoter.  I didn’t even have my own website until less than a year ago.  Writing music is fairly easy; getting people to play and listen to it is a challenge that I find baffling.  I would say that it’s not a matter of balance at all, since they are two entirely different endeavors, each which sucks the effort out of the other.  Fortunately, there are musicians like you—rare though they are—who actively seek out the creators and performers of new music and try to bring them to a broader audience.

I “met” you on social media.  How do you think the online world is helping or hurting your efforts to introduce people to your music?

From what I can tell so far, it’s only helped.  Of course, I am quite cyber-challenged, so I’m not inhabiting the online world nearly as effectively as I should.  And maybe that’s the one way it hurts: a lack of online presence seems to work against a composer these days.  People expect instant access to the point where even going to the second page of a Google search, not to mention the act of actually popping a CD in a player to listen to music, is too much effort.  It seems that we composers have to not only be creators of music, but also promoters and technology experts, too.

You and composer Howard Frazin founded the innovative Boston music series, WordSong, to help audiences connect with new compositions through participation.  Would you please elaborate?

When Howie and I first met and started talking, we agreed that one of the main reasons new music had lost most of its audience was because the institutions that housed it for so long had essentially shut out its broader listener base.  We wanted to create a concert format in which the audience were active participants in the music, in which they could tell the composers what they were hearing without feeling like they weren’t “getting it.”  We realized, though, that most people who aren’t trained musicians have a hard time actually talking about music, at least initially.  But everyone can talk about words, i.e., lyrics and poetry.  So we came up with the notion of using a common text (usually a poem) as the starting point of the discussion with the audience.  Basically, for any given program (we call them “forums”), three to five composers set the same text independently.  When we present them on a concert, we first have a conversation with the audience just about the text; its meaning, its tone, flavor, etc.  Then we move to the music and have the audience tell us what they heard and how it related to what they felt about the text.  It’s quite exciting for us, the composers, to hear listeners really express what our music made them feel, even if it’s negative. (Read more about WordSong here).

WordSong works with a variety of composers and performers.  Do you plan the Forum themes around the musicians, or do you ask for scores on a given theme?

We try to be as collaborative as possible with the composers and performers with whom we work.  Nearly all our forum texts (or, on occasion, a different inspiration, such as a work of visual art) are suggested by people other than Howie or me.  For instance, for our Forum VI, we knew the singer we wanted to work with and had her, the pianist, and another composer over for a dinner-and-poetry-reading evening.  She happened to open a book of poems by Stevie Smith and read a random one out loud called “I Like to Play With Him.”  Even though she was reading it on the fly, it seemed to suit her voice and personality so well that we decided to use it, even though none of has had heard this poem before.  In fact, among the dozen or so poems we’ve used, there is not one that I would have chosen on my own to set.  We also tend to know the composers we will be working with before we do a forum, so we just trust them to write a meaningful setting.  We’ve rarely been disappointed. 

How has WordSong been received by the general public?

Based on the feedback we’ve received, it seems that just about everyone who participates in a WordSong program is very satisfied, if not genuinely excited about the experience.  We discourage musical “lingo slinging” in the conversation, from both the listeners and the musicians, so everyone feels like they’re on an equal level with everyone else when it comes to expressing themselves.  And there’s nothing really like it around, so it ends up being a unique musical experience for them, too.

What is WordSong’s next theme, and when will the Forum take place?

We had our 10th anniversary program last April (2019), which involved five performers and a dozen composers and from New England Conservatory, Tufts University, and the general Boston musical community. Since then, we’ve been on a bit of hiatus as we try to figure out what our next program will be and, more challengingly, how we’re going to fund it. If any of your readers have ideas, feel free to get in touch!

German-American composer Tom Schnauber is Co-Founder of the Boston-based arts organization WordSong, and a former co-president of Composers in Red Sneakers, Boston.  He holds a Ph.D. in composition and theory from the University of Michigan.  He has also studied French horn performance, ethnomusicology, and did a small stint in Hollywood scoring films no one will ever see. He currently teaches theory and analysis at the New England Conservatory prep school
A versatile composer, Schnauber enjoys writing for a variety of ensembles.  His list of more than 60 works includes music for unaccompanied instruments, chamber ensembles, solo voice and vocal ensembles, string orchestra, percussion ensemble, and symphony orchestra.  He has also written three regularly performed children’s musicals and one irregularly performed comic chamber opera, as well as incidental music for numerous theatrical productions for Toledo University, Coe College, and Emmanuel College.       
Schnauber has won several awards for composition, including both the grand prize and the music director’s prize from the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin’s 2006 International “Homage to Mozart” competition; the American Composer’s Award from the Columbia Orchestra; and the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival Meritorious Achievement Award for Original Musical Score.  Excerpts from his ungrand opera With Such Friends were selected and performed by the New York City Opera as part of the VOX 2007 Showcase of New American Opera.  The entire opera was premiered in August, 2010, by the Bluegrass Opera in Lexington, KY. 
Schnauber’s music has been performed throughout the United States and Europe by ensembles such as the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin, the Columbia Orchestra, the NIH Philharmonia, Freon Ensemble, the Ulysses String Quartet, and The Great Noise Ensemble.  He has received commissions from ensembles such as the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin, The Cambridge Madrigal Singers, The Shakespeare Concerts (Boston), Brave New Works, and the Falls Church Chamber Orchestra.  Publishers of his music include Dramatic Publishing, Imagine Music Publishers, and Classical Vocal Repertoire.  In 2017, a CD of his music for strings entitled Death and Waltzes, performed by the Russian String Orchestra, was released on the Quartz label.
In addition to writing music and teaching, Tom Schnauber has conducted various ensembles, including the Cannon Valley Regional Orchestra, the Minnesota Symphonic Winds, and a fully staged production of The Gondoliers by the University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society.  He is an avid collector and passionate listener of LPs and CDs, and a proud Trekkie and Whovian.

For more information, please visit Tom Schnauber.