Music Without Borders: an interview with composer Jason Heald

Jason Heald is a composer who has never chosen to work within rigid musical boundaries.  From classical to jazz to country to musicals, he lives by Duke Ellington's famous quote about two kinds of music--good and the other kind.  This creative and intellectual freedom has given Jason a large sound palette to work with and has resulted in compositions that are both accessible for listeners and meticulously crafted.  A performer himself, Jason's pieces allow musicians the space to be co-creators in each performance of his work.  

I met Jason a decade ago and since then have had the honor of premiering, performing and recording many of his pieces.  I'm thrilled that he agreed to be interviewed for No Dead Guys.  

Classical, jazz, country, musicals—you’ve written music is so many styles that I’ve long thought of you as a “music without borders” composer.  What draws you to create in so many styles?

I grew up in a home where I heard many different styles of music. My mother listened to a lot of classical music and musical theatre. My father grew up in Wyoming and listened to older country artist. My two older sisters weaned me on the Monkees and, later, '70's artists like the Carpenters and Elton John. Everyone's listening choices were accepted or, at least, tolerated and I loved and absorbed it all. As Duke Ellington once said, "There's only two kinds of music, good and the other kind". My preferences were not tied to a particular genre. The musical selection might have either knocked me out or put me off, but I almost never could ignore it. I was always listening.

I think popular music on AM radio had an enormous impact on me in one particular way – I have an attention span of two minutes and fifty seconds. This is probably the reason why, even in my classical compositions, I tend to prefer more episodic forms like suites, operas, art songs, cabaret, and musical theatre.

I’ve had the joy of performing and recording your Suite for Guitar and Piano with guitarist Pamela Goldsmith, channeling my inner torch singer on your cabaret music, especially Nasty Habit, and collaborating with mezzo-soprano Ruth Ginelle Heald on Three Sonnets by Louise Labe. Everything I’ve played by you has been intelligent, meticulously crafted, and audience accessible. Why did you choose to compose lyrical music rather than more esoteric pieces?

First, I love a good story and love to tell stories. This is not only why I write lyrics and librettos, but also tend to write instrumental music in a conversational way. This leads to the second point which is that I tend to write vocally-conceived music. Even when playing an instrument, I mentally, (and often, physically), sing along with the line I am playing. It seems only natural that when I compose, I would write parts that breathe and "sing". I've written a great deal of very esoteric and "outside" compositions. But even at its most severe, most of these works still breathe in a way that is human which probably makes them more accessible.

You’re also a gifted arranger, particularly of music for vocal jazz ensembles. Jazz choir directors are always looking for fresh, accessible arrangements for their ensembles.  Have you published yours?  If so, where? 

As a composer, I have always been very fortunate to have wonderful professional artists, like yourself, performing my music. I also have talented student ensembles, and community choirs and orchestras that commission and perform new compositions. But, until recently, I have always neglected the business side of my music career and have never "shopped" my music with any consistency. Several of my vocal jazz arrangements are available through UNC Jazz Press, Sound Music Publishing, and, more recently, Timberline Music Publication. But, generally, both compositions and arrangements have been languishing on my computer for decades.

One of my major projects during the Covid-19 quarantine has been to begin to publish more of my work and make it available for purchase. One of the recent developments has been that major sheet music vendors have been selling works by smaller publishers. Having sheet music distributors like JW Pepper and Sheet Music Plus handling the online sales for independent publishers may be a game-changer. We'll see....

What are some of the positive things about selling your music through these online retailers, and what are some of the negative?

On the plus side, I can make sheet music available immediately, which may be a significant advantage. If I am touring with an ensemble that is performing my compositions, or if a composition receives a high-profile performance or airplay, it is immediately available for anyone that would like to purchase it. On the downside, you receive none of the massive advertising that compositions receive from the major publishing houses. But at this point, it's nice to see a small portion of my output on the market and available to the public.

What are some of your biggest challenges to getting your music to listeners and performers?

The decline in live music audiences has been one of the most disturbing trends, and it impacts all musicians. Audiences are generally much smaller that they were 20 years ago. Fewer people venture out to see live music in clubs and live venues. Acts that used to sell out 1,000 seat house now sell 250 tickets. Season subscribers have diminished drastically and those that are attending concert and theatrical productions are largely retirees. Without a younger ticket-buying audience to replace them, the musician will have a tough row to hoe in the near future. Trying to monetize music on the internet has proven to be difficult and a far cry from the income musicians would have expected when I first entered the professional world.

What advice would you offer to other composers who are interested in selling their compositions or arrangements?

When you figure out how to sell your music, let me know!

For me, the real turning point was when I was around 30 years old and shifted my paradigm from writing "hits" for some elusive global market to writing for those around me. I consciously decided to emulate Baroque and Classical masters like J.S. Bach or F.J. Haydn who wrote for the musicians at their disposal and for whatever events were coming up, be it a church service or dinner party. This meant writing for both amateurs and professionals, writing for diverse instrumental and voice combinations, and writing in a broad range of musical styles. As a result, I get to hear my music performed or rehearsed on an almost daily basis and get to stretch my artistic wings at will. It may not make me rich, but it makes me very happy. And what more can you ask?

Dr. Jason Heald, Director of Music at Umpqua Community College, is an active composer, performer, educator, and clinician in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in composition from University of Oregon, a Master’s degree from University of Portland, and a Bachelor’s degree from Lewis and Clark College. Before arriving in Roseburg, he taught at Western Oregon University, Linfield College, and Mt. Hood Community College. Dr. Heald is a prolific composer, with works published by Augsburg Fortress, ChoralWeb, UNC Jazz Press, Plymouth Music, Sound Music Publishing, and Call of the Wild Publishing. Recent premiers and commissions include performances by the Oregon Musical Theatre Festival. Shreveport Opera, Vanguard Voices, Delgani Quartet, Consonare, Kantorei, The Singers – Minnesota Choral Artists, the Willamette Singers, Olympia Chamber Orchestra, Umpqua Chamber Orchestra, University of Portland Community Orchestra, Soundmoves, soprano Linda Larson, and Halcyon Trio Oregon. Recent awards include Grand Prize Winner, 2006 Eventide Arts Songfest (Dennis MA); Grand Prize winner, 2004 Cascadian Choral Composition Competition (Seattle, WA); 2008 Longfellow Chorus Award of Distinction in Choral Composition (Portland, ME), 2008 Vanguard Premieres Composition Contest (Detroit, MI); 2007 Sacred Voice Arts Song Finalist, (Salt Lake City, UT); 2013 Contempo Festival Award, Boston Metro Opera; 2002 Finalist, 21st Annual Ithaca College of Music Choral Composition Competition (Ithaca, NY); 2014 Project Encore Composer, (New York, NY); and 1st Place – Jazz Division, 2014 Eventide Arts Songfest (Dennis MA). Dr. Heald has also been the recipient of many ASCAP symphonic and educational awards. He also serves as choir director at First Presbyterian Church of Roseburg.

For more information, visit JasonHeald