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Interview with Frank Oteri

On 21, Nov 2012 | In News | By admin

Frank J. Oteri (editor of New Music USA’s New Music Box, well known new music writer, and composer) had the opportunity to speak with Joel about his work, philosophy and life.

Chapter 1.

“Parking Your Ego at the Door”

FJO: The one thing that seems to connect all the very different kinds of music you do, is the openness to the collaborative process: whether it’s writing show music with a lyricist or working with a director, with actors, or sort of a multi-media thing, working with dance, or working with a film maker, or even in the process of writing a piece of classical music, like writing a concerto where the soloist has to be a star, maybe even more so than the composer. You’re willing to share the limelight, and even get creative fuel from it.

JF: It’s interesting because I think you have to park your ego at the door in trying to do any kind of collaboration. I don’t think of composing as Moses coming down from the mountaintop with the tablets! Yes, I know what I want, I can get opinionated, I can get pissed off when somebody says something I think is wrong. But, on the other hand, I like input from other people. It’s exciting and it fuels and focuses my creativity. . . and I can’t claim to know all the ideas, all the best ideas. So therefore whether it’s a lyricist, a director, a soloist, or choreographer, it is interesting to get other perspectives. Sometimes it’s as simple as it is right in front of your face and it takes the other person to say “don’t you see it’s that!”.

FJO: So you’re willing to bend for the sake of the better end result?

JF: Yes, absolutely, whether it’s working with the musician who’ll say: “I know what you want, but listen to the way it sounds as you’ve written it. Now if you try it this way. . . ” Or a director who might say, “Yes, but the audience won’t catch that. . . ” No matter how much you write, there will always be parts that in your head or on paper work, but in reality they don’t. And so the question is, what gives? I can say to the performer “No, it’s your fault”, but you work with really good people, like a Susan Narucki or a Fred Sherry, and chances are if they say “Don’t do that” they’re right, don’t do that. Something’s got to give. Either the concept remains the same, and the details change (e.g. the musical notes, fingerings, the chord voicings, etc.), or I’ve got to be willing to modify my concept: this is what the instrument does best, or this is what the sound, not paper result is, and therefore my original idea isn’t valid. The process is both exciting and difficult. But often better things come out that way. I like getting the input.

FJO: To take this back then to the very beginning, to your training. . . you went to two different universities. . .

JF: Right. . .

FJO: You went to official music school university and you went to rock ‘n’ roll university. . . right. . .

JF: [J laugh]: Right. . . Actually, you could say four different universities: you can throw both jazz and musical theater in the mix as well.

FJO: Yeah, And in the official music school university they teach you that Moses came down from the Mountaintop. . .

JF: Yes.

FJO: And “Oh we’re writing really complex music and people don’t understand it, but hey, people didn’t understand Beethoven quartets when they were first written , and the world will one day catch up”. And Rock ‘n’ Roll university says “Ok we’ve got this set list, you’ve got a small group of guys together and what can we do best with their abilities. Everybody is part of that process [JF: Right. . . ], and the group creates the musical auteurship.”

JF: Right. And the creation is much more visceral. And the feedback is much more visceral, much more immediate. But, I have to add that there is a difference between collaborating, bouncing ideas off each other, and being a full co-author. Brahms relied on Joachim for advice but it’s still Brahms’ violin concerto! One of the things I actually love about rock ‘n’ roll, pop, and theater is the combination of how immediate the result is both internally (for me), as well as potentially externally (for the audience). The communication is so direct, something I think it’s important not to lose in a symphony or in a rock song. And also, there really is no place to “hide,” because it’s a known language whose building blocks are simpler, when something is wrong, whether it’s the composition or the performance, it’s much more obvious. . . and there’s something very refreshing about that. It keeps you honest and less self-indulgent. Sort of a system of “checks and balances.”

For more, download the full interview as a pdf here.