I recently had the opportunity to participate in a fantastic project by composer Jim Stephenson. For the entire month of February participants would receive an etude written that very day – a Day-tude if you will. For less than the price of a cup of coffee we would receive a newly composed etude for the trumpet that Jim would write that day. And what an intimate experience! Each etude came with a short explanation describing the work and compositional process. One etude had references to the Olympic games happening at that time. One, called “Meter-Feeder” was a mixed meter etude influenced by the parking meters he had to feed in the city that day. He would often take suggestions – one etude called “between the lines” was in response to someone asking for an etude that would not go above the staff. So not only does this one not go above the staff, it doesn’t go below it! Others reflected the experiences or feelings that were happening to him at that moment. Now, I’ve had composers write music for me before. But I’ve never had the experience to get a new piece of music each day for an entire month. It was such a personal experience. And what a pleasure to play a “world premiere” every day! It invigorated my practice.
I asked Jim a few questions about the project.
You have spent much of your life as a professional trumpet player. When did you begin composing?
I began composing in the summer of 1993, completely by chance. I had been arranging at that point (for Erich Kunzel, late conductor of Cincinnati Pops) – and wanted to try my hand at composing. I went to Northwestern for a summer program entitled” “Adventures in Bad Music”. It was just a discussion group whose purpose it was to discuss what made “bad music” is bad? Example of discussion: “If 100 trained classical musicians think country western music is “bad”, but 2 million people are buying those records/CDs, is it really “bad music”? Anyway, the final assignment was to write a BAD piece of music. I failed – the class liked my piece. So, that’s how it all began.
What inspired you to begin the Day-Tude project?
Actually a colleague/fellow composer Robert Ian Winstin was doing the same thing for piano. (Except he got at up at 3 am to do his!) I decided to give it a go for trumpet. Plus, my hidden agenda: I needed to begin getting in shape to play an Easter gig (yes, I still play trumpet from time to time) and I’m not good/patient at doing long tones, so I decided to combine practicing with inventing etudes, and it turned out to be really fun!
How do you view the relationship between composer and performer, and how has this experience affected that role?
Completely unexpected result was everyone chiming in on how cool it was to receive a “piece” the very day (or sometimes just minutes after) it was composed. Everyone got to enjoy his or her very own personal “world premiere”. And for me it became exciting to keep at it – knowing there was an expectation out there. It was also fun to receive suggestions from everyone, on what I might try for the next day. It became a real interactive process that way. There still is a barrier for me; I do believe I have a lot of worthwhile pieces for trumpet players to explore: my sonatas, my concertos, other recital pieces, chamber music, etc. I look online on various websites, or trumpet listservs, and see that everyone is always programming the mainstays: Hindemith, Tomasi, Haydn, Hummel, etc – and this is absolutely a must, of course, but I think there is something to be said for seeking out music from us living composers who are creating that stuff right now (or trying to). Just think how cool it would have been to email Hindemith and ask him what he meant with his tempos, or with the final chorale, etc, and hear from him DIRECTLY. This information age we live in now is fascinating in that regard.
What has it been like to write a daily etude for the trumpet?
A completely revealing experience. I didn’t know if I would have it in me to continue coming up with new ideas on a daily basis, but I found that the more I did it, the more I found in the well. This has actually given me a strange kind of confidence to keep moving forward as a composer. So in essence, the result was entirely positive.
Jim will be doing another “Day-tude” project in April – this time intermediate etudes. Early subscriptions are just $25.00. You can subscribe here. This is a great opportunity that I highly recommend!