Composer Spotlight – Belinda Reynolds

BelindaReynoldsAugust 2012, Composer Spotlight: Belinda Reynolds

“These young instrumentalists were the foundation for the future of new music. Their ears had not been hardwired yet, nor had their minds been conditioned to a set of historical precedents. They were a clean, blank slate. Yet hardly any composers with my background were writing at their level. Thus I began writing for student players as well as continuing to write for professional musicians.” – Belinda Reynolds

Composer Belinda Reynolds is not only a composer but also is a teacher and organizer who has a passion for music education and for bringing music to a variety of audiences through new mediums.  Belinda holds her Doctorate from Yale University and her B.A. and M.A. from the University of California, Berkeley and  has received numerous awards including the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers; the International League of Women Composers; the National Association of Composers, USA Young Composers Competition; and the CMTA Composition Competition.

While Belinda is an active composer, she also had dedicated herself to promoting music education. Not only is she involved as a Meet- a- Composer-In Residence at public schools but she has also guest lectured at universities and has sat on the state board of the Music Teachers National Association. Belinda recently launched an innovative commissioning series, CUSTOM MADE MUSIC, which enables individuals to commission customized music for amateur players in everyday occasions. She is also the Director of HeShe Music, a private studio that teaches composition, piano, theory, and musicianship based in San Francisco.

CSIC: What is the name of the piece you submitted for young performers and how would you describe it?

Reynolds: CROSSINGS was commissioned by the Boulder Youth Symphony Society and the Marin Symphony Youth Orchestra.

The work gets its title from a number of sources. First, the music is based on a series of motives that is introduced in the opening section. As the piece continues, these musical ideas cross over one another in different ways, thus transforming themselves and their relationship to each other throughout the piece. The result is that the listener is always hearing a familiar musical idea from the beginning, but with a new twist each time it is stated. Rather than call it a variation, I prefer to think of it as like looking through a kaleidoscope. The perspective is always changing, but the object remains the same. Second, CROSSINGS refers to how the bow continually crosses over the strings when playing a stringed instrument. Finally, CROSSINGS represents how both orchestras faced many challenges and crossed over them to make this work come to life. Commissioning new music is very difficult for any organization.

But, thanks to the players and their visionary conductors, these orchestras helped create a new piece that they can truly call their own. It has been a pleasure to write this work, and I hope many musicians come to play and enjoy it. Special thanks goes to conductors George Thomson and Paige Vickory, who inspired me to write for their orchestras. Their commitment to new music and young musicians is an inspiring example to all of us.

CSIC:  How would you define your music? Do you compose for a particular genre or style of music? If yes, what style of music do you most often compose for?

Reynolds: My music has been described by many as ‘post-minimalist’. To me, I see it that to mean I play with processes on rhythm, harmony, and melody, having them ‘rub’ against each other. However, unlike ‘minimalism’, the processes in themselves are not the goal. There is always a melody and harmonic structure that has a directionality in it.  I use processes to create the sound world I enjoy, one with a structural ‘goal’ or ‘arch’ to the form. As for genre of music, I tend to write for soloists and chamber ensembles, ranging from duos to chamber orchestras. I write for all mediums, from concert halls to ‘educational music’ to documentaries to theater.  The instrumentation for me is crucial for each project, as timbre and color for me is extremely important. I also make it a strong focus to write for all levels of technical ability, as I feel there is not enough contemporary repertoire for younger players.

CSIC: How did you choose this style/genre?

Reynolds: I chose this style/genre through a gradual process of growing as a composer. However, it was my exposure to the music of Philip Glass and Louis Andriessen, as well as Bang on a Can (a festival in NYC) that intrigued me into composing in a minimalist vein. As for genres, that evolved from both commissions, writing for friends, and writing for my students.

CSIC:  Tell us about your audio sample and how it’s a good fit for young performers.

Reynolds: CROSSINGS is a string orchestra piece written especially for the intermediate level string player. It is constructed of rhythmic and melodic patterns put into different instrumental combinations in the orchestra. It is especially good for younger players in that it is very rhythmic in a fun way, and also allows the string players to soar in their melodies. The original youth orchestras for whom it was written (Marin Youth Symphony and Boulder Youth Symphony) loved it, for its challenges are very rewarding and fun to master. A professional would enjoy playing it as well as younger players for the rhythms and patterns change in ways that leap you on your toes!

CSIC:  Have you worked with young performers before?  If yes, can you tell us about that experience?

Reynolds: Like many of us, in graduate school I had to take jobs to help pay living expenses. One in particular changed the course of my composing life. While doing my doctoral work at Yale I taught piano and conducted the orchestra at a local music school. When they found out I was a composer, one teacher asked if I would be interested in writing music for her 5th grade chorus at a local elementary school. I said yes.

I had no clue how to compose something doable for 10-year-olds, something that would be within their technical reach while still interesting to me.  In order to learn, I decided to make the commission into a collaborative project, going to the school and working with the kids in creating the piece they were to perform. I helped them make up melodies they could sing, melodies that became the basis of my own music for them. We worked weekly for months, getting to know each other and getting to know the music. The result was a choral work that was within their technical limits, yet conveyed my developing musical style. The children loved it. Furthermore, a number of students’ parents wanted to know about other music I composed, winning over a fan base I never encountered before. Even the teacher was so happy that she started an annual project of commissioning young composers to write for her student ensembles. My first experience composing for youth was both compositionally satisfying and emotionally rewarding. I was hooked.

That was when I realized that there was a whole segment of music players for which there really wasn’t much new music available. These young instrumentalists were the foundation for the future of new music. Their ears had not been hardwired yet, nor had their minds been conditioned to a set of historical precedents. They were a clean, blank slate. Yet hardly any composers with my background were writing at their level. Thus I began writing for student players as well as continuing to write for professional musicians.

CSIC: How do you envision composers and high school music programs collaborating?

Reynolds: From my experience, the ideal situation is when I do a residency that involves composing a work for the high school group through a series of workshops with the ensemble. Getting the players and teachers’ input and suggestions during the composing is invaluable in a number of ways. It helps me get to know the ‘personality’ of a group as well as their technical strengths and weaknesses. It also gives the players a sense of ‘ownership’ in the completed composition, which I find leads to a more spirited, polished performance. Additionally, as an educator I like to include in my residencies a component in which I help the students learn to compose for themselves. Often this involves doing a set of composing master classes with the students who are interested in composing, with the goal being completing pieces for a set instrumentation (usually duo, trio, or quartet). Like the process of my composing for the ensemble, the students create their compositions through workshopping the pieces in process in the master classes, with the students giving suggestions and input to each other’s pieces. Ideally, once the works are done, the pieces are performed on an informal concert.

CSIC: Do you have any advice for young composers?

Reynolds: First, write for your friends. They will be your colleagues in your future and will have a special interest in making your music come to life. Numerous commissions of mine have happened years after I became friends with someone. I was even commissioned by a friend I made in junior high orchestra camp, 20 years later! Even try writing for your school’s ensembles, if possible. Second, never worry about what others will think about your music. Envision yourself as the audience member and what YOU want to hear. Then, find examples and mentors and colleagues that can help you realize that goal. Finally, if you are serious, try to find a composition teacher. There are ‘tricks of the trade’ that only a teacher can help you get — you want to have the best ‘composing toolbox’ possible to realize your musical vision.

CSIC:   What projects are you currently working on?

Reynolds: I am working on two multiyear projects at the moment: I am composing music for an experimental theater piece being produced by the New York City based Mabou Mines, one of the country’s foremost theater companies. The basis for the work is Moliere’s last play, The Imaginary Invalid, which is a spoof on the medical industry in pre-revolutionary France. We are transforming it to be also a commentary on the state of healthcare in the United States today.  The director, actors, dancers, writers, and myself are working collaboratively over the next 18 months to create the work, which will be premiered in a series of 20 shows in October 2014.

My other project is a series of instrumental books geared at ‘filling the gaps’ in the repertoire for younger players. The project is called CUSTOM MADE MUSIC and is published by PRB Productions.  What makes the project unique is that each book has a set of pieces that are ‘customized’ for a particular instrument through working with a top performer/teacher who is the editor, as well as having students ‘test’ out the final pieces before they go to publication. (You can find out more about the project, as well as sample some of the music, at www.custommademusic.com). Currently I am completing the third book, which is for clarinet. It is geared for the level of a good high school player, and has solos, duos, and clarinet-piano pieces that are suitable for recitals or competitions.

Learn more about Belinda Reynolds and explore her works at www.belindareynolds.com.

Ms. Reynolds can be reached at belindareynolds@mac.com.