I love the idea of composers working with students on new works. It’s great for the students, because they get the opportunity to understand the music they’re playing at a much deeper level than just seeing what’s written on the page. It’s also great for the composer in that it poses some very unique compositional challenges. — Mike Benoit
Composer Michael Benoit began studying piano at the age of ten. His desire to
perform in other ensembles led him to take up the bass trombone, which brought about
opportunities to play in wind ensembles, big bands, and orchestras. A solid foundation in music theory and ear training, gleaned from his years of study at the Morgan Piano School, coupled with a desire to write his own music, prompted his foray into composition at a young age.
Michael studied music composition at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, graduating in 1998. While there, he was mentored by composers Robert Stern, Salvatorre Macchia, and Charles Bestor. He was able to hone his skills by composing works for student recitals, University ensemble concerts, and student films. He also found his way into the commercial music business by pursuing composing opportunities with local production houses.
Since completing his formal education, Michael has continued his endeavors as a
successful musician, working as a composer, orchestrator, and copyist on a number of films and commercials. In addition to his independent work, he has also worked extensively with other New York-based composers and music houses prominent in the film, television and commercial music industries. Some of the notable projects he has and is currently working on include several popular documentaries on the Discovery Channel; Nick Jr’s Emmy-winning animated series “The Wonder Pets!”; various independent films; and multiple prime-time shows on ABC.
CSIC interviewed Michael Benoit in the spring of 2012.
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?
Benoit: I listen to a lot of film music and jazz, and I’ve always loved playing in both marching and concert bands. Those influences really come out in my music and are what define me as a composer. Since most of my work is in commercials, television, and film, I am required to compose in many different genres. That said, I definitely have an affinity for orchestral music of all kinds, so I try to focus my work in that realm.
CSIC: How did you choose this style/genre?
Benoit: As a young child, I was never into the popular music that my siblings, friends, and classmates were into. I remember rolling my eyes every time my brother would blast “R.E.M.” on his monster stereo, and I never understood why anyone would ever willingly watch a music video on MTV (which is ironic, since I work there now). I liked classical music and always wanted to try writing some music of my own. I made a few feeble attempts at it here and there, but it wasn’t until the winter of 1993 that I composed my first substantial piece. I had recently purchased a Yahama SY55 synthesizer (after years of saving up the tips from my paper route), and it had a built in eight track sequencer. There was a blizzard on a cold Wednesday in mid-February, so school was cancelled for a few days. Stuck indoors with an unexpected mini-vacation on my hands, I set to work on my first piece. By the end of the weekend, I had completed “Blizzard of ’93,” which utilized all the cheesy orchestral sounds I could find in my trusty new synth. After completing it and playing it for a few friends and my music teachers, I was hooked and wanted to write more. Choosing to write orchestral music was natural, since that’s what I loved to listen to.
CSIC: Tell us about your audio sample and how it’s a good fit for young performers.
Benoit: The audio sample is a MIDI mockup of the piece that I produced in my studio. The results that one can achieve with modern sampling technology are quite astounding. Although it’s possible for notation programs like Finale and Sibelius to play back scores, the results you get are mediocre at best. To create this recording, I played each part into my sequencing software (Logic Pro) using high quality sample libraries and tweaked it until I was satisfied with the outcome. It’s a great way to check your work too; in fact, I found a few mistakes in the score that I wouldn’t have otherwise caught. The piece is a great fit for young performers for a number of reasons. Technically, it should be well within the abilities of high school musicians, but I worked very hard to make it playable but challenging. Musically, it employs a number of techniques that young musicians will find interesting and educational, including hemiolas, modal scales, polychords, modulations, and more. But most of all, it’s just fun.
CSIC: How do you envision composers and high school music programs collaborating?
Benoit: I love the idea of composers working with students on new works. It’s great for the students, because they get the opportunity to understand the music they’re playing at a much deeper level than just seeing what’s written on the page. It’s also great for the composer in that it poses some very unique compositional challenges. It’s also an opportunity to teach and inspire kids, which is rewarding in itself. I could also imagine a “composer in residence” at a high school in which the composer spends a week or two working with the kids, giving composition lessons, teaching music technology workshops, and ending with a concert of student works.
CSIC: Do you have any advice for young composers?
Benoit: Keep writing, because the more you write, the better (and faster) you get. When I first started writing, it took me forever to write a minute of music. It was agonizing. I still don’t consider myself to be a fast writer, but I’ve definitely picked up speed. If possible, try to learn as many instruments as you can. You don’t have to be a virtuoso, but it’s invaluable to have enough first-hand experience with various instruments to know what they can and cannot do. In addition, make friends with people who play the instruments you don’t, write something for them to play, and learn what works and what doesn’t. Lastly, get comfortable with the many aspects of modern music technology. The nice thing about where we are today is that you can get started for relatively little money. You could set up a very respectable rig for under $1,000, which was absolutely unheard of when I was getting started.
CSIC: What projects are you currently working on?
Benoit: Nothing major right now. I have a day job working in a completely different industry (Information Technology), in which I manage a team of computer programmers. Between that and having a two year old at home, there isn’t a whole lot of time left over for composing. That said, I always find a way to fit it into my schedule, thanks in no small part to my very supportive wife, Lisa. I typically work on music projects late at night, and I’ve always got some small things going on. For example, in the past few weeks I have written a couple of cues for television, I composed a cue for a commercial, and I did the copying and music preparation for another commercial. When I have a larger project on my hands, like composing “Supernova,” I use my vacation time for that. I am fortunate to have been with the same company for almost thirteen years, and as a result I have accrued a lot of vacation time. It really comes in handy when the phone rings and I have to write ten minutes of music in a week!
CSIC: Tell us about the music clip you’ve submitted, which high school music educators might be interested in performing with their ensembles:
Benoit: Supernova was composed to commemorate the retirement of my high school band director, Ray Novack. I thought of the title before writing a single note, and it seemed like a fitting (if not obvious) choice given its dedication to Mr. Novack (aka “Novie”). Also, I’ve always been fascinated by the study of astronomy, not to mention my love of Holst’s “The Planets” orchestral suite. The piece is just over four minutes long. It’s divided into four sections that play off of the celestial theme, beginning with “Stargazing” and leading up to the final “Explosion.” Each instrument family gets a chance to shine, and the rhythmic energy maintains the excitement throughout.
For more information on Michael Benoit and his music, please visit: http://www.mpbmusicandsound.com/