In this third entry in my series of interviews, I got the chance to talk to composer and artist Stephen Caldwell. In this sprawling conversation, we go from Schoenberg to Sum 41. So, buckle up!
I have known Stephen since early college. We first started talking because I was recording a piece dedicated to his wife, Isabella, titled Sonnett 1. I was lucky enough to get him on a Zoom call to pick his brain about all things composition and music.
Stephen (All But Dissertation) currently resides in Florida and is receiving his doctorate in composition from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He has also studied at The University of Toledo, as well as the University of Akron.
You can find the compositions mentioned below here:
A Clash in the Defeating Stillnesses https://www.sjrcaldwell.com/media
Catching Up with the Composer
The following section includes tidbits of our conversation before the actual interview began. So, if you are interested in a good dose of reminiscing when it comes to both college and pop-punk bands, read on. If not? Skip to the interview section!
S: Hey, is it black flannel day?
A: I guess it is black flannel day, we match!
We seemed to be on the same page already. What a relief! I learned I have a new brand of performance anxiety…Interview anxiety!
S: I was on your website after you sent me your idea about the interview. After I read your article on Optical Music Recognition, I saw your covers of pop-punk bands, and I was like, this is awesome.
A: Really? You know, I wondered. I thought I know some classical cats are going to see this, and I knew that I was either going to get a lot of flack, or they are going to like it. I knew there probably wouldn’t be much in-between.
I was in about 5 or 6 classical ensembles at once, and I was losing my mind. I loved it, but it was too much. I needed something else, and so I started listening to pop-punk on the way to orchestra. And it never stopped.
S: Ah, it is so cathartic!
A: It is. That’s so funny that you found that.
S: Yeah, Pierce the Veil (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3xUfGQIEJY ), I haven’t thought of them in so long. I was like, oh my god, they are so great.
A: I didn’t discover them until college! Everybody went through their phase early on, but it didn’t happen for me until college orchestra.
S: I love that connection. It makes the story more interesting.
A: After we did Sonnet 2 (https://www.sjrcaldwell.com/news-1/sonnet2 ), I realized that I wanted to have you join me in my interview series. My goal here is to talk to artists and musicians, both local and around the country. I want Fusion to be a broad-spectrum art blog, not something that gets rabbit-holed into one genre. I am so excited to have you! So, can I pick your brain about composition?
S: That sounds great. I was really happy to see you reach out to me.
A: Yeah! So I am a music blogger professionally right now, so I thought, why not run my own blog too? It wouldn’t take up that much more time. So, here we are!
S: You had sent me a link to several articles, and I noticed that one was on optical music recognition, and I was like, why would she know about that?
A: Yep, so I work for them! I had to learn everything about the program Scanscore (https://scan-score.com/en/ ) from the ground up, which was a bit of a beast, but it was really interesting at the same time. The technology has come so far, it’s crazy. It makes life a lot easier when it comes to arranging and digitizing though.
So, can you tell me a little bit more about where you are at in your degree?
S: So, I am currently working on my dissertation.
A: I do not envy you there!
S: I don’t envy me either!
A: Out of curiosity, what is your dissertation on?
S: It’s on Mozart’s operas. The Da Ponte trilogy (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PaUSkXQZZ_s&list=PLm949jN8pXdZ11E-yttNNHx4jyI2zl8ZS) , so the three operas with (libretto from) Lorenzo de Ponte (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7fuuD5hQwYw ): The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi (fan tutte). I am feeding them into a machine learning program that I’ve been working on, which, that was the part that may have been a little too ambitious. I have a bachelor’s in engineering, which helps, but I didn’t learn machine learning in my bachelor’s.
A: Oh wow. I love that!
S: And actually, when you met me at Toledo, those were my first years doing music!
A: I had no idea that you already had a bachelor’s in engineering. For some reason, I thought you had a bachelor’s in music! It seemed like you were miles ahead!
S: No, I was playing catch-up!
A: That reminds me of something. My Freshman initiation was going to be for accounting or business, and everybody was cheering about graphs, so, I just walked out (of the function) after lunch, and walked into the music ed initiation instead.
S: I really wish I had done that. I basically had the same experience with engineering, except I didn’t walk out, I just kept going.
Luckily (Dr) Jex and Heritage said, ‘Yeah, we’ll take you on!’ and they gave me a TA-ship.
A: That is so great! I love how easygoing the UT professors were. So I have a big list of questions for you if you are ready.
S: I’m ready!
So I have to ask the stereotypical question: What first got you into music?
Punk rock, actually.
A: No way! Really?
In case you missed our ‘catching up’ conversation, we had just been talking about punk rock.
S: It looks like this has come full circle in our conversation! Yeah, when I was in elementary school, I loved punk rock. When I was about 7 years old, I was like ‘Sum 41 is the.best.band.in.the.world.
But yeah. I just always loved it. But it wasn’t until high school that I started writing. I got Musescore, that free notation program. I was a band kid, I played saxophone, you know, and we would just go to band camp and pull up this program and be trying to write things together. I just totally fell in love. That’s where it really started as far as writing goes.
A: Do you still have any old Musescore accounts floating around? I’m on the program on occasion even still…
S: Yes! You know, actually, this dissertation has given me a chance to look back at things that I wrote years ago. Things that I thought ‘Ugh, that’s so cringey’. But now that I’m older? I’m like, actually, these aren’t that bad! With different eyes it seems…different. I actually just went through and chose the best ones of my high school writing. I was editing them, giving them proper beginnings and endings. Because sometimes they just kind of, stopped.
A: Yeah. and transitions, too! Old versions of things I’ve written. I’m like, ‘What is this?!’ I guess I just fudged my new keys.
S: I can relate to that SO much. Mine looks like this: Here’s a thing, and here’s a thing, and…they’re right next to each other.
A: YES! I took composition lessons with Dr. Heritage for a short period of time, and he told me that I had too many ideas. ‘Aleah, you have too many ideas! Ideas on ideas, and you aren’t connecting any of them!’ Like, who knew that too many ideas was a bad thing?
I think that when we are younger and writing, we don’t have all of these editing and rules fixed in our minds.
S: And then there’s also this self-confidence thing, where you’re worried. You wonder…’Is this material…shit?’ Utter trash?!’ and then I try and make up for it by just stuffing it full of ideas because I’m worried that the listener is going to get bored. That’s something I’ve had to combat. My own insecurities about it, and trusting the listener. Those things can be really tough.
A: For sure. What instrument(s) do you play?
S: So I started out playing saxophone. And then I started playing piano, guitar, and ukelele, a little while at that. Saxophone and piano are my main instruments though. And I guess ukelele…But isn’t everyone kind of good at ukelele?
A: *Laughs* I’ve been picking up ukelele a little more recently. I have a Luna and I really like the sound of them.
S: They sound so great! And the price is absurd.
A: I think that ukelele’s and other small string instruments are really easy to pick up and get (compositional) ideas from. If I don’t want to sit down at the piano and stare at a bunch of intimidating keys, sometimes ukulele can be really beneficial!
What is the favorite piece you’ve ever written and why?
S: Oo, wow. Hm. So, all of my pieces are like babies. And I have to love them while I’m forming them. while I’m forming them. Every time I put out a piece I’m convinced:
This one is the best.
But if I had to point back, it’d probably be to an orchestral work that I did two years ago, at Illinois. They did a performance of it. I think that large ensembles are something that I really love. The reason why I like that piece is because it is the first time I wrote something around six minutes long. Before that, I struggled with making my pieces too big. They were too long, too sprawling. I wanted something that was closer to a pop song, but for orchestra, where it is compact and concise. It says everything in a neat way. This is the first time I was able to execute that, while also having complicated ideas. It was complex and simple at the same time. I was always trying to do this, but this was the first time I actually did it. It was called A Clash of the Defeating Stillness.
A: That sounds like it could be a fantasy novel title! Do you have a favorite composer or era?
Yeah! I would say the twentieth century. I fell in love with it. Especially post-WW2, but really, the century as a whole. So cool. To see spectralism, minimalism, and the free atonal period of Schoenburg (but before he gets into serialism). I LOVE that stuff. Like Verklärte Nacht, it’s just so freaking dark. It’s late-romantic and chromatic. It is such a mood piece.
A: Lately I have been writing on Stravinsky and Satie. There are so many interesting and strange twentieth-century composers out there.
S: Yeah! And to see that Debussy was looking UP to Satie? And he (Satie) is doing the furniture music.
A: And they were both in France’s first occult society, which I didn’t know until pretty recently! Strange….Ok, switching gears now. What is your favorite pop song and why?
S: Oo.Teah. I’m trying to think… I suppose that I am still sticking with Sum 41, they have a song called Fat Lip https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMX2lPum_pg , which is off of their second album. It is so…irreverent! At the time, it was all NSYNC, The Backstreet Boys, and The Spice Girls, Brittney Spears. And I liked all of those things, but when I hear Sum 41? That was it.
And I mean, like, I was in 2nd grade, I don’t know why.
A: Oof. I can’t imagine a 2nd grader jamming out to Sum 41. That’s so great. I think the rawness that pop-punk has to offer is more relatable than other pop, even if the vocals aren’t good good,
S: I totally agree with you, it feels more intimate.
A: So, we have started this series of poems for solo flute. What first inspired you to write Sonnet 1? Are you a writer as well as a composer?
S: Yeah! So Sonnet 1, I wrote it for my fiance (now-wife). It was for Valentine’s day.
A: I didn’t know it was a Valentine’s gift, actually! I love that.
S: I ordered this paper (at Walmart of all places) and then printed it for her. It was because I wanted to write poetry. I had written poetry before, but I just wanted to connect the two dots and write something that was music and poetry. At the time, Dr. Hertiage was talking to me about Troubadours https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troubadour at the time. He had done a lot of research on Troubador songs, and he was telling me all about it. I wanted to write in an old-school Troubador-poetry style. That’s what Sonnet 1 was.
A: Can you tell me a little bit more about your writing process? How do you get a piece started?
S: I’m a visual thinker. The score is the coolest thing for me. I think about what it would look like across the page, and in gestures across the full orchestra. I think of all the staves and the shapes, and how they connect. The geometry. That’s how I start. I try not to think of pitches, harmony, melody. Nothing. I think about objects coming in and out of focus. Varese thought of that a lot too. That always resonated with me.
Then, I also paint the score covers. Sometimes I paint first, and then write based on that, other times, it is the exact opposite.
A: You make some really creative covers for your scores! How do you do it?
S: At first I got a Wacom tablet. But then I switched to Procreate, have you heard of it?
A: I have! And I have something akin to a Wacom tablet too, but I’ve yet to become friends with it.
S: Gotcha. So I have an Ipad Pro, and the Procreate is SO much better than the Wacom. It was always very awkward to look at one screen and write one the other.
I do animations in it too, I’m making music videos. So…I’m making a Lofi album. I’ve been working on it for the past year. The songs are done, but now I’m doing the music videos. And I’ve already animated one, I’m working on the second animation right now. Have you seen the Lofi study girl with her cat?
A: Oh that’s too funny! I listened to that one the other day when I was working.
S: So I’m making an animation that looks something like that.
A: I love those! And I might have to check out Procreate too. Oh man, I’m getting too excited and distracted here. Okay. Do you ever use your compositions as commentary on political or social events? If yes, how so?
The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that I try not to be specific with what I’m saying. I wrote a piece at the beginning of the pandemic called An Indoor Song. It’s just for solo clarinet. There were so many dire statements being made in March and April. It felt so serious and I didn’t want to talk about it. I just wanted to write something from that place, from being inside.
I wondered, what does a musician do when there is no audience? No critic? No composer really. The musician becomes the whole chain of people that normally exists. The composer normally makes it, hands it to the composer. The performer plays it to the audience, the critic comments, right? But that gets all wrapped up into the musician, just alone in their room, practicing, essential. The entire piece unfurls as if they’re warming up through scales and trying out some phrases and going over hard bits over and over again, but it’s all written out. The performance of the piece is a performance of practice.
A: That’s so beautiful.
S: Thanks. So, yeah! I try to do things like that. I don’t know, I’m not an expert on social and political things. But I am an observer, I suppose. And I am in this place, so I write things that are situated. It can be delicate.
A: It definitely can. I suppose that question came to mind because I’m writing about Shostakovitch now. I learned that he was subtly poking fun at what was happening. But he went a little too far and got caught, so, I wondered, what would a version of that look like in 2021?
S: Some of his friends were killed. That’s a big deal. I can’t even imagine being like “Oh yeah, some of my composer friends from Toledo, they were killed (over their music)”.
A: Well, when you put it that way! Alright…Can you tell me a little more about the composing group, the New Music College, that you are a part of?
S: The New Music Collage was started by Sam Larson, and he’s made sure to decentralize the group. No one is running it, it’s on a project-to-project basis. It is a collective. We have maybe 20 active members, and 50 total members. There are people across the country now, which is crazy. We started in the pandemic, so we are mainly online, but we want to transition to being a non-profit. In essence, it’s about lowering the barrier of entry for composers and performers. It’s not just a composers group. We want to get music to audiences without pushing a particular style. Some composers are writing things that sound like Ravel, and other people are like, Libby Larson. It’s all over the place, in the most exciting way. It’s still in the beginning phase.
We are also in a sort of beta-testing phase of something called Timbre. It was inspired by Sawdust, which is a group based in Brooklyn. We match composers with performers and see how they work together. If you’d like, you could join as a composer or a performer.
A: I would love to! Let’s keep in touch about that.
S: We have some people who did things at Splice Festival, but yeah. We’ve been inspired by a few other groups.
A: That’s circle back a bit. Do you consider yourself a visual artist as well? I know for me, the lines between art and poetry and music and crafting tend to get blurred.
S: It’s funny that you say that. You do all sorts of things. You’re performing, doing crafting, and gardening. I can really relate the that. The more I find out about one thing, the better I feel about all things. It’s interesting. Everything informs itself. I mean, there are limits to how it translates but, to answer your question more directly, I feel like, with visual art, I’m just trying. And whatever happens, happens, I don’t have any formal training. I’m not sure if I’d call myself a painter, but I do paint.
A: That’s how I feel about music sometimes! Like, I write music, but I’m not a composer. *Slowly backs away*. But for you, I definitely think it’s working. I remember printing Sonnet 1 years ago and thinking “How did he do this? This matches the sound SO well”. That was the first painted score of yours that I saw before I found your website. You do physical paintings too, right?
S: Yes. Sometimes I do canvas and physical paints. Lately, I’ve been enjoying digital painting because it’s less time-consuming.
A: And then if you get into oil paints? They take 2 weeks to dry! What is that about?
S: There is something special about painting with brushes though. I really enjoy Gesso. You can build it up on the canvas, and it is so much fun to do impressionistic work with this three-dimensional paint.
A: I just have one last question. It kind of relates to what we were just talking about. When you’re not composing, what are you doing?
S: I really love video games. I love all kinds of video games. I’d say I also like physical activity. Which is about the vaguest thing a person could say. But composing and video games are both ‘sitting down’ activities.
Oh man, when I was at Toledo, I never got up, ever. I was atrophied. I had no leg muscles whatsoever, nothing. I was starting to get all this back pain, I was hunched over. I got into working out in 2018, it’s just good for you all-around. Running, biking, skateboarding. I love skateboarding.
A: I feel that. A lot of the time I look at the to-do list on my desk and it sounds like this: Writing, arranging, editing, and it’s all at the computer. It can make you foggy if you don’t ever get up!
S: Totally. It’s good to get out of the house!
A: It’s really easy to hole yourself in the house, speaking strictly for myself.
S: Oh no, you are speaking my language. If I was left to my own devices, I would be like the best hermit ever.
A: I just recently moved, and I’m wondering “How many times have my neighbors seen me go out? Do they know I exist?”
A: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
S: Not really! Just that I’m trying to do a little bit of everything. I want to do a proper promotion by putting it on Spotify and singles and music videos.
A: I’m so excited to hear it! I’ll be waiting. It was so nice talking to you, Stephen.
S: Absolutely, thank you.
Thanks for stopping by the Fusion blog for another composer interview! You can find more of Stephens compositions and art here https://www.sjrcaldwell.com/ and check out my latest Haiku project here https://aleahfitzwater.com/2021/08/24/weekly-haiku-by-fusei/
If you are a composer too, and want to learn how to digitize music faster for arrangements, visit the second site I write for, called Scanscore: https://scan-score.com/en/