With independent house concerts happening all over the country and orchestras like the LA Phil reinvigorating the concert hall, this is one of the most exciting times for classical art music in America! The variety of sounds, genres, and musicians working today is astonishing, and there are thousands of talented composers tirelessly honing their craft. One of the goals of Deus Ex Musica is to introduce new audiences to some of the exciting voices working today – both established and emerging artists! And we are particularly interested in celebrating the music of composers who both seek a rich spiritual life in Christ and actively explore their faith in their music.
This month’s Composer Spotlight guest is Dr. Zack Stanton – an award-winning composer and conductor from Conway, Arkansas. His music, performed throughout the United States, as well as Ireland and South Korea, spans the gamut from solo and chamber to choral and orchestral. Ensembles that have premiered his work include the Austin Symphony Orchestra, Conway Symphony Orchestra, University of Texas Symphony Orchestra, and Millikin University Percussion Ensemble, line upon line percussion, and numerous respected soloists. Zack received his DMA from the University of Texas at Austin, and he is currently Lecturer of Composition and Theory at the University of Iowa.
Zack, tell us about your journey into music. How did you begin?
I took piano lessons at the age of 6 for a few months, and then again at the age of 9. I didn’t really make much progress and was your typical childhood music drop out. It wasn’t until I was 11 that music became important to me. A couple of guys came to my church to do a week long “revival” and they were both musicians. Before one of them would preach each night, the two of them would play and sing for a while. One of these gentlemen was a professional, Nashville-based banjo player named Mark Barnett. This guy was mind blowing.
I had never heard a banjo other than the Beverly Hillbillies theme, and to see a professional up close was a jolt of adrenaline. His banjo picking was like musical napalm. I begged my parents to let me start taking lessons, which they were reluctant to do given my drop-out track record with piano. Fortunately, there was a guy in my church that played banjo and had a student-level banjo he loaned to me so I could learn.
After that I became interested in learning other instruments and took up the guitar, piano, and later singing. The other thing that ignited a love for music was the music of John Williams. I adored his film scores and listened to them over and over. Such beauty, craftsmanship, intuition, counterpoint, harmony, melody, orchestration, pacing...you name it, his film scores delivered. I think that’s one of the things that pushed me toward composition. To this day he is one of my musical heroes.
What’s your first memory of music?
That’s hard to say, but some of my earliest memories are listening to smooth jazz since that’s what my dad liked. He listened to a group called The Rippingtons and a guitarist named Larry Carlton. I remember loving that stuff. I also remember a Snoopy (or Peanuts) album we had, which was of course jazz. I have to this day never really played jazz, but my earliest memories of music are definitely from that genre. I also have early memories of listening to staples of the classical repertoire, such as Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Ravel’s Bolero, and Smetana’s The Moldau. I loved those pieces. My mom often had those playing in the car when we were going places.
Do you have a favorite sound?
Hmmmm….that’s really tough. I have a lot of favorite sounds. A beautiful chord progression, a colorful moment of orchestration, a chord sung in tune by a choir, a rich baritone voice, the virtuosity of a tight bluegrass band...I don’t know. I guess I’m pretty partial to a group of people singing together. There is something about communal singing that is very powerful.
Before You Kissed Me – one of your most celebrated works and winner of a 2018 Sanibel-Captiva Trust Prize – is based on a text by Midwest poet Sarah Teasdale. This work opens with a lonely, yearning melody. After a several rapturous climaxes, including one in which your compositional choices make it sound like there is a gentle rain in the background (2:38), the music settles into a reverential vow-like setting of “I am my love’s and he is mine forever.” (3:45). What is your process when setting poetry to music?
Setting poetry is tricky. For me, this stems from the fact that a well-written poem stands to lose more than it does to gain from a musical setting. Poetry is beautiful on its own and music can try too hard to “express” what the text is saying, to the point that it’s like cartoon music where there is a big crash when the anvil falls on Wile E. Coyote. Text-painting is effective when subtle. This isn’t easy to do, though. I’m not sure I was entirely successful with Before You Kissed Me, but my desire in setting that text was that the music would run on parallel tracks with the text, not try to carry the text, if that makes sense. I wanted to suggest things in the text in a subtle way that would reveal my own emotional reaction to the text or my reading of its meaning. That’s not to say my reading is correct, but it’s the one I have and the only way to set the text for me. So in a way I find text-setting daunting because it can easily get in the way of good poetry, and because it can clearly reveal what a composer thinks about a text, which is sharing something personal. And as a composer, I hope my reading of a text resonates with the listener. But it won’t always.
You recall feeling daunted, even anxious when first approached about writing a piano concerto. Despite this hesitance, you’ve written an arresting, deeply expressive piece. How did you overcome your fears? What was your process like for working on this piece?
I found writing a piano concerto daunting because of how familiar I was with the repertoire. One of the first pieces I fell in love with was Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto. I remember listening to it for the first time when I was twelve, sitting on our living room floor. As a kid I also loved the Grieg Concerto, Saint-Saens’ 5th Concerto, Beethoven’s 3rd, Schumann’s, Brahms’, and on and on. Then as I got more into 20th century music, there was Prokofiev’s 3rd, Bartok’s 2nd, Corigliano’s, Lutoslawski’s, etc. There are so, so many incredible piano concertos out there. I knew I couldn’t write anything as great as those, especially since many of those composers were concert pianists in their own right. I’m certainly not that, even though I studied piano for many years.
The other daunting thing is that I didn’t know why a pianist would ever choose to spend the time learning my concerto if they hadn’t yet learned all the main concertos in the standard repertoire. Who’s going to learn the Stanton if they haven’t even played Rachmaninov yet? There are literally thousands of pieces for piano and orchestra, and more masterpieces than can be learned in a lifetime. But one of my professors suggested to me that I should write a piano concerto since I play the instrument. That suggestion in and of itself was a big vote of confidence—he thought I was capable of tackling a concerto and that changed the way I thought about it. Another thing that pushed me over the edge was with a friend of mine who is a band director. He was asking me about my plans for my dissertation and I told him I was considering writing a concerto for piano. He said that if I wrote a concerto for piano and winds, he would premiere it. That sealed the deal for me because guaranteed performance was enough of a reason to write it for me.
It’s always nice to have that. He even said he would find the pianist. That was a huge thing for him to promise, and he delivered on it. This was also less daunting because I would be writing for wind ensemble, which has a much smaller repertoire with piano soloist. At the time, I was only able to find about 35 pieces for piano and wind ensemble. I wasn’t competing with pillars of the repertoire this way, except maybe the Stravinsky concerto. As far as the process, I did what I usually do, which is to listen to and absorb a TON of music, especially piano concerti, then find some musical element to get me “in.” For the piano concerto, I wrote the introduction first because I wanted a big piano entrance and from there I extracted some pitch material from the piano part, around which I built much of the rest of the movement.
Throughout your music including your Piano Concerto, one can hear traces of American popular music – folk, rock, jazz, and blues. As you’ve mentioned before, growing up in Arkansas, you were surrounded by a variety of non-classical musical traditions. Were there any musicians or genres toward which you particularly gravitated?
I definitely gravitated toward bluegrass music after hearing the banjo. We would have “pickin’s” at our house—a bunch of musicians would come over to jam. Growing up, I adored artists like Chris Thile, Ricky Skaggs, Flatt and Scruggs, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O’Connor. But I also loved it when artists would blend styles. When Edgar Meyer and Mark O’Connor teamed up with Yo-Yo Ma for Appalachian Waltz and Appalachian Journey, I was floored with the beauty of that combination. That was my musical diet for a while. It brought together both of the worlds I loved.
Your father is a respected surgeon, and your mother home-educated you and seven brothers. What was that like? Do you notice any connections between this unique childhood and your music?
There are definitely important events from my childhood that influenced my musical choices and opportunities. Neither of my parents are musicians but both are music lovers. Because my parents never studied music, they wanted their children to have that opportunity.
My dad often talked about how he wished he had learned an instrument growing up instead of spending all his time on the basketball court (he was a star point guard and his team won the state championship his senior year of high school). He said that playing an instrument is something you can do your whole life, but sports are more confined to a season of life. With regard to my home education and brothers, being home educated allowed a musical late bloomer like me to focus more on music than I otherwise could have. I arranged my schedule so that music was a huge priority.
My older brother and the brother just after me (I’m the second of the eight) also started taking music lessons around the same time I did. We played a lot together as we got better, especially my younger brother. Being able to play with my brothers was a gift of more value than I could imagine at the time.
You’ve also written for less traditional ensembles, one example being your Trio for Horn, Viola, and Harp which won an award at the International Horn Society Composition Contest. How did this work originate? How did you choose your harmonies for this work? How do you typically begin composing?
I have written several pieces for less traditional ensembles—you write what you’re asked to write when you know it will be played! Almost every piece I have written has been at the request of a person I know, and that is true of the Trio as well. My good friend, hornist Anne-Marie Cherry, commissioned me to write a concerto for her in 2010, and we enjoyed that collaboration so much that she asked me to write another piece. She had been wanting to find an excuse to play with two friends/colleagues of hers, a violist and a harpist, and they were not able to find any repertoire (as it turns out, there is one other piece for that instrumentation). So Anne-Marie asked me to write a piece for the three of them. When I began writing this piece, I decided that to find my way into the piece I would use ciphers, which is something I had never done.
I took the first names of each performer and I came up with a collection of pitches for each name. For most of the letters, there was an easy musical correlation. For instance, one of the performers was named Chris. C is obviously the first note I used. For “h” I used B, since in German the note B is called “h”. For “R” I used “re” or D since “re” starts with R. S is Eb because, again, in German Eb is called “es.” And for I, I just had to pick something that worked well with the other notes, so I chose Ab. After I created pitch collections for each name, I took these collections and made matrices with them so I had some variations to work with.
Beyond that, my process was mostly intuitive. It gave me a starting point for melodies and harmonies, but I didn’t confine myself to only those pitches. I would always break the rules when I found something that sounded better. I wouldn’t say that I have a typical way that I begin composing—this was definitely a new approach for me. Each piece is a little different. I try to find different ways to get into a piece. The only real constant for me is that I always do a lot of listening before I start.
Does your Christian faith shape your music? If so, how?
Yes, it certainly does, though perhaps not always in overt ways. When I compose, my desire is that the music I write touches on the spectrum of human experiences, from great joy to deep sorrow. When I was younger, I definitely focused on creating music that expressed joy. As I’ve gotten older, I have found it inevitable that my music must also grapple with pain. However, in wrestling with that pain, I want my work to ultimately point to the hope there is in Christ. Life is difficult and full of suffering, but a Biblical perspective says that suffering won’t get the final word. I want my work to have that same trajectory.
Are there aspects of your faith that have been influenced by your work in music?
I think it’s important for my faith to influence my art more than for my art to influence my faith. God’s word is a sure foundation on which to build a life, whereas art is a response to or a commentary on life from a particular perspective. But while I believe my faith should influence my art more than the other way around, being a creative artist has caused me to spend a lot of time thinking about the creative aspect of God’s nature.
The world around us demonstrates that God values creativity and beauty. He has given us so many beautiful things to enjoy, whether visual, aural, or experiential. When God gave Moses instructions concerning the tabernacle, we see that artistic symbolism is important to God—beautiful works of art express deeply important truths.
Through the scriptures, God calls us to worship through singing, which suggests that he designed the human body to be a musical instrument. That is astonishing to me and is evidence that art is a gift of God to humanity for our pleasure and his glory.
Interview with Zack Stanton conducted by Josh Rodriguez via email between Aug. 30-Sept. 28, 2019
To hear more of Zack’s music, please visit: http://www.zackstantonmusic.com/works
If you are interested in contributing an article or would like to recommend a topic for exploration, please send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org Photos used with composer’s permission.
 Program Notes for Concerto for Piano and Wind Ensemble