What was the first instrument you learned?
I started on clarinet it’s still my best instrument. I also play a little piano, which helps me out
a little when writing music. As part of the Music Education program in college, I gained
proficiency (or at least a functional understanding) on all the instruments. I have a hard time
with the brass instruments, so they’re my weakest. As for the strings, my hands are a little
too big to be good at violin, but they're just right for viola and 'cello. I own a viola and, though
I don’t play at a concert-level, I’ll often pick it up to figure out bowings and fingerings as I write.
I also play some guitar and bass guitar.
I'll sometimes improvise on an instrument until I come up with something interesting, then
write it out in Finale and let it develop from there. I wrote “Sea Chantey” that way on my
mandolin and the bass part for “Goblin Dance” on bass.
Who/what inspires your music?
I enjoy learning about history and other cultures, so they influence my music a lot. Visual art,
movies, and TV shows inspire me. People have said that my music sounds like movie
soundtracks or video game music, which I take as an enormous compliment. I enjoy traveling
and some of my trips have led directly to music such as “A Postcard From Tuscany,”
“Flambeaux,” and “Zydeco Two-Step.” I try to keep myself open to inspiration and not limit
my sources of creativity.
Mostly, though, it's the students who play my music that inspire me. I always try to put myself
in their shoes and write something that I would enjoy playing. I also like to think about the
teacher' perspective and fill in the gaps in the orchestral catalog and write the music that isn’t
available to string students, such as Indian style music (“Maharaja”) odd-metered music
(“Agincourt”) or Viola section features (such as “Goblin Dance”).
What story does Gauntlet tell?
Students have told me that they hear everything from battling knights to space battles in
“Gauntlet” and it’s become their soundtrack to Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Hunger
Games, and more. People often ask what the story is behind “Gauntlet” and I really didn’t have
one in mind, beyond abstract emotion, color, and movement. While a lot of my music conveys
a certain mood or evokes a certain place or culture, none of my pieces are programmatic.
That is, they don’t tell specific stories. I think it’s great that “Gauntlet” inspires peoples’
imaginations—one of the hallmarks of successful art is that it invites a variety of interpretations
—and I encourage everyone to come up with their own “Gauntlet” stories.
What is your best/favorite/most memorable publication)?
“Gauntlet” was my first published work and remains my most popular, so I'll always be grateful
for that. People tell me that I should write more pieces like “Gauntlet,” but I’m not sure how I
bottled lightning with that one – it’s the product of a very specific state of mind I was in for two
weeks in 1998. More of my fast-tempo minor-key pieces have been published since, but
“Gauntlet” remains a favorite.
I’m always trying to improve my skill as a composer and, looking back, I can see that I’ve
improved a lot since “Gauntlet.” “Star of Valor” is a good showcase for my compositional skill -
it's filled with cross-melodies, counterpoint, key changes, and lots of technical detail.
I'm also thrilled that Alfred has published a Bollywood-style piece I wrote called “Maharaja.”
My parents lived in India and my family spent a few of my early years in Sri Lanka, so I grew
up around a lot of Southeast Asian culture, so Indian music reminds me of my childhood. I'm
thrilled that I can share that with orchestra students.
What music do you listen to?
I fell in love with Mozart at an early age and how effortlessly beautiful his music is. My favorite
is the Marriage of Figaro overture. The film soundtracks of Danny Elfman have moved me in a
profound way and continue to be an influence - you can hear it in Gauntlet, Agincourt,
Elementals, and Avatar, to name a few. I especially love his main title music to Beetlejuice
and 1989’s Batman.
My all-time favorite composer, though, is Igor Stravinsky. His music continues to astound and
inspire me. “The Rite of Spring” is my favorite piece of orchestral music and The Rake’s
Progress is my favorite opera.
There are other composers that I love, like Vivaldi, Boccherini, Debussy, Adams, and Poulenc,
but I keep coming back to Mozart, Elfman, and Stravinsky.
What's playing on your iPod/mp3 player right now?
I use my iPod (Nano G5) to set the pace for my workouts and as driving music, so the
frequent tempo and mood changes of classical music don't work so well. I keep it on “shuffle”
and stay surprised. Right now, I'm in love with the band Sleigh Bells and especially their song
“Tell ‘Em.” I also have lots of Mika - a British singer who is writing all the songs Freddy
Mercury never got around to.
Some of my new discoveries include The Soft Pack, Minus The Bear, Yeasayer, Passion Pit,
Vampire Weekend, and Daft Punk. Some older music on my iPod includes Elvis Costello,
Van Halen (the Dave years), and Dio’s “Rainbow In the Dark,” which should come as no
surprise to anyone who knows me through “Gauntlet” or “Elementals.”
I had my nose buried in music theory books and classical scores while rap music was
developing, so I’ve only recently discovered it. I prefer the “new old-school” artists like
Jurassic Five and Giant Panda.
What's the biggest mistake you've ever witnessed at a concert?
I have a pet peeve about tempos. Young musicians - and even some teachers - brag all the
time about how fast they can play, but most pieces aren’t supposed to be played fast. All the
nuance and emotion and expression are lost when you tear through a piece at breakneck
speed. Rushing the tempos is disrespectful to the composer because it misrepresents his or
her work and to the audience because it’s denying them a meaningful concert experience.
Any experienced musician will tell you that slow music is much more difficult than fast music –
technical skill doesn’t demonstrate ability as much as good musicianship. I put metronome
markings on all my scores and I want them to be heeded.
What advice do you have for aspiring composers and teachers?
My advice to aspiring composers is to always keep writing and, whenever possible, have
other people play your music. There’s usually a difference between what it sounds like in your
head and what it sounds like when others play it. Having others play your music will give you
an objective idea of how you're doing and if you're communicating musical directions clearly.
Second: don't listen to the haters. You can't imagine how many times I've been told to hang it
up because I'm no good. Third: never stop learning and improving. I’m always seeking to
grow as a composer, improve my skills, apply different ideas, and add new techniques to my
My advice to teachers is that the best way to motivate students is to give them music at their
level that they enjoy. I believe that, as a composer, I’m like a cartographer - I lay out a
musical landscape in absolute terms. The conductor and teacher’s job is to be a tour guide
through that landscape – to lead the students through the landscape, interpret it, and bring it
to life. The map is always the same, but every teacher will take a different path and every
student will take something different away from the journey.
Along with music for student orchestras, I've written music for concert band, several sonatas
(for clarinet, flute, tuba, and harp), a tuba concerto (which premiered in New York in 2010),
two symphonies, and two very different operas, for which I wrote the libretto and the music:
Mata Hari and Heart Mountain.