Voyager: Anatomy of a Composition

Story posted October 28, 2003

Elliott Schwartz began his recent faculty seminar with a challenge before him: how to explain the creative process.

Schwartz, who recently retired after nearly 40 years of teaching at Bowdoin, has been a well-known composer for decades, and he wanted to give the audience sense of what that meant. To illustrate, he walked through the process of composing "Voyager," a piece commissioned by the Portland Symphony Orchestra that premiered in Portland last year.

The lecture wasn't a history or analysis of Voyager, Schwartz said, "but kind of a blow by blow account of how the piece came to be written and a couple of the things that go on in the piece," Schwartz said.

Schwartz had known the conductor of the Portland Symphony, Toshiyuki Shimada, for years. While eating lunch together, one day, Shimada suggested that Schwartz compose a piece for the orchestra to celebrate the places that he's been. (Schwartz said he suspected that Shimada was hoping Japan would be included, since he knew Schwartz had spent time there.)

Shimada suggested a big piece - 15-20 minutes long - with full orchestra. With that in mind, Schwartz decided to do four separate movements, each focusing on a different location: Reykjavik, Iceland; Kyoto, Japan; Cambridge, England; and Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

When he'd first begun toying with the idea of "Voyager" as a title, Schwartz had no idea that it was associated with a Star Trek series, but upon learning that fact later, it seemed appropriate to him, since he feels that the piece deals with a voyage in time as well as space.

But the manager of the orchestra, he had different ideas - a piece about 10 minutes long and without the full orchestra (though he said he would let Schwartz have an unlimited number of percussionists). He also told Schwartz the other pieces that would be played the night of his composition's premiere.

"If this sounds very confusing, by the way, this is the way most compositions get written," Schwartz said. The process is usually a combination of deadlines and conflicting instructions, and of course, creativity.

This changed his outlook, Schwartz said, because he was no longer composing an individual piece, but was composing something that would fit into a program. He decided to do one movement, instead of four, but to focus on the same four locations.

At about the same time, Schwartz had been honored with a celebration for his retirement. As part of the celebration, he had chosen a composition of his own - a waltz he'd composed based on the letters in his name - and sent it out to Bowdoin music alumni and asked them to compose variations.

When he began working on the commission for the Portland Symphony, he decided to use the waltz as part of the tune and to borrow bits from the variations as well.

He used the same notes in the waltz and continued them in a pattern, integrating elements of Japanese, Icelandic, British and Dutch music.

For the Japanese sections, he used a piece of ceremonial music, which Shimada immediately recognized. For the Icelandic portions he used the national anthem of Iceland. For the Dutch sections he used excerpts of the work of several Dutch composers (including some 15th and 16 century Flemish composers). For the British section he used excerpts from the work of composers associated with Cambridge.

He then tried to come up with images of the places that he wanted to reflect.

"All of these places are very closely tied to bodies of water - which give them a certain character," Schwartz said. At the same time each of the places has a personality that is somewhat torn between tradition and the edge of the 21st century.

"What I came up with is a piece of music in which these things coalesce," Schwartz said.

The piece starts with fanfare. It contains loud brassy portions and also quiet slow portions as the music from the different cultures weaves in an out, and eventually all of the music in the piece leads to the waltz.

"When I was composing this, I was in a real state of panic, because I was going to exceed my 10 minutes," he said. The finished product, according to the time signatures, would take about 11 1/2 or 12 minutes to play (though he said he's written it faster than any of the musicians would be able to play it). In the end, the piece took 13 minutes to play. "And it's still too short," Schwartz said.

He made sure Shimada knew that he was going over the time, and Shimada assured him that it was fine.

"There's a moral to this," Schwartz said. "Once the musicians are on the stage and the music is about to begin, the manager has no control."

When he'd first begun toying with that idea for a title, he had no idea that it was associated with a Star Trek series, but upon learning that fact later, it seemed appropriate to him, since he feels that the piece deals with a voyage in time as well as space.

"In retrospect, I found that the title "Voyager" seemed to be really apt," Schwartz said.

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