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In Conversation With: Charles Mason, Named ‘Composer of the Year’

By Maritza Cosano

In Conversation With: Charles Mason, Named ‘Composer of the Year’

By Maritza Cosano
The Music Teachers National Association has chosen Charles Mason, professor of composition and chair of the department of theory and composition at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami as the "2022-2023 Composer of the Year."

"In composition, the people that are commissioning you are commissioning you because they like the sound of your music," said Charles [Chuck] Mason, a professor of composition and chair of the Department of Theory and Composition at Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. 

Last May, the UM alum, Class of '77, was selected by Florida State Music Teachers Association as "2022-2023 Composer of the Year." And while he was wowed by the honor and enjoyed writing from the heart, in a recent interview, he changed the conversation to his favorite subject—helping students discover their uniqueness.

Every semester, on the first day of class he tells them, "You have a completely different background than anybody else. I want to help you draw on your own experiences and create music that is uniquely yours." 

In this talk, Mason chatted freely about his first introduction to composition, how he grew into a listener who appreciated music that had depth rather than simply immediate appeal, and how his colleague, flutist Jennifer Grim, inspired the award-winning composition that made him the country's "Composer of the Year."   

To enter the national competition, you had to first be selected by Florida. Records show that the last UM faculty member to receive this honor was Dennis Kam in 1985, who was also the chair of the composition department.  

Yes, and coincidentally, I was Dennis' first composition student. I admired him greatly and it was an honor for me to follow in his footsteps and take on the duties of chairing the Theory and Composition department. The MTC department is a wonderful program that has graduated many great composers and is made up of faculty that have an impressive record of accomplishment; but who all are dedicated to teaching and believe in the same philosophy I have of approaching the composition student as an individual and drawing out of them that uniqueness.  

How is this program different from other writing programs at Frost? 

Composition and Media Scoring focus on the student but the emphasis in composition is more towards trying to draw out of the student their voice, to really help them come up with their unique identity and freshness in their music. While composition works with the student to develop entrepreneurial skills, the emphasis is less on that than on media. In our undergraduate program, we teach students many different prevalent styles in the concert music world, but by their junior year, they are encouraged to compose in their own style. The programs' goals are different in that in composition, the intended result is concert music, where music is the dominant factor. In media scoring, the music cannot be the dominant factor as it would take away from what it is there to support.   

How do you teach composition?

In the first four semesters, composition is taught in groups. Students will learn much from seeing how their peers solve a particular task. But the tasks are not stylistically specific. For example, one day, we may want a student to write a piece for piano that only uses two pitches. Somebody could do something that sounds like pop music, another person could write something very angular, and another that is a lot of trills. There are many ways to solve that problem without requiring a specific style. That's where the real creativity begins. 

Should all Frost students be composers?

Yes. In fact, all classical students compose in the theory program. A lot of schools, in their theory classes, make the students write music, but it's not really composition, it's more of a rule-based method and the student ends up writing what fits a set of rules without actually listening to the result. By having the student compose a work that their peers will perform, we bring the focus on hearing. The purpose of writing music in our theory classes is to sensitize the ear and to teach students the beginnings of writing for different instruments. A side effect of this is that it helps non-composition students appreciate the stress a composer goes through. They find that sitting back and hearing somebody playing your piece, where you have no control, is often a lot more stressful than being on stage playing. 

What inspired you to get into composing?

[laughing hard] Well, I'm laughing because I don't know if I should tell this story . . . but when I was 14 years old, I remember seeing a movie on TV about Richard Wagner, known for his music dramas. In this scene, he walks into the office of a famous German conductor and slams a big score on the table, saying, "You need to perform this."  

And I thought, "I want to do that." I started composing little pieces in junior high for a few friends. Then, one day I went to the mall and saw this girl that I was interested in going inside a record store . . . you know, back then, we had record stores! 

She came out, and I asked her what she had bought. It was Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." I bought and played it when I got home, thinking, "This sounds horrible!" But then, I read the notes on the album, which said how the score was performed by one of the greatest orchestras and conductors in the world. All these musicians were remarkable, so I thought something was wrong with me if I didn't understand it. So, I listened to it a few more times, and then it was like, oh, wow! This music is fantastic!

Right then, I realized that the greatest music often takes time, and one needs to understand a work before judging it. That is the attitude I try to instill in my students. That thinking opened my ears to more music and led me to buy recordings that featured other new music by living composers.  

Tell us about your composition and what led to your "Composer of the Year" award. 

First, last May, the Florida State Music Teachers Association selected me as their distinguished composer of the year and commissioned me to write a piece. I chose to write a work for Jennifer Grim and wrote "Bridging the Gap" for flute and fixed media (electronics). It was then performed in October for the State Conference. After that, the state submitted it to the national competition. All states who have a commissioning award submit their winners as well. The submission was anonymous so that the judges would not know which pieces came from which state. And mine was chosen as the national winner. It will be performed in late March in Reno, Nevada, at the national conference, where I will be officially recognized as the 2022-23 MTNA Distinguished Composer.

Was there a theme or concept to guide you in creating the composition?

Yes, the theme of the state conference where the piece premiered was "Breaking Barriers Through Music." It had to do with music providing bridges for various groups. My composition attempts to bridge the gap between the electronic and the acoustic by using electronic sounds that merge with the flute and extended sounds on the flute that merge with the electronics. Sometimes, the listener is unsure which is the flute, and which are the electronic sounds, creating a magical instrument.  

And Jennifer Grimm was your inspiration. 

Yeah, the commission was open-ended, meaning I could choose whatever instruments I wanted to write for. But immediately after I won the commission, I thought, "Man! I want to write this for Jennifer Grim. I first met her when her new music ensemble performed my piece "Hradcanska" at the Aspen Summer Music Festival. Jennifer is the most incredible flutist I have ever heard, and I was overjoyed when she was hired as the Frost Flute professor. So, I wrote her, saying, "Listen, I would like to do a piece for you. I have several options. One would be flute and piano, flute and other instruments, or flute and fix media." And she said, "I want the flute and fixed media piece because I'm hoping at some point to do a tour of various works that involve electronics." 

And what is it that you want your student composition majors to grasp from your music and your classes?

I want to instill in them that the most important activities for developing as a composer are three things: compose a lot, go to concerts and listen, and get your music performed.