9 mins read

Josie Clarey: Where did you grow up?

Roger Zare: In Sarasota, Fla. I was born and grew up there and lived there for the first 18 years of my life. Since then, it’sabeen three different places for three different degrees. Now I’m back in Florida, but in a different part.

JC: Is this your first time to South Dakota?

RZ: When I was 8 or so, we went on a road trip throughout the entire Midwest, through Chicago and Milwaukee and then hit all of the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore. So, I’ve been around this area before.

JC: So how did you initially get into composing? Was it something you always wanted to do from a young age?

RZ: I started out taking piano lessons when I was 5 and around 6 or 7, I tried composing some stuff, but I was doing it with pencil and paper and it was a pain and it just didn’t stick then. I put it aside and picked up the violin when I was 11 and played in middle and high school orchestras. Through friends I met and through orchestra, we discovered a notational program called Noteworthy Composer. It’s a pretty basic program, but it was great because we could enter notes and hear what we put in back.

One of my friends was the bassist in the orchestra and he sent me a few ideas and I started expounding and ended up with a 10-and-a-half-minute composition, which I took it to my orchestra director. He saw something in it, and he helped me shorten it a bit, and the result was an eight-and-a-half-minute piece that I got to hear premiered by my high school orchestra a couple months later. From that moment, I knew I wanted to become a composer while sitting in the hall, hearing my piece come to life and having the ability to tell the audience anything I wanted to tell them through music. I started trying new things myself and now I’m here.

JC: That’s pretty incredible. You definitely don’t hear about high school students composing music like that. 

RZ: Part of is more that people do compose starting around then, but they’re not necessarily outgoing about it, or maybe they’re shy about it. A lot of people think of composers as being too distant – dead white people from hundreds of years ago. But composing is something that can be alive. I would encourage any high school student out there that wants to compose.

JC: Is writing music that’s always in the back of your mind everyday, or how do you go about writing a piece?

RZ: It is all the time on my mind. Every piece I approach may be a slightly different way. What I’ve been doing more lately is coming up with some sort of concept – not usually a musical concept, like “Fractals.” For the Sioux City symphony piece, “Aerodynamics,” I was thinking about flying for that piece. I think, “How can I describe this in music?” and go from there. The hardest part is getting the first few notes on the page. When I start with that, it usually flows and I can get really into it and compose extremely quickly.

JC: Do you ever have pieces you don’t finish or several in the works at a time? I mean, what’s your office like?

RZ: My office is really my computer and keyboard, so that keeps things pretty organized. In high school, I would start a few things and not ever finish them. I don’t really do that anymore. I usually have a project in mind and I almost always start composing a piece knowing who’s going to be playing that and who I’m going to be writing it for. Having that end goal is inspiration enough to finish it and so that’s really helped. Recently, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a series of projects and a lot of friends interested in playing my next piece. I don’t really have unfinished pieces.

JC: So do you have a particular audience you write for, generally speaking?

RZ: First and foremost, I want to write music that interests me. I’m the first audience. I can’t write something if I’m not interested in it – I wouldn’t want to write the next note. I do consider that other people will listen to it and hopefully and in the very least, I can communicate with them, convey some kind of meaning to them in the music, using certain languages that are accessible or less accessible. The listening experience is going to be different for everyone.

JC: Do you have any favorite pieces, or least favorites?

RZ: There’s one piece that I wrote in 2006 called “Green Flash,” it’s an orchestral piece and it set me along a path that’s been very close and to me. It’s very personal one and … it’s an atmospheric phenomenon that happens if the conditions are just perfect, it’s possible to see it in the sunset … but I got to see one in Florida and I wanted to write a piece about it and I always loved meteorology and astronomy and science and nature. It’s the first piece that I really invested a lot into trying to capture these elements of nature in a musical way. I think that piece came out maybe more naturally than any of the others I had written. It means so much to me to be able to convey this sense of awe in that one moment in this orchestral piece. That’s my most personal favorite one. Certainly, I’ve written a lot of pieces since then that I’ve enjoyed.

JC: What are you hoping to convey in your lecture Thursday?

RZ: I think it’s actually going to be somewhat along the lines of what I was just talking about, like “Green Flash” about trying to describe these phenomena in musical ways that I can grab a little of the essence of them and create a work of art that reflects something that’s very tangible in a non tangible way… a lot of them are like that where I’m trying to capture some type of natural phenomenon in that. I’ll present a few pieces including “Green Flash.” I’ll be presenting on what I try to do in music to try to communicate various ideas, introducing everyone to how I think about music and how compositions reflect who I am.

JC: What about non-music majors? How do you connect with people that have no connection to music, who may not have played an instrument or sung?

RZ: I think one thing I’d look at is the fact that music is such a long tradition. In every artistic tradition, it’s one that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. You can see all these milestones of human achievement through works of art. And music is no exception to that. The other part of music is that it’s intangible. It’s something that exists in the air for a sort of fleeing amount of time but communicates and can communicate very deeply. A lot of this happens without the listener even ever knowing and all of the sudden, they’re transported to a new place. It’s so important for it to continue and not ever be put aside. Music is so important that way.

JC: You started composing at such a young age. Was or is your age ever a factor in your career?

RZ: I don’t think I’ve felt that. The only place where I would have felt that was when I was an undergrad and the graduates kind of made that known. But that’s natural for any kind of area. Looking back on it, they should have had seniority over me because I knew nothing then… as much as you think you know, you still have so much more to learn. Maybe it’s been an advantage being younger, though there are plenty that are much younger who are extremely successful and certainly age can be a problem, if you’re too young and get hailed as the next Beethoven. I never got that pressure, so I was able to develop at my own pace. I feel good about where I am at now.