A Conversation with Composer Michael Markowski: Part 2

In this continuation of an earlier post, we continue with Michael Markowski where we left off. He had just experienced his work joyRIDE being performed by his high school band in Carnegie Hall while a high school senior. That same spring he also had a work premiered by the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, a piece written for one of their family concerts where they would showcase music of many eras including the present...with his work being featured as that of an up and coming young composer. So with these musical successes he was about to begin at Arizona State University to study...film?

"I kind of thought that I would apply to college for music school and get my bachelors and masters and my doctorate and then I'd be a composer. But, that doesn't happen...I didn't do my homework basically. I was given an academic scholarship to Arizona State so I didn't even look at any other schools. I thought, 'Great, I don't have to pay for college. This is fantastic!', so I didn't even really look into the audition requirements.

"I didn't realize that Arizona State--at the time--didn't have a separate composition studio. They're a very fine performing school. And so in order to do composition you had to be admitted on an instrument, and had to pass an instrumental audition. And, I did not."

Yet, this turn of events may have ultimately contributed to his success as a composer rather than become a detriment. When I listen to his works, I told him the word "cinematic" keeps coming back to me...quite simply, to me it just contains that quality and feel. I asked him how the study of film contributed to his compositional style.

"I think the way that film background has influenced my writing has been that film making is a storytelling medium. I think we forget that music is also capable of telling some kind of story, not in the sense that music has to be programmatic...but there has to be in my opinion some kind of dramatic arc. Something has to change from the beginning to the end to make it worth the journey. It has to feel like a complete thing, in my opinion.

"Music can have its moments, it can be whatever it wants to be. But if I'm going to spend more than five minutes listening to something I need to go somewhere with it. I definitely think that storytelling structure that I learned from screenwriting is applicable to the music that I write. So I think 'cinematic' is a beautiful word for it."

His works seem to contain some deep meaning to them, rather than sounding formulaic and "churned out" simply to have something to send to a publisher. I asked him about the emotional energy that must require. While he said that not every piece needs to be serious, the storytelling aspect of the compositional process can be emotionally exhausting.

"It's often about what you're not saying. That's what's important--the subtext of it all. And that's really hard to do with instrumental music. You can do it when you have words, you can do it when you have a script...but to try to find that metaphor is very difficult. I spend a lot of time thinking about what does this piece mean for me on a personal level, and what is this piece going to potentially mean for a listener who's never heard it before, and what is this going to mean for the performer and director who has to spend eight weeks playing it."

He said it gets more challenging not to repeat yourself after awhile, but he works very hard to keep surprising himself. He likened it to giving himself a new assignment each time...to try something new, perhaps something as simple as writing a piece spotlighting an instrument he hasn't featured previously.

Last spring Markowski and I first had the opportunity to meet. The La Quinta High School Wind Symphony was in New York City to perform at Carnegie Hall, part of a concert series by Manhattan Concert Productions...just like with his own Dobson High School ten years earlier. The band was performing his City Trees, and had invited him to the clinic where they would be working on the piece with guest clinician Dr. Gary Green of the University of Miami. I asked him if that was a nice "full circle" moment for him.

"It was amazing, of course, and easy to reflect on the last ten years. I don't think 18-year-old me would have thought that 28-year-old me would be in the same place...sort of in the (John) Mackey role at that point. I've been really lucky to have not only that....I got to meet a couple of groups, one or two that actually did joyRIDE so it was sort of like a homecoming. It's funny when life throws you those opportunities a bit, sort of winks at you like that."

And what advice does he have for young composers just starting out on this path?

"This is terrible advice, but just to write as much as he or she can. No young composer wants to hear that, because that's a lot of work (laughs). But write a lot and don't be afraid to show it to people for feedback."

Laughing again, he said, "I hate all my pieces to a certain degree, but we're always our own worst critic. If the goal is for your music to be heard by others and played by others you have to be able to put on a different hat and step away from your baby. It ultimately comes down to the piece of music that you've written. If it's not a good piece of music, no amount of marketing is going to help it. But if it's a good piece of music it will market itself. It's really remarkable."

You can learn more about the music of Michael Markowski--including works for wind band, orchestra, chamber music, theater and film scores--by visiting his website at http://www.michaelmarkowski.com/.

A Conversation with Composer Michael Markowski: Part 1

Perhaps one of the greatest things about the Midwest Clinic in December is the opportunity to spend time talking with the incredible people on all sides of the music education world. What can be especially rewarding is to talk to the composers who create the outstanding music that conductors and performers enjoy, and to get the know the real people behind the name printed in the upper right hand corner of the page.

One of the best young composers whose catalogue and successes are rapidly growing in the wind band area is Michael Markowski, and I had the opportunity to talk with him early one morning as the exhibit hall was just beginning to come alive for the day. In the first part of this blog series, we discussed how he got his start at a very young age.

Like so many of us Markowski got his start in music in the public schools, beginning to play saxophone in fifth grade in his hometown of Mesa, Arizona. His compositional career began about two years later in the late 1990's, courtesy of a Christmas gift from his father--whom he described as "sort of like a software engineer, technology geek" but who also played a little piano on the side.

"He bought a little keyboard and some MIDI cables and hooked it up to my computer and showed me how to sequence using some software....And I was just hooked. For the next couple of years in middle school that's all I would do. I'd come home, do my homework and then write all night. I didn't know what I was doing, but just being able to have that music shown visually on the screen on staves you start to make connections with harmony--and you can start to visually see counterpoint."

When he got to high school, with his experience writing music for computer he began to seek a composition mentor at the nearby Arizona State University in Tempe. Someone referred him to Karl Schindler, at the time a doctoral student at ASU, who took on the tenth grader as a student.

"He's just an amazing teacher, in a lot of ways. I don't know that we ever talked about 'Here's how you write music, here's how you orchestrate'...every week I'd bring him what I'm working on, and he'd give me feedback on things to think about and work on. And we'd listen to other music that might somehow relate to what I was working on at the time. He was just a great teacher. In retrospect, he was really remarkable at encouraging and teaching by stepping out of the way."

As is the case with so many great teachers. Another great teacher in his life was his high school band director, Jon Gomez, the leader of the renowned Dobson High School band program. At about the same as he was beginning his work with Schindler, he started summer conducting lessons with Gomez. As it turns out, he discovered rather quickly that wasn't an area of interest for him.

"But we started talking about composition. He started showing me band scores. We started doing some really basic score study." He brought him an SATB choir piece that he had been working on, seeking some feedback. Gomez' reaction was that the piece would transcribe beautifully for wind band. Two months later, Markowski had a completed transcription of his first large ensemble work in the conductor's hands. As he recalls, Gomez was kind enough to spend part of a rehearsal reading the piece down, and he recounts the experience:

"I have a recording of that first reading session. And....the piece is so bad, it train-wrecked. It's a very slow piece, and it train-wrecks. I don't know how you train-wreck when you're going 5 miles per hour, but it happened. There's a random, Charlie Parker-like transcribed solo...it didn't make sense at all. And the band, they're giggling and trying not to hurt my feelings but it's pretty obvious that it was a pretty bad piece of music.

"But I learned more that day than I have the past 15 years, that was a huge moment."

He took the feedback from the experience, and set to work rewriting the piece. They read it again, and he went back and changed it again. Yet another reading session, yet another set of rewrites. Four revisions later, the piece was programmed on the wind ensemble's concert. With that year of considerable writing growth behind him, and going into his senior year, his next success was not far behind.

The entire Dobson High School Music Department had been invited to perform in what some would consider the ultimate venue, Carnegie Hall in New York City, as part of a program created by Manhattan Concert Productions. To mark the occasion, conductor Gomez proposed an idea.

"Jon Gomez approached me and said, 'You know, you should write something to commemorate this. Just a short concert opener, traditional but also fresh.' He basically gave me the assignment verbatim. 'You know, something joyful, like Ode to Joy, in some kind of contemporary minimalist style like Short Ride (in a Fast Machine).' I think we had read Short Ride and it was just too tough...but the band loves the piece, or at least the style. And I remember the first draft took ten days to write, and then we did one set of revisions and read it." That work would become joyRIDE.

One of the interesting things that happened, and perhaps a bit of career foreshadowing, he recounts in the program notes:


It was the afternoon dress rehearsal and we had just played through joyRiDE for the first time in that historic hall when a young John Mackey bolted down the aisles and onto the stage, in classic Mackey fashion. We were headlining our portion of the concert with John's early piece, Redline Tango, but he hadn't run on stage for that. To my surprise, he grabbed my arm and said, "you have to hear it out there!" He gestured out towards the twenty-eight hundred empty red velvet seats for no more than a second before dragging me offstage and into the house to listen to another run-through, this time as an audience member.

Just then, it dawned on me that I'd only ever heard my music as a performer in the performing ensemble, or on a recording, or while awkwardly sitting at the edge of the stage, or from the last fleeting echo from a final chord as it washed out into the hall, decaying into nothingness. I guess I hadn't ever really heard my music before from this point-of-view. This was the very first time I'd ever been invited to simply sit back and enjoy what I had created.

Sitting next to John in the back of Carnegie Hall, listening to some of my best friends onstage bring such amazing energy and passion to my music, I felt like one-of-the-guys—I remember thinking, "Hey! This music thing might just be crazy enough to work out!" It felt surreal, refreshing, inspiring, and, of course, like it was over too soon. Over the years, I've been lucky to share a growing friendship and remarkable collegiality with John, but I've never quite gotten over how powerful that moment was.


When I asked Markowski what that felt like, being a high school senior and having a piece you had written being performed in that historic location, his response put it in a wonderful context.

"The thing I remember most about that night was just after we played the piece and looking up into those box seats and seeing all my friends in the orchestra and just cheering...for not only me, but all of us. To be there with your friends and to have such an appreciative audience means the world. The history's cool too--I don't think it mattered to me then."

So where do you go after Carnegie Hall? The answer, which we'll discuss next week, might surprise you.