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/.

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