We sat down with composer Eric Malmquist, whose work Blemish'd Muse will receive its world premiere at our upcoming May 13 concert with the Chicago Composers Orchestra. Eric is a Chicago-based composer currently residing in the Rogers Park neighborhood.
WPCS: When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
Eric Malmquist (EM): My first little pieces were written while taking piano lessons in grade school, but I started composing in earnest in high school. Gershwin's "Three Preludes" was a big influence at the time, so my music sounded very Gershwin-y! Luckily I found my own voice in college, especially after being exposed to the strange wonder of medieval music and contemporary composers.
WPCS: What do you usually start with when composing a new piece?
EM: When it's vocal music, the easy way to start is finding the right text! A text often offers an architecture for the form and narrative of a piece. For both instrumental and vocal music, I often think very hard about what I need to express, and how to translate that into music and communicate it to an audience. I find that starting a piece and hitting the exact tone I want to convey is the most difficult part of the process. Sometimes it's more about discovering the way a piece wants to be - after that, it's pure fun.
WPCS: The texts of your new work, Blemish’d Muse, draw from the works of Anne Bradstreet, a Puritan and the first female writer to be published in colonial New England, Phillis Wheatley, a Boston slave and the first African-American female poet to be published, Walt Whitman, and Carl Sandburg. Why did you choose these four poets and their respective poems?
EM: I chose these four poets because I wanted to include a broad range of American poetry history, while also highlighting individuals who were on the edges of American society in their periods by reason of their gender, race, sexual orientation, or political views. I wanted the piece to celebrate art-making and passion and selected the poems accordingly. In the end I intended it to be a very American work, celebrating American poetry and poets with an inclusive spirit.
WPCS: What does a composer actually do when they create a new work? What does it entail?
EM: Writing music (for me, anyway) first involves thinking about music a lot. The first step in composition is coming up with an idea, of course, and that can happen anywhere - I actually do a lot of my work on the CTA El train with pen and paper. I also do some composing on a piano. Eventually, all the scraps and sketches are compiled together into music notation software, carefully edited, reviewed, and eventually e-mailed to the ensemble. For this piece, I started with writing music for the choir. I then wrote a piano accompaniment that would serve as a basis for the orchestra music and for rehearsals. That piano music then was given to the various instruments of the orchestra. I often am asked if I have to play every instrument to be able to write for it - the answer is no, fortunately! I do know a lot about these instruments, and I can always ask my musicians friends for their advice. When I finished orchestrating and polishing the full score, I created part scores for each instrument so each player only has to read and follow their own line. The choir has a score with all the choir parts plus the piano part so they know what the orchestra is doing, too. In very brief, being a composer involves extreme attention to detail but also a lot of joyful creativity.
Here are a couple of Eric's works performed by the groups you will hear at our May 13 Concert. First is a work for orchestra performed by the Chicago Composers Orchestra. The second is a work that our choir commissioned and performed last season.
You can check out more of Eric's music at ericmalmquist.com