Our final Music at the Museum concert of the semester is this Sunday, April 17, 2016, and it will be our most ambitious concert yet: three local composers will be performing and/or premiering works to be played by Extension Division faculty! One of those composers is Extension Division faculty member Gregg Rossetti, who will be premiering two all-new works for the concert, whom we have reached out to this week for our Weekly Faculty Interview Series!
Gregg Rossetti is a multi-instrumentalist and composer of many styles of music, and is currently pursuing his PhD at Rutgers University. His interest in composition began at a young age; he would write music for school projects, self-made video games and rock bands. While at college, Rossetti had some of his first concert pieces performed by the Jazz Improvisation Ensemble, Wind Ensemble and Chamber Orchestra. While pursuing his MA, he wrote two compositions for large orchestra and several chamber pieces, including a microtonal piece for the Harry Partch Ensemble. From 2010–2013, he worked as the sole composer for a web-comic, the music ranged from avant-garde/ambient/electronic to hard rock to orchestral.
TJS: What initially inspired you to go into the arts?
GR: The arts have always been a part of my life, so there wasn’t an official event that inspired me to make a decision, as music and art have been part of my upbringing. My grandfather was a very talented visual artist and sign painter, my father followed in his footsteps in the graphics industry, and has also always been involved in music. I jumped into making music when I was about 11 years old, playing saxophone in the school band and experimenting with composition with an old version of Cakewalk, a MIDI editor. I would also design video games – everything from the maps to the characters – but realized writing the music was the part I enjoyed most, so it stuck.
TJS: Was there a teacher who made an impact upon your development as an artist? How did they impact your own work as a teacher?
GR: Though all of my teachers have made an impact on me in one way or another, the foundation of my knowledge came from my middle school band director, the bespectacled and suspendered Stanley Zuber. From my experience as a teacher, the band directors don’t push the students to learn every element of music like he did; he made sure we knew all 12 major scales by 7th grade, along with the definitions of every articulation and dynamic marking. I have too many 8th grade students that come to me for private lessons that have never learned some basic musical elements. Or, maybe I was just a good listener. I make sure my students know every detail about the piece on which they are working, so there are fewer questions about obtaining perfection.
TJS: What is the most rewarding part of teaching for you?
GR: I’ve been teaching for over a decade and have had the gamut in abilities and personalities of students. The most rewarding part is when the student takes the initiative to do something musical outside of their lessons. Whether it’s auditioning for the school’s talent show or writing their own piece of music, I like seeing students apply what they’ve learned in the lessons.
TJS: What is your composition process like? Do you know which instruments or media you want to write for before you start composing?
GR: Lately, since I’m more interested in actually having pieces performed and recorded, I’ve been trying to write for more specific instrumentation and media, rather than just writing what comes to mind and have the score sit on my computer for decades. Though, when I’m writing for something like a video game – something that won’t be performed by live musicians (but rather programmed with virtual instruments and/or with myself recording some tracks) – I try to get creative with uncommon pairings of or outrageously large forces of instruments.
I’ve noticed my best work comes from when I have some kind of pre-compositional method. Sometimes this begins with improvising; I’ll experiment with an instrument and write down when I play something I like, analyze it, and find a way to make it a cohesive piece based on the original idea. Other times I make up a rule to govern the piece – e.g.: the melodic ideas will only be built on 4ths and 2nds and the harmonies will provide the 5ths and 7ths. Sometimes I detach myself from the music entirely by running a random number generator until I get a series of numbers that meets some kind of criteria (e.g.: one of each integer from 0-11), apply these to pitches and/rhythms, then use them to create a section of music. This works great when trying to compose an unpredictable rhythmic or melodic pattern.
TJS: Who are some of your favorite composers? Have any influenced your writing in any way?
GR: My taste is eclectic, with my first big interest being in rock and popular music, which still stays to this day. Of course, I’m influenced by all the staple modern composers – Stravinsky for his nontraditional orchestration techniques and quirky, yet accessible rhythms, Debussy and Ravel for their lush harmonies that “break the rules” (and have a jazzy feel to them), Varèse for both his use of noise and the way he developed melodies. These elements all found their way into progressive rock music, something I studied and performed for years. When studying the music of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Opeth, Porcupine Tree, Dream Theater, Genesis, etc, one can find quite a few similarities. Aspects of Mozart, Andriessen, Reich, Dowland, J.S. Bach, Meshuggah, The Beatles, Radiohead, and Ulver (among others) have also made it into my writing.
One of my biggest influences has actually been Nobuo Uematsu, best known for his work with the Final Fantasy video game series. Not only does his music tell the story in the games, it broke the stereotype of games just having simple, repetitive ditties repeat ad-nauseum. Suites of his music have been orchestrated for live performances, which removes the electronic aesthetic also associated with games, and adds another level of expression. The fact that his music can stand on its own but also serve a multimedia purpose opens the door to another application of music.
TJS: What can you tell us about your pieces being performed at the Music at the Museum concert?
GR: Of the three pieces being performed Sunday, two are premieres written especially for the concert. Here’s a rundown of each piece:
Saxophone Sonata (2015) was commissioned for alto saxophone by David Wozniak after he heard another one of my pieces at a concert where we were both performing some new works. He requested I quote Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” (1854) somewhere in the piece; I chose to adapt it and vary it for the second theme, which contrasts the first, more angular idea. Musically speaking, this piece is probably best described as “pan-tonal;” it’s not in a set key, but is far from dissonant and has some solid tone centers. The harmony is based on both jazz chords – 9ths, 11ths, 13ths – but also quartal and quintal sonorities, which give it a more edgy and modern sound. Alto saxophone was the first instrument I really studied, but my knowledge is somewhat limited to jazz and concert band music. However, modern virtuosi are always discovering new techniques. I avoided several of these as it doesn’t fit the style of the piece, but I did include some high notes (in the altissimo register) that aren’t in a standard fingering chart, which really shows how the instrument can shine.
I went into my undergraduate studies completely oblivious to the world of atonal music. Luckily, through the teaching of my composition teacher there, Dr. Douglas Ovens, I was exposed to the possibilities of eschewing conventional harmony and key centers. I’ve dabbled with atonal music since then, but always found it tiring in large contexts; I feel there are only a few composers that can really keep my attention writing in a dissonant style for so long, so I like to use harsh dissonance and atonality sparingly and usually in conjunction with more tonal passages. Seven Pieces for Three Musicians (2016) is a suite of seven short pieces, several of which are purely atonal, but I think they work because they are united by a simple musical idea that ties the piece together. Each movement is completely different from the others, each developed on a theme of either pitches, timbre, or harmony.
Like many parents, I draw inspiration from my children. One day when my son was two years old, he was going through the weather app on my phone. After innocuously watching some videos about recent weather events, he threw his hands up in frustration (perhaps expecting cartoons), scowled, and complained, “this thing’s all about storms!” Hence, I chose the title “…all about storms.” The musical ideas in the piece are drawn from the turbulent opening piano motive, delicately placed in its highest register. The entire keyboard is utilized, with the other instruments providing new tone colors as well as ideas that are idiosyncratic to their instruments. This piece embodies some of my most-used musical devices: diatonic melodies executed over a jagged, quirky rhythm to create an intricate rhythmic fabric that is later contrasted by slowly moving sonorities with sustained pitches.
Thanks so much for speaking with us, Gregg! See you on Sunday!
The Music at the Museum concert is this Sunday, April 17, 2016 at 2 PM and will be held at the Zimmerli Art Museum in downtown New Brunswick, NJ! This concert will feature a program of music by local composers, including Amanda Harberg, TJ Sclafani, and Gregg Rossetti. Before the concert, there will be a pre-concert forum presented by Harberg and clarinetist Maureen Hurd (more info can be found on the flyer below!). Don’t miss this unique opportunity to hear these new works produced by great NJ composers! This concert is FREE to the general public, yet seating is limited!