American composer, conductor and lecturer Z. Randall Stroope composed since the age of 10 and over the years built up a very fruitful creative career with over 180 published works. In addition, he serves as the Director of Choral and Vocal Studies at Oklahoma State University. He also is head of the Oklahoma State University Concert Chorale, Chamber Choir, and Women’s Choir. Now while combining conducting and composing occupations, Stroope finds inspiration from one to the other. In the interview, the composer discusses his conducting style, the power of discipline and how conducting made him a better composer.
Although composing from age of 10, you have started your career in voice performance. How did you found your path as a composer, conductor and lecturer that you are today?
I began classical piano study quite early. My mother taught me improvisation on the piano, as well, and before I was 10, I could hear any tune and instantly play it back with harmonization. In addition, I studied theory, chamber music and singing through summer study near Dallas, Texas, in the very early years. I received scholarships to study voice at the University of Colorado where I focused on art song and opera. Following that, I pursued a performing career in voice before I began teaching, mostly performing tenor roles in late Baroque and Classical works.
How the vocal and choral studies had influenced you as a composer?
The voice is an instrument capable of intense expression and timbre possibilities, and I was naturally drawn to this in my compositional palette. Vocal solo or choral music has a long heritage in music history, and is a principal “architect” of much music as we know it today. As a result, it is a natural influence to composers.
How your understanding of music composing changed from your youth times to now?
I began writing with a great deal of harmonic “space,” utilizing quartal and quintal harmonic structures. Then, I moved toward more sound layers and rhythmic interest. Recently, I added extended techniques instrumentally and vocally that mix well and attract a new listening base. The real challenge of composition, in my opinion, is to create art that 1) is an “honest” reflection of the artist’s feelings 2) pushes the perimeters of the art form and contributes something new in each generation, while all the time finding new ways to connect to today’s listeners.
Your composition “The Cloths of Heaven” was noticed throughout the country. How do you think this piece changed you as a composer?
The first two works that best defined me as a composer were written in the same year – “Amor de mi alma” and “The Conversion of Saul.” Both have remarkable texts, and both are as different as the east is from the west. Yet, I believe I captured musically the essence of the text in both, through different technique vocabularies.
I have read that you “Through conducting learned about what works in composition”. How do you incorporate conducting in your creative process? In what details do it improves your pieces?
There are many people who compose and conduct in equal measure, and many who are professional singers or instrumentalists, as well. Most of the master composers of the past were conductors and also performers – Rachmaninoff (pianist and composer) is one of many examples. Of course, the best path is one that fits a particular composer, so there is no “one size fits all.” In my case, I have been a brass player, pianist, and also a singer from an early age, and now enjoy a conductor/guest conductor career. Composition, however, is my principal passion, and my knowledge of the craft though playing and conducting is invaluable. Conducting, composing, performing and teaching are all mutually complimentary. Playing an instrument informs what works in composition, and conducting informs what works in an ensemble with many moving parts. It is like designing and building an automobile (composition), and then driving it (conducting) to make sure things work in a synchronized manner. Naturally, there are some marvelous composers who do not conduct. For me, that happens to be my path.
How would you describe your conducting style?
Efficient and clean, with an attempt to make every gesture connect to something in the score. Conductors must communicate ideas to the ensemble, and the ensemble to the audience. In my view, music of the masters (often referred to as “classical music”) is every bit as viable as it was at the time it was written. The disconnect, then, is not with today’s changing audiences, it is most often with the conducting/performance of the works in a manner that not engage the audience to listen.
What is the difference of conducting your own pieces and pieces written by other composers?
There is little difference, really, except that I feel more apt to change the tempo, articulation or continue “evolving” one of my works. Composition is musical “glimpse” of the composer at a finite time in their life. As the composer’s career progresses, so does their perception of all art, and especially their own composition. It changes with time. I approach my compositions differently every time I conduct them, because I have grown – I have changed, and as such, my perception has changed.
You have performed in all the most important halls and collaborated with incredible musicians. Was there a performance that meant the most to you?
I have conducted music for mass at the Vatican on eleven occasions. Each one is different and incredible. I have sung in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Notre Dame in Paris, and the Berlin Dom. Each was a significant building block of my experience. I spent a week in northern Italy with 10 young conductors the last two summers, and had a class in the morning, composed all afternoon, dinner together, and performing excerpts of their writing in the evening. I would have a difficult time choosing one performance experience. Each one is connected to people you meet, beautiful and historical venues, and great music. Each one is special.
How could you describe your lifestyle as a musician?
My musical career is made of three independent, yet mutually depended parts – composing, guest conducting, and teaching. I compose for two hours each morning, starting at about 4:00, and then travel to the university to teach. Most weekends, I am traveling to guest conduct. I conduct about 35 concerts a year. What elements of it challenge me the most? Efficient use of time. Time with family. Email.
You have toured and performed in different countries. Did you noticed any major differences in different cultures on how they organize concerts, rehearse? There is really little difference in those things that may affect a performance – preparation, passion, performance level, and so on. Great music is being made nearly everywhere. Naturally, there are idiosyncrasies of a particular performing space, audience, and so on, but in general the desire to play well, sing well, and make a performance special is there in nearly every place I have conducted.
Yes, both of these teachers were quite influential, and students of the great French teacher Nadia Boulanger. Cecil Effinger was an oboist and he had a very strong melodic vocabulary, which he reflected in his teaching. Normand Lockwood was the teacher whom I studied the longest. I can identify many things in my current writing style that can be attributed to Mr. Lockwood – the idea of the use of silence as a strong part of the music; to tie across the bar line as a rhythmic motivator to the melodic intent; to integrate elements from past centuries into contemporary composition, while still pressing forward with new concepts, and so on. His ability to change one small aspect of a work – sometimes only one measure, could revolutionize the entire work. He was like a “musical surgeon.”
Do you feel like you had to give up certain things in your life for music?
Any discipline which is worthwhile has sacrifices. As Leonard Bernstein said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not enough time.” I rarely meet a musician who has a lot of extra time. Sacrifices for me are not uncommon to most composers. But I feel that the opportunities and friendships that have been possible because of my work far outweigh the sacrifices.
What are you trying to affect, influence the listeners? How would you describe the power of music and what it means to you personally, as a professional musician?
Music is everywhere – shopping, films, restaurants, markets, banks – everywhere. People have become numb to it, because it is like breathing. It is passive listening or mindless listening. In my composition, I am trying to excite as many mental and emotional platforms as I can, so that my music causes the listener to stop, contemplate about the meaning and effect of a work, how it applies to their perception of life, and by doing so – perhaps it changes their thinking about a wide variety of issues.
Define inspiration – does it exist?
Inspiration definitely exists. Inspiration happens when the one’s mind and emotions are awakened by one’s senses – a touch, a sound, something seen, a taste that reminds us of something in the past, or even smell. This reacts to our emotions, and our psyche “creates” or communicates a response. These reactions between a human and their environment are continuous. How strong “inspiration” feels is equal to how aware or sensitive we are to our inner self. Music is created on a canvas of silence. Silence allows us to “listen” to our emotions and “write” those emotions down in the form of music. Inspiration is not a skill. Writing down our thoughts in a musical context requires skill, of course. But too many composers quickly move to the theoretical, and don’t wait long enough for the inspirational.
How do you listen to the music of others? What are you searching for? What affects you or resonates with you the most?
Naturally, musicians are intellectually drawn to a compositional idea or unusual combination of instruments, innovative use of harmonic vocabulary, among others. But fundamentally, musicians and people in other disciplines have the same wants and desires. That is a common thread. So at this most basic, common level, MUSIC MUST COMMUNICATE – it must excite some internal emotional response. It can be sadness, agitation, peacefulness, love, introspection, excitement, and a thousand other emotions. But it must “connect” to some sense. If not, it what we call “sidewalk music.”
What is the biggest lesson on creativity you had to learn?
Value time to connect with one’s self. In the 21st century, artists have the same amount of time – but far more resources – than Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Shakespeare, Rubens, J. S. Bach, Toscinini, and hundreds of others. But what has happened with all of these fantastic resources that we now have? These discoveries/inventions distract us more often than they assist us. Creativity demands time to think, to contemplate, to sort, and to find value and honesty in what one writes. We must not confuse quantity with quality. Yes, we can do more in less time – but is “more” – higher quality? What are we rushing toward? More is not better, it is just more.
How much of your own life is reflected in your work?
My life is well-documented in my work like an “emotional chart”- a graph of my journey. Music is a personal reflection on my life at that particular moment. For instance, several years ago, I had many difficult challenges all at once – it was during that time that I wrote works that are more rhythmically complex and harmonically dissonant. Another period was a time of being in a more depressed state – the music during that time reflects that.
What are your thoughts on the future of classical music?
In my opinion, “classical” music will never die but will most definitely be reborn. This rebirth is already happening in many forms – more chamber music concerts and less large ensemble productions, less programming of “historical” music, sadly, and more commissioning and programming of contemporary, more concerts that “connect” to wider audiences and less that engage a small niche, more focus on issues that interest people who are not strongly involved in the arts. In other words, the rebirth will be the “re-connection” of visual and performing art to people who may only have a passing interest in art – the bringing art back to the people (less formal, connect to contemporary issues), and not the old emphasis of bring people to the art (concert halls, formal events, and so on).
Are there any future projects that excites you the most?
I have many projects that I am developing and working toward – many of them internationally. I just participated in an international composition panel in Singapore that was wonderfully gratifying, and I plan to continue enjoying those connections. I am conducting a choral tour through the Baltic states in the summer of 2021 – my 24th international tour. And, I am conducting a concert of my music in Carnegie Hall, New York next year which will be an honor. Music is a wonderful and ever-changing discipline!
Thank you for the conversation!