Stuart Saunders Smith, An American Composer Part I

Stuart Saunders Smith is an American composer, poet, and editor of literary works. His catalog of musical compositions includes many different approaches for the performer, ranging from guided improvisation with graphic scores to notated pieces, but each encompasses the continuing traditions in New American Jazz and New American Classical music.

Most of the pieces he has written since his first published works in 1970 are for one or two players, and rarely exceed the instrumentation possible in a chamber setting. The exceptions include performance systems works which are essentially a set of guidelines for improvisation that can be performed by any number of players. As a result, the majority of his works often have a very personal feel and performances have an intimate quality.

In addition to providing vehicles for improvisation for players, a lot of his work offers strictly notated music in the classical tradition. Pieces such as Closing for solo guitar and “as if time would heal by its passing” for solo marimba explore wide intervals and precisely notated rhythms that are very complex. Other pieces explore, through rhythm, the possibilities of counterpoint available in instruments of non-definite pitch. Blue Too from 1983 is a nine-plus minute piece for solo drum set. The Noble Snare from 1988 was written for solo snare drum.

Some pieces, such as The Authors, And Cold, and Many Women, include a spoken part for the instrumental performer. Others may ask the performer to sing pitches while playing an instrument, such as violin.

Stuart is also very active in free and guided improvisation. At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he has been a professor of composition since 1975, he offers ensembles the opportunity to explore music created spontaneously beyond the confines of any preconceived notions or traditions such as tonality and form.

Stuart’s music is performed widely throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan. He is also in high demand among ensembles and performers that commission works from him. The University of Akron presented an entire concert of his works this past March celebrating his 60th birthday.

I met with Stuart at his home in Maryland to discuss his musical works, the compositional process and his experience as a composer in this time.

What are you currently working on?

I’m writing a piece called Husbands and Wives for two alto saxophones. I’ve been married as of yesterday 38 years, so it’s sort of a meditation on the nature of being married that long. One of the things that you never think about when you first get married is you were once separate, now you’re going to be together, but in the end you’re going to be separate again...unless you both go at the same time.

As you get older, as you are married longer, that notion of separation becomes more and more real and more and more poignant, so the piece tends to have a kind of tragic edge to it; because that realization is down the road. It’s a long time. Also, you begin to think about your own mortality when you turn sixty, for instance. That’s when I began to think about that in real terms. I mean, you’re not in mid life anymore. In twenty years, God willing, you’re eighty. You know at the age of sixty how fast time goes. It’s like that (snaps finger) just like a snap of a finger you were thirty and now you’re sixty.

The strange part of it is is that I don’t really feel any different than I did when I was thirty, or twenty-one for that matter. I think I’m a little wiser because I’ve lived longer and my pacing’s a little bit slower because I’ve lived longer, not because of any physical ailment, but, there’s that number looming: sixty years of age.

So, from experience you don’t feel the need to rush things.


Because you know what’s going to happen to an extent.

Yeah. Try to slow down time as much as you possibly can.

So you recreate this in your piece between the two saxophones.

Right. It starts off where there’s a saxophone solo with an accompanying music, kind of drone music with the other saxophone and there’s another saxophone solo, the other saxophonist. To symbolize, you start off kind of separately and you know each other a little bit. Then there’s the marriage part, which is the bulk of the piece. And then, at the end, there’s one saxophone solo with no accompaniment and then another saxophone solo with no accompaniment.

Now the interesting thing is, is all the saxophone solo’s music is identical as far as pitch material, but the rhythms are different. So, I wanted to portray that not that much has changed except, there’s one saxophone solo and then another, meaning that one person outlives the other...but they’re the same person.

So you do this through pitch material. Is there anything like shared themes that come together?

Yeah, there is. The next thing that happens after the opening saxophone solos is a unison-type passage.

...where they play together the same part...

Yeah. That symbolizes the marriage...the marriage ceremony itself. So, it’s a very programatic piece.

Are you having that performed soon?

That’s written for a recording that’s coming up of my saxophone music [that] Susan Fancher is doing and organizing. That will be coming out on Sylvia Smith’s label, 11 West Records. She records a lot of my music.

When will that be released?

The winter of 2008 is my guess.

You’ve been a professor now for thirty years.

Thirty three.

How does that affect you as a composer? Is there any thought process that you get from that experience that you wouldn’t otherwise?

I want to be really honest about that. There are many people at the University who are professors who write books. I am a composer who is a professor. I put my research and my composing first. I chose being a professor because it was a job where I was going to be teaching music...something I love very much...and it would give me enough free time to pursue my musical ambitions compositionally without much restraint.

I noticed early on, I was about fifteen...I had been doing club dates since I was thirteen, that there were these teachers, these kind of teachers, who had the summers off and didn’t have to teach a great deal. They were in fact expected to play music or compose music as part of their job, and I later learned these were called professors (laughter). And, they could compose or play anything they wanted, which I couldn’t do in the clubs. Even at the age of sixteen or so, I was very, very upset that I couldn’t play what I wanted to in the clubs. I had to mostly simplify what I was doing as a drummer. The more complicated I got, the more the club owner would come over and say, “What are you doing?!” I chaffed at that as I got older and older and my musical experiences led me to musics which were more complex like Indian music, Free Jazz, [and] New Classical music.

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