Interview with Steven Gates conducted by Joanna Sisk-Purvis
JSP: Can you tell me a little bit about your musical background? When you started playing music or writing music.
SG: Absolutely, I started like a lot of people: in the public school band system. And I was lucky enough to be in a school district that had good band programs and I played the clarinet starting in, I think, fifth grade all the way through college. And at about the same time I started the clarinet I started taking private piano lessons at home so about age nine I started my formal training. And in terms of writing music, that all started I think when I was 14. My freshman year in high school, I remember hearing some of the band music that we played and it just, it really turned me on and got me excited about what made music tick and why did some of these moments sound so spectacular. So I remember the first day I wandered over to the podium and actually looked at the full score which kind of was a revelation to se how everything lined up vertically because I was so used to seeing Clarinet I part and nothing else so to be able to look at why the trombones sound so neat at this one spot. And then things kinda started to click and I took a music theory class as a freshman and learned some fundamental stuff about harmony and whatnot and just sat down and started writing music at the piano and then orchestrating it for the full band as soon as I knew how the transpositions worked. I was able to figure out a way to make it all sound pretty good with the whole band and it just seemed normal. It wasn't a big deal and it wasn't hard. You know, I figured a lot of people did this. And then, after that I realized it was very rare for somebody, a fourteen-year-old to write complete full band music and orchestrate it that largely. But that's all I was exposed to. I was never in a string quartet or a piano trio, nothing small. I was only in large ensembles so that I thought that was the only concert music that existed was band music so it was sort of out of a naiveness that I was writing such large music right on at an early age.
JSP: And did you continue that through high school?
SG: Yeah, yeah I wrote I think only two band pieces in high school. I didn't write a lot. I wasn't prolific. But everything I wrote early on, the first three pieces I wrote, two in high school and then one when I first got into college, were for full wind ensemble and then, thank goodness, my college composition teacher kinda steered me in the direction of chamber music to really focus on more technique and understand how individual instruments worked better and just exposed me to a whole other world of chamber music which is so important. And it was almost funny realizing how little I knew about it back then but that's why we learn. So yeah, I did that all through high school and then it was in college that I finally narrowed my focus to smaller things.
JSP: When did you decide that you wanted to be a composer as your career?
SG: Um, I don't remember any day or month when it was a decision but I just remember almost the moment I got into high school, when I was about 14, and I was writing that first band piece and it was just so fun and I just felt like it was something I was good at. And it turns out that not a lot of people had that ability to do it. I thought wow, that's something kinda neat and why not just stick with that? And it was the only thing that really stuck out to me as my calling and it hasn't really changed ever since. You know, there's never been a year or any extended period of time where I've drifted away from music and decided I'm gonna go somewhere else. I've always felt like I was going to be a composer and that hasn't changed although there's certainly been times when I've wondered if it was a bad idea. You know, the economic prospects of it aren't very good. It's a tough business, but never to the point where I've abandoned it. I guess all through high school I kinda knew, to answer your question.
JSP: And then you went to UC Denver?
SG: The University of Denver . It's a fairly small private school.
JSP: And you majored in composition there and you continued to perform as well.
SG: Well I continued playing clarinet until about my sophomore or junior year in college and then right about the same time I kinda switched my emphasis, in terms of performance, from clarinet to jazz piano. I'd been taking classical lessons all along and I was an ok piano player but I knew I wasn't going to be a classical pianist. That was never really an option. I just didn't have, I don't think I had the practice devotion that you really need to succeed but, you know, I had good enough chops that I could, you know, to get by. And once I introduced my jazz knowledge to my piano playing ability, it was a good fit so I became a jazz pianist, in terms of performing. That was about my sophomore or junior year in college and that hasn't changed and it's a good thing that I finally found something that felt right. I mean, the clarinet was fun but I never felt like it was what I was really meant to do. Now, finally, after years of playing saxophone in jazz band, playing clarinet in wind ensemble, percussion even, I played for a little while and then being a composer and just having all these hats that I wore, it was good that a finally focused to two things: playing jazz piano and writing concert music and I think that's a nice balance. I like that.
JSP: And after you finished college, did you come straight out to L.A. ?
SG: No, I took two years off and I had a day job as a receptionist to pay the bills and then at nights and on the weekends I played piano and keyboard with a band and we did a lot of casual gigs, weddings, bar mitzvas, whatever, private parites. And we played everything from straight-ahead jazz standards during the dinner hour all the way to the worst popular music that you could possibly want at a wedding but even that stuff was pure fun and I didn't mind it a bit. It was great to learn a lot of songs that were from earlier generations that I didn't grow up with. So it was a lot of fun and I did that for about two years. I also played in a church band so I was, I guess you'd call it a contemporary Christian service and I was the keyboardist. So I had some performing experience during those two years that was good because performance anxiety was always a problem. So just being on stage every day, or not every day, but every week, was really a good thing. Even if it was a wedding, you're still performing so that was good. And I did for about a year and a half to two years. And then Colleen and I got married in 2000 and moved out here to Pasadena solely to go to USC. That's the reason we moved from Colorado out here.
JSP: What was it that drew you to USC, in particular?
SG: I think it was the realization that, after playing in these casual environments and, as fun as it was, I felt like the musical talents that I had, or all the work I had put in, in getting my bachelors degree, it really wasn't being utilized to its fullest. So it occurred to me that I really needed to get back into writing concert music which I basically neglected for the full two years I was performing. I don't think I wrote a note. Once I graduated, I stopped entirely. I totally stopped. I knew that I had to get back on the track of writing concert music and being in an academic environment that would push me. And it was clear that USC was the best choice for that for a couple of reasons: it's got a great composition program and it's well-respected and I knew about it since [I was] a freshman in college. I knew that USC was sorta the Mecca of composition programs, at least on the west side of the country. And then the fact that it was out west here, you know, my family and Colleen's family are both in northern California . It just was the perfect solution and neither of us were ready to move back East, as many good schools as there are out there. It would just be too far away from the family. I went to USC not really knowing a lot about the faculty or the school other than its reputation; [I] almost blindly went here and it turns out it was a blessing because it's been a great school. I mean I knew enough to know I was going to a good school. I wasn't completely ignorant of the school. But I didn't know a lot of the details I would recommend most students check into before moving to go to a school. It worked out. I've been happy here ever since.
JSP: Who have all of your composition teachers been at USC?
SG: I started studying with Frank Ticheli my first year. And there were, I think, two things that I learned from him that are extremely important and I'll never forget. And that's, he's taught me, well, first of all, how to be more rhythmically free and rhythmically exciting and less constrained by the barline. And much more rhythmically free. I think that's the best word I can think of to describe it. And secondly, he taught me the whole idea of not settling for writing music that simply works. But striving for perfection even though we know we that can't achieve it. Try to achieve perfection and to not just settle for a passage of music you've written that is functional and is okay but then to rethink it and say, ‘how can I make it better?' and to revisit it, and to somehow invigorate it with a sense of energy and excitement and passion that is so common in his music. So, those two things in particular I find very valuable that I've learned from him. And then I began studying with Dr. James Hopkins my second year at USC and then I'm still studying with him today and from him, I've learned so much about musical pacing and formal issues and, of course, anything involving orchestration he is so knowledgeable on and he has such great insight into how instruments work together and what's going to happen if they do this or that. Orchestrationally, he's been a great help, and, in terms of large scale musical pacing and form and he's been so supportive and non-threatening yet pushes you hard at the same time. It's been a great match working with him. And next year I will study with Dr. Crockett which I'm very much looking forward to. So by the time I leave, I will have studied with three which I think is a great thing about this program is that they, not only are they okay with it, but they encourage you to study with different faculty members unlike a lot of other departments within the school of music, changing teachers is really not an option in some cases. So I love the openness about this department. They want you to get a wide variety of exposure.
JSP: That's great. So your individual teachers actually encourage you to switch around.
SG: Yeah, I think it's rare that a student would study any more than two years with one teacher.
JSP: You've also been teaching and you teach aural skills and theory. Do you also teach composition?
SG: No. Actually officially, I've just been an aural skills teacher. Although I've subbed for a few theory classes and of course incorporate theory into my aural skills classes. My teaching at USC has consisted of me being a part-time lecturer in teaching aural skills and then following that year of me being a lecturer I entered the doctoral program and then became, my official title was a T.A., teaching assistant. So my teaching load actually lessened a little bit once I started the doctoral program. But it's still aural skills and I just teach the Friday labs now.
JSP: Do find that that's mainly a job or have you gotten some value as a composer or just in other areas from that?
SG: Oh, I think I've probably gotten more out of it than my students have, unfortunately. I hope not, but sometimes I feel that's the case. No, it's done a lot of things for me, of course any time you teach something you have to learn it better than you learned it yourself. You have to sort of revisit things. So my ear has gotten much better having to teach aural skills. Especially now that I'm teaching the sophomore level, the atonal music, I've really had to make sure that I'm on top of that which has been great. But I think even more importantly, being in front of a group of people and having to be in that position of leadership and some sort of authoritative role has been so beneficial for my confidence, my poise, and it's been wonderful. That's another terrific thing about this program is that so many of the graduate composers are able to teach and get that opportunity to be in a classroom by themselves with students.