In celebration of 91Classical's Local Composers Month, we posed six questions to some of Nashville's classical music creators. Gary Powell Nash, who teaches at Fisk University and draws from a rich variety of sources of inspiration for his own work, is our featured composer this week.
How would you describe your compositional style?
Neo-Romantic, bordering on Avant Garde.
What do you love about being a composer in Nashville?
Multiple part response here. I enjoy the overall wealth of musicians, as well as musical genres represented in Nashville, Tennessee. I enjoy being around numerous other composers, including those writing music in various genres. Fisk University, where I’ve been employed since 2003, is home to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers introduced the Negro Spiritual to the world. Likewise, during my 16 years of living in Nashville, I’ve met many singers and songwriters, most of whom are writing country and pop music. I’m especially impressed with those who have been successful in regards to getting consistent performances of their music, as well as commercial recordings and session work.
In regards to performances, I’m quite excited that my music has been performed by a few local groups, such as Alias, Chatterbird, Intersection and Portara Ensembles, along with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in 2005. I didn’t have these opportunities at my former place of employment, Mississippi Valley State University, mostly due to its location. Before that, I was doing my doctorate at Michigan State University where my music was mostly performed by student groups, as opposed to any outside the university but still local. With that said, I did have occasional performances of my music at other universities, along with performances outside academia.
Can you tell us a little bit about something you’re writing now?
I’m trying to complete a new work for symphonic band and soprano solo. I actually started this work last fall in hopes for a performance during 2018-19. For this project, I used a poem titled Somewhere Within by John Gracen Brown. I’ve never met Mr. Brown face to face; nonetheless, he sent me two books of his poetry out of the blue and I decided that I would set something of his to music at my first available opportunity.
I’ve also started a flute choir piece for the University of Tennessee, Martin Flute Ensemble. This work is titled Skyhawk Fantasy in which Skyhawk is the school’s nickname. I’m also using computer binary code as the basis for this new work.
Which composer do you wish was better known?
To be honest, there’s not one in particular. I say that because something that I’ve come to realize is that there are many composers who appear “hot” right away and then after a few years, they’re not mostly because performers and audiences tend to gravitate more toward “the next new big thing,” as opposed to taking one that appeals to them and continuously supporting them.
I understand that it’s really a life issue, mostly meaning that it is the way many people think; nonetheless, this is really the best way for me to answer this question as I believe there are many composers who I wish were better known. I can say that I have a few local friends and colleagues who fit this description; however, I prefer not to mention any names.
You also teach composition at Fisk University. What’s something you want to be sure your composition students learn during their studies with you?
This is also a multiple part question. My first goal is to make sure they understand how to write an effective composition. To further clarify, I want to make sure that their work is sound in regards to rhythm, harmony, melody, form, counterpoint and orchestration, as well as having a solid premise with suitable unifying devices for their new work.
Then for those who are aspiring to become a career composer, I’ll mention items such as discriminant listening to all types of music, studying scores, meeting as many people as possible, including attending musical conferences and workshops and attending as many live musical performances as possible, within reason.
Equally as important, I want them to understand how to get their music performed, which is mostly a matter of taking advantage of opportunities. I also want for them to know to get continuous performances of their music as well as making the most of those performances, referring to membership in either BMI or ASCAP and professional organizations such as College Music Society and Society of American Music.
Your music draws from a wide range of styles, including many African American musical traditions. What do you hope to convey as a composer by blending Western classical music with these styles?
The best way for me to answer this question is by quoting myself from my published artist statement. As a composer, I am not only a creative artist but also an artistic ambassador, educator and, most of all, communicator. As a musician, my main objective is to interact and interface with as many people as possible. To paraphrase from one of the goals of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Professional Music Fraternity, in which I am a member, I want to instill in all people an awareness of music's important role in the enrichment of the human spirit through composition. One of my philosophies for teaching music is that music becomes important when my pupils can take items learned through music and apply them to real-life situations. I also use this philosophy in regards to my compositional activities.
I am a composer who has been very much influenced by my education and my environment, and I aspire to use those influences to compose music that contributes to and helps advance American music. My objective is to find the most unique and exotic subject matter as a premise for a new creative work. I am wholeheartedly committed to the unifying power of music, which includes the power to bridge cultures and generations.
Find more from Gary Powell Nash on his website.