Dear Stephanie, St. Louis Symphony has performed Ravish and Mayhem in 2014. What has your journey been up until you found yourself in Powell Hall, listening to your music being performed by one of the best major orchestras in the country, conducted by the great David Robertson? What are three main achievements you can't believe you already have in your resume.
I must say that my whole compositional journey has been kind of unexpected, but joyfully so. Composition started as a hobby, but very quickly grew into more than that when I started taking composition classes late in my undergraduate degree. So of course, it’s completely unbelievable that I’ve already had a professional orchestra play my music merely five years after I decided to compose seriously.
Other unbelievable things: I have played the E-flat clarinet part to The Rite of Spring with a professional orchestra, I have had a piece performed on a symphony sponsored chamber music series, and I have written/arranged music for a theater production.
The titles of your works are very interesting and your works are very attractive not only to musicians, but also to the general public. In addition to being a composer, you are very active as a clarinetist. What is the starting point for your composition? Audience, musicians, music director or funders, who takes priority in your thought process when you start composing? Do you prefer when you have well defined parameters for commissions or do you just obey to your muse's calling without reservation?
Typically, when writing a piece, I start with a single theme or idea, usually inspired during walks or long drives. This is guided by whatever parameters I have for the piece—duration, performers, whatever mood I think the piece should encapsulate, etc. Usually, I find that having some guidelines for a piece are helpful; it the commissioner doesn’t set any, then I’ll set my own.
It’s often a dilemma among composers of whether to write in order to appease themselves, or their audience, or their performers, or whoever. By some magical providence, I haven’t had to choose. Maybe I’m just lucky that way, but I’ve found that what I want in a piece isn’t far off from what others want in a piece. I would sort of compare it to giving a speech to a room full of people—as long as you communicate clearly and genuinely, people tend to respond.
Your compositions vary in nature and feel. Does your academic background play a role in that or how would you explain it?
It’s a personal goal of mine to make every piece I write have its own distinct flavor, though my professors also encouraged this. I want to have as much breadth as I can in my writing, because I feel that would best foster my growth as a composer. That, and I hate being predictable.
In the long list of projects you have been involved with, it is easy to see that you have a passion for teaching music to younger generations although you're so young yourself. What feeds this passion? What have you learned from your interaction with younger people interested in music?
I really love being involved in teaching music—it gives me the opportunity to share all the wisdom that’s been handed to me by my many teachers…and pass on a little of my own. It’s quite an experience and a responsibility to take a passionate individual and help them realize that passion something real that they can control. My students have taught me a lot of things, and there are many things I have yet to learn. But, what never fails to amaze me is that kids are capable of doing and understanding just about anything if you just give them a little nudge in the right direction.
In the new music world, what is the most overrated and the most under-appreciated feature that you have encountered so far?
Oh man… Well, let me first say that I believe that composers should write whatever music they truly believe in—if the music is authentic to them, it will resonate somewhere in the world. That said, I find my judging eyebrow tends to rise whenever I hear the phrase, “I want to create sounds that no one has ever heard before.” Ironically, I feel the outputs of this philosophy tend to sound remarkably similar to one another.
As far as what is under-appreciated, I think we kind of live in a miraculous time—there’s not a lot that’s really “off-limits” in terms of style; music containing influences from pop music, jazz, and non-Western cultures are popping up all over the place. I suppose there’s the argument that “new music” as a whole is under-appreciated, especially in the orchestral world with grim statistics, like “X-giant-percent of classical concerts nationwide contain only music written by dead people.” But, we’re talking about that now, so that’s good, right?
What are some of your favorite composers and musicians whose work you find inspiring?
I absolutely cannot get over Prokofiev. His music is exactly what it needs to be all of the time, and his music is a lot of things. To me, he does everything so tastefully, and that includes being distasteful. And then, there’s the usual laundry list: Copland, Stravinsky, Ravel, Brahms, Beethoven…I’m a little old fashioned in my tastes.
Do you collaborate with artists of other genres? What other art forms are you attracted to? What art events do you attend regularly? What is the most experimental music venture you've been involved in until now?
I have collaborated with artists of different disciplines. I’ve taken a lot of art classes, and I tend to visualize my pieces in terms of pictures, so I naturally find it compelling to collaborate with visual artists. I also wrote a piece that was inspired by the rainforest section of the Missouri Botanical Garden, which was a very satisfying experience to me.
Do you play by rules? If so, what are some of them? (E.g. what time of day you write, how do you network, put emotions aside when discussing business, etc.)
I find I have a few must-haves in my music life. I must have silence when composing—any music outside my head immediately drowns out the music inside my head, which can be a challenge when your partner is a professional bass player and chronic whistler. We’ve always worked it out without incident, though. Contracts are a must-have. I prefer email correspondence for the written aspect, though I’m not opposed to phone calls. And I find that being my (best) self seems to work pretty well in terms of networking and discussing business, though I think my most powerful business card are my pieces themselves. Word of mouth is potent.
Life in St. Louis, MO, what is it like for a young composer and an artist? What are some of the most exciting venues and events? Why is St. Louis a nice city to live in or visit?
My fiancé and I chose St. Louis because it’s a nice, centralized travel hub for both of us. We absolutely love it—it’s quiet and friendly with lots of very well funded music programs with lots of potential private students. There are really great things happening artistically here—obviously the symphony is fantastic, but also the Sheldon puts on great shows, and Alarm Will Sound, a top-notch contemporary ensemble, is making a second home of the place.
And now at the end, listen to Stephanie Berg's music because…
You’ll have fun! And what I’ve written represents only the tip of the iceberg. Stay tuned.
Support local musicians/artists because…
There is so much amazing music and art that is happening in places you would least suspect. The creative drive is one of the things that unites us as a species, and it’s important for the health of any community to recognize and support that.
The road ahead in the arts & music making world is anything but,…