Composer, Teacher, and Artistic Director of the American Modern Ensemble
Jacobs School alumnus, ‘modern day master’ composer, artistic director of American Modern Ensemble, Robert Paterson is Project Jumpstart’s Entrepreneur of the Month.
Named The Composer of the Year in 2011 by the Classical Recording Foundation, his music has been on the Grammy® ballot yearly and was considered ‘Best Music of 2012′ on National Public Radio. He also directs AME’s affiliated record label, American Modern Recordings (AMR), distributed by NAXOS.
With an MM from the Jacobs School, BM from Eastman, and DMA from Cornell, Paterson’s music has been performed by the Louisville Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, American Composers Orchestra, Austin Symphony, Vermont Symphony, BargeMusic, the Albany Symphony Dogs of Desire, among others. Paterson’s choral works were recorded by Musica Sacra and maestro Kent Tritle, with a world premiere performance at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City in 2015.
PJ: Not only do you making your living as a composer, but you run an ensemble, a record label, and as of summer 2018, direct a brand new summer festival, the Mostly Modern Festival. How do you balance these jobs? Is this what a 21st century musician’s career looks like, in your opinion?
RP: To answer your first question, I wish I could say that I use a magical formula that helps me balance everything, but each day brings a new set of challenges. I think what’s most important is to prioritize what needs to get done and develop a system that helps keep you focused and organized. You’ll get to a point once you’re out of school where you’ll realize that you can’t do everything. Eventually, something has to give, so you’ll need to decide what’s most important, and what can be left behind.
As for what a 21st century musician’s career looks like, there aren’t any “one size fits all” approaches anymore, at least for most of us. For many decades, the default career path many young musicians was to play in an orchestra, or if you are a composer, compose works on commission, and perhaps teach at a university. Of course, we all know that teaching jobs are drying up, and orchestras are struggling to fill seats. However, there’s good news: there’s never been a time in history when people have consumed music more than they do now. There’s a lot of room for opportunities and growth, if you’re willing to diversify and think outside the box. In today’s world, it’s becoming more normal for a musician to do many different jobs at once and also construct an individualized career path that capitalizes on one’s own unique talents. You may teach one day a week at your local college, play in a Klezmer trio or sing in a choir and teach in a grade school, compose music for military bands, and also play guitar in a rock band. The possibilities are seemingly endless.
PJ: What are the non-musical skills you believe a student should possess or hone in on while they are still in school to launch themselves forward?
RP: Probably the best move you can make while you’re in school is to learn how to manage your time well, but a close second would be to learn the business side of our profession. Figure out how musical organizations are run, how unions work, how to write grants, what mechanical royalties are, how to contract gigs, etc. You should also work on your writing skills, and if at all possible, put yourself in situations where you need to speak publicly. You would not believe how many musicians can’t speak to an audience, even if they are great performers, composers, or even conductors.
PJ: How did you first come to the idea to create the American Modern Ensemble, and how did you start to make it a reality?
RP: Back in 2005, Victoria and I had been living in NYC for a couple years. At the time, I wasn’t receiving as many performances of my music in New York as I liked, and she wanted an outlet for performing contemporary music. It seemed like a good idea to start an ensemble, so we did a test concert, just violin and piano, to see how we felt about the idea. That show went very well, so then we decided to schedule a few more shows for the following season. We decided on a name, American Modern Ensemble, a mission, which at the time was to promote living American composers, called some of our musician friends, and put up a website. We had a little seed money saved up from gigs and so on, and had a little help from our families, but it was a tough road right from the beginning. Some ensembles have a lot of financial help right from the start, but for us, it was difficult. The first three years were the worst, financially-speaking, because until you pass that point, most granting organizations won’t give you any funding, because you haven’t proven that you’ll succeed. This is one of the biggest hurdles when starting an ensemble. After that, things got better, and the rest is history.
PJ: What do you see as the next step for the ensemble?
RP: After thirteen seasons, we are embarking on perhaps our largest project to date, a brand new festival in Saratoga Springs, NY entitled the Mostly Modern Festival. AME will be in-residence at the festival, as well as a new orchestra called the American Modern Orchestra, and a new choir called the American Modern Choir. AME will still exist outside the festival and we will continue presenting concerts in NYC and nationally, but we are going to focus most of our effort right now on the festival since it has so much potential. We are extremely excited about next summer, to say the least.
PJ: Do you have advice for young composers who struggle to get their works performed?
RP: Put yourself out there. Don’t subscribe to the notion that “if I build it, they will come.” There’s just too much going on in today’s world for anyone to pay attention, unless you set yourself apart from everyone else. Don’t approach musicians or ensembles thinking “what can I get out of this?”, look at everything the other way around. See what you can offer them, and how they’ll benefit from working with you and programming your music. Always try and see things from the other person’s point of view. In the beginning, you may compose pieces for free, or for very little, but eventually, if you’re doing great work, things will change. No matter what, always be true to your beliefs, and be yourself. If you believe in your work and love what you do, it will rub off on others.
PJ: As a composer, what has been your most difficult work to compose, to date?
RP: I recently completed an opera entitled “Three Way” that was premiered by Nashville Opera and performed in Nashville and then at the BAM in Brooklyn, with a tremendous amount of great reviews and press, I might add. To me, an evening-length opera is just about the most difficult work you can tackle as a composer—not just because of the work itself, but because of the level of collaboration involved, and also because there are so many moving parts. If you aren’t good at working with others, you should never attempt to write an opera! You also have to really love the idea of someone, a director, for example, taking your idea and running with it. The sets may not be exactly what you envisioned, or someone may have a suggestion for how to make something tighter in one spot or another, and you need to have an open mind about it. If everyone is on the same page and you all trust each other, inevitably, it will turn out extremely well. I have to say, as much as I love writing orchestral works, chamber music, and choral works, and I’ve written quite a few of all of them, I have definitely been bitten by the opera bug, so to speak. I just love composing operas, working with singers and directors, and collaborating with others and trying to create a work that everyone will love.
PJ: In what ways did your degree from Indiana University help prepare you for your future and to be creative with your career path?
RP: IU was a fantastic experience all around. The teachers, ensembles, facilities, resources, my fellow students—everything added up to a complete whole. I certainly learned quite a bit from my composition teachers, Fred Fox and Eugene O’Brien, and the classes were excellent, but perhaps one of the most important skills I learned at IU was how to manage my time as efficiently as possible. While in school, I was incredibly busy composing and performing, so without learning how to carefully manage my time, I would have failed miserably. Performing in the IU New Music Ensemble led by David Dzubay was also educational, and probably helped encourage me to want to form my own professional new music ensemble, and now, the Mostly Modern Festival.