Sometimes, it just starts with a horn.
Composer J.M. Gerraughty, known to friends as Jason, was a New Hampshire horn student that had quite an educational upbringing through his experiences as a marching band musician, and today is making a lot of compelling compositional music. Having been taught and mentored by many great teachers in the music education system, even now he continues to study composition at Stony Brook University and also teaches privately.
CM: You had gone from a student of the horn to assistant conducting the Hollis Town Band and already composing by the age of 13. What made you decide to compose around that time?
JMG: I owe all of my early musical achievements to a local music teacher in the town I grew up in, named David Bailey. He was the kind of teacher that rolled with whatever I decided to come in to learn that night, be it horn, conducting, or composing. Extremely supportive of my musical career, he gave me my first conducting gigs, as well as my first premiere. As for the specific impetus as to why I started composing then, my parents bought me a new horn when I was thirteen. In the case was some blank staff paper. I looked at it, and had an epiphany:”if this stuff comes blank, why not try to fill it?” I brought Mr. Bailey the first thing I wrote (a duet for horn and trumpet, because Mr. Bailey was a trumpet player), and the rest is history.
CM: You continued your training in composition at The Hartt School. What did they have to offer you that was significant in your maturity as an artist?
JMG: The Hartt School significantly shaped my career as a composer. At Hartt, I studied privately with Ingram Marshall, Robert Carl, and Stephen Gryc, although I found Dr. Carl to be the most influential of the three. His advice to me was to spend time experiencing art from all places. As a result, I spent as much time looking at art from the Wadsworth Atheneum and Real Art Ways as I did in a practice room. At the Atheneum I saw my first Rauschenberg (Retroactive I), and it was one of the most significant moments in my young career.
CM: Among your works, the piece that caught me the most by surprise was “Say Nothing” (scored for 14 saxophones/narrators). It is still a very polarizing thing to hear voices in a piece that aren’t showcased as singing ones, but voices that are shouting. After hearing this and experiencing some of the music I hear at Bang On a Can and from other current composers, I get the sense that theatre has been making its way into a lot of new music composition styles.
JMG: I understand what you’re getting at, but I wouldn’t necessarily call what you’re experiencing to be “theatre”. I think that a lot of the indie/alt/post/something-classical composers (like BOAC), in their integrating of popular music’s constructive devices, have also integrated popular music’s embracing of the performative. As classical musicians, our assumption is that meaning can only be derived by the music itself, not the conditions under which it’s played (by whom, where, why, etc.); this is not the case in popular music. As for Say Nothing, it is striking to us as classical musicians that the saxophone players speak, but only because our expectation is that they won’t. But there’s no reason why they can’t; not telling them to speak is the same kind of aesthetic decision as what notes to play, or what instruments to play. More recently, I had composed a piece for 4 vocalists, alto flute, bass clarinet, bassoon, and offstage trumpet, titled Slant of Light (Check out the recording on my site!). The vocalists all double on harmonicas in different keys. When the premiere came along, the piece was originally criticized for being gimmicky: there were auxiliary instruments, “exotic” instruments, the singers have to speak, there was a “theatrical” offstage trumpet. Some composers acted like I had somehow cheated by expanding the limits of the instrumentation I had been handed. But had I not used the forces that I did, the piece would have sounded completely different, and I probably wouldn’t have been satisfied with the results. As a friend of mine put it, “We study pieces for their gimmicks, not for how well they fit our expectations.”
CM: In the 2002 work “Suite” I heard a direct quote from the Scherzo movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony! Was this shout-out to Dvorak your way of connecting the old and new worlds of classical music?
JMG: You’re right, there’s a direct quote from Dvorak in my Suite for Chamber Orchestra. There are other quotes in the middle movement of that piece as well, such as Debussy’s La Cathedrale Engloutie. This was the first piece of mine to use quotations, and considering that it is an early piece for me, I’m not quite sure I had gotten it right yet (I wonder if I’ve even got it right now!). Growing up involved in drum corps from the age of thirteen, I had always been interested in the way that corps manipulated established repertoire toward its own ends. They were always taking popular pieces and cutting them up, re-scoring them, re-ordering them, and re-contextualizing them, all with expressive ends in mind. In this fashion, they were able to create a sort of new language (or at least a new dialect) from these well-worn classics (I could easily talk for days about the importance of drum corps as an American musical form, and how it is vastly under-appreciated by classical musicians, which is too bad). At the time, I was studying how composers in the Twentieth Century were doing the same thing, in a different way. Hearing Berio’s Sinfonia for the first time at Hartt was a tremendously important moment for me. I’ve been obsessed with that piece since then; every time I listen to it, study the score, or analyze it, I learn something new.
CM: I really like the idea for the chamber suite “4 Children’s Questions”. Was this based on actual questions that children asked?
JMG: Unfortunately, I didn’t interview any kids for the piece. I came up with the questions on my own, trying to think about how children might see the world. The piece is pretty uncharacteristic of how I think of my “sound” to be, but it was a good thing for me to write because it was an exercise in patience, negative space, and some softer pastel colors that I hadn’t been using in other pieces. I remember having to tough that piece out.
CM: Do you have any future dream projects or collaborations you’d like to share?
JMG: I can’t think of any “dream projects” right now, except for that coveted orchestral commission that many of us composers seem to always be wringing our hands for! I don’t really dream of pieces until I know whom/what/where/why I’m writing for; in that respect, I guess I’m more of a collaborator than I give myself credit for. I like active back-and-forth feedback with the musicians that I write for; I often send them partial scores during the composition process that help to shape the piece in the end. When I think of a “dream project,” it feels a little like I have some piece already written in my head, which is very rarely the case for me. I would like to write for larger ensembles, and at the moment wind ensembles seem to be more open to that than orchestras. I have recently finished a piece for wind ensemble and electronics, called TWEAK, for conductor David Vickerman at The Peabody Institute. I’d love to do more work like that.
J.M. Gerraughty.com (Official website)
EDITOR’S NOTE: My apologies for the absence of video clips of Jason’s works, but please check out his music on his website (Click on “about”, and then “music”).