Clark Ross, known to Macjammers as composerclark, is a professor of music composition and theory, as well as electronic music, at Memorial University, Newfoundland, Canada. He was also the guitar professor for about 8 years. He has shared 18 compositions with us, each showing a unique classical voice (with a touch of jazz thrown in). His contributions to discussions about music, orchestral arrangements and song writing come from a very learned background, which is much appreciated by members…
“I spent a ridiculous amount of my life studying music in order to get this professor job,” Clark says, “but I am very fortunate to have it, because it allows me to keep writing music and having it played (and often broadcast) on a regular basis. It’s also pretty demanding; for about the first 10 years I worked 7 days a week, year-round, with no social life whatsoever. Then I got married, had a couple of kids, and I now have a somewhat more balanced life.”
Many of his tracks are performed by some of Canada’s best musicians. The music he’s shared is a real treat. My favorite composerclark submissions include:
- McGillicuddy’s Rant – (15 minute guitar solo) performed by Sylvie Proulx
- 3 Pieces for Orchestra, #1 – performed by Memorial University Chamber Orchestra
- 3 Pieces for Orchestra, #2 (Interlude) – performed by Memorial University Chamber Orchestra
- 3 Pieces for Orchestra, #3 – performed by Memorial University Chamber Orchestra
- Julia’s Prelude – Tim Steeves, pno
- Old Friends – #1 from “Three Pieces for Violin and Piano,” performed by Duo Concertante
- Jennifer’s Tune – jazz duet performed by Kristina Szutor, pno; Trish Reid, bass
- Steppin’ Out (14 minute piano trio) Nancy Dahn, vn., Thomas Heinrich, vc., Liana Lam, pno
- 5 Short Piano Pieces – Liana Lam, pno
- The Misty Mall of Avalon – performed by a high school band
- Dream Dance – Kristina Szutor, pno
- Lamentations – Thomas Loewenheim, cello
- Hearing Footsteps (dream) – Liana Lam, pno
When did you begin playing music?
“I was 5 when I began playing piano. My mother taught me for a while then I started taking lessons with another teacher. I’m not sure why I started, but my mother had apparently decided I was musical, and she got me started. My older brother had also been taking piano lessons, but I don’t think he liked them much. On the other hand, I really enjoyed them, but I’m not sure why. Possibly because I was a pretty shy kid, and music was something that made me feel at least a little special.”
Did you ever play in a band?
“I never played in a band. My piano lessons lasted only 4 years, because when I was 9 we moved from Venezuela (where I was born) to Peru, and my father couldn’t see the point of taking the piano with us, since the only people who played in the family were his wife and two sons. When I was 12 I was sent to a boarding school in Canada where I resumed piano lessons for a couple of years, but frankly, I didn’t enjoy them at all. This was the end of the ‘60s, when the Beatles were on top of the pop music world, and the music I was learning had no connection that I could see with the pop music that I was just getting into. When I was 14 we moved again (to New York City), and shortly thereafter I began guitar lessons, which gave me the chance to learn Beatles songs, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, Carole King, etc. I never played in bands, but I jammed with people a lot. I had no knowledge or experience of classical music at this point.”
What moved you to take up guitar?
“I suppose piano was my first musical love, but we moved when I was 9 and left it behind. When we moved to NYC, I was 14 and had become enraptured by pop music. The facts that (a) we no longer had a piano and (b) guitar is the most ubiquitous instrument in folk/pop/rock music made it easy for me to decide to learn guitar. Once I started, I’d play at least 4 hours a day; before school, after school, and at night. I virtually never did any school work; music was my obsession.”
Was the guitar the first instrument you wrote for?
“I’m not sure. I think I used to make things up on the piano when I was little, and then when I had a guitar I’d use it to work out songs. Much, much later, when I began the formal study of music composition I almost never wrote for the guitar; probably piano initially, and then all the other orchestral instruments.
“The guitar lessons I began as a teenager only lasted about a year because we moved again (to Belgium), so from that point on I was self taught, which I think helped develop my ears, since I was learning things mostly from listening to the radio or records. In the course of doing this, I’d make up music (improvise) a lot, but I never really got around to writing anything down for years. I’m not sure what the first song I wrote was, but it might have been ‘Percy’s Revenge,’ about an alienated kid who fantasizes about getting a gun in order to even the odds a bit… It’s pretty twisted, but it was actually pretty funny. Back then I’d never heard of kids in real life going on shooting rampages, but clearly times have changed. I still sing the song every now and then, but I’m not sure I’ll submit it to MacJams any time soon.”
You moved quite a bit. Did that influenced your music?
“My dad’s work is what took us to different countries. He was from a small town in Alberta, Canada, and my mom grew up on a farm about 50 miles away. They must have had a sense of adventure, because they had moved several times before moving to Venezuela, where I was born. My dad was ambitious, and each move represented another step up the corporate ladder for him.
“The downside to all the moves was that I found it profoundly troubling to have to go through the make friends/hazing/lose friends cycle every time we moved, and I became withdrawn (for which music was my main outlet), and my mom couldn’t handle the constant upheaval either and became a chain-smoking alcoholic who died in her fifties. Aside from that, though, life was grand!
“I don’t really know how living in different places affected my music, except perhaps it contributed to my love for many kinds of music, and my own compositions sometimes draw on the music of different cultures.”
Since you compose for live performance of acoustic musicians, where does the computer come it?
“I’ve composed on Macs for about 22 years. I mainly used Mosaic (notation) and Performer (sequencing; later Digital Performer; both made by Mark of the Unicorn) for most of that time, with various synths and sound modules. There is no recording/mixing process per se, because I just write the music and other people play and record it. My music has been played by quite a lot of people and orchestras, but I guess my dream is to have it played by many more people and orchestras! I’ve never been very good at self-promotion, though, so it’ll be a struggle to take my career to the next level, if indeed it is possible.”
What do you mean, “the next level”? Do you have a plan for attaining that?
“All I mean is that I’d like more people to hear my music. Composers are a bit like Blanche DuBois in that we have to depend on the kindness of strangers, at least to some degree. I’m always hugely appreciative when colleagues perform my music, but for your music to really get out there and reach a larger audience you need strangers to perform it and programme it.”
But how to do this?
“That is the question all composers wrestle with. I have largely concerned myself with writing the best music I can, while trying to stay on top of a very heavy workload as a professor, but that’s not enough if you want a wider audience. I don’t think it’s any big trade secret as to how to do this – you send scores to artists and ensembles that you think might be a good fit for the music, you enter competitions (although once you turn 30 or 35 you become ineligible for most competitions!), you try to make personal contact with performers by going backstage after concerts, do follow-ups, make your music available on the Internet, stuff like that. The problem for me has always been lack of time, and with three kids it’s not as if I’m going to find any extra time in the next few years!
“I don’t do these things very often, but I’ve had some success with these methods. Daniel Bolshoy, the guitarist who recorded McGillicuddy’s Rant on his latest CD and who has performed it many, many times throughout the US, Canada, and Europe, didn’t know me from Adam when I approached him after a concert a few years ago with concealed scores on my person; best not to be too obvious! I think it’s important to observe social niceties when doing this sort of thing, so I invited him out for a drink after the concert and we chatted about the guitar scene for a while since I am a guitarist and taught guitar here at Memorial University for a number of years. After a while, I asked him if he might be interested in having a look at some new guitar music and he said ‘sure,’ so I then whipped out some of my music and gave it too him. I sent him a social e-mail every now and then after that, and something like two years later I got a message from him saying he had finally had a look at McG’s Rant, and wanted to learn it and then perform it, which he did. Not only that, but other guitarists have heard him play it, and a few have contacted me asking me for the score. Also, Bolshoy subsequently commissioned me to write a piece for guitar and string quartet, which I wrote a couple of years ago (“I sleep and my soul awakens”), and he now wants me to write a guitar concerto! So there’s an example of how things can go right for you every now and then if you make contact with artists!”
Do you use computers (and your synths/modules) to emulate real instruments while composing, and perhaps create demos?
“Absolutely! My keyboard skills were never strong, so when I discovered that you could use a computer to compose music with different instrument sounds I was thrilled. I saved up my money for a long time until I could afford a Mac Plus, around 1986, which I used with MOTU’s Performer (sequencing) and Composer (notation) software. I got some rack-mounted tone modules, but the one I used the most was the Proteus/2XR, which had orchestral instrument samples, and they were pretty good quality for the time.
“Basically, everything I compose is done with sequencing software and tone modules. I listen to ideas repeatedly, sometimes over a hundred times, constantly tweaking until I can play it about 10 times in a row and not think of any way to improve it. I don’t record my own music yet, but I want to learn how to do that. At some point I’d love to try a recording of my guitar playing and submit it to MacJams!”
What are you career highlights, so far?
“I’m 51, and live in St. John’s, Newfoundland (a very large island), Canada. Some career highlights would include having my music played by various symphony orchestras, winning a few prizes, getting some nice commissions (about 20 so far), having my guitar piece McGillicuddy’s Rant recorded to CD by Daniel Bolshoy, an excellent guitarist who has performed it live over 50 times, all over the world, and getting my job.”
Is guitar still your main instrument?
“Yes, I play guitar mostly (classical, jazz, pop/rock, folk, country, etc.) and piano a little. I sing a little.”
What is your strongest point, musically?
“I don’t know what my strongest point as a composer is… maybe stubbornness? Maybe my weakest point is depression. When it hits, the idea that anyone would ever want to listen to the crap I write seems unfathomable. I don’t really have a way around that, except to try to keep busy, but that only goes so far.”
Why did you join Macjams?
“I joined Macjams in December, 2005, because I had just launched my website after months of work (and no previous HTML knowledge), and was looking for other ways to share my music. Composing is a very solitary experience; you often don’t get much feedback, and the feedback you get is often non-committal, so I was anxious to learn what people really thought of my music, be it positive or negative. It’s those non-committal pleasantries that drive me ‘round the bend! What does ‘interesting’ mean? Or ‘you must be glad THAT’S over!’? My experience at MacJams has been that people are generally very supportive and willing to express opinions, and that was a wonderful discovery for me!”
Any hobbies Macjammers don’t know about?
“Hobbies… well, I’ve been pretty obsessed with music my whole life, but I also write short stories, play basketball and baseball when I can, hike (there are lots of amazing, beautiful hiking trails around here within minutes of my house), cook, and probably most of all I like spending time with my family.”
Any short stories we can read online?
“No. They’re all in protective custody on my computer… I’m not exactly sure what to do with them, but for now I’m reasonably content to keep writing new ones as the mood hits, and keep editing the old ones.”
Any tips you haven’t shared yet?
“The only tips I would have for others are to (1) learn more about whatever kind of music you’re into, and beg, borrow, or steal ideas from others – that’s been part of the composition process for centuries; and (2) work hard; be stubborn; don’t give up! All of which is easier said than done, of course.”
Clark’s website: http://www.clarkross.ca – it contains recorded performances and scores for almost everything he’s written, as well as music theory teaching handouts.
Check out all the works Clark has shared with Macjams on his composerclark Profile page.