Off the Cuff: Rand Steiger, Composer-in-Residence

Rand Steiger is a renowned composer and conductor from New York City. The American Composers Orchestra, the San Diego Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, among other ensembles, have performed his compositions. Steiger is currently a professor in the music department at the University of California, San Diego.

Caroline Hui, Staff Writer

How did you get your start in music and composition?

I started as a rock drummer when I was growing up in the suburbs of New York City. When I was in junior high, I wrote songs for my band, so I had started writing music before I really thought about it as a profession. In high school, when I started playing music in a classical context (in orchestras and percussion ensemble and so forth), just as I had been writing for my rock band, I wanted to write for these ensembles. I started to become aware that one could study composition and one could have a career as a composer, so I went to the Manhattan School of Music and I started studying composition.

How did you make the transition from rock music to classical music?

I went to a high school in New York City, which at the time was called the High School of Music and Art, and it was a city public school, but you had to audition to get in. I had a very modest musical education up to that point, but when I went to that school I immediately got in contact with extraordinary musicians and great teachers from all over the city, and started playing in the orchestra. So through my friends and through my performance experience, I started to learn about all different kinds of music – music of the great classical tradition, and music that was being written currently.

What serves as your inspiration when composing?

When I first began writing, my inspirations were… all the great music that excited me. And the musicians I had the good fortune to be around, since high school and in college. Ever since, I’ve been around great performers; so their skills, their great virtuosity and their interest in contemporary music [have] always been inspiring for me.

At the same time, I’ve had a series of pieces that drew inspiration from the actual world. This began with a piece I wrote for the LA Philharmonic back in the 1990s. I wrote a piece called The Burgess Shale, inspired by a book written by Stephen Jay Gould about an extraordinary fossil discovered in British Columbia.

Since then, I’ve had a number of pieces inspired by my concern for the environment and how it’s changing. My most recent piece, A Menacing Plume, was written at the time of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. I was kind of obsessed with thinking about beautiful images of underwater life that we’ve seen, and how that could all be destroyed. So that piece was embracing the concern that I had for that situation, trying to give it musical expression.

Artists often encounter “writer’s block” — how do you overcome it?

I encountered writer’s block for the first time when I was in my last year of college. I had a lot of music to write on deadlines, so I started asking all the composers I knew in New York City what they did. And the one thing I found from historic figures’ readings and composers that were alive today was to engage in music materials, even if I didn’t feel inspired or feel like I had ideas for pieces. Do something related to music — some exercise with music theory, or something to keep my fingers and my mind working with musical ideas — so I did that.

How would you define your musical style?

My style isn’t easy to define… I like to explore medial spaces, a spectrum of possibilities, and look at the different choices a composer could make; not as things you need to make firm decisions about and exercise the same way, but as a range of possibilities that can find different expression.

I’m interested in working with live electronic processing with computers to transform the sound of traditional musical instruments as a way of infusing orchestration with new sounds and enriching the sound palate I have to work with.

You said that you use computers now to compose music. How has technology impacted your career in composition?

I think in [both] interesting and banal ways. In the banal ways, when I started composing, all my scores were done by hand because computer music printing wasn’t available yet. Once it became possible to use software, it made my life a lot easier and allowed me to spend less time on creating scores.

But in a more meaningful way, the recent advances in digital signal processing that allow me to use a laptop computer to process the sound of musical instruments and transform them, have provided me with new means of creating sound and finding new means of expression that were impossible even 10 years ago. These are evolving, and because they’re evolving, exploration of those possibilities and working with people developing software has been an inspiring thing that definitely has influenced my music.

How do you think technology is going to impact the future of music?

I think we’re in an important transition period now, but I think that’s going to slow down in the not-too-distant future, and the evolution of technology isn’t going to be a big issue in music anymore. The way music is created and disseminated has changed profoundly in recent times. The means of production in music are in everyone’s hands now. When I played in rock bands when I was young, if you wanted to make a record, you had to go and rent very expensive recording studios and produce records, which cost money to produce. Now, young musicians with laptops… can produce [their] own CDs and post music online to download. Nowadays, because of crowd sourcing and online resources, if you’ve got interesting music, you can send it to a few friends, and people can post it on their websites, and before you know it, everyone knows about your music.

The convention of recording 100 years ago turned music into a very passive thing for most people. Before that, you had to play it yourself or listen to people who played it, so there was more folk and chamber music being played, more people played musical instruments. But we grew up in a world where you just could turn a little box on and play music. That just wasn’t possible years ago, and that made music a passive thing for people. The whole idea of background music became part of our lives, and that made music a lot of less meaningful. These tools to be creative with music have the potential to make music more active for more people.