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A Conversation with Travis Alford


Travis Alford is a young composer, originally from North Carolina, who has studied in Boston with composers including Lee Hyla, David Rakowski and Eric Chasalow, and teaches at Gordon College and M.I.T.
We talked via Skype on Dec. 4, 2012.
©Travis Alford

©Travis Alford

Tom Moore: You grew up here in North Carolina, in Spring Hope. Were you born there?
Travis Alford: I was born in the hospital in Rocky Mount, and grew up in Spring Hope.

TM: Was your family originally from the area?
TA: The house where I grew up, and where I spent the majority of my elementary and high school years was a house that my parents built next door to my grandmother’s house, where my mom had grown up, so we stayed pretty close. My dad is from Middlesex, North Carolina, which is just fifteen minutes away.

TM: So you have deep roots in the Tarheel State.
TA: I do.

TM: Do you have musical roots in the family?
TA: Neither of my parents were professional musicians. They both love music, especially gospel music, and are both amateur singers. They sing together at church, at weddings and funerals, so there was always music in the house growing up. It was more the Beatles, Three Dog Night, that kind of thing, rather than classical music. I didn’t realize it until I started getting into music professionally, but it seems that on my mom’s side of the family there are a couple of different branches that are musical. I have a distant cousin at Hood College teaching piano – his whole family is musicial. He is a pianist, and there is, I believe, a violist and a violinist. There’s another family member out in Los Angeles, Charles Richard Lester, who is a professional thereminist.

TM: You mentioned church music. Which church was that?
TA: I grew up at Ephesus Baptist Church in Spring Hope, and my parents are still involved in music at that church.

TM: Those outside North Carolina may not know that the Baptist church is the largest in terms of congregations and parishioners in the state. Could you say a little about the style of music that you would hear at a Baptist church?
TA: You would hear a lot of traditional hymns, mostly from the hymnal, accompanied by piano or organ. In our case it was an electric organ, but it sounded pretty good. Also contemporary gospel music – choral music, in the popular style. My sister is a singer, so she would sing contemporary Christian music, and I played my trumpet a good bit, usually hymn arrangements in a classical style. It was diverse – my church was open to pretty much anything.

TM: Again, to situate people from out of state, Spring Hope is north-east of Raleigh heading toward the coast. Did you get into Raleigh for cultural events?
TA: I would go to Raleigh a good bit. We went to the North Carolina Symphony a few times when I was growing up. My interests then, before college, were more in the area of popular music. I loved jazz. Our jazz ensemble in high school was a big thing, and our band director was mostly a jazz guy, so I went to more concerts like that than I would classical music.
I loved Broadway musicals, too, when I was growing up. That was what I thought of as high art. We would go to Memorial Auditorium, which had Broadway musicals fairly often. And my mom really loved New York. She went there a few times when she was in college, and we went to New York about a dozen times when I was growing up, so I would see Broadway shows and catch some amazing jazz sets then as well.

TM: How did you get started on the trumpet? Was that something that you decided on? Was there a trumpet in the family?
TA: I remember that when I was very young, eight or nine, I think, my parents gave me a bugle for Christmas, since I was in the Boy Scouts, and I would mess around with that. At some point while I was in elementary school, the Burrage Music Company from Raleigh would send a representative to all the schools to demonstrate different instruments and try to get people interested in band. I decided I wanted to join the band, and you had to put a first and a second choice for instrument. Trumpet was my first choice, and saxophone was my second. I lucked out and got placed as a trumpet player in the band, and just stuck with it.

TM: Please say a little about the music program.
TA: This was at Southern Nash junior high and senior high, not in Spring Hope, but in Bailey [12 miles to the south]. I started in seventh grade, in the beginning band program. When I went to high school, I was still in concert band, but the jazz band was really the focus. The band director was Michael Lancaster, who was a trumpet player himself, and a huge jazz fan – he loved Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie. And he made sure we didn’t play watered-down high school versions of pieces – we had the actual charts. It was definitely a challenge. We went to a lot of contests, and he forced us to improvise. We didn’t have written-out solos, so we really had to sink or swim! We played outside of school a lot, at area festivals and parades, and had jazz-dinner-dance fundraisers every year, which was a lot of fun. We felt more like a semi-professional group than just a high school group.

TM: How big was the high school?
TA: Only 1200 students, and it was one of only three high schools in the county. We had a marching band that had anywhere from 25 to 60 members, and they were very competitive as well. That was my musical upbringing – the marching band and the jazz band.

TM: This shows how important it is to have a strong figure in charge of a music program like this, since a school of this size could easily not have a music program.
TA: Mike was great. He passed away a few years ago. It was a big loss to me personally, and to the community.

TM: You mentioned being thrown into the deep end of the pool in terms of playing solos and improvising. Were you also writing charts and compositions?
TA: I had never written anything before going to college. I didn’t even really even have a concept of people still writing music. It was just an abstract thing. I auditioned for and was accepted to East Carolina University as a performance major on trumpet. At my high school I thought I was pretty good, but in my first semester at ECU I got placed in the last chair of the bottom ensemble, so that was a wake-up call. I realized that I had a lot of embouchure issues – I had learned on my own and in band, but lacked a lot of the fundamentals that other students had. At the same time I started taking theory classes and learning basic counterpoint. I remember the day that I decided to become a composer: I was studying counterpoint with Dr. Ed Jacobs, who was one of my composition teachers at ECU, and he played a Kyrie by Palestrina, and I had never heard anything like this before. “I want to write that! That’s what I want to do!” So I talked to him, and by second semester I switched over to composition. My music sounds nothing like Palestrina, but that was still one of my big formative moments.

TM: I talk to many younger composers who tell me that it was not until college that they got their first exposure to some fundamental pieces of the Western classical tradition. Perhaps they have never heard Stravinsky before… it says something about our high school education that you can get to college and not even have a clue that this stuff exists.
Please say a little more about ECU, which is located in Greenville, NC.
TA: Dr. Jacobs started the freshman theory class with strict species counterpoint. He would give us a cantus firmus, and we had to go home and write a counterpoint to it. I would bring it in, and he played it, and I thought “I wrote that! This is cool!” Very basic, but at the time it was really exciting.
I got exposed to everything at ECU. I was hearing a Beethoven symphony for the first time at the same point that I was learning about Stravinsky or Schoenberg, which I knew nothing about. I was learning everything at once. Some students who already knew Brahms or so forth seemed to be more averse to atonal styles of music, but for me it was all just “music.” Some departments at ECU were very classically/ romantically based, but the composition department was very contemporary, very much into the modernist/postmodernist mindset.

TM: It seems to be the case that many areas are simply more naturally open to contemporary music, guitar, for example, where much of the repertoire is based in the twentieth-century. In a certain sense, it is really only the strings and the piano that are so steeped in the past.
To rewind a little, you had mentioned church music and jazz. Were there other things you were listening to in high school, such as rock and roll?
TA: I grew up with the Beatles on recordings. My parents had the White Album on LP, and one of the first CDs that I bought for myself was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I memorized everything – I listened to it all the time. That was it. The Beatles….and the Ben Folds Five. The last album they came out with before breaking up – The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner – that was my soundtrack in high school. If it were possible to wear out a CD, I would have.

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