Ron Gillis: "I started calling our group the Dead Composers Society."
  • Ron Gillis: "I started calling our group the Dead Composers Society."
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“I have always been interested in music.” says composer Ron Gillis, founder and artistic director of the San Diego Choral Artists. “As a kid I always walked around with tunes in my head. I thought everyone did.” “Eventually I wanted to learn how to play what I was hearing — even when I was still pretty small. I taught myself chords on the guitar — acoustic guitar, you know. I leaned toward a folk style more than any other. It was a good way to start, picking out the notes myself.”

Jane Bastien: “The only music I write is for my students.”

“I’ve been composing all my life,” says Richard Del Maestro, relaxing in his efficiently arranged, hi-tech recording studio at Hangup Square in Solana Beach, where he recently created and recorded Language of the Heart, a New-Age CD that has been played on more than 1500 radio stations nationwide. “How could I not? I grew up in New York, where my father is a singer and actor, my mother a dancer. Music was playing all the time. Everywhere. I mean, I was listening to opera on the Texaco Star Theater as a baby. And I don’t remember when I couldn’t improvise, you know? It’s just...well, it’s natural for me.”

Larry Groupé: "If you’re going to write music, you have to keep playing it, too."

What starts a person on the road to becoming a composer? What drives a person not only to love music, but also to feel the craving to write it? Most of us know that composers are seldom wealthy people; quite the opposite, music history books are full of stories of starving composers always borrowing from friends or begging patrons for money to pay the rent. The first great American composer of the 20th Century, Charles Ives, was completely frustrated in his attempts to make a living as a composer. Turning to insurance sales by the time he was 30, he became a businessman by day and a composer by night, feverishly creating some of the most original musk ever written. Unfortunately, this arrangement left out sleep, and though he became wealthy, he also ruined his health and shattered his visionary abilities.

Roger Reynolds: “We have a tremendous amount going on at UCSD, but there is little connective tissue with the rest of San Diego."

I spoke with several dozen composers who live and work in San Diego County, men and women of varying tastes and aims: church composers, university professors, theater composers, university students, rock and pop performers, choreographers, New-Age stylists, piano teachers. I wanted to know how they got started, where they studied, what their thoughts are about musical creativity, what their hopes are, and how they find the musical life in San Diego.

Harvey Sollberger is the conductor of SONOR, the university’s acclaimed new-music performing organization.

“I always knew I’d be a composer,” declares Larry Delinger as we sit comfortably on the grass outside the entrance to the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. Larry has done dozens of scores for the Globe — he was finishing preparations for the very successful Henry IV production starring John Goodman when we talked — and dozens more as a freelance composer elsewhere.

David Ward-Steinman: “Now there is, in my opinion, far less interest in contemporary music."

“My dad, who was a baker, taught me about responsibility. He had to get up so early, but that’s how he supported us, you know. He told me, 'Larry, I love to get up every morning and bake bread in the shop.’

“Both of my parents had a deep love for music. Mom played the ukulele and taught me how when I was very small. And Dad? I remember one time he traded 25 loaves of bread for a mandolin. Twenty-five loaves. It was well worth it to him, too. We lived just above the bakery, and after dinner he would go down, light his cigar, and play that mandolin. He never got better at it, nor did he get worse. That wasn’t the point. He just enjoyed playing some of his favorite tunes, you know, as best as he could.

Groupé composition

“He liked to collect instruments. I think at one time we had five guitars, a saxophone, and several trumpets. One year there was a drum set, too. Of course, I learned to play them all.”

Larry leans toward me, remembering something special. “You know, when I was about 11 or 12, I got hold of a biography of Johann Sebastian Bach. I loved it. I read it over and over. It fascinated me. I begged my parents to get a piano so that I could get to know his music. That wasn’t so easy in Hyannis, Nebraska, with a population of 350." He laughs and shakes his head.

Ward-Steinman composition

“Finally we found a married couple working in the railroad ticket window who played instruments as a hobby. He played the violin, and his wife played piano. I took lessons from her. I never got very good at it. I was just interested in how the music was made."

Erik Ulman is from Escondido. Until recently a Ph.D. candidate in composition at UCSD, he has, since our interview, moved to Europe for further studies. “I was brought up with a great deal of classical music in the home. My parents had many recordings, including music of the 20th Century by far-out composers such as Bartók and Stockhausen. At the age of four, I started to play the violin and later played in the youth orchestra and the La Jolla Symphony.

Reynolds composition

“By the time I was 14, I was buying LP recordings of contemporary music and attending concerts of new music at UCSD. I was terribly excited by what I heard,” he exclaims, his gestures underlining the recollection. “I knew composing was what I wanted to do — what I had to do.”

“Well, I for one had no idea I was going to be a composer," declares another UCSD grad student, Renée Coulomb, laughing as she remembers the circumstances that abruptly threw her in that direction. “The college I went to had a junior-year-abroad program, and I went to France.” She laughs again, pushing back a mass of curly blond hair from her face. “Because of my name, everyone thought I could speak French, of course. Ha! Actually I knew hardly a word, so when I got there I didn’t understand what was going on a lot of the time.

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