In Conversation with William Susman

William Susman is Chicago-born composer of film, chamber, and orchestral music, with a thorough education in both jazz and classical piano. His work is notable for its human concern as well as for his use of technical innovations, based on the science of sound, like Shepard Tones and isorhythms. (Read the Voice review of his album Scatter My Ashes here.) Susman recently took the time to answer Wanda Waterman’s questions about his experiences and influences.

“Every day that is born into the world comes like a burst of music and rings the whole day through, and you make of it a dance, a dirge, or a life march, as you will.”
– Thomas Carlyle

Do you consider yourself a member?or harbinger?of any particular school of music?
Not really, although some people say my music sounds like It’s an outgrowth of post-minimalism.

What elements in your childhood or early years pointed you towards music? Toward serious music in particular?
I had a wonderful professor in college who introduced me to a wide variety of 20th century music. I took a special interest in performing Webern’s Op. 27 because of its clarity and crystal-like beauty. It inspired me to learn more about modern music.

What is it about your character or background that makes it possible for you to syncretize so many disparate elements in your work?
I’ve studied and performed a variety of western and non-western music, which has enriched me with different genres and instrumentations. I’ve also been fortunate to have had the opportunity to collaborate with all sorts of musicians.

What was your most beneficial educational experience? What or who in your educational training had the most – and best – influence on you as a composer, as a musician, as a human being?
I would have to say that as far as educational training, the most beneficial was the time spent at The University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana). I had a variety of composition and piano professors who were a constant source of inspiration and motivation.

What was the most mesmerizing musical experience of your life?
When I was a student at The University of Illinois and listening for the first time to Xenakis’s Pithoprakta for string orchestra. It opened up my ears to new sounds.

Does the use of technical innovation (e.g., Shepard Tones) in your compositions feel like fun, or just hard work? And why?
I used the concept of Shepard Tones in a number of pieces and it was fun. I took this concept to help structure things that swirl.

Why do you often choose to address themes related to the existential dilemmas faced by humanity?
They resonate with my life experiences. Many of these themes have touched me personally. Writing about them can be liberating and help me find meaning.

Has anything funny or strange happened to you in the process of composing, recording, or performing your music?
In my early twenties I wrote Pentateuch for soprano, three choral groups, and orchestra, with almost 100 solo parts played at once. That’s a lot of music and when all the pages were stacked it made the score an unwieldy 9 feet long. Even after visiting a blueprint shop it was still around 5 feet. I carried it around in a garment bag. (That was before inexpensive photo reduction.)

Are there any books, films, or albums that have deeply influenced your development as an artist?
In my twenties I read Arnold Schoenberg’s Style and Idea. I also loved Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann, which alludes to Schoenberg. Back then, I also learned about film scoring by performing live for silent films such as Un Chien Andalou, Entre?acte and Nosferatu. I once wrote a string orchestra piece called Angels of Light, inspired by Mark Halperin’s novel The Soldier of the Great War.

What music have you been listening to lately?
I’ve been listening to both old and new opera.

If you had an artist’s mission statement, what would it be?
Write what speaks your truth.

What’s your next project?
I’m working on an opera about Henry Ford.

Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.

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