Interview with Keane Southard

Tickets to Home to the New World available here.

Q:  First, tell me a little about yourself... I see  you are at the University of Colorado-Boulder -- how long have you been teaching? 

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A: I’m actually a local  and grew up in Southborough and graduated from Algonquin Regional High School, so Claflin Hill is almost my hometown orchestra.  I started playing piano at age 7 and really took off with it.  I also played clarinet in the school bands and taught myself guitar while in middle school, but playing piano and composing became my main musical pursuit.  I went to Baldwin-Wallace College, near Cleveland Ohio, which is a small liberal arts college but has a fantastic conservatory of music within it, and there I double majored in both music composition and music theory.  I then went to get my master’s degree in composition at the University of Colorado-Boulder and received my degree in 2011.  I taught music theory as a teaching assistant there during my two years.  After spending a year in Brazil as a Fulbright scholar studying music education and a summer in England, I returned to New England and taught at Bennington College in Vermont for a couple of years, and now I am living in New Hampshire where I am the music director at a church and compose and perform as a freelance musician.  

Q:  Do you love teaching? If so, why? 

A:  I started teaching as a graduate assistant at the University of Colorado-Boulder and going into it I honestly didn’t know whether I’d enjoy it or if it was something I’d want to pursue further.  I saw it mostly as a way to fund my studies and as a experience that would be valuable to have, but I ended up really enjoying it.  I think most teachers say this, but you learn just as much from being a teacher as you do from being a student.  I love to have the opportunity to share my passion for music and to have a profound effect on students lives, as I know some of my teachers have had on me.  This first experience as a teacher also made me realize how important education is in improving people’s lives and in creating a better society, which is what got me interested in music education on a large scale, El Sistema, and led to my Fulbright project in Brazil.

Q:  When did you start composing?  

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 A:  My first attempts at composing happened when I was in 5th or 6th grade, and they were very poor quality rock and pop songs and little piano ditties.  They were really repetitive and boring, but I realize that through them I was exploring musical ideas that I was interested in and had the seeds of what was to come.  In 8thgrade, I completed my first classical work, a “Nocturne in Ab Major” for piano, which was a bad imitation of a Chopin Nocturne that meandered on for 10 minutes.  I showed it to my piano teacher, a lady named Barbara Jones in Stow, and as she was the president of the New England Piano Teachers Association at the time, she told me about the composition contest they hold each year and encouraged me to enter it into the competition.  There was only one other entrant, and of course my piece lost!  But the good news was that all entrants received written feedback from a local composer, a man named Kenneth Girard who lived in Arlington, and he was very encouraging to me and could see my promise.  My mom then asked me if I’d like to see if I could take monthly composition lessons with him, and so I did all through high school and I never looked back.

Q:  For such a young person, you've already done a lot of writing! How long have you been working on "An Appalachian Trail Symphony: New England (Symphony No. 1)?  

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A:  First off, I’m not that young.  I’m 30 now, which is right at that point where many people seem to not consider me a “young composer” anymore and the novelty of that title has worn off.  I don’t feel like I write that much music and that I compose pretty slowly, but most of my composing friends seem to think I’m a pretty fast and prolific composer, and I suppose when I sit down and look back on my list of works, I have already written a lot!  Maybe the problem is I have so many musical ideas and so many pieces I want to write that I am always behind and my output always smaller than I would like it to be.

My AT symphony has been several years in the making.  I’ve been aware of the AT since I was a kid thanks to many trips up to New Hampshire and Vermont, particularly Hanover, NH through which the AT passes, with my family.  I’ve had the idea to do something like this, to hike the trail and write music about it, probably since I was in high school, and it’s been in the back of my mind since then.  I finally realized a few years ago that instead of waiting for the opportunity to do it to come to me, I could try to make it happen myself.  I came up with the details and then approached the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and orchestras all around New England, and I’m so glad that Claflin Hill and a few other ensembles were keen on the idea and willing to help make it a reality, as it really is a dream come true for me.  After a year or two of organizing the orchestras and funding, I then did the hike in the summer of 2016 and  did a lot of planning and gathering musical ideas for the work, and then did the bulk of the composing during the following Fall and Winter and I completed it in March 2017.

Q:   What or who were your early passions and influences?  Obviously, the great outdoors is a passion and influence -- were their others previously, or has the great outdoors always provided  you inspiration to write?

A:  My earliest musical influences were my mom, Mozart, and Beethoven.  They are the reasons why I started playing piano in the first place.  My mom played, and I guess I wanted to be like her.  I also remember having this white cassette tape that said “Mozart” on it that I used to listen to and I thought the “Rondo alla Turca” and Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” were the greatest pieces of music and my goal was to play those some day (and after a year or two I was already playing them.)  In middle school, I discovered Scott Joplin and Ragtime, Chopin, and rock music from the 60’s and 70’s, especially The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Queen.  Getting into college and to this day, I explore a lot of contemporary classical music and composers I’d never heard of before.

Q:  If you were to look at  our life as a timeline -- what are some of the highlights -- big moments -- in your career?  Were there any career-changing moments?

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A:  In terms of my career as a musician, this performance with Claflin Hill is certainly shaping up to be one of the highlights so far!  This is the largest piece I’ve ever written and I’ve put so much time and energy into make it happen, plus this will be my first performance by a professional orchestra, so I am hoping this will lead to even bigger and better things!  Other highlights would include performing my own piano concerto with the Sounds of Stow Orchestra in 2012, having my “A Day of Sunshine” for Chorus and Orchestra premiered in Portland, ME in 2011 as the winner of the Longfellow Chorus International Cantata Competition, spending a year in Brazil and meeting so many great people and musicians and discovering so much great music in that country, and having a whole concert of my wind band works performed and recorded by the Northeastern State University Wind Ensemble in Oklahoma in 2016. 

Q:  What do you start with when composing? 

A: It depends.  Sometimes it’s a melody, or a series of harmonies or a chord progression.  Sometimes it’s an instrumentation and thinking about it’s possibilities.  Sometimes, like this symphony, it is a non-musical thing or an experience.  I do a lot of composing at the piano, which is my main instrument and where I feel most comfortable, and do a lot of improvising to find ideas.  I do some sketching by hand into a notebook of staff paper, but mostly I work right into a notation software on my laptop.  Sometimes I use musical ideas that have come to me in dreams, and often I do my best composing while falling asleep at night or while taking a shower. 

Q:  Who is your favorite composer?

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A:  It’s impossible to pick one favorite.  Some of them certainly are Charles Ives, Camargo Guarnieri, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Gerald Finzi, John Foulds, Percy Grainger…  I adore Carter Pann’s music, who was one of my teachers at the University of Colorado, and I’m not afraid to say that I’d call myself one of my favorites as well, as the most important thing to me as a composer is to write music that I like, the music that I want to hear.  That is the first criterion that my music has to meet: that I like it.  If nobody else on the earth cares for it (and I certainly hope other people will like it as much as me!) then it is still a success to me, and I don’t see any point in writing music that others might like but that I don’t.

Q:  Did you have any challenges when writing this piece about your journey on the Appalachian Trail?

A:  Absolutely.  By having this idea to do the hike and then write a piece about it, in a way I was forcing myself to be inspired by something instead of having the inspiration come naturally.  I spent a lot of time during the hike (and luckily I did have a LOT of time to think out there) trying to figure out how to translate this experience into music.  I realized that it was pointless to just try and recreate the sounds I heard out on the trail, because if you want to hear them then just go hiking yourself and you will!  I do use some birdsongs and literal sounds that I heard, but I realized this symphony had to be a reflection of both the experience of hiking the trail and MY personal experience on the trail and all the troubles and triumphs, emotional and physical feelings I had.  So the piece is a reflection of the trail and the wilderness itself but is tied together with my own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual experiences walking through it all.  Another difficulty was that early on in the hike, I decided that the work would be in 5 movements, one movement for each state I hiked through, and that each movement would be roughly proportional in length to the length of trail in that state, so that the listener can get a sense, although extremely condensed, as to how long it took to hike through each state and the differences between them.  This turned out to be about 2 minutes long for the Connecticut movement (51 miles of trail), just under 4 minutes for Massachusetts (90 miles), 5 minutes for Vermont (150 miles), 6 minutes for New Hampshire (161 miles), and 10 minutes for Maine (282 miles), fitting in the limit of a maximum 30-minute symphony.  After the hike when I was getting into the nitty-gritty of composing, I had a lot of difficulties fitting my musical ideas for each movement into these time restrains.  But I think I found a way to do it that I’m very proud of, and most composing is like this, where I have boundaries and restrictions, often self-imposed, that I have to be very creative about working within and find what speaks to me within those bounds.

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Q:  When I listen to "Appalachian Spring" or "The Four Seasons" I can close my eyes and put myself under an apple tree and feel sunshine on my face, or smell the rotting leaves along the trail -- in my mind. The music actually relates to all my senses and "takes me there."  Is this something you took into consideration as your wrote the piece? When I close  my eyes while listening to your piece, what is it you hope I will see, taste and smell?

A:  I really don’t know.  All I can say is that it comes out of my experience of hiking the trail, and I hope it gives the listener some sense of what that was like for me to go on this journey.  One of the beauties of all good art is that people have all kinds of different feelings, reactions, and experiences when perceiving it, and no one of them is the correct or right one, because everyone comes to the concert hall or art gallery with a different background and set of beliefs and experiences.  Of course, I hope listening to the symphony will be an enjoyable experience for people and that they will consider enjoying and protecting the wilderness around them.  My experience on the trail is much deeper and larger than I could fit into 27 minutes of music, and the trail itself is much much more than what I experienced of it (I only hiked a 3rd of it and thousands of others have hiked the entire 2,200+ miles of it), I only saw a small portion of the wilderness out there.

Q:  I'm looking at your blog now -- I'll read it thoroughly through later... But can you sum it up for me for publicity purposes? It wasn't all fun -- it was tough and hard... Were you actually composing during the time you spent on the trail? Were you alone? Would you do it again?

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A:  I kept a daily journal while on the trail (it was actually a small notebook with staff paper, so I could both journal and write down any musical ideas that came to me on the trail) and whenever I was able to get to a computer (most often in libraries when I was stocking up on supplies in a town near the trail) I went online and wrote my journal entries on my blog along with some photos, as I also brought along a small point-and-shoot digital camera.  I did the hike alone, although I met plenty of other hikers on the trail.  I have idea to do this project twice more, hike the next 3rd of the trail and write a 2nd AT symphony to be performed by orchestras in those states (and then again with the final 3rdof the trail.) Then I’d have a trilogy of AT symphonies!  But of course there are a lot of factors that would go into whether or not that might actually happen, but it’s in the back of my mind.