Peopling your creative process

written by Timmy Peterson
2018 GLFCAM Béla Bartók Fellow, Cycle 6

In some of my earliest and fondest musical memories, I’m sitting at the piano reveling in those moments in a piece that made me go “ahh.” Whether or not I knew it then – I was in middle school at the time – I think I was hooked on the wonder that music can instill in us. I might have also sensed that this feeling is even more powerful when shared with other people, because I would always get more of a thrill if my piano teacher were at my side when I felt those goose bumps; when I had someone to turn to and say, wide-eyed, “Isn’t this amazing?!”  

I started composing around the same time I began studying the piano, when I was seven. I loved messing around at the keyboard and scribbling stuff down on staff paper, even if my notation only made sense to me! I was fortunate enough to have a piano teacher (Wilma Machover) who not only encouraged me to compose but later introduced me to my first composition teacher (Kyle Blaha) when I was in high school. With the support of my beloved mentors, I began taking my musical life – especially composition – more seriously. The thrill I got out of sharing musical experiences with other people only grew in Ann Arbor while studying at the University of Michigan. For pretty much the first time in my life, I regularly got to rehearse my music with live musicians; not only live musicians but my peers, my friends. I discovered the trust and love inherent in music-making.

Trust: Because writing and sharing music is quite an intimate, vulnerable experience. Every piece I write is the result of hours of — let’s call it “fruitful floundering” — plus intense self-reflection and soul-searching. For composers, giving a score to performers can feel like handing off your baby; you have to trust that the “baby” will be well cared for. Performers, too, have to trust that the “baby” is worth caring for! 

Love: Because what else could justify the enormous amount of time and energy that performers give of themselves in bringing our music to life?! Sure, we all hope that performers will give our pieces their all – that they’ll have integrity and a sense of professionalism. But I think there’s something more to it than that. Performing, I think, really is an act of love, and we composers are so lucky to be a part of it,

I find so much reward and fulfillment in doing something that kindles trust and love and fosters relationships. I never want to be one to say, “music is [this or that],” but I do think it’s about people, and I’m reminded of this time and time again, especially as a Fellow at the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music.

Before the spring retreat in Boonville, CA, I had a Skype session with Gabriela. To grow as a composer – as I’m sure is the case in any field – you need a mentor. Composers spend so much time alone at their writing desk, often engrossed in minutia, that it’s frighteningly easy to succumb to a kind of tunnel vision. We need someone with a broader perspective, someone who hasn’t been obsessing over the same few measures of music for hours on end, someone who can look at our drafts, identify what we’re trying to say, and tell us to keep on doing what we’re doing or steer us in a direction that will better serve our intentions. Gabriela is a gem of a mentor because she not only shares invaluable insights to guide you through your current projects but also has the experience and perspective to help you envision and craft a sustainable career. She encourages you to identify the facets of your practice that are most meaningful to you; to articulate the sounds and ideas that you could see yourself spending the rest of your life pursuing, honing. Whatever these things are, they’re what make you YOU and they’re what will keep you going.

Learning to think about your musical life in the long term also invites you to view each of your projects as stepping stones – incubators for experimentation – rather than deal-breakers. This philosophy was very much the spirit of the spring retreat as part of Cycle Six. One of the main events of the retreat was a workshop where Rachel Calloway and Ari Streisfeld (Duo Cortona) performed and critiqued the Fellows’ drafts. Gracious, patient, and oh-so-supportive, Rachel and Ari shared insights that will stay with me throughout my career. Ari, for instance, advised me on how to notate improvisatory passages in a way that provides performers with enough parameters to execute what I hope to hear and enough freedom to take ownership of the music. Rachel, for instance, attuned me to the magic that singers can add to a piece through subtle body language – a sideways glance, even – and how I might leave time and space for these gestures in my music. Thanks to their encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary repertoire, both Ari and Rachel were able to demonstrate amazing extended techniques on their instruments that I might have never learned about otherwise; sounds that you have to hear and see produced in front of you to really understand; tricks of the trade that I can now add to my toolbox.

A bit about the piece that I’ve written for Duo Cortona: Shorelines is a song cycle that sets to music four poems by Catherine Pond. I had the pleasure of meeting Catherine last spring at the University of Southern California. We were both enrolled in a biennial graduate seminar co-taught by Frank Ticheli and David St. John that pairs composers with poets to collaborate on new works for voice and piano. I hoped that I’d be able to continue working with Catherine outside of class, and I’m so thrilled and honored to be setting her poetry again. All four songs address the theme of witnessing and grappling with someone else’s grief and suffering. I landed on the title Shorelines because I think that when we’re confronted with another person’s experience, one outside yet inevitably linked to our own, we can feel as if we’re traveling alongside a border between something fixed and something fluid.

Now, back to the retreat: Beyond the wonderful mentorship from Gabriela and Duo Cortona, one of the great joys of the retreat was meeting the other Fellows. I felt so fortunate to be among such warm, encouraging, and talented individuals, all of whom together represented a beautiful palette of backgrounds and aesthetics. Some of my favorite memories from the retreat are of us cooking together, staying up late at night, and sharing stories and music. It’s such a blast to be around people who “get what you do” but are just as happy talking about, say, food as they are music. I cannot wait to see everyone again this coming December at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where Duo Cortona teaches, for our premieres! 


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Driven by a constant curiosity, composer Timothy Peterson (b. 1994) draws on a kaleidoscope of influences. Finding inspiration in sources ranging from impressionist, jazz, and classical Arabic styles to literature from the French- and Spanish-speaking worlds, he aims to welcome audiences into musical narratives of genre-crossing expressivity. Learn more on Timmy's bio page.

Gabriela Lena Frank