Out of the Shadows

Saturday, 23 October 2021

Pandemic, politics & pent-up ideas: I chat to composer Tim Corpus about his recent disc, and the challenge of balancing a varied career.

Tim Corpus
Tim Corpus
The American composer Tim Corpus' recent disc, MMXX, [see my review] as its name suggests, arises directly out of the events of 2020, both the pandemic and the politics. Tim lives in the Chicago area and trained at Chicago College of Performing Arts; he has quite a varied career, combining that of performer, arts administrator, composer of both concert music and film music, and now music for video games too. The music on MMXX mixes live instruments with electronics, and I recently chatted to Tim about how the music on the new disc relates to his other works, how he balances the various aspects of his career and much else besides.

He describes the music MMXX as 'very me', and whilst it might seem to be something of a change from his earlier acoustic music, his use of electronics has been in the offing since 2016/17 whilst the constraints necessary in the pandemic encouraged the increase in the amount of electronics on the disc. Also, he has a new synthesiser and can generate sounds that don't exist in his concert music.

Matt Bronstein recording Tim Corpus' album MMXX
Matt Bronstein recording Tim Corpus' album MMXX
The production of MMXX is a direct result of the effects of the pandemic on his career. He was CEO of Lake Forest Symphony from 2017 to 2020, a period when he wrote very, very little music indeed but in 2020 he was laid off. The resulting increase in his time coincided with other life changes such as getting a divorce and these succeeded in releasing a host of pent-up ideas. So that he sketched out the music in 2020 and recorded it during 2020/21.  Some of the pieces were pre-existing, for instance, Screen Time was originally written for marimba and was very tricky. Re-invented as a work for electronics, Tim thinks that it works better in this new incarnation. The producer on the disc, Alyssa Arrigo, is a long-time friend, and she played the piano on the opening and closing tracks, whilst many of the other musicians are friends and people whom he went to college within the Chicago area. Two of the guys are Tim's room-mates from long ago, whilst cellist Timothy Archbold has not only played a lot of Tim's music but recorded Tim's first album, Breath. It was great to have a team with whom he had already worked, so he just had to put his music in front of them and they knew how it should go.

A number of the works on the disc directly address political events from 2020, notably the protests that swept the USA following the death of George Floyd. This isn't the first time that Tim has addressed politics in his music, and his work We Can't Breathe which he describes as a rather angry piece, was inspired by another police brutality incident. And he goes on to comment that Chicago College of Performing Arts, where he trained, is a very justice-minded university. A lot of Tim's life has been spent in the Chicago area, some of which are heavily affected by these issues and he finds that music can speak of sensitive social issues. His most blatant piece on the new disc is This is What Democracy Looks Like which uses a recording of the 2020 protests in Portland, Oregon. Another highly political work is Elegy for Justice; the name here has a double meaning, first off an elegy for the late Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but also an elegy for the idea of justice.

I have to confess that when listening to MMXX to review it, I kept coming back to the idea of electronic dance music; this was not Tim's original intention, but he admits to being influenced by other contemporary composers who use pulsing electronic percussion, and perhaps the idea of movement was intrinsic as well. His piece, Is this Science Fiction? came to him when walking the dog, and again as a pulsing beat that comes out. But also, when writing the music he wanted to balance between complex and simpler ideas, mixing idealism with vernacular.

The various strands of Tim's career inevitably have bled into each other, so that working as an arts administrator informs his composing. One important instance he cites is his growing awareness of costs, something not taught at college, for instance why two harps might not be a good idea. A composer should have to think about issues such as the costs of rehearsals and so on. He mentions an orchestral commission that is writing for 2023, and which he has scored for simple forces (just double woodwind) so that the work is more likely to get performed again.

Tim Corpus: MMXX
His musical style for his film music tends to be more tonal, more lyrical as he feels that this lends itself to film, but during 2020 he also started writing music for video games, which means working to a non-linear narrative (as in a video game the music has to respond to the player's actions). This means writing one layer at a time, and the music can change by the player's location and so he adds more changes. It has been a great experience, and he is finding that the video game community really pays attention to the music, perhaps because a game is a more interactive experience and so the music is immersive, and now the bigger video games have moved to recording the music with a live orchestra.

Whilst video game music might seem a new direction, he cites a work such as John Luther AdamsBecome Ocean which is very long, deeply moving and very like game music; he just wishes that he could have e experienced that in University. Similarly, experiencing the music of Berg and Schoenberg changed him as well. His new String Quartet was written after production of MMXX, and he feels that the experience of the album has also changed his music and this is reflected in the new quartet.

When Tim left university, he was jealous of those whose path was clear, taking a Ph D and going on to teach. And he is very thankful that he found arts administration, it not only brought him a regular pay cheque but enabled him to be around musicians whilst working. In his years after university, he devoted his time to arts administration; he is not full time anymore but still has that strand to his career. Whilst he would like to be more full-time when composing, he realises that there is a constant balance between earning money and artistic endeavour. Also, in arts administration there is so much that you can accomplish, for instance in fundraising, creating scholarships for youth orchestras. Being in arts administration has worked well for him, a neat solution to the question 'how do you make money and composer', and one which isn't a desk job but is around musicians.

To achieve his aims, Tim lives very strictly by his calendar and his to-do-list software. His life is highly organised, even during periods when walking the dog and of course, like freelance workers all over, his working times can involve nights and weekends.

When I ask about influences, he says that there is a whole list and picks out a few top ones. Mahler is a great influence, including his Symphony No. 9, and he loves Deryck Cooke's completion of Symphony No. 10. He loves the music of Toru Takemitsu for his use of colour and the way he can make small instrumental gestures count. He counts himself as more of a Bach fan than a Beethoven one, commenting that taking a Bach instrumental suite and transcribing it for marimba is a great way to learn. The final name he mentions is that of Aaron Copland, for all his works, and Tim loves the use of parallel fifths and open sounds.

Tim Corpus (Photo A Deran)
Tim Corpus (Photo A Deran)
Coming up, Tim has two commissions in the pipeline for 2022/2, a work for percussion ensemble and another for orchestra. He is also orchestrating a musical for someone else, and Tim has done a lot of orchestration recently. Producing the album was a very intense experience, and it has been nice to stay in music but to step away from the album. But he has a new album in the works too; two tracks have already been recorded and it is planned to debut in mid-2022. This will be a little bit different to MMXX, less rhythmic, more atmospheric and slower though the instrumentation will be similar to that on MMXX. He loves the guitar (both electric and acoustic) and plays the guitar himself, so there were again be lots of guitar on the new disc. We finish our chat with a discussion about setting English, and the challenge of doing it well whilst remaining true to your local idiom. This has arisen partly because, bubbling under, there is the idea of doing an opera, though this is a long term goal.






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Elsewhere on this blog

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  • Boxgrove Choral Festival 2021: from Spanish Renaissance to contemporary British music - concert review
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  • Thrilling virtuosity and engaging personality: Arias for Ballino, tenor Jorge Navarro Colorado's exploration of rare 18th-century repertoire with Opera Settecento at London Handel Festival - concert review
  • Freedom and balance: I chat to composer Noah Max whose work is in the Clements Prize for Composers at Conway Hall - interview
  • Memorials to the unimaginable: Adam Swayne's 9/11:20 on Coviello Contemporary - record review
  • A superb tribute to both Handel and Milton: the expansive original 1743 version of Samson at London Handel Festival - concert review
  • Modified rapture: Diana Damrau and Maciej Pikulski in Schumann, Duparc, Strauss & Spanish songs at Wigmore Hall - concert review
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  • If we continue to ignore these composers and their music then we are doing Hitler's work for him: I chat to Simon Wynberg about ARC Ensemble's Music in Exile series on Chandos - interview
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