Howard Fredrics — composer

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© Howard Fredrics

Howard was one of my lecturers when I was studying for an MA in TV/Film composition at Kingston University in London during 2002–3. He taught a module that I completed which involved learning about sound synthesis and using various software to mutate, morph & combine sounds.

I interviewed his wife Lori — who was also a teacher at the same uni — a number of years ago. Why didn’t I interview Howard at the same time?! I recall going to meet them whilst they were still in London to share an idea I had. They moved back to the USA. We lost touch at some point then reconnected, then lost touch, then reconnected [on Facebook].

What’s your first musical memory?

Crawling backwards and walloping my head against the leg of our piano. Left quite a lump that remains to this day.

But seriously, probably it was my dad playing piano and singing the song, “Smile.”

When people ask you ‘what do you do’, what do you say?

These days, I tell them I’m a composer and sound designer for theatre, film and concert performance, with a specialization in electroacoustic music, in particular text-sound composition.

What / who made you decide to / realise that music would be your path?

My grandmother was a great supporter of my musical endeavors, a lover of classical music. While my parents discouraged me from becoming a musician — “be a doctor first, then you can be a musician” — encouragement from my grandmother, from my piano teacher, and other school music teachers led me to decide to become a composer, having begun to compose my first pieces at around age 12 or 13, Scott Joplin-inspired ragtime piano music (around the time the film, “The Sting” was released, which featured Joplin rags), a chorale for strings/winds/brass, an orchestral rhapsody (influenced by Russian folk music), and a number of progressive rock songs for my rock band, leading me to decide to pursue further study at Oberlin Conservatory in composition and TIMARA (Technology in Music and the Related Arts), with the initial goal of becoming a film music composer.

Are you / have you been a Performer as well as a Composer? How did / does performing inflect your composition? When you compose, do you compose for specific performers?

Have been a keyboardist, bassist and singer. My experience doing these affects the way I write for these instruments/voices in so far as my knowledge of the instruments/voice helps determine what I write.

I sometimes compose for specific performers, especially my wife, Lori, who is a wonderful soprano, and also for a Swedish percussionist, Jonny Axelsson, with whom I collaborated on my piece, Northern Lights, for soprano, mezzo, percussion and pre-recorded computer music. Most of the time, I write a piece and then try to get performers for it.

Some of the writing in my opera was designed for the specific singers in the premiere performance.

When I write for theatre, I’m writing for a specific event, so there is an opportunity built into the process. It’s hard to motivate to write if you don’t have an impending performance opportunity, and theatre provides just such opportunities.

Oh, and occasionally, I perform my own works, both as a keyboardist and as a singer.

© Lori & Howard Fredrics, Feb 2019

Who are your favourite composers to listen to at the moment?

I don’t listen to a lot of music these days. When I do listen, it’s usually to pop/jazz music from the 70s and 80s.

How do you discover new music now?

Often through spotify searches, or through recommendations from friends and colleagues.

If you weren’t a musician, what would you be?

I would probably be either a doctor or a lawyer

Could you tell us about your music education from (the equivalent of primary) to your PhD? Where / what did you study? Why Composition?

I studied piano privately from age 9 and contrabass in school music, also from age 9. My piano studies also included music theory, building a fairly solid foundation to draw from when I entered Oberlin Conservatory of Music. I studied composition at Oberlin with a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Hoffmann, as well as with Joseph Wood and Randy Coleman, and electroacoustic music with Gary Nelson and Conrad Cummings.

Part of my studies included a semester interning with theatre composer, Richard Peaslee, new romantic concert music composer, Jacob Druckman, jingle producer, Suzanne Ciani, and minimalist composers, Mikel Rouse and Elodie Lauten.

My work with Peaslee led me to future work on several off-Broadway and regional shows as his assistant, including performing such tasks as orchestration, copying, sound editing, and other related music tasks, on shows at First All-Children’s Theatre, Arena Stage Theatre, and Music-Theatre Group. I also later served in a similar capacity for Stanley Silverman.

Following my studies at Oberlin, I spent one semester at Columbia where I studied composition with Susan Blaustein, and electroacoustic music with Art Krieger.

After dropping out of Columbia, I eventually enrolled in a Masters program in Composition at University of Texas at Austin, where I studied with Russell Pinkston, Karl Korte and Donald Grantham.

Following my Masters degree, I received a Fulbright [scholarship] to study and work in Sweden, where I studied with Bill Brunson at Royal College of Music-Stockholm, and also worked at EMS Stockholm, the Swedish national electronic music studios.

Upon returning to the US, I continued my studies at University of Texas and received a DMA degree in Composition. While pursuing my DMA, I did a residency at Atlantic Center for the Arts, where I also studied composition with Mario Davidovsky.

So many teachers — what did you learn from them? Were there any big steps/jumps, sudden realisations that changed your approach or way of thinking/composing?

From Richard Hoffmann, my most important influence, I learned about variation technique (mostly by studying the work of the great masters, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, etc. and the ways they solved musical problems), how to develop a small amount of material into a large work by atomizing the thematic/motivic material into its elements and treating each independently.

I learned about how to hide material in a texturally-changing background so that the musical surface remains highly varied, while the underlying background is consistent — unity and variety. I also learned about how to portray extra-musical symbolism through musical materials, including, for example musical quotations, to communicate private and/or subliminal messages to informed listeners/viewers of the score.

From Russell Pinkston, I was encouraged to aim for a thinner, clearer texture in my music, which I think helps to bring out individual elements and reduce unnecessary materials that crowd out the most important elements.

Much of my approach to composing, however, came from encountering, studying and analyzing varied works by composers from different time periods and who were writing in various styles, rather than from what composition teachers taught me. Except in so far as they directed me towards discovering new (to me) works for study.

What have you composed?

My works include solo piano pieces, a number of chamber works, several orchestra pieces, pieces combining instruments and recorded/live electronics, pure pre-recorded electroacoustic pieces, a multimedia opera, and many works for voice with instruments, and voice with electronics. Many of my pieces have been written for dancers, theatre and film contexts.

So did you ‘fall’ into composing for theatre etc or was it a conscious decision on your part?

I kinda fell into it, though as a high schooler, I was involved as an actor and musician in school musicals and other school plays. Once I went to undergrad at Oberlin, and when I did an arts internship semester in NYC, I began working with Richard Peaslee. That’s when my interest in composing incidental theatre music really took off, because I saw it as quite similar to composing for film — e.g. character theme portrayal, underscoring of action, representing unspoken thoughts and ideas of characters, etc, except that there were certain acoustic challenges that require consideration in order to ensure that the music is audible, while not stepping on the lines of actors or distracting the audience and placing their focus on the music at the expense of the drama.

Working with Peaslee, and in particular, Music Theatre Group, reinforced my understanding of Wagner’s approach to gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork), whereby music, movement, scenery, costumes, etc. all work towards a common goal, and are equalized in importance. This aesthetic became the driving force behind my approach to composing for theatre and to teaching students to compose for theatre or to collaborate with other artists working in diverse media.

Following my work with Peaslee, I then began during the late 1980s to seek out opportunities to work in professional theatre as a composer, and later as a sound designer. My first shows where I served as principal or sole composer were performed in Austin, TX, where I was composer-in-residence at Capitol City Playhouse and the Austin Theatre Collective. During this time, I began a successful collaboration with the well-known director, Jessica Kubzansky, who is presently Artistic Director of the Boston Court Theatre. Jessica directed a number of shows on which I worked, including Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Capitol City Playhouse, and Wedekind’s Lulu at Pacific Resident Theatre.

Not encroaching on dialogue is even more of an issue with live theatre, as mixing is more of a challenge. It used to be even more problematic in the days when few shows had actors miked. There are somewhat different issues that emerge when actors are miked/and or when music is amplified/pre-recorded when compared with all-live musicians and unamplified actors. Various combinations of the above result in problems that have to be addressed.

What factors determine whether actors are mic’ed or not? I didn’t think most straight* Plays were …

These days, more straight plays are miked than used to be the case. It depends on various factors, including the size/acoustics of the space, the nature of the music/sound design, and the theatrical style.

Tell us about one of your most recent theatrical sound design projects.

One of my most recent projects is sound design for a drag version of Housewives of Secaucus.

I dont know the H o S — Is there a Composer for that or ‘only’ sound design?

Housewives of Secaucus is a live reality show with music, based on the Real Housewives franchise. Only sound design. All the music is pre-existing pop songs. I suppose music editing/re-editing, something I’ve done for the show’s songs is somewhat of a compositional endeavour.

Comedy?

Comedy, of course.

An earlier rendition of Housewives — promo with female cast.

An a more up-to-date version with drag performers — below

Do you enjoy working on it?

It’s pretty silly. And sometimes fun, though often, a bit chaotic and stressful. My role is sound design, but also engineer, so I mix the show live. That’s usually where the stress comes into play — not enough rehearsal time in the space, poor technical resources, crowded sound booth conditions, etc.

Do you take any work offered to you or do you choose..?

I seldom turn down work, except lately, not only because of the pandemic, but because I’ve become a primary and rather full-time caregiver for my mother-in-law. One can rarely afford to be choosey in this business. Occasionally, when I believe the project is doomed to failure, where there are insufficient time, technical or personnel resources to do a show successfully, where there is insufficient budget to justify my time/travel expenses, I will turn down an opportunity offered to me.

How do you work with the director / writer / producer..?

I usually read the script, mark spots where music/sound should possibly go, have meetings/discussions with a director to get their ideas/requests for where music/sound should go, what sorts of sound/music they’re looking for, what the role of these elements should be. Then I reconcile my ideas with the director’s and get to work creating musical pieces/sounds/soundscapes for various moments/cues in the show. Then there’s always inevitable cuts and revisions to the materials. Trying things out in rehearsal to see what works/doesn’t work and how it needs to be reshaped to work better.

I attend a number of rehearsals, sometimes bringing work-in-progress to rehearsals to try out. Then we go into tech rehearsal and really fine-tune things, get sound levels and exact in-out points for cues.

What’s the biggest project you’ve worked on, or the biggest contribution you’ve made to a project?

Biggest project I worked on is probably my opera, The Whitechapel Whirlwind. But I think it depends on how one defines “biggest.” Do you mean most people involved, largest amount of music, longest amount of time working on it, most high-profile, etc?

Which project do you have the fondest memories of? Which are you proudest of?

My fondest memories are of my opera [The Whitechapel Whirlwind] quite proud, though, of course, disappointed that Kingston University succeeded, in part, in obstructing the completion of the piece, following its work-in-progress premiere.

I’m also very proud of and fond of my experience working on Wedekind’s Lulu, because of the wonderful cast, which included a number of quite famous TV actors as well as a wonderful director, Jessica Kubzansky, who really understood my approach and gave me a lot of freedom to try things.

Likewise, my work on Accidental Death of an Anarchist, also directed by Jessica, was similarly rewarding.

I’m also quite fond of my work on Billie, Malcom and Yusef, a play with music about Billie Holiday, Malcom X and Yusef Hawkins, a teenager who was murdered by racists in Brooklyn in 1989. This was a more unusual project in that I did both sound design and video projections.

More recently, I am quite fond of my work on Dietrich Rides Again, because of the powerful emotional impact (on myself and audiences) of the piece, and the very personal relationship to my family’s experience during the Holocaust.

How far did you get with your opera? Did you complete it?

My opera remains incomplete — about 45 minutes done.

What would you need in order to complete it?

Money. Money to commission the librettist, Jacob Sager Weinstein to finish the libretto (the book is done — written by myself and Lori). And then money to stage a performance, even in reduced form. Ideally a commission to complete/perform the work.

Hazard a guess at a $?

Probably at least $30–50k to get something done in some completed form. That would not be for a version with orchestra or even chamber orchestra, but rather, just a version with piano/electronics/video and singers.

How do changes in technology affect the way you compose and the music that results?

The ability to have a sampled orchestra at my fingertips means I can hear ideas before/without having them played by musicians. I no longer necessarily have to write on paper/notation software, and can, instead, composing directly via MIDI data and sampled instruments, by playing in each part separately as a human musical performance. The ability to construct sounds from scratch or from found sounds/recorded speech through musicalization of sounds not traditionally considered to be musical, using software for processing these sounds. and the kinds of music that results..

The kind of music that results when it comes to instrumental/vocal music is basically the same as composing without technology aids. With electroacoustic music, it is, of course quite different, both from a sonic standpoint, and from a musical-performance standpoint, as it is possible to realize music that is more complex and difficult to play than could be done by traditional musicians within available rehearsal times (or, possibly, at all).

To what extent are you an educator / teacher yourself? What do you think the under/post grad music education will be post Covid 19 / in 10 years?

I taught music composition and electroacoustic music for about twenty years in various academic environments, as well as privately. I do very little teaching these days, since leaving academia. Occasionally I tutor students in music theory and am about to take on a new composition student starting tomorrow. He will be taught virtually via Zoom.

I think there will be very little in-person teaching going on for the next year or so due to the pandemic, but afterwards, online teaching will be more prominent, due to necessary developments emerging from the pandemic.

As a musician, how are you adapting what you do during the lockdown? How is it affecting you (mentally, physically, …) and your Work / Business?

I’m not doing a helluva lot during this lockdown. Most of my work at present involves video editing for a television station, which I also manage. Mentally, like many people these days, I’m experience a great deal of anxiety about the near and long term future. It’s hard to imagine returning to interacting regularly with other artists in a theatrical context, something that has formed a large part of my work in recent years.

Even my work at the TV station, which includes creating some original music and doing video filming and audio-video post production is likely to be affected by social distancing issues for the foreseeable future.

Physically, I try to take daily walks, eat healthily, and get a reasonable amount of sleep, but to be honest, worries about the future keep me up a lot at night.

As for work/business, all of my shows and upcoming audio/video projects were cancelled or put on hold indefinitely. I have a few TV projects already recorded, for which I’m able to edit at home, but not much new production, save for some televised remotely-produced local government meetings, which I record and broadcast.

Find out more about Howard

Be part of something bigger. http://cheekyfest.live rupert@cheekyfest.com

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