When you think of classical music, you might list off some famous, long-dead composers like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, but there are many talented modern composers creating works for ensembles of all kinds, too! Arts Quincy is spotlighting one such composer, Stephanie Berg, from St. Louis, MO, and peeking behind the curtain to reveal the art and science of being a modern composer. Berg wrote a symphonic work called, “Ignite,” for the Quincy Symphony Orchestra in 2018, and the piece was rebroadcast this year on WGEM. She also recently composed a brass quintet titled, “This Uncommon,” which will be world-premiered in Quincy in 2021. She has had work performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and the 9th Street Philharmonic, among others. Look for her SoundCloud recordings at stephaniejberg.com.
Q & A with Composer Stephanie Berg
What is your musical background? Did you play a specific instrument or an array of a lot of instruments? I come from a musical family; both my parents are piano teachers and many of my family members played an instrument or are music teachers. So for me, the question was not, “Would you like to be in band?” It was, “What instrument do you want to play?” I grew up playing piano and started playing clarinet in seventh grade. I actually went to college for clarinet performance and now play everything in the clarinet family and saxophone.
Where do you find your inspiration to compose music?
Most often, I just find a quiet moment in my life, say, driving or walking, and I imagine the instruments I’m writing for and what they sound like. If the piece is for an event or project that suggests a particular mood, I’ll imagine that, too. Usually, I’m able to come up with a theme that I can work with, and if I’m lucky, it’ll be a theme I really like!
Many of your works are commissioned from ensembles or individuals. What does that process look like? The process of commissioning generally begins with an email; someone reaches out to me, wanting a piece of music, often for an event or a project. Sometimes, they have very specific ideas on the theme of the piece, but most often they’re just interested to give me an instrumentation and see what comes out!
What would you say to someone who might be considering comissioning a piece? I would suggest finding a composer you like and just reach out to them. They may or may not be available or interested, but at least you’ll get your feet wet. I’m sure everybody is different, so just ask and get a feel for what the process is like. Pricing is often determined by length and number of instruments, but other things can factor in, such as if the deadline is particularly close. You might be surprised at how affordable having your own piece can be.
Composing music has historically been a male dominated field. Is there anything that makes it particularly challenging to work in that field today? The field has been, and still is, very male dominated, but fortunately, a lot of people and organizations are actively trying to create space where women’s music can be featured as well. I owe much of my career to these conscientious people! The biggest hurdle for me as a woman is also the biggest hurdle for anyone who composes: competing with all the old, dead white guys. And trust me, I LOVE the old, dead white guys! I think it’s just a matter of making room; there’s a lot of amazing music out there.
Can you tell me about a piece of music that you found inspiration for very easily, and then one that you might have struggled with? “The Platypus Story” is a piece that came almost effortlessly to me, and I think it’s because there was a story to help guide the music. “Ravish and Mayhem,” was a piece I absolutely struggled with and was afraid it was a terrible piece until the premiere, where it was very well received. It has since become one of my most performed pieces. Interestingly, I now consider both pieces to be among my best works.
What is your favorite part about composing for someone? Assuming all goes well, the best part is seeing their reaction and knowing that I’ve brought a musical moment to life for them. I can proudly say that my music has, on multiple occasions, moved grown men to tears. And they were the good kind of tears to boot! But truly, I am honored to think that my musical voice has brought joy to others. That’s what pushes me through the inevitable creative slumps and what drives me to continually improve my craft.