Interview with J.P. Redmond, our 2017 #Note4Note Composer
Meet J.P. Redmond
J.P. appeared on our show back in 2013 at the age of 13 where he received a Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award in conjunction with his performance. Since being on From the Top, he’s been recognized with three ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer Awards, a 2017 Davidson Fellowship, and was a 2017 Apprentice Composer with the National Youth Orchestra of the USA – just to name a few achievements. We’re thrilled that J.P. is our 2017 #Note4Note Composer!
When you were featured on From the Top as a composer, you were just 13. When did you start thinking about becoming a composer?
When I was on NPR’s From the Top I had taken composition lessons for a few years – I started around age 10. It kind of just happened that I was a composer, I don’t really think I had a choice. As a kid, I had fun making stuff up on the piano, and I always wanted to do it.
I was encouraged a lot by peers and mentors to pursue the field. Being on From the Top was a big part of pushing me to continue and I would say the program was a big turning point for me.
You’re in your first year at the Juilliard School in New York studying composition. Can you describe for us a bit of what composition private lessons look like?
That’s right, I am studying with Dr. Christopher Rouse. The lessons with him are great. While some teachers like waiting to see a complete draft of your music, he is most interested in seeing my work right away and giving input on what I write each week.
A big part of our work is weekly listening assignments where Dr. Rouse assigns a few compositions by a composer he’s selected and it’s my responsibility to get the scores so I can study them while I listen. I think these assignments have really helped me because I didn’t have a big knowledge of the repertoire coming in.
In terms of working with the pieces I write, he usually starts with objective criticism like “this section sounds too similar to another composer,” or “this idea is too repetitive, add something different for more variety.” He also offers technical advice like “this needs to be higher in the flute so it can be heard over the piano.”
He mostly lets me make the artistic decisions for myself, but inevitably his opinion also comes through.
Do you have opportunities for peer feedback at Juilliard?
There’s a strong bond amongst the freshman composition students. While everyone has the opportunity to share their work during the weekly Composer’s Forum led by Dr. Melinda Wagner, the freshmen often share their work with each other outside of the forum.
If we don’t have a guest presenter during the forum, Dr. Wagner will teach us about the technical aspects of composing or how to give a pre-concert talk. During one session, the freshmen had the chance to present their pieces, giving me a chance for everyone to hear my work and give input.
Where do your musical ideas come from? Is there a process or a method to your work?
For me, it’s always started with improvising at the piano. Sometimes there’s an extra-musical event that starts the process, like that one time I spelled out the word “cheese” in musical notation! Usually, I explore creating ideas based on other ideas. If I find a chord I like, I can build all sorts of melodies or ideas from that starting place. I guess the method is simply developing ideas I come up with by spinning them out.
There are so many systems that have been devised for determining every pitch, but for me, it’s about developing a sort of intuitive system and doing what sounds good. It’s about finding “cool sounds”. I’m not as concerned with technical aspects as much as other composers may be, such as with a scientific formula, for example. For me, it’s about discovery.
You recently had an amazing piece of yours, “Silhouette”, performed by the National Youth Orchestra of the USA. Tell us about your experience working with the ensemble.
Each year NYO picks two Apprentice Composers to compose a short one-movement piece, and this year I had the opportunity to be one of them. Part of participating in NYO is a three-week residency program where there are reading sessions and a recording session for the pieces written by the Apprentice Composers.
This summer, they took our pieces on tour, so my piece was performed in Mexico! We also had a workshop session where we wrote experimental stuff that we could test on the musicians in groups of twelve or so.
They were like guinea pigs, where we could write a rough draft of our ideas and hear them played so we could tell what works and what doesn’t. Additionally, we had sessions with our mentor, composer Sean Shepherd. It was very intimate, like a four-person version of the Composers Forum at Juilliard.
What was a high point of your time with the National Youth Orchestra?
I learned so much from actually hearing my piece performed and from talking with the conductor, James Ross. He would find me before and after the rehearsals to talk about the score, ask questions, and give input. The other high point was the friendships. I made so many personal and professional connections with my fellow young musicians.
Why would you say commissions are important to composers?
Commissions give us an opportunity to get paid, an opportunity for more work. They allow us to use more and more of our time to create, to not have to worry about doing other things to support ourselves.
They almost always result in performances and recordings, so commissions get your name out there. Once you get one, you get more and more. The more and more you have your music played, the more and more people will know it. (Check out the video of last year’s #Note4Note commission.)
What do you think is important about From the Top’s commissions in particular?
From the Top’s commissions give me the chance to write for fellow young musicians. It’s really exciting to have people around my age playing my music; it’s a peer collaboration. I think it’s very important to write for my friends and peers. They’re helping bring to life something that’s on the same track as them, something they can interact with. The #Note4Note commission feels collaborative. The alum performers are working with me to bring something to life.
Lastly, about how many notes do you think you’ll need to write this new piece?
I guess if I’m being technical? Just 12! (laughs)