Interview with ICO composer-in-residence James Aikman, Part 1

Have you heard about the ICO’s commissioned piece? We are so excited to present the world premiere of Triptych: Musical Momentum! We sat down with ICO composer-in-residence James Aikman to ask a few questions about him and his composition. It was so interesting that we had to split it up into 2 posts. We’ll put the second part out this Thursday. Enjoy!
James Aikman is an Indiana native!
What was the first tune(s) you composed?  
A rock tune I wrote in 6th grade for the John Strange School Talent Show, which our band won!  Mrs. Clara Fidler encouraged us, and was simply one of the greatest public school music teachers imaginable.  While working on her doctorate in music at IU, she would teach us to differentiate between Bach and Handel, Mozart and Haydn, Schubert and Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky – all before we were allowed to cross the street by ourselves! We had several concerts per year, all of which required preparation, and entire school was expected to sing and play various instruments.  She even had us contributing in the summers, competing in the Indy Park system.  Amazing lady.
Is your family musical?  
Yes, and all love music.
Who are your musical role models? Why?   
Not really any role models, since the path through a composer’s life is unique for each, and many of those throughout history whose music I admire met tragic fates.   But there are many who I admire:   The Beatles, the band Yes, and various great jazz artists (Oscar Peterson, John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, many others), all for the tunes, instrumental excitement and energy transmitted.  Certainly, in the classical world, I admire the Germanic composers for their craft and control of musical form, idea, emotive mood and invention.  The French and Russian composers I admire for their emphasis on beauty and distinct, colorful orchestration which includes Ravel, Debussy and definitely, Stravinsky – for his uniquely informed, cosmopolitan approach, including everything throughout musical history as possible influence. Additionally, my extraordinary teachers (Schelle, Fox, Erb, Andriessen) for whom I have the highest respect and who taught me to emphasize my own musicality rather than become a version of themselves.  Each simultaneously to their own composing, has taken the time to help the younger generations begin to know what being a composer means. 
What instruments do you play? 
Piano and electronic keyboards, the latter have become quite significant during my lifetime. 
What drew you to a career in music, and to composing professionally?  
Composing has been a part of my life ever since I can remember, starting by emulating what I heard in classical music, jazz, and rock.  It was probably the early successes and associations with professional musicians which made music-making seem completely natural.  The conductor, John Nelson, and his family were neighbors. His interest in and support of my music made an important early impact certainly.  I composed good deal of my first piece for orchestra in his studio on Crooked Creek one summer while they were in Aspen. 
My interest in jazz was fostered by hearing Steve Allee, and by James “Step” Wharton, a great musician and stride pianist,  who were my teachers before college.  Harmonies have always interested me, as “Step” would play harmonic patterns over which I would solo.  This taught me both a command of harmony as well as how to shape an interesting melodic line.  Doug Wagner, a very successful Indy-based composer, was my teacher of advanced music theory during high school (North Central). 
When I got to Butler, I was in the first group of Michael Schelle’s students when he first arrived back at his alma mater.  He taught me the ropes of composing, instrumentation and basic electronic music and he programmed my music in various professional recitals. Big Mike would also include fascinating stories of his teachers, one of whom, Aaron Copland, he brought to campus for master class.  Indy is lucky to have Schelle here and I look forward to his new piece by the Ronen Ensemble! I also had the musical guidance of James Mulholland, who taught me choral arranging and who possessed an entirely different aesthetic than Dr. Schelle.   Richard Osborne and Louis Chenette were absolutely terrific too.  
At IU, my main teachers were active, professional composers too: Frederick Fox, Donald Erb, John Eaton, Claude Baker, Juan Orrego-Salas, and others.  Hearing their music and the music of other living composers Maestro Nelson would bring to town made an impression. Donald Erb pushed my piece I wrote during his advanced orchestration class to the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, where he was Composer-in-Residence.  Also to the New World Symphony in Miami, and others.  Charles Webb and the IU composition department brought Leonard Bernstein to IU for master classes, many other notable composers too, and this also made a career in music seem laudable.  Working there in the serious music-making climate of IU, with so many musicians from around the world, all doing our best, was an inspiration.  Joshua Bell heard my music, played it and recorded it a couple of times in recital and even once on television with Charles Webb. 


After IU, I taught at Butler then accepted a Fulbright to work with Louis Andriessen, one of the world’s leading composers, in Amsterdam.  While there, seeing streets named after composers, I didn’t just find my own voice and confirm my calling as a composer, I humbly, yet confidently, knew I belonged.
Questions? Comments?
Buy tickets for the world premiere of Triptych: Musical Momentum
on April 11, 2014 at the Howard L. Schrott Center for the Arts

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