On Monday, May 2 in Emerson Auditorium renowned composer Michael Torke walked the audience through his compositional process as part of the spring Taylor Time Concert series. Having studied music at the Eastman School of Music and Yale University, Torke went on to a successful career, composing music for famous orchestras such as the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in Liverpool, England and the Chatelet in Paris, France. During his Taylor Time presentation, Torke held an intimate conversation with the audience pertaining to his music and his creative processes. Torke also played recordings of some of his most famous compositions and explained the inspiration behind them.
Torke opened his presentation with a shockingly ironic statement, “the world doesn’t really need anymore music!” Believing that many of the most revolutionary composers and musicians have already introduced so much valuable music, Torke explained to the audience that while many composers and artists create as an expression of themselves, he composes music with the aim to make it universally resonant. “Creating something that speaks to us all has more value than the indulgence of expressing just yourself,” Torke explained.
In order to make his compositions both unique and resonant, Torke focuses on arranging notes in an original way while also keeping the piece musically viable. Demonstrating this, Torke had the audience listen to his musical work entitled “Yellow Pages.” He was inspired by the systematic alphabetization of phonebooks and rearranged the notes in his piece to mimic this alphabetization. Torke elaborated, “I wrote the piece so that while the notes themselves stay on the staff with little variation, the key signatures change, so that little by little the music would move up the scale, but not off the staff itself.” Upon listening to the recording of “Yellow Pages,” it was evident that the notes moved in time with with the changes in the key signatures of each measure and staff, causing the piece to heighten in pitch. The tune was quick and catchy, dotted with crisp staccatos and varying degrees of loudness.
The second piece Torke played for the audience was a composition inspired by syllables found in proverbs. He assigned the syllables to the melodic notes and, just like a proverb, in reorganizing the same series of notes in different ways changed the meaning. The piece was light and harmonious, gently accompanied by a singer whose voice matched the main tune of the piece.
Then Torke played one of his most well known compositions, “Javelin” which was a nine minute piece written for the 1996 Olympics. The piece was fast and quickly escalated into a grand forte. Torke explained that he wanted the music to express the athletic valor that characterizes champions.
The fourth musical piece he showed the audience was organized in such a way that he kept it in one key and avoided modulation, which was contrary to what his professors at Yale had emphasized when composing music. He believed that this would communicate the universality he was trying to express in his music. Entitled “Bright Blue Music” the piece began loud then abruptly became quiet and sweet. Eventually, it rose again and became very loud, fast and rich in sound, then again reduced to piano. This continued throughout the duration of the piece. “The song begins quiet but builds and builds until it bursts in orchestral sound,” commented Torke.
The fifth piece was entitled “Bliss.” The notes were arranged in order to stress “value” and “durability.” “I wanted to transcend the limits of time and also wanted to pump life back into concert music,” commented Torke. The main element of the piece was a constant rhythm that continued throughout the duration of the song, with variatons only in the melody and chords. It was a soft, slightly slower piece with a staccato-like clapping accompanying the sharp instrumental sounds, creating an overall intensity in the composition.
Lastly, Torke closed his presentation by introducing his latest piece, which he wrote for the Philadelphia Orchestra. The piece is scheduled to premier at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) on August 5 in honor of SPAC’s 50th anniversary. The mandate was for the composition to be celebratory. Torke was inspired by Saratoga, with its popular horse racetracks, natural springs and general vibrancy.
The Battles of Saratoga also inspired him, which was a major turning point of the American Revolution. “The victory at Saratoga inspired France to assist the colonies in fighting against the British. Without their help, we would all have British accents right now,” emphasized Torke. The composition was a four-movement piece called “Unconquered.” The piece exuded the valiance of battle. The song began with two trumpets playing in unison and eventually evolved into overlapping melodies. The melody grew from a simple, one-dimensional tune to a more elaborate two-dimensional work until it reached a climax in the fourth and final movement, entitled “Liberty.”