Berklee Today

Twenty-First-Century Techniques

  John Bavicchi conducting
  Professor John Bavicchi conducting Berklee's concert band in 1974.

Despite Berklee's "Nothing conservatory about it" motto, there is something conservatory about the college's Composition Department. But the department's embrace of music technology and fresh ideas makes it anything but old school.

In 1945, when Lawrence Berk first opened the doors of Schillinger House (which was renamed Berklee in the 1950s), it was to teach a new system of music composition developed by Russian music theorist Joseph Schillinger (1895-1943). Fifty nine years later, the Schillinger system is no longer taught by Berklee's Composition Department faculty members, but courses on the contrapuntal style of J.S. Bach, sonata form, serial composition, minimalism, and beyond are.

The Composition Department - a small enclave within the Professional Writing Division - includes 34 faculty members, many of whom received their training at top conservatories and routinely have their music performed in some of the world's best concert halls. While this description may appear to run counter to the profile of Berklee's largely nonclassical faculty members, the Composition Department's pedagogical approach features an increasing role for computer technology, which sets the department apart from its conservatory cousins and aligns it with Berklee's forward-looking philosophy.
"Everyone around the college thinks of us as the 'old department,'" says Composition Department Chair Greg Fritze. "We use the basics of traditional and older music because that is the foundation for a composer's technique. But our faculty members - especially our new hires - are pretty technologically savvy."

Adhering to Berklee's mission to provide practical career training has led to the tailoring of the department's courses to instruct in areas ranging from writing concert music to film composing and various commercial music endeavors. This fall the department will offer 210 course sections, including the basics of traditional harmony, composition, music theory, music history, and conducting that many noncomposition majors take. Advanced courses in counterpoint, string writing, choral composition, contemporary techniques, and a survey of world music resources round out the curricular offerings.

The Esterhazy Quartet  
The Esterhazy Quartet, violinists Eva Szekely and John McLeon, violist Peter Neubert, and cellist Darry Dolezal, and the student composers whose works they performed in April 2004.  
Greg Fritze  

"We are well aware that our students have chosen to come to Berklee rather than to a conservatory," says James Russell Smith, assistant chair of the Composition Department. "So we try to give them an experience that has a Berklee perspective - even when we're studying the music of Beethoven or Mozart."

How does technology figure into the teaching of composition? The initial point of contact is computer music-notation programs. According to Fritze, most of his faculty members have expertise in at least one computer notation program. "These days, a computer-engraved score has become the norm," Fritze says. "While some people still write their scores by hand, even John Bavicchi - the department's elder statesman - uses a computer notation program."

In the fall of 2003, the college began requiring all entering students to purchase an Apple Macintosh laptop equipped with a suite of music software to ensure that all become technologically oriented. The composition majors get a laptop loaded with MIDI music-notation and sequencing software, orchestral instrument libraries, digital/audio programs, and more.

The plan for the near future is for computers to become a vital part of classroom instruction. Currently, many teachers maintain course companion websites on which musical examples for homework assignments are posted. All homework is done in Finale music-notation software that not only makes engraver-quality manuscript but enables students to hear their projects back. For courses such as a two-part invention writing, the software enables a student who isn't particularly adept at the keyboard to hear his or her contrapuntal lines at tempo and affords all students the option of experimenting with instrumentation in just a few mouse clicks.

Conducting faculty use a program developed by former Composition Department Chair Jack Jarrett. The conducting classrooms are outfitted with computer workstations that represent the four sections of the orchestra. Students at the workstations read a scrolling rhythm line representing the woodwinds, strings, low brass, or whatever and tap that rhythm out on the computer keyboard following the student conductor's lead. Four channels of synthesized sound (one for each section) come from four wall-mounted speakers placed around the classroom to approximate where the sections would be seated in a real orchestra (woodwinds directly in front of the conductor, cellos and basses to his or her right, percussion left, and so on). The conductor cues entrances for the students at the workstations.

Since humans are tapping the rhythms of the parts following the tempo, accelerandos, ritardandos, and fermatas as directed by the conductor, student conductors really get to lead. The conductor can hear immediately if his or her string or woodwind "section" falls behind or rushes or if the beat pattern is uneven or difficult to follow. Among the musical selections Jarrett programmed for the program are movements from Beethoven symphonies, arias from Mozart operas, and orchestral works by Ravel, Debussy, and Stravinsky. Professor Julius Williams, who uses the software with his classes says, "It's a big step forward from teaching students to conduct to recordings. With this program they are actually leading rather than following a recorded performance of another conductor."
The department also plans to incorporate technology by offering basic MIDI courses so that student composers can learn to craft realistic demos from their sequenced compositions using dynamics, articulations, touch, and tempo fluctuations. While MIDI realizations can never replace performances by real instrumentalists, MIDI versions represent a step forward from the past when students and their instructors could only hear newly written pieces in their heads while going over the score.

Early Days

The Composition Department was officially founded in the effort to obtain accreditation so that Berklee could grant music degrees. The first department chair was William Maloof, who came to Berklee in 1961 and retired in 1989. Maloof taught traditional composition studies, conducting, and other subjects that satisfied the accreditation board's directive that Berklee offer such courses. From that point, the college continued to build the Composition Department with the hiring of John Bavicchi in 1964. Bavicchi worked closely with Maloof in developing and teaching all of the traditional music coures at Berklee.

"Bill Maloof and I were like square pegs in round holes," jokes Bavicchi. "Maloof was closer to being round than I was, though. He knew something about jazz, but I knew nothing about it. My first exposure to jazz eighth notes came the first day in my classroom, when the students played their quartal harmony assignments."

Admired for his knowledge as well as his sharp humor, Bavicchi has existed happily for nearly 40 years among the classical minority of Berklee faculty members. Berklee Associate VP Larry Monroe '69, a former Bavicchi student, recalls hearing Bavicchi years ago chide a young Berklee student with mock classical snobbery, "You don't know the keys of the Bruckner symphonies, and you call yourself a musician?"

"I took advantage of being a square peg in a round hole to teach the kids that square pegs knew some things the round holes didn't," says Bavicchi. "I told them that I knew all the keys of the Beethoven and Bruckner symphonies and could recognize any movement from any one of them after hearing five bars. Once they found out it was true, they felt they should listen to me."

Through the years, Bavicchi has given innumerable students an appreciation for classical music. "I never tried to wean anyone away from another style of music though," he says. "They came here with their own ideas in mind. I have nothing against any kind of music, it's just that there are styles other than commercial music and jazz. I've felt that my role at the college was to let them know that."

Bavicchi, a prolific composer who describes his own music as being in a post-Hindemith chromatic style, has produced a catalog of works, including 123 opus numbers, and has won numerous ASCAP awards. His opus 123, Convergent Diversions for Trumpet, Oboe, and Strings, will be premiered in Alaska this summer with Professor Greg Hopkins (trumpet) and Associate Professor Barbara LaFitte (oboe). For decades, Bavicchi has been one of the department's most beloved figures and has worked to enlarge the perception of Berklee. "Many of my colleagues in the field have been surprised to hear that I taught at a 'jazz school,'" he says. "But my best friends are on the faculty here, and I wouldn't trade the experiences I've had with my students for anything."

Composer Alf Clausen '66, who scores the hit animated television series The Simpsons, earned his composition degree at Berklee. As he recalls, "Bill Maloof was my first traditional composition teacher at Berklee, and later I studied with John Bavicchi. I learned a great deal from both of them. It was interesting to watch them successfully impart knowledge of traditional and contemporary composition techniques at Berklee. They were both very inspiring teachers. I was particularly impressed by one of Bavicchi's techniques called 'harmonic complex.' It's a compositional process that I use to this day. Both Bavicchi and Maloof shared from their seemingly bottomless well of knowledge and helped to get performance groups together so that the students could hear their newly created works."

Now 82, Bavicchi still spends two days a week at Berklee teaching directed studies one-on-one, a class on the music of Beethoven, and one on the chamber music of Bartok.
In 1967, Bavicchi recommended his friend Jeronimas Kachinskas for a job teaching conducting. Kachinskas, a widely respected conductor and composer in pre-World War II Lithuania, added further dimension to the growing department. Influential in his own right, Kachinskas taught at Berklee for nearly 20 years. Professors Tom McGah and Dennis Leclaire joined the faculty in 1974 and 1980, respectively, and took over teaching music history and other composition courses. The addition of these and other faculty members greatly reduced the workload for Bavicchi and Maloof.

Healthy Competitions

In an effort to give composition majors practical experience, the department sponsors three competitions annually. "These events offer a chance for the students to hear their pieces played in a concert setting," says James Smith. "There is a friendly competitiveness at Berklee that is rare in other music schools. Here, you find a sense of encouragement and the students learn well from it. Whether theirs is the piece that bombs or is the one everyone loves, the process is instructive. One of the most popular competitions is the best inventions competition for two-part inventions. The goal of getting a piece selected for the concert seems to make the students a little less fearful of all the rules of counterpoint and becomes an opportunity to really make music. Striving to create an invention that makes it to the concert gives everyone a stake in this. Teachers take pride when their students get their invention chosen, and the students experience counterpoint having a real application for them in the music world."

For the past three years, Associate Professor of Composition Marti Epstein has been the pianist at the contest's culminating concert. "This was originally an idea proposed by Greg Fritze," says Epstein. "He thought that if the students knew there was a chance that their final projects might be performed in a concert they would put in a little extra effort towards learning the material in Counterpoint 2. I think it has worked. Over the past three years, the quality of the inventions has dramatically improved. Having their invention performed has almost become a status symbol among the students. The recital hall is filled to capacity for every concert."

Another competition involves identifying the best student composition for brass ensemble. The process enlists faculty members to vet the scores and select five or six finalists. A brass ensemble reads through the pieces in the David Friend Recital Hall, and the winning piece is selected via a secret ballot taken among the audience and faculty participants. The winning piece is rehearsed and performed for the processional and recessional at the college's commencement ceremony. The winning composer - this year it was Brian Paul '04 - receives credit in the commencement program booklet and is acknowledged in front of the huge audience attending the ceremony.

A third significant competition seeks out a dozen student-composed string quartets to be rehearsed and performed by the renowned Esterhazy Quartet during its annual residency at the college. The now-annual event was coordinated by Associate Professor Andrew List. This year's Esterhazy residency marked the quartet's eighth visit to Berklee and was supported by the Alan Reese Endowed Fund established by Berklee's Board of Trustees. Each piece is recorded live so that the student ends up with a demo of his or her piece played by a world-class string quartet. What is most helpful is the dialogue between the quartet members and the student composer.

At the April reading and taping sessions, the quartet played student Monserrat Mias's Theme and Variations on a Catalan Troubadour Song. The quartet's input ranged from a discussion of the proper notation of ricochet or jet? bowstrokes and the "seagull effect" to suggestions about the composer's musical intent in her choice of intervals for double-stops in the first violin part and proper placement of bar numbers.

David Utzinger's Fantasie for String Quartet prompted comments on his choice of accidentals. (Utzinger's piece is based on half-step, whole-step diminished scales.) First violinist Eva Szekely made suggestions on how to make her part easier to read. Ariel Mann's Burlesque featured playful pizzicato chords and moods ranging from somber to joyful. The piece elicited favorable comments as well as hints for improvements. Cellist Darry Dolezal spoke about the use of enharmonic notes. "It's easier for string players to read three different notes than three consecutive notes on the same line or space with different accidentals," he said.

James Smith observes, "Often, we have talked about the same topics in class, but it becomes more real to the students after they spend 10 minutes with the quartet. When their music is up there on the stands and these players make a comment, it seems to imprint on the students for life."

With a large department, the stylistic territory in which individual faculty members specialize is pretty vast. Some work with 12-tone techniques; others work with advanced chromaticism, minimalism, contemporary tonal styles, and more. "When we have a prospective faculty member send in a score prior to an interview, we let it be known that there is not just one camp in our department," says Fritze. "It would be impossible to assemble a staff of 34 composers who all wrote in the same style. We encourage our students to study with different composers so that they can explore different influences." The musical diversity of the faculty members is a plus for composition majors who come to Berklee with an array of professional aspirations and end up in varied careers.

Divergent Careers

Many of the Berklee alumni who earned degrees in composition and have achieved in various pursuits have been profiled over the years in this publication. The previously mentioned Alf Clausen enjoys a robust career composing music for television. Howard Shore '68, who has scored dozens of feature films, including the all three parts of the Lord of the Rings triology, is another product of the department. After leaving Berklee, Chistophe Chagnard '89 became a conductor and has worked with numerous orchestras, including the Northwest Sinfonietta of Seattle, Washington, which he cofounded. Rob Mounsey '75 has found his niche as a pop producer, composer, and arranger working on gold and platinum records with such icons as Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, Steely Dan, and James Taylor, to name a few.

Jason Eckhardt '92, however, has always had the goal of a career as a composer of concert music. After graduating from Berklee, he continued his studies at Columbia University where he earned his doctorate in composition. Eckhardt is well established, having received numerous commissions from such organizations as Carnegie Hall, the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundations, the Guggenheim Museum, Oberlin College, and renowned Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Eckhardt's works have been programmed at contemporary music festivals around the world, and Mode Records has just released a CD of his chamber music titled Out of Chaos (www.mode.com). Eckhardt currently teaches composition at Northwestern University in Chicago.

"I really enjoyed studying with Tom McGah and John Bavicchi," Eckhardt says. "The education I received at Berklee was quite different than that of other composers I have encountered. Because Berklee is attuned to the music industry in ways that a conservatory is not, I was able to make many professional advances more quickly than my counterparts. The practical, think-on-your-feet ethic of the Berklee education has served me well."

Into the Twenty-First Century

Fritze contends that composition has always been a major thrust of the college, an unbroken continuum from Berklee's formative years. "In a way, the whole college is based on composing," says Fritze. "Even improvisation is a form of composition. There are about 100 people on the faculty who hold degrees in composition even if they don't teach in this department. That's nearly one-quarter of all Berklee faculty members.

"At a conservatory, the focus is on learning repertoire. We also teach the classics here, but from a different viewpoint. We show what has been done before and how students can use this knowledge to write their own music. It is all an effort to give them tools to build their own style."

Fritze's goals for the department are not those of a typical conservatory. Whereas any conservatory worthy of the name has an orchestra, Berklee is still in the process of building a traditional orchestra. "We'd like our students to have the chance to hear their works played by an orchestra," Fritze says. "The Performance Division is making strides by expanding the String Department and has recently hired instructors to teach harp and double-reed instruments.

"I also want to get our faculty composers out into the community. I'd like to see an outreach to high schools where our faculty will make presentations about their own music. It is important that young people interact with living composers and see that this music is vital and ongoing. I want them to know that the title composer is not reserved for the dead masters only."

Current commissions and premieres
by Berklee's faculty composers

  • Composition Department Chair Greg Fritze was commissioned by the Bilbao, Spain, Cultural Council to compose a piece for traditional Basque instruments and concert band. It will be premiered in October 2005 in Bilbao.
  • Composition Department Assistant Chair James Smith is percussionist and musical adviser for a recording of Tibetan and Zen Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic chants and songs.
  • Associate Professor Marti Epstein's The Five Chairs is the title cut on a new CD by the Atlantic Brass Quintet. Her piece She Fell into a Well of Sorrows for piano and effects processor appears on pianist Kathleen Supove's CD Infusion.
  • Associate Professor Scott Fessler composed Three Pieces for Solo Contrabass for Edwin Barker, principal bassist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Barker will premiere them in 2005.
  • Assistant Professor Derek Hurst is writing a triple concerto in fulfillment of a Fromm Music Foundation Commission.
  • Professor Jonathan Holland's composition Halcyon Sun was premiered by Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on April 30.
  • Assistant Professor Tamar Diesendruck was commissioned by the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundations to write her third string quartet, The Night has Been Unruly, for the Pro Arte Quartet.
  • Associate Professor Thomas Allen Levines has completed a set of miniatures titled Twenty-One Keyboard Episodes.
  • A concert at Yale University was devoted to the music of Associate Professor Francine Trester and featured her Guitar Concerto and a cycle of 12 songs. In 2005, the song cycle will be performed at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall.
  • In March, Assistant Professor and guitarist Apostolos Paraskevas presented the premieres of 11 laments for classical guitar by Berklee composers Harry Chalmiers, Armand Qualliotine, Francine Trester, Greg Fritze, Vuk Kulenovic, Marti Epstein, Clyde Witmyer, Scott Fessler, Beth Denisch, James Smith, and Paraskevas.
  • Assistant Professor Ken Ueno received a Fromm Music Foundation commission to compose Apmonia, which was premiered by the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra in May.
  • Assistant Professor Michael Weinstein completed his Serenade for 12 Instruments, which is published by Boosey & Hawkes.
  • Professor Julius Williams composed A Journey to Freedom, Honor, and Glory: The Jonathan Daniels Story, a work for chorus and orchestra premiered by the Reston (Virginia) Chorale March 19. Williams recently recorded two CDs, The New American Romanticism and The New American Voices, for Albany Records. On them, Williams conducted the Prague Dvorak Symphony Orchestra in Professor Arthur Welwood's Wind, Sky, Clouds for Trumpet and Orchestra (Greg Hopkins, soloist), Associate Professor Andrew List's Violin Concerto, Beth Denisch's Golden Fanfare, Chamber Symphony by the late Leroy Southers (former associate professor), and former Composition Department Chair Jack Jarrett's Symphony #1.