Alumni Interview with Felipe Lara

Name: Felipe Lara

Major at Berklee: Composition and Film Scoring

Graduation Date: 2002

Professional Title: Composer, Ph.D. in Music Composition (NYU), Instructor (NYU)

Employer: New York University

What are some of the accomplishments you’re most proud of in your career thusfar?

I consider myself fortunate to have worked with and collaborated with some of the most incredible groups and musicians working in the field today. I consider these projects my biggest accomplishments, as opposed to awards, press, and such non-musical artifacts. 

Here are a few in chronological order:

  • Commission from the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris for a large-scale work for chamber orchestra, to be conducted by Matthias Pintscher in the 2015-2016 season (2013).

  • Commission from 92Y and the Brentano Quartet for a new viola quintet to be premiered in New York City in April 2014 (2013)

  • Invited by composer and conductor Matthias Pintscher to be a resident composer in the Young Composers Academy at the Heidelberger Frühling International Festival 2013 in Germany, where five of my recent chamber works were performed. 

What are the most challenging aspects of your current job?

The most challenging part of my job is that I have to do it all by myself when it comes to producing the score, composing, searching for awards, fellowships, and new collaborations, but I love my job and there is nothing I’d rather be doing in the world.

What would you say are the top requirements (skills, mindset, etc.) for someone entering this line of work? 

In my opinion, the composer profession requires most of all an open ear/mind to a lifelong journey and quest for identity in the world of sound. While, for me, “originality” is a multiple rather than a singular, composers have to accept this journey of creatively appropriating and transforming their backgrounds, influences, and tendencies into their own necessarily “original” and recognizable musical languages. Composing (as well as performing of course) at the highest level requires a tremendous amount of perseverance and a quasi-Olympic athlete-like commitment and mindset towards the art.

What is a normal day like in your line of work (assuming there is such a thing as a normal day)?

Given the somewhat solitary nature of the composing and the amount of time that it takes to complete a composition, especially when composing for orchestra and large ensemble, my workdays are pretty similar. Wake up at 8, tea or coffee, compose all day. Days that I teach at NYU, I prepare in the early morning, compose until 1:00 p.m., and go to the University. After the University, I work out in order to reset my body and mind and get back for a late stretch of composing from 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.

What would be a reasonable salary range to expect if I entered this field? 

It really depends. Composition is one of the very few arts that universities offer Ph.D.s in. That means that there are still possibilities for composers to teach in academia as well as research. 

So, in my case, my salary is a combination of my creative work, teaching, as well as research (fellowships, awards, research stipends, etc.). A junior position, such as assistant professor, pays anywhere from $45,000 to $100,000. Research post docs pay in the range of $45,000 to $80,000. Commissions vary a great deal. One could be paid as much as $30,000 for a string quintet or as little as nothing. It depends on context, intent, and situation.

I also do work with film, popular music arrangements, installation work, as well as volunteer work with children. All these things pay or pay off in incredibly different ways and amounts.

This industry has changed dramatically in the past five years. What have you seen from inside your company? 

While the creative act of composing itself may not have changed in “concert” music that much necessarily, the world around a living composer has changed a great deal. In the last five or ten years, of course, the industry has changed a great deal. 

For composers, recordings of their works have never been the final product, but rather, a documentation of their work. So, while the recording industry and labels took a major hit, there were more and more opportunities to record, promote, share, and reach a large audience. 

The same is true with the crisis of large, expansive, musical institutions such as the symphony orchestra, opera, etc. It is extremely sad that many of the orchestras are now struggling to survive. However, there are new answers, models, ensembles, and venues appearing as a result. Contemporary music is now being presented in galleries, bars, restaurants, parks, and even on YouTube. Since the '70s, there are new ensembles that are more malleable, dynamic, and modular, such as Ensemble Intercontemporain, London Sinfonietta, and International Contemporary Ensemble, which can play any combination of instrument from one to 30 instruments. The role of the publisher also changed a great deal. I now send my music, most of which is self published (AnimaVeraMusic), all over the world. More and more, performers are even reading their parts straight from their iPads, hands free, flipping pages of very difficult music with great ease through a foot pedal. It is a very exciting time to be a composer!  

How has your Berklee experience prepared you for what you are doing today?

My experience at Berklee was more than crucial for me to get where I am today. I arrived at Berklee in 1999 to study jazz guitar and some arranging. But there I was pleasantly confronted by all styles, nationalities, and broad possibilities of the musical profession. Only at Berklee could I have experienced such a wealth of possibilities. It was also the perfect place for me to bridge my jazz/popular music background with classical and contemporary composition.

If you could offer just one piece of career advice to students, what would it be? 

Be ferocious with your creativity, fearless with your work, and always open to all styles of music making before prejudice; they all can lead to very specific ideas in your own creative path.