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  • Writer's pictureJack Hughes


Welcome back to composer spotlight, the blog series where we talk with emerging composers around the world about their creatives processes, and thoughts on music composition.

In todays edition, we are delighted to bring you this interview with American composer and NFO collaborator Eric Turnnessen. Eric made the journey from the USA to Manchester to work with us to last November, and we recorded two pieces of his original orchestral music as part of a shared recording session.

Read on below for the full interview!

1. How did you get into composing music?

I was introduced to music at an early age. I started playing violin when I was three years old and I remember there was a lot of classical music around. I would often sit listening to the record player for hours playing Stravinsky's Firebird, Vivaldi's Four Seasons and other works. My family didn’t have a piano in the house, but I remember whenever I would come across a piano I was drawn to it and would sit down for long periods of time and just noodle around making up my own songs.

The biggest shift happened when I was 14. One day I went to do something on my family computer and through some series of events I discovered a piece of software called Sessions where you could enter notes on a staff sheet and have it play the music back. Thinking back on it, this is a curious thing — it’s not the type of software that you would expect to come standard on a computer in the early 90s.

Anyway, as soon as I heard the first notes I entered played back to me, I was captivated and from that point I was spending hours lost in writing music. Here’s one of the first things I ever wrote: Fractured Fairytales

Eric in his studio.

2. What does your creative process look like?

Sometimes I'm lucky and compositions will come to me fully formed and then I just sit down and write it out, but that’s pretty infrequent. Generally speaking, my process is that I'll sit down at my keyboard and I'll select a sound that I feel like playing with, whether it's strings or piano or whatever, and then I'll just start playing.

At some point, some sequence of notes or a texture will interest me and I’ll explore that particular thing more in-depth by repeating it and creating slight variations. Through this process it may evolve into something unrecognisable to the original idea, but I think the key is to first find a resonance with a feeling of inspiration and then stay in that feeling as long as possible.

When this process is fruitful I come to a point where there’s a solid and polished musical idea and from that point it’s just about fleshing it out with harmonies, instrumentation, structure, etc. Usually, I don't end up writing in sequence. For example, I may write the beginning of the piece of music after I've come up with the main material and the beginning is just me finding a way to introduce the main idea.

The creative process is definitely a mysterious thing. It's something that I can show up for and participate in, but it's not something that I can control. Whenever I sit down to write, there’s no predicting whether or not something will come. When something does come, it feels like I've been transported to a kind of sonic landscape and what I write down is just me painting a picture of what I’m seeing as I travel through the landscape.

Eric's piece Escape, as performed/recorded by NFO in a shared orchestral recording session.

3. Do you draw inspiration from anywhere in particular?

Getting in touch with my emotions is the key to my inspiration. It’s important for me to feel a connection with something beyond words and thought before a musical idea is revealed to me. The relationship between music and picture has been a consistent source of inspiration for me.

I find endless inspiration from nature, human expression, and storytelling. My evolution as a composer has been, and continues to be: 1. how directly can I connect with my own emotional

response to something and 2. how accurately can I convey that emotional experience with music.

Something I like to do is create my own short films and then write music to them. In this process there's a collaboration between different aspects of myself that happens where I'll capture something on video that moves me and then that becomes a jumping off point for me to write music.

Eric working in the booth during our orchestral recording session last year.

4. How did you find the experience of recording with Northern Film Orchestra and hearing your music brought to life by the orchestra?

It was the fulfilment of a lifelong dream and the first experience of a live orchestra performing my compositions. It was exhilarating and easily one of the most gratifying experiences of my life.

In addition to that, there were a lot of learning experiences; I felt like I was exposed to a masters program in a very short period of time. In the moment, all the newness of things combined with the fast pace combined with having to play the role of the “composer who knows what he’s doing and knows what he wants” sometimes felt overwhelming. When I was feeling overwhelmed all I had to do was look over at any member of the NFO team and notice “oh, they’re not freaking out so everything must be fine.”

In retrospect, these moments of overwhelm were moments where my capacity was expanding and as time has passed and I’ve digested the experience I’ve come away with such a wealth of experiential knowledge that I’m sure I couldn’t have gotten any other way.

Everyone on the NFO team was extremely professional and supportive from start to finish and I’m very grateful to them for guiding me through this life-changing experience.

You can check out this Fly-on-the-wall video of Eric's orchestral recording session, showing the entire recording process in real time and un-abridged.

5. Do you think your compositional process has changed now that you have the experience with an orchestra?

This experience has added a new dimension to my compositional process and redefined how I see my role as a composer. Before this, I saw my sampled mockups as the end product. Now I see them as the first step in a collaborative process between me, the orchestrator, the conductor, the recording engineer and the musicians. Through this experience I got to see how each person’s voice contributes to the final product.

Music is a very personal and intimate expression for me and it can feel exposing to put it out there for others to work on and interpret, but when it’s the right group of people, as was the case with the NFO and my orchestrator, it’s an incredibly rewarding experience.

After this experience, when I’m writing I find myself thinking about orchestration with more scrutiny; considering different ways of creating the colour I’m looking for. I also find that I’m considering the individual players of the orchestra more and what their experience of playing each line will be like.

I know that all of my pieces won’t be performed by a live orchestra, but I believe that when my writing is informed by this experience it improves the quality of my compositions even when it just ends up being a sampled performance.

I created a documentary of my experience recording with the NFO covering pre-production, post-production and the recording session. I hope other composers who share in the dream of recording their work with an orchestra find it helpful and inspiring:

Eric has produced a 27 minute documentary about his experience of recording with Northern Film Orchestra. In this video he has captured the full process, all the way from pre-production through to mixing and final delivery.

Eric has released the music that we recorded together as his "Orchestra Sessions: Juniper" EP which you can listen to on spotify via the playlist above.

That wraps things up for this spotlight post. Thanks again to Eric for choosing NFO and for creating the "making of" documentary. We are certain this will be a very valuable resource for composers who are interested in the orchestra recording process.

If you want to see more from Eric you can check him out via the links below:


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