Ted Unseth: Classical Composer
ironic that all of my composing for Classical Orchestra was done in the 1970’s. This is when the CJO was
moving along nicely—we were making a living via gigs (!) and we had free time, mostly for transcribing and practicing,
but also for me: Composing.
I and 3 other original WCJO band members
were living in the attic apartments of an old Mansion near the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It had been converted
into a Workshops venue for the Urban Arts Program; and after my 3-year stint as Music Workshop Director for that program,
the WCJO was formed and we were the transcribing core for the band.
There was an empty room with an acoustic
upright piano and I would frequent that scenario when no one was around and I’d experiment with Composing. I would
put a large towel behind the hammers to make the sound mellow and work on ideas and record them. I also did some of
this when I moved to the 7 Corners area of Mpls. (I took the piano with me).
So, my Complete Composing Oeuvre
Opus 1: “Envelopment” 1973
I’d sent a copy of my ridiculously
child-like score to Aaron Copland. His reply, “If you’re really serious about becoming a composer, be
prepared to devote all of your time to it.”
Opus 2: “Five Orchestral Sketches” 1974-1975
4 of these 5 were presented as Piano
Sketches at a Special Concert at the West Bank School of Music that featured a handful of WCJO members showcasing different
Opus 3: “Concertino in 3 Movements”
This was ‘commissioned’
for a West Bank School of Music Composers Series (commissioned = I paid $25 for the privilege). It was written for a
much smaller ensemble; and updated for Chamber Orchestra.
“Deanna” 1969; 2015
Conceived as Guitar feature during my Singer/Songwriter
phase (1964-1973)--all done 'by ear', nothing written down. I finally scored it in 2015 for Solo Guitar and Strings.
It is a fitting complement.
That’s it! About 9
years’ total. I haven’t composed anything for Classical Orchestra since. I got super busy with the
WCJO and eventually lost possession of that beautiful upright piano. Since 1990, I haven’t had access to any keyboard
except a small Casio keyboard that is essentially worthless. So, I haven’t had the Time or Situation like
those in an empty room with an acoustic piano for 35 years or so.
OK. So what was my Composing
all about back then (and now, since I’ve re-worked everything)?
My Composing was greatly influenced by two books:
“Emotion and Meaning in Music” Leonard B. Meyer
--Effective composing is giving the
audience enough of what’s familiar to keep their attention, but divert from expected outcomes and take ‘detours’
in new ways that will keep the audience awake and interested.
of Harmony” Arnold Schoenberg
How odd that the inventor of 12-tome
composing would write a book about Harmony; but how wonderful. He said the first task in composing is finding interesting
chord progressions, then working Melody into it after that.
My Composing Style is based on:
Chord Progressions/Changes. Enough of somewhat familiarity,
but ‘throwing curveballs’ as to where the resolutions are going. I’ll never forget a comment from
a listener to Saturday’s concert: “Most everybody can hear the top and bottom notes of chords, but I listen
for all the stuff in-between and … you’ve got a lot of interesting
voices in there. I love your chords.”
Timing. When I had that empty room with an acoustic piano, I would work on ideas at the keyboard
and record them; most importantly: while playing, giving no consideration to Meter or Time—just letting it flow
as it best feels. Then I would listen to the recording and write the Timing as exactly as possible the way it Feels.
This is why I have so many ‘unusual’ time signatures in these works: Instead of using fermatas and hoping
the hold time is just right, I’ve written in the ‘just right’ timing.
Melody and Harmony. I don’t see my composing as Neo-Romantic, but perhaps Neo-Impressionist.
It most certainly is not the super-cerebral Avant Garde style. Melody and Harmony are not just old hat and to
be disregarded; they can be employed in new and interesting ways.
Uniqueness. The one thing I never wanted to be as a Composer
was to be unduly influenced by another composer’s style or teaching. So I’ve purposely avoided any one teacher
or composer’s style; I want to be sure my ideas are from me; Original.
For the past 40 years, I’ve
been focused almost exclusively on my Classic Jazz Orchestra project (which I love as dearly as ever). But, there are
no gigs for such a project; and…
Irony: My last paying gig as a musician
was in 1993 for the ACJO 20th Anniversary. 20 years ago! And the one paying gig I did finally procure
was not for the ACJO; it was for my Classical Composing via the Minnesota Sinfonia (“Concertino
in 3 Movements”). It took a couple of years to straighten everything out
(the Director and I had a few differences), but we did and I entered my Brand New World:
Ted Unseth, Composer
were all first time, I’d never done this Classical setting before: Rehearsal, Performance, Accolades.
And I got a feel for the Circumstances:
One hall had very little natural reverb; and the other had booming reverb. Overall, the percussive effects were rather
lost and the strings a bit muddy, especially on faster tempos. But The Strings on the slower second movement
had a nice lush sound; very nice.
went well enough; but after the first night, I made a couple of CDs of my re-workings for “5 Orchestral Sketches” (that are now
for Solo Violin and Strings) and gave the Director
and the fine Guest Pianist (who is well connected to the Classical World worldwide) each a copy.
thought about what a friend had mentioned to me at the Saturday concert: “Ted, do you have anything else in the
works? How about that other piece you wrote for the West Bank School of Music Composers’ Series?”
now re-worked the ‘other piece’:
“Envelopment for Solo Violin and Strings”.
need more work, but it’s mostly all there and…
that the Minnesota Sinfonia have done my Opus 3; I’d like them to finish the ‘series’ and do Opus 1 and
Opus 2, as well. That would make a Complete Set of my Classical Composing to date.
can ‘see’ the Sinfonia players’ faces, gestures, etc. I can see them playing the other two sets.
can be accomplished in the near future, I will at least have my Classical Composing oeuvre out there for posterity.
One of my tennis buddies who was at the Friday
concert said, “You ought to be writing a new work every week or month. You’re not going to live forever.’
Well, every week or month—forget it; I would need months of unhindered Time and Situation. So, until I
get that rare opportunity again, I at least want these works to be ‘on the books’ in toto before it’s
I can’t get away from the 2 high profile responses re: my Composing:
letter from the Academy Award winning composer, Ennio Morricone. He took a ‘serious listen’ to my works and, in part, said: “…great intuition oriented towards composing. …purely intuitive and powerful.’ I’ve taken
that to heart because I believe I have some sort of knack for composing, albeit in my own way. And I think my
composing voice could become one that critics and audiences alike would appreciate and support.
Jay Fishman, Director of the MN Sinfonia. Jay thought I had a very interesting composing approach, quite unlike any other and
influenced in part by my Jazz background (even though none of these pieces are Jazz-related).
And he had the courage to take on my “Concertino in 3 Movements” for public performance.
not sure if I should be proud of this or not, but Jay told the audiences that he rarely uses a baton—maybe 2 o3 times
in the last 20 years = I made him use a baton for my work (which is not to say that I intentionally made things difficult
to conduct; it’s just that’s the way things end up, once I complete a score).
this has been accomplished successfully, I see things differently: I see very good possibilities for completing my Oeuvre
Cycle; and perhaps new commissions for new works; perhaps finally being recognized as a New Voice on the Classical Music Scene
(better hurry up though, I’m not going to be around forever).
Do I have
an idea for a completely new work? You bet I do: “Bamboo Birding”: I’ve told you about this—when I lived in DC there was a large, long stand
of Bamboo behind the backyard; and in the Fall, a large number of birds of several species would come dive-bombing into
the bamboo for overnight stays. It would start out minimally, but eventually grow to a beautiful din of singing,
cackling, etc. Then, it would eventually die down to the last bird: a Robin making the last statement, then all would
be quiet until morning. I have Video and Audio for this and would love to write a piece for ‘acoustic’
Classical Orchestra (all sounds coming from acoustic instruments; no bird recordings). A big challenge, but one I want
to take on before I kiss the sky goodbye.
is: No matter how many years I’ve spent on the ACJO, I’ve always wanted to be a Composer. As a kid growing
up in Albert Lea, MN, I would ‘air-conduct’ to Classical records when no one was home and would think, “What
a great thing to be a Composer; perhaps the best thing you ever did in your life could be the last thing you ever did—what
I thought success via the ACJO would open doors for my Composing and I think that’s what happened this weekend:
I don’t think Jay would have given me a second blink if it weren’t for my ACJO achievements. 35 years
later = A Dream Came True. “Good things come to those who wait” (“just so it’s not too