Interview with Grammy Award winning producer Fine about composing
We asked composer Michael Fine: when did you discover your vocation for composing:
“I began composing four years ago. Although the act of composition was prompted by my wife’s diagnosis with Multiple Myeloma and her suggestion that I do something ‘creative,’ it was also the logical next step after a lifetime love for music which began in early childhood listening to recordings with my grandfather, a half-century as a clarinetist, three decades as a recording producer, the occasional conducting gig and two decades in orchestral artistic planning and management.”.
How does it feel about having the impulse to compose?
“I wish I could say that it came with a struggle but it felt and continues to feel completely natural. This is not a comment on the quality of my writing but simply on how it feels to write. I discovered early on that I made compositional mistakes which I would have immediately caught, perhaps with raised eyebrows, in a recording session or playing the piece.”
What did you do to help yourself through these issues? “My concern was relieved when after confessing this to a very fine composer, he assured me that it was because composing utilised a different part of the brain, a part more connected to deeply felt emotion than to analytical reasoning.”
Did you choose an instrument to be the centre of your composition concept?
“Although I am clarinettist, my work in recording sessions is heavily focused on quality string sound, the heart of orchestral playing. And so I began to compose a string quartet. The terror of the blank page was quickly assuaged when a sort of tango rhythm – or at least my version of one – played by a cellist popped into my head. It was inelegant, in some ways the antithesis of the sensual Argentine dance, as if I were clumsily trying out the motions. In any case, the musical movement came quickly.”
Can you describe from where your inspiration comes?
“Everywhere I went, different impressions turned into sounds: the beautiful meadow in a tiny, nearby nature preserve where my wife and I like to walk, or watching the course of the river – the mouth of the Rhine – as it flowed past the window of our apartment. Spring flowers. All these images contributed, in their way and occasionally confused fashion, to Quartet Moments 1, my personal song about life in the Netherlands and my first complete composition and first published score.”
Quartet Moments I, “Dutch Weather”
How did your experience as a producer help in composing?
“My experience in the recording booth helped me with practical considerations, what is and what is not possible for even a great string player. But I couldn’t be practical always: it was the other side of the brain dictating much of went on the page. There were moments where I felt compelled to write a passage regardless of its difficulty, trusting those good musicians would find a way.”
Quartet Moments II, allegro
Michael, what about the relationship between the composer and the performers in your experience?
“I began emailing the Quartet as it developed to my dear friends of Quartet K in Seoul, three members of the Seoul Philharmonic, and one superb freelance violist, the wife of one of my closest recording colleagues. They were kind enough to print it out, read and rehearse it to play for me on my next visit to Korea. I had imagined that I would be the easiest going of composers – my imaginary mantra was ‘it is out of my hands in the capable hands of the performers.”
Sometimes composers have to deal with feedback from the players, who could be willing to put variation in the original composition. Did this happen to you too?
“At one point in the reading session, Kajin Lim, the superb first violin of the Quartet, looked at me quizzically: do I really want that particular note at that place? Wouldn’t it make more sense to play something else?’ And of course, she made an excellent and logical suggestion to replace the offending note. I surprised myself when I said ‘No, I really want what I wrote.’ She was kind enough to not give me one of those ‘It’s your funeral’ looks but played the passage as written very beautifully. I imagine I was completely red-faced hearing my music for the first time. Even more surprising was the enthusiasm of the Quartet who encouraged me to finish the piece with the additional movements I had planned.”
Michael Fine won 7 times a Grammy for his CD productions and received 11 nominations. He won the ICMA 2015 Award for Best Recording: Contemporary Music, the Echo Klassik 2012 Prize, the BBC Music Magazine: ‘Premiere’ Award 2015, among many other prizes, awards and nominations for his work as a producer. Fine also has given lectures, talks, and seminars about the music and recording business – from the Juilliard School and Hamburg Hochschule fur Musik, to the keynote address at the International Organisation of Music Competitions. He is also a sought-after panellist for music industry congresses, including most recently IAMA (International Association of Music Administrators) and ABO (Association of British Orchestras).