Composer Garth Baxter is noted for his modern traditionalist style of writing. This style combines the traditions of form and clear melodic writing with the use of contemporary approaches to harmonies and other elements. He is recognized as one of the preeminent composers of art songs and has been described as an unabashed lyrical tonal composer.
Garth’s compositions for chorus, orchestra, symphonic band, piano, organ, flute, voice, and guitar, as well as other instrumental combinations, have been performed throughout the world. His music has been featured on radio and online programs worldwide. He has received numerous awards, commissions, and honors. His song cycle “From the Heart: Three American Women” (Columbia Music Company) was the topic of a doctoral dissertation.
His album, ASK THE MOON: WORKS FOR VOICE AND PIANO BY GARTH BAXTER, released January 2018 by Navona Records, was highly acclaimed by Gramophone Magazine, by Luciano Feliciani of the Italian online blog Kathodik, and by Diane Jones On The Air on WCNY-FM in Syracuse NY, among others.
Today, Garth is our featured artist in “The Inside Story,” a blog series exploring the inner workings and personalities of our artists. Read on to discover Garth’s advice for young musicians…
What inspires you to write?
Music is in my soul. Composing is a basic part of me. Working on music each day makes me feel complete.
I draw inspiration from everything around me, everything I see and hear and read and experience. The Silver Run was inspired by the beauty of the Carroll County countryside where I live. MacPherson’s Lament was driven by the true story of Scottish fiddler James MacPherson who played his Lament at the gallows just before he was hanged. Edgefield was inspired from the hymn tune of the same name. The middle theme of Des larmes encadrées takes its inspiration from the English folk song The Willow Tree. A number of the works on this album are directly drawn from my own compositions. For example, three of the pieces were based upon music from my opera Lily: Could you dream what I dream, Romance without words, and Il y a longtemps. Sometimes people or ideas inspire me. I wrote Ballade for a Princess for a friend and Resistance as a nod to a fellow musician.
Tell us about your first performance.
The first performance of one of my compositions was a short work I wrote for my older brother when I was 9 years old. He was already an accomplished violinist who was very supportive. We held the informal neighborhood concert in my parents’ living room. That event really put me on a path from which I never deviated.
The first formal public concert of a piece I wrote was at a recital in Los Angeles while I was a student at Pepperdine University. The piece for soprano and organ, I Look Up to the Hills, was based on Psalm 121. I was thrilled to have a concert piece performed where I hadn’t orchestrated the event, didn’t know the performers, and where the concert wasn’t associated with the university. The biggest surprise came after the concert when a number of audience members came up to me and asked me to autograph their programs. That was a big day for a shy, insecure young man.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing?
As I noted earlier, I cannot even imagine living without music in my life. I guess I would gravitate toward gardening, which has the solitary aspects of composing combined with the element of creativity. Or maybe I would be a chef. I do enjoy creating interesting dishes by adjusting the initial recipe. I admit, sometimes I adjust it to the point where it is perhaps not as good as the original. Regardless of whether I were a gardener or chef, I’m sure I would be plugged into technology listening to music.
If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be?
I do collaborate often with writers, poets, and other musicians. I love bringing the words of poets to musical life. I have worked with a number of living poets, including Susan Lugo, Linda Pastan and Nuala Ní Chonchúir (Nuala O’Connor). At the moment, I have a stack of poems by Linda Pastan and Nuala Ní Chonchúir that I hope to live long enough to set to music.
I worked with writer Lisa Van Auken extensively on our opera, Lily, as well as the choral work The Journey to Ithaca.
I have been fortunate to have a group of fabulous musicians who are willing to devote time to working with me during the editing phases of my projects by giving me valuable feedback. I couldn’t possibly name them all here, but I would have to include Andrew Stewart, Annie Gill, Ronald Pearl, and the late Katherine Keem.
What advice do you have for young musicians?
Music is a very challenging career to follow, albeit very rewarding. It may be a struggle economically. If you aren’t serious and prepared to work hard and stay steadily involved in all aspects of the business, then move on to another field and keep music as a hobby. You should also be prepared to encounter criticism and rejections of your work. If you aren’t satisfied in your own skin with who you are as a musician – if you aren’t your biggest fan – then move on to another field. However, if, like me, music is something you cannot imagine your life without, then proceed with wild abandon. Connect with other musicians and stay focused. The rewards are immeasurable.
If we looked through your music library, what would we be surprised to find?
My music library is varied to be sure. There is a lot of classical music, naturally, but I also have rock, country, jazz, folk, and musicals. I should also mention I have all of Tom Lehrer’s recordings that are available. In addition, I must not forget the Christmas carols that play nonstop when the grandchildren are riding in the car.
Do you have specific hopes about what this album will mean to listeners?
I hope listeners of RESISTANCE – and in fact of all of my compositions – will find beautiful music that moves them. I hope they will discover – if they don’t already know – that romanticism is not outdated and can still speak to the heart in the 21st Century.
How have your influences changed as you’ve grown as a musician?
Have my influences changed? I am not sure I would say that what influences me has changed. It is still what I see and hear and read and experience. But I will readily agree that living longer and observing life and remaining a student of what surrounds me has provided more for me to draw from. Meeting more people, reading more books, listening to more music, traveling to more places–it all expands the creative palette.
What were your first musical experiences?
My mother played the piano. My older brother played the violin. It is one of those things where I was immersed in it before I knew it was a choice. My most important early musical experiences came from my brother, Gari. He was deeply interested in music of all styles, including classical, jazz, folk, and then later rock. We were extremely close, the best of friends, and I idolized him. So his interests became my interests.
How do you prepare for a performance?
As a composer, I try not to interfere with performers who play my music. I have occasionally attended rehearsals. Sometimes it is because I was invited by the performers to run through sections or answer questions. I had a wonderful experience in Owensboro KY, attending a rehearsal of the Kentucky Youth Chorale. The singers asked many interesting questions about the music, the words, and me. Other times, I attend rehearsals to hear if I like what I have written. I often find it enlightening to hear the musicians’ interpretation of my music. I have made changes to my compositions based on what I hear in a live performance or rehearsal.
Where and when are you at your most creative?
For me, composing music is a process more than a lightning flash of inspiration. I have a working routine. I have breakfast, and then work on music for several hours. I have lunch, and then work on music again in the afternoon. I spend the majority of my time in my music studio. I flesh out ideas initially on the piano before moving to the computer to expand my ideas. While the writing effort is done in a scheduled work day, I never actually leave the music or the creative process in the studio. The truth is, when I am working on a new composition, the themes follow me everywhere I go no matter what I am doing. I continue to go over themes and progressions in my mind. The creative process travels with me. Even in the middle of the night, I often awake thinking about an idea for a piece that I am currently working on. Of course, it does no good to write a little note to myself while I am half asleep; in the light of day, my clever scribble is always illegible.
What are your other passions besides music?
This one is easy. I love being with my family. After that, I enjoy reading. I usually am reading more than one book at a time. My taste in literature is as varied as my music library. I also enjoy experimenting with cooking, landscaping my gardens, and traveling. When we travel, I often buy more books. I also like going to the movies. Usually when the Oscars come around, I have seen most of the films up for awards.
RESISTANCE is now available through Navona Records for streaming or purchase. Click here to explore this new album.