Composer Q and A

Q and A with Michael Ippolito
Tampa, FL
Assistant Professor of Composition, Texas State University

Did you always want to be a composer? What first drew you to composition?

I was fascinated with classical music as a kid. I don’t come from a musical family, so I mostly came across the music in cartoons, like Looney Tunes and The Ren & Stimpy Show. I’m not sure why I liked it so much, but I may have been attracted to the fact that no one else I knew like it, so it was unusual. I started composing because I was improvising in class and my teacher suggested I write down my improvisations. I had never really considered doing that, but once I started, I was hooked on it. I had never encountered something that was so hard to do, and so satisfying once it was done.

What musical instruments do you play?

I grew up playing piano, taking lessons since I was eight years old. I started to play cello in my middle school orchestra, which is really when I fell in love with music. I think the experience of playing with others was a huge part of drawing me into music. There is nothing like playing as part of an orchestra

Can you give us a glimpse into your composition life? Do you write at the piano? By hand or at the computer? How do you first start a piece?

Every piece has a different process, but almost always starts with a lot of thinking, sketching, improvising at the piano, drawing timelines, and listening to other music. This period of the process often feels very uncomfortable, because I feel like I’m not accomplishing anything. Even now, I have to remind myself that it will eventually lead to something. When I have a small kernel of music that I’m happy with, or a convincing outline for the whole composition, then I start writing. I like to begin with big sheets of manuscript paper so there is a lot of room for half-ideas and musical material that might go at the beginning or middle or end. I usually get some real momentum when I have chunks of music and a clear picture of the overall form. From that point on, I tend to write very quickly. That is the most fun part of the process, when I actually feel like I know what I’m doing!

What are some influences–musical or otherwise–that impact your work?

I love to read and I find writers are often (perhaps unsurprisingly) better at communicating about the creative process than other artists. For some examples, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Ursula K. Le Guin, and George Saunders – their novels, stories, and poetry have been hugely influential to me, but also their writing about writing is clear and thought-provoking.

If you weren’t a composer, what would you choose to be?

Sometimes I wish I knew how to do anything else! I’ve often thought that working in a library or archive would be wonderful; quiet, organized spaces with lots to read. When I’m particularly frustrated with a piece, I fantasize about any job that wouldn’t require me to come up with new ideas, but when composing is going well, there is nothing else I would rather do.

What are some exciting projects that you are looking forward to?

I’m really looking forward to the premiere of my new violin concerto with The Florida Orchestra and their concertmaster, Jeffrey Multer. The premiere hasn’t been announced yet, but it should be soon. I’m also working on a big set of piano pieces based on Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics.

Where is the best coffee in Tampa?

The coffee I first think of is the cafe con leche at La Tropicana in Ybor City, which unfortunately closed recently. I don’t know if I would say it was the best tasting coffee, but it was a special place to me. Once a week, my extended family would take over half of the restaurant, pushing dozens of little tables together, and the servers would start bringing out Cuban toast and cafe con leche.

How does it feel returning back to Tampa for your latest commission?

It has been a pleasant surprise to have a lot of opportunities to return to Florida for premieres of my music in the last couple of years. And I’m so pleased to be able to bring this new piece to the University of South Florida, where I studied briefly before going to the University of Cincinnati.

Do you like writing for the harp? What was your experience like writing Mythos?

I love writing for the harp. As a pianist, I’m used to having all the notes available to me at any moment, which sounds like an advantage, but it can be paralyzing as well. That isn’t possible with the harp, which I find stimulating. To me it is like solving a puzzle and I appreciate how thinking in that way leads me to different solutions. My process with Mythos began with a lot of listening and study of harp music, which was also a joy to study music I didn’t know, or only knew a little. As always, it was hard to get started, but once I got into the project, it was a lot of fun.

Can you tell us a little about the piece, its inspiration, structure, etc?

Mythos began with a general idea to write something about the story of the labyrinth and the Minotaur. In my research, I came across Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The House of Asterion”, which tells the story from the Minotaur’s point of view. It was such a strange and vivid telling of the story; that was enough to get me thinking about a piece. I also had the idea to challenge myself with a puzzle to solve, so I created a musical structure based on the classical labyrinth (a design found on coins from over 2000 years ago). Putting all of this together, the piece starts with a brief Prologos, which sets the mood. The second movement, Lavyrinthos, is the labyrinth itself and each section of the piece is proportional to the labyrinth design – as if you were running through the labyrinth and when you would turn, the music “turns” or makes some kind of change. At the end of the movement is the moment when Theseus reaches the center of the labyrinth and kills the Minotaur with one blow. The last movement, Lyrikon, is the death song of the Minotaur – like in Borges’ story, we get to experience the story from the monster’s point of view.