Interview with Clint Needham

Continuing with a very exciting season of new music premieres, on November 5th and 6th, 2016 Kaleidoscope will feature the West Coast premiere performance of Clint Needham’s When We Forget. Generously donating his time, I was able to sit down with Mr. Needham and not only talk about his inspirations and influences while writing When We Forget, but discover how kind hearted, family oriented, and passionate of a person he truly is. It became obvious to me that Mr. Needham has a gift for creating music that encourages the healing of grief and pain that people experience in their lives, in this case with Alzheimer’s Disease, and as an activist for social change composes beautiful and compelling pieces not just for the advancement of classical music, but as a tool for the betterment of his community.  

Carrie Rexroat: How did you get started with music?

Clint Needham: I’m a proud product of public school music education, and started as a trumpet player in Texarkana, TX. I remember being so enamoured by a Dallas Symphony Orchestra concert that I thought I’d try and be a performance major in college, but when I got to college and saw what that would entail in regards to competition I decided early on that composition was more for me. If I was going to spend hours and hours doing music, I wanted to be more on the generative, creative side of things rather than practicing etudes and studying solos because I didn’t enjoy that process. I’ve always enjoyed the process of writing and I still am in love with it to this day.

CR: I see. So, when did you start composing?

CN: I started writing music as an 8th grader. My middle school band director was also a trumpet player also and she gave me some staff paper and encouraged me to write some trumpet duets; I remember thinking how awesome writing music was. As I was growing up I had never really considered it as a career, so I just dabbled with it throughout high school, but in college I submitted a portfolio of pieces and was accepted as a freshman.

CR: Great! I love that you said that to this day you’re still not bored with it. What’s one of your most favorite things about being a composer?

CN: There are a few things that I really love. I love the exploration in being able to re-invent or re-imagine myself expressively, and I like the process of starting with a small and usually very bad idea but seeing it to the end. I really enjoy having the attainable thing being to just finish a piece, and the more that I do that I continue to grow from those experiences. In addition to that, I always want to at least try to communicate something profound to an audience, in the hopes that I can motivate them in a positive way.

CR: For sure. Being that you like to expose people to ideas or styles or whatever it may be, what most influences your music?

CN: I have a lot of influences. Some of my heroes are Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, John Adams and Steve Reich, in addition to Pearl Jam and Nirvana, but the first music that I fell in love with was 90s grunge music, rock music and SKA music. SKA music in particular hasn’t left me after all my years of study, but I think what motivates me in general about being a musician is being a listener of other’s music.

CR: Great! Talk to me about what your writing process is like for a new piece of yours.

CN: Ideally I want the Benjamin Britten approach, where I wake up, get my coffee, and then I’d write my music and put it away at 3pm when the working day was done. That’s my ideal world though, because in the real world I have three kids, a family, teaching obligations, so it’s sort of a mixture of both writing when inspiration hits and being diligent with writing each day. If nothing else, I’m constantly thinking about a piece.

CR: For sure. So what motivated you to submit a piece for the Call for Scores?

CN: Kaleidoscope played a piece by Adam Schoenberg last year, and he posted the 2016 Call for Scores on his Facebook page at one point. I’ve known Adam since we were students at Aspen in 2003, I’m a fan of his work, I appreciate his art and he’s a nice guy. Basically I saw this post and I thought it couldn’t hurt to apply. Additionally it just so happens that the piece that I submitted was written for a conductorless orchestra, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, so I knew it worked without a conductor. So I thought it would be up your alley, and submitted it.

CR: Oh, so you’ve worked with a conductorless orchestra before then.

CN: Yes. When We Forget was commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 2011.

CR: I see. So having worked with a conductorless orchestra before, what are some of your expectations going into your collaboration with Kaleidoscope?

CN: Well, when I worked with Orpheus I got to spend a week with them and watch the rehearsals. It really opened my eyes, and it’s my model for how orchestras should work because it was a majorly collectively collaborative model. Orpheus also doesn’t shy away from anything because they’re conductorless, it empowers them, and it looks like it’s the same story for Kaleidoscope. So, usually after a piece is premiered, I take the same approach which is as long as most of the things that are on the page are being expressed, I get out of the way in terms of the decisions, even if they bother me, because that’s important. They bother me initially because I’m challenged, but I try to let groups make the decisions and I have to live with that and respect that.

CR: Specific to your piece, When We Forget, what’s the influence you had while writing this piece?

CN: I came across this poem called We Are Forget by Gary Glasner. He’s the founder of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, and he tries to relay something in the mechanism of poetry and that was really heartening to me. Like a lot of people, I’ve watched my grandparents go through this horrible disease, but for some it’s hard to understand the empathy needed to deal with the effects. The sense of who someone is is missing, it’s gone, so I decided I had to write a piece with this poem in mind. I love ostinatos, I’m a huge fan and use them a lot in my pieces because I think they’re very poetic vehicles, so this piece is a one-bar ostinato that’s layered and evolves. As time winds down or speeds up, there are these clock points in the piece where I hope the audience has a sense of time and urgency and the music becomes a little more intense. I also imagined what it would be like to capture the sound of synapes firing in someone’s brain, and all these ideas wove together. So this idea of time eventually running out for everybody, the sense of one letting go of one’s self because their memory has been taken from them, exposing the shell of who they are now as they fade away is the image I tried to create in this piece. I know it’s not something that’s not necessarily happy, but this is a part of life that’s inevitable, it’s human and relatable, and I tried to do it in a way where a listener could reflect on the poem, reflect on what they’re hearing, and have their own personal experience with it.

CR: Wow! Talking to you it seems like you’re very in touch with people, you want to feel connected to them and collaborate, and I just wanted to tell you that I think it’s incredible that you so successfully have been able to bring that value into your music, your professional life and share that with people.

CN: I appreciate that. I mean, the music that I love listening to is when I sense that the composer is trying to express something to me as a listener and allow me to be part of the equation. So I try to be that kind of composer as well.

CR: Absolutely, and a core value of Kaleidoscope is this idea of having all people be a part of the equation, regardless of their social and economic status, and be collaborative and engage with the Los Angeles community. We put on performances in different kinds of venues, providing free concerts, and this year they’re implementing a “Pay What You Can” model and eliminating ticket sales. What are some of your own personal goals to try and connect to the community through your music?

CN: For musicians and arts organizations in general, I feel that it’s their duty to provide outreach that goes above and beyond and works to enact social change through humanitarian efforts. That’s the hand we’ve been dealt, and it’s in our abilities to share whatever art we’re doing at the time. No, it’s not food and shelter, but it is comfort, beauty and dialouge and through art we’re able to heal them in ways that they haven’t considered before.

CR: Absolutely. I always hear stories about an Alzheimer’s patient hearing a piece of music attached to some memory in their life, and somehow it miraculously affects the brain in a way that they’re able to experience moments of lucidity. So, it really is healing.

CN: Yeah, it’s amazing what art can do for  people; it’s pretty magical. Going back to your question, I always think about how what I do can affect change, especially in regards to my own community. The way I see it, it goes beyond donations and standing in solidarity with organizations, it’s about being directly involved in the betterment of one’s community. If a community isn’t kept up, the motivation to better itself is difficult. I serve on a pre-K board for a Headstart program for the city of Cleveland, but being that Cleveland is a very underserved area, sometimes I don’t know if I should speak because the problems are so much more serious than I’m even educated about. Because of that I try to be aware and become more educated about people’s lives in my community and other communities, and do this in the hopes that at the very least it hopefully will make me more empathetic towards what people go through. I see that in Kaleidoscope, and other artists in my generation and younger, who seem more inclined to make their art an awareness of social justice or humanitarian efforts. That’s really remarkable, that the goal isn’t just win my orchestra job, there’s a lot more to it than that. That ideal is defining our generation of artists in a way that’s very positive, and will hopefully help save our art form.

CR: Absolutely, very true. On a more lighthearted note, what are some of your hobbies?

CN: I love nature, I try to be out in it as much as possible. I’m really lucky because the University I teach at is placed is right on the edge of the metropark system so as often as I can I try to be in nature. Beyond that I’m a sports fan. My wife is from Green Bay so I’ve been following the Packers for a while. I play some sports, but recreation for me is just being able to dedicate time to my family and my kids. We have twins that are seven who are identical boys, and we have a daughter who’s four. It’s a wild zoo and a circus, and I herd cats everyday.

CR: Awesome! What’s one of your favorite things about being a dad?

CN: Oh wow. Well, it’s neat to think that I have a lot of influence on three little people. I love watching my kids have fun, and I love to play with them. Hopefully I’m not messing them up *laughter*.

CR: I highly doubt it. Do you have a favorite quote or a mantra?

CN: “Be excellent to each other”, which is from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It sounds silly, but I think about this in all walks of what I do, as a husband, father, teacher, son, etc. I’m more interested in being a kind and good person than a good composer. I want my kids to be good people, I want to surround myself with kind and good people because that’s way more important. How you put something out into the world affects what you put out, so first and foremost I want to be kind and be a good person and hopefully I’ll put out some good work too.

CR: That’s great! Are there any charities or causes that you’d like to raise awareness to?

CN: Yes. Especially with this piece in mind any organizations that help out with the care of Alzheimer’s patients. It’s not just emotionally taxing, but it’s a serious financial burden due to the need for round the clock care. The disease does not discriminate, it doesn’t know who is rich or poor, and millions of families go through it every year so we need to help them.

CR: Absolutely. Well, this has been such a wonderful interview, I very much appreciate you speaking with me! Is there anything you’d like to leave the readers and audience with?

CN: I hope they enjoy the piece, and that they should feel free to come talk to me afterwards!

CR: Thanks, Clint!

Carrie Rexroat is a freelancer writer for the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra’s blog, and is also the Founder of the storytelling blog, A’tudes & Brews.

Saturday, November 5, 2016 @ 8 pm
Glendale City Church
610 East California Ave., Glendale, CA 91206

Sunday, November 6, 2016 @ 3 pm
First Presbyterian Church
1220 2nd St, Santa Monica, CA 90401

Carrie Rexroat