A Composer for a New Era

Jeffrey Kimpton, president of Interlochen Center for the Arts, joined by Kedrik Merwin, the director of music programs, recently sat down for an Interview with Michael Thurber, an Academy alumnus, composer, entrepreneur, and the founder of CDZA, the innovative web-based collaborative in New York City.

Michael Thurber has written a new composition, a quadruple concerto, which is a musical retelling of the story of the Three Musketeers. The composition will feature the multifaceted musical talents of Thurber himself and three other musical collaborators: Charles Yang, Kris Bowers and Mark Dover. The piece will debut in Corson Auditorium on March 13, 2015, as part of the NPR program "From the Top." 

Michael Thurber is back on campus for a project that is coming up in March.  It is a commissioned work by From the Top, a program that plays on Interlochen Public Radio and stations around the country. Michael was on the program when he was a student and they have now asked you to commission a piece. And you’re going to premiere it with the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra. Let's talk a little bit about how the piece came about, and then we can talk about you and your career.

I couldn't be more excited about this. This is sort of a dream come true for me. How it all started was with several friends. What we have in common is that we like a lot of different styles of music and we play a lot of different styles of music.

We like classical music. We like jazz. We like funk. We like rock. We like hip-hop. We like house music. Everything. And we're always trying to figure out ways to combine them or play them individually, but just finding new ways to explore different types of music.

One of those main people in my life — is Charles Yang, who is an incredible violin player. He's a Juilliard colleague of mine but we actually met playing on From the Top. At that time, I thought he was nuts. He was 16 and he already had a tattoo. He had long hair and he was more like a surfer "bro" than he was a musician to me.

Then I heard him play, and I was like, "Wow. This is a true genius. He's incredible." So we became good friends. We toured around for about two years playing duo, and we played all original arrangements of pop songs, as well as some original music. We played no traditional classical repertoire.

And Gerald Slavet, who is one of the founders of From the Top, really liked that. He was always very encouraging. Last winter, he and I were on the phone just catching up, and he said, "You know, you guys really need to be writing music that showcases what you guys do in this very unique niche that you're building." He said, "You're the composer of the bunch, so you should write something." I said, "Well, I've always had a dream of writing a quadruple concerto or a triple concerto."  And he said, "Well, what's stopping you?"

How did your career path go from bass player to multi-genre, multi-discipline entrepreneur?

You know, at Interlochen I studied everything and fortunately, for me, Interlochen is a place where you can do that. I was playing in the jazz band. I was playing in the orchestra. I had a band that played rock music and we played in Fine Arts. So we were doing all of it.

And when I got to Juilliard, I knew in the back of my head that I was getting ready for a transition. I knew that I wasn't after an orchestra job. I knew that I wasn't after just playing in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. I knew that I was looking for something.

I ended up leaving and going on sort of this odyssey, where I tried to get back in touch with what my real roots are, man. I went like existential.

Eventually, I ended up back at Juilliard in the jazz division but the big turning point came when I hurt my shoulder from overuse. I couldn't play bass at all. I'd always been writing music but I'd never thought about making that my primary focus. But when I couldn't play, the only thing I could do, musically, was to write music.

I got really serious about ear-training – and really serious about studying the great composers. Then I was just like fish in water. All of a sudden, opportunities started to open up.

It does come down to knowing the fundamentals of music, whether it's theory, chord structures or music history — so that you can pull all this together. But you’re weaving this together so seamlessly now. It is presenting some really great opportunities and making us look at our own curriculum. If you were to think of a music curriculum, what would you recommend for high school students today?

I just talked with Matt Schlomer, the director of bands at Interlochen. We had a very interesting talk about that very thing. It has a lot to do with shifting the responsibility into the students' hands rather than the institutions' hands.

In college, for instance, you walk into a music class and you’re told “this is Mozart, and this is what Mozart's all about. Now go home and try to write something in the style of Mozart.”

It's all very theoretical. There's no real stakes. There's no real interest, maybe. Maybe you love Mozart, but maybe you don't. Maybe you're waiting for the Debussy rotation. But you're being put through a test, and the results of this test are going to decide whether you know this subject.

I think the most successful thing to do is to say, "We're working for some company and they want a song that sounds like Mozart. It's thirty seconds long. Go for it." All of a sudden, there's not a benchmark where it has to be in this form. It's on you. The objective is much more specific and because of that, it shifts the motivation and puts the fire under the student rather than the teacher imposing this on the student. The student has to prove that they assimilated this information, and they're motivated to because there's a real application for it.

Let's talk a little bit about controversy. How do you answer the criticisms about mixing styles, forms and the questions from musicians who don't want to learn how to play a bebop line in a concerto or a “groupcerto?”

Honestly, I don't know any other way than to just write it. And I think some people are going to be really unhappy about it, and some people aren't. But you can talk to people. You can try to meet people at a middle ground, and I do. I love to talk about it all the time. But I think when it comes to actually writing the music, you've got to just write what you want to write and if people are upset about it, it's not really your problem at a certain point. Creatively, when you've got a certain sound in your head, you have an obligation to yourself to just do it.

So this week you're back on campus. You're seeing where the programs are going. You've talked to our singer-songwriters. You were at a string improv class this morning. You've met with the composers. What are your takeaways from your time on the Interlochen campus?

It is just amazing to see where all the students are at, and it really affirms what we were talking about earlier, which is this idea of everything just blending together. All of these kids — they're all the same. They're of the same generation. They know about the same stuff. They feel the same things.

And as much as they're in these different departments, there's a universal quality to all of them, which is that they're of the same generation and they're creative. And that's at the base of it. These are creative individuals that are all the same age.

And I think to go around the campus, you start to really get in touch with the essence of what that is all about.


The interview has been edited for length, readability and context.