Interview: Erin Cameron on Composing and Performing New Music

11770202_10203324191505211_724867370_oErin Cameron is a clarinetist, composer, and new music advocate. In 2014, she served as a Performance Fellow at the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice in Boston, where she performed alongside members of Boston’s Callithumpian Consort. Her compositions have been performed in collaboration with the International Contemporary Ensemble and Northwestern University Contemporary Music Ensemble. Cameron is currently pursuing a master’s degree in clarinet performance at Bowling Green State University, where she studies with Kevin Schempf. She received bachelor’s degrees in clarinet performance and music composition from Northwestern University.


This interview was conducted via Skype on Thursday July 23, 2015 between Richard Mazuski (RM) in Chicago, IL and Erin Cameron (EC) in Springfield, MO.

RM: I think we can begin with composition as a subject that is taught. An idea doesn’t come out fully formed; you have to learn to articulate it somehow. So perhaps we can discuss how composition was taught to you at Northwestern and how it differs from your performance studies.

EC:  Well, I guess with composition- it is very open-ended. The method of teaching composition will vary greatly from teacher to teacher, as it does with any subject, but the important difference is that with composition you are not trying to achieve some preconceived goal of how to sound, like you are with an instrument. I know this having studied both clarinet and composition. Your goal with composition isn’t to sound like Mahler. The successful composer is the one who has a unique voice, whereas the successful performer will [generally] provide a sound [and interpretation] society deems appropriate.

I’ve studied at Northwestern with three very different composition teachers. Hans Thomalla (my first teacher at Northwestern) had an interrogative approach to composition. So I would bring in a piece of music and he would just ask me questions, basically burning me to the ground with questions until I couldn’t answer them anymore. This helped me clarify to myself what I was trying to do with a piece, and made me realize that at the beginning I had no idea what I was doing.

Another important thing with Hans (important with a lot of composition teachers) is studying and listening to many pieces of music. But in a compositional environment, this is different from a theory class because we don’t spend time studying chord structures or sonata form. More we are looking at the particular angle of the piece: what it is in a piece that is interesting to us and that we want to study further. In a theory class you might be looking at a Bach fugue and analyze the parts of it as an example of how a fugue is built. In a composition lesson, maybe what you’re really interested in is the ways in which Bach goes against these prescribed forms.

One more example: this year I studied with Juan Compoverde, an Ecuadorian composer. He has a very different outlook since he grew up outside of the Western classical tradition. He always had really interesting and off-the-beaten-path pieces for me to listen to. The best thing for a composer is to be able to connect with people from different backgrounds and to have had different musical experiences, eventually finding out how those play into your unique voice.

RM: So, with Hans Thomalla asking questions about your own compositions until your answers reach a breaking point, it seems to me that in studying composition, your understanding of your own voice becomes the subject – almost psychological in that regard. Is that true? –  or have I interpreted incorrectly?

EC: Absolutely. I think any composer, especially those who have studied an instrument, will tell you that coming into your own voice as a composer is different than coming into your own voice as a performer because so much of it is about giving yourself time to mature. When people ask me how many hours I compose per day, I am never able to answer because in some sense I am always composing. When I am interacting with people, when I am alone by myself thinking, or if I am traveling somewhere new, all of those experiences help to mature and shape my compositional voice. So, in that way I think of it as very different.

RM: As I know from collaborating with you, a great portion of your background is as an exceptional clarinetist. How does that inform the development of your compositional voice?

EC: Great. I wish people would ask me that more often. For me, the more that I do both, the more I realize that both performing and composing are two sides of the same coin. Because in a way learning anything, just to be general about it, is having the time to explore more of the detail and grit of whatever you’re learning about. So when I am practicing, the better I get at clarinet the more I am able to make nuanced decisions about how I play a piece of music. It’s exactly the same when I’m composing. When I started out writing, I wrote completely intuitively and didn’t have a clear idea why I made a certain choice over another. And in my own compositional development – I know there are other composers who are different – coming into my own voice has been about becoming more detail-focused, more focused on the specific sounds that I want and the specific ways that I want a piece to be organized. So it has mirrored the how I approach clarinet. I really do see them as two halves of one musical whole.

RM: So, you now have a piece and you see it performed. Is this as much the fruition of labor as it seems? Is that the moment where you recognize your piece as your own?

EC: The first thing I would say is that for me as a composer, having a piece performed is probably the scariest thing ever. I will have an idea of a piece when I am writing it, but there really is nothing like having the full written-out piece played by a group of performers where you realize: “Oh my goodness. I have made this piece and people are taking their time to play it. What are other people going to think of it?” And in that moment, it is hard to judge what you have written since  you are so distracted by the outside thoughts of fear and excitement of hearing it played for the first time. But I guess I have also thought of a piece of music as embodied in its performance but also separate from its performance, since I respect performers and I have worked with so many great performers who bring something unique to the table. So whenever a piece is played more than once, which I am lucky to have had – a few of my pieces – every performer brings something completely unique [to the table] and makes it a different piece. So there is the piece that I wrote, then there’s the piece when Richard plays it, or the piece when somebody else plays it, it has its own unique identity there as well.

RM: So far we have spoken about your personal experience performing and composing music, but to conclude, let’s look at new classical music more broadly. I wonder how we explain this music to an audience familiar with common practice repertoire.

EC: When approaching new experimental music, I think there are two things to keep in mind: exposure and disengagement. I read a great article a few years ago about a college professor who was presenting a course on recent composers, like Stockhausen. A lot of his students didn’t like the music, so he created a playlist and told them to listen to it every day while driving or doing homework. He found that a lot of them had an increased appreciation for new music simply because they had grown acclimated to the sound world. Even though they hadn’t been completely engaged or focused on what they were hearing, repetitive listening opened up new avenues of listening for them.

Even for listeners already interested in new music, the live concert experience can be a turn-off. When listening to live music in the classical tradition, a lot of people (myself included) feel that the conventions of staying completely silent and focused during a performance erode our appreciation of the music. One of my most memorable performance experiences, actually, was one where I fell asleep. The performance was of Luigi Nono’s La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura for violin and electronics (about an hour-long piece). It’s an incredible work, but I was also very tired that day, so I fell asleep somewhere in the middle. When I woke up a few minutes later, I had a remarkable experience of being totally immersed in the sound world. Both falling asleep and waking up to the same piece gave me the impression that I was living inside the music.

As a final word, I would encourage anyone encountering music like that for the first time to just relax and not worry if your mind wanders, because you may still have a great experience.


We would like to deeply thank Erin Cameron for her generosity in sharing her thoughts and experiences with us. Do you have any additional questions for Erin? Comment below!


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