Rand Steiger grew up with a piano in his room, and he was constantly improvising, writing songs for his rock bands to play. Composing and performing always went hand in hand, instead of being two independent processes. It was all just part of the drive to make music.
But there was a moment that solidified his inclination to compose. Steiger was 14, listening to the Philadelphia Orchestra play Mahler’s Fourth Symphony at its summer home in Saratoga, N.Y.
“There is this sound near the end of the slow movement that is so transcendently beautiful,” Steiger wrote last week in an e-mail exchange, “and when I heard it there for the first time, the way it made me feel convinced me that I had to spend my life making music.”
Which is what Steiger has done — mostly in California, where he is a longtime faculty member at the University of California, San Diego. He’s had pieces commissioned by a wide variety of groups. Next week he will be composer in residence at Boston’s Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice.
Steiger, 55, has retained that early sense of delight and wonder at creating new art. He wrote in a recent e-mail exchange that he didn’t think of composition as a real career until graduate school, “and even now, I feel incredibly grateful to have been able to earn a living doing what I love.” When asked what he’d like the result of his residency to be, he replied simply, “That the performers find playing my music gratifying, maybe even inspiring.”
That is as likely to happen at SICPP — or Sick Puppy, as it’s colloquially known — as anywhere else, and more likely than at most places. Each year, a league of students, faculty, and guest composers wander happily through swaths of contemporary music, with styles and dialects varying wildly. A few landmark works of the past century or so, what artistic director Stephen Drury calls “new music that’s been around a while,” are thrown in for good measure. Sick Puppy is equal parts carnival and high-level seminar.
Or, as Drury, a pianist, likes to put it, “it’s a gathering of like-minded pariahs.”
Asked why he chose Steiger to be this year’s composer in residence, Drury wrote in an e-mail that “his music is both voluptuous and intelligent.” He also cited Steiger’s integration of both acoustic and electronic elements in his works. “He creates sounds with both electricity and traditional instruments that have the glisten of the future.”
Steiger said that “like most people of my generation, I grew up listening to recorded music, and was fascinated by the magical things that could be done in the recording studio.” Playing in bands in his youth, “we were always tinkering with little boxes that transformed the sound of the instruments we used.” So it was natural that when he began composing for orchestral instruments, he did the same thing, using real-time processing of instrumental sounds.
Steiger emphasized that he’s not using electronics to upend the traditional concert experience. Rather, “I’m trying to do subtle things that don’t get in the way of the natural acoustical sound and musicality of the performers I collaborate with. I’m striving to have the electronics be a kind of halo that complements, but doesn’t distract.”
Many of Steiger’s pieces make overt environmental and ecological references, such as the small ensemble pieces “Cryosphere” and “Ecosphere.” Steiger was just beginning a work for the Talea Ensemble in 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded; that disaster functioned as the dark inspiration for “A Menacing Plume,” which is on the June 19 SICPP program.
The composer said he doesn’t have “an overt political agenda with these pieces. But I am obsessed with the issues they refer to. I’ve always been fascinated with the amazing creatures seen in the deepest parts of oceans, and the idea of millions of gallons of oil gushing out around them with no end in sight was overwhelming. Trying to express the wonder of that undersea world, and then the horror of its destruction, was all I could possibly do at that point.”
Asked whether there are specific aspects of his music that he coaches musicians on, Steiger responded that he preferred instead to allow “the individual personality of the performer to come out through their interpretation. I tend to write very challenging, virtuosic music, so usually I’m just grateful when I hear someone rise to the challenge.
“What keeps me going is that I’m writing the music that does what I have always wanted music to do, and I get great pleasure from hearing engaged musicians bringing that music to life,” Steiger said elsewhere during the discussion. “It’s as if for a short time everything in the world stops and I can focus entirely on what I am hearing and how it makes me feel.”David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.