Interview with Renée Katherine Morgan

Renée Katherine MorganRenée Katherine Morgan is a composer and music theorist. Some of her recent works include Define for oboe, alto saxophone, and piano; Motley Suite for broken consort; and Paper Plane Love Letter for two sopranos. For more information, visit her website at http://reneekmorgan.com.

Tibbetts: How long have you been composing?

Morgan: This is a tough one for me. One thing led to another; I don’t think I can pinpoint that exact moment when I transformed from Renée Katherine Morgan, Non-Composer, to Renée Katherine Morgan, Composer. There hasn’t been a time in my life when I wasn’t actively creating. Even as young as 4 or 5, I would climb trees by myself, make up little tunes, and then teach them to my friends later.

One day, my choir director at church asked my brothers and me to start performing hymns together. There aren’t many great arrangements out there for awkward tuba/euph ensembles, so I downloaded some notation software and went to town. Er, church.

Who knew that arranging could be a gateway drug? After a few years of this, I began to think, “If I can arrange, why not compose?” My sister was dabbling in game development at the time, so I experimented with free MIDI software and wrote some soundtracks for her. They were awful. My friends liked them, and eventually, they started asking for work.

Once I built up a decent portfolio, I made a Soundcloud account and dumped everything onto it. I then joined the composition studio at UMass to fill up some electives for my MM in Theory. One of the studio professors read and enjoyed my goofy little brass trio, so he asked me to write for his students. Snapshot Variations was born. Soon after, I was asked to write Three Moods. Ever since, I’ve had a steady stream of commissions and collaborations. It’s hard to believe. I pinch myself every time I see new mail in my professional inbox.

Tibbetts: Who are your biggest influences?

Morgan: Do you want household names? Shostakovich. Bartók. Stravinsky. Brahms. Smetana. Dukas. I could listen to Ravel’s string quartet on repeat forever. Maybe not forever, but at least for a little while. The waltz in Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings makes me cry like a baby every. single. time. (When it isn’t played too fast.)

As a euphonium player, I think that my heart lies with some of the big names in the wind rep: Grainger, Holst, and Husa, to name a few. I could live on marches for a while if need be. Americans We by Fillmore brings back great memories from Asheville Community Band.

My greatest new music inspiration right now is Al Theisen at Mars Hill. He has managed to strike a great balance between composing, teaching theory, and performing. He’s also a terrific human being. I’m really lucky to have many other composer/musician friends who inspire and challenge me to become better every day.

TibbettsWhat do you consider your best works so far?

Morgan: Because each piece is surrounded by a great story, I’m not sure I can choose a favorite.

I’m a big fan of Motley Suite, because the orchestration is so goofy: violin, viola, cello, oboe, saxophone, euphonium, tuba, glockenspiel, auxiliary percussion. My string quartet is probably the most well-written piece. I had the most fun writing Three Moods, even though the piano part could use some work (I didn’t say that. My music is perfect and you should buy a copy of my entire catalog).

Snapshot Variations will always have a special place in my heart because it was my first “serious” commission, and the one that launched my professional career. It also had the most hype surrounding it; of course, I wouldn’t expect anything less from a large group of trombonists.

TibbettsWhat inspires you to take on a new project?

Morgan: Money.

Actually, that’s not true. I love to collaborate—the idea that I’m writing for someone, who is then going to take my idea and make something of it that I only barely imagined, that’s really fulfilling.

TibbettsWhat is your ideal working environment?

Morgan: I work best standing up, because I feel more engaged. It’s probably a placebo, but I feel like my creative juices flow better when I’m not slumped in a comfy chair.

Depending on my mood, I also like to have a cup of strong coffee or some cheap bourbon with me too. It puts hair on my chest and makes me feel a little unhinged, which gives my work a touch of “tortured artist” flair.

TibbettsHow would you characterize the relationship between your work and its audience?

Morgan: I hope my listeners get my music stuck in their heads and curse me forever. That’s why I like to write catchy tunes.

Tibbetts: Do you ever throw away material?

Morgan: Not really. If I don’t think material fits the piece I’m writing, or if I don’t like it, I slap an obscene name on the file and toss it into a junk folder. Every once in a while, I like to revisit the folder to see if there’s anything worth putting into my next project. A few of my pieces are refurbished in this way, but I’m not going to tell you which ones.

TibbettsWhat new developments in your chosen creative industry most excite or inspire you?

Morgan:

1. The use of social media: how we connect to each other and our audience has changed significantly over time.

2. An unlimited toolbox at our disposal: The sky has become the limit, and nothing is off-limits in regards to pitch, rhythm, timbre, etc.

TibbettsWhat new developments most worry or disappoint you?

Morgan:

1. The use of social media.

2. An unlimited toolbox at our disposal.

TibbettsWhat projects would you most like to tackle?

Morgan: I’d like to compose a serious piece for wind band one day. Over the course of my career, I see myself writing a lot for tuba and euphonium (and we need all the help we can get in bulking up our rep, so it all works out). My experience with the saxophone over the past couple of years is making me fall in love a little bit.

TibbettsWhat advice would you offer to aspiring composers?

Morgan:

1. Don’t let anyone give you unsolicited advice. If you want to give music away for free, do it. If you want to write bleep bloops while everyone else is writing bloop bleeps, go for it.

2. That said, take honest feedback seriously. Others may hear something in your music that you don’t hear. That doesn’t mean you have to follow it. But listen.

3. Continue to educate yourself, especially when it comes to orchestration. There is always more to learn.

4. Listen to new music as often as possible. Watch it live if you can.