INTERVIEW WITH DOUGLAS AKEY

(January 2002)
Questions asked by the students of the McCracken Middle School Symphonic Band in preparation of the Skokie School District 73 1/2 Foundation's commission of Tales of the Emerald Isle

How do you come up with the ideas for your music?
Sometimes the people who are commissioning me have an idea, like using melodies originally written by a Renaissance composer, or perhaps the music is being written to celebrate some special occasion. Other times I will just hear a snippet of melody, a certain series of chords, or a particular rhythm in a movie soundtrack or a television commercial that strikes me and I will develop my own material using that as the seed.

How did you get started composing?
When I was in high school I arranged music for our youth group to sing and play in church. I also did some arranging for junior drum and bugle corps in the Chicago area.

How do you decide what instrument is going to play when?
I write a sketch score on a computer/synthesizer first. When it comes time to score it, I determine which instrument's range and timbre (tone color) best suits each series of notes in the sketch score.

How do you figure out what's going to sound good?
I listen to the computer play back the sketch score on the synthesizer. If I like what I hear, I leave it. If I don't, I go back and try something else. After having written enough music, I can hear some of what I want to write in my head, much as you can hear combinations of words in your head and know that they will form a coherent sentence before you speak.

What's your computer/composing setup like at home?
I use a G3 PowerMac with two monitors (a 20" grayscale and a 15" color). I have four hard drives for storing music files and backing them up. I print to a LaserWriter 16/600PS for most jobs, and a LaserWriter 8500 (11"x17") for final proofs and parts/scores. The computer plays back the music through a midi interface to a Roland U20 rock-and-roll synthesizer.

How do you get started on each piece?
That is the hardest part of writing each piece. A lot of times I sit down at a piano at school and just improvise for a couple of days until I hear something that sounds promising. Other times I will do the same thing on my horn -- just improvise melodies until something strikes me.

How do you come up with all the music in your head and make it sound good?
Most of the time, the first notes I write do not sound all that great. I will come back the next day and pretend that what I wrote is somebody else's effort and critique it, trying to improve upon it. Having the computer playback what I have written many times really helps at times like that.

Do you play any instruments? What's the first instrument you ever played?
Since I am a band director I play all of the band instruments, as well as violin and cello. However, I am best at horn, which is the instrument I began on when I was in fourth grade.

How did you discover that you had the gift to compose?
I don't consider the ability to compose to be a gift any more than a carpenter's ability to build a house. As a matter of fact, I worked as a carpenter for a few years before I became a music teacher and find building and composing to be similar in many respects. The ability to compose is more the result of a great deal of study and observation, along with patience and perseverance.

How did you learn about the McCracken Middle School Band?
Mr. De Stefano has shared recordings of the McCracken bands over the years with me. I met him through a mutual friend who was a teacher of his at Northwestern, Dr. Peterson.

Why did you become a composer?
I used to arrange and write to meet the needs of friends' and my own bands when I was young. Other people encouraged me to write more and have some things published so that other bands could use the material. It just grew from there -- it was not like a master plan of mine to be a composer. I still consider myself a band director, who just happens to write a few pieces of music each year.

How do you decide how easy or hard to make the music?
The band director who is going to be receiving the commission has a data sheet to fill out for me. It tells me some of the music that his/her band has recently played and evaluates the band's strengths and weaknesses. I also like to listen to recordings of the group's performances. I use all this information to arrive at an appropriate technical level of difficulty for the music.

Do you ever get writer's block? If so, how do you get through it?
I am in a constant state of writer's block. Improvising at the keyboard, sometimes for days at a time is the only way to break through, in my experience.

How do you figure out how to blend the different instruments while writing?
I use my experience as a band director to evaluate which instruments will create what sounds when played together. The truth is, any groups of instruments, when played in tune, will make one of two kinds of sounds when played together: 1) blended in a way that causes each timbre to be lost in the sound of the other, or 2) orchestral, where each tone color is highly distinct and must be carefully balanced. An example of blended is the horn/clarinet combination, and orchestral would be oboe/euphonium.

How much practice does it take to write pieces that quick?
It takes me about 200 hours over 2-4 months to write a piece. I would not call that quick!

How do you pick the name of your piece?
Sometimes I choose a title before I begin writing and then try to make the music fit the image. However, more often I write the piece and then ask my students to submit suggestions for a title. Sometimes the publisher changes the title once they get hold of the piece. Since my music is rarely programmatic, one should avoid paying too much attention to the title.

What's the name of our piece going to be called?
I don't know, but I have a friend listening to the sketch right now and am hoping she will have some suggestions.