Part 1

Name: Jeffrey Derus
Nationality: American
Occupation: composer/educator
Current Release: From Wilderness on Navona records
Recommendations: Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before? by Dr. Julie Smith / The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America’s Wilderness Trail by Mark Larabee  

If you enjoyed this interview with Jeffrey Derus, visit his website to learn more about his music.

When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

Looking back, I started composing music in my adolescent years. Playing on my mother’s piano and singing around the house, I loved finding ways of expressing how I was feeling. Trying to put that creativity to page did not happen until my junior year of high school when I joined choir. The interest I had for music became deeper and enriched through my introduction to the classical genre.

Every summer my family could be found lounging by the pool listening to a variety of music from Beach Boys to Moody Blues, Celine Dion to Fleetwood Mac, and I always remember being in a state of bliss and musical entrancement. Although we were just enjoying the summer sun and being outside together, moments like that have stayed with me even when I am writing contemporary classical music. I want to create a soundscape that brings the listener into a scene of the emotion or concept I am writing about. Music has the power to transport you to a new mood, a new place, a new experience. I was drawn to music because it was always present in my childhood, and I often want to return to those mystical places I would go in my imagination. Composing gives me the opportunity to not only experience those small journeys but to create them for others.

For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

With having no formal training as a child, my musical voice grew from what I was exposed to as a listener. I emulated the ease of contemporary pop music, the intricacies of classical music, and the cinematic soundscapes of film music. I often based a lot of my writing choices from many classical crossover music. I loved the feeling classical crossover music gave, it has classical structure and depth with the relatability of pop music.

When I started to write for chorus and more standard classical ensembles, I drew upon the music of Morten Lauridsen, Aaron Copland, and Brahms. I admired each composer for different reasons. But what I took from their music, became the groundwork for finding my own voice.

In college I was introduced to modern and contemporary classical composers such as Arvo Pärt and Max Richter. This created a spark in me for the beauty of minimalism and how a simple motive can build an entire world of musical exploration. I then found my music becoming a crossover genre of its own that I refer to as “lyric minimalism”.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?

My identity is a part of my human experience and although some composers like to infuse their identity into their music as a form of empowerment and documentation of their experience, I choose to remove my “identifiers” from my music. I choose to compose music that is universally open to interpretation. I want my music to be a vehicle for the listener to experience their life deeper and with greater understanding. Sometimes that means the text or setting has its own unique identity, but rarely it will have my personal identity in it. The only portion of my identity that is in the music is my musical voice.

What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?

With any creative process it starts with the biggest learning curve. Creativity is something that has no precise formula or carved out road for you to follow. One might gain the skills of their craft and attempt to master many techniques and styles before coming to a place of exploration. On the other hand, some artists choose to explore from day one, and that leads to some of the most creative and expressive masterworks. For me, it was on a hybrid of those two paths. I explored more before I gained the basic skills of composing.

The challenges changed from learning how to compose, to conveying what I wanted the piece to emote, to developing my voice as an artist, to finally building my musical voice as a business. I will always be a life-long learner in the sense that the challenges will continue to evolve, and I will have to evolve as well.

Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?

A dear friend of mine often shares with his ensembles that “time is our only true currency.” Hearing that for the first time I did not fully grasp the idea that we use our time on things that matter most to us. We also waste our time on things that do not matter to us. The truth is that we will never get our time back and we never know how much time we have left.

This newfound understanding of time is now infused into my life and my music. I want to use the audience’s time wisely and respectfully. One example is in my new concert work, From Wilderness. This work incorporates the healing practices of a sound bath. A sound bath is where a person is washed with a variety of sounds commonly produced by singing bowls. This form of healing music allows for the listener to be healed emotionally and spiritually through inward thought and mediation as well as physically by the vibrations of the singing bowls. Some might think that the music is slow and undeveloped, but the time spent listening to this music offers more than just auditory pleasure, it offers a moment of self-healing and self-discovery.

How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?

Using my work From Wilderness as an example, the crystal singing bowls have a unique sound and timbre that already creates a production concept I desire. The bowls encompass the space they are in with this ethereal atmospheric sound, its captivating for the listener. This calls the listener inward to meditation and self-reflect, which is the intention of the work.

Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?

I am a collaborator at heart. I love having concepts, ideas, and perspectives of the music run back and forth between myself, the director, and the ensemble. I want to curate a performance that is honest to the work I wrote and to the ensemble that is performing it. If I feel that the music is magic on page, collaborating brings that magic to life.

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