Staying Engaged

Randall Shinn and his future wife Carol after a performance in 1968

I began composing and arranging music for fun around the age of fifteen. For a decade and a half, I explored a variety of stylistic materials—from blues and jazz to Renaissance madrigals, and from classical tonality to modernist atonality. During this period, I learned by studying pieces and composing pieces. (I didn't study composition with an instructor until working on a doctorate.)

After completing a master’s degree in performance (French horn) at the University of Colorado, I enlisted in the Air Force to serve in military bands. (Otherwise, I would have been drafted to serve in Vietnam.) During my four-year enlistment, I wrote compositions for my colleagues. While serving in the band at the Air Force Academy, I performed in the Colorado Springs Symphony and composed chamber works that included strings.

After finishing my enlistment, I enrolled in the doctoral program in composition at the University of Illinois, studying primarily with microtonal composer Ben Johnston. Johnston worked with multiple approaches to composition, and he encouraged to continue exploring.

A Suggestion from Ben Johnston

Near the end of my studies with Johnston, he told me he had enjoyed hearing traces of vernacular elements in the art music I had submitted to apply to their doctoral program. But he noted I had stopped using stylistic mixtures in my latest works and questioned whether that choice was wise.

Johnston felt that mixing in vernacular influences had added a sense of vitality and free-spirited enthusiasm to my early works. He suspected that sometime in the future, I might again find incorporating elements of vernacular music into my art music more fascinating than suppressing my vernacular interests altogether. I was skeptical, but...

Moving On

As I composed new works, I worked spontaneously, and as I worked, I paid close attention to my gut-level responses.

From 1975 to 1979, I composed several vocal and instrumental works. Among the vocal works, three used vernacular-influenced poetry and prose: (1) a trio of choral pieces used poems by e. e. cummings, (2) a full-length opera used a libretto by New Orleans poet Leven Dawson, and (3) a set of solo songs for tenor and harpsichord used poems by e. e. cummings.

While working with vernacular-influenced texts, I composed vernacular-influenced music. I loved working this way and realized the wisdom of Johnston’s foresight. Not only was I working exuberantly, but I was also exploring a vastly expanded expressive range. Since then, I have mixed vernacular influences into my art music whenever it suits my expressive intent.1