Guest Artist Interview with Carson Cooman
Jeannine: Before we get started with more detailed questions, would you please introduce yourself to our readers. What is your background? What drew you to composition? To the organ?
Mr. Cooman: I was raised in Rochester, New York, and began piano lessons at a young age (3). Around age 10, I started to develop an interest in composing music. I had become interested in the organ simply as a listener from attending church and then by acting as page turner to our church’s organist.
Around age 13 or so, I began to study the organ formally. By the end of high school, it was clear to me that I wanted to be a professional musician, and that composition would be the major parts of my life. I went to college (Harvard University) and graduate school (Carnegie Mellon University) in music composition. All during this time, I was also active as an organist, specializing in contemporary music, which has remained my focus to this day. After graduate school, I moved back to Cambridge, Massachusetts to become Composer in Residence for The Memorial Church at Harvard University.
Jeannine: You certainly have an amazing multi-faceted music career with your extensive work as a composer, a writer, an editor, and a concert organist. Let’s look first at your work as an American composer – a composer with a catalog of hundreds of works in many forms – from solo instrumental pieces to operas, and from orchestral works to hymn tunes. Your music has been described as “a vivid combination of inspired mellifluousness, emotional excitement, and creative expressiveness.” How would you define your music? What is it in the music that causes a reviewer to use these boldly descriptive words?
Mr. Cooman: Describing music in words (whether being done by the composer themselves or somebody else) is not necessarily an easy or clear task. I have written a fairly large number of pieces in a variety of genres, and so there is certainly variety of both purpose and content across the music I have written. The facets of expression certainly with the piece. The kind of piece one might write for an amateur church choir is not the same sort of piece one would write for a university new music ensemble.
My music is certainly connected to the historical tradition, though it seeks also to speak with a contemporary voice of today, and I would say also with an “American” one as well. What I strive for in my own music are also the things I look for in the work of others, regardless of style. I am most attracted to music that is deeply communicative and totally direct in its presentation, with no unnecessary artifice. I dislike so much organ music that is just tied up in knots of organ obfuscation or pieces that seem little more than transcribed improvisation. I want music where every note matters. The organ as instrument must be in service to the music.
The most crucially important thing for me is to bear in mind how the music sounds in time: the actual experience of listening to the work. This sounds simplistic and obvious, but it’s amazing how often this is forgotten. Since composing is a slower process than listening, it’s very easy for a composer to get caught up in systems and ideas that are compelling only in the abstract. Unlike visual art, music is a “time” art form. Everybody is forced to experience it at the same rate. If somebody doesn’t like your painting in a gallery, they can just walk away after a few seconds (or conversely, stare at it for hours). But when a listener is hearing a musical performance, they have no control over what happens. I consider that a hugely significant mandate that a composer is given: the responsibility for the use of other people’s time. And thus, every moment must matter and have purpose.
I have written in all active classical musical genres (except ballet), although since this is an organ-centric newsletter, it probably makes the most sense to focus on those works. I do have many compositions for the organ of almost every sort and difficulty: both for use in service and in recitals. I always strive in my organ music to make it no harder than it needs to be to get the effect across, and the ongoing positive reaction from performers seems to confirm to me that this is valued.
The organist Erik Simmons is gradually recording my complete organ works in a CD series for Divine Art Records (divineartrecords.com). As of Spring 2018, seven volumes have been released, with more in preparation.
On my website (carsoncooman.com) one can view a list of all organ works as well as information about where they are published.
Dr. Jeannine Jordan, concert organist with her husband David, media artist, are the creators and performers of Bach and Sons, From Sea to Shining Sea, and Around the World in 80 Minutes — live organ concerts with multi-media.