Meet composer Christopher Stark

We love playing music by living composers. Living, breathing, walking, talking humans that we can connect with. We are even more excited when they can come to our concerts! 


On October 17, composer Christopher Stark will be joining us for our performances of his work Borrowed Chords. Christopher is newly appointed as Assistant Professor of Composition at Washington University, and recently won a significant commissioning grant from Chamber Music America.  Read more about it here > 

Chris graciously agreed to an brief interview for us to all get to know him better. Find out about his creative process, and his thoughts on gooey butter cake. 

What was your path to becoming a composer?

My path to becoming a composer was long and slow. I grew up in a very remote part of the United States (western Montana) where access to diverse styles of live music weren't abundant. I sought out all of the local happenings that I could, which involved a lot of pep band, playing in garage bands, and going to shows of regionally touring acts of primarily folk music. With rock and folk music as my background, I started studying classical music in college--I almost became a math major because I love numbers. It took me quite a while to understand classical music, but I knew it would be a lifelong source of interest due to its complexity and massive history, which has proven to be true; I love it more everyday.

 What is the most challenging thing about composing? What is the most rewarding thing about composing? 

The most challenging thing about composing is the sheer amount of time it takes to compose a piece and constantly having to move between macro concepts and micro details--it's very easy to get lost in one or the other. Also, maintaining the attention span to sit and work for hours on a piece everyday over the course of a few months has become increasingly difficult with the prevalence of all the bizarre technology we have to distract us. The most rewarding part of composing is completing pieces, which can seem at times impossible along the way. As a composer friend of mine put it, "I don't like composing, but I like having composed."

What is the story behind Borrowed Chords? 

Borrowed Chords is an interesting piece in my output because it marks the first time I felt like I was able to tightly control my language and certain musical techniques (primarily harmony).* A lot of my composing was highly intuitive before writing this piece, which can sound great at times, but can also feel very random. In Borrowed Chords, I felt like I was able to stick with certain ideas and fully work through their potential to create something satisfying formally and harmonically. The piece was written as part of an assignment in which I was given 48 hours to compose a piece using two four-note chords. These two chords were favorites of my teacher, Roberto Sierra, so I called the piece Borrowed Chords as an homage to him. Since writing this piece, I have focused more on developing a harmonic language which has consistency over the course of an entire movement, and I am increasingly fascinated by musical theories about how to develop harmony over time. All this aside, it's a fun and short piece, and I hope that you'll hear elements of my rock, folk, and jazz background in its driving rhythm and folky melodies.

*(Harmony is 2 or more notes sounding at the same time. There are millions of possible combinations and sequences and learning to be selective and creative about those options is one of the key steps in writing music that is successful. In his situation Christopher is using 2 sets of 4 notes to control the harmony in Borrowed Chords) - Dana

What is one thing you wish everyone knew about composers?

That we are as crazy as advertised. ;)

You just moved to St. Louis.  What is your favorite thing about St. Louis so far?

Hailing from the north, I love the weather here. I'm so happy to be away from the biting cold. I also love the ease of livability, the low cost of living, friendly people, and working at Wash U, which is a fantastic school. There are also really great coffee shops here (Sump, Blueprint, Kaldi's) and, of course, gooey butter cake.

Is there anything about St. Louis that has surprised you or was unexpected?

Two things: the first and most obvious surprise was the events in Ferguson. My latest piece for Piano Quartet has a short commentary at the end of one of the movements where I felt I couldn't continue without dealing with the emotions I felt while watching and reading the news about Mike Brown's death. Second, I was awestruck by Saarinen's Gateway Arch, which I had never seen in person. How many cities have a modernist sculpture as their defining feature? That's very cool, in my opinion.

 Any other performances of your works coming up?

The aforementioned Piano Quartet will be premiered on October 19th in Louisville. I also have an orchestral song being premiered in New York on November 14th. In the spring I'll have some events here in St. Louis, which people can find by checking my website.

Thank you for programming my work and welcoming me to St. Louis. I'm very excited to be here.