Meet Composer Zac Cairns

Zac has written a brand new piece of music for us inspired by the Gateway Arch, for saxophone and string trio. Learn about how he translated the physical structure of the Arch into a musical structure that the melody could "pass through" and why he doesn't see any conflict in rooting for both the Red Sox and the Cardinals. (!!)

Tell us a little about the path to lead you to be a classical composer, and how that path lead you to St. Louis? 

Well, my compositional path didn't lead me to St. Louis, but it found me in St. Louis after I had tried to abandon it years ago.  I'm primarily a music theorist, but my undergraduate degree was in music education.  I wrote a lot of music in high school:  "classical" pieces, arrangements for school ensembles, and lots and LOTS of rock music.  My goal was to be a high school band director, and I was going to write pieces for my band to play at every concert...that is, unless my career as a shredding rock guitarist didn't take off first.  (It didn't.)  When I went to college at Penn State, I was so busy with my classes and practicing (I was a percussion major, and I could spend DAYS practicing marimba) that I didn't have any time to write at all, and composing just sort of slipped out of my life.  I took one general composition class for non-composition majors, but that was it.  

But while I was doing my undergrad, I realized that I really had a love for music theory, and it became clear that I could actually make teaching music theory my career, and that sounded fantastic.  And it is.  

So, I eventually DID get a job teaching high school band, and I loved it, but it wasn't for me long term.  I went back to Penn State and got my master's in music theory, got married, and then the two of us moved to Rochester, NY to start our respective graduate programs at Eastman (Whitney did an MM in choral conducting, I did a PhD in music theory).  Rochester was an amazing place -- there was so much great music around every corner.  When I was finishing my dissertation, I applied for every full-time theory job in the country, and was lucky enough to land one -- here at University of Missouri-St. Louis.  That was in 2010.  

Zac's first trip to the Arch! He was impressed. 

Zac's first trip to the Arch! He was impressed. 

I guess it wasn't really true to say that I wasn't writing music all that time.  Every summer since 2001, I've been writing and arranging competitive marching band music for a number of bands back in Pennsylvania.  It's a really fun process -- lots of collaboration with other musicians and visual designers...and since they're all student musicians, there are constant compositional challenges.  Like, , "Whoops, that phrase needs 4 more counts, because there's no way our clarinets can get to their new spot on the field...and we need a score and parts for that revision by tomorrow morning," and, "We only have 6 trumpet players this season, and none of them can play above a G at the top of the staff." It's really a lot of fun to write within restrictions like that.  

Anyway, in 2013, I had been spending a lot of time with Debussy's Clair de lune -- doing a lot of analysis in preparation for an arrangement for marching band.  Yup, that's right.  Sorry, to the pianists of the world.  (And no, I'm not even remotely the first person to arrange that piece for marching band.)  The band director I was writing for wanted me to create a sort of dark fantasy on Clair de lune, also, so I whipped together this two minute piece that twisted Debussy in all sort of uncomfortable ways.  It was great fun...but I left so many ideas in a sketchbook.  And then I talked to Gary Brandes, the director of bands at UMSL, and I told him I had this idea for a concert band piece, and I asked him, "Will you play this with your band if I write it?"  He said, yes, so I spent the next couple of months converting that two-minute piece into a 10-minute piece for wind ensemble, called Refracted Moonlight. I was extremely happy with that piece, and it was so much fun to be back working in a performance setting again. 

Anyway, I guess that project is what I mean when I say that my compositional path "found me" again in St. Louis.  I don't know if it was a matter of building some confidence in my writing or something else, but I've been enjoying composing immensely ever since then.  


What do you like most about being a composer? What are some of the challenges you face? 

"Being a composer" is a challenge in itself for me, really.  I still consider myself "a music theorist who also composes," and I probably always will.  Probably the biggest challenge for me is just finding time to compose regularly.  

What was your process in writing Passing Through? What were some challenges? 

"Passing Through" was a really exciting piece to compose. When we talked about this commission back in the spring, the idea was to write a piece that was inspired in some way by the Gateway Arch.  Now, of course, like any good people who move to St. Louis, my wife and I made a trip up to the top of the Arch almost immediately after moving in.  It's a really impressive structure.  I remember standing underneath it and taking a picture of the Arch from below -- it looks all twisty, and it's hard to tell what exactly you're looking at.  The experience of viewing the Arch from underneath is completely different than viewing it from a distance.  

This commission was a good fit for me, because from a compositional perspective, I tend to be most inspired by abstractions.  It's much harder for me to try to "tell a story" when writing than it is for me to get ideas from something less concrete or narrative-based, and then to see where those ideas take me.  

Zac did his research - and a serious amount of math while writing  Passing Through . 

Zac did his research - and a serious amount of math while writing Passing Through

My idea with "Passing Through" was to create a musical structure that would be analogous to the architectural structure of the Arch.  The Arch is 630 feet from end to end, and it's also 630 feet tall at its highest point.  It's close to a shape called a catenary curve, which is the shape a chain makes when you let it hang, supporting only the ends.  These dimensions and this shape gave me a general idea of the "shape" of the piece.  I decided to make the 630-foot baseline into the chronological timeline of the piece -- the piece would be 630 seconds long (10 1/2 minutes).  And likewise, I decided to make the height of the piece (which starts at 0, grows to 630 feet, and shrinks back to 0) into the expanding and contracting pitch space.  A height of 0 translates to a unison -- there is no distance between the notes.  So, the piece begins and ends on a unison D.  I realized I couldn't make each foot of height a half step, because 630 half steps is a range of over 52 octaves, and I didn't want dogs to be the only audience capable of hearing the piece.  So, I divided by 10, and that became 63 half steps, which is 5 octaves and a minor 3rd.  So, at the registral climax of the piece (halfway through, at 5 minutes and 15 seconds), the pitch space is at its widest -- the cello is down on it's low C, and the violin plays an Eb more than five octaves above that.  Throughout the course of the piece, the distance between the lowest and highest notes starts at 0 (that unison D), expands to 63 half steps, and then contracts again to that same unison D.  That space is my "Arch," and the title comes from the idea that the piece's melodic material "passes through" that space -- the saxophone, primarily, always fits inside this Arch.  (Until the very, very end, where it ends up above...but that's another story.)

Zac's outline for translating the physical structure of the Gateway Arch into a music expression of that structure. 

Zac's outline for translating the physical structure of the Gateway Arch into a music expression of that structure. 

So, that was the basic limitation I placed on myself.  But what I wasn't expecting was how this would force me to compose in a manner entirely different than how I normally approach writing a piece.  I tend to think in a very non-linear manner:  I'll get an idea for the beginning of a piece, and then another idea for the same piece, but I can tell it's going to be much later in the piece.  I can develop those ideas separately, but eventually, I have to figure out how to connect Idea #1 to Idea #2.  I often draw big form charts as I'm writing -- I like to keep track of the overall pacing of the music:  there's going to be some sort of crescendo over here, and a big arrival after that, and then Idea #2 will happen.  I might not know what happens at that arrival for quite some time, but I can leave space for it and come back to it later.

But with "Passing Through," I wasn't able to generate ideas for "sometime later in the piece," because the time when those ideas would occur would determine the range of the passage.  I did have some ideas I could save ("This idea spans 26 half steps -- how far into the piece is my Arch at 26 half steps?"), but for much of the piece, I had to write from left-to-right in order to let the predetermined shape of the piece control the melodic and harmonic material.  

What is your favorite instrument to write for? 

That's a difficult question -- I'm not sure that I've got a real preference.  I really like writing for wind instruments, because the color contrasts can be so pronounced.  Even within a single instrument -- the bottom of the clarinet's range, for example, is almost a completely different instrument than the top.  Because of my background as a percussionist, I guess I feel most at home writing for marimba (or percussion, in general).  But I mostly like writing for musicians that I know will be passionate about and committed to performing it, regardless of instrument.  A good friend of mine from college programmed a piece of mine with her middle school band, and the kids apparently went nuts over it, and they've ended up playing it at three separate concerts, because the students won't put it away.  So, she commissioned me to write a new piece specifically for them.  I'm finishing that up now -- and it's really gonna be neat, because those students are all pumped up over this new piece.  (Isn't it great to see passionate music-making in our schools?)

Anyway, that's part of the reason "Passing Through" is so exciting for me -- the members of Chamber Project are always so deeply involved in the music they're performing, and, maybe it's selfish, but I'm thrilled to be part of that.

What is your favorite thing about St. Louis? 

I should have a musical answer to this, but really, my favorite thing about St. Louis is baseball.  I've been a baseball fan all my life.  I don't know if I should admit this, but I started to watch and play baseball when I lived in Rhode Island.  And every good 5 year old New Englander loves the Red Sox.  So I've been a Sox fan since I was kid...which means I rooted against the Cards in 2004 and 2013.  But really, apart from meeting in the World Series, I don't see any conflict of interest in rooting for both the Sox and the Cards.  But St. Louis is a real baseball town -- this place is no joke.  I love going to Busch Stadium to see games -- people here KNOW this sport.  I remember listening to 101.1 shortly after we moved here.  It was right around the All-Star break, and the Cards were something like 2 games out of first place.  And to listen to the callers, you would have thought the sky was falling.  I'm listening and thinking, "It's July -- there's a lot of baseball left."  But wow, there's some passion.  I remember walking around the neighborhood when we lived in U City and seeing a picture in the window of some random house.  It was something that was obviously drawn by a young elementary school kid -- it had a red bird, and a scrawled STL logo.  And it just made me smile to see that, not only had that kid drawn her or his little tribute to the Cardinals, but that the parents loved it enough to put it right in their front-room window!  I like that.

What's next for you? 

Many things!  The composer side of me has a couple of cool projects going on. I mentioned earlier that I'm finishing up a middle school band piece right now, and I have another commission from a high school band to write a piece for them -- I'm just starting to do some sketches for that. UMSL's choir is going to be performing a "grown up" version of a piece I originally wrote for the choir my wife directs at the St. Louis Children's Choirs.  I get to come to some rehearsals next week, I think, so that'll be fun to get to work with the students I see in theory class in a completely different context.  And Adrianne and I had been talking about doing a duo for saxophone and bass clarinet for her and her husband Derek to play.  We'll talk about that next week when she gets into town -- I hope she's still interested!

This is actually the second piece of yours that Adrianne premiered, tell us more about the first. 

Adrianne and Jeff perform zac's duo for baritone sax and percussion in france.

Adrianne and Jeff perform zac's duo for baritone sax and percussion in france.

In 2014, I found out that the Percussive Arts Society was running a composition contest, and that year's category for for percussion and woodwind duo.  I had written a three-movement piece for marimba and alto saxophone several years earlier, and I thought, "I wonder how that would work."  I pulled that piece out and looked at it, and it was terrible.  But there were some good things in the third movement.  So, I scrapped the first two movements, swapped out the alto saxophone for a bari sax, and expanded the percussion part so that it was a marimba surrounded by a whole bunch of toys (bongos, temple blocks, a kick drum, and some toms).  I rewrote the original third movement, and added a brand new movement to play before it...and I put the score and a MIDI mock-up in the mail.  Months later, after I had virtually forgotten about the contest, I found out that my little duo had won!  

That piece was my first time collaborating with Adrianne -- I was definitely in need of some assistance in writing (really writing) for baritone saxophone [the lowest saxophone].  I'm sure she regrets giving me the green light on those altissimo A's...  [altissimo is means the very highest range of a woodwind instrument, generally very difficult to perform]  Adrianne and Jeff Barudin (a good friend of mine from Penn State, who now, coincidentally teaches percussion at Lindenwood and also performs with Chamber Project) premiered the piece here, and then played it again at PASIC, [An international percussion conference] and then at the SaxOpen conference in France (with a new middle movement -- it was kind of a "re-premiere").  

Anyway, writing for Adrianne is really fun -- she's very honest about what's appropriate writing for the instrument and what isn't.  We spent a lot of time sending Facebook messages back and forth for Passing Through. I'd write to her and say, "Hey, there's this thing I want to do," or "Can you play this?" and attach a clip of the score in progress.  Luckily for me, she's an amazing player, so the answer was almost always, "Sure -- sounds cool!"