Composer Jonathan Bingham: Changing the Course of Classical Music
Composer Jonathan Bingham has been recognized for using electronic and acoustic instruments over the past decade. Bingham is a Donna Milanovich Composer in Residence with the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra and is delighted to be visiting Chicago for the first time for this premiere. An accomplished composer, Bingham has performed residencies with the Arapahoe Philharmonic and the Boulder Symphony. In addition, through collaborations with filmmakers, dancers and painters, he has presented international premieres in concert halls, cinemas, galleries and theaters.
A composition graduate from Howard University and New York University, his most recent project is Cool Story, a platform for researching scores and producing recordings of lesser-known music.
Tammy Gibson: What made you decide to become a songwriter?
Jonathan Bingham: When I was in high school, I took a class where we started composing silent films. Composition was the only activity that kept my interest. I played basketball at one point. Then, for some reason, I started running away from everything else. Recording silent movies in high school led me to try and get into music production and popular music. While I was trying to do this, I discovered classical music, and I haven’t looked back since.
TG: Do you remember the first song you wrote?
JB: Absoutely. It’s a string quartet called “Diamond” and it still performs today. Usually, composers do not let their first pieces play. But, I needed it for a gig once, because I needed to fill up some space. The “Diamond” coin is named after my birthstone month in April.
TG: Which composer inspired you the most?
JB: I have two composers who have inspired me. Irénée Bergé is a French composer. Hearing his music, the idea of stopping the music came to my mind because the bar was just too high. I felt that it was not the right time to make music, I had a well-paid job and Irénée Bergé had already done everything. I am still studying his work. I learn something new from him every time.
Samuel Barber was an American composer. He did it the right way by introducing the right amount of convention into his music and his experiments. He has a large catalog, and I think it’s important that every composer thinks about whether he’ll be making relevant music. You can’t just have music that looks like music from the last century or too far into the future because people won’t find it. Barber has found a nice balance in the career he has had. The numbers speak for themselves on its success.
TG: What is the life of a composer like today?
JB: Right now I have a scholarship in the Bay Area. I’ll be in San Francisco to work on the stock market. I was given a command and a space to write. It is a composer’s dream. I’m going to wake up, have a coffee and compose on the piano. Every once in a while someone would contact me to collaborate on a movie or a pop song. They will give me work to write string arrangements or electronic sounds for a movie. I’ll take a little trip.
TG: Is there a collaboration you’re most proud of?
JB: There was a collaboration that I did, but it was my project that I did a few years ago called “Equation”. It was a concert with a painter who made a painting with my string quartet. We rented a gallery in New York, and it was great fun.
TG: What are you doing to keep your creativity flowing?
JB: The most important thing is to keep listening to music. It doesn’t stop with classical music. If you want to be a classical composer, especially ten years in the game, you have to know another genre. Find one or two artists or two albums of specific artists and do your research. Next, look for books published about this artist and podcast episodes to listen to about the artist? It is essential to learn about different artists and different types of music.
TG: Is it easy or difficult for you as an African American composer?
JB: Being a composer, regardless of race, is difficult. The industry is not very interested in it or shows a strong investment of composers under 40 years old. Apparently 40 is the age when people start to talk about you a little more. Until then, it’s about either continuously applying for schools, scholarships and scholarships to fund your projects, or creating your opportunities yourself, which can be difficult. I tell people I don’t recommend this path unless you think it’s a call to your life or find purpose or meaning in being a songwriter.
If you graduate from college at age 20-25, you have another 10-15 years before things start to happen for you, potentially. During this time, you need to focus on why you are doing this to keep improving and developing as a songwriter.
TG: As a composer, what stage of your career are you at now?
JB: I am 32 years old and I feel that there are elements in the music that I have performed. I knew I wanted to write certain pieces, write for an orchestra, and write for a string quartet when I was in college. I’ve done over ten shows in the past year, which is pretty good. It doesn’t sound like much in the classic world at 32, but I’d say it’s pretty good.
Where I am on the scale of things is hard to say. You feel like a rock star at times, and at other times you are in your room composing. I’m in a good position right now and consider myself lucky.
TG: What projects are you currently working on?
JB: I’m working on a project called “Cool Story”, where I’m researching lesser-known music. The first project is to research composers who have been associated with Howard University, where I studied. There is a lot of literature in the classical world that has passed through Howard University and has never been published. Unfortunately, some sheet music was sitting on the desks of these composers, and when they died, the sheet music was thrown in the trash. Fortunately, some partitions have been found and rearranged. I got sheet music from Mark Fax, who taught composers Dorothy Rudd Moore and Adolphus Hailstork, who were his students at Howard University.
Max Fax didn’t have many performances, especially his string quartet. I was able to attend, I believe, the creation of the Fax string quartet in 2010. Be careful, Fax died in the early 1970s. I was 20 when I heard the string quartet, and I loved it. I thought it had to be a first somewhere. I was still waiting for someone to come and publish a recording, and no one did.
In 2018, I created a website and got permission from the Fax family to register the work. I now have the digitized score to give to the musicians. I want to put the music from Fax on a platform where the 21st century audience can access the Internet. If I had left it alone, the score would have ended up in a library. How many people go to the library to search for sheet music? That’s why I launched coolstoryrecords.com, where people can listen to music and donate.
TG: What advice would you give to a budding composer?
JB: Don’t try to become a professional composer if that’s not your calling. There is a lot of time between when you first start and when you can step onto the world stage and make it a lifestyle. You have to find meaning and purpose if you want to be a composer.
Tammy Gibson is a traveler and black history author. Find her on social networks @SankofaTravelHr