Thursday Spotlight: Peter Gilbert

Tell us about your background.

I became totally obsessed with classical music as a teenager and immediately started writing music for every group I was involved with. Having grown up in a rural town, I went off to college to study composition without ever having really met another composer. Later I did a Masters in Cleveland and a doctorate at Harvard.

Name some people, artists, artistic genres, etc. that have been influential in your work.

Tough to pair down… for painting and the written word I’d say Turner, Paul Klee, Mark Rothko, Zau Wu Ki, Virginia Woolf, Italo Calvino, and Rainer Maria Rilke for starters.

In music the list is broad and endless, but I guess Luigi Nono and Giacinto Scelsi are pretty important influences as well as hoards of medieval and renaissance composers. But all the other classics from the 17th century on are there lurking in the background too. I like rock, jazz, hip-hop, folk, and various world musics also but I’m not aware of them exerting a strong influence at this point, though they probably do.

Where and how do you get your ideas?

For me inspiration is whatever gets me excited to work, so mostly the ideas seem to spring out of the particular project itself and whatever it is about it that feels fresh and enticing. Sometimes the motivator is a performer I’m excited to be working with. Writing opera it will have a lot to do with the libretto of course. But it might also be the place where the piece will be premiered that ignites the imagination. Sometimes it’s just a purely musical idea I like that I want to let grow.

What materials do you work with? Describe your technical processes.

As a composer I work with sound, with instrumental performance, and occasionally with elements of theatre. I do a lot of improvisation on the various instruments I have around the house (including my own voice). I dance around, wail, shout, wave my arms… anything I can do to incarnate the energy I’m trying to capture. I really try to live out the emotions of the music while I’m working on it. I mostly compose in private as a result! A room of one’s own, as Woolf said.

What do you find to be the most challenging part of being creative? What is the best part of being creative?

The best and simultaneously hardest thing: Doing exactly what you want to do / Making the world in your own image. Making what you want is a great freedom to have but it winds up being harder than it sounds. It can be awfully hard just to figure out what you want in the first place.

I teach composition at the University of New Mexico and have two small kids so the other big challenge is really just finding blocks of time in which I can work at full concentration without break.

What advice would you give to someone seeking advice about being an artist?

Only be an artist if you love it wildly.
Work and work and work (harder than you can imagine) to get better.
Don’t forget to live a full and vital life beyond your artistic work.
Learn as much as you can about what you do.
Learn about what you can do from other art forms as well.
Take responsibility for your own success—don’t expect things to just come to you.

Please tell us where we can find you.

At you’ll find some audio and the usual etcetera. There are a number of recordings of my work out there, but my favorite is the portrait CD of my music on New Focus Recordings

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