Past Forward: Composer Spotlight – Trevor Weston

Trevor Weston is a composer of choral, opera and orchestral music, with esteemed commissions for The Boston Children’s Chorus, The Washington Chorus, Trilogy: An Opera Company, Manhattan Choral Ensemble, and Boston Landmarks Orchestra. His honors include the George Ladd Prix de Paris from the University of California, Berkeley, a Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the MacDowell Colony. 

Trevor’s musical education began at the prestigious St. Thomas Choir school in NYC at the age of 10. He received his B.A. from Tufts University and continued his studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in Music Composition.

Flying Fish, co-commissioned by American Composers Orchesta and Carnegie Hall, honors Trevor’s Barbadian heritage, and will be premiered at “Past Forward” on Friday, March 24, 2017 at 7:30pm in Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. Trevor was kind enough to talk with us about the piece.

Composer Trevor Weston

American Composers Orchestra: Choral music has featured prominently in your education and career, with several prestigious choral works to your name. Can you talk about the influence choral music had when it came to composing Flying Fish, which is a purely instrumental work for orchestra?
Trevor Weston: In many ways, Flying Fish brings together my experiences writing instrumental and choral music. Singing Psalms in the Anglican choral tradition has been an important part of my musical development. I remember singing these chants in my home church in New Jersey with my family from the age of six. Later, when I became a choirboy at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, Anglican Chants were performed for every service. As I grew older, I became more aware of the cultural significance of these chants with my parents and their Barbadian friends. In fact, I know many Bajans (Barbadians) who can sing chant tunes from memory when the psalm number is given. For this reason, I decided to begin the last movement of Flying Fish, “Chapel Street” with Anglican Chant-like chords that eventually become a Soca dance. Soca music (Soul + Calypso) is an important popular musical genre in Barbados. There are hints of Soca music in the first movement that are eventually realized in a more full-throated dance in the last movement. In some ways, I wanted Flying Fish to highlight the cultural influences of both Africa and Europe in Bajan culture. I also thought that it would be appropriate to include my experience with psalms on a concert honoring Steve Reich’s seminal work using psalms, Tehillim.
ACO: You write that Flying Fish honors the African roots of Barbadian culture and African diasporic expression, with the flying fish as a prominent symbol of Barbados’ culture and your own childhood memories. Can you talk about how the flying fish is represented in your piece and how it resonates with the African roots you describe?
TW: I grew up in a Caribbean American household in Plainfield, NJ. Flying fish appear in the logo to the pub/restaurant my cousin owns in Barbados, The Fisherman’s Pub. This pub was owned by my grandparents and mother worked with her parents in the pub when she was young. I can’t remember a time when I did not see images of flying fish. These animals have always conjured up ideas of magic and mythology. In 1996, I saw flying fish in nature for the first time when a family friend took me out in a boat off the coast of Barbados. Whizzing through the air just above the water, the fish made a high-pitched fluttering sound. In my composition, I use metallic percussion instruments and woodwinds to represent the shiny silvery fish zipping through the air. The fish leap out of the water to avoid predators. The music of Flying Fish also quickly changes direction as if avoiding being caught by predictable developments. 
Like all islands in the Caribbean, Barbados is populated with people of African descent who brought their culture with them during the Atlantic slave trade. West African approaches to creating music can be heard in the music of the Caribbean and the US. Olly Wilson, a wonderful mentor composer-scholar, taught me that the connection between West African Music and Music of the African Diaspora is heard in their shared approaches to creating music. These shared approaches include using call and response structures, performing in a percussive manner, and creating rhythmic clashes in music. Steel Pan music and Soca music reflect these approaches to music creation. Specifically, in Flying Fish, I make musical references to Tuk Band music, an indigenous Barbadian folk music comprised of a small instrumental ensemble: snare drum, bass drum and piccolo/fife. The drummers play rhythmically clashing music to accompany the folk melody on the fife. This music has always sounded African to me. I transcribed rhythms from Tuk Band recordings and used these rhythmic cells in the first and third movements of Flying Fish.

Example of Tuk Band music:
ACO: Can you talk about your composing process for Flying Fish? How long have you been working on it? What have been the milestones and challenges throughout the process?
TW: Flying Fish began as a personal challenge: Compose a first movement with constant forward motion and energy like Stravinsky’s Les Noces. I wanted to compose music that forced me to take risks. I started compiling sketches of rhythmic (Tuk Band rhythms) and melodic material in 2016. This is my normal first step in the compositional process. All of my sketches were influenced by images and videos of flying fish. In some photos, the fish create intriguing repetitive patterns in the water. I decided that repeating patterns should help guide melodic, rhythmic, and formal material. When Derek Bermel and I first discussed the piece last year, he mentioned a theme of identity for the March 24 concert. I chose flying fish because they have been an ever present image in my life and a very personal one. In addition to referencing my Bajan background, I wanted to use rhythmic patterns I have been beating, as a nervous percussive, my whole life (rhythmic patterns that I often create during down time) but rarely use in my music. With the overall concept in place – a shiny magical animal, elusive motion and direction, Bajan identity, personal music patterns, and rhythmic and pitch material that embodied these ideas – I conceived of an overall form and dramatic development of the work. Combining all of these elements, in the end, was both a milestone and challenge. When I started composing the work, I was not sure if I could effectively combine all of the personal elements listed above. That doubt persisted throughout the composition process, making the completed work a significant milestone. 
ACO: How do you hope the audience will feel, and what do you hope they’ll notice while listening to Flying Fish at its premiere?
TW: I hope that Flying Fish is intriguing to the audience. I like blending familiar and unfamiliar material to create music that resonates with listeners while at the same time challenging them.   
ACO: What are you most looking forward to at the premiere?
TW: Listening to live music brings communities together. After spending months with Flying Fish in my head, I look forward to the experience of hearing the work with an audience. 
Learn more about Trevor Weston at

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