EarShot Detroit Symphony Orchestra – Composer Spotlight: Kerwin Young

Kerwin Young is a prolific American composer and producer who has worked with iconic artists including Ice Cube, Mobb Deep, Busta Rhymes, and Public Enemy. His works have been performed by Music From China, Kansas City Symphony, Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, University City Symphony, and other well-known ensembles. As a film and TV composer, Young has worked on projects including the 1994 debut season of New York Undercover; the 1997 directorial debut of Goetz Grossman, Tar; KCPT’s weekly news series Ruckus; and has composed and produced original songs for feature motion pictures such as Do The Right Thing (1989), Green Card (1990), Sister Act 2 (1992), and American Crime Story: The People Vs O.J. Simpson (2016).

Young studied music composition at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance with Chen Yi, Zhou Long, and Jazz Messenger legend, Bobby Watson. In 2017, Young served as a U.S. Cultural Ambassador for Hip-Hop in Egypt, teaching music composition, production, media scoring, and business. 

Young’s piece American Caravan was selected for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra EarShot Readings, where it will be rehearsed and performed under the direction of conductor André Raphel. Public performances will take place on March 6 and March 9 at the Fisher Music Center. Click here for more information.

We spoke with Young about his piece and the readings.

Composer and producer Kerwin Young

American Composers Orchestra: What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra EarShot New Music Readings? 

Kerwin Young: I was ecstatic, and a bit surprised really. I’ve been applying to EarShot for about ten years or more, and to finally get in; well, I was extremely happy.

ACO: In your experience writing for orchestra, what have been the biggest challenges for you?

KY: I don’t ever recall facing any challenges pertaining to orchestral writing. I spent six years (1994-2000) studying composition, instrumentation, and orchestration on my own. I began writing for orchestra in 1999, and in 2000, I had two full large works written on manuscript paper. In 2000, I met with the librarians at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Steve Sherrill and Bob O’brien; for their critique of my work. They found nothing wrong with my works; except for my improper notation for a harp glissandi. My further pursuit in education posed more of a challenge than the music ever did.

My greatest challenge began when I applied to the Paris Conservatory in 2002. They told me that I was too old to be accepted. That hurt me more than anything. I’ve never experienced age discrimination. I waited seven years before re-applying to another school; which happened to be University of Missouri-Kansas City. By that time, I’d composed a decent amount of orchestral works that culminated for quite a strong portfolio.

ACO: Can you talk about any ways that your experience as a record producer (working with acclaimed artists including Ice Cube, Busta Rhymes, Public Enemy, Eddie Moore, and many others) has helped you become a successful composer of large-scale works?

KY: As a recording producer and song writer, I had experience early on with large scale works. Many of the albums I produced toward the start of my career followed the traditional practice of creating conceptual albums with interludes, and fully developed, interrelated themes. I wasn’t calling myself a composer at that time, but I was doing the same thing to a certain extent. I was also writing music for industrial videos early on, and that also contributed to me writing long form works.

Another thing too, as a producer, I was also called upon to do remakes of older recordings. In 1994, I began composing; for the most part, transcribing parts from recordings; which included a lot of Gil Evans orchestrations for the early Miles Davis large ensemble recordings.

ACO: Your piece American Caravan is inspired by current events taking place in the Americas, highlighting themes of human migration, overcoming hardships, and seeking a better life. What is your process for composing music that evokes these real-life themes? Is there a period of research? Do you compose with specific images, stories, or personal experiences in mind?

KY: Hmmm… as a composer, I get to play God; manipulating sound, doing whatever I want. I get to approve or disapprove what’s been notated; to be the sole authority that deems it either good or unworthy. I’ve always worked like this; trying to find a new sound or a new approach to something I may have previously done. For each new work, it’s an act of sonic manipulation; just as if I were producing a song or an album. I have a few different work flows, but my main process goes like this: Subject – Mental Image – Sound. This order ties in with my passion for film scoring. Once I find an interesting subject, I research it long enough for it to set in my mind. I’ll then develop a mental picture; like a movie. Next, I’ll purchase a moleskine book specifically for work at hand, and I will begin sketching my ideas; creating a sonic image inspired from my mental image. Each dedicated Moleskine includes a rough outline of the entire work; including the tonal palette, dynamic arc, how many movements (if any), and the instrumentation. I never compose with a particular ensemble or musician in mind. I prefer to write what I want to hear, and that approach keeps my creativity fresh; not constrained by any parameters.

I also spend a lot of time composing away from my piano and guitar. I’ll set out on a creative writing spree, with the intent to organize it later. This process allows me to escape the western plane of twelve notes, and to dive into the realm of microtonality and sonic frequencies. Much of this is linked with my passion for film scoring, and many times, I’ll write an 8-15 minute work in 3-4 days from this process; either as a suite or a single movement work.

Another process is to compose via a digital workstation such as Digital Performer, Studio One, or Pro Tools. I begin via midi input into the computer, and that data will be rewired into Sibelius; where I may turn a small, one-minute idea into a fully developed work not shorter than eight minutes.

The challenging part and most time consuming task is inputting what I’ve written into Sibelius. With the necessity of working efficiently, I’m always mindful that I’ll need to render parts at a later time. Great caution is taken when inputting into Sibelius; doing my best not to create potential challenges that would hinder me if required to export parts in a hurry.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the workshops and readings? What do you hope to learn from the experience?

KY: Interacting with the young student composers and musicians during the scheduled workshops is very important for me. I’m just as excited to hear how my reduction for the student ensemble reads, as much as I am by the DSO reading. I’ll have an opportunity to learn first hand whether or not I’ve done well at writing a playable reduction for our young sisters and brothers. And, with the DSO, I’m looking to fine tune my work, and to also learn just how far I can push the limits of difficulty.

For the readings, I’m definitely looking forward to hear the works of the other honored composers; to share in the excitement with them, and to share our creative processes and backgrounds; learning new and different approaches at what we do.

I dream of having a residency with a major orchestra, and this experience will definitely provide the necessary tools toward that achievement; providing both business and creative aesthetics.

Kerwin Young’s piece American Caravan will be performed as part of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra EarShot Readings, which are free and open to the public on March 6 and March 9 at the Fisher Music Center. Click here for more information.

Learn more about Kerwin Young at www.kerwinyoung.com

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