Chris Tilley

Composer, coach/accompanist, theatre music director, arranger, orchestrator

United States of America

Author

About

Chris Tilley (b.1970, North Carolina, US) began writing songs and piano pieces as a teen. He attended the University of Southern Mississippi, where he studied composition with Luigi Zaninelli. He later studied counterpoint with Harold Rohlig at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama.

Chris has written chamber music, choral music, music for dance, and lots of art songs and solo piano music. After a 10-year semi-hiatus in the early 2000’s, during which he wrote mostly plays and musicals, Chris retuned to classical composition. Most recently, while all his gigs were cancelled during COVID-19 shutdown, he has written many shorter works for unaccompanied solo instruments. His compositions have been performed around the US, and in several other countries.

Chris lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, US. He works as a freelance musician – coach/accompanist, theatre music director, arranger, orchestrator. Currently he works as an accompanist for ballet and modern dance classes.

For a list of works or other information, please contact the composer: chris.tilley.musician@gmail.com

Videos

Sheets

Interview

What does music mean to you personally?

Music is the only thing I’ve ever really done for a living. It’s always just been part of my life, apparently since before I can remember. My parents tell a story about how as a very young child I would sit at the piano and “bang” on it. Then one day someone told them I was playing “chords”. Eventually I started asking for piano lessons for birthdays and Christmas, so they found me a teacher.

I’m a musician. I do music. I sing and whistle a lot to myself (or to other people if they’re around). I quote song lyrics whenever something reminds me of a song. I don’t do a lot of casual listening to music – having music playing while I do something else; I try to listen actively – except sometimes when I’m driving. But music is very much part of my life, part of me. That’s pretty obvious, though because, as I see it, music and other arts are part of being human. We evolved using tools and language, telling stories, and making music.

Do you agree that music is all about fantasy?

No. Perhaps sometimes music is about fantasy. Other times music is very practical. There’s music in the background at a party, or before a movie starts, or at the beginning and end of some event as a way of making people more comfortable. Music may be therapeutic, or a way of bonding with family or friends or lovers, or part of defining a group. Music within a story (film, TV, theatre) can be a large part of evoking an emotional response in the audience.

If you were not a professional musician, what would you have been?

I actually studied psychology in school. I have a psych degree (with a huge minor in music), and for a time I thought I would pursue a career in counseling psychology. So, if not music, perhaps I’d be doing some psych-related work. Or perhaps I’d be writing plays (which I’ve done) or poems, or doing something else in the arts. But it’s very hard to imagine not doing music. If I weren’t playing music professionally, I’d still be writing it. And probably desperately seeking people to get together just to play and sing and laugh.

The classical music audience is getting old, are you worried about the future?

Yes.

In the early 2000’s, I became frustrated with writing “classical” music. It felt like the audience for classical music in general, but specifically for new music, was mostly musicians and a few of their friends. That really drove me into writing for theatre, where I felt that what I was writing was more significant, in a way. I was more able to explore ideas that explicitly have to do with life and the human experience, and to use music as part of that. I have come back to writing (non-theatre) classical music. There’s something compelling about it. But I still feel the audience is tiny. And aging.

It seems after Western art music split into so many different directions at once in the 20th century, it became harder to follow – at least without significant study in order to understand it. And I think a general audience just isn’t all that interested in studying something before they can enjoy it. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. Also, along with the current anti-science and anti-intellectual sentiment in my country (perhaps others), there’s long been a similar anti-high art feeling out there; an (often unfounded) opinion that classical music is fancy and pretentious. And that’s not a good atmosphere for classical music.

What do you envision the role of music to be in the 21st century? Do you see that there is a transformation of this role?

Well... I’m not entirely sure that civilization as we know it will continue much longer. I simultaneously hope for and dread it. But I don’t know what’s next. So, it’s hard to make a prediction about music’s role in whatever may come.

Do you think that the musician today needs to be more creative? What is the role of creativity in the musical process for you?

I don’t know. I’m certain there will always be some creative people finding new ways to do old things, or even new things to do in place of the old. And I’m just as certain that there are tons of musicians who are not especially creative. They may be competent, even good. At best, they know what they’re supposed to do – how to play, sing, etc. – and they do it reasonably well. But they’re probably not very inspiring. Now that I think about it, maybe most of the working (and/or teaching) musicians out there in the world aren’t necessarily creative. But maybe that’s okay? There are always some folks working outside of the box or trying to redefine the box. Hopefully the others will come along in time.

I believe more creative thinking is needed in people who run arts programs of every type. A willingness to think beyond just playing (or programming) the standard repertoire and finding creative ways to get and keep an audience’s attention – these would be good things. I have a friend who teaches piano and uses some non-traditional approaches to teach students how to “do music” instead of just how to learn a certain set of piano pieces. He often encounters parents who could use a more creative frame of mind about the purpose and goals of studying music. (Maybe “creative” isn’t the right word there, but...) I think this is part of the eternal struggle of “the artist” in society – the creative person who challenges traditional ways of thinking (and doing) and inevitably encounters resistance and rejection from society, even from others working within their same field of art.

For me personally, creativity is not something I focus on during the process of making music. When I’m composing or improvising (I currently play for dance classes, so there’s a lot of improvising), creativity is by definition an intrinsic part of the process. But making something that didn’t exist before is such an obvious, basic impulse for me that I don’t think of it as remarkable. The first time I ever wrote music, I was about 13 and attending a summer camp. One night I couldn’t sleep, so I grabbed a pen and paper, drew staves, and started writing something. What I wrote wasn’t particularly creative, but the act of thinking and writing that music was. And it seemed like an obvious thing to do, to just think of some music ideas and write them down. Now, many years later, it still feels that way – not a well-considered attempt “being creative,” but just an impulse to make something or to get some idea that’s in my head out into the world.

Do you think we as musicians can do something to attract the younger generation to music concerts? How would you do this?

Perhaps we should be specifically creating work that, while still interesting and valuable to trained musician, is accessible and compelling to a younger audience – something they can feel a connection to. It may be music that challenges the ear, but not so much that the brain gives up on it. Large performing organizations – orchestras, opera companies, etc. – need to consider more new music, even actively recruiting composers willing and eager to write new works that people can connect with more easily.

Perhaps an attitude of music being something alive and happening in the moment, rather than being a “museum piece” or some sort of revered, never-changing, monolithic thing, would help to invigorate the classical music world for a younger audience. And I think the concert hall may need to become a secondary venue for classical music. We need to bring music to the younger audience, instead of expecting them to dress up and spend a lot on tickets for a concert which is neither their music nor their environment.

Frankly, attention spans have shortened. (Mine certainly has.) So maybe we should be programming more shorter works. These 20-mintue, 40-minute, or hour-long pieces aren’t going to keep the attention of an already reluctant audience these days, especially when there’s SO MUCH other entertainment available literally at our fingertips. That’s not to say we should entirely throw out those 20-mintue, 40-minute, and hour-long pieces. But there should be something other than that sort of artistic “heavy lifting” and a pops concert (which is like an entire meal made up of desserts).

Some people make a big distinction between art music and popular music. That’s fine, but... If we want a broader audience, maybe we need to lessen that distinction. I’ve known many people – teachers, especially – who not only make that distinction, but who clearly see it as a hierarchical distinction. (And I think teaching with that attitude contributes to the demise of classical music.) They consider “art music” to be obviously superior because it’s more complex, or more sophisticated, or more erudite, or more beautiful and expressive. But if you take an honest, broad look at both art and popular music, it’s obvious that those qualities – complexity, sophistication, etc. – do not belong solely to art music.

So, to summarize: Short and medium-length works that are interesting but accessible and exciting for a young and middle-aged audience, in the concert hall but also perhaps in other locations (and various media?); and a lessening of the division between “classical” and “popular” music.

Tell us about your creative process. What is your favorite piece (written by you) and how did you start working on it?

I could not even begin to pick a favorite piece. There are just too many to choose from. (I feel the same way about picking a favorite anything if there are more than a few options.) But I will talk about my process.

Sometimes a new piece will just be something I want to write. Or sometimes I’ll see an interesting call for scores, and that gets me working on a new idea. And sometimes people commission me; that’s always nice, because I get paid (not much, but something), and it often pushes me in a direction I might not otherwise have gone. I had a recent commission for a “Dixieland/Blues” inspired piece for clarinet, euphonium, vibraphone, and drum set. I definitely would not have had that idea on my own.

Probably more than half the time when I come up with an initial idea for a new piece I am sitting at my computer and keyboard, having decided to write something. But other times I’ll have an idea, jot it down (or even sing it into the recorder on my phone), then work on it later. I use the computer for writing, but I do still write at least some by hand, with pencil and blank staff paper. Initial ideas are often written down by hand, and sometimes other bits as I’m developing an idea. It’s just quicker for me than trying to put it on the computer right away.

Those initial ideas may be very short – just a few measures, even. An idea may sit for weeks or months before I do anything with it. I have a file of short music ideas on my computer, and a separate list of ideas for titles, instrument combinations, concepts. Some of those may become pieces, others may not. Sometimes I’ll work a very little bit on a new idea, then come back several days later and work again a very little bit. That may happen several times before I really get going. Or, I may start in seriously working right away. It depends on how productive I’m feeling and how much time I have. Once I do “really get going” on something, typically I’ll generate a lot of the material quickly, in big chunks. Then I’ll chip away at it for a while – cutting, adding new bits, changing things, moving things around.

Sometimes in that process there will be a moment when the piece suddenly takes a different direction. That could be a change in instrumentation. It could be that I come up with a different title – something descriptive that alters how I see the whole character of the piece. It could be a major structural change. These changes may be something that I impose on the piece, to help give it structure or clarity, etc. Or it may be something that emerges from the material. I don’t know that one way is preferable – they both seem to help me to create a better piece.

Eventually, as I approach the completion of a solid draft, I’ll look at the piece every day or two, play it (and/or listen to my computer play it) and continue making small changes, until it seems there are no more changes to make. Then I try to find someone else to play it. I always feel unsure if a piece is finished until I hear someone play it. Then it’s either, “Yeah, that’s it, that’s the piece,” or “Ah... Right... So, there’s still work to be done on this thing.” Sadly, I have way too many pieces that I’ve never heard. Some of those “unheard so potentially-unfinished” pieces I’ll come back to months, even years later, and re-write. For example, my as yet un-premiered Piano Sonata #2 that I wrote in the 1990s which, last year, I turned into two separate pieces. There was a big section that didn’t really fit; if I’d ever heard anyone play it, I probably would’ve realized it much sooner.

I have recently found that listening to music sometimes makes me want to compose. In a way, I’m responding to what I’m listening to, but it’s not like an homage. Rather, something will spark an idea that I’ll want to take in a different direction. Or it could be “Here’s what I would do if I wrote a piece like that.” That’s how Pretty Piano Pieces started. I don’t remember the specific piece, but I was watching a video of someone playing one of those pretty, romantic, piano pieces with lots of flowing arpeggiated chords, and I thought, “I’ve never written anything like that. I wonder what it would sound like if I did.” So, I did, and that became the first movement. Of course, I think my Pretty Piano Pieces still have a bit of tension and angst in them, which is probably a defining characteristic of my work.

Can you give some advice for young people who want to discover classical music for themselves?

Look beyond the famous pieces that everyone has heard of.

Try not to dismiss entire genres or styles or periods of music without spending time with them. Especially don’t give up on a piece just because it doesn’t make sense to you at first. Some things take a while. (I’m reminded of a piece I learned in college. I was accompanying an opera scenes program, and one of the pieces was the final trio from Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss. The first time I read through it, I was confused; I couldn’t follow it; it mostly seemed like a messy jumble to me. I found a recording and listened to it – same thing: confused; couldn’t follow; messy jumble. But I worked on it – I had to, it was literally my job. By the time we performed it later that semester, I loved it. I had to learn how to listen to it – what to listen for. There are many similar pieces that have this sort of undulating quality, where different instruments or voices surge forward, become prominent, then recede into the background or accompaniment, while another voice comes forward. It’s like a beautiful abstract tapestry where in places one color thread comes out, then another different color, then another. Once I understood how to listen to it, I found it absolutely gorgeous, and I discovered that I knew how to listen to other Strauss pieces.)

Some study of form and theory is useful. It can help you understand pieces on multiple levels, and it can be helpful when you start listening to more complex and challenging pieces. Also having a more experienced person to talk to about what you’re learning and discovering is probably very useful – even if it’s not a formal student/teacher relationship. That person (or persons) can answer questions, or ask you interesting questions, and point you toward other pieces or resources.

Do you think about the audience when composing?

Eh...sort of? Maybe not explicitly. What I do is try to figure out where an idea could or should go, and what I think would be interesting. But, especially in the past five years or so, I find myself often writing things that are a bit more accessible – not the relentlessly dissonant pieces which I occasionally wrote in college and after. I still love dissonance, but it’s tempered quite a bit. Could be that’s come with age, but I’m sure all the writing (and playing) of theatre music I’ve done has been a contributing factor to that change. And I think that has to do with writing, not necessarily FOR the audience, but with the audience in mind to at least some degree.

What projects are coming up? Do you experiment in your projects?

I do sometimes experiment. I’ll purposely try something different than whatever my typical approach is at the moment. Years ago I wrote a set of two-part inventions using 12-tone techniques; that was certainly an experiment for me. And I’ve experimented a little with minimalism. I’ve experimented off and on with writing short pieces. (Earlier this year I wrote a one-minute piece with four movements.) I’ve done some solo percussion writing lately, which always feels like an experiment because I don’t know what it’s really going to sound like.

One thing I started recently is a set of miniatures for whistling drummer. It was prompted by a drummer who has been posting daily practice videos on Instagram. In one video, she whistled in reaction to having finished a tricky section. I commented on it, which led to a conversation, and now a new work in progress.

For a little while now I’ve been tossing around the idea of writing for concert band. I have not written for large instrumental ensembles before. Maybe 20 players is the largest group I’ve written for, and those were orchestrations of existing musical theatre numbers by other composers. So, a concert band piece will be a bit of an experiment, if I ever get around to writing one. I’m reluctant to start something like that without at least a possibility of already having a group that would be willing to play it. I’m always keeping an eye out for people or groups who are looking for new music or who are willing to play existing pieces that no one’s ever heard of, so if you’re one of those people and you’re reading this, get in touch!