Theodore Wiprud '80 started in math, landed in music and now offers advice about living as a composer.
By Olivia Munk '16
When we enroll in a college course, we expect to be a different person after handing in the final paper or exam. A concentration course may provide us with skills in pursuit of a career, while an elective may teach us new ways of thinking about a topic we’re curious about. Theodore Wiprud ’80 concentrated in biochemistry as a student at Harvard, but enrolling in a music theory course changed not only the way he saw his hobby of playing the piano, but his career goals as well. Today he is an award-winning composer and vice president of education of the New York Philharmonic.
On Wednesday, March 23 in a visit supported by Harvard’s Office for the Arts Learning From Performers program and the Office of Career Services, Wiprud will lead a lunch discussion for undergraduates about pursuing careers in music. I spoke with Wiprud about the course that changed his plans, the influence of students on his work and his advice on living the life of a composer. An edited version of our conversation follows.
When you were a student, how did you first become involved in composing?
I began composing late in life. I began composing really, only, when I was an undergrad. Most people going into music seriously are already far along in their studies, whether it’s the violin or the piano, by the time they’re undergrads. I got a late start on it. I had played the piano since I was a little kid. But, I had never understood what it was for. The piano was just something you did, and you could progress from one piece to the next. I really didn’t know that there was a world of music until I was 16, when I went to my first orchestra concert and heard a piano concerto. Suddenly, I realized that there was a whole world that this was for. Piano wasn’t just for lessons and practicing; it was for an enormous kind of impact you could make. That’s when I got seriously interested in music, and I started practicing the piano all day long.
What happened at Harvard?
When I was a freshman and took Music 51, I began to see how there’s actually a method to composing. There’s a way to analyze it; there’s a way to see how it’s put together. I was a math and science person – I majored in biochemistry for my undergrad years – so for me it was the connection between the rush I was having for music and discovering the entire orchestra repertoire. The connection between that, and an almost mathematically based system for understanding music, made me want to try to start putting it together myself. Although I had tried to compose a few things in high school, it was really when I began to study theory that it began to happen.
Do you think you apply your training in biochemistry to your compositions today?
Not in any conscious way. I wish there was a great story about that, but no. You take the full complement of science courses and labs, and you learn a certain analytical and empirical way of thinking. I think, maybe, that relates to the way I think about music – as living in the sound of it. Despite everything I just said about theory, it’s not so much about impressing somebody with the system you come up with that’s really key to the sound. That might sound counterintuitive, to think that science might lead you to focus on the beauty of it, but that’s what I mean by the empirical side of science. I would say that science isn’t actually about memorizing facts in a book; it’s about learning the way to deduce facts from experiments and experience. That’s almost my approach to composition as well.
You’ve drawn inspiration for your music from a lot of different sources, such as spirituality and American literature. How do you begin to translate these sources of inspiration into a composition?
I guess the answer is that it’s hard. And it’s hard in the same way that starting a piece without any extra-musical stimulus is hard. There has to be something that just occurs to you that excites you as a musical experience, whether it’s a form idea, like something that gets faster and faster, or prettier and prettier—some kind of form like that. Or, just a sound you want to explore, and get deeper into that sound, to see what else it can provide. For me, inspiration often comes from an extra-musical stimulus such as a book, or an idea or an experience or an emotion. I’m really not somebody who begins from a formal principle.
You’re director of education at the New York Philharmonic. How has your experience in music education informed your compositions?
It’s a really important influence. Every performer will tell you that working with kids keeps you honest. You can’t just fake it – though, of course, I’m generalizing across age groups. I don’t compose music for kids to hear. For some reason, that’s just not something I’ve gone into. What I’m really interested in at the Philharmonic is how to present the regular music of the orchestral repertoire in a way that gets kids really excited about it, finding that hook and getting people passionate about that music is kind of like composing. It really helps to have a hook for yourself as a composer – something that you’re fascinated about, the sound that you want to explore further.
What advice do you have for students who want to become composers?
The most important thing is to compose. This is something that, believe it or not, was a revelation to me when someone gave me this advice when I was a freshman. It was: Well, are you composing? No! You mean I can just compose? Yes, you can just compose! Training will give you more versatility and more fluidity, but the most important thing is to begin to explore and exercise your imagination because it’s like a muscle. You need to keep it moving and flowing. There’s no reason not to start at whatever level you are, and then find out that you actually like do it. To compose, just compose. But “how to be a composer” is something they don’t teach you in school—it’s to have a life as a composer. The fact is that people do it in a million different ways, combining different income streams. It’s hard even to advise, except to make people aware that there are lots and lots of ways, there’s not just one path to be a composer in the world. But, you do have to compose, and there are lots of ways to find your way into the music profession. There are lots of different niches, and I’m really looking forward to speaking with students about it.
This project is supported by the Bernard H. and Mildred Kayden Artist in Residence Fund.