Title: Associate Professor
Carthage professors are dedicated to teaching, but many also pursue high levels of scholarship outside of class. Mark Petering, Associate Professor of Music at Carthage, is an award-winning composer, honored by such organizations as the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), and the Society of Composers.
The recipient of the Swan Composer Prize and an Honorable Mention in the American Prize competition, Prof. Petering’s work has been performed by the Atlantic Chamber Orchestra, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Seattle Philharmonic, and the Czech National Symphony, among others. In 2018, his “Lament for Tuba and Orchestra” was premiered by the Charlotte Symphony, led by the same conductor who, days later, conducted the ceremonial music for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding.
We sat down with Prof. Petering to learn more about his work, how he got his start writing music, and a piece that made history for its coordination with a moving locomotive.
When did you start composing?
I was 10 years old, and I had been playing piano for about five years. I always played piano between Sunday school and the church service. I would compare whatever I was working on with what a friend of mine, who was my age, was working on. We’d play for each other the pieces that we were studying, and one day he played something sort of popular-sounding. I thought it sounded pretty cool so I listened to it and went home and tried to recreate it. I couldn’t recreate the music that he was playing, but I ended up creating my own piece that was similar in style. From there, I got the “composing bug” and wanted to not only play piano but write music for piano and other instruments.
How did you go about pursuing composition?
I continued studying piano through junior high and high school. My piano teacher allowed me to perform my own piano compositions at our monthly recitals. That really encouraged me to keep composing as I knew I had a place to perform these compositions. Ultimately, it went from writing for piano to writing for my junior high school jazz band, and when I got to high school, I started writing for string quartet and even orchestra. When I was in high school, I ended up winning some competitions, even placing in a national competition. People were telling me that I was good at this and I really enjoyed doing it, so I decided to major in theory and composition for my undergraduate degree.
What is your process for composing pieces?
The first thing I like to do is to get some inspiration. That might be from a book or a painting — something typically non-musical. The next part is to sketch out ideas. I might do that at the piano, or I might just put it directly into my computer. Then, once you have a lot of different ideas, you start to refine your work. You will discard a lot of stuff that you sketched, and then you’ll pick those special ideas that come forward and make you think about how you can rework them. I think Aaron Copland once said that he was not a composer, but someone who assembled materials. It’s the idea that you sort of take away the romantic notions of what it’s like to be an artist, where you are suddenly inspired and it all flows out of you. That does happen occasionally, but a lot of times you’re really piecing together ideas that at first might seem unrelated. Maybe you have a lot of ideas that are similar, but you have to find an interesting way to make them feel new every time you present a piece. A lot of that is being creative in how you assemble your materials.
What challenges have you faced in your composing career?
I remember being a student and trying the whole week to come up with some quality ideas and not being able to come up with anything meaningful. Also, finding ways to stay “hungry,” as sometimes you’ll compose a piece and it’ll only be performed once. It’s always good to find new sources of inspiration and give yourself a chance to step away for a while. It’s important to give yourself a break once or twice a year, to let thing ruminate and return with fresh ears and eyes.
How has teaching at Carthage affected your composing?
It has helped dramatically because I am a part of a community that is always putting forward performances and always interested in helping students. The act of teaching keeps me engaged with music. If I were working in any other occupation, I would not have as much time to pursue composition. I think it’s important to be a part of a community that values good music, because it makes you feel like you are a part of something important, and that itself is inspirational. You learn from your students and peers, and being in that environment is vital.
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“As a composer, you have to be bold in the choices you make, and sometimes you have to be unsentimental. That means discarding material that you thought was really outstanding, but you realize something isn’t working and you have to try something different.”
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How has your composition career affected your teaching?
As a composer, you have to be bold in the choices you make, and sometimes you have to be unsentimental. That means discarding material that you thought was really outstanding, but you realize something isn’t working and you have to try something different. Sometimes, I am teaching a lesson that I thought would work well and I realize I am not reaching the students the way I wanted to. So I try something new in class on the spot. I am honest with myself about what works and what doesn’t. Also, the ability to improvise is really important in the classroom. You can tell by looking at your students if they’re engaged or getting the concept or not. If you feel like something isn’t working, being able to immediately try something else and improvise comes from my experience as a composer.
What has been the highlight of your composing career?
There are a couple. The first one was a piece I wrote for the Music Festival of the Hamptons Competition. It was a national contest for students and I was chosen by Lukas Foss, who was a big figure in 20th-century American music. The work was supposed to be premiered with a recording of a train. The tent in which the music festival was housed was next to the Long Island Rail Road, so at least one train would pass by during the performance. They decided to take a recording of a train and have the contest make fun of the fact that the festival was right by the railroad track. I won the competition, but when I got out there, they said, “Mark, how would you like to coordinate the performance of your piece with an actual moving locomotive?”
A board member coordinated with the Long Island Rail Road Administration to get a locomotive with train carriages behind it to be dedicated to the festival. I actually had control of when the train would be launched a mile from the festival tent. I knew the approximate time it would take for it to get from standing position to the tent, so I had to use mathematical equations to figure out specifically how many measures from the end of the piece I wanted to plan for to properly cue the train to begin moving to pass by the tent at the end of my piece.
Most recently, I had a premiere with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra with a work called “Lament for Tuba and Orchestra”. The Charlotte Symphony tubist is Aubrey Foard, and he and his family commissioned this work from me about 10 years ago. It took a long time to find a professional orchestra to play it, but it was an honor to work with an outstanding, nationally recognized symphony. A special thing besides working with the orchestra was the conductor, Christopher Warren-Green. It turns out he’s the favorite conductor of the British Royal family. A week after my performance, he immediately flew to England to conduct the ceremonial music for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. Later, it was fun watching the wedding and thinking about how I was one degree of separation from the event, this great conductor and the couple getting married. (My wife and I are big Harry and Meghan fans because my wife is a woman of color.)
Incidentally, a week before my piece was played in Charlotte, I recorded my string quartet piece with our President’s Quartet here on campus.
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“If you don’t give limits to something, you don’t have structure and it can become incomprehensible.”
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What tips do you have for aspiring composers?
Make sure you continue to work as a performer to get your performing chops at their highest level. I think every one must be able to express themselves musically as a performer. As a composer, it is important to know your music theory and history. Composition is a natural outgrowth of everything else, and if you’re not tuned in as a performer or you don’t really know your fundamentals, then you’ll probably not be a very successful composer. Composers also need to know and understand the contemporary music scene. Additionally, I try to get my younger composers to focus on applying one concept in a piece, and I find giving limits very important. If you don’t give limits to something, you don’t have structure and it can become incomprehensible. I would say finding limits and knowing your theory and history (both past and present) are very powerful ideas.
For more music by Prof. Petering, visit http://www.markpetering.org.