2010 McKnight Fellow: Peter O’Gorman, Composer
Ten minutes after sitting down to a tiny table in a tiny Afghani restaurant, Peter O’Gorman scouts the menu for lunch. This is, in all probability, his first meal of the day and might only be moments after waking, although his kempt appearance in a navy sweater would never give him away. Like so many artists, Peter spends his nights working, enjoying an enviable jolt of creativity with the coming of night. Quietly sequestered in his percussion studio each evening, the silence surrounding him evolves into a torrent of sound as he improvises and improvises again. “Even though I improvise as a composer, this is only the first step in creating new work. My improvisations generate a vocabulary that I draw from when crafting a new composition.”
For Peter, one of four illustrious winners of a 25,000 dollar McKnight Artist Fellowship, engaging the audience is of paramount importance when he writes his music.
“My goal is to create uncompromising work that captures a diverse audience, from highly educated musicians to curious listeners with little or no musical training. To do this, the work needs to engage the listener on multiple levels: emotional, cerebral, visceral, and kinetic. Some listeners may be drawn to one or two aspects of the music, while others may be drawn to the entire gestalt of the work. Different people may like different characteristics of the music.”
And like it, they do. Peter’s music has been all over the United States. He’s been commissioned by some of the biggest names in the business, and his music has been performed by a myriad of ensembles including Steven Schick and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Amy Knoles of the California Ear Unit, New York percussion quartet Ethos, Nashville percussion group Vortex, Minneapolis based Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum, and Zenon Dance Company. He’s written pedagogical books. He’s a performer. He’s a teacher.
He’s one busy percussionist.
For inspiration, he says, “I’m drawn to new, unusual, and interesting sounds. Sometimes these sounds come from ordinary objects like parts from a farm tractor, or from new instruments, or from existing instruments played with newly invented techniques. My search for new sounds has even gotten me kicked out of a restaurant supply store.”
His most successful compositions are based on just a few of these sounds, like the whoosh of brushes flying through the air, the sound of metal on wood, of wood on metal, or the sound of what he calls “percussive breath work.” Composing within the limits of one or two crashes, taps, swishes, jingles, or thuds allows him to explore the full breadth of a sound, availing an opportunity to experiment with timing and movement. “Serif [one of his most sought-after works] is the furthest I’ve gone into the kinetic sense of music-making. It’s really focused on movement. Writing a score for Serif was beyond tricky because I was designing choreographing that just happened to create sound and creating sound that just happened to generate movement. The only sonic material in this piece is the sound of brushes moving through air. How do you notate that? I worked through the process of this very slowly, sometimes going back to it the following morning only to take a gander and think ‘WHAT?’”
Even though his approach to composing is disciplined and measured, applying for the McKnight Fellowship was a quick matter. “I only decided a week and a half before the deadline that I should apply. There was some major sleep deprivation during the process of getting the proposal together!” he explains with a laugh. But nonetheless, he won the award and began to take some risks, putting time and effort towards projects he describes as “not having a high probability of success.” Ordering a 50-dollar tuning fork for an upcoming composition wasn’t such a big deal anymore, even though “my early experiments didn’t work at all.”
His time as a McKnight fellow has also allowed him to reach out to some new students, something which has brought him a surprising amount of joy. “I started teaching composition for the very first time, and discovered that I really like it, even though I’m still figuring out how to do it well without drowning the student in music theory. I’ve since decided to integrate composition into my regular private teaching program.”
Even though he’s suffered from a few setbacks, including a battle with Lyme disease that left him hugely impaired, Peter O’Gorman is the owner of a fertile musical mind.
He’s been busy performing his music at the Walker Art Center, The Guthrie Theater, O’Shaughnessy Auditorium, the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts, and a variety of colleges. As a recipient of a Live Music for Dance Minnesota grant from the American Composers Forum, he has been commissioned by Zenon Dance Company to create a major new work with choreographer Wynn Fricke that will premiere at the Cowles Center this May 4 through May 13, 2012.
Contributed by Shelley DeWees