Faculty Spotlight: Erich Stem

8th December 2015
Erich StemErich Stem
School of Arts and Letters
Associate Professor of Music


Erich Holt Stem is composer in residence and associate professor of music in the School of Arts and Letters at IU Southeast. He teaches composition for the stage, film and media.  Prof. Stem founded and currently directs New Dynamic Records (NDR), a label that has a mission of releasing music by composers of our time. By 2013, the label had released music by a total of 44 living composers, including 28 world premiere recordings of works by composers from around the world. Stem’s music has been described as “sophisticated and intriguing” (Washington Post) and “unique and beautiful” (Boston Theatre Review) and has been performed in the U.S. and in Europe by groups such as the Minnesota Orchestra, Richmond Symphony, Aurelia Saxophone Quartet, and many others. His chamber works have been recorded and released commercially by notable artists such as SOLI Chamber Ensemble, Cadillac Moon Ensemble and counter)induction.  In 2015, Prof. Stem was awarded the New Frontiers in the Arts and Humanities grant from Indiana University for his latest initiative, “America By: A Symphonic Tour.” The project invites orchestras from around the country to commission and perform pieces written by Stem that express the attributes of their town, culture, and people. To date, Stem has composed orchestral portraits evoking in music the history and cultural persona of locales in Washington, Oregon, and Kentucky. Prof. Stem spoke with academic information officer, Steven Krolak.

You composed your first work at age 12, after seeing the movie, “Amadeus.” But when did you really establish your own musical voice?

That’s hard to say since I think, 30 years later, I’m still developing my voice. And, it’s a conscious choice. For some composers, sticking to the same approach or style can get dull after a while. After writing several pieces using the same approach, I find myself asking, “What else can I do? What else can I explore, musically?” Then, it’s almost as if I start over again. I’m a better composer than I was in years past, but I still like revisiting the stage of learning something new, or being a novice with a particular way of composing.

The latest installment of “America By” features music devoted to Portland, Oregon. What have you learned in composing this work?

In every “America By” piece, I incorporate elements that are unique to the region my music represents. The piece I’m writing for the University of Portland orchestra takes into account the history of Portland (it was near the end of the Lewis and Clark expedition) and the music of its prior inhabitants such as the Upper Chinook native Americans and immigrants from Vietnam. I also visited Portland for the first time last summer, so, I have my experiences of Portland “today” built into the mix. So, in addition to learning about Portland, I am challenged to learn how to pull all of these elements in one piece of music.

What excites you most about today’s new music scene?

​Today’s music scene is more varied than the one in the past. Even though our last century marked an explosion of new ideas in music, people still put concert stage music into its own distinct category, separate from pop music or jazz, for example. Today, those lines are becoming blurred with each new piece, combining different genres in ways that would have been scoffed at years ago. For example, it’s not uncommon today to hear jazz or pop music mixed with traditional concert music in a string quartet piece. Composers of art music today are also including sounds traditionally heard in pop/rock music, such as using a distorted electric guitar or an 80’s synthesizer with, say, a traditional piano trio. Composer Mason Bates, for example, infuses electronic dance music with the traditional orchestra. It’s also common to find interactive computer-generated sounds being used with acoustic instruments in live performances. So, the field is wide open today and moving further away from a “classical music” category that only recognized the music of dead European composers.

How have the revolutions in music technology and distribution affected new music as a whole and composing in particular?

Technology has transformed a lot for new music and composing — and all for the better. I am in the last generation (Generation X) that remembers what composing was like before computers. I hand-wrote music with pencil and paper until 1999. Since then, the personal computer has made it easier to compose (no need for an eraser!), develop scores and parts and create demos of finished compositions. Technology is so advanced now that computers can handle the processing power required to emulate a real orchestra or violinist, for example. I can get a close-to-perfect replication of what my piece will sound like if played by performers. It’s almost like having your own set of professional performers try out each measure of music while you compose. I also find that I am more open to taking risks composing with a computer because revising is simple and not the chore it once was. For many composers, the computer and incredible advancement in software has opened up several new worlds for using computer-generated sounds in their work. As far as distribution goes, I think it goes without saying how much the Internet has played a role in helping musicians promote and sell their music without the need for major contracts with big labels. This reality, I think, has led to the discovery of new kinds of music in addition to helping composers climb the ladder on their merits rather than their connections to the big industry.

What are your students working on at the moment?

​I have students who are discovering the craft of writing for the film and media as well as for the concert stage. One of my students, Christopher Jetter, recently received the 2015 IU Southeast Student Research/Creative Work Fellowship. Over the summer, Chris composed a piece for a traditional chamber ensemble and didgeridoo. This was particularly exciting since the didgeridoo is not widely used in traditional chamber groups. Because of this, Chris had to research and develop notation, based on only a few existing examples, in order to score the didgeridoo with the ensemble he used (flute, clarinet, piano, violin, and cello). He will present this project at the 2016 student conference in April.

What’s next for you?

I am currently putting the finishing touches on the orchestra piece for the University of Portland Orchestra, which will be premiered either in the Spring or Fall of 2016. The coming year is also packed with album releases. A piece titled “New Year’s” will be released by flutist Lindsey Goodman on April 17, and “Consider will be released by the Juventas New Music Ensemble, a terrific group from Boston, on a date to be determined. The same piece will also be released on an EP by a local chamber group I’m involved with called A/Tonal. As for the “America By” project, I am in conversation with orchestras from Illinois and Iowa about being involved in the tour, so there are a couple of promising projects for 2017.

TAGS: , , , , ,