To Write or Record First: A Modern Composer’s Dilemma

Richard Belcastro

Music Composer/ Associate Professor of Music, Delaware County Community College

(Coatesville, PA)

Richard and I chatting in his kitchen

Hazel:  Hi Richard. Thanks for letting me visit you a your home.

Richard: Thanks for featuring me.  I’m glad I back in a position to do things like this again.

Hazel: Oh no.  What was wrong?

Richard:  A year ago I was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome.  It was pretty dramatic, I even collapsed in the middle of teaching a class and took a trip to the Emergency Room.  It took a few months and a massive array of exploratory testing, but that’s what it was.  Basically, my immune system had attacked the outer myolin layer of my nervous system hindering the signals from my brain.  As you can imagine, this caused no end of chaos in my body. 

Hazel:  I’m sorry to hear.  Is there a permanent damage on your nerve cells?  Are you better now?

Richard:  It’s a long recovery process, but I’m a year in and starting to have longer and longer periods of feeling “normal”.  From what I understand, it could be a number of years still before I’ll really be back to normal, or at least as close as I’ll get.  At the moment I’m still on medications to help stabilize things in the aftermath.  Thankfully my dean at Delaware County Community College (DCCC) was able to help me to continue working throughout by moving my course load on-line until I could begin working in the classroom.  Without that I would have had plenty other things to worry about as well.

Hazel: I like your outlook.  Nice to focus on the positives.  I wish you luck on your health! So to begin, I want to ask, what kind of music composition do you do? Is there a genre or style?

Richard: As far as defining my musical style, I leave that to the critics.  The New York Concert Review said it’s “an eclectic blend of melodic and rhythmic elements of Jazz and Rock and Roll with a uniquely contemporary harmonic vocabulary” Works as good as anything I can come up with.

Hazel: Excellent!

Richard:  Now the Philadelphia Inquirer once called it “so mundane as to not have been worth the audience’s time”… so…

Hazel: Well they do say that critics are failed artists….

Richard: When writing each composition, I think of them as the best thing ever.  But, in retrospect, I don’t agree with myself on that either any more.  So no hard feelings for harsh reviews.

Richard at his home studio. He had so many instruments and sound effect tools in that room!

Hazel:  How did you get into composing?

Richard: I started writing rock music in middle school and wrote a few piano pieces for fun as well. But, I went to study music in college specific to improve my rock songs, things got off track but I didn’t mind.

Hazel: In what way did they go off track?

Richard: Only that I didn’t end up sticking to writing rock. I heard Berio’s “Sinfonia” and suddenly understood there was more to the possibilities in music than I’d ever considered. I started seriously exploring a new world of music. Before that, it was all top 40 and MTV.

Hazel: How did Berio’s composition shift your musical paradigm?  As for me, I broke out of a shell when I heard Loreena McKennitt’s Dante’s Prayer for the first time.  Her music with Celtic influences made me realize that I needed more explorations to do in music than just within classical and alternative rock.

Richard: 25 years ago so hard to remember what I exactly liked about it.  I just remember liking this piece.  It was the first piece I liked that was contemporary classical music. 

Hazel:  I guess that makes sense since your taste and composition style probably evolved a lot since as well.  Nothing is constant. Let’s listen to your compositions and talk about them.  Share with me a couple of them that you feel best represent you.

Richard:  Here’s a recent piece for Toy Piano and Electric Guitar:

Hazel:  This reminds me of Indonesian traditional music I once heard at an international music fest in Oregon.  What instruments/tools were used for it?  I love it!

Richard:  That movement definitely.  The others are quite different.  We took apart a toy piano and mounted a set of tines on another toy piano so the pianist could play the keyboard with one hand and the mounted tines with a mallet on the other.  In other movements, there are other extended techniques and odd ways of playing for both instruments.

Here’s another movement from the toy piece where the guitarists plays by jamming a pencil into the strings: https://gallery.mailchimp.com/4fd0aaf6789f693bc95aea282/files/48b52d72-70ce-4fd4-9833-56bfd0e4378e/09_Belcastro_IV_M190604.mp3

Hazel: This is cool.  More beats.  Rock and roll feel.  But still connected to the other movement… Hard to describe how. Let’s listen to another one.

Richard: This is an older work, but a personal favorite: http://www.rbelcastro.com/bits_of_bowie.html

Hazel: Awesome!  I totally get it.  The trademark Bowie vocal oddities!  You know what would be cool?  If you had a painter/visual artist collaborate with you.  Bits of Bowie can be a multi-media experience.  I could totally hear the song “Changes” all throughout the track.  The chords of it and all. 

Richard:  Lots of fun could be had!

Hazel:  I love your work!

Richard:  Thanks!

Hazel: So tell me about the process you go through to compose music. 

Richard: People aren’t always sure what it means when I say I’m a composer. They’re often a bit confused or picturing scenes from movies. Reality is quite different.

Hazel:  So obviously not ink and quill in front of a piano wearing a wig, right?

Richard: Oh, the process is always evolving.  Currently I’m writing a duo for violin and viola. I’m hoping to add a percussive choreography to their movements by strapping rattles and bells to their arms and legs. I’ve got the instruments in the studio and have been strapping them all on and improvising.  So far, I think it’s promising, this weekend, I’ll be setting up a microphone and working through things.  I hope to put things on paper and in the computer later. Working from recorded improvisation is a new approach for me.  My last piece came together this way and it was quite unique, so I’m trying it again.

Tinkering with violin
One of his compositions

Hazel: So you record as you play and when you are satisfied, you write it down?

Richard: For me, I’ve always built a piece a section at a time and slaved over each moment. Improving a performance with the microphone on lets me free myself from the practical need to write down things to remember them. I can just let the thoughts come freely and there is a recording to revisit and extract material from later. I find it more organic and representative of a more subconscious level of how I “speak” in music.  So I used this method for the following music:

Hazel:  So cool.  This music reminds of Sigur Ros, the Icelandic band.  Do you know their music?  I also wonder how you would even be able to write all the details down in your music when Western musical notations are so limiting.

Richard:  It’s all basically the same process of metaphorically slapping a lump of clay on the table and pushing, pulling a shaping until you like it. The improv is a nice way of generating ideas I may not come up with if I were overthinking it. 

I have not heard that band before.  I’ll have to check them out.

Hazel:  I think you should.  The friend who introduced me to Sigur Ros also is a big fan of Bowie.

Richard:  As for notation, the piece you’ve just listened to is a bit non traditional as it is absent of any clear meter.  So other ways of keeping the band together were employed.

Hazel:  How?

Richard: The pianist is basically the conductor.  The piano part is structured but free in that there is no requirement that it is performed at a specific moment.  Nevertheless, there are spatial elements in the notation to give a sense of phrasing. The rest of the ensemble are following along as the pianist plays and moving in their parts accordingly.  They are not moving by counting a metric pulse, but by listening to where the pianist is at in the score.

It was an attempt to maintain creative control of the music while giving the musicians a relaxed atmosphere to play within.

Hazel: Thanks for your time!  One last question.  Any upcoming concerts we can attend?

Richard: The CD release party/concert for the NakedEye “Toy” album will be in early December 2019 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I also have a new work premiering with NakedEye in February 2020 at Tribeca in NYC. In April 2020, the viola/violin duo and Play will premier another new work at Temple University, Saint Joseph University, Haverford College and DCCC as part of a project with a composer collective I work with in Philadelphia. I also play sitar and will be performing a work of mine with Trio Casals in the Spring, and while I don’t know the release date off hand, I just finished recording a work this summer for sitar and early music instruments with Melomanie for their next CD release. I’ll let you know, and you can check in on my website as well at www.rbelcastro.com.

Richard at the side porch of his house

After we were done with the interview, Richard took me out to his backyard. I wished my kids were there with me. They would have loved it! Thank you for a great chat, Richard. I really appreciate you educating me and sharing your music with me. See you at concerts!

His garden was magnificent full of fruits and chickens!
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