Stephan Carlson (b. 1990) is a composer, song-writer, and music educator from northern Illinois. Stephan's musical compositions tend to occupy a cross-section of several areas: vocal musics including choral, a cappella, and barbershop music; instrumental music, largely informed by acoustic analysis and the study of the executive idioms required for sound production; and electronic music, often a blend of noise synthesis and experimental spectral techniques coupled with idioms from popular music like rock and metal.
Stephan's recent research has been focused on experimental electronic music technologies and composition pedagogy. He also has a special interest in the music of recent composers, especially his peers, and feels strongly about giving serious attention to the work of living composers.
Stephan completed his B.M. in Music Theory and Composition at Elmhurst college in 2013, and then his M.M. in Composition at Northern Illinois University in 2019. Stephan is a Ph.D. candidate at the University Iowa, and currently lives in Maryland with his wife.
Philosophy of Composition and Composition Pedagogy
I pursued composition because I was moved by music. I was stricken by something beautiful and powerful and playful and excellent. And so I wanted to create something beautiful, powerful, playful, and excellent too.
Composing is fun, and composing is play. But sometimes, it is less fun than it is a lot of work. It should always be both, actually–– which is a bit of a paradox, but stick with me. Sometimes when it’s more fun, more play than work, I’m somewhat disappointed by what I made. Sure I had some fun making it, but the result could be richer. On the other hand when it’s more work than play, the process of creating it can be nearly miserable. Sure I made something pretty cool but it was a complete slog to do it. But when I balance those two, when I balance play and work, I find myself able to stay fresh to the joy of music while creating something I am proud of. To be sure, the balance is almost never perfect. Sometimes I have to lean more one way than the other, and that’s probably for the best. It’s important to be able to do that, I think. I find I need both, and I think you will too.
Composing is also a practice, as well as a process. This pair is perhaps less paradoxical, but if you will then please allow me to use the terms to distinguish between two different ideas. I appreciate how medical doctors are said to “be practicing” when doing their work. It suggests that each task of the job done is somehow rehearsal for the next. They occupy this dualistic space of craftsperson-slash-apprentice. I think this is ideally true of composers as well (and musicians as a whole). We should always be learning, always available to be moved afresh. On the other hand the word process suggests to me something observable and systematic. I keep a journal in which I track the compositional process of certain pieces (usually following completion). I want to better understand that process, what worked well and what didn’t; how to improve upon that process for the next time. I also want to be better able to help others navigate their own creative processes. The better you know how to climb the mountain, the better you will actually climb the mountain. And so perhaps the balance here is between action and cognition.
As a teacher of composition, then, these are the things I am attempting to balance. Play and work. Practice and process. Composing should be a playful toil; a traceable process and a dynamic practice. I am concerned with composing, but also with how to compose and what it’s like to compose.
Philosophy of Music Education
Like those I hope to serve, I too am a student of music and of its creation. And the more I have learned, the more I realize I have yet to learn. I hope this will be taken as more than a platitude, but as a heartfelt admission that neither my knowledge nor my practice are perfect. Like my students I must show up each day only with what I have, managing somehow to be assured of what I do know while staying open to what I do not. This can sometimes be a bit of a paradox, and a difficult one to balance. But when that balance is kept, I find myself able to move in music and to be moved by music.
We as a community are pupils sitting at the feet of a still larger community– nations wide, centuries deep. This, to me, means being available to learn from both expected and unexpected teachers: not just Beethoven and not just Brahms; not just the Beatles and not just Beyoncé. This means my peers, even my students, may have something valuable to teach me. Yes, some of us have been here longer than others. Our wisdom lights the way forward but we are not the authors of the journey, merely fellow travelers a little further down the road. We too have sat where they now sit, and ideally we still join them from time to time— reclaiming our places as students, alive and awake to the fresh beauty of music. This too can be something of a paradox, but if in our journey we seek to empower each other then we are each, in turn, empowered to make better music.
Music is play and music is work. Music is practice and music is process. Teacher and student, play and work, practice and process. These are not binaries, but planes intersecting in a field of possibility. With these properly balanced our potential for both growth and joy enlarge to fill the spaces we occupy. With these properly balanced we cease to be competitors fighting over our narrow corners of that space, and become fellows free to learn.