5 questions to Tobin Stokes (Composer)

As a composer, are you inspired by other art forms? If so which ones?

For sure I’m inspired by other art forms and design, craft, etc. Art is all one ongoing conversation, and one form answering another is integral. Literature included. Good writing always inspires me (as does good cooking. Is that art?) Paintings, and often the buildings that house them, inspire me – I’m a sucker for the Impressionists. Now and then I’m moved by photography. I’m less musically inspired by sculpture, so far. Once I witnessed a four year old dancing alone, slowly and freely with great purpose, in complete silence. It was a bewildering example of movement as art, and was very inspiring to those of us who were lucky enough to catch it.

Do you use a computer for your work? When did you start?

Yes I use a computer for my work. I started writing on paper just before software and hardware were developed to a useable and somewhat reliable level. The programs at first were very frustrating, but I was hooked anyway. Then by about ten years ago, I was sketching on paper downstairs and then running upstairs to the computer. It kept me fit. Now I am mostly on the computer. A desktop with bells and whistles for sequenced music, and a barebones laptop when writing for human players and singers that I can plunk on a desk or a piano or at a ski lodge.

Do you still use paper? What for?

I’m using paper less and less, though I just started printing my scores in rough draft to proof them. Errors show up much better on paper. My scores are finished by my copyist and I’m certain he is using a lot of trees. Timbre! I used to bring paper with me to scribble ideas, now I bring my laptop.

Does working on a computer affect the way you compose?

Yes, the computer – when composing for humans – is an amazing editing tool. It can work well as long as the user is in complete control. But when I am sequencing music for TV etc. (using synths and samples) the computer has at least some input, so for certain projects it is a fun tug-of-war, others it is give-and-take, sometimes satisfying, other times frustrating. (It’s like trying to build with a finite number of Lego blocks in their finite shapes and colours, rather than creating, say, a sand castle.) There is a staggering amount of technical knowledge needed to continue to have the upper hand in the man vs. machine battle. The more experience and intuitive gear you have at your fingertips, the more chance you have to create what you really want.

Are you concerned with a possible loss of craftsmanship because of technology?

Well first there is the craftsmanship of pencil to paper – I was looking at Stravinsky’s original scores one time at Stanford. His work is so extraordinary in every detail. While music written by hand, like longhand, cursive, calligraphy, etc., is being usurped by the computer, I don’t believe it will ever become a lost art. When presented well it can be so powerful; every mark and stroke filled with meaning and deliberate purpose – it will always blow away any computer print-out.

Then there is the craftsmanship of composition. If Mozart were alive now, what would his studio look like? Wouldn’t it be full of gear, would it be possible for him to stay focussed and specialize in his certain forms? If craftsmanship is the bridge between the creative mind and the finished art, it is currently stretching a little thin here and there, and rapidly changing shape, but it will never go away.

Canadian composer Tobin Stokes is currently writing a 30 min commission based on phrases from short stories of Emily Carr for orchestra, string quartet, and mezzo soprano. Through the Annenberg Foundation, his next project is a chamber opera about an American Marine who fought in the battle of Fallujah, with libretto by Heather Raffo, for City Opera Vancouver. Stokes also writes for film and TV, ballet, large events, theatre, and choirs. Website: http://www.tobinstokes.com