118 – The Art of Composing – with Composer Steven Lebetkin

by | Nov 1, 2018 | Podcast

Have you ever thought about composing? Have you already started your career? Are you interested in taking your composing game to the next level?

In this episode of The New Music Industry Podcast, I talk to composer Steven Lebetkin, who shares about his forthcoming release, Perpetuum Immobile, New Age Chamber Music and his specific way of approaching composition.

Podcast Highlights:

  • 00:14 – Introductions
  • 00:23 – Who is Steven Lebetkin?
  • 02:23 – Perpetuum Immobile
  • 05:29 – What is New Age Chamber Music?
  • 10:11 – Is it costlier to work with real instruments and musicians?
  • 12:30 – Who are you influenced by?
  • 17:33 – Is there a specific way you approach composition and making music?
  • 22:24 – Is there a specific message you’re looking to share with your audience through your music?
  • 27:32 – What are your plans moving forward?
  • 29:23 – Is there anything else I should have asked?


David Andrew Wiebe: Today, I’m chatting with composer, speaker, and thought leader, Steven Lebetkin. How are you today, Steve?

Steven Lebetkin: I’m great. How are you today, David?

D.A.: Great. Thank you so much for asking. So, for those who don’t know, why don’t you paint us a picture of who you are and what you do?

Steven: Okay. Well, I’m a composer. I’ve been doing this for quite a long time. I started out in my young teenage years taking composition lessons and studying classical music, and going pretty much every weekend to Lincoln Center in New York at the Library of Performing Arts as a 13, 14-year-old young boy adolescent.

I just traveled to the library for years learning music, listening to vinyl — yes, those were the days of vinyl — and studying scores.

And then went on to college at City University of New York Queens College and had the very good privilege and distinction of studying with about five of the great giant composers of the 20th century. Unfortunately, no longer with us today as we are in the 21st century. Learned a very solid and rigorous background of traditional Great Western compositional techniques.

That forms the basis of all of my work for many decades since then in whatever style I choose to write. Whether it’s classical, symphonic, popular, or commercial, new age, as we’re going to be talking about shortly in this interview medium than any other framework.

So, I have a solid foundation of compositional technique which gives me the ability to build and create in whatever language or style is called for at the time.

D.A.: That’s great. Composing is definitely an art form. You have a new album on the way and I want to make sure I’m saying this right, although I’m not sure I am. Titled Perpetuum Immobile. What can you tell us about it?

Steven: Well, it’s Perpetuum Immobile.

D.A.: Immobile.

Steven: Yes, correct. That’s the title track of the album and the title of that track seemed to get a good sense of what the sound is and who is on that track for the listener.

D.A.: So, what sort of mood were you trying to evoke with this music?

Steven: Well, it wasn’t really such a mood. I was actually… I gave a considerable amount of thought and preparation prior to the composition and then ultimately the production of this album to music in the 21st century, particularly for a larger commercial audience as what’s going on in the last 15, 20 years and how I could approach a commercial genre with a sense of compositional integrity at the same time but not losing the audience to something that was too deep or too deeply entrenched in the classical or you know avant garde 20th century type of sound.

The idea was consistent with my other works to approach and embrace a much wider audience than classical music generally is able to achieve, which is declining. The audience is declining, that’s pretty well established.

The idea was to take a classical set of contemporary techniques, actually a classical set of techniques, and apply that into a very, very appealing set of compositional styles that people can really relate to and enjoy without getting lost. Not too challenging but just enough so that it bears repeated listenings. That’s the key.

You want to be able to write music that is not only here for today but will be here tomorrow, where each time the listener presses the play button for one or more of the tracks on the album, hears something new that they hadn’t heard or focused on before.

That’s the key to writing great music in the classical vein or the jazz vein or any other vein. So that you could hear it again and derive some additional sense of joy that maybe they didn’t get some of the other times.

D.A.: Yeah. I think that’s great because I think a lot of the music that I’ve come to love certainly has layers and depth to it that I wouldn’t have noticed the first time around. And there’s yeah, there’s many albums like that that I definitely have an appreciation for. I think you describe this kind of as New Age chamber music. So, what is that?

Steven: That’s a very interesting question. A lot of the new age music by definition and the way that music is structured and laid out for the listener has quite a bit of space in it. Whether you’re dealing with music, let’s say by Arvo Pärt, which has a great amount of repetition or some of the other contemporary artists like Einaudi, Max Richter, and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson.

So, what I did was… And then a lot of the other New Age artists are heavily reliant on sound design and effects to do to this kind of ethereal, transcendent, universal feel, in a very slow-moving sound palette and environment.

So, in order to go just a notch or two up in complexity but without losing the audience, one of the things that I decided to do in the planning of the music for this album is to start from the base level of actual live instruments.

Live instruments of course are the environment that a lot of great classical music is written. And of course, chamber music, which gives that intimate sound. You want to be able to give an intimate sound even if it’s on headsets or speakers. You want to be able to have that sense of human intimacy in music that’s not just filled with kind of these ethereal type of sounds and sense and that sort of thing.

The music in this album built from the bottom up where the musical ideas are fully formed and accessible. Purely and easily accessible to the listener and then add layers of some combination of instruments, contemporary instruments or traditional instruments whether its piano or a solo string instruments, and then add synths on top.

So, really, what I’ve developed here is the first subset of New Age music, which I call New Age chamber music. Now, if you go to the internet and type in New Age chamber music on Google search, you’re not going to find anything, so that means I’m the first and successful. If I’m not successful you’ll never find another one again.

But you know that being said, the idea was really to create an album using contemporary sounds and sound designs in a way that maybe Mozart would have done if he were alive today. A lot of his music is great sounds and great tunes and melodies. Almost sounded like music that was written for a child. They’re very, very simple and elegant but deceptively simple because the melodies and the musical structure is actually quite dense and complex in Mozart but it doesn’t really sound that way or feel that way to the listener. They don’t have to know how to play this but they have to experience it so I approach this album pretty much the same way at that level to get a sense of great appeal but also wrapped in intimacy and the use of synths and other electronic sound design techniques and samples that would add color but not become the foundation.

Because if all you have is sound design, it’s sort of like having a cake, which is one inch of cake and six inches of cream with sugar. If all you have is the icing and that sugary type stuff on the top and all you have of cake is at the bottom, you’re not going to really eat that cake. You’re not going to eat very much of it and you’re not really going to go back for more.

But you know in a chamber music environment, if you have the intimate sound of music that is accessible and has the human touch and add to that in a very tasteful way, hopefully done tastefully, the contemporary sounds of the synths and other production techniques that I think which I have is something new that again bears repeated listenings by the listeners and hopefully the desire to hear more in future albums.

D.A.: Yeah. I think creating that type of music is perhaps more challenging just from a practical standpoint. I would imagine it takes a little more time for musicians to prepare and to have the piece the way you want it as well as the fact that it could be more expensive to have real instruments as a baseline.

Steven: Actually not. You would think that. Well, first of all, when it comes to writing music that is a little bit more higher level but not too higher level, so as to turn off a broader audience… But what that also does is severely limit the number of composers, other composers in the world that could approach this new genre, the genre of New Age Chamber, Music which is what we’re calling it here, and make a good faith effort to compose their own version of it. Because you can’t really do it unless you have a solid compositional background.

Without a foundation, it’s going to be very, very hard to do. You could write sort of sounds that kind of dance around it and so on but if you don’t have a solid foundation, there’s only a few percentage appointments of composers in the world that can write out of the bo,x which is the use of these DAWs electronic MIDI and sample configurations. Most of them really can’t write music at this level, unfortunately. So, it’s a much more limited market.

From the time standpoint… I’m using only a few instruments because the chamber music environment is only a few instruments. That could be one, two, five or six of live instruments, so it doesn’t take that long to put together.

The composition time is for me pretty quick. It didn’t take that long to actually compose the tracks for this. And then of course most of the the other work in the preparation is not production. That’s basically… I think I’ve answered your question.

D.A.: No, absolutely. That’s great. You’ve already mentioned a few artists and composers but who are you specifically influenced by?

Steven: The entire classical world of… the 300 or 400 years of music and cuts and study has always had a great influence on my work. This is a thing as a favorite composer. I think what would make sense is to be able to say I love Bach from the Baroque era. I love Beethoven and you know. And Haydn and Mozart from their years.

I think it’s more about… It’s really time specific in that when we roll forward to the 20th century, composers that had a great deal of influence on me were the music of Béla Bartók. To some extent Stravinsky, and a great composer that is not really well known, Karol with a K-A-R-O-L, Rathaus, R-a-t-h-a-u-s, who was kind of the Polish Chopin of the 20th century who died in 1955.

He and his music and his teachers, which go back to Bach, I’m sorry not Bach but Brahms and Fuchs and later Schreker and Vienna were firmly based in traditional techniques that go back to Haydn and Mozart.

And then, rolling forward Rathaus was the teacher at Queens College in New York, from whom three of some of the most talented composers of the 20th century emerged. Those were Gabriel Fontrier, Sol Berkowitz, Leo Kraft all of whom I studied with. So that’s kind of my lineage.

Now, when you kind of look at the flip side of that, David, and what were the influences in the 20th or really the 21st century but from the commercial world, I think there were far fewer of those. I mean you could look at the film music of composers of the 30s and 40s that went forward but they really weren’t that influential because most of the film music really has as its origination point, the influence of the classical composers.

It’s funny because many have said my orchestral music sounds like film music but the reality is which came first? The chicken or the egg? The film music really came from a broad world of classical music and all the lessons are several hundred years. So, I didn’t have any one real specific influence that stands out over the rest 20 or 30 years that influenced the formulation and composition, production of this album to the detriment of any other composers of the last 20 or 30 years.

So, it’s really not one. It’s really the basket of styles and how they’re applied.

D.A.: Oh yeah, I can relate to that for sure. As a guitarist I started out liking a lot of classic rock and blues and then eventually went on to learn jazz and funk and adopted many different styles from many different guitarists along the way so I think that’s how…

Steven: Well, let’s be realistic. Here’s a confession. When I played the guitar when I was 13 or 14 years old, 13-year-old boy, I was picking the licks off of Eric Clapton of Cream, you know all those because my ear was pretty good. I would be able to hear them play it back and fairly short order and accurately while I was also studying pop, trailers and fugues. So, the combination.

It was pretty good. I live in the modern world like everybody else. I hear and play everything that everyone else does. I’m influenced by all of those, all those composers but all of the really good ones were influenced by the composers that I studied with or studied in depth for my entire life. It’s really the other way around. They were influenced by the greats. The greats didn’t influenced them.

D.A.: Yeah, great point.

Steven: So, like in addition. If you look at Elton John and Billy Joel, great songwriters… Paul Simon and others, and James Taylor and others that came forward through those years, you would see that most of the kind of the songwriting techniques of those composers, which is the ones that just come to mind now in our conversation, really were derived from Schubert and Schumann.

Robert Schumann and other great 19th century composers. Those were the ones that the contemporary composers, the troubadours of the last 20 or 30 years learned from. If you dig deep into what they were doing in the 19th century, easily accessible tune full of beautifully structured masterpieces of song literature. Those are the ones that had the influence on the troubadours of the last 20, 30 years. That’s where it all came from.

D.A.: Wow! Yeah. That’s amazing. So, I’m wondering. You have all these influences. Is there a specific way you approach composition in making music?

Steven: That’s a really, really interesting question. One of the things that I’ve noted is that there are umpteen number of books at schools, conservatory or universities used throughout the world on composition. What they all have in common is the use, or manipulated use, depending on the century that they’re focused on, in those composition books of harmony.

Now, I will say that the use of harmony… Harmony is a compositional element, but it’s not a compositional technique.

So, when you take out harmony and counterpoint,  which are elements of composition, and you strip them out of these books or conservatory chorus and composition, you find that there’s really nothing left.

The art of composition technique, the foundation for it is a specific set of… around eight or 10 techniques, which enable one to compose and more importantly edit your own work.

The young people today, the film composers, the songwriters are really very weak in their ability to edit. They play the same thing over and over again it doesn’t get better. It’s sort of like hitting the golf ball a thousand times. You could do it wrong a thousand times but if you hit 50 golf balls really, really well and you can focus on one or more elements of your technique you’ll get better.

The same thing goes for composition. The key to being a really good composer, I think is A) understanding what composition technique is as distinguished from and be completely different than harmony and some of the other counterpoint elements. And most importantly 2) being able to edit your work quickly and effectively and make it better.

What I see from the many media composers that I know around the US particularly in New York and Los Angeles, composers in the classical world that are competing for these symphonic commissions, the men or the women, it’s not a gender issue at all. This is about the technique is that many of them have not had the opportunity to study with really wonderful composers that will teach them the compositional techniques, which almost seem secret in nature but are very specific and clear and evident and how to edit their work.

I don’t see composers today as having strong editing skills. You must be able to edit your own work. If you look at for example the book publishing world if you write a book and you finish your book, you go to a publisher and say “Please publish my book.” What does the publisher do? He says “All right. Here’s the contract. Now, go down the hall, we have 30 editors here, we’re going to edit your book.”

You must be able to edit your own work. Share on X

D.A.: Yes.

Steven: Why is that? Yeah. Now if you said that to a composer, let’s go edit your composition they were turning all sorts of colors. Jump out the window and rip up your contract for publishing but they need editing. Why would they not need editing in the same way that a great creative book writer or author, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, would also need some editing? You’ve got to be able to edit or have somebody do it for you.

This is the biggest failing of composition in the US and throughout the world in any genre or style or application. Be it jazz, or classical, or songwriting, or hip-hop, or film, or short film, or TV. The inability to edit, understand the techniques at how to make it better, this is the thing that’s missing.

A lot of what I do not only in my own work where my editing skills are pretty good at this point, I can fix what I have fairly quickly but I try to help others as I meet them. If they’re open to learning to learn the better skills of the craft of musical composition and how to edit their own work. Got to be able to sustain yourself and make it better. Otherwise you’re playing golf, you’re hitting a thousand balls in the same wrong way and your swing will not improve nor will your composition.

D.A.: Right. So, editing is key. I got that. Is there a specific message you’re looking to share with our audience through your music?

Steven: There are two kinds of messages. One is the message of kind of “Oh, I write music from the heart. I’m trying to express myself.” And you know all of these kind of hoo-ha kinds of things that people say to achieve these dreamy states and seem like they’re heavenly in their approach.

I assume that everybody that writes music wants to do the best that they can and express themselves. I think that’s a given throughout.

Everybody that writes music wants to do the best that they can and express themselves. Share on X

So, let’s just say that you’re trying to do that. It doesn’t make what you say or do any more or less special than anyone else.

But what I’m trying to achieve is twofold on the message. If you have a talent but you wrap it up in technique and you learn your craft, that message, the personal human touch will come out and will be communicated so that whatever messages there are emotionally that a composer wants to convey will reach their destination. They will touch other human beings in a deep and significant way and across large geographic, geopolitical, and other territorial issues. People from all walks of life will enjoy and hear the music for whatever it is.

My goals include bringing great music back to the world again, making music really, really great for everyone to raise the level of music that’s written without making it out of… not becoming out of reach of the public like Mozart would have done I believe in the 21st century. He would have written beautifully crafted elegant music that was tuneful and easily accessible. Probably film scores and symphonies and songs of great commercial appeal and kind of raise the bar to bring greater joy to a greater public to hear music and to access music by me and others, interest them significantly and bears repeated listening.

Second is to help composers who want to be helped and to learn how to reach those audiences and similar goals in whatever manner of expression that they elect to utilize in their work in their craft.

I’ll leave you with this thought: People say you know what’s a great song or a great piece or great symphony all about? What I say is “Well, it’s sort of like a cake mix.” Here are the elements if everything adds up to 100%. 10% of a great piece is inspiration. 89% is craft, and 1% is the hand of God or whatever you believe in.

10% of a great piece is inspiration. 89% is craft, and 1% is the hand of God. Share on X

If all you have is great ideas and inspiration but you don’t know how to craft it and edit it, you’re missing 89% of what a great piece would be. You’re not going to get there except occasionally and by luck because you’ve written some great songs or piece or musical film or something like that or a queue but you’re not going to be able to do it consistently.

So, if you follow that recipe and you learn how to make all of the elements of that piece together the inspiration, the craft, and of course a little bit of luck or the hand of God, you will more consistently hit your mark and write better and more beautiful music and bring more joy to the world. That’s the goal.

That’s what I’m doing in this album and hopefully the world will tell me whether I’m right or wrong or something in between. I listen to the reactions of others and hear what people say and how they are moved or not moved. And then continue on to take this music and either apply it to other genres like film or TV or whoever asked me to do whatever. Back to the concert hall or commercial songs or you know whatever comes my way or simply write… produce another album and go further. So those kind of the goals and where this album fits into the plan.

D.A.: Great. And I think we’ve gotten a pretty good sense of this but is there anything else specifically you’re envisioning for the future? Do have any specific plans moving forward?

Steven: Well, I’m going to roll this one out for a while. I mean I could actually produce one of these a month because I write fairly quickly and edit, produce fairly quickly. It doesn’t really take me that long but the market can’t absorb in the commercial senses as many albums that I can produce that are fairly high-quality level.

So, while this is rolling out. I have a very busy, more serious compositional life. This year I wrote two symphonies, this album, two large works for choir, one a cappella and one with organ. Now, I’m writing some art songs for male voice and piano, which is kind of the #MeToo movement but for men. Songs for the Evolved Man is what I’m calling this suite of art songs to show that there are men that are evolved also. Making some fun looking at the literature at homes from Shakespeare on up to the present time for and about men that had evolved in a positive way as human beings. So, I’m looking at that. Always looking at new projects in the classical world to compose and add to the joy. That’s this year.

D.A.: Wow!

Steven: I write about two and a half hours of music a year in the classical world for a variety of instrumental choral configurations. Plus, I’ll probably do an album or two a year of this kind of thing and anything else that comes my way as a result of the reaction in the media world.

D.A.: That’s fantastic. I’ll definitely keep an eye on what you’re up to. Thank you so much for your time and generosity, Steve. Is there anything else I should have asked?

Steven: Oh, my favorite flavor of ice cream.

D.A.: What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?

Steven: It’s a tie for first place. It’s generally chocolate but if I have a good coffee ice cream, I’m in heaven. So, there you have my secret.

D.A.: Awesome!

Steven: So, if you bring me a couple of pints of ice cream with chocolate and coffee combined, I’ll write you a symphony and a string quartet.

D.A.: Wonderful! So, yeah. Now our guests know what to bring you. Perfect. All right. Really appreciate it.

Steven: I’m an easy mark. So, thank you David. Thanks for letting me be on your show.

D.A.: Yeah, thanks again. It has been a great conversation.

Steven: Have a great day. Thanks for the opportunity.

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