Composer Jonathan Bingham: Changing the Course of Classical Music

Composer Jonathan Bingham has been recognized for using electronic and acoustic instrumentation over the last decade.  Bingham is a Donna Milanovich Composer in Residence with the Chicago Philharmonic orchestra and is excited to be visiting Chicago for the first time for this premiere. An accomplished composer, Bingham has completed residencies with the Arapahoe Philharmonic and the Boulder Symphony. In addition, through collaborations with filmmakers, dancers, and painters, he has had work premiered internationally in concert halls, cinemas, galleries, and playhouses.

Jonathan Bingham Chicago DefenderHolding degrees in composition from Howard University and New York University, his most recent project is Cool Story, a platform researching scores and producing recordings of lesser-known music.

Tammy Gibson: What led you to become a composer?

Jonathan Bingham: When I was in high school, I took a class where we would start scoring silent films. Composing was the only activity that kept my interest. I played basketball at one point. Then, for whatever reason, I started shying away from everything else. Scoring silent films in high school led me to try to get into music production and popular music. While I was trying to do that, I found classical music, and I haven’t looked back since.

TG: Do you remember the first piece you composed?

JB: Absolutely. It’s a string quartet called “Diamond,” and it still performs today. Usually, composers don’t let their first pieces get performed. But, I needed it for a concert one time, because I needed to fill up some space. The piece “Diamond” is named after my birthstone month in April.

TG: Which composer has most inspired you?

JB: I have two composers that have inspired me. Irénée Bergé was a French composer. Hearing his music, the thought of quitting music entered my mind because the bar was just too high. I felt it wasn’t the right time to make music, I had a good-paying job, and Irénée Bergé had already done everything. I still study his work. I learn something new from him every time.

Samuel Barber was an American composer. He did things the right way in terms of bringing in the right amount of convention in his music and experimentation. He has a wide-ranging catalog, and I think it is important for every composer to consider if they will be making relevant music. You can’t just have music that sounds like the music of the last century or too far in the future because people won’t relate to it. Barber found a nice balance in the career that he had. The numbers speak for themselves on how successful he was.

TG: What does the life of a composer look like today?

JB: Right now, I got a fellowship in the Bay Area. I will be in San Francisco working on the fellowship. I was given a commission and a space to write. This is a composer’s dream. I will be waking up, getting coffee, and going to compose at a piano. Once in a while, someone would reach out to me to collaborate on a film or pop song. They will give me some work to write some string arrangements or electronic sounds for a film. I will be doing a little bit of traveling.

TG: Is there a collaboration that you are most proud of?

JB: There was one collaboration I did, but it was my project I did a few years ago called “Equation.” It was a concert with a painter that made a painting with my string quartet. We rented a gallery in New York, and it was a lot of fun.

TG: What do you do to keep your creative juices flowing?

JB: The most important thing is to continue listening to music. It doesn’t stop at just classical music. If you want to be a classical composer, especially ten years in the game, you must know another genre. Find one or two artists or two albums from specific artists and do your research. Then, look for books published on that artist and podcast episodes to listen to the artist? It’s essential to learn about different artists and different types of music.

Jonathan Bingham Chicago DefenderTG: How easy or difficult is it for you as an African American composer?

JB: Being a composer, regardless of race, is difficult. The industry does not take much interest or shows a high investment of composers under 40. Seemingly, 40 is the age where people start to talk about you a little bit more. Until then, it’s either continuously applying for schools, fellowships, and scholarships to fund your projects or making your opportunities yourself, which can be difficult. I tell people that I don’t recommend this path unless you feel it’s a calling on your life or find purpose or meaning in being a composer.

If you are graduating from college at 20-25 years old, you have another 10-15 years before things will start to happen for you, potentially. During that time, you have to focus on why you are doing this to continue getting better and developing as a composer.

TG: As a composer, what stage are you at in your career right now?

JB: I’m 32 years old, and I feel that there are some elements in music that I have accomplished. I knew that I wanted to write certain pieces, write for an orchestra, and write for a string quartet when I was in college. I have over ten performances within the last year, which is pretty good. It doesn’t seem like a lot in the classical world at age 32, but I would say it’s pretty good.

Where I am on a scale of things, it’s hard to say. You feel like a rock star at some points, and at other points, you are in your room composing. I’m in a good place right now, and I consider myself lucky.

TG: What projects are you working on now?

JB: I’m working on a project called “Cool Story,” where I’m researching lesser-known music. The first project is looking up composers that have been associated with Howard University, where I studied at. There is a lot of literature in the classical world that went through Howard University and was never published. Unfortunately, some of the sheet music was sitting on these composers’ desks, and when they died, the music sheet was thrown in the garbage. Luckily, some of the scores were found and re-organized. I obtained scores from Mark Fax, who taught composers Dorothy Rudd Moore and Adolphus Hailstork, who were his students at Howard University.

Max Fax hasn’t had many performances, especially his string quartet. I was able to witness, I believe, the premiere of Fax’s string quartet in 2010. Mind you, Fax died in the early 1970s. I was 20 years old when I heard the string quartet, and I loved it. I thought that it needed a premiere somewhere. I was always waiting for someone to come along and publish a recording, and no one did.

In 2018, I created a website and got permission from the Fax family to record the work. I now have the score digitized to give to musicians. I want to put Fax’s music on a platform where the audience of the 21st century can have access to the internet. If I had left it alone, the sheet music would have ended up in a library. How many people go to the library to look up sheet music? That’s why I launched coolstoryrecords.com, where people can listen to music and donate.

TG: What advice would you offer to an aspiring composer?

JB: Don’t pursue being a professional composer if it’s not your calling. There is a lot of time between the time you start and the time you can walk on the world stage and make it a lifestyle. You need to find some meaning and purpose if you want to be a composer.

For more information about Jonathan Bingham, go to www.jonathan-bingham.com and www.coolstoryrecords.com/

Tammy Gibson is a black history traveler and author. Find her on social media @SankofaTravelHr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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