Interview






You state in your biographical information that you come from “an extended family of musicians, both professionals and amateurs.” What other family members have been musicians?

Most of them are on my father’s side of the family, the earliest that I’m aware of being John Henry Craton, my great-uncle. Uncle John was a renowned music teacher in northeast Georgia around the turn of the 19th-20th century and was also a prolific hymnist, composing several hundred hymns and religious songs. Music seemed to run in that side of the family. My father’s sister June Craton became a professional musician and singer who made several recordings in the 1950s. Her daughter (my cousin) Barbara Gallagher has continued the tradition, studying at Juilliard and becoming an accomplished pianist and composer. (I often refer to her as the real composer in the family.) Aunt Grace Pascal was a violinist, and though she died when I was very young I am certain it was hearing her play that first sparked a love for the violin in my life. My Uncle Bill Craton was a wonderful baritone who sang mostly in night clubs and similar venues. Another aunt, Lucille Miller, was a respectable pianist and served as a church musician for a number of years. Both my father and mother had beautiful singing voices, though untrained — a talent not handed down to me, unfortunately — and while my dad only played trumpet when he was young (a fact I learned only several years after his death), he could sit down and work out simple things on the piano from a hymnal. My mother’s mother also had musical ability and played piano reasonably well, though never professionally. Whether music is in the genes I have no idea, but my family certainly has a tradition of making music, one way or another.


When did you first decide you wanted to be a musician?

Like most youngsters, I can recall early in life wanting to be a number of different things, but it seems that I also wanted to be a composer almost as far back as I can remember. It was probably a result of hearing my Aunt Grace play the violin that I fell in love with that instrument, but for some reason my parents didn’t let me begin lessons until I was ten. I suppose they feared that I wouldn’t stick with it. There was certainly an understandable reason for that attitude as I had begun piano when I was six and only took lessons for about a year. At the time I really didn’t care much about the piano, but that was the only choice I was offered. Since I didn’t stay with that, my parents likely assumed I would do the same with violin. But after my persistent hounding over the next four years, they finally gave in. I was very fortunate to have been able to study under Robert Barron, a retired concert violinist who had moved to Anniston to conduct the now-defunct Northeast Alabama Symphony Orchestra. When the orchestra folded, he decided to remain in Anniston because he liked the area. He was a wonderful teacher and an exceedingly kind man who exibited great patience with his students.


When did you go back to the piano?

By the time I was twelve I began to understand the need for every musician to have at least a basic knowledge of the keyboard. I actually bought a piano myself from money I had saved up and had a friend loan me the method books he’d used as a child. I went through about six years’ worth of those method books on my own in one summer and then decided I probably should get a real teacher. I began studying piano (and also organ briefly) under Louis Culver. I later continued my piano studies under Ouida Susie Francis in undergrad.


What other instruments do you play?

Today, none. My technique has diminished greatly over the years, due both to neglect and also to a hand injury. When I was younger, though, I played several instruments, most of them quite well if I do say so myself. In addition to violin, piano, and organ, I learned the flute by playing in my high school band and worked my way up to the Mozart and Vivaldi concertos. At Lipscomb [University] I played violin, rebec, soprano recorder, and viola da gamba in their early music consort. I picked up the mandolin sometime in junior high or high school, though my right-hand technique has never been more than barely adequate. I’ve also dabbled with a few other instruments over the years, but those were my main ones.


What was the nature of your hand injury, if you don’t mind my asking?

It’s actually been twofold. Several years ago I had a case of shingles in my neck that affected the dermatones in my right hand. The result was that I have very little feeling in my fingers on that hand. A year after that I was attempting to rescue a stray cat when the unappreciative critter bit me very severely on my right index finger. That resulted in a case of osteomyelitis which permanently disfigured that digit. I guess I should have been angry about that, but I took it as a sign that maybe I should be spending my time composing instead of practicing.


When did you first begin to compose?

I think I first started making childish attempts at composing around age eleven, though I would never dare show you any of those early sketches. The first thing I wrote that actually got performed was a cadenza for the Viotti 23rd Violin Concerto, which I did when I was about fourteen. That was written as a fluke. I was slated to do the Viotti in a recital and wanted to do a cadenza. Dr. Barron told me he’d written a cadenza for it many years ago, and that was what I wanted to play. But he was never able to find it in his files, so I wrote one myself. He evidently thought it was good enough to include on the program, so that’s what I did. Ironically, that cadenza also has since been lost.


What were some of your other early compositions, and what were they like?

What were they like? Very simple, very bad. Sometime around age eleven I wrote the violin part to what I called a “violin concerto,” but as I had no knowledge of harmony at the time it had no accompaniment. Around age fifteen I wrote something called a “concerto for three flutes,” but it was just a typical piece of childish nonsense. The first pieces I wrote that began to have some resemblance to music were composed between by sixteenth and seventeenth year. I did a number of four-part hymns and a set of piano pieces called A Childhood Scrapbook. At eighteen I wrote “I Am Goya” and Six Little Pastorals for piano, as well as the first Apothegm for violin, horn, and trombone. None of them are particularly good, but I suppose they were important in that they showed me things I shouldn’t do musically.


You seem to be interested in opera, having completed two full-length operas to date. What was your inspiration to invest in that genre?

Oddly enough, as a child I used to hate opera. I thought it rather stuffy and silly. But when I was about twelve my brother bought an LP of excerpts from Don Giovanni. I simply fell in love with it. Two other operas that I came to love back then were Die Zauberflüte and Purcell’s The Fairy Queene. When I was thirteen I thought I’d write an opera myself — a silly idea, really. I spent a good deal of time writing a thoroughly absurd libretto (which mercifully has been lost), but then I found that I did not yet have enough knowledge of harmony to compose the score. What few sketches I made were absolutely horrible. Later I discovered the operas of Benjamin Britten and Berg’s Wozzeck which really endeared me to the genre. I developed ideas for a few other operas (some of which I still might like to do someday), but it wasn’t until Dr. Gerald Moore, my theory teacher at Lipscomb, asked me to write a comic opera for the music department there that I did any further work in that medium. That particular opera wasn’t completed till thirty years later, but opera composing remains a high priority with me to this day ... though, in truth, I doubt that I’ll expend much more time on that until I actually get one of the ones I’ve written staged.


What composers have most influenced you in your writing?

That’s hard to say as there have been so many. I really don’t adhere to any one “style,” though I’m sure one could find influences from a variety of sources. Among those who stand out with me as having particular influence are Willem Pijper, Benjamin Britten, Zoltan Kodaly, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Alban Berg, Ton de Leeuw — the list could go on and on. I have been and remain a great admirer of the works of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Stravinsky; and then there are the early composers of the baroque and classical periods. I love Biber, Mondonville, Rameau, Leclair; Schubert, Schumann ... when should I stop?


So who do you consider your favorite composer of all time?

That answer likely would vary, depending on the mood I’m in. I don’t know that I could say honestly I have an all-time favorite, though if pressed I probably would say Schubert. His music is always pleasing, regardless in what frame of mind I find myself. He wasn’t the world’s greatest composer, but his music never fails to please the ear.


Turning to some nuts and bolts, how do you go about composing? How do ideas come to you?

As far as getting ideas for a composition, there is no one way. Sometimes they just pop into my head, but most times I have to let things run through my brain for a few days or weeks before something begins to take shape. Sometimes an idea is proposed to me. For example, while I was in The Netherlands recently I was asked to compose something for the Mariano Duo, a marimba and piano duo. That instrumental combination had never entered my mind before, but after listening to one of their CDs I began to see that the two instruments can complement each other quite well. I formed some ideas in my head and decided on music that would be a dialogue between the two instruments. Out of that came the Sonata Colloquia. Likewise the Concerto for Two Mandolins was suggested by Alex Timmerman. Of course I knew of Vivaldi’s double concerto, but I had never myself given any thought to composing such a work before. After the suggestion, though, the wheels began to turn.


So after you get an idea, what happens? Do you hear the music in your head and then write it down?

Yes and no. I have to hear something first, but usually what ends up being written bears little resemblance to my initial idea. Most times I do not hear an entire movement before I write (and when I do, I never can remember enough of it to get it all written as originally perceived). More often it is just a simple motif or short phrase which, after I write it, then takes off on its own.


Do you ever have writer’s block?

Oh, certainly. I think we all do. Sometimes I’ll get to the middle of a piece and then can’t decide what should happen next. I just listen to what I’ve done over and over until eventually I’ll hear the next phrase. That may be after a few minutes, or it might be days later. Sometimes it means scrapping an entire section and starting afresh. There is always some material left on the “cutting room floor,” as it were.


So do you compose every day?

When I am in what I call my “composing mode,” yes. Once I start work on something in earnest, I generally work on it till I’m done. It is not at all unusual for me to put in many ten-, twelve-, or even fifteen-hour days when I’m heavily engaged in a project. That may go on for weeks or months at a time. But between works I usually take some time off to let the little grey cells relax a bit. It always takes a good deal of time to clean up a score after fleshing it out, and often by the time I’m done with that I am ready to begin my next project. But composing is not like the kind of job you can simply begin any time you wish. If the ideas aren’t there or haven’t concretized in my mind yet, I really can’t do much other than perhaps make a few sketches.


You have been described by some as a prolific composer. Is that an accurate statement?

Perhaps if you view my life over the last few years. Really until my hand injury I only dabbled in composition from time to time. From the time I married in 1978 until around the year 2000, I really did very little composing. As a husband and, eventually, the father of three sons, I just didn’t have the time. But since I decided to make this my main focus about six years ago, I’ve been churning out works with an almost pathological drive. I guess I’m trying to make up for all those years when I produced very little material. The music was always in my head, but getting it on paper was a difficult prospect. I spent most of the late ’80s and ’90s, for instance, working bit by bit on a piano sonata which, in the end, was hardly worth the effort. Composing on a regular basis has changed all that. Today I can turn out a concerto in two to three weeks. I wrote Inanna, a thousand-page score, in twenty weeks. Once ideas start coming, I feel they have to be written.


Do you write out scores by hand? Do you make piano scores first and then orchestrate? How does that work?

I used to do both. But especially since injuring my hand, which has made it very uncomfortable to physically write, I now enter everything directly into the computer using Sibelius. It saves an enormous amount of time, and the end result is actually readable. About the only thing I do with a pencil these days is make short sketches. I almost never make piano scores anymore unless I’m asked for a reduction. I orchestrate as I write.


Where did you learn orchestration?

For that I am essentially self-taught. I never had any formal training in orchestration. To me the thing is how music sounds. If you listen carefully to the works of master orchestrators, you can synthesize the idea of what is possible and what is needed in a particular score. You just hear it. I suppose it’s something like knowing proper grammar without being able to recite all the rules. You learn correct usage by learning what “sounds right.” Of course, I sometimes consult the treatises on orchestration by Forsyth and Rimsky-Korsakov, but as for formal training, I haven’t any.


What would be your advice to someone interested in becoming a composer?

The first thing I would suggest is to listen. Listen to everything, then listen again. Listen intently, but don’t over-analyze. Learn as much theory as you possibly can ... then forget about it. Write music you enjoy hearing, and don’t just write to try to please the critics. Make the music say what you want to say. Perhaps others won’t like it, perhaps they will. If you’re happy with what you’ve done, that is what is important as far as the art itself is concerned. Of course, if no one else likes it, that makes it hard to put food on the table, so always be open to suggestions — but don’t be enslaved by them. And above all, be patient. It usually takes years to achieve even a small degree of recognition. (I typically think of my work as something that will someday benefit my grandchildren’s estate.) Discouragement is part of the game, but don’t give in to it for very long at a time. If you are truly determined to compose, if it’s something you feel you must do regardless of your success or lack thereof, just keep writing notes. And in the meantime, don’t feel bad about your day job.


You have had a number of “day jobs” yourself over the years. What all have you done that was unrelated to music?

It might almost be easier to answer that with what all I haven’t done. I’ve had all kinds of jobs in my lifetime. My father was a master automobile upholsterer, and nearly every summer from the time I was twelve until I was well into college I worked in his shop. I hated it at the time, but looking back I think it was one of the best educations I could have gotten. Too many “professionals” know only their own field. And whether we’re talking about musicians or doctors or lawyers or whatever, anyone limited only to their own area of expertise tends to be a very shallow individual. An artist needs to be able to relate to all people, not just to fellow artists. But getting back to your question, and what has perhaps helped me be able to relate to people on more than a musical level alone, I have worked as a blueprint operator in an architectural firm, as a dorm director in undergrad, as a doorman in a high-rise apartment complex, as a magazine editor, a newspaper feature writer, a minister of education in a church, a carpet cleaner, a bookseller ... you get the idea. And of course professionally I became an audiologist at one time and practiced in that field for several years. Today I teach violin, mandolin, and piano privately — and I compose. Someday perhaps I can spend all my time composing, but for now I still need (and enjoy) teaching. I like the connection with young people who are just beginning their interest in music, and I hope that I may have the same impact on their lives that my many wonderful teachers had on mine in my youth.


You’ve lived in Indiana for over twenty years, yet you consider yourself a Southern composer. Why is that?

I adhere to the old adage, “I am American by birth and Southern by the grace of God.” My entire family has deep roots in the South going back to the early eighteenth century. All my ancestors fought for the Confederacy during the War Between the States (though none owned slaves, making the old myth that the war was fought over slavery pointless). I was born in the South, I grew up in the South, and all my musical training occurred in the South. The fact that I moved north of the Mason-Dixon some time back so my wife could practice medicine in her home town did not make me a Northerner. Despite common misconceptions, the South has a proud history of culture and music, both folk and classical. Did you know, for instance, that the first opera performed in North America took place in Charleston, South Carolina? Music has always been a mainstay of Southern life, and I am proud to be a part of it, despite where I may reside. I am an American composer, but I also am very much a Southern composer. There’s an old saying that you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy. The same is true for anyone born and reared in the South. We’re not all “rednecks.” And we’re definitely not “Yankees” just because we may live in the North. That’s not a mistake we Southerners would take particularly lightly. I may live in Indiana, but when people ask where I’m from I always say that I am originally from Alabama. That’s where my heart is and where it will remain.


You mention in your biography that you are a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. What exactly is that?

The SCV is exactly what it says: male descendants of soldiers who served in the military of the Confederate States of America. I am proud to say that all of my ancestors were loyal to the South during the war of 1861-1865. The SCV is a non-political organization and has no aim other than to promote pride in Southern heritage and to help keep alive all the positive things about our culture. Some people misconstrue it as a racist organization, but nothing could be farther from the truth. There are black as well as white members of the SCV, because there were many blacks, both slave and free, who fought for states’s rights during the war. And very few Southern soldiers were slave owners (none of my ancestors, as far as I have been able to determine, ever owned slaves). Despite what modern histories say, the war was not fought over slavery but over the rights of states to be sovereign and to withdraw themselves from the Union if they so chose. Southern history has been grossly distorted over the years — histories are always written by the victors, you know, and it made the Northern states feel better about what they did by shrouding the whole war in the cloak of such a noble cause as freeing the slaves. But that was not the reason for the conflict, despite what some historians will tell you. The SCV, and other similar organizations, seeks to help set the record straight and try to preserve the good things about the South. Although today most non-Southerners perceive the South as backward and uncultured, the South was really where American culture flourished throughout our nation’s history prior to the war. The Southern ideals of chivalry and honor also are still strong among many of her children, and we seek to embolden the descendants of our heroes to maintain those ideals today, extending courtesy, hospitality, and nobility to all.


What do you see yourself doing twenty years from now?

If I’m still breathing, I hope to be composing. It&rsquos in my blood; it’s what I do. As long as the ideas keep coming and my strength holds out, I intend to continue.


So is composing your life?

I consider it my life’s work, but it’s not my life. I am deeply religious, and my faith is very important to me, as are also my family and friends. Without these I could not do what I do. My wife has been the single most important inspiration to me and my indefatigable supporter through all these years. I don’t want to fail her, my sons, or my many friends. They are what have kept me going, even through the periods when no one seemed to want to perform my music. Any real success I have in life must be credited to their support and encouragement.

Copyright 2006 by John Craton.


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