Some composers are best known for an opera or a string quartet, but thanks to YouTube, Marc Mellits has gained widespread recognition for a much more unlikely work: Black, a five-minute duet he originally wrote in 2008 for two bass clarinets. Yes, bass clarinets, those usually overlooked, often in the background instruments.
A video of Mellits’ propulsive, iterative work by Sqwonk, a bass-clarinet duo from San Francisco, has received more than 50,000 views on YouTube. The interest led to transcriptions for an array of other instruments including baritone saxophone and violin. In all, the Chicago-based Mellits estimates that the piece has been performed more than 2,000 times, with several dozen versions of it scattered across YouTube.
Why has Black proved so popular? He suspects in part it has something to do with the work serving as a virtuosic showpiece, especially for student musicians and players auditioning for orchestral posts. “I don’t know, man,” he said. “It’s crazy.”
Another, larger-format work by Mellits, Octet (2010), will be showcased June 1 as part of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW series, which features musicians from the orchestra in contemporary and more intimate works. Also on the program will be famed composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Dichotomie and selections by two avant-garde jazz artists, John Zorn and Chicago native Myra Melford.
Typically, budding composers try to secure a teaching post at a college or university, because it can be tough making a living on commissions alone. But Mellits was discouraged from such a path by celebrated minimalist composer Steve Reich (above, right) shortly before he was to earn his doctorate in 1996 from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
The two had a long conversation about the young composer’s future during 4½-hour car rides back and forth from New York City. Mellits had been asked to drive down and pick up Reich, who met with students at Cornell and took part in a concert of his music. “He kept telling me, ‘When you graduate from this place, don’t go looking for a teaching job right away. Move to New York, start your own group and see what happens.’” And that’s exactly what the young composer did, establishing the Mellits Consort, an amplified group consisting of violin, cello, guitar, marimba and keyboards.
Reich also promised to continue supporting him with copyist work, something Mellits had started doing several years earlier. (A copyist is responsible for creating a finished version of a musical work from the original manuscript, a task that requires an extreme eye for detail and a detailed knowledge of musical theory and notation.) On the recommendation of Jacob Druckman, one of Mellits’ teachers in the graduate program at Yale University, the major music publisher Boosey & Hawkes had called and asked if Mellits would be interested in doing such work for Reich. The firm was particularly interested in having the young composer create a score for Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (1976), which Reich had performed and recorded with a group of musicians but never written down. Mellits painstakingly transcribed the work based on the recording — a project that took two years.
After leaving Cornell in 1996, Mellits devoted himself full time to being a copyist but slowly phased out that work as his composing career began to take off. He received several “big breaks,” including a commission in 2000 from Bang on a Can, the New York City collective that has been a leading catalyst and promoter of new music since 1987. Not only did the group debut Mellits’ work, 5 Machines, it took the piece on tour, gaining the composer much-needed recognition. “All a composer wants to do is get your music in people’s ears, and that’s what the commission did,” he said.
That led to several other major commissions, including Brick, which received its premiere in Carnegie Hall in 2006 from the New York-based Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. “A sincere tribute to the composer’s mother and grandfather,” wrote music critic Jeremy Eichler in the New York Times, “it consists of seven short, vivid movements written for chamber orchestra in a direct and accessible style, a kind of mellifluous minimalism with Neo-Romantic trappings and churning accompaniments that vigorously push out into the open.”
Mellits also had the good fortune of being embraced by the tight-knit classical guitar world, starting with music he wrote for Dominic Frasca, who quickly recommended him to some his colleagues. The composer soon found himself writing for such famed performers as Eliot Fisk and the Brazilian duo Sérgio and Odair Assad. “Guitarists are so starved for repertoire,” Mellits said. “Once they find something they like or find a composer they really like, that’s it, man, you are in and then everyone thinks you are a guitarist.”
Much of the same thing happened in the saxophone community. After he transcribed Black for baritone saxophone, he was asked to write an array of saxophone works, including Frost, Mara’s Lullaby and Tachycardia.
The affinity that guitarists, saxophonists and other instrumentalists feel for Mellits’ music can perhaps be explained by the instrument-focused approach he takes to composition. Before giving any thought to specific notes and rhythms, Mellits likes to concentrate on the particular aural qualities of instruments that will be producing them. He imagines shrinking himself, so that he can walk inside, say, the sound box of a violin and experience its distinctive sound and resonance. “I’m just trying to find a sound world that comes from the instruments themselves,” he said.
Mellits is sometimes termed a post-minimalist, because of the usually iterative nature of his music, which has elements in common with such composers as Reich and Philip Glass. But he never heard the music of those two composers until he was 17 or 18 and had already been composing since he was much younger. “The first time I heard their music, I could not believe how similar it sounded to the music I had been writing already. It freaked me out.” Though he did not receive inspiration from what they were doing, he gained something equally as important. “What it gave me,” he said, “was tremendous confirmation that it was actually OK to do this.”
A look down Mellits’ long list of works reveals his penchant for what he calls “wacky, stupid titles,” such as Electric Sheep, Paranoid Cheese and Tight Sweater Remix. The composer finds the classical world to be a bit stuffy at times, and such clever monikers are meant to inject a little lightness and levity. It also doesn’t hurt, of course, that they can help grab potential listeners’ attention at the same time.
Today, Mellits said, his compositions receive at least 700 performances a year. “I was just lucky,” he said. “It happened by itself.”
After establishing himself as composer, he began thinking some years ago about teaching. When the Syracuse (N.Y.) Symphony, in which Mellits’ wife served as concertmaster, folded in 2011, he realized the time had come to take the plunge. He received two job offers, and decided to accept an assistant professor post with the University of Illinois at Chicago, beginning his duties that fall. Mellits immediately became one of the city’s best-known composers, and he has been warmly welcomed by such locally based new-music groups as eighth blackbird and the Fulcrum Point New Music Project.
Mellits will get a big moment in the local spotlight with the MusicNOW performances of his Octet. The piece has the same the same instrumentation as Mendelssohn’s beloved Octet in E Flat Major, Op. 20 — four violins, two violas and two cellos — and was intended to be a kind of contemporary companion work. Because it was originally written for four members of the Syracuse Symphony and four members of the Syracuse Youth Symphony, four of the parts are slightly more difficult than the others.
Mellits wrote nearly the entire four-movement work during an artist residency at the respected Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada. “I have to tell you that it was an inspiring, incredible place to be,” he said. “I went in the middle of wintertime — frozen, super cold — and they gave this studio with a giant picture window that overlooked the Canadian Rockies. It was pretty incredible. I had never seen anything quite so pristine and beautiful in my life. I worked every single day.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.