Quentin Herman started to tinker with music when he was a 5‑year-old beginning piano student. Fast forward 14 years and he can still be found experimenting from the piano bench. The difference? Herman now composes musical works, his most recent of which premiered in Shakespeare in the Arb’s “Macbeth” two weekends ago.
“Quentin has thought hard about what Macbeth means and how to make music that goes with that,” senior Faith Liu, a director of the play, said.
In April, the Arboretum echoed with the product that years of lessons, practice and Herman’s hard work have created. It was through the mischievous habits of a developing musician that Herman’s talent revealed itself early on.
“As a young boy, human nature takes control and you don’t want to practice the way you ought to practice,” Herman said. “You do anything at the piano except what you’re supposed to practice. Instead of playing the music or the scales, I started improvising. If I’d make a mistake, I would prefer my mistake to what the composer wrote, and I’d elaborate on that.”
Showing the signs of a budding composer, Herman said his teachers encouraged his creativity, but pushed him to separate his experiments from his musical foundation.
“When you compose, you also have to have a foundation in basic technique and basic theory,” Herman said. “Music history is also part of that, how it changes over time. If you want to be a real, serious composer, you have to be aware of all those things.”
A music major with an emphasis in composition, Herman’s skill has far surpassed that which his playful improvisation once required.
“I think Quentin has a fantastic melodic gift,” associate professor of composition Matthew Fuerst said. “He has a wonderful sense of harmony and his understanding of the vocabulary of music has grown exceptionally.”
Working to expand Herman’s musical palette and introduce him to the musical techniques of the 21st century, Fuerst said he hopes to maximize Herman’s ability to express. Fuerst has tailored Herman’s composition assignments to strengthen him.
“Every semester, I’ve been really pleased to see the growth that I’ve seen from him, expanding his understanding of what’s possible in terms of musical vocabulary,” Fuerst said.
Herman follows a distinct composition process when it comes time to put his natural talent and hard-earned skills to use. Herman dismissed the stereotype composers often take on: “It’s not like I sit down at a table in isolation and the muse hits me, and I write everything out and it’s just a masterpiece.”
He set the record straight, describing his creative process with familiarity and mastery.
First, the listening: Herman explained that he actively analyses every piece of music that meets his ears, storing bits of music he likes for later use. While composing the music for Shakespeare in the Arb, Herman drew his inspiration from composers such as Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, and Dmitri Shostakovich, attempting to emulate their style. However, he had to restart his composition process twice, after realizing he plagiarized themes.
“It can happen,” Fuerst said. “I think that’s also part of the learning process. When you listen to this stuff, you can’t help but have the music become part of what you’re writing. Part of learning as a good composer is copying and modeling the work of the masters.”
Second, the outline: Herman reaches back to the fragments of music he has saved in the back of his mind to start the composition process, creating a rough picture of what will eventually morph into his final product.
“I sit at a piano, or I just go for a walk, and I start thinking of motifs, melodies, how I want to structure the music, where I want the climax to be, and then try to figure out a formal outline of what I’m going to write,” he said. That happens at a piano, on a walk, eating breakfast or lying in bed, but mostly walking the dog though.”
Knowing he wanted to set the tone for “Macbeth,” Herman began composing music to create a certain atmosphere for the play. He chose to work with brass instruments to ensure the music will be heard in the spacious Arboretum.
“His idea to use all brass works well, given the nature of the arb and the nature of brass instruments,” Liu said.
Third, the sketchbook: With his rough draft in mind, Herman puts his ideas on paper.
“I go to the piano and I sketch those ideas out. That’s when the sketchbook comes in,” Herman said. “Then I go back and take my sketchbook and compare it with the formal ideas, and I start piecing it together. That’s the fun part, getting an idea.”
Finally, the work: With content generated, Herman settles in for the long haul, ready to breathe life into his piece.
“Composition is isolating, lonely, calculating work,” he explained. “You start to figure out how to write something to affect people, but you’re doing it so slowly that it doesn’t effect you. You’re trying to form something that will last seconds, and have an effect on someone, but it takes you hours to construct something and get that desired effect. I have to isolate myself. I don’t do much composing around friends.”
Despite the challenges of composition, Herman hopes to make a career out of composition.
“I would love to write music for film or theater,” Herman said. “With Shakespeare in the Arb, my music has a purpose. It’s crazy how you can bring an idea to life through a melody, you can express something with words, with actors, with images, but there’s that extra sense you can tap into with music.”