Composer Quentin Herman
Com­poser Quentin Herman

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.”