Robert Paterson (born April 29, 1970) is an Americancomposer of contemporary classical music, as well as a conductor and percussionist. His catalog includes over 100 compositions. He has been called a "modern day master" and is primarily known for his colorful orchestral works, large body of chamber music and clear vocal writing in his operas, choral works, vocal chamber works and song cycles.
Paterson was born on the West Side of Buffalo, New York. He is the son of Tony Paterson, an award-winning sculptor who was Professor of Sculpture at the University at Buffalo, and Eleanor Paterson, a painter and bilingual education director at Erie Community College who received her Ph.D. in bilingual education from the University at Buffalo. Although Paterson was surrounded by sculptors and painters while growing up, his father enjoyed contemporary classical music and took him to new-music concerts at the University at Buffalo, where he heard works by Morton Feldman and John Cage, with both composers in attendance. Paterson "grew up in a home where his parents – a sculptor and a painter – always listened to music." He has one brother, David Paterson, who is also a musician and teaches in the New York City public schools.
Paterson began composing on his own at age 13 and studied composition privately for two years with William Ortiz-Alvarado from 1984-86. He also took private percussion lessons at age 12 and attended the Interlochen Center for the Arts for two summers, in 1982 and 1983. He attended the Nichols School in eighth grade and middle school and high school at the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, where he performed in the wind ensemble, jazz band and various choirs, and also played on the tennis team. He also studied percussion with various teachers in the greater Buffalo area, including Lynn Harbold (former principal percussionist with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra), Jack Brennan (former assistant timpanist with the Buffalo Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, timpanist with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra), David DePeters (currently percussionist and Executive Director, Iris Orchestra), Anthony Miranda and John Bacon, as well as piano with Claudia Hoca (pianist for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra) and Edmund Gordanier. While a high school student, Paterson also attended the Boston University Tanglewood Institute for two summers where he studied percussion with members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, including Arthur Press, Charlie Smith and Tom Gauger, and also performed in the BUTI Orchestra under Eiji Oue and guest conductor Leonard Bernstein.
As a conductor, Paterson has conducted the American Modern Ensemble since it was founded in 2005, and has also conducted the Society for New Music ensemble and Atlantic Music Festival Contemporary Ensemble. As a percussionist, Paterson spent many years developing a six-mallet technique based on the Burton grip. He developed this technique while studying with John Beck at the Eastman School of Music, where he presented the world's first all six-mallet marimba recital. As well as composing his own six-mallet works, he has "been instrumental in the commissioning of six-mallet works for solo marimba" and has to date, written fourteen works using a six-mallet technique (extended technique) he developed. His recording Six Mallet Marimba is the first all six-mallet marimba album ever released, and contains many of Paterson's six-mallet marimba compositions. Paterson performs on a five-octave marimba made by Doug DeMorrow.
In 2016 Paterson the Director of the Composition Program at the Atlantic Music Festival and he taught there from 2012-2017. He is currently the Artistic Director of the Mostly Modern Festival. Paterson has taught at Cornell University, Sarah Lawrence College, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Bronx Community College, The Walden School, Point Counterpoint (New Music on The Point) and the Rocky Ridge Music Center, where he was also Composer-In-Residence from 2012–14, and was a visiting composer in 2015.
Paterson's music is influenced by nature (particularly the classical elements), and many of his works have ecological themes, such as "A New Eaarth" and "Embracing The Wind". His works are also inspired by rock and roll (such as "Ghost Theater" which quotes the John Bonham drumset part from When the Levee Breaks by Led Zeppelin and "Hell's Kitchen"), jazz (the last movement from "Symphony in Three Movements" and "Thursday"), world music ("The Book of Goddesses") and Indian music (the third movement of "Sun Trio").
Stylistically, although many of Paterson's works are atonal, a large selection of Paterson's works are tonal, combining major and minor scales and modes with chromaticism, Octatonic scales, Blues scales, Tone rows, artificial scales and scales from non-Western cultures, such as his use of the Indonesian Pelog scale in his work "Quintus". Some of his works derive their material from chromatically saturated harmonic patterns that combine chords, melodies and motivic ideas that complete the chromatic scale within given sections of works. Formally, some of Paterson's works are highly episodic, such as his "Sextet" and "Hell's Kitchen", while others are more seamless, such as "Dark Mountains" for orchestra, "A Dream Within A Dream" for a cappella choir or "Deep Blue Ocean" for two pianos.
Paterson's music is generally very colorful, and he incorporates extended techniques in many of his works, such as "Scorpion Tales" for two harps, "The Book of Goddesses" for flute, harp and percussion, "Komodo" and "Piranha" for solo marimba and "Eating Variations" for baritone and chamber ensemble. He also occasionally uses found objects, such as in his work "Hell's Kitchen" which calls for kitchen utensils, pots and pans, and even a kitchen sink.
Many of his works also use bell sounds, and Paterson has said, "I am fascinated with resonance, and how notes ring. I also like bell sounds, and often ask non-percussionists to play cup gongs (temple bowls or Tibetan bowls), finger cymbals and other hand-held percussion instruments", such as "The Thin Ice of Your Fragile Mind", which calls for many of the performers to use graduated finger cymbals and Tingshas, "Eating Variations" which calls for specifically-pitched singing bowls, and "A New Eaarth," which calls for non-percussionists (such as one of the flute players) to use specifically-tuned wind chimes.
Many of Paterson's works are programmatic, such as "Electric Lines" for orchestra, "Crimson Earth" for symphonic band and "Sextet" for chamber ensemble. Themes that have inspired Paterson have included famous icons such as Thomas Edison (for his work "Sonata for Bassoon and Piano") and Mike Piazza (in his song cycle "Batter's Box", formerly titled "Stepping Into The Batter's Box, He Hears His Father's Voice"), while other works are inspired by famous paintings ("Closet Full of Demons" for sinfonietta, inspired by The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, "Crimson Earth", inspired by The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder) and the third movement of his "Wind Quintet", inspired by Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Memory.
Although many of Paterson's works are serious or at least musically abstract in nature, a selection of his works incorporate humorous elements, such as his chamber vocal song cycles "Batter's Box" and "CAPTCHA", and his choral works "The Essence of Gravity" and "Did You Hear." Regarding humor in his own music, Paterson has said, “Of all of the aspects of writing that seem to intrigue people regarding my work, my embracing humor is probably the most contentious: some people like, it, some do not. Many composers admit that they do not care to write ‘funny’ music. It seems as if they think they are in danger of being considered trivial or not serious if they embrace humor."
Paterson has spent a good part of his career composing vocal works. Although he has set numerous poems by poets such as Wallace Stevens and Robert Creeley, he has also set a myriad of diverse, alternative texts, such as fictitious answering machine messages ("Thursday" for soprano and piano), onomatopoeia words ("The Essence of Gravity" for a cappella choir), and even nursery rhymes ("Life is But a Dream" for a cappella choir). One of these works, "CAPTCHA" for baritone and piano, "...derives its lyrics from the two-word answers to reCAPTCHA puzzles. The lyrics are a combination of words, numbers and fragments of words and nonsense."
Within his vocal output, one of his primary works is the climate change inspired "A New Eaarth" for orchestra, chorus and narrator, commissioned by the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association, and inspired by Eaarth by Bill McKibben, who narrated at the premiere. Described by the press as "an amazingly colorful tone poem", "A New Eaarth" consists of alternating sections of pure orchestral music, narration, and sections for orchestra and chorus (these excerpted choral movements also exist as a work for a choir and piano entitled "Suite from A New Eaarth"). The work addresses climate change and is divided into four main sections, each section centered on one of the four classical elements and how they relate to environmental disasters such as flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes and forest fires, all thought to be exacerbated by climate change. The text for this work consists of narrative text by Paterson based on statements and statistics in McKibben's book, as well as poems by Wendell Berry, James Joyce, Percy Bysshe Shelly and William Wordsworth and well-known quotes and aphorisms.
Selected Awards and Recognition
(2014) Utah Arts Festival Composition Competition
(2013) The Companion, one-act opera from Three Way, selected from a national call for scores for Fort Worth Opera Frontiers program
^Jones, Timothy, A Survey of Artists and Literature Employing Extended Multiple Mallets in Keyboard Percussion; Its Evolution, Resulting Techniques and Pedagogical Guide, Doctoral Dissertation, College of Fine Arts, Graduate College, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, August 2003, p. 15.