Northern State University orchestra director Robert Vodnoy said composer Michael Schelle “enjoys life more than just about anybody I know.”
That looseness translates into his music.
At the NSU Band Clinic Wednesday, the Northern State Symphonic Band performed the South Dakota premiere of Schelle’s “Extraction on No. 9.” At the end of the piece, the percussion section held up electric drills, which were turned on.
Only those with excellent hearing actually heard the drills, but Schelle likes the visual effect of “seeing guys holding up drills,” which symbolizes the drilling of teeth.
“Extraction on No. 9” is a followup to Schelle’s earlier work, “Extraction on No. 8.” The pieces each refer to teeth lost in a basketball accident by his son, Paddy, in 2003. According to the program, the relentless sound of the piccolo is meant to duplicate the whir of the dental drill.
A five-day composer residency brought Schelle and his wife, Miho Sasaki, to Aberdeen. That residency, which started Tuesday, concludes tonight with an Aberdeen University/Civic Symphony concert, beginning at 7:30 p.m. at the Johnson Fine Arts Center.
During the concert, the University/Civic Symphony will present the South Dakota premiere of “Wright Flight,” a piano concerto written by Schelle. Sasaki, who is also a composer, will be the piano soloist on “Wright Flight,” which was commissioned by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra and premiered in 2003.
Schelle and his wife work at Butler University in Indianapolis. Schelle, who has twice been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in music, is the composer in residence and head of the school’s composition department. Sasaki is a part-time faculty member.
How prominent of a composer is Schelle?
He has twice been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in music.
“Yeah, I’ve been close but no cigar twice,” Schelle said. “I have a new piece this year. It was just premiered in Hartford, a 30-minute piece for orchestra. And I said somebody’s got to nominate this sucker because I think this has a chance to make it up the food chain. I think it’s one of my best works, so we’ll see what happens.”
Vodnoy and Schelle have known each other for more than 20 years. They worked together in the early 1990s, when Vodnoy was conductor of the Northwest Indiana Symphony.
The two men have a common musical ancestor, Vodnoy said.
“We both studied from the same teacher. So we have this shared background and a shared prior project,” he said, adding that it’s nice to get reconnected.
Schelle’s visit is a big deal “because, since I’ve been here, we haven’t had a composer” visit, said Vodnoy, who is in his ninth year at Northern. To create an “opportunity for so many different aspects of the music program and the extended community to interact with a truly creative personality is very validating for me,” Vodnoy said. “It makes me feel like I’m really doing my job.”
The tall, long-haired Schelle has an interesting background. As a high school student in New Jersey, he was captain of the track team and held all-state records in javelin, shot put and hammer for three years.
Schelle was a finalist for a Paris-based international humor in poetry competition. He wrote a book called “The Score: Interviews with Film Composers.” For eight years, he wrote a monthly restaurant review for an Indianapolis weekly.
The thing Schelle says he loves most is composing.
“We need to love what we do first. Van Gogh, as poor as he was and cutting off the ears and everything, when he would get into a canvas, he just loved it. The whole world would go away. That’s the way I get sometimes with my music, and I love that feeling.”
Schelle says he likes getting positive feedback from his wife or son and enjoys audience responses. But he doesn’t need it.