Will this become a book?
I have always been interested in many things – the arts, history, travel, social concerns, cultural differences, and to a somewhat lesser degree, religion. Mostly, though, I’d say it’s a love of history and the arts that has influenced me the greatest. In the arts, I’ve been drawn towards literature, drama, film, architecture, painting, sculptor as well as music. I’ve always been fascinated with words and notes, drawn towards the creative aspects of both.
My earliest memories seem to be dominated by musical influences when I was young, even before I even felt drawn towards it myself. My memories as a child (as with most people I think) are vague, but I remember clearly enjoying listening to my parent’s records – my mother liked Gene Autry so I listened to those; my father liked Dean Martin & I remember him bringing home Dean Martin records, but mostly they both liked the swing bands – Glenn Miller and Frank Sinatra.
My parents also liked the latest pop music so I remember listening to Elvis, Chuck Berry, Ben E. King, The Four Seasons, and others. They also felt that I and my brothers should be exposed to learning music so they bought a piano and made each of us take some piano lessons. That may have been what started me leaning in that direction, though I recall trying to write some short stories when I was maybe 10-12 years old. I enjoyed music, but never could figure out the piano very well. School had a good band program that was free so I decided to give that a try and learned the clarinet. I developed an interest in the orchestra – especially Tchaikovsky and Beethoven.
The turning point in my life, though, was probably February 1964 when the Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan Show. The next day I insisted on learning the guitar which became my main instrument – both with the popular music and with classical guitar studies. I started writing my own songs. Somehow, I developed an interest in country music as well, though being from New Jersey, country music definitely wasn’t a very commonly encountered musical style.
By the time I graduated college with a Music Education degree [in 1972], I was determined to be a country singer/songwriter, though was still very much drawn toward the orchestra world. Music became more and more the dominant element in my life, but I was still very drawn towards history, words, and the other arts.
In 1982 I toured the Western United States with a country-rock trio [1981-83] as a singer and guitarist. I played nights and studied for my comprehensive exams [which exams?] during the day. While at Iowa I also met some amateur musicians who were really computer programmers and I developed an interest in computers – though at the time it all seemed pretty advance and complicated to me.
By the late 70s, I had drifted around too much so went to graduate school at the Uni of Iowa for my MA in Musicology [grad 1989]. While there, I studied a lot of music (theory, composition, conducting, & history) but continued to play guitar with friends earning money in the clubs.
So, I returned to New Jersey in 1988 and throughout the 90s, I pursued adjunct professor work, continued some guitar playing, and became involved with several early music groups. More significantly, perhaps, I made music just an avocation and made my living working in the computer world – first at a bank, then with a computer developer, and finally with a design firm.
I had an affinity for software integration and manipulation and basic programming and with some of the work I combined my love of words (I did a lot of the writing) and music (incorporating music into computer presentations and such) and creative yearning working on projects involving words, music, images, and ideas.
Meantime, I also worked teaching in colleges and adult education programs as well as becoming a leader in several early music ensembles. At one college (Sussex County Community College) my job involved teaching music history (I was a musicologist after all) but had to also conduct the chorus. I admit I was a little intimidated as my conducting experience was limited. But, it was like I had discovered who I really was, the part of me I felt I’d been searching for but hadn’t any idea was it. In 1996, I founded The Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey, at the time called The Baroque Orchestra of Boonton where I collaborated with the Darress Theatre.
When Temel, the design firm, closed in 1999 I decided to go back to what I most loved – music, the arts, history, words, creativity, and being part of the world in a more active involved way. Since then, I have composed, conducted, and taught both in college/university settings and in many many adult education programs.
As a songwriter, I’ve always also written my own lyrics. I have set some art songs to other’s poems - most notably a set of Elizabethan era poems and a recent setting of two poems of Phyllis Wheatley. For the most part, however, I’ve written my own librettos to my musical drama works as well, with the single exception of Mark Twain and the General, a short opera about Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain.
Composed by Robert W. Butts in 2019; Soon as the Sun / Attend My Lays (words by Wheatley); Timothy Maureen Cole (soprano) & John Pivarnik (piano). Performed at Treasures from the Vault, collaborative concert with Morristown National Historical Park & Morris County Tourism Bureau, 19 Oct 2019 at Washington's Headquarters Museum Auditorium, Morristown, New Jersey
For me, it is who I am. I know that composing and performing are vital to who I am – regardless of whether anybody else listens.
How I know it helps others is more wide-ranging. I know the way I approach working with young artists helps them develop their careers not just through opportunities but by developing their confidence and by helping them explore the vast potential of so many possibilities in repertoire, performance situations, opportunities, collaborations, etc.
I have long believed my music helps others in the community because of the response from so many who listen to my talks or hear my performances. Mostly, these responses are typical congratulations and/or “wow that was terrific.”
But, I have also had patrons – especially older patrons – tell me my concerts or classes are one of the things that keep them going. I have touched people very deeply and realise it’s because of the music I play and share – whether it be classical or pop.
I remember about 5 years ago, I conducted a performance of Puccini’s La Boheme. Before the opera began, a woman came to the pit and said “hello” and introduced me to her mother who was suffering from dementia but had long been an opera fan so this was her treat to get out and hear a live opera. At the intermission, the woman came down crying because halfway though Act 1, her mother suddenly started talking about the characters and the plot and how good this singer was and how much she enjoyed the sound of the opera – as if the music was able to pull her mind at least temporarily back to normal.
I also recently did a course on Music in the 1960s and had an elderly gentleman come up to me when it was over and tearfully thanked me for providing him with the a treat that was especially valued in a life spent mostly in a retirement facility. I had an older cellist who played with my orchestra for about 12 years but has since had to retire due to health issues (he is now 89). He wrote me a letter to tell me he adjusted everything else in his life so he was sure to be able to make all my rehearsals and performances.
George Frederic Handel - Water Music Selections (Overture, Bouree, Hornpipe, Sarabande, Rigadon) - Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey - Robert W. Butts, conductor, 14 April 2019 @ Dolan Hall, The College of Saint Elizabeth, Morristown, New Jersey / Brian Foran - Recording Director
Another composer I interviewed earlier this year said "Others, by contrast, look backwards and embrace worn out concepts such as tonality. I have no time for this at all, since all that can be said with functional harmony has been said — and that has been true for quite some time now. This is not to say that music has to sound ‘dissonant’ but, for me, it does have to seek out new material and appropriate ways of structuring it." How do you feel about tonality?
A lot depends on how one defines "tonality." If in the strictest most academic terms, then it can be limiting. However, basic tonality - being in a key, tonic/dominant relationships, etc remain the prominent structure for much popular music. I think that whatever underlying structure one chooses, the final result will depend on what the composer or songwriter has to musically say. One can still be amazingly creative and effective within the strictest confines of theoretical tonality. At the same time, one can be amazingly dull, predictable and boring if the whole creative basis is built on an idea of tonal structure.
My music is essentially "tonal" in the sense that there is something resembling a home key. Even when my music becomes essentially atonal in the strictly defined sense, I maintain a sense of having a structure that involves moving away from and towards and in relation to a base, whether that be a chord, a sound (such as a tone cluster), a note, or a full-fledged tonic harmonic center.
I also tend to compose in a sort of tonal-modal fashion, using harmonies that are not necessarily tonal in the strict sense but still move in a tonal way sort of. For example, I like a progression that chordally goes D-C-D-C-D-C-A-D - obviously, we're in the key of D, but the flatted 7th chord is not a usual tonal progression. The A major dominant I might use or might not depending on what I'm musically trying to say.
I tend also to compose with tone clusters as a sort of tonal center. I composed a one-act chamber opera called "Mark Twain and the General" in which melodies, harmonic direction, and overall structural relationships are derived from a tone cluster at the opera's start. Perhaps that's not "tonality" in the strict definition, but is provides me with a "tonality" for a particular piece.
Chamber opera trailer, libretto by Jewel Seehaus-Fisher, music by Robert W. Butts,
I’m not completely sure. The biggest struggle is staying positive all the time in times that are challenging socially as well as with the health crisis. In the arts, alas, there is always the financial struggle. My life & my work are the same – my orchestra is me and I am my orchestra – so the financial struggles are tied to each other.
Finding recognition for classical music in general can be a struggle, but I try to stay optimistic. I often struggle with self-confidence, despite having accomplished a fair amount. Self-image is another thing I frequently struggle with.
A big struggle for me is realising there is so much I’d like to do, so much music I’d like to perform and share, so many wonderful artists I’d love to work with yet realise I can’t ever do it all.
I’ve conducted about 20 Haydn Symphonies, all of which I deeply love. I wish I could do all 104! There is so much music of the 20th century that has been forgotten I’d love to bring back to life.
For example, I recently listened to the work of William Grant Still; wow, was that some great music. I’d love to share all his great orchestral work with musicians and audiences.
My musicology studies were primarily in the music of the 18th century. Much as I love Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, I would love to do so much by other composers as well – Salieri, Wagenseil, Dittersdorf, The Chevalier de Saint Georges, Stamitz, and so many others.
Assuming the health crisis will at some point pass, the biggest struggle for me will remain finding financial support. As a conductor, I’d love to find more opportunities to conduct – I’m especially drawn to Europe and would love to travel, meet artists, and conduct – my works or others. I’ve been fortunate to conduct some in Italy, Romania, and elsewhere and it’s always been the greatest reward. While the financial struggle is most challenging to perform and develop the orchestra, for travel conducting, it’s more about just finding the opportunities.
There have been so many, I’m not sure where to start. There are so many who were and still are so important a part of everything I do – be it as lecturer, conductor, teacher, or composer.
My wife Judy has been there through all the ups and downs.
My family and close friends of course have always been there for me – supporting me even when my ideas might sound a little crazy.
Like when I decided to conduct Wagner’s Ring – nobody with my small orchestra and resources would even attempt a concert version of Die Walkure, Das Rheingold, or Seigfried. But, because I had such terrific personal support, I was able to do it in concert format. Still waiting to do the last opera, but somehow someday I’m sure it will happen.
Soprano Patricia Brady-Danzig was a big help when I started conducting, providing my first international experience conducting in Romania.
Donna Messer, President of the Highland Park Recorder Society, helped me develop my conducting skills and encouraged me to pursue those dreams.
My good friend Jo Ann Bates has served as President of the orchestra since its founding and has always been there – as have other board members Lisa Young, Mike Feula, Tony Shashaty, Tom Loughman and all the others.
Valerie Pineda and Olive Lynch allowed me to develop as an opera conductor.
Emily Thompson created a unique arts group and encouraged me to compose as well as conduct.
Brian Foran has recorded my concerts for over 20 years – serving as collaborative artist.
I have had a large number of musicians who have been part of my work for a long time – some of whom were part of my very first orchestra concert 25 years ago and still perform with the orchestra. Many others have been part of the orchestra for 15-20 years.
I have always been drawn toward technology, drawn to computers while in graduate school. I had a personal computer almost as soon as they were available – starting with an old Commodore. I’d have to say working with computers is almost as much a part of who I am as are the arts. I have done some programming, mostly in Visual Basic, and have always been fascinated by the possibilities of software integration.
I work with various software programs – Finale for my composing, Vegas for video editing, Sound Forge for audio editing, Microsoft Office, and assorted other programs for various purposes. I have developed a skills on using zoom for meetings, lectures, classes, and performances. I have 3 video cameras I use along with Brian Foran’s professional cameras. I have used my phone camera as well for both photo and video work. Through the integration of various software programs, I have created concert videos and music videos as well as text and music projects.
I think social media is a great way to stay connected – personally and professionally. It can get confusing at times trying to determine which approach is best and understanding the advantages of each. The opportunity to communicate directly and quickly is satisfying and important.
I mostly use social media professionally, but also to stay connected and provide information to friends. For example, I had bypass surgery on the 14th of July. It all went well and I was home within a week. Through Facebook, I was able to let everybody know I was all right and that the surgery was highly successful. I also felt it provided a great opportunity for me to publicly express my gratitude to everybody at Morristown Medical Center in Morristown, New Jersey.
I primarily use social media to share as well as promote my work as a composer, conductor, and educator. I also use social media to share and promote the work of my ensemble, The Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey, as well as the work of colleagues, friends, and organisations. I feel it is very important to collaborate as much as possible.
Social media is a great way to celebrate and share the work I and my orchestra does with others, musical to be sure, but also groups like Morristown National Historical Park, Morris Tourism, The Madison Area YMCA, The Loyola Jesuit Center, The Madison Community Arts Center, Grace Church, Morris Arts, The New York Classical Music Society, Keys 2 Success, Madison Downtown Development, Madison Rotary, and so many others.
The main social media outlet I use is Facebook. It enables me to share videos and photos as well as stories and news. It also enables me to create online events, promote in person events, share the work of friends and colleagues. All in a direct, quick, and fun way. I use Instagram as well for many of the same reasons. I use LinkedIn to share similar information but more along professional lines – for example to promote my work or to make professional connections and discover/promote professional opportunities. I use Facebook and Instagram several times a day.
The most obvious way of course is I haven’t been able to physically be in touch with colleagues, friends, and listeners. However, I have tried to NOT let it hold me back and tried not to let it get me down or depressed, though sometimes I admit it’s been hard not to. Creatively, I decided to embrace technology as much as possible to try to explore alternative possibilities – for my music, my art, for the community.
I have used the time to review and archive my work – computer files, videos, audio files, scores, etc. I have explored the possibilities of teaching and lecturing using zoom and as mentioned above have developed a talk show and virtual approach to concerts. I have also composed several works. One of these is a work for Violin Trio (composed for the ensemble that performed at the Virtual Festival).
On top of the Covid Crisis, I underwent double bypass surgery in July – just before Brian started recording the artists for the festival!
I began composing this work while recovering in the hospital. I wanted to compose 3 movements that reflected my feelings and emotions but in a positive way.
In the first movement, I tried to express my wonder at life, how between the world health scare and my heart surgery, I was more aware of how beautiful a day can be or how wonderful so much in life is. I guess in some sense this was inspired by technology – the fact that 3 days after major surgery, I could still be in touch with people and even arrange work (the festival schedule) while in the hospital through my phone!
The second movement I call “Friends.” It’s not about anybody specific, but more about how important friends are – whether close by or distant, whether in touch now or not, and the wonderful cards and emails and texts I received. It’s reflective – not sad or anything, yet with a touch of gratitude for friends now and memory of those who have gone.
The 3rd movement I simply call “Tomorrow.” I wanted to express a feeling that tomorrow will be better, tomorrow we will move forward whatever the circumstances.
Bach, Bagels, and Bob - 3rd October 2020 - Host Maestro Robert W. Butts, sponsored by The Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey; Special guests BONJ Young Artists - pianist Nicolas Gritz & soprano Theresa Carlomagno.
In order to stay in touch with orchestra musicians and patrons, I used Zoom to create a talk show. The first episode was a chance for patrons to meet and discuss music, the orchestra, life, and moving forward with me as the conductor and members of the Board of Directors. It proved successful so I’ve since scheduled 6 more – each featuring different guests either members of the orchestra or guest artists.
I and my orchestra have presented a summer music festival every August starting in 2015. When it became obvious there’d be no live concerts, I had an idea to present a virtual festival. In collaboration with The Madison Community Arts Center, Brian Foran (recording engineer) video-recorded mostly solo artists playing 20-25 minute recitals with a 3-camera shoot.
I then edited the tracks into individual recitals then created concerts using 2 or 3 artists and recorded myself providing introductory comments. We featured solo double bass, solo snare drum, two solo cellists, 3 solo pianists, a soprano with piano and a baritone with piano, and a string trio. The musicians played music from the Baroque through the modern eras, including the World Premieres of my compositions “Three Movements for Bass” (for double bass) and “Canti di Venezia” (for classical guitar).
I had co-composed a set of Variations on Simple Gifts last Fall that was to be premiered by my orchestra along with young (ages 5-12) artists from Newark, New Jersey. The organization is called “Keys 2 Success” and they provide music instruction and inspiration to these kids who otherwise would have no way to develop their skills.
When it was obvious we were not going to perform in the spring or summer, Jee-Hoon Krska (the Director) and I decided we could create a virtual premiere. The music was composed such that my orchestra musicians would enjoy playing but at the same time the young pianists would be able to play their parts. The youngsters recorded at home individually and my musicians did the same then we put everything together in a landmark music performance video.
How do you help the musicians you conduct to become better musicians?
What's the connection between computer programming & music making?
Prior to 2016, when was the last time La Giuditta was performed?
How do your conducting and composing inform each other?
What was it about country music that appealed to you?
When was the last time you played guitar?
Why did you wait so long to do a doctorate?
Could you tell us about your conducting style?
What is your role as a conductor?
When can I read your book?