In his five years since arriving at DigiPen, senior lecturer Bruce Stark has experienced something of a personal golden age. In addition to taking off on a new career in teaching, his enduring passion for musical composition is attracting collaborators and admirers from around the campus and beyond.
As one of his most recent accomplishments, the Friends of Today’s Music, part of the Music Teachers Association of California, have commissioned Stark to compose a piece to debut at their annual convention this summer.
The composition, titled Three Dances, is scored for flute, violin, and piano, and will be premiered by student musicians during the convention. Reflecting his long career as a jazz pianist and classical composer, Stark decided to draw on a multitude of traditions for Three Dances, from Baroque to bluegrass.
“It’s a real honor to be recognized for this, both as an educator and composer,” Stark says. “I made a living as a jazz pianist, arranger, and composer for years, but I’ve been really happy since coming here and setting that aside to concentrate on teaching and composing. Teaching enriches you. It clarifies things for you as a composer.”
Stark, a graduate in composition from the Julliard School in New York, didn’t begin his career in music with academia in mind, but that puts him in good company with many DigiPen faculty who come to the school with an abundance of real-world experience on their resumes. Fortunately, he’s no stranger to writing and arranging music for student performers. His compositions have recently been on full display in a series of music videos shared on DigiPen’s YouTube channel.
There has been no shortage of volunteers to perform his work, with a deep pool of both students and faculty available and eager to play. Additional help from around campus came together to record and produce their performances.
“The resources are marvelous here, and working with [Professor] Greg Dixon in the recording studio has been remarkable,” Stark says. “[Senior Lecturer] Chris Mosio came in with equipment and students to help shoot the videos. The editing process with [Program Director] Lawrence Schwedler has been really fun, too. Everything is really well produced.”
The confluence of technological skillsets and interests at DigiPen have made Stark’s work more accessible than ever. In fact, it might be strange to find a self-professed “old-school” guy at such a tech-centered school. But he maintains that the topics he covers in music theory and composition — stressing the fundamentals and structures of melody, harmony, and rhythm — are universal for anyone in the field.
“Music theory applies to everything from writing for the concert stage to scoring film and games, which is why it’s so important that our sound design students start out with this instruction,” Stark says. “Theory helps expand students’ musical vocabularies so they aren’t relying on the same tricks over and over. It gives them more tools and more depth to draw on as they go on into their careers.”
While he isn’t a gamer himself, Stark enjoys being surrounded by those who are passionate about the industry. He also recognizes the vast possibilities that games offer to aspiring music professionals.
“What makes composing for games unique is having to respect the users’ actions and interactions,” Stark says. “The music isn’t always going to be heard linearly, and you have to take that into account. Meanwhile, the great thing about video game music is that there’s no limit to the varieties of genres you might use. Blues, hard rock, gamelan, classical orchestration. Any type of music is welcome, as long as it’s the right fit for the game. There’s also lots of jazz in video games, which makes me really happy.”
Something else that has made Stark happy since arriving at DigiPen is championing new ways to connect with prospective students and the local community. It’s an effort that has resulted in a number of live music performances by DigiPen groups.
“I enjoy my place as the live music guy on the faculty, between leading the Jazz Ensemble, the recitals, and performances,” Stark says. “It’s a great fit for me to be in a place that allows the teachers to play to their strengths.”
It turns out, emphasizing live musicianship isn’t just fun. Performance experience can translate to success in digital sound design, too.
“More and more, we’ve found that the best virtual orchestrators were the ones who had the most experience with real-life instrumentation,” Stark says. “They’re the ones who can most convincingly meet the unconscious expectations of what music should sound like in a game.”
Stark also believes DigiPen’s BA in Music and Sound Design program puts students in a unique position to thrive.
“This place is an amazing hybrid where you can learn both musical fundamentals and musical technology,” he says. “Certainly, you have some schools out there that teach one or the other. But the idea of having both of those under the same roof, plus throwing in the chance to work collaboratively on game design projects, it’s remarkable. I wish in my own education I had been able to learn more about recording, and music technology, and even composition for games and film.”
Old school or not, Stark admits that the technology available to musicians today has even had an impact on the way he writes music.
“The software that I use to score these days really has changed my creative process,” he says. “It’s allowed me to revise and playback so much more quickly and efficiently. And while that’s just a small example of the way technology has had an influence on the industry as a whole, it’s really helped make for a very productive last few years.”
Productive is certainly the right word. In addition to his commission from the Friends of Today’s Music, Stark has also been selected by the Washington State Music Teachers Association for a similar honor as their commissioned composer for 2019. In the coming months, he’ll be writing another piece that will debut at WSMTA’s convention next year. See more of Bruce Stark’s compositions and arrangements on his YouTube channel.