Composer Scott Wheeler
On a visit to North Reading, MA, in August 2002, my daughter Thea and I found the composer Scott Wheeler at home with his wife and oldest daughter, Margaret (16). Eleven-year-old Elizabeth was away at camp (catch you next time Lizzie), but Margaret kindly agreed to interview her father for GramercyKids. The following is a transcript of that interview. — Sharan Leventhal
Margaret: So, Dad, what made you want to start composing?
Scott: I just found that I was writing my own tunes when I was playing the piano as a kid. I was about 12 when I started taking piano lessons. I was playing tunes and I tried to make them sound like the pop songs on the radio. Actually, when I was younger than that, I remember one day thinking of a tune – it was not just a tune, it was a whole arrangement. It was like a big band arrangement and it was in my head and I said, “I couldn’t have made that up. I must have heard it”. And so I ignored it. But I didn’t have any training anyway, so there wasn’t any way I could write it down.
Margaret: What was the best or the worst performance environment you’ve ever been in?
Scott: Wow. The best performance environment is Jordan Hall in Boston. It has the cleanest, most beautiful sound and it feels just wonderful – everything sounds great in there, and it’s also a nice place to be. The worst – I’m tempted to say the club where I played in the summers, The Seafood Shanty. The piano had been eaten away by salt (laughs) and I had to play harder and harder and my shoulders started to hurt, and my wrists started to hurt, and everything started to hurt trying to make jazz come out of this horrible, horrible instrument. That’s the only place that was really kind of bad that I had to do a lot. I’m sure there must have been other pianos I had to play that were not good, but that was serious.
Margaret: What was the most unconventional performance you ever did?
Scott: The one that occurs to me is a performance of Poème Symphonic, that’s French for ‘Symphonic Poem’, by a modern composer named Gyorgy Ligeti – for 100 metronomes…. And I conducted it. I conducted a performance of that work.
Margaret: So, basically you were just conducting while the metronomes did their thing?
Scott: The piece is for wind-up metronomes. You wind up all the metronomes and set them off until they finish going, so that you listen to them all ticking at different speeds. It’s about different rhythms going at the same time. But of course nobody has wind-up metronomes anymore. So when I did my performance I used quartz metronomes that would go forever. Therefore, I had a job. I had to turn some of them off at different times. So I was actually cueing metronomes, but I was only cueing them to turn off. It was really a transcription of the Ligeti piece for modern instruments.
Margaret: I see. Now, when you were a kid, what was the most mischievous thing you ever did?
Scott: The most mischievous thing I ever did… as a kid?
Margaret: Having heard from your family that you were the perfect child…
Scott: I was the perfect child. (laughs) I never did anything mischievous.
Margaret: Just like me. (laughter)… What’s your favorite animal?
Scott: My favorite animal? Well, I was going to say dolphin – that was just off the top of my head. Of course, we have pets. We have two dogs, a cat and a bird, so I have a kind of family loyalty. But outside of the family, when I go to the zoo I enjoy the snakes, I enjoy…
Margaret: I wonder why.
Scott: What can I say?…
Margaret: Hmmm. What’s the worst vacation you’ve ever taken?
Scott: The worst vacation I’ve ever taken… (thinks) I don’t have any bad vacations. Vacations are – you know, even when they’re bad they’re fine.
Margaret: Such as sleazy motel rooms where your father won’t turn off the air conditioning sort of thing.
Scott: (laughs) She’s talking about the other day. That was last week.
Margaret: (laughs) He wouldn’t turn off the air conditioner — I was freezing.
Scott: I kept turning it down… it eventually turned down. No, I don’t have any bad vacation stories. I don’t have any horror stories from vacations. The worst vacations are still lovely. Sorry.
Margaret: Um, You were originally a pre-med student.
Margaret: Now, would you have ever been the singing, dancing doctor?
Scott: (laughs) Yes.
Margaret: Yes, you would have gotten up there and sung your own little doodlie tunes to the people who are dying — you know, (sings) “You have one day left. Smile.”
Scott: (laughs) It’s more a matter of humming while you snip. (laughs)
Margaret: (laughing) Oh my God – (laughs)…. Oh Daddy, I shouldn’t have asked… Okay, well, I have one last question.
Scott: Better be a good one.
Margaret: Which of your daughters do you like best? (laughs)
Scott: (laughs) Thea.
Margaret: She’s not your daughter. (Laughter)
Margaret: Dixie’s my dog.
Scott: You don’t ask parents that… Parents love all of their pets equally. (Laughter)
Margaret: (Leaving) Mommy!!