Student Spotlight #1: Edward Witt

This is a new section I'm adding to my blog. It was the result of trying to find a creative way to chronicle my travels around the country without shining the spotlight on myself (too much). My final flourish of spring 2010 gigs culminated in a trip to Mt. Lebanon, PA – a beautifully quaint (& hilly) suburb of Pittsburgh. I was there to perform David Gillingham's "Concerto No. 2 for Marimba & Percussion Orchestra" with the inimitable Mt. Lebanon High School Percussion Ensemble, under the direction of Rick Minnotte. While I was there, I was introduced to a new piece for percussion ensemble by one of the graduating seniors, Ed Witt, and was really struck by the maturity of his writing. He took a composition lesson from me on Friday and shared several more pieces and I am certain he is going to have a very bright future. Here's some information about Ed followed by a little question/answer session we had.

Edward Witt

Born: December 19, 1991

High School: Mt. Lebanon High School Class of 2010

Activities: Percussion Ensembles (Holiday, Brazilian, Keyboard Percussion), Marching Band, Orchestra, Intramural Ping-Pong

Instruments: Percussion, Trumpet, Piano

Private Percussion Teacher: Mr. Subha Das

Awards & Honors: High Honor Roll, Featured soloist at Interlochen Arts Camp

Plans for the Fall: Attend Carnegie Mellon University majoring in music composition

Aspirations for the Future: Film Composer & Teacher


Of the three instruments you play, which is your favorite?
I really love piano, simply because I’ve played it enough that I’ve reached the point where I can just sit down and play whatever comes to mind. It’s a great stress-reliever. I also like playing the trumpet in a large ensemble, like my school orchestra. A full brass section can add so much muscle to the sound and always makes things more epic. Percussion is great because it’s very physical and hands-on. Hmm... It’s hard to pick a favorite because they are all great in different ways.

When did you first start composing?
Before I could read music, I would sit at the piano and play a few notes. After a little while, I started to put simple sequences that I liked together. In elementary school, we had a small composer’s forum where kids would write little pieces and then have them performed. I composed my first piece, entitled “Monday Morning” for solo celesta.

What is your favorite ensemble or instrument to compose for so far?
I really like the textures you can create with percussion. The instruments are so versatile and there are so many different sounds you can get out of them. I am also attracted to percussion ensembles simply because they are still a bit unconventional.

Where do you find inspiration (musical or otherwise) for your compositions?
I find inspiration in many different ways. Occasionally I’ll see something in nature that, for whatever reason, really sticks with me and I do what I can to recreate it. For example, in a recent visit to Italy, I was standing outside a train station in Venice when it suddenly started pouring rain. Just being in that environment really affected me and so I started writing. I also try to listen to as much new music as I can get my hands on. I go through “phases” of what I focus on. I might listen to only jazz for one week, and then hardcore techno the next. My pieces are very influenced by what I am experiencing at the time. It’s kind of like a journal.

Tell me about your percussion ensemble piece "Cellar Door" that was just premiered at Mt. Lebanon. It's a really striking title.
After I finished the piece, I really had no idea what to call it. Titles are always very difficult for me because I feel like people interpret the piece based on what I call it rather than experience it in a way that is more meaningful to them personally. In other words, I would rather people experience the piece without the prejudice they might gather from a title. It is for this reason that I arbitrarily chose "Cellar Door." As told in the movie Donnie Darko, J.R.R. Tolkien has described this phrase as the most beautiful utterance in the English language. By calling the piece "Cellar Door," it got people to say this phrase often (sort of a whole new piece on its own in a John Cage-esque way). The title is independent of the piece itself. I just wanted it to be ambiguous.

How has music helped or influenced you in other areas of your life?
How have other areas of your life (people, activities, etc.) affected or influenced your musical experiences?

Music, for me, is all about communication. I’ve never been good with words. Music allows you to convey a message that you might not know how to say. It can also teach you a lot about patience, discipline, and dedication.

What do you see yourself doing in 10 years? 20 years?
I’d love to write film scores some day. I think my writing style would really lend itself to it. If that doesn’t work, I also have some interest in teaching.

What are the 10 most frequently played/listened to artists on your iPod or in your iTunes library? Does this influence your compositions in any way?
10. David Gillingham (Century Variants, Symphony #2 for Band, Concerto for Horn)
I really love all of Gillinghamʼs work. I feel like my style is very similar to his. I hope my music can be half as good as his some day.

9. Tenacious D
I like this band for itʼs comedic values, but also for Kyle Gassʼ skill on guitar. “Tribute” is one of the best songs in the world :)

8. Pink Martini
This group is great for chillinʼ. They are so different, and I love the way they mix genres.

7. Joris de Man (Killzone 2)
You need to check this album out. He hasnʼt done much mainstream stuff, but his orchestration skill is top-notch. Itʼs so emotional and epic. He tends to blend a live orchestral (organic) sound with MIDI (industrial) percussion for a really neat effect.

6. The Killers
The sound of Brandon Flowersʼ voice has such an interesting quality to it. This music helps me think.

5. The Kooks
Also good for contemplation. I donʼt know how to describe them other than incredibly smooth.

4. Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethovenʼs later works have a significant impact on my writing. His symphonies are the best, especially his 7th. I love his innovation.

3. Sergei Rachmaninoff
For me, Beethoven is to symphonies as Rachmaninoff is to piano concertos. Iʼm in love with the way he combines the orchestra with the piano. He truly was a master at what he did.

2. James Newton-Howard (Lady in the Water, I Am Legend, The Village, Treasure Planet)
Also something you should check out if you havenʼt already. The music of “Lady in the Water” really had a strong impact on me. I love the chord progressions he uses. His work is the single greatest inspiration for me to write film scores.

1. Camille Saint-Saens
I love Saint-Saensʼ charm. His music has such a magical quality to it that no one has been able to duplicate.


Ed Witt will be attending Carnegie Mellon University in the fall of 2010 where he will study music composition with Nancy Galbraith. Be on the lookout in the near future for more great music to come out of this talented individual!