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Artist of the Week Greg Boatman ’23 on Composition and Improvisation

16 mins read

“I was in the woods, just kind of walking, when I stopped for a moment and listened to everything around me,” recalled Greg Boatman ’23. “There were all these layers of sound stacked on top of each other, blended into each other to create a whole soundscape. When I write music, I try to think of that.”

If ever there were a spirit of the woods, Boatman is Crum incarnate. His musical endeavors are a vast rhizomatic network of subterranean roots that connect in novel decentralized junctions. Spanning composition, wind ensemble, orchestra, chorus, chamber groups, theatrical performance, and improvisation, the brilliant toadstool that is Boatman has sprouted heartily all over the Swarthmore music scene. 

Raised by parents who deeply appreciate music, Boatman has always been eager to create and perform. His underfunded public school could not afford an extensive music program, but the passion and dedication of his teachers more than made up for the gaps in the financially strained program. Most prominent among these was his elementary school music teacher, who happened to be his mother. Though he did not stick to his fourth-grade viola for long, he found his elementary school passion for performance in the clarinet and chorus. Soon afterwards little Boatman began to compose music for the first time, finding himself in high school writing folk guitar songs.

“Even though I was really involved with music by the end of high school, for a while, I told myself that I wouldn’t make it my major, that I would keep it as just a hobby,” said Boatman, snickering through the dramatic irony of this recollection. “By the end of high school,” he said, “I knew I had to be a music major.”

Arriving at Swarthmore for first-year orientation, Boatman wasted no time jumping into the campus music scene. 

“The first time I walked into Lang Music Hall, I ran into Reuben Galley-Newman ’21 — he initiated me into Swarthmore music,” Boatman said. “I turned to him then and said ‘I can’t wait to spend entirely too much time in this building.’” 

Now widely known as an evergreen denizen of Lang Music and Underhill, Boatman’s prophecy has manifested just as he had predicted.

Boatman truly found his forte in music classes with Professor Gerald Levinson and Professor Thomas Whitman ’82, where he honed his compositional craft and gained appreciation for this creative process. 

“Through composition I come to appreciate the everyday sounds that happen around me,” he said, “and I come to appreciate music more.”

Constructing a house is a metaphor to which Boatman often returns when reflecting upon his compositional process. 

“When you’re composing you start out with nothing, you’re in this white void, on this bare construction site,” Boatman explained. “You have to make sense of the world around you, so you have to write something, because you need to have something to work with.”

For Boatman, composition is the art of populating the void.

“The beginning is just barfing out a lot of material that is not really… compelling. I hesitate to say “shitty” because I don’t like to say any art is shitty, but … it’s shitty. So I start out just writing the things that are on my mind. Those are the building blocks, the construction materials,” he said. 

Most people would draw an analogy between composition and house construction by likening the music on the paper to a house under construction, the propositions of musical content in one’s mind to the construction material, and the mental faculties of the rules of composition to the construction tools. For Boatman though, the music on the sheet is itself the construction materials and the tools. Writing notes on a staff is not the end of the creative process, but its beginning.

“At a certain point you have a bunch of these construction materials but you gotta figure out how to put the house together,” Boatman continued. “You have to figure out which ones you’ll use, which ones you’ll discard. But never discard anything completely; you might use it for another house.”

Composition has not always been a walk in the woods though.

“I used to get very easily attached to the original versions of my ideas,” Boatman said. “I’d write a minute of music, show it to Jerry, and sometimes it’d be hard to hear the critiques he had because I was so attached to it.”

From this dark forest floor of frustration, Boatman sprouted over time to the canopy layer found in the bliss of transience.

“A lot of the composition process has been learning how to detach myself from my product in the moment of making it, so that I can accept feedback and criticism and be open to changing what I’ve made, in quite drastic ways sometimes,” he said.

In addition to composition, Boatman has been an active performer on campus, playing with wind ensemble, orchestra, chorus, and chamber groups. Most recently, he played a Parrish Parlor concert with Max Gong ’22. Before a crowd of enraptured onlookers, Boatman and Gong put on a free improvisation show that shattered expectations and transported the audience to a fantastical world beyond the shackles of conceptualization and categorization.

Just a few notes into the performance, the piano and bass saxophone duo sublimated into a brilliant amorphous substance that manifested itself in ever-changing transient modes. Boatman breathed just enough life into the saxophone to animate the brass tube, deflating his own lungs to inflate the lungs of the instrument. As soon as the saxophone had enough oxygen flowing through its valves to live on its own, Boatman left it to its own devices and glided towards the piano. As Gong’s fingers traversed the ebony hills and ivory valleys, Boatman plucked the very piano strings themselves, turning his own body into a piano key, bypassing the traditional interface through which musicians interact with the instrument. But Boatman was not satisfied with plucking just these cords — he has his own, he knew, and they needed to vibrate as well. As Boatman faced the mass of vibrating piano strings with unabashed determination, his vocal cords belted long sustained notes as he banged on the Steinway with his ursinal palms. Boatman, Gong, the piano, and every audience member were an assemblage, a machine infinitely more complex than the hulking piano and the gleaming saxophone.

“It felt like I wasn’t always the agent,” said Boatman. “When I got up and started dancing, I wasn’t expecting to do that. When I started singing, I was suddenly singing really high notes. I surprised myself by doing that,” he added. “There’s a spirit to it. There’s something that was very not Earthly about it. I don’t know if transcendental is the right word. It’s just something Other that felt very intense, and very good.”

Having done both improvisation and composition, Boatman has identified marked similarities in the respective processes of these two fields that are seemingly somewhat disparate.

“A lot of my composition starts with improv, just playing around,” he said. “I come across something I like, I write it down, I play around with it, I gradually get it more specific.”

Boatman again emphasized the importance of letting go during composition and improvisation.

“So much of the composition process is about letting go of judgment and not overanalyzing your art while you’re creating it, really being open to let anything be there.”

Improvisation requires a similar such process of letting go for Boatman.

“In the same way when I’m improvising on the clarinet sometimes I’ll play something, and I think it’ll sound one way but it sounds really different. Instead of rejecting it, I embrace it. I stay open to spontaneity,” he said.

In addition to improvising and composing, Boatman also performs prepared written compositions.

“When practicing a piece, you work on it over a long period of time and become very attached to it and come to appreciate it in a really deep way,” he said. “You spend that much time with the piece you almost become a cocreator of it.”

Boatman has found himself on both sides of this assemblage between the composer and the performer, having heard his original compositions performed by various musical groups on campus.

“There’s a point where the composer has to give it up to the hand of the performers. It can be nerve wracking but it’s beautiful — you conceived it in a certain way, they conceive it in a different way through their unique backgrounds and experiences,” he said.

As he has composed more, Boatman has been discovering new avenues to explore in his work.

“I’ve been exploring harmonies a lot: what they sound like, how to play around with them,” he said. “Another thing I’ve been trying to explore is space, how music fills space. In a lot of music there’s always something happening — but it’s ok for there to be long silences in music, long drones. There can be lots of activity in music, but I also want to think about the role of inactivity in music,” he said.

“When I first started composing, my music would fit neatly in little boxes,” he added.

“So now, I’m trying to take the boxes away.”

More than anyone, Boatman exists in a symbiotic relationship with the outdoors. He loves to garden and forage mushrooms and hopes to start an intentional community after graduation where he can live in close contact with the Earth and with other people.

“Sometimes the woods or being outside can give me a break from having to think about composition, but also sometimes I’m outside and an idea comes to me. It can serve both functions,” he said.

Mushrooms can’t survive in isolation, Boatman knows. Trees may appear to stand tall on their own, but at their roots they are all connected, exchanging nutrients and whispering in a chemical language unintelligible to those who dwell above the surface. 

“Sometimes there’s this idea in art that great artists are lone geniuses,” said Boatman. “Maybe that’s true for some people. But for me, none of what I’ve done has been a lone process. There are always so many people involved in it.”

Gushing with enthusiasm, Boatman thanked everyone who has supported him.

“I’m so grateful to all the people who have nurtured me at Swarthmore: professors, music faculty, peers, staff,” he said.

Next year will be Boatman’s senior year, during which he will debut a few projects, such as a ballet he is co-creating with Alexis Metoyer ’23, a piece he is composing for bass clarinet and harp, and a piece he is composing for the newly restored organ in Lang Concert Hall. 

“I’ve wanted to write a piece celebrating [the organ’s] renovation and reintroduction into our musical life at Swarthmore,” he said. 

Reading about Greg Boatman in an article is like reading sheet music instead of listening to the orchestra. Go listen to the orchestra — it’s outside, right now. 

“One time I was at my house, and the chickens were clucking,” Boatman said. “Hearing them clucking in a certain way made me think it could be a cool musical idea — the clucking.”

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