Alumni Profile: Harry Stafylakis

In this Q&A, composer Harry Stafylakis (BMus, 2010) talks about his recent projects, reveals his musical influences, and shares some memories from his time at the Schulich School of Music.

New York City-based composer Harry Stafylakis (b. 1982) is originally from Montreal, and completed his Bachelor of Music in composition here at the Schulich School of Music in 2010.

"Dreamy yet rhythmic" (NY Times), with a “terrible luminosity” and “ferociously expressive” (Times Colonist), his concert music is “an amalgamation of the classical music tradition and the soul and grime of heavy metal” (I Care If You Listen), “favoring doomsday chords and jackhammer rhythms” (The New Yorker).

Stafylakis is the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's Composer-In-Residence and Co-Curator of the Winnipeg New Music Festival. His works have been performed by the Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa, Victoria, PEI, Spokane, Stamford, and Greek Youth Symphony Orchestras, Norwegian Radio Orchestra, American Composers Orchestra, McGill Chamber Orchestra, Roomful of Teeth, JACK Quartet, ICE, Contemporaneous, Mivos Quartet, Quatuor Bozzini, and Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, among others. In 2019 he collaborated with progressive metal pioneers Animals As Leaders on the orchestral adaptation of their music for metal band & orchestra.

Awards include the Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the ASCAP Foundation’s Leonard Bernstein Award, four SOCAN Foundation Awards for Young Composers, and grants from the Canada Council, NYSCA, SSHRC, and New Music USA. He is an Associate Composer of the Canadian Music Centre and a member of the NYC composer collective ICEBERG New Music.

When did you start composing?

I first started to compose songs for my various metal bands around the age of 15 or 16 (ca. 1998), developing my own style and methods over the ensuing years. I began to dabble with classical composition in 2005 and entered that fray in earnest soon after; my earliest "concert" composition that's still in my catalogue, The Keats Cycle, was completed in 2007 during my first semester at McGill.

Who are your major influences?

Somewhere I keep an extensive list of formative influences, but to keep it (relatively) short:

On the classical side, the composers who've had the greatest impact on my musical thinking are Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, Chopin, and Bach.

Contemporary concert music composers who've been particularly influential are John Adams, Jacques Hétu, Claude Vivier, Philp Glass, David Lang, Christopher Theofanidis, and Georg Friedrich Haas.

Film music has been an enormous influence on me as well, particularly various scores by John Williams (several of his scores are always on my desk for reference...), Hans Zimmer (esp. the Christopher Nolan films), Danny Elfman, Clint Mansell, and Bear McCreary's tv themes.

All that being said, the music that has had the most impact on me on a foundational level – by far – is by metal artists. I can go on at length, but to name the most influential that come to mind right now: Opeth, Nevermore, Symphony X, Spiral Architect, TesseracT, Periphery, Animals As Leaders, Meshuggah, Dream Theater, and Leprous. Also, the music of my good friend and long-time collaborator, Adam Pietrykowski a.k.a Van Tilburg.

If you were to define your compositional style in three words, what would they be?

Maximalist / Metal / Symphonic

Your latest composition “Into Oblivion” was premiered this past October by the WSO and Schulich alumnus Philippe Sly. Could you tell us more about this piece and your work as WSO Composer-in-Residence?

Into Oblivion is my largest-scale single work to date, and my second collaboration with Philippe Sly (who premiered the orchestral version of the aforementioned Keats Cycle while we were both undergrads at McGill). It's a "symphonic song cycle for bass-baritone and piano" – essentially a vocal symphony – based on the poem The Ship of Death by D.H. Lawrence. Philippe commissioned the piece in 2015 as a work for voice and piano; we developed the concept for it together over a span of four years, eventually scaling it up to the orchestral arena with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra coming on board as co-commissioner, resulting in the premiere performances with the WSO last October under the baton of Daniel Raiskin.

I'm now in my fourth year as Composer-in-Residence of the WSO and Co-Curator of the Winnipeg New Music Festival, and it's been an incredible experience building a rapport with the orchestra over the years through many symphonic works of various scales. It's a rare experience in classical music for a composer to continuously work with one particular ensemble, and I've found it extremely productive and conducive towards artistic growth. It closely resembles my experience of being the principal songwriter for a band, wherein our collaborations grow increasingly refined and ambitious due to our developing artistic intimacy over a long stretch of time (rather than one-off projects, as is usually the case with classical commissions).

What is your favourite Schulich-related memory?

There are many, but what really stands out is that this was the first time in my life when I was able to focus exclusively on studying, practicing, and creating music. I distinctly (and fondly) remember many long nights composing in the "aquarium" – the computer room in Schulich's Marvin Duchow Music Library that composers appropriated as their personal workspace...

Once I realized that classical composition was my true calling, I dedicated myself fully to it during my undergrad at Schulich – and the various awards, scholarships, and other support I received from McGill allowed me to do so without needing to split my time and attention with other jobs. Not that I regret my prior decade working as a cook and other non-musical jobs, but these definitely got in the way of the kind of focused attention needed to develop a career in the arts.

What advice would you give young composers?

Inspiration has to find you working, to paraphrase Picasso. Building a career as an artist of any kind involves so much more than the art itself – take it as a given that those who are most successful in it also work harder, longer hours, and in more capacities than anyone else.

And to quote my old audio engineering teacher, Nelson Vipond: Always be pro. In everything. Another one: Early is on time, on time is late, and late is inexcusable.

What are some highlights for you this coming year?

The two new albums featuring my music that were just released in October – Jenny Lin's piano album The Etudes Project Vol. 1: ICEBERG and Duo Cicchillitti-Cowan's FOCUS, both of which feature works of mine commissioned by these artists – continue to be highlights of the season for me, especially as they continue to tour the works in support of the albums.

Also, upcoming performances by the Winnipeg Symphony in Canada, by Hypercube and Unheard-of//Ensemble in New York City, and Blueshift Ensemble in Memphis; running the 2020 Winnipeg New Music Festival that I curated with Daniel Raiskin; and a residency with my NYC composer collective ICEBERG New Music in Vienna next July, where we launch our new ICEBERG Institute composition intensive.

Over the next year, I'm producing my first portrait album, Calibrating Friction, which will feature some pretty amazing artists and past collaborators, with an expected release in early 2021 by New Amsterdam Records. I can be more forthcoming with details about this one in the new year...

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