Alan Theisen (b. 4 October 1981; Port Huron, Michigan) is a Ph.D. graduate assistant in the Department of Music Theory at the Florida State University.

Composing since the age of sixteen, he has produced a steadily growing body of work distinguished by its musical energy and concentration of expression.

Representative works by Theisen include a Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, Variations on a Theme of Gretchaninov, Eclogue for flute, and the Concerto for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra (premiered by soloist Lawrence Gwozdz and the Szczecin Philharmonic in 2004). Recent compositions and commissions include Ritorno for flute and cello and a Triple Concerto. Noted composer Dimitri Terzakis commends Theisen's oeuvre as being "the product of a unique talent."

As a saxophonist, Theisen has toured the United States and Canada with the Sax-Chamber Orchestra, performing at two World Saxophone Congresses (Montreal - 2000, Minneapolis - 2003). He studied the instrument with internationally-recognized performer Lawrence Gwozdz and participated in masterclasses with famed saxophone pioneer Jean-Marie Londeix. No stranger to the podium, Theisen has been a guest conductor with several ensembles.

In an effort to showcase both his own original compositions and pieces by other contemporary composers, he founded the Intégrales New Music Festival in 2005. Now an annual event, Intégrales NMF features world-premiere performances by nationally recognized musicians. Intégrales has expanded to include musical collaborations with artists, authors, and dancers. Theisen wrote his undergraduate thesis on György Ligeti's Piano Etudes, and has authored several papers on topics including Elliott Carter, film editing, composition as analysis, and Michael Brecker.

Other interests include mathematics, film criticism, and philosophy; in addition, Theisen has performed the role of Oberon in a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, for which he also wrote the incidental music.

Theisen lives with his wife (and puts up with their two cats) in Tallahassee, Florida.

Thursday, June 11, 2009
And when they ask, why all this, it is not easy to find an answer... (Part 1)

Anytime a composer writes a history of his/her development, that person runs a calculated risk of navel-gazing. As I write this post I am a mere twenty-seven years old which, in the world of "classical" music composition, means I am a tender babe still at the outset of his professional life. I am sure that in ten years, if I were to revisit this document, I'd be a combination of shocked, amused, and embarrassed.

When I was about twelve years old, the same year I started playing in a seventh-grade middle school band program, I received a small Casio keyboard for my birthday. From what I can remember, it had approximately 29 keys and could not play more than four pitches at any given moment. Although the gift probably cost no more than thirty dollars at the local Radio Shack (this monetary estimate is still high, no doubt), I was thrilled with this little noisemaker despite its profound limitations. It came with (no laughter, please) a little book of New Kids on the Block tunes that one could ostensibly plunk out one tangy tone at a time for hours on end, thus ensuring impatient sighs from family and an eventual career on the rock circuit.

I wasn't the least bit interested in learning how to play "Hangin' Tough" much to the relief of my adult self, but I was intrigued by replicating television theme songs. This is how my ears began to identify intervals and their combinations. I remember the very first one I started with was the opening tune to the show "Dallas" - with its heroic leaps, blaring French horns, and exciting orchestral rhythmic hits. Surprisingly, it only took a few attempts before I had the entire melody under my fingers and in my ears and I ran out into the living room to play what I'd mastered for my impressed parents.

Here's where the plot thickens, though. I went back to my bedroom and said to myself: "What if I moved the entire melody up a step?" Then: "Can I figure out the harmony?" I don't know what ever convinced me to take the next leap, but it seemed like the most logical question in the world, the most obvious exploration: "What if I changed the interval between notes numbers two and three?"

This last question set me on the path to composition, because it reflects a young mind re-imagining the mechanics of a melody, not being satisfied with music as it existed and was perceived, but wanting to shape music anew, to create a novel musical/spiritual essence. What I eventually created could not hold a flame to the catchy nature of the actual "Dallas" theme song, but it was important for me nonetheless to have taken that first daunting path into creating something worthwhile to share with my fellow human beings. In the following weeks, I wrote little tunes of my own but didn't dare to share them with anyone else, judging their quality to be grossly inferior to the melodies I was continually transcribing from the television.

After checking some books out from the library, I learned about major and minor triads and attempted to compose little synthesized chorales, knowing nothing about voice leading and so forth. Since my keyboard could play a whopping four notes simultaneously, I started adding a note here and there to my basic triads, devising what I thought were intriguing sound combinations: "What if I took C-E-G and added a D?" or "Let's hear F-Ab-C with an A-natural thrown in on top." Although I don't remember her reaction (horror, most likely), I recall dragging my keyboard into the kitchen one day to play my most recent harmonic "invention" to my mother - a four-note chromatic cluster (something like C, C#, D, D#). I had it set on the "strings" sound on the Casio so the dense little dissonant ball of sound waves would clash for eternity as long as I held my fingers down on the little white keys. I'd listen to that sound for minutes at a time, marveling at the tiny speakers clipping while trying to do my bidding. I would tire of the sonority, play a series of parallel major triads, and feel a totally different musical sensation, a different emotion. Reflecting the mind of a self-centered adolescent, I was pretty sure I had invented extreme dissonance - a revelation that was rudely deflated when I watched "2001: A Space Odyssey" for the first time later that same year and heard Gyorgy Ligeti's compositions featured in that film.

In the next installment in this essay, I'll move on to my experiences in jazz band starting my ninth grade year and chronicle my first encounters with Stravinsky around the same time.