Eric Nathan knew early on that he would find a life in music. His earliest role models were trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and members of the Empire Brass Quintet, all of whom he first encountered in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He started piano lessons in the first grade; when he was a fourth grader and ready to choose an orchestral instrument, he went straight for the trumpet.
Fast forward deep into high school, and Nathan was an accomplished trumpeter, with summer sessions at Juilliard and Tanglewood under his belt and his first composition — Proclamation for Trumpet and Piano — at the top of what would become a steadily growing list of newly written music.
In college, he still played lots of trumpet — in seven ensembles, although he was not a performance major — but there was a tug away from performance. “I realized that being a professional trumpet player required steady practice, and while I loved performing, I didn't enjoy practicing. Composing was something I could do all day long — the hours would just fly by. Composing was where I wanted to be.”
Fast forward through graduate school (Yale University, B.A. with honors in music; Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, M.M. in composition; Cornell University, D.M.A. in composition) to the fall of 2015, and Nathan is a new member of the Brown faculty. He arrives in Providence as an accomplished composer with dozens of commissions and completed orchestral and chamber compositions and a CV brimming with musical icons: Tanglewood, Aspen, Aldeburgh, Louvre, Ravinia, Chelsea, Shanghai, New York Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Charleston Symphony, Britten-Pears Ensemble, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein Fellowship. He is a prolific composer and a teacher of composition — two complementary activities.
”I started as a performer, and so I want to share, perform, and engage with an audience. You get to do that in composition, but many times only after a long wait for [the première],” Nathan said. “Composing is such a private endeavor. A piece can take weeks or months to complete. If something isn’t quite right, I follow around my musical characters until I can figure out where they want to go, or how I can to get them to go where I want. Teaching provides an immediate engagement that I find I need to be a fully creative artist. Engaging with students and feeling their excitement helps bring me back to that spark that got me excited about music and composing in the first place.”
He will teach introductory music theory this fall as well as “From Beyoncé to the Blues: Rock, a Portrait of America,” a history of rock that traces three musical streams — blues, country, and Tin Pan Alley — to form mid-20th century rock ’n’ roll, which then splits into new genres (pop, disco, rap, funk, and more). In the spring semester, he will teach composition and the second semester of music theory.
The composing will continue. He will compose two, perhaps three, orchestral works this year, increasing his pace from an average of one a year. This year he will also be exploring vocal composition. He is at work on a song cycle based on the correspondence of Emily Dickinson and her “preceptor” Thomas Wentworth Higginson. A recently completed composition based on Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers” poem will receive its première at the Merkin Concert Hall in New York City on Sept. 9, part of the Resonant Bodies Festival. He also has a commission for a piece that may explore antiphonal choral singing.
Closer to home, he will present Cantus, a piece for trumpet and electronics, at the Bell Gallery faculty show in November. He is at work on a composition for Mark Steinbach, the University organist. And on September first, his debut CD — Multitude, Solitude — will be released by Albany Records. The CD highlights different sides of his compositional work, Nathan said. There are lyrical, storytelling pieces for strings at the beginning and end, enclosing more experimental, virtuoso solo pieces for trombone, trumpet, and piano. Much of his music — sheet music as well as selected recordings — is also available at his website, ericnathanmusic.com.
“I felt a great connection to faculty and students when I visited,” Nathan said of his path to Brown. “There is such a terrific vibrancy and diversity of musical interests at Brown and a great energy among the students, who seem very motivated and excited about learning. I'm thrilled to be here.”