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The inspired composer

Ronald Bruce Smith

It’s often surprising—and fre­quently enlightening—to dis­cover the source of an artist’s inspiration.

Ronald Smith, a com­poser whose work incor­po­rates both acoustic instru­ments and elec­tronics, is a prime example. In the early 1990s, Smith grav­i­tated toward Swiss-​​born painter Paul Klee, who dab­bled in sur­re­alism and exper­i­mented with color theory. Years later, he turned to the silver screen, drawing inspi­ra­tion from films like Memento and Pulp Fic­tion to create a series of com­po­si­tions in their non-​​linear mold.

My ideas come from a lot of places,” says Smith, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of music tech­nology and com­po­si­tion at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity. “Some­times visual art serves as a springboard.”

Smith has com­posed more than 30 pieces of music since the begin­ning of his pro­fes­sional career in 1986, when he wrote a six-​​minute duo for the clar­inet and tam-​​tam, a type of gong. Over the past 28 years, he has received many awards and com­mis­sions for his work, which critics have hailed as “seduc­tive,” “lus­trous,” and “won­der­fully evocative.”

In 2010, Smith received a com­mis­sion from Har­vard University’s Fromm Music Foun­da­tion, which annu­ally selects a dozen recip­i­ents from a pool of approx­i­mately 200 appli­cants. He spent the next 18 months com­posing a four-​​part, 23-​​minute piece for key­boardist Vicky Chow, whom he met in 2009 at an elec­tronic music fes­tival in China. Titled “Piano Book,” the com­po­si­tion draws on Smith’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with space, tempo, and rhythmic struc­tures, which harken back to his fas­ci­na­tion with the visual arts.

Chow will per­form the piece at the Fenway Center in November, cap­ping her week­long res­i­dency at North­eastern. The con­cert will employ eight-​​channel spa­tial­iza­tion, giving audi­ence mem­bers the impres­sion that the sound of her music is enveloping them or moving through the venue. “It’s not an easy piece for a pianist,” Smith says, “but Chow is a ter­rific player.”

In 2013, Smith received a com­mis­sion from the Serge Kous­se­vitzky Foun­da­tions, which were founded in 1942 in honor of the second wife of the epony­mous con­ductor, com­poser, and double-​​bassist. Shortly after receiving the award, Smith began working on a 22-​​minute com­po­si­tion for gui­tarist David Tanen­baum and the Del Sol String Quartet, which will per­form the piece next spring.

Titled “Tableaux and Tala,” the com­po­si­tion aims to explore the his­tory of the oud, the guitar’s pear-​​shaped prog­en­itor, as well as other stringed instru­ments found along the ancient Silk Road.

Smith, mean­while, has been com­mis­sioned to com­pose two more pieces—one for a solo per­cus­sionist, the other for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project—but he’ll focus solely on “Tableaux and Tala” until it’s com­plete. “Encoun­tering new musical ideas and seeing how they develop is all-​​consuming,” says Smith, who grew up playing clas­sical guitar, paying his way through col­lege by per­forming at wed­dings and cock­tail par­ties. “It absorbs everything.”

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