Professor Scott Wheeler is a portraitist, but his depictions of friends and clients don’t hang on a wall or sit on a plinth in a corner of a room. They float through the air, capturing the spirit, if not the image, of their subjects.
Now, a dozen of Wheeler’s musical portraits are included on his latest album, Portraits and Tributes, being released Friday, June 3, followed by a release party on June 15 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Wheeler’s teacher, Virgil Thomson, introduced him to the concept of musical portraits. The composer and critic did a number of the intensely personal pieces, including one of Wheeler.
“I was scared to try it, but eventually, I got really into it and I love it,” said Wheeler, a composer, conductor and pianist who teaches in Emerson’s Department of Performing Arts.
Portraits are “completely improvisational and spontaneous,” Wheeler said. They’re done in the presence of the subject, who is doing whatever it is they do, he said. An artist might be working on a piece, a film editor could have headphones on and editing a film.
Wheeler said he gets a certain sense from the subject, listens to what’s going on in his head, and silently writes down the music based on those impressions.
“It’s a bit of a mystery, but I try to pick up what’s there,” he said. “And it’s for someone else to decide if it’s a great piece of music, or if it sounds like the person.”
The eponymous “tributes” of the album are completely different. Far from being improvised from scratch, they’re more often a riff on an existing piece of music, whether written by the person being honored or just having some meaning for them, he said.
“Musicians are always doing that for each other,” Wheeler said. “When Stephen Sondheim won the MacDowell Medal, I wrote a piece for him based on one of his songs [“By the Sea,” from Sweeney Todd]… I wrote that for him and gave it to him as a present at that time.”
Other tributes include a piece based on Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” for the wedding of jazz DJ and critic Jon Garelick; and an adaptation of a klezmer tune for Donald Berman, pianist on Portraits and Tributes, who was having a traditional Jewish wedding service.
At the end of the summer, Wheeler will unveil more new material. Naga will have its world premiere September 10 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre when ArtsEmerson stages the Ouroboros Trilogy.
The trilogy, with librettos written by local artist Cerise Lim Jacobs and music by three different composers, tells stories of life, death, and rebirth revolving around Madame White Snake, a traditional Chinese folk character. The second in the series, Madame White Snake, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011.
Unlike his portraits and tributes, Wheeler described scoring an opera (as well as writing music for the ballet, another of his recent projects) as intensely collaborative, with a lot of back and forth between himself and the librettist or himself and the choreographer.
Likewise, his work at Emerson, where he started out as a part-time accompanist for shows and eventually rose to become a full professor of music, revolves around working with singers, dancers, actors, stage designers, choreographers, and directors.
“Emerson has been a place where I have loved collaborating,” Wheeler said. “It’s all about collaborating. There’s no place for that string quartet.”
The release party for Portraits and Tributes will be held Wednesday, June 15, 7:00 pm, at National Sawdust, 80 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, New York. Tickets are $25 and available at nationalsawdust.org, but Wheeler said any of his students who would like to come should contact him for discounted tickets.
“I want to see them…it’ll be fun,” he said.