Samuel A. Livingston, who goes by “Skip,” is equally unpretentious when it comes to discussing his avocation. An employee of ETS (Educational Testing Service), the nonprofit educational testing and assessment organization located in Lawrence Township, and a member of the Blawenburg Band, Livingston has been quietly composing and arranging music since college. But even with more than 50 years’ experience, he is almost painfully modest about his accomplishments.
“Sometimes I think I have no business writing music,” he says. “There are some composers that can look at an unfamiliar piece of music and they can hear it. I can’t do that. What I can do is try something out and see if it works.”
Livingston’s achievements belie his clear-eyed assessments of his abilities. As a composer, he is essentially self-taught. But even early on, his compositions were recognized with prizes and publication. He gleaned his most valuable lessons, in terms of compositional technique, not from the lone theory class he took in college, but from a general humanities course, which he says gave him historical perspective and a grasp of structure.
Now he works with a computer program that allows him to experiment on a higher level.
“The thing that’s made it possible for me to write really good music is Sibelius,” he says. “I have very limited piano skills, but with (the notation software system) Sibelius I write something and I can do what a painter does, when he steps back and looks at his canvas. Sibelius will play it back for me. Although I can’t tell exactly how it will sound, I have a pretty good idea. But it’s a trial-and-error process.”
At 77, he has released his first album, “Gentle Winds,” which features four of his compositions, with program notes by the composer.
The recording sessions took place in Boston over three days last year. Livingston was on-hand as his music was documented by musicians and technicians in the employ of Parma Recordings. The resulting album, handsomely produced, has been issued under the label’s classical music imprint, Navona Records.
He speaks of the process as an overwhelmingly positive experience. He was able to offer suggestions in the recording and mixing of the music and even made a few tweaks to the oboe part in one of the pieces so that it would fall more naturally within the capabilities of the instrument.
He was also fascinated to experience first-hand the process of making a recording, which he compares to filming a movie, with certain takes and patches done out of sequence. He characterizes everyone involved as extremely professional, highly skilled, and remarkably efficient.
After discussing the look of the album with the art department, he was sent mock-ups for several designs. He says that all of them were good, but none of them were exactly what he was looking for. It was only purely by chance that he stumbled across the perfect image.
“I had a meeting at ETS that required me to walk from one cluster of buildings to another, and it was on a day when there was a light breeze, and I said, look at that! I looked out, and there were ripples on the lake and the grass was swaying. It was exactly what I wanted.”
He was able to capture the moment on his cell phone, and it was transformed by Parma’s art department into the album’s striking cover.
In terms of marketing his music, Livingston says he is especially indebted to Rick Sowash, the Ohio-based composer who has successfully disseminated his prolific output by way of professional-grade compact discs, self-distributed to the nation’s classical music stations. It was Sowash who advised Livingston to give his music descriptive titles, whenever possible.
From a programming standpoint this makes a lot of sense, especially for a composer who is not particularly well known. Even with an acknowledged master like Franz Joseph Haydn, those of his symphonies that bear nicknames get played much more frequently than those that don’t. For someone like Sowash, a piece titled “Four Seasons in Belleville” has a much better chance of getting played than if it were called, simply, Piano Trio No. 1.
Livingston took this advice to heart and began carefully considering what titles his completed works might suggest.
“Gentle Winds,” the title track, seemed obvious, in light of its scoring, for flute, oboe, clarinet, and horn — all wind instruments — but also for its easygoing nature, which might without difficulty be imagined as the soundtrack for a stroll around a lake on a pleasant, breezy day, like the one on which Livingston snapped his photo.
“The Old Man is Dancing” was named for its spry clarinet, which forms a trio with flute and oboe. “Call to the Mountains” was suggested by the horn, part of a quintet with flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon. “Quiet Summer Night” was influenced by its warmer scoring for clarinet and string quartet.
In terms of the content, the music is decidedly tonal and abundantly melodic, with the kind of cheerful elegance characteristic of the film scores of Jerome Moross. Livingston counts Moross’ best-known music, for the Gregory Peck western “The Big Country,” among his influences.
He also credits the American folk music revival and groups like the Kingston Trio with coloring his development, and more recently the unconventional meters he encountered when he and his wife joined an international folk dancing group.
His B-themes, especially, convey the open-air lyricism of a free and easy cowpoke. Melodies play against countermelodies with no troubled introspection and little repose. It’s the kind of music to perk up a rush hour commute or a Sunday drive.
Trying to describe music in words is a tricky business. Audio samples are posted online at Navona’s website, or may be heard by searching under Livingston’s name on YouTube.
“Quiet Summer Night” has been published, and its sheet music is available for purchase, in print or PDF format, from imaginemusicpublishing.com. Sheet music for the rest is available in PDF format, at no cost, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Livingston, who now makes his home in Hopewell, was born in Chicago in 1942. He grew up in the Pittsburgh area. Though neither of his parents was especially musical, his businessman father and mainly stay-at-home mother, who did some part-time advertising writing, had an appreciation for good music, and Livingston remembers being captivated by recordings of Beethoven’s Septet and Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. Soon he was taking lessons on a metal clarinet, a beginner’s instrument. He graduated to wood after asking for several years. His brother studied saxophone and went on to become a jazz pianist.
He comments, wryly, “My mother told me years later that my dad used to say about me and my brother, ‘Nobody else’s kids practice. Why do ours have to practice?’”
In 1967 and 1968 he served in the United States Army, playing with the 4th Armored Division Band, which he says was his only experience as a professional musician. He moved to New Jersey in 1974.
As noted, he is a member of the Blawenburg Band, which seems only appropriate, given his fascination with musical Americana. Founded in 1890, the 75-member ensemble is a piece of living history, the oldest continuously performing community band in New Jersey. The group is a nostalgic throwback to simpler times, to the heyday of park and gazebo concerts that enlivened summers of a century ago. Many of its appearances, at parades, church socials, and community events, are free and open to the public.
The band’s annual Independence Day concert, a rare ticketed event, will take place at the Yardley Community Center, 64 South Main Street, in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, on Thursday, July 4, at 4 p.m.
On Monday, July 8, the band will commence its traditional summer series at the Hopewell Train Station. These free “lawnchair” concerts will be held on Monday evenings, July 8, July 22, and August 5, at 7:30 p.m., weather permitting.
Livingston says the band meets to rehearse once a week year-round. Predictably the more temperate months provide for its busiest season, with scheduled appearances at shopping centers, senior living communities, ice cream socials, and the Griggstown Harvest Home Festival (this year on August 17). For a complete schedule, visit www.blawenburgband.org.
Livingston also directs the Blawenburg Dixieland Band, which was founded by the Blawenburg Band’s music director, Jerry Rife. The Dixieland Band’s next performance will take place at the Mary Jacobs Memorial Library in Rocky Hill on Tuesday, July 9, from 6:30 to 8:15 p.m. “If the weather is nice the band will play on the lawn,” he says. “If it isn’t we’ll move indoors.”
When asked what he does in his spare time that doesn’t involve music, he mentions gardening and tennis as enthusiasms, but clearly music holds pride of place. “I like to say, statistics is my occupation, but music is my preoccupation.”
The recording and the easy availability of sheet music for performance both serve a very simple aim. “I want people to be able to hear and enjoy my music.”
Blawenburg Band’s Annual Independence Day Concert, Yardley Community Center, 64 South Main Street, Morrisville, Pennsylvania. Thursday, July 4, 4 p.m.
Lawnchair Concerts, Hopewell Train Station, 2 Railroad Place, Hopewell. Mondays, July 8 and 22 and August 5, 7:30 p.m. (check for rain cancellations)
Blawenburg Dixieland Band, Mary Jacobs Memorial Library, 64 Washington Street, Rocky Hill. Tuesday, July 9, 6:30 to 8:15 p.m.
Griggstown Harvest Home Festival, Griggstown Reformed Church, 1065 Canal Road, Franklin Township. Saturday, August 17, 6 p.m.
Ice Cream Social, First Presbyterian Church, 100 Scotch Road, Ewing. Sunday, August 25, 4:30 p.m. www.blawenburgband.org
To hear the music of Samuel A. Livingston: www.navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6197/index.html