Burning the midnight oil

Local composer Greg La Traille combines the shock of the new with the old-shoe comfort of tradition

Greg La Traille: What animal did Prokofiev think an oboe sounded like—a goose? A duck?

Greg La Traille: What animal did Prokofiev think an oboe sounded like—a goose? A duck?

You never know quite where that next surprise might turn up.

It could be that one of your quieter acquaintances has a secret life—where he holes up in at home with his piano and sheets of orchestral scoring paper, working on a symphony.

For example, take Greg La Traille. He’s a locally based composer, but you might not know it from his reserved demeanor. As the classical marketing manager for towerrecords.com, the e-commerce Web site for Tower Records, and as a Saturday morning host on the classical-music NPR station KXPR, La Traille, 50, might be in a position to tell others about the music he loves to write. But that doesn’t seem to be his style. “It’s hard to be a self-advocate,” he says, adding, “I’d rather burn the midnight oil and write something interesting.”

A three-movement piece by La Traille, titled “Quintet,” was recently recorded; it was released last month as part of Rendezvous and Dreams, a four-composer compilation on the independent classical-music label Crystal Records. It’s La Traille’s first piece to make it onto CD.

La Traille knew the label’s owner, oboist Peter Christ, from dealing with him through his employer, Tower Records. At one point La Traille had slipped Christ some of his scores to look at, and Christ responded by offering to record one of La Traille’s pieces. It didn’t come gratis, of course; small labels like Crystal need to capitalize their projects by getting the composers to chip in, and La Traille ponied up something to the tune of $4K.

But this is no vanity project, at least for La Traille. “Quintet” features Christ on oboe, playing across a string quartet. It’s very woodsy, autumnal music—the pinched double-reed sound of the oboe weaves around the more grainy sounds of violins, viola and cello, conjuring images of gray skies and cold snaps of wind blowing sharply hued gusts of leaves about. It’s whimsical music in places, and emotionally dense and challenging in others—not unlike the music Bernard Herrmann scored for Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Like other modern composers, La Traille isn’t afraid to tackle dissonance, but he also enjoys knitting some nice counterpoint.

La Traille grew up in a musical household in Phoenix—his mother sang and listened to show tunes; his dad played some trumpet and liked the music of Igor Stravinsky, among others. “I developed a taste for the classics when I got to early teens,” La Traille says. By high school, he’d begun scoring music. “Fortunately, I was young, naïve and innocent, stumbling into it,” he says. “And you had that sort of cockiness, like, well, ‘Yeah, I can do this,’ y’know?”

After high school, he studied music at Arizona State University; La Traille later taught advanced orchestration there. After taking a job at a Tower store in Phoenix, he moved to Sacramento in 1990 to work in the chain’s international division.

Among La Traille’s as-yet unrecorded works are a symphony in four movements, a viola concerto and a ballet titled Ojibwa. The latter he adapted from Ojibwa legends; La Traille is part Chippewa, a related tribe from North Dakota and Canada. He isn’t afraid to call the piece “derivative” of Russian music he admires. “It’s really in a similar style to Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite,” he says, “but the theme is American Indian.”

While talking about his symphony, La Traille comes up with what might be the best way of describing what he does best. “I sorta latched onto kind of a weird combination of innovative music,” he says, “trying to do something new, but within the framework of more traditional forms.”

It’s those weird combinations that often offer the nicest surprises.