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Pursuing a passion


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Inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach, Elliot Butler composes orchestration for the joy of hearing it performed

Elliot Butler Genesis Photography/William Garcia

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, March 13. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: A young composer.

Outside the music world, modern overtures and symphonies don’t get a lot of attention. Neither do the composers behind them, but their skillset is remarkable.

NICK EICHER, HOST: What’s it like to write classical music in 2024, in the shadow of Beethoven and Bach? Here is WORLD Senior Writer Kim Henderson.

BUTLER: My name is Elliot Butler. I’m 26 years old. My wife and I live in Bloomington, Illinois.

KIM HENDERSON, SENIOR WRITER: Sounds like a regular guy, huh? This Elliot Butler. Until you get past the Packers sweatshirt. And the day job in insurance. Then you find out what really makes Elliot Butler tick.

BUTLER: I’m a composer.


Composing, as in for an orchestra. With bass clefs and treble clefs and notes, hundreds of them, dancing all over a page.


And somehow it turns into this.

Butler’s parents were both music majors in college. They passed their love for music down to him like a set of family silver.

BUTLER: She was always, you know, playing piano and singing. My dad would occasionally pull out the trombone.

Butler took piano lessons before he started carrying a cello case. He played in his community's youth orchestra. Then one evening, as a teenager, he went to a major performance.


And he heard that, the sound of Austrian composer Emil Von Reznicek’s “Donna Diana.”

Everything changed for Butler.

BUTLER: So it's just like, wow, this music is awesome. I'd love to be able to do this someday.

He went home and started creating chord progressions on the piano, making simple melodies. Then he put what he wrote into a notation program.

BUTLER: Where I could hear it played by different instruments in this, like a computerized version of an orchestra.

Yes, computerized. Technology has revolutionized composition.

BUTLER: Some kids will play sports, some kids will play computer games. And I certainly liked doing both of those things. But our computer game time was always restricted. Our composition time was not as restricted.

So Butler kept working at his craft. With a computer, he built his own orchestra.

BUTLER: Two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, two trombones and a tuba, I think was the woodwinds and the brass . . .

And a percussion section…

BUTLER: Timpani, snare drum, bass drum and cymbal, and a string section. So it wasn't a large orchestra by any means that I was writing for. But it was an orchestra.

Then, in 2015, he entered a composition competition for high school students.

BUTLER: It was a national one, and I expected nothing from it. But then I find out when they released the preliminary results that I was a finalist. And that was so cool. The possibility that I might be able to hear a professional orchestra play my pieces.

That acknowledgement of his talent spurred him on. Butler decided to major in composition.

But in college, his Christian worldview put him at odds with some types of modern classical music.

BUTLER: I didn't love the idea that music is supposed to sound kind of angry, and to represent these darker sides of humanity. And I wanted to kind of build my own musical idea kind of around what humans are really designed to listen to.

He says that influenced the type of composition he pursued.

BUTLER: It doesn't mean that the music of others is objectively bad. It's just my musical tastes and my musical philosophy is that I like composing using the harmony that Johann Sebastian Bach did.

Bach, who wrote SDG, which stands for Soli Dei gloria, “glory to God alone,” at the bottom of all his compositions.

Butler went on to get his masters degree. While he was finishing his thesis, he heard something about the orchestra he grew up listening to. The Illinois Valley Symphony Orchestra.

BUTLER: That they have decided to, for their next orchestra season, so the 2023-2024 orchestra season, feature a piece by a local composer.

The process is actually known as a “call for scores.” Butler wanted the commission.

He wanted to hear that orchestra perform one of compositions. So he got to work.


The winning result was an 11-minute piece called “An Overture to Harmony.”

Butler attended two rehearsals before the big premiere last November. It’s good for the musicians to connect with a face. And he got to make suggestions.

BUTLER: You know, I'd like to hear a little bit more horn here, if possible. Or if you could pick this section up just a little bit in tempo…

Having a piece played by an orchestra in front of an audience is every composer’s goal.


But these days, Butler is back at it. After his day job, he comes home and sits down in front of a keyboard, waiting for inspiration.

He’s eager to complete another composition.

BUTLER: Yeah. Yeah, it's been a while.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Kim Henderson.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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