2001.02.26 — The Baltimore Messenger — Interview

Reprint from The Baltimore Messenger, February 26, 2001

Composing career success

Roland Park resident’s music takes her up the scale

By Larry Perl

Lorraine Whittlesey had no plans to watch the Grammy Awards on TV or use her invitation to attend the show in Los Angeles this week

Although the Roland Park resident is a Grammy voter and, indirectly, a past nominee, she’s too busy writing and producing music in her home studio on Roland Avenue.

The classically trained pianist has composed commissioned works for the U.S. Navy, The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and The National Trust, among others.

Eighteen of her compositions have premiered at Carnegie Hall.

She is also a former rock keyboardist and songwriter, whose New Wave band, The Lines, had a hit single, “Let’s Be Modern” in 1980.

“I love all kinds of music,” says Whittlesey, who incorporates classical, blues, gospel and pop into her instrumental and choral works.

Her philosophy of composing is, “Try and try and try, and some things work out and some don’t.”

Whittlesey studied TV and film scoring at UCLA and contributed background music for the TV show “Fantasy Island.”

Her music even appears on a hot-selling, Grammy-nominated hip-hop album.

Featured on the 1999 CD “Nature’s Fury” by the rap group Naughty By Nature is the hit song “Wicked Bounce,” which was originally a Whittlesey ballad called “How Can You Live Without Me?”

Somehow, it caught the ear of the band’s producer. Now, Whittlesey gets royalty checks from around the world and even from Internet downloads.

Whittlesey, 53, has had a successful career with or without a hip-hop credit.

“I don’t think it’s my claim to fame,” she says. “I think it’s just something that happened along the way. I’ve done very well.”

As a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Whittlesey voted this year for Grammy nominees ranging from rock’s Radiohead to classical pianist Murray Perahia.

The letters ASCAP on the license plate of her green minivan announce her as a long-time member of the licensing organization American Society of Composers and Producers.

She is working on musical projects including a cabaret-style collaboration with the noted singer and performance artist Joyce Scott. They recorded a critically acclaimed CD, “Try This.” She is producing an upcoming concert March 16 by the Dunbar Jazz Band. And she is artist-in-residence at Western Maryland College and has composed a choral work that will be performed April 22 in honor of the investiture of the college’s new president.

The U.S. Naval Choir, Peabody Children’s Chorus and Concert Artists of Baltimore have performed her music. The Naval composition in 1986 was to honor a new aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt.

Whittlesey won a 2001 composition award from the Maryland State Arts Council.

All of which verifies her claim: “I’m busier than three people need to be.”

At home with her work

Whittlesey and her husband, Markell, a computer programmer and Gilman School graduate, live in an original Roland Park house that she likes to call “a work in progress.”

Both work from home and have virtually identical business names. His is Private Sector Inc.; hers is Private Sector Productions, Ltd., and her Web address is private-sector.com.

In her third-floor studio, two keyboards are hooked up to a computer, one for typing and the other for composing. She can program the latter to sound like any musical instrument she wants to write for, even a glockenspiel. Also hooked to the computer are a mixer and a synthesizer module.

“This technology doesn’t make you a composer,” Whittlesey says. “But it does for you what a word processor does for a writer – makes it easier to compose. It’s an enabler.”

At the low-tech end of the spectrum is an old Farfisa organ in a carrying case marked The Lines. It’s from her days as a New Wave rocker.

She refuses to be pigeonholed as anything more than a writer, composer and producer.

“I can’t be defined,” she says. “I can’t be characterized, and who would want to be?”

Making of a Grammy voter

Whittlesey’s first claim to fame was as a young child, when she appeared for two years in the Peanut Gallery on the Howdy Doody TV show. She had a formal upbringing in Long Island, N.Y., and attended a convent boarding school in Pennsylvania.

But she didn’t go to college and considers herself mostly self-taught.

“I’m not an academic person. I like to find who’s really good at something and then study with that person,” she says.

In her younger years in New York, she gave piano lessons, was assistant to a radio station president, played in various ensembles and co-founded The Lines, a post-punk group that took its name from the clothes lines in the drummer’s back yard.

The Lines were a modest success, scoring a single and rubbing shoulders with the likes of The Ramones on the concert tour circuit.

In addition to writing and producing, Whittlesey also judges music as a Grammy Awards voter. Every fall, the recording academy mails her a thick paperback book with thousands of artists who are recommended for nomination by academy members. Members then choose five finalists in each category in which they have the expertise to vote.

The Naughty by Nature album was recommended last year but wasn’t one of the five finalists.

Whittlesey takes her Grammy duties seriously. She gets many complimentary CDs in the mail from artists seeking nominations and although she rarely nominates, she votes in many categories after giving the nominated recordings a careful review.

“You have to listen to them, and not just once,” she says.

Her picks this year include “Kid A” by Radiohead as Album of the Year, R&B singer Jill Scott as Best New Artist and “Bach: Goldberg Variations,” performed by Perahia, as Best Classical Album.

She won’t vote in some categories such as Best Album Notes or Spoken Word Recording for Children, because, she says, “I’m not qualified to vote in all categories.”

She is not very interested in going to the Grammys and usually gives her tickets to family members. Nor is she inclined to watch the Grammys on TV, although this year, her friend Les Paul, the legendary guitarist and technology innovator, is an honoree.

She doesn’t feel compelled to find out the winners on Grammy Night.

“I’ll read it the next morning,” she says.