EUGENE, Ore. — Down the road from Hayward Field at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, the conductor, composer and music professor Brian McWhorter was brooding.
McWhorter, tall and lanky, sat in his office surrounded by sheet music and trumpet mutes, stewing over his next assignment: to compose a musical score to accompany a 10,000-meter race taking place here Tuesday at the I.A.A.F. World Junior Championships.
It is possibly the first time that original music will be performed live here during one of track’s most punishing events at perhaps its most popular site. And the assignment created a “series of existential crises” for its composer.
Hayward Field is one of the few places where a 10K will fill the stands with fans watching a pack of runners complete 25 laps around a 400-meter oval, but McWhorter was nevertheless faced with a daunting question: What type of piece does one compose for 10K runners?
A month ago, when organizers approached McWhorter — who was a high school sprinter in nearby Portland before pursuing a music career playing trumpet, composing and conducting — he was befuddled by the request.
“I advised them against it,” McWhorter said. He eventually agreed, committing a 20-piece brass and percussion ensemble, too.
“Panic started setting in shortly thereafter,” he said. “And I’m still living in that panicked world.”
McWhorter, who studied trumpet and composition at the Juilliard School before coming to the music department at the University of Oregon, has become something of a minicelebrity for the mayhem of the creative process. He has constructed bathtubs adorned with metal tubing, befitting Frankenstein, in the name of creativity and is one of the artists featured in a documentary, “I Live for Art,” which profiles artists and their creative processes.
The 10K project, aptly titled “Music for 10,000 Meters,” has thrown that already-chaotic process into a free fall. The 10K, a run of 6.2 miles, has to hold the audience’s attention for about 30 minutes. Galen Rupp, an Oregon alumnus who still trains in the state, won the silver medal in the event at the 2012 London Games, ending a 48-year drought in podium finishes for American men. At the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, Shalane Flanagan, who also trains in Oregon, won the bronze medal.
Yet organizers of the event, hosted by I.A.A.F., track and field’s governing body, gave McWhorter little coaching on what they wanted. “We wanted to be sure the athletes are not put to sleep, or those in the stands,” said Vin Lananna, associate athletic director at Oregon.
McWhorter ran around in silence and in place in his office. Sometimes, he said, doing that nauseated him. Other times, it helped hone his sense of rhythm.
McWhorter placed a moratorium on anything related to “Chariots of Fire,” which was on a continuous audio loop on the track at the London Games. “Then you’d have to ask the runners to run in slow motion, maybe on a sandy beach,” he said.
The suggestion of an Italian tarantella was dismissed — “Do you want to hear that for 25 laps? I’d shoot myself.”
Then came the question that looms over the heads of many composers: What would David Byrne do?
As McWhorter is a trumpet player, much of his work has been avant-garde. But three months ago, McWhorter was told he had severe nerve damage in his throat, probably ending his trumpet career at age 39. “This summer has really been about me coming to terms with putting the horn in the box after 25 years,” he said.
As a result, his first attempts at composing the 10K piece were, in McWhorter’s words, “strange, depressed, hard, turgid and heavy.”
He turned to coaching podcasts to try to pep things up. He pondered the artistic implications of the track’s oval shape. He examined the kick of the final 100 meters.
“I thought, what if I could help the runners?” He studied their breathing, the rhythm of their heartbeats. The sweet spot, it turns out, is around 150 to 170 beats per minute.
“So there is a rhythm that’s intriguing to me,” he said.
He watched 10K footage and the races of Steve Prefontaine, the 1970s track star, as well as elite N.C.A.A. 10Ks.
“It’s a funny thing to watch Prefontaine,” he said. “He’s a rock ’n’ roll runner. And it’s fun to watch in that way — the no holds barred, almost like if a boxer ran a 10K. And then I started getting into, O.K., this is a power thing.”
But McWhorter began to notice a particular tradition at Hayward Field. As runners glide around the part of the track near a statue of Bill Bowerman, the track coach and Nike co-founder, fans begin slow clapping. His composition began to veer toward the audience and how fans relate to the runners. The clapping can go as low as 90 beats per minutes to 140 beats per minute, far slower than the runners’ rhythm.
“That’s actually designed to push the runners,” he said. “It’s like they’re trying to get behind the runners.”
A minimalist by nature, McWhorter said the final product would feature power chords, open intervals, a pulsing to magnify the clapping. It will be 30 minutes, but as a conductor he will have some leeway to adjust the time. “It’s thinking about the brass instruments as percussionists themselves,” he said. There’s some room for improvisation, based on the crowd. Melodies, for the most part, have been scuttled.
“The last thing I want is anyone walking away with an ear worm, like a tune that they could have in their head,” McWhorter said. “That, to me, is just not the point of this thing.”
McWhorter, who works with the Eugene Ballet Company, began to see the runners as dancers. “There’s almost something primal about it,” he said. “In ballet, there’s real drama in the narrative and with the run, it’s just like, go, go, go.”
The musicians will be staged in the middle of the track near the shot put, and it’s anyone’s guess what acoustics will be like once the stadium is filled. McWhorter said he was also careful not to have snare drums or anything too loud at the start of the race, lest they be confused with the starting gun.
“Facing a race, it’s a problem,” he said. “Much like trying to write music for a race is a problem, a creative problem. It’s something that you can’t quite wrap your head around. Your mind gets neurotic. You get prone to whatever maladies you might be prone to.”
With less than three days to rehearse with his band before the race Tuesday night, McWhorter was the first to admit that his performance anxiety rivaled that of the athletes in the race.
“You just have to run when the gun goes off,” he said.
See the story at nytimes.com