Russell Peterson, professor of saxophone at Lawrence University in Appleton WI, interviewed David Maslanka on 30 November 1998 after premieres of Mountain Roads for saxophone quartet, commissioned and performed by the Transcontinental Saxophone Quartet and Song Book for alto saxophone and marimba, commissioned and performed by Steve Jordheim and Dane Richeson there. This interview touches a wide range of topics, including the composition process, David’s saxophone music, especially the Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, the relationship between the composer and the audience, working with consortia, recordings vs. live music, David’s pastel drawings, Sea Dreams, UFO Dreams, the Mass and much more. This interview was originally published in the Fall 1999 Saxophone Symposium
Russell Peterson: Today is an exciting day for saxophonists, two new pieces for saxophone by David Maslanka being premiered! How do you feel about having two new works that you’ve written come into being?
David Maslanka: It’s a lot all at once! And the bringing into place of any one thing – and both of these (Song Book and Mountain Roads) are sizable pieces, I hadn’t realized how large they were. It’s a lot of emotional work to put all of that into place. You guys do the technical end of it and prepare to your best musical ability, and of course you put your hearts into it and do the soul work of what’s being said here. For me, the most interesting thing is understanding what drew everything to this spot in the universe for this to happen, and what forces are happening here. What needs to be said by the musical performers, it’s not only my music, but my music is the vehicle for something that has to be said. And you guys are the vehicle for something that has to be said. And we won’t know what that is until it’s said! The preparation is done, and then the voice speaks.
If you were to think of it in religious terms, it would be the arrival of the holy spirit at that point of everything prepared, and then the voice speaks. That’s what this feels like to me, so it’s always a surprise. I can get nervous about stuff, but then at a certain point I say, well my nervousness doesn’t matter. It’s just a body thing happening, and it has nothing at all to do with what’s happening. So I can let that go, take a deep breath and trust that the thing that wants to happen will find it’s way because we’ve done our preparation. As for what’s supposed to happen with the music, it’s hard to make words about this, and to make them make sense. The opening of myself to find a piece of music is finding as best I’m able some kind of “authentic voice.” I always use those words, the thing that comes through me, the sense of voice that wants to be spoken. This creates a space in which other people find themselves and I’m drawn to.
And it’s not me isolated, it was your idea that I write a sax quartet, it was Steve and Dane’s idea that I write a marimba and sax duo. That impetus comes through you, touches me and then my response comes back to you and the thing comes together like that. What we’ve created here is something that’s written on paper but is a living set of dynamic relationships that want to come into place. It’s all kinds of sound wavelengths, if you saw it out on a chart it goes up and down and has narrows and highs – it’s sound waves that you’re making here and it’s a living thing. So what is made is a space for a living thing to happen and that’s the touching of our time frame here by something that is quite beyond time. It seems to me that is what we are about.
So if one of the people here at the concert do, then they find that this is a possible path to take, this is a possible step to take into a bigger, different, new “soul space,” if you want to think of it that way. And for players who’s repertoire is not huge, like the marimba and the saxophone, which does not have a huge historical repertoire like the piano or violin, there is a sense of adventure to find new spaces, a need to expand. So, it’s always such a pleasure for me when I see a group such as your quartet which takes up a piece…suddenly you guys own it! Oh yeah, this is our piece! Wham, you got it! (laughs) It’s as if it always existed in a way! So then you own that space, it’s at the edge of experience, at the edge of being a human being. And another piece will come your way and you’ll own that space. The edge keeps growing and proliferating. There’s a long answer to a short question!
RP: Can you talk a little about your compositional process. After you first get a request to write a piece of music, where does it go from there?
DM: The first thing that I do is to generally let it sit in the back of my mind for a little bit, because I can’t immediately begin a new piece, it has to wait until it’s turn comes up. So it’s sitting back there doing whatever, I don’t have a clue. But when the active process starts, the thing that I do is a meditative approach to it. It’s also been described in the term “active imagining,” that is to put thought forward in the mind, “I’m going to write a saxophone quartet,” I don’t have a clue what this is supposed to be, so this is the nervous part of the composer life is that you start off with a new piece that you don’t really have a clue what this is supposed to be!
The process is different for different people, and some people more quickly form an idea and quickly something comes to the mind. I start by taking long walks and opening my mind up and receiving pictures. It’s a process that I can only explain as dreaming while awake. It’s an imaginative process but it’s a clear sense of being able to get into my conscience mind, through it, and go into the part of the mind that people normally go when they dream. I’ve learned how to do this over some years time, so it’s possible to do what amounts to a psychic inversion here, that is, the conscious mind can move inward and find that space that is normally only available in sleep. In that space I can ask the question about the people that are involved and I’ll focus on the ones that are involved. Or in the case that I have tapes of people, I will have listened to the performances and I will begin to ask what these people feel like.
Visions form, I begin to see energy of the people involved, and where it is at that moment. It’s not mind reading as such, that is I can’t tell you what you had for breakfast, but it has to do with finding the whole space that that person, or group is in, then asking to feel what wants to happen through that space. What will form are pictures, for the most part, of people and things happening to people. And that will give me a sense of the structure of persons inner lives, and a sense of the pain – but particularly the pain, because everybody has their own particular pain. And I begin to see what that is and to move it internally myself, that is to allow it to sense whatever emotion it wants to have. Sounds vague, but it’s a very real process to me how it works.
This then begins to translate itself as a place in the mind, somewhere below the verbal space where all these impulses are the same, so the things that are going to become pictures and music or become poetry or books, there is an energy space which is where that is simply energy which isn’t formed yet. And out of that space where I’ve just been talking to, that is where people live in their souls, comes the impulse to do a certain vibration. Now it seems that the function of music is to be a harmonizing element for the soul, that is to – these are hard things to talk about – to bring individuals and groups of people into harmony with one another.
And I’ve always thought of music as a life raft. Through my own particular emotional difficulties over many years, the music was the constant, the thing that allowed me to organize my mind and my heart. So that’s what needs to come forward. There’s a particular series of vibrations which must come forward in order for a particular person or a group to be harmonized. So that comes up through me and becomes the musically impulse. I have a hard time deciding how it is that you connect that impulse to what actually comes out, but I stopped questioning that a long time ago and just simply accept the fact this happens, that the music happens.
As to why it happens in the form it happens, I am prepared in my conscious mind with all my years of training to do certain things. I have my talents, and they have their limits and I work within that framework. My own particular interest has been, for years, in the music of Bach and the Bach Chorales have been a constant companion for a long time. So these pieces seem to want to speak. The idea for the saxophone quartet suddenly sprang to mind, I have no idea why, that it should be in some way a cantata for these instruments. The chorales are used in the Bach Cantatas and in the bigger pieces, in the Passions are as emotional focal points, they are very, very interesting that way. They’ll be arias, they’ll be orchestral pieces and so on, and he almost telegraphs where he’ll place a chorale. Suddenly you’ve got this plain, four-part choral which acts, in my ear, as a very sharply focusing emotional lens to the musical space. And then he’ll go off and do the story telling again all of a sudden the chorale comes back, almost like the Greek chorus commenting on the activity that has taken place.
So, these chorales have gotten into my mind and my heart, and they have been generating music now for quite a long time in their own form, like there are a couple that appear in the quartet. They are the thing that pushed the more elaborate music. So it struck me to write a piece which would have this quality of an Overture, and Arias, and Chorale presence and a Finale. And when I just sort of laid that out, suddenly it looked like that many movements, and I said oh, alright, and it became impelled to make a piece that size. With the other piece, Song Book, there seems to be something happening in my writing which is related to Mountain Roads, because the quartet is in six movements, the Song Book is in seven movements. These are somewhat briefer, song-like pieces which have a particular thing to say, a particular mood and attitude to express, then they’re done.
This is in high contrast to the Saxophone Sonata which is a much bigger shape per movement . A broader, single emotional landscape with each movement in the Sonata, especially in the last movement. But in the Song Book, no one piece is huge. But they are emotional scenes which then have to be tied together to make this bigger unit of the whole book. In the process of actually putting notes on paper, it seems kind of haphazard. My own way of going about is once I’ve done my preparation with it I just subscribe just to simply just start writing and whatever happens, whatever comes to mind I put down on paper.
It seems to be one of the tricks of composing, many composers disregard simple ideas because they seem too simple and they seem kind of dumb. If you have an idea which goes (singing) “do-sol-me”, that’s in about ten thousand pieces already! But if an idea like that strikes me really hard it will have a particular glow to it. The notes and the rhythms may be simple, and the pitches unexceptional in anyway, and yet they will have about them a glow, which says there is something here underneath all that. And when I get an idea like that that has a simple shape, simple contour, simple rhythm, but it has a glow, it is telling me that it has a whole world of feeling that that idea is covering. And then it’s my work to move into that idea, move down deeply into the simple thing and to find out what’s happening here.
So it’s a matter of just letting the mind open up wide and receiving onto paper everything that comes out. It becomes a sorting process at a certain point. This goes here, this goes here, this belongs to this piece and so on, so you end up with piles of paper that you’re elaborating a bit at a time. Sometimes they cohere and make an entire single unit, other times they want to be separate pieces, as what we have in front of us.
RP: I’m interested in knowing a little about your inspiration for your Saxophone Sonata. We have some interesting program notes for Mountain Roads, but I don’t know much about the Saxophone Sonata.
DM: Well, the biggest inspiration for a composer is a commission! (laughs) I say it facetiously, but there’s two ways about going about composing, one is to be that person that is absolutely unconcerned with anything else in their minds accept what ever they want to produce, and they are relatively unconcerned about the performers, and the performers pick it up or not. And the number of composers who have written large volumes of music that nobody has ever played, there is probably quite a few of those. And that’s okay, but it’s not my way of going about things. A composers life always starts out as, nobody really wants you to do this. In fact, sometimes you get actively discouraged from doing it. And nobody really cares if you write a piece as a young composer. And it takes quite a lot of internal persistence to get to the point where that’s steady in you, and you know that you are a composer.
The inspiration for me of being asked, enters that cooperative thing that I’ve already talked about – that thing that wants to come into place because it is already cared about. One of my favorite models in composing is Joseph Haydn, because he was music director for Price Esterhazy for many years. His job was to have a certain amount of music prepared and rehearsed for specific events and specific days. So he had his calendar set up each year, this is what needs to be done, I need a symphony for here, I need a concerto for here, I need a fresh piece for the prince here, I need this, I need an opera, I need that, I need a string quartet! (laughs) He was working to that kind of demand and he was a tremendous craftsman, and he got it done, on time! Which I think is a very useful way about going about the life. It brings the music into a space where it wants to be, with that cooperative kind of thing with all people concerned.
So inspiration for the Saxophone Sonata takes me to the music of Allen Pettersson, a Swedish composer who wrote sixteen symphonies and died around 1970, I think [1980, ed.]. And the symphonies are dark and huge and a swirling kind of atmosphere to them. But they have an emotional kind of sledgehammer feel to them. In fact, I was listening to the second violin concerto, the piece runs about an hour, and the only way I could do that was to just lie on the floor on my back, close my eyes and just let the music come at me and not to think about it much. So, my imaginative thing was just running, and began to see all kinds of images and pictures but the music is just unrelenting. So that was kind of a starting point for some of the feelings that come through the Sonata, particularly the last movement.
The first movement, interestingly enough, has a reference point to the Franz Liszt B minor Sonata for piano. It’s only a reference in my mind, not an actual musically one. But the emotional power that Liszt generates, particularly in that B minor Sonata, which I think is a fabulous piece, is a thing which moved me in the writing of my own Saxophone Sonata. So not only is there an emotional kind of quality to the music, there is this wistful character and there is this “monster leaping on your face” kind of character to the piece. And the way which that works itself through it resolves itself into a big emotional kind of music.
In the second movement, the historical references, which I can perceive, have to do with madrigal writing of the sixteenth century. I’m particularly fond of those kinds of things, and some of the qualities of the madrigals of Gesualdo. Chromatic experimentation of the sixteenth century which was quite extreme. The middle movement has a type of extended song feeling to it, an extended poem, very passionate piece and Gesualdo’s music was that way. It was in short things but these short statements of his were impassioned. So, there is something in me, I write lengthy pieces, and yet there is a poetic intensity about them that seems to be demanded at every step of the way.
And I think of pieces as ‘revelations’ if you want to think of a space opening and revealing something all of a sudden. There is this picture that happens, and then that space closes and that picture isn’t there anymore. A music performance is like that, you can’t just look at a piece of music, it doesn’t exist in time, it’s not like a picture of something that you can point at and see. The music happens instantly, and it’s all in memory and in anticipation. And once the sound is finished, all you have left is memory. The space in which that music happens closes and you are left with the vibration and that is it. So that is how it feels when I compose, the space opens, the vibration happens, the space closes.
RP: All of your music requires incredible control, huge dynamic contrasts, and incredible technical facility from the performers. Why do you write with such extremes for musicians?
DM: Because I’m a driven person! (laughs) Doesn’t look like it on the surface, I look fairly normal! What I just spoke about at some length, is this thing that wants to be spoken, and what I’ve discovered about myself over the years is that there is a tremendously passionate soul at work. And it was covered by an exterior for many years. So my outer demeanor is quiet and quite unassuming – very easily pass in a crowd. And so there isn’t a personal charisma that, say, a composer/performer like Leonard Bernstein would have. But, when that other thing that wanted to speak, when I discovered that “soul space,” when I discovered that that was different than my personality, and I discovered that I had a contact with it, this thing which became eruptive in me would burst out. I discovered it as a fairly young composer. I could be trying to write a piece of music and then all of a sudden without any warning something rather large would come out and rather quickly.
And I also discovered another thing, that if I got stuck at a certain point in a piece, the way I got through it was not by fussing at it, but sort of opening the mind to feel the fullest power of what wanted to happen. Younger composers tend to get to a powerful moment and squeeze it off, because it hurts too much to do that! And they get afraid of it. And performers are the same way. A performer can get to a certain intensity and then that’s it! And you know there is something more that has to be done. I think you yourself feel it very strongly in your own performance, how the level of power happens, because you have that full range. You can move it, then that thing in you has to move to a big power.
And I don’t think that you’re telling yourself to do that, the music is moving and you move and your whole system opens up and goes, bang! And opens up and allows the thing to happen. That doesn’t have anything to do with your conscious personality, accept your conscious personality can block it. But you’ve learned the pathway, through what ever tangle you have in your own head! (laughs) To open that and allow the thing which is not tangled to come banging through. This happens to me. So the power pushes and when I begin to hear the music and hear the specific instrument sounds that are coming through, then that energy is driven to do whatever it has to do. And that tends to be in extremes of technical demand and speed.
But once I hear it in my head, once I hear those sounds and the feelings that they want to do, I know that they are right. And so I write them down and then people have to wrestle with it. Happily, most people that wrestle with it come to terms and say yeah, we can do this. There is no attempt to show-off here and no attempt for extremes for their own sake, they happen because the power is such that it is driven to do this. On the other hand what is happening more in the two new pieces (Mountain Roads and Song Book) there are some extreme moments in the saxophone quartet, but those extremes are often extremes of the other end, of pianissimo and of great sustaining. When you look at it on the page it just doesn’t look like anything at all! Just a string of dotted half notes and whole notes that may extend for a great length of time, what are you supposed to do with that? I know what it felt like, and so the performers find out in themselves the voice that wants to speak through that particular kind of extreme. So the music has gotten simpler looking through time, but this idea which I talk about is difficult whole notes.
RP: Do you ever seek advice from performers while you’re writing?
DM: I’ll have discussions with performers before I start to write, but during the course of writing the piece, I don’t. I’ll make the piece and then I’ll have further discussions. Like with your group, you learned the quartet, then we discussed whether to put it in D or Db major and we found that the whole cast of the piece would work better all over to being in Db, and I’m happy to make that accommodation. The Song Book, since I don’t play either saxophone nor marimba, I am perfectly happy to take suggestions from the players. I’ll write what I want to hear and then, Dane Richardson in this case, goes carefully through the part, works it up to the best of his ability and then tells me “I can’t do this, I can’t do tremolo on a line of eight notes because it’s just too fast.” There are no massive revisions, but I will simply accommodate what the good performer knows is a better path through what I’ve tried to say.
RP: You just finished a large consortium project – Concerto for two horns and Wind Orchestra [Sea Dreams] There are efforts being made now to organize another consortium project to commission a new saxophone and wind orchestra concerto from you [Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Wind Ensemble]. This seems to be the way to get composer like yourself to write large, new pieces for instrumentalists. How do you feel about the whole consortium idea?
DM: I think it’s a really good way to go about things. It creates a particular problem for me in the way I work, because my writing is personal. And I find that I have to have a specific personal reference point for writing a piece. So if you were to head a consortium project and you had brought in ten other people to participate, I don’t know those ten other people! And it’s going to be very difficult to get to know them. They might be able to contribute something to it but my focus is going to be on you and on your situation, your circumstances and the piece will be made out of that tiny reference point so that it feels right. Once that happens, then I know that I’m okay and the piece can have a life. It’s the same with any composing, whether it’s consortium or not, the piece has to have a specific time and a specific place, it can not be written in general for everybody, it has to be very specific to a place and a moment and what needs to happen. Once I feel the power of that, then I know that anyone else touching this piece will be able to find the power.
On the double horn concerto, there were ten schools involved and I would have visited all ten of these places in order to work with the people. I wound up working with five of these ensembles before the premiere took place. It’s really useful business for me to be in the same place with the performers. Our work in the last couple days has been fabulous! You guys come with a fine technical preparation and yet you understand how much we’ve moved in a brief time. That’s my concern with a consortium project, that I somehow be able to touch all the bases with all the people that are performing it so that it can turn out right.
I think it’s an unhappy thing for people to be at a distance from a composer. They are a contributing party, but they haven’t met the composer and when the piece comes their way the composer doesn’t go work with them, so they are left with this thing, which they may do fairly well, but it’s sort of an orphaned baby! (laughs) So I’ve got a real concern and a real need to find that personal space with each of the players. I find it terrifically useful (to work with the performers) from their end and mine as well. The usefulness to me is that when I hear people rehearse and work with them, is that all this energy comes right, straight back to me and I can hear intimately into the textures that have been created.
I get to be in that live space with that music happening and the terrific nature of the living sound is at work. That’s my energy, that’s what feeds me as a composer. I have to be apart to write the music, but to remain isolated is incorrect. I can’t do that. I sort of insisted on (working with the performers) over the years and have wound up being able to work very well with performers, it’s a very rare case indeed that I don’t get along with the people I am making music with. And even rarer case when they don’t ask me to come for a premiere!
RP: Your compositions encompasses so many different ideas and styles, where do all those things come from?
DM: When I’m composing, I don’t eliminate anything as a possibility on the onset. I remember my primary teacher at Michigan State University (H. Owen Reed) had this thing about consistency in a composition, that is, if your basic harmonic language that you started with was chords in fourths, well, by God you have to write chords in fourths, to be “consistent” with yourself! And so on, all the way through the textures, if you’re writing contrapuntal textures, then it should stay contrapuntal. I tested that out once when I was a young graduate student there. I wrote a piece which, within the space of two bars, went from tone clusters to triads! (laughs) We had a performance of it on a student recital and my teacher, Owen Reed, was in the back of the hall and got so enthusiastic! All this applause came from him! And yelled “Encore! Encore!” So we had to out there and play it again! I never said anything about it, but it told me something very important! That is, the thing that wanted to be in a piece of music is more important then your rational thought about what should be in a piece of music.
That sort of set me on a course, that the rational mind is the organizer of what wants to come through but it can not be the dictator. And the thing that pushes you to make a certain music is not rational and cannot be predicted. Certain regularities happen in the music because of the way my conscious mind is trained. But when the impulse moves to do a certain thing, then I respect that as best I can. I recognize the limits of my information and the limits of my style and all that and recognize the things I cannot do and how my music is quite different from lots of other composers.
Every time I hear a piece of music that really strikes my attention, for instance you were playing the Steve Reich New York Counterpoint and I was sitting there thinking, wow! That’s neat, that sounds really, really neat! And I know that I’ll never write a piece like that! (laughs) But it will stick in the mind somewhere, maybe some aspect, of some element of it will percolate and show up in something else. So I keep looking like a kid in a candy store window, “Wow, look at that! That’s neat! Look at all that stuff! I could do that! I could do reggae if I wanted to!” But then the filter brings forward the voice that’s been established. And I think the sense of where all that stuff comes from has to do with the accepting aspect of things.
Now composing, as performing, turns out to be highly critical. That is, you must produce as a performer the tight-wire act. This material is written on the page, and if you’re working with other people, you have to produce an extremely, tightly organized set of responses within the given set of time. And it is keen to doing a highwire walk across the Grand Canyon! And the composer act is the same way, that you produce a precise manuscript. The miracle and paradox is that once this is in place, once this tightly organized construction is in place and you have done all the work as performers to bring yourself to it, that is, the years of training to be able to play the instrument in the first place.
Then the miracle happens in which “free-play” suddenly appears. And that’s where the musical ideas come from for me. I’m well-enough trained so that the music speaking when it wants to happen has a free flow and it’s not hung up in technique or lack there of. I can do what I want to do and what I need to do, it’s already there. I have studied harmony, I have studied counterpoint, I have studied form, I have studied orchestration, etc. and it’s all there. So when the impulse happens it can flow without a whole lot of resistance. So what sometime feels like quixotic things and sudden movements and changes will happen because there is the impulse to move and then the ability to move with it.
RP: You’ve recently began drawing.
DM: Yes, the drawing came out of the fact that in my 55th year, I suddenly started getting nervous! (laughs) Anxiety began to overtake after all these years. It was incapacitating and crippling, I had to find out something about it. So I went back into therapy work again for the sake of finding out what it was about. And one of the things that came out of that was a suggestion to draw. I’ve always had an interest in visual arts and have been a doodler forever and I discovered in a fairly short amount of time of working with magic markers and paper that it didn’t satisfy me. Then I discovered pastel chalks, and that did satisfy me, a lot! And rather quickly got into the whole process of drawing a lot. So in the space of the last six or seven months, I’ve produced over 200 drawings.
Sometimes that competes with the composing. I go into the studio and there’s the drawing stuff there and the composing stuff over there, and I go straight to the drawing! But they have opened something in my head the same way composing does. It’s really interesting to have a blank piece of paper in front of you and all your colors are ready and to let yourself seemingly randomly pick a color and you don’t have a preconceived notion of what’s supposed to be on that paper, and so it’s exactly the same business as writing music. And what I’ve discovered from the drawing business is that color is the element of feeling. So physical colors: red, orange, various shades of blues and green, are emotional tones and when I start into those things these colors form under my fingers and I go with the emotional feel of it in making the shapes that want to happen. Sometimes these shapes are abstract, and sometimes they turn into real images of things but it’s never preplanned and the thing that comes out on the page is an emotional picture, almost like a poem.
Then, about a month ago, my wife suggested that I try drawing left handed. Because the left handed part is the young part that didn’t have a voice. The right-hand is associated with the rational mind, it’s the logical side, it can plan things and do things. The left-hand, for the right-handed person, is the non-rational, the emotional side – at least for me. And it produces its own thing! Surprisingly, the pictures are just radically different from right hand to left hand. I’ve found, curiously, if you’re right-handed and you try to draw left-handed, it sounds really clumsy but I’ve found that I’m quite fluent in drawing with my left hand. I can’t do fine detail very well, but I can do all the gesture work quite nicely.
RP: Do you see any correlation between your artwork and your music?
DM: Well yes! Funny you should mention that! Mountain Roads was written before all of this, about a year and a half ago. But it has these relatively short poetic movements. And Song Book is very much a set of drawings, emotional drawings if you will. So this business of drawing an emotional space and leaving it, and drawing another, and then another, and then another, which will have their relationships. So if you look at a whole series of drawings you can see an evolution of certain things going on but each of them has it’s area of emotional work that wanted to present itself. The drawings come up in series, and this Song Book came up in a series of pieces as well.
I am writing a work now, for my son, for euphonium and wind ensemble [UFO Dreams (1999)] and the same thing is happening, I’ve starting sketching on nine movements with this piece! And I can’t do that to him or his high school band! So I’m going to have to make some selections. That way of going on about things, that is, of making the relatively brief gesture and letting it be. As opposed to worrying about making a huge construction out of it, is what’s been happening now. So I’ve been moving myself, or being moved in a different direction. I recognize several sound periods in composing, and came to a huge conclusion with my Mass, which was preformed in 1996.
Once that Mass was completed I just didn’t know who I was musically for a while after that. This huge thing got done and I was exhausted and just couldn’t think, musically. And then when I started up again – I’ve written a bunch of music since then but each piece has been hard to do and has started with far more sketching then I’ve had to do before. So I might make just this pile of sketches and wind up using a portion of it to make the piece that I’m working at and the rest of it will just sit and become other pieces or they’ll just sit and not be used. So it’s been groping for the past couple years to find out who I am, now, at this point.
And the results have a lot to do with the Bach Chorales, which have shown up in both these new works. Overtly in the saxophone quartet and quite in a covered way in the Song Book. But there are at least two chorale melodies used in the Song Book. One of which is overtly stated as a chorale between the saxophone and marimba and others which have taken the melody of a chorale and made into a song. This has a long tradition of course in the history of music, of our Western tradition coming out of Gregorian Chant or chant melodies we use as the basis for other compositions then remade, and remand, and remade and so on.
But for me it’s the whole idea of “found objects,” if you want to think of it that way. I often think of my composing as “found objects,” another piece of music or another idea might be the impetus for it. I’ve felt okay about incorporating chorale melodies because they have about them a certain timelessness and nonspecific kind of thing. If I were to take someone else’s theme from a Sonata or something of that sort, I think I’d feel uneasy about that, but the chorale melodies have a kind of common property aspect to them which I find I can then take and then have myself worked on by them and then they come out remade and they form new music. The chorale pieces seem to be a reference point and a “touchstone.”
It’s a very interesting thing to have that kind of touchstone, it’s a reference point, a kind of limited one. One of the themes that has come in this conversation is that there are strict limits that composing demands, strict limits and out of that comes “free-play.” The chorales represent that element of strict organization within a very small space. They are between 18 and 25 measures long, each of them and in that space the composer, Bach in this case, has created a universe. He has taken a given melody, which he borrowed from another source and then composed a fabric of four vocal lines, each of which is an independent melody and each of which works in cooperation with the other to produce the woven fabric of sound. This intrigues me all to heck! And so I’ll spend hours staring at these things and writing them myself!
And in an interesting way, it’s like the child learning the paths of the neighborhood. The child on the tricycle which will go out the gate and down the street and down to the corner and come back home and say, “Mom, I went down to the corner! Did you see me do it?” And they go back and do it again! And again and again and again and again until that pathway is burned into that child’s mind. And out of that ability to move away from mom and down the street, eventually is the ability to be an adult who moves out into the world and does whatever he has to do. This is exactly how the Bach chorales work in my own mind, as the tricycle! (laughs)
RP: Do you fell that an audience must understand a piece of music, should composers write for an audience in mind? Or is composing solely for the composer.
DM: I think we’ve already entered that question and it’s a sharing of a thing. Now “understand” what the heck does that mean? I’ll tell you when I conceive a piece of music I always visualize the performance space. And I visualize it in several ways: one, with myself as the absolute center of it and the performance space all around me, and there are other times where I see myself at the back of the hall, and the stage is all lit and the performing ensemble is on the stage and I watch it at work and I hear it at work. And sometimes, in my imagination, I’ll just sort of sit there and say, “What do you guys sound like today?” And listen to that image in my head producing sound and say, oh, that’s interesting! Sort of forecasting what the feel of that is.
So I’m the audience at that point and I’m always looking at the performance of the piece I’m making from the performance aspect so that it feels right from that. And once I’m satisfied as a listener to what I’m writing, then I know that other people can be satisfied as well. And once I’m satisfied, I know that a general audience, that has some sort of attunement to music, will also find the satisfaction in it. What this means is that I’ve began to tune into the common musical language that we all speak. And the challenge that comes is not so much in new techniques or strange things that an audience has to absorb, in terms of language elements, but the challenge is in the soul nature that wants to come through in the voice of that particular piece.
And things that you’ve discovered, for example, when you first sent me a tape of Mountain Roads last year and my response was for the most part was, nicely played but the energy needs to be higher and more incessant. And when I write forte that means forte and so on. So you can see the evolution that took to play, say the very opening of the piece. Your first approach to it was to start off nice and to die away. And then my suggestion was that it stays full and bright. It’s a simple musical language on the page which you can play easily and make sound easily, yet the emotional statement that wants to be made through that language is of an order that maybe was surprising to you.
And then the force that you felt had to come through, once my description was given, then fell into place for you. You could feel it, you said oh, that’s what wants to happen there and then suddenly you’re playing it. And it’s really interesting because when you had the master class with the Lawrence University student sax quartet yesterday, which you were sitting side by side with them and you heard them play the opening to Mountain Roads and you realized that they were not understanding!
RP: They did the same thing we did!
DM: Right, they played what they saw on the page and then the Transcontinental quartet played what was also on the page, but you now understood it emotionally and the whole space just goes electric and brightens up! That learning, as performers, of the voice of the music then goes out to an audience. An Audience is at a disadvantaged place with new music. The composer has lived with it for a long time, the performers have lived with it for a long time and it’s a very intimate conversation going on between the two. And in the space of a single flashing instant the audience is going to receive all of this and they’re supposed to respond.
And I have to say for the record, the business of music criticism is a serious problem! Because people go in and hear once and presume to know enough to make pronouncements about it. Stupid and dangerous things happen that way. But on the other hand, individuals within an audience can be quite open and receive. If you were to trace back and think what attracted you to music in the first place, can you think back to the things that were vital experiences to you as a kid? I can point to specific instances where I heard a piece and it just turned me around. It only takes once to be knocked around by something.
There are several things about the audience to think about: one, we tend to think about a general audience and we tend to think about reaching a large number of people with the music and hence all the business with trying to get CDs out and all that stuff. Their useful in their own way, but the CD is already a diluted experience. It’s removed from the actual performance and so the person receiving it may or may not be in the emotional space to receive it fully. You can put on a CD and have a conversation, or suddenly my Saxophone Sonata will be background to a party! (laughs) Heaven forbid! That will be days in purgatory for whoever does that!
The open person can still receive from recordings and they are very valuable things, but it’s not how many people you reach, it’s the ones that need to hear you. It’s always nice to have an audience larger then the performing group, especially if you’re giving a solo recital! But I’ve grown accustomed to the idea that the people are there, who for whatever reason need to be there. There will be individuals who’ll be absolutely touched and moved by something that happened and that will change their lives and that’s the best that can be hoped for. That’s what it’s all about. And for other people they will hear and it will not make any immediate sense, and for some people it will be like a bomb going off some years later. And for other people it will just go over their head. But the slow, working process of music the way it sort of works it’s way through emotional space, like a worm going through dirt, it’s just a patience process.
One of the lessons in all this for the contemporary composer, people like Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg, who’s music has never been popular in any sense. It is of such vitality that it has continued to interest people profoundly but it doesn’t get played much. Things do come up, it’s played now and again but it is subterranean — it is there for serious people who need to know about this, they will come in contact with it, then they will have their own private involvement with this music and have their own growth. This exists not at the high level of public view but at the deeper level where it is working it’s own particularly chemistry out of sight. That’s where the kind of music we do exists, you’re not going to be Kenny G! God bless him for what he does, but that’s not where you are!
RP: You’ve written a lot of music for wind and percussion instruments, not a lot for strings, what are some of the reasons for this choice of genre?
DM: I was a wind player to start with, I played mostly in band when I was growing up. And the character of wind instruments struck me, especially when I went to Oberlin as an undergraduate. I got to play in the wind symphony there and the great pieces from the earlier parts of this century for winds: the Stravinsky Symphony of Wind Instruments, Schoenberg Chamber Symphonies, they also include strings. But the quality of wind sounds just struck me as sharply distinct and characterized and full of life.
Part of the process of the twentieth century has been the bringing forward of these individual wind, brass and percussion sounds as equally useful and valid as string sounds. There are several things at work here, one was fate. Every time I seemed to write orchestral music the door seemed to slam in my face. The opportunities just did not happen. It always surprised me that other people would write orchestra pieces and they would get performed but there was always this door that would slam in the face of my orchestral work. It’s as if God said “Go left! Instead of that way!”
When everyone starts out in composing the big tradition in western music is orchestral. You’ve got all those wonderful string quartets and symphonies and all the great romantic works through the twentieth century, it’s orchestral, orchestral, orchestral! And that’s serious music and the band is kind of this bastard child of the music world that is sort of an embarrassment to the “serious” composer. There is always the desire, if you’re going to be a composer then, yes, you aspire to write orchestral things and get in line to be one of the great composers of the age!
But the realities of orchestral life are, they don’t play so much new music and the capable orchestras devote themselves largely to the older music. And may give the living composer the occasional chance. There are very few living composers who get more then a couple performances out of any given piece and some feel fortunate to get those. Occasionally, there are works which come up which do achieve the currency and they get played for a length of time. I don’t have any great complaints about this, this is just how life is. With the professional orchestras there is this restriction of time and money and they play what the audiences are paying them to play, which is the traditional repertoire.
School orchestras are even worse, because there is very little adventure in them. They are in the business of training the Beethoven symphonies and the Mozart symphonies and training orchestral players to play their repertoire. Occasionally, they’ll break out and give a crown to the living composer, but it happens relatively infrequently. Wind bands, on the other hand, don’t have a great historical repertoire. In fact, most of the good music written for the wind band has been written since 1950. We’re now at the end of this century where it can kind of be seen as a golden age for wind band writing.
When I was growing up as a composer, my esteemed teacher Owen Reed, who is known for his wind band music, he told us flat out, as a serious composer, you’re allowed to write one band piece. But if you write more then that, you’ll be tagged as a band composer and your life as a serious composer is over. You won’t be respected by the community of “serious” composers. That’s changed, the wind ensemble has developed an expressive medium of it’s own – it’s not an orchestra, it is a wind band and it has been evolved into a very capable, flexible thing.
The difficulty in writing for winds and the thing that makes it very different then orchestral writing and the hazard that most composers shy away from is the fact that there are so many clashing colors within the ensemble that a bigger wind band will produce within itself this overtone buzz. That is a beast apart from the musical sound your trying to make. It’s a term which I refer to as “band noise”. One of the real needs I’ve found in my own composing is to write the music in such a way as to eliminate that but to make music that has it’s own particular power and purity using those instruments.
My feeling for wind bands is that it’s a collection of instruments just like an orchestra is a collection of instruments and you learn how to do it. I’ve done a lot of experimenting over time to find out how to write a true soprano voice in the wind band, it’s very lacking in a true soprano voice of any flexibility and character. And how to write a true, flexible, powerful bass voice in that ensemble. The other reality, that we’ve already mentioned, is that wind bands are interested in new music because that’s what they have to play and these are the people who are asking for pieces.
I have only once been commissioned to write an orchestral work. And that was for a string orchestra in Montana – only once [Music for String Orchestra (1992)]. But there is an eagerness in the wind world for new music and new experience that way. I’ve never been commissioned to write a string quartet, I take that back, I was asked to write one, I was not paid for it! (laughs) I have been commissioned by wind players to write pieces and percussionists to write pieces and wind band to write pieces.
RP: But it strikes me that your wind ensemble writing is extremely orchestral. Your Mass is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, etc.: the standard orchestral winds.
DM: Right, in certain instances there is that requirement and as I said before, the need to eliminate the noise factor. And that’s done by restricting the number of instruments that you’re gong to use. This is a hard one, wind ensembles started out as orchestra winds without the strings. In the case of the Mass, if you’re writing for vocal forces, it’s so easy to swamp them. It’s still an uneasy balance between the full power of a reduced wind band and the ability of the chorus to be in the emotional space with them. And as I’ve gotten on, I like the purer colors and the cleaner sounds.
In my earlier music, I tended to go for raw power and now there is a modulation that has taken place, I’m more and more intrigued with the character of the individual sounds and colors that can be produced. Well, for anybody out there, I’m still interested in writing orchestral music! (laughs) But opportunities make themselves and I need to work at that. I’ve taken the path that has been open to me and I’ve been happy to do it.
RP: What kind of projects do you have coming up and what kind of things would you like to see yourself do? What are some of your ultimate pieces that you want to write?
DM: I can start by saying what I am working on now. As I’ve said, there is a euphonium concerto type piece for my son, I don’t think it’s going to officially be a concerto. The next piece will be the third wind quintet for the Missouri Quintet [Quintet for Winds No. 3]. Following that there are several projects pending, one is a chamber winds kind of piece between fifteen or so players – winds and percussion. Next I’ll be writing a symphony for wind ensemble [Symphony No. 5].
In the back of my mind I have a rather large project forming, which I haven’t spoken about too much and it is having to do again with the Bach Chorales [Collected Chorale Settings]. For a few years now I’ve been writing my own four part chorales and I have a thought to collect something in the order of 50 of them to use in a compendium fashion. That is, to write out arrangements, however it strikes me, for groups of winds, brass, percussion, whatever wants to come into that space. Then to write a piece based on the chorale, so we’ll have the chorale and a piece based on the chorale. The instrumentation can be quite variable form small to large. So we’re talking about a compendium of over 50 pieces, which I have tentatively already named, in my mind, The Wind Book. This is a project of some years time which is already fermenting in my head and I expect to see it, if and when it gets completed, to see this as a musical offering for the winds. You could pick and chose whatever you wish out of this for whatever use, either for chamber music or for bigger wind things, or you can make up any combination of pieces that make sense.
What appeals to me about it is the continual reference back to this root point of the relationship of lines and the evolution of a harmonic language out of the relationship of lines. But our western music comes down to that, the relationship of one melody to another. And I’ve gotten really intent on the production of what I perceive as beautiful melodic shape and how it relates to other beautiful melodic shapes. And this is expressed in the chorale writing. And to have that elaborated into a piece that is an emotional reflection of that. Take, for example, the quartet Mountain Roads, the movement called the Chorale Prelude, which the two saxophones are sitting, backs to the audience, I love this! And the soprano has the melody and the two are just working away, it’s a terrific piece! It is an elaboration of a simple Bach Chorale, in that great tradition that he did himself.
He wrote any number of Chorale Preludes for organ, inventive little pieces which produced a certain slant on that particular melody at that particular moment. It is a work that if and when it gets completed will be voluminous, it’s going to be a lot of stuff, I mean a lot of stuff! I like the idea of being able to take this whole idea of counterpoint and the relationship of melodies, absorb what I have of the musical language tradition of our culture and to open up a space where other people can enter into it. That’s what’s coming to me to do. I have some interest, of course, in other types of sounds and writings, again the orchestral idea is an agreeable one to me and I would like to write more orchestral music. I like writing chamber music a bunch, I like the intimacy of it. For the most part, I’m open to what comes my way, without asking too much of it. When people ask me to write then I use that as my reference point and start there.
RP: So a Saxophone Concerto is definitely a possibility?
DM: Jerry Junkin has assured me that is a happening thing. And you should contact Jerry at the University of Texas at Austin, if you’re interested in participating in the project.
RP: Well we certainty look forward to that piece! [Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Wind Ensemble (1999)]
DM: Me too! Certain voices have been prominent in my work, why should I be writing for saxophone? I don’t know! I love the qualities that the saxophones produce. Other people shy away from them, they have no intuition about it what so ever. And the same thing with marimba, I’ll probably speak to this before the concert tonight, I’ve written two marimba concertos and a bunch of other stuff involving marimba and chamber percussion kinds of things. I don’t know, God said “Write for the marimba and saxophone!”
Interview and transcription by Russell Peterson