Interview with James David, composer

James M. David, composer

Dr. James M. David (b. 1978) is an internationally recognized composer who currently serves as associate professor of composition and music theory at Colorado State University and is particularly known for his works involving winds and percussion.  His symphonic works for winds have been performed by some of the nation’s most prominent professional and university ensembles.  His compositions have been presented at more than fifty national and international conferences throughout North and South America, Asia, Europe, and Australia.  Among the distinctions David has earned as a composer are an ASCAP Morton Gould Award, the National Band Association Merrill Jones Award, national first-place winner in the MTNA Young Artists Composition Competition, two Global Music Awards, and national first-place winner in the National Association of Composers (USA) Young Composers Competition. Commissions include projects for Joseph Alessi (New York Philharmonic), John Bruce Yeh (Chicago Symphony Orchestra), Zachary Shemon (Prism Quartet), the Oasis Quartet, BlueShift Percussion Quartet, Gerry Pagano (St. Louis Symphony), The International Saxophone Symposium and Competition, The Playground Ensemble, and the Atlantic Coast Conference Band Directors Association.
 
As a native of southern Georgia, Dr. David began his musical training under his father Joe A. David, III, a renowned high school band director and professor of music education in the region.  This lineage can be heard in his music through the strong influence of jazz and other Southern traditional music mixed with contemporary idioms.  He graduated with honors from the University of Georgia and completed his doctorate in composition at Florida State University under Guggenheim and Pulitzer recipients Ladislav Kubik and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.  His music is available through Murphy Music Press, C. Alan Publications, Wingert Jones Publications, and Potenza Music and has been recorded for the Naxos, Mark, GIA WindWorks, Albany, Summit, Luminescence, and MSR Classics labels.

For more information about James David, visit http://www.jamesmdavid.com  


Interview with composer James M. David. The interviewer is Stanley Curtis.

SC: Jim—thanks for agreeing to do an interview for my blog!

JD: My pleasure, Stan!  I always appreciate the chance to share my thoughts about composing with my colleagues.

SC: You are composing a piece for me and a consortium* of other trumpeters commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. I’m excited about that! 

*if the reader would like more information about joining this consortium (at the time of this writing), here is the link: http://www.jamesmdavid.com/trumpet-sonata.html

JD: Yes, it’s a sonata for trumpet and piano with the working title of “Moon Stories.”  My intention is that it will be a piece that would work well for a college trumpet recital, either a student or a faculty member. It should be around twelve to fifteen minutes and have a nice variety of technical and expressive playing. In the spirit of Hindemith, this is part of an ongoing series of sonatas for hopefully every major instrument that I hope to complete over the next five years. So far, I’ve done violin, bass trombone, alto saxophone, and clarinet.

SC: You play the trombone and have written a body of literature for the trombone. What trombone players have you written for?

JD: Trombone has been a part of my life for almost thirty years and I’ve been very privileged to write for some of the best trombonists in the world.  I’ve done three commissions for Joe Alessi (principal trombone with the New York Philharmonic) including most recently for an incredible new group called the Aries Trombone Quartet.  It’s made up of Alessi, Ian Bousfield (formerly principal with the London Symphony and Vienna Philharmonic), Jim Markey (bass trombone with the Boston Symphony), and Jeremy Wilson (formerly assistant principal with Vienna and now professor at Vanderbilt University).  

SC: Is writing for the trumpet the same for you—only up an octave?

My oldest brother is a trumpeter, so it’s an instrument that I’ve loved for a long time.  I also worked with the amazing Fred Mills and many great guest trumpeters while I was a student at the University of Georgia, so I feel like I have a pretty good idea of what sounds good for the instrument.  One of the real joys of composing is embracing what makes all of the instruments special and the unique community of musicians that support them. Trumpet is so drastically different from all of the other brass instruments, so I think my approach will be unique compared to my other sonatas.

SC: You teach composition at Colorado State University, and you are an active composer at large. Can you talk about your development as a composer and your niche that you feel comfortable with?

JD: I started composing almost as soon as I could read music, which was in the sixth-grade band.  Of course, I had no idea what I was doing and wrote a lot of terrible things, but composition is just like everything else in music: if you practice it, eventually you’ll get better at it.  I studied pretty much any score and recording I could get my hands on and wrote constantly all through high school. College was tough because I was splitting my time between practicing, composing, and my other studies.  Eventually, I decided that composing was my true calling and I decided to devote my full efforts to studying it. 

Jazz was a huge part of my background, and learning to improvise was a huge help to developing my voice.  I studied jazz composition and arranging under Sammy Nestico, and I quote him all the time in my students’ lessons now.  A lot of my other influences were the big twentieth century composers like Bartok, Stravinsky, and Copland, plus later people like Crumb, Ligeti, Berio, and Messiaen.  More recently, I’ve embraced my own brand of tonality that I think bridges the type of jazz language from people like Bill Evans or McCoy Tyner with the pandiatonicism of more recent tonal composers like Lauridsen or Whitacre.

As far as a niche for myself, I really like writing for unusual combinations of instruments and for instruments that need more repertoire.  Winds, brass, and percussion are my natural home anyway, and it seems like these communities are constantly seeking new music by living composers.  Writing for wind band also helps my music reach all of these musicians and increases my understanding of all the challenges associated with winds and percussion.  

SC: As you have been composing this sonata for trumpet and piano, what has been your inspiration and structural approach?

JD: Well, each of the three movements will take on a different mythological figure associated with the moon.  The first movement will depict Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon and the hunt, and will use quick, darting motives that involve fast tonguing and slurred passages.  The slower middle movement will be optionally played on flugelhorn and deals with Japanese and Chinese moon imagery.  Here, the fascinating, yet cold, harmonies of the funeral music known as Gagaku contrast against the warm and lyrical voice of the flugelhorn.  The final movement is inspired by the Mayan moon goddess Ix Chel.  Associated with death and destruction, this goddess’ portrait will reference the rhythmically intense work “Sensemayá” by Silvestre Revueltas, one of Mexico’s greatest composers, combined with my own take on Afro-Caribbean jazz. 

Perfect fourths and fifths will also play a big role because, 1) those intervals are so indicative of the trumpet historically and 2) I couldn’t resist referencing the opening trumpet call from Richard Strauss’ “Zarathustra” used in Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”! After all, the movie came out only a few months before Apollo 11.

SC: Sounds exciting! As your piece makes its way into the body of trumpet literature, what level and type of trumpeter are you writing for?

JD: I want the work to be playable by aspiring undergraduate trumpet students, but musically satisfying so that more experienced players will be interested as well.  While the piece should be technical and impressive to audiences, I hope that it will be idiomatic and put the trumpet on its best footing.  I think even the greatest performers appreciate when composers understand and utilize the physicality of their individual instruments.

SC: Do you have some other ideas for trumpet compositions in the future?

JD: Absolutely!  I think trumpet is one of the best instruments for a modern concerto with wind band, and I definitely want to write a trumpet concerto very soon.  I’d also love to do a work for trumpet and trombone with band or piano accompaniment.  The brass trio (trumpet, horn, and trombone) needs more repertoire as well, and I think I could contribute something there.

SC: I can’t wait! So, one of the questions I like to ask all of my guests on my blog is—where do you want to be, as a composer and person, in the next 10 years?

JD: Mostly I hope to be doing what I’m doing now, composing and teaching! Music is such a reciprocal and mutually satisfying field for composers and performers, and I just hope to reach as many new collaborators as possible.

SC: Thanks so much for our chat, Jim! I can’t wait to start working on your piece!

JD: Thanks for the opportunity and for your support of my music!  Looking forward to hearing the sounds of trumpets in my near future!!

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When can you speak up in rehearsal?

One of my teachers, Bernard Adelstein, told me a funny story about when he was just a teenager during the 1940s, playing second trumpet in the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra under the famous conductor, Fritz Reiner. Reiner was rehearsing outdoors for a summer concert. The principal trumpet player, Irving Sarin, got frustrated with Reiner, slammed his music shut on the stand and walked out of rehearsal. Reiner then looked at the young Adelstein and asked him what was wrong. Quick-thinking, Adelstein replied, “I think Mr. Sarin is allergic to bees. He tried to kill a bee with his music, but he missed. He walked out quickly, so that he wouldn’t get stung.” Because conductors at this time had absolute power in an orchestra, Adelstein probably saved Sarin’s career by coming up with this wonderful excuse.

Being a musician in an ensemble requires that you learn how and when you can speak up in a rehearsal. If you monopolize rehearsal time with your personal questions and observations, or, worse, if you openly criticize the conductor, then you are hurting your relationship with the conductor and holding back your ensemble. You want to nurture great relationships with your colleagues and with the conductors you play under.

Here are some of my guidelines on how to ask questions diplomatically in an ensemble rehearsal:

  1. First of all, do not chat during rehearsal. If you have to talk to your neighbor about important things related to the music, then you can whisper. But be careful to not distract from the rehearsal or from the conductor’s comments.
  2. Quick fix. If you have an obvious wrong note or some other serious error in your part, you can raise your hand during rehearsal when the conductor does not seem too pressed for time (or when he or she asks if there are questions).
  3. Timing. The best times to ask questions are after rehearsal (or before). If you’re in a chamber group of something like 15 people or less, then you can talk about your view points, as long as you don’t monopolize the conversation.
  4. Size. In large ensembles, make it a general rule to not question the conductor’s tempos out loud in rehearsal. It usually comes across as disrespectful.
  5. Your tone of voice. This can be difficult to figure out sometimes, since what might seem an innocent question to you sounds like an insolent question to the conductor. 
  6. What part do you play? If you are the principal and/or section leader, then you can more understandably ask questions in a large ensemble. If you play a lower part, then you should limit your questions to your section leader. The power flow in a large ensemble is pretty much top down. That’s the most efficient way a group like that works. Work within that system.
  7. Ask yourself, will my observation benefit the performance or will it simply point out some mistake? For instance, if the conductor chooses a tempo that is too fast for you, you might be able to say something like, “I’m having a hard time playing my best at this tempo, and I was wondering if we could try it a little slower?” Unfortunately, this question does not work as well in a professional ensemble, because you are supposed to be capable of fast tempos.
  8. Spidey sense. Use it. If your intuition (that little voice at the back of your mind) is saying, “Don’t say it”—then listen to that intuition.
  9. If damage is already done by making the conductor angry, then try to talk to the conductor after rehearsal. And, above all else, be conciliatory. Make SURE you understand the conductor’s viewpoint before leaving the conversation. Then apologize for the perceived wrong—even if you still feel like you were in the right. 
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