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  

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:

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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Recital this Friday: Windows and more

Tia Wortham and me, Stan Curtis

This Friday at 8:00 p.m., EST, at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia, I will present a recital with some friends–Tia Wortham, a fabulous soprano, Dr. Ben Keseley, the music director of St. George’s, and Dr. Ina Mirtcheva Blevins, an amazing pianist who is my colleague at George Mason University.

In addition to some unaccompanied pieces for trumpet–“Where are the rests!?!”–and an aria for soprano by Paul Hindemith, we will play three of my own compositions.

For more than 10 years now, I have been composing pieces based on stained-glass windows at my church, St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia. This summer, my efforts have culminated with a recording project in the nave of St. George’s, where I have been collaborating with some of my close music colleagues to record five of these compositions, each of which relate to the themes and artwork of the windows. The particular themes for these five are the stories of creation, Daniel, Epiphany, the Crucifixion, and Judgement Day. Sunlight, streaming through St. George’s windows, breaks into a prismatic rainbow, and for this reason, I call this group of compositions “Refracted Light.” Refraction, referring to the bending of light, such as in a prism, also speaks of my spiritual path, which has bent, and changed directions, finding me where I have been when I came to St. George’s and leading me to truer, more spiritual directions.

Creation Window

The short piece for soprano, trumpet and piano, called “Without Form,” is the musical setting for the Creation Window, and is my earliest of these window compositions. But the music started with a different text from a poem by T.S. Eliot called Little Gidding. After reaching out to the T.S. Eliot estate for permission, I was told that they do not want his poems set to music, so I was left with a song that needed new words. I turned to the creation story from Genesis, loosely paraphrasing with an eye to making a piece that musically depicted the Creation Window at St. George’s. Some of the music had to be changed, but I think the overall result was effective. Soprano, Tia Wortham, sang both versions of this piece and has continually helped me to better understand the craft of setting words to music. Indeed, many refinements of the text setting come directly from her not only for this piece, but for the other two vocal pieces in this album.

Epiphany Window

My Epiphany Window composition is derived from a concerto for trumpet and orchestra called Night Passages, which was my first multi-movement work for soloist and orchestra. This current version has only piano accompaniment. I play three instruments: flugelhorn for the first movement, B-flat trumpet for the second and third, and piccolo trumpet at the end of the third movement. It presents three different perspectives from the Epiphany window, which is depicted at night. The first movement of my composition is called “Night Fall: What the Stars and Camels Say” which musically represents the beginning of the evening, as the sun goes down and then the stars come out; “Night Walk” presents a frightening nighttime sojourn, and is subtitled, “The Magi Journey by Night”; and, finally, a Latin setting transports us in “Night Club; Dancing with Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.”

“Night Fall” begins with overlapping melodies and some shimmering figuration, depicting a spectacular sunset. The introductory lyrical theme, played on flugelhorn, features the downward melodic interval of a third. This opening theme gets lower and the accompaniment gets darker until “stars” begin to appear. Then the main theme of this movement appears, which originally began as a melody written for my son, who plays violin, as a kind of lullaby. The cadenza, normally an unaccompanied part of a solo composition, here is accompanied by piano. This effect is intended to evoke an ancient poet punctuating his verse with the strumming of a hand-held harp. Although I did not directly borrow from his work, Vaughan William’s Lark Ascending was an inspiration for this movement. In addition, much of the material is derived from Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia” and J. S. Bach’s “Gute Nacht, o Wesen,” the eighth part of his Cantata 64. And actually, the melodic material from these two pieces, as well as the opening theme of this movement, gets reused throughout the other two movements.

The next movement, “Night Walk” opens with a short and frightening motive that frames the repetitive and initially-relaxed bass line, over which I play long phrases, often interrupted by unpredictable outbursts. The bass line becomes more and more unstable until rhythmic and melodic chaos breaks out, representing a run from terror—possibly the fear that the Magi surely had of King Herod, or the panic Herod had when he heard of the prophecy of Jesus’ future as king of the Jews. After the framing motive returns, relative peace is restored to the end of the movement. Structurally, this movement traces the root structure of one chorus plus the interlude of Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia.” In general, each chord change in the original jazz standard is spun out over ten bars in my piece. Melodically, much of the melodic material is drawn from the bridge of Gillespie’s composition, while incorporating Bach’s “Gute Nacht, o Wesen” from time to time. The movement finishes with the overlapping melodic sweeps that lead directly into the third movement.

After a short outburst from the piano, the trumpet introduces the melody, drawn from the main theme of “Night in Tunisia.” I used traditional Latin figurations, such as the “montuno,” derived from Cuban music, to make this movement feel like a salsa tune. The middle of the movement takes a brief look backwards to the opening melody of the first movement before launching into a small baroque-like counterpoint section. At the end of this short movement, I switch to piccolo trumpet with a variation of the main melody played in harmony with the pianist’s right hand.


Crucifixion Window

In 2012, I began to compose Advent, which, despite its name, is the piece I wrote to go with St. George’s Crucifixion Window. I was greatly moved by a poem of the same name by the American Poet Laureate Donald Hall. My intention was to provide a “Trinity” of variations for each of the three stanzas (three flexible interpretations based on the concepts of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost). Each stanza, therefore, has a set of three variations, making a total of nine iterations of the melody first sung at the beginning by the soprano. Regarding the text, “rood” in the first stanza is a cross; “Tenebrae” in the second stanza refers to a Christian religious service celebrated during Holy Week marked by the gradual extinguishing of candles; “Horror vacui” in the third stanza literally means “fear of empty space” and usually describes artwork which fills the entire space with visual detail. The original version of this extended aria featured an extremely unsettling phase-shifting mixed-meter melody between trumpet and piano with soprano singing in the rests, in an effort to imitate the artistic meaning of “horror vacui”, but an alternative, lyric, ending proved more effective in the long run.



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