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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Tidying up

With apologies to cartoonist Eric Lewis…

I have had an incredible run of luck lately.

Two weeks ago, I won my first orchestral audition in 24 years–I’m now the principal trumpet of the Fort Collins Symphony, a leading regional orchestra in Colorado. A few months before that, I won my very first tenure-track teaching job at Colorado State University–also in Fort Collins. Almost a year before that, I retired from a 20-year career in the U.S. Navy Band in Washington, DC. These were all big, really big, items to check off in my bucket list.

This summer was filled with other big-ticket events in our lives: the graduation of my oldest son from high school, playing in the Vintage Band Festival in Minnesota, the 25th wedding anniversary of my wife and me, and the retirement of my wife (also from the U.S. Navy Band).

When this type of external growth comes down the pipeline, I think about my internal approach to life and music-making.

Driving to New York City and back recently, my wife and I listened to an Audible recording of Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” I had never seen her on TV and only vaguely knew about her work up to that time. Kondo’s approach is not conventional. Basically she urges her readers to focus on discarding quite a lot–because most of our possessions don’t really mean that much to us. Sometimes we cling to the past or we fear the future, and these mental states hijack our mind into reactively keeping too many things and things that simply do not “spark joy.” She has a few basic rules:

  1. Commit to tidying up
  2. Imagine your ideal lifestyle
  3. Finish discarding first
  4. Tidy by category, not location
  5. Follow the right order
  6. Ask yourself if it sparks joy

This was the perfect book to listen to together for my wife and me as we were getting ready to move from the DC area to Colorado. It resulted in about 150 bags of unwanted things thrown away; about 20 boxes of books donated to our local library; about 15 boxes of documents that we didn’t need–shredded or recycled; donated furniture that had served its purpose; my CD collection given to a former colleague. All of these things had served us well, and we were grateful for them, but we were ready to let them go. We were ready to focus more on who we really had become.

Kondo writes about her method as being life-changing to her clients. They are happier, more successful and more focused. Her book made me wonder if some of her principles could be adapted to trumpet playing. Her first two rules certainly made sense–we have to totally commit ourselves to our trumpet craft and we have to imagine the best version of ourselves as trumpeters. I think it’s always a good thing to ask yourself, “does trumpet playing itself spark joy in my life?” There is no right or wrong answer for everyone. Just the correct answer for you. What kind of trumpeter do you want to be? If trumpet playing sparks joy in you and if you really see yourself as a jazz, rock, band or orchestral player, then great! You’re reading the right blog!

But if you are like me, you probably have lots of hobbies and interests. You have reached an impressive level of mastery in some of these areas. This is normal. But at some point, instead of amassing more skills and interests, you can ask yourself what interests resonate more naturally with who you really are. Yes, it’s good to have a few other skills that can compliment your trumpet playing, but when they begin to sabotage your growth, reconsider them. Do your other interests really spark joy? Keep coming back to that. And if you’re not sure, it probably doesn’t spark joy. Move on and let that half-baked dream go. Don’t waste trumpet time!

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