Refracted Light Album cover art (graphic design by Stephen Hassay)
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. Two summers ago, my efforts culminated with a recording project in the nave of St. George’s, where I collaborated with some of my close musical colleagues to record five of these compositions, each of which relate to the themes and artwork of the windows: the stories of creation, Daniel, Epiphany, the Crucifixion, and Judgement Day. Because of the way the sunlight colorfully streams through St. George’s windows, I call this group of compositions “Refracted Light.” This recording has just been released on the Arts Laureate label and is available on all major platforms like Amazon, Spotify, iTunes and CDBaby.
Note: The audio track has a link for the Spotify platform.
The Creation Window at St. George’s.
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.
Text for “Without Form”
Without form God created the earth and the sky. He moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light: and there was light.” And it was good. He made the firmament divide: Waters from waters, and he called it heaven. And let the dry land appear: And he called it Earth. And let the earth bring forth grass, The herb yielding seed, The fruit tree yielding fruit after its kind. Let there be lights in heaven for signs and seasons. Let the waters bring forth, abundantly, great whales, giraffes and fowl. He did make man in his image; male and female made he them. The heavens and the earth were finished And all of the host, in the seventh day. He rested from work and blessed that day; Because his work it was created and made. It was good; it is good; it will be good.
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. The pianist for this recording is Ben Keseley, music director for St. George’s.
Here is a live video from the Levine Music School in Washington, DC, of the earlier version on this piece “What We Call the Beginning.”
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.
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!!