Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Interview with Composer D. Edward Davis

7:59 PM
D. Edward Davis (that's how it's spelled, he told me, but it's pronounced "Eddie"), a Ph.D. candidate in Composition at Duke, is working on a brass piece for this year's Summer Institute of Contemporary Performance Practice and a one-man opera about ghost towns. Determinedly individual, he composes music built around field recordings and studded with pockets of silence and electronic sound. When we met up at Cocoa Cinnamon last week, he was eager to share his thoughts about about the importance of silence in music, the connections between performance and visual art, and the role of the artist in society. He got started before I could even break out my scripted questions. I set my iPhone on the table and he asked how I planned to record the interview.

Uh, I'm going to take a video of the ceiling and then go back and transcribe the audio.
I've never used this method before. I do use Voice Memo on my phone to go and make field recordings everywhere, though. Cause if I hear something interesting, then I always have a phone in my pocket.

What kind of stuff do you record?
Just any interesting sounds that are happening. I was at an art museum in Virginia a couple weeks ago and there was a water fountain along the stairwell. The cascading sound effect, I just made a recording of that for a while. There was a rainy day recently and two houses near each other that the rain was dripping off their gutters in different rhythms, and so [I recorded] the difference of those. You find sounds around you and those become inspiration.

In terms of programmatic vs. absolute music, I'm a sucker for a program, so in your piece at the yMusic concert [which y'all can listen to here], I really enjoyed being able to know what a karst was and think about that image. Did you--
Do you want me to spoil it for you, or do you want to keep your illusion?

Which illusion?
It's not programmatic. I guess the usual way that people understand programmatic is that the composer has some nonmusical idea that they then try to realize in music.

But for you . . .
it's usually the other way. And I've found that when I write pieces and call them "Untitled no. 7," no one is really interested in them, but if I call it something that is evocative, then it gives the listener something else to engage with besides just what's happening in the music.

So what musical ideas did you start with?
I liked the idea of the spaces. That was the initial idea, to think about some musical sound which is divided up, is cut up, in that sort of way. I'm interested in this group of composers that's called Wandelweiser. It's an international group of composers based in Germany. Many of them incorporate long stretches of silence into their work. One of the things that that does is it reinforces the way in which music is part of the sounds that are happening all around us all the time, so if you put these gaps in the music then it forces the listener to engage with the sounds of the music but also the sounds that are happening elsewhere in the room and makes those sounds part of the music. So that was the idea behind the gaps in the music, was to make it almost a dialogue between what the musicians onstage were doing and what the sound of the room was.

When did you start composing?
I started writing songs for my band in high school, and that led me to take the music theory class at my high school, which led me to composition assignments, so I really started writing in high school.

What kind of band was it?
A crappy rock band. You know, we listened to Nirvana and Pearl Jam and tried to write songs that sounded like those. It was called Carbuncle. I recommend that you do not look up a picture of Carbuncle on Wikipedia. It's more disturbing than I remember it.

Is that a recommendation or a request? Because I'll respect a request, but I'm pretty curious.
Okay, it's an open sore. It's an abscess.

No, I know what a carbuncle is. I thought you meant a picture of your band specifically.
No no. Sorry. Not the band. I meant an actual carbuncle. Don't fact check that.

No. I have no desire to refamiliarize myself with an actual literal carbuncle. Um, what's an experience that you had as a part of that band that stands out to you?
I collaborated with a lot of people in my high school musically. There was one year where I played at the talent show, and there were maybe seven groups that played in the talent show and I was in five of them. Now looking back on that I think, "that's really pretentious of me to place myself in most of the groups." They weren't 5 of my projects, they were other people's projects that I played in the bands or helped write songs or, I was into recording technology pretty early on, so I recorded a lot of demo tapes for my friends' bands, or got to sing backup with them or whatever. So that was a sort of formative . . . I don't know, that helped me think of myself as being part of a musical community, in a way that is important to me as a composer still.

Did you have a piece in the French cabaret thing last weekend?
Yeah, I did. Did you go to that?

I did! Which one was yours? [no program was distributed at this concert]
Mine was the one that you couldn't hear at all. [I.e., the quiet dynamic of the piece was no match for Fullsteam's robust ambient noise levels.] I respect [the idea of] broadening the audience of classical music, but I'm not sure necessarily that an afternoon bar show, at least for my piece, is the way . . . is the place to do that. The kinds of concerns that I have musically are not well-served by that atmosphere. And I feel weird about that, actually. It puts me on the snobby side of the argument, and I don't . . .

Well, just because you're doing something specific and for a specific audience, it doesn't mean you have any contempt for other things. You can only do what you're inspired to do.

You moved here from New York City. How would you compare the musical experiences you've had here to the ones you had there?
I mean, it's hard to put Durham's cultural opportunities up against New York City's. It's hard to put any city anywhere up against New York City. It seems like, just based on the number of creative people who are working in New York City, there's a sub-sub-sub-scene of any thing that you're interested in. So if you want to hear a whole concert of pieces where performers will play one note and wait five minutes and then play another note and then wait five minutes, you know, that's happening at least once a week in New York.

When did you get into not composing, but music?
There was never a time when I was not into music. My earliest memories are being part of the--I'm dating myself, but there used to be these record club things, you know, get-ten-records-for-a-penny sort of thing, except I was in the era of get ten cassettes for a penny. My earliest memories are having my little box of ten cassettes probably when I was five or six.

Were you playing music very early on?
My parents bought me a sampling keyboard, one of the earliest Casio keyboards so that I could, you know, record myself burp and then play little melodies with my burp.

Are your parents musical?
No, but they're creative. They're very into visual art.

Is there any interaction for you between visual art or visual perception and the aural stuff that you observe?
Absolutely. A lot of my musical influences are from visual art--ideas about perception of visual art. Particularly, I'm interested in minimalism in visual art and how repetition and things like that are then translated into music. And I've collaborated with visual artists and video artists on a number of pieces where we sort of compare ideas about how something should look vs. how it should sound. There's a lot of overlap there. Also, one thing that I've gotten more interested in lately is the context of a performance. So, in other words, thinking about my piece not just as the sounds that musicians on stage are making, but about everything about the experience of the place where the audience is. It becomes part of the work and that can be visual as well, so whether that is paired with slides or images or collaboration with a video artist or even thinking about lighting or staging.

What's changed about your style since you began composing?
I used to write for voice a lot. Especially in high school. My earliest compositions were all songs, voice and piano songs, or choral pieces. I don't do that quite as much any more. It ties back to what we were saying earlier, I don't write as much programmatic [music], or I'm not as interested in taking someone else's words and trying to find a musical setting for them. I think of the musical setting first and I don't think of the words. That said, I had an opportunity at Duke to write for The Hilliard Ensemble recently, and that was the first time I've written choral music in a long time. So that was a good challenge for me. So to say that I've rejected . . . it's not really true. It's just, like anyone, I think your interests change, or what you feel like working with changes.

How much do you think about the audience when you're writing?
Pretty much not at all. I don't really know what "the audience" is.

Who do you think listens to your music? Who do you think would like your music, or likes it? And does that matter to you at all?
I just find it such a paralyzing thought. If I start going down that road, then I'm just imagining, okay, there's this fictitious person and what sort of thing would they like, and how am I going to write something that they like? Instead I think about it like, what do I want to hear? and I write what I want to hear. It's an artist's job to put into the world what doesn't already exist, or if not what doesn't already exist, what there isn't enough of already in the world. And make more of that. So I think the people who would like my music are the people who want to hear the things that I want to hear. I'm sure that that's a self-centered way to think about creativity, but I find it very difficult to work in any other way--to try to imagine what would someone want to hear.

What do you feel the expectations have been of you as a young composer since you started out?
That's a good question. Professors want students whose work is going to have an impact in the larger world. And the way that music has an impact in the larger world is by being accessible to larger numbers of people. And the more people who are interested in your musical ideas, the wider possible audience you have. I've had professors who try to push me towards making music that more people will be interested in or more people will understand or will be relevant to the experiences of more people. And that's not always--doesn't always work for me.

Has your relationship to those expectations changed at all while you've been composing?
Sure. When I was less mature as a composer than I am now, I was more willing to try to make those compromises, or make those--accommodations is a better word. I think I've gotten to be more stubborn as I've gotten older. I'm less willing to do what I think someone else will understand and more interested in doing what is interesting to me--whether or not that limits my opportunities, or maybe with the knowledge that that could limit my opportunities.

Is there anything you feel is important to understanding who you are as a composer that we haven't covered?

I'm obsessed with birds.

You're obsessed with birds! Does that dovetail into your field recording thing?
Yes, absolutely. It's actually really important to me as a composer, because it started as going to look at birds and then it quickly turned into going to listen to birds because the musician part of me was interested in . . . like, the cardinal that's singing right now is as distracting to me as Johnny Cash [which had just been playing at Cocoa Cinnamon] or cars driving by. Bird watching turned into bird listening. Which turned into everything listening. And so like i said with the pauses in karst, a lot of my work is about the relationship between musical--what are normally heard as musical sounds and nonmusical sounds. And obviously I'm influenced by Cage and other people who are breaking down that barrier between musical and nonmusical sound, and basically saying, "everything is musical sound." And for me that comes from my interest in the outdoors, being outdoors.

Do you have pieces that include your actual recordings of birds?
Yes, I do. I have another vocal piece that I wrote recently for alto voice and piccolo. The piccolo is a transcription of a field recording of a Varied Thrush singing--do you know this bird? It's a west coast bird, and they just have a beautiful little whistle sound. This particular one on the field recording had four different variations of his whistle that he did, and so the piccolo plays a literal, note-for-note kind of transcription of that. The voice is a different melody that interlocks with what the bird is doing. The text is from John Muir, the environmentalist. The title is the entire text--"when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." [Listen to it here.]

For more info about composer D. Edward Davis, check out his website. To listen to more of his work, visit him on soundcloud.

Read part 1 of my composer interview series with Jamie Keesecker

About the author

I'm Andrea. Everything you need to know is here.