This interview was conducted via email in October 2002.
I had the opportunity to meet Brent Michael Davids this past summer at the Oregon Bach Festival Composer’s Symposium. His music is highly provocative and gives us a small insight to his cultural heritage. Brent is an active composer residing in Minnesota and has just spent a couple of months in Arizona teaching American Indian youth how to compose.
This interview with Brent Michael Davids is the second in the Contemporary Composer Interview series exclusive to New Music Forum.
First off I would like to thank you, Brent, for agreeing to this interview. The first question I have for you is how did you first get into music?
I can’t even remember when I first heard anything, the origin has gone out of my memory, or I was not even conscious of it when it occurred. I started piano at 8 because my parents wanted me to, and composing at 16 because I wanted to after a new course offering at my Chicago high school called ‘music theory.’ I took it, and found I was good at it, and it was cool to learn that certain rules had been created for composing which I had not known could exist. I was naive back then about composing, it never occurred to me to think of composers. Like when we’re young living in the city, sometimes we don’t know where milk really comes from until we get older because we just go to the store and watch people buying it in cartons. I thought we went into the band room, pulled sheet music from the folders and there it was. But eventually I started asking, where did this come from? And the realization of composers writing this stuff intrigued me. I heard a recording in my junior year in the band room during lunch hour, which hooked me; it was Black Angels by George Crumb. Night of the “Electric Insects” is the movement that hooked me, I was amazed that music could actually sound like its title, not merely allude to it. I just had to figure out how Crumb did that, and I started my trek into the composing world right on the spot. My overall personal trek is a quest to figure things out. In the earlier years, about 11 years or so, the trek was figuring out how people created the things I heard and that intrigued me, and how I could use that knowledge to voice my own music. I would search out things that sounded different than the massive usual musical offerings, and try to figure it out. I wanted to hear the unusual. Now though, it is more about how to find my own voice in what I’m doing. After years of searching and copying and figuring out, I’m looking more into my own voice ands what makes me unique and doing that instead.
You’re an American Indian composer who comes from the Mohican tribe. You’ve written some very interesting works like PauWau Symphony and Last of James Fenimore Cooper. How big of a role does your background play in the music you write?
It is everything to me. If a person cannot write from their own culture, whose culture CAN they write from? All music is voiced in a particular way; there is no such thing as universal music or non-cultural music. I’ve heard people say “music is the universal language” but that is not true. What we call “music” in the west only exists in the conception of the west. In other cultures, such as American Indian cultures, there is traditionally no such thing as music. In the west, “music” is separated out into its own sphere of conception, apart from dance, apart from painting, apart from healing or medicine. In the west, a dance is a dance and not music. A sculpture is not a painting, etc. A great western schism happens maybe from the enlightenment period and the west is still trying to recover from it. From American Indians, the music category does not exist in that same narrow way. We have no music traditionally, but we do songs and ceremonies, which are not the same as “music.” All my works are about me and my views and my life, I am voicing my concerns in every sound of it. I am Mohican and what I create is too. To be anything else, or to buy into that universalistic myth, would be to sell myself short. I prefer to be who I really am, not an imitation of someone else.
Who have you studied composition with?
Paul O. Steg at Northern Illinois University. He passed away now, but was a walking encyclopedia of new music, and an amazingly talented and sensitive teacher. I also studied with Chinary Ung at Arizona State University. I studied orchestration with Jan Bach (NIU) and Randall Shinn (ASU), and jazz arranging with Frank Mantooth (NIU) and John Barry (ASU). I studied electronic music with Joe Pinzaroni (NIU) and Glen Hackbarth (ASU), and film scoring with several composers in Los Angeles through Redford’s Sundance Institute.
Which composers (aside from your teachers) influenced your music when you began composing?
George Crumb for his artistic scores and creative sounds. Bartok for his organization. Mahler for his passionate writing. Beethoven for his grandness. Mozart for his operatic interludes (my favorite Mozart music are the small transitions between the arias and recits). Powwow singers, ceremonial singers, and all my friends. It is the same today as when I started.
You’ve said that music is an inherent part of your life and culture. What has been the response from your tribe in taking your music and putting it on the concert stage?
Although I’m almost sure most of my relatives do not understand exactly what I am doing in the music itself, you know “musically,” they do understand the intent of what I’m doing. There’s a connection in that way. I think any Indian from any tribe can get what I’m doing that way too, even if they listen to Country, Western or Powwow Songs. Indians today live in a weird place sometimes, defining and redefining what it means to be Indian today, or Mohican, and making sense of the community we create together as a people. That endeavor includes relating to others in the world not blocking others out or pushing them away. So, my music is mostly seen as my voice in the world, and perhaps a tribal voice in the world.
Describe for me the experience of having your first piece performed live.
I was kinda scared but not too scared. I knew from the get-go that what I was doing was unusual but I also knew it was a good thing. I knew very few musicians my age were composing written music for a large symphonic band. I conducted it, which may have been a mistake, haha, but was a good experience. I screwed it up actually. I got to the conductor’s platform, stepped up, raised my arms quickly and instantly waved the first downbeat — but I was too fast. Half the band did not even have their instruments up and ready to play. So a sloppy insecure sound meandered out from the group. I quickly realized my mistake, turned around to the audience and said “That was my fault, not theirs” and laughed. Then I did it right, putting up my arms, waiting for the musicians to be ready, and THEN gave them the properly anticipated downbeat. The whole experienced reminded me that I was not alone in my composing, I needed to join others in it, and that has stuck with me ever since. Composing is not and should not be a solitary thing.
What do you consider to be your best experience as a composer?
I’ve had lots of great experiences, and being involved with other artists is probably what I think of first. Joking around with Joffrey Ballet dancers, laughing with the Kronos Quartet, donning fake coonskin caps with the Miro Quartet, telling silly stories with Chanticleer, playing flute with Dale Warland Singers, meeting other composers at conferences and workshops, like Oregon Bach Festival, Sundance Institute, etc. I am a social creature at heart!
What are your current projects?
I just completed a new work for Chanticleer, which premiered in France recently, called The Un-Covered Wagon. It’s a new twist on the old Hollywood epic western, giving the Indian point of view on those events. Also, I am working on what I think is the first All-Indian opera, The Trial of Standing Bear, written completely by Indians — both libretto and music — with Indian singers in every role. It is a slow-going project but is progressing steadily. I’m going to start writing an interesting work for String Quartet this winter, just because I want to. I’m calling it The Tinitis Quartet and it will be based on that particular ear infliction. I’m also interested in getting together with some of my Indian actor friends and creating another comedy play. And, I just finished an audition to possibly score a movie for TV that I hope goes my direction. One never knows about such things until they happen however. Sometimes composerly experiences are very much “hurry-up-and-wait” episodes.
Brent, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I have just one final question for you. What advice would you give to young and emerging composers?
Thanks for this interview Brian. My best advice to any composer, young or old, green or seasoned, is don’t give up! There are many many people in a composer’s life that will not understand what it is you are trying to do, so do not fret over them understanding it. Sheesh, composers ourselves do not entirely know what it is we are doing, so how can others without any driving interest in composing really grasp it? They cannot. The best we can hope for is to keep doing what we want to do, try what we want to try, and hopefully one or two people in our company will “get it.” And, hopefully they will be rich and can donate lots of cash to the endeavor, haha. Another thing is to find a good teacher that let’s our own voice speak. Teachers that turn out little replicas of the teacher, following a certain formula (i.e., serial die-hards, etc.) are not good teachers. A teacher should ask students to try everything and give assignments in things that the student would not necessarily attempt unless prompted by a teacher to do so (i.e., serialism, etc.). But these should be encouragement, not rules, designed to open up other ways of thinking and feeling our way through music, in a search to put forth our own voice. My best advice is to follow your heart in composing — and life — and try to be smart about it, be “awake” in the world. There are plenty of composer who can craft pieces, they are good craftspeople but have no real distinctive voice. I call them hack writers. They can write jazz chords, or neo-classical sound-a-likes, or pretty songs. But what else are they saying in their works? Where is their voice in all of it? It is lost in technique, buried under rules of how proper music “ought to” sound, deluged under an ocean of other people’s ideas and techniques. It is a waste of good craft and good technique. I figure that if I am going to write a piece, put all that work into it, I want the work to say something meaningful beyond the music, not just become a pretty or tear-jerking song. I want more of a purpose for the work I do. Any good composer worth their weight can compose a piece. The important pieces however, are the ones that DO something, not just look or sound pretty. Be relevant! If you tell a story, tell a meaningful one! Know who you are and let that be your guide.
More information about Brent Michael Davids can be found on his website: www.brentmichaeldavids.com
Brian Bice is the co-owner and content manager of New Music Forum.