Thanks again to David Smooke for being our July Living Composer of the Month. Here is the Five-Question Interview that each LCOTM participates in. Hope you enjoy!
Living Composer of the Month (LCOTM): You recently confessed on your blog that you came to music composition through an alternative route. You didn’t start out as a performer on a traditional instrument, but rather began composing through experimentation with sound synthesis, inspired by the music of Goth, Industrial and Prog bands of the 1980s. In what ways do these early influences still play a role in your compositional thinking?
David Smooke (DS): These were my route into contemporary music and remain at the heart of everything I compose. All of these bands exhibited an interest in sound itself, searching for complex expression in a single note. I find that this shared interest creates a clear confluence between industrial rock and the music of Xenakis or Varèse. So, these early influences led me towards experimental music, and once I discovered the latter I could not turn back.
Since my early years were suffused with popular music, that sound remains at the heart of every compositional choice that I make. In my music, harmonies create sound worlds rather than classical functions, and entire melodies can be comprised of one or two notes. My interest in tuning systems other than equal temperament (the way a piano is tuned) derives from the bended notes of the best singers and guitarists and from enjoying untuned instruments played by unschooled bands and the pure tuning of vocal harmonies when sung well.
All of the music that I like has a sharp edge to its sound. Smoothness and gentleness hold no interest to me as a listener and they never have. Instead, I seek songs and pieces that grab me through their use of nastiness and discontinuity.
Cognitive scientists have recently compared our experience of dissonant music to that of spicy food. Both can create discomfort at first but in certain people release endorphins. As with spicy food, once a taste for dissonance develops, an ever-higher degree of piquancy is required to get that rush.
LCOTM: You are listed on the Schoenhut Toy Piano artist roster with such notable artists as the late John Cage. How did you find your way into the world of toy piano performance and what role does it play in your life as a performer and composer?
DS: My first real experience with toy piano was hearing the quote from the Anna Magdalena Bach notebook in the fourth movement (“Todas las tardes…”) from George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children, which I first encountered in high school and I still maintain is one of the most beautifully haunting moments in the entire repertoire. When I was living in Chicago, the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) asked me to write a piece for toy piano and two violas, and the toy piano part was simple enough that, in the second performance of the piece, I decided that I should play the part myself. I was able to purchase a very nice used one for $60 on Ebay—my one and only Ebay purchase—and since I owned a toy piano, I decided to use it.
For me, the nice thing about playing toy piano is that there really isn’t a virtuosic tradition with the instrument. Rather than finding myself stultified by generations of incredible performances by people who have devoted their entire lives to creating beauty through the toy piano, I can explore without fear. Whereas nearly every possible way of playing a piano has already been explored by dozens of people, with the toy piano I can fancy myself a pioneer by created a system for playing the tines themselves including bowing them with rosined dental floss.
LCOTM: Your compositions have wonderfully descriptive titles: “21 Miles to Coolville,” “Hurricane Charm,” “Some Details of Hell,” and “Empty Every Night” to name a few. How does the naming of your music fit into your compositional process?
DS: This is something that keeps changing. When I started composing, my titles often provided internal stories that helped me to shape the flow of the piece itself. These days I rarely keep something specific in mind, yet I still find that the title usually comes first or very early in the compositional process.
I try to remain engaged with the world around me and many of my titles come from poems or visual art works. “Some Details of Hell” is the title of the poem by Lucie Brock-Broido that I set in that piece, and “Hurricane Charm” is the name of a road tattoo by Steed Taylor. The other two titles you mention come from specific objects.
Mainly, I seek titles that are evocative, but not too denotative. I want listeners to sense that I am expressing something, while maintaining the freedom to create their own interpretation.
Recently, I’ve been considering creating titles with more political engagement, but am finding the difficulty in so doing is allowing that freedom of interpretation. In that vein, the piece that I’m finishing right now is called “Extraordinary Rendition,” which has all sorts of associations.
LCOTM: Acoustic or electric? Why?
Boxer-briefs? What? I seem to have stopped paying attention for a second there.
My serious answer is: Yes.
My musical career started through electronic music and I remain fascinated by the possibilities of sound synthesis. People like Tristan Perich—with his 1-bit symphony recently released by Canteloupe records where each individual cd case contains unique circuitry that creates an in-home performance—are creating amazing things with electronics. I remain fascinated by the applications of game theory in computer composition and the creation of chance music.
However, my skill-set in electronic music remains woefully inadequate. I’m working right now on some simple pieces that will allow me to perform live with electronics, but I understand that these in no way reflect the possibilities inherent to the genre.
In my opinion, there is one way in which acoustic instruments rule over all others, and that is in the direct correlation between performer effort and degree of expressiveness. The disconnect between nearly-motionless guitarists and the wall of sound created by their instruments can feel somewhat silly to a person who has experienced the revelation of listening to a viola in a small recital hall. Hearing the amazing bassoonist Mike Harley practice in my living room remains among the most moving experiences of my professional career.
LCOTM: What advice would you give a young musician considering a career and life as a composer?
DS: First, I would recommend listening to everything possible. We now have music of all eras and cultures available to us at the click of a button and we should avail ourselves of this. Even music that doesn’t hold immediate appeal might help the student grapple with issues or might appear beautiful once it becomes familiar.
Second, I would ask the student to withhold judgment. Different people experience music—and art in general—in different ways. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that any two people will have exactly the same taste. And our opinions are bound to shift over time. To me, this is part of what makes art exciting. When we declare our distaste, we limit ourselves and deny ourselves the opportunity to enjoy what we might eventually find to be a sublime experience.
Third, I would ask them to consider why they want to compose. I think too many students fall into composing as a secondary option, little realizing the near-impossibility of making a career as a classical composer. This isn’t meant cynically or pessimistically. I would hope that they would consider the various types of composing and explore those that they hold nearest to their hearts. If you only listen to film music, then you should really consider writing for film—you might even make money! A moderately successful indy recording artist will reach far more listeners than even the most successful classical composers. So, if that’s what you love to hear, why limit your audience?
Fourth, I would encourage all students to explore the world around them. We can find inspiration everywhere as long as we keep our ears and eyes open and ready. A healthy life helps to create healthy art.
Finally, I would help that student to understand that they must follow their own path.