Stephen Schwartz (SS): The American Composers Forum is quite lucky to have you as part of the board of directors. What made you decide to become a part of the American Composers Forum?

David Conte (DC): As a working composer since the mid-1980s, I’ve always been aware of the presence of the ACF.  Early in my career I got to know both Libby Larsen and Stephen Paulus, who offered friendship and advice. I’ve also always been fascinated to observe the unique character of Minneapolis as a city that has a very developed sense of civic duty and community and the role of the arts in the lives of everyday people. I have a strong “populist” strain in my personality, so the character of ACF as it reflects the city where it was founded is very appealing to me. Over the years, I’ve greatly enjoyed serving on various panels for organizations like the NEA, the California Arts Council, and many others. I was delighted when Craig Carnahan invited me serve on a panel for ACF in 2010. Soon after John Nuechterlein and I had a long conversation about the goals and the mission of the ACF, and I was moved by his enthusiasm and his vision, and I realized that I could make a contribution, and learn a lot, too, in the process.


SS: As a choral composer you have set several works to text by John Stirling Walker, a Minneapolis-based poet. This includes The Nine Muses, a composition commissioned by the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) for their 2007 National Convention. What makes you so often choose Walker’s texts?

DC: John Stirling Walker, who sadly passed away in May of 2011, was a dear friend from my Cornell student days. Though we met as fellow students in 1980, we didn’t work together publicly until 1999, when he wrote the text for my piece “Elegy for Matthew,” a piece that was commissioned by the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus in memory of Matthew Shepard. Over the many years of our friendship, I came to understand that John had a similar understanding about the nature of words that I felt I have about the nature of tones. John had a very developed social conscience, and was a devout student of what I would call various “spiritual streams,” especially the writings and thoughts of the Austrian anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner. (Initiatives of Steiner include the Waldorf Schools and biodynamic farming.) So John and I entered into a commitment with each other to create musical works that could transform human existence, and elevate the moral conversation about the pressing matters of our time. We went on to write eleven works together, including memorial pieces for 9/11 (“September Sun”), Abraham Lincoln (“Lincoln”), Martin Luther King, Jr. (“The Homecoming”, for Chanticleer). John’s poetry is often described as “dense,” which is true, but once I have done the work required to penetrate the deep thought and heart behind it, I feel it has always drawn out my best work. It is my hope that slowly but surely performers and audience members will be rewarded in the same way.

It’s also great to work with living poets and writers, as I’ve done also with the four librettists I’ve worked with in creating my seven operas. I should say, too, that though I enjoy writing music of all kinds, including all genres of instrumental music, and film music, I enjoy above all working with words and creating characters through music.


SS: What was it like working with Aaron Copland while preparing a study of his sketches? Would you say Copland has influenced your music in any way? Would you mind telling us a little bit about your orchestral work, A Copland Portrait?

DC: Copland was an enormous influence on me, and was a kind of personal hero to me since I was as young as five years old. I was so very lucky to get to know him personally in 1982, when I lived at his house while writing a doctoral thesis on his manuscript sketches.  I’ll refer your readers to an article I wrote about my experience which was published in the June 2012 issue of The Choral Journal, and which I’ve posted on my website. Copland’s great genius was to express in tones the very character of our vast and diverse country. For me, he always put his heart on the page, and I strive to do that myself in my music.

The Dayton Philharmonic commissioned A Copland Portrait in 2000, and because this was also the centenary of Copland’s birth, I wanted to honor his memory and achievement. Nadia Boulanger said about Stravinsky’s homage to Pergolesi, Pulcinella: “One notices not so much the object as the hand holding it.” This is a marvelous description of how composers assimilate the influence of others. In our age, with so much obsession about originality, I tried to show in my work how I could be nourished by Copland’s style, while at the same time making it completely my own. So the work is an eight-minute overture, which combines, say, the rhythmic character of one of Copland’s themes with the orchestral color of another, to make a third, new idea. This is a risky venture, as Copland’s musical voice is so strong and recognizable. I hope I expressed in my piece something new about Copland.


SS: Many listeners often wonder how or why composers write their music a certain way. When you start a new work do you have a collection of ideas that you form into a piece? Do you sit down at a piano and start playing until you find something you like? Do you most often compose to text?

DC: My teacher Nadia Boulanger said two things that describe perfectly my own experience of how I compose.  To quote her:

“True personality in music (meaning the ‘composer’s voice’) is based on the deep knowledge of the personalities of others.”

And her advice to young composers:  “Make a list of the music you love; learn it by heart; and when composing always strive never to avoid the obvious.”

I know that whatever ability I have to compose works that have the qualities that I admire in the work of others – formal coherence, honest expression, rhetorical traction in the presentation of ideas, and the creation of a unique sound world that holds the performer’s and the listener’s attention from moment to moment – comes directly from all the work I did, starting very young, to learn music at the piano by heart. I believe that the basic task of the composer is “to hear what should come next.” In order to do this, one has to have a very developed ear and memory. So, when I compose, I simply start at the beginning, and move forward, note by note, beat by beat, phrase by phrase, section by section, movement my movement, always listening and shaping and making choices based on my intuitions, my taste, and my habits. For me, the composing of a piece of music is a performance in itself, to be experienced as much as possible in real time. This assumes a certain level of ability at the keyboard, something I consider essential for the development of a composer.


SS: You have studied with some amazing people while gaining momentum as a professional composer. You were one of Nadia Boulanger’s last students in Paris as a Fulbright scholar and you studied under Karel Husa and Steven Stucky at Cornell University.  Are there any overarching messages or words of inspiration you’ve held onto from others that you would like to pass on to young and aspiring composers today?

DC: I tell all aspiring composers that they should ideally learn to play the piano as well as possible, and should work especially to memorize as many pieces as possible; and that they should sing as much as possible, which connects one to the breath, which is in fact the source of all human activity. I worry greatly that the new technology available to many composers can separate them from the breath, and can lead to what I would call “assembling” rather than “composing.” To open what may be a can of worms, I believe that all composers should master first Moveable Do, until they can hear without hesitation the modal and tonal syntax of any pitch combination, and then switch to Fixed Do, in order to relate pitches to their written representation on a line or a space of all of the seven clefs. All other activities, such as the study of harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, analysis, etc. will be informed by this foundation.

One could say that composing, like any human activity, ends up being an expression of one’s character, and one’s level of commitment. Boulanger used to say: “Either devote your entire life to music, or abandon it now. Not to do this is like marrying someone you don’t love. I myself have never been married, but I don’t think it’s a good idea.” I love both the rigor and the humor and humanity in her words here. In order to be worthy of the greatest heights of what music can give us, we must apply ourselves to a kind of discipline and devotion that is the very indicator of character.

Also: “Do not enter without joy!”


SS: What have you been up to lately? Are there any new projects or works that ACF members can have an exclusive update on or look for in the near future?

DC: I’m completing a three-movement Sinfonietta commissioned by the Atlantic Classical Orchestra, a very fine chamber orchestra in Florida conducted by Stewart Robertson. I just completed my seventh opera, “Stonewall,” commissioned by the University of Northern Colorado. Upcoming commissions include a new mass for St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York, and a work for two organs, soprano and violin for La Trinité in Paris. I’m also beginning to work on an article about the pedagogy of choral composition for The Choral Journal with two composer colleagues, Robert Kyr and Steven Sametz.

Visit David’s website to learn more about him, listen to his music, and find his latest sheet music and recordings!