Everyone will give you the advice that if you're going to start a blog, better to write a paragraph here and there than to only write big entries a couple of times a year... I've fallen into that trap, starting this article and that, and then getting pulled away...and as every piece from the 1960s reminds us, Tempus fugit!


It was a whirlwind of a summer–I figured I taught over 100 lessons between all of the festivals I attended in the US and Europe. This is one of my favorite things--to meet young composers and see what they're writing... But I've also learned to give up on getting meaningful work done while traveling. I mean, it's possible–but more like running with barbells taped to your hands and feet. I have one colleague who just stopped traveling for a year to get work done. I also learned that John Cage made every effort to be at every performance of his music. I suppose the "answer" is--as it is in pretty much everything--the answer is balance.

Right now I'm working hard on a new piece for the Morgenstern piano trio called "Spiral Galaxy." I'm sure the Crumb movement got in my mind, but with my geeky astronomy obsession and the constant news of discovery in my various feeds, this is my prompt. And the Morgensterns are phenomenal.

Leaving soon with Bella for performances with the Quad City and Rogue Valley Symphonies of my violin concerto. Then off to Shanghai to be a guest lecturer at the University of Science and Technology and host some concerts with my music and master classes. Last time I was there I didn't try quite enough soup dumplings, so I'll be endeavoring to rectify that situation this time.


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David receives a Pew Performance Grant

David is the recipient of a $60,000 grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. He will compose a new song cycle "The Anchoress" based on text by Katie Ford, for singer Hyunah Yu, PRISM Quartet, and Piffaro: The Renaissance Band. 

Ford’s new text will be written to suggest found fragmentary prose that she herself has translated, channeling the voice and inner life of an imagined Medieval “anchoress.” This work explores anchorism; a religious tradition of mysticism largely forgotten now that I believe deserves to be brought to light as a relevant medium to discuss contemporary issues of society, gender, self-discovery, and artistic exploration.

Anchorites were Christians who lived in extreme confinement in a quest for spiritual perfection; a practice that grew in popularity in late medieval England and particularly amongst women. Ford writes: “The anchoritic life is one of the earliest forms of Christian monastic living. However, an anchoress was not a part of a monastic community. Instead, she lived in an enclosed cell, an ‘anchorhold,’ attached to a church. She had one small window through which to speak to townspeople coming to her for guidance. Her daily life resembled a prayerful funereal rite. She has withdrawn and chosen a form of death, which, in the eyes of the Church, transformed her into a ‘living saint.’” (An early Anchorite, Julian of Norwich is believed to have written the first published book by a woman in English literature.)

"The Anchoress" will premiere at the Kimmel Center in the 2017-18 season, presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. 


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Last December I scored Michael Almareyda's film "Cymbeline" – the play by Shakespeare that nobody knows about but everybody should, and I think Michael took that opportunity in making his film, which is so beautifully and elegantly realized. It stars an A-list cast of Hollywood actors: Dakota Johnson, Milla Jovovich, Ed Harris, Ethan Hawke, Penn Badgely, Bill Pullman, and many other actors you'd know. The producer of Cymbeline is Anthony Katagas, who won an Academy Award this year for “Twelve Years a Slave.” You can check it all out on IMDB, but suffice it to say it was my first true encounter with such major figures in the film industry. I had done some music for shorter documentaries and animated films, but nothing on this scale. Composing for the big screen is about as humbling and exciting as it gets (in equal parts!). I want to share some of what I learned in the process with anyone who is interested or is looking to write a movie score, themselves.

Now if you’re going to score a film, read this article, which features an interview with some of the most influential film composers out there. Reading it will save you...oh, endless anxiety, knowing that these guys—the biggest in the business—have already gone through (and frequently go through) what you’re about to go through many times over. The title of the article didn't apply to my experience at all–everyone I worked with on Cymbeline was super professional, collegial, and warm. But there was also a directness in communication that one doesn't see so much in the concert music business. When there's a tight timeline on a project that costs what these films do, there isn't a ton of room for servile flattery. Your music is a part of a much bigger picture (pun pretty much intended), and it's got to work for the director and everyone else who has the say–not just for you. Flexibility and humility are key to making this happen.

The process of composing a film score usually starts with a “spotting" session, which is where you sit down with the director and others to watch the movie and talk through what each scene is trying to communicate (and how that could be reflected in the music). After that, you start off on your own–in my case I was sent a link to download the movie and that's when the party started. I'd watch the movie on my iPad and would improvise at the piano until something compelling took shape, and then I'd make a note of what I wrote to see if it was worth exploring further. I don't usually work like that, but I realize now that I forgot to mention my deadline (which was very typical) where I had about three weeks to write forty-five minutes of music (it's really ninety minutes of music, since half of it is discarded in the process). Many concert music composers write that much music in a full year.

I'd get the timings pretty well down and then use the computer to find the right pacing; nipping and tucking along the way so that when Milla and Ed* appeared, the music reacted exactly in sync with the image. It's got to be down to the fraction of a second: if something happens too late, it feels awkward...too early and you're tipping the hand of the drama. There is a sound editor who will fit your music in, but it's got to be pretty much exact from the get go. (* I'd like to think we're on a first name basis now...)The cycle begins once you submit your "cues" (sections of music for the parts of the film) to the director. An engineer syncs your music to the film based on the exact timings you give, and then you get a phone call from the directors with "love it!," hate it!," or "feh..." Michael was very patient with my gear-shift to film composing, but never compromising with what he wanted, which ultimately is infinitely more helpful as a guide.. It's a special challenge when you're using computerized MIDI samples to represent your work to others. I must admit that as a “pencil and paper” composer, I wasn’t setup with great synth sounds on my computer for it to render my music…I’m guessing that my initial tracks probably reminded them of something from “Lost in Space,” so crappy was my computer’s wheezy and mechanical attempts to play the score. Since I don’t really use computer playback in my regular composing process, what came out of my speakers sounded more like a dozen vuvuzelas than the oboe, for example...a dozen vuvuzelas played by robot monkeys in a robot monkey band

You just have to invest in the technology to get decent sounding instrument samples. It’s hard enough for a trained musician to hear through bad MIDI sounds—how do you expect the director to make sense of your lush and brilliant music through a dense thicket of bleeps and blips? I went out and got Garritan sounds, then decided those were just about as bad as what I already had on Sibelius. So I dropped a little more money on the EastWest sound library, which was a big step north. The Vienna Symphonic Library will be next, as pricey as it is. I used to trick my Curtis students in class by playing an excerpt from a computerized Firebird suite and would then ask them if they heard anything weird in the recording. Every year, just a handful knew it was a computer–but just a handful… If the computer can convince top conservatory students, that's a scary level of convincing. 

As composers, we're used writing our music and handing it over to be played. Some make changes to accommodate the performers, some edit along the way and in rehearsals wanting to improve the music, and some do neither. But this is entirely different. As a film composer you are sending passages of music to be accepted, rejected, or sent back for alteration. For some, that's a massive compromise, but for me as a creative artist, I found the process totally liberating, fun, and challenging. I admit that when you spend hours writing, only to get the hand of "it's nice music, but not for this film," it's difficult to swallow. It can be what you think is your best music–the most bolt-of-lightning inspired writing you've done on the whole project, but if the director doesn't like it or likes it, but doesn't think it fits with the concept of the scene, it's out. And you have to just be able to turn it around and start writing the next attempt until something clicks. It's a difficult process psychologically, as exciting as it is frustrating at times.

But in three magic words..."that's the gig."

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