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Matt Roberts' Music Blog

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Interview with Composer Dave Wall

Dave Wall is an Edmonton based composer/performer.  He did the jazz guitar program at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton, got an undergrad in composition, which led to a composer-in- residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts, which led to a Masters in composition at UBC. He is currently a composition PhD student at the University of Alberta.  He has written for documentary films, dancers, theatre types, various classical ensembles from solo trombone to full orchestra, rock bands and jazz musicians. He has received numerous commissions and awards, and made several recordings. See his full bio here.

Here are some examples of his music:

In Medias Res (string quartet)
Compensation (saxophone quartet)

As part of my "Composers' Process Project", where I am interviewing a variety of composers about exactly how they do what they do, I recently spoke with him at The Blue Plate Diner in Edmonton.

Matt Roberts: What mistakes do inexperienced composers make?

Dave Wall: Writing too much. Not respecting the use of repetition. Too much material all at once, and not allowing stuff to breathe, and the lack of clarity that that leads to.

MR: Do you think you've grown as a composer, and how?

DW: I've worked on overcoming the problem I described in the first question.

Also, I acquired as many ideas and approaches as I could find and used them all.  When I was 17 my plan was to learn to play every single style of music there is, so I could write music and have all of that to draw from.

When I first started I was writing really simple stuff.   Then I found out about Schoenberg, and I fell in love with Elliott Carter. So I started writing stuff that's really complex.  I tried really hard not to repeat anything.  Then I started working back to making in simpler and simpler, but having it seem really complex.  And now I'm moving back to somewhere in the middle, so it is complex and not that easy to play, but it doesn't sound uninviting. When you finish listening to a piece of music you should be able to replay the whole thing in your head in a spit second and get an image of it.  If you don't write to that, it's not going to happen.  People will leave the hall not knowing what just happened - and not wanting to come back!

MR: What are the most important factors that contributed to your development as a composer?

DW: Not quitting. That's about it!

MR: Well, for example, did learning about 12-tone techniques really affect you, or a certain teacher, or a certain composition?

DW: Going to UBC. I got exposed to a lot of things.  Before that the most out thing I'd heard was Ornette Coleman.  At UBC, it was Brian Ferneyhough, Elliott Carter, Edgard Varèse... people doing stuff that was really interesting.  I thought "Oh, this means I can do anything I want..." So I tried to do everything.  But I forgot that I had to have some formal principles.  There was one piece where I kept pushing myself and pushing myself.  It was a vocal piece - SATB - and I was working with different vocal sounds.  I listed all the things that could possibly be done with voice, and I tried to do them all.

MR: What do you consider the most important principle(s) of good composition?

DW: Clarity... and clarity... and clarity!

MR: That's sort of what I said when I interviewed myself, except I said "elegance".  When a piece of music has some central idea, and every part of it seems to relate to that central idea, then it becomes elegant, and I think that is a good composition.

DW: Exactly. Clarity for me encompasses elegance.  Also, I think a sense of voice - a sense that you're trying to say something that hasn't been said. Which isn't really possible. But all I try to think about is clarity, and everything else follows.

MR: The way I feel about this idea of developing my own voice is: I'll just write, and it can't not be my own voice.

DW: Oh sure it can.  It can, if you're thinking about anything else.  If you're thinking "I hope so-and-so likes this." or "It sucked last time I did that."  You have to think while you compose, but in a sense, you don't.  I think a lot less than I used to while I compose.  If you spend 15 years, spending weeks with every piece, planning what you are going to do, and then doing it, after a while you develop technique.  At some point you just go "okay", and you write it all down, and then you tweak it, erasing stuff.  And you wind up with something that's pretty honest - although it isn't always that good!  I've tried to get to with composing where most people are at with performing - you don't think about it, you just do it.  It is obvious that with performing, if you over-think it, it isn't going to work.  If you're thinking about where you're placing your fingers, you're doomed.  Or if you're thinking "Well I went from D to Eb four bars ago, maybe I should do that again." you could be in trouble.

MR: What do you consider to be the greatest challenge of composition?

DW: To never be boring. To keep it unified, but always changing.

MR: What is your compositional process? Do you follow a routine?

DW: My wife's nickname for me is "routine boy"!  I just get up and I start writing.  There's no question that I'm going to do it.  Composing is just something that happens every day.   I do the things I don't want to do first, like working with a programming language.  I usually work until I don't feel like working any more; that could be anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple hours. Then I do something else, and come back to it.  I might do multiple sessions; they might be as short as 5 minutes. But I don't do it until I feel like "this isn't working".

Part of what makes it easy for me to write is that I know that ideas are a dime a dozen. You can have the worst ideas - actually there are no "worst ideas". It's what you do with them after the first bar.  Someone asked Bach "Where do you get your ideas?"  He said "I have a hard time not tripping over them when I get up in the morning."  Look [holds up the salt shaker] there's the form for your next piece. It's round here and square at the end, it starts out with all these little holes. [makes little-hole-like-noises]  Everywhere you look.

Mr: Are there phases to your compositional process?  For example, planning, writing, editing?

DW: Yeah, I'll write two or three minutes of music really quickly, and then I'll edit it, and often it will become about 5 minutes, because I realize there is more to it. Then I'll start writing some new material, and then revise again.

MR: Do you have any stratagems for composing?

DW: I don't do this anymore, but I used to start by writing down all the possibilities. For example, for a string quartet, I'd start by writing down all the possible ways each instrument can make sounds, then I'd make a list of each possible combination of instruments.  Then I'd make a structure; and then I'll meditate on that, and then I'll start writing. I don't do that anymore, but that really helps, especially beginning composers, because they don't think of all the possibilities. You think of all the possibilities, and then you might pick three, and then you start writing.  It's really more craft. The art is really something you can't talk about. All we've been talking about is craft.

MR: A quote I like is "The work of art is the mediator of the inexpressible."

DW: There you go. I tell my students: "Musicians are people who want to communicate something they can't communicate with language."

MR: What composers do you admire and why?

DW: The ones that are still doing it! (laughs) But actually, I mean it. I really like György Ligeti. He has a very intricate way of writing that comes out sounding very unified. He's quite adventurous but not crazy. Avant garde but still accessible.  He's got a very textural way of thinking which I'm very into. I like Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt.  Xenakis, but more for his process then how it actually sounds. Alfred Schnittke - he'll use whatever he needs to use in order to communicate what he wants to communicate, as opposed to all the guys in the 60's who said "I'm a 12-tone composer and everything else is shit." There's a lot of guys, I can't think of them all right now. Todd Sickafoose. He's more of a jazz guy.

MR: Why compose? What is the reward of composing?

DW: I've got nothing better to do! You might be asking me this question at the wrong point in my life. There are so many people out there doing it. I don't understand, anymore, why I need to compose. I don't see how me composing helps anyone except for me.

MR: That's a reason!

DW: Yeah, it makes me a better person, and then when I go out into the world, I'm a better person, so it helps that way. But there are a lot of ways I could become a better person besides writing music.

MR: Do you enjoy composing?

DW: Yeah, that's why I do it. I really enjoy it.

MR: Are there any books, CDs, DVDs, etc., that you would recommend?

DW: Techniques of the Contemporary Composer by David Cope. Arnold Schoenberg's book [Theory of Harmony]. Messiaen's book [My Musical Language].  I used the Cope book for teaching, because it is really clear.

MR: Which of your own compositions are you most proud of, and why?

DW: I like the first string quartet I ever wrote, "In Medias Res". It is really direct and clear.  I like this saxophone quartet I wrote more recently, "Compensation". I like the way it opens. There is a narrative to it, there is a reason that everything happens.  The narrative is described on my website.

If you're interested in learning more about Dave Wall or his music, visit

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  1. I recently came across another good quote: "Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent." - Victor Hugo