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Matt's 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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Friday, July 15, 2011

Bicycle Trailer for Double Bass & Amp

Update March 2013: This has become by far the most popular post on my blog (1229 views to date), so I edited it a bit, and added some new information, since I've now been using the trailer for almost two years. I and my trailer were recently featured on the Dandy Horse Magazine Blog

First I Had To Get The Nerve To Try It...

The idea of transporting my double bass and amp by bicycle was first proposed to me by my older brother Malcolm.  Everyone in my family is very pro-bike, believing it to be the solution to many of our society's most pressing problems: air pollution, global warming, lack of exercise, depleting oil reserves, traffic congestion, depression, etc.  Additionally, there are many other, more self-interested reasons for biking, such as avoiding traffic & parking hassles (especially abundant here in Toronto) and the cost of car ownership. However, my brother sticks out as a bicycle fanatic even among a family of bicycle fanatics, having spent two years biking around Eurasia pulling all his worldly possessions behind him in a "Bob" trailer.  Perhaps because of this, I remained wary of hauling my beloved instrument around Toronto's streets by pedal power.

However, about a month ago I was jamming with my buddy Chris Butcher, and he told me there was already another bass player doing this in Toronto.  I later heard about a second.  Once I realized that it was working for someone else, determined to give it a try.

Then I Did Some Internet Research...

I began searching the internet to see if there were examples of bike-based bass transportation that I could study before designing my own. Indeed there were! Check out this Portland band who did an entire west coast tour transporting themselves and all their gear - including a double bass - by bike. Apparently in Copenhagen, where bikes are much more supported by city bylaws and civic planning, and have therefore become much more a part of the culture, it is the norm for bassists to get around using cargo tricycle style bikes. (Of course here in Toronto, thanks to our astonishingly and infuriatingly stupid new mayor, Rob Ford, we have just decided to actually remove several bike lanes, at a cost of over $200 000.)

My main concern in the trailer design was the safety of my instrument; also, I wanted a trailer that would haul my amp and any other gear I might need for a gig.  Those cargo-tricycles start at well over $1000 here in Canada, and go up from there. For these reasons, I ruled out the cargo-tricycle idea.  My search turned up some other unsuitable designs. (Searching for "bike bass trailer" turned up a lot of bikes rigged to pull huge sub-woofers.)  Notable was John Teske's "Haulin' Bass Project".  A bassist/composer out of Seattle, he used a Kickstarter campaign to raise $1000 to have a bass trailer custom built for him, attracting considerable media attention along the way.  I found another design I thought might work, but I felt I could do better still.  I decided I would buy a flatbed trailer and then customize it to suit my bass.

I was originally going to buy the Surly Bill Trailer, but decided against it when I found this would cost something like $1500 in Canada.  Then I thought I would get the Bikes at Work 64A, which would cost something like $650 after shipping.  Finally I found a company from Guelph Ontario - Wicycles - which sells a DIY custom trailer kit for only $129, with $10 shipping in Canada. If you are going to make a WIKE DIY trailer, I would also recommend checking out this post and this post, both WIKE trailers built by other bloggers.

Then I Came Up With A Design, Ordered Some Stuff Online, and Started Building!

Above is my "blueprint" design. The amp fits snugly into a wood frame, and is secured by a strap.  The bass is held on three sides by aluminum poles.  The neck lies on top of the amp.  Two more straps secure the bass at the body and the neck. (I wish I had made the strap for the neck closer to the point where the neck contacts the amp; I think this would put less strain on the neck.)

This image shows in more detail how the amp is secured. You can also see a bit of the 1"-thick foam padding for the bass in the bottom right-hand corner.
The kit shipped to me in one business day. It was actually extremely easy to put together. Their YouTube video shows the entire assembly in under 11 minutes, and it didn't take me much longer. (Although their website states the contrary, my kit included all the 1/4" x 1 3/4" bolts and lock nuts.) I was able to purchase some of the 1" square aluminum tubing from Home Depot, but they only carry tubing up to 4 feet long.  For this trailer I needed up to 6 feet.  So, I ordered the longer pieces from Metal Supermarket, a chain across North America. They cut everything to my specifications for free, and had next-day delivery for only $10.  If you can, get tubing with 1/16" thick walls. 1/8" is excessive and will only add weight to your trailer.  I also ordered a large sheet of 1/8" thick aluminum for the base. I wanted something stiff to attach things to, but again this was probably excessive and definitely added weight. 1/16" aluminum or 1/2" plywood would probably have been fine. At first I put the wheels at the balance point, which is near the front of the trailer.  However, this caused the back of the trailer to scrape along the ground, so I had to move the wheels further back.

After several afternoons pondering, sawing, drilling, and making trips to the hardware store, here what I created!

Here is an approximate tally of the costs involved in building the trailer:
Wike DIY Trailer Kit: $140
Metal from Metal Supermarkets: $220
Reflectors & flags from MEC: $35
Misc stuff from hardware store
(bolts, handles, short tubing, lumber, replacing broken drill bit...):
Approximate total: $475

A Few Tweaks and Notes...

At first I thought the hitch was a weak point of the Wike Trailer.  Both the Surly and Bikes-At-Work trailers had tougher-looking hitches.  I added a safety to the hitch (I think a safety was supposed to be included, but wasn't in my kit), so that if it breaks in traffic, I should be able to ride the whole thing long enough to get out of trouble. However, after two years of use, the hitch is holding up well and I am much more confident in it. I have wiped out while towing this trailer on one occasion (slipped on streetcar tracks in the rain) and the flexible hitch kept the trailer upright and my gear safe, even as I hit the pavement.

This shows how I attached the flags by drilling a hole at the
bottom of each side pole for the bottom of the flag pole to go
into, and then drilling two holes at the top of the side poles,
 passing a zip tie through those holes, and then making a loop
that the flag poles can slide through.
The only real way I think I my bass could be damaged while transporting it by bike is if it were hit by a car, so I added reflective stickers, a flashing light, and a flag.  A few months later I added two more flags (for a total of three) as well as lights on either side. However some drivers just don't look out for bicyclists, even bicyclists hauling trailers with a million flashing lights, so I make sure to keep my head up and look out for cars, especially at night.

This shows the anchors and spring-loaded clip-ons.  I colour-coded
the anchors and clips so I know which straps go where.
I decided to use cambuckle straps; if you use these, it is important to get ones with spring-loaded clips on the end, to ensure they don't giggle free of the anchors en route. However, even when I have forgotten to tighten the straps before leaving, the aluminum poles have still kept it firmly in the trailer.

Initially I thought that if it rained, I would cover the bass and amp with a blue tarp.  In practice I found the tarp very cumbersome to work with while loading/unloading the gear in the rain.  I have since purchased a heavy-duty snowmobile cover at Walmart for $60, which has a drawstring to draw it tight around the bass, and packs easily into an included stuff bag.  The amp would be covered with a garbage bag.  I haven't had the opportunity to try this, but I'm optimistic that it should be pretty manageable, and sufficiently protect the bass in mild weather.  If the roads are wet at all, it is also important to have a rear fender, otherwise you get the bass case all dirty because your back wheel sprays it with mud.

I would estimate that the trailer, amp, and bass, weigh about 80 pounds combined. When I'm going on flat ground, it isn't too hard - I've gotten up to speeds of 25 kph. However, going up hill is a tough slog, especially if it goes on for more then a block. Of course, downhill is a treat!

Using The Trailer - Two Years and Counting!

I've now been using this trailer for almost two years.  I've used it year round in Toronto, Canada - which means I've even hauled it through the snow.  It has become my preferred mode of transporting my bass (although I do still use public transport or car sharing when they are more practical).  I feel very confident that my bass is safe while it is being transported - usually it doesn't even go out of tune. Also, it is just very convenient - it only takes about 15 minutes to load, I can breeze past traffic, and I don't have to worry about parking or catching a cab.

Cheaper/Simpler Alternatives

I'm really hoping another bass player will follow my lead, and build a trailer like mine.  So far no one has, but please let me know if you do! If anyone in the Toronto area would like a trailer like this but doesn't feel like they're up to the task of building it, I'd be happy to build one for you for the cost of materials + $25/hour.

There are also some other cheaper and simpler alternatives if you don't need to haul things as large as a double bass. Wike also makes a number of pre-assembled cargo trailers, starting at just $99 that might work for electric bassists, guitarists, or anyone with similar loads smaller than a double bass.  Check out this trailer for hauling a drum kit (Max Senitt tells me he bikes his drums to gigs using a trailer occasionally). Or, check out this YouTube video that explains how to use a hand-truck as a trailer by connecting it to your pannier rack with an old bike tube (you should be able to get a used tube for free from any bike shop).  I borrowed my dad's bike and hand-truck while I was home in Edmonton, and used this set up to get to two gigs in the Edmonton Jazz Festival with my Eminence semi-acoustic bass and a small amp. It worked very well.

Backstage at the Edmonton Jazz Festival - the rest of the band had to park blocks away!
Got to go now... I have to load my trailer up for another gig!

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