Hi David, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?
I’m hangin’ in. 2020 was a tough year for everyone. But things seem to be looking up in 2021.
Can you talk to us more about your composition “Loose Canons”?
Sure, it’s is a different kind of canon. Instead of musicians playing the same thing one after the other, they start at the same time, each playing a at a different speed—slow, medium, and fast. The identical parts slip and slide past each other. I didn’t invent this idea. An amazing composer named Ockeghem did this (as did others) in the 1400s. I decided to try something similar with modern instruments. I used electric guitars with sustain devices called ebows.
Did any event in particular inspire you to write this work?
Some early European music from the 1300s and 1400s can stop me cold. It is so different from music we listen to now. I wanted to try and get inside that sound and mindset but at the same time make something that sounds modern. Using electric guitars seemed a good way to do this.
What about pieces like “Liberties Taken” and “Like This”?
“Liberties Taken” for saxophone quartet is a fun and challenging ensemble to write for. The piece is based on a classical composition from South India which got stuck in my head decades ago. Parts of the piece are a straight transcription of the original, but as the title suggests I took a lot of liberties and mixed in jazzy and minimalist sections.
“Like this” is a duet for violin and cello. I tried to braid the parts tightly together, so that you can’t tell who is leading or following. I began with in image of a pair of figure skaters doing a choreographed routine. While they appear to be moving together as one, they are doing very different things. For example, as one skater skates forward, the other has to skate backwards in order for them to stay together.
These compositions come off your new album Gradus – what’s the story behind the album’s title?
“Gradus” means steps or stairs in Latin. Learning to compose music takes time, many years. You improve step by step, learning along the way, trying new things, sometimes failing then trying again. The title’s also a side joke, probably only funny to composers. It references a counterpoint textbook written in 1725 called “Gradus Ad Parnassum” (Steps to Parnassus). Mozart, Beethoven, almost everybody studied counterpoint from this little book and also got annoyed by it since it has serious flaws. But many music schools still use it today. I teach from it myself sometimes.
How was the recording and writing process?
The computer and spoken word pieces I can do at home on a laptop. But if I’m recording other musicians, I’ll go to a studio. I work with a couple of excellent engineers, Joel Gordon in Boston and Jeremy Tressler in New York. They have ears of gold, great recording spaces and equipment, and are incredibly precise and detail oriented.
I mostly write at the piano but I have other instruments around. I’ll start with paper and pencil, then input that to a computer using notation software, listen to it and then print it out and take it back to the piano. I’ll move back and forth between the computer and piano and paper like this many times.
How did you go on balancing all your influences with your different cultural approach on this album in particular?
That was a bit tricky. There is a great deal of variety on the album, including computer music, classical songs, spoken word, Indian influenced pieces, etc. In my ears they are all related, but I’m not sure everyone hears it. One agent declined to work with me because they seemed to think the disc was “all over the map.” It is all me, though. I just have an open mind musically. On a practical level, deciding the track order was key. After several attempts, I came up with a sequence where the tracks almost seem to talk with each other.
You have many collaborators on Gradus. Do you tend to take a different approach when collaborating with someone else or rather the opposite?
After playing in imploding bands in my 20s, I decided to try my hand at composing. I like working with musicians from different backgrounds with amazing skills. In the manner of a traditional Western composer, I pretty much call the shots, writing down what I’m after for others to play. But that’s not the whole story. I’ve known most of the players on this disc for years. I know their strengths and what they like to play and build that into the pieces. And they are so good that they bring their own expertise and creativity, making the music better than what I had in my mind.
In 2018 I lived in India and worked with some great young players. Since they don’t read music and are great improvisers, we worked collaboratively. I set up a loose framework to allow them to do what they do best. We recorded a version of Wes Montgomery’s jazz classic, “Bumpin’ on Sunset”. Although this was a novel situation for them, they approached it in their own way. They brought so much to the table that I just stayed in the background playing keyboard and electric bass. It was inspiring and exciting. I can’t wait for the track’s release in early 2021 on YouTube and other platforms.
Where did you find the inspiration for the music and words?
The music can come from anyplace. Sometimes I’ll hear a few chords or a rhythmic pattern in my head. I don’t know where these came from. Or I’ll stumble on something while playing the piano that seems worth hanging on to. Or I’ll hear a small fragment of a piece that has a feeling or sound that gets stuck in my mind, and I’ll do something with that. What results won’t sound like the original, which just gets me started. Words? I can’t write lyrics to save my life but I like to read poetry and can spot poems which will work for songs. I’m partial to American poetry which says something about American life, whether by Herman Melville who wrote “Moby Dick”, or a recent poet like David Ignatow, who wrote about living and dying in New York City.
What else is happening next in David Claman’s world?
I’ve already got most of the music for the next CD. And I plan to go back to India to do another collaborative project with the players there. And to keep on keepin’ on.