MEET THE COMPOSER
By Christina Ensign
“Put most of your energy into what you love, because that means you’re connecting deeply with something within you that, as your skills develop, will provide something for others that is fresh and interesting and perhaps profound.” -Dana Wilson
Having the opportunity to speak to a composer of Dana Wilson’s caliber is a holiday gift in itself; however, I was enormously grateful to learn that Dr. Wilson is also a man of equally estimable character. I suppose this shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise since his music is the type that delves deep into the human condition, both comfortable and discerning, introverted and gregarious, individual and conjugate. It is feasible to say that Dr. Wilson’s music so carefully and accurately portrays the inner-workings of the human brain–and thus cultivates contemplation and self-reflection–due to his skill in balancing the highs and lows of the human experience, refusing to shy away from either side of the coin. When discussing his early educational experience, Dr. Wilson explained “...the expectation that one would write atonal music exclusively,” a notion which differed from his stylistic preference. Certainly, anyone who has spent a good deal of time with Dr. Wilson’s music can see the attention he gives to melody, never losing sight of the beauty of the music that has shaped his upbringing. Dr. Wilson’s saxophone music is neither too unpredictable nor too certain; it is indicative of the realities of life–raw, honest, and sustainable.
Most immediately compelling to my ear was that of Dr. Wilson’s saxophone quartets. Each of the three quartets differs in style, timbre, emotive output, and texture. Perhaps the greatest degree of calamity and lightheartedness can be heard in Come Sunday Mornin’, which Wilson built on a foundation of jazz and gospel roots–a seemingly appropriate choice as he composed the work for The Tower Saxophone Quartet of Georgia with Southern traditions of the gospel quartet and a large church congregation in mind. Entirely different is my personal favorite quartet of Dr. Wilson’s, Escape to the Center, an almost pointillistic art piece that likewise features contrasting gorgeous, soaring melodies. A particularly captivating moment is the lone soprano note of quasi-string quality which concludes the first third of the piece, generating a tranquil and ethereal aura. Wilson’s most recent and perhaps most frequently performed quartet is Howling at the Moon, a challenging three-movement work. The composer’s voice ascends through the texture, as the listener can identify both pointillistic and rhythmic ideas present in Escape…as well as jazz and gospel influences heard in Come Sunday…The second movement features a haunting tenor solo, drawing upon the pleading hope so palpable in African-American gospel music and chants. Very much a character piece, Wilson’s inspiration for Howling… stems from a collection of poems via the pen of Japanese poet, Hagiwara Sakutaro. Very much a character piece, Wilson’s program notes (which he includes for each work available on his webpage), he writes, “The title’s allusion to the lonely wolf and all of the folklore surrounding it also influenced my thought. The result, then, is a mix of several traditions and ideas. The first movement transforms the quartet into a wailing person or animal. The second movement suggests the intense singing of African-American gospel music. The third movement conjures primal rites, and required the performers to vocalize in a way–both percussive and meaningful-- that is reminiscent of taiko drummers While on the surface these may seem disparate, on a deeper level they are very connected, and hopefully, the movements work together to form an expressive whole.”
Thus expressivity is without a doubt a critical component to Wilson’s music and is apparent despite various textures and instrumentations. Wilson’s chamber music provides a saxophonist ample opportunity to collaborate with multitudes of musicians from various backgrounds. We can see the more traditional outlets of wind ensemble, piano, and chamber orchestra, but also new and compelling pairings such as guitar, double bass, trumpet, strings, or percussion. While some small element of inspiration for such unique groupings is likely a result of various commissions, it is clear that Dana Wilson is equally, if not more so, a composer concerned with color and emotion. The atmosphere and desired emotive response transcend the instruments themselves, allowing the instruments to serve as vehicles rather than destinations. For this reason, we can suppose this is what allows Wilson to easily adapt several of his works for other instruments (such as Breathing the Water, in which the saxophone part is often played by flute or Liquid Gold, which is a direct transcription of Liquid Ebonyfor clarinet). On the other hand, so many of his works are overtly saxophone, utilizing the unique qualities of the instrument’s expressive range, variance in timbres, and dynamic/articulate abilities.
Wilson’s vast collection of saxophone music demonstrates a significant compositional quality which I believe is a necessary ingredient in the creation of any “good” music: an understanding of the instrument(s) chosen to carry a musical idea. In choosing saxophone as the vessel for his ideas, Wilson chose to highlight the unparalleled qualities of the instrument and likewise has accentuated those musical elements that the saxophone can readily execute. We Sing to Each Other, Wilson’s only unaccompanied piece for saxophone, explores the dexterity of the instrument, studying its wide range, ability to underscore multiple lines, and strength in constant, subtle shifts in color. As an unaccompanied work, each of these elements is continually present and juxtaposed against themselves. On the contrary, Time Cries, Hoping Otherwise portrays a more direct juxtaposition: that between the saxophone and the other members of the wind ensemble. In this way, Wilson both heightens the saxophone’s similar qualities by pairing it with alike-sounding instruments and its singular capabilities by writing lines in direct opposition to contrasting forces.
As a composer, Dana Wilson is an indisputably emotive and unique voice in the modern musical scene. As a composer for the saxophone, he is attentive and detailed in his approach to the instrument; he is an individual who has clearly done his homework when it comes to discerning the distinct attributes of a single instrument. As an artist and human, he is constantly delving into a world of powerful and cogent storytelling, marking a stamp on a voice that is invariably and irrevocably his own.
Saxophone Works by Dana Wilson
** For more information about works, recordings, and purchasing scores: https://www.danawilson.org/featured_instruments?instrument=Sax
Interview with Dana Wilson
The Saxophonist: Can you talk a little about your compositional background in regards to your studies, early career, and teachers?
Dana Wilson: I’ve been involved with music virtually my whole life, but there wasn’t a point at which I said: “Now I’m a professional composer.” I began as a jazz pianist writing simple jazz tunes and gradually expanded my palate. When I was in college, there was the expectation that one would write atonal music exclusively, and since that wasn’t my interest at the time, I assumed I wouldn’t be a professional composer. Gradually things evolved and I ended up in the doctoral program at Eastman, where I studied with Sam Adler, and Joe Schwantner was my advisor, both had a huge influence on me in how they approach the writing process, though my music is very different from theirs. I then got the job at the Ithaca College School of Music, where I spent my entire teaching career.
TS: As a composer, which composers are your biggest influences? Non-composer musicians? Non-composers OR musicians?
DW: Everything influences my thought process and perhaps my emotional world, including literature, art, and politics, though it’s difficult to say exactly how that translates to musical influence. Composers who were the biggest influences may have been people like Igor Stravinsky, George Crumb, and Duke Ellington; I don’t think I sound like any of them, but I was inspired by their wish to take chances and to really be clear as to who they were and what they had to say.
TS: Which piece was your first work for saxophone? What was the inspiration for this piece? What qualities of the saxophone created either exciting opportunities or (possibly frustrating) challenges for writing?
DW: I think the first piece was “Sati” for alto saxophone, cello, and two percussionists. I had recently joined the faculty of the Ithaca College School of Music, where saxophonist Steve Mauk and percussionist Gordon Stout were teaching. How could I not be excited to write for these incredible musicians? The piece is influenced by East Indian musical and aesthetic traditions, and the alto has the amazing ability to be both ethereal and “other-worldly” on the one hand, and driving and gutsy on the other. Since saxophonists like Steve are virtuosi, I didn’t feel frustrated at any point in writing for the instrument; if anything, I was spoiled.
TS: Can you talk a bit about your compositional process for writing a piece?
DW: It varies considerably. Sometimes I start with a musical fragment; sometimes, the instrument(s) for which I’m writing and what I love about their sound or idiomatic shapes; sometimes an extra-musical idea that evolves into a quasi-programmatic piece; or sometimes all of these. I sketch and sketch, expanding some ideas while discarding others. Eventually, it occurs to me that a piece—or at least a movement—is well underway.
TS: What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How about your weaknesses?
DW:I think these are better for others to assess. I try with each project to write the best piece I can; I try to be inspired by something new with each piece so that it sounds fresh. As a result, each piece sounds somewhat different from the other to me, though I’m sure others detect a thread through many of them that translates to “a style.” I love the direct honesty and vitality of jazz, and try to write lines that express those things, and I love the most delicate passages in music by the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu and try to be sensitive to such subtleties. I’m not sure if being drawn to such “extremes” is a strength or weakness, but I know that the love of such extremes and trying to reconcile them emotionally and structurally are what get my compositional juices flowing most days, and all I can hope is that the process and energy translates to something meaningful for others.
TS: A lot of your pieces have compelling titles. Can you talk about the inspiration for some of the titles of your saxophone works?
DW: On any given program or compilation recording, there is a considerable amount of music—often written in different centuries and on different continents. This alone makes a recital a lot for a listener to take in. An evocative title can help provide a portal into a piece so the listener has some sort of frame of reference while listening. Also, as mentioned earlier, I am influenced by other arts, philosophy, and things going on in the world; a title can help me to provide some larger context and connection for a piece. And I love the evocative nature of a good title that brings the listener into another world before they even hear the piece.
TS: As someone who has written a good amount of saxophone quartet music, what do you feel is most unique and exciting about saxophone quartet as an ensemble? Are there any ideas that you feel you can pull from a saxophone quartet that wouldn’t be as effective with another ensemble?
DW: The saxophone quartet provides a challenge for composers in its consistency of timbre from top to bottom. This, paradoxically, has to be the starting place of its strength, and what I like to “pull” from the ensemble: a line going from top to bottom, a voiced melody that has beautiful consistency of timbre and balance, an accompaniment emerging from melodic ideas and vice-versa.
And then, in contrast, there is the subtle timbral distinction among instruments as well as within a given line--often created by register, articulation, and dynamics. And, of course, there’s the potential for virtuosity. There are few small ensemble combinations that has all of these in such abundance.
TS: Within your compositional career, what are you most proud of?
DW: I’m proud of my pieces the way one is “proud” of one’s children: having worked hard to raise them but somewhat confounded by how they were able to turn out and make their way in the world as they did. I feel most “gratification” (a term I like to contemplate rather than “pride”) by the fact that a lot of people seem to like the music, and terrific musicians are willing and eager to put a great deal of work, passion, and artfulness into performing it—making it their own along the way. I’m so pleased with this collaboration.
TS: What is your favorite composition that you have written for saxophone?
DW: Hard to say--like, again, it’s hard to say which is your favorite child. To me, each hopefully has something to say, regardless of how many performances it’s received.
TS: What would be the biggest advice you would give to young composers and artists?
DW: Keep doing it. That’s the only way we improve, and for composers, there’s the added joy in the fact that, the more you write, the more pieces that are out there. Today’s artists might need to self-promote on social media in a new way, but it ultimately comes down to whether you have something to say that’s of interest to others. Curiously, the better you can express your own, individual thoughts, the more you can say something that will speak to others. I always liked this: if you try to say something about the universe, you will likely end up talking about a pile of bricks, but if you try to say something interesting about the bricks, you might just end up saying something about the universe.