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David Rakowski Interview

Posted on 01 April 2009. © Copyright 2004-2014David Bruce


C:T talks to composer David Rakowski, whose Winged Contraption is featured on the latest BMOP/sound release.

Winged Contraption by
David Rakowski on the BMOP/Sound label
Tell us something about your background.

Born and grew up in St. Albans, Vermont, 3 miles from Lake Champlain, 15 miles from the Canadian border. Diary farming region -- my high school was eventually swallowed up by the vocational wing. My father worked at a local paper mill, and my mother had been a soprano voice major at BU. When music lessons were offered in public school beginning in Grade 5, dad wanted me to learn French horn, but only 7th graders were allowed to learn the horn. So they gave me a trombone. We had a piano in the house that I tinkered on a lot, and I taught myself piano with the method books my older siblings had used. The only pop music I knew growing up was Jesus Christ Superstar and the Chicago albums.

How did you start composing?

Completely egotistical. I was at the Vermont high school All-State festival my sophomore year, and the bus to bring us home one evening broke down. So while it was being fixed, we were herded into a concert of the All-State composition competition winners. A high school band played the $150 winner, "Soliloquy to a Snowstorm". For 150 bucks I thought I could do better than that (because, like, you know, I was smart). During February vacation of my junior year, I wrote a 7-minute piece for my high school band that stole all the best licks from pieces I'd played in All-State and All-New England. The piece sucked, and the band hated it, but I loved writing, and kept doing it. As to the competition -- I lost.

What drives your work, what are you passions?

Dunno, I just like putting stuff together. Obviously I like playing with the boundaries of virtuosity, and the interplay of colors. But I guess mostly I like figuring out how to frame moments -- dramatically, coloristically, gesturally, harmonically, etc. I also like figuring out ways to do the same things in different ways, and vice versa. And (while I'm making the list too long) I like playing to what I perceive as the strengths and personalities of the people for whom I write.

Tell us about your forthcoming Winged Contraption CD.

It's no longer forthcoming. Well, it's 65 minutes of impossibly hard music made to sound easy by great players and a great conductor, Gil Rose. Plus some solo playing in the piano concerto that will melt your face clean off. It's got the first piece I wrote very quickly (Winged Contraption, 9 minutes in 23 days) that, despite its thick orchestration, is *much* leaner that of my first symphony, which immediately preceded it. It's got Persistent Memory, which is an elegy in memory of Lily Auchincloss followed by variations on it that make great demands on the orchestra (especially horn players). And it's got my Piano Concerto from 2006, tailored to Marilyn Nonken's and BMOP's playing, built from piano etudes I associated with Marilyn. Sometimes it's loud, sometimes it's soft. The production is amazing.

Tell us something about your working method as a composer. Give us something that might be or might have been a starting point for a piece.

Well, I seem to have two streams of working methods -- the piano etude stream and the other-than-piano-etude stream. With non-etudes I put a lot of time and care into thinking over the whole shape of a piece or a movement, and sculpt as obsessively as I can. While I'm writing those pieces I'm thinking about what-if's constantly during the day. And I do my major thinking about what I'll write on any one day in the time between waking up and finishing my morning shower. I also utilize the release of writing a particular profanity very large on pages of sketch that I discard. Piano etudes are different -- they are little playgrounds that develop from notions, and I follow the music moment to moment rather than trying to conceive an entire piece first. This way I feel free to pursue the direction the materials seem to lead me, rather than discarding them as inappropriate.

Which non-musical influences have affected your music most?

Beer. I can't have a beer until I've written a fixed amount of music on any one day. But to give you the answer you're fishing for -- it's encounters with non-musicians discussing their work at places like the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and VCCA. Certain ways they talk about their work and working method often have resonance with what I might be working on at the time. Poets have been most helpful in this regard.

What is your musical philosophy?

If it sounds good, write it.

Who has been the greatest influence on your musical style to date and why?

Hard to narrow it down to one, but since you ask in the singular: Berg. It was hearing the NY premiere of Lulu and being able to sit in on rehearsals at the Met where I got to encounter the music repeatedly and begin listening critically to the fundamentals of Berg's sound: voice leading, species counterpoint, and harmony that sounded hierarchical -- even though all anyone knew how to say about this music at the time was that it was 12-tone. It may have been in this music that I learned what fourth species is really all about -- hold a note, change the context harmonically or texturally, and that note acquires new affective meaning. I'd also like to put in a shout-out to my homeys Stravinsky and Bartok.

What's the strangest idea for a piece you've ever had?

Schnozzage, etude for melody in the nose (or a third hand, or an extremely well-trained pet). I'm lucky not to have been typecast as "the nose guy".

Which work are you most proud of and why?

Martian Counterpoint, the last movement of "Ten of a Kind". The strange counterpoint, the sonorities, the very fast clarinet writing just seem to come together in this one, and I don't think it sounds like anything else of mine.

What does the future hold for you?

Slow physical decline, and then I die. More locally, it's lunch.

Please list anywhere online where your work can be experienced

My YouTube channel has plenty of piano etudes, bits from the piano concerto, and a couple of hand drum pieces: http://www.youtube.com/rakman4

NewMusicBox review of the Winged Contraption CD has a stream of the 4th movement of the piano concerto: http://www.newmusicbox.com/article.nmbx?id=5921

A few piano etudes recorded by Marilyn Nonken are streamed on Art of the States: http://www.artofthestates.org/cgi-bin/piece.pl?pid=252

Please list any useful resouces/links

Rick Moody's stuff on ubuweb: http://www.ubu.com/sound/moody.html

Homestar Runner: http://www.homestarrunner.com/

To purchase David Rakowski: Winged Contraption, visit BMOP/sound label http://www.bmopsound.org .



Interview by David Bruce © Copyright 2004-2014

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