David Leisner Interview
Questions by Will Riley
1. Hello David - thank you for speaking with us. We are all very excited that you are headlining Festival 21 this year! Your program has several works that will be new to much of the Boston audience, including the world premiere of Mariluna by Carlos Carillo, and the Boston premiere of David del Tredici’s Facts of Life (both works commissioned and dedicated to you). Could you describe what the process of working with these composers was like? Were scores sent back and forth with changes made by you, or did you get a finished piece that needed no change?
I met Carlos Carillo quite a few years ago as a preliminary judge of the BMI Student Composer Awards, when Carlos won one of these prestigious prizes. I was very impressed with the sophistication of his technique and musicianship, as well as the emotional power of his work. Nothing has changed, except that he has matured and deepened with the intervening years. Back then I said to him that I hoped he’d write for the guitar someday. We kept in touch ever since, and Carlos never forgot my interest, and has been wanting to write for the guitar for a long time. So, when this program presented itself, and as I assembled the program, I saw this as an opportunity to ask Carlos to write a short, easy piece with which I could open this otherwise demanding program. He responded with these two beautiful short lullabies. Though of course not a guitarist himself, Carlos delivered a near-perfect piece of guitar writing. We got together one afternoon in New York, I played him the piece and made a number of suggestions for minor revisions, and voila, it was done!
David Del Tredici was the only person with whom I ever studied orchestration. I audited some of his orchestration classes at the City College of New York and then took private lessons when I wrote my two early works for orchestra. David is, in my view, not only one of the world’s great orchestrators, but one of the world’s best living composers. He is generally recognized as the father of Neo-Romantic music, and early in his career, Aaron Copland was a major supporter, saying, “I know of no other composer of his generation who composes music of freshness and daring, or with more personality”. Del Tredici was most prominent in the 1970’s and 80’s, when he was writing huge works, in both length and instrumental forces, for voice and orchestra that were based on Alice in Wonderland. They were startlingly tonal and Romantic during a time when serialism and intellectual rigor held sway in the contemporary music world. His reputation has somewhat waned in recent years, really for no good reason, and I feel absolutely certain that history will regard him as one of the essential composers of our era.
When I asked him to write a solo work for the guitar, David was frightened and delighted at the same time. While he’d included the electric guitar, mandolin and banjo in some of his orchestral works and had a former student arrange the “Acrostic Song” from Final Alice for guitar, he’d never actually written for it and, as a pianist, felt quite distant from it. But he likes me and always likes a challenge, so he accepted the commission, which I funded with the help of many people. I asked for a 10-15 minute work, and he wrote one that’s about 30 minutes long! It’s in 4 movements, and most of it is counterpoint. These aspects already establish its uniqueness in the guitar repertoire. When we discussed the commission in the beginning, I told him that I would be there for him whenever he wanted my help. Well, little did I know what I was getting into! For three months, we got together about twice a week, sometimes more, to go over in great detail passages he’d written. I would make a great deal of changes, sometimes even being naughty about making essential changes in the composition itself. David was a good sport about it, sometimes taking my advice and sometimes rejecting it, but always the prodding and the tossing-back-and-forth of ideas was stimulating for us both. Neither of us had ever experienced such an intensive process in the composition of a piece. It’s a good thing that we like each other since we saw each other so much! In fact, the experience was extraordinary on every level, and David could not have been happier with the process and with the result. He told me after the premiere that it was one of the most exciting collaborations of his life. Can you imagine how good that made me feel? And I can tell you that the opportunity to watch the process of this genius composer at work close at hand was an extraordinary, irreplaceable, immensely inspiring lesson for me in composition. The commissioning of this masterpiece and bringing it to life in performance and recording has been one of the most important accomplishments of my musical life.
2. For this recital you are also programming the Boston premiere of one of your own works, Labyrinths, which has wonderfully alliterative movement titles. Many of your compositions have very evocative titles - does a working title come to you as you compose, after the work is completed, or does it inspire the composition in the first place? Can you elaborate on this piece in particular?
The titles just happened, after the fact. As they occurred to me, one by one, I realized an alliterative pattern was emerging, which suited the music, and then I realized that something that happens in the final movement related to it as well. It was just a lucky coincidence, or perhaps part of an unconscious plan from the beginning - I’ll never know…
My composition style took a dramatic turn in the early part of the last decade, toward a more reductive (or dare I say, Minimalist?) approach. As life in general got faster and more complex, I found myself wanting to go slower and pay closer attention to the nuanced details of things. This began with observations in art and nature and soon worked its way into my music. Labyrinths for guitar (there’s also been one for solo piano) was one of the earliest of these works. Each movement obsesses on a small amount of musical material, exploring and inspecting and expanding its nature and its possibilities in slowly shifting detail. I look forward to sharing this piece with the Boston audience.
3. Do you have any new compositions in the works? Is there a medium you haven’t written for before that intrigues you (a guitar concerto, perhaps)?
I recently completed two vocal commissions, one for famous baritone Wolfgang Holzmair for baritone and solo cello, with German translations of Lao Tzu, and a set of songs for tenor and guitar to Mary Oliver poems for tenor William Ferguson. Next up is a big work for cello and guitar, for the cellist Zuill Bailey and me to play in our upcoming recitals next season and beyond.
Otherwise, you hit the nail on the head - I’m dying to write a guitar concerto. It seems like I’m a natural for this, with my orchestral writing experience. But it requires a decent amount of money for commission, as it’s a time-consuming and costly project to undertake. So I hope that something of this nature comes along sometime. I’m also chomping at the bit to write a large-scale string quartet. I’ve written a short one, as well as a work for string quartet and guitar and another with baritone, so I’m ready to do the big piece for quartet.