Daniel Ott, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

When I was about 12 years old, my middle school sponsored a competition in various artistic fields: short stories, poetry, photography (and other visual arts), and music. A classmate suggested that I compose a piece, since she knew that I liked classical music and that I’d been studying both piano and French horn. I’ll never forget that moment, because I did end up writing a short piece for solo piano (which was a winner in the competition, I might add), and I haven’t stopped composing since, some thirty-odd years later.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

Undoubtedly, there have been many wonderful teachers in my life, at all stages, from whom I’ve learned so much. Where would I be without tthe likes of Ned Rorem, John Corigliano, and Bob Beaser? I was fortunate that these gentlemen came into my life at just the right times. But I was also very fortunate to have exceptional teachers in the early part of my musical education. My first composition teacher, with whom I studied from about the age of 13 to 17, whose name is Greg Youtz, really helped shape the way I think about what composing means. It’s also true that my ideas about music and art were honed by my fellow students, especially my composer friends, with whom I’m still very close. We shared countless evenings together in our school days, debating this or that composer/piece, usually over (too many) pints of beer. Those times were really fundamental in helping me to become the composer I am today.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

I think it’s no secret that being a composer is not the easiest career path. There are many challenges, and it can feel isolating at times. Perhaps the thing that is the biggest challenge is that, for many of us, composing is just one of the things we do for a living. For example, I currently hold two teaching positions, both of which are highly demanding of my time. And while I like teaching very much, it does tend to detract from my creative life. Being a parent at the same time is also a challenge, especially when the children are younger. Asa composer, you often find yourself working from home, and it can be tricky to carve out a workspace and time when your kids need you. Beyond that, there is the perpetual challenge of getting one’s work “out there,” especially in the orchestral arena. Second, third, and more performances of works are so hard to come by, and orchestral pieces are the most demanding of our time. It can be quite frustrating to work solidly for six to eight (or even more)months on a single work, only to have it “evaporate” after an initial run. But orchestras are more likely to want to commission a new work than perform one that is, say, five or even ten years old. (Still, thank God for commissions!)

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

For me, the challenge is the time constraint imposed by a commission. I’m not a huge fan of deadlines. I know that, for some people, deadlines can be motivators to creativity. But at this stage in my career, I’m finding that I want to write music on my own terms as much as possible. I’m exploring the possibility now of composing what I want, when I want, and then shopping the piece around afterwards. That’s not always going to be feasible, I realize, but I think that it might be the best thing for me (and my family, who have to suffer through deadlines along with me!). However, the nice thing about a commission (aside from the down payment) is that sometimes they are quite specific in a way that never would have occurred to you before. For example, let’s say that you are asked to write a piece that is topical for a specific ensemble—“a max. four-minute work for seven flutes that deals with climate-change refugees, but will be choreographed for three female dancers, set in the Victorian era” (or something)—at least you know what the music is going to be “about,” for lack of a better term.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Writing for musicians you know is the best way to work. Working with friends often means that you have a common purpose, and you know the players’ capabilities, their strengths. I’ve had the good fortune to do this on various scales, whether solo pieces, chamber works, or even orchestral pieces (where I’ve known many of the players). I think that it alleviates a little bit of the stress that accompanies working with strangers. When you work with players you’ve never met before, sometimes it can be daunting; a composer might worry about how their piece will be received by the musicians. That’s why I always try to follow the maxim that you’re writing for people, not instruments/voices. I try to imagine the person who will be playing second clarinet in the orchestra, for example, and whether they will enjoy their part. I suppose that comes from the fact that my mother was an orchestral musician (violin) and I’m married to an orchestral musician (oboe). It sort of gives you, as the composer, the “inside scoop” on how new music is approached by players.

Of which works are you most proud?

I am usually a pretty harsh critic of my own work, and it can be difficult for me to hear anything other than what I consider to be the flaws in a piece. So I guess I would have to say that, for me, whenever I detect the fewest of these flaws, it means that I’ve been as close to successful as I can be. There are a handful of my pieces that I feel this way about: I’m quite happy with the works on this album, Fantasy on a Falling Line and Pieces of Reich, and I am also generally pleased with the way that a few other of my pieces turned out, especially Double Aria (for solo violin), my Second String Quartet, and more recently, Fire-Mountain (for orchestra and chorus), which is another work I hope to record in the not-too-distant future.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

If only I knew! This is a question that composers are asked fairly often, and I think that it’s one of the most difficult to answer. I can tell you the things that I’m usually attracted to in music, such as energetic rhythms, strong contrapuntal relationships, as well as straightforward lyricism. But it can be tricky to give a clear idea of what my music is like using words alone. I will say this: I strive in most works to create a balanced score—I try to avoid gimmicks and overt complexity (for its own sake) and instead focus on real cohesion. I prefer clear formal and structural elements and I also want my music to move the listener in some way. My goal is always for the expressive side of the music to emerge from the technical aspect—the craft should drive the expression.

How do you work?

I work at home, most of the time, in my little studio. I find that going to my office (at school) to work isn’t always successful—there are too many distractions in the form of e-mails, students dropping by, and the vague feeling that I should be grading papers…. When I’m really in the swing of things, I tend to get up very early (usually around 04:00), because the house is quiet for a few precious hours before the kids are up and we get into the routine of getting them fed and out the door to school. In the beginning stages, I do a lot of sketching on paper. This stage lasts the longest, and can go on for months. I will often copy a passage or page over and over again, getting it down on paper exactly the way I want it to look and sound. There’s something really important about setting the table this way. And from there onI usually switch to working on the computer. When a piece is really going well, I can write directly into the computer. This stage can feel very much as if the music is writing itself. At the end of the process, I’m copying and editing the score. This can be tedious for a lot of people, but I find it really rewarding. The hard (creative) work is over, and now it’s just about putting a slur over the barline just so, or figuring out page turns. It’s a lot of nit-picky details, but I enjoy it because it means I’m close to being done.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

My “list” changes frequently. But I have to say that I really am a fan of composers whose music weds its emotional qualities to its technical ones. If a young composer were to ask me which composers they should be listening to, I would tell to listen to know all of Ravel, Britten, Lutoslawski, Messiaen, and Dutilleux. Know your 20th-century American heritage, too: Ives, Copland, Sessions, Mennin, Schuman, Piston (whatever you may think of them!). And then stay “current” with living composers, too many to name, but thankfully including many more diverse voices and backgrounds. Keep your ears open, but then when it’s time to work, put all of that aside and listen to what’s inside of you.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Here’s another tough one! I had to ponder this question quite a bit… I think that, for me, I feel as though I’ve been successful whenever someone from the audience approaches me after a performance and says something to me about how they enjoyed the music, or how it spoke to them. I received a piece of fan mail once, following a performance, that was so touching, because the person wrote very eloquently about the music, and seemed to hear all the things I was hoping to achieve in the piece. And it was so wonderful that they took the time to put it writing, especially in this day and age. On a more practical level, I think success for a composer can be measured when he/she no longer has to take a direct hand in arranging a performance. When a piece is “out there” and getting performed, I think that’s a success, and it’s certainly gratifying for a composer when that happens.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

It’s hard not to fall back on platitudes, but they are real: Work hard; be a good “citizen” (be kind to colleagues, students, and those above your station in life); take your work seriously; and always do the most you can to present your work to the world in the best light possible (i.e. Take the time necessary to prepare all your materials diligently, even if it seems tedious and time consuming)

Falling Pieces, Daniel Ott’s new album of music for two pianos, is available now

The music of composer Daniel Ott (b. 1975) has been described as “epic and intimate, embracing and overpowering” (The News Tribune), “compelling” (Dance Magazine), and “of considerable artistic seriousness” (MusicWeb International). His work has been heard all over the world, most notably at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, Sadler’s Wells, the Musée du Louvre, the Guggenheim Museum, the Fall for Dance Festival in New York’s City Center, as well as throughout Asia and Latin America. Commissions for his work have come from the National Symphony, New York City Ballet’s Choreographic Institute, the Chiara Quartet, and Bargemusic, among others.

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