WSW: How and when did you start composing?
DR: I first thought of music as something to emulate and I remember having a kind of a child’s guitar, probably when I was about four or five, fashioned after the rock band KISS. It had nylon strings, but I didn’t know how to play and so I just spent time rocking out. And before that, I had some kind of a musical play set, Fisher Price, or something like that, and I probably banged around on that, too. But composing came much later.
I began playing my main instrument, guitar (although today, it’s become both piano and guitar and whatever else I’m able to play that’s called for), at 10, and quickly became very passionate about playing. So with my savings from paper routes and mowing lawns and whatever I purchased more equipment, including a small cassette recording system, the Tascam Portastudio. This must have been about 1987 or so, and when those initially came out, they were a total revolution. You could record at home, multiple tracks, with drum machines, instruments, anything you could plug in and overdub. Today, you could just open up your laptop and do whatever you want immediately, but it’s much less tactile. I recorded a handful of my own songs and covers I heard and liked. So my first compositions were just twangy, quirky experiments with lines and chords, sometimes attempts at songs. Later, in 1991 or so, I released a tape, when they were current practice for releases, before they became the boutique art music thing they seem to be today. I wasn’t really very good at writing songs and didn’t sing very well, but I loved doing that anyway and enjoyed playing in bands. But writing songs with words and chord changes is something I stay away from, even today. You have to know your strengths!
To speak of composing, I started doing more of this in high school. There wasn’t a great music teacher in our school or anyone I could have made a breakthrough with or thank here and I didn’t participate in band or chorus or any of the normal music activities. What I did was go to the library and propose independent study for credit. I probably didn’t pick up too much, but enough to write down notes on staff paper and to start to have some idea of structure and melody and harmony. Nobody pointed me to the obvious theory and composition books and I really didn’t know what I was doing whatsoever. I still really hadn’t discovered classical, new music, or experimental music in any real way. But my parents played the greatest hits at home on the stereo, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, The Four Seasons, Beethoven’s Ninth or Fifth, or whatever, and listened to the classical music radio stations, and because we lived in Western Massachusetts we went to Tanglewood sometimes. There was no education going on, no emphasis beyond the idea that classical music was cultivated and that was good for you. They also played lots of records of pop, rock, and folk music and that was a big help. My father first brought home The Clash before I had heard of them.
So I found I would write down notes and little ideas in ways that I thought might sound interesting, like something I’d write or transcribe a melody or chord progression I’d played on guitar or maybe piano. I brought my staff paper with me to whatever classes I had and tried to compose during those classes. I happen to remember wanting to impress the other students, to say that, “Oh, there’s Dean, composing”. Ha! Well, I can look back and say, “Maybe you’re trying to make some kind of an impression on your peers, but it’s the wrong kind”, so I learned something. Those were the first steps I took. Somehow I was accepted to a few exceptional music schools, like McGill University, which I attended. From there, it was a steep and intensely pleasurable learning curve, because I finally had access to a community of like-minded, passionate, talented peers, stellar professors, and the great culture of Montréal. That’s how it started. There’s always going to be that steep curve if you’re creating new ideas and introducing new culture and anyone who says there’s not, isn’t doing anything exciting.
WSW: Have there been any composers that have influenced you more strongly than others recently? On the whole?
DR: Many of my friends and colleagues have influenced and inspired me, some much more recently than others, but all happily, for example: Jonathan Marmor, Richard Glover, Nomi Epstein, Jason Brogan, Morgan Gerstmar, Craig Shepard, Michael Winter, and Samuel Vriezen. But a major influence that I must acknowledge comes from a very important composer to me, Tom Johnson. For those unfamiliar with Tom Johnson, he is an American who lives in Paris since 1983, and his music today primarily has to do with mathematically oriented composition and with logical sequences and harmonies. He is well known for his operas and many works of his have a clear theatrical element. Tom became a composition teacher to me when I traveled to Germany in 2008, at his invitation, to study with him at a masterclass, and since then has become a colleague and a friend. We have had a longstanding correspondence that has helped me in many ways to develop as a composer and should really be documented. But some of the correspondence is personal, although that is probably ok to be made public. Anyway, “I Think So, Too” was inspired by his use of a Latin Square in his piece “Squares.” There’s a fine recording by the Los Angeles-based violinist and composer Andrew McIntosh out there of that piece. I would say that anyone who knows my mathematical music knows the influence Tom has had on me; it’s a very clear influence and that is quite normal as I was a very serious student. The American polymath Larry Polansky, a composer, theorist, performer, computer programmer, teacher, and publisher has also played a role in my development as I’ve come further up. My friends and colleagues in the artist collectives Open Space and Wandelweiser come to mind very easily. But there are many others, like Matt Marks or Pauline Kim Harris, too, although Pauline is a performer.
WSW: What do you do with time you don’t spend working as a composer?
DR: Well, I live on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. This means that I can be rather isolated from the scenes in New York, where you are, and Berlin and Los Angeles and so forth — even from Boston, which is right in my own backyard. I often go hiking and I often go to the water, the empty beaches, during the winter when no one is around and just catch the time by myself or with my wife or catch up with a friend. My wife and I play in our own ensemble, Daykah, and we’ll sometimes play small house concerts for my parents or friends, but we like to play at the piano together when time is free, for example. We have a website, too: www.daykah.com, with a few of our projects. We’d like to do a tour next. We did a great concert in North Adams, MA, this summer at the end of a three-month residency in a converted mill.
WSW: What do you want people to know about “I Think So, Too”, the piece you composed for the Washington Square Winds? Tell us something about the music?
DR: “I Think So, Too” was first composed as a wind sextet in 2009. The piece was initially for the rather unusual instrumentation of two clarinets, two bassoons and two flutes. Beethoven composed with an instrumentation that is something like this in Op.71. After you and I met in 2012, I happily realized that the piece could work well for a traditional wind quintet. The music of “I Think So, Too” is based on the properties of a Latin Square. In combinatorics, the Latin Square is a number square, like a Sudoko, that is filled with different symbols, each occurring exactly once in each row and exactly once in each column. This Latin Square was adapted as a 5 by 6 rectangle in order to accommodate the forces of the Washington Square Winds. Over the course of the composition, the instruments directly trace the square in several ways in strict accordance with pitch and, sometimes, rhythm. Sometimes multiple mappings occur; note one will sound for one beat, note two for two beats, and so on. The music offers opportunities to showcase the ensemble’s abilities as they engage each other musically with solos, duos, trios, quartets, and, of course, as a whole. I like to ask the audience, if I am present, to see if the relationships between the notes and the numbers can be heard as we are listening to my piece. Anyone interested can hear the music and download the recording on my site: www.deanrosenthal.org. The score is also available. Can I add that I very much enjoyed working with the Washington Square Winds? You premiered my piece a little less than 4 years after I finished the composing. Thank you.