We talked with Danny about his music, inspirations, and his pieces that we’ll be playing on Games and Revolutions - Bard Playbook and Toy Piano Music. He describes the audience participation element of Bard Playbook - “what if the audience plays a game with the musicians that is actually kept a secret from the musicians themselves? “ and talks about why we should all listen more carefully to kids.
For another fascinating glimpse into Danny’s world, check out his article in New Music Box, “The Art of Play.”
What drew you to composing/composition?
I grew up playing in bands. I loved playing, but I was also really bossy and wanted things to be a certain way. When we were recording, I always wanted to add new things, and I enjoyed the process of putting together the actual song. In a way, becoming a composer was a natural step from that. (I’d like to think I’m slightly less bossy now.)
So what made you decide to go to conservatory to study classical composition?
I really enjoyed making and layering sounds, and I always liked the weirder side of pop music. I had a long song fetish - I would look for the longest songs I could find, which are typically the more experimental songs. I was always intrigued by what musicians did with large amounts of time. Following this thread kind of naturally led me down the rabbit hole of classical and experimental music. Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, and Brian Eno’s Music for Airports for example, were important pieces for me.
Things started to truly click for me artistically when I graduated from my master’s degree in San Francisco and started teaching elementary school music; that totally changed my artistic process and the way I view music in general.
Could you talk about your work as a classroom teacher, the relationship between teaching kids and writing music?
Right now, I’m a composer who collaborates with artists, and sometimes they happen to be artists who are children. Right now I’m writing a piece with the San Francisco Girls Chorus, for instance, and while being quite young - some are only 6 or 7! - they are among the most thoughtful, sensitive artists I’ve worked with. I relish the opportunity to come to a group of young minds and say “this is what has been done - what would YOU do?” Giving kids tools, facilitating creation, and offering the encouragement and the agency to make new things, I believe, is one of the most important things we can do as artists. It is equally as important that we legitimately listen to what they have to say. It’s easy to disregard art made by kids, or for kids, but we have everything to learn from them as collaborators and models for creative thinking.
Are pop music and long-form songs still major inspirations of yours?
I like listening to pop music, but nowadays I think of everything as being related in a way, so I don't know. In the last couple of years, I’ve actually really fallen in love with the Mozart piano concerti. I’m learning that, regardless of genre, I’m drawn to music that offers a kind of model for relationships within the world - music that, in some way, inspires me to be a better person. Specifically, a Mozart piano concerto feels to me like an amazing model of empathy - the kind of beautiful support system that can exist between one person and a group.
What would you say are your strongest musical influences and how have they evolved over time?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. The biggest musical influence for me right now is actually getting to watch kids make new stuff on their own. For example, I currently have two 11-year-old students who are working on their first albums (they're making electronic albums). Watching them at the very beginning of this creative process, seeing all of those questions and challenges ping around in their brains in a brand new way, is really inspiring. Frankly, it's more inspiring to me than any sort of established musical voice that comes to mind at the moment.
The artists that have always influenced me the most are those that follow their inspiration and thoughts earnestly, unapologetically. Seeing this pursuit in seasoned professionals and new makers alike is a hopeful reminder that the creative process never really stops. Being an artist is a way of approaching and making sense of the world - we all have skills that let us realize that in one way or another - from pushing notes around on a page to playing piano. You refine those skills. But that process of discovering ideas, learning, adapting and being challenged is something that just never goes away, if you're keen on the process. I’m inspired by anyone that is tuned into that process, regardless of their medium!
Since we have a lot of toy piano on this program (and music box!), I’m wondering when you became interested in toy pianos and non-traditional instruments?
In high school, I was fascinated by finding something that's not supposed to be taken seriously - a toy, an object, an overlooked sound source - and developing it as a language into something really beautiful and unique. I just think that’s a great idea in general - making something sonically meaningful out of a “non-musical” object. Right after I graduated from high school I learned about Phyllis Chen. Phyllis’ music does that so well. It’s not like she is pretending that the toy piano is a regular piano, she just uses the toy piano in a way that draws out the beauty of it, and the music boxes complement it in the perfect way. Hearing Phyllis do that with toy piano got me thinking about how to repurpose things, whether it's a thrift store find or something laying around in a bathroom cabinet. I had always wanted to work with her since I was 18 and then finally, in 2013, we got a chance to work together for her toy piano festival, which was delightful.
So why don’t we dive into questions about the pieces of yours featured on this program. You wrote Toy Piano Music in 2012, if I’m remembering right?
So there was this cool little festival I did with some friends in Lexington, Kentucky. I had happened to find this pink toy piano just a few weeks before the festival, and on a whim I brought it along. I was asked to write a couple of pieces over the course of a week and as someone who doesn’t really perform but likes to perform in a way, I thought it would be fun to try to write myself into a piece. It was great fun to plop a pink toy piano into the middle of a string quartet, especially with the gravitas that seems to come with the notion of a string quartet nowadays.
I didn't spend a ton of time on it - I just wrote something that I thought would sound nice. I didn't worry too much about a “concept” and the title was slapped on by one of the musicians after the fact. It’s 2 minutes of music I liked. That was, in retrospect, a really good lesson for me… to just make, without overthinking.
So how did Playbook begin, how did you start working on Playbook?
Playbook is a really complicated thing because it’s not just one piece, it’s literally a playbook - a big stack of ideas that change depending on how you look at it, or what a group wants to get out of it. It started off as a piece for percussion quartet. Basically, I tried playing games with a quartet - simple theater games that I used in my classroom - and adopted them as purely sonic games. The playing of these different games ended up creating really unique, exciting musical experiences that were both fun to hear and watch. That unlocked for me all of these different ideas for how to use games to make music with people of all ages and experience levels.
Composing through games makes the creation process directly tied to the people playing - it becomes a super collaborative experience tailored just for those musicians. It’s never about reading something off of a page - it’s about being immediately present to connect with the other people in the space through sonic interactions. This manifests itself in many different ways depending on the musicians involved. A Playbook with an amateur choir is going to look very different than a Playbook with a string quartet, but they’re both rooted in these simple building blocks of communication.
Typically, if I'm invited to make a piece nowadays, I’m thrilled to use it as a chance to expand the Playbook to include new games, strategies, and sonic discoveries for new combinations of musicians (and non-musicians!)
Do you have a vision for where you want to take Playbook in the future, or particular projects that you would love to do with Playbook?
Yes! I’m developing Playbook in two different ways right now - as larger scale performance pieces, and as a tool for classroom teachers. On one hand, I’m expanding the ideas of Playbook to create something that resembles “game operas” that combine many, many musicians of varying experience levels on a single playing field (sometimes quite literally -- one piece based on Playbook, called the Bell Ringers, will be for 100+ musicians and non-musicians and will be premiered in September in Millenium Park, Chicago, with Third Coast Percussion leading.) On the other hand, I’ve been recently sharing the games of Playbook with classroom teachers outside the field of music - Special Education, ESL, PE and the like - and collaborating with them to invent new games that help them teach and connect their students with each other in new ways. It’s been a profound joy to see these art games be used in so many ways.
Do you ever see trying to do Playbook with orchestra?
I’m working on a piece for Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra next season that is for “orchestra and audience.” I worry that the model of collaboration between most institutional orchestras and composers - show up, read it, give your notes, and it’s performance time - is not compatible with how I like to make things, but Kaleidoscope is ready for anything, and I’m grateful to be able to start developing pieces with them next year.
“Audience participation” pops up every once in awhile in classical contexts, and it’s usually the kiss of death. I typically wrinkle my nose at the term “audience participation,” but I believe there is a magical way to invite listeners in so that they feel a sense of agency in creating the piece in an organic way - in a way that doesn’t put anyone on the spot, in a way that supports legitimate, collective discovery for audience and musician alike.
In the spirit of this idea, my Playbook for Bard is tackling a query I’ve never asked before -- what if the audience plays a game with the musicians that is actually kept a secret from the musicians themselves? In this piece, the audience will have information the musicians do not have, which I hope will provide a collaborative concert experience that is unique and engaging in its own way.
Finally, are there any questions you are rarely asked in interviews that you want to answer? Or, if you could, what would you want an audience to hear from you or think about before they hear about your music?
I suspect that nowadays, as an audience member, it’s actually quite easy to be OVER-prepared for a piece of music. You read an interview, you read an artist background, and you get this idea in your head of what the thing might be - and you go to the show and that thing defies your expectations in some way. (This happens to me a lot, anyway.) What I would love more than anything is for the audience to come in with an open mind, open ears, a sense of curiosity, a sense of wonder, and a willingness to listen and discover these sounds together.