David Gillingham is a contemporary composer. He attended the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh for his undergraduate degree in Music Education and Michigan State University for his PhD in Music Composition/Theory. He currently serves as professor of music theory and composition at Central Michigan University. Many of his works have been written for concert band, such as the popular “With Heart and Voice”.
(This interview was conducted in October 2010)
When did you first start to compose? Describe the first work that you wrote.
I would like to say that I started to compose at the age of 3. But, when I was 3 years old, I heard a marching band in Richland Center, Wisconsin, and decided that I would be a high school band director. When I started piano lessons at age 10 and then continued through college, I always sat at the piano and improvised my own music, often inspired by the masters.
During my senior year in college I wrote a Biblically based song for a friend’s wedding and also wrote the school song with band accompaniment for a new high school in Ashwaubenon, Wisconsin. Those were my first “real” pieces since I actually wrote those down on paper. Later, while in the 266th Army Band in Vietnam, I wrote a concert march for band called “Land of Lakes”. It had some really good melodic material and a very lyrical and processional-like trio (I later scored the trio for pipe organ and played it at my sister’s wedding). Unfortunately the scoring of this piece was very poor. It was brass heavy, the woodwinds were too low and the percussion was unimaginative. Still, it was a pretty good first effort at writing a “real” piece of music.
As a contemporary composer, who were the most significant influences to your career?
My background is steeped in the music of Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and many of the masters. Richard Strauss, Debussy, Stravinsky, Copland, Bernstein and Samuel Barber also have influenced me. Among “living composers I have been strongly influenced by the music of Joseph Schwantner, George Crumb, David Maslanka and John Adams.
How do you compose? Do you sketch?
I always begin at the piano. This is my instrument and it feels the most natural to me. I begin by improvising, usually for many days in a row and sometimes weeks. If an idea appeals to me I will sketch it out. I do a limited amount of sketching and when I feel I have a good idea of the motives, themes etc. of the piece at hand, I migrate immediately to a page of full score in FINALE and set all the instruments up for playback. I love working with the full score as soon as I pretty much know the musical content for the piece.
It is like painting on a huge piece of canvas. There are so many possibilities! I very seldom leave any bars empty on a page before moving to the next page. I am especially sensitive about including the percussion. In fact, sometimes the percussion are the first instruments to be scored on the page. The piece begins to take shape after the first few pages somewhat like a snowball rolling down the hill gathering more snow as it goes. Many times, I will jump ahead and write the ending of the piece. This helps me to see better where I am going—the “light at the end of the tunnel”.
Do you consider the audience when you’re working on a composition?
Yes, I always consider the audience. If it were not for the audience, where would we be as composers? I want people to like my music, connect to my music and possibly be transformed by the music. By the same token, I want to be true to my own standards and philosophy as a composer and write music that has depth and sophistication.
Frank Ticheli is quoted as saying “we try to maintain a balance between our heart and our mind”.
What do you say when asked to describe your music? Is it easy to write verbally about your work?
I can describe much of my music as programmatic, being inspired by an event, an emotion or a story. Some of my colleagues might call this a “gimmick”, but my own life experiences and those of others serve as a point of inspiration for me. This is also a way to connect with the audience. If I were to describe my style, I would say that it is tonally based, highly colourful (from a scoring standpoint), features much percussion, low brass chorales and is usually uplifting, dramatic and emotional. I have also written many pieces based on hymn tunes a direct result of my religious orientation and my many years serving as a church organist.
Many of your works have become standard band repertoire around the world; and in Singapore, the most popular work is “With Heart and Voice”. Do you have any insights into the piece for our readers?
Wow, I am flattered that this piece is so popular in Singapore! I didn’t know that! This piece was probably the quintessential commissioning experience for me. It was commissioned by the Apple Valley High School Instrumental program in Apple Valley, Minnesota, and Scott Jones, the director of bands. Scott is now director of bands at Concordia University.
Before I began writing the piece, I spent time with the students, parents and instrumental faculty and was able to find out just what kind of piece they wanted me to write. Their Alma Mater is the hymn tune, “Come Christians Join to Sing” and this tune becomes the basis of the piece along with a new original melody that eventually partners with the hymn tune. The piece celebrates the joys and struggles of the first 25 years of the instrumental music program at Apple Valley. It is important that the many changes in tempo in the piece are taken literally. Also, a strong horn section is needed!
“The Echo Never Fades” was a musical tribute dedicated to Tyler Brett Caruso. Were there any challenges in writing a piece in memory of someone who has passed?
Writing a piece in memory of someone can be a challenge if you do not know much about the person. However, when I was first approached to write the piece by the band director, Jim Kull, I declined because of a rather busy schedule. After that, I received a flood of emails from students in the band telling of their memories of Tyler and finally I received an email from his mother, Marilyn with a picture of Tyler.
By this time I was caught up in the whole story so emotionally that I could not refuse to write the piece. I was not able to attend the premiere, but later I was at a performance of the piece by the Vandercook College Band at the Midwest Convention in Chicago and I was able to meet Marilyn Caruso in person. It was emotional. As one might expect, she is the biggest fan of this piece and travels around the country to catch performances of the work.
Would you prefer bands to perform you music as it is, or can they reinvent and interpret into a different style?
I am sure that every composer wants his or her music to be interpreted as they have written it on the page. We all strive to put down on paper our best intentions as to how the music is to be interpreted. Certainly small changes in tempi and dynamics are acceptable to me, but why would anyone want to reinvent or interpret my music in a different style? It certainly would not be David Gillingham then, would it? This being said, I look at every performance of my pieces as another premiere. There are different players with different technical skills and a different conductor with a slightly different perspective of how to interpret the score. This can be very exciting. But, when the variance in interpretation is so great that it crosses the line, it is no longer in the best interest of the composer.
Is it true in your opinion that a composer must be able to understand the tones and sounds of every instrument in order to write a piece of music?
This is a very good question. I remember David Maslanka once saying that you must actually know the instrument well enough that you actually “become” that instrument. This may seem a bit bizarre, but in reality, a composer must have a very strong background and training in instrumentation and scoring. It is not enough just to know the ranges and transpositions of the instruments (although this IS important!).
A composer must also know the “personality” of the instrument, its strengths and weaknesses and who its friends are…i.e. what instruments it best combines with. One must be apprised of fingerings, bowings and technical limitations of each instrument. And one must have a good knowledge of contemporary instrumental techniques that are possible on all of the instruments such as flutter tonguing, finger clicks, multiphonics and special bowings to mention only a few.
Percussion is an area that many composers seem to treat like only an accessory to the technique of scoring, when, in fact, the percussion palette is not only a huge color resource but a whole ensemble that can stand on its own next to the string, brass and woodwind families. I make it a priority to stay abreast with every new technique and every new sound available in the percussion family. Not only does the percussion family offer a rainbow or instrumental timbre, but it is also a lifesaver when scoring for band. The keyboard instruments can sustain long lines like the strings and can play very soft passages that would not be possible on wind instruments.
Unfortunately, my understanding of instrumentation and scoring is not innate. Is has developed slowly over the past 30 years by constant practice, and, I dare to say, “trial and error”.
You have many commissions dating for at least a few years ahead. Are you always busy and how do you unwind during your free time?
Yes, I am busy all the time. I write during the school year and in the summer. This is a great thing for me, because I can remember when I was a young and “emerging” composer and I got a commission every two years. At that time, I longed for a time when I would have a full schedule. Well, I got my wish. When I retire from teaching in several years, I know what I will be doing—-writing music!
How do I unwind? Well, I do a lot of things that people would say are normal everyday things like shopping with my wife on weekends, mow the lawn, try to organize my workbench in the garage, go for walks, play with our two pugs, keep up with our two children, watch a little television and read. I try to read books that will enrich my life, but I must admit that I like a Dean Koutz or a Stephen King novel every once in a while!
But, I must confess to you and my readers that my secondary “love” is barbershop music. I have been involved in the Barbershop Harmony Society since I was in high school and I have a passion for this style of music. Many people think the style to be trite, but it is not. In fact, to sing barbershop well takes incredible musicianship, vocal skill and a well-trained ear. The style is addictive as the four part chords sung in Pythagorean tuning sets up overtones that expand the sound with a sort of “ringing” sensation.
I direct an excellent barbershop men’s chorus at Central Michigan University called the “MountainTown Singers”. The chorus is a two time District Champion and has competed in the International Barbershop Chorus Contest for the past three years ranking in the top 25 choruses from the United States, Great Britain, Sweden and New Zealand. I am also an avid arranger of barbershop music and write many arrangements for the MountainTown Singers. Now if this isn’t enough ways for me to unwind, I also love to sit down at the piano and play. It really doesn’t matter what I play, be it classical, pop music or barbershop. It takes me out of this world and deep into the music I am playing. It is simply great therapy.
To conclude, I hear you have some new band works in progress. Care to share what they are about?
I am working on two band pieces this semester. One is a large-scale work featuring percussion and the other is a piece in honor of the retirement of a high school band director in Michigan.