MOTM November 2018 - Dr. James David

We’re back for another exciting edition of our blog, Musician of the Month!

For the month of November, we are featuring Dr. James David, composer and professor of composition at CSU. Jim has participated with the Wind Symphony for several years, and has been a featured composer several times with works for band alone and for clarinet solo with band. We are delighted to be performing one of his works later this season!

You can find out more about Jim and his published pieces at his website We invite you to explore his oeuvre! Additionally, he has founded a music organization based in Northern Colorado, called Hyperprism, and you can find them on social media with the handle @hyperprism.

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FCWS: To get us started, would you mind telling us who you are, and what you do for the wind symphony, and then tell us a little bit about your music career?

James David: I’m Jim David, and I am the bass trombonist with the Wind Symphony. I played in that capacity for two seasons now – before that I was a substitute trombonist and would come in when necessary but we had an opening and I had a chance to do that and that’s really exciting for me. Outside of that, I am a professor of composition and music theory here at Colorado State University, and I have been a musician for a really long time. I started in the 6thgrade playing trombone. All my family are musicians, my dad was a band director for 40 plus years, and so it’s kind of been something I’ve always been interested in. Especially composition, something I immediately was just fascinated by and it’s something that’s just very much a part of who I am now is making music. It’s really exciting to be able to do that full time.

FCWS: As both a composer and musician – a performing musician – what do you think is the value that community music groups provide to their community? 

James David: I think they provide a lot of things, actually. One, it’s a chance for musicians like myself, who have more than one area of interest, it give us an outlet to play. You know, once you finish college, grad school, that sort of thing, sometimes it’s hard to find opportunities to perform so it’s really great to have that and it’s a very serious ensemble that is interested in playing interesting music. And I think it’s a chance for local people to understand that music is happening all around them and there’s a giant community of musicians all throughout this area in the Northern Front Range. It’s really amazing to me to see the diversity of the audience that we get at each concert, and such a tremendous opportunity for me to have not only the chance to perform but also have my music played by the wind symphony and for such a different type of audience, where most of my music gets played at colleges and that sort of academic environment.

FCWS: We’re going to talk a little more about featuring composers, and contemporary composers, but before we do that I’d like to address that you have founded your own music organization called Hyperprism, is that right?

James David: Yes.

FCWS: Could you tell us what is the mission and goal of Hyperprism in Northern Colorado?

James David: Hyperprism is a group that I wanted to start because I felt like there were some types of music that I just really was passionate about and there wasn’t a great outlet for me to do it within the sort of university community. And one of those big things is chamber music, and particularly chamber music for winds and percussion. Chamber music is very much concentrated with music for strings and piano. And that’s great repertoire, I love all of that music and I love writing for those instruments but at the same time, being a trombonist, it’s just so gratifying to get the chance to play chamber music from time to time. So that was one of the big goals of it, of Hyperprism, is to create that. Another big goal was to feature composers from Colorado and from the rest of the country that might be looking for more opportunities to have their music performed, and to expose them to a wider audience. So that’s a big passion of ours, is to premiere as much new music as we possibly can each year. It’s a chance for me to also provide an outlet for some of my former students to have a group to compose for and interact with on a professional level. And third, I feel like Fort Collins is a community that is very open to new types of experiences, particularly when it comes to music, and I think so far we’ve had really great response and we’ve given four concerts in the past year in Fort Collins and Loveland, and it’s really great to see such enthusiasm for new music. Especially when it hasn’t been a big part of the culture here before then. Yeah, Hyperprism is something I am very excited about and I hope that some of the audience members from FCWS will want to come there, but also some of our members of the FCWS will perform with this group. Actually, we already have a couple, but we hope to have even more of them over the years.

FCWS: That’s some good promotional material right there! So I’m going to focus on the idea of new music, which you emphasized with Hyperprism. Why do you think it’s important to feature and promote new music in such an organization? 

James David: Well, I think new music is something that is alive and it’s something that potentially can open a whole new range of experience for people as to what their idea of music can be. New music, or contemporary music, is something that a lot of people have bad associations with; there’s the whole legacy of twentieth century modernism where we wrote a lot of atonal music that’s kind of unpleasant sounding to most people. And I think the thing about the current definition of new music is really whatever the composer wants it to be, and you see a really wide variety of music being composed now. It continues to diversify – we continue to see more and more interesting types of new music every single year. So I think hopefully the kinds of music we’ll be performing and promoting will be, again, things that open the audience to new expectations about the definition of music.

FCWS: So new music isn’t just avant-garde, academic types of music. It’s really more than just that.

James David: Right, absolutely. And I think younger composers, people who are my age and even younger, are much more open about the types of influences that they have and are much more willing to combine different kinds of music. A lot of my music is heavily influenced by jazz, but in recent years it’s been more influenced by electronic music and rock music, and also traditional romantic and classical music as well. So I don’t think it’s easy to pigeon-hole new music as one experience anymore. 

FCWS: You mentioned a little bit about influences on your compositional style, so can you tell us a little bit about what your process of composition looks like?

James David: Well, it doesn’t look like much, necessarily. A lot of it is me just sitting with a strained face and sort of being angry at my computer. It starts – there’s a lot of pre-planning involved, one level kind of brain storming a little bit. It helps me a lot to know exactly what kind of piece and who it’s going to be composed for. Most of my music is written on commission – I’d say 98% of it – and so then there’s a specific audience in mind and also specific performers and conductors involved. So that will help guide me a little bit of what the future direction of the piece will end up being. I usually go through maybe two months or so of just thinking about a piece before I ever commit any actual notes to paper. And then I’ll spend a week or so kind of planning things out, making this whole horrible chicken scratch that no one can understand but me. And I’ll bang on a piano for a while to try to figure out some actual pitches and that sort of thing. And then I eventually end up finally going to the computer and doing everything there. I do pretty much everything on the computer now because that’s just the expectation to produce absolutely perfect beautiful scores and parts. It just saves me time to go ahead and compose directly at the computer. So, yeah, music and technology are very much linked together now. Most of my time is still in front of a screen. 

FCWS: Fascinating. So the days of sitting and making an original paper manuscript are more or less over? 

James David: I think so, because most of the composers are expected to be their own editors and their own publishers to a large degree too. The digital world has really changed the whole way the music business works in so many ways, but in particular composition, and desktop publishing has really changed that expectation.

FCWS: Was that something that you anticipated as you were developing as a composer?

James David: Well, I’m not quite that old. I was using computers basically when I started. But I initially wrote pretty extensively by hand just because I didn’t own a really good laptop or have that ability to compose on the fly. I was dependent on my school’s computer lab to be able to do anything. For the first twelve or thirteen years, I wrote everything by hand, and would then transfer it to the computer after the fact. Since I’ve been out of grad school I’ve been pretty much had to do everything directly to the computer.

FCWS: Now, thinking about composition as a whole: as a career, as a path for individuals to take, what would you say is the biggest misconception that you’ve seen students grapple with or that you’ve grappled with yourself?

James David: Well I think the biggest misconception among just average people, and even a lot of musicians who are not composers, is that it is not divine inspiration. It is not this incredible gift that every single composer has. It’s like every other aspect of music. You have to practice it, you have to work on it regularly to become skilled at it. It’s very much, I’d say, 95% skill based and 5% creativity or talent or however you want to put it. I think most people who are trained musicians have the ability to be composers in some capacity if they just try it and practice it in the same way that they would practice their instrument. That’s the biggest misconception that I encounter all the time. People always ask me “How do you come up with such amazing ideas?”. Well I, really don’t. I just spent a whole lot of time studying other people’s music and then try to find a way to translate some of those ideas into my own music. It’s just a very long, slow process.

FCWS: For the, let’s say, the young audience member who might be thinking that music is a viable career and that they want to dabble in composition, or start learning it, what would be your advice for them?

James David: The biggest advice is just to try it. Just see if you can figure it out. That’s exactly how I started, that’s how every composer I know started. They just attempted it with no warning whatsoever. They just tried to see if they could figure something out. My very first piece I tried to write, I took a band piece that we were playing in my 6thgrade band and tried to take the melody from that and rearrange it and then write like a variation on it. And it was, of course, horrifyingly bad but it got me interested. My middle school band director was nice enough to actually read the piece with the band and take time out to do that, and that was enough to get me hooked from that point forward. And I’m still writing music for band 25 years later. It really is just that simple to me, you just have to try it, and then just stick with it.

FCWS: We will wrap things up with this question, from the perspective of a contemporary composer, what does the future of classical music look like?

James David: I think it’s going to continue to evolve, that’s an easy answer, but I think we’ve seen a lot of the experimentalism of the past few decades, maybe from the 1950s through the 1980s, that’s starting to settle out a bit. There’s less need to try to push the boundaries of music because we’ve kind of already explored that to a degree. I think the integration of music and technology is going to be something that is continually evolving over the next few years. I think that there is already some changes that are happening there that are interesting. And I think we’re going to continue to see different types of institutions become important. I think the days of the major symphony orchestras, the major opera companies, being the dominant institutions of music, I think those days are largely over. And I think they’re going to continue – it’s not that they’re going to completely die out, it’s just that they’re not going to have the same relevance that they once had. This is one of the main reasons I compose for band and that I am a big fan of the band community. They are extremely supportive of new music and particularly a lot of the college band directors that I know that I get to work it on a regular basis, they just are hungry for new music. Every single year they want new music and want it to be more interesting and more engaging and more difficult and more exciting for their audiences. I think the wind band is really where it’s at if you want to write exciting symphonic music and have a wide audience that is interested in supporting that, as opposed to the orchestra where they are kind of scraping along just to survive these days, and they don’t’ have as much time to devote to exposing new music to their audience. I really feel groups like the FCWS and university bands and professional bands are going to continue to grow in their importance to composers, and in particular composers of new music.