Berkshire Composer Stephen Dankner

Premieres String Quartets at Williams October 12

By: - Sep 27, 2014



The Berkshire based composer, Stephen Dankner, at 69 has been amazingly prolific. There will be a number of performances and world premieres of his works in a variety of locactions over the next few months.

We met for lunch at the Williams Faculty Club to discuss these upcoming recitals as well as an overview of his career. He is also a superb photographer which is the context in which we first met. He has a broad range of interests including the fine arts.

The interview took place in a familiar setting as Dankner was an assistant professor in the Williams College music department in the 1970s before he left for New Orleans. Because of being uprooted by Hurricance Katrina, in 2005, he and his wife relocated permanently to a condo they had purchased in Williamstown. Initially, it was intended as a refuge from the summer heat in Louisiana.

On many levels relocating to the Berkshires has meant starting over represented, ironically, by a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the Williamstown recital of string quartets on October 12.

Charles Giuliano You are about to have a number of world premieres of your music.

Stephen Dankner I am. One of those was planned for the Clark Art Institute on October 12. As of yesterday I was informed that the fire marshals came and they closed down the auditorium. The Manton Research Center has been undergoing renovations. They found some problems so they closed down the building.

I got a call and then scrambled around. It turns out that I am doing the concert at Williams. In the Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall in the music building. (54 Chapin Hall Drive Williamstown, MA 01267) The date is still October 12 at 3 PM.

CG How have you responded to this change of venue having put out all the pre concert publicity?

SD That threw me for a loop. I raised a lot of money through Kickstarter to get this thing going.

(Kickstarter is a global crowdfunding platform based in the United States. The company’s stated mission is to help bring creative projects to life.)

Having to postpone it would be a big deal. It’s OK that it will be at Williams. That’s fine.

I had heard about Kickstarter through all the stuff that’s on line. I investigated it and went to their site. I looked at some of the online projects which were being proposed. It was a matter of having a good project and having it vetted by the people at Kickstarter. Then you come up with a game plan to appeal to a broad spectrum of people for the project.

You don’t want to appeal to just one interest. You want to appeal to as many people as possible.

CG What was your target audience?

SD Within the field of music for people with interest in what composers are writing today. Within the classical field. That was my potential audience. It’s not the typical music lover who goes to Tanglewood. That’s a older audience with conservative taste as you may well imagine. Not necessarily you.

But when I was writing reviews what I called music lovers. These are people who want to hear Brahms and Tchaikovsky. People who listen to that music or classical music from the old days in general tend to have jaded opinions. Anything after 1900, or even say 1950, is out of their orbit of interest.

I wanted to appeal to listeners open to new music being written that would be interesting enough to go to the concert and give money toward it. The appeal was even to people unable to go to the concert. For their donation I would set up to send them a recording of the event.

A total of 70 people donated. Kickstarter sets up certain parameters. They would like you to do it within two weeks. I decided to go with a month. Their idea is that after a certain point people loose interest. New projects come on line.

Within that month I raised $9,260 dollars.

I had budget of $8,000 for the players. It’s a string quartet and they wanted $2,000 each. I added another $1,000 for publicity, printing programs. And hired a recording engineer for $300.

CG There’s no charge for the concert?

SD No. It’s free. I didn’t want to have any obstacles for people to come. How can you turn down a free concert? I could have charged say $10. If I got 150 people that would be $1,500. It wouldn’t have been that much money. People would stay home rather than pay. So I didn’t want to put up any road blocks.

CG So you primarily want the music to be heard?

SD The first consideration was to have the music played well. I wanted to use the best available string quartet. They have to learn it, rehearse and perform it.

(Dover String Quartet - resident quartet at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and First Prize winners in the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition.)

One of the reasons I was able to get them is that they had already performed one of the movements from my quartets. That was last summer at the Clark. They liked it well enough to listen to my other music and they agreed to do it.

CG How many quartets have you written?

SD Eighteen. It’s one more than Beethoven. Of course I have lived longer than Beethoven (1712–73). I’m 69.

CG You sent me a CD with three of the quartets. I listened to it while driving which is mostly how I hear music. Then while we were on the road my wife Astrid saw the CD and she wanted to hear it as well. I’m not qualified to critique classical music but what can you bring to a very traditional form?

SD You bring who you are. I my case I have a strong traditionalist bent. My music is informed by the past. Channeled through me I bring my own contemporary sensibility to it. There’s that in there also. There’s not an in your face modernism. I don’t worry about offending anybody.

CG I found the first quartet of the three on the CD to be very dramatic. The music was strong.

SD My music is very strong.

CG It was emotionally evocative.

SD You got the point. You did. From the romantic tradition it captures all the emotionalism and feeling that’s in the past. On a surface level there’s a lot of continuity between the syntax and grammar from the great romantic tradition that we know from Austria, Hungary, Italy, France and Germany. There’s more than that. But it’s not always in your face. A musician would know what hasn’t been done before but there is a surface appeal of something that came from the past. In a nutshell it’s what I’m doing. But it’s not conscious.

I’m not striving to achieve a predetermined goal. Each piece has its own mandate. Having written 18 quartets I don’t in any way feel that I have repeated myself. Each one of the 18 is very different and that’s the point. If I found that I was repeating myself I wouldn’t do it.

So I have to find different methodologies, different languages, different approaches. One of the works on the upcoming program is a jazz quartet. The jazz quartet is sitting next to a piece that you just described as very emotional and romantic. And yet, they are all sides of my personality. I try to conceive of each piece on its own merits. Everything has its own reason for being and is born differently.

CG We met during the reception for an installation of works by a number of local artists at the North Adams Regional Hospital. I was very taken by your series of movie appropriations shot from Turner Classic Movies. They are then altered and enhanced through Photoshop. I contacted you about obtaining images for a review. That didn’t happen because of copyright concerns.

During the opening night at Tanglewood we met again and shared dinner on the press porch. That led to your contributing some features for this site and a studio visit fairly recently.

We are in the same age range but very different. At the studio I was floored by how compact, organized and neat it was. There was an impressively dense installation of your framed photographs in a range of approaches. You informed me that you are currently creating abstract images without the use of a camera.

My own work environment tends to be messy and chaotic although I know where everything is. Our habits are completely different. I get the sense that you are precise and well organized. You pointed to an area and a wall behind it that is dense with sheet music and manuscripts.

SD My training as a musician and composer was very methodical. I had great teachers.

CG At Julliard. (He earned a Ph.D)

SD Yes but I didn’t start at Julliard. In high school I was a piano player and played in a jazz band. That’s how I can tap into jazz because I know the chord structure.

CG You’re not a square.

SD I’m not a square and I’m not a classical geek. By the way this is my first post gall bladder surgery concert. Less is more.

CG Other than quartets what have you composed?

SD I have written 180 works. I’ve written a lot of piano and vocal music. I’ve written ten symphonies.

CG Of this music how much has been performed?

SD All of it except for a couple of string quartets. I wrote five string quartets last winter. So three of the five will be performed at the Williams College concert. That leaves three more that I haven’t heard yet.

All of the symphonies have been performed.

When I was in New Orleans for 26 years for seven of those years I was in residence with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. It was based in New Orleans. I had a wonderful relationship with its German conductor. He premiered seven of my symphonies. He took it on the road and conducted them in Nashville.

(The first music director was Klauspeter Seibel (1936–2011). He retired in 2005 from the LPO. Seibel's work with LPO was widely praised in eulogies of his death.)

He got me a commission for the Nuremberg Symphony. I was very lucky, particularly living in New Orleans until 2005, to get all my music played.

When I relocated to Williamstown it was struggle because I was displaced from the environment I was in. I had to make new connections.

There are two ways of getting your music performed. One way is to get a commission. That guarantees a performance. The other way is what we are discussing now through Kickstarter is to fund raise and set it up yourself. In other words to be your own entrepreneur.

CG Are you good at that?

SD I’m good enough to get the job done. Half the battle is just doing it. Just trying. I know composers who are not good at it. They have decided that they’re not good at it so they don’t even try. You have to believe in your work. That gives you the motivation to keep on going. You have to be organized. You can’t be disheveled and get things done. You have to be very structured. If the work itself is neat and organized why shouldn’t the means to promote it also be the same?

CG Don’t you also have other premieres coming up?

SD Right after the Williams concert I am going to New Orleans for the premiere of a Clarinet Concerto. There will be three performances by the Philharmonic. The clarinetist commissioned me to write a piece. The performances will be October 17, 18 and 19. ln November my wife and I drive to North Carolina. Mars Hill College is giving a week long festival of my music. Ten different pieces, mostly chamber music, will be performed.

I have a premiere of a piece for French horn and piano in early February at University of Wisconsin. In late February we’re going to Baton Rouge which is 90 miles west of New Orleans for the premiere of my piano concerto with the Louisiana State University Orchestra. This is a piece I wrote in 1990. The pianist, Willis Delony, is a friend of mine. He liked the piece and is premiering it 25 years after it was written.

When I come back in March I have a premiere at Williams. My Third Violin Sonata will be performed at Brooks-Rogers auditorium. It was completed last April.

CG You’re on a roll.

SD Yeah. It’s the luck of the draw. Things got stacked up.

It’s a very simple formula. The more music I write and the more I promulgate it the more performances I have. Having written a lot of music some of the performances are now trickling down. If you don’t write music and you don’t promulgate it nothing happens. The more you put into it the more you get back out of it.

CG What brought you to the Berkshires?

SD It started in the 1970s when I was hired to teach as an assistant professor at Williams College. I was hired by Irwin Shainman who is the dedicatee of my 14th Quartet.

CG I know the New York art dealer Jack Shainman.

SD That’s his son.

CG We see him around during the summer when he comes to see his mother.

SD I go back to 1973 with the Shainmans. That’s the year I was hired at Williams. I taught there until 1979.

We returned because my wife and I bought a condo in Williamstown. It’s too hot in New Orleans during the summer. It became our second home. Then Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. We had a place to go and made that our permanent move.

CG Was your home damaged?

SD No, it wasn’t but we couldn’t live in New Orleans because the city was so damaged. There was no phone service, no gas, no heat. Nothing. We were able to salvage the place and eventually sell it eight months after Katrina which was August 2005.

CG When did you start an association with the Advocate? (The weekly paper is now defunct.) That’s from when I first came up here in 2005. I had been writing program notes in New Orleans. My wife said “Why don’t you see if you can get a job writing so we can get press passes.” I contacted Advocate editor Glen Drohan (now deseased) and he liked the idea. I sent him some program notes and he said fine.

I used the Advocate to get press passes to the Metropolitan Opera the New York Philharmonic and some other things. I enjoyed writing and found that I was good at it. It was fun to do and as a retired person it gave me something to look forward to. It’s important to get out of the house and have external deadlines that people impose on you. It’s very different from you deciding that you need to do something. I could take pictures or look at a stamp collection. But it’s very different if someone says I need you to be here at a certain time and do something. I found that through writing for the Advocate it was very useful to have deadlines.

CG Have you made any money?

SD Every year I get royalty checks from performances. Some years it’s good others not so. It’s thousands of dollars and usually seed money for other performances. To hire a copyist to write my music out or hire musicians for other performances. I usually roll it over to other performances in the future.

I go to an artists’ colony every year in Virginia. The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts is located in Amherst, Virginia. It’s 160 miles south of Washington. We go by train. It’s an eight hour trip from Penn Station to Lynchburg, Virginia. I write symphonies, string quartets whatever while I’m there. I input them to the computer, print them out, get them performed.

I’ve been to this artists’ colony ten times. It’s a great respite and convivial thing. You meet other writers, painters.

CG Have you done any commercial composing?

SD I did a film score in New Orleans. I wrote all the background music for the Aquarium of the Americas. It is a $40 million aquarium built in New Orleans in 1990.

CG That sounds like fun.

SD It was. It took seven months to do it. I wrote four hours of music. I was inspired by the four particular areas in the aquarium. New Orleans is in the center between North America and South America. They have different environments. They have a 500,000 gallon shark tank. I wrote a lot of shark music. Scary music that was fun to do. Not like Jaws. But I wrote a lot of music for the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. It was Salsa, Afro Cuban stuff. I used all my tricks of the trade. We recorded it and made a CD. But that one time is the extent of my commercial music.

CG Have you had a good life?

SD Yeah. Ever since I was seven years old I knew I wanted to be a musician. When I was seven I asked my parents for a piano and finally got one when I was ten. I took lessons and have never lost interest. You let the piece write itself. You don’t get in the way of it. You write what you don’t know rather than what you do know. In that sense you’re always discovering something new. That’s why I can write 18 string quartets without duplication. Each one is a unique product.