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Dmitri Tymoczko Interview

Posted on 11 June 2008. © Copyright 2004-2020 Composition:Today

C:T talks to composer Dmitri Tymoczko, whose The Story of Jazz will be performed by pianist Ivan Ilic at Carnegie's Weill Hall on June 23rd

Tell us something about your background.

I grew up playing rock guitar and a little bit of classical piano. I studied music and philosophy at Harvard, where all my teachers were atonal composers. For me, modernist music seemed like philosophy in disguise, so I thought I'd try the real thing. By the end of college, I'd gave up composition in favor of philosophy -- I knew I didn't want to write atonal music, but had no idea how to write tonal music that was intelligent and fresh. After a brief detour to Oxford University, where I got kicked out of the philosophy graduate program (for thinking outside the box), I landed at UC Berkeley, where I
dedicated myself to composition in earnest.

For me, the process of becoming a composer has involved a pretty heavy dose of theory. I believe that we really don't understand tonal music very well -- we think we do, but it's actually much more interesting and sophisticated than we think. So I've tried to ask myself very general theoretical questions -- e.g. what sorts of scales are musically useful? how can you combine harmony and counterpoint? -- that are directly useful for my composing. I find this really helps me out -- it frees me up, and keeps me from repeating the formulas of the past.

How did you start composing?

Good question. I have no idea. My first piece was written when I was about five, and was called "The Walking Dinosaur." It's pretty good -- white notes, then black notes, then white notes, with no triads anywhere. In high school I just started writing music -- very primitive stuff, but it got me started.

What drives your work, what are you passions?

First, I'm really inspired by music that combines intellectual rigor with genuine expressiveness -- Bach, Debussy, Charlie Parker ... All of these guys were incredible intellectuals, with an almost unfathomable understanding of musical possibilities, who also managed to create music that is really, really fun to listen to. Music like this provides a kind of rigorous pleasure that I can't get anywhere else. So I guess I'm naturally interested in seeing whether I can create some myself.

Second, I suppose I'm motivated by a kind of internal competitiveness. I want to write the best music I can possibly write, and to improve on my most recent piece. I suppose I'm like the runner who's always trying to improve on his previous time, just to see how fast he can go.

Tell us something about your working method as a composer. Give us something that might be or might have been a starting point for a piece.

Well, there's the mechanical part, and the mysterious part.

The mechanical part is sort of like this. Sometimes I start with a simple chord progression or melody. Sometimes, though, I start with a process or texture or funny theoretical idea. I'll often explore these ideas using interactive computer programs -- creating an improvisational environment where I can test the process out, to see if it sounds as good as I think it does.

Generally, I gather a bunch of small ideas and textures together, sprinkling them into a computer file in what I think is approximately the right position. (I always use a notation program when composing, so that I can hear what I'm doing.) I then work hard at stitching the ideas together in what I hope is a compelling musical way.

The mysterious part is that somewhere, in the middle of this process, I start to learn what my piece is about. Having gathered my materials, and worked with them for a while, I realize what their overarching expressive purpose is -- it's like decoding a message that your sleeping self left for your conscious self. Usually this happens about three weeks after I start working: suddenly a lightbulb goes off over my head, and I think "I know what this piece is about!" That's when I really start to enjoy what I'm doing, and things typically go very fast.

Which non-musical influences have affected your music most?

You know, probably the very fact of studying philosophy, where you're forced to ask big questions. I think this really allowed me to stand back from the contemporary-music scene, and ask how I wanted to fit into it, and which parts I thought were off track.

What is your musical philosophy?

I believe that 300 years from now, musical histories of our time are going to focus on rock and jazz, rather than notated concert music. I believe that the most exciting music of the next decade will be written by people fluent in both classical and popular traditions, making albums with one foot in either world. Forty years ago, Sgt. Pepper's was an amazing achievement -- bringing together talented songwriters, electronic technology, and a producer who could write string quartets. But young musicians now do all of these things as a matter of course. So I propose that we should be looking toward Sgt. Pepper, rather than the nineteenth symphonic tradition, for inspiration!

Interview by Composition:Today © Copyright 2004-2020

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