The first time I saw David Bloom was at the first-ever Contemporaneous concert I attended. I saw Bloom conduct that night, and he also played a mean clarinet. I later learned he’s a composer, too, and I’m eager for more opportunities to hear his work. As a conductor, Bloom devours new scores, no matter the level of difficulty, with pure delight, and he’s fun to watch in action, too. I’m pleased to present the multi-talented David Bloom on Prufrock’s Dilemma.
Q: When did music first come into your life? Can you tell us about an early musical experience that has significance for you today?
Music first came into my life meaningfully with a cassette of piano music that my mother’s best friend gave me when I was about three. I remember asking my parents to play it for me every night before I went to bed. My earliest encounter with live music was in church, where I used to watch all of the music with slack-jawed amazement. My dad and I used to sneak up to the choir loft after services to see the organ and ask the organist about all those crazy knobs. I also used to ask the pianist who played for the kids how she could possibly play all those notes and sing at the same time. When I was seven, that pianist became my teacher, and I still count her as one of the most influential people in my life. And the organist? I sang in his choir in high school, and he ended up commissioning me twice to write works for his choruses, most recently in 2011 for this amazing group Sursum Corda. All of this was in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, a truly amazing place to grow up.
Q: In 2008, you earned the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest scouting rank attainable. To attain that rank, among other things, you organized and led a major community service project. Can you describe the project and the ways in which it informed your thinking about conducting?
My Eagle project was at my church playground, which was and is a very special place for me. Even though I don’t remember them so well, I spent many a steamy Alabama afternoon playing there! In my senior year of high school, I assembled a group of Scouts, friends, and family to carry out an ambitious facelift at the playground that included building a sizeable new playhouse and a picnic table, replacing an old swing set, and creating some erosion prevention. On the surface, the Eagle project is about the service — I always joke that every good Eagle project involves a bench or a trail! That is a very important part of the Eagle project, but it would never be a requirement for the highest rank in scouting were it not an excellent way to learn leadership. I wrote a lot about the purpose of the project, drew some very intricate diagrams, made a budget and schedule, wrote instructions for every task, created a contact list, and made all sorts of other plans before I even raised the money or picked up a hammer. But it wouldn’t be a leadership project if I did it all myself, so I involved lots of eager volunteers with diverse skills ranging from roofing to baking in remaking the playground into a fun and safe place for the kids in my hometown. And, of course, I learned from my mistakes as we went along.
Scouting was a really formative experience for me in many ways, none more important than the experience I gained in leadership and problem solving. This certainly had a huge impact on how I approach organizing projects, but I’m sure it also had some effect on how I think as a conductor. The more conducting I do, the more I realize just how much of what I need to do is to solve problems, especially with new music, which often has no record of what may be problematic. Of course, at least half of problem solving is identifying a problem, so I really need to listen closely and process what I am hearing in real time. So even though most music projects I’ve been involved with haven’t involved benches or trails, there is a pretty clear overlap in the skill set.
Q: You’ve noted Steve Reich’s Tehillim is a “desert island” piece for you. You recently conducted Tehillim with Contemporaneous. Would you tell us a little about why the piece is important to you, and what it was like to conduct it?
How many pieces can you really call unique? It’s a short list, and one that definitely includes Tehillim. There is just not another piece of music that sounds the way it sounds, breathes the way it breathes, or says the things it says. Reich probes the four short excerpts from the Psalms that he sets so fully that their sound and meaning ring though in every element of the piece, starting with its unusual medium: four solo non-vibrato female voices with tamborims, clapping, woodwinds, keyboards, and strings. With this group, Reich creates a remarkably pure sound that is steeped in the rhythmic pulse of the text. There is an absolute honesty and clarity in this music that speaks with immense power despite what I think of as an understated musical language. The emotional directness and focus of Tehillim is what draws me in so deeply. It was a huge challenge, but an incredibly rewarding experience, to conduct this piece and to work with Contemporaneous on playing it live. Here’s hoping this first performance for us is not our last!
Q: You’re not only a conductor, but also a clarinetist and composer. Can you talk a little about how each of these roles informs or influences what you do in the other two?
Every conductor needs a way in: some musical background that provides a portal through which s/he sees music. For me, that “way in” is my background performing and composing, both of which I still do. As a clarinetist, I’ve played in a bunch of different contexts from orchestras to chamber groups and wind bands to solo work. As a composer, I’ve written for diverse instrumentations, usually for specific people or groups. Actually, another very important musical experience for me has been singing in choirs, which I did for many years.
Conducting is a much more abstract art than clarinet playing, because a score doesn’t tell a conductor exactly what to do in every beat of every bar. Instead, it tells each player or singer what s/he needs to do in every beat of every bar. When I look at a clarinet part, most of what I need to do is notated on the page. I look at a note and know what fingering to use; I see some symbols and know if I need to play loud or soft, short or long, fast or slow, etc. On the contrary, scores do not give conductors such an automatic knowledge of exactly what to do in every moment of the piece. A composer never writes in a score notes like “cue the horn here” or “give a strong preparation for these off-beats.” As such, part of my job as a conductor is to take all of the information that a score does give and figure out what gestures the ensemble needs from me to make the music sound and to help them to play together. There is a very nuanced set of questions that I find myself asking when I make decisions about exactly what it is I need to do. My experience playing and singing in ensembles is invaluable when I am asking the right questions about a piece and anticipate problems that I can solve in real time with my hands or eyes.
While conducting is more abstract than clarinet playing, it is still more concrete than composition. There are a few gestures that all conductors must have in their arsenal and that musicians are trained to understand universally: physical messages such as “here’s the downbeat” and “stop playing.” But, thankfully for us, there is far less universality in composition since there are as many different approaches to composition as there are composers, who build musical meaning from the ground up. I find that in order to meaningfully convey a work, I have to figure out where that ground is and how the piece is built on top of it. How does this material link with what came before? What is the direction of this phrase? What is the character of this music? Interestingly enough, these are exactly the kinds of questions that I ask myself when I write music, so it makes perfect sense to me that I should address them when approaching music. I strive to think like the composer of any piece that I conduct, which takes equal doses of curiosity and creativity.
Q: You recently listened to Michael Zev Gordon’s piece, Bohortha. You noted that “It is difficult to control the extreme ranges of the orchestra,” but Zev Gordon’s piece does this “very well by keeping the high material moving at a good clip.” From your perspective as both a composer and conductor, can you talk a little more about the issue of handling those extreme ranges? Is there another composition you can name for us that does this well, and can you talk a little about why?
This was part of a discussion in which we were talking about exactly what it was about Bohortha that reminded us of the Thomas Adès piece Polaris. I had the idea that part of the similarity in the sound had to do with the orchestration, and most especially the way that each piece handles the very high end of the orchestra (piccolo, high violins, high pitched percussion). In both works, there is a lot of activity in this top range, which is part of why they both sound so distinctive. Composers often refrain from using this register extensively because doing so can be tiring to the ear and distracting from music going on in lower ranges of the orchestra. In these cases, though, the high sounds are fast-moving, motoric, and allowed to decay quickly, so the highest sounds avoid this pitfall of overpowering the rest of the orchestra. For some really good discussion of Polaris, have a look at my good friend Dylan Mattingly’s This Composing Life interview. And definitely have a listen to this piece!
Another piece that comes to my mind as having really extraordinary control over the extreme ranges of the orchestra is Samuel Carl Adams’ Drift and Providence, a really fantastic, new work not yet known to New York audiences. While Polaris and Bohortha sound distinctive because of their extensive use of the highs in the orchestra, Sam’s piece has a very particular sound that he achieves with the extreme lows of the orchestra (contrabasses, contrabass clarinet, contrabassoon, bass drum). He writes many dense, low chords and textures that create a hazy but somehow tactile sense of embracing that is unusual and very effective.
Q: Tom Service, a music critic for The Guardian, has written a book about conducting, Music as Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and Their Orchestras. In the book, the great conductor Claudio Abbado is quoted as saying “For me, listening is the most important thing: to listen to each other, to listen to what people say, to listen to music. And to listen to silence.” Can you speak to Abbado’s statement in terms of your own experience conducting?
I absolutely agree with Abbado here. A conductor’s ears are undoubtedly the most valuable tools s/he has. Earlier, I mentioned the importance of problem solving for conductors, and just how crucial it is to process the sound that the ensemble is creating in order to hone and improve it. Listening is the most important way to perceive problems in a performance.
A news story comes to mind as an extreme case of a conductor who lacks this most crucial facility. I’m not sure if Honda’s ASIMO robot can hear, but I do know that when it has conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in the past, it cannot listen in the way the orchestra needs it to. In this video, you can see the robot carry out the motions that it is programmed to perform while the orchestra plays some very simple music. This is a fine orchestra that really doesn’t need a conductor to play for a piece this easy, but if you watch this video closely, you will notice that a few players near the front of the orchestra are making large gestures with their bows and heads to signal entrances to their section. They are compensating for the complete lack of conductor-orchestra connection. Maybe my expectations of the robot are too high, but I feel bad for little ASIMO because it can’t listen or react to what the orchestra is playing and really make music with them. That spontaneity is my favorite part of conducting, so to take it away would really compromise my idea of what I get to do as a conductor.
Q: You’re a passionate and engaged champion of contemporary classical/new music. What would you say to those who have little or no experience of it that might encourage them to give it a try?
I’ll start with an anecdote: A few members of Contemporaneous had a blast doing an outreach event at PS 142 before we performed there for the Neighborhood Classics series last week (December 2012), and we were doing our best to get the kids to think about new music. I asked a large group of bright-eyed second and third graders sitting on the gym floor, “What’s a composer? What do composers do?” One kid said, “Somebody who tells people what to do;” another said, “Somebody who makes music.” But there was one response that I will always remember: “A composer is like a statue.” This is exactly the misconception that I make it my life’s goal to dispel, stated more succinctly and poetically than I could ever have imagined by this boy from Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
There has never been a better time for a composer to live in flesh and blood than today. As quickly as the world is shrinking, the number of things that artists can express is growing, so composers today can’t help but write about their current experience. There are so many exciting and compelling voices doing such diverse and interesting things right now, so there really is something in new music for everybody. Music being written today is inherently relevant to our lives, so it really is worth an honest try. It is impossible to say which composers of today will become statues of the future, but if you intend to wait for time to tell, you will be missing out on some truly great music.
What’s New for David Bloom
On December 19, 2012 David will conduct ensemble mise-en in new works by Tonia Ko and Yoon-Ji Lee at 8:00 pm at the cell theater in New York City. For more information, click here. Contemporaneous presents Don’t Even on February 10 at Bard College and February 11 in New York City. Visit contemporaneous.org for more information. David will also conduct John Zorn’s À Rebours at the Manhattan School of Music on February 26 at 9:00 pm.
About David Bloom
David Bloom, a conductor, composer, and clarinetist, is co-artistic director, with Dylan Mattingly, of Contemporaneous. Bloom is also conductor of Symphony Z. Bloom has conducted over 20 world premieres at venues including Merkin Hall at Lincoln Center, Galapagos Art Space, Roulette, and The Stone. He has guest conducted the Da Capo Chamber Players and numerous ensembles at the Manhattan School of Music, NYU, and Bard College. He studies conducting with Alan Pierson and at Bard College with James Bagwell and Harold Farberman. He is artistic assistant at the Brooklyn Philharmonic and conductor of the Bard College Opera Workshop. As a composer, Bloom’s works have been premiered by David Shifrin, Hsin-Yun Huang, Jeewon Park, the Da Capo Chamber Players, Sursum Corda, and students at the Yellow Barn Music Festival, among others. He studies composition at Bard with Joan Tower and George Tsontakis. For more information about David Bloom, click here.
Watching and Listening List
© David Bloom. Reproduced by kind permission.
Two Visions (2010): I. Dreamful
Sarah Wegener, clarinet
Lin Wang, viola
Hui-Shan Chin, piano
(This is a great excerpt from a terrific piece, but if time is short, start at about 4:15 on the video to watch Bloom as the ensemble builds to a peak in the music.)
© Conor Brown. Reproduced by kind permission.