FJO: You grew up with all this pop culture and you even played in rock bands when you were younger. What would make somebody with your background become involved with, for lack of a better term, classical music? And in your mind is there a divide between pop and classical?
MD: Being a classical music composer to me means writing music for the concert stage, where people come and sit down and listen, and that’s really the structure where that’s done. It’s the only time when people focus totally on the music. There’s nothing else going on. And I really like writing for orchestra. And again, the only world where you sit down and listen to an orchestra playing alone without anything else is that classical music world.
FJO: You also write a lot for symphonic winds, which exists in a somewhat different place from the rest of the classical music world.
MD: The wind band world or the symphonic band world—whatever you want to call it—is really a very exciting world. It’s in the university—that’s been the tradition of it—and the level of playing has gone up tremendously as well to the point where probably any really good wind ensemble at any of the major schools—like Texas, or Michigan, or USC, or Eastman—are going to play at almost the level of a professional orchestra. And also what’s happening is that the band conductors at the universities want interesting music; they want to push the boundaries. So it’s a very exciting time. And I stepped in there just when it was really starting to take off. My first piece was Desi. I wrote it for a small college down in East Texas—Nacogdoches. Then it was played at a wind convention of the College Band Director’s National Association in Kansas City, and a lot of people heard it. And then Christopher Rouse heard about it, and he gave a cassette tape of it to David Zinman who decided that he wanted to play it. So it’s played by university bands and by orchestras, too—orchestras without the strings. If you want to use the saxophones and the euphoniums and all that, then it goes through the band world. There was a certain stigma at the time that if you wrote a piece for band, you’d write a different kind of a piece than if you had a commission from a major orchestra. But that’s not the case anymore. The band directors want the same piece you’re going to write if you’re going to get a commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra.
FJO: Your Bells for Stokowski, a movement from Philadelphia Stories, which you wrote for the Philadelphia Orchestra, also exists as a piece for symphonic band. And when I listened to the orchestra and band versions back to back, they sounded pretty much like the same piece. I think it really shows off your orchestration chops for band.
MD: Again, I think it’s important for a composer to be as diverse as possible. We forget that the Russian composers like Shostakovich also wrote a lot of film music. But I also really enjoy it because I like the university world. What I like about it is that it’s a breath of fresh air from the professional world. The young students are really into it and the conductor is really into it. You have a lot of rehearsal time and you can get the pieces recorded. So it’s a really positive artistic experience. It goes back to when I had a rock band in the ’60s. Playing was a lot of fun. No one ever said no; it was always yes, let’s try this, let’s try that. There weren’t all these rules that messed everything up like there are in the orchestral world. Although that is changing, too. Things are starting to loosen up finally because the professional orchestra world is realizing that it does have to change. But the [wind band] world is also an exciting world stylistically because you can do whatever you want. We haven’t talked about where I grew up. I grew up in Iowa, in the Midwest. The great wind ensembles are not on the East coast; they tend to be at universities where sports is quite big.
I think if a composer can do orchestra music and symphonic band music and chamber music, experimental music, crossover music with different media. When I say “crossover,” I think of that as different media being put together: like film and music, dance and music; [the other use of the word] crossover is something that really came out of Europe. It’s sort of a derogatory way to describe a calculated way to put together a pop artist and a classical music artist in a studio and see if they can come up with something. Anytime producers try to put things together they usually fail. Think of the great rock bands. Remember a band called Blind Faith where they put together Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood? It doesn’t work for somebody else to put things together; usually it grows on its own. There are some rare exceptions.
FJO: I’m a huge Broadway musical fan, and when I listened again to Jackie O recently, to my ears it had a lot of Broadway in it. To me, the way people sing in Broadway musicals sounds closer to what Americans sound like than the way most opera singers sound. Your opera didn’t sound like most operas. So I was wondering what you thought the dividing line was between opera and musical theatre. Is it a continuum or are they two separate genres?
MD: It seems like there isn’t much of a line anymore and there certainly doesn’t have to be. That’s probably because most young singers are trained in both genres now and are comfortable in both of them. But, again, with Jackie O, I really wasn’t consciously trying to write a musical theatre piece. I just wrote what I thought seemed appropriate for the libretto. If you have a happening at Andy Warhol’s loft, it would be kind of strange to write music that sounds like Berg. I wrote the music to reflect that, and I used my ear. It was a little brave to write some of the numbers that I did, especially within an operatic context. And it was one of those things that provoked different kinds of responses: some people loved it; some people hated it. I really like the piece—I think the libretto is really good—and it still gets produced about twice a year, so I still like it.
FJO: The man who wrote the libretto is a famous essayist, and he’s rather controversial.
MD: The libretto is written by Wayne Koestenbaum, and he’s a super-intellectual kind of guy who’s really very familiar with deconstruction and Derrida and all the latest trends in contemporary literary thinking. I didn’t necessarily understand everything he was saying in the libretto, but I thought that was O.K. because it’s very heady. There are lots of quotes that he uses. It’s kind of a collage of different texts. What’s brilliant about it is how he decides to put those things together. I don’t really collage in the music per se, but I thought it was really a challenge to write some tunes: melodies. It’s really easy for me to write abstract, atonal music. But it was really challenging to try to write a tune that was memorable but didn’t sound like a typical pop tune. So that’s what I tried to do. Some of the numbers are operatic, numbers like the “Flame Duet.”
FJO: Well, I suppose dramatically it had to be since it was a duet between Jackie O and Maria Callas.
MD: And when Aristotle Onassis sings, the music has a Greek flavor to it. Again, that’s drama, and to me a really good opera does that. I think that loosened me up a lot, and informed the music I write today.
FJO: There was a time when if another singer sang Norma, a role very closely associated with Callas, there’d be an uproar in the opera world, and there’d be people booing that singer. What was it like to make Callas a character in an opera?
MD: It’s very daring to me to have Callas as a character, or Jackie Onassis or Aristotle Onassis. But the visual arts have referenced personalities forever. Film has done that, too. Probably the thing that influences me the most is film, not film music per se, but the film. I like watching old films—the Warner Brothers, Paramount, Universal, and MGM movies from the ’40s and ’50s, especially. I like to see how the director cuts the film, how the director gets from one scene to another, the framing of the shots. I wrote an organ concerto calledOnce Upon a Castle, which is inspired by the Hearst Castle and Orson Welles. It’s interesting how Orson Welles framed his shots. Of course, we all know how innovative that was at the time. When I’m framing my music, I think about that, too: the angle I’m looking at the instruments. The way I’m listening to the instruments has to do with the way I’m looking at the instruments. That might sound a bit abstract, but it really is the visuals. Sometimes I’ll actually visualize the players on the stage, like I’m in the audience, and I’ll see the orchestra on stage, and I’ll think: “Oh, I’d like that person to play [points left], then I’d like that person to play [points right, etc.].”
FJO: The way you title pieces already gives people associations before they hear a single note. There’s obviously something else going on in your music besides the notes. So what does your music mean to you and how do you convey it?
MD: The titles of my pieces, which are provocative, have to do with what motivates me to write the piece and also what I’m feeling. It’s what the piece is all about emotionally. But then the notes are the notes. Those are very different. The music is abstract. When I’m actually writing the music, I’m dealing with themes and motives, and I’m working with those in an abstract way. Let’s take a title like Ghost Ranch, a recent piece I wrote for orchestra, which is inspired by the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe. Her paintings are abstract but realistic at the same time: You see an image of a mountain, a cactus, or a cross, but within the image itself there are abstract elements. I think that maybe the titles present a realistic aspect to the pieces, something you can hang your head on, especially if you don’t know anything about music—which is most people—or anything about contemporary music—which is almost everybody.
FJO: You write rather detailed program notes, too.
MD: The reason I spend a lot of time with program notes is, first of all, usually I have those thoughts in mind before I’m composing the piece. So I really have written the program note before I write the piece. I’ve thought about the piece for many, many months. And also, because of programs like Meet The Composer, it became the norm that the composer had to get in front of the audience and say something about the piece. Lots of the conductors I’ve worked with—like David Zinman, Marin Alsop, or Leonard Slatkin—frequently want you to come on the stage with a microphone in front of three thousand people, and you have to say something. I think those experiences made me realize that I really needed to articulate what the piece is about. Usually when you do those pre-concert talks, you don’t talk about the piece in musical terms because most people cannot relate to musical terminology. So I’ve come up with other ways to talk about my music.
FJO: So, let’s say someone comes to this music without knowing your program note—maybe if someone hears it on the radio. How important is it for you that people know what the program is?
MD: The program isn’t necessary for the music. But for any work of art, whenever I go to a museum, I always look at the title. You can look at a painting from a distance, but I always will walk up to it and see what the title is. There is a tradition of titling your art, whatever it is. A movie always has a title. There was a period in modernism where things were totally abstract, so you’d say “Composition No. 1″ or “Untitled.” That was a particular period of time which was interesting, but I’m somebody who grew up with television and recordings. An experience which informed me a lot was looking at the cover of a record album: It was just as important as the music itself. Rock groups especially. Like any Beatles album, or Frank Zappa, or Blood, Sweat & Tears. Even classical albums. You’d see Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and there’d be a picture of some woman in a bathing suit coming out of a birthday cake.
FJO: The Westminster Gold series.
MD: They were absurd, provocative covers. But the idea was that they were trying to get you to look at the record. The combination of the visual and the artwork is something, at least when I was growing up, that was quite important to my generation.
FJO: Many of your earlier pieces almost nostalgically reference pop culture artifacts—Superman, Liberace. And even the more recent works invoke some important personage or event in recent American history—Rosa Parks, Jackie O, or U.S.-Cuba relations. But perhaps those associations aren’t always readily perceptible in the music. I couldn’t hear Old Blue Eyes in Sinatra Shag.
MD: The way that piece came about is I was working with a group from Milwaukee called Present Music, and we were doing a workshop in Seattle at the time. During a break, I was in some sort of alternative shop with postcards, and there was this postcard of Nancy Sinatra with white boots on from the ’60s. I saw that postcard, and I thought, “Yes, this would be an interesting piece.” I was thinking of Sinatra—Nancy Sinatra—and then shag carpets. This was before the Austin Powers film came out so the terminology for me meant shag carpets. But then what I did with that is I took the riff of “These Boots are Made for Walkin’,” sort-of, and played around with it a little bit.
A piece like Le Tombeau de Liberace, or Sinatra Shag, or Hell’s Angels, those kind of pieces are very different from Rosa Parks Boulevard or the Ghost Ranch piece or Fire and Blood—the violin concerto inspired by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo—so you have different kinds of pieces for different occasions. With Le Tombeau de Liberace, many pianists will now dress like Liberace and bring a candelabra on stage. Or Dead Elvis, where the bassoonist will dress like Elvis. Those are particular pieces from a particular time. But I really feel like a movie director: I’ll do a western film, then I’ll do a gangster film, a comedy, and then a drama. The great directors of films and the great actors could move between these genres. That’s the way I view it. I like to mix it up.
FJO: So how important is that visual element for you in a piece like Le Tombeau de Liberace or Dead Elvis?
MD: It’s funny because in both cases it was the performers who began doing that. I never put in the score to dress like Elvis or to bring a candelabra on the stage. Same with Hell’s Angels where the bassoonists will dress like Hells Angels and in some cases even bring a motorcycle on the stage. But just like Ligeti has a piece for 100 metronomes—that is a very particular piece, but it doesn’t represent all the kinds of pieces he did. Composers from time to time will have a one-off piece, those are those pieces. But it’s really the performers who initiated all of that. I never said bring a motorcycle on stage, these are things the performers have done themselves.
FJO: But it gave these pieces another life. And you seem to be O.K. with people doing these things.
MD: It’s interesting how much performers can take liberties with pieces. When I was a young composer, Stockhausen was very big at the time. And he wanted total control of every aspect, from the lighting to what the performers wear, etc. But I think that once you work in opera, like I did with Jackie O, you see that it’s very flexible. Things are continually shifting and changing. So that loosened me up. After that, anything goes.
FJO: But this whole phenomenon of Elvis outfits and Liberace paraphernalia does suggest crossover in the sense of combining pop and classical elements.
MD: My intention has always been to write music that reflects my experiences. I grew up in the ’60s and the ’70s, and those are the years that are important to me, particularly the ’60s when I was a kid. I had very strong impressions of those years. Charles Ives would respond to Fourth of July parades, or hymn tunes, or the football games at Yale, or the experiences he had with his father. And those things informed his music. Again, with many composers their memories inform their music.
I think where it got complicated was in the modernist period of contemporary music. There was a desire to not remember things. If you lived in the Second World War, the memories you had probably weren’t that great. So there was a long period of the Darmstadt school where people wanted to forget the past and blow up the opera house and all that sort of thing. But look at Pierre Boulez. Those things change. Just like Sean Connery said he’d never play James Bond again and did. Never say never! Boulez is here this week conducting Mahler’s Seventh at Carnegie Hall. He’s not doing the 4X machine from IRCAM and all the stuff he was doing in the late ’70s. Things keep changing and shifting. “Blow up the opera house,” was a phrase that Boulez used a lot back then. But that didn’t happen.
Instead of blowing things up, what I do is I just tend to play off of them. And there are questions about what I mean in my music. Is it serious? Is it ironic? Is it sarcastic? Is it meaningful? Is it sincere? The fact that there are these questions when you hear my pieces, and that you really aren’t sure, makes it interesting. There are different layers. You can listen to it in different ways.
When Dead Elvis gets played in Europe—and I read the reviews from Italy or Germany—they go into these long critiques of the decadence of American capitalism as manifested by Elvis in Las Vegas. But when it’s played in Memphis or North Dakota, it’s a very different take because these people really love Elvis. For them it’s a tribute. The fact that it can read in different ways is good.
FJO: So you’re happy with either interpretation?
MD: You can’t really control how people are going to listen to the music you write. When you write the music you really want to write, fifty percent of the people are not going to like it and fifty percent are going to like it. So you have to accept that. When you’re a conductor you know that half the members of the orchestra are not going to like your conducting. Same with a composer: half the people in the orchestra are not going to like your music. But half of them do like it. That’s just human nature. You have to be able to live with those aspects and believe in what you’re writing. I’m spending all these hours down in my studio alone writing music, so I have to write music that gives me some sort of pleasure. I’m not thinking, “Oh, I have to write a minute of music today to fulfill this deadline.” I really don’t think that way. I’ve never been somebody who churns out the music or tries to fulfill commissions, take on too much stuff, and write as quickly as I can. I like the model more of taking a lot of time to write.
FJO: But it seems to me like you’re writing a ton of music.
MD: I enjoy writing. Writing music is the sort of the thing that keeps me going. It’s something that gives me great pleasure and helps me get through life during the good times and also the bad times. I don’t feel like I have to share what’s going on in my life with people; it’s not that sort of thing. But I do try to write the best I can every time, whether it’s a small piece or a big piece. I try to put the greatest effort I can into it. I don’t like to put anything out there that I just have tossed off; I’ve never been that way.
FJO: Your music has the potential to reach an audience that’s beyond the standard contemporary music demographic. How could you reach more people than that? Who do you want to reach with your music?
MD: Unless you have an experience playing a musical instrument, most people would not be that interested in hearing concert music. If you played an instrument growing up, even if you don’t play it now, then you kind of understand. I don’t think I’ve said one negative thing today, did you notice that? I’ve seen the answers that many composers give about the audience. Years ago, from hearing composers give gloom and doom predictions, I’ve vowed I would never do that. There are so many different kinds of audiences. I can’t imagine any artist who doesn’t want to reach as many people as they possibly can, but that can’t be the main reason you’re writing or doing anything obviously. It’s nice if it happens. My sensibility is such that I’m a good listener, I try to listen to what people say and I want to communicate in a way that’s clear to people. That said, I might be able to reach more people than others.
FJO: For the past twenty years of your life, you’ve also maintained a career as a composition teacher. How do you keep those two parts of your life in balance?
MD: I’m fortunate to be at a really great school. Michigan is a pleasure to be at because the students are really good, and I get to work with both graduate and undergraduate students. And Ann Arbor’s a cool town, so I like living there. My mother was a school teacher back in Iowa. My father was a dance band drummer and a department store manager, but he also taught Sunday school. Everybody wanted to take his class. So education is something that I always thought of as very important, and I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t have some teachers who were very important to me. I enjoy it, and I like to give back what I’ve learned. I like to share the things I’ve learned and the things that I shouldn’t have done, as well.
FJO: You studied with some really celebrated people—Ligeti, Druckman, also Davidovsky and Charles Wuorinen, who write music that is very different from yours.
MD: I was somebody who sought out teachers who I thought would be a challenge to work with, and I didn’t necessarily understand their music. I was down in Texas when I was 18 to 22, and at the time the cutting edge was New York and people like Elliott Carter, Wuorinen, and Davidovsky. I couldn’t understand what this music was; it seemed so complicated. I could improvise music that sounded like it, but I couldn’t write it down. I couldn’t figure it out.
Then I came to New York. Being from Iowa and coming from Texas, no one is going to take you seriously. People would say, “Who are you? You went to North Texas State?” I had to fight my way up. My mother passed away when I was 18, and I have four younger brothers, so I’ve been on my own financially since that point. I had to support myself, so I worked all sorts of odd jobs, from ushering at Carnegie Hall to playing at piano bars to playing for dance classes. During the years I ushered at Carnegie Hall, I heard all these great concerts—Von Karajan conducting Berlin, Vladimir Horowitz’s last concert, one of Sinatra’s final concerts. And, at the same time, Boulez was conducting the New York Philharmonic, so there were all these world premieres, and I would go to the rehearsals. I would sit with the composers and follow the scores. Anyone could go, but there weren’t that many people who went. I always felt it was important to hear the music live, so I would go. In lots of the music I was hearing, I had no idea what was going on, but I really wanted to understand it.
And then I ended up at IRCAM in Paris because I wanted to understand computer music. If there was something I didn’t understand, I was determined to figure out what it was. That’s just the way I was. So I had to go to IRCAM. And I did learn about computer music. Then I wanted to know more about the European scene, so I worked with Ligeti for two years, and I went to all these new music festivals. Then I went to England for a year – and I got to know Oliver Knussen and the whole England scene. And I went to Holland and got to know Andriessen and all this music by Dutch composers. When I lived in Europe I kept hearing how terrible American music is and that the only great American composer is Morton Feldman or Charles Ives or Gershwin. It was a really interesting experience to be overseas where everything I did was considered not important because the only important things were happening in Europe.
I was a good listener but I was getting a lot of different opinions from people of what was good and what was bad. And when I got back to the States I was teaching out in Oberlin, which is a very isolated area, and I had to come up with my own ideas. I was really forced to ’cause I was in isolation. That’s when I wrote some of my first pieces like Snap and Dead Elvis and I kind of went into my own world.
But [it was after] having [had] all of these teachers and all of these amazing experiences. I remember at IRCAM having a conversation with Berio at the cappuccino machine and Boulez would come by; or going to lunch with Ligeti and Boulez in Paris one time; or hanging out with Markus Stockhausen, Karlheinz’s son, for a week because I got to know him at this festival of Stockhausen’s music. To be a composer, I felt I needed to get to know these people. And that included American composers, too, like Druckman. And Davidovsky: I went to Tanglewood one summer, and he was the composer there. The music I write now probably a lot of those people wouldn’t like, and there’s nothing I can really do about that.
What I try to do as a teacher is embrace all the music of the students I work with; no matter what kind of music they write, I’m supportive of that. And that’s how Druckman was. He was very supportive of his students no matter what kind of music they wrote, if it was authentic music and music they really believed in. He seemed to be cool about that, and that left an impression on me. And Leslie Bassett—who was at Michigan for many, many years and whom I replaced—was also that way. I thought that was a good model as a teacher. I want my students to be as different from me as possible.
FJO: You talked about how pieces gestate in your mind a long time, and we talked a bit about multiple versions of pieces. So how does music spring forth for you? Do you hear the totality of it when you’re writing? How soon do you begin conceiving the orchestration? Do you start with a sketch? What is your compositional process?
MD: First of all, I put myself into the role of the character. If it’s a piece about Georgia O’Keeffe, or Rosa Parks, or Elvis, or Fidel Castro, I read up on that person and I follow their footsteps. For example, I wrote two different pieces about Georgia O’Keeffe: Ladder to the Moon is about her New York days, and Ghost Ranch is about her days in New Mexico. I like to retrace the footsteps, so I went to Ghost Ranch, which is located about an hour and a half from Santa Fe. I stayed overnight at the Ghost Ranch, and then I took a tour that took you to where she actually painted her paintings. In Rosa Parks’s case, I was able to spend a couple of hours with her in Detroit and asked her what her favorite instrument was—she said the trombone—and I asked her what her favorite piece of music was, and she said, “O Freedom,” so I decided to use that as a backdrop to the piece I wrote. In Elvis’s case, I went to Graceland. Years ago I had a performance by the Memphis Symphony, and I went to Graceland and saw Bill Bolcom. And he said, “You and I are probably the only two composers who ever went to Graceland.”
Anyway, I immerse myself in these people and then I start to hear sounds. And for the actual music, I have a set-up at home with Macintosh computers. I have two very large monitors, and I have a Kurzweil keyboard out in front, a Disklavier to the right—which is a MIDI piano—and I have a rack of sound modules. Of course, this is sort of old-fashioned, because now you can have them all internally in your computer on a card, which I have to do at some point.
I set up my whole orchestra though MIDI from piccolo on down to the double-basses, and then I start to write layers. I write one layer and I listen to it, and then I add another layer. Just like when you’re shooting a movie, sometimes I’ll write the end of the piece first or I’ll write the middle first, and then later I go through and edit it. Frequently, once you finish composing the piece, that’s when you start writing the piece because then you have all the material, and you can go back to it. I usually rewrite a piece extensively. I like to step away from a piece for about a month and then come back to it. You need to be impersonal to your own music as though you’re hearing it for the first time. You need to be ruthless in making cuts. I try to make it so that I only have something that I need to have. I don’t try to pad the music to make it longer. I also try to make every layer of the counterpoint meaningful in some way, so it relates to motives. That probably goes back to Mahler: every layer of counterpoint will usually reference a theme and frequently themes in one movement will come back in another movement, and so you’ll hear it differently.
One of the things that interests me is how music relates to visuals in film and television. Take the music that Ennio Morricone wrote for spaghetti westerns. Spaghetti westerns—like Clint Eastwood’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, A Few Dollars More, and so forth—tend to be about three hours long, but he would only compose about fifteen minutes of music. But that fifteen minutes would get used over and over again. The visual would be different, but the same music would be put over the top of it. So the chunk of music is static, but you hear the music differently because the visual has changed. They did the same thing in the old Star Trek series. There were cues that were written for particular episodes, but those cues would be used in other episodes. I talked with one of the composers, Fred Steiner, who wrote many of the episodes. They had all these sound cues like “Anger” and “Love Theme.” They would keep using the same music but juxtaposing it over different visuals throughout the three years. Development happened by the juxtaposition of old material with new material.
I’ll frequently do that in my music. I might have, let’s say, “Layer A” and “Layer B.” Later on I’ll repeat “Layer A” exactly as it was but I’ll put a new layer, “Layer C,” on top of it. That’s how I deal with development. It’s not the development within the layer, but development occurs by different layers being heard at the same time.
FJO: You described a pretty elaborate electronic set-up for creating this music, so I guess that means you don’t do any handwritten sketches at this point.
MD: Well, it’s funny. There are certain advantages to writing by computers and with sequencers, and there’s also a certain advantage to writing by hand. For some things, like cadenzas, or if I want a free section, I’ll write by hand because there’s a different vibe to that. Again, there’s no set way, so I write by hand sometimes [even though I work] mostly by computer. And there’s a third element. I work with players continually. I don’t know how many composers do this, but I do this quite a bit. I have players come to my house—like a violin player, clarinet player, or bass player—and I will write a little bit and have them try it out. Or have them improvise ideas and I’ll record what they play and listen to it and then I’ll write some music. When I’m writing an orchestra piece, I’ll have a violin player come to my house probably about three or four times a week to play what I’ve written as though they’re the concert master of the orchestra. I’ll bring in a trumpet player. I’m constantly referencing instruments. Frequently, as they’re playing, I’ll say, “Hey, wait, why don’t you play this?” and I’ll write something right in the moment. “Play this against what I’ve written right now.” It might contradict what I’ve already written or just add another layer. I think working with instruments is very important. Most composers don’t do that as much as they should. I got that from Berio and all those pieces he wrote, theSequenze. He wrote those with players, and he got a lot of feedback from the players. I remember when I was working with Jacob Druckman; he also wrote a series of works for soloists and electronics. He also worked very carefully with players. I’ve done that ever since in all my music. And I think that’s why players like playing the works, because I work with what the players can do, and I create energy because the music they’re playing lies on their instruments in such a way that they can really get into the music.
FJO: You play, too.
MD: I play piano.
FJO: So do you improvise things at the piano when you’re working on a piano part in a piece?
MD: Yeah, sure, I improvise. And, fortunately, when I’m writing for piano, I can be that person who comes in and tries the ideas out. I’ll turn on my disklavier and record, and I’ll improvise on it and listen back to it. But probably what I end up writing has nothing to do with the improvisation. It’s just a way to get going with things. But the physical element is important. That really helps me write my music.