Interview with Linda Dusman PART I

The music of Baltimore based composer Linda Dusman is diverse. Her piece, Solstice, which she discusses further in this interview, is an adventurous exploration for students performing in concert band. O Star Spangled Stripes is a battle of wills between a snare drum and piano. Much of her music is intended for chamber performance, though she has created works for interactive and installation settings and is currently preparing a piece for orchestra.

Dusman takes inspiration from nearly everything around her. Even in pieces she has been commissioned to write, the music is based on ideas she finds compelling in literature, nature, the experiences of others, and other music. The music of other composers is also important to her in the study of music theory, which she teaches at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in addition to music composition and instrumentation.

In this interview, Linda Dusman discusses the inspiration for her music, the concert experience, and offers advice to other composers

You write music for many different genres. How would you describe your music as a whole?

I think I’m pretty eclectic actually. I do not use traditional harmony. I don’t have objections to triads...[but] sometimes I don’t do that at all. It tends to depend on the situation and what it is I’m trying to convey. So I think in some ways I’m multilingual. I choose the language that I’m going to write in based on the situation. For example, I’m finishing up a piece right now that’s going to be premiered in October. Actually I thought it was finished two months ago, but I’m still working on it (laughter), still refining some things. You know how that goes. This was a piece inspired by an artist who I met at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I did a residency there in February of this year. I just love this artist’s drawings...they felt very sonic to me. I wouldn’t say musical, but sonic. Somehow it felt like they evoked sound. I went to her studio and actually recorded her making these drawings. So then I had these sounds of pen strokes that were quite strange. I wanted to combine them with Michael Richards’ [Chair of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Music Department] clarinet playing. He does a lot of noise-based extended techniques on the clarinet.

In that particular situation I was finding a single note that would, I felt, blend with the sounds of these pen scratches and then everything came out of that. Now that’s a very different situation from say, a wind ensemble piece that I did about ten years ago where I was asked to do a piece for a high school wind ensemble. There it was a different kind of audience. I really, as a composer, think of myself as somebody who is collaborating with the performer, the audience, and myself. So there are three entities involved in this, not just me, [and] I’m trying to find a way to teach people the piece, particularly if I’m working with unusual sounds and dissonant harmonies. I try to find a way to write the piece so that people can learn about it as they’re listening. That’s part of the reason I often have very evocative and slow moving openings: to kind of get people’s ears warmed up before I actually get into the meat of the give them a chance to sort of wake up their ears, get a sense of the sound palette that I’m working with, and then take off and move in a certain direction with it.

I’m also very often influenced by extra-musical things. Things outside of sound themselves...literature, for example. I did a piece for flutist Lisa Cella and Jane Rigler’s duo. It was inspired by a passage from a Virginia Wolf novel. The passage says something like, they sat next to each other melting into each other with phrases. They formed an unsubstantial territory. I’m not saying it as well as Virginia Wolfe does, but it’s something to that extent. So when Lisa asked me to do a duo for her ensemble, this passage (I was reading The Waves at the time) struck me, the idea of two people together blending into each other with phrases and forming at the same time an unsubstantial territory. So it took off from there. I used piccolo and alto flute in that particular piece, two very dissimilar members of the flute family, to try to create that separateness, but then I used their overlapping ranges. They have a bit of an overlap in terms of ranges and certainly in terms of noises that the two of them can create. Within that [is] a kind of unsubstantial territory. They go apart, they come together. That’s an example of a concept or a piece of literature that inspired me to work on that piece in that particular way.

The wind ensemble piece, when I wrote for [high school] band, I started reflecting on, “What was it like for me in high school? What was it like to be there?” Because I’m writing now for students that are this particular age. I don’t remember high school with great memories, frankly. It was a very unsettling time for me. Puberty, all that kind of stuff, complications, emotional complications. So, I wrote this piece called Solstice that was actually bi-tonal to create in a bi-tonal framework these kinds of clashes. You feel like you’re OK, you’re in this tonal, particular key, and then suddenly this other key buts up against you creating some tension there. In that sense, it was a little bit, I think for the high school players, quite unusual because They’re used to playing straight tonal music. But, I felt like it communicated with them about my memories of that time.

You said you consider yourself, the performer and the audience when writing music. One of the things I enjoyed about playing music in high school was, playing the horn, I didn’t always have the prominent part, but usually there were fun parts written for the instrument. How much did that cross your mind as you were scoring Solstice?

I’m always trying to write parts that people enjoy playing. To me, that’s what gets communicated to the audience. If the performers are not enjoying the piece, there’s no way the piece is going to succeed. Of course, you can’t always control that. You can’t control if the high school bari sax player is going to be happy with the part, but I do try to think about that. And that’s something I try to encourage my students to do, too. To think not just about the overall ensemble sound, but the sound that each instrumentalist is playing so that they have something rewarding in their part in and of itself.

You mentioned the piece inspired by literature. I noticed a lot of your music is based on some literature or poetry. In addition, some relate to an idea or a situation. How does that differ from writing music with a freer approach like working intuitively?

Well, I think I do work intuitively, it’s just that I draw my inspiration from a variety of things. I certainly enjoy my ears, I enjoy listening to things, all kinds of things. So, not just music, but the sound of the world and the sounds of nature, urban landscapes, you know, I find interesting sounds all over the place. I enjoy my eyes. I enjoy what I see. The light on the water, the lace that trees in winter create against the sky. Literature; the kinds of emotional palette that’s available there, or the ability to kind of get inside someone else’s head, how someone else is seeing the world through what they write, helps me to know more about myself. [In] all these things, life is a process of learning about yourself, learning about other people. I look to the concept for the inspiration, but then once the music starts, I look to the music. I keep thinking about the concept until I begin to hear something. Once I begin to hear something, then I listen to that (laughter). I used to try to stick with the concept. I don’t do that any more. I think that’s been a change in the last ten or fifteen years. Now, I end up loving the sound. As a composer you fall in love with the piece (laughter). Then it’s all about the piece and the sound, not about something you’re trying to impose on it from the outside.

continued....see Part II

Interview with Linda Dusman PART II

continued from Part I....

So you take your inspiration and allow it to grow...


When did you start composing music?

I always fooled around on the piano. I was always making pieces better. I grew up in a very small town. There wasn’t a very sophisticated musical environment where I grew up. I had a piano teacher who taught me from method books and stuff like that where a lot of times the music is pretty boring, so I was always adding stuff to make it better (laughter). The first time I actually just went off and wrote my own piece was for this orchestration class. My professor said, “If you want to write your own piece, you can. You don’t have to arrange someone else’s.” So I did that and it was a revelation to me. I felt so much happier doing that than being an interpreter. I really felt like my creative strengths were much more in terms of making something than interpreting something. Players have to be imaginative interpreters, and I never felt like I had a lot of imagination for interpretation. That was a struggle for me as a pianist, so this was like I [had] opened up a whole new potential for myself. At that point (I was 22 or 23) I decided I would spend ten years doing it and see where I ended up. Ten years down the road, I had a college teaching job as a composer. So I was sort of set: that was what I was going to do.

I’ve sometimes felt that there are two types, composers and performers.

Well, there are composer-performers. There are people who are composers who perform their own music and the music of other people. I think they’re different than people who are just composers or people who are just performers. They’re kind of a hybrid.

Three kinds...

There’s a hybrid, yes.

When I think of piano players that are great interpreters of, say, Beethoven, often these are not people who are known as composers.

No. Very often, I do think, performers do some composing because it’s satisfying to them. Composers do some performing because it’s satisfying to them, or they keep up their playing to be able to stay connected physically with the creation of sound. I think those are very good things to do. But, I think, at a certain point, it’s pretty hard to keep both up equally well, and you notice for yourself what your real strength is.

Have you found that it’s hard to balance composing and performing?

I don’t perform. My secondary area is music theory. So I write. I write articles and give papers at conferences and stuff like that. So, I also do some of that work. I find that that is very interesting, studying the music of other people. And, of course, it helps my teaching...I teach music theory. To keep exploring how does one look at a piece of music and come to understand it more deeply, that’s what music theory is for me.

In almost every genre of music, new releases and performances of new works are sought after. With music of the classical tradition, new works are considered to be a fringe component of the entire genre. Would you say that this perception is perhaps due to the fact that there are so many countless styles that are called “New Music,” or is there some other reason for this?

I think the recording industry is the cause (laughter). The fact that a hundred years ago at the turn of the century, you couldn’t listen to historic music, except if you went to a concert hall. So, for the most part, people were interested in whatever the composer of the day was up to. As a result, they were up on the music of their time. I don’t find that people today are up on the music of their times. They become attached to the music of some other time and its reiteration. So, people love Mozart, and then they go to concerts and they want to hear Mozart. And they’re upset if what they’re hearing doesn’t sound like that in some way. Because of the recording industry, it’s amazing now. Especially the world music area. Some small culture on an island, someplace that has their own kind of music, somebody will go there and record that and, boom, it’s broadcast all over the world. You can buy the CD, you can download it. There’s such a wealth of sounds out there now, and types of music. Contemporary classical music is just this little tiny...though there are many of us...I think the census said that there were twenty thousand people in the United States alone that called themselves composers...there are lots of us around, and doing lots of different styles. They don’t say what kind of composer they are.

To follow your analogy with world music, it might be difficult to find the world music that you enjoy out of all of that. I feel the same way with Contemporary or even American Classical music. There are so many different styles. There are tonal composers, avant-garde composers, and everywhere in between.


It might be difficult to go to a new music concert with one thing in mind and, with four, five, or six works performed, chances are they’re going to be of very different personalities.


I wonder if that’s why this music is on the fringe, or, even considered experimental music.

People need to come to contemporary music concerts with a sense of adventure. You have to come with open ears. When I was a student, I went to concerts practically every night of the week, and I would be really happy if there was one piece on the program that just really attracted me...that I really felt pulled to. Because it’s a polyglot. There are so many languages out there. The thing now is everybody’s trying to find their own voice. So, rather than previous eras where there was kind of an agreement about style and use of harmony and use of instruments, now it’s just wide open and everybody’s trying to figure things out for themselves.

Certain ensembles tend to be drawn to certain types of music. So, certain ensembles will have a stylistic bent that you can kind of predict what kind of music they’re going to play. That is one way to pick and choose. If you find an ensemble that you like, like their taste, that’s one way to do it.

There are some ensembles that are doing things like putting up on their website program notes in advance...putting up little audio samples so people can sample the music in advance, hear a little bit of what it’s about, and hopefully be intrigued to come. Or, make a decision that they don’t want to come. So I think part of it is educating, but...part of it too is...we’re in an era where we can get what we want pretty quickly. If we know we like “X,” we can download “X.” And then, you just listen to “X” (laughter), because “X” is what I like and “X” is what I can get access to right away and I’m an “X” person. As opposed to, “What’s out there?”...having that kind of curiosity. I say I go to a concert and I don’t like a piece, well, there’s always something in there that I listen to. It’s rare that I can’t shift my ears a little bit and find something interesting in whatever I’m listening to, whether it is the particular timbre of a thing, the tone color that somebody is using, or the rhythmic aspects of it. Sometimes I listen to contemporary pieces and I get just furious. I get angry. But I keep listening, and then something happens. Something shifts.

[I read that] when you hear things repeatedly, your brain cells actually change. I think that’s probably happened to me with contemporary music. I think I’ve listened to it so much now that when I hear something, I know which path to go down neurally. For people who haven’t had those neural pathways laid, I can see where it would be very frustrating. But I think the thing to remember is that as you listen, your brain will do that for you if you just don’t get up and storm out, or have the patience to sit with something. It does require patience, I think, and that’s not a bad thing to learn either. I think we’re a very impatient people these days. If my computer doesn’t boot and get me that thing right away, I’m just frustrated. You can’t bring that to a concert hall and be happy (laughter).

Composers are always interested in finding ways to have their works performed. What advice would you offer?

Two things. One, and these are just practical things, one is to join composer’s organizations where they send you what’s called a score call. You’ll get an e-mail announcement saying such and such an ensemble’s looking for pieces that involve tuba, violin, and tape. If you have anything like that, send it. You have to be constantly in the business of running to the post office as a composer, or e-mailing stuff out, or having stuff available on a website for download. The other thing is to find performers who are interested in the music that you write. So, if you have performers [who] are interested in your music, that gives you a steady pipeline of performances. But it only goes so far, right? Only as far as those performers are going to go, so it’s helpful to be able to send your music out to a wider network.

Would you recommend unsolicited contacts with ensembles?

If you feel like they’re into your type of music, yes. If you listen to their concerts and the music they tend to be drawn to is the kind of music that you write, then absolutely. If it’s not, then don’t waste your breath, I would say. [Just] blanket[ly] sending things out, I think, is just a waste of time, because it really doesn’t work that way.

You just signed with Silent Editions.

It’s just getting going. I thought it was an interesting concept for publication because sending out [a] paper score is just a thing of the past. Well, not completely, but, I think, like everybody else, performers are interested in instant access. So, to send an e-mail to a composer and have the composer get around to getting to the post office, unless you have a publisher to send it out to that person, it’s a very slow process. Giving performers immediate access is a great thing, or people who are interested in studying your music, that sort of thing. I haven’t found yet that Silent Editions has been a great source of performances, but as I said they’re just getting going and I’m supportive of the enterprise.

Would you suggest that composers who put scores on the internet also include audio files?

Yes. I think that’s a good idea too.

The Towson New Music Ensemble will be performing your piano Piano trio, Diverging Flints, this fall. Will this be the premier?


In your writings you caution against attempting to summarize a musical phenomenon with a series of definitions. That being said, can you tell me about this piece?

(Laughter) Sure. When I was working on the violin and electronics piece five or six years ago, I came across a series of chords that I really liked in the musical material I was working with, but they weren’t going to work for violin. So, I sat those aside. Bill Kleinsasser, the director of the New Music Ensemble at Towson, asked if I would be interested in doing a piece for them. I had never written a piano trio. It’s an ensemble that I find very compelling. I love the sound of the string instruments. The piano, of course, provides the possibility for big harmonies. Big chordal sections [and] the balance of the string sounds. Composers have written piano trios for many many years and I thought it was something that I would like to give a try.

Diverging Flints is a quote from an Emily Dickenson poem. [It’s] the idea of two stones rubbing together. If those stones didn’t rub together, the sparks would never have occurred. Once the stones rub together and the sparks occur, the stones are actually different even though they may never touch again. One of the things I discovered about these harmonies was I would offset the groups of chords by one, and new harmonies occurred each time. So each time these flints would strike, there’d be a new series of sparks that would occur from offsetting the harmonies by one, by two, by three, and so on. I just became very fascinated with that. Some of the sections are more dissonant, some are more pure, more consonant...fifths, octaves...because of this offset. And the whole idea of something striking and sparks spraying out from it...there are flourishes like that. There are passages where the ensemble is very tightly metric. There’s meter that’s keeping them together, and parts when it’s not metric and it’s more free. Sounds happen more freely, but then they snap back into place again. I’m imagining that one of the more challenging things about playing it is playing free, then tightly metering it again. So, it’s always about the interaction of the performers when you’re writing a small ensemble like that, and in this particular case, them striking up against one another and the sparks that can fly when that happens. [That’s] the image that was in my mind when I was working on it and these chords, these harmonies, that I found that I liked embody that in sound.

This is a very dynamic piece. I think of it as a more dynamic piece than a lot of my music. Some of my music has been involved with slow, evocative things. This one isn’t like that. This one is highly energized, though there are some slow contrasting sections.

What’s next for Linda Dusman?

I have two pieces being premiered in October and another one in March. I’m going to be writing an orchestra piece for the UMBC orchestra that will [premier] next season. I’m starting an on-line publishing archive for music by women composers. Those are the big projects, and then, there’s always something. I have an idea for a piano piece. There’s a pianist in Italy who is interested in that piece when I get around to doing that. A [solo] piano piece may come out of the piano trio that I wrote. I did a piece for the Rivers School New Music Festival in Massachusetts and they asked me if I might be interested in doing another piece for their next new music festival. I’m working a couple years out now knowing what’s on the horizon for the next project. Usually while that one’s cooking, something else comes up. I’m busy.