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 material...to 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