Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Wondering Wednesday: An Interview with Composer Dan Montez

I am very fortunate to be friends with the extremely talented composer, Dan Montez. Dan is one of the most creative individuals I know. Last year, I interviewed Dan about his oratorio, Daniel. His answers and insights were fascinating. If you want to learn more about Dan and his work, including his opera company, The Taconic Opera, you can go to his website.

The text of Daniel is very poetic, spiritual, and literary. What kind of study and preparation did you undertake to create the text?
*I wish I could take credit here. As I think about it, first, I have studied the language of scripture since I was a small child. I’m right at home with the King James way of speaking—thees, thous, and ending “eth”s. I have also been playing, singing, and studying choral literature from a young age. I get religious language. Most of my oratorios actually comes directly from the scriptures. However, it has to be adapted for rhythm, meter, and sometimes rhyme. When that happens, I fret a lot—wanting to get the message right, but wanting to maintain the spiritual feel of the language. I want it to sound like scripture in both message and vocabulary. I avoid modern English idioms otherwise it would be jarring. Second, use words differently based on whether I feel the part of the story needs to be told by a soloist or the chorus. Chorus, generally, creates commentary on the narrative. Sometimes soloists do that too, but not always. Opera, which is my background, separates the recitative (the action of the drama) from the aria (the commentary on the drama)—if you are lucky you get a fit of emotion at the end in a cabaletta:) I try to decide which thing I am doing, creating narrative or commentary, first. Then I try to be concise and get to the point. Don’t want to bore people too much. How do I study for a particular work? I start by reading the actual book of Daniel, for instance. As I read, I wait for dramatic and spiritually exciting moments to just hit me as if I were witnessing a performance by the author. I MUST be moved myself or I must feel that this part of the story is important enough to include it in my oratorio. I also like to limit my themes in a particular oratorio. For example, Jonah is really all about the same problem…judgement verses mercy. Everything relates to that. Daniel and his companions is all about taking a step of faith into the dark and not caring about the consequences. I look for a way to portray that theme throughout the text.
You have been composing Oratorios for a few years now. Have you always wanted to compose an oratorio or did it happen gradually? How did you get from having an idea to actually creating?
* I actually composed my first oratorio 25 years ago…fresh out of school. However, I was trying to show off my modern musical vocabulary. I wasn’t very good. It also wasn’t cohesive…sort of a mishmash of different styles and periods. The modern stuff wasn’t beautiful. I started composing at 15 for my school orchestra. I wrote some violin duets and actually orchestrated a piece for my High School orchestra…I was lucky to have a music director that let me do that at such a young age! At college, I was on piano and voice scholarships at the same time, but had also applied for a composition scholarship. The head of the department called me in and said that the three areas were arguing about giving me money because they didn’t know what I was “going to end up doing.” Then he said, “You need to choose, Dan, you will be good at a lot of things but not great at anything unless you focus on one thing for now.” That was great advice. After a lot of introspection and prayer, I gave up my piano and composition scholarship and went whole hog on the opera. I don’t think I would have sang at Lincoln Center and other large opera houses had I not made that decision. Later, I had lots of contacts in the business…and I called one conductor friend one day and said, can I play a piano concerto with your orchestra? He said, “anything you want.” So I played Prokofiev 3rd with his orchestra. It was, of course, a vanity performance, but it was awesome nonetheless! Got my cake and got to eat it too!. Over the years, I conducted three 100 voice choirs in three states, and my own Ward choir for like 20 years. So that gave me a lot of time to compose for them as well. Making the leap to oratorio, was a natural outgrowth of the years of liturgical composing. The thing that was holding me back was that I wanted to get the orchestration right. So, since I was running an opera company, I began doing oratorios once a year. As I conducted these oratorios, I studied the orchestration techniques of the Masters: Brahms, Verdi, Rossini, Faure, Cherubini, Mozart, etc…After 7 years of that, I decided I could try my hand at orchestrating my own oratorio. I felt compelled to start with the prophet Enoch, especially since his book had been mistakenly removed from the Bible for political reasons and was the most quoted book in the New Testament. I was drawn to tell his story.
Does fear play a factor in your creativity? Do you fight fear when you compose?
* I do get afraid from time to time….Are people going to hate this music I wrote? I find myself more angry than fearful. I know that is sort of weird. My problem is, that I want to be accepted by the intellectuals at Universities and composers of historical note. But if I compose their way, I will lose most of my audience. In addition, frankly, I want to compose beautifully not just intellectually. I want to reach people—as many as possible. But I also don’t want my music to be trite. I can hear my professors in my brain criticizing my work for its triviality. It’s all been done, etc…But I also want to be turned on by it. I now just try to to compose what I want to hear. But I’m always concerned that people who reject it are rejecting me if I actually like it. Yes, a bit neurotic.
You also manage an opera company and deal with many of the mundane but important details of performance. Does that stifle your creativity or does it energize you?

Totally stifles. Not even a question. Running the business side of a company gets in the way of my creativity every day. I’ll be in the middle of staging and opera and every idea I have immediately has a price tag attached to it. At least with composing, I can say, “ok, this is the level of the chorus and the size and level of my orchestra—what can I compose FOR THEM” Without a performance opportunity, it is HARD to be motivated to compose. I would give anything to have someone come to me and tell me they will take over the business side of my company and just let me direct, compose, conduct—make music. I’ve tried to find someone for 17 years…no one wants the job! But without someone doing it, I can’t create. Catch 22.
Did you study composition formally or was this something you learned over the years as a performer and artist?

* We were required to compose regularly in college as part of our theory classes. I was obsessed with perfection in my theory. I became an official University Theory Tutor for the Music Department for a time. Even though I didn’t matriculate in composition, I learned a great deal preparing the over 100 opera productions and 30 years of choral conducting as well. I studied everything in depth. My piano skills and time working with orchestras for 35 years played a huge part as well.
You are an accomplished opera singer as well as a brilliant pianist. What drove you to focus more on creating performances and music instead of performing yourself?

Performing is really about re-creating something that has already been created. Composing is more purely creative. After performing over 50 leading roles and directing another 60 or so operas, plus endless years of piano playing…I was really getting tired of re-creation. I was somewhat creative to do those things, but I wasn’t feeling like it was all of me. I wanted more creative control. Directing was a step there from singing because I could control everyone in the show and the overall direction of everyone’s interactions on stage…but I still wasn’t writing the music. I found myself trying to “fix” problematic compositions with my directing. One of my director friends came to a production of mine of Lucia di Lammermoor and said “Ah, so you fixed the inherent problems of Donizetti, did you?” That was not a compliment. I was indeed interfering. Horowitz used to get away with that. He would re-compose famous piano works, and composers would actually tell him that his version was indeed better. But I can’t claim that I’m a Horowitz in any stretch of the imagination!
How do you get your ideas for your Oratorios?

I’m in love with liturgical music. Handel wrote over 30 oratorios, many of which are Biblical. But we only hear the Messiah these days—that he wrote in about 17 days. Most religious works are either baroque (or earlier), in Latin, or they are extremely modern and inaccessible to most laymen. I was sad about that. I wanted to have something in the language of the people and also tell the story in a spiritual way. I love the Old Testament prophets and icons. These stories have much to say that most do not know about. Jonah isn’t just about a whale, David isn’t about the den of Lions, Enoch just didn’t disappear, Job isn’t just about bad things happening to good people. There is deep doctrine and meat there that I believe deserves to be told through music. The messages are moving and profound and I have my own visions of these great stories that I feel I want to share.
When composing music, do you start with a text and then work on the music or work with the music first and then add text?

Always, always, always text first. I believe you rarely get a good product going the other way. Start with the narrative. Then get to the subtext (the message and perspective underneath the words), then use your developed palate of musical paints to make your audience experience exactly what you are feeling about those words. I believe in intention. Many composers and artists, especially these days, do not. They feel it is fine for each person to walk away with their own perspective of their work. I am not happy when that happens. I want them to have MY perspective—to see it, hear it, and feel what I feel about these stories. They don’t have to agree with my vision! Don’t get me wrong. But I have something specific to tell them and the compositional style I use, I believe is well suited for relaying a liturgical narrative.
Do you have a mentor or someone that critiques or edits your compositions?

My wife use to be it. Fortunately, she also has a degree in music and is a great critic. Now I have a Kessa, my daughter, who has become a professional musician in her own right. She listens to my stuff too. But, she does have her own taste, and it isn’t always mine…but that is ok. We can still respect what the other is doing and what moves them individually. Trying my pieces out with my own opera company group helps a lot too. I can see their reactions to the different works and I learn from them and those reactions each time a compose my next oratorio. Hopefully, I’m getting better as I go along. Also, my orchestra has been very helpful in giving me feedback about what their instruments do best and how I can improve my orchestration. They’re not critical in any negative way, because I know they all are rooting for my success, but they are honest. I like that.
How long does it take you to compose the music for a choral hymn? How long does it take you to compose one of your Oratorios?

Composing used to take so long about 25 years ago. I remember suffering for an entire hour just to compose one measure. Now, I can compose a hymn in not much more than that. An anthem can take a few hours and even my oratorios are much faster now. My first oratorio took a year, I can crank one out in about 2 months, depending, in spite of all the other things I’m doing. It actually takes me more time to input all the music and expression marks into my computer than to compose!
Are you internally motivated and disciplined to create or do you need external pressure and deadlines to finish your work? How do you establish the motivation to finish your work?
I go through spurts with most things in my life. My wife is the opposite. She is a star at creating daily habits. I was good at the habit of daily practice, but I don’t always compose daily unless I do have a deadline. Composers are different this way. I suppose we have to each adapt to the weaknesses or strengths of our own personalities to get things done. I know for me, Summer is my oratorio time. by the time fall comes I am into administration and directing with my operas and just don’t have the time. So i know I must finish be a certain time. So I set weekly goals of how much I want to get done that week. Again, it is extremely motivating to know that is a performance on the horizon.
When you compose, do you hear the notes or melody in your head and then try to capture what you imagine or do you work the other way? Do you sit at a piano to compose?
I always sit at the piano to compose. I hear harmonic progressions in my head…I believe a good harmony can make up for a bad melody any day. Although, most melodic elements have been done before. Since most of what I compose begins with words, I make sure that all the important words of a sentence lands on the downbeat of a measure. I also make sure that phrases are clear and have the right amount of measures. I am a fan of order and form this way. The formlessness of modern music and art is painful for me. I’m tired of people trying to endlessly answer the questions regarding “what is music” or “what is art”. We are done with that—no need to be making obnoxious statements about the answer to those questions anymore. Let’s try to reach people again, move them, change them, and inspire them.
What kinds of things inspire you to create? How do you maintain your momentum? Do you struggle with creative blocks? If so, how do you overcome them?

Sure, there are days when I don’t feel like writing or have no idea what to write. On those days I either don’t compose, or, if this has been going on too long, I force myself to sit down and start writing—even if it is bad. Usually, that snaps me back into creative mode. I do think it is important most times to just make yourself do it. And if you are a performer, I’m a HUGE believer you must do SOMETHING daily no matter how you feel. One thing you must do as a creator, and that is be willing to write garbage and throw it way if it doesn’t work. Even if you spent days on it, sometimes, you just need to throw it away. Our willingness to quickly and spontaneously come up with creative solutions to problems, no matter how bad the idea, is faster than sitting and struggling trying to come up with a perfect answer because you are afraid of failing. I say, FAIL at the top of your voice, then move on.
You are one of the busiest people I know. You have an opera company, put on multiple performances during the year, fundraise, teach piano and voice lessons, AND you are a very engaged father of three children, etc. Yet you still manage to be creative. How do make that all work?
Well, first, we chose to homeschool. That saved a truck load of time and gave us more time with our kids to really raise them. It also allowed them to pursue their own artistic dreams. We connected with them. Second, I work out of my home too. I tried having an office for a few years…big fail. I couldn’t stand being away from home! Sometimes, I am inspired to compose and I need to —immediately follow that voice inside and start writing what I am hearing. I couldn’t do that at work. Third, I am a schedule fiend. I schedule most of my life, but am also willing to give up something on my schedule if I need to. This is why I need to be self-employed. I need to have power over my own schedule to be creative. There are two types of work, physical and mental. I find both to be equally exhausting…in fact one can often be a great relief from the other. So I need to switch often. Also, I truly believe that one needs to work smart—not hard and not a lot. Creativity requires engaging with the beauty of the world—and even relaxing quite a bit. Go to movies, watch tv even. People need mental breaks to be creative. When you do work and do create, you need focus. I see to many musicians, for example, that don’t even understand what practice means. They spend endless hours in unproductive repetition. Work smart, not hard. Accomplish more in less time is my mantra. Repetition is mindless and lazy.
Sometimes I think of artists as people who have a tough time balancing family and their art and yet you have a great family. How have you been able to successfully manage a marriage and children on top of being very artistic and active in the music world?
*Well, no one raises their kids perfectly! We are all imperfect humans helping other imperfect humans the best we can. First, I believe family comes first. I was singing full time for 14 years and in the end was traveling about 10 months a year and not seeing my family. It was anguish. I quit singing for that reason. My agent wasn’t happy—he had invested in getting me to the top opera houses, but once you have some fame, everyone wants you and you start being married to your work. That wasn’t for me. I personally don’t believe you can separate the art from the artist. If art is supposed to show us a better way, to show us how to live better lives, then how can an artist who doesn’t know what it is like to sacrifice for family or community even know what it is like to live a real life? How can they tell me how to be a better person through their art? I don’t think they can. My family always comes first for me. And my wife, before my children—and they know that too.

Now, of course, I have involved my kids in many of my artistic endeavors. My kids all started singing with my opera company in the children’s chorus at age 5. So that gave me even more time to spend with them. Kessa, my oldest who is about 20 now, remembers the years of moving, painting, and building sets. She is a concert pianist, be she knows her opera and sings like a dream. The things my children have learned being artists, to me, are more important than all of the other school subjects they learned. Something about the arts makes you learn faster, and learn better. We had to spend very little time homeschooling. Kessa, for example, took the SAT as her first test ever. She aced it and got an academic scholarship because of it. I credit her intellectual abilities to her artistic endeavors. I believe schools have it all wrong when it comes to getting rid of arts programs first when they run out of money. That should be the last thing they get rid of. Everyone has the same 24 hours a day as everyone else. We are all seeking balance in our lives and when we want one thing, we often have to give up another. However, I’m a big believer that people can do more than they think if they work smarter rather than harder. Create good soil with the arts and you will accomplish more in less time allowing you to do more. Our family always had a full family day where we were not allowed to work but needed to spend the day with our family. We could have made more money, but that time was precious to us. 

All photos were taken from Dan Montez's facebook page with his permission. Please do not copy or reproduce any pictures without written permission from Dan Montez.

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