Meet D.J. Sparr, the Richmond Symphony's Composer-in-Residence
What does the composer-in-residence do for an orchestra?
Most composers’ residences are not in the city where they live, so for my work with the RSO Education and Community Engagement department, this means I write music for some of their ensembles as well as teach a class called “Creative Composition” where students from the youth orchestra program write and perform original works.
I see myself as a liaison between living composers and the Richmond community. Hopefully, working with a composer will become a normal part of the performers’ musical lives…or perhaps the members of the youth orchestras will grow up to become entrepreneurs who will support the creation of new works of art.
A new trend has started where composers also work with the orchestra to do outreach, help program modern works, and even curate a new music series. For instance, our own homegrown phenomenon Mason Bates will be in residence with the Pittsburgh Symphony where he will write two new works for them as well as assist in creating a non-traditional concert series. I hope to move in a direction with future residencies where I can incorporate my background managing an indie record label in Los Angeles as well my experience being-in and running various rock-n-roll bands.
What made you want to be a composer?
Ever since I started playing guitar at age five, I wrote songs. Each week that I learned a new chord, I would write a new song using that chord. (Topical to the month of October, one of my first songs was about a haunted house...) I wrote country music songs from first to fourth grade and in a Beach Boys style from fifth or so through eighth. It all went haywire when I was introduced to the craziness of rock guitar through Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, and Frank Zappa. Though those influences lay dormant, the glam still flares up here and there in my own music to this very day.
I went to the Baltimore School for the Arts High School where I studied Jazz (pick-style) guitar and classical music. My parents bought me a Fostex X-26 four track recorder and I spent hours and hours a week writing and recording songs in my room, such as “The Martians are Coming” and “Pretzels on the Floor” which guest starred my sister. (The influence for the latter song was about pretzels which had fallen on the floor of my basement, but I do not have a recollection of greeting any Martians at that time.)
During the summers, I attended The Walden School and the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. This was integral in becoming a composer because they were the first places that I wrote and heard music I wrote for instruments other than the guitar.
I had always wanted to go to college for music, and over the course of high school, I made the decision to apply for music school for composition rather than guitar. This led to the Eastman School of Music and graduate school at the University of Michigan.
All of this can be summed up by saying that I always loved to create and perform music with whatever I was learning at the time. I even tried a 12-tone piece once…lucky for all of us that I was no good with that material.
How would you describe your music?
I try to write music that has a lot of beauty and melody… but sometimes it has a bit of an edge. At times, the instruments work like parts of a clock which create an overall texture. At other times, there are long sheen-like sonorities. My favorite music, and I suppose what influences my writing, is baroque music, minimalist (both real and post), the neo-classical works of Stravinsky, and any great song from any musical genre.
I try very hard to write music that will be engaging for the audience of the performers for whom I am writing. A lot of composers have “imaginary listeners” with whom they “consult” while they are composing. (This is similar to Stephen King, who has what he calls the “constant reader.”) I imagine myself sitting in the audience listening to the piece with the audience. If I write something that I think will make people cringe for too long, or be bored… then I cringe and I am bored. If I write something they like, then I will probably like being there with them to hear it! I am not a big fan of working for months and months on something only to sit in a concert-hall full of discomforted people.
This all started with a piece I wrote called “Wrought Hocket.” A lot of the piece involved orchestral blasts followed by long silences. In one performance I attended, an older gentleman in front of me would lean over to his wife and make flatulent noises during the pauses after the tuba played its very loud low notes. I was laughing too, because he was a very funny guy and I still have a child-like sense of humor about many things. I’ll never forget his face when he saw me sit down behind him after I took a bow on stage! It was in that moment in Los Angeles in 1998 that I changed my approach to considering the audience when I write music. It’s not a premise that goes over very well when you talk to some other composers, but…each to his own I suppose.
What are you working on now?
For the RSO, I am in the very last stages (the worst part…proofreading!) of a new work for the Come & Play concert, “St. John’s on Church Hill” which will be performed with upwards of four-hundred amateur musicians performing alongside the symphony on the floor of the VCU basketball stadium on November 21st. Of course, the work is inspired by the famous landmark in Richmond which is near where we just bought our house. I am also working on a piece which will combine the Camerata Strings and the Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra. It is based on ideas from parallel universes and weirdly, extra terrestrials. I would write a piece about pretzels again, but since we have two dogs, when they are dropped, they disappear very quickly!
In the electric guitar department, I am playing with Eighth Blackbird at University of Richmond’s Third Practice Festival on November 5th and Steve Mackey’s electric guitar concerto “Deal” in Washington, DC in December. I have two new works being premiered by the Williamsburg Symphonia and the Dayton Philharmonic in the second half of this season. It’s very busy, but busy is good.
On a side note, I’ve never been happier with any collaboration with performers as I am with the Richmond Symphony’s education and community engagement department. I have all of these wild ideas, and they keep helping me figure out how to make them happen.
Thanks for reading this long blog… I am looking forward to sitting with everyone at the concerts.
As an extra treat, here are some audio clips of some of D.J.'s work!
www.djsparr.com/mp3/Sparr_GreenDolphinStreet_BSFA.mp3 (Excerpt from Recital at Baltimore School for the Arts)
www.djsparr.com/mp3/GtrExpt_HDYD_Solo.mp3 (Excerpt of guitar solo from old band)