In a review of David Bennett Thomas’ work on WRTI Philadelphia, Kile Smith noted that “When there’s artistry, there is commitment and truth and even, in the case of David Bennett Thomas, happiness.”
Ina happened on a recording of David’s Deseo quite some time ago. She ordered the music and then, COVID….I think it’s the same for so many of us – from March, 2020 on, time is a blur. What I do remember is that when we chose to stream a concert from the lovely Catalpa Arts Club in May, 2021, we decided to program Deseo for its first run. David was “there”, virtually, of course, and as I recall it was his birthday. His comments in the chat were so kind and generous. Phew! And then in the Fall, live concerts made a comeback and we headed down to Princeton to perform on the Salon 33 series. Deseo was on that program as well and, conveniently, David had just moved to Princeton. He came to the concert – and in many ways it was as though we had known each other for years. After hearing that performance, David wrote to us the next day and reiterated something he had said after hearing us perform Deseo for the first time: that he’d like to write something just for us. He asked if we had any interest in working on something together. And then he wrote: “Ya’ll are the dream team. Such great players, and such kind, sweet souls!” Of course we’re in! David has already started! We can’t wait. Sometimes you just get really lucky.
I have to admit that formulating the questions for this interview has not been easy. David’s website is this wonderful treasure trove, and I kept finding myself getting drawn into and exploring the many different sides of David’s career, so much so that I almost didn’t know where to start. I listened to a lot of his choral music (You should all do that…right now!) I found his videos about music theory and composing, I found recordings of David’s jazz compositions (with David performing). I found interviews and…I found an arrangement of Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way. I’m not sure which was my favorite moment of discovery, but this last find totally made my day.
So, who is David Bennett Thomas? Hopefully, this interview will give you a healthy glimpse into how his curiosity and interests come together in his work.
SG: I listened to interviews on your website and learned that you kind of fell into composing. Can you tell us a bit about what that was like?
DBT: Sure! My entry into studying music was very late. I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s listening to pop music and watching TV and riding my bike around like kids do. I was a listener and lover of music, but had no thought whatsoever of playing or composing. I signed up for piano lessons when I was a junior in high school so I could learn how to play songs by Billy Joel. My first teacher, Michael Connell, played jazz piano for me at that first piano lesson and I stood behind him while he played and couldn’t stop giggling. I was overwhelmed by how awesome it was, and at every lesson I giggled when I heard him play jazz and the blues. I left that first lesson feeling like I had found my life’s calling! One thing led to another. I had some inspiring teachers in college and worked so hard at it, practicing all day. Then I went to a man named Ron Thomas for jazz piano lessons and he turned me on to composing. He’d make me a cassette with Herbie Hancock on one side but then put Maurice Ravel on the other. Eventually it all became the same sort of thing- beautiful, compelling, exciting, emotional, deep, and lovely. The improvisers I loved were composing, and the composers were improvising! When I read Berlioz’s Memoirs, I thought, “Man, he’s a jazz cat.” Lots of worlds opened up, and anything and everything that was creative became inspiring.
SG: What do you think are both the disadvantages and advantages to starting to study music seriously later than the traditional norm?
DBT: I was serious from the beginning. No one ever said to me, “You must practice.” I decided that I wanted to learn music and just set about doing that as best I could. Do I wish that I had started on piano when I was five years old? Nah. If I had been given formal piano lessons when I was young I wouldn’t have liked it or stuck with it. It’s all water under the bridge now. No reason to look back.
SG: What inspires you? Is there some sort of common ground in the material that inspires your work? Are there any specific qualities you seek to achieve in your work?
DBT: I suppose I am mostly inspired by the music I have loved and the places that music has taken me as a listener. Like, Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp is such a lovely land to visit, isn’t it? And Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. And Stravinsky’s Cantata. I want to try to create my own world that will take listeners to some interesting place. The journey has to have convincing continuity. And I want it to be communicative and be inviting. It needs to be surprising enough, but not all over the place. Well-balanced, well-proportioned. Basically, I want the music to draw you in, no matter what genre I am composing in. I try to write pieces that I love. Lukas Foss often spoke about that in my lessons with him- the importance of writing music that you love. As he would say, “If you’re trying to be current, you’re already too late.” So, you might as well write music that you love and feel strongly about.
SG: In one of your What If videos, you mention that “composers push around sound in a way we find beautiful and interesting, standing on the shoulders of our heroes who came before us.” Who are your heroes and why?
DBT: How much time do we have? I fell in love with several French composers, namely Berlioz, Debussy, and Ravel. Of course all of the regulars: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Chopin, Schumann. The first living composer who I truly loved was Lukas Foss. Getting to study with him was such a thrill. I remember eating dinner with him and his family and him leaning over and saying to me, “You are now part of the family.” I loved that dude! He is a big hero. And then there are all of my jazz heroes. Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Miles Davis, John Coltrane. I can do this all day! Every Blue Note album too.
WHY are they my heroes? For the beauty they have brought into the world and the excitement their work has brought me. The subtlety, love, emotion in their music. James Taylor said that art is like watching someone paint themselves into a corner, and then do a “daring daylight escape.” He talks about how artists get themselves out of impossible situations right before our eyes. And when we see this, it looks like art. The emotion and meaning and care and craft and balance and heart that I feel in my favorite artists will forever inspire me.
SG: You have received all kinds of praise for your work in the press, along with many attempts to describe it. How would you describe your musical language?
DBT: At this point, the language I have developed is I hope lyrical and melodic. It depends on which of my pieces you listen to! Often it is very tonal- particularly when composing for voices. I often like some rhythmic excitement. Compared to other composers, I am pretty conservative. That’s just the way that I hear my music at this point. I have had students who write more difficult and adventurous music than I write. I mentioned this to the great jazz musician John Swana, and he said, “Yeah, but your music always SOUNDS good.” I always let my ear be the final guide. I don’t care if the music is easy or hard. Is it saying something? Years ago I had some musicians record my piece Juliet, for soprano, violin, and organ. I left the first rehearsal realizing that any decent organist could sight-read the organ part. There are many composers for whom that would never be the case. I mean, Boulez’s easiest measure is more complicated than the most complicated measure I’ve ever composed. But that’s fine by me. I don’t care if my organist is holding one note for 8 minutes. I’m trying to build a world.
I try to approximate the feeling I get from my favorite composers. After recording my Trio for Flute, Cello, and Piano, the pianist Charles Abramovic (who has played tons of new music) said, “Your music is easier than it sounds.” I liked that. I do want economy and for every note to count. Dizzy Gillespie said, “A lot of wasted notes have gone by.” I don’t want my music to be difficult for the sake of being difficult. With the experience gained from performances, we composers develop and hone our chops and work methods. Getting those real-world experiences can be enlightening. The great choral conductor Gregg Smith would say, “Sure you can write that polytonal passage for us to rehearse and record for you, but it will take a lot of extra time for us to learn that. It will cost you about $750. Do you definitely want that in your piece?” Pretty practical scenario for a composer!
I guess my main hope is to make every note count. After all, I was voted “Talks Least, Says Most” my senior year of high school!
SG: I have heard you mention that you are an improviser and that this is part of your process when you compose. Can you please elaborate on that process? Has it changed over time?
DBT: Bill Evans said it best in his instructional video, which is easily found on YouTube (The Universal Mind of Bill Evans). He said that with composing you can compose one minute’s worth of music but spend three months on it. With improvising, one minute of music happens in one minute. My favorite improvisers sound like they are composing (Sonny Rollins comes to mind). My favorite compositions sound freshly improvised and alive. Even the slowest composer in the world who labors for years on one piece improvises. At some point there is a new idea- “What if I try this?” That little improvisation moment may now be revised, developed, for months. But it still grew out of a spontaneous moment.
Composition is not about finding the perfect melody that you’ve looked for your whole life, even though movies might make it look that way. Most of us have to work like crazy to get that little spontaneous idea into its final form. Look at Beethoven’s sketchbooks! They are a mess of things that are crossed out and revised. But it is still all about developing that idea that was an instantaneous idea. Improvisation and Composition are very closely linked for me.
SG: You have composed a lot of choral works and I know from other interviews that I have heard, that this is a medium/genre very close to your heart. How does working or not working with a text change things for you/your process/your concept?
DBT: Having a text usually makes it so much easier! For one thing, these pieces are usually easier to title! It is often difficult to title instrumental pieces. Compositionally, when working with a text there is already a world that I am entering into that the poet has created. I am, as always, creating my own musical journey, but I am using the thoughts and emotions of the writer as a jumping off point. I am trying to make something personal out of the personal thing that the writer already created. I am working with the thoughts and feelings of the writer, so I can’t just write anything, as if I were composing an instrumental trio or something. I want to make my own little ‘movie’ out of those words. Often the words I choose are very close to my heart. Like, using something scriptural is very close to my heart as a believer. That’s the closest to my heart that one can get.
SG: What makes you choose to compose in one of these “genres” or styles as opposed to another?
DBT: Sometimes I do a choral project, and I go to the concert or conference or whatever and meet a lot of people who just do choral music. And man, they do it well! They know so much. They know so many people in the field, and who is writing what, and who just got this conducting job, or whatever. Or I am around people from the jazz community who are pretty specifically jazz aficionados. And again, they know so much more about it than I do. The same with chamber music or orchestral music. I think that all of those folks are great. That is where their hearts are. I can’t do that. I would get bored. After writing a delicate choral adagio, I love to write a funky jazz band piece or a virtuosic piano sonata. That’s what works for me. That’s definitely not for everyone.
SG: Your What If videos are wonderful. I love how you quote other musicians and artists and recommend all kinds of resources. You talk about possibility and encourage experiments, all while discussing and analyzing. Is teaching a big part of your life? Do you attribute this to anything in particular? Do you have advice for aspiring composers?
DBT: Oh my word, teaching is a huge part of my life. I learn so much when I teach. It gives me tons of inspiration and ideas. I find it very rewarding. So much of what I composed probably wouldn’t exist if I wasn’t a professor at UArts in Philly. Not just because of things I’ve composed specifically for students and faculty, but also because of the amount I learned by learning how to teach, and how that knowledge impacted me. I’ve written entire pieces that are essentially models for concepts I teach in classes, and they are pieces I am very proud of. And these are good students, so I need to know what I’m talking about!
My advice for aspiring composers is to go to school and dig deep! There is a whole community of professors who have lots of experience and expertise in a huge range of disciples. Make the most out of it. Ask a lot of questions. Push your profs! Find a school that fits your interests and hopes and dreams. Don’t stop listening to music. Study scores. It’s better to go super deep into one piece rather than go shallow over a lot of pieces. Find that music that really speaks to you and devour it. Transcribe it. Make a piano reduction and get it under your fingers if possible. Your score should have markings all over it and coffee stains and circles and notes. Try to get into the rhythm of composing every day. I have a long list of quotes by everyone from Shostakovich to John Adams to Steve Reich to Tchaikovsky to Billy Joel to Sting saying how important it is to them to “show up” every day to compose. Keep your mind wide open. Don’t worry about categories. Stay wide open to your teachers, but follow your own muse and do what you love. As Bill Evans said in the video I mentioned earlier about learning music- you can enjoy your whole trip through it. Stay positive. Steer away from those people who constantly say, “I suck.” Most everyone sucks at first. You can make your own independent study of whatever you want to dig into. I had to do it without the internet. Like, literally using the card catalog, and bringing a lot of dimes for the photocopy machine. You have no excuse now. The information is so easily available. This should be a fun adventure if you’re doing it right.
It’s best to ultimately carve out your own scene. Find the musicians who love to play the kind of stuff that you write. There is a community for everyone. Some are just bigger than others. You’ll drive yourself crazy if you compare yourself to everything that is happening around you. Just do your thing. I read a quote by guitarist Bill Frisell where he said that the first time he heard Pat Martino he was in such despair as a young guitarist coming up. He realized that he would never be able to do that. Then he said, “Thank God that’s over with, now I’ll deal with what I’ve got.”
SG: What is your view of music being composed in our lifetime?
DBT: I am aware of some of the music that is happening, but there’s just so much of it that I often feel out of touch. The Sleeping Giant composers are really interesting. Because of YouTube, we can find globs of new music. I was binging on Timo Andres recently. I find much of what is being written today to be very compelling and interesting. They offer new listening experiences, and very often they are unconventional. Like, some composers are into writing a cello piece with extended techniques in constant use… finding another way of putting together a listening experience. I’m happy to enter into that world. So often I hit upon a composer who is new to me, but then see that they have a huge following and feel like I’m the last one to find out about them. I remember a student saying to me, “Have you ever heard of Eric Whitacre?”And I said, “No.” We went to the university library and listened to a CD of his music. And I’ve followed his music ever since. Or the first time a student showed me a Jacob Collier video. Or Cory Henry. I guess I’m dependent on my students to keep me somewhat current! Because otherwise, I’m content to listen to my CD of Rachmaninoff playing his second concerto with the Philly Orchestra.
SG: What do you think the role of the arts and new music is or should be in today’s world?
DBT: As Victor Hugo said, “the heart never grows old.” I hope music will continue to be created that is emotionally deep and heart felt. But I have no worries about that. That has been done since the beginning. I mean, read the Psalms! They are filled with heartfelt moments when characters stop and explore what they are feeling about the situation they are in. There will always be artistic types who want to explore sound both intellectually and emotionally. How music is disseminated will continue to change. But music won’t die. It’s too important. And that’s the mystery. Why do airwaves that vibrate eardrums move us so? It is such a mystery- how music can be so impactful on so many levels. It makes people dance. Or weep. It conjures up memories of our earlier days. It gives us hope. It expresses anger. It can be intellectually mind-blowing. Or as simple as can be.
The music of David Bennett Thomas (b. 1969) has been called “immediately engaging …meticulously structured … playful, soulful, technically dazzling, and acutely communicative” (Philadelphia Music Makers); “convincing on both structural and emotional levels … music that speaks with no pretension” (The Classical Source); and “concise and comprehensible, though he doesn’t talk down to the listener or subscribe to any isms … this is a composer with an individual voice” (American Record Guide).
A prolific composer, David’s works have been performed throughout America and Europe by many well-known ensembles and soloists. He is the recipient of numerous commissions, grants and awards, and his work can be heard on Innova Recordings, Capstone Records, Vectordisc, Arizona University Recordings, rarescale records, as well several independent releases. David has served as composer in residence at The Adirondack Festival of American Music, and recently performed with the concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, David Kim. Currently, he is composer-in-residence with the new gallery 2B&2C, in NYC.
In addition to his work as a composer, David enjoys a second life as a jazz pianist, performing throughout the Philadelphia area jazz clubs and restaurants.
David received degrees from West Chester University and The Peabody Conservatory. His mentor for many years was Lukas Foss, and he also studied with Steve Mackey, Ron Thomas, Jacques Voois, Michael Connell, and Donald Chittum. He is on the faculty at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA, where he chairs the composition department, heads the theory department, oversees the undergraduate core curriculum, and teaches piano. His YouTube videos on music theory and composition have received millions of views. For more information, please visit www.davidbthomas.com.