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Letting the music grow

A conversation with Dan Locklair, by CARSON COOMAN


American composer Dan Locklair (born 1949) is professor and composer-in-residence at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA. He is a noted composer of music in all forms, and has received particular acclaim for his works for choirs and organ [listen to 'Ere long we shall see ...' (Concerto Brevis for Organ and Orchestra)], many of which are among the most performed works in their genres by a living composer. I have been involved with the music of Dan Locklair for some time, both as performer as well as serving as the editor for As Bright as Lightning: The Hymns of Dan Locklair published in 2004. In this interview, I talk with Locklair about his life and music.

Carson Cooman: When did you first know you wanted to be a composer?

Dan Locklair: From my recollection, my first piece, a piano piece, was written at age 14. I think I was quite certain at that point that I wanted to be a composer. I certainly had the enthusiasm, but needed to let foundation and craft elements (like ear-training, theory and knowledge of the repertoire) catch up.

CC: You've spoken before about the important influence of your uncle, critic Wriston Locklair, on your early musical development. Were there any other individuals, composers or teachers, etc, who had an important impact on your development as a composer?

DL: Quite a few. Wriston's influence was not only that he was a loving uncle, but also that he had musical training. He was a music critic and wrote for Musical America, Opera News, and other publications. He was the first in the family to go away to college, so he really became a mentor to me. As I developed as a musician, he ever remained the honest critic to me and I learned from that. When Wriston was music critic at The Charlotte Observer in the early 1950s he used to get all sorts of review copies of books and recordings and it was out of his record collection (which I inherited when he moved to New York in the mid-50s) that I first heard many composers' music that was all new to me. I first heard the Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony No 2 in the Adrian Boult recording from his collection. Also, works by Copland, Stravinsky, Chavez, as well as numerous other works from all periods of music history. During my high school years, I was accompanist for the choir and my high school choral director was the first to encourage and perform my early compositional choral efforts. The same with my high school orchestra director for my first orchestral effort. Also in high school, I fell in love with the music of Jean Sibelius. When the Helsinki Philharmonic did a work of mine several years ago and my wife, Paula, and I traveled to Helsinki for the performance, thanks to Sibelius's music, I truly felt as if I already knew the country! Also in high school around age 16, while studying composition with David Richey at Davidson College, I was blown away at hearing that landmark Stokowski recording of Ives's Symphony No 4! In his eclecticism and inventiveness Ives brought about a freshness to his creations that was distinctively American.

Britten's influence came in my undergraduate years and his choral work, Festival Te Deum, started it all for me. Actually, the whole of the English choral tradition, which also came to me in those college years, paralleled my admiration for Benjamin Britten. Even though I hope my own music sounds American and certainly has American roots, it remains a fact that an Englishman -- Benjamin Britten -- had an enormous influence on me. It wasn't just his music. It was also the fact that Britten felt compelled to write in so many different genres and wrote so well for the voice. Of course, it really seems unlikely to me that someone growing up in that incredible English choral tradition would not write well for the voice! Is there a finer 20th century opera than Peter Grimes?

Compositionally, Britten was an influence in profound ways. I admired what he could do, much with such small amounts of musical material. He also had a distinct musical personality. Though his music was always fresh and, stylistically, he grew in many ways, I admired the fact that he was not a trendy composer. He also valued his sense of place and enjoyed writing for performers around him. He was also not at all turned off by writing for children and/or amateurs.

As far as a teacher (although I always say Britten was my most important teacher -- even if I could only thank him at his grave in Aldeburgh!), I've gained from others as well, including Sam Adler and Joe Schwantner. During my master's work in New York City, though, a composer/teacher who was important was Joseph Goodman. As a teacher, Goodman could be quite blunt and was himself a student of Hindemith. I liked Mr Goodman very much. He told me that from Hindemith he learned how not to teach composition. According to Goodman, whenever a student had a compositional problem, Hindemith would simply show the student how to do it by writing it himself (instead of letting the student struggle to conquer the problem himself). I learned from that. In my time with Joseph Goodman (1971-1973) a lot of things 'clicked' for me craft-wise.

Dan Locklair
Dan Locklair

CC: Interesting you mention Goodman. His music was quite popular for a while in the 50s and 60s and many people thought it would be the future of church music. Why do you think Goodman's music dropped off the map as it has?

DL: You're right that it's not widely performed now, and yet there are some fine pieces in his catalog (especially the chamber and choral works). He also did a number of effective choral arrangements. There's a certain cragginess, as well as a high degree of dissonance, in his personal style that is a bit like Walter Piston, though his choral music shows a keen Renaissance influence. His music, like another somewhat uncompromising composer, Roger Sessions, may not ever find a huge following. But, who knows?

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Copyright © 18 January 2005 Carson P Cooman, Rochester, NY, USA


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