88. Interviews – Composer Costas Dafnis on his “Commute”
The second annual Sugarmill Music Festival begins this Friday, May 19. Among the wealth of great chamber music to be heard at this amazing three-day festival near Alexandria, Louisiana is a brand new work composed by Costas Dafnis, Commute, which will be premiered Sunday by the I-49 Brass Quintet. Some might remember Costas from his time in Shreveport where he was a student at Centenary College and then artistic director of Prisma Vocal Ensemble. Costas now calls the San Francisco Bay Area home, and it is from there that he has written this new piece which we will hear Sunday. I had the chance to talk with Costas recently about Commute and about his time in San Francisco. Here are some of the insights he offered me.
How does the title Commute relate to this piece? Most musicians travel regardless of where they live and that is certainly true of the players in I-49. But, in the San Francisco Bay Area, it is not uncommon for people to commute an hour each way every day – a figure that simultaneously horrified and fascinated me when I moved here from Louisiana two years ago. Commute uses as a motor a sort of musical invective. It sets up a clear destination with harmonic impedances along the map, and those conflicts become some of the most salient musical moments. Though there is no proper program, listeners may recall their preferred permutations of the adage “the journey is the goal” while listening.
How did the commission for Commute arise? Did you reach-out to the I-49 Brass Quintet, or did they contact you? Tom Hundemer, a composer and the hornist with the I-49 Quintet, started the conversation about commissioning a brass quintet last year after a Cabrillo Festival concert in Santa Cruz, CA. I worked with Tom as my mentor and composition teacher while at Centenary, so he has been well acquainted with (and partially to blame for) my music since 2009. I heard the quintet players often and I was familiar their capabilities, so the opportunity to write even a short piece for them was fantastic.
Is this your first piece for brass quintet? Did you encounter any special challenges writing for this kind of ensemble, or anything else along these lines you would like to share with us? I enjoy writing for modern chamber groups with unique instrumentation, but always feel a certain onus approaching a concert medium with such a storied past of serious repertoire. It is, however, one of the most educational experiences a composer can undertake: the strong catalogue of “what works” is a solid foundation upon which we should be building. Composers: write for brass quintets, string quartets, and piano trios! Chamber ensembles: seek and commission new works! Explore the synergy between past, present, and future. Therein lies personal fulfillment and perhaps hope for the art itself.
You mention in your bio an interest in “progressive sound.” Can you elaborate on this term and what it means for your music? My own definition of progressive sound has shifted pretty radically in the last few years, and I anticipate that trend continuing. In that way it is something of a self-fulfilling mission statement. Since moving to California, I have become immersed in the world of media, proudly adding to my concert music work in video games, film/T.V., and dynamic music for tech apps. I have also become more comfortable designing layered sounds, dabbling in virtual reality, sampling audio and creating playable midi instruments, and generally applying technical understanding to my own music and recordings. This is largely thanks to my experiences and the friends I have made at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Technology and Composition program. There are still new frontiers within harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic exploration, and we add compelling new colors to that palette every day.
How does this concept of progressive sound play into Commute? While writing Commute, I found myself considering not only the musical development, but the psychoacoustics: the way instrumental lines can be traded for subtle shifts in acoustic stereo image, how timbre and tuning balances chords between different registers, the distinctive way brass instruments interact with concert hall resonance. These considerations enrich every musical experience we have, and tapping into them brings a great wealth of inspiration for us all as music creators.
Please join us this weekend for the Sugarmill Music Festival! Commute will receive its premiere Sunday, May 21 at the 2 PM concert presented by the I-49 Brass Quintet. Tickets available here! Also, check online for more music by composer Costas Dafnis. His website www.CostasDafnis.com includes recordings of his concert music and www.NoisiPaintr.com has information on his media work. We are looking forward to this exciting premiere!
About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a music scholar, composer, and advocate of music. Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College located in Natchitoches, Louisiana in May 2013 after completing his undergraduate thesis “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” As series director of the successful Abendmusik Alexandria chamber music series from May 2014 to April 2016, Jackson played a vital role in the renewal of interest in chamber music across central Louisiana. This interest has encouraged the creation of the annual Sugarmill Music Festival and the new series Nachtmusik von BrainSurge, both of which Jackson remains active in as concert annotator and creative consultant. He also blogs at MusicCentral where he shares concert experiences, gives listening recommendations, posts interviews with contemporary composers, and offers insights into his own compositions. As a composer, Jackson has worked to integrate the vocabulary and grammar of modern music into pieces which are not only innovative but also engaging to the general listener. In fall 2016, Jackson began graduate studies in musicology at the University of Louisville where he has recently been awarded the Gerhard Herz Scholarship in recognition of his accomplishments. His current research interests include French spectral music and the compositions of Kaija Saariaho. He also sings with the University of Louisville Chorus and participates in the School of Music Composition Seminar. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at www.JacksonHarmeyer.com.