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Interview with Doug Davis on "Eleanor and Estalee"

Reprinted with permission from Bakersfield Express.

The personal story

The name of my composition is "Eleanor and Estalee." And then I have a parenthetical that says "And Yet I Remember." And the composition is really associated with my memories because I had been forced just prior to writing this piece to relive my earliest memories for a friend who is writing an historical novel about my hometown. And my parents - my mother is Eleanor - and my father, they were both central in the first court-ordered integration in 1956 in the South. This was in Tennessee. My father (Sidney Davis) was a lawyer associated with the case originally and then was one of three who led the 12 black students down to the school through a gauntlet of racists that had gathered as you might imagine in this small community.

I was 8 years old at that time. I remember a cross burned in our yard. I remember the day that our high school was bombed with 100 sticks of dynamite. So it is quite the story that my former classmate wanted to write. And my parents were in the center of it. My mother was an English teacher at the high school.

What he didn't really know was the story of my family, so I tried to give him some of the back story of what happened before '56. And actually in 1952, my father had a devastating car accident and he was literally removed for about two years in recovery. And I of course was only 3 years old when he had that accident and that's when Estalee (Keasley) came into our life. ... Estalee was my caretaker. And really this piece is dedicated to all women to be honest. Because without the nurturing that all of us receive after we are first born, of course, we would never survive. So Eleanor and Estalee are in a most personal way my caretakers.

The musical story

Musically, I took this nostalgia of trying to dig out my earliest memories for my friend who's writing this book. It made me think about my earliest musical memories, and this piece, in a certain sense, kind of reinvestigates all those tremendous fascinations that I had with music. Somewhere along the way I began to make up stuff at the piano. So I was a piano improviser. In addition, when I was in high school, I wanted music for a high school play. My mother happened to be the director of the play and she said, "Well, why don't you write it?" And so I did and that really began my compositional career of putting it on paper and making other people gather to play it. And that time I thought I'd discovered a quite new sound, these chords that were built for, not in thirds, but in fourths. Kind of unique sound. Later I would find out of course they'd been around awhile, but you know when you don't know anything, you think you newly discover the world, right? So that's part of this piece.

There is my first encounter I think with music of this time of my life and that is the music of Bela Bartok. I remember hearing his violin concerto and just being totally struck by, "Wow, I know Schumann and I know Beethoven, but this is right now." So there's a certain amount of chromatic saturation that's often in the melodic ideas of Bartok. So that creeps in a little into this piece.

And I did have, actually, my very first composition lessons actually start when I went to the University of Tennessee and my teacher was David Van Vactor, who was in the Chicago symphony. He was a flutist but he was also the conductor of the Knoxville Symphony and teaching composition and we would study these Hindemith two-part exercises and that was pretty much my first year of study with. But when we go to lessons, he would, with his tremendous flute ability, he would whistle all my lines, and I have that memory. And so there is a part of this piece that is a nod to those kinds of studies as well.

But it's all a big amalgam. In a certain sense in composition you launch sound and then you begin to shape it. So I'm using these early urges and fascinations with music as material and I'm just sort of shaping them into some sort of musical coherence. So Eleanor and Estalee, I'm not trying to portray any individual. There isn't a narrative associated with them. They have a great story, but it's not part of this music. This is purely a musical narrative.

How did you feel at the first rehearsal, with strings only?

Well I felt very comfortable. I know most of the players. I know they want to do a wonderful job. And I trust that if I believe in them, they'll get me through it. So it's odd when you just have strings and you don't have woodwinds, brass or percussion, because there are moments where the strings certainly are a complete music, but there are many other times where they are only half the story or even less. So it's interesting to conduct what is basically the background on which other things are happening. But I felt like they did really well as a start. And we had very little time, as all symphonies have very little time. And this is a big program. This is a lot of music. So I know they're pressed. But I'm sure that they will give me their best.

Do you crossover between jazz and classical?

It's all about creating music. You know, somehow starting sound and getting on board and continuing and shaping it. We do that as improvisers all the time.

We sometimes forget that Beethoven was known to be a great improviser and there are strange, first-hand accounts that say "if only he could write music as powerful as he plays." Well that's odd to imagine, that there was more power in the universe than he was showing with music. But I'm sure when he improvised at the piano it had to be scintillating. And ... I don't even know with Mozart's genius if you could call it improvisation. And of course Bach as well was an improviser. So composers always are bringing ... sound into reality for themselves. And that moment of creation, well, who knows where that's coming from.

But I would say the jazz always informs the composition and there is a vice versa, the composition is always shaping the jazz, making it into phrases, giving it a sense of arrival at certain points so that whatever was must have led to this moment, and that's the nature of music.

Everyone does know me as that guy who puts on the Jazz Festival and he's playing all over town. You know I don't think I've really written a piece that tried to imitate jazz, although this piece maybe more so than any of my written works, captures a little of that because I'm dealing with those earliest fascinations.

What is your process for composing?

I find for myself that I journey on many roads and I just sort of leave myself open for what comes to mind. And that usually requires me to take enough time and give enough space where I can kind of listen to what comes to mind. And for me, that is the typical beginning. Sometimes I have toyed with having quite the wonderful and elaborate plan. But usually it only emerges as something I am imagining.

How do you know it's going to sound good?

Well that's a very fascinating question because this particular piece, what I imagined in my mind, I decided I would go try out. It begins with a move in the percussion section that has to do with the chimes doing a gliss to a note. And the chimes are a kind of rowdy, loud, odd piece of equipment over there. And when I went over and played it, I thought, "Oh my god, this is horrible! This is ugly!" My whole continuation comes out of this moment. I felt almost defeated even though I'd written at that point only three minutes of music. And eventually by luck I went back and just tried a little modification of my mood, where I used a lighter something for the glissando, it's really a yarn mallet, and then the hammer on the chime and that was the sound. But I felt, "Wow, I am lucky." Because it renewed my energy to continue and I actually think it will work as I had planned.

But I learned something. With percussion and with certain instruments, you really have to go to the instrument itself. Your mind cannot duplicate the totality of it all. So there's always a wow factor when the instruments begin and they are playing.

I must admit later I went to the band room to try out another big percussion sound. And this particular piece ends with the loudest gong and chime sound possible. Now when you hit a large gong, and you hit a large chime and put the pedal down, the sound rings for a full minute. So inside this massiveness, of course I am very scared about the balance between that idea in my mind and how it's going to play out with the entire orchestra. Of course initially it's matched against the loudest, biggest brass sound and chords and so I know that's all going to be fine. But then I just want it to fade to let the sound keep lingering and out of that lingering will come a beautiful little tribute to those caretakers, a little ditty, a beautiful little song, and that concludes the piece.

Why the loud percussion?

Well, you know a three year old. (He says laughing.) They wake up and, generally, if they have the energy and the circumstances are fine, all they really want is to play, to get up and have a good time. ... And that rambunctiousness is part of that loud sound, and also the beginning of my piece came out of a big sound, and so it's kind of a return of that percussion energy. And the ring, I think, of that percussion after its initial crash, it will be maybe 20 seconds before suddenly the strings take over. ... But maybe only the strings will hear that resonance at a certain point.

I have little glisses all inside that, these soft motions of sound that are in the chimes, with a ... lighter touch. As if blurring that initial very loud moment as it all just comes down.

You smile and gesture a lot while conducting - what are you thinking about?

It's just sound. All I really have in my head is sound. I know my intent is that whatever I'm doing physically is going to help them hear the sound I have in my head. And sort of like somehow physically they're going to be able to get on board with that. There are certain little pulls in the time and then moments where notes are emphasized and the rhythm cascades away slightly, little nuances. And I thought they did that very well. And that'll put a smile on your face.

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