Behind facades: David Danzmayr, continued

In which we discuss rage, suffering, authenticity, Metallica and Mahler with the Oregon Symphony's new music director

No musician or composer grows up in isolation. Even the most abstract and obtuse artists become so by reacting against prevailing music norms. The extent to which we are molded by our society–and by some sort of “soul” or internal essence or Being–has vexed philosophers for millenia. But I’m glad that we are bringing this discussion into the world of classical music, which can sometimes forget about the influence of popular culture on its most imposing figures. 

One consistent theme in our discussion with David Danzmayr, future artistic director for the Oregon Symphony, is artistic authenticity. It can be intimidating for young musicians to hear “just be yourself!” over and over again from teachers and mentors, but it eventually sticks and becomes clear: it is a life-long process that all musicians strive for.

Oregon Symphony Artistic Director David Danzmayr.

Danzmayr’s father was a composer, and growing up in Austria he was surrounded by the historical legacy of the classical tradition. At the same time, he listened to hard rock and metal as a teenager: Metallica, Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine. I also grew up listening to these bands, among other bands of that generation, although I am a bit younger than Danzmayr. 

We closed last week’s discussion talking about the importance of such cultural influences, which is where we now return to our story.

As before, Danzmayr’s answers have been edited and condensed for clarity and flow.

David Danzmayr: The idea that a composer shouldn’t be influenced by their environment is a purist idea I never understood. The biggest composers were influenced by what’s around them. You should use the cultural influences that you have!

When Piazzola came to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger he was ashamed of his heritage because he had played the bandoneon in the red light district in Buenos Aires to make money. He didn’t want to have anything to do with it so he hid that legacy. So when he started studying with Boulanger he was writing these twelve-tone atonal pieces, and she herself told this story of sitting him down after about a year and said to him, “what you are writing leads to nothing; what are you doing, and where are you from?” He begrudgingly told her that he was a tango player and he played for the brothels in Argentina, and she said to use that, that’s part of who you are, part of where you come from. That’s how he invented his special type of Libertango, mixing tango with the more modern elements of composition he learned in Paris–and that’s basically Astor Piazzola’s style. 

It needs to be an expression of yourself. You’re trying to cling onto something you want to have rules for. Even for me as a conducting student I was asking, “where’s the handbook of things to do to become a good conductor?” I was fortunate to have good teachers who basically batted that out of me. There was no holding back. That’s the thing about making music: you have yourself and that’s what you have, don’t try to be somebody else. Don’t try to be extra smart or brilliant, you have to deal with what you have, your own talents and backgrounds.

Things teachers brought out

I studied for a few years in Salzburg, and then I went to Finland to the Taideyliopiston Sibelius-Akatemia [Sibelius Academy]. Leif Segerstam accepted me as a student. He was a person who would vacillate between acts of brilliance and acts of insanity–quirky would be another word to describe it. I had made good progress in Salzburg in technique and everything, but I had lost my way somehow by getting more accomplished, and that’s a story a lot of accomplished musicians will tell. It’s easy to get stuck getting accomplished, getting good but getting stuck in a cul-de-sac.

So he would scream at me about being unnatural and needing to be natural and he had his own way of making fun of people until they couldn’t take it anymore and had to change. I will say his teaching was incredibly effective. I had just lost track of who I am and what I really can bring to the table. He basically showed me the path. 

I had a similar experience in Scotland with some mentors there. You have to be reminded because it’s scary to be naked in front of the orchestra and say, “this is how I do things, let’s see how it goes,” but that’s the only way you can really make music. To be a conductor or a composer or soloist, you have to bring your own unique way to the table. Otherwise why would you do it?

The conductor’s “unique touch”

It’s more a question for people who work with me or see me in concerts.When I arrived in Helsinki I was quite reined in, and I felt more controlling and more organized. I tried to have things together and be elegant, and I think more and more I realized that doesn’t fit with my basic personality. I’m a fairly instinctive and chaotic person, while being analytical at the same time. All these traits that I bring to the table is what makes us a unique human. That’s what you need to bring to the table.

For me it’s more about working with what you have–and we all have our own advantages and disadvantages. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. I had to remind myself not to try to mold myself into somebody else, because people will look behind that. It may work for some people for a week but eventually people look behind facades. If you build a facade, you are not on a good track. 

It’s a problem because it leads long-term to unhappiness, and not just in classical music. When you hear stories of biographies of boy band members there’s a surprising degree of unhappiness, a feeling that some people despite successes didn’t find what they were looking for. If you try to hold up a facade of yourself it eventually happens. I don’t think that lifestyle leads to real happiness, and I think we shouldn’t forget that musicians are human beings and we want to ideally lead a life that’s our own.

And for me it just came to the right time when I was training in Helsinki and Scotland. Just go in front of the orchestra and wave your arms and stop worrying about things! Some things will go better and some worse but just work with what you have. That was essential. 

Favorite composers to conduct

I very much enjoy the big Romantic composers such as Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Brahms–particularly Mahler. I don’t want to do it every week, because it’s so mentally and emotionally exhausting, but it’s a special experience and I think many people in orchestras will second that. Playing a big Mahler symphony on a good evening when it all comes together is a unique experience.

I have my chamber orchestra where I do a lot of Schubert, I love that very much and we do a lot of contemporary music as well. Osvaldo Golijov is a composer who I really like. And then sometimes pieces can take you by surprise. The first time I did the Macmillan Percussion concerto was an incredible experience. When I learned the score I was sure it would be great but I was surprised that it was a real experience to do that on the stand. I also like Ives’ Three Places in New England

If you ask me where the emotional investment comes the most naturally, it is things like Mahler. There’s just something about the big visceral orchestra sound, you just feel it and everyone feels it under your toes, the vibrations under you. Mahler had an incredible grasp of the orchestra: some of the biggest pieces in the whole orchestra repertoire in terms of size and length are very chamber music-like. It’s important in his symphonies that people on the stage really listen and react to each other. That’s what’s incredible on the writing side, to use this really big orchestra but to keep it to chamber music, to the way people relate to each other. It’s quite fascinating. 

What do you listen to for pleasure?

For pleasure I have to say I seldomly listen to classical music because it’s so attached to my job. I spend so many hours a day score learning, which can be a chore and a pain but it can also be a great pleasure. And of course on stage I listen very closely. Generally when it’s about relaxing I don’t listen to music. I enjoy silence sometimes.

In terms of musical taste, I always loved heavy metal, Pink Floyd, and The Beatles. Abbey Road is one I frequently listen to on the plane after learning scores for a few hours. I find it incredible to listen to and relax a bit. [I particularly like] how the B-Side songs connect to each other. It’s still a listening experience for me even though I’ve listened to it over two hundred times. It still gets me. Dream teams just come together sometimes. Since The Beatles had such insane commercial success, people forget the brilliance of their songwriting and their playing, even at times when they couldn’t stand each other anymore. It’s incredible the way they played together. John Lennon’s voice has to be one of the best ever, with his incredible sensitivity. 

I always used to love clubbing, particularly drum and bass, that little bit more hyper style. It always comes back to: does it get my blood pumping? does it get my emotions going within me? does it do something? And that’s music that I on some level enjoy.

[As far as metal goes], I always loved Metallica the most. There was a CD shop in Salzburg on this small street, this small shop where I could find the cheapest CDs that no one else wanted. I bought a couple of albums, but can’t really remember the names of these bands. I must’ve heard a lot of metal bands that maybe just sold 500 or even less. It always came back to Metallica and AC/DC. People might call me a sell-out but there’s a real reason these bands made such a huge breakthrough. When I grew up some of the biggest bands were Metallica and Nirvana, quite unlikely successes commercially. And the music just spoke to me growing up in a certain way.

I was overjoyed when one of my best friends told me that Rage Against the Machine came together. It just spoke to the way we saw the world that is messed up; a band like that just spoke to us. Not a lot of things were done at that time. It felt good, it felt like someone expressed what was going on for us. It’s a good feeling. 

I’m caught in the middle between Gen X and Millennials. I’m in this nothing generation, but in terms of musical taste it’s very similar to the late Gen-Xers. Nirvana, Metallica, Rage Against the Machine really influenced me growing up. And in some way it influenced my taste in classical music. It’s the same as when I have a Beethoven symphony with the rage or a Mahler symphony with the suffering. It is unbelievable to me to this day that over so many years and times, the frustrations, passions, and emotional content of human life seems to be pretty significantly similar. 

Struggle and success in classical music

Sometimes in classical music I struggle with how my biography is written in a certain way and focuses obviously on the successes, clashes with some of the life experiences growing up or in training. It’s good that we spoke about Helsinki and Leif Segerstam. I certainly didn’t grow up in the typical way of a classical musician, but my biography says “when David was ten he became a piano student at Mozarteum”–which is one of the most famous academies for music.

When you look behind that there’s something of a different story to be told of feeling alien. I hope we will speak in the future and talk about biographical items but what is behind it, what is not in the biography. Because you don’t want to print in a concert program the difficult parts. That’s something that I wished more musicians would be open about, because when you’re younger you always read the success stories and it can put a lot of pressure on you, it creates this story of the successful people who didn’t have to struggle.

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About the author

Charles Rose is a composer, writer and sound engineer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from Portland State University with a degree in Sonic Arts and Music Production in 2019. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of the Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. He releases music on BandCamp under various aliases. In addition to composing, he is a sound engineer for chamber music group FearNoMusic and is an editor of the Portland State music journal Subito. You can find his writing at Continuousvariations.com.

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