Are you familiar with Good Night, Dear Heart or perhaps You Are the Music? If you are interested in choral music, you should be! Both of these lush, beautiful pieces were composed by Dan Forrest. Dan has graciously agreed to be a part of our Choral Conversations blog so that we can learn a little more about him. Many thanks to Dan for sharing more about himself with all of us!
Dan Forrest was born in Elmira, NY, in 1978. His works have won numerous contests and awards, including the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award, the ACDA Raymond Brock Competition, the Donald Sutherland Endowment Composition Contest, the ALCM Raabe Prize, the John Ness Beck Foundation Award, ASCAP Standard awards, Meet the Composer grants, and several others. He was also named a finalist in the 2009 Frank Ticheli International Band Composition Contest.
Dan has published music in various genres and styles with numerous publishers. He has his own choral series with Hinshaw Music. His choral works (church and concert) have received several favorable reviews in the ACDA Choral Journal. His A Basque Lullaby for wind band was performed at the 2010 Midwest Clinic, and will be included in the recently released Volume 8 of the well-known Teaching Music Through Performance in Band series.
Dan is the department head of music theory and composition at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina; has served as an adjudicator for the Southern Division MTNA Composition Contests and the John Ness Beck Foundation; is listed in Who’s Who In America; and is a Fellow of Melodious Accord.
When did you begin in music? I began piano lessons in fourth grade, but I remember being drawn to music long before that. When I was really little, my mom would play little songs at the piano and teach me to hear the difference between major and minor chords. (No wonder I ended up being a theory teacher!) I learned quickly when I started lessons in fourth grade. I became our church pianist when I was in sixth grade, and that gave me a lot of valuable experience while I was still young.
Did you have an “a-ha” moment when you knew you wanted to be a musician? Not really. It was always something I loved, and I’ve followed that love. I remember wearing out cassette tapes of Van Cliburn playing Everybody’s Favorite Piano Pieces, and the Leonard Bernstein recording of Carnival of the Animals and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. I’ve been wearing out recordings ever since! Music did something to me deep inside, and I was both enraptured with it and fascinated by it.
What kind of things inspire you? Great music and great texts. I’m almost never inspired to write music just because I saw a beautiful landscape. There are composers who somehow translate beautiful scenery into great music, but I don’t. I get distracted by the scenery, and don’t think about music. But play some great music for me, and all my imaginative cylinders start firing. I’m also inspired by silence, or monotonous tasks where my imagination can go free. That’s definitely not the picture most people have of composers, but that’s the way it works for me.
What inspired you to become a composer? I was a pianist in college (my bachelor’s and master’s degrees are both in piano performance). But it was halfway through my master’s that I started getting tired of the piano, partly because there are so many pianists out there, and partly because pianists have to work so hard to sustain and shape lines. You strike the key, the tone sounds, and then it dies. Meanwhile, I was completely infatuated with recordings of choral music, and I heard what choirs could do, musically — they could truly sustain tone, or even crescendo one note without repeating it or doing tremolo. I had done some composing and arranging for piano, but it was when I got excited about choirs that I really started composing.
What would you say defines your style? That’s a tough question. A composer’s “style” is really a collection of his or her favorite sounds, and favorite solutions to musical problems. If I have any favorite sounds or solutions I’m aware of, I’m probably going to be looking for other sounds or solutions before too long, lest I end up falling into too much of a rut. Probably other people could point out things that they commonly hear in my music, but I’m always trying to find new sounds and new solutions, even if I have a few things I tend to do. Beyond all that, I hope that my “style” is defined by authenticity and integrity — that I believe the sacred texts I’m setting, and that I’m striving to write music that’s original.
Tell me one thing that people might not know about you? I’m 33 years old; it seems most people presume I must be in my 60s. For those who already knew I was in my 30s, maybe I should mention that I’m left-handed, and 1/4 Polish. Also, I’m astoundingly bad at drawing.
What are you working on now? Several commissions for various choral groups: church, community, and university choirs. I really enjoy writing in a variety of styles and genres. I like interspersing orchestral music with choral music, church pieces with secular pieces, extended concert pieces with shorter anthems, etc.
What is your all time favorite choral piece (by another composer)? That’s so hard to answer! My answer might vary depending on what I’ve been listening to recently, when you ask me! Some pieces that have really influenced me are Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, the Kyrie from the Durufle Requiem, various pieces by Arvo Part and Gorecki, and Rutter’s Requiem.
Do you have any advice or tips for those interested in composing? Yes! I have a few semesters’ worth of university classes! A couple things, though, for up-and-coming composers: don’t spend time trying to “find your voice.” You can’t “find” or even “manufacture” something that’s still unidentified. Instead, write what you really have to say, and what you believe in, and let others define whatever your “voice” or your “style” is later on. So many people look at one specific type of person they want to impress, and try to write what they think that kind of person wants to see from them. There’s a sense in which we do have to be able to aim our writing toward a target audience, but you can’t pretend to be something you’re not, compositionally. Also, don’t be afraid to mimic other composers when you’re first getting started, that’s how we all learn. But eventually, you want to move past that. You need to absorb general aspects of other music, but hopefully make them your own. Let all those things simmer in your “pot” until you’re writing things that aren’t too much like any of those others. That’s tough to do, but it’s a goal we all have to shoot for. I often encourage my composition students to stop listening for harmonies or progression or melody, and instead listen in more general musical terms like gesture, shape, register, texture, color, drama, pacing, proportion, etc. Those aren’t things you learn in a theory class, but they’re the kinds of parameters a good composer has to think about, either consciously or intuitively.
Would you say that music comes to you more often through slow, careful planning, or by sudden inspiration? Every piece is different. I have to look for a new “way in,” with every piece I write. But overall, the process is a lot less “inspiration” than most people think, and a lot more hard work, solving musical problems. I rarely write more than an hour or two at a time, and I rarely write more than two to three hours a day, if I’m really trying to be creative. Otherwise I “force” ideas that aren’t good. I need time between writing sessions to work out the implications of what I’m doing. On the other hand, sometimes my favorite pieces are the ones that take a while to find a “way in,” but then fall into place quickly once I find that way in. Often, that means that I’m being true to the “soundworld” I’ve set up, instead of forcing ideas that don’t belong.
What are your favorite texts to set to music? My favorite texts are ones that combine beautiful ideas with beautiful sounds. Some poetry expresses beautiful ideas, but the sound of the words contradicts the meaning of the words — like a lullaby full of explosive and percussive consonants. My favorite texts are the ones that express beautiful ideas, and reinforce those ideas with sounds that heighten the impact of those ideas. Sometimes I’ll change a word of a text, not because it means the wrong thing propositionally, but because it implies the wrong things sonically, or just doesn’t “sound right.” When the meaning and sounds of words align, setting them to music is easy.
What is your favorite thing about composing? I love every part of it, once a piece comes together. Hearing people re-create sounds I dreamed up in my head is immensely rewarding. And as a performer, one can only connect with one audience at a time, but as a composer, I love the omnipresent sort of ministry that I can have, ministering to many people in many places I’ve never been been to personally. The opportunities for giving people beauty and ministering to them spiritually are exponential.
Inside the Actors Studio-Type Questions:
- What is your favorite word? Gospel
- What is your least favorite word? I can’t think of a least favorite word.
- What sound or noise do you love? Church bells ringing.
- What sound or noise do you hate? Unnecessary audience noise during a musical performance.
- What profession other than your own, would you like to attempt? Financial advising, engineering, and a lot of other things.
- What is your favorite composition? Of my own? Either the Te Deum, or Good Night, Dear Heart.
- What is on your iPod? All sorts of choral music, and a lot of 20th century art music that most people wouldn’t like very much.
- Is there anyone you would like to collaborate with, living or dead, that you haven’t yet? Stephen Layton (Polyphony) or the Kansas City Chorale.
- If you were stranded on a desert island, and could only have the music of one composer, other than yourself, who would it be? I honestly cannot come up with a good answer for this!
Thank you again, Dan, for taking the time to share with us!
Dan has composed some incredibly beautiful music. If you aren’t familiar with all of it, I would highly suggest that you make it a priority to check it out . I guarantee you will be happy with what you find.