David Maslanka is a renaissance man with instruments

Maslanka often uses the piano in his pieces.

David Maslanka, a Massachusetts-born composer, recently came to JMU to present two of his over 150 works. Maslanka’s repertoire includes eight symphonies, 17 concertos, over 50 wind band pieces and many more pieces for assorted instrumentations.  The JMU Wind Symphony and Symphonic Band performed “A Child’s Garden of Dreams” and “Give Us This Day.” The concert was held on April 5, and was livestreamed through the School of Music’s website.

Q: When did you start composing?

A: I made first efforts when I was in high school, and then seriously began to try when I was a college freshman.

Q: What inspires you to write music?

A: As far as I can tell there’s no one external thing that inspires composing. I have always had the fascination with what it is that makes musical sound powerful. That interest is what keeps me going. Over the years any number of things have contributed to the composing. For instance my readings in psychology and history.

Q: Is there one instrument in particular that you prefer writing for?

A: The answer is actually no, although in thinking about it, I have used piano in a large number of pieces. Not much for piano alone, but I have written three piano concertos, a large number of chamber pieces including piano and many wind ensemble pieces that include piano.

Q: Did you begin your musical career on one instrument? If so, what was it?

A: Clarinet from age nine. I was a very good player through college and grad school. The clarinet gradually dropped away as composing became the center of my life.

Q: How would you classify your style of composition?

A: Hard question. Probably Neo-Romantic because I tend toward large story-like pieces that have a lot of emotional power.

Q: Can you choose a favorite of your pieces?

A: Well, no. Ask your parents which child is their favorite. Some pieces have had a lot more performance success than others, like "A Child's Garden of Dreams," and some have had only one performance. Each piece is interesting and powerful for what it is.

Q: What inspired you to write "A Child's Garden of Dreams" and "Give Us This Day?"

A: "A Child's Garden" was inspired by reading "Man and His Symbols" by Carl Jung. In it was the presentation and discussion of a set of 12 dreams of a ten-year-old girl which indicated that the girl was at the end of her life. This quality of prescience was fascinating to me, and I felt immediately that there was a musical piece possible. I had just received a commission from the conductor, John Paynter, at Northwestern University to write a major piece, and decided instantly that the new piece should be on the dreams.

"Give Us This Day" came about as a commission from a group of high school and college band directors. My focus in writing the piece was on one person, Eric Weirather, of San Diego, who organized the consortium. It is impossible to say why a piece turns out the way it does, but in this case it had to do with Eric's energy and underlying need.

Q: What would you say was your most popular piece and why do you think it is so popular?

A: My most popular pieces are probably "Rollo Takes a Walk," written in 1980 for young players, and "Give Us This Day." "Rollo" continues to sell many copies each year, maybe as many as 2000 in 37 years. "Give Us This Day" is ten years old and has hundreds of performances. It shows no signs of letting up.

Q: Can you go into your compositional process?

A: This is not an easy question. I have always tried to follow musical ideas that feel powerful. These usually start as very simple ideas that don't on the surface seem like much of anything, but they are the clue that something large wants to happen. My job is to play with these ideas over and over until they begin to show me the big energy they are holding. During this process larger shapes, and then whole movements, begin to appear. Composing always starts with meditation on the person who has asked me to write. This gives me an inner alignment with their energy, allowing the music that comes to address some deeper need of the person or situation.

Q: Which composer would you most compare yourself to?

A: Even though the styles are very different, I often think of myself in terms of Joseph Haydn because he was such an organized and steady worker. He was in charge of music in a prince's household -- a servant wearing a uniform -- and he had to produce music at a regular rate for any number of functions. It didn't matter how he felt, he simply had to compose, and this is my way of working as well.

Contact Jimmy McKenzie at mckenzjr@dukes.jmu.edu.