Leaving the Ivory Tower

Wanner, Dan

My decision to be a composer was informed by a process of elimination as much as by my talent-driven desire to write music. My many years of half-hearted study as a child and teenager eventually led me to eliminate performing as a career option. I then followed a fairly typical progression, clambering from disheartened pre-med student to ecstatic music major to bewildered D.M.A. candidate-guided by teachers who led me from a period where I could write pages of music every day to a period where I could write a single page of music every year. Exaggerations aside, my mentors by and large knew when to lead and when to let me wander along my own course, and I will be forever grateful for their efforts. Indeed, if not for a particularly energetic graduate student exposing me to the joys of Rite of Spring and Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, I would never seriously have considered music as a profession. My brief career as a professor turned out to be a mixed blessing, as did my even briefer career as a program editor. If not for a revelatory event-which I'll get to later on-I might still be searching for the proper outlet for my creativity. But first, a brief look at the fruits of my labors as a grad student, as they shed some light on my current compositional techniques. My Piano Concerto is a good example of the type of music I felt compelled to write during my university days. It was written during a scorching New York summer with a fall deadline, which just so happen to be ideal conditions for a composition: I've discovered a distinct need for discomfort to be creative. My best music thus tends to be written (a) on a deadline-perfect for imposing a nervous tension, (b) when the temperature is hot enough for me to perspire onto my manuscript paper-this may have something to do with growing up in Miami Beach, and (c) with strictly imposed limitations-necessity is indeed the mother of invention. To comply with my last requirement for discomfort, I employ strictly enforced developmental techniques, with a majority of my compositional decisions dictated in some way by the almighty motive. After much experimenting, I determined that the working out of ideas from a central motive or set of motives is far and away the most artistically productive. By "development" I mean having most or all of my gestures follow the essence of a central motive, usually stated at or near the beginning of a work. For me, music has always been about development; nothing beats those moments in music when the potential of a simple concept is realized.


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Columbia University
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April 14, 2015