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Article about Daniel Dorff
in Fanfare Magazine July/August 2013

by Peter Burwasser

"I started composing in 11th grade simply to create pieces that I wanted to play that didn't exist yet, or that I wanted to hear others play that didn't exist yet. I've always created what I'm attracted to as if I were inventing a new place to enjoy a vacation, a new beautiful place to spend time, a new piece to enjoy playing or hearing. To me that's simply expressing myself which is what I do with my life."

These are not the words of some naïve wunderkind. Composer Daniel Dorff's grasp of musical history is as sophisticated as can be. Even in this era of grand musical eclecticism, Dorff has been exposed, at a very close level, to an extraordinary diversity of styles and approaches to his art form. A formative period in his career occurred in graduate school, in the late 1970s, where he studied with the legendary University of Pennsylvania triumvirate of George Crumb, Richard Wernick, and George Rochberg. He also studied with Karel Husa, Ralph Shapey, Henry Brant, and, in his high school days, extensively with Elie Siegmeister.  

By 1985, he had become a full-time editor at music publisher Theodore Presser Company. "The interesting ironic twist was that most of my teachers, including Richard Wernick, Ralph Shapey, and George Rochberg, are published by Presser. I was putting the red marks in the scores of the very guys that were doing the same thing to my music as a student." It's all the more remarkable that Dorff has been able to guide his artistry through a particularly stormy period in musical history and still emerge with his own voice fully intact. This is a circumstance that the composer himself takes for granted, even as the cardinal rule not to imitate one's teachers is often violated.

In many ways, Dorff's entire life has led, step by step, to his current position in the world of music. He was a kid whose parents never had to tell him to practice (he still plays bass clarinet and saxophone). He taught himself basic harmony with Beatles fake books. As a teenager, he and his friends played Stravinsky on the boom box at the beach. As for his job at Presser, now vice president of publishing, he says that "I think I was born to work there. As a child, I got into trouble for correcting my teachers' grammar. I must have been really obnoxious."

Maybe a nicer way to say it is that Dorff has always possessed a firm self-confidence, especially his conception of his personal voice. His music has always been tonal, following such heroes as Copland, Ravel, and Barber. When Dorff entered Penn, such material "was not taken too seriously in academia. I was patted on the head, and told I didn't have a voice yet. But it was the other students who didn't have a voice. They all sounded like their teachers. Everyone worshiped either the traditionally atonal music of Elliott Carter or the eclectically atonal music of George Crumb. But the avant-garde then was at least 20 years old, and wasn't really avant-garde anymore."

This attitude was already well formed at this point in Dorff's creative life. "When I was 17 and only composing for half a year, I went to the Aspen Music Festival, surrounded by graduate-level composers from the major conservatories who knew what was expected of them in 1973. Elliott Carter came to our seminar class for a generous session of critiquing everyone's work samples. I offered a movement I'd just written, which, coincidentally, is the Ballade from Dances and Canons on the Perennials CD (track 21). Carter gave me a stern lecture on not writing pretty melodies in 1973 in a world that has seen war atrocities, saying I was living in Schubert's Vienna to be writing music like that. I politely but confidently replied that Schubert lived a terrible life of suffering whereas I was a spoiled bourgeois from Long Island, and that following Carter's logic of necessarily depicting one's world, I should be writing Schöne Müllerin and Schubert should have composed atonal expressionism. My older and wiser classmates gasped, but little by little I heard that many were shocked that I dared to be honest.

"Many of my composition teachers commented that I was surprisingly honest in my music. I don't understand why they found this surprising or rare. I am expressing myself, not expressing them. That's why I do this as my life's work-for my sake, not for other composers' prejudices. I hope they're writing honestly, not trying to impress the media and their colleagues. Why would anyone go into this career if it isn't out of a self-contained vision?

"A few weeks later, Virgil Thomson heard the same Ballade that offended Carter, and Thomson announced to the entire composers' seminar that 'young Dorff is the only talented one in the bunch.' Even at 17, I knew that meant I was the only one with his aesthetics, and that Thomson's praise was as meaningless as Carter's criticism. I always asked teachers 'never mind about the style, is it a good piece?' and it seemed like that was an impossible conundrum in the 1970s. I was either a teacher's pet or else not taken seriously. It was about the polemics of style, not the craft of composition."  

The late Rochberg was an especially important mentor. "He told me a wonderful story that had a profound effect on me. According to George, when he was faculty advisor for the student composers' concerts at Penn, a woman (whom he'd seen in the audience frequently) came up to him and said 'Professor Rochberg, I come to all the student concerts, and if your students were engineers, I wouldn't drive across their bridges.' What a profound metaphor. I bet she'd drive across Brahms's bridges, or Rochberg's, or Messiaen's. It's not about the style, it's about building a musical structure. While I was a graduate student at Penn, my sister was also there as an undergraduate in architecture. One of the freshman assignments was to build a chair out of corrugated cardboard that a 250-pound professor could sit on. To pass, they had to figure out how to design the structure to make the force of his weight support the chair's engineering. Just like putting musical patterns together."

Rochberg's influence on Dorff continued after the elder composer's death; "Last summer I was having trouble starting a flute sonata and wanted to conceive a 20-minute, three-movement structure. I went to George's grave in Valley Forge and let my imagination have a conversation with him. The sonata started flowing wonderfully that night, and you could drive a truck across it."

After grad school, Dorff took Crumb's advice to spend some time away from academia. "I took an apartment in Center City [Philadelphia] to do some freelance work and be alone with my imagination. Then, I think by mistake, I was asked to write a musical for the sixth graders at the Greenfield School. I'm pretty sure they had me confused with someone else with a similar name who was already writing children's music. I took the gig anyway, which was to set students' poems in a rock and roll style. It was so refreshing to not be self-conscious and just write. It opened up a dam, just as Crumb had predicted. I was thinking phrase to phrase, rather than note to note."

Thus was born Dorff's unexpected career as one of the most performed composers of children's music in the country. "I started to get a reputation as someone who could write both seriously and tonal and be genuine about it. The poet-in-residence at Young Audiences of Philadelphia, Frank McQuilkin, was looking for someone to write an opera with. Stone Soup was my first commission, and it ran for 21 seasons, which makes it the longest running opera in Philadelphia history!" And on it goes; Atlanta Opera is performing it about 50 times this season.

Dorff's ethos as a composer of children's music is to appeal on a number of levels of sophistication, but not to lecture about the music, such as Britten does in Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. His 1985 work for the Sacramento Symphony, Billy and the Carnival, for example, features every instrument in the orchestra, but no pedantry. "It has the big smile points and catchy tunes, but goes deeper, just like Rocky and Bullwinkle appeals to kids but has hidden jokes for the grown-ups. It accidentally teaches about orchestration."

Dorff's breakthrough came in 1996, when he responded to an open call for a composition for mixed octet and narrator from the Minnesota Orchestra. "I responded to a call for a new commission and won, leading to the commission to compose 'Three Fun Fables,' from Aesop. The Aesop stories are engaging, but the real moral of Three Fun Fables is that it's fun to go to classical music concerts. They have played it over 100 times and also commissioned a follow-up, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, which they have also played over 100 times. I made an orchestral version of the 'Tortoise and the Hare' segment, which we did with the Haddonfield Symphony [for which Dorff is the current composer-in-residence] with [Olympic track star] Carl Lewis as the narrator. The Philadelphia Orchestra then commissioned me to complete the orchestration for the other two fables, which Sawallisch premiered at a children's concert." That was in 2000, and since then the orchestra has performed his music on further children's concerts and commissioned five more works for their Sound All Around series.

The children's music continues to be produced, upon commission, at a steady pace. One work of note is Blast Off, which was underwritten by Lockheed-Martin and premiered in Haddonfield with astronaut Kenneth Reightler as narrator. Dorff asked the veteran space traveler if he was nervous about the performance. His response; "Well, I've flown in outer space many times, docked with the Mir, and I was on the shuttle mission that supposedly had UFO sightings. I'd say today is a low risk mission." Dorff has appreciated that unique perspective ever since.

Dorff's special engagement with children's music has taken place concurrently with his unabated contributions to the "grown-up" repertoire. His newest CD, Perennials, is a wonderful showcase for his career to date. The music actually spans his entire mature career, and displays a remarkable consistency in the composer's way of creating music. As early as his experience in Aspen, he was "creating repertoire rather than trying to make a bold statement about music." That year, he won his first competition for writing, and considers it significant that the judges were not academics, as is often the case, but fellow musicians. "Musicians really like playing my music out of genuine enjoyment, not because it's the right thing to do. I have a few piccolo/piano recital pieces that have become standard recital repertoire and are mandatory selections at many competitions. Piccoloists play these because it's music they want to play, not because it's new.

"I get commissions and prizes from performers, and not from new music organizations who ironically and hypocritically think atonality is new since it's been around for over 100 years. There have always been both streams, and I went through decades of being told I'm not a composer yet because I'm still using a key signature, and that Barber, Copland, Rutter, and other neo-traditionalists don't really count."

The clear, honest and beautifully crafted esthetic of Dorff's music is a crisp reflection of his goals as an artist. "I don't consider myself naïve, and I have many friends and colleagues who are composers and professors with a wide variety of musical languages, and my listening tastes are wide-open. I love Beethoven and Brahms and wouldn't consider writing like them because that's not my musical imagination. Likewise, I love the music of Schoenberg, Messiaen, Crumb, and many other recent modernists and I wouldn't consider writing like them either, because that's not my musical imagination. I like to create beauty and warmth in my own language, and that has nothing to do with what year a piece is written in, just how it sounds. Music sounds how it sounds, and chronology is irrelevant to the actual piece itself."

The music on this disc spans 36 years in the career of Daniel Dorff, from 1975 to 2011. So this is a retrospective, in a way, and yet there is a remarkable consistency of style and quality in his writing. The core of Dorff's influence, by his own admission, is the French tradition of woodwind writing, which favors lyrical phrasing and natural pacing. Dorff has studied with some of the most adventuresome composers of the second half of the 20th century, including George Crumb, Richard Wernick, George Rochberg and Ralph Shapey, but his own voice is unabashedly tonal and accessible. Much of his material was specifically written for his many musician friends. Dorff prides himself on creating musical material that musicians really enjoy playing, and that shows in all of this music, which is favored with delicious performances.

Besides the stimulus of the players, Dorff, who contributes the charming notes for this release, also recounts some amusing circumstances that resulted in the music on the program. Two Cats, for example, was written for a fundraiser for the Dutchess County, New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and is a witty dual portrait of a 20-pound tuxedo cat and a petite Bengal. The Pastorale is an ode to that ancient tradition of singing for one's supper; Dorff wrote it as wedding music for a friend who regularly played at the piano bar of a popular Philadelphia restaurant, Frög, thus the subtitle, Souvenirs du Frög. Interspersed in this compelling mix are four elegant arrangements of Bach Inventions, which introduce a nicely contrasting baroque texture to the essentially Gallic sensibility.

There are no thunderbolts of innovation in this collection, but simply very satisfying, beautifully crafted works, delectably performed. If you need those thunderbolts, look elsewhere. If you think you might enjoy a rich soufflé of wonderfully conceived and executed chamber music, dig in.

more about the Perennials CD

more about the Tortoise and Hare CD