Ask award-winning New York composer Daniel Ott about what got him started on his musical path, and you’ll hear three things that make any South Sounder proud: the Tacoma Youth Symphony, the Puyallup Schools music program and the PTA.
Yes, Ott also grew up in a musical family, the third son of violinist Marcia Ott. But the composer whose second string quartet is the main item on this Friday’s Second City Chamber Series concert cites Tacoma and Puyallup as a “great place to discover music” — and as proof, playing his music with Portland’s Arnica String Quartet is fellow Puyallup native Charles Noble on viola.
It’s not the first time Ott’s had his music played in the Northwest. Second City also aired his String Quartet no. 1 and Duo Sonata for Violin and Viola in the late 1990s (including Marcia Ott as one of the performers). His String Quartet no. 2 premiered in the University of Washington’s Meany Hall in 2012. And Ott, now on the composition faculties of the Juilliard School of Music and Fordham University after earning degrees at Curtis and Juilliard, fully credits the support of South Sound musicians in his early days as a composer.
Ott and his mother talked to The News Tribune about what he writes and how Puyallup helped him get there.
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Tell us about growing up in Puyallup, and how you got started in composition.
Daniel Ott: I was an Army brat; my father’s a retired Colonel. We lived a lot of places, and we moved to Puyallup when I was 10. I started piano at 7 and wasn’t particularly gifted — in fact, I didn’t like lessons or practicing. Then at 13 I discovered I liked Bach and Beethoven, I started the French horn, and I got interested in composition.
Marcia Ott: Daniel composed a piece for the PTA Reflections competition (a national annual arts contest run by local PTAs), and he got to state level, I think. That’s when I thought he needed lessons. I was teaching at Pacific Lutheran University at the time, so I took him to (composition professor) Greg Youtz.
Daniel: I can’t overstate how much I learned from Greg. We didn’t do a lot of theory or chords — we would talk about Debussy, and I would write a bit and he’d respond to it, talk about why it worked. Some of the things he said I still say today when I teach.
I also played in the band in junior and high school, and in the Tacoma Youth Symphony groups, moving up through the ranks. An incredible number of great musicians who’ve gone on to great things have come through TYSA. My wife, Erin, was in it too.
Marcia: He got to know a lot of people through youth symphony and his brother John: Charles Noble, (clarinetist) Cindy Renander, (conductor) Troy Peters. When we were applying for colleges for Dan, someone suggested Curtis (Institute of Music in Philadelphia), and I thought, oh, he’s not good enough for that. But we applied anyway, and Troy was there already, and apparently he told them that Daniel was good at what he did. Anyway, he got in, and then he went on to Juilliard for his doctorate.
Daniel: (My youth in Puyallup) was a great time and place to discover music.
Your String Quartet no. 2, which will be on the Second City program along with Samuel Barber and Portland composer Kenji Bunch, is very dark, written about the loss of a child. What made you write about that?
Daniel: I find it very difficult to compose music in the abstract — to think, I’ll write a 25-minute string quartet, and just go. I was looking for a way into the piece and happened to be flipping through a biography of Liszt, which mentioned the loss of his son at age 20. Coincidentally, his name was also Daniel. It was a horrible loss for the Liszts. This was in 2011, which was a major Liszt year (the bicentennial of his birth), and also a Mahler year (the anniversary of his death). Mahler’s daughter also died, at age 4. My daughter was about that age then, and it really resonated for me. I’d only been a parent for a few years, and you don’t have this conversation too often. You’re newly vulnerable in a way you never were before. … You could potentially lose your everything. I ran the idea (of a piece based on a child’s death) by the Chira Quartet, who had commissioned it, because that concept isn’t an easy sell. They were very gracious about letting me do what I wanted to do. So it helped me shape the form. But it isn’t all dark — it ends on an upbeat note.
Marcia: I think it’s awesome. I hesitate to say that as a mother, and I don’t go head over heels for every piece he writes. But at the end of the premiere in Meany Hall (at the University of Washington in 2012), there was a pause, and then a sound like the whole audience let out a breath. I think people thought it was fabulous.
In this quartet, you play a lot with long chordal harmonies in the strings, using harmonics, the wood of the bow and other sounds, a bit like an organ. Do strings appeal to you as a medium?
Daniel: I wrote my first string quartet just out of grad school, and ever since I finished it, I wanted to write another. If you had to pick just one medium to write for forever, the string quartet would not be a bad way to go. It’s a bottomless pit of potential ideas. And I’m not a string player, but I grew up with the sound of the violin, played by my mother. The violin is the voice of classical music for me. I also hung around string players like Charles Noble — they were the people who would play my music. I can also use them as a resource, ask them what this or that note would sound like.
Marcia: Dan’s music is very rhythmic, not unlike Stravinsky. And it’s very intense, usually. That’s the kind of kid he is.
Daniel: I try to strike a balance between a language that’s terse and dissonant and one that’s melodic and straightforward, between being strict in form and being expressive.
Any particular composers that have been your influences?
Daniel: My real composer crushes in my teenage years were Bartok and Ravel, and also Brahms. Plus I learned so much from the people I studied with: John Corigliano, Ned Rorem. I also like the music of Lutoslawski and Dutilleux.
You’ve been doing some recognized work lately with the New York City Ballet. Anything exciting coming up for you?
Daniel: Well, I’m about to embark on a new piece commissioned by the Auburn Symphony, to be performed in February 2016 to mark the opening of their new performing arts center. I’m excited, because I know so many of those players personally — my mother used to play in it. The Chiara Quartet is about to start a series of recordings playing music by memory, including this String Quartet no. 2 — for new music, that’s rather unusual.
And I’ll be coming to the Second City concert this weekend — I’m pleased to be on the program with Kenji Bunch, who was my colleague at Juilliard. And I’ll stay for the Super Bowl!