Interview with Donald Crockett

Donald Crockett’s new work, And the River, will be premiered by Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra and HOCKET on May 12th, with a repeat performance on May 13th. I had the chance to have lunch with Don and talk about preparing new works, toy pianos, and the late composer Steven Stucky.

Irene Kim: Don, thank you so much for meeting with me to tell us about yourself and your new work.

Donald Crockett: You’re very welcome!

IK: You've accomplished so much and have done so many things, but could you tell us how you got started in music?

DC: My mother was a very fine pianist, and she started me on piano when I was four. I read in my ‘baby book’ that my mother had written that when I was two, I was singing with very clear intonation. So she was looking to see whether the musical inclination was there or not. So I played piano for several years, then pretty much dropped that to focus on sports. Then I played classical guitar, which became my serious instrument in middle and high school. I picked up piano again, but not to become a concert pianist, but rather to use as a tool for composition. I started composing very early in my teens. Singing in choirs as a tenor and writing choral and vocal music. My earliest pieces were very preliminary efforts, needless to say... Right away in high school, I was conducting choral music, including my own. Through college, I would conduct my own pieces and pieces by fellow students and friends. I also performed fairly regularly, primarily as a singer and as a guitarist. I sang a lot of early music and new music, and continued singing professionally through my thirties while becoming a specialist in conducting new music as well.

IK: You did so much musically! How did you get into all of these different things?

DC: I got interested in guitar because of folk music that was prevalent in the 60s, such as Peter, Paul and Mary, and The New Christy Minstrels. I was also in a Dixieland band in elementary school playing piano.  

IK: In elementary school, here in Southern California? That’s amazing!!

DC: I also played upright bass in a bluegrass band in high school. With the guitar, I almost decided to go into classical guitar seriously in college, because at that time the field in the US was wide open, there weren’t very many classical guitarists out there.  Today, the field is deep and rich, of course. But, I still love guitar, and I still write for guitar.

IK: And composing, how did that start?

DC: I started composing one day, when I was thirteen, perhaps fourteen. I had been listening to Copland and Stravinsky, so I wrote a little piano piece I called A Brief Bitonal Dirge. I wasn’t expecting to write music, but I put this piece together. Then I started doing choral music, writing for the groups I was in. A conductor who worked with a publisher heard my music and so as a teenager, I went to this publisher, shared my music, and they published several of my pieces. And yes, I sort of regret this...

IK: I know you've been attending many of our concerts, and even helping us along the way with rehearsal spaces and whatnot, for which we are thankful. What do you love most about Kaleidoscope?

DC: First of all, I’m very interested in the younger generation of musicians. Some of whom I knew, students and composers at USC, were getting involved in Kaleidoscope, so it piqued my interest. I was curious to see how this was going to work, the democratic conductorless model running an orchestra; of course, different musicians have different takes on that. So, I just started going to concerts a few years ago. I liked the energy and the commitment on the part of the players and the programming. The Prokofiev 5th Symphony that Kaleidoscope did last season [in 2016-17] is my favorite live performance of that piece, because it had so much energy! It was a smaller orchestra than normal for that piece while being a larger orchestra than normal for Kaleidoscope, and hearing it in that very resonant acoustic at the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica was just fabulous.

IK: The opening line in your bio says that you are “dedicated to composing music inspired by the musicians who perform it.” Can you tell us more about that?

DC: I almost always have a very personal connection with the people I am writing for in any given piece. It isn’t that I’m writing so that only those people can play the piece, but writing for a specific performer gives me a sense of impetus to get going. For instance, I knew I was writing an oboe quartet for the principal oboist of LA Chamber Orchestra at that time, Allan Vogel. And so I went to a rehearsal where he was doing the Mozart oboe quartet to see how he worked in this situation, and that became an important springboard for me to write my oboe quartet.

IK: How did the commission for And the River come about?

DC: Kaleidoscope has been wonderful in doing repertoire that includes a great deal of recent music by a wide variety of composers, but very little commissioning since Kaleidoscope is a new organization. So, Benjamin Mitchell and I had been talking about the possibility of doing a commission, one of the first official commissions for Kaleidoscope. When we were talking, he asked me, “If you could write a concerto for anybody, who would it be?” I thought about this, and also my desire of late to work with musicians of this next generation, some of whom are current and former students of mine. And I decided I wanted to write for HOCKET, a terrific new music piano duo, and thought that it could lead me in very intriguing directions.  I suggested this to Ben, and he thought it was a great idea. My piece is a direct response to HOCKET and the chamber orchestra. In this case, it’s a piece for piano four-hands, inside the piano, and a pair toy grand pianos. I’ve designed the piece so that there’s a kind of stage movement: both Thomas Kotcheff and Sarah Gibson start at the piano keyboard, then Thomas moves to play inside the piano while Sarah’s still at the keyboard, then Thomas goes to the toy piano, and Sarah joins at the other toy grand, and so on, and so it’s kind of a progression. This is, again, a good example of me being inspired by the musicians, having both HOCKET and Kaleidoscope, a conductorless chamber orchestra, in mind while I wrote the piece.

IK: How did the conductorless aspect affect the piece?

DC: I was aware of what it would be like to have the pianists in that position; not as pianist-conductors or pianist-leaders, but as soloists in a democratic conductorless music-making experience. I thought about when I write a rhythm or a layer, how that will translate in the rehearsal process. It’s perhaps not my most rhythmically challenging piece, but it’s plenty challenging nonetheless. Let’s just say it’s not going to feel like it’s in 4/4... And also in choosing the instrumentation, I had a fair amount of freedom in that. I decided on a chamber orchestra of just 19 players instead of a full string section: it’s a double string quartet plus bass, with wind, brass, and percussion. This way the individual voices are the primary colors, instead of having a mass of voices.

IK: What should the audience listen for in your piece?

DC: First of all, the piece is a lot about color. So there’s the color of HOCKET, which is a piano duo on a single nine-foot grand and the two toy pianos. There’s a fair amount of plucking and harmonics inside the piano, and various kinds of doubling between the piano and toy pianos. Then there are the two percussionists who will be placed antiphonally on either side of the group. They’ll have colorful instruments such as clay flower pots, cymbals, tuned cowbells, and other kinds of metals. It’ll have sort of a folk/world music kind of feel, coming from the tradition that I’m very fond of, which is a west coast, California kind of music that Lou Harrison and John Cage were making in the middle of the 20th century. And then also, the piece is a journey, which I think will be apparent. It’s called And the River, which comes from Thomas Wolfe’s book called Of Time and the River.  I included this quote as an epigraph in the score:


“At that instant he saw, in one blaze of light, the reason why the artist works

and lives and has his being...It is to snare the spirits of mankind in nets of magic,

the congruence of blazing and enchanted images, the essential pattern whence

all other things proceed...”

--Thomas Wolfe, Of Time and the River


The reason the quote is there, and its meaning for me, is that And the River is in part a piece in memory of my friend and wonderful composer Steven Stucky, whom I knew well. I wrote a little two-minute piece for a project that the pianist Gloria Cheng created, a series of short pieces in honor of Steve by composer friends and former students, Garlands for Steven Stucky, that she recently recorded and is performing. My ‘garland’ is called Nella Luce, which is based on the title of a string quartet by Steve. In it, I have embedded fragments of two pieces of Steve’s that I know well, pieces that I’ve conducted in new music ensembles. The DNA of those two works are in Nella Luce, so while it’s my own music, it has Steve in it; the piece ends with a certain very affecting fragment from his piece The Stars and Roses. I knew I wasn’t finished with it, so this whole new piece, And the River, is in part a journey through this little bit of material. ‘The river’ is a common but important metaphor for the passage of time. The music of my piece is this metaphorical river and the things on the river; the different kinds of music that may suggest different times; a reflection on the inevitable passage of time and passage of a life. That’s an important aspect of my piece. You don’t realize this, and you don’t have to realize this, but the material is the musical DNA from Steve’s piece. At the very end there is the clearest statement of material I used at the end of my little piano piece Nella Luce that I extrapolate in this climax that is, for me, very reminiscent of Steve as a composer and a friend. So the piece is really a journey to that point.

IK: What a great musical narrative! We’ll be listening for that. When you’re not composing, conducting, or teaching, what are you doing?

DC: My wife and I have a ranch house up in Altadena where we live. We have a couple of big dogs, a couple of cats, and there are some horses next door. That’s an important sort of touchstone and creative space, and a place to enjoy nature on a daily basis. I do enjoy outdoor activities such as downhill skiing, which I did last weekend. Also, in the ocean I like to go bodysurfing. And hiking in the eastern Sierras, usually out of Mammoth or Bishop.

IK: That sounds absolutely wonderful!! Well, I look forward to hearing the rehearsals and premiere of And the River. Thank you so much for your time!

Irene Kim