Name: Danny Clay
Occupation: Composer, educator
Current release: The Living Earth Show performs Danny Clay's Music for Hard Times for their release on Earthy Records.
Danny's recent and past collaborators include Kronos Quartet, Eighth Blackbird, and Third Coast Percussion.
[Read our The Living Earth Show interview]
[Read our Jeffrey Ziegler of Kronos Quartet interview]
[Read our Matthew Duvall of Eighth Blackbird Interview]
[Read our Third Coast Percussion interview]
If these thoughts by Danny Clay piqued your interest, visit his official website. He is also on Instagram.
Music can heal and music can hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these?
I’ve witnessed the growth of several young people to whom music was their main life-line to the rest of the world, and their primary means of building connections to the people around them. Conversely, hearing music - specifically European classical music - used as a form of aural assault here in San Francisco, played at abusively loud volumes in public spaces to keep folks from sleeping or resting there, will always stick with me as well.
Both of these experiences, and many more, underscore for me that music is a powerfully functional tool that should be used with the utmost care.
We are still in the process of learning how music influences our body and mind. Especially with regards to the composing stages of Music for Hard Times, what's your take on that?
In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman says “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.”
I think it’s fair to say that the opposite is also true – that the more we focus on a particular thing, the more capacity it has to change us.
The idea that a body-rooted attention to the physical act of making sound could act as a kind of gateway to an inner, mental transformation – all of the sound-making strategies in Music For Hard Times sort of start there.
Why did you select "classical music" as a point of departure for this particular project?
So-called “classical music” composition (that is, writing notated music for a group of musicians to realize) is the medium in which I have the most training, and the medium in which the ensembles that I collaborated with on MFHT also have training.
In a standard “classical” ensemble setting, musicians often rely on the notated music (score) as a blueprint or set of instructions to determine what sounds to make and when – a technical process that, in some ways, is not unlike that of a computer executing lines of code. Because of this technical aspect of interpreting a score, it’s quite easy for many of the physical possibilities of sound-making to be disregarded in classical settings in the service of the particular sounds a score is asking for.
My hope is that offering a score that is deliberately open to interpretation actually places less emphasis on the technical aspect of the score itself and more on the physical sound-making for each person who interprets it.
How did you arrive at the strategies which make up the score for Music for Hard Times?
The score of “calming strategies” that make up MFHT owes a debt to the work of Pauline Oliveros and countless others who have used words as an invitation to explore sound-making.
[Read our Pauline Oliveros interview]
For me, during that early spring of 2020 where there was much uncertainty in the world around me, I could only really rely on trying to capture what felt calming to play and what might feel calming to hear in my own body.
Everything begins and ends with the body, after all!
The materials for the piece mention the polarity between repetition vs perfection. Is our strife for perfection making us ill, do you feel?
I can’t speak for all humans, but I know that I sometimes get caught between my own idealistic visions for myself and the sobering reality that I don’t have the means (attention span, resources, etc.) to realize those all-too-lofty ambitions.
This is a complex condition, but one simple approach that I have found useful towards changing the way I think about “perfection” is to appreciate each present moment as perfect and full, in and of itself. How can each incremental, successive moment - some similar in nature, but all distinct, important, consequential in their own right - build towards meaningful development of some kind?
I recently had a very interesting discussion with some of the founders of Grapheme, a Berlin based group focusing on new, graphic scores. Since Music for Hard Times would fit in well with their approach, I'm curious about your take on the psychological impact of the Western notation system – do you feel it has an impact on health, well-being, communication etc?
I like to think of notation as “a drawing of a sound.”
This idea is rich with possibilities, but if one tries it out one realizes how incredibly challenging it is. Sounds are complicated! How do I capture in a drawing a high pitch or low pitch? How do I capture how loud or soft it is? How do I capture the way I had to move my body in order to make that sound? Which of these things are essential to remembering the sound when I want to make it again later?
Sounds can be inspired by drawings, but this too is challenging – if I interpreted all of the scribbles on the chalkboard in front of me as a violin melody, which notes would I play on my instrument? How would the qualities of those scribbles affect the parameters of the sounds I’m making and how I move my body?
These questions illustrate the primary issue with notation. Notation is a blueprint and an instigator for sound, but it comes nowhere close to the actual experience of sound, and different notation systems emphasize different aspects of the sonic experience to varying levels of detail. These different aspects of sound that are captured – in the western notation system, specific pitches and quantized rhythms, for example – become parameters that a creative person can tinker with to build something new. This is a great thing - there’s plenty of wonderful music that has been conceptualized and created through notation!
Perhaps the problem creeps up when we get so used to notation in some form or another that we begin to believe that it IS the music, and not a means to an end. Notation, like language, should be constantly tested at its limits, and repurposed or reinvented when it falls short of its intention.
What was the feedback from the musicians who performed the piece like? Did it actually calm them down?
Making this piece highlighted an interesting dichotomy that I mentioned earlier while trying the calming strategies myself initially – the notion that a musical idea can be calming to play but not calming to hear, and vice versa. In speaking with musicians after the fact, they often remarked at how the act of playing the strategies was calming, but when listening back to their recordings the music they played did not actually sound calm.
My own hand in the process was layering these various recordings together in a way that felt calming to me – I hope that when hearing their recordings in a shared sonic space with other musicians, they found the finished collages calming in their own way.
How did you assemble the finished pieces?
Volume 1 consists of about 150 different audio recordings from three musicians (including myself), and Volume 2 consists of over a thousand different audio recordings from over 150 different musicians. I’m never sure how to explain the creative process when working in sound collage, other than it’s an act of faith.
In the case of both volumes, I would listen to every recording of a given “calming strategy” and make note of the type of instrument, sound quality, pitch and texture choices. I would then pick 3-30 sounds at random and listen to them all simultaneously. From these surprise combinations, I would move sounds here and there, sometimes trimming or lengthening with simple edits to find alignments that felt magical in their own, fateful ways. Sometimes this process would lead to a 10 or 15 second audio collage, sometimes longer sections, like 2 or 3 minutes.
As I developed a collection of several dozen of these collages, I could then start to play with layering and ordering those larger ideas to form even bigger sections. From the smallest kernels of sound up to full passages, this is how most of the work took shape. It was mystical, surprising, and wonderful.
Music for Hard Times was originally intended as a tool for musicians. How can "ordinary listeners" become part of the healing as well?
It was important to me and my collaborators that the exercises in the musical score for MFHT be, in some form or another, approachable to anyone with the ability to make sound of some kind, regardless of their musical experience. While some of the strategies have musical notation, there are simplified versions for folks who can’t read musical notation included in every strategy that I hope offers a way into the creative process for anyone who is interested.
The most important way I hope non-musicians (and musicians, for that matter) engage with this work is to simply listen! My wish, more than anything, is that the sounds themselves are a useful tool to invoke calm.
Taking music's potential for healing as a point of departure, what would be suitable new approaches for appreciating music on a wider scale – from concerts to albums and new forms of listening – which could transport these qualities to audiences?
What a great question! My instinct is we’re already using music these days as a more practical, functional tool than possibly ever before, which is exciting.
As music-making tools are now more accessible and it’s easier than ever to simply surround one’s self with sounds that they love, I hope listeners of music step more into the role of co-creator/curator along with the artists they listen to, as it gives them enormous liberty to shape the kind of musical experience that is meaningful to them.
I would love to see people increasingly more empowered to simply create the music they want to hear - the music that moves them - as a path towards personal expression and healing.
When it comes to the healing properties of art, many use the word spirituality. What does spirituality mean to you personally and how does it inform your work?
I used the word “faith” above when describing the creative process, and I do not use that word lightly. We create music because we believe in it. We believe it’s worth our time, our energy, our resources. We believe that by emitting sounds out into the world, from ourselves to others, we are enriching our lives and those of the people around us.
The fact that there exists an experience so simple, yet so captivating and utterly mysterious and beyond our understanding – if that’s not spirituality in it’s essence, I’m not sure what is!