Dylan Findley is a prolific, award-winning composer who describes his music as "kaleidoscopic" and part of an ongoing quest for seeking truth. His approach to creativity is as much craft-driven as it is philosophical, with extensive essays on the spirituality of music, his creative process and the nature of sound itself appearing on his website and blog. Findley currently attends the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he is finishing his Doctorate of Musical Arts. Enjoy our interview with this emerging composer.
Describe your music for new listeners. What type(s) of classical music do you compose?
My music tends to be kaleidoscopic in both styles and form. Growing up listening to alternative rock, progressive rock, world musics, and synth pop, it's hard for me to avoid including elements from those genres in my work. While some of my music deals with serious topics, I also enjoy straight-faced humor and often scatter musical jokes or defy listener expectations with silence, sudden shifts, or strange sounds. This sometimes accounts for the whimsical nature of some of my pieces. Though I don't believe I can really categorize the types of classical music I compose, a listener can expect to hear rhythmic drive or meditative timelessness, lyrical melodies or angular, aggressive skirmishes, weaving, contrapuntal textures or repetition of a single idea for a little too long... all fashioned together in what I hope to be a coherent and a spiritual/emotional experience.
What does a typical day in the life of Dylan Findley look like? How often are you composing?
Every day is different, and I love the flexibility of that lifestyle, though at times the 9 to 5 job sounds appealing. In my doctoral program at UMKC, I teach composition courses and do academic work, which takes up much of my time. I love the opportunity to share my experiences and perspectives with my students and colleagues, and I'm grateful to learn from them as they do the same. Around schoolwork, I fit composing, service with my church, and a little bit of a social life! As for how often I compose, musical ideas come to my mind very frequently, but it takes some mental incubation before I can commit them to paper. This means that for the initial stages of writing a piece, I might spend less time at the desk and more time dedicated to my other responsibilities. But when I feel like an idea is ready to pour out, then I spend many hours putting together a piece that feel like minutes. Every free moment I have is dedicated to writing the piece. I can't predict the exact moment when the music will start to flow, but I await those times.
What would you like people to know about how you compose?
Composing involves making decisions, and lots of them. Does the melody move upwards or downwards? Do I change up the rhythm here or keep things going as they were? Do I follow the harmonic motion I am suggesting or break from it? How much time should there be between these two important moments? So as I form a piece, I have to accept or reject the implications that I see the music presenting in favor of my overall vision. Sometimes these choices lead me far from my original intent, and I find myself in a state of constant musical exploration. Other times, my vision is so solid that the choices all line up (this is rare). I say it this way because I believe everybody can have a successful experience composing if they invest the time and preparation into it. The joy of creation seems to be inherent in our nature, and such is the case for the creation of music. Yes, that inspirational spark is necessary, but after the spark come many decisions, which are fun and frustrating, but ultimately a rewarding process for you and the people who share in that experience.
Do you use software to transcribe your work or do you do this work by hand – or a combination?
I use a combination of Finale notation software and the traditional paper and pencil to write music. I sometimes need a map of some kind to structure my music, and that works best by drawing sketches (whether it be the digestive system, an analyzed poem, my own prose, or some colorful, premeditated scribbles that change across the length of the paper). I like writing the notes themselves out on paper with a piano, clarinet, or my voice as an aid, but at some point I have to switch over to Finale. During the school year, this happens early on so that I can share my work with teachers, but I think I would prefer to stay away from Finale a bit longer (and honestly, away from teachers until my work is germinated). But in the end, all of my music goes into Finale (or other software for non-traditional scores) to get a professional look and to double-check harmonies and pacing with the playback feature.
Your works have been performed internationally. What has this experience been like for you? What have been the most memorable experiences with reaching international audiences?
I am extremely grateful for the opportunities I have had to go abroad with my music. The joy of music is that it transcends political/geographical boundaries, and I've been blessed to perform and participate in musical events in several countries in Asia, in addition to hearing my compositions played in Italy and Brazil. However, all of these experiences build on a formative two years in Nicaragua where I served a mission for my church, helping people improve the quality of their spiritual and overall lives. Because of that extended time in a foreign country, learning to love the people and their culture, I immediately gravitate towards building connections with people and learning about their interests and life views instead of towards tourist attractions (though don't go to an art museum with me, or else you'll be trapped for a long time...). Last fall, I traveled to Brazil to attend the São Paulo Contemporary Composers Festival and hear Quarteto L'Arianna perform my work I see men as trees, walking. They performed the premiere of the work in the crypt of the Catedral da Sé, which might be one of the strangest venues to have a piece played. But I got to befriend the performers and the other participants in the festival, including some people I consider good friends from that brief time there. I'll be returning to Brazil in October for the premiere of an orchestral piece commissioned by the festival!
What are you currently working on?
I am swamped with work right now! I just finished two pieces: Improvisations I: MicroTunes for soloist and live electronics yesterday and A Statement and the Sound, finished two weeks ago and being premiered next Monday (June 17th). After finishing a revision to an arrangement of Debussy's La Mer I made for clarinet, tenor saxophone, and piano, I need to write the orchestral piece for Brazil. Following the orchestral piece, I hope to finish a setting of Gabriela Mistral's poem cycle Ronda de niños for voice, guitar, and piano and a about the immigration crisis in Europe in collaboration with a clarinetist friend from Hungary, featuring him with electronics. Then comes the dissertation project, which will be an oratorio based on the text of German poet Thorolf Glumann, with whom I have been corresponding for several years. Many apologies have been going out as I try to meet (and extend) deadlines, but it's so wonderful to have so many people to write for and to learn as I tackle these new projects.
Book, film, and music recommendations:
Interstellar: Many people have already seen it, but it's such a good movie.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho: This book sparked an interest in other cultures, legends, and also in spiritual things that led me to make many formative decisions during my early teenage years. It taught me the power of meditation and seeking after wisdom.
Turangalîla-symphonie by Olivier Messiaen: Messiaen's music is so quirky, mystical, and visceral. He composes with such finesse and boldness, and this piece is no exception. There are moments of pure bliss in this music that are difficult to find elsewhere. Yes, this isn't typical "classical" music, but it is certainly something that, if unfettered from imposed expectations, can cut straight to the heart.
The Color of Paradise: I saw this Iranian movie when I began college, and it struck me in a way I hadn't experienced before watching a movie. Ironically, the movie has little music, but it serves, as with so many details, a symbolic element that heightens the drama and the significance of the story. So powerful.
Shaking the Tree: Sixteen Golden Greats by Peter Gabriel: The music of Peter Gabriel taught me empathy. His music allowed me to forgive people in the worst of circumstances, and it challenged me to reflect on how I behave. It made me question the way I view others who I have trouble understanding, and it introduced me to the music of other cultures that I ended up falling in love with. There's also some really weird stuff that always pique my musical interest and a good spirit to his more groovy tunes. This greatest hits album only scratches the surface of what his music has to offer. Check out Melt and Up for what I believe are his most solid albums.
The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry: Though I haven't read this bilingual anthology in particular, it features poetry from the many spectacular poets who I admire, including Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, and the great Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío, who single-handedly founded Spanish modernism. If you're a Spanish-speaker, check out Azul by Darío (also available in the library!).
The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne: Hawthorne's pacing is magnificent. So much happens with so little action, and the vivid details create a powerful portrait of the grand yet purely internal escape from trapped and foreboding circumstances.
The Book of Mormon (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints): I can't do book recommendations without including the book that has most shaped my life. It is a book centered on the teachings of Jesus Christ, written by a prophet-historian named Mormon many centuries ago, but its teachings will go a long way for anyone seeking to build a relationship with God. Even for someone who might not be interested in religion, the perspectives it provides are fresh and helpful in facing day-to-day challenges and working through the complicated political, social, and religious situations that currently exist, in a way that seeks after love for all. It challenges me to be a better person and care for those around me, even when it feels like there is not enough time to reach out.