JD Daniel (they/he) is a composer, singer, writer and queer activist whose music has roots in everything from contemporary choral and vocal music to electronica and video-game music. Since they started composing at age 14, Daniel has earned a musicology-focused B.A. in Oxbridge Music and Philosophy from William Jewell College, where he was a Choral Scholar, touring internationally and recording multiple albums. In this interview we explore Daniel's creative process, his musical background, influences and book, music and movie recommendations.
How long have you been a composer? Who were some of your earliest influences?
I started composing when I was 14, so it's been almost 9 years now! The way that I started was very unexpected. I started classical piano training when I was 3 or 4, and I enjoyed playing music from my favorite video games and favorite electronic music producers on the piano, as arrangements. I got some cheap software to help me notate piano sheet music for such arrangements, and then after improvising a short melodic theme on the piano, I randomly felt inspired to actually compose an original piece for piano, which is something I never thought I would do (you can see 14-year-old me playing this first piece, "Snowstorm," if you scroll down to early videos on my YouTube channel). So in those early days of my composing, my influences were the piano literature of 20th-century western-classical composers like Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, plus all this fun music from my favorite video games (particularly the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise) and my favorite electronica (producers and DJs like DimRain47, MitiS, and Said the Sky). When I began classical voice training and singing in a choir at 15, and writing for choir at 16, my biggest early influence was definitely the popular living choral composer Eric Whitacre, though I think any healthy choral musician should appreciate and then look beyond Whitacre to experience the many other composers writing in and creatively expanding that particular late-20th and early-21st century dissonant choral style.
You recently posted a new performance of your composition “His Love Whom I Love", which you describe as the "very first art song" you ever wrote. What attracts you the art song as a form?
I'm glad you asked about a specific piece! Beginning my vocal training within the choir program at Richmond High School (Richmond, MO), I also immediately wanted to begin practicing classical solo singing, with arias from operas and individual folk and classical songs that were typically called "art songs." I was able to do this by practicing during lunch breaks and after school, so that I could compete in district and state-level music festivals for ratings from judges. I then became a Choral Scholar at William Jewell College (Liberty, MO), which meant actual private voice lessons and requirements that I learn and perform a lot of solo repertoire while continuing to do tons of choral singing both on and off campus. I also was able to take a fantastic poetry class. Becoming more comfortable with singing and more fascinated with language and the union of language and sound, I continued writing for choirs but avoided writing work for solo voice for whatever reason. Then I became connected with some folks in the classical and contemporary-classical music scene all the way up in Vancouver, BC, and I was introduced to Michael Park, the director of a workshop there called Art Song Lab, which pairs together poets and composers to create new art song together. I loved the idea of collaborating with a fellow artist. I participated in the workshop in 2018, for which I had written "His Love Whom I Love" as one of the pieces I used as part of my application, and then out of the workshop and my amazing collaboration with my poet partner (and now long-distance friend) Irina Rakhilkina, came "universe is trying to tell me something but it's mute," which was met with an amazing audience response as the closer for the concert and produced a stellar recording that I'm still very proud of and grateful for.
I fell more deeply in love with poetry and the voice and started to explore more work with art song and spoken word. Words and sounds can be used to create layer upon layer of transformations in texture and meaning. The line between words and sounds can become blurred and pleasantly atmospheric. I just love storytelling and working within a textual medium as a musician. I participated for a second time in Art Song Lab, just this summer, and the premiere and recording for my new piece created with my new poet partner-friend will be coming soon!
Describe your creative process. How in particular is most challenging for you as a composer? Where do you go to write? What tools (i.e. apps, software, etc.) do you use, if any?
The piano, and experimenting and improvising with it, helps me to begin developing melodic and harmonic content for a piece. But even before that, I generally like to spend a lot of time in the conceptualization process. I tend to have a narrative or political or philosophical message that motivates and guides me. I like depicting environments and giving an important message about life or humanity that holds together what tend to be hypnotic repetitions and dense atmospheres in the sound-world of my music itself. When working with the voice, this often also means working with text, whether it's my own writing, something improvisatory, a poem from a collaborator, or something from a deceased 19th-century or 20th-century writer whose work is in the public domain and available for me to explore and perhaps mess with a bit in the way I set the words to music (deconstruction, changing meaning, etc.).
As a singer, my own inclinations for how I might like to sing a certain line of text will inform how I write vocal music. I'm also beginning to explore electronica and pre-recorded audio (you can hear this in "Highway Contemplations"), using my Yeti Blue mic. When working with text, writing out the plot or structure of a piece, or actually notating sheet music, I'll either be at a piano or at a desk, potentially with my electronic keyboard next to me. At some point, once I've written enough of the piece, I will be able to hear how I want the rest to sound, using and re-using the sonic content I've already developed and written down. I use Finale as a notation software for sheet music, and when working with pre-recorded audio and layering/mixing, I just use Audacity, which is a free and very basic software. I hope to learn more about electronic audio production and more advanced software in grad school (I want to obtain a master's and potentially a doctorate in music composition).
What I tend to find most challenging is connecting my process with its actualization into performance by singers and/or instrumentalists. This isn't the case with a fixed electronic track (like "Highway Contemplations"), which is part of why I want to get into electronic production more, but there definitely is a beauty to writing music that will inevitably be an ongoing collaboration with whoever wants to perform it. The sheet music isn't really "music," not until it's performed and put into the air over a period of time to be actually experienced. Thus it's important that I as a composer write in a way that is considerate of my performers and what they want to do and can comfortably do, in whatever performance space(s) they have, and that I remain open-minded to the way the piece will change along that process. It will never sound the exact same way twice, and it will never sound exactly the way I hear it in my head. Sometimes this can be psychologically and socially difficult. It requires a lot of trust!
What books about music have made the most impact on your creative life?
My Bachelor's was a weird, interdisciplinary honors degree in music history, analysis, and philosophy, which means that I did a lot of nerdy reading and writing about (primarily western-classical) music and its study and practices, so it's hard to pick out individual whole books! From that experience, what seems to have influenced my thoughts about music, and about beauty and art-making in general, the most has been my research in areas like philosophy of religion and aesthetics. Composers on Composing for Choir, Theological Aesthetics, and Makoto Fujimura's Culture Care are three important books for me that I can name, though I will admit that I have not read any of them in entirety front to back! The first of these gave me some practical insights into the work and vocation of choral composition, and the latter two influenced my own philosophical groundings in how I approach music-making as cultural work and how I place my largely secular perspective alongside the work of more spiritual and sacred musicians and their traditions.
What music are you currently raving about?
Anything from KOAN Sound, 4lienetic, and CupcakKe, the choral music of living composer Dale Trumbore, old Hindu Vedic chants, and almost any early western-classical choral music that British ensemble Voces8 records.