Interview with Robert Denham
2016 Composition Competition Winner
On the Departure of a Loved One for Flute and Piano
Interview by Pyero Talone
Robert: Certainly. I’m a native of the San Francisco Bay Area of California. I grew up there and probably spent 20 years of my life there. I then came down here and attended Biola University as a trumpet performance major, so that’s my background, instrumentally. While I was working on my trumpet performance degree and freelancing in the Los Angeles area, I became interested in composition and entered a few contests that were within the school. I placed in those contests and became very excited about composition, so that caused me to start thinking of going into composition as a profession. A lot of my friends were pushing me towards that, so I went ahead and explored that. I did my MA in composition at UCLA and then went on to the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of music for my doctorate in composition. At that point, I had taught at a few universities, but then went on to teach full time at West Texas A&M for just a year, at which time I moved on to Biola University. This is my tenth-year teaching at Biola, serving as the area coordinator for theory and composition. It’s a department of about 30 composition majors, so it’s a thriving department. We’re really excited about what we have here.
Pyero: I really loved On the Departure of a Loved One and I know that it comes from a concerto you wrote, right? Can you tell us about your inspirations behind it and your compositional process?
Robert: Certainly. Well, the background of the piece – I was asked by a friend of mine, Brian Bensing, who was the person I dedicated this to. He asked me to write this concerto so he could play it with the Cambrian Symphony. He’s part of that symphony up in San José. And I was short on time but had to produce something for a particular concert, so I thought, why not kill two birds with one stone: I’ll write the middle movement of the concerto and go ahead and write it just for piano and flute. Because it was the second movement, it didn’t take me so much time to write. The faster movements, because they have more notes, take a longer time to write and format. So that’s why I started with the second movement. I love the second movements of the Barber Concertos. Samuel Barber wrote several concertos: a piano concerto, a cello concerto, a violin concerto. That middle movement right there seems to be an opportunity for him to express things that are more intimate and more close to his heart: sorrow, grief- things that are more personal, I think. Because, of course, the first movement of a concerto is bringing the audience in, it’s not bringing up anything terribly controversial or terribly emotional. But that inner movement, framed as it is against the outer movements, is an opportunity to do that. So I think that all of us have at some point in our lives, if we’ve lived long enough, lost loved ones. And for me, my father died about six years ago. At the time that I wrote this, it was more like four years, so that was kind of a thought that was lingering as I was processing.
Pyero: So going back to you as a composer, who has most inspired you as a composer?
Robert: Well, I would say that if I was stuck on a desert island and had one composer to listen to, and only one, I’d have to say that would be JS Bach. But I wouldn’t say he’s my favorite composer. My favorite composer is Benjamin Britten. I really love his opera Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, and so forth, the work that he’s done with the voice. He worked with Peter Pears on things like serenade and nocturnes. I just really love that style. I feel as though his music speaks on a variety of levels. People who don’t have a lot of experience with new music, they can appreciate his music, but also people who do have a lot of experience listening to new music because there are a lot of interesting textures, there’s depth, there’s a profound nature to what he does that makes it intriguing even to a doctoral theorist, if you will. If they dig, they’ll find some interest there. So that’s very inspiring to me. I wouldn’t count him on my desert island because I’d be afraid of getting bored of listening to the same composer over and over again. If I had to do that, it would be Bach. But the person who’s music I admire the most, I think it would have to be him. Of course there are others: Stravinsky is a favorite; I really admire the music of Ravel – I think his music is phenomenal. More recently, I’m attracted to the minimalist school with John Adams and so forth. I think that he’s got quite a bit of color in his music. I also think that, as a minimalist (or post minimalist), his music has evolved so much more over his lifetime than some of the other minimalist composers. Philip Glass, for example, has stayed relatively close to where he was, whereas John Adams as morphed throughout his career.
Pyero: So since you’ve mentioned Bach, could you tell us about SDG?
Robert: JS Bach would often times put that at the bottom of his music and it stood for Soli Deo Gloria: to God alone be the glory. Bach was very spiritual. He was very mindful of the fact that God had given him his talents. Bach was not great just because he was great. These gifts had been given to him. I think he was trying to draw more attention to God than to Bach, himself, the person. And so I put that down on the bottom of my music, not to slap anyone in the face with it, but to remind myself as much as anything that this is not mine, this is something that I believe that the Lord has given. It’s not something for me to hold in anybody’s face and say “look what I did” because, honestly, as a composer, when you’re looking at a blank piece of staff paper and there’s nothing on it, there’s a feeling of terror that fills your heart and you say, “I’m not sure what I’m going to write.” And I know I have to write something. When people ask me how I compose, my honest answer is that I’m not really sure. I’m not really sure how those notes get on there. I always start my composition process with prayer. Different people have their different methods, I understand, but that’s just my way of dedicating it to God.
Pyero: What do you like and what do you find challenging about writing for flute?
Robert: Well, in terms of flute music, I’ve written several pieces that either feature the flute as a solo instrument or heavily involve the flute. Cindy with Pacific Symphony (I worked with the Pacific Symphony on a project) encouraged me – she said “hey, you write really well for the flute, you should write a concerto,” so partially, this concerto comes out of that, and her encouragement, as well. I’ve found that if I try to write something that I think a flute or flutist cannot play, that they always prove me wrong. It’s almost as though flutists can play anything. Now, I know that, of course, there’s a limit to how many notes you can fit within a certain beat, and yet, it’s such an acrobatic instrument that, if you know how to notate septuplets and nonuplets and things like that, (like, once again, Ravel did so well), if you are able to notate that, you can really express yourself with a lot of decoration. The ornaments you can achieve, the frills that you can put on the music, it’s just wonderful to be able to dance like that. I think, of course, that in certain parts of the register, you really have to watch for the balance and be careful of the other instruments involved, particularly with a full orchestra – not overpowering the instrument. That’s something that the flute concerto for orchestra has been performed just once, and that’s something that I’m watching for in each subsequent performance. Watching the balance and, is it the orchestra that needs to fix things, or is it me, the composer that needs to fix things – to thin it out a little bit, or it could possibly be both.
Pyero: Can you tell us about other pieces you’ve written for flute?
Robert: One of the first mature works that I wrote was for solo flute and it’s called Two Soliloquies and it’s two monologues, if you will, for solo flute. The flute concerto is in three movements, and that’s available in piano reduction, the entire things is. Then other pieces that involved the flute include an oratorio called Under the Shadow and it features the flute and piccolo quite a bit- there are a lot of decorative patterns that are floating around on top of it. Then a lot of chamber pieces and a lot of wind ensemble pieces, and of course the flute plays an important part there, but as far as solo, just the Two Soliloquies for solo flute and then this concerto are the only pieces that feature the flute for the entire time. Oh, and there’s actually a piece for alto flute called the Lament of Aeneas. And that’s got an interesting story behind it because of course everyone’s heard of Purcell’s Didot and Aeneas and Didot’s Lament. This is kind of Aeneas’ response to that – he gets to have a lament as well. But this is for alto flute and is available for piano and alto flute or orchestra and alto flute.
Pyero: So can you tell us your website and other ways to contact you?
Robert: Sure, my website is robertdenham.com and the best way to get in contact with me is email. That’s on the website as well, but it’s Robert.Denham@biola.edu. Lament of Aeneas is published by Falls House Press, for both the piano reduction version and the orchestra version. I’ve published the flute concerto through my own company, and that’s Hog Island Press. So if anyone’s interested in getting copies of that, both the piano reduction and full orchestra, they should contact me directly.