5 questions to Dennis Tobenski (Composer)

As a composer, are you inspired by other art forms? If so which ones?

I’m most often inspired by literature – many of my instrumental works center around some element of a novel or short story. Several years ago I wrote a 26-minute Pierrot-plus piece, Songs of Love & Madness, where each movement was a meditation on some piece of literature that had affected me in some way: Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Pauline Reage’s The Story of O, the story of Ganymede from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I also have a duo for cello and piano titled Letter from a Young Poet – a play on the Rilke title – which takes as its inspiration a letter from the young Paul Bowles to Gertrude Stein during one of his early trips to Tangiers.

The visual arts, while I have a great affinity to them, inspire me less in a musical sense. I think it has something to do with the lack of the temporal element. Music is something that has to be experienced in time – a piece moves straight through from beginning to end, and to interrupt it is to lose the effect of the work. The plastic arts can’t be interrupted – they can be obscured or damaged, but barring disaster a painting is the same now as it was five minutes ago. Literature has elements of the temporal to it – while it can be interrupted by putting down a book and picking it up again later, the stories told take place in their own time – in or out of sequence – and the actual reading of a novel or a poem takes place in time. I think that it’s this element of time and – particularly – development that makes literature so much more assimilable for me, musically.

Dennis Tobenski

Dennis Tobenski

Do you use a computer for your work? When did you start?

I do. Mostly, I do my actual writing either at the piano, or sitting at a table, and use Sibelius to engrave my scores and check that I’ve notated rhythms properly. I also do my final editing and rounds of revisions at the computer. However, I’ve been known to hunker down in a café or at the New York Public Library with my laptop and do some heavy-duty composing directly into the computer (using the computer keyboard and mouse – I’ve never been comfortable using a MIDI keyboard for input).

I started using the computer as a compositional tool very early on. My first real piece, which I wrote at 14, was done entirely on paper; but shortly afterward, I got Finale Notepad, and spent hours clicking notes onto the staves and writing tons and tons of music – none of which, of course, I’d let anyone see today!

The computer has definitely been a great tool for me – especially since I’m not the world’s greatest pianist and consequently can have difficulty playing through some of my works on my own.

Sibelius really does two things for me: It allows me to hear what I’ve written as a way to a) make sure I’ve notated everything properly, and b) make sure that I’m on the right track musically since I can’t always bang it out on my own at the piano; and it allows me to create scores that are engraved at a professional level, which is so important in this day and age.

Do you still use paper? What for?

I love the act of writing out notes, so all of my sketches are on paper. My art song sketches tend to bewilder people who look at them: strings of stemless noteheads with bits of text scribbled here and there – road signs for myself for when I put everything together in the end – and seemingly random barlines to tell me where a line of text ends. Maybe a couple of chord symbols (*gasp!*) peppered throughout to remind me of a particular harmonization that I’ve worked out and don’t want to have to remember on my own or write out in full quite yet. I know I shocked my boyfriend (who is also a composer) when I sat down with staff paper at the dining room table in his parents’ summer house and composed several pages of one of the more intense sections of Songs of Love & Madness without reference to a piano or my computer.

I also print out drafts of pieces that I’m working on and carry them around with me to dive into in any spare moment. I’ve missed many a subway stop doing revisions on my way home from various day jobs over the years.

Does working on a computer affect the way you compose?

Definitely. I think that the ability to move notes around easily and make revisions and edits at the drop of a hat makes me much more open to try different things with a piece. I think that my works are much more rhythmically interesting because I’m able to drop in a beat here or drop out half a beat there without difficulty or the danger of ruining the page with smudgy erasures. With my vocal and choral music, I’m always toying with bar length well into the revision stage, and it makes a huge difference that I’m able to make and undo changes easily.


Link to Mp3 – “Starfish at Pescadero” (Movements 4-6) for soprano, viola, harp, and percussion (2007).

Are you concerned with a possible loss of craftsmanship because of technology?

Not in any significant way. Artists have always faced change in the form of technological advance, but they are in no way obligated to make use of these advances. Lots of young composers use computers and various technological means to create their works, and many use them well. Those who don’t typically use technology to be lazy – and these composers will always find a way to be lazy, no matter what. Every generation sees advances in technology and grows accustomed to those changes; then with the next wave of advances, that generation forgets how they successfully weathered sweeping improvements and decries the next generation’s supposed reliance on a technology that wasn’t around “in their day”; rinse; repeat.

Technology, along with an increased access to musical instruction, has allowed more young people than ever before to become composers. Most won’t “make it”, and that’s how it’s always been; however, those that atrophy as composers still appreciate music at a high level, which can only be good for concert music since the flourishing of an art form requires an educated audience base, and the greater the size of that educated base, the more concert music will flourish.

Active composers, though, will find a way to make new technologies their own, and will create new standards of craftsmanship. I foresee a rise in engraving quality in the coming years as composers eschew the default settings in Finale and Sibelius, and learn to use their software to create professional-level scores as more and more composers turn toward self-publishing, which I think is the future of the concert music business.

Dennis Tobenski is a composer, vocalist, and fierce advocate of self-publishing and educating composers about the business of concert music.  He is the founder of New Music Shelf.com, an online digital distributor of scores by self-published composers. http://www.dennistobenski.com