5 Questions to Joseph Dangerfield (composer)

Joseph Dangerfield has lived and worked professionally as a composer, conductor, and pianist in Germany, Holland, Russia, and New York.  He is the recipient of many awards and recognitions including a Fulbright Grant, the Aaron Copland Award, and the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra’s Composition Prize. Currently, he is on faculty at West Virginia University. We spoke to him about the upcoming premiere of The Knot: his companion piece to George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae. The premiere will take place on April 12, 2015 at the Creative Arts Center of West Virginia University.

What was the impetus for composing a companion piece specifically to George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae?

Flutist Lindsey Goodman and I worked together at a music camp last summer, and performed Vox Balaenae on the camp’s concert series, along with a work of mine for violin and piano. We really liked working together, and she liked my violin and piano work, and therefore asked if I would be interested in writing a companion piece to the Crumb.

How does the process of composition change when you have the opportunity to work directly with the musicians for whom you are writing?

I love working directly with musicians when writing a new work. It opens up the process, and allows me not only to be technically accurate and idiomatic, but also lets me ask them about what I have written. “Does this work?  How does it sound in this register? Is there a better alternative?” I can use the experience of the performer to help write a work that is more enjoyable for the performer, while maintaining my artistic vision. It is an ideal situation.

Joseph Dangerfield

Joseph Dangerfield

Since The Knot is a sanctioned companion piece, how did your conversations with Crumb influence your compositional approach?

When I spoke with George Crumb about how he approached writing Vox Balaenae, he told me that “he had listened to a tape of whale song that a submarine captain had recorded.” He was fascinated, and jocularly stated that “a lot of composers were writing whale music at that time.” He was “thrilled that I would write a sequel.” That last statement is really what shaped my conception of the work. I decided that I would write a prequel, rather than a sequel. As his work metaphorically highlights the beginning of life on earth, I had to think more about the universe pre-earth (or at least pre-life-on-earth). I chose to represent elements of the Celtic Zodiac (also mirroring Crumb’s work with the Makrokosmos Zodiac). The work is in five movements, and I chose the symbols representative of the birthdays of five members of my family (Moon (Stag), Cat, Fox, Swan, and Butterfly). The work became five character pieces that are reflective as much of the personalities of my family members, as they are the symbols for which they represent. 

Vox Balaenae contains an array of unique timbral effects for flute, cello, and piano. Does The Knot employ these same techniques or bear any other similarities?

I decided to use all of the implements that Crumb used on the piano, but in slightly different ways. The glass is coupled with the use of magnetic tape (as found in old cassette tapes), to produce a “splashing effect.” I tie the tape to a piano string, and bat at it, with the glass perched across several strings. I call the resultant sound “waterglass.” I also established timbral connections, which could be viewed as sound objects that are ancestors of those found in Vox Balaenae (since it is a prequel). At the end of my work, the flutist sings into her flute, quoting a measure from the opening of the Crumb, without playing. The result sounds exactly like whale song, as heard under water. The effect also recalls the “stag” song, as seen in the example below, produced when the flutist removes the mouthpiece, and blows into the flute in the same manner in which a trumpet player blows into a trumpet (by buzzing the lips).


In your opinion, what are some of the greatest challenges facing composers of the 21st century?

In previous centuries, music was written by a set of conventions that were considered “learned.” Today, we have almost too many tools, and too many possibilities. Making a connection with our societal understanding of how music works through the conventions of the past, while still forging new territory is a huge challenge. Finding enough quiet space to think in today’s technologically stifling atmosphere is also quite difficult.


Amanda Cook is currently finishing her DMA at West Virginia University where Joseph Dangerfield is on faculty.