5 Questions to David Smooke (composer, toy pianist)

Peabody Conservatory professor David Smooke is also a composer and performer. He has a new album out called Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death on New Focus Recordings, with upcoming release events in Brooklyn and San Francisco. That album title alone was enough to make us crave to know more. 

What is the inspiration for your new album and its title cut?

One of my favorite things about Baltimore is its wealth of and embrace of oddities, and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death are among the most fascinating. These dollhouse-like recreations of crime scenes were sculpted by Francis Glessner Lee in the 1930s and 40s in order to help found the field of forensic science, and they are now housed in the Maryland Medical Examiner’s office, where they are still employed to train detectives. My use of toy piano on the album reflects the nature of the Nutshells in that I take something originally associated with childhood and distort its essence in order to create something new that hints at its native identity while adding layers of disturbing meaning on top of that. I’m hoping that this will help draw a link between the ephemeral nature of music and a palpable physicality. Because music only exists as vibrations in air, I’m always thinking about how to ground the experience, how to create a sense of space. This might be concrete associations, like the Nutshell Studies or 21 Miles to Coolville, but it also might be imaginary or alien landscapes like in Transgenic Fields, dusk, down.stream and Some Details of Hell, or even mental spaces and identity like in A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was.

Dark Bathroom (detail), Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (photo: Corinne May Botz)

Dark Bathroom (detail), Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (photo: Corinne May Botz)

What has attracted you to the toy piano as a compositional and performance device?

I was introduced to the toy piano in 2004, when I composed a short piece for Phyllis Chen and two violas for a concert that she gave for children in Chicago. A few years later, I wanted to perform that piece myself and so I bought a used toy piano on EBay for $60. Random circumstances led me to play along with performance artists and then my Peabody colleague, the amazing bassist Michael Formanek. In trying to match some of Mike’s sounds, I found myself physically delving inside the toy piano and trying to find out what else I could make it do other than go “ding.” And this opened a whole world of possibilities for me. I was in my 40s and suddenly found myself becoming a performer, playing my first solo show ever, at the Stone, when I was 43. This has changed my entire perspective on what sort of a musician I am. I can travel and play. I can collaborate on free improvisations with performers I admire and can enjoy creating something new in the moment, as part of a whole.

How do you approach composition? What are your objectives?

I like to think of my music as part of the broader aesthetic world that includes visual arts and literature. Much of my current output is created purely in the moment and is designed to be completely ephemeral. When I write music down, I’m thinking about sculpting an object that will hopefully have some permanence. And there are good and bad aspects to this. I love working with other people who bring something to life and add their own imprint on top of my initial vision. But I hate feeling like something is done and having to let it go. I’m never as happy with the result as I should be, although sometimes I can convince myself that it’s ok to give the work its freedom and to let it be. But it’s hard.

What roles do you play at Peabody Conservatory?

I’m on the music theory faculty here at Peabody, and I also teach a rock music history class, and some composition lessons, and am the faculty advisor for Now Hear This, our contemporary music ensemble that’s in its second season under the artistic directorship of Courtney Orlando. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be at Peabody, since our new Dean, Fred Bronstein, has been bringing us into the 21st century, completely re-conceiving the conservatory experience. We still have our orchestras and chamber music, but our students are also learning 21st-century skills and are engaging broader communities as part of their curriculum. And this year, we began offering a course in Hip Hop (created through a Dean’s Incentive Grant proposal that I put forward last year in cooperation with Wendel Patrick), which has become a regular course offering.

How did you come to teach a Rock and Roll History course?

Like most musicians of my generation, I grew up mainly listening to offshoots of rock. And even in a conservatory setting, our students arrive loving many different styles of music. There are clearer aesthetic ties from the music of Stockhausen and other avant-garde composers to rock artists like the Beatles than there are between the avant-garde and most symphonic music. My early loves were prog and goth and post-punk, and when I heard Webern and Crumb for the first time, I recognized it as designed to speak to me in a way that I have never felt was the case with either Strauss. Before the 1950s, western classical music was a shared touchstone in the U.S., because the arbiters of our culture demanded that entertainment be edifying. But the advent of Top 40 radio and rock culture changed all that. Now, we understand that art from the popular tradition can be as complex and interesting and exciting as music from any other repertoire. I want students to learn about this great music, how it fits into today’s culture and how it influences creators of my generation and the generations that follow. 


Sunday, January 22, 2017 at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, NY: CD release event with special guests loadbang, Karl Larson, and Michael Parker Harley

Friday, February 24, 2017 at Center for New Music in San Francisco, CA: CD release event with special guests Ken Ueno and Matt Ingalls