Christian Baldini: Daniel, congratulations on having your work Cathedral Grove selected to be performed by the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra at our upcoming concert on June 1, as part of the UCDSO Composition Award/Readings. Tell us about your piece, its title, its genesis, and anything else that you’d like to add.
Daniel Godsil: Thank you, Christian! It’s an honor to have been chosen for this, and to get the opportunity to work with you and the UC Davis Symphony!
For me, an orchestra is a very special thing: I love the beautiful concert halls, I love the rituals, I love the great masterworks that have been written for it. I especially love how so many people assemble together, both onstage and off, to present and hear this music. As I was deciding what to do with this piece, I thought about how much an orchestra, and all its accompanying social structure, is similar to “America’s Best Idea”: its national parks. We take time out of our busy days to go experience something out of the ordinary; we’ve decided as a culture how much certain extraordinary places mean to us, and how important it is to preserve them for future generations. The Muir Woods–of which the “Cathedral Grove” is a part– is one such place for me. And there’s immediate beauty, yes, but these ancient trees have been around long before us and will hopefully still be there long after we’re gone: this evokes a very sublime feeling. John Steinbeck said in his book Travels With Charley that “No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree;” this piece is my humble attempt to, instead, make a painting in sound. I tried to capture some of that sublime feeling, and also vitality, majesty, tenderness, silence, light or color filtering through the tops of trees, etc.
CB: What do you try to achieve with every new piece that you write? What are your main goals?
DG: After finishing my undergraduate work in composition, I spent a long time working as a composer for film and other visual media. When I returned to composing art music, it took me a long time to come to terms with why I was doing it; it didn’t feel like there was a tangible end product like a movie or a video game. What has really helped me is the idea of making music as a community. With so much music out there nowadays, I think it’s important to cultivate music groups or communities–people that you work with, live with, study with, meet at a festival, have coffee with. I’m always most excited to hear music that my friends make or perform. I try as much as I can to write music that will be appropriate for the performer or event I’m composing for, and I love collaborating with performers while I compose. Hopefully, this all helps to communicate with the audience, too.
CB: You’ve now lived in California for quite a few years. Has being a UC Davis graduate student influenced you much professionally and/or personally, and if so, in which ways?
DG: California is a very special place for me: for one, my wife Sara grew up here, and has deep ties to the Bay Area, and her family lives here. And now, my daughter Betsy (who is already 18 months old!) was born here. I grew up in Illinois, in the hometown of poet Carl Sandburg. Illinois has its own kind of beauty, but I have to admit that it’s nothing quite like what I experience in California on a daily basis. A lot of this comes out in my recent music, too. I’ve been influenced profoundly by the natural beauty of my new home state. As an added bonus, the music department at UC Davis is fantastic! We grad students get to compose for and collaborate with world-class performers, and study with musicians and scholars at the tops of their field. What more could you ask for? I’ve also become a very avid cyclist, and I absolutely love that I can bicycle all year round in California. Living in Davis has taught me that time on the bike is almost as important as studying or composing!
CB: Is there anything that you’d like to see change in the usual concert platform, or in the way that symphony concerts are presented?
DG: As I mentioned earlier, I’m someone who really loves the modern orchestra and how it’s presented now. Even though it may seem stuffy, there’s a reverence built into the ritual that I think should be preserved. Just like you wouldn’t go into the Muir Woods with a boombox (hopefully), there’s a level of respect that goes with an orchestral performance. That said, I really think that orchestras need to have a significant “laboratory” component, where new music is given equal standing with established repertoire. When you go to a good museum, the contemporary works aren’t presented in some back room…they’re in a fantastic, new, climate-controlled space, right next door to the masterworks of the past. I’m not a fan of having new orchestral works presented as filler, or blamed for lost ticket sales. The audiences should be given more credit! Look at what the Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil are doing, for instance, and thriving, at that! Championing new music should be a major part of preserving our beautiful orchestral tradition; like the slogan says for the American Composers Forum, “all music was once new.” And by taking chances on new local music! I love going to the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, for instance: they have a great collection of local California art, and it’s fantastically diverse. I love it when orchestras do the same kind of thing, it strengthens community bonds very simply and effectively.
CB: What would be your advice for anyone trying to become a composer? (and/or for anyone applying for graduate school in composition)?
DG: Again, I think it’s really important to cultivate musical community. If you’re not a skilled instrumentalist or performer, start by working on that! Get out and start playing music with other people. Write something for a cellist friend, for instance, and see what works. You can learn so much more in one rehearsal than by reading books for that same amount of time. That’s not to say that reading or studying is a bad thing: it’s important to learn your craft through whatever means possible, and doubly important if you want to pursue composition at the graduate level. But I think it’s good to frame everything by actually doing music.
CB: Thank you for your time, Daniel, we look forward to performing your piece and sharing it with our audience soon!
DG: Thank you, Christian, I’m really excited to work with you and the orchestra, and I hope people who hear it will let me know what they think!
Daniel Godsil‘s music, which has been described by the San Francisco Classical Voice as having an “intense dramatic narrative”, draws from such eclectic influences as rock and heavy metal, science-fiction, and Brutalist architecture.
Winner of the 2017 Earplay Donald Aird Composition Competition (for his quartet Aeropittura), Godsil’s music has been played by Ensemble Dal Niente, Talujon Percussion, the Lydian String Quartet, the Empyrean Ensemble, the Metropolitan Orchestra of Saint Louis, the University Symphony Orchestra at California State University, Fullerton, the Knox-Galesburg Symphony, the Daedalus String Quartet, and the Nova Singers, among many others. Recent film scores include the PBS documentary Boxcar People, Man Ray’s 1926 silent film Emak-Bakia and the feature film H.G. Welles’ The First Men In The Moon. Godsil was a finalist in the 2018 Lake George Music Festival chamber composition competition, the 2018 Reno Pops Orchestra competition, as well as the 2014 & 2018 Red Note New Music Festival Composition Competitions. His choral works are published by Alliance Music Publishing and NoteNova Publishing.
Born and raised in central Illinois, Godsil (b.1982) is currently pursuing his PhD. in Composition and Theory at the University of California, Davis, studying with Mika Pelo, Laurie San Martin, and Sam Nichols. He holds an MFA in Music Composition from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where he studied with John Fitz Rogers, John Mallia, and Jonathan Bailey Holland. He also holds a BM in Music Composition from Webster University.
Godsil was selected to participate in the 2017 Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP) in Boston, where he had master classes with composers Nicholas Vines and Georg Friedrich Haas.
Godsil has also been active as an educator, conductor, and performer in the central Illinois area, Knox College, Monmouth College, and Carl Sandburg College. At Knox College, he directed the New Music Ensemble, Wind Ensemble, Chamber Ensemble, and Men’s Chorus. He has also held posts as choral accompanist and collaborative pianist, and served as Music Director and Organist at Grace Episcopal Church in Galesburg, IL.