'The three most important
things for a composer are melody, melody, melody. All great works
have in common memorable melody."
At first glance this
statement seems to be an obvious one for a musician to utter, but for
New Mexico-based contemporary composer Daniel
Steven Crafts, the defense of melody has been a life-long crusade – a cause celèbre that
has pitted him passionately against many of the fashionable 20th
century trends of atonality, minimalism, serialism, and formalism.
In 1991 while working as a
radio and print journalist, Crafts says he grew tired of presenting a
new music series on his radio show. "No one called in; no one
listened, and I finally had had enough!" And so, the composer
threw down the gauntlet by publishing in the San Francisco Bay Guardian a manifesto entitled, Escape from the Dungeon of Dissonance.
The essay produced shock waves throughout the musical
establishment. "It made me an anathema to the new music
community. I even got death threats," Crafts remembers.
Speaking today more than
twenty years later, Crafts concedes that "the pendulum [of musical
taste] has swung back a little," and he acknowledges that his adamant
stance and his own unabashedly tonal and melodic compositions have
sometimes made his journey as a composer a difficult one. "To get my
music performed has been a challenge because I fell between the cracks
as a composer. The new music people didn't want me, and those committed
to the standard repertoire preferred the old masters." Still,
Daniel Steven Crafts has persevered and has prevailed.
Born in Detroit, a city
which, by his own admission, he left as soon as he came of age, Crafts
took up residence first in the San Francisco Bay area and recently in
the New Mexican desert. Crafts considers himself a largely
self-taught composer. "I tried to play a number of instruments,"
he recalls, "and I learned the basics of several, which has helped me in
writing orchestral music, but I never had the patience to practice."
Crafts recounts how his path
diverged from academe almost from the start. "I had been accepted
into a graduate program at a university with a prestigious music
program, and I went for a interview with the head of the Composition
Department. I was pretty cocky in those days, and I remember
telling him that I was not interested in spending any time with
twelve-tone music. I said that I found it aesthetically repugnant
and politically and philosophically reactionary. With a wave of
his hand, he replied, 'Then, I guess we have nothing to teach you.
Go write rock and roll!'"
Crafts chuckles at the memory
as he explains that after the encounter, he substituted intensive
self-study. "I spent years pouring over scores from the old
masters and trying to teach myself everything I could about all kinds of
music from Gregorian chant to the 20th century works I considered
worthwhile. And as he learned, he experimented with his own
compositions. He wrote and wrote –an oeuvre which to date
is comprised of a dozen operas, nine symphonies, six concerti, five
large orchestral works, and a proliferation of songs and shorter pieces.
Yet, despite his passionate
commitment and his output, choosing the métier of composer in the late
20th and early 21th centuries has often proved to be an uphill
struggle. When asked how one makes a living as a contemporary
composer, Crafts wryly responds, "I'm still trying to figure that one
out. I get a few commissions, but I also have to be resourceful
and support myself in any way I can." Over the years, those "day
jobs" have included working as a substitute teacher and as a journalist
and radio host for KPFA, in which posts he interviewed the likes of Jess
Thomas and Jerry Hadley.
It was the meeting with the
late tenor Hadley that proved to be a fortuitous one. "If you can
imagine my living in a rat hole of a Berkeley apartment and coming home
to a message from Jerry asking me to compose something for him!
Talk about life-changing experiences!"
Ironically, it was Crafts
gift for melody that captured Hadley's imagination, and the ensuing
project on which they collaborated, The Song and the Slogan, a
song cycle set to Carl Sandburg texts, won an Emmy for its PBS televised
performance in 2003. The cycle helped put Crafts' name on the
radar for contemporary composers, and the performances helped rejuvenate
Jerry Hadley's late career. Crafts went on to compose more songs
for Hadley, as well as his full-length opera, La Llorona and another song cycle, To a Distant Mesa.
The ambitious scope of those
recent works contrasts intriguingly with the beginnings of Daniel Steven
Crafts' compositional career. His earliest experiments as a
composer in 1970-1980 were in a genre known as "Found Sound" – the
combining of recorded tape and other existing sounds to create a
"I started with tape
compositions when I was sixteen, and I have moved a long way from there
over the years." But even in these experimental early pieces like Snake Oil Symphony and Soap Opera Suite,
the composer differed from the mainstream moderns of the period.
"I liked to combine found sound, speech, sound effects, and music in the
traditional sense into a piece that had content, that coalesced into
something more than just abstract sound." Snake Oil Symphony,
for example, which subsequently attained the status of a cult work is,
Crafts says, " a metaphor for capitalism; we all have something to
While the composer has long since abandoned this electronic experimentation, Crafts is amused at the place Snake Oil Symphony
seems to hold in the annals of 20th century music. "To this day I
get orders from people on every continent (except Antarctica) for the
recording. Universities use it in their music history curriculum,
and alternative radio stations still program it."
The impetus to
experiment has not left Crafts thirty-five years later. His most
recent new genre is a form of musical theatre he has dubbed "Gonzo
Opera." "It began when Shannon Wheeler sent me this funny scenario
for a one-act opera called Too Much Coffee Man, which I set to
music. Shannon then went out and arranged for its performance at
the Portland (OR) Center of the Performing Arts, and it was a hit!
So, I have written six more with other librettists, and then decided the form needed a
new name, so I came up with 'Gonzo Opera.' It has an Italian
connection and, of course, references Hunter S.Thompson." The
appellation seems to fit perfectly the wild and crazy style of operatic
comedy for small casts and ensembles which Crafts is writing. "My
goal in composing these Gonzo Operas," Crafts explains, "is to combine
the two things I love most: beautiful voices and comic satire. I
knew I could never do this in a traditional opera setting, but by using a
small instrumental combo, the work becomes portable, and that opens a
whole new realm for composing pieces that examine the relationship
between music and comedy in the 21st century."
While, with this new
invention, Crafts' creative arc may seem to have come full circle in
recent years, in fact, his compositorial opus is remarkable for its
breadth and versatility. Crafts modestly attributes his prolific
bent to necessity. " I would finish a work and make an effort to
get it performed and often come up with a blank. So I'd put that
piece away and start with something else," he laughs.
Still, along the way there have been some notable commissions such as Entrance to the City of Proud Fancy for Chicago's Northwest Symphony and Fanfare Overture
for the New Mexico Symphony. In the latter Crafts' gift for
exuberant melody is heard in counterpoint to the ominous strains of the
percussion until the two voices blend triumphantly. Or there is
the haunting My Mistress Suite, commissioned by conductor Kent
Nagano for the Berkeley Symphony, in which Crafts weaves the melodies of
medieval Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem into a four-movement
orchestral piece that moves from the lively dance rhythms of the chanson
through the slow and stately, even elegiac meditations of the winds and
strings and culminates in a complex tapestry of strings and brass.
"I'm a great fan of the
cello and the French horn," Crafts confides, but I am also now becoming
fascinated by the wonderful properties of the bassoon, the oboe, and the
clarinet," says Crafts, whose first movement of his Bassoon Concerto
was recently recorded by the Kiev Philharmonic. "But the voice is my
favorite instrument; beautiful voices transport me to another
world." And arguably, it is with his vocal works that Crafts has
achieved some of his finest and best-known compositions.
"I am always looking for
texts to set," the composer says, "but they have to be texts out of
which I can make melody. This usually means fairly regular rhythms,
and this is not common in modern poetry. Just putting notes to
words is not making music." Crafts has employed texts by the
novelist Rudolfo Anaya (From A Distant Mesa) and poet Adam Cornford (The Pied Piper), as well as mining the entire spectrum of classical literature for libretti and song texts.
Of the numerous theatre
pieces, choral works, and song cycles composed to texts by Shakespeare,
Shelley, Coleridge, Rossetti, Arnold, and Poe – to name but a few –
perhaps Crafts' most ambitious and memorable is his treatment of William
Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. Written for full
orchestra and four soloists, to date this magnificent work has only been
performed and recorded in its piano reduction. While one longs to
hear all the orchestral complexities, the existing recording does
reveal Crafts' affinity for the mystical Romantic poet-genius.
"Blake did not flinch from the worst that human beings are capable of,
but throughout the poems, there is a glow," Crafts says. And it is
that radiance which the composer has tried to evoke in his music.
Much like the illuminations which Blake drew to accompany his poems,
Crafts' song settings shimmer with mystery, melancholy, and
transcendence, captured no where more poignantly than in the plaintive
question posed by the tenor at the close of The Tyger: Did he who made the Lamb make thee? To this meltingly lyrical query Crafts frames Blake's unspoken answer in the somber resonance of dark chords.
The composer's operas include Diary of a Madman and Bartleby the Scrivener to libretti by the director and radio personality, Erik Bauersfeld, and the recent opera La Llorona to a libretto by Chicano writer Rudolfo Anaya. La Llorona
combines the Southwest legend of the Weeping Woman with the story
of Cortes and his conquest of the Incas. Betrayed by Cortes, who
seduces her but then marries a Spanish princess, Malinche, like Medea,
drowns her son and cursed must wander the world in tears. The
three-act opera, originally written for Jerry Hadley, was eventually
performed in 2008 by Brian Cheney as Cortes, Deborah Benedict as
Malinche, and Alissa Deeter as the Spanish princess in a semi-staged
version at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in New Mexico and in
concert excerpts in San Francisco.
"If I have a
voice in mind," - as Crafts did with Jerry Hadley – "I hear it in my
head, and it is easy to create a work that shows all the capabilities of
this wonderful instrument." This is precisely what Crafts did in
his two majestic song cycles of the past decade – The Song and the Slogan and From A Distant Mesa – written for Hadley and, like La Llorona, posthumously performed by the tenor's protégé, Brian Cheney (qv Jerry Hadley).
Using Carl Sandburg
poems which Hadley had selected for The Song and the Slogan, Crafts
created an exquisite cycle of songs which premiered in 2000 in its
chamber version with flute, oboe, French horn, cello, piano, harmonica,
banjo, and, or course, tenor. Its performance became a reality
through the championing of Barbara Hedlund under the auspices of the
University of Illinois Urbana Champaign and the public television which
recorded the cycle on location. The broadcast performance, which
features not only Hadley, but also Hedlund on cello and Eric Dahlheim
(one of Hadley's early mentors) on piano, won the 2003 Emmy for music.
Of the piece Crafts
says, "I had always admired Sandburg as a poet and a political
figure. In many ways he was a forerunner of Woody Guthrie, Pete
Seeger, and Bob Dylan, but his verse posed some challenges because the
poems avoided regular meter. But the ones Jerry picked worked well
musically after all." Crafts affirms that he drew on American folk
music – hence the harmonica and banjo – for inspiration in composing the
piece, and he sought to evoke the spirit of the prairie – "of those
good people living their loves in harmony with the land."
landscape into sound is something that attracted Crafts to his second
work, commissioned by Hadley on texts by Rudolfo Anaya, Adam Cornford,
and V.B. Price. To a Distant Mesa is a melodic meditation on the
magic and mystery of the Southwest desert. The forty-five-minute
orchestral setting is in three parts. The first, inspired by the
Hopi-Navajo legend of the Spider Woman to poems by Adam Cornford has,
Crafts feels "a very mysterious time out of time, time before time
quality." The second movement is in Spanish: Rudolfo Anaya's paean
to the Rio Grande in which the composer says he hopes "to have his
music conjure the same sense of power and movement of this beautiful
river," and the third by V.B. Price entitled Being the Waters sings of "the significance of water to the life rhythms of the desert."
Once again, after
Hadley's passing it was Cheney who premiered the cycle in January 2013
with the New Mexico Philharmonic. The young tenor praised the work
in a pre-concert interview by saying, "It's one huge, beautiful
melody." Crafts, after the work's long journey to performance, was
gratified to have it performed not only by Hadley's protégé, but also in
New Mexico, where "with its wonderful sense of the land, it rightfully
The circuitous odyssey of Crafts' compositions like The Song and the Slogan, From A Distant Mesa, La Llorona, and Songs of Innocence and Experience are,
alas, not anomalies in the labyrinthine world of the contemporary
classical music business. Asked what the greatest practical
challenge facing him and his fellow modern composers, Crafts answers
flatly: "getting performed." It is something of a conundrum, the
composer explains. "You need to know someone to get a
commission. I have never been part of the New York scene, and that
makes all the difference. You are considered a 'local composer'
if you haven't been performed in New York and some people think, 'Why
should I pay attention?'" He cites the La Llorona subject matter, which, he says, "should have been an ideal fit for the Santa Fe Opera."
Crafts also understands
that with the current funding constraints orchestras and the musical
establishment must program their seasons with caution. But, he
puzzles aloud, "It's a weird scene in contemporary music. In the
theatre a company can program classic plays together with new works, but
in music there seems to be this hesitancy." Pressed as to why, he
offers one possibility: "all those years of composers' writing
dissonant pieces has turned audiences off. With the high price of
tickets, they are reluctant to come to hear new works."
This perceived state of
affairs is something Daniel Steven Crafts seems to have accepted with
exceptional good grace. Rather than dwell on the difficulties,
Crafts has chosen to persevere. "I have this huge backlog of
things nobody has ever seen, but once I finish a piece and make an
effort to get it out there, I try to move on. I believe I have to
spend my time fruitfully writing."
So, he lets his music
speak for him. And the music he writes adheres firmly to the
aesthetic principles that have sustained him throughout his artistic
life. "In great art the context should be complex, but the means
of expression as simple as it can be," he wrote succinctly in
1991. "Music is a language, and to have meaning, it must be a
social language – one that can be universally understood," he
adds. "Without a common vernacular, music ceases to have reason
And how, I ask, has
Daniel Steven Crafts in his forty plus years of composing classical
music contributed to that credo? He replies: "By emphasizing that
MUSIC IS MELODY – that it should be beautiful, enjoyable, and not
abstruse." And then he adds with disarming simplicity: "All I have
done is to persist, and if I have been at all successful, then I am