David Bruce: Accidental American


Listen in on a conversation between David Bruce and Frank J. Oteri.

Featured music:
Gumboots (excerpt), performed by Ensemble ACJW at Skidmore College. To hear a full performance by Todd Palmer and the St. Lawrence String Quartet, please go to the Carnegie Hall website.

A Bird in Your Ear (excerpt), commissioned by and for the Graduate Vocal Arts Program at Bard College Conservatory of Music, performed by the Bard College Orchestra and Choir conducted by James Bagwell

Groanbox (excerpt), performed by the Groanbox Boys with the Metropolis Ensemble, conducted by Andrew Cyr, live at Le Poisson Rouge

David Bruce is a name that seems to be everywhere these days, particularly on programs at high-profile venues. In October 2008, clarinetist Todd Palmer and the St. Lawrence String Quartet performed his Gumboots at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall. And just a few days later, his music returned to Zankel’s stage when the Ensemble ACJW—the performing academy which is a joint initiative of Carnegie, Juilliard, and the Weill Music Institute—played his Polish song cycle Piosenki with Dawn Upshaw who had just done the work at St. Paul’s Ordway Theatre with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Then in May 2009, excerpts from his magical opera A Bird in Your Ear concluded the New York City Opera’s 2009 VOX Readings; it was the 100th work to be so featured on this annual showcase. And over the summer the Orchestra of St. Luke’s performed his Sports et divertissements at the Caramoor Festival. In September 2009, another song cycle for Dawn Upshaw, The North Wind was a Woman, opened the 2009-10 season of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at Alice Tully Hall. Earlier this month Gumboots returned to Carnegie, this time at Weill with ACJW, and the Metropolis Ensemble, which had earlier played his Groanbox at Le Poisson Rouge, returned there to play his arrangement of Thomas Tallis’s “If Ye Love Me.”

All in all, it’s a pretty amazing CV. But although he’s almost 40, he seems to have come fully formed out of nowhere. Actually—though born in Connecticut—where he really comes from (at least culturally speaking) is the United Kingdom. He only lived here for the first six weeks of his life and has a distinctly British accent. His parents are both from the U.K. and he is the byproduct of Great Britain’s comprehensive music education system. And while one of his mentors was the American expatriate experimentalist James Fulkerson, he obtained his two compositional degrees under the tutelage of two of the England’s most revered composers: George Benjamin for his Master’s at the Royal College of Music and Sir Harrison Birtwistle, for his Ph.D. from King’s College London. And he has lived over there to this day.

Yet despite all that, in some ways he’s actually also very American. Technically, by United States law, birth on U.S. soil guarantees citizenship. And though Bruce was initially quite surprised to discover that he was a bonafide American when he attempted to apply for a work permit upon securing his first U.S. commission—an amusing anecdote he related during our talk—there seems to be something unmistakably American about the music he has been creating. His extremely independent-minded compositions, like so much of the music being created here today, is completely non-dogmatic and open to stylistic influences from around the world.

I certainly have felt over here a feeling of doors opening in ways that they haven’t so easily back in the U.K. I think more recently it is opening up slightly in the U.K., but there’s been a tendency for certain schools to coalesce. [Here] there’s a slightly more open attitude toward what you do—there’s a full range from the post-minimalists onwards through to the most avant-garde or experimental sides. […] It is the melting pot, but it’s also now the age of the internet, where our local tradition is the world; you can go in and explore anything you want to in an instant. One of the joys of life is exploring areas of music that you didn’t know so well and trying to learn new ideas and thoughts about how music operates from them.

Works like Gumboots and the accordion dominated Groanbox are filled with infectious idiomatic folk-like melodies and rhythms which sound like they were spontaneously created in performance and yet were carefully notated.

I work entirely with notated music but it’s a subtle balance of how to present those effects and ideas in a way that will be understood by anyone who comes to it. I’m very aware that although there is a folk music influence, I’m within the classical and fully notated world. Already when you put a piece of music paper in front of a player, that’s a different form of presentation of music than improvising in the pub or wherever. That’s why it’s something new. It’s not folk music; it’s just influenced by it. But I love the colors of folk music, and he rawness that it often has. I often find the classical concert instruments slightly too perfected over the years, and I like trying to imperfect them.

And his operas A Bird in Your Ear and Push!, as well as the song cycle The North Wind was a Woman, show a sensitivity to the nuances of the English language which make them immediately comprehensible, something which is all too rare in music coming out of the classical tradition and which, once again, has been a distinctive hallmark of American composers more attuned to the so-called vernacular. Still rarer, his cycle Piosenki does the same thing for Polish—turns out his wife is Polish and he’s fluent.

The texts are from famous children’s poems from Poland and these were from books my wife was reading to our kids. So working with that text was kind of second nature to me. But I don’t ever set texts in a language I don’t speak. […] For me that was a breakthrough in many ways because when the commission first came through it seemed kind of daunting—a song cycle for Carnegie Hall, which sounded all quite heavy and serious. But at some stage I though, “To hell with it, I’m going to just enjoy myself.” It was a sort of liberation. I was no longer attempting to join the Great Canon, I was just having fun writing music I loved.

All in all, Bruce has a multifaceted compositional voice that is very much a part of our current zeitgeist. Perhaps this is why so many prominent performance venues have taken note of him, even though bizarrely there hasn’t been a single commercially available recording of his music thus far. Without a recording as a calling card, David Bruce’s rise to the top of the musical echelon has been largely accomplished via word of mouth. So even though he’s now gotten some really major attention on this side of the Atlantic, David Bruce’s music still seems something of a well-kept secret. But we’ve never been particularly good about keeping secrets!