D. J. Sparr: Playing Well With Others

Composer and electric guitarist D. J. Sparr draws energy and inspiration from interacting with other musicians. “That’s why I compose,” he says, “to get to the point where I can be actively working with other musicians.” A full schedule of composition commissions, performances of his own music and that of other composers, and educational residencies ensures that he gets his fill of that vitality.

Sparr grew up playing electric guitar (à la Eddie Van Halen), but put down his axe for a time during studies at the Eastman School of Music. Then, inspired by the composer-performer faculty members at the University of Michigan, he started performing again within the realm of classical music. He has since performed the music of Michael Daugherty, Paul Lansky, and others, as well as his own compositions, such as his electric guitar concerto Violet Bond, written for the California Symphony where he currently serves as Young Composer-in-Residence.

Beyond the electric guitar, Sparr has built a varied catalog of works for chamber ensemble, orchestra, and vocal music. His short-form opera Approaching Ali, commissioned and recently premiered by the Washington National Opera, is based on the book The Tao of Mohammed Ali by author Davis Miller, with a libretto by Mark Campbell. It tells the story of a writer at the brink of middle age who visits his boyhood hero in person in an effort to rekindle the spirit and enthusiasm of his youth. This poignant and charming work could serve well as an introduction to opera for people of any age or background.

Educational outreach is a substantial part of the composer’s work with the California Symphony, as it was during his three-year residency with the Richmond Symphony’s Education and Community Engagement Department and while he served as a faculty member at The Walden School. He takes cues from the performance and creativity workshops of Michael Colgrass for his own educational work, employing exercises such as drawing graphic scores and conducting on the spot. “It’s fun to work with kids, and it’s nice to get to know them,” explains Sparr, “and then some of them show up at [my] concerts, so it’s pretty cool.”

Early on in his composing career, Sparr found that what he needed to realize his own artistic goals was not located in Los Angeles, New York, or other large cities, so he left the urban landscape, moving first to the mid-Atlantic coast, and then to Richmond, Virginia to build a life that focused on the more basic needs of, as he puts it, “shelter, food, and writing.” He continues:

The combination of finding the people who support you, writing as much music as you can, and being as nice to everyone you meet as you possibly can, including being happy for their successes—there’s a saying that “A rising tide lifts all boats”—is really the key to making it work. And the composing world looks pretty great right now.

With Approaching Ali under his belt, a new large orchestra composition in the works to wind up his California Symphony residency, and a debut CD of his chamber music works coming out on Centaur Records later this year, it looks as if Sparr is reaching musical high tide. Hopefully his electric guitar case is waterproofed.

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