Composers: Thomas Deneuville

Photo courtesy of Axel Dupeux

My first interview for The Glass! Hopefully the first of many!

Having been both a fan of compositional music and a longtime member of the Twitter and online community in general, I came to know a gentleman by the name of Thomas Deneuville. He goes by the name “tonalfreak” on Twitter, possibly to inform us of the fact that he is a strong practitioner of keeping the melodic element in the world of contemporary music, and this he does very well. Having been invited to come see one of his premieres in NY (This one being of his cantata titled Waiting For Thoreau, programmed in a recital along with some of his other works), I was very humbled to see a quite laid-back presentation of compositions arranged for both classical instruments and those that are more typical of rock like electric guitar and a drum kit. At the end of his Summer Miniatures suite he even has a transcription of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”.

CM: Thomas, you taught yourself guitar as a rock musician, and you went from that to studying classical violin a few years later. Was that an easy transition?

TD: It was actually a relief. I remember struggling with theory for a couple of years on my own while I was teaching myself guitar. Going to a music school brought me to another level. I immediately fell in love with solfege and literally ate the violin methods that were put in front of me, tackling second and third positions after a year. On the other hand it was also my first contact with the French music education system that still owed a lot (in spirit) to the 19th century. The same system pushed me to leave France years later.

CM: When did you decide you wanted to compose music?

TD: It was not really a decision. As soon as I was able to play chords and melodies on the guitar it was obvious that the next natural step was to compose, regardless of my technical level. What else was one supposed to do with one’s musical chops? Immediately after, I spent my spare time recording my compositions in my bedroom on a DIY multi-track system made of two boomboxes and using as many instruments as possible: violin, bagpipes, mandolin, snare drum, guitar, zither, recorder, etc. The white noise level on these recordings was unreal. In retrospect, they were very funny too.

CM: Did you ever feel pressured to imitate or write in a certain style? Or did you know what your voice was when the music came?

TD: When I was still interested in indie pop, I used to try to emulate the sound of my favorite bands (The High Llamas, The Divine Comedy, Tahiti 80, etc.) as I wanted to fit the Parisian underground musical scene. Apart from the fact that I actually never got a band together (I left France to study voice in Italy), it felt wrong and contrived, and I learned from this experience.

I am not saying anything new by claiming that the concept of style is outdated. Composers have a vast palette of techniques, tools, aesthetics they can illustrate their (musical) ideas. I believe that very few composers define themselves as “purely” minimalists, serial, spectral, etc. but most of them borrow whatever they need from these “schools” to build their own sound.

The important thing for me is to find an emotional place where I feel honest, that seems to reflect the Zeitgeist and also contains an element of risk for my writing (Just outside of my comfort zone). I don’t really know in advance what the next piece will sound like, but I know that this is the place I want to be in to write it. One would call this a “voice’, but a vibrant, changing evolving voice.

Delicate Structures; David Pearson (sop. sax), Ryan Shapiro (piano)

CM: Why Henry David Thoreau as the subject of your cantata?

TD: A year or so ago, I decided to focus on my growing concerns about the prevalence of technology in our society. Years of experience provided me with an insight into I.T.: I took my first programming class at the age of 8, and I currently work as an application trainer, web designer/coder, and social media consultant. These experiences have left me wondering about technology’s impact on our well-being. Are we not experiencing a collective loss of savoir-faire (As craftsmanship, cf. Richard Sennett) and savoir-vivre (Of civic experience)? How can we, as composers, raise awareness of such issues?

The underlying ideas for my cantata came to me when I got acquainted with Thoreau’s philosophy. Even though I had studied French literature extensively in high school and college, the Transcendentalists were unknown to me before I moved to New York (Surprisingly enough, I discovered Thoreau through Gandhi’s writings).

Waiting For Thoreau is a 5-movement cantata whose texts are drawn from Transcendentalist literature, New Thought tenets, and a web-based “bragging generator”. The textual contrast is reflected in the instrumentation: 3 winds (Flute, oboe, Bb clarinet), soprano, baritone, harpsichord, viola da gamba, and drum kit. I was really excited to write for viola da gamba: Ever since my teenage years, I have emotionally associated the sound of the gamba with an age when craftsmanship was valued, long before the advent of the digital era and its consequences on our lives, on the arts, or on cognition (cf. Nicholas Carr).

The title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to [Samuel] Beckett’s play. The ideals that Thoreau believed in could be reached nowadays but at the price of a deep introspection, through a fair critique of technology and faith.

CM: How do you feel about the current and future situation of classical/contemporary classical music and its audience?

TD: There’s never been a worst time to be a musician. There’s never been a better time to be a musician. The industry is not going well but we often don’t really need the industry. I believe in DIY and most tools a musician needs (Recording, promoting, selling, etc.) are largely available for very little money, if not for free.

Like many others, I also witness a shift in {new} classical music to something that’s hipper and appeals to larger audiences. Borders are blurred: Sufjan Stevens, Owen Pallett and Joanna Newsom were recently listed among the 100 Composers Under 40 by Q2 [Online substation to NY’s WQXR-FM], while Nico Muhly collaborates with Bjork or Bonnie “Prince” Billy.

I am both excited and worried about this: I enjoy the new energy and the experiments in new classical music, but I anticipate some empty fads. Nothing new, though. I’m pretty sure that people during the Baroque era, for instance, were facing the same challenges. As long as composers stay honest and never forget that music is intended for an audience, we should be fine. Easy on the synths, though…

Cyclothymic (Love) Diaries; Amanda Hick (soprano), Walter Aparicio (piano)
I care if you listen(.com) (Thomas happens to be an avid blogger as well! ;))


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