American composer Richard Danielpour has been composing for more than 25 years. In December his 100th commission, a book of twelve etudes for piano, will be premiered at Vanderbilt University. He says it's difficult to remember all the works he's composed over the years; however, he'll never forget the composition he considers to be his first opus, a piece he wrote in 1988 titled First Light. "I think it's because it's the first time that I wrote a piece that sounded more like myself and less like everybody else," he explains. First Light was first recorded in 1991 by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, and that recording, which also features his Symphony No. 3, and his triptych, The Awakened Heart, has just been reissued on Naxos records.
Danielpour has vivid memories of the night First Light had its premiere. "It was a piece that members of the New York Chamber Symphony, which once existed under the direction of Gerard Schwarz, had commissioned. It was done in New York at a small concert hall called Merkin Hall, right off of Broadway near Lincoln Center. Just about everybody who was a composer to be reckoned with or an important musician on the contemporary music scene was at that concert. It was intimidating and nerve-wracking to be there that night. But it started a whole chain reaction of events which led to my signing a contract with G. Schirmer, an exclusive contract which lasted for 20 years. And it also led to a number of other doors opening. So in a way it was an Opus 1 and a kind of turning point for me in my work."
The rhythmic quality of First Light is reminiscent of works by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. "When I think about the composers that I was coming of age alongside of, I think in some ways," Danielpour admits, "we all were under the influence of Stravinsky, in much the same way that almost every mid-20th century painter was under the influence of Picasso. The difference is that a lot of the music that you hear, particularly in, First Light, and in the triptych, Awakened Heart — a lot of that music has also the influence of rock music. I and other composers like Chris Rouse and Aaron Kernis — Michael Daugherty is another one — we were some of the first to be influenced in our music by rock. So in that way, there's that place rhythmic vitality and language of Stravinsky — the place where that and rock music intersect is probably where you would find me in my mid-30's."
So I asked Danielpour, Which rock group had the greatest influence on him? "The Beatles were very, very important, still are. I listen to them all the time. I can't really imagine being a composer without having first fallen in love with that music as a very young person," he admits. If you listen closely, he says, you can hear influences of the Beatles in several of his works, including his 1990 medieval triptych, An Awakened Heart. According to Danielpour, these three piece also have a visual component.
"And my mother who is still alive, God bless her, is a sculptor who is still working at the age of 76. I grew up with visual art and with that kind of orientation., so I was, in a sense, thinking about a triptych, a set of three musical paintings that would be both independent but interrelated."
The final movement, My Hero Bears His Nerves, is based on a Dylan Thomas poem. "When I wrote that piece, I started to see the difference between a choice that can be made in life, which is to either live as consciously as possible toward being real, toward being authentic or to just live with a kind of persona or mask. I think the first one works better for me, but it's hard work, really hard work."
Richard Danielpour isn't afraid of hard work. With more than one hundred compositions to his credit, and several new commissions slated to premiere in 2012, he seems to thrive on it.