Fellows Friday

Classic rock: Dan Visconti, the 21st-century composer

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Dan Visconti is updating the image of the classical composer — from lone, fusty genius to dynamic community leader who creates music as a tool for social engagement. Whether he’s telling the stories of Cleveland’s refugee communities or composing a piece for the Mississippi State Prison, Visconti makes concert experiences that invite people to participate. Classically trained, but with a love of American vernacular musical traditions, Visconti infuses his compositions with a maverick spirit—drawing on jazz, rock, blues and beyond. Here, he tells the TED Blog his vision for how to break through the traditional reserve of classical music, making it accessible to a new generation.

How would you describe your compositions? Are you consistent in your style?

In some ways not. But I’m very consistent in my attitude about music. I guess the best way to say it is that I’m trying to make the composer relevant again—not this old guy with a wig and a quill pen laboring in isolation, but a cultural ambassador and collaborator, someone deeply integrated in the communities that he or she serves. One of the ways I do that is by composing music that’s open to diversity of traditions. Often my pieces sound like they’re not classical music. A piece might have the directness of expression of a great jazz performance, or the sense of audience rapport at a small club venue, or the wildness and improvisatory spirit of a really good rock performance. I also believe that music can play a strong role in social change. I think about Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, and the great tradition of protest singing in America: using music to transmit a message. What I’d like to do is to go beyond transmitting that as lyrics in a song, to create an experience that immerses the audience and causes them to engage a larger point of inquiry.


Above, watch the Kontras Quartet perform Dan Visconti’s Ramshackle Songs, a work inspired by the spirit of recreational music-making that characterized the Tin Pan Alley-era of American popular music.

Can you give us an example of how this works?

I recently completed a project with the orchestra City Music Cleveland called Roots to Branches. I set to music some of the stories of the city’s nearly 20,000 refugees, who hail from Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Congo, Iraq, Nepal, Russia, Somalia and Sudan. We created a whole music festival where we brought in musicians and dancers from the refugees’ home cultures, and the piece of music became a focal point to engage a larger cultural issue. It also had the effect of bringing the city’s different refugee communities together—now they’re working together to solve problems.

I’m also interested in anything that can make going to a concert hall special. For example, a lot of pop and rock musicians employ lighting and amplification, raising the bar so high in terms of stimulating the senses. Classical music really has to catch up and take the advantage of all of those things. Take opera. A lot of people who might otherwise really enjoy it are turned off by the operatic style of singing with vibrato. This style originated because vibrato allows the voice to project more volume in times when no amplification was available. It’s no longer necessary, and now pop singers can sing with wonderful, subtle nuance—they can whisper, sigh. But opera is still stuck where it was in 1600.

You’re also doing some exciting site-specific stuff, such as in the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Tell us about that.

That’s a project I’m working on with the Kronos Quartet, who are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year. They’re one of the biggest pioneers in taking so-called classical music and updating it. They’ve brought in the world music, collaborated with people like Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Tom Waits. They’ll be performing a piece of mine at this prison called Parchman Farm in Mississippi, properly known as Mississippi State Penitentiary. This is a prison where a lot of the blues greats like Leadbelly and Son House were incarcerated. It’s notorious for being cruel. What we’d like to do is create an event that draws attention to a lot of the crises in our prison systems right now.

I’ve actually been working on this with Robert Vijay Gupta, who is a former TED Fellow and a great violinist with LA Phil, and we’re also working with organizations like the Mississippi Prison Museum and the Southern Poverty Law Center to create the performance event. It has all the aspects of old blues singing, based on some of the Alan Lomax archival recordings from the Smithsonian Folkways collection. We’re also looking at some of the prison food that was served, and making it available to the audience. We’ve got speakers coming down to talk about social conditions, and issues like racism and violence in prison. We want to give people a way into engaging with something they knew about, which they might have felt wasn’t even a problem before. When people are given a visceral, emotional experience, they are often moved to action. I want to impart passion and a desire to get involved to people who wouldn’t get it by attending a symphony concert and reading program notes in a little booklet. That’s just passé at this point.

Visconti is a resident composer for the concert organization Fifth House Ensemble, which is dedicated to engaging and educating audiences through performance.

Visconti is a resident composer for the concert organization Fifth House Ensemble, dedicated to engaging audiences through performance. Photo: Fifth House Ensemble

These pieces sound quite interactive. Do your audiences actually participate in the performance?

Yes. I am working on an educational piece now for Fifth House Ensemble, a performance ensemble I’m a part of whose aims are innovative programming and civic practice. 5HE is very focused on education initiatives in schools, colleges and universities as well as local cultural centers and community gathering places. The piece requires an audience to participate—they play a little toy instrument along with the musicians, so they become part of the performance. It empowers them, because without knowing how to read music, they feel like they can participate. They can be part of something larger than themselves.

I think that’s the kind of thing that classical music has the ability to do that’s difficult for pop music to do. I think that’s the balance I’m trying to create—drawing on the things that are really strong about non-classical traditions, but also looking at what’s special about classical music. Of course, there is something special about something as basic as hearing a Beethoven symphony played live. I hope that by doing some of these more interactive projects, I will also help make it more possible for people to enjoy a simple symphony. It’s all connected.

You don’t perform your own work at all. Why did you decide to become a composer, and not an instrumentalist?

My parents started me on violin when I was about 5 years old. One of the best things they ever did for me was that they let me stop, because I absolutely hated it. I don’t know why, but after six months, I didn’t want to do it. They always encouraged me to try everything, and always gave me the best support I could hope for, but they were always okay if I didn’t like something. Had I continued, I’m sure I would have developed mad technical chops, but it would have been a soulless endeavor since it didn’t feel like a pursuit of my own. Yet.

But when I was about 17, I heard a violinist who was a little bit older than me playing some solo Bach, and it was just so beautiful. It motivated me. I started a job to save up money for lessons, and it was my own thing. I had my own relationship with music that wasn’t about doing it for my parents.

But I was always getting yelled at by my violin teachers because I could learn instruments very quickly, but I would plateau and start improvising different endings to Mozart pieces and stuff. I gradually realized maybe composing was where my strength actually lay—coming up with different situations that could happen in music. So I pivoted from performance to composing. I had just started at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and I made the full switch to being a music composition major.

To the relief of your teachers?

Much to their relief, and perhaps their chagrin as well.


Above, watch Chase Jarvis’s short film Benevolent Mischief, which features Visconti’s score that blends the sound of a classical cello — played by TED Fellow Joshua Roman — with harder-edged beats from the world of hip-hop.

We know what it looks like to perform or conduct, but what is the process of composing music and getting it into the world?

People tend to commission me to write music for specific occasions. I’m not as brilliant a thinker as Beethoven, but I can do things that he can’t do, because he’s dead. I can tailor-make a piece exactly to a particular ensemble, for a particular occasion—whether it’s expressing the stories of refugees, or honoring a particular historical site. One family even commissioned a piece privately for their children to teach them to learn values around sharing, interacting and cooperation, which I thought was really cool.

I hadn’t realized that ensembles actively seek new composers for music to perform.

Yes. There are a couple of reasons for this. Sometimes major orchestras commission work from new composers because it makes them look good, it makes them look in touch. Beyond that, there are a lot of people who really love new music, and some like to pair new music with an older piece to present it in relief. It can be really exciting to hear Beethoven and then a new piece that sounds more like Jimi Hendrix. It opens up the spectrum. Or I can write a piece of music that takes elements of a Beethoven symphony, and take it in a new direction. A new piece of music can be a way to relate to the past.

So that tends to be the system. I’ll create the pieces, then usually there’s an exclusivity agreement that gives the commissioning organization the rights to recording and performance for a certain amount of time. After that, I make it publicly available on my website, and people can license and perform it.


Above, conductor Julien Benichou takes composer Dan Visconti’s Black Bend for a spin at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music.

Why is classical music so calcified in its ways?

I could go into a lot of reasons. Classical music is one of the most conservative art forms, and there seems to be a huge lag in development. Often, movements in visual art happen 20 or 40 years before those same movements hit music. For example, Impressionism in the visual arts began as early as the late 1800s, while in music, we don’t get Impressionist composers like Debussy and Ravel until around World War I or a little later.

A lot of it has to do with concert venues. They tend to be conservative organizations, they have boards—they’re slow to change. They can’t react as quickly as, say, a gallery can. They have to program years in advance. So there’s an inherent asymmetry in terms of the ability to be nimble, to deal with new problems and to react to new social phenomena. I think that one of the things that we can do as composers is be those people that are more reactive, that notice what needs to happen before the big organizations do.

So in some ways, people who are like me—working around inherent conservatism and tradition, while also finding ways to respect tradition and use it as an inspiration—are kind of guerrillas on the ground. We’re working with and sometimes within the systems, but also secretly against them. We love them, but we also want them to change.

It sounds like your work is about teaching people to listen differently.

Absolutely—and to think differently about sound, and about what music is. Music is all around us. We’re making it all the time. I’m making music right now: I’m kind of singing. I’m speaking in a certain meter, there’s a certain reciting pitch to my voice. I’m not doing that intentionally or consciously.

There’s music all around, but we just don’t listen for it. That’s something where the West is behind—a lot of Eastern cultures and early pre-industrial cultures are often more close to that. I’ve also realized that in many such cultures, the musicians—shamans—tended to be people who lived somewhat outside of society. There’s a sense that you have to be a little bit removed from a culture to diagnose things that need fixing. Maybe today’s composers can re-engage with that shamanic tradition of a counselor or psychologist. I think that’s the role I feel most comfortable with—trying to help people with music in a direct sense, rather than an indirect one.