Meet Composer Dunkin Wedd

Composer F L Dunkin Wedd and I met on Myspace in 2006 and began corresponding through that site and e-mail. Eventually, our correspondence turned to collaboration with two recitals here in the U.S. and one recital in England (the first time that we formally met). Not only did this initial chance encounter, on a social networking site, lead to an exciting working relationship and multiple performances, it kindled a wonderful new friendship and allowed for the discovery of some charming and delightful music. [To read the full story of this collaboration, see “Reflections on a Cyber-Recital,” the Bonus Web Article, September 2014, at www.classicalsinger.com/magazine/archive.php.]

While I was working with Dunkin Wedd, I told him that I wanted to get his name out there as a terrific contemporary composer with a unique musical voice that deserves to be heard more. To accomplish this, he graciously agreed to an interview.

How young were you when you began to explore composing? What were some of your early or even current compositional influences?

My mother reports that among my first words were “bell” (the bell from the village church nearby), “bird” (birds singing outside), and “more” (when I would put my finger on her lips to make her sing to me).

She was a big influence: she owned early Archiv records of period performances, especially of Bach. This was in the late 1950s and early ’60s—long before the period performance boom.

My father was a painter who would play records good and loud when he was working. Big favorites were Schubert, Beethoven, and Sibelius symphonies. And he would sing as he worked on our smallholding [small farm], with me trotting round after him.
My older sisters played the piano and violin . . . and had their own chamber orchestra. So there was music in the house all the time. My father put on a music festival, and we had a lady sitar player from Gujarat [India] who did an all-night concert for us. This was arranged through my father’s musicologist friend Bill Coates. I was about 13—and I was riveted and stayed up all night.

As well as early pop and rock (Elvis, Buddy Holly, Billy Fury), my two older sisters were listening to [jazz musicians] Chris Barber and Monty Sunshine. I remember that two bitter disappointments of my life were being told I was too young to go with them to hear Chris Barber at the Fairfield Halls and too young to go to West Side Story. I didn’t envy them anything else much, but those really hurt. Needless to say, as soon as I was old enough, I remedied both omissions—and neither disappointed.

My first composition was a piece for piano, made before I could read music. I forced my reluctant older sister to write it out for me. I suppose I was six or seven, perhaps? But I didn’t really write seriously till I was about 12 or so. Then I started writing songs in the singer/songwriter mold that was so much in vogue at the time.

At school, I had lessons on piano, cello, and guitar. I sang in the choir. Apparently my voice was OK. It was suggested that I should go to choir school, but my mother—who had hated her boarding school—vetoed the idea. I still feel a little sad about this, as it would have been a wonderful musical education and wish my parents had sent me. Sadly, my adult voice is not a thing of great beauty.

I used to play guitar duets with my childhood friend Peter Randall-Page (now a famous sculptor), and when we both got to college we formed a folk group which evolved into a rather disreputable comedy folk-jazz trio. I wrote music for that, while still keeping a foot in the classical camp. I joined a jazz band on guitar for a couple of years, which was a lot of fun. I wrote some material for that too.

Then I was married with kids, and the whole performing lifestyle became a bit inappropriate. But I still needed an outlet for composing, so I turned more seriously to “proper” composition. I took up the viola and had composition lessons with [composers] Peter Aviss and Barry Seaman. These served merely to convince me that you can’t really teach composition—so from then on, I was an autodidact.

Besides composer influences, are you influenced by any musical styles or genres?

I have always believed that there is just music, and that boundaries between styles and genres are there to be challenged. My biggest living musical hero is John Adams, and I like his witty description of himself as “a post-style composer.”
So all music is grist to my mill. I regret to say that I have never learned to appreciate rap—but that apart, I like pretty much everything. (No, actually I must confess to having a bit of a blind spot about Dvořák, too.)

When I was an impressionable teenager, progressive rock was very big. I liked the crossover of rock musicians playing classical music. At 13, I adored The Nice playing Bach’s “Brandenburg 3,” Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique,” and Sibelius. So cheeky!

I thought it would be good to do the opposite: write popular music for classical musicians to play, and I did that for a while. Later, as I developed my own voice, I drifted away from the idea a bit. But I’m still on a mission to break down those barriers.

Which instruments do you play? Which do you play well? Do you have a favorite?

One definition of a composer is “a musician who doesn’t play an instrument.” In my case, it’s “who can’t play an instrument properly.”

I have played guitar since I was, oh, 7 or something. Nowadays, I would call the viola my main instrument.

I sing bass. I teach my grandson the violin. I fidget about on the piano, though not when anyone is listening. If I’m writing for wind or brass, I blow on a recorder to get some idea of breathing. I can make a noise on almost anything, but I wouldn’t want to play or sing solo in public. Benjamin Britten I’m not.

Some composers talk about a process that they use. Do you have such a process?

Yup. The trick is to keep your bum on the seat.

In other words, it’s 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Without the 1 percent, it’s a dead, lifeless thing, of course. Some days you don’t feel “inspired,” but you have to keep working away anyway if you’re going to make any progress.

Some audiences are fascinated by the process. “Where do you get your ideas from?” they ask. Actually, that’s the least important bit. It’s the hard work that butters the parsnips. Sorry, audiences! It may be boring and unromantic, but it’s true.
Another “rule” I make for myself is to avoid prolixity, using the Michelangelo principle: “I just cut away everything that didn’t look like David.” In other words, I try—but don’t always succeed!—to strip away everything extraneous that doesn’t contribute to the final result.
And when young composers ask me, “What’s the final result?” I tell them that if they don’t know that, then they shouldn’t have started writing the piece.

I know some people just start putting down notes with no idea of where they’re going, but I can’t. It can so easily turn into noodling. Sure, the path will vary as you go along—and maybe even the ending won’t be what you had intended. But if you don’t have an objective, how will you know when you’ve reached it?

Lots of music is too long—and I think that is part of the reason.

How long does it usually take you to compose a song?

Rather less time than you’d expect, but rather longer than you’d expect as well.
If you get on a roll, you can write a song in a few hours. Sometime even less—maybe half an hour, maybe even 10 minutes.
On the other hand, it might take weeks of tinkering and tiddling about till you get it right. You have to take the rough with the smooth.

One of the attractions of setting words, of course, is that much of the work is done for you. You have the atmosphere, the rhythm, and some of the melody too. So if I’m feeling not very creative, a song setting will sometimes get the juices flowing.

How do you find material that interests you enough to compose music for it?

The lyricist Sammy Cahn was asked, “Which comes first, the words or the music?” And he replied, “The phone call.” So being asked for something is always a good stimulus. Deadlines are good too.

Curiously, I find that the very best poetry is hard or impossible to set. What can one add? When the words are near perfect, music can only distract from what is already there.

So I specialize in setting second-rate poetry [laughs].

Do you have any themes or musical ideas that seem to permeate a majority of your songs?

I expect performers and listeners would be able to answer that question better than me. There is a jazz influence. I expect there is a harmonic language that’s mine.
Several people have said my music is “very English.” I know what that means when they say it about Elgar or Butterworth, but I’ve no idea what it means when they say it about me. Perhaps there’s a pastoral influence from English folk music.
But, honestly, I don’t hear it; I guess I’m too close to it. I try to vary my style as much as possible, so I’d rather hope it wouldn’t be too obvious. But my wife says she can hear just a snatch of my music that she hasn’t heard before and say, “That’s a Dunkin Wedd.” So she, at least, can hear a style.

Has your music been compared to any other composers? If so, whom?

One reviewer compared my musical language to “Sergeant Pepper-era Beatles.” That struck me as a bit far-fetched—but if the cap fits, it’s one I’d be very happy to wear.

I’ve been compared to all kinds of composers—as many as there are people making the comparison, probably. Puccini was one I rather liked. Who wouldn’t want to be compared to him?

I’d like to be compared to my composer heroes—John Adams, Gavin Bryars, Terry Riley, Graham Fitkin, and others—but though I like them, I don’t think I write like them. At any rate, I’m still waiting.

You seem to do a lot of self-promoting of your songs/music. Do you feel that has been effective for your progress as a composer?

Heavens! That sounds as if I’m rather immodest. I hope not.

But there are a lot of composers out there. If you want to have your music heard, you’ve really got to be a bit of a Renaissance man. You need to forge relationships. You need to push projects forward. No one else is going to do it for you. And the nonmusical job I had which paid for my music habit was in sales and marketing, so I suppose I’ve brought some of that experience to what I do.
I do think that there are some people out there who want to hear what I’ve done, and others who want to perform it. So I try not to be a shrinking violet, slaving away in a garret, my work never seeing the light of day. But I am less confident than you might suppose and I have to work hard to overcome my natural modesty.

What do you think are the hardest obstacles you either have had or continue to overcome as a composer?

I have a fine collection of rejection slips, if that’s what you mean. If you’re going to put your creative work out there in the public eye, you must be prepared to deal with the fact that some people won’t like your stuff.

I have a treasured crit [review] of a piece of mine that says “This determinedly neoclassical style has not the merit of originality . . . .” Which is odd, because I don’t think I’m neoclassical. But who understands the minds of critics?
On the other hand, I do get lovely feedback from audiences and performers, so I’m not much fussed about critics.

So many composers of the past have composed church music. Have you written much church music?

Yes. I think music and spirituality go naturally together. I like not to be specific to one dogma; all the religious writings have so much in common. So when I was asked for a setting of Psalm 139, I used texts from the Tanakh, the Bible, and the Koran. I suppose this goes along with trying to break down the barriers between musical genres—it’s the same principle. In my father’s house are many mansions.
Having said that, I adore the King James Bible; whatever your religious feelings, it’s full of the most wonderful poetry.
I also like setting Latin. The music of Taizé often sets Latin texts, as it is cross-cultural, not specific to any one exclusive religious view. One of my favorite pieces—and one which has been performed quite a lot—is a Latin Mass. And I enjoyed doing an Ave Maris Stella. There are many others.

When working with musicians, what do you feel are your biggest challenges?

I think the thing I strive for is to give players and singers readily performable but interesting things to do. Rehearsal time for new works is so limited; I don’t want to make musicians struggle. But if it’s not challenging enough, it’s boring to play. So there’s a balance to find.
Of course, sometimes performers take a different view of the work from my own and perform it in a way different to my original conception. That can be frustrating. But when you write a piece, it’s like having a child: you bring it up the best you can, but eventually it has to find its own way in the world. So I try not to be prescriptive—music has to be a collaborative process between composer and performer, so there must be room for the musicians to add their own views. You have to trust them.

And, of course, when someone really gets to the heart of what you are trying to do, then that is the best feeling in the world.

How do you select the tonal/harmonic language for the music?

Well, I think they select themselves really. When you’re setting poetry, you have a choice: does the music agree with the words or does it counterpoint it, undercut it, reflect on it ironically?
In the first case, look at Butterworth’s Shropshire Lad. How perfectly the music fits the emotional context. For the second, take Mozart. Take Così fan tutte. It’s all very jolly and jokey, people’s love lives being manipulated for a bet. And it’s only for 24 hours, so no one can really get hurt, can they?

But in a most amazing way, Mozart tells us through the music that Fiordiligi at least is really damaged by the experience. One can’t help wondering how the marriages will actually turn out—but that’s not in Da Ponte. It’s in the music. It’s unsettling. While the words alone just say what a bit of comic froth this has been, the music says that no one comes out unscathed, not even the cynical Don Alfonso.

What is the way that you prefer to be contacted about possible performances of your music?

I’d like an e-mail. My name is not easy to confuse with anyone else, so a quick Google of me should turn up [my e-mail address]! If the worst came to the worst, I could always be contacted through BASCA (www.basca.org.uk).

Roberto Mancusi

Roberto Mancusi is an associate professor of music at the University of Tennessee at Martin. He maintains a busy performing schedule and teaches applied lessons, beginning conducting, voice science & pedagogy, and co-directs the university’s Lyric Opera Theater. His textbook, Voice for Non-Majors was published by Prentice Hall in 2008. An International Travel Grant from the University of Tennessee at Martin- Department of Research, Grants, and Contracts assisted with part of this project.