David Garner

David Garner


• Born 1954


David Garner is a well-known and frequently performed American composer. His music is informed by history, theatre and humour. In his 30-plus year career as a composer he has steadily pushed the boundaries of culture and music.

Garner was born in Nebraska, USA. His father was an English professor. Garner and his father claim to be the exception in the Garner family, as he says that they stem from “a long line of failed haberdashers and farmers.” At the age of 13, Garner moved to Oregon and then followed in his father’s footsteps, pursuing a conventional career. During his studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Garner was unhappy and stated, “it was difficult for me to focus and I was simply drawn more to music.” He eventually applied himself to classical music, studying piano with Virginia Danforth, Beatrice Beauregard and Nathan Schwartz and cello with Priscilla Parsons and Roman Dukson, and since then has continued to enter uncharted territory with his music.

Garner’s music blends many cultures and cultural aspects with one another, though he describes his music as a hybrid form, not fusion; “fusion is a dead term, affected and outdated.” His music is “anything but dead white guy music” despite his appreciation forMozart, Beethoven and Wagner. Much of his music is based on a poetry and language and is able to covey both the subtlety and depth of the original texts in his music.

His music also blends the serial technique of the early 20th century with neo-tonality and regional sounds. Garner’s goal, however, is not to sound intellectual. SopranoLisa Delan finds it “remarkable given the complexity of his work” that the audience is always “compelled by the immediacy of it.” Although the music is, in fact, very technical and intellectual, the audience doesn’t need to understand those elements in order to enjoy it on a visceral level. Performing the music is another matter, as it is very challenging. Delan states that the performers are often “lovingly cursing David’s name throughout countless rehearsals,” yet, they also experience what the audience feels when the work is performed. Despite the challenges presented in his work, she described him as “simply one of the best living composers writing for the voice.”

Some of Garner’s career highlights include his 2008 premiere of six traditional Persian songs he arranged. The work was performed by the Oakland East Bay Symphony with Iranian-American mezzo-soprano Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai. The San Francisco Chronicle gave the work favorable reviews, calling it “alluring” and a “heady and touching revelation.” 2008 also marked the premiere of his String Quartet No. 1 (2007) by the Picasso Quartet.

The following years include a 2010 performance of his Phenomenal Woman (2004) for soprano and piano at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. The composition is based on seven poems by Maya Angelou and was commissioned by Katy Sisco and premiered in 2004. It has also available on the Pentatone CDPhenomenon: the Music of David Garner by soprano Lisa Delan and pianist Kristin Pankonin.

In 2010, Garner’s Spoon River Songs (2010) and Daughter of Night (2010) were performed in San Francisco.Spoon River Songs consists of eight songs based on theSpoon River Anthology text by Edgar Lee Masters while Daughter of Night is a solo operatic scene for mezzo-soprano and jazz ensemble based on an original libretto and commissioned by Crystal Philippi.

Garner’s Chanson für Morgen (2012) received an international premiere at the Lichtburgforum in Berlim. The work is based on poems by Mascha Kakéko and commissioned by Nanette McGuinness.

Garner’s String Quartet No. (2013) has been performed in San Francisco and China; its premiere was given by the Han Quartet at the SF-Shanghai Festival. The work is a homage to the composers and performers who were involved in the festival. The work begins with a twelve tone row but then develops a pan-Pacific feel later. It also includes elements of North American, Latin American and Chinese music. Most notably, the Chinese folksongKangding qingge is intertwined in the mix.

The Vilna Poems (2013), based on the poems of the Lithuanian poet Avram Sutzkever, was selected as a finalist in 2014 for The American Prize for Composition which celebrates American excellence in the performing arts. The work is imaginatively written for soprano, clarinet, cello and piano. Sutzkever lived for two years in a Jewish ghetto in Vilnius and his poems give insight into that period of his life. They are in Yiddish, and feature a general feeling of somberness, though they are defiant.

In June 2015, four of Garner’s German language song-cycles were recorded by soprano Nanette McGuinness, pianist Dale Tsang and cellist Adaiha MacAdam-Somer. The recording is a culmination of a five year project, titled the Jewish Music and Poetry Project. The song-cycles includeChanson für Morgen (2011-12), Phönix (2012-13), Mein Blaues Klavier (2015) and Song is a Monument (2014). Excerpts from this project will be performed throughout Hungary as part of the Daniel Pearl World Music Days, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Hungary.

Some of Garner’s current projects include a full-length opera collaboration withOpera Parallele, to be premiered in 2016. The opera will be in two acts set on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast in the 1880s, with a libretto by Mark Hernandez. With this work, Garner seeks to pay homage to the city of San Francisco’s history and diversity.

Garner has been a professor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music since 1979 and held the Chair of the Department of Musicianship and Music Theory from 1984 until 1999. In 1997 he received the George Sarlo Family Foundation Outstanding Professor Award.

Header image courtesy of Yelp Other images courtesy of People Check and the Center For New Music

Three Gothic Symphonic Rock Songs (2013) were premiered and commissioned by mezzo-soprano Crystal Philippi in 2013 for the Ishtar Project. She describes the work as a hybrid project with a “mixture of ‘Gothic symphonic,’ heavy metal and world beat music.” The work is composed of three songs, “Dust to Dust”, “Tiny Tyrant”, and “Ice Queen”. This work presents Garner’s “rock and roll side as well as a classically trained side.” Philippi compared the two genres, “Gothic symphony already has female ‘angelic’ vocalists,” she continued, “they are just singing pretty but what I will be doing is combining the power of the scream with the pretty sound of the female voice.” Other comparisons can also be made to the emotional content, as arias are often “releases of rage, lamentation and passion.”

In 2014, the Cinq Hommages won “Best Overall Work” in the Labor of Love Composition Contest for Singers and Songwriters, sponsored by Sheet Music Plus and Hal Leonard Publishing. The work was chosen from 2,800 submissions.