David Sanford

Citation for 2005 Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship

David Sanford is a master of fusion. A creative artist as well as a scholar and theorist, David is a “both...and” kind of guy. Born in Pittsburgh, David received degrees in theory and composition from the University of Northern Colorado and the New England Conservatory. David holds both a Master of Fine Arts degree and a Ph.D. from Princeton. For his MFA degree, David composed a musical work called Russo/Argo/Russo, for six musicians and two narrators. David’s doctoral dissertation, which he wrote in 1998, was actually about fusion, and carried the title: “‘Prelude’ from Agharta: Modernism and Primitivism in the Later Fusion Works of Miles Davis.” Even within that title, you can hear David invoking two different kinds of fusion: the way Miles Davis fuses the traditions of jazz with rock and roll, and the way in which Davis fuses certain ideas of the “primitive” with certain ideas of modernism—think Picasso or Romare Bearden.

David began teaching at Mount Holyoke that same year of 1998. He’s a popular teacher, and his students appreciate the sheer range of his interests and expertise. In his teaching, David covers a lot of ground, “both...and.” He teaches courses on twentieth-century music and theory, but he also teaches the history of jazz. And somewhere in there he finds time for a course on “Music of the 70’s.” We’re guessing that that particular course has something to do with fusion.

It seems perfectly fitting that among David’s many awards, he should have received, also in 1998, the Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Like Ives, David is a musical omnivore, mixing and melding the traditions of jazz and classical and popular music in new combinations. And those new combinations get noticed; they get a hearing. Among many other awards, David has held a Guggenheim Fellowship (in 1991) as well as fellowships from the Concert Artists Guild and the State of New Jersey Council of the Arts. In 2002, David held the prestigious Samuel Barber Rome Prize Fellowship, which includes a residency in the American Academy in Rome. True to his fusion instincts, David spent his time in Rome completing a series of works for big band. David’s Big Band Cello Concerto will have its world premier at the very hip venue of the Knitting Factory in New York. You can hear it at the Iron Horse in Northampton, on Friday, May 27, with the well-known cellist Matt Haimovitz as soloist and “David Sanford and The Pittsburgh Big Band Collective.” Be there.

It’s a big challenge for avant-garde composers to get their music performed. David Sanford, by contrast, is in demand. He has composed commissioned works for such ensembles as the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble and the Princeton University Chamber Orchestra, and his works have been performed by such elite institutions as the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Chicago Symphony Chamber Players, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and the Harlem Festival Orchestra. David has a way of discovering and founding musical communities wherever he finds himself, linking up with local musicians both on campus and off.

Yes, but what about the music? What does David’s music sound like? Listen to Seventh Avenue Kaddish, a piece of David’s commissioned by Matt Haimovitz. It’s hard to describe a work of music, but this piece grabs you by the ears from the first insistent phrase. It takes you on a journey, down Seventh Avenue maybe—a journey that seems at first to be a lamentation: kaddish is the Jewish prayer for the dead. But then the music shifts into celebration (some wonderfully ecstatic working-over of the cello), and a final passage of quiet acceptance. If you are listening for analogies, you might hear something of Bartok or Shostakovitch, and something of Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way. But what you’re really hearing is the distinctive voice of David Sanford.