David Witter, a resident composer for Mizzou’s International Composers Festival, is profiled by the Columbia Daily Tribune
The Columbia Daily Tribune
by Amy Wilder
In visual art, it is often the negative space that creates interest for the viewer. In poetry and literature, the things left unsaid or unexplained can most effectively capture the reader’s imagination. In music, the pauses and silences lend gravity to stated notes. As one passage in the Tao Te Ching so aptly illustrates, “We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.”
Composer David Witter understands the necessity and value of creating space in his work and of allowing freedom for the musician in the collaborative process of performance and learning. He appreciates that simplicity is often the result of complex planning and thought.
Witter holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in composition from the University of Missouri and is working as a graduate student toward his K-12 teaching certification. “It seemed to me over the last couple of years that I could do a lot of good in elementary school environments,” he said, referring to the potential to help shape the behavior and critical thinking skills of young students. “I’m as interested in teaching how to learn as I am in teaching music … and I really like teaching kids.”
This enjoyment was discovered as an undergraduate student when Witter gave trombone lessons to middle and high school students. He realized teaching would allow him to help develop younger minds while still having freedom to compose and perform.
“I think I’ve always actually been most interested in performing,” said Witter, who spent six years as a musician in the Navy before enrolling at MU. “I thought getting my degrees in composition would get me the most exposure to music all around, because you have to concentrate on theory and history and performing and orchestrating and every aspect of music.”
Translating knowledge into a bigger picture and connecting information that on the surface appears to be only loosely related seems to be an essential part of Witter’s intellectual approach. It’s reflected in his ideas about using music as a tool in interdisciplinary education and in teaching improvisation in the classroom as a tool to help children develop listening skills while stimulating analytical and creative parts of their brains at once.
Among other things, “music is definitely one concrete way you can establish empathy in a kid,” he said. “At the elementary school level, you can also impact how they view everything.” In his field experience at Lee Elementary, “they do a lot of integration; it’s all about tying in the arts to other disciplines and other disciplines to the arts.”
A younger Witter tugged at threads connecting his musical interests to a deeper exploration of less well-known artists. As a teenager — who grew up playing piano, like his mom, and trombone, like his dad — he encountered a self-taught boogie-woogie pianist who sparked his interest in blues and jazz. Through Frank Zappa, he discovered John Zorn, a composer who became an inspiration for the young intellectual.
Music is not the only creative well from which Witter draws inspiration. He is influenced in particular by painter Andrew Wyeth and has an affinity with Haiku and Eastern forms of poetry — something he related back to favorite composer John Cage. He just as effortlessly connects the indeterminacy and minimalism of Cage’s work to the philosophy of Fluxus artists like Nam June Paik, coming full circle.
Witter often uses poetry or visual art as a “narrative vehicle” while composing. He was invited to compose a piece for the 2010 Great Rivers Biennial at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, which was based on work by one of the featured artists. Receiving the honor of composing special projects is quickly becoming a habit for Witter.
Last week, he was named one of eight resident composers for next year’s Mizzou International Composers Festival. He was selected from a pool of over 150 applicants from the United States and abroad for the honor. Recently, he also received the 2013 Sinquefield Composition Prize through the Mizzou New Music Initiative.
As this year’s honoree, he is composing an original piece to be performed by the University Philharmonic in March. He spoke of the importance of leaving space for improvisation in his compositions. Jazz professor Arthur White will be improvising with Witter in “a duet of sorts. I’ll be on trombone, and he will be on saxophone,” he said.
Witter cited Thomas Hart Benton’s mural at the Capitol in Jefferson City, “A Social History of the State of Missouri,” as his inspiration for the composition, which is still in progress. He was captivated by the storyline presented in the mural and commented, “I’m a film geek, too, and the idea of montage in film is an apt metaphor for things I enjoy listening to in music. Whenever I approach something, especially something that has some sort of linearity like the Benton painting, my first instinct is to somehow fragment it and reorder it.”
“The process of writing is where I connect emotionally to a story,” Witter said. “I want to know everything about what’s happening in the painting. … It’s important really in being able to make an educated improvisational sketch, and then I go from there. If the musical material suggests to me that things need to be reformulated or veer off whatever concrete pattern the painting is setting up, then the music is what decides that.”
Reach Amy Wilder at 573-815-1714 or e-mail email@example.com.
Online at: http://www.columbiatribune.com/news/2012/dec/16/david-witter/