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Dan VanHassel: Interview

danComposer Dan VanHassel’s piece Incite will be premiered by Wild Rumpus as part of our concert May 11, 2013 at Salle Pianos in San Francisco.  Dan is a co-director of Wild Rumpus, and performs in the ensemble on electric guitar.  Below, conductor and fellow Rumpusian Nat Berman talks to Dan about instrumentation, improvisation, stratification, and Van Halen.

Dan, you’re a member of Wild Rumpus as a performer as well as a resident composer.  With us, you play electric guitar, which is one of the instruments featured in your new piece.  Can you talk about your background as a guitarist?

So, I’ve never actually taken a guitar lesson–never in my life.

You’re fired.

I know.  The truth is coming out.  I’m self-taught on guitar.  I played piano and cello when I was in high school and studied them formally, but I came up playing guitar in rock bands.  I worked on reading and technique with cello and piano, but I taught myself guitar basically by downloading tablature from the internet.

So your experience in those days with guitar was just in rock bands?  Did you play jazz as well?

I played in rock bands, pretty much.  I played some jazz piano, but never jazz on guitar.  Then, when I was getting my Master’s degree at New England Conservatory, I started getting interested in free improvisation, and at that time, it was a way back into performance for me.  For many years I had stopped performing while I was focused on composition, but then, both as a pianist and guitarist, I started playing regularly again through free improvisation, and discovered that I really liked performing–both my own works and others’.  I’m still primarily a composer, and mostly play my own compositions, but I love getting the opportunity to perform other composers’ music in Wild Rumpus.

Well, as a guitarist, let me get your perspective: most people think of electric guitar as a rock instrument, or maybe jazz, but what do you think is its role in new music, and how do you see it fitting into an ensemble of acoustic instruments?  Do you think of it as a melodic instrument?  It can be percussive as well…

I think electric guitar is starting to become more common in contemporary music.  In my case, as a player, I was never really into flashy virtuoso playing; it just wasn’t the kind of thing I wanted to listen to or play.

No Van Halen for VanHassel?

(Laughs.) That’s right.  The way I treat the guitar in my own works is more as a tool for creating textures.  There are tremendous possibilities for creating sounds and timbres, and generally that aspect is what I tend to like in the rock that I listen to.  Even for heavy metal virtuosos like Van Halen, I think the soloistic aspect is secondary to the guitar’s potential for just creating…sound.

So, with Incite, the new piece you’ve written for Wild Rumpus, you’ve paired electric guitar with acoustic piano.  Why this particular ensemble?

Well, partly because they are the two instruments that I play, and feel most comfortable with, and I always have wanted to create something for the two of them.  The way I conceived of the piece was, like I said before, using the guitar to create texture, and using the piano more as a percussion instrument.  So you can almost think about it as electric guitar and drums, which might make more sense in the rock context we were discussing.  The piano is like the drum set, with the additional capability of playing pitches…so it’s a very flexible drum set.

Listen to excerpt from Incite[audio:|titles=Incite|artists=Dan VanHassel]

We just played your piece Revealing, Unraveling in a past concert.  I noticed a relationship between the two pieces: in Revealing, Unraveling, an ostinato figure is introduced, and then some melodic and textural figures begin to appear above it, sometimes fully notated and other times semi-improvised.  On a smaller scale, this is happening in Incite, and so I wondered if one piece kind of grew out of the other, or if this is larger direction in your music right now.

I guess the latter–it’s something I’ve been exploring a lot in my recent music.  I’m interested in the idea of stratification, or layers, where one player or group is doing something harmonic or static, and the other is more active and noisy.

Listen to excerpt from Revealing, Unraveling[audio:|titles=Revealing, Unraveling|artists=Dan VanHassel]

On the “noisy” side of the equation, the figures and sounds for guitar in Incite are carefully notated, but come across as improvisational and conversational.  How do you work them out?  Does that element come first, or alongside the ostinato?

In both of these pieces, and music of my recent music, the way I’m working is by transcribing improvisations that I’ve done.  So, for Revealing, Unraveling, I improvised all the parts…in non-real time.  Generally the harmonic underpinning layer comes first, followed by the noisy stuff that is on top.  I try to make them appear as interactive as possible, as though, ideally, I could play every instrument and this is what I would improvise with myself.  With Incite, I do play both instruments, which made it that much easier.

Is there a non-musical source that comes into your process at all?  A programmatic content or particular inspiration outside of free improvisation?

I don’t generally think of music programmatically, though many people have told me that they think my music seems to be telling a story, or something like that.  I don’t think of it that way, but I like the idea that it can be thought of that way.  Incite is inspired by my past as a heavy metal fan, and also by Balinese gamelan music, which I’ve studied a bit over the last few years.  The two are sort of connected in my mind, since they both tend to involve fast, aggressive rhythmic figures.  Maybe I’m the only person that would see these two genres as related, but Incite is a cross-breed of these two influences.

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