Audeze chats with composer and arranger David Sanford

David Sanford is the director of the David Sanford Big Band, whose album A Prayer For Lester Bowie featuring Hugh Ragin was recently released on Greenleaf Music. He has composed, arranged and studied music for over 45 years and is currently the Elizabeth T. Kennan Professor of Music at Mount Holyoke College.

 David Sanford with his Audeze LCD-X headphones

"I’m more aware of clarity... with the Audeze headphones I’m appreciating the counterpoint along with the energy of the rhythm section and the individual soloists."  - David Sanford
Here's our talk with David:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of?

Our recent big band album was the culmination of a lot of hard work by a lot of people. It took a long time in raising the funds and balancing the tracks of 20 musicians, and a lot of hard work by the musicians, and I think the end result was rewarding for all of us. And going all the way back to my earliest years arranging, I did an arrangement and a transcription for my high school marching band in Colorado Springs (Coronado High School) my senior year, and we won the state AAA championship that year (in fact, for ca. 4-5 hours we were the overall state champions, but that’s a longer story). Recently a good friend of mine posted a video from that band and I remembered how much that meant to me, maybe to all of us in that group.

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

I have generally been the composer. On occasion I work as an arranger or orchestrator (recently with Bang on a Can and the Da Capo Chamber Players). With my big band I wear a lot of hats: composer, arranger, conductor, manager, contractor, booking agent, and producer.

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

My older brother Jay (Joseph) started playing in the school band, so I kind of followed his example, and in junior high school he was playing with an outstanding big band (West Jr. High in Colorado Springs) led by a man named William McMosely who just passed away recently. Hearing that group made me want to do what they were doing, and hear a lot more of it. I started listening to a lot of big band music after that: Woody Herman, Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson, etc. Before that I had pretty much exclusively loved RnB: the Temptations, the Isley Brothers, War, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone. I got into drum and bugle corps in high school, via marching band, and heard a lot of the classical repertory for the first time through those brass and percussion arrangements, like Saint-Saëns’s “’Organ’ Symphony”, “The Planets”, Verdi’s “Requiem”, which would eventually lead me to the “real” pieces which I loved as well. Then in college (University of Northern Colorado) I had friends – especially my housemate Steve Gehring – who turned me on to rock, starting with King Crimson and the Talking Heads in the early 1980s. I’ve never stopped loving most of that music. Hip hop of the late 80s kind of hit me like RnB did in the early 70s, but I think I aged out of that and a lot of popular music in my 40s – I became acutely aware that I’m no longer the target audience for most of the pop and hip hop genre. The pristine, vacuum-like recording environments kind of lost me in the 80s and 90s though (which independent music fought against for a while), and that aesthetic/ideal still persists, all of which makes me value live performances more and more over recent years.

Can you name any factors that influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

I think I named a few above. There are far too many heroes to name, and I think a lot of my musical evolution has been more gradual, albeit recognizably changed in certain moments. My parents, my siblings, my friends and  colleagues in college and graduate school, and my students in more recent years are always inspirational in relating what they’re listening to (last fall I had 2-3 students who were into Mitski, which opened my ears up to her). A babysitter when I was five used to play WAMO, the RnB station in Pittsburgh all morning, and I remember falling in love with “Cloud Nine” by the Temptations, although it took me years to figure out that that was the name of the song and the artist. My mother (Nancy Thomann) was always a hero and a role model to me; she directed a choir at several churches and played the organ, and I was always very proud to see her playing the organ for the whole congregation, but I never – consciously – thought about doing what she did, musically-speaking. There have certainly been some concerts that I remember as being transcendent and influential, as well as some films, paintings, novels, plays, and yes, drum and bugle corps shows. I used to take a lot of inspiration from the writers and critics of print media: we had downbeat and Drum Corps World subscriptions when I was in high school, then I read the Village Voice religiously in my 20s-40s. Greg Tate, J. Hoberman, Gary Giddins, Francis Davis and a lot of those writers just kept you involved in the music world of New York (and beyond), even though I was living in Boston, New Jersey and western Massachusetts most of those years.

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

I had an orchestra piece I was working on. Two movements, and I finished the first one. I got a ways into the second movement and then just reached an impasse; I didn’t like the premise or the impetus for the piece, and I really didn’t want to ever hear it. One gesture in it just annoyed the living daylights out of me, at least in my head (I was still just doing pencil on paper at that point). I guess it wasn’t frustration, just a turning point in what I was writing that was probably necessary. It was kind of like how you can eat something you used to like, and then all of a sudden – for whatever reasons – you just don’t want it anymore. At that time I ended up not writing anything for maybe two years, which was easy then because no one was asking me for anything. When I was ready to write again, I don’t think that I changed drastically as far as style, or language, but I think what I wrote after that point came from a place I could recognize and relate to.

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

I’ve been using Sibelius for maybe sixteen years. I still use pencil and paper, but I’ve become much more comfortable with the program, and the time it used to take to copy parts (and re-copy the score) I just don’t have anymore.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

Don’t judge yourself against others. Plenty of people will do that for you, so just be true to the goals that you have for yourself – the ones that you can control.

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

I’ve been using them when I do transcriptions and arrangements since I was in high school. I had a ubiquitous Walkman in college because I walked everywhere, but that was more for pleasure than work or study. I don’t use them while I compose – the sound of Sibelius isn’t the goal, and I usually just play things on the piano if I really want to hear sonorities. But I use headphones exclusively when doing mixing and editing sessions for a number of reasons. They’re also still essential when doing transcription, which is important for me in arranging and in my research; obviously the clarity is a necessity, but it also makes things easier on the people who live and work near me. The sound from my speakers – computer and stereo components – falls short on accuracy and quality, although I grew up on an atrocious sound system (plastic turntable and speakers, and a small cassette boombox), so I often settle for less.

Do you have any additional comments or stories you want to share?

I think I was satisfied with my low-grade equipment until after our first big band album came out in 2007. A friend with high-end speakers played the disc in his den and I was amazed at how much of a difference it made – how the individual voices could be distinguished, and the overall blend was so much more vibrant. I became aware that I wasn’t doing myself – or the musicians I was hearing and working with – any favors listening to our work on sub-standard equipment, and that it really does make a world of difference.

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work?

I’m more aware of clarity; on one level I’ve always enjoyed a lot of density, but with the Audeze headphones I’m appreciating the counterpoint along with the energy of the rhythm section and the individual soloists. I wouldn’t say that it’s affected how I write music, but I’m expecting much more definition -- as well as timbral range and blend -- from the overall sound texture of the big band.

Can you tell us what you've been working on with them recently?

In all modesty (or immodesty), I’ve been enjoying re-visiting our big band recordings with them a bit. But my recent composing work has been on piano and/or a notation program, so I’ve spent more time with the headphones listening to other people’s work – sometimes for study and reference, sometimes for pleasure. Lately I’ve been listening to the Tallis Scholars’ performances of works by Thomas Tomkins and Miles Davis’s 1970 Isle of Wight concert among other things.