Notes on a Composer 

Composer David Alan Earnest sounds off

By day, David Alan Earnest is an audio post-production engineer at North by Northwest Productions, a company that produces radio and television commercials. On his off hours, he's a sound engineer of another kind: He's a composer. He writes what he describes as "acoustic symphonic stuff." It's what most people might describe as "classical," including those responsible for choosing the nominees for the 2007 Los Angeles Music Awards which showcases independent musicians. Earnest's Cello Concerto III has been nominated in the Classical category. It's quite an accomplishment, but by no means surprising.

At 24, Earnest was accepted to the Wheaton Conservatory School outside of Chicago where he graduated with a degree in musical composition. He played the bass clarinet. To succeed at Wheaton, knowing how to play the piano would be essential. He was working at Micron at the time, three days on and four days off, and taught himself to play by practicing on his off days. Earnest, now 47, kept his chops up by playing in local bands.

"I played in bands from when I was 17 until, well, up until last year," he said. "I played with Redstone at Shorty's for two and a half years. I played the Buffalo Club for awhile. I played Cowgirls out in Kuna for awhile. I did a lot of country gigs playing electric five-string fretless bass."

Earnest's ability to meld his creative and his professional music-making appears almost seamless. When working on commercial projects, like commercials, his education and experience come in pretty handy. "My composition background comes into play with organization, how sounds go together. It makes me a good sound designer," he said.

I asked if he ever gets carried away with a commercial, over-composing the sound.

"I actually do that all the time," he said. "It's easier to take something out than add something in. It's easier to thin it out. So I just put everything in I think should go in there and then if they want to bring it back, I can."

Somehow, writing a score for a 30- or 60-second TV spot doesn't sound that complicated. Writing for a full orchestra, however, is beyond my comprehension, so sitting with him in his office—the fully-equipped, sound engineering room at North by Northwest—I asked him about his creative process.

Boise Weekly: How do you come up with a composition? There are so many parts to write for: woodwinds, brass, strings.

Earnest: Obviously you have to have a musical theme of some sort that you build the whole thing out of. You have a theme and you can turn it upside down or backwards or slow it way down ... you study what everyone else has done like Shostakovich or the Dvorak concerto. You study the old scores, and then hopefully, you can have some original ideas. I just start noodling around. I do it almost all by improvisation. I have the computer set up so I have the whole orchestra in there. When I get done, I have a really good demo I can play for people. You can copy and paste and manipulate the note values.

Do you ever get so deep into a piece you forget where you were going?

You go into some sort of trance, and when you come out of it, you might listen to it the next day and think, "How did I do that?" Sometimes you do something and listen to it the next day, and it's not exactly what you want. I listen to this stuff over and over and over until it sounds right.

It's just like any other art. Like painting. If you don't like something, you change it. I start at the beginning, and as it progresses, I get a feel for what the form is going to be. I usually start with some material, go to something different and then come back.

What is it like to see one of your pieces performed?

Most of the time, there are surprises. The performances by real people are never as tight as the synthesizer (laughs), and sometimes sonically they'll sound a little different than what you imagined because you still have to imagine what it's going to sound like with a real orchestra. So there's always times when you may have set up this really cool rhythmic thing, but it's more difficult than you thought it was going to be for [real people] to play. That's what is so weird. A lot of times you'll write something and you'll think it's going to be really hard and it turns out the players can play it really easily, whereas sometimes you think something's is going to be easy, and it's hard. All in all, it gives it so much more human expression. And nobody knows the difference but me. It's always an interesting experience.

Has the Boise Philharmonic ever performed one of your pieces?

In 2003, I conducted my own Cello Concerto, and Sam Smith, who plays cello with the Langroise Trio, played the solo. And last year, I did the silent movies thing, the Musical Movies Project, which I'm doing again this year.

Do you ever avoid attending performances of your own pieces?

No. If I can go, I usually do. Just to see people's reactions. What I get the most enjoyment out of is seeing an audience reaction. Well, writing [a piece] first and then performance of it. Like the Cello Concerto. I had three rehearsals. I had two hours and 45 minutes to work with an orchestra I'd never conducted before on a new piece they'd never seen before. Luckily, they were good enough they could just whip it out.

It occurs to me that you must be able to see, or rather hear, the big picture.

You have to know what all the instruments sound like in all the ranges. Then you have to be able to imagine in your head what the combination of two of those instruments is going to sound like. That's just from listening and learning and watching what everyone else is doing.

Do you see little notes in your head?

I can hear the combinations. Anybody worth his salt can. And, you just use your heart. Number one, you write what you want to hear. Number two, you write what's going to be fun for the musicians to play. If you can write what's going to be fun for the musicians to play, then the audience is going to respond to how the musicians are playing. I try to keep it interesting.

You can read more about Earnest's LA Music Awards nomination at www.lamusicawards.com. For more information on Earnest, visit www.davidalanearnest.com.

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