Drake Andersen

By Alex Park

John Coltrane said once that you could play a shoestring if you were sincere, and in Drake Andersen’s approximation, that may be all that matters in the world of music. Composing songs for his high school rock band, he transitioned to classical composition at sixteen and has since made it his life’s work, polishing his talents and slowly gaining a reputation as a composer of unusual ability. And yet, he might also be recognized as an artist of striking humility. We talked about his goals as a composer, how he listens to music, and why, more than anything else, what he searches for in both his own work and throughout the music world, is sincerity. You started as a flute player, but how did you transition from that into composing music? I’ve been pretty particular about what I get into, probably more than I should. I started with the flute and I wasn’t great to begin with. I didn’t practice that much, but I kind of stuck with it for I don’t even know what reason. But over time, it’s become more important to me, and I’ve sort of discovered what I’m good at in music and what I’m not. I think don’t I really have the chops to be a performer. I miss notes sometimes, and at some point you have to stop missing notes to be a really good performer. I feel much more comfortable writing music and planning it out and thinking about it, and thinking about it some more and spending a long time with it, and it’s really gratifying for me— it’s much more gratifying to have finished a composition after however much time it’s taken than to give a good performance. There’s just no comparison for me. And so, maybe by trying out all these different things I’ve been able to narrow down what it is that’s most important to me, that makes me the happiest.
For you, what is the process for composing music? It’s different for every piece. Sometimes you’ll start with the text. For me, pretty much everything comes from the text if you’re using a text or a program, but if you’re writing more absolute music and you’re just developing a musical idea that doesn’t have strong associations, maybe you start with that. I like to start with one little chord progression or one little cell that’s maybe the goal of the piece, and throughout the whole piece, you’re trying to justify that sound, trying to get there.

What is that cell, that “goal of the piece”? I don’t know, maybe one chord progression, one moment, one event in the piece. Like in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Ode to Joy, at the end, that huge D-Major chorus is justified by the entire rest of the piece. It starts in the darkest D-Minor there is, and if it were only about a song in D-Major, that piece would be two or three minutes long, but it’s about achieving this D-Major sound way up in the stratosphere for the singers and that’s why it’s an hour long trying to get there. One thing a lot of people don’t necessarily understand about classical music is why it gets so long, why there are all these theories and things that seem to get very intellectual and very foreign to what music should be about, like emotional things. And so you have to ask yourself, why are Wagner’s operas four hours long? Why are Beetho-ven‘s symphonies so long? There’s a reason for it, and the more you listen to it the more you get out of it, and you see things that are being developed and transformed, that there’s some kind of narrative at play in it. It takes what you might call “active listening,” really focusing on the music, not taking it in the background but listening to it with everything you’ve got, because these guys are writing it with everything they’ve got. And it keeps giving back to you. You could spend a whole lifetime with some of these pieces.
You’re using a lot of visual images to describe music, like shapes and arcs, and a minute ago you described the D-Minor chord as being very “dark.” Is that just how you relate classical music to me, or is that how you think of it yourself? That’s like, the question. Is there an absolute music that’s independent of everything else? There’s a lot of people who will tell you one thing or the other. I think on some days I’ll tell you “yes” and some days I’ll tell you “no.” But certainly these extra-musical connotations are very valid, and if it works for you, that’s good. The idea is for it to work on whatever level, and a lot of these things have secret programs or secret story-lines that the composer’s not revealing because they want it to appear to be this absolute music. But I think descriptions like that, of darkness or resolution or deception— sort of abstract ideas— are valid. They make sense and you can’t help but hear it, whether or not we’re conditioned to.
Talking with Miroslav Losonsky for last week’s Spotlight, he said something about how with so much philosophy in the world, it’s important to know what to read and what not to read, and one reasonable way to sort through it all, he said, is just by determining which philosophers are sincere and which are not. Does music work like that for you? I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that people who make music that I don’t think is good, maybe they’re doing it for different reasons than I am. For a lot of things I don’t like, there’s a reason I don’t like it. This probably won’t go down real well, but I don’t like a lot of film composers, people like John Williams who have this bag of tricks that they stole from Bartok and Shostakovitch and Wagner, and they use these little melodies or brief sections of the music that are twenty or thirty seconds long which, in Shostakovitch, would be the climax of a symphony, but they’re using it to be background music. And you know, it’s fine. It is what it is, but I would never write music to be in the background, music that hadn’t justified or earned its moment. If you’re listening to Shostakovitch’s Eighth Symphony, it’s got this part where the violas are playing this one line, just all these long monotonous passages where you can’t tell what’s going on, and then finally at the end there’s this huge climax and it’s so much more meaningful because of what’s preceded it. And for that moment to appear just when the bad guy shows up in a movie kills the music. It subjugates it to the plot, which is what it’s supposed to do, I suppose, but that, to me, doesn’t recognize the music’s power on it’s own. There’s just so much value within the music that it shouldn’t have to rely on these symbolic relations to other things.
As you compose, how much of it is instinct, how much is calculated, and how much is just dicking around on the piano and thinking, “OK, that sounds right”? It’s all of that. Sometimes you can’t even tell the difference. You get so absorbed in it that you can’t tell if it’s instinct or if you need to do it. It’s hard to tell that moment before you write the note where the note came from. Sometimes you can tell like, “oh, this is the next note in the melody so it has to be that one,” and sometimes it’s the wrong note but it sounds right.

You talked about problems that you encounter and have to resolve in composing. As your career progresses, do those problems get harder or more complex? I think the right answer is, yes, they get harder. Your old problems get easier, but then you just get new problems and new problems. It’s amazing, you think how complex music gets— if you’ve heard orchestra scores in the twentieth century, they can be pretty dense, and yet all these composers are striving for is clarity. You talk about someone like Elliot Carter— he’s like 102 and probably the preeminent American composer, and people are talking about his “late style,” probably from around 1993 until now, and they talk about how he’s finally found clarity in his musical language. He’s been writing these masterpieces over seventy or eighty years, and he’s just been clarifying his musical language, making it more direct and crystallized.

It seems like a lot of classical music, maybe a lot of art, is just not meant to be thought of in terms of like or dislike. It’s more than just a pleasurable or non-ple
asurable experience; it yearns for some kind of deeper appreciation. Yeah, I think we get caught up with the word “beautiful.” And yet, what is “beautiful?” Is it lyricism? I think beauty has so much more to do with balance. Kant says something about mathematics being the beauty of the infinite, to connect this to a previous Spotlight. Shostakovitch is, frankly, rarely beautiful. But you earn those beautiful moments in his music so dearly that makes it worth it. A lot of Beethoven is not beautiful, but it comes in these moments of arrival, getting to these places, these little cells or events— it’s contextualized in those moments. Like I said, if you just wanted that moment, your song would be thirty seconds long, but to get to that moment and finally be there and say “This is the theme realized; we finally made it to E-Flat-Major,” that’s where the meaning comes from, in the music of the journey, in the struggle that you hear.

You’ve talked about judging music by its own standards, but is judging music by its own standards easy with your background, or do you have to resist analyzing the chord progression of an Antiflag song when you hear it? For me, it’s instantaneous. Maybe that’s an example of music fulfilling some non-musical role. In high school I was really into a lot of punk bands and I went to Antiflag shows. In some ways it’s different than what Beethoven was doing and in other ways, I think that there’s something very effective and essentially very meaningful about what they’re both doing. And so maybe it comes down to sincerity, which is such a difficult quality to measure. But I really believe in the expression of this essential-ness, and that it can be approximated in all these different genres, all these different forms, outside of music as well. It’s some kind of balance or proportion, or essence. You know it when you’re in contact with it. It moves you. We have a lot of not very specific euphemisms for it, but why do you listen to it the second time? Why do you buy the CD? Why do you go to the concert? That essence is why, I think.
Is that what you aspire to as a composer? Sure. I just want to create something that’s common to other people, that someone else will feel is art. With composers I like, sometimes I feel like they’re talking to me. I’m sure no one’s said that about my music, but I want to understand something universal about my own life, maybe.
John Coltrane said you could play a shoestring if you were sincere. Yeah. You could play the hell out of it.
I guess at the end of it, what we’re talking about here is something that can’t really be expressed with words. Yeah, but at the same time, as impossible as it is, it can be revealing to approach a subject from a different arc. People complain about writing about music, for instance. I’ll tell my Mark Mazullo story: there was this one time that someone was getting frustrated with writing about music and says “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” And Mark Mazullo responds immortally, “What’s wrong with dancing about architecture?” So when I express myself, I take all these influences, musical and not, and incorporate them into the music. There’s this architect named Lebbeus Woods who has these really cool sketchbooks of buildings that will never be built. I’ve got one of these sketchbooks and I just go through it, and it looks like music to me, like if music looked like something, that’s what it would look like.

That said, if you’re presenting to a room full of music professors, as you did for your honors defense, is it easier to explain music? There’s lots of sophisticated ways you can explain the music, but I tend not to. I don’t write the music thinking “Oh, let’s go to the lydian mode here, that’ll be awesome.” It tends to come from the music itself. And for the composer to explain the music in those terms seems disingenuous. A lot of times I’ve found that the mark of a good composer is someone who refuses to talk about their music. Like, I’ll go to these concerts and you’ll have four or five composers who give these speeches about their pieces, and inevitably, the guy who just gets up there and says “Hit it Johnnie” is the best. I think that’s something I aspire to be. Composing is one of those things where you can age gracefully, where it kind of pays to be an elder statesman, to be some old guy who refuses to say anything about his music and just gets on the stage and points to the conductor. That would make me happy.