Chris Danforth wins $25,000 McKnight Composer Fellowship (INTERVIEW)
Last time Chris Danforth spoke to City Pages, he hid behind his antics, initiating a game of hide-and-seek with Steve Marsh. This time he makes the adult choice. "I was thinking about doing something like that for you but thought maybe I shouldn't."
Back then he was working days at a boutique amp shop and playing nights at bars, promoting his first label-released indie-pop album. Nine years later, Danforth produces a classical music show for MPR and was recently honored with one of the four 2012 McKnight Composer Fellowships. With the title and $25,000 as his bolster, Danforth drops the boyish shennanigans and sits down to talk.
After graduating from MSU Moorhead with a Bachelor's in music, Danforth moved back to Minneapolis and spent a few years in a band. Danforth did not consider himself a composer in those days. "It was actually something my composition composer in college would say to me "'When are you gonna call yourself a composer?' I was always like, 'What are you talking about? Dude, I'm in a punk rock band.'"
During his first big radio stint, his brother Mike invited Chris on tour with Prairie Home Companion. Inspired, and a fan of classical music, Chris decided to make a career with MPR too. After he landed a job, it took a humble moment of recognition to realize the weight of his credentials. "I was at a party about five and a half years ago and my friend Preston introduced me to someone as, 'This is Chris Danforth, he's a radio producer and a composer,' and I was like. 'Oh wow, I am those things.'"
Preston encouraged Danforth to seek commissions by becoming a member of the American Composer's Forum in St. Paul. "That became kind of my new band practice. Instead of practicing a couple times a week and playing a show, I just would devote my time to writing music and looking into these opportunities." He landed a Jerome Foundation grant in 2009 which led to another grant, collaborations and commissions, and, this spring, the $25,000 McKnight award.
In his winning proposal, Danforth described a collaboration in the works with a choreographer, his first score for live dance. He also has begun notating a wind quartet performance dedicated to his grandfather, in honor of the land preservation he secured. As he started writing, he thought of his grandfather, who had been ill and, strangely, died that day. "When I realized that I was like what the hell? This is so weird. And I feel like I'm obligated to write that piece, have it performed in that space, in the woods that he set up. I actually have a tape of him describing what the process was to preserve this land. It's kind of really interesting for me and I'd like to somehow incorporate him talking into the piece."
Danforth has a big archive of voice recordings he uses along with other found instruments. In his studio, he points out found guitar bodies he used in a percussive piece, then strums a homemade sitar. It is pieced together with a found acoustic twelve string body and neck and roughly scalloped frets, and it sounds beautiful.
But his real treasures are the found voices, answering machine tapes he has collected, digitized, and sampled for eight or nine years. He presses play on the "Mary" tape and there's an eerily musical feedback, an emotional tone that echoes the strangeness of the tape's content. "This one with Mary on it, I pressed play and sat down and started recording...it just kind of blew my mind." There are more like Mary, he says. "Those to me are very powerful. Some of those stand alone as works of art, untouched because there's this narrative that will evolve over messages coming in and out. Some of them, I see them as a good source for a musical project, but others are ready made for radio."
It seems his mind is always moving between inspirations and ideas. "I have a journal where I keep ideas...pie in the sky projects. Before it was like...this would cost so much money to build, like, a huge public sound structure or whatever it is. Now it's like, yeah I can do that. And no one can stop me," he laughs, "So it's kind of fun."
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