Michael Dodds serves as Head of Music History at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he also conducts the UNCSA Wind Ensemble. A specialist in Baroque music, Dodds completed his Ph.D. in musicology at the Eastman School of Music. In addition to his work as a teacher, musician, and director, he currently is writing a book on the role of the organ in Baroque Office liturgy.
How would you describe what you do?
I express creativity in many ways, but for purposes of this conversation, I compose music, and sacred music in particular. In my “day job” I’m a musicologist, but musicology and composition have always been linked for me. What first drew me to music theory and history as a kid, and what still motivates me, is the desire to understand composers’ compositional processes. That said, it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve started composing music for public use, so I consider myself a novice. A recent milestone for me was the performance of the first movement of a choral symphony, commissioned for my church’s 150th anniversary. Discussions are currently underway regarding a performance of the full four-movement work at a choral festival in the spring.
Is this different than what other people think you do?
I’m not sure what people think I do, but most people in my life see only one or two of the areas where I express creativity. Probably some people think of me as a musicologist or music history professor, while others think of me mainly as a church musician or a conductor. My roles at UNCSA and my church differ quite a bit, but each nourishes the other in many ways, including compositionally.
How do you know if you’re on the right track with a project?
Early in my compositional process, I begin to hear in my mind what I want the music to be. Increasing confirmation I’m on the right track comes in stages—at the first imagining, at the first notation, upon completing the notation, and then at first hearing and at performance.
How do you go about making choices?
For me, composition (and pre-composition) involves several different mental states, and the nature of choice differs in these different states. Some choices are so intuitive I feel the work is simply finding itself; others require careful analysis and deliberation.
For me the biggest challenge in composing comes with when and how to move from one mental state to another. Too soon, and I get bogged down in the next stage; too late, and I lose good material. If a sacred text is involved, I often employ the monastic practice of lectio divina: read it over and over, analyze it, pray it, and finally let the text read me, so to speak. That’s mostly pre-compositional, but the music comes out of that. When I am doing what I call dream-work, I open my mind and the music simply comes to me. I’m not really conscious of making choices until I begin to imagine alternative versions; but then I usually find those choices easy to make. Notating what I am hearing in my head requires a different mental state. As I begin to notate what comes into my head, I face lots of little choices that were not necessarily envisioned in my first intuitive imaginings, and I easily get bogged down at this stage, especially if a computer is involved, so paper works best for me until I’ve got a certain amount down. Likewise, for me, writing counterpoint involves a completely different state of mind than writing a melody and finding harmonies for it—there’s a lot of calculating involved. In orchestrating, I usually know early on what colors I want to hear, but at times—particular when figuring out how best to support a choir or achieve a particular, complex effect—I have to think very analytically.
I might add that throughout the whole creative process, my choices are guided by knowing who I’m writing for—these specific singers, this congregation, these particular instrumentalists. My choices are guided by what I think will make them sound their best, and, within the realm of my own imagination, what I think they’ll connect with.
How do you know when you’re done?
When the performance is over. In my recent big piece, I tweaked a few things in the orchestration at the dress rehearsal, and there are a couple of very minor details I’d like to change for the next performance.
What’s your workspace like?
I don’t have just one workspace; each type of mental task I do best in a different place. My best “dream work” I accomplish at the beach—the sound of the surging waves helps me hear my own thoughts like nothing else. When I’m working through harmonies, I often sit at the piano in a beautiful little chapel at my church. The very time-intensive work of orchestration I have to do sitting at my office desk at home—I have to have a computer with a huge screen turned to portrait orientation, or I can’t see the entire orchestral score all at once. When I’m trying to solve a particular harmonic or contrapuntal problem, it often doesn’t matter where I am; a few times, I’ve found solutions to complex contrapuntal or harmonic problems while driving, gardening, or even sleeping.
What are your essential tools?
Pencil, paper, piano, computer with notation software.
What’s the most surprising tool you use?
I’ve composed some choral miniatures by singing into a Zoom digital audio recorder, improvising and revising take after take until I get it just right, and then writing down that final version. The audio recorder helps ensure I don’t lose anything, but by the time I’ve improvised my way to the final version, I don’t usually need to actually listen to the recording.
What was your biggest mistake or the one you learned the most from?
One time I was having a trombone ensemble play at my church, so I wrote an anthem for trombone sextet and choir. Quite aside from the challenging instrumentation, my compositional choices were not inspired ones. In particular, I did not spend enough “dream time,” really imagining what I would want to hear from that unusual scoring—I just started writing, falling back on some familiar strategies that fell flat. People were nice but it was a lead balloon. But there was one good bit from that piece, a little Alleluia, which has made it into the worship life of my church as a liturgical response, so it wasn’t a complete failure.
What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
As a music historian, I know too much for my own good as a composer, and this can get in my way. I’ve read lots of music criticism from all eras, and until recently the values of most critics, especially from 20th century, crippled me as a composer. If you buy into the prevailing critical perspective that you have to be original, you’ll never write anything, because there’s usually going to be someone who’s done it already, and done it better than you could do it. But I’ve come to reject that suffocating notion, and just as painters talk about painting as a way of seeing, I regard composing as a way of hearing—re-expressing past musical languages in my own voice to a community uniquely situated in the present.
What’s the best?
This year, I’ve been holding on to two good bits of advice. Every year at UNCSA commencement, actress Rosemary Harris, the honorary muse of UNCSA, gets up and reads a famous Martha Graham quotation:
There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU.
Hearing this year after year in UNCSA commencement, it has gradually sunk in, and given me courage to renew my aspirations as a composer, which I’d had since childhood but had shut down for various reasons. I especially like the line “you do not even have to believe in yourself or your work,” because there are times that I haven’t, or don’t, so I trouble myself less with that now, and just compose.
The other good advice was from composer David Maslanka, who reminded me that, as he put it, “no one else is listening.” You don’t have to please anyone except yourself, musically speaking; write what you yourself want to hear, and then you’ll write much better music than if you try to match somebody else’s notion of what’s good. I don’t know any other path toward authenticity in artistic expression.