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Dave Longstreth on composition, Song of the Earth, and playing Dirty Projectors shows again

Dave Longstreth in front of Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles
Dave Longstreth in front of Walt Disney Concert Hall

It’s been a while since I sat down with a composer to talk about an upcoming LA Phil premiere, but when I saw that one of my favorite artists, Dirty Projectors’ founder and leader Dave Longstreth, was premiering a massive piece for the orchestra at Disney Hall on March 2, I thought it was a good time to jump back in. Dave and I had a lovely and wide ranging talk via Zoom about his processes and how he’s developed as an artist in the twenty years he’s spent with his band, and of course dug into the new piece, Song of the Earth. Enjoy our talk below.

I heard the Song Exploder interview on Up In Hudson a really long time ago, in which you mentioned that you had come up with a beat by trying to remember another beat without checking to see how close you were. And then I found out you had done the same thing, in a sense, for the Black Flag record, so I’ve got a two-parter based on that. First, if you could just talk about what attracts you to that process because you’ve done it more than once, and second, if creating compositional challenges for yourself to generate material or drive what you’re doing is also something you dig. If so, do you have any others that you use regularly?

Yeah, wow, great question. And thank you. We’re just diving in. So yeah, I mean, I think that memory is such an interesting part of creating. The way that our memories are subjective, the way our memories are imperfect, the way over time our memories become imbued with, you know, with our sensibility, with our… world view, maybe, makes writing that way compelling to me.

First of all, I have what feels like a vivid memory of this thing, maybe this beat that I heard on the radio in 2003, or this Black Flag album that I loved when I was in middle school. I have a vivid memory of it because it made such a strong impression on me in the first place, and in a way, maybe both of these things were sort of formative for my worldview, for my outlook, for my sensibility. And what has happened since then in the sort of internal mechanisms of my emotional brain? That sort of distortion is really compelling to me.

Actually, I don’t think I had really connected how similar those two sort of prompts were.

Oh, that jumped right out at me!

Well, yeah, and then the second part of your question. Can you remind me what it was?

Yeah, it’s just whether creating prompts or challenges or restrictions for yourself is a way that you like to generate material, or force yourself to come up with ideas or anything like that when composing.

Yeah, I could think it’s less of a prompt and more like just a game, or even just something that starts circling around in your head and you just get a desire to explore it, to go further. It arrives, maybe as you’re saying, in the form of a question. Yeah. Exploring things I can’t quite figure out is one of the things I love about writing music.

I think we agree about that actually. So as far as getting into being a composer, slash artist, slash et cetera. I saw that you briefly went to Yale, which is known as an elite classical music kind of school. I wondered about your decision to leave. Was it an artistic thing?

Well, I did finish school. I lived for a while with every intention of not returning and then when I was gone was when I released the first Dirty Projectors records. It became sort of popular lore that I had left. But I did go back.

Oh? Gotta update your Wikipedia…

Oh man! So yeah, it’s funny. I love…I love the music, you know? I love the music of the classical canon. And I love the textures. And I love the melodies. I think it’s just such a rich sort of history and such a rich tradition. And there’s just such an unbelievable amount of just amazing music. I think when I was in school I had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder about it being a closed canon, about that history having elapsed… that history having finished, and I was very eager to go out and get started.

I consider the university a place where things are sort of dissected and autopsied as opposed to being a place for something more living. More alive. So I was just eager to get out of there. I think I was essentially unteachable, but I am grateful to have actually learned a lot about orchestration when I was there.

What do you think made you unteachable?

Well, just what I’m saying. I had a chip on my shoulder. I was ready to go out there and play shows in Greenpoint in a basement to eight people. That’s what I wanted. That’s what I was ready to do. And I was just very eager to do that.

I think, though, maybe I’m underselling my reverence for… certainly the rules of counterpoint. I was passionate about it. At the same time I held it with a deep grain of salt. The study of music theory, the study of orchestration, the study of counterpoint, I took everything with a big grain of salt.

That makes a ton of sense. Since you mentioned basement shows and the whole DIY world…a lot of people refer to your earlier stuff as lo fi. I get into a little trouble around this with my own music because some of it exists in that lo fi sound world but I really, really care about clarity at the production level. Stereo image is important! Anyway, since you produce your own music, and the sound world is incredibly clear and direct, I wonder if you see a kind of path from the DIY basement vibe to the more sonically refined work you do now, or if that’s a conscious contrast, or…

Yeah, I mean, that’s an interesting question. I think of it as a continuum. And I agree with, I think, one of the things that you just said, which is that it’s a very detailed stereo image!

You can make choices about fidelity. You can make textures that are a little bit ambiguous. Those are colors. Those are beautiful colors, especially when you’re using them as it sounds like you are, thoughtfully and with intention. Then we’re just using a very wide canvas, and can aim at textures that are less defined, or hazier, and have more ambiguity in them, or we can aim at textures that are very clear and very recognizable. Why not use that whole range, that whole spectrum?

I think with some of those earlier records I just had what was available to me, and so that’s a bit lower fi than what I have available to me now, but it is also what it was.

You know? I love it. I love it. That tradition of indie rock too, you know. Guided by Voices and Pavement, and home recording artists I love. I think those early Dirty Projectors records were in dialogue with them. I considered myself in that sort of tradition, in dialogue with that music.

So as you’ve kinda gotten—I don’t know if the right word is resources or access or fancier gear, or more production skill, or—

Not being such a punk about it?

Yeah, that’s it. What I wondered is if your approach to writing has changed much as you’ve had access to more resources.

One way or another, every album, every body of work that you make is just different. It’s a different moment in your life. It’s a different moment in our culture’s relationship with technology. One way or another, the tools have ended up being different every time. And you’re a different person, of course.

Every record is just a different thing. I’ve actually been marveling a little bit at what feels like a moment of cyclical return for me on Song of the Earth [Dave’s piece with the LA Phil]. I feel really connected now to the way I thought about songs and the possibilities of music when I was starting out in my teens and twenties, and it feels interesting.

Was there something that kind of removed you from that feeling in the interim? I mean, you’ve been in a touring band for a long time…

Since I became a professional musician? Of course considerations of what works on stage, or even passive or unconscious considerations of an audience’s expectation, begin to sit there in the room with you.

Because Song of the Earth began in a pandemic moment, and also in a moment when I had just had my daughter, it really just felt like some of those edges were softer. Some of those lines had dissolved, and I made something that surprised me, and confounded me a lot. And so it’s been really rewarding to make this piece.

It’s gotta be exciting. Since we talked about memory earlier, is a similar process sort of going on here with Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde?

Absolutely. As I’ve continued to write and revise the piece, the connections between the Mahler and this one have become softer and, in a way, other aspects or connections to that piece have become stronger.

In a conscious way?

No, unconsciously. I really love the Mahler orchestral songs, the Rükert-Lieder and Kindertotenlieder, particularly with Janet Baker singing. I love those recordings so much. And those orchestrations, too, are so, so wonderful, so beautiful.

Two or three years ago I hadn’t really spent that much time with Das Lied von der Erde. I found it imposing and just so dense that it was difficult to have it open for me. And then it did, and I got super into it. And I love that. It’s this meditation on the impermanence of all things. On a very simple, basic level. I just like that. And I like that phrase, “the song of the earth.”

I think honestly just that simple aesthetic appeal is what kept bringing me back to Song of the Earth, to Das Lied von der Erde for a while. And then, there’s something with that title. What is that title? It’s grand, even grandiose. It’s portentous. And then this huge work with this big title ends up being so much about fragility and the passages of things from growth and bloom into a sort of wispy autumnal character. And then passing. I just thought it was really beautiful.

It seems like the medium in which you’ve been creating has included chamber and orchestral music more and more often, at least over the last decade. Was getting back into the classical world a deliberate decision? 

I think that I’ve always been interested in writing scored music, and I think that for most of my professional life I’ve been so focused on Dirty Projectors, that everything I’ve written has gone through the prism of the band. There are a fair number of string arrangements and that sort of thing all over the Projectors records. But they’re tucked into a strong fabric. You might notice them less. And so I think in the last couple of years I’ve really…been changed. My attitude is a bit about just allowing things to live outside of the band, to do other things and have more streams open to me, and to write dedicated concert music seems so fun to me. And so this is that.

Does that feel freeing?

Yeah. Or it’s certainly a new challenge, a different thing than what I have been doing.

So regarding doing band stuff then, how do your bandmates learn your parts? Dirty Projectors songs are often super hocketed and extremely technical. I wondered if you have had to notate it for people to learn it.

No, we don’t do any scored stuff in the band. And you know Olga [Bell], who’s playing in Song of the Earth and was in the band on the Swing Lo [Magellan] tour cycle is a virtuosic classical pianist. So she’s very comfortable in and familiar with the notated page. And Maia [Friedman] is to some extent as well. But no, with the band it’s always just listening. Listening and practicing.

You start slow. You speed up over time. And it’s just a lot of rehearsal, people practicing individually, then us coming together and rehearsing for a long time.

That makes sense. I mean, I find when you learn stuff by rote, it’s the best way to lock in a group.

For sure. And for hocketing specifically. I just think there’s nothing like muscle memory.

Dirty Projectors
Dirty Projectors

So for the show with the LA Phil, they’re billing it as songs from across the entire Projectors discography. Since you’re focused on newer pieces, what’s your relationship like with those older songs when you play them live?

We’re gonna play a set of music from all different eras of Projectors. It’s great to go back to the older material. It always feels different. I think, particularly in this context, it’s going to feel really fresh. I’m really looking forward to it because between having kids and the pandemic and everything, it’s really been a minute since the Projectors played. So I’m really excited to go back to play material from across the records.

That’s awesome. I just have a couple of quick questions left, because I know you’ve gotta get back to mixing. One of my best friends—this might seem weird—you’re his favorite musician/producer. He even commissioned a portrait for his studio—

Whoa! I wanna see that.

I will send it over!

Portrait of Dave Longstreth by Nels Arne
Portrait of Dave Longstreth by Nels Arne

I asked my friend what I should ask, and he wanted to know when we might hear the Alarm Will Sound live recordings of your piece The Getty Address.

Oh, it’s on a hard drive! When I’ve shown Song of the Earth work in progress to my brother, he’s like “dude, this is Getty Address part 2.” So this stuff is very connected to that piece.

I think what happened is that I just got impatient by the time we had done those shows. We did get the recordings of them, but by the time we had done it I was ready to move on to the next thing. And they’re just sitting on a hard drive. They’re beautiful performances. Maybe we’ll reissue the record at some point and include those as sort of additional material. That would be cool… thanks for asking. Thank your friend for the idea.

What’s your musical obsession as of late?

Oh, wow! Well, let’s think here. I listen to different music at different times of day. [long pause] If I think about what I’ve listened to a lot recently, the gagaku music from the court of Imperial Japan has been really resonant with me. I’ve been pretty obsessed with Parsifal, the Wagner opera. And then this earlier Reich piece, from the 70s, one for mallets, women voices, and Farfisa [Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ]. I’ve been listening to that because it’s just such an insane recording. I never spent that much time with that one, but it’s just really, really amazing. And then 70s Brazilian music as well. That’s fun to listen to with my daughter.

Same question, but about gear.

Oh, dear. We have got a 1969 Yamaha baby grand piano in our living room, and that’s really changed my relationship with music. I love to play that thing. I like to write on it—a lot of the music I’ve written lately has been on it.

And to close: what’s a musical love of yours that you wish more people knew about or listened to?

Oh, that’s an interesting one. Perennially underrated. Okay, I would say Little Wings. He’s a songwriter, lives down here in Southern California. Just such an amazing lyricist, and it’s such an incredible kind of universe he’s continuing to spin out for everyone. I wish more people knew his music.

Well, thank you! I’m really excited for the show.

Thank you so much. I know, me too. Yeah, I can’t wait.

The March 2 show also features opener Mount Eerie. Info at