Thinking Cinematically, Laying Down a Flow

Pittsburgh Collective, directed by David Sanford. Photo by Alison FranklinPittsburgh Collective, directed by David Sanford. Photo by Alison Franklin
By Ivelisse Estrada

David W. Sanford RI ’14, a composer, is the 2013–2014 Radcliffe Institute Fellow, an associate professor of music at Mount Holyoke College, and the director of the Pittsburgh Collective, a contemporary big band that explores the intersections between modern classical and jazz, otherwise known as the “third stream.” This December, Sanford discussed his work in a lecture at the Radcliffe Institute, after which he led a performance of his 20-piece contemporary big band, Pittsburgh Collective, which he founded in 2003.

Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo

The collective, whose name was inspired by the urban landscape of Sanford’s hometown in the 1970s, is made up of top-level jazz, classical, and new-music performers. Playing with a guest soloist, the cellist Matt Haimovitz ’96, the collective performed seven of Sanford’s compositions. The composer is strongly influenced by unorthodox cinematography, such as in the films of Wong Kar-wai, and by music from many genres.

We caught up with Sanford, who is currently writing [schwarzes rauschen] for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and asked him about his life, work, and music—Jay Z, are you listening? 

Who are your heroes?

My mother, foremost. After her, nurses, teachers of at-risk students, Bach, Mingus, the Dennis Edwards–era Temptations, the ’71 Pirates, the ’74–’79 Steelers, the ’83 76ers, and the ’04 Red Sox.

Which trait do you most admire in yourself?

Easiest to say that my sense of humor might be the trait I dislike the least.

Tell us your favorite memory.

The birth of my kids is the unoriginal truth. For an original one: When I was a sophomore in college, our vocal jazz ensemble used to end our performances with me screaming a double-high B flat, Cat Anderson–style; it used to bring the house down—closest I ever got to feeling like a rock star.

Describe yourself in six words or fewer.

Neurotic, never bored, Luddite.

What inspires you?

Films, music of all sorts, visual art, theater, fiction, graphic novels, urban areas with some history. Good art criticism used to inspire me, but so many great writers have been laid off over the past decade.

Name a pet peeve.

When melted cheese shows up on a dish at a restaurant with no mention of it on the menu.

Were your life to become a motion picture, who would portray you?

I used to think Giancarlo Esposito, maybe, but a girlfriend of a former housemate said she thought I looked like Denzel, so I’ll go with that one. I might need to just be animated, or CGI, like Gollum.

Where in the world would you like to spend a month?

Umbria, during the jazz festival.

What is your greatest triumph so far?

Colorado AAA State Marching Band Champions my senior year. It was a team “triumph,” and very “Battle of Agincourt.” 

What is your fantasy career?

Movie director.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a Radcliffe fellow?

Time management with all the lectures, concerts, and activities—plus the Red Sox going so deep in the playoffs. Three months flew by without my even noticing it.

Is it difficult for you, as a composer, to keep up with popular music? 

I would say it’s difficult as a middle-aged parent; they don’t make pop music for us—maybe they never did.

Whose tunes do you enjoy?

Tough to narrow it down, but to limit it to pop music from my lifetime: Temptations, the Isley Brothers, War, Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, King Crimson, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Public Enemy, Primus, Nirvana, and Radiohead all had at least four albums that I love.

What does it take to lead your 20-piece contemporary big band, the Pittsburgh Collective?

A ton of planning ahead of time; they are all professional musicians with demanding schedules, so it’s very hard to get 20 people of that caliber—many of whom have families—together. That said, none of them are doing it for the money, so on some level it’s what every band needs, a musical/personal/aesthetic bond that brings them together and that’s essential. As for leading them, I just try to stay out of their way as much as possible.

If you could collaborate with Jay Z, whom you also joke about resembling, what would you do?

I’d give him 40 minutes of Miles Davis ca. 1973–era funk with the Collective to lay down his flow, trade freestyle choruses with the horns, get buried in the storm like Lear, then see if he could open up a little capital and bring in ?uestlove [Questlove] as a second drummer and producer, the Cavaliers’ drumline for the climaxes, and Mavis Staples and Patti Labelle for the hooks. And Ernest Dickerson could direct the video.



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