When he was just 11, Daniel Ott told a classmate he wanted to be a composer when he grew up. You can’t do that, his classmate said—“composers are all dead.”
“Little interactions like that spurred me on,” said Ott.
He grew up to become not only a composer, but also a professor at both Fordham and Juilliard. To wear both hats effectively, he rises at 4 a.m. and composes until 7 a.m., when he heads over to his Lincoln Center campus office.
“It’s a cliché that after the day job of teaching, the night job is composing,” said Ott, an assistant professor of music theory and composition. “But that’s sort of the way it works in my life.”
The Julliard connection has enabled Ott to create a large body of work connected to dance, which has given him the opportunity to collaborate with a choreographer.
“It’s very different from a typical composer scenario, where you’re alone in a room sitting at a piano and putting notes on a piece of paper, and you’re in an interior world,” he said.
Dance is a great place to showcase new compositions, he said, as exemplified by the legendary partnership between composer Igor Stravinsky and choreographer George Balanchine.
“Even though we think of ballet as a very traditional art form, a company like the New York City Ballet is really founded on the creation of new work,” Ott said.
This semester Ott is using a faculty fellowship to write a new 15-minute-long orchestral work for the Auburn Symphony Orchestra in Seattle, which is close to where he grew up. It’s important in part because orchestral pieces are commissioned less frequently than small-scale ensembles, he said. In addition, the founder of Auburn was also the music director for the respected Pacific Northwest Ballet, where Ott’s mother performed as a violinist.
As a child, Ott would attend their performances “and close my eyes and listen to the orchestra, because I wasn’t interested in those guys in tights jumping around; I wanted to hear that beautiful symphonic sound live.”
“They’re all former colleagues of my mother, and I know so many of those players, so doing this piece is kind of a like a homecoming.”
In addition to writing a piece of contemporary music that will debut at Brooklyn’s Bargemusic on June 19, he’s also writing a commissioned quintet for the flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn, and bassoon for the New York City-based Quintet of the Americas. Funded by the New York State Commission on the Arts, it will premiere June 21 at the Queens Botanical Garden, and will focus on the experience of being an immigrant.
Ott moved from the suburbs of Seattle to Astoria, Queens in the late 1990s after a brief stint at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Even though New York City is still mainland USA, Ott relates the experience of living here to living in a different country. In writing the piece, he tried to capture that feeling of diversity.
“Each member of the wind quintet is a different instrument. Every instrument is an individual. The flute is not an oboe, which is not a clarinet, which is not a horn, which is not a bassoon,” he said.
“The wind quintet embodies that spirit of different instruments coming together to make music,” he said. “I draw this connection to the borough of Queens. People from all over the world are there, living together and making a kind of music.”
Although Ott idolizes Stravinsky, he does not share Stravinsky’s perspective on teaching as “too constrictive” and says it has yet to interfere with the creative process.
“I love teaching; always have. My grandfather was a lifelong music educator and my mom also taught throughout her whole career,” he said.
“I love seeing someone else discover music, and then to encourage their interest. I love to be the person who plays a composition that someone’s never heard before, and hear them say, ‘Oh my god, that’s amazing; I can’t believe I didn’t know that piece existed.’”
To hear clips of music Ott has composed, visit his website.