An Interview with Joseph Dillon Ford


Joseph D. Ford

Joseph Dillon Ford, along with several other emergent historicist composers, was interviewed by author Grant Colburn and the editor of Early Music America for an article titled "A New Baroque Revival:  Breaking through the Final Taboo," published in Early Music America, vol 13, no. 2, 37–39 (Summer 2007).  There was only room to include some of the composer's responses in the article, but a slightly abridged version of the original interview is published below.

[Questions from author Grant Colburn]

Q:  How did you get interested in writing baroque music?

A:  My interest in reviving historical styles came quite naturally and instinctively—before I ever learned it was verboten in the "modern" musical world to travel outside one's own little corner of twentieth-century spacetime.  Although I had heard my mother play Bach and Handel on the piano as a child, the more I learned about baroque music as a teen, the more I was attracted to it.  I started composing tonally long before I took college courses that required me to write polyphonic music, but through those courses I discovered that I had a special knack for period counterpoint.  I remember one of my college teachers exclaiming about my first invention, 'It sounds just like Bach!'  So if I'm to be blamed for any violation of the spacetime continuum, she's at least partly responsible for aiding and abetting me in my crimes.

Q:  How did you learn to compose baroque music? Self-taught? College? Teachers?

A:  In addition to the usual smattering of college harmony and counterpoint courses and a great deal of listening and performing the music of different periods, I studied Bach for an entire year with Christoph Wolff as a musicology graduate student at Harvard.  I also got deep into John Dowland and his contemporaries during my year of study with John Ward (also at Harvard).  Of course, none of this really allowed me to apply what I learned creatively, and at that time, there was not even much interest among scholars in doing "completions" of fragmentary works by historical composers.  So I worked on my own, composing various kinds of instrumental pieces for the virginal and harpsichord, and secreting them away in my closet with no particular purpose in mind.

Q:  Do you play any instruments related to the Baroque?

A:  Not now.  I did play the virginal and harpsichord while at Harvard, but my main instrument was the piano, and now I compose almost exclusively at the computer via MIDI.

Q:  Who are your musical influences, i.e., what period composers, musical schools or nationalities?

A:  Everything I hear becomes an influence.  The music of all the periods, cultures, and composers to which I've been exposed helps to shape my musical historicism.  Past, present, and future are really one, a concept that is central to modern physics but was evidently overlooked by many modernist composers who rejected history as a creative resource.

Q:  Do you write other kinds of non-period music? If so, what?

A:  I write in more than a dozen different styles, many but not all of them closely linked to particular historical periods.  Like a good actor, I don't want to get typecast, so I enjoy exploring many different roles, speaking in a variety of dialects, and wearing whatever masks or costumes seem most appropriate.  And like a good playwright, I don't limit myself to the here and now but take the liberty of evoking through my work many different times and places.  After all, if authors, architects, designers, filmmakers, and other creative people can time-travel with impunity, then why not composers?  There should be no double standard in the arts.


Q:  What are your reasons for writing baroque music?

A:  That's the easiest question of all.  Because I love it.  Certainly not because I think it will make me a ton of money or curry favor with audiences.  I write the kind of music I enjoy listening to.  If I don't enjoy a piece I'm working on, I won't finish it.

Q:   What do you hope to get out of it?

A:  Zilch.  Nada.  I'm more hopeful that music will get something out of me.

Q:  Any interesting stories you could share about writing baroque music and its acceptance (good or bad) in the modern world?

A:  The real joy lies in the creation of the music, which is something extraordinary in itself, perhaps even like giving birth.  Cleaning up the counterpoint after the rough draft is completed can be tedious work, but there are moments when the music comes pouring out that can't be readily expressed in words, and those moments are the closest thing to a genuinely religious experience I can possibly imagine. In more concrete terms, they give meaning to my life, even if there are still many who reject the very idea that musical historicism has any value.

Actually, my music is usually well-received by listeners whose aesthetic perceptions haven't been shaped by modernist biases.  I haven't had as many bad experiences as some of my other tonally oriented colleagues, but I do believe that anti-historicist discrimination does remain a problem....

Q:  Anything interesting happening in the near future with your music? Performances, publications? Commissions?

A:  Some of my "contemporary" tonal music is strongly influenced by baroque polyphony, including the Three Chromicons just successfully premiered in Quebec by pianist Valentin Bogolubov, who plans to perform them again in Montreal and, with  any luck, in Europe.  I don't seek out commissions, though they sometimes come, as was the case with Childe Henry's Booke of Excellent Adventures (trumpet and piano), another work with many baroque contrapuntal elements and allusions.  I pretty much write what I want to write when I want to write it, and since I have my own publishing establishment online—New Music Classics, my scores are available to the public almost immediately.  I am actively seeking a soloist and chamber orchestra willing to perform my new Concerto for Harpsichord, which is firmly in the baroque idiom.

[Questions from the editor of Early Music America]

Q:   For instance, what was the baroque composer trying to accomplish in his day that is still relevant today?

A:  For me, the Baroque never ended.  Time as we conventionally think of it is an illusion, and there's fundamentally no distinction between past, present, and future.  I have to keep reminding people, gently I hope, that this is not some fanciful notion of mine but a view widely held by living physicists.  So I don't think what I'm doing and my reasons for doing it are any less relevant today than in days of yore, because yore is right before us.  Just gaze at the night sky and you behold the presence of the past.  The very brains we think with and the hands we write with are stardust.

Q:  Do we respond the same way now to music as we did then?

A:  Now is then, so yes.  People are still people.  But some people are more responsive than others, particularly if their musical experiences have not been narrowly circumscribed by commercial popular culture.

Q:  What is missing in twenty-first century composition that Baroque music seems to fill?

A:  The modernists and not a few of their postmodern counterparts just do not seem to have grasped the temporal implications of modern physics, and continue to try to break away from the past as if it were some menacing father figure that, to quell their Oedipal anxiety of influence, has to be overthrown.  I, on the other hand, agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson:  "It is inevitable that you are indebted to the past.  You are fed and formed by it. The old forest is decomposed for the composition of the new forest."   We are our memories, and from memory all art arises.  The Greeks realized this, which is why they worshiped Mnemosyne—Memory—as "the Mother of the Muses."  Trying to break with the past is no more than a recipe for amnesiaand bad music.

Q:  How do contemporary social, scientific, and cultural paradigms change the way we create and respond to music and art in general?

A:  Modern society is dominated by popular culture, the global mass media, and the often brutally competitive marketplace.  Factor in the decline of music education in the public schools and you end up with hundreds of millions of people who are, for all practical purposes, musically illiterate.   How can they be expected to appreciate any kind of art music when their primary exposure to it may have come in the form of television-ad snippets?

Music is not simply language-like; it very often incorporates language, and like all languages, it must be learned.  Listening for years to commercial pop provides only a rudimentary musical vocabulary and grammar at best.  Understanding and appreciating all music demands a sound and comprehensive music curriculum.

Teaching to the test, emphasizing the acquisition of  mathematical and verbal skills at the expense of a truly humane education that embraces all the arts, has had disastrous consequences....

Q:   Is it  worthwhile to reinvestigate what has already been discovered?

A:  Discoveries are not made and then forgotten.  They serve as the basis for further exploration as human beings seek a wider, deeper understanding of who they are in relationship to themselves and the rest of the universe in all of its spatial and temporal dimensions.

Is it enough to read a Shakespeare play only once, then discard it like a piece of well-chewed bubblegum?  Did the Bard himself view the past as irrelevant, or did he seek in the pages of history, myth, and legend those themes and archetypes that illuminated not only the experience of his contemporaries but the lives of every generation that has been privileged to know his work?

In our myopically modern world, we have lost sight of the bigger picture of human civilization and fritter away our lives in the vain pursuit of trendy gadgets, gimmicks, and gaudery.  The avant-garde of the past century became famous for its ready willingness to provide all manner of diversionary stunts and novelties, since that fifteen minutes of fame they so zealously desired evidently mattered more than the fifteen-hundred-year expanse of cultural history, since the fall of the Roman Empire, which continued to grow and flower despite their indifference if not outright hostility to its very existence.  Theirs was an aesthetic of avoidance and oblivion, but few among them acknowledged that their very identity as iconoclasts was wholly dependent on the very traditions they reviled.

I am encouraged, however, that the presence of the past is now being rediscovered and, yes, reinvestigated by thousands of composers and musicians worldwide, and believe that it is they who will bring about an artistic renaissance comparable to that great revival of Classical learning that reinvigorated Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.   If I can in some small part contribute to that rebirth, then my work will have been worthwhile.

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Last updated June 7, 2007
WebMaster: Sebastian Proteus,
© Copyright 2007 by Joseph Dillon Ford