Innovation in Composition
This month, Project Jumpstart interviews Dr. Dominick DiOrio, composer and associate professor of choral conducting at the Jacobs School of Music.
DiOrio’s music is widely performed, published, and recorded, having been presented in major venues across the United States (including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, and the Meyerson in Dallas) as well as in Austria, Canada, China, Denmark, Hong Kong, Ireland, Sweden, and the U.K.
Under his leadership, the contemporary vocal ensemble NOTUS has performed at both regional and national ACDA conferences and as an invited ensemble on the Distinguished Concerts International New York Artist Series at Carnegie Hall.
Project Jumpstart: As a very successful composer, how do you curate an artistic identity as you work with collaborative partners, the musicians around you, and your audiences?
DiOrio: Identity is so crucial to our music profession, as we often associate a particular sound or style with a famous composer (for instance, the music you hear in your head when you think of the names Igor Stravinsky, Arvo Pärt, or Philip Glass). I work to forge a sound identity rooted in expressivity, immediacy of communication, and theatricality. I am a tonal composer (whatever that means nowadays!), but that isn’t the core of my identity. If anything, I’ve gained a reputation more for my reliability as a collaborator (scores always on time or significantly early) and my work as a craftsman for the vocal instrument (idiomatically written scores for solo voices or choral ensembles). And ultimately—even though I certainly curate a careful online existence via my website and social media--, I’m simply trying to write music that I want to hear, and if I’m doing that, I will trust that my artistic identity (my “voice”) will form itself over time.
PJ: When you assumed directorship of the contemporary vocal ensemble here at the Jacobs School, you decided to change the name of the group to NOTUS. How does this represent your sense of innovation in choral music and performance?
DiOrio: I found that the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble (or CVE as it was known) did not have much of an identity beyond the walls of the Jacobs School. I was astounded by the reaction I received from choral peers outside of IU who assumed that I started the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, or that it was formed for me when I arrived, when in reality it has existed since 1980 (!). So, I made it my mission early on to re-brand the group and to focus its efforts on performing great new music AND making sure that what we do on the Bloomington campus is broadcast to an audience much wider than just those who hear us in concert. My YouTube page has NOTUS recordings going back for four years now ( https://www.youtube.com/domdiorio ) and I’ve received over 180,000 views on all of these videos. We’ve also made a concerted effort to perform off-campus and at conferences, including in Chicago, Cincinnati, Salt Lake City, and Carnegie Hall in NYC. This is hardly innovative: it’s par for the course in letting everyone know what we are doing and why it’s important. But we weren’t really doing it before, which is why the impact has been so great.
PJ: What skills or competencies do you find necessary in order to succeed as a modern musician, specifically as a singer, conductor or composer?
DiOrio: Two things equate to success in this world: 1.) being excellent at what you do (you don’t have to be the best, but you do have to be really, really good); and 2.) knowing other people who want to work with you and who are also excellent at what they do. If these two pieces of the pie are in place, then opportunities will open for you in the music profession, regardless of your discipline. When in doubt, be nice and respectful to others. Show up on time. Be dependable. Be flexible and willing to do something you haven’t done before. And of course: be excellent at what you do (for me, composing and conducting). It will all work out in some way.
PJ: How do you feel that your experience in academia here at the Jacobs School has impacted your artistic vision?
DiOrio: What an interesting question! We’re lucky at the Jacobs School, because our performance activities here feel more like a major musical arts organization than a typical academic institution. Students here take immense pride in performing well, and it shows in every area of the school’s activities, from opera productions to solo recitals. I’ve learned to not set upper limits or expectations in my head, because these wonderful students will always surpass them. But I’ve also learned that it’s my responsibility as an educator to let the students know when what they think is “excellent" is really only “pretty good.” That’s teaching. If it’s less than the best, then it is my job to make sure that I give them an accurate filter to measure excellence.
PJ: What is the largest obstacle that you face in the composition process, and in what ways have you learned to overcome it?
DiOrio: Time! I am lucky enough to have a wealth of commission opportunities (nine new works to write from July 2016 to September 2017, including two major works for chorus and large ensemble that will both be premiered at Lincoln Center in Spring of 2017 and Spring of 2018 respectively). I find that finding the time to write is the hardest thing to do with my other obligations as a conductor and educator, so I keep certain times in my schedule sacred for writing. I’ve learned to compose very efficiently, which has helped to mitigate the time factor to some degree. Currently, I’m able to keep pace with the expectations from these commissions, and so far I’ve never missed a deadline…!
PJ: As a highly productive artist, how are you able to find the proper balance between your personal and professional life?
DiOrio: This is tricky… there’s always more work to be done, and because I love what I do, the work doesn’t always feel like work, so I will regularly compose on the weekends or answer my email late at night on the weekdays. At the same time, my husband and I do not have terribly well-aligned work schedules, so the time we have together is already limited. I’ve learned to maximize this time whenever I can, and I like to think I’m getting better and better at it each year. And besides: the inspiration that comes from cooking and traveling and exploring with the person you love makes all of the other work easier and more fruitful. A life well lived is a life worth living, and I have no doubt that the music I make as composer and conductor is better when I am inspired by life in all of its dimensions!
PJ: Any additional thoughts about the future of ‘art music’ in our society?
DiOrio: The influence of popular music on art music is more and more profound, without question. And the “classical music” world can learn a lot from the popular music world about how to reach out to members of society who don’t typically listen to Beethoven or Mendelssohn. But: there’s something important about setting aside time to hear music free of other distractions. Our world is full of advertisements and tweets that want to pull us away from critical thought, curiosity, and inquiry. Concert music allows us to explore the words and sounds of music for their own sake, free of partisan influence. It allows us to explore more deeply the music of people and traditions that may be foreign to our experience. It enables us to connect more powerfully to our community. Concert music is absolutely vital to our society: without it, we lose our ability to listen, to think, to reason, and to empathize. As artists, it is our responsibility to program and perform with an eye toward these issues.
Project Jumpstart partners with the Johnson Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the IU Kelley School of Business.