June, 2016 ____ “Piano Dave” Schlossberg, a mainstay of the New Jersey Jewish music community, and the composer of five commissioned pieces within the past two years, recently discussed his two newest compositions with Music Under the Radar, speaking from the driver’s seat of his car.
The 32-year-old holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Piano Performance from The College of New Jersey and grew up as a musician at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, New Brunswick, under the guidance of Cantor Anna West Ott. He currently serves as Collaborative Keyboard Artist at the Temple.
MUR: When AEMT choir members Rickey and Dana Stein told us that you had just composed a 25th anniversary piece for Kol Dodi, The Community Chorale of NJ Metro-West, I wanted to make a little blog story about it . . .
PD: Wait a minute. I’m sorry, I want to get onto 78. Can you hold on for a sec?
MUR: . . . but by now we have the makings of a two-part piece, with Rickey’s YouTube video of the “Haftarah Variations” that you performed at the AEMT 2016 Spring Concert and your song for Kol Dodi. Let’s save your Mi Chamocha and its acceptance by Shalshelet for another story. In the headline of this one, we’ll call you “prolific.” What do you think?
PD: You mean, saying I’m a prolific composer? I don’t have a problem with that.
Your solo Haftarah Variations blew us away at the AEMT concert last week; many in the audience leapt to their feet at the end — a rare sight.
Now, rumor has it that Cantor Ott asked you to perform the piece. Is that true? What’s the backstory?
PD: Well, two days before, I asked Anna, “What do you want me to do this year?” I had something in mind, but I trusted that she would know best what the audience would appreciate. She said, “How about the Haftarah blessings?” I said, “They’re kind of repetitive, right?” She answered, “Actually, they’ve got harmonic potential. You should be able to do something really great with it.” So I agreed. Sure, why not?
MUR: Could you explain what the Cantor meant by “harmonic potential”?
PD: Yeah. It’s a melody that allows for the exploration of different harmonic thoughts and expressions. There’s no “minhag,” no custom, no established harmony that is written in stone. It means it’s a blank canvas.
MUR: Got it. Now, another question: What musical influences should we listen for in your interpretation?
PD: I take a lot of inspiration from Irish and English folk music; I really like Ralph Vaughan Williams, Percy Grainger and Gustav Holst, especially their crisp, clean, open and pure composition styles. And because they put their own personal touch on their source material. . . . Uh-oh , I may have missed my exit. No, it’s okay, I’m on the right road. So, folk music from that part of the world tends to have a lot of fifths and fourths; it’s much simpler, at least from a harmonic standpoint, than jazz , with its 7ths,sharp 9ths, and altered chords. I’ll put some of those in, but it’s always a risk. — Sometimes the complexity of jazz can be off-putting, and the audience doesn’t get it. That’s why I prefer a tonal palette that’s simpler than that of jazz, but sophisticated, elegant and emotional on a kind of primal level.
MUR: Did the phrase-chunks of Haftarah trope influence you?
PD: Well, whenever I hear a Jewish traditional melody without accompaniment, for example the Birkat Hamazon, the Avot, the Chatzi Kaddish, or even Torah chant itself, what I’m attracted to is what the people who thought up those melodies had going on in their minds when they were creating them, even if they didn’t know it. My goal is to bring out that hidden accompaniment, to “fill in the blanks” that make sense with the melody and make it as spiritually fulfilling as I can.
MUR: That must have been why so many of us flew out of our seats when the piece was done.
|Dave’s performance: 6 THEME ON HAFTORAH Dave Schlossberg
Its origin: Haftorah beginning blessing: http://www.emanuelnyc.org/media/audio/audiofile_428.mp3
Now can you tell us what it’s like to sit at the piano spinning music out of your head and hands, in front of an audience?
PD: Here’s the thing: When I improvise or accompany, I may have one or two ideas just before I start, or just before each phrase of the piece; some embellishment that would make sense to translate from my head to the piano, to make the song come to life. You know, I am really conscious of the power of complete improvisation. There’s an element of magic that comes with spontaneity. I often say that I never want to play something the same way twice. It’s great to have the freedom to do whatever feels right, and I think an audience can tell when it’s authentic improvisation –a glimpse of the music that’s in the musician’s mind.
This is important, Kathy: I think of what I would want to hear if I were listening. When I have an idea during a performance, I think for a second, should I should do it, or not? If I think of a run that should go over here, I know instinctively how to make it happen; that for me is the easy part — the harmonies, the chords. I know how a musical idea will sound a split second before I put it into the piano. What’s more challenging is filtering my ideas to make sure they fit in terms of cohesion, and acceptability. It can be an intense experience.
You see a lot of musicians –Liberace was one; let’s just say if he could play a note, he usually would. He was a brilliant showman. But I prefer quality rather than quantity. A tasteful note can mean more than a flashy run. And Cantor Ott has played a great role in teaching me that it all depends on the context and the energy of the piece.
MUR: What was your inspiration for the song that Kol Dodi debuted in early spring and performed again last week? The Steins told me that Cantor Riki Lippitz, a co-founder and co-director of Kol Dodi, asked you to write it as a 25th anniversary anthem for the group.
PD: Riki sent me a list of several texts to choose from. Kol Dodi was the one that jumped out because of its imagery–not just the message but the direction I could take the piece.
|Kol Dodi, hineh zeh ba!
Medaleg al heharim mekapetz al hag’vaot
ana dodi, v’amar li:Kumi lach, rayati, yafati,
ul’chi lach. Ma’yan ganim,B’er mayim chayim
v’nozlim min L’vanon.
|The voice of my beloved, behold, he comes! Skipping over the mountains leaping over the valleys
my beloved spoke, and said to me,Rise up, my fair one, my beautiful one,
and come away with me. A fountain of gardens
A well of living waters
Streaming (flowing) out from Lebanon.
The image of the lover “skipping over the mountains” made it easy for me to evoke the scene I wanted using the English and Celtic harmonies and progressions that I love. I created four different themes, all in a Mixolydian mode, which uses a flatted seventh of a major scale; I love that mode. If you want to hear it yourself, just start on a G and play all the white keys. The flatted seventh (the F in this case) provides a nobleness and feeling of resiliency that in my opinion makes the Mixolydian mode so powerful. If you want to get even more in depth, you can say that it implies a “minor-five to one” progression, which provides a very strong and satisfying resolution for the listener.
MUR: Did you evoke a countryside scene to draw a parallel between singing and the restorative quality of bucolic life?
PD: Yes, I intended a connection there: unpretentious, unadorned, emotive and elegant – actually, the traits I see as essential to my compositional style.
Riki once told me a long time ago that my writing is like a musical confection; she was talking about my Candle Blessing. Delicious, accessible, something you can savor. I kind of took that to heart.
I designed the four themes so they could combine with each other. Toward the end of the piece, all four converge triumphantly; it’s the lovers’ joyful reunion. That’s what I go for; the overall theme is joy. So I thought it was a perfect fit.