Danny Clay
Danny Clay

Danny Clay in an interview says when you’re making anything, it’s a box. Whether it’s a drawing or a sound or an idea, it is stuff contained in a box that unfolds into infinite rooms that open into halls, stairways, balconies, turrets, tunnels, palaces, and brain spaces tickling the edges of logic, fantasy, danger, or the surreal. A score or video can be a puzzle, a map without a key, a water balloon fight, a cake recipe, a roller coaster.

Danny Clay Action Box
Danny Clay's Actions Box (2017) for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Pre-College Division

Working with groups of all ages and levels of experience, the Oakland-based composer and teaching artist fuses music, sound, movement, theater, and visual design. Much of the work he has produced finds its origins in children’s games, cognitive puzzles, invented notation, found objects, repurposed media, drawing practices, and music- and sound-making strategies that instigate improvisations.

“For me, composing is putting stuff together. The two questions when I’m composing are: What is the stuff I’m putting together? And how do I put that stuff together? It can be stuff made by me or by somebody else. The way it’s put together can be decided by just me or by lots of other people.”

Recent collaborators include Kronos Quartet, Eighth Blackbird, Volti, the San Francisco Girls Chorus, Wu Man, Sarah Cahill, Phyllis Chen, and others. His work has been presented by the deYoung Museum, San Francisco Performances, the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts at the Minnesota Street Project, and university programs throughout the United States.

Because beginnings are key to his process, Clay’s earliest memories launch our conversation.

What is your earliest memory of making music?

I went to my cousin’s wedding when I was 5. There was a pipe organ there and I remember the organist was playing Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze. After that, I was obsessed with pipe organs. All I did was draw pictures of my own imaginary pipe organs. I tried to write my own pipe-organ piece, because I was taking piano lesson at the same time. My mom would give me giant pieces of paper to draw stuff on. I scribbled out some staff notations and tried to write my first pipe-organ sonata. It’s about two measure long. I gave up pretty quickly. I need to go dig it out; there’s probably something interesting.

Other than that, what early experience sticks with you about drawing or making 3-D art with your hands?

In addition to writing out that notation, I drew Revolutionary War scenes, I drew the U.S. Presidents, imaginary maps for landscapes. I memorized all of the presidents by the time I was in kindergarten. I drew all of them, up to Clinton. I liked collections of things. I love maps. Now, I realize it was because I was interested in building worlds. Fabricating my own little universes of things.

When you were in middle school as an early teen, were you angsty?

I was a medium amount of angsty. I learned how to play guitar from my dad and how to record myself playing instruments. Dad had drums, guitar, a keyboard and a four-track audio recorder in the basement. I started to learn these things and used them to connect with people and to make friends. I started a band and that was my primary way of relating to people; making music and recording things with them.

But I was also really bossy. It became clear pretty quickly I had very specific ideas and ways to share and ways I wanted things to sound. From middle school and through to college, I veered toward composing where I could shape my musical ideas a little more than in a band.

What have been your primary activities during COVID?

I’ve been working remotely with as many collaborators as I can. Finding ways to engage with creative people that feel cut off. I’ve been working with a local group, the Living Earth Show, a guitar and percussion duo. We’ve been collaborating with a variety of youth ensembles. We have a project called Music for Hard Times. It began as a collection of sound-making strategies to record while they were separated by the pandemic. We realized these strategies could be done by anybody interested in music. We go and show [ensembles] these sound-making strategies and they send us recordings. We build big, omni collages of these musical compositions.

The Living Earth Show
The Living Earth Show

What have you been doing that’s not about music, drawing, or working?

I got married in September. We did a City Hall Zoom wedding from our living room. We had cake and flowers and then zoomed into the county clerk. My spouse is an art teacher who works with preschoolers. The pandemic made us realize that when there’s such uncertainty about the future, there’s a feeling of, why not? We felt circumstances were pointing us to spending our lives together. We had spent this hard year together and collaborated so successfully as partners, why not make it a lifelong commitment?

Has the isolation unleashed reactive, latent and/or creative forces in you that surprised you or didn’t — but that you connect to conditions during the pandemic?

As a collaborator, I felt in many ways very ready for what it means to make art in a pandemic. These challenges were probably easier for me than for other artists. I thrive on creative challenges. There’s a lot of presumptions about music-making: we need to be in the same room, we need to share the same space, or the same moment in time.

Because I work with collage and found sound and sourcing sound from a lot of different people and making videos, that work prior to the pandemic gave me the chance to use some tools I already had.

I’ve been wondering a lot about how this music can be useful to people, not just entertaining or a cerebral exercise. How can sound-making tools and listening be used to make people’s lives better? The pandemic offered a chance to put some of those practices to a practical purpose.

Will you talk about working with students, perhaps beginning with the Make Notes and Image to Represent It project? How have students expanded your process, sound vocabulary, and connections between visual and audible expression?

Danny Clay
Danny Clay

For starters, I don’t have formal music-education training. I come to teaching as an artist. I’ve learned more about what music-making is from kids than I have from studying musical things people older than me have made. Working with kids fundamentally changed how I approach music. It changed it from going through music school and experiencing music normally. Working with kids changed my thinking from a work-based model to a play-based model. I was taught music is something you have to work hard at to be good at. Now, thinking about music and sound, I see an infinite number of ways of that things could be. Every child thinks about sound differently. They don’t have ideas about music that have seeped into their brains yet. All of their ideas offer a new set of possibilities. In the Make Notes, one child will write music in a straight line across the page, or a roller coaster that moves around the page, or an atmosphere reflecting a sound, linear, nonlinear. There are as many ways to approach sight and sound as there are brains.

Is there an adult or adult group who opened your imagination most about music’s possibilities — introduced you to things you might not have discovered independently?

I have a collaborator, Jon Fischer, a printmaker and engineer. We’ve worked together since 2016. Because he comes from the visual art background, it’s made me realize the way perceptual information we take in — whether it’s sound or images or movement — all of these things have a shared system of organization. The way young people try to make sense of the ways they experience the world — sight, sound, movement — they are articulating principles even if they’re not overtly looking for them. I’m trying to figure out what those principles are and how to use them if you’re trying to make stuff and are not sure how to do it. It’s a cycle. I call it creative inquiry: you get a message from the world that you find interesting and that makes you want to make an action. You make a mark, a sound. It happens over and over again and that’s how you learn.

Explain the Drawn Together projects, including one made with Chicago Composers Orchestra.

That project was inspired by a friend of mine, Joseph Colombo. He’s a colleague and friend who has been making little animated musical scores. It might be a five-second animation that a musician is intended to play; to look at this little doodle and turn it into sound in some way. The Chicago Composers Orchestra asked me for strategies for making music remotely and I instantly thought of Joseph’s scores. What would happen if instead of following traditional sheet music, you broadcast a video of an animation and anybody watching it could create sound to go along with it in real time? That question was opened up to a variety of composers and visual artists. A challenge was issued to create a looping video score for musicians to interpret.

Choose a collaboration and describe how it led to new discoveries or is the seed for future work, or a landmark in your development?

I did a related project using animated scores called Sounds in Motion. It was a collaboration between a professional adult choir, MPLA (imPulse), and a youth choir (ComMUSICation) in Minnesota. This adult choir created their own vocal notation. They composed pieces for the youth choir to perform and vice versa, meaning the youth choir composed and wrote some pieces for the adult choir too. Like Drawn Together, I worked with them to animate their music notation as video scores so they could watch the score happen live and record themselves singing with it.

This created a body of work. Anybody who knows what the sounds and the symbols are can sing along with them. They can learn by watching the video, because the video is the score. It’s exciting because it goes back to world-building. It’s letting musicians build a sound world from the ground up. It’s not me coming in with an idea of what is going to be made. It’s letting them plant a seed and then I’m like a gardener, providing groundwater and sunlight. I let it grow to its full potential. I love giving up that control. I don’t learn as much if I’m the only one dictating what happens and when.

Danny Clay Manhattan Box
Danny Clay's Manhattan Box (2016) for David Grollman

Tell me about a Box Composition. (People fill boxes with found things and/or intentionally chosen objects and send them to Clay, who also makes similar boxes of his own.) Maybe it’s a box you afterward developed into a score or video or are inspired in some way by the contents.

I received a box from Phyllis Chen, who lives in New York and is a toy pianist and composer. In the box were dried plant seeds with different things written on them; little instructions like absorb or listen or pause. Only on some of them. There was a corncob pipe, vials of clear liquids that each had names: teardrops, heavy cloud. It’s still a mystery to me. I’ve had it for four years now. I go to the box when I’m not sure what else to do.

It’s almost like this weird magical practice. For example, in my backyard a tree got cut down. For some reason, I felt compelled to take one of those seeds, place it on the stump, give it a teardrop; to be a memorial to this tree that got cut down. The seed box doesn’t generate musical ideas, it’s just a source of reconnecting with the world around me and reconnecting with my ideas. It serves as an unusual creative facilitator; it embodies what I strive to do for other people. I give them a weird toolbox that helps them express themselves when they need it.

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