Bachtrack is asking the same six questions to many composers this month as part of its focus on contemporary music. Here’s what David Bruce had to say.

David Bruce © Neil Matthews
David Bruce
© Neil Matthews

1. What influences are important to you and your music? Do you choose them, or do they choose you?

I like the second part of this question! Generally I think the less self-conscious we can be, the more we let our influences “choose us”, the better. The trouble with being a composer is that any piece you are drawn to becomes a potential tool that you can use in your own work, so you often find yourself “liking” a work from this analytical perspective. I think I’m most drawn to composers like Janáček, whose music often just moves me to tears inexplicably. I can’t steal from it, because it’s just the sweetness of the melody or the harmony that touches me. That is at once both the most uplifting experience and also the most depressing because you have no way of knowing how you could do something like that yourself.

2. What (if anything) do you want listeners to take away from your music?

Although I genuinely don’t think you can write in any meaningful way “for an audience”, I do try to keep in mind the moments when I have been completely swept off my feet by a piece of music and try to understand and to some extent recreate those conditions one way or another in what I write. At the end of the day, if no one is going to genuinely fall in love with this music it will die.

Other than that I do think it’s important for the work to feel consistent, to feel like a “beautifully constructed object”, and I also have a phobia of earnestness so I like to cast my lofty ambitions within an apparently coy and approachable surface.

3. Is there a composition of yours which you are most satisfied with? What makes it successful?

One of the most significant pieces for me was a piece called Piosenki which is a collections of settings of Polish children’s nursery rhymes. It was a Carnegie Hall commission which daunted me for weeks. At some point I decided to let my hair down and write what I thought of a piece in the mold of Berio’s Folk Songs, consciously deciding to write a “light” piece. The result was so much better and more vibrant than anything else I had done up to that point, that really opened my eyes. The hardest thing for many composers I think is to write a piece that doesn’t try to aspire to the heights of a Bach fugue. I realised that if I was to fulfill my potential I had to embrace this “lighter” aspect of my musical personality more fully.

4. How important is new technology to you as a composer?

Although my music embraces popular and folk traditions, I’ve never felt any interest in amplified or electronic music. There is something about the physicality of generating the sounds using just your body that I find essential. I am so disappointed when I go to, say, an Indian classical music recital and the tabla is amplified. It takes away half the pleasure. Like most composers, however, I couldn’t live without the notation program Sibelius, simply because it has probably saved me about 20 years of life!

5. What music do you enjoy listening to?

It’s a good experiment to flick through “Shuffle” on your iPod and try to get an overall sense of what music you have on there. Mine is about 40% folk music from around the world, particularly klezmer, gypsy and flamenco; 20% opera (Janáček), 30% other classical repertoire (Sibelius, Stravinsky), an 10% funk along the James Brown/Prince lines. I do probably half-listen to quite a lot of other pop in day to day life, but I almost don’t acknowledge it to myself, it’s so polluted as an art form; the money drips off it in a way that is very dangerous to an artist, I think.

6. How is composing changing, and where do you want new music to go in the future?

What would excite me beyond words would be if the orchestral model were able to open up to allow a much wider range of instruments and combinations. I think Boulez once suggested a much more flexible model that might be a Baroque ensemble one day, a Straussian orchestra the next, and a big band the next. It feels absolutely absurd how ossified the line-up has become. Just to include, say, a saxophone, you have to get down on your hands an knees. How exciting it could be if a new orchestral commission meant using “any 60-80 instruments of your choice”. It’s the only way we’ll be able to move away from the endlessly repeated 19th-century orchestral sound.


Born in Stamford, Connecticut in 1970, David Bruce grew up in England and now enjoys a growing reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. Bruce’s music draws on the wild dances and heartfelt laments of gypsy music, flamenco, klezmer and other folk traditions, as well as having a direct connection to composers like Stravinsky, Janáček, Berio and Bartók, who shared similar passions. Often witty and always colourful, pulsing with earthy rhythms, Bruce’s music has a directness rarely heard in contemporary music, but also contains an emotional core of striking intimacy and sensitivity.

Since the première of Piosenki (2006) in Carnegie Hall, Bruce’s career in the US has flourished. Carnegie Hall itself has been a huge supporter of Bruce’s music, going on to commission Gumboots (2008), Steampunk (2011) and the forthcoming That Time with You for mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor which premières at the hall in October 2013. In 2009, Dawn Upshaw premièred the song-cycle The North Wind was a Woman, commissioned for the gala opening of the Chamber Music Society of the Lincoln Center’s 2009 season. For 2013–14 Bruce is Associate Composer with the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, for whom he will write three pieces: a new work, Night Parade, for the orchestra’s Carnegie Hall debut in October 2013; a violin concerto for 2014; and a chamber piece featuring mandolinist Avi Avital for May 2013.

In the UK, recent commissions include Prince Zal and the Simorgh (2012) for the London Philharmonic Orchestra for their BrightSparks series; Fire (2012), one of 20 “20x12” commissions celebrating the Cultural Olympiad; and the chamber opera The Firework-Maker’s Daughter (2012) co-commissioned by The Opera Group and ROH2, which toured the UK and New York’s New Victory Theatre in Spring 2013.

Bruce’s music has attracted numerous awards and prizes, including the Lili Boulanger Memorial Prize (2008) and the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Competition (1994). He studied at Nottingham University, the Royal College of Music, London, (with Tim Salter and George Benjamin); and completed a PhD in Composition at King’s College, London (1995-9), under the supervision of Sir Harrison Birtwistle.

Complementing his work as a composer, Bruce runs the music and technology company Red Balloon Technology Ltd whose sites include the popular sheet music site 8notes.com and the composers’ site CompositionToday.

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