Self-Made Composer: An Interview with David Garner

David Garner, a well-known and often performed award-winning composer, is putting the final touches on his first full-length opera, Mary Pleasant at Land’s End. A composition, chamber music, and orchestration professor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, David’s artistic story is one of fascination, as his gifts in composition were self-taught. I sat down with him to find out more about how someone who had never had a lesson in composition created such a broad body of work, including his new opera.

KD: When did you first become involved in music?

DG: I spent most of my childhood in Lincoln, Nebraska and Lake Oswego, Oregon – where we lived was based on wherever my parents held academic positions. I started piano lessons in the second grade. I took cello lessons growing up as well, and I performed in recitals and youth orchestras.

KD: Did you always know you would make a career out of your musical talents?

DG: I think so, however I actually went to school to study the Classics – I realized it wasn’t for me and I returned home to prepare to audition for a piano performance degree at the San Francisco Conservatory of music. I didn’t get in at first, though – it took two tries. After the first try I studied for an additional six months through the adult extension program there and then auditioned again, which is when I was accepted.

KD: And you started teaching there immediately after you graduated?

DG: Yes – 38 years and counting! I started out part-time, and was appointed full-time and chairman of the theory department in the same meeting with the Dean, 5 years later.

KD: When did you start composing?

DG: The “family lore” has it that I stood in front of our old upright scribbling on paper at the
age of 4 or 5. But I’ve never had a composition lesson—almost unheard-of for a “concert music” composer. I started performing and recording my own works and self-publishing shortly after beginning on the faculty at the Conservatory.

KD: You’ve done some other interesting things as well outside of music – tell me about your
involvement in martial arts and acting.

DG: From 1996 to 2009 I was quite active in Western martial arts, specifically historical
sword-fighting. I am a ranking member of the Society of Albion, a chivalric order (dormant now) based in the northern California Renaissance Faires. I achieved the rank of Provost in the Albion Schoole (sic) of Defense, where my specialty was Italian Longsword, and I played various roles in Renaissance Faires up and down the west coast.

This experience led to me choreographing fight scenes for some opera houses in the Bay Area. I also wrote music for and performed in productions at theatres in the area like Thunderbird Theatre and Boxcar Theatre.

KD: What influenced your compositional style?

DG: I adhere to the Western canon, but I’m heavily influenced by dance elements in rock and Latin. I was also in a couple of jazz-rock fusion bands. My music has been described as having “that Garner roll,” referring to an omnipresent rhythmic drive.

KD: You also developed a new compositional technique – tonal serialism?

DG: Yes – I use the precepts of the 12-tone techniques developed by Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School with one important difference: where “classical serialism” seeks to obscure tonal centricity and favor “free” tonality, tonal serialism preserves harmonic and structural elements of traditional tonal music, most notably a purposeful gravitation towards a tonal center through the coincidence of vertical consonance and dissonance.

KD: So the music is 12-tone in nature, but not like we think of that in the traditional sense, which is predominantly rooted in atonality…

DG: Exactly, although there are examples in the works of Alban Berg and other serial composers which use a “tonal” row—that is, a 12-tone row which through its very structure lends itself to traditional tonality. However, my method heightens the importance of the vertical element – I use consonant vertical sonorities constructed contrapuntally by intersections of different forms of the row in different voices. I’ve developed a set of broadly defined “rules,” or guidelines if you will, but I am still refining the system.

KD: Which of your works use tonal serialism?

DG: Probably most notable are my String Quartet No. 2, commissioned by the Han Quartet and Mein blaues Klavier, both of which have won awards. The Capriccio for Cello and Piano and Trio for 5 Instruments also employ the technique.

KD: Your compositional output is rather eclectic; what inspired you to compose for so many different instruments and combinations of instruments?

DG: I’m easily bored! (laughs) The truth is that many of the combinations have been a result of the specific ensemble commissioning the work, and many of the rest have been driven by my desire to write for my wonderful, long-suffering cache of performers. For example, I wrote many works for soprano, cello, and piano because I knew and worked with fantastic pianists like the late Kristin Pankonin, and cellists like Matt Haimovitz.

KD: Your largest body of work involves compositions for the voice – what drew you to this?

DG: I am obsessed with languages.

KD: What made you want to compose opera?

DG: A combination of my love of music and my love of theatre. I’m quite experienced on both sides of the curtain, and I find good opera to be the apex of the worlds of vocal music and theatre. To me, the best operas are driven by strong, theatrically compelling libretti. Although one constantly hears that “the music is more important than the words,” I am convinced that theatricality is more important than either, and that a perfectly good story can fail operatically if it is not driven by good solid dramaturgy.

KD: Tell me about your new opera, Mary Pleasant at Land’s End.

DG: The story of Mary Pleasant has been with me for years, and I’m thrilled that I’ve finally gotten this work within sight of a full production. It began in its preliminary stages in the 1990s, and through many versions and revisions, it has come alive. Much of that has to do with my partnering with Mark Hernandez as the opera’s librettist. The opera tells the story of Mary Pleasant, a successful entrepreneur and civil rights leader. It depicts her rise to prominence as she championed the rights of African Americans in San Francisco, including a famous court battle in which she sued over segregation on public transportation. The work shows how even the most influential and righteous among us can be demonized because of attitudes toward gender and race. This is as true today as it was in Mary Pleasant’s time in the 1880s.

KD: The opera is scheduled to be presented in a full workshop at the San Francisco Conservatory next month – what’s next after that for ‘Mary Pleasant’?

DG: Orchestration of the current piano/vocal score is next. I was granted a partial leave from teaching in 2015 to compose Mary Pleasant at Land’s End, and I’m hoping to do something similar next year in order to orchestrate it.

David’s work can be heard on the Pentatone Classics and Centaur Records labels, as well as on cdbaby. More information can be found about him and his compositions at

You can hear the workshop version of Mary Pleasant at Land’s End on YouTube, where it currently appears in two links (one per act):
Act One
Act Two

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