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Interview with Derek David

Hannah Gelman and Jonah Massey

October 6, 2022

Youth, Yiddish, and Yearning: An Interview with Derek David

The passionate composer and educator reveals that his journey as a student never ends

“I have such a deep and close relationship with Bach.” David motions above his computer screen. “I have him above my desk here, I have a portrait of Bach in every room of my apartment—not including the bathroom, but including the kitchen.” After talking with Derek David on a Tuesday afternoon, one not only learns that he really, really loves Bach, but also that his attunement to musical legacies enables him to be the profound composer and teacher that he is today.

David is Lecturer in Music at MIT, musical director and conductor of A Besere Velt (the Yiddish community chorus of the Boston Workers Circle), and a composer who constantly undertakes self-started and commissioned projects. Wearing many hats of identity, his music sounds both familiar and unprecedented, the former perhaps a result of his thorough and extensive conservatory training. When asked about this background, David reveals that his conservatory nostalgia begins as far back as high school.

“I went to the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, LACHSA— or LACSHA’n bagels as we called it,” he recalls. “It was one of the greatest and most phenomenal experiences of my life attending LACHSA, which was a school that had all artistic disciplines represented there. When I was 14 years old, I entered this place already musically precocious and not [previously] fitting in socially in any respect of the imagination.” David’s face lights up. “But I found myself in a kingdom, in such a tremendous atmosphere of creatives. It was crazy, it was wild, and it really was such a phenomenal experience.”

He continues pouring out. “We were on the campus of Cal State LA. When you’re a young teenager and you’re left off the leash, it becomes an extraordinarily liberating creative environment. Tremendous friendships, tremendous creations. You know, studying art history when you're sixteen years old makes a big impression on you. Having that as my high school experience was something that I couldn't turn back from. It was a pathway to artistic growth and freedom. Throughout all of my higher education—from my undergrad to my doctorate—I was completely conservatory-trained, but never had the unfettered freedom that I had at LACHSA. [LACHSA] was great because it offered extraordinary and rigorous musical training paired with the same highly creative and specialized world of art. Everybody you met was into something different, and that was everybody that you could learn from. Some of those years were very hard personally, but some of those years my soul was just on fire with creativity, being in a state of wonder constantly.”

LACHSA was just the beginning of David’s immersion in musical academia, as he went on to study composition at The San Francisco Conservatory of Music and later received both Masters and Doctoral degrees from The New England Conservatory. But even with such intense training, David still never feels like he has a full understanding of music— at least at a level one can only assume is akin to enlightenment. “I’m constantly a student,” he says. “I still know nothing.”

One of the most significant steps in David’s journey as a student of music came in the form of a gift. A book, actually, and he received it fairly recently at the end of a course that he had helped teach. “The biggest thing that I have pulled away from—which has oddly enough brought me closer to so many things—was when I assistant taught a class on form and analysis at Harvard in 2016. At the end of the course, I was given a book called ‘Music in the Galant Style,’ by Robert Gjerdingen, which was about musical schemata and the study of partimento. Partimento is the pedagogy that all the old composers used to learn music. It was a complete 180 on how music existed, was created, and was taught. Once I read this, my mind was blown, and I had to find someone in Switzerland to teach me. My pandemic activity was that I studied partimento, the same style of pedagogy that Bach, Beethoven, and Haydn had studied.” Then, David discloses something that may come as a surprise to anyone impressed by his years of music education: “I felt like I wasn’t a musician until I studied partimento! I wasn’t a composer, I wasn’t a creative, even though I thought I understood everything about tonality. But I never understood it until I studied partimento.” He clarifies. “It has changed how I can hear and see things— it has completely recontextualized everything I’ve learned before. Not that what I’ve learned is obsolete, but I’ve drifted away from so many older and more standard methods that we use to teach music. I still teach [those older methods] now in my classes at MIT, but I’ve actually started to include aspects of partimento training.”

As one might expect, as soon as I let David know that I’ve heard of partimento during our interview, he launches into a short lesson on cadences and their derivatives. Even if you don’t understand a shred of music theory, David’s natural passion and charisma would be instantly clear to anyone as he guides our interview trio through a brief history of musical schemata. Naturally, he accompanies our impromptu lesson with examples he plays from a keyboard that already lies at hand.

Later during our time together, he expresses gratitude for his present ability to teach. “As a music teacher, I do feel a very deep sense of lineage,” he remarks. “I think of all my teachers who were such incredible, inspiring, and remarkable people. I think of how they gave selflessly, almost as if it was solely that I could self-actualize as a musician — which rarely happens. I aspire to be that for others.”

David’s version of being a self-actualized musician is inextricable from Judaism. “It’s very funny, but I do feel like I'm a Jewish musician on the weekends.” David laughs. “I'm a composer in the morning, a Jewish musician on the weekends, and somewhere in academia the rest of the time.” He breathes music, but he also breathes Yiddish. “If the Star of David is the central symbolic way in which people see their Judaism, for me it's Yiddish. Yiddish is how I see myself as a Jew. The reason why this is so is that my grandmother used to speak Yiddish to me when I was young. It was our language. It was the way that she and I showed love for one another. [But] I spoke broken Yiddish.”

Feeling this, David decided to become a student once again. “When I was finishing my doctorate, I was sick of my academic work. I did higher education from 2004 to 2017 and so I was really sick of it. When working on my dissertation, I just said to myself, you know, when this is over I'm going to learn Yiddish and I'm going to learn it for real. The day I finished my dissertation I signed up for a Yiddish class.” In less than a year, David’s pursuit of Yiddish fluency brought him to the doorstep of A Besere Velt, allowing him to further merge his identities as the director and conductor of a Yiddish chorus.

“[In A Besere Velt,] I am ultimately a student. I feel that I am learning from the elders of the group, and from the not-so-elders of the group, too. We are all in some ways equally students of some sort. As a left-wing chorus, we sing socialist anthems from 100 years ago. I am carrying on that musical and linguistic heritage from so long ago, yet I am constantly a student of new words and old traditions. We're all in the process of learning or remembering [Yiddish]— even those fluent speakers in the group. We’re all teachers to each other. We’re all in a process of living Yiddish and living it beautifully.”

Regarding the importance of A Besere Velt's social justice, David succinctly says, “You sing about what you believe in, and when you do that, others will sing with you. When others are singing with you, others will be moved to fight. You have to sing when you're fighting and you have to sing for what you believe in. I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that when you have people who can fight together, they will sing together, and if you have people who will sing together, they will fight together.”

His recent project, “Four Yiddish Folksongs,” came about at a time that only David could describe as “perfect.” It was in the dead of the pandemic, right as he was in the process of completing a string quartet that he “really was hating every second of because it was such a painful piece.” His saving grace turned out to be this commission for a song project— and he only had two months to complete it. Another composer may have balked at such an endeavor, but David decided to go even further, expanding the project into a song cycle instead of just one song. And he did it, writing “Four Yiddish Folk Songs” over the span of just two months.

“Leonard Bernstein said something like,” David stops to think. “What did he say? ‘If you want to write a good piece, all you need is a good idea and not enough time.’ Well, at the very least I didn’t have enough time,” he jokes. “I went ahead and dove headfirst into this piece. It was a piece where I had no questions. I had no questions about what it was—no thinking, there was no hesitation—it was a straight deep dive. I just wrote it down. I already knew the folk songs very intimately; they were songs that I have been singing for years already.”

“Those songs mean the absolute world to me in that they got to the depths of my soul. [My] going through something of like a breakup is akin to the second song. A friend of mine struggling with mental illness and suicidality was the third song. Me falling in love, or in the process of falling in love, just fantasizing about love was the fourth song. The songs just came through me.”

See Derek David at the Boston Festival of New Jewish Music on March 18, 2023: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/derek-david-at-the-bfnjm-tickets-431251634247?aff=blog.