His grandfather’s LP collection, his mother’s job (playing violin in the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra), and his brothers’ Iron Maiden album were among the forces that inspired Daniel Ott (M.M. ’99, D.M.A. ’04, composition) to decide at age 11 or 12 that composing was what he wanted to do forever. Daniel teaches ChoreoComp, ear training, theory, and orchestration. He’s also the associate chair of the department of art history and music at Fordham University, where he teaches music theory and composition. Daniel grew up in Puyallup, Wash., not far from Seattle, and has lived in New York City for 17 years. He’s also the music advisor to the New York Choreographic Institute, an affiliate of New York City Ballet, where he’s mentoring three Juilliard composers, including current students (Sayo Kosugi and Aaron Severini) and a recent graduate (Gity Razaz), who have been paired with three choreographers to present their works to a private audience following a two-week workshop this month.
You teach ChoreoComp—what are some of the advantages and disadvantages to composing for dancers?
The advantages are that dance audiences, in general, tend to expect and applaud “the new.” In many ways, the dance world is a more contemporary scene than the concert world. The disadvantages: Occasionally a choreographer might want to take huge liberties with a score, in terms of making cuts or changing the tempo (often radically and illogically!). Another is that, by and large, critics tend to ignore the music—dance critics may feel unqualified to speak to the music and music critics rarely attend dance productions. One exception is that dance critics will often go out of their way to mention how much they disliked the music.
What was the strangest thing about the transition from being a student to being on the faculty?
Library privileges. For a few years before completing my D.M.A., I was teaching on faculty but only allowed student access to the library. Another thing: having to convince security staff that I’m a faculty member. I still run into that—never mind that I’ve been roaming these halls for 17 years!
What’s the secret to ear training?
That’s sort of like asking, “What’s the secret to playing piano?” The fact is ear training is a skill. Some people are blessed with innate ability—their brains are attuned to sonic memory, which in turn is connected to their voices. But (most) anybody can learn those skills. Like anything else, it takes practice. I have rarely encountered a student who did not improve his/her ear training skills while devoting some daily practice time to developing them. For example, I often make a guarantee to my students: “If you practice these intervals for five minutes every day between now and the test, you will get an A!” Surprisingly few challenge me on that.
What’s the first recording you remember hearing?
When I was in third grade, my two older brothers brought home an Iron Maiden album. I listened to it nonstop for months. (I can still sing all the lyrics—but don’t ask me to). Before that, we had the Empire Strikes Back soundtrack, and I listened to it every night before bed. Some years later, a cassette of Segovia Plays Bach changed my life. Here was the most amazing music I’d ever heard (and I hadn’t even heard it on the violin yet!). I must also say I was lucky to grow up in a house with an extensive record collection. I inherited my grandfather’s LPs (lined up, they measured 8 feet) and this is how I learned the standard repertoire. It never fails to sadden me today when I find that so many of my students aren’t familiar with the basic canon of classical music, and I believe it has something to do with the death of the physical recording. Here, at my fingertips, were the Handel concertos, all the Beethoven quartets and symphonies, all of Chopin, all the Brahms chamber works, Berlioz overtures, and operas, operas, operas! How is a young person today supposed to find these things on his/her own? Some Spotify algorithm isn’t going to do the trick. I fear that era is over and that we are losing something essential about our culture—and I’m not even 40 yet!
What’s the most embarrassing performing or teaching moment you’ve had?
There have been many, but I’ll never forget the first public performance of my music at Juilliard, when the composition department requested some more music to fill up the year’s first student recital. In high school, I had composed a brief (and, I thought, lovely) piano prelude, which my roommate agreed to play. The piece was short—no more than 90 seconds—and when it was over, just before the applause, a gentlemen in the front row said to his partner, “That’s it?!?” It’s on the recording.
What is the most important thing you hope your students remember?
I hope they realize that the class they’re sitting in is just the beginning. I will never forget the feeling of having finished my doctoral degree and being overwhelmed by how much there was left to learn. That, to me, in some ways, is the goal of an education. After studying for years and years, you should feel humbled in realizing all there is still to know and to explore, and recognizing that will hopefully sustain you the rest of your career and life.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I’m an Army brat, a huge Seattle Seahawks fan, a recreational birder (even in New York City), and when I was a teenager, I considered becoming an Anglican priest (best music in the biz).
What are you reading?
I’ve just started Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. I like history (my other brother is a medieval historian), but I also like to read for recreation. So prior to this, I read the entire George R.R. Martin A Song of Ice and Fire series (a.k.a. Game of Thrones). I told my kids they can read that when they’re 17.