David Lanz Interview: Part 2 (On Composing...)

This is the second part of an interview with New Age composer and pianist David Lanz and covers his personal approach to composition.

David Lanz Interview:  Part 2 (On Composing...)

For more information about David Lanz and to purchase CDs and songbooks please visit his website!

EKLUND: Let’s talk a bit about your personal approach to composition. How do you start with a new piece—do you start with a title, an image, a musical idea? Take us through your process.

LANZ: Occasionally a title will happen, but usually the title is the last thing that happens with a song, especially when I’m doing instrumental music. If there was a lyric then it’s usually pretty easy to come up with a title. I always start by improvising. If I was writing something based on somebody’s theme I guess I would start with that and work my way around from there like I did with the Beatles stuff. But when it’s my own material I start by improvising until I fall on a melody, or a series of chords, that kind of feel like “ok I can work with this!” And then I take it from there. Usually within the first hour I can get an idea for a song in a sort of rough draft, then typically it will take at least a couple more days, and sometimes it will take a lot longer to really finish a piece. Generally what I’ll do is sketch them out, record my ideas, and then just put them aside. Like with this new solo album I have things that I’ve been saving since before I did the Beatles stuff, some of it is 4 or 5 years old, but that doesn’t seem to make any difference. I have my “style” and I don’t think anybody could tell the difference between a song I wrote 5 years ago versus one that I’m going to write 5 years down the road.

EKLUND: So are you a pen & paper composer? Do you use notation software? Do you rely solely on recording yourself playing?

LANZ: There’s no pen, there’s no paper, no software. I play it, record it, go back and listen to it and I know pretty much what I’ve done. On rare occasions I will write down a series of chord changes if it’s kind of tricky, but that doesn’t usually happen. If there’s other people involved, if I know I’m going to have to work with someone else, then I’ll write a chart and do all that. But I’ve never done anything with a computer attached to my keyboard or anything like that as far as the writing goes. Luckily since I’ve got this publishing deal with Hal Leonard I get to spend all my time on the creation of the music and how I want things to sound, the dynamics, the form of the song, and then once that’s done and recorded my work is basically done. I pass it on and let everyone else worry about how to write it all down. I used to actually sit down with another pianist and watch them play the notated version because I didn’t actually trust myself to sit and look at the arrangement, and I wanted to work with somebody who really knows how to read well and how the music should lay out logistically.

EKLUND: I’m personally wondering if you prefer arranging over composing or vice versa?

LANZ: That is a good question. I think I’d rather make my own music up to tell you the truth. But I always have a blast when I do the arranging especially if it’s a song I can really get my teeth into. Like Whiter Shade of Pale and Nights in White Satin some of those arrangements that I’m really known for. Those were fun pieces to really boil down and devise which parts I could use, which parts I couldn’t use—so it’s more like working with a puzzle when I’m arranging. My arrangements are not usually note for note from the original. I have to make a lot of decisions about what the essence of the song is. I remember doing the arrangement for Strawberry Fields Forever which is a bizarre recording… and I had to ask myself “how am I going to do this on solo piano?” It was the same situation with I am the Walrus, so those types of arrangements are more fun because they’re sort of a challenge.

EKLUND: Do you have any tips for young composers who are looking to “hone their craft?”

LANZ: Well, just write a thousand songs and then write a thousand more! The “honing” is really the “doing” isn’t it?

EKLUND: So it’s a lot about finding your own sound?

LANZ: Yeah I think the way most of us find it is by imitating the people we love. So maybe if there’s an artist that you really like try to write a song that sounds like that. And then maybe try to write a song that sounds like another person. …None of us are totally original. It’s more like individual recipes, a little pinch of this and a little pinch of that.

EKLUND: Who were those influences for you personally?

LANZ: The list is long and varied. The highlights from my early childhood are my mother, who played boogie-woogie, so I heard a lot of that. I heard a lot of Ray Charles growing up and before the Beatles hit what I really liked was instrumental rock and roll. The Pink Panther, Green Onions, Walk Don’t Run and all of Henry Mancini’s stuff like Peter Gunn. Also some of the TV themes and surf music too! And then of course the whole British invasion just did me in, I loved the Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Kinks, on and on and on. Then later it was The Moody Blues and Procol Harum. I think what happens, and you can tell me if I’m on target with this, is that the music from your teens and early 20s really has a strong impact. At that point in life your psyche is really opened up to learning and finding out who you are so I think that’s the music that kind of sticks with us through our entire lives.

EKLUND: I may be in trouble because for me that was hip-hop of the early 1990s! Not really the piano solo friendly kind of stuff.

LANZ: Well even that though—you’ll be 70 or 80 years old and some Eminem song will come on and you’ll shake your cane or something.

EKLUND: My last question for you is a bit more personal—we would like to know what you enjoy doing when you’re not at the piano.

LANZ: Oh that is pretty personal. I like to walk. In the wintertime it’s a little tougher but I try to do a couple miles everyday. I usually get a lot of good ideas when I’m out walking, that’s actually where a lot of the song titles come from. That’s what happened yesterday. I took a long walk and I kind of formulated this whole next album as far as the construction of the concept that I’m going to fill in later. I also like to cook. I have a little cooking thing that I do. So, yeah cooking, walking, but I do an awful lot of music including recording sessions for friends of mine. I play drums and am working on an album with a buddy who had been with the group the Mothers of Invention for a number of years. He’s a real crazed, insane-genius kind of guy, but he likes my drumming, so I stay busy with recording projects other than my own as well. Other than that I’m on this computer all the time trying to keep everything moving forward!

Jennifer Eklund
Written by Jennifer Eklund
Jennifer Eklund holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in music from California State University, Long Beach. She is an avid arranger, composer, and author of the Piano Pronto® method books series as well as a wide variety of supplemental songbooks. She is also a Signature Artist with Musicnotes.com with a large catalog of popular music titles for musicians of all levels.


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