Counterstream Radio
New Music Streaming 24/7
New Music Playlists
Browse Music, Video, Interviews and more.

David Sanford: Black Noise

BMOP/sound releases the first recording of David Sanford's orchestral works, performed by The Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

The Latest Update

Advance copy of the CD liner notes by Robert Kirzinger

Posted on November 5, 2018 by Boston Modern Orchestra Project

Composer and conductor David Sanford grew up in Pittsburgh and Colorado Springs, Colorado. His encounters with funk, R&B, and rock music in Pittsburgh are a foundation for the broad, exuberant range of his compositional voice, which deliberately relies on the individual energies of performers as much as it does on rigorous technique and astute aesthetic contemplation. Growing up in a musical family, Sanford took up the trombone and developed a sense of shared camaraderie of performance by playing in marching bands and drum and bugle corps. Moving to Colorado at age eleven, he developed an interest in jazz, particularly the sophisticated big-band world of Charles Mingus and others, and began composing his own charts. In high school he also started to learn about the western classical music tradition. Upon graduation, he attended the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, continuing to play trombone but veering further toward composition. He decided to attend graduate school at the New England Conservatory, drawn there by such faculty members as Gunther Schuller—who had introduced the first jazz program at a major conservatory—along with Ran Blake and George Russell. As a composer, though, he ended up studying with Arthur Berger, a rigorous classicist with ties to the Second Viennese School, thereby further expanding his compositional range. He earned his master’s degrees in composition and music theory at NEC and went on from there to Princeton University, where he earned another master’s degree and, ultimately, his Ph.D.

Sanford is a longtime faculty member of Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA, where he teaches music composition and a variety of other courses including jazz history and music and film. He holds the position of Elizabeth T. Kennan Professor of Music. Sanford has written for groups as diverse as River City Brass (Monangahela 1971, to celebrate Pittsburgh’s 250th anniversary), the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Speculum Musicae, and San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, among many others. He was a recipient of the Rome Prize of the American Academy in Rome, and recently spent a year in Cambridge, MA, as a Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute, where among other things he worked on composing Black Noise. Sanford has received commissions and recognitions from organizations including the Koussevitzky Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Foundation. His music has been recorded on the BMOP/sound, CRI, Channel Classics, and Oxingale labels. He maintains strong ties to Pittsburgh, the city of his youth: in 2003, he formed the innovative third-stream big band the Pittsburgh Collective, which has served as a crucible for many of his pieces and his ideas about music generally.

* * *

Black Noise (aka Schwarzes Rauschen), completed in 2017, is a testimony to the continual expansion of Sanford’s compositional range. His new piece acknowledges the subtleties of articulation and the expanded palette of instrumental possibility that have become very much a part of the toolkit of the progressive concert composer. This is in part due to the awareness that instrumental sound as actually played is immensely more complex that what has traditionally been notated in scores, and the past couple of generations have grappled with ways of making these nuances of performance part of the structural/gestural concerns of notated music, at the same time expanding what’s considered “normal” practice on a given instrument.

Black Noise explores how these individually exacting approaches can create a wide variety of ensemble colors, ranging from a sustained, noise-like scrim, through gestures that hover between texture and figure, to sharply etched figures heard in an extended pointillistic episode, and finally to massive orchestral aggregates of such figures merging once again to rich and complex “noise.”

David Sanford’s own comments on his piece follow:

I had planned to undertake a fully-composed (with no improvisation) piece for my large jazz ensemble, the Pittsburgh Collective, in which—primarily—the listener would experience a sense of immersion in a fertile, vivid, intoxicating atmosphere akin to the filmic art of the director Wong Kar-Wai and his cinematographer Chris Doyle. In light of my increased familiarity with the works of a number of European composers—most prominently Saariaho, Pintscher, and Romitelli—who regularly evoke the visual and the cinematographic, my conception of the music has expanded accordingly to a larger timbral palette. In spite of the title, which is taken from Tricia Rose’s groundbreaking book on rap and black culture, there are no overt hip-hop references in the piece.

A part of my appreciation of Wong is his and Doyle’s rendering of the most squalid and dank conditions bucolic, exotic, and even luxuriant. A primary reason for my naming my ensemble after that city was that it reflects a subjective (and widely rejected) notion of beauty where the glowing smoke and fires of the steel mills against the dark rivers and the hazy polluted skies at night became a muse for a number of visual artists. The challenge/obstruction becomes to render a painterly soundscape that revels in its stasis, but not at the expense of “dialogue,” which might very well be anathema to Doyle’s work. To that end, the music seeks to blur the distinction between “foreground” and “background,” and the materials that constitute them. Musical antecedents abound in the polyphony of the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries where, to my ear, the music “underlying” successive fugal subject entries and various cantus firmi is worthy of equal attention.

Sanford’s Pittsburgh Collective, along with his longtime collaborator, cellist Matt Haimowitz, was the source and intended medium for his Scherzo Grosso. The use of that “western classical” title, and the fact that Sanford himself calls the piece a concerto, deliberately place the piece within the long (albeit diverse) concerto tradition, but as the composer explains below, both soloist and ensemble engage in musical behaviors that tap into rock, free jazz, and the classical avant-garde. The original big-band setting (which was premiered in 2005) allowed Sanford to trust in his performers’ individual creativity and dynamic listening to help shape the piece; in the orchestral version, this is offset by a broader available timbral palette. Although brass is still a big part of the ensemble, omission of electric guitar and keyboard and the presence of large woodwind and string sections radically shift the sound-world into orchestral territory. Regardless, Sanford is determined to reflect in the ensemble writing and the contrast of sections the kaleidoscopic influences that guide Matt Haimowitz’s solo performance. David Sanford writes:

Scherzo Grosso is a concerto in four movements for cello and orchestra. While the influences in the piece are numerous, the main underlying thread is the memory of Ed Nelson (1962-2004), a trumpet player with the Pittsburgh Collective big band and a close friend of several members of that group. A fundamental trait of Nelson’s character was his widely divergent and unpredictable nature; a possible musical genius who received straight A’s in college who dropped out only a few credits short of his degree, and often withdrew from public performances for long stretches at a time.

While a simple reading of the concerto’s pairing might suggest that the cello represents the more “sacred” and the big band/orchestra the “profane,” in actuality each explores aspects of both idioms, and the ground in between. The big band often veers closer to “European” than “jazz,” breaking down into chamber groups at certain points. At the same time, the cello often acts as a jazz or rock soloist (movements I and IV), or as part of the rhythm section as Deidre Murray and Abdul Wadud have with Henry Threadgill’s groups, or Hank Roberts with Tim Berne, among others. Those familiar with Mr. Haimovitz’s work won’t be surprised to hear him backed by drums, playing saxophone lines with the woodwind section, or imitating an electric guitar. Although the orchestral section is fully notated, the improvised trumpet solos in portions of the second and fourth movements are replaced by a notated trumpet solo in the second movement (several of the ideas taken directly from Dave Ballou’s 2005 performance with the Pittsburgh Collective), and a flute/woodwind soli in the fourth movement.

More Updates ▼

Black Noise CD cover revealed!

Posted on November 1, 2018 by Boston Modern Orchestra Project

Here is the cover of David Sanford’s Black Noise, featuring iconic architecture from his hometown of Pittsburgh. 


The Boston Modern Orchestra Project is seeking funding to release a CD of orchestral works by David Sanford on its signature label BMOP/sound. Having recently completed its landmark 50th release, BMOP/sound has reaffirmed its position as the nation’s foremost label launched by an orchestra and solely devoted to new music recordings. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) continues to pursue its mission of building relationships with today’s most outstanding composers and of disseminating their music via top-quality recordings.

David Sanford’s broad, exuberant compositional range and his deliberate reliance on the individual energies of performers as well as rigorous technique and astute aesthetic contemplation, make him one of the most exciting composers of his generation. In recognition of Sanford’s talent, BMOP commissioned Black Noise during his year as a Radcliffe Institute Fellow and gave the world premiere in March, 2017. BMOP has also performed Sanford’s Prayer: In Memoriam Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the orchestral version of his genre-bending cello concerto, Scherzo Grosso, with soloist Matt Haimovitz. In an era when orchestra readings and performances of new works are few and far between, BMOP’s performances of these three pieces, which span 20 years of the composer’s career, have significantly contributed to the expansion of David Sanford’s career and reputation.

This release will insure that David Sanford’s substantial contribution to orchestral repertoire, including Black Noise, Prayer, and Scherzo Grosso, will gain the widest possible audience and that these works do not disappear from the repertoire. Black Noise will not only bring recognition to David Sanford’s far-ranging work as an orchestral composer, but will, in his words,”promote and normalize the contribution and participation of Blacks in classical music.” The addition David Sanford’s music will also increase the aesthetic and demographic diversity of BMOP/sound’s extensive catalog.

Project Media

Prayer: In Memoriam Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Like this? Login or register to make a playlist of your favorites pieces.

This excerpt contains the first section of David Sanford’s piece Prayer: In Memoriam Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as performed by The Boston Modern Orchestra Project

Black Noise
Like this? Login or register to make a playlist of your favorites pieces.

Black Noise by David Sanford, performed by The Boston Modern Orchestra Project. This excerpt contains the closing passage, from measure 152 to the end.

Start and End Dates



Boston, Massachusetts

2 updates
Last update on November 5, 2018

Project Created By

Malden, Massachusetts
The Boston Modern Orchestra Project is the premier orchestra in the United States dedicated exclusively to commissioning, performing, and recording music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. A unique institution of crucial artistic importance to today’s musical world, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) exists to disseminate exceptional orchestral music of the present and recent…

In Collaboration With

Northampton, Massachusetts


Leave a Reply