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Interview :: Composer Danaë Xanthe Vlasse

It was a pleasantly cool early Spring evening, moistened with delicate mist. I cursed myself for rushing out without an umbrella and was relieved only gentle sprinkles greeted my arrival at Todd Mason’s 2019 Spring home concert.

Mason Home Concerts
Mason Home Concerts

Mingling out front was a friendly group of guests. A lovely lady chatted with me about the imminent program. At the end of a riveting concert guests gathered around Todd’s sumptuous buffet.

Mason Home Concerts Buffet
Todd Mason’s Buffet

While nibbling, we continued to exchange pleasantries which led to conversation about our mutual musical interests.

She was pleased to learn of my piano school and teaching practice and I was equally delighted to learn that she is a concert pianist-turned composer, lyricist and producer. We introduced ourselves and exchanged business cards promising to stay in touch. I was thrilled to have made Danaë Vlasse’s acquaintance.

David Brunt Photographer
David Brunt

Shortly after the concert, Danaë graciously invited me to a release party honoring her music video. It was a treat to meet up again, get acquainted with several of her compadres, one of which was photographer David Brunt with whom I enjoyed an art collaboration later that year, and view her beautiful musical creation. It was a memorable evening. I felt light as a feather walking to my car.

Pianist Robert Thies worked with Danaë Vlasse
Robert Thies

On another occasion, Danaë and I bumped into each other at pianist Robert Thies’ solo concert in Pasadena. As we were kvelling over his performance of Brahms Intermezzo No. 2 Danaë let me know she had created an arrangement of that very Intermezzo! When I returned home, her gift to me of her arrangement was waiting. How lucky to have befriended such a gracious generous composer! Such an honor. I enjoyed sharing it with my piano students who were duly impressed.

When Danaë invited me to interview her about her latest project, I jumped at the chance. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to introduce my students, readers, family and friends to pianist, composer, lyricist and producer, Danaë Xanthe Vlasse.

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LRW: As a piano teacher and serious amateur pianist, I enjoy teaching and performing a variety of solo and ensemble works by composers current and past. The process of composing has always intrigued me. When did you first venture into the field of composition?

DXV: I remember composing a little piano piece when I was about 9 years old. I had just learned about petrified wood, and for some reason this inspired me to write my first little piano work; I was very proud to do it all by myself and to surprise my teacher with it! I had decided to call my piece “The Petrified Song” but because I presented it without context my teacher gave me a very quizzical look when I played this piece for her – I think she thought I was meaning to describe being “terrified/petrified” but my piece was actually more like a little nocturne! I only understood years later what might have gone through her head as I played a gentle little theme which she had expected to sound very scary! Haha!

LRW: Hilarious! I can imagine. So adorable! I love how nature inspired your first compo. From where do you draw your inspiration now?

DXV: I’m inspired by poetry more than anything else. Also, I’m inspired by great stories and mythology – in fact my next project will be based on Greek Myths! (Stay tuned for that next year!)

I also find that dance and the visual arts inspire me. What these things all have in common is that they stir my soul in a way that makes me love humanity and feel proud to connect with other creators; I’m compelled to participate in that cultural conversation as it stretches across the ages!

LRW: I love poetry and Greek mythology, too. My dad used to read poems and Greek mythology to me as a little girl. Fond memories. How nice to learn that they inspire you so much. I’m looking forward to your upcoming project next year.

A fitting description of how the various forms of art create a cultural conversation! Speaking of inspiration, do you happen to have a few styles, pieces, composers and venues that are closest to your heart? What about them inspires you to choose them as your top picks?

DXV: I don’t have a single favorite but I’m definitely drawn to the music of the 19th century; Chopin, Brahms, Debussy, and Rachmaninoff too! I love their long lyrical lines and their lush harmonies delivered with unabashed emotional transparency!

LRW: My faves all around. When I play their piano music or listen to brilliant musicians perform them, I’m transported back in time. Speaking of brilliant musicians, how did you become acquainted with sopranos Hila Plitmann and Sangeeta Kaur, acclaimed pianist Robert Thies and LA Opera Principal Cellist John Walz?

 
 

I understand you are releasing a new work with them entitled Poème. What is the story?

 

Poeme by Danaë Vlasse

 

DXV: I first met soprano Hila Plitmann in May 2017 when we were both guests at a wonderful home concert series run by Todd Mason. Hila and I met right before the concert and connected in a way that I can’t describe… we were “magnetized” and reconnected at intermission, spending every possible instant together. I’d just come from a business development meeting with a prospective agent downtown and I happened to have a copy of my album “Trilogies” with me so I gave her that as a parting gift. She emailed me the next day saying how much she loved my music and that she hoped to sing my works someday.

Hila premiered my Nocturne Pour Caline for Soprano and String Quartet in March of 2018 and a few weeks later she called me to initiate the Poème album by saying “I want to record all your French art songs!”

By this point I’d met soprano Sangeeta Kaur – she reached out to me online (in the old GrammyPro portal) during Grammy season in the Fall of 2017, and (like with Hila) we felt an irresistible draw to be close to one another as soon as we met; the first time we hugged neither of us wanted to let go so we hugged an incredibly LONG time! 🙂 As soon as Hila initiated the Poème album I knew I wanted to put my two “soul sisters” together on this album!

I met pianist Robert Thies through Hila; they had a good collaborative history together so it made sense to bring him on board and he referred me to John Walz! The greatest gift of making this album has been the opportunity to deepen the friendships with my beloved colleagues!

LRW: What a wonderful tale of connections through music. Your project is a true collaboration of musical souls and a gift to our culture. The grounding behind all of this is of course, your compositions. My students are interested in the composition process. Do you have a set routine (best days/times) to gather ideas? How do you prepare to compose?

 

Danaë Vlasse composing

 

DXV: I compose best at night once all the busy work is done and all emails are answered. So, I’m often only starting to compose at 10 pm. I never get as much composition time as I’d like, but that fact alone means that I am filled with gratitude when I do get to write music so it puts me in a really special frame of mind to write with passion!

LRW: Indeed! Wait. Wasn’t it Leonard Bernstein who said,

Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein

Speaking of a musical frame of mind, at what age did you realize you were a musical spirit?

DXV: I can’t pin that realization on any single moment of clarity; I think as I was winning competitions over time (as a teenager) I started to realize I needed to continue on a musical path. Even though I chose this path with full family support, it wasn’t always easy and I got really burned out and took a year off between my undergraduate and graduate work.

The immense workload on performance degrees requires 4 hours a day of solo practice, plus all the ensemble work, and then add a full time course-load of all the other classes, plus I was working 3 part-time jobs all through my studies…and I’m a perfectionist so I had to get straight A grades in all my classes…so it is obvious why I burned out!

LRW: Oy! I didn’t realize the immense workload that was expected of you. As a fellow perfectionist, I feel your pain. In the midst of all this, did anyone try to talk you out of fulfilling your dream as a pianist or composer? If so, how did you handle it?

DXV: Whoah, touchy subject…as a young composer I never felt the support I craved from most of my teachers; I got a lot of appreciation for my playing but very little heartfelt enthusiasm for my composing.

I did get a lot of encouragement from a couple of faculty members, but they were not the ones whom I craved approval from, and honestly I think that fact drove me to write more for myself over time as I gave up trying to impress my teachers. It was a great service to my craft when I stopped caring what others wanted for me and just did what I wanted for myself.

LRW: So sorry to have hit a nerve, but I’m grateful for your graciously going there and sharing your experience. It will no doubt encourage other young composers to follow your lead and stop worrying about what others want and just go for it! Going back, you had mentioned being a concert pianist. How old were you when you performed your first professional concert? How did you get the gig? Was it through teacher connections or a professional manager?

DZV: Starting in my late teens and through college, I created my own events; I gave concerts in museums, churches, nursing homes, and anywhere I could find an audience! I learned about the value of returning regularly to the same places so that I could build a following in each venue.

 

Danaë Vlasse on Piano

 

LRW: Wow! That’s brilliant. Astute observation, too. It leads me to ask, do you happen to teach composition? If so, was there a particular person or event that inspired your decision to teach?

DXV: I always knew I wanted to teach because I idolized my first undergraduate teacher (Dr. Margery McDuffie Whatley); she was talented, kind, and fun! I was 17 when I began studies with her and she was in her early 30s… I felt I’d found a big sister and a mentor all at once!

Dr. Margery McDuffie Whatley
Dr. Margery McDuffie Whatley

What I thought when I was 17 though, is that I could only enjoy teaching advanced students. I thought working with beginner-intermediate-level students would bore me but I was SO wrong! Later in my college years I was given the opportunity to teach a group beginner class (for non-music students who would take music as an elective) and in that experience I realized I actually really enjoyed teaching beginners!

 
 

I teach both piano and composition now to students of all levels; my days are wonderfully varied thanks to this, and though (due to the Covid-19 pandemic) the transition to online teaching was upsetting at first, I now have found a really great setup and all my students are comfortable with this new learning environment!

LRW: It’s so wonderful for you to have received that inspiration and are now paying it forward. I know what you mean about teaching beginners. It’s my specialty, exceeding beginner’s expectations of themselves when they discover they can play piano beautifully. As you know, music can touch people’s lives, bringing happiness and hope. For example, my school partners with CoachArt.org to provide free piano lessons or art classes for families impacted by childhood chronic illness. Is there a charity you are fond of or support, that you might like my readers to learn more about?

DXV: I support many charities with causes related to animal welfare (ASPCA and Defenders of Wildlife), and I also believe in providing emergency medical aid where needed (Doctors Without Borders), but those are huge international entities.

If I had to pick one local charity that many readers may not be aware of it’s the Vital Warrior Program which is designed to use meditation and Kundalini Yoga to aid warriors suffering from PTSD. It’s a locally-run program by a friend of mine Mikal Vega, a former Navy SEAL and I’m really impressed by the efficacy of these non-opioid treatments for depression and PTSD.

Mikal Vega
Mikal Vega

I also really like programs that use music to help bring peace to listeners; there’s a project by my friend Steve Robertson, the Third Ear App that uses sound healing also for assisting distressed veterans.

Third Ear App

There is so much mental and physical illness that we can mitigate/heal by changing how we treat one-another, as well as how we treat the animal and plant kingdom! I agree that music can make a difference in bringing a shift in mindset, opening hearts, and bringing solace; I feel blessed to be able to contribute to the collective good in that way.

LRW: You are indeed contributing to the collective good. Thank you for sharing about these charities, large and local. I’m a supporter of the ex-soldier and Buddhist monk, Claude Anshin Thomas and his Zaltho organization’s good work in healing trauma through meditation.

Claude AnShin Thomas
Claude AnShin Thomas

In closing, do you have a favorite quote, mantra or process that you find inspiring or helpful when faced with a creative block, that you would like to share with my readers?

DXV: My favorite “cheer up” quote is from Eleanore Roosevelt “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt

That gives me perspective when I doubt my abilities or pressure myself too hard to meet some perceived goal that seems daunting and halts my creative flow.

Most creative blocks are self-imposed and it’s critical to step away from internal negativity, so I always advise my students thus; remember your successes, respect the work you’ve put in, rekindle your self-worth through the love of your family and friends; that is all you need to move your mind-set into optimism, and to have the courage to face your perceived limitations. (I know it’s easier said than done, but that’s why it must be practiced!) It seems appropriate to end with this; practice what you WANT to achieve, and practice being the person you WANT to become!

LRW: Amen to that, sister! I absolutely love Eleanor Roosevelt and her wit and wisdom. Thank you for your gracious time in sharing yours with my readers. Best wishes to you on your projects now and in the future. They are a spiritual gift.
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Please enjoy listening and discovering more about this fantastic composer and her work by clicking the links below.

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For more on the interviewer, Pastimes for a Lifetime’s founder/instructor Linda Wehrli, visit the website.

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