The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

    The face behind the music

    Recitals and concerts are often events to celebrate the musicians. They’re the visible ones; the audience can see their face, connect it to a name.

    The behind-the-scenes work, by definition, is hidden and perhaps often goes unnoticed. In this case, the composers are the artists working out of sight.

    Nineteen-year-old Chippewa Valley native Davy Sumner is one of those composers.

    Music has been a part of Sumner’s life since middle school, he said, but he didn’t start composing until high school.

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    “I started playing music in grade school,” he said. “School bands, garage bands in middle school and high school, and it just kind of funneled me in this direction.”

    High school
    Sumner said his first experience with composition was in high school, where he wrote a piece as a final project for a music theory class he was taking.

    “It was really kind of like jumping off the deep end because we performed it for the whole school,” he said. “It was exciting, but it was stressful and challenging at the same time.”

    Jeff Walk, who taught Sumner’s music theory class at Regis High School in Eau Claire, said Sumner was one of his best students and what set him apart was his musical talent and his work ethic.

    “He always had his own voice right away,” he said. “He’d always work through any obstacles, put his nose to the grindstone and figure it out. He never said, ‘Oh, it’s not working, I’ll just give up.’”

    Walk also accompanied Sumner on the drums during the performance of Sumner’s final project. He said he thought the piece was excellent.
    “It had this very minimalistic tone to it,” he said, “and he did such inventive things, like a violin bow on a vibraphone.”

    Sean Carey, a local musician, has been Sumner’s drum teacher since Sumner was 14.

    Carey also said that Sumner was one of his favorite students, in part because he was always so eager to learn and constantly curious about music and performance.

    It wasn’t until Sumner wrote a piece for the UW-Eau Claire percussion ensemble his freshman year that he decided to pursue composition as a course of study.

    “I realized I really liked writing music,” he said, “and I’d been moving toward doing it, but I hadn’t realized it until that point.”

    For his first semester and a half at Eau Claire, Sumner was a percussion performance major. However, he said the timing of his decision to change his major was perfect because the composition major can’t be declared until sophomore year and after submitting an audition to the composition program.

    Carey said even though it took Sumner a few years to realize his passion for composition, he saw traits in Sumner that would make him an outstanding composer long before.

    “He’s really motivated and takes charge of things,” Carey said. “I would give him simple assignments, like ‘write 12 measures,’ and he would come back with pages.”

    While his work in high school set him on his current path, Sumner said, composing music in high school is different from composing music in college.

    “There’s a lot of different kinds of preparation that goes into preparing music for a recital as opposed to ‘we’re playing at Acoustic Café this weekend,’” he said. “It’s a different process … A lot of times the music has to be notated so other people can understand it instead of just explaining what I want to my friends.”

    Dr. Jeffery Crowell is an associate professor of music and has been Sumner’s percussion instructor at Eau Claire for the past two years. He agreed with Carey that Sumner possessed certain characteristics beneficial to composers.

    “His playing in his audition had an awareness of musicianship that many percussionists, especially, don’t necessarily have,” Crowell said. “So hearing someone when they audition have a really good idea of phrasing music … was really nice.”

    In addition to performing and composing, Sumner has also conducted. He said it was a nerve-wracking experience because he had no training in it and he was doing it for the first time in front of an audience.

    “I had to practice, watch myself do it in front of a mirror,” he said. “It was easier than I expected because playing percussion … is all about moving your body in relation to the instrument, where conducting is a similar thing — just moving in relation to the music.”

    Crowell, who encouraged Sumner to conduct his percussion ensemble piece, said that having students conduct is beneficial not only for the composer, but also for the instrumentalists.

    “When standing in front of a group, you have to share with them what the piece is about, and who would know the piece better than the guy that wrote it?” he said. “That piece was very rhythmically intricate, so he really did need to be up there, holding it together.”

    The process
    It all starts with the inspiration. Sumner said that, while much of his inspiration comes from his family and friends, it also comes from his physical surroundings.

    “I think a lot about music, to me, has to do with location and time,” he said. “Like, I’m a college student, I’m a young person in Wisconsin, so what is music now? What does it mean to me, to people here?”

    Sometimes, however, the process of composing actually begins with a request from a fellow student, Sumner said.

    Senior flautist Lexi Zunker, who said she wanted to include her friends in her final project, commissioned Sumner to write a piece for her senior degree recital on Tuesday, April 5. She said she gave him no requirements but instead just told him to “go for it.”

    “I think his style … is just fresh and new,” she said. “From hearing his pieces before, I felt like he would do a really good job with the orchestration and making the sounds of the different instruments come together.”

    But no matter where it begins, Sumner said, for him the process of writing is often very similar. His goal is to combine both his pop music sensibility and his more classical side.

    “In some cases, I think they can overlap,” he said, “and those are the instances that are most interesting to me … I try to bring the two together and make something in between.”

    Carey said that Sumner creates “soundscapes” and compared his pieces to Icelandic band Sigur Rós and minimalist composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich. He added however, that Sumner had a sound all his own.

    “He finds the emotion in those really simple, epic, beautiful sounds,” he said.

    Sumner said that he usually composes on the piano, even though he had never played it before attending the university. However, he also said that he had an advantage because of his background in percussion.

    “I’ve been fortunate because a lot of the percussion instruments — playing marimba and mallet instruments — is … a similar kind of layout and technique and thought process to playing the piano,” he said.

    Crowell agreed that Sumner benefits from his percussive past but for a different reason.

    “I think an advantage is he’s a percussionist and we’re in a world of color,” he said. “We like to explore and try new sounds, so he would maybe bring that to new instruments, where maybe a trumpet player wouldn’t think of that.”

    Sumner said that ending a piece is one of the most difficult things about composition.

    “Sometimes you know when it’s going to end,” he said, “other times the end sneaks up on you and you realize that it’s already happened and you’ve already written it.”

    The future
    Sumner said he would love to record an album of his best pieces in the near future. Because it is still early in his composition career, he said, he hasn’t given the idea much specific thought.

    “I want to wait for a time when it can all be put together and put together a group that can play all the music live in addition to having recordings,” he said. “But it just hasn’t happened yet.”

    Despite that, Sumner said that collaborating with local record company Amble Down or self-producing the album are two options available to him.

    As of yet, Sumner has no definite plans for graduate school or what he’ll do after he graduates. He simply said he wants to make a living writing and performing what he loves: music.

    *Editor’s note: Managing Editor Thom Fountain was a founding member of The Valley.

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    The face behind the music