An Album for Our Era: Danny Ross, One Way
April 19, 2006
In two days, Danny Ross will be performing his 17-piece conceptual rock album One Way at the Williard Straight Memorial Room. Featuring a core band including piano, drums, bass, and guitar, many of the songs are also scored for six string parts, three horn pieces, and three vocalists. The music is intensely personal and powerfully diverse - comparisons to The Who's masterpiece Tommy are not out of the question.
But nine months ago, Danny could only sing and play a few piano riffs. "I had the mind of a musician but not the ability," he told me. The story from September to Saturday is a testament to creativity and inspiration, one almost as rich as the one told in his debut performance of the album, One Way.
One Way is the finale to the College Scholars program Danny pursued in Popular Music Composition and Performance. Academically, the major means courses in music theory, piano, and voice, as well as weekly meetings with academic advisors in the music and English departments. In reality, One Way means months of writing music and lyrics, planning performance space, finding the best musicians on campus, and generally speaking, growing the confidence necessary to publicly present what Danny considers easily his life's greatest accomplishment.
To say Danny is devoted to the his musical project would be an understatement. More accurately, One Way is the culmination of months, even years, of obsessive daily work. The drive to create something musical began with the music his parents played when he was younger, was internalized in his teens with the music of Bob Dylan, Wilco, and Brian Wilson, and realized by the experiences of approaching adulthood. Through this lens, the story of making one's way will be a message any college students will understand.
Danny told me that the The Kings of Leon album second title Youth and Young Manhood eloquently summarizes the experiences that his work tries to articulate. These are years of ambivalent in-betweenness - somewhere in the middle between ivory towers and office buildings. Adulthood is never too far away, and for Danny's protagonist, learning to embrace the future instead of fearing it is an important lesson. Although the transition is not an easy one, "One Way is a belief in progress, in getting to the place you want to get to." It is an affirmation of the dreams we have when we're young. For Danny, One Way is what happens when a dream comes true.
Yet another theme of the work is that achieving success is not a passive act. Consider Danny's lyrics, the result weekly meetings with Professor (and published poet) Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon that sharpened and articulated what are most often ineffable thoughts. The work shows in particularly poetic lines like "The yellow leaves of aging trees/ Invite the wind to smoke/ Steeped in rain, the colors change/ A chill felt through my coat." They're abstract enough to make the story universally relevant but still maintain a linear plot that narrates the inner thoughts of an introspective narrator.
Sitting in on one of One Way's rehearsals gave me an opportunity to see if the music is as intense as Danny makes it out to be. It is. The pieces begin with a melodic hook which eventually settle into familiar territory like rock or doo-wop. Sometimes just a few instruments and Danny's expressive voice round out a song, but more often horn parts subtly make their way in, with a little flourish of cellos, violas, and violins to complete the confluence.
The communication between musicians is uncanny, particularly between Danny and his drummer Zach Jauvtis. Through the twists and turns of complicated arrangements, the group stuck together even with only a few rehearsals under their belt. And though the pressures of the approaching debut loomed overhead, Danny kept the morale high with jokes and constant encouragement.
Danny was unsurprised when I commented on how effortlessly the music came together. "I surrounded myself with the best musicians at Cornell - and they make these songs better than I ever envisioned." The feelings seem mutual; violinist Aneesha Dharwadker told me she enjoys the musical setting which is both relaxed and serious. "I was expecting a chamber orchestra, but I love playing next to a snare drums and guitars. It creates an interesting juxtaposition between shimmery strings and more percussive brass." Dharwadker told me that Danny trusts his musicians. His rehearsals are extraordinarily democratic; spontaneous revisions are welcome, all of which add to Danny's goal of making One Way as good as it can be.
About half-way through the session, one of Danny's project advisors, Professor Steven Pond of the music department wandered in. He sat quietly in the back, but it was impossible not to notice his beaming smile and toe-tapping. When I grabbed Pond on the way out, he revealed that this was his first time actually hearing the music. "I'm more of an intellectual advisor," he said. "I help him understand what the experience is all about: having a vision and orchestrating it." But he was obviously impressed with the result.
Danny is the first to admit that he, too, would have never thought that One Way would turn out as inspiring as it is. "I finished everything I set out to do, and more," Danny beamed. And after Saturday? "The second half of my life will begin."