It's tempting simply to label Joseph Dillon Ford an eccentric, a sort of musical time-traveler who takes a perverse pleasure in transporting us through the medium of sound to strange but often hauntingly familiar destinations hundreds of years and thousands of miles away. But speaking for the physicists, Ford flatly denies there is any real distinction between past, present, and future. And according to his own particular take on holographic theory, mind and cosmos are so intimately interconnected that the boundaries of space and time are little more than persistent illusions.
Because so much of his work freely celebrates the presence of the past, critics who believe today's music ought to sound "contemporary" will likely dismiss Ford as oddly anachronistic. Ford, however, wryly counters with a quote from one of America's most radical thinkers--Ralph Waldo Emerson:
"The originals are not original. There is imitation, model, and suggestion to the very archangels, if we knew their history."
Indeed, the pages of Ford's music are virtual portals to an extraordinary variety of sound worlds in which centuries seemingly long lost or as yet only dimly glimpsed come magically into view. His scores vividly evoke everything from the courtly drama of Tudor England to the impassioned splendor of baroque Germany, the revolutionary Zeitgeist of Enlightenment Vienna, and the heady bohemian atmosphere of fin-de-siècle Paris. Whether Ford lures us to exotic ports of call or strands us on the outer edges of the universe, his colorful and fascinating expeditions in musical spacetime captivate the ear only to unchain the imagination.
Joseph Dillon Ford in his studio (2001).
What distinguishes this unique body of work is not only the extraordinary craftsmanship with which Ford fashions each piece but also the remarkable authenticity he brings to music of a kind that until fairly recently might have drawn almost universal critical derision. As Ford himself explains:
"Unlike Stravinsky and many postmodern composers after him who introduced diverse and often conflicting historical elements in their work, I usually create new music that is stylistically homogeneous. My concern is not to sound "original" in order to meet the demand for novelty or shock appeal imposed by critics and the arts establishment, but to be original by remaining true to the inner creative sources from which my music originates. The Greeks had it right: Memory (Mnemosyne) is the 'Mother of the Muses.'
This may involve a kind of compositional portraiture, deftly illustrated by the uncannily Mozartean opening movement of Ford's First Piano Concerto. But typically the composer chooses a more generalized style associated with a particular historical period. Sometimes he resorts to paraphrase or quotation, such as the seamless insertion and reworking of a theme from the finale of Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto in the rondo of his own recent work in that genre.
Subtle time "warps" are also possible, which effectively telescope elements from historically "adjacent" styles without compromising overall unity. One notable example is the final "Beethoven" variations of Ford's First Symphony, in which tubular bells enter and toll briefly just before the coda: The effect is rather startling, but, as Ford hastens to explain, "Mozart already uses bells in The Magic Flute, and I have it on rather good authority that Beethoven doesn't really mind!"
DF submits once more to the camera (2001).
In spite of the unusual breadth of his musical creativity, Ford has passionately pursued a broad range of interests in a variety of disciplines. In fact, he didn't initially train as a composer at all but as a concert pianist, performing such works as Mozart's C-Minor Piano Concerto (with his own cadenzas) and Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue for audiences in south Florida. By his early twenties, inspired by his love for teaching, he redirected his energies towards music history and planned on an academic career.
After receiving his first graduate degree in 1978 from Harvard, where he was twice honored as a Variell Scholar in musicology, Ford held teaching posts in the creative arts and English at Miami-Dade Community College and the American School of Tangier in Morocco. Although neither of these situations offered any prospect of a long-term career, his indomitable dedication to the life of the mind persuaded him to remain in education in spite of a severely depressed academic job market.
By the mid 1980s Ford returned to university to earn a professional degree in landscape architecture and elected to stay on as a temporary professor after receiving his MLA at Florida International University in 1991. He remained at FIU until 1997, by which time he was able to retire and devote himself full-time to musical composition, realizing some of his life's most important goals, and looking forward to a series of groundbreaking creative projects and initiatives.
JDF revives David's Marat (1793 & 2001)
Towards the end of 1999 Ford quit Miami and relocated to Gainesville, a scenic university town in northern Florida. Since earlier efforts to publish his compositions had been thwarted by Hurricane Andrew, which devastated south Florida in 1992, Ford at last felt free to resume the arduous task of revising, editing, and typesetting the work he had been writing "behind the scenes" for most of his adult life. He also hoped to realize for the first time some income from his growing output as a composer.
In 2000 the New Music Classics web site was launched as a vehicle to introduce his music to the international arts community and to offer encouragement to others interested in the exploration of tonal musical materials. Although reluctant to apply any restrictive label to the movement he hopes this site will catalyze, Ford has often described his work as "historicist" and has likened it to the "new classicism" evident in much of the best contemporary postmodern architecture. His interest in stimulating the emergent historicist movement led in 2004 to his founding The Delian Society, an international community of men and women dedicated to the revitalization of tonal art music. The Society now boasts over a hundred professional, student, and amateur members on six continents in nearly thirty different countries.
JDF communing with Ingres' François-Marius Granet (1807 & 2001).
In an age of rampant careerism, in which aggressive self-promotion and the brutally competitive pursuit of credentials have become almost de rigueur, Ford is clearly an anomaly. He has never submitted any of his music to commercial publishing houses but remains committed to the enterprise of controlling his own work from conception to publication. In addition to his position as International Coordinator of the Delian Society, he vigorously pursues his work as an artist and teacher and helps to organize performances of new tonal music, including his own compositions, throughout the world.
Ford's work, however, is premised on the deeply held conviction that musical composition is nothing less than a spiritual act, a form of meditation that risks being undermined by excessive efforts to advance one's own career or achieve celebrity status. Because scores are simply the residue left by this process, he insists they should never be mistaken for anything more than a means of documenting the subtle and otherwise inaudible movements of a transpersonal creative Intelligence. Here again, Ford's insights seem to resonate with those of Emerson:
"If the thinker feels that the thought most strictly his own is not his own, and recognizes the perpetual suggestion of the Supreme Intellect, the oldest thoughts become new and fertile whilst he speaks them."
JDF puts a smile (and moustache!) on Arï Redon (1898 & 2001).
Ford's intensive exploration of such an unusually broad spectrum of historical materials may well be unparalleled in the work of any other living composer. Indeed, it has become the focus of virtually his entire creative output, which includes instrumental works ranging from miniature dances to large-scale symphonic scores in at least a dozen highly distinctive styles. No stranger to innovativion, he is responsible for the creation of the world's largest sound sculpture (the Web-based Hymn for the Standing Buddhas of Bamiyan); the first virtual new music festival (Nu Mu[sic!] Unlimited); and various artificial "chromatic" languages in which music, poetry, and the graphic arts are fused in strikingly original ways.
Ford continues to undertake projects of increasingly greater scale and complexity even while revisiting and perfecting the smallest and simplest forms of musical expression. Once in a while, he also likes to do a little gardening.