I grew up around a wide variety of musical influences. My parents were classical musicians, one of my brothers was a jazz musician and another was into funk and disco. Soon after I started taking violin and piano lessons I remember being a chameleon when it came to which style of music I wanted to play. In high school I played keyboard in a rock band, piano in the school jazz band and violin in the orchestra. Consequently, I was a social as well as musical chameleon, changing my personality slightly, or perhaps exploring different aspects of my personality, depending on which crowd of people I was with. This has continued throughout my life. The contrasts can be extreme. One night I might play with a punk band in a dingy bar where the audience throws beer to show their appreciation, the next night I play string quartets in a church sanctuary. I certainly do not believe in the superiority of any one genre of music any more than I believe one type of person is better than another. The one thing that all of the friends I have played music with have in common is an immense satisfaction gained from making music together.
In my compositions, I draw from all of my musical experiences. I am constantly discovering new stylistic influences and ways of thinking about music and incorporating these into my musical language. Development of a personal style is a never ending process. I enthusiastically embrace the fact that I will always be evolving and growing as a composer and a musician.
In Seattle, I studied violin with Karla Kantner and Bryan Boughten; piano with my father, Dwight Swafford; and jazz piano with Joni Metcalf. I played violin in the Seattle Youth Symphony under conductor Vilem Sokol and in the Roosevelt High School Chamber Orchestra, a self directed group, and piano in the award winning Roosevelt jazz band conducted by Scott Brown.
I received a BA in music and clinical psychology from Tufts University. I studied composition with John McDonald and violin with Magdalena Richter. While at Tufts, I arranged strings for Papas Fritas and played violin with Guster. Both bands went on to successful careers. I received a PhD in composition from University of California, Berkeley where my principal teachers were Olly Wilson, Edwin Dugger and Richard Felciano. I also studied improvisation with Steve Coleman and analysis with Andrew Imbrie. I received an Eisner Prize for composition from Berkeley and a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. After Berkeley, I studied composition with Louis Andriessen in Amsterdam.
I was very lucky to have wonderful, inspiring teachers who freely shared their love of music with their students. I have no doubt that this, along with my parents’ love of music making, made me who I am today. I strive to pass along that inspiration when I teach.
After Amsterdam, I moved back home to Seattle, WA where I was an active member of Seattle’s vibrant new music community. I received grants from the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, 4Culture and the Jack Straw Foundation. I was the violinist for Playback Theatre Northwest, a theater group that uses a particular set of techniques, both abstract and representational, to re-enact audience stories. I was a member of experimental bands Cipher, The Golden Crackers ( a duo with drummer Matt Crane), and Doublends Vert and folk-punk band Meisce. I toured the west coast with all of these ensembles. Doublends Vert released a self titled debut album on Present Sounds Recordings and a second album, Cistern (Line records, 2005) , recorded in an empty two gallon reservoir with a 43 second reverbation, in Port Townsend, WA. Meisce released a CD and an EP on Fistolo records. I was a concert organizer at Gallery 1412, a long running experimental music venue. I was the orchestra contractor and concertmaster for the Degenerate Art Orchestra. This expanded version of the Degenerate Art Ensemble performed eight new compositions by Seattle composers, including my piece Odes to Complacency to an audience of 1,100 people. In April of 2006 I joined the excellent pianist and composer, Amy Rubin, to form the Rubin/Swafford duo. Our repertoire consisted primarily of tangos by Astor Piazzolla and several of our original compositions. We recorded two albums and performed throughout the Seattle area including Seattle’s City Hall and the Sorrento Hotel. I also worked extensively with Butoh dancer Vanessa Skantze.
I moved to New York in March, 2007. Soon after my arrival I performed with and arranged strings for Guster at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan, and played violin with the Alan Ferber Nonet at the Tea Lounge in Park Slope, Brooklyn. These experiences inspired me to create a large group of my own made up entirely of string instruments. String Power’s debut performance was at the Tea Lounge in September 2007.
In 2009 I presented a full length concert of my own works entitled “The Real (?) Me” which featured singer Gelsey Bell in a solo performance piece about identity, as well as an audience participation piece, a piece based on hate mail received after one of my Seattle concerts (read by my friend Lee Todd Lacks), a piece for woodwind quintet written shortly after my arrival in New York, a solo piano piece for John McDonald (my teacher at Tufts), and two pieces for String Power. The concert was repeated in 2010 at Roulette Intermedium.
In 2011 I composed a series of solo pieces for various instruments. I presented a concert of these at The Stone in NYC. A video of the full concert can be viewed here.
Also in 2011 I recorded material based on Armenian music, with the group Kef; led by guitarist Aram Bajakian and joined by bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz. We toured Europe in 2012.
Also in 2012 I presented another composition concert, called Becoming Human, with singers Gelsey Bell and Amirtha Kidambi and the Cadillac Moon Ensemble. The project included several theatrical pieces about acquiring a sense of value for oneself and for others. It was performed at PS 217 in Brooklyn and funded in part by a grant from the Greater New York Arts Development Fund of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, administered by the Brooklyn Arts Council (BAC).
I was the in-house musician, on violin and piano, at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park from 2012 to 2019. The Old Faithful Inn was built in 1904 and is considered the largest log structure in the world. Playing on the balcony was a magical experience. I also enjoyed the camaraderie of living and working with the staff, many of whom were retired from other careers.
In 2014 String Power began a residency at the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn. These regular gigs gave us more opportunity to develop our sound on the “bandstand,” since it is difficult to schedule regular rehearsals with such a large group in New York City. This inspired me to record our debut album in 2015. It was recorded at Big Orange Sheep studios in Brooklyn. I paid for the project with an Indiegogo crowd funding campaign which raised over $9,000.
String Power is special to me because, in a sense, it is re-living the experience I had playing in my high school chamber orchestra, also a string group. We were very dedicated, rehearsing for hours at each other’s houses in addition to our class time, and we took great pride in being a self-directed ensemble. Many of us remain in touch even today. In fact, Loren Dempster, who was in the high school group, plays cello in String Power as well.
In 2016, while at Yellowstone, I began writing lyrics and music for my musical, Bad Actor. The piece starts off like a musical presentation with a self help theme but more nefarious aims begin cropping up. A performer in the presentation (the “Bad Actor”) starts to question the themes being presented and goes off script, derailing the production. The musical theater style is meant to be highly exaggerated in order to represent the kind of messaging we receive in the media and elsewhere; things like “as long as you work hard and believe in the correct things, you can have anything you want.” This kind of messaging is also used to indoctrinate people into cults. The piece was originally a response to the 2016 political conventions of both parties but started to take on a different significance after the election.
Bad Actor received a workshop performance at the Tank in NYC in 2017. It was directed and choreographed by Kristofer Kauff, who co-wrote the book with me. I played the piano for the production. I wanted to create a production with big dance numbers and Krisotofer’s excellent choreography skills gave me the opportunity to do this. I hope to develop the piece further in the future.
In February of 2018 I put on a concert about the influence of the blues on classical music featuring music by Maurice Ravel, Blind Willie Johnson, W.C. Handy and Richard M. Jones; along with my composition “Blues Obscured” for solo piano. I was joined by pianist Emile Blondel, banjo/guitarist Benjamin “Baby Copperhead” Lee and bassist Zachary Swanson. The concert was part of the faculty concert series. I joined the conservatory faculty in 2012.
In the summer of 2018 I got married to Molly Davis. Molly and I met in 2012 when I was playing in a subway station. She missed her train, heard me playing, and walked down the platform to see who it was. And six years later we walked down the aisle!
In 2019 I was invited back to U.C. Berkeley to perform an original composition dedicated to my teacher, Olly Wilson, at a memorial symposium in his honor. Wilson was a very important influence for me. I wrote one of my best pieces, Friend or Fiend, for orchestra, while studying with him.
Also in 2019, bassist Zachary Swanson and I recorded a duo album of improvised music. Zach and I met while playing in an old-time/Americana band called Cropdust. We began playing improvised duos and developed a language that draws on our common background in experimental, classical, jazz and folk music. We released our album, Scythe Paths Through the Nettles, in early 2021.
Another important duo for me has been with drummer Matt Crane. We began playing together (as the Golden Crackers) in Seattle and recorded two albums, Intercellular Matter and United Rogue States of America. We continued to work together in New York and I look forward to further developing our music in New England, where we both are currently based.
In October of 2022 I completed a solo violin project which has a folk-influenced side, drawing on my years of subway playing, and a purely experimental side which is completely improvised. The folk side, culminating in the album Bound to Go Away, features my renditions of traditional music like House of the Rising Sun, La Llorona and Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was the Night, Cold was the Ground. It also includes my piece, Corona Etude, written in May, 2020, during coronavirus lockdown. Corona Etude is a kind of bridge piece, drawing on both my folk and my classical composition influences. The experimental side, Rough Spaces, involves extended techniques, dissonances and a much wider sound palette. I started improvising at Tufts, in the New Music Ensemble, led by my composition teacher John McDonald. This opened up whole new world of sonic possibilities that I’ve continued to explore throughout my life. I performed my first solo violin piece at Tufts in 1991. So this album represents 30 years of development in my violin sound. Particularly in the past 12 years of subway playing my sound, I hope, has acquired a maturity and patina that was missing from my younger musical self.
In April of 2022 I presented a concert of my compositions at Providence College with soprano Rachel Hanauer and pianist Yoon Chung. It included a transciption of Chaos Magicians, an improvisation on Rough Spaces, and a setting of “Sheltered Garden” by the poet H.D.
My wife Molly and I now live in Providence, RI. In the spring and summer I taught post-tonal theory and a graduate seminar on the use of folk music by classical composers, and the issues of cultural appropriation that this often raises. The seminar is inspired by a seminar on nationalism in music taught by Richard Taruskin when I was at U.C. Berkeley in the late ’90s.
I also teach private lessons at the Providence School of Music and an improvisation class at Community Music Works, also in Providence. I perform frequently in groups organized by drummer Matt Crane, who I have collaborated with for over 20 years. In the fall I will be performing with soprano Rachel Hanauer at the University of Rhode Island. The concert will include The Alphabet City Song Cycle, by Georgia Stitt and Marcy Heisler, as well as an encore performance of my setting of “Sheltered Garden.” I have several other projects in development for the fall of 2023 and further into the future!
My goal is to create clear music that communicates directly and genuinely. I am not interested in slick music that has been edited and perfected artificially. I like all the subtle nuances, scratches, ‘mistakes’ that happen naturally and I think that this is a big part of what makes music expressive.
I am continually searching for my own way to combine all of the vastly different types of music I have played into one personal style. But music is about much more than any individual person. For me, music is about connection between musicians, between musician and composer, between musician and audience and between every person that has created music throughout human existence. Music is organic. A tune takes on increasing layers of meaning every time it is played. People may have completely opposing interpretations depending on what associations they have with a particular piece or style. Any assessments of the quality of a musical style are subjective. Everyone values music differently, depending on their experience.
I know what is like to move people with music. This feeling is immensely rewarding and when this happens, when people are genuinely affected by music, it is because both musician and audience are so engaged that they forget their egos and tap into something greater. The person in the audience, the musician on stage and the composer are all joined together and become part of music’s endless stream.