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I thought we might talk about what musical goals y’all have for the New Year. I know I have some.

Last year, inspired by Jay Batzner, I resolved to send out two scores every month–to competitions, calls, or just musicians with whom I have some sort of connection. I am happy to say I met the goal of 24 scores in November and exceeded it by a few this month. I plan to continue this practice in perpetuity.

This year, I have three new resolutions.

1) Write some pieces that are easy to play. My last three pieces–a string quartet, large-ensemble work, and unaccompanied violin piece–were all really tough to play. I’m proud of all three, and, though I’ve revised the large-ensemble piece (thanks to Tom Myron), their virtuosity is part of their identity. But it’s time to revisit simplicity for a while and try to be a bit more practical. As I keep telling people: I’ve never regretted writing an easy piece.

2) Do more ear training. I perennially desire to get in the habit of waking up early and doing some aural skills work on my computer for about a half-hour or so. Why ear training? Because it allows you to get more out of the music you listen to. My ears improved markedly while teaching aural skills at Brooklyn College, but they really do have a ways to go before I’m satisfied with them. Why not get serious in 2009?

3) Begin establishing my music theory creds. I’ve too long just been a music theory dabbler: pleased with my expertise while not doing much original research outside seminar papers and my dissertation. Time to get some conference papers and spiff up the diss for publication. (I’ll resist for the time being speculating on the relationship between theory and composition. I’ll say right now I don’t see how they can have an essentially negative influence on one another.)

But enough about me.  How about you?

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Standing, left-to-right: Garth Sunderland, Emily Brausa, Thomas Piercy, Samuel Andreyev, Jeremy Podgursky, Alex Kotch, Rodney Lister, Rusty Banks, Samuel Vriezen. Kneeling, left-to-right: Christina Perea, Galen Brown, Miranda Cuckson, Laura Barger, David Salvage. The hall was cold; the music was hot. We hope to share the sounds with you soon.

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It was clear: the times, they needed a-changin’.  And they needed not just any change, but change folks could believe in.  And so it fell unto the musicians of the Lost Dog New Music Ensemble to stand astride history and say “Yes.”  Generations from now, it will be to this week that historians point as the moment in which Music Got Much Better.  For them, and us, we thank Laura Barger (piano), Emily Brausa, (‘cello),  Miranda Cuckson (violin), Christine Perea (flute), and Thomas Piercy (clarinet).  They are led by the great Garth Sunderland.

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Did you learn anything in music school? Or does the phrase “circle of fifths” mean nothing to you?

How does one learn “anything”? Doesn’t one learn “something”? “Something” and “anything” really aren’t the same thing, are they? Could you help me out here?

What’s your favorite “bad” piece of music? And briefly justify your crappy taste.

Would my favorite “bad” piece of music be “better” or “worse” than my next-favorite “bad” piece on my list? Just trying to get oriented. . . .

Your five-composition-long playlist for Schoenberg would contain:

Huh. I was not aware “composition” was a unit of measurement. One more American who knows nothing about the metric system, I guess.

Congress calls on you to draw up a bailout plan for contemporary music! What do you do?

Well, that would depend on whether On-You-To-Draw-Up-A-Bailout-Plan-For-Contemporary-Music answered the call. Maybe he or she wasn’t home or on the other line. And am I the only one who thinks first names are getting ridiculous these days?

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Y’all know the song. “Down. Town. Galen Brown… Meaner than a–” Galen’s meaner than a… um… he’s meaner than a Boobah. Yes, Galen is meaner than a Boobah.  As you’ll see from his incendiary responses below.

Did you learn anything in music school? Or does the phrase “circle of fifths” mean nothing to you?

Yes. Actually, the worst music theory teacher I ever had managed to teach me that the only legitimate chord progressions are derived from the circle of fifths, which of course isn’t true. That was in undergrad, though. In conservatory I learned that homework generally doesn’t have to be handed in on time

What’s your favorite “bad” piece of music?  And briefly justify your crappy taste.

I like plenty of music that other people think is bad, although I won’t agree that it is in fact bad. I’m hard pressed to name a favorite, because there are so many wonderful examples. Recently, for instance, I became a fan of Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl and I Liked it.” I even recorded a cover version (unless you’re with RIAA, in which case I totally found this on the internet by accident).  I think the video provides all the justification required.

Your five-composition-long playlist for Schoenberg would contain:

Laibach’s “Let It Be” album
Skinny Puppy’s “Last Rights” album
Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint”
David Lang’s “Men”
Michael Gordon’s “Trance”
Frederick Rzewski’s “The People United WIll Never Be Defeated”

Congress calls on you to draw up a bailout plan for contemporary music! What do you do?

Establish a slush fund for commissioning composers and bribing orchestra music directors to play the commissioned works. Establish an MTV style contemporary music cable channel. And there are some people I’d like to send to Gitmo, but I’ll keep that list to myself.

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Rusty Banks.  Composer.

Did you learn anything in music school?  Or does the phrase “circle of fifths” mean nothing to you?

Circle of fifths?  I remember that.  Never cared for how it sounded, but it looked good on a T-shirt.  Kinda like Glam Rock Super-group KISS.

What’s your favorite “bad” piece of music?  And briefly justify your crappy taste.

Bad Music?  Oooh.  I LOVE bad music.  There are just too many.  I cite three from different parts of my life.

As a pre-school age boy my favorite song was Sam the Sham and the Pharaoh’s “Whooly Bully” played at too high of a speed.  Nine years later, Alvin and the Chipmunks released a cover of it.  It just didn’t work.  It has to be on vinyl, it has to be faster, and God help me, it has to be a sped up Sam Samudio yelling “Watchit now, watchit now, here it comes!”

Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone.”  I really can’t explain this one.  I think it’s the xylophone solo…

Country super group Alabama’s “Dixieland Delight.”  I love to play a bossa nova version of this when no one’s around.  I get choked up on the lyric “chubby little groundhog.”

Your five-composition-long playlist for Schoenberg would contain:

I have five pieces I wish Schoenberg could have heard:

George CrumbAncient Voices of Children

Louis AndriessenDe Stijl

Nine Inch NailsThe Fragile (album)

Monroe Golden:  Alabama Places

Roger MillerDo Wacka Do

I think Schoenberg had some great ideas, but if he had heard works like these it could have opened him up quite a bit.  Crumb’s emphasis on beauty, Andriessen’s insistence on groove, Trent Reznor’s emphasis on sonic richness, Golden’s acoustically-ground sound explorations.  I think there are many lessons for all of us in Roger Miller’s music.

Congress calls on you to draw up a bailout plan for contemporary music!  What do you do?

Bailout plan?  Easy.  Forgive all student loan debt immediately, and have free universal healthcare.  We composers are all sitting on great ideas that our pizza delivery jobs don’t leave time for.  Imagine unleashing all that power!

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We continue with Alex Kotch.  Composer.

Did you learn anything in music school?  Or does the phrase “circle of fifths” mean nothing to you?

Sure, there’s plenty to learn. Orchestration and taking apart scores are essential, and stuff I sometimes put off if I don’t have an institution to force them on me. But probably the most important thing I’ve learned from school is what we need to change. The status quo needs to be purged. Development, counterpoint, linearity need to be options, not requirements. We’re being given a standardized set of tools, which inevitably produce homogeneity. And pop music needs to be taken seriously by composers, not just by small pockets of musicologists. Most importantly, in my opinion, if we claim to contribute to culture, we need to study it: critical theory, race and gender studies, and new media (not to mention psychology and psychoacoustics). I’ve found much more inspiration from cultural theory than from music theory.

What’s your favorite “bad” piece of music?  And briefly justify your crappy taste.

I’m against qualifying music these days. Almost any song has some element that we can learn from and is therefore not “bad.” In fact, I think this false musical hierarchy has caused the group that thinks it’s the best (us) to write the music that most other people think is the worst. However, at the risk of seeming completely humorless, I’ll go with the album, Club Nation America Volume Two. I love sentimental, mainstream house music–it’s generally got great beats, beautiful voices, and perfect production–and it usually takes up a giant amount of space on my mp3 player.

I also dig the latest Britney Spears album, Blackout, for its irony, vocal treatment, and grungy production. I don’t think Britney’s popularity could have lasted over a decade in one-hit-wonderland if she, along with her lyricists, composers, and producers, didn’t innovate, as this album demonstrates. (There’s a great article on the album at Pitchfork.)

Your five-composition-long playlist for Schoenberg would contain:

Well, here’s a short list that anyone who happens to wake up from a 57-year nap might wanna listen to, and why:

Meshuggah: Catch 33 album (the legends of math metal)
Bjork: Selmasongs album (a gorgeous combination of found sound, instrumental writing, and delicious electrobeats)
–David Rakowski: Imaginary Dances (harsh dissonance with rhythmic drive)
Richard Devine: anything (dark, masterful electronics)
–Notorious BIG/Method Man: “The What” (amazing flow, especially my favorite MC, Biggie)

Congress calls on you to draw up a bailout plan for contemporary music!  What do you do?

Jump-start a new public works program with concert hall demolition crews nationwide. After the work is done, new music groups will have no place to perform aside from bars and clubs. Since young people tend to frequent these types of venues, and tend to eat and drink, the venues can split the bar profits with the band and charge 5 bucks, or less, for the entertainment. And we can write dance remixes of our pieces, and others’ work! Basically, do what Gabriel Prokofiev does in the UK.

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The Countdown continues.

Samuel Vriezen.  Composer.  From The Netherlands.

Did you learn anything in music school? Or does the phrase “circle of fifths” mean nothing to you?

Louis Andriessen taught me to use a double barline whenever there is a tempo change. Later, though, I started writing pieces in which performers have gradual tempo changes independently of one another all the time, and I hardly use double barlines anymore.

What’s your favorite “bad” piece of music? And briefly justify your crappy taste.

Wish I had one! I actually think all of my favorite music is quite good. Or is it about something I’m not “supposed” to like, by some mysterious agency or other? What would the Taste Police arrest me for first – enjoying Beat It or enjoying the Carceri d’Invenzione cycle? How to answer this question? Suppose I enjoy humming The Internationale while taking a shower, would that be sufficiently problematic? Not that I do though, and anyway you guys just ousted the Republicans and voted for a candidate widely known to be a “socialist”. So it may be the mildly embarassing erotic poetry in Stimmung, which, as a whole, is a great piece of course. Or perhaps it could be a piece by John Adams, whom I’m not generally a fan of, except that the Grand Pianola Music does manage a level of banality that I find somehow impressive.

Your five-composition-long playlist for Schoenberg would contain:

Obviously, there’s only one thing you could want to say to Schoenberg, and that is “Hey, lighten up already!” and I guess I’d end up playing him Nancarrow or something. But really, there’s this American obsession with Schoenberg that I don’t quite share. When I was a student at The Hague, Schoenberg had at that school already become a kind of cartoon version of the model modernist – not an Oedipal father figure by a long shot anymore (actually, there’s a beautiful sculpture of him in the building where you have his profile hollowed out of a transparent slab of glass).

Instead, Dutch music life was at that time drenched in Stravinsky, particularly through Louis Andriessen’s and Elmer Schönberger’s depiction of him in their book, The Apollinian Clockwork – a great read, but at some point many of us were getting worried that irony, additive rhythm, variable ostinato, block forms and twisted stylistic paraphrase (‘reference’) had become mandatory. So I’m substituting Stravinsky for Schoenberg, I lock the old devil up in some dark CIA basement at a secret location in Eastern Europe, gag him – I mean we’re in a Taste Police mood in this here questionnaire anyway – and make him listen to:

Tom Johnson, The Chord Catalogue
Jürg Frey, 2nd String Quartet
Xenakis, Eonta
Cage, the Europeras
Stravinsky, Petrouchka

– absolutely fantastic pieces all – and we play some loud complex sine wave chord or other by La Monte Young between sessions, until he promises never to write the Octet again.

Congress calls on you to draw up a bailout plan for contemporary music! What do you do?

We stage performances of Cardew’s The Great Learning at the White House and make the Senate do a production of Cage’s Song Books. (Congress itself might be a good group for my piece Local Orchestra – click here.

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Samuel Andreyev.  Composer.  From Paris.  The photo is copyright Philippe Stirnweiss 2008.

Did you learn anything in music school?  Or does the phrase “circle of fifths” mean nothing to you?

I learned much at the Paris Conservatoire: beyond the obvious technical competence which everyone must acquire in their own way, I was given the freedom and time to develop my fledgling ideas in the most extraordinarily fruitful and stimulating atmosphere..

What’s your favorite “bad” piece of music? And briefly justify your crappy taste.

I consider a lot  of the oboe repertoire I play to be bad music, for instance, Pasculli or Kalliwoda. Endless sequences, rather uninspired melodic content, and so on. Yet, despite the lack of intrinsic interest, the performance of this music perhaps can be justified by the fact that it is fun to play, and expanded the technical possibilities of the oboe. I also have a soft spot for Bow Wow Wow, which I refuse to justify.

Your five-composition-long playlist for Schoenberg would contain:

Five pieces for orchestra, Four Orchestral Songs, the Second Quartet, The first Kammersymphonie, and the String Trio.

Congress calls on you to draw up a bailout plan for contemporary music!  What do you do?

There are only temporary, provisional solutions to this ‘problem’, which I don’t believe really is a problem, except for certain composers who insist on living off their irrational compulsion to write music. However, the single most important area requiring development, especially in North America, is music education in public schools. Without that basic groundwork, it would be difficult to change the situation in any significant way.

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Rodney Lister.  Composer.  And Boston new music scene insider. 

Did you learn anything in music school?

It’s been so long ago that I don’t remember.

Or does the phrase “circle of fifths” mean nothing to you?

If it did would that mean I’d have learned anything?

(Of course I did–I learned a fair amount about writing and thinking about music–from people like Mac Peyton (who I studied with for four years) and Donald Martino (who I raked leaves for–what are students for?) (and why can’t I find any like that)  (who were both on the faculty at New England Conservatory, where I was a student) and Ezra Sims (who was just around) and all ready to be a guru.   I learned maybe even more in the two years after I was at NEC, when I was living in London and studying–sort of–with Max (otherwise known as Peter Maxwell) Davies.

What’s your favorite “bad” piece of music?  And briefly justify your crappy taste.

Define bad.

I love the Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony.   It’s not bad, really, but I’m not sure I’d exactly say that it’s exactly good either.   Is Percy Grainger bad?   What about Virgil Thomson (Symphony on a Hymn Tune)?   In some circles Babbitt is supposed to be bad, but my experience is that people who think that are mostly dealing in received wisdom and don’t know anything about any of his music–or at least don’t know any of his music directly.

Dave Soldier’s Most Unwanted Music is meant to be bad, and I think that’s pretty terrific (It’s supposed to be guaranteed that no more than 200 people on the globe will like it–I think I’ve met all of them.)

Not that you ask for it, but I can give you the pieces I hope never to hear again as long as I live:   Also Sprach Zarathrustra (except for the beginning, particularly the first note), the complete Daphnis and Chloe, the Dumki Trio, and the Tschaikovsky Trio.

Your five-composition-long playlist for Schoenberg would contain:

What the hell is that supposed to mean?  Is the implication that you want a list of five Steve Reich pieces to prove how cool it is and how cool Schoenberg could be if he’d realized he was wrong?

Congress calls on you to draw up a bailout plan for contemporary music!  What do you do?

Well, I think the best way to get people to liking it is to get them to know it–actually listen to it and engage with it.   For high school students–and younger–, who I deal with a lot of my time, I’m sure that it has to do with getting them to play it.   (Generally they like it–whether it’s Cage, Schoenberg, Nico Muhly, Ruth Crawford, Sebastian Currier, Lee Hyla, Martin Bresnick, William Bolcom, or Piers Hellawell.   In my experience Morton Feldman is a hard sale, though.)  At any rate, any time it’s personalized, it seems to be enjoyed.

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