Tonight, PBS is showing Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore on Great Performances. I really like this opera. It is fun, light, and tuneful. I’ve seen it before and had it on VHS for a few years (probably from another Great Performances broadcast). Instead of blogging about it, I’m going to live-tweet the event. You can follow if you want. The game starts at 9 PM EST. I am @jaybatzner on Twitter and I plan on using the hashtag #elixir for the duration. This is my first live-tweet thing, so forgive me in advance…
I’m teaching Advanced Counterpoint this semester and couldn’t be happier about it. My love of counterpoint is well documented in this blog and essentially I love doling out puzzles for younger composers to solve. What makes this particular counterpoint class “advanced” is relative. The regular Counterpoint class here at CMU is required for all performance majors so we don’t do a ton of composing outside of the Fux 2-voice species exercises. The focus of the class shifts around midterms towards analysis and contrapuntal forms. Advanced Counterpoint, though, is a class geared towards composers (undergrad and grad). I’m focusing the course on Baroque counterpoint and we are using the Peter Schubert text. Today my students turned in their first assignments: canons.
In an attempt to “lead by example” I have been doing the assignments, too. I assigned each student to compose 2 canons last Wednesday: one 4-5 voice canon using the “box” method of stacking phrases over a single harmonic progression and one 2 voice “zigzag” canon which is composed linearly. Undergrads compose simpler works (fewer voices for the box canon, imitation at unison/octave for zigzag) and grad students have beefier requirements (more voices, imitation at 5th or 3rd for canon).
Undergrads had to do a 4-voice box canon, I did 5 (like the grads).
I chose D minor (saddest of all keys) and a basic circle of fifth’s progression followed by root movement by third. I really wanted to use the VII and this progression let me. I showed my students my first three attempts in class on Monday and the basic skeleton I ended up with (before ornaments). I haven’t composed a canon in this manner before. It was kind of fun, kind of frustrating. I kept losing my ability to think melodically and my 4th and 5th voices became more “skipping to the chord tone I don’t have” than proper melodies. It required revision. I’m rather pleased with the result.
My zigzag canon was at the inversion:
My first attempt was atrocious. It was too ornate and overwrought and had no real shape to it. Sure, the notes worked together but without any coherence it just floundered around. Also, I started my inversion on Sol, not Do, which really threw my brain for a loop. I showed the abomination form in class on Monday, scrapped it, and write a simple half-note version right after class. Then I added the ornaments and I’m rather pleased with the result. It ain’t perfect, but what is?
The Real Lesson
Yes, learning ways of writing canons was important here. There are other “bigger picture” things that I tried to drive home this morning (when the assignments were due).
Writing canons, or anything for that matter, requires discipline and effort. The process includes much erasing and dismissing of faulty ideas. You aren’t going to just bang out the assignment the night before it is due. Composers need to approach composition the way a performer approaches practicing: Spend significant time doing it. Work on small ideas to build chops for the bigger ideas. Not every note you handle will be perfect but the wrong ones will lead you to the right ones. The more you practice, the more efficient you get at preparing things at a higher level.
Last night I pulled up Company on Netflix. This production was made for Great Performances in 2007 and starred Raúl Esparza as Bobby. John Doyle was the director. The set was rather claustrophobic and the staging was very lean but well used. And if I wasn’t mistaken, the entire cast also performed on various instruments too, in rather substantial ways. If they weren’t really playing then it was, without a doubt, the best musical pantomime I’ve ever seen.
The show is, basically, “How I Met Your Mother – The Musical.” Bobby, the main character, is surrounded by married friends and really wants to get married. The problem seems to be that Bobby lacks any kind of personality whatsoever and all of the vignettes featuring his friends are infinitely more engaging and compelling than anything that directly affects Bobby. Bobby is the Ted Mosby of musical theater. The fortunate thing is that Bobby, while he is pretty much always on stage, is usually marginalized dramatically so that the rest of the ensemble can shine.
I would have taken great pleasure in seeing any of Bobby’s married couple friends anchor a full 2 hour musical. Especially Amy and Paul, basically on the strength of Amy’s neurotic bridal conniption patter song. In general, though, married life is portrayed as being not worth the effort and that all relationships are inherently dysfunctional (especially when the couple is married). As someone who got married at 22 and has been rather happily hitched for 16 years, I had a hard time connecting with that point of view. I can imagine why Stephen Sondheim would have that outlook, though.
All that stuff aside, I enjoyed it. The music was charming, I especially liked the recurring “Bobby” chorus that punctuated various spots of the whole show. There was a lot of great ensemble/counterpoint work going on, too. Some of the bits were too cheesy for my musical taste (Another 100 people, for example) and I don’t care for the excessive nasal sound that some singers produce. But, it was funny, it was entertaining, it was engaging, and I could have stood more of it. I’d watch it again and recommend it to others. I couldn’t write like that, though. It just isn’t my musical language or nature. But I’m kind of interested in spinning the Glass string quartet today to hear the connections…
In an attempt to become more versed in vocal music and music drama, I’m attempting to watch an opera/musical/music drama each week for 2013. Yesterday I plunged in with the MET HD broadcast of Les Troyens by Berlioz.
Why this opera?
While I am not a huge “opera buff” and I don’t really enjoy Romanticism, I knew that this opera was something I should prioritize. These kinds of productions don’t happen often (and they never happen in Mt. Pleasant, MI). Also, being a bit dismissive of Berlioz (I considered him a “one hit wonder” for Symphonie fantastique but I give him props for Le nuits dete, too) I wondered what 5 hours of Berlioz would sound like. Ok, actually I didn’t wonder THAT much since I bought the LSO Live recording of Les Troyens from a discount bin many years ago.
What did I like?
Wow, I really liked it. As in I loved it. I was floored at how well Berlioz balanced a thorough investigation of the characters’ emotions without being excessive. Everyone sings the thing that they sing for a reason. Characters are well established and none of the vocal writing was just fluff to pass the time (Ok, Whatshisname’s folk song to cheer up Dido was a bit frivolous but it was more important in establishing Dido’s mood).
The music was beautiful, too. Wonderfully lyrical and coherent with transitions that made sense. My brain grows weary of late Verdi’s constant stream of music. I prefer more differentiation of the “numbers.” Berlioz balanced soloists, choir, and ensembles exceptionally well. The thing never got stale. And his orchestration! Freakin’ brilliant.
I’m also close to preferring the pissed off Dido of Berlioz to the emo one in Purcell (but I do love that work). And two mass suicides in a single opera? Yowza.
This is my second time going to a MET HD broadcast and I think this was a better setup than what I saw with Nixon in China. With Nixon, I felt like the cameras were framing things too closely. I wanted to see more of the whole stage there. This editing/framing job was much better to my eyes.
What didn’t I like?
Okay, the wedding celebration non-stop ballet fest did get a little long. I was ready for the plot to move forward quicker than Berlioz was, obviously. But that is it. For a 5.5 hour production, that ain’t bad!
I’m not really a fan of New Year’s Resolutions but I do like the general sense of optimism that comes with new beginnings. Here are a few challenges I’m setting up for myself for 2013. I don’t expect success on all accounts. I will welcome a certain sense of failure here (because what option do I have?).
Weekly Music Drama
My background is almost entirely instrumental. I was kind of an active singer when I was a kid but dropped it in the 7th grade due to a horrible choir teacher. I’ve always gravitated towards instrumental composition, especially chamber music, but I really want to ramp up my vocal writing. I tried the whole “Lied Time” thing last semester but abandoned it because I was simply too busy. I’ve set myself up to write more vocal music this year, though, and to assist that I’m going to boost my knowledge of the literature. I’d like to watch one music drama a week for 2013 and blog/live tweet my reactions. I’m starting today by going to the MET broadcast of Les Troyens (go big or go home, I guess). I have a couple of Sondheim musicals in my Netflix queue, we’ll see how it goes. If I want to compose successful music dramas, there is no better way than to steep myself in them for a while.
I love teaching counterpoint, I love doing counterpoint exercises. This semester I’m teaching Advanced Counterpoint (an undergrad/grad course) and we are going to do some hardcore Baroque composition using the Schubert/Neidhöfer text. My goal here is to lead by example and do all the assignments I give my students. I think it will be fun and informative for me and my students. Yeah, I might blog about it too, so prepare yourself.
I’m also teaching an electroacoustic music course this semester. My challenge here is simple: spend time each week working in the lab, not my office. I need to become more fluent with the lab setup so I can help students troubleshoot. I will probably compose etudes similar to what I’m asking my students to do so that the students have a model of what could be done. Also, I’d like to complete a surround sound piece this semester. That is a particularly low-priority challenge because I have no real reason to compose it other than my desire to do it. I have three other pieces which NEED to get done, so those will always win.
The year 2012 essentially killed my hobbies. This was not unforeseen given the birth of my second child as well as a particularly massive teaching load. Looking back, though, there were plenty of times that I could have stopped, taken a breath, and done something I enjoyed. I’m rectifying that for 2013. More sewing (I just bought a dress form) and more beer making (I’m getting a keg system).
These aren’t really goals, they are paths. I’m going to go off in these directions and see where they lead. They might go nowhere and if they do, they do. They might lead me somewhere else than where I was intending to go. If they do, they do. New beginnings don’t necessarily lead to specific endings. I tell my students that all the time. These are the journeys I’m going to take up. I wonder where I’ll be when they stop…
I listen to the Alan Watts podcast and this week the talk was on spiritual authority. The main idea is that authority is given to people by the very ones who believe that person is an authority. In other words, the only reason the Pope has authority over the Catholic faith is because all the Catholics believe that he is the authority. If they stop thinking that the Pope’s view matters, his authority vanishes.
Any teacher works this way. I’m only an authority on topics if my students believe that I am one. My experiences and such don’t imbue me with authority. It comes solely from others. My classroom students don’t question my authority, generally, because they it doesn’t occur to them (I’m the one teaching the class, after all, ergo I must be the authority on the subject).
More generally, people have questions about certain subjects and they will think of people they trust whom they can ask. Depending on the topic, I might be on the list. I might not. Which lists I’m on is not my decision to make. It is wholly dependent on who is asking the question. My family and friends ask me comic book related questions. The owner of my local comic shop does not (unless it is about recent Marvel books, he doesn’t read those).
Often I deal with the issue of authority in the composition studio. I have students who take lessons from me but do not see me as an authority on the topic. It used to frustrate me and make me rather angry because I have a lot of experiences these young composers don’t. I’ve failed more than they have succeeded (and succeeded more than they have failed). I do, in fact, know what I am talking about. This attitude, however, is way off.
If the student doesn’t believe that my input can be meaningful, my input won’t be meaningful. There is nothing that I can do about that. If a student has already discounted my opinion on their music (because they write tonally and I don’t, because I write electronic music and they don’t, because they are writing a large ensemble piece and I don’t have much experience there) then the student is going to be wasting their own time. Students will get frustrated and angry and think that I am a bad teacher. However, since my authority is delivered BY the student, they end up defeating themselves.
I have come to peace with that student’s attitude over the last several years and I do my job, anyway, whether the student sees me as an authority or not. My job is to be a listener. To get the student to articulate the compositional intent of the piece and then to respond as an articulate and informed audience member. I ask questions, provide a context for my opinion, and give many (often conflicting) suggestions on how to better articulate their intent. At the end of the day, the only authority on the student’s music is the student. If I don’t like a piece, or if I don’t find it successful, it doesn’t matter. Unless my opinion matters to the student. And there isn’t anything I can do to MAKE them care about what I say. I’ll say it anyway.
This post is tied into the same issues of my older “Why Take Lessons” post. The main point is: fit is important. You aren’t going to learn anything from someone you think has nothing to teach. Conversely, you aren’t going to teach anyone who doesn’t think you have anything worthwhile to say.
I could take this on a whole “teaching evaluation” tangent but I think I’m just going to leave this where it is right now.
I’ve been watching Drag Race recently (the drag version of America’s Next Top Model + Project Runway) and enjoying it. Seasons 2 and 3 are available on Netflix and I find myself drawn into a world of “people being creativite in a realm I do not fully comprehend.” I watched Project Runway for the same reasons (I even watched the hair cutting one a few years ago…Shear Genius, was it?) and while I did take up sewing I’m pretty sure I’m not going to take up drag anytime soon. Famous last words…
RuPaul has several tropes and catchphrases on Drag Race that are appropriate to my composition teaching and, I think, to creative artists everywhere:
- “Creativity, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent” (the four main traits they look for in contestants, also the four main traits composers should be working on)
- “Don’t f*ck it up” (RuPaul’s version of Tim Gunn’s “Make it work”)
- “If you don’t love yourself, how the hell are you going to love anybody else?” (Can I get an “amen” up in here?)
No, I haven’t told any of my students to “sashay away.” Even when they deserved it.
When is “new music” no longer new? I’m not necessarily asking it in a global sense (Puccini isn’t “new” just because he made it to the 20th century). I’m asking in more a “when is your work too old to submit to a festival” sense. I try to submit to several festivals each month and, while I often have pieces that fit the basic call for scores, I’m thinking that some of my works are a little long in the tooth.
So is there a shelf life? Should I still be slinging around music from 2007? I happen to have a bunch of really good pieces from 2008. I like them and they still work for me. Some of my newer material is a little harder to get programmed because I’m changing direction slightly. The things I’m writing now are different because I’m significantly different. My obsessions have changed and it isn’t necessarily in the direction of the festival circuit’s tastes. My music from 2008, though, will usually get picked.
Four years feels like an eternity in my own skin.
So, do I forsake performances of older pieces in vain attempts for performances of newer ones? Should I only submit my most recent work? Do I lay these obsolete models aside and dream of another year of hits? I’m convinced that the stuff I’m doing now is good, I’m not looking for external approval (although my P&T board will be), I’m just wondering: how old is too old? I wouldn’t dream of submitting the clarinet sonatina I wrote in ’97 to a “new music” festival. Is that wrong?
I’ve been traveling a bit. While I was at a music festival, there was a composer who was frustrated that things weren’t working as he wanted. Efforts were being made to accomodate him but obviously not enough was being done to appease him. He made some rather rude comments, loudly, in the concert hall in front of other composers, students, performers, and other attendees of the festival while storming out.
I don’t really condone that kind of behavior. I don’t find it very professional and I don’t think the wronged composer was doing anything to help attain a positive outcome to the problem. We have all been “there.” The piece isn’t well rehearsed, the performance falls apart, technical glitches happen, communications have gotten lost, all sorts of things can happen that lead to our work being presented in not so very good circumstances.
So how do we deal? Do we stomp our feet? Yell and scream? Will those things really affect change in the situation? Will they bring about a greater understanding of the situation? Or do they alienate and put people off more, making them less likely to want to help out or work with us in the future? I tend to think that flying off the handle does more harm than good. Sometimes you just have to roll with it, make the best of a bad situation, and chalk it up to experience.
The hard part, of course, is balance. You don’t want to be a marshmallow about everything. If something isn’t going well, I do think you can express your dislike. Shouldn’t it be done with decorum? Shouldn’t it be done while maintaining respect for your fellow professionals (or students who are learning to be professionals)?
I tend to revert to “marshmallow” in the moment. I’ll carry my anger and disappointment on the inside, not wanting to make waves. Surely there is a middle ground, though. Hypothetically, if your performer shows up 45 minutes late, hasn’t really practiced the piece much, skips about 70% of the notes in the fast passages and doesn’t seem to care about it, I think you have the right to be upset. Is yelling and screaming the answer? Is stomping off really the best thing to do? Or do you suck it up and go on with your life?
I see us as all interconnected so I tend to choose sucking it up and moving on. It might feel good in the moment to yell but the long-term ramifications are, in my opinion, much worse than if I just play nice and move on. Bad performances are temporary. Bad behavior among your peers is forever.
Totally shameless plug here, folks. Mezzo-soprano Katherine Crawford is giving a concert of contemporary music as a part of the Vox Novus Composers’ Voice series this weekend. The concert is Sunday, October 28 at 1 PM in Jan Hus Church (map and details are at that link back there).
I mention this because Katherine is an excellent performer and someone you should hear. Her performance of Scott Blasco’s Four Songs from The Caucasian Chalk Circle totally stole the show when I heard them at Electronic Music Midwest a few years back. She is also singing works by such upscale and high-class composers as David Morneau, Greg Dixon, and George Brunner (just to name a few). It will be quite the program!
Yeah, she is singing a new piece of mine too. You should go anyway. You should also check out her Twitter feed, too. Especially if you like discussions about gin and scooters (although not at the same time).