If you believe in a piece, never give up on it!

It’s understandable for composers sometimes to wonder if one of their pieces has been orphaned or abandoned. Years go by without it being heard from and its creator asks him or herself: will I ever hear this piece performed again?

It can be particularly hard to countenance when it is a piece that you believe in; one that you feel is representative of what you had to offer during a particular period of your creative life.

Last week, going through some tapes, I found an old cassette of my Quintet (1998), the first piece I composed while at Rutgers University as a doctoral candidate studying with Charles Wuorinen. It was also the first in a group of pieces inspired by abstract expressionist artworks.

I paused for a moment before resuming filing, thinking, “I’d love to hear this piece again sometime. I’ve sent it out to a bunch of places and no one has programmed it. Guess I’ll have to keep trying.”

Last night, I got an email from pianist and conductor Paul Hoffmann asking for score and parts for an old piece, my Quintet for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and vibraphone. Helix! will be reviving it on Sunday, October 28.

Quintet was first played at June in Buffalo by New York New Music Ensemble in 1998 and was later performed by Helix! in Fall ’98 and by Ionisation (Darren Gage’s excellent group) in 2006.

This will also be the first time I’ve had something done at Rutgers – except in masterclasses – since I graduated in 2001.

If you are feeling poorly about a particular piece’s future chances, hang in there. Keep sending it out to sympathetic professionals and performing ensembles.

Here’s a SoundCloud recording of a digital transfer of that old tape!

For those of you in the area, Quintet will be performed by Helix! on 10/28 at Rutgers’s Mason Gross School for the Arts on Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick, NJ at 2 PM.

Instructions to composers

Gloria Cheng. Photo by Hilary Scott.

Friday August 10

LENOX – It was such a treat to have the opportunity to hear Gloria Cheng in recital at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music. It included works by Birtwistle, Rands, Knussen, Benjamin, Harbison, and Salonen. I wrote the essay for her program and thus had taken the time to assiduously study all the scores in advance. But hearing them come to life in Cheng’s performance was still revelatory. Her accounts of the pieces were technically assured, meticulously detailed, and interpretively thoughtful. Those listeners who fear the post-tonal wing of contemporary repertoire, finding its dissonance forbidding, should make a point to hear her perform. She makes these works sing; your phobia will likely be cured before intermission.

There was a score that I hadn’t seen prior to the recital: her encore. To commemorate his 80th birthday Cheng commissioned a piece from John Williams. Mindful of the weighty program that listeners had already heard, the pianist made one request: that the composer write a short piece: one that could fit onto a single page.

After she explained this stipulation to the audience, Cheng unfurled the page of staff paper that Williams had delivered to her. His Conversations was indeed written on one page: one BIG page that could fill a grand piano’s entire music desk!

The audience certainly didn’t mind, and Cheng gave a stirring rendition of a work on which the ink was barely dry.

Those who know John Williams’s music from his film scores might assume that his concert music sounds similar. It doesn’t. Indeed, it fit right in alongside the formidable offerings already hear on the program. Who says one can only compose in one style?

And who said that a “single page” had to be 8″ 1/2 X 11″?

A Cowboy Hangs Up His Spurs

On July 22nd via his PostClassic blog, Kyle Gann published a post titled “One Less Critic,” more or less announcing his retirement from music criticism. Writing for nearly thirty years in a number of publications, notably the Village Voice and Chamber Music Magazine, Gann has been a thoughtful, often provoking, and even, occasionally, a polarizing figure in discourse about contemporary classical music. He’s also been active in a number of other activities, first and foremost as an imaginative composer, a professor at Bard College, and a musicologist who’s published articles and books on a wide range of composers, including minimalists, microtonalists, Conlon Nancarrow, and John Cage. His book on Robert Ashley will be published this fall.

In his blog post, Gann writes, “Criticism is a noble profession, or could be if we took it seriously enough and applied rigorous standards to it, but you get pigeonholed as a bystander, someone valued for your perspective on others rather than for your own potential contributions.”

He’s not the first composer/critic to voice these concerns. It’s fair to say that those who write about others’ music potentially imperil their own. One’s advancement in a career as a creative and/or performing artist often involves blunting their candor and, upon occasion, judiciously withholding their opinions, delicacies which a writer (at least, an honest writer) can ill afford.

Certainly, I haven’t always agreed with Gann’s assessment of the musical landscape. In 1997, I first read his essay on 12-tone composers in academia, in which he likened those in grad programs studying with Wuorinen and Carter to be a wasted generation of composers, like lemmings leaping to their (artistic) deaths. At that time, I was a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers: studying with Wuorinen and writing a dissertation on Carter! I didn’t transfer or change my topic.

That said, I respect Gann’s formidable intellect and, even when it stings a little, his candor.  I hope that during his “retirement” from criticism, he will find many new opportunities provided to him as a  composer. In the spirit of bygones being bygones, maybe some of them will be in collaboration with ensembles that, back in the day, got a rough review from him!

RIP Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

I will miss Ray Bradbury. His work has been a frequent touchstone. His books and scripts for television and films are such a surefire way to stoke one’s imagination. In addition, his nonfiction writings are often quite touching. For me, they serve as an imprimatur to go and grasp for every ounce of creativity, enthusiasm, and joy in life one can muster.

I’m grateful for the many books he’s left behind for us to continue to enjoy. But I hope I don’t seem greedy when expressing my disappointment that we won’t get to savor still more pages from his trusty typewriter.

Thank you, Mr. Bradbury, for your tremendous artistic legacy and the example of your powerful personality. 91 years well lived: rest in peace.

Dot Dot Dot Music Making

I’ve found it’s best to trust a publicist who is an artist as well: It likely means that they love music rather than just viewing it as a product to promote!

Kudos to Sarah Baird Knight (formerly at Boosey and Hawkes and now part of the Dot Dot Dot Music PR firm) for rekindling her passion for songwriting.

Megakudos for sharing her new songs with us via Soundcloud.

Latest tracks by ScarletK

Guest post: Laurie San Martin

Laurie San Martin

Laurie San Martin teaches at UC Davis. She’s one of our featured composers on the fast approaching Sequenza 21/MNMP Concert (October 25 at Joe’s Pub). In the guest post below, she talks about her work Linea Negra, which will be performed on the program.

Linea Negra

The faint, dark, vertical line that appears on a very pregnant woman’s belly in the weeks before she bursts is called the linea negra.  So it seemed like a fitting title for the solo marimba piece that I was writing during the final weeks of my first pregnancy in the summer of 2004. Real-life deadlines work in my favor as a composer. That is to say, the countdown leading up to a big life change is an intensely productive time for me. Linea Negra is a piece I always associate with that particular time in my life. When most mothers would have been preparing the baby’s room or redecorating the house, I was making deals with my daughter while she was still in the womb. “How about you wait a few more days to come out and I can finish this piece.  Really, it’ll be much better that way.” She arrived a few days late, so I was able to finish the piece on time; I have the greatest daughter one could ask for (and the piece isn’t bad, either).

I compose from left to right. That is to say, I start at the beginning and pretty much write the musical events in the order that they happen. It probably comes as no surprise then that my music is very linear.  Linea Negra is just under five minutes in length, with an ABA structure. The outer sections are a fast and repetitive moto perpetuo while the middle section is slow and lyrical. The piece is quite virtuosic–the marimba player is asked to play very fast runs, leaps, and chords; audience members often describe the piece as “acrobatic.”

Linea Negra is written for percussionist Chris Froh, who premiered the piece in October, 2004 at the American Academy in Rome. Chris is an exhilarating performer, and I was very lucky to be able to work with him while writing the piece. Hearing the work in progress influenced the direction of the piece and helped me iron out some of the technical difficulties, and clarify the musical gestures.  Working with a musician of Chris’s dedication and commitment is such a privilege for a composer, not to mention, inspiring and rewarding.