The job requirements of a working composer are elusive, perhaps especially for composition students enrolled in University degree programs that fail to provide graduates with the interpersonal and business skills necessary for survival outside the walls of academia. One student composer told me recently: “We are all being trained to teach.”Woody Allen famously said: “Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym.” But those who compose and don’t teach do find ways to sustain themselves and their passion for music through a variety of collaborative and creative means, some perhaps less “traditional” than others. With this in mind, let’s have a chat with my friend composer Tom Myron.
The range of Tom Myron’s work as a composer includes commissions and performances by the Kennedy Center, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Portland Symphony Orchestra, the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, the Atlantic Classical Orchestra, the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, the Topeka Symphony, the Yale Symphony Orchestra, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the Bangor Symphony and the Lamont Symphony at Denver University. He works regularly as an arranger for the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall, writing for singers Rosanne Cash, Kelli O’Hara, Maxi Priest and Phil Stacey, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, and the Quebec folk ensemble Le Vent du Nord. Le Vent du Nord’s new CD Symphonique featuring Myron’s orchestra arrangements is receiving an incredible amount of positive press throughout Canada and will be available for purchase in the U.S. soon. A video preview of the recording is included in this interview.
His film scores include Wilderness & Spirit; A Mountain Called Katahdin and the upcoming Henry David Thoreau; Surveyor of the Soul, both from Films by Huey. Individual soloists and chamber ensembles that regularly perform Myron’s work include violinists Peter Sheppard-Skaerved, Elisabeth Adkins and Kara Eubanks, violist Tsuna Sakamoto, cellist David Darling, the Portland String Quartet, the DaPonte String Quartet and the Potomac String Quartet.
Tom (I’ll call him Tom now) graciously took time out of his schedule to answer a handful of questions including several having to do with the “business” of making music.
Chris Becker: You arrange and orchestrate music for a variety of artists and have a career composing concertos, string quartets, and various settings for voice. Are these two separate careers that you have to juggle? Or do they intersect providing you with even more musical opportunities than if you were focused only one or the other?
Tom Myron: From a purely logistical point of view it’s a juggling act. Both types of work tend to lead to more opportunities within their respective areas, but there isn’t a lot of overlap. That said, they DO intersect for me on a more personal, creative level. I love getting to know all kinds of musical idioms in a very practical, mechanical way. I also love just about everything that goes into handling, preparing and rehearsing music for live performance. My training in composition and the orchestral repertoire has benefited my commercial work by giving me the flexibility to consider (and rapidly execute!) multiple solutions to specific problems. The commercial work in turn informs my composition by instilling a disciplined work ethic and keeping organization and clarity of intention foremost in my mind.
Houston, TX – There’s no question that Houston’s proponents of contemporary music are enthusiastically embracing creative marketing concepts and alternative venues for performances in an effort to expand and educate a new century of audiences. In an un-zoned city like Houston, I find that musicians and audiences will happily cross so-called genre and cultural boundaries especially if there’s promise of a good time (Texas barbecue can help too, but that’ll be another entry…). Much to my delight, I am seeing familiar faces when I’m out at performances of new music be it in a gallery in the Third Ward, a club in Montrose, or the Hobby Center’s Zilka Hall. Although I’ve only been living in Houston for short time, I feel a sense of connection to what is a pretty broad cross section of the city’s creative community.
Duo Scordatura violinist Nicholas Leh Baker
One of the familiar faces I see around town is Houston composer George Heathco, who hipped me to what will be an exciting concert of contemporary pieces for the violin and viola, including three (!) world premieres, performed by the duo of violinist Nicholas Leh Baker and violist Faith Magdalene Jones who call themselves Duo Scordatura. The concert takes place Saturday, January 29th at 6pm at First Presbyterian Church, located at 5300 Main Street. Tickets for concert are $10 for general audiences and $5 for students, children, and seniors.
The concert, titled COMMISSIONED, includes four works commissioned by Duo Scordatura, including works by Alexandra T. Bryant, Luke Dahn, George Heathco, and Dr. Daniel Kramlich. Part of the creative marketing for COMMISSIONED includes the Commissioned Project Interview Series featuring the duo and commissioned composers discussing the collaborative process that takes place between composers and the performing musicians.
Composer George Heathco
Heathco describes his programmed piece Turbine (2010) as “a bitch to play, but…a very entertaining work (or so I hope).” Also on the program are pieces by Jack Benson and Jodran Kuspa.
All of the composers on the bill either currently or have at one point called Houston their home and, according to Nicholas Leh Baker in his video interview, will all be present at the performance. Duo Scordatura is committed to presenting works “in a wide range of venues across the Houston landscape.” I look forward to hearing them next Saturday at First Presbyterian Church, and in the future wherever their mission takes them.
As Daniel Wakin reported today in the NY Times, Alan Gilbert has been announced as the incoming Director of Conducting and Orchestral Studies at the Juilliard School. He replaces James DePriest, who will remain on the faculty as Principal Conductor and Director Emeritus. Gilbert will also get some help from James Ross (currently at the University of Maryland), who will serve as his assistant, providing a “more permanent presence” than that of a frequently touring maestro.
Gilbert plans to integrate his work at the New York Philharmonic, where he assumed the post of Music Director in 2009, with his teaching duties at Juilliard. According to the Times article, he will require conducting students to attend rehearsals and will allow them opportunities to meet with members of the orchestra and undertake internships at the Philharmonic.
I’m of two minds about this. I think it will be a tremendous opportunity for Juilliard students, both conducting and performance majors. Gilbert has already shaken things up at the Phil, frequently in ways that have benefited contemporary music. Juilliard may grow in as yet unforeseeable ways as a result of Gilbert’s energetic presence and vision.
On the other hand, as we’ve seen recently with James Levine’s experiences at the Boston Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera, spreading oneself too thin can create problems at both of one’s organizations. While conductors routinely juggle multiple appointments, both of these are high profile and demanding positions. I’m not saying Gilbert can’t manage them, but it’s at least cause for concern. Also, I’d imagine that aspiring orchestra musicians attending graduate school at NEC, Eastman, and other major conservatories are gnashing their teeth at what they may perceive to be too cozy a relationship going on at Lincoln Center.
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(Visual Abstract, First Movement, Music by Pierre Jalbert, Film by Jean Detheux)
On January 8th, 2011, at 7:30 p.m. in Zilkha Hall of The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, the Houston TX new music group Musiqa presents Real and Imagined – a concert collaboration with Aurora Picture Show featuring Theo Loevendie’s Six Turkish Folk Songs as well as music by Eve Beglarian, Paul Frehner, and Evan Chambers. Houston-based composer Pierre Jalbert’sVisual Abstract for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion will be performed live to a film created by Jean Detheux. The concert will be conducted by Houston Symphony Assistant Conductor Brett Mitchell.
Led by five composers (including founding member Pierre Jalbert) Musiqa is receiving a great deal of notice for its innovative multi-disciplinary concert events (dance, visual art, and theater are always integrated into Musiqa performances) as well as its educational programming that annually reaches thousands of Houston area students. Next season, Musiqa will celebrate its ten-year anniversary.
Pierre Jalbert graciously responded to a few questions about Visual Abstract:
Chris Becker: Did Jean Detheux create his film before, after, or during the composition of Visual Abstract?
Pierre Jalbert: He created the film after the piece was written. The music was commissioned and premiered by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble a few years back. Jean and I worked on a project last year in which he created a film first and I wrote the music to the film. That work was entitled L’œil écoute (The Eye Listens), and was also premiered by PNME. This time around, we decided that we would reverse the process, and he would do his film to the already existing music.
Chris Becker: In performance with the film, is the conductor watching the film for the timing of some of your musical events? I’m thinking of the third movement where rhythmic hits coincide with abrupt changes in the film.
Pierre Jalbert: Yes, the conductor is looking at the film for cues from time to time, and we rehearse many times through to get the timing down. As you can imagine, it’s very difficult as each performance is slightly different. But Jean made the film to not have too many abrupt changes. But still, there are a a few that make it challenging.
Chris Becker: The layers of images in Detheux’s film are very rich and tactile. They remind me of natural phenomena, weather, or even what we “see” when we close our eyes and listen to the sounds around us. Speaking as a composer, what do you think makes an “abstract” work of visual art successful?
Pierre Jalbert: I think when one looks at the film and hears the music as a single entity, and one does not dominate over the other, but each enhances the other, then we have something interesting.
Chris Becker: Next season, Musiqa will celebrate its ten-year anniversary. As one of the people who founded the organization, how does it feel to look back on all Musiqa has accomplished?
Pierre Jalbert: It’s amazing to look back and see how the organization has grown. I remember a few of us meeting at Tony Brandt’s house 10 years ago and brain-storming about what the organization could be. We wanted to get new music out into the community and into downtown and offer up repertoire that wasn’t being heard in Houston. All of the composers on the Artistic Board work really well together (Anthony Brandt, Karim Al-Zand, Rob Smith, Marcus Maroney, and myself), and that has been crucial in keeping things going through the years.
Tickets for Real and Imagined – including discounted tickets for seniors and students – are available for purchase on the Musiqa website.
Russian composer/theosophist/sensualist Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) spent a lot of his life dreaming of a kind of sensory extravaganza, pieces that would submerge the audience in swirling sound, dance, colored light, heady aromas… Yeah, kind of like the 60s, but a little more Old-World refined. One result of Scriabin’s musical synasthesia was that he held very specific views on which colors were inextricably tied to each key and note. As Wiki tells it:
In his autobiographical Recollections, Sergei Rachmaninoff recorded a conversation he had had with Scriabin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov about Scriabin’s association of colour and music. Rachmaninoff was surprised to find that Rimsky-Korsakov agreed with Scriabin on associations of musical keys with colors; himself skeptical, Rachmaninoff made the obvious objection that the two composers did not always agree on the colours involved. Both maintained that the key of D major was golden-brown; but Scriabin linked E-flat major with red-purple, while Rimsky-Korsakov favored blue. However, Rimsky-Korsakov protested that a passage in Rachmaninoff’s opera The Miserly Knight supported their view: the scene in which the Old Baron opens treasure chests to reveal gold and jewels glittering in torchlight is written in D major. Scriabin told Rachmaninoff that “your intuition has unconsciously followed the laws whose very existence you have tried to deny.”
Scriabin’s grand schemes barely came to fruition during his life, but that’s never stopped later generations from debating, analyzing or even attempting realizations of his ambitious vision. One such attempt is in store for New Yorkers this coming Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 25th and 26th., at the Jerome Robbins Theater (located within the Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street). Georgian pianist Eteri Andjaparidze and lighting designer/Macarthur Grant “genius” Jennifer Tipton will be mowing through a wide swath of Scriabin’s piano music, all accompanied by lighting inspired by his ideas on musical colors. More information on time and tix here; And to warm up your ears here’s a recording of Vladimir Sofronitsky playing Scriabin’s Sonata No.4, which will be on the concert:
[Ed. note — Our long-time contributor Steve Hicken is usually to be found helping out in the CD review section of S21. But a recent shipment of a number of band music CDs prompted Steve to group them together as a larger essay, and we thought it should end up here on the main page. Recordings discussed in this essay: BARNES: Symphonic Overture; Fantasy Variations on a Theme by Nicolo Paganini; GERSHWIN: Rhapsody in Blue (Hunsberger, arr.); Overture on Themes from Porgy and Bess (Barnes, arr.); REED: Ballade. Raimonds Petrauskis, p; Oskars Petrauskis, a sax; RIGA Professional Symphonic Band/Andris Poga. PPOR-CD002 — GRAINGER: Band Music. Dallas Wind Symphony/Jerry Junkin. Reference 117 — GRAINGER: Transcriptions for Wind Orchestra. Ivan Hovorun, p; Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra/Clark Rundell. Chandos 10455 — CORIGLIANO: Circus Maximus; Gazebo Dances. University of Texas Wind Ensemble/Jerry Junkin. Naxos 8.559601]
Tragic but true: when the smoke had cleared, the new music wars had been won not by towners up or down or coasters east or left, but by a rear guard of trained symphonic band composers from big state universities in the middle of the country. — Daniel Wolf
According to the American Bandmasters Association (ABA), there are some 40,000 bands in the United States.1 Almost every high school, most junior high or middle schools, and many elementary schools have at least one band. On the college level, the situation is one of even more abundance—just about every college has more than one band, and the big public institutions have a handful or more. In addition, many municipalities have amateur bands, and some larger cities have professional wind orchestras.
Given these numbers and the exceptional quality of USA wind and percussion playing, you would expect that bands would be at the center of concert music in America. In reality, band music runs on a parallel track to the rest of concert music, and it has for a long time.2 There are stars in the world of band music, just as there are in the rest of concert music. These stars tend to be the conductors of the top bands at the big public universities of the Big 10, Texas, the west coast, and a few places in the Southeast, and composers at most of the same institutions, as well as a handful of composers making a living as freelancers. More about these composers later.
The music played by these bands falls into three very broad categories:
Marches! — To a very great extent, the wind band began as a military unit, designed to play music for armies to march to. There is evidence of ensembles consisting of what we call brass instruments and drums playing martial music in ancient civilizations in both the east and the west. Much of the music played by these groups was in reality signals, such as “charge”, “reveille”, etc. By the seventeenth century the instrumentation of what we now consider the standard military band had begun to settle, with the development of the position of the “drum major” whose function was to keep the soldiers marching in time.
As the instrumentation became fairly standard, more and more music was written for these bands to play. And most of this music was for marching. Tempos are within a certain range (mostly quick), phrases are clear, melodies stirring and carried, for the most part, by the flutes and clarinets. The march tradition is so deeply ingrained in the band world that many band directors wouldn’t dream of beginning a concert program with anything but a march.
Transcriptions or arrangements — A transcription is a note-for-note translation of a piece from one kind of instrumentation to another. In the case of band transcriptions, the vast majority of these are orchestra-to-band transcriptions. In these pieces, flutes, clarinets, and sometimes oboes, substitute for violins, and lower woodwinds for the lower strings. Solo instruments from these same choirs take the same roles as their orchestral counterparts, and the brass and percussion tend to have the same roles as they do in the original compositions.
A sizable number of orchestral works that have been transcribed for bands comes from the late Romantic period through the early part of the 20th century. From Dvorak to Shostakovich, symphonies and other orchestral works have provided grist for the transcriber’s mill. An important reason for this is that the winds in the original works (like Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony) had important roles and recasting this music for winds is not as radical a change as it would be in most, for example, Beethoven. Arrangements consist in taking pre-existing pieces of music (usually popular or Broadway tunes) and orchestrating them for the available forces (in this case, a band), usually as a medley, with newly-composed connecting material. There isn’t a rigorous line between transcriptions and arrangements, but it seems to me that the adding of this connecting material is a crucial distinction.
The third large category is that of original compositions.3 Igor Stravinsky, Gustav Holst, Arnold Schoenberg, and Paul Hindemith were among the many major early 20th-century composers who wrote music for band. As the century progressed, however, band composition came to be a specialty — people that wrote band music tended to write little else, and people who were not band composers never touched the medium.
There’s yet another new music series here in San Diego: Connections Chamber Music. I reported earlier this year on their concert featuring Reich, John Adams, Daugherty, and Matthew Tommasini (the series director). For their last concert, they programmed the Quartet for the End of Time. Before I went to the concert, I marvelled at how I’ve heard the Quartet more frequently than plenty of 19th century chamber works just as great such as Beethoven’s op. 132. And–well, read my thoughts and review of the concert here.
For the past eight years, Graham Parker has been the Executive Director of Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Now, he’s going to work for New York’s classical music radio station.
It was announced today that Parker will be the new Vice President of Classical WQXR 105.9 FM and WQXR online. It appears that he’s been tasked with helping the station to develop its brand identity. For those who aren’t “New Yawkers,” this may require some explanation.
In 2009, New York’s National Public Radio Station WNYC acquired WQXR from the New York Times. WQXR’s frequency, 96.3 FM, was in turn traded to Univision’s WCAA, moving the classical station further up the bandwidth to 105.9. For those of us out in the ‘burbs, this has made it more difficult in many areas to get the station. Coverage routinely goes in and out on my commute down to Princeton as I get further from the city.
While signal weakness has been a concern for many listeners, there have been other growing pains associated with the move as well. Some of the music programming previously on WNYC, which was considered the station for more cutting edge fare, has been moved over to WQXR. Some longtime DJs from WQXR were kept on; others were let go to make room for their counterparts on WNYC. As a public radio station, WQXR also jettisoned commercials and religious programs.
The marriage of mainstream classical and public radio’s eclecticism has been a challenging balance to negotiate. The station’s 2009-’10 programming doubtless left a number of longtime WQXR listeners unhappy at the increased incorporation of new music into its mainstream broadcasts. WNYC listeners who hoped for the eclectic and innovative types of music heard on programs such as Soundcheck and New Sounds to be writ large on the rest of the schedule have probably been bummed out too. They’ve been subjected to far more Vivaldi and Telemann than they consider healthy!
A bright spot has been the station’s online new music programing at Q2. This week, they’re spotlighting the music of Xenakis. While one understands that this probably isn’t their best bet for “drive-time” fare, its too bad that more of Q2 hasn’t infiltrated the airwaves.
One hopes that enlisting Mr. Parker helps the station to find its footing and reassert the importance of classical radio – contemporary music and repertory favorites alike – in New York.
So, Sequenza 21 readers, its your turn. What should Parker focus on to make WQXR a better station?
A) Better signal quality/range/accessibility.
B) A more coherent vision for music programming.
C) Local identity and live events.
D) Limiting the amount of Vivaldi bassoon concerti played during any given four-hour period to no more than three.
Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon CD
True, Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps is a watershed work. It serves as many a classical listener’s jumping off point when first exploring Twentieth Century repertoire. But can a work, no matter how seminal, have too many recordings? Can it get programmed so often on concerts that it loses its zing?
I have several recordings of the piece myself, but I’d begun to wonder in the past couple years whether the Rite was in danger of being overexposed. And I’m not the only one…
Enter young conductor Gustavo Dudamel and his even younger colleagues from the Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. Their version of the Rite is viscerally powerful, rhythmically muscular, and impressively wide in its dynamic range. After getting a bit burnt out by the piece and its attendant folklore, I’m refreshed by hearing Dudamel’s rendition.
In a clever programming touch, the Stravinsky is paired with Silvestre Revueltas’ La Noche de los Mayas. Originally a 1939 film score, a concert suite of the work was only fashioned some two decades after Revueltas’ death. Latin dance signatures and melodic inflections are offset by virtuosic percussion writing, including some cadenzas that help to make evident the musical kinship between Rite of Spring and La Noche de los Mayas.
The sociocultural resonances are obvious as well. It might seem gruesome to pair works based on their common interest in human sacrifice, but Rite restores the vitality and bite of early modernism’s interest in still-earlier primitivism.