We’re approaching the heart of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 30th annual Next Wave Festival, and one of it’s more unique offerings is right around the corner. This Thursday through Saturday, composer Joe C. Phillips, Jr. will lead his ensemble, Numinous, in the premiere performances of his newly composed score for Ernst Lubitsch’s long-lost silent film, The Loves of Pharaoh.
I think the project presents a fascinating challenge for a composer – how do you respect the history of an artifact like The Loves of Pharaoh, while still expressing your 21st-century artistic perspective? I won’t speculate on how Mr. Phillips addressed this scenario because I don’t have to.
This weekend I tracked down Numinous’ fearless leader and asked him about his mindset while scoring Lubitsch’s historic film:
Since the film was released in 1922, obviously there has been much development in musical language and technique, and it felt right to reflect that in the new score. Not in a self-conscious, “look at how modern and cool I am” way but rather as a natural extension of my own musical thinking and expression. Like all composers, my musical language is a product of sieving influences and thoughts into one unique voice and in [Pharaoh], I believe you’ll hear this. There are echoes of my past work but also new, formerly latent, ideas come to the fore and more fully explored in this score. And this idea to explore newer territory in music, to bring the film into modern times so to speak, was one of the reason Joseph Melillo was looking for a new score for the screening.
Mr. Phillips is very excited for this week’s performances, and feels very grateful for his association with BAM, who he describes as being, “incredibly supportive throughout the development of the project.” Straddling the Next Wave Festival’s film and music programs, I have the feeling The Loves of Pharaoh will be a major stand out even against the ridiculously vibrant mixture of genres and disciplines on the slate at BAM this Fall.
Long a fixture here at S21 until just a few years ago, composer David Salvage has been busy teaching at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. Back in 2010 he conceived the idea of keeping his compositional chops up by starting an open-ended series of piano pieces, called Albumleaves. At the same time David started a blog as an integral part to showcase them, in which each new piece features not only the score but a recorded performance as well. The series is now pushing 90 pieces (!), and some of them have just come out on a recording on the Navona label. It’s an elegant, smartly realized project, and I asked David to give a little recap and backgroud on how it came to be, and what it’s meant to him:
I wanted to write a lot of music; I wanted to play the piano more. And I wanted to write a blog. I figured out how to put these desires together in January 2010, when the idea occurred to me to start a blog that would consist of posts that would be musical instead of verbal, and that would nonetheless reflect the offhand, freewheeling, and autobiographical character of conventional blogs. And now that I had a piano in my home for the first time in twelve years, I was especially fired up to get the project going. The next month, I came up with the title Albumleaves, and, in late March, I began composing the “leaves,” as I thought I’d nickname the posts.
I thought that in order to maintain the blog-like nature of the site the posts would have to be written quickly and manifest a high degree of musical variety. Initially, my goal was to write three leaves every two weeks. While I was only able to maintain this rate for a month or two, the pace of composition remains rapid: in the 139 weeks since beginning Albumleaves, I have completed 89 leaves, which is more than one leaf every two weeks (and there is both an 81a and 81b). As for musical variety, click here, here, and here to hear for yourself. By maintaining variety, the blog remains casual, surprising, and attractive to listeners—and full of fresh challenges for me.
The original vision for the site always went beyond original composition. Since 2010, I’ve been posting recordings of music by other composers—like Federico Mompou—and quotations about music by authors like E.M. Cioran. More recently, I’ve started excerpting from free improvisations that I record and posting them as improvisation fragments.
Over time, I’ve grown more confident about the project’s integrity. Since I listen to such a wide variety of classical music (from Notre Dame organum to twentieth-century atonality with few gaps in between), I’m not concerned by my reluctance to develop a personal style of composition. Writing good pieces is challenge enough for me at the moment; if they do not synthesize their disparate influences into a unique musical voice, I’m not going to worry about it. Nor do I worry anymore about inconsistency of quality: even the greatest composers (and authors and painters and everyone else) produced works of varying quality. And I don’t see how writing quickly or slowly has anything to do with consistency: some of the strongest leaves were written in two hours; some of the weakest took weeks. (And even though it took him much less time to write, Brahms’s second symphony is just as good as his first.) For now, the quality of my playing troubles me more than the quality of my composing: I admit to posting a few sloppy recordings. (Here’s one.) But hopefully the music always comes through anyway.
I am proud of the nine lucky leaves that made it to market on the new CD Lock and Key; they are representative of the site, and I thank Navona Records for their enthusiasm and interest. I also would like to thank the 2,404 unique visitors from 75 countries who have visited the site to listen—though surely it’s not for purely musical reasons that the most popular leaf remains “Manatee.” Happy listening, everyone, and see you at Albumleaf 100!
The scuttlebutt around Columbia University’s new senior composer hire seems to be true. As Alex Ross reported on The Rest is Noiseyesterday, Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haaswill be joining Columbia’s faculty sometime during the 2012-’13 academic year, replacing Tristan Murail, One revels in the possibilities, not only for graduate students in composition, but for the rest of us too; we’ll likely get to hear some terrific programs during his time stateside!
Our friend Thomas Bjørnseth has some terrific musical selections by Haas on his Atonality.Netwebsite, and The Wellesz Theatre is streaming Haas’s 2011 opera Bluthaus in its entirety via YouTube (embed below).
After a long gestation, which included multiple workshops that presented excerpts of the work in progress, this weekend David T. Little’sDog Days will be given its premiere as a full length opera. It is being presented at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey on September 29th through October 7th. Despite all the myriad details to which he’s had to attend in the rehearsals leading up to the performances, David was kind enough to consent to an interview about the bringing this long term project to fruition and some of his other current activities.
Sequenza21: When did you first become aware of the short story on which Dog Days is based? Why did you think it would be a good subject for your first full length opera?
I first encountered the story Dog Days in the film adaptation by Ellie Lee. (The original story is by Judy Budnitz.) I was living in Ann Arbor at the time, and had gotten into the habit if composing each morning with the TV on in the distant background. It would usually start with the previous night’s Daily Show; then, I’d switch to IFC. On one particular day, IFC was showing a shorts program. I happened to look up at a certain moment, and catch a glimpse of Spencer Beglarian (late brother of Eve) playing Prince, the man in a dog suit. I immediately thought: “what the hell” and couldn’t look away, almost obsessively watching the entire film. I filed this piece away, thinking of it as a work I really liked, by an artist I respected, and then sort of moved on with my day. I wrote a song some time later, called “After a Film by Ellie Lee,” about the landscape of Dog Days–and even got to meet Ellie in 2003–but never really thought of making it an opera.
Then in 2008, Dawn Upshaw contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in writing something dramatic–a scena, or opera excerpt–for the Dawn Upshaw/Osvaldo Golijov Workshop at Carnegie Hall. I of course said yes–because that’s what you say to Dawn Upshaw!–and began looking for a libretto. I had written the libretto for Soldier Songs myself, but those were all monologues. This piece was to have characters who needed to have actual dialogue, which I didn’t feel I could handle that as a writer. So I approached Royce Vavrek, who I’d met maybe six months earlier after an American Lyric Theater performance, and we started talking about ideas.
After looking through a number of options, we kept coming back to Dog Days as a piece that just made sense. It was dark, but with these wonderful moments of light. It got into very serious issues–the animal/human divide, issues of choice and consequence, questions of how we treat the least fortunate among us–but without being heavy handed about it. It felt like the perfect story to use for our first adaptation, and it’s proven to be an incredibly rewarding text to write with. (Plus, it had the right number of characters to match the singers we’d been assigned!) We approached Judy Budnitz for permission, she granted it, and we got started. (Judy, by the way, is a really terrific author and unique storyteller. If people don’t know her work, I hope they will check it out.)
What’s been changed or added since presenting scenes of Dog Days at Carnegie Hall?
We added a whole lot! The Zankel presentation was only about 20 minutes, and when we did it at Vox (2010) we had about 30 minutes, having written the aria ”Mirror Mirror” for one of American Opera Projects’ Opera Grows in Brooklyn programs in the summer of 2009. But the piece now lasts about 2 hours and 15 minutes with the intermission, so it has more than doubled since those early presentations. Also, a number of the voice types changed. I mentioned that we were assigned the singers for the Carnegie Workshop. We loved all of them, but, as we worked on the libretto, came to feel that some of the voice types weren’t right for whom the characters were becoming. For example, Howard–the father–started off as a tenor, but is now a baritone. So in addition to the new music, we also had a lot of rewrites to the old music. Even after the workshop in April, we continued to rewrite, and have continued to tweak throughout the rehearsal process. We added a character who was not present in the original version (though is present in the story): the Captain, a military officer played by Cherry Duke who brings the two sons back from mischief, and tries to make a devil’s deal with Howard. This aria was written maybe eight months ago.
The last big thing was that we finally have a dog man, played by the amazing John Kelly. In the Carnegie Hall performance, Prince was just not there–since it is not a sung role–so all the singers were singing to an invisible man. That’s changed in the stage version. Works much better now! Read the rest of this entry »
If you were having a conversation with fellow music lovers about the great American composers, Carl Ruggles would not be the first person to come to mind. The “Great American Composer” honor is most often bestowed upon Copland, Ives, or even depending on the company you are with, Bernstein.
Courtesy of SONY Music & Other Minds Records
This is not to say, however, that a popularity contest equates to greatness. An equally adept and creative composer, Carl Ruggles produced a small yet intriguing output of pieces for a variety of ensemble types. It is only fair, then, that when recording the complete works of a lesser known composer such as Ruggles, top-tier musicians should be brought in to lead the process. This recording does not disappoint, and the Buffalo Philharmonic, under the leadership of Michael Tilson Thomas, have produced an earnest and committed recording of Ruggles’ entire catalogue.
For the past seven years, Baltimore and Peabody-Institute-based composer (and friend of S21) Judah Adashi has been enlightening Mobtown’s ears by runningthe Evolution Contemporary Music Series. Praised by Tim Smith of the Baltimore Sun for having “elevated and enriched Baltimore’s new music scene enormously,” and by the Baltimore City Paper as “superb…not the same-old, same-old,” the series has presented or premiered works by over 75 living composers, performed by acclaimed musicians from Baltimore and beyond.
Events regularly include pre-concert conversations with performers, composers, critics and scholars; featured guests have included Marin Alsop (music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra); composers Kevin Puts and Christopher Rouse; and music critics Tim Page (Washington Post) and Alex Ross (New Yorker).
The upcoming 2012-13 season looks especially nice; there are four concerts, each focused on a single cream-of-the-crop composer: Kaija Saariaho (Oct. 30), György Kurtág (Feb. 5), Missy Mazzoli (Mar. 5), and John Luther Adams (May 7).
But of course this stuff doesn’t happen with just a bit of can-do spirit, magic elbow-grease, and pixie dust; venues, compensation, equipment, logistics, rehearsals, backstage Pabst and Beer-Nuts all take a significant chunk of change. And that’s where you come in: this time out they’re using the power of crowd-sourced backing via Kickstarter to help them meet those bills. So far over 80 good folk just like you have pitched in, and their $8,000 goal is over halfway there. That’s phenomenal, but there’s only a week to go and every dollar you might be able to drop in the pot can make an enormous difference. As reward for your generosity, Backers will receive anything from your name immortalized on their website ($5), all the way up to personally signed writings of John L. Adams, free passes to further seasons, even a personal two-piano recital! ($750-1,000).
So if you at all can, why don’t you drop by their Kickstarter page, lay a few bucks down in support of the music you love, and get the warm fuzzies knowing you did your bit to make some beautiful music bloom in Baltimore?
Or is that the other way around?… Anywho, Hilary Hahn just checked in with the latest in her series of chats with the composers of her In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores; this time with Israel’s own Avner Dorman:
Updated : 9/6/12 with added thoughts from Laura Kaminsky.
Every so often we have a conversation that changes us for the better. Sometimes, we have this type of conversation with our mothers, our fathers, our close friends and allies, our colleagues, or with an artist. Last weekend I had a profound conversation with the latter, an artist named Laura Kaminsky.
Laura Kaminsky, composer, is also the artistic director of Symphony Space, the renowned performance venue in New York City. She has received commissions, fellowships, and awards as both a composer and presenter from over twenty organizations including the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and the Aaron Copland Fund. Ms. Kaminsky also plays a large role in the operation of many musical and arts organizations including Chamber Music America, and, in the past, New Music USA (formerly the American Music Center), and as a member of the Artistic Advisory Council of the New York Foundation for the Arts, among others. Laura Kaminsky is an important and influential voice in the arts world today. Having the chance to speak with her by phone, I first asked her about her musical upbringing.
Laura Kaminsky (LK): I grew up in New York City, and was surrounded by musicians, painters, writers, and actors. As a very young child I thought I was going to be a painter when I grew up. But I started taking those typical piano lessons at about age ten or eleven, and quickly decided that practicing wasn’t nearly as much fun as making up my own music. This led me to start trying to figure out how to write down that which I made up. So, I was composing at a very young age, untrained, just writing the things that occupied my imagination. Still, I just thought of it as a fun thing to do. [Around this time] I began tormenting my younger sisters because I used to create family musical evenings that I insisted they participate in. We would perform these programs on the weekend for our parents. I think this is probably where I got my passion for producing.
When I was about 13, it was that time in New York when, if you were a public school kid, you could test and audition to go to a special high school. I wanted to go to [LaGuardia High School of] Music and Art, and originally I thought I was going to audition with an art portfolio. As I got closer to the day of the testing, however, I realized I was more passionate about my time spent in music, and requested that I switch my art audition to a music audition. I got in not because I was a particularly good pianist or clarinetist (that was my second instrument) but I think because I presented music that I wrote, and performed one of my own compositions. My four years at M&A were profound and formative; many of my friends today still date from that time, and many are living active lives in the arts. Read the rest of this entry »
One of the most appealing and satisfying things about the Proms is the way that they support and showcase British composers. There are a number of commissions each year (a Proms commission is a sort of right of passage moment for up and coming composers), and not first performances of recent works as well. It is very surprising, and a just cause for sorrow and consternation, then, that the Proms Matinee on August 11 at Cadogan Hall, given by Britten Sinfonia, with soloists Nicolas Hodges, Susan Bickley, and Nicholas Daniel, conducted by Clark Rundell, was the occasion of the first Proms performance in twenty-four years of any music of Michael Finnissy. Finnissy, as well as being one of the most vital and interesting composers alive, is undoubtedly one of the major figures of British music, as a teacher as well as a composer, and the absence of his music from the Proms for so long, let alone his not having received a Proms commission, over all that time is simple inexplicable, as well as being sad for all of us who have lost by such an omission.
The Finnissy work included on this particular concert was the 36-year-old Second Piano Concerto, with Nicolas Hodges as soloist. One of the usual memes having to do with the concerto, that it is a piece opposing the soloist as the one against the many in the orchestra is not exactly operative in this case. First of all the band is a small one, strings and two flutes, and rather than opposing the solo part, they pick out and highlight details in the stream of the work’s continuity which is entirely in the almost ceaseless piano part. Finnissy’s music is often thought of as fearsome, and it can be extremely difficult to play (not that you could tell that from Hodges’s beautiful and lucid performance), but the sound of it, when it’s done well, as it was here, is downright beguiling–gossamer and shimmering, and its continuity, a sort of stream of consciousness, clear and convincing, and easy to follow. It is to be hoped that it won’t be another 24 years before there’s more Finnissy on the Proms.
Hodges also presented the UK Premier of Harrision Birtwistle’s Gigue Machine for solo piano. Making the difficulties and complications (and they are considerable) obvious is one of the points of this piece, which is an exploration and deconstruction of the rhythms and phrasings of the old dance form, and they were presented and dispatched both compositionally by Birtwistle and pianistically by Hodges, with flair and aplomb, and obvious relish. Read the rest of this entry »