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Eric Whitacre stopped by nine days ago to tell us about his wind ensemble piece Noisy Wheels of Joy.

Have I mentioned how crazy things have been around here the last few weeks?  I’ve tried to, but I’ve only been able to skim the surface, leaving out important details like the one in the previous paragraph.

It’s all given me less time than I would wish to process the practical and emotional challenges surrounding my mother’s death.  I take comfort in knowing that I have the rest of my life to give that the attention it deserves, and knowing that I had her blessing to live every day of my life to the fullest.

Back to Whitacre – our April 4th Wind Ensemble concert featured his piece along with Joel Puckett’s The Shadow of Sirius and Ryan George’s Firefly.  And those were just the newest pieces.  It was a tremendous program.  And it was great for our students to meet Whitacre, who has carved out a spectacular career from enormous talent and unfettered common sense.

The following day our orchestra premiered four student works, playing each one twice.  In between the performances, the composers went up on stage to talk about their music, so we were able to listen once without preconceptions, then a second time armed with insights.

On Friday our Composition Department visited the American Moderns exhibit on loan from the Brooklyn Museum.  Phil Archer was our capable host, talking us through the challenges and solutions the 1910-1960 generation faced and formulated.  I have been steeped, lately, in some of the writings on postmodernism Jonathan Kramer left unfinished when he died, so it was bracing for me to visit this exhibit.  More on some of my thoughts on these and related topics later.

But first we have a performance of Electric Counterpoint coming up in two days, as well as new and newish works by Dusan Bogdanovich, Carlo Domeniconi and William Kanengiser.

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I once heard that the greatest gift a parent can give a child is to die well.  At first, that seemed like a pretty stark thing to put at the top of the gift list from someone who gave you life.  Over the years, though, I’ve come to see the wisdom of these words.

Life is the initial gift we get from our parents.  Sometimes it is given joyfully, and that usually seems preferable.  Sometimes it is received joyfully, and that also seems preferable, given the alternatives.  Even so, I can certainly understand the circumstances in which life would not be given or received with joy.  I feel certain it was given to me with joy, and I wish I could say I had always accepted it joyously, but the record shows that I didn’t particularly like life very much for a number of years.

But death.

Death has never struck me as preferable, regardless of how negatively I have felt about life.  The end of each composition is enough of a death for me, for now.

So I am still here after that initial gift, 4.5 dozen years later, now enjoying life quite a bit, which is to say I’m not taking any of it for granted.  The night sky, the fresh hopes of youth, the sounds made by skilled musicians – these are all wonderful sparks that illuminate and engage more than ever.

My mother died almost three weeks ago, and the way she died certainly counts as one of the great gifts she ever gave me.  Her digestive system having failed her, she slowly starved to death, rejecting any intravenous supplements or pain medications.   She did this without complaint — indeed, taking every opportunity to exclaim how lucky she had been in life, how much she was enjoying every moment, every interaction with friends and family.  Her last words to me, barely intelligible because her voice was so thoroughly parched, will remain private, but they were clearly calculated to give me comfort and strength.  Speaking with others who communicated with her in her final days, a pattern emerged of a person who was consciously demonstrating how to die with grace and dignity.

So is that the greatest gift she has given me?  Still seems like an odd thing to say, when my mother was renowned for her generosity, even getting audited by the IRS once because they couldn’t believe how much she gave to charity.

But the gift of dying well serves as instruction on how to live well, and that’s a lesson I can turn to every day.

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Today we start rehearsals for our Orchestral Premieres concert.  First orchestra rehearsals are wonderful and terrifying things.  Hopefully every instrument and every page will be in their proper places.  I’ll be there, hanging on every note.

The concert will feature four student works:

Clayton Davidson: Phase, Ellipsis
Derek Arnold: Symphony No. 1 (1st movement)
Brent Lawrence: For Wheatfields, Crows and Rain
Dak Van Vranken: Dark Face

Saturday, April 5, 2 pm, Crawford Hall, UNCSA

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We had a fantastic session with yMusic the other night, but there’s no time to give it the appropriate gaga response, because the world keeps moving under our feet.  The next day, after a fun brunch with yMusic, the students had a practice session with Toastmaster Rebecca Nussbaum on public speaking, one of those things that often goes along with being a composer that many composers find torturous.  Tonight the UNCSA Symphony, led by James Allbritten, will give the NC premiere of my colleague Kenneth Frazelle’s Triple Concerto with violinist Kevin Lawrence, cellist Brooks Whitehouse and pianist Eric Larsen.  On Tuesday night, UNCSA guitar ensembles will premiere two works by student composers on a program mixing 16th and 21st century music:

Derek Arnold: Redarkened
Brent Lawrence: Serenade

And then things start to get really crazy.

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Hot on the heels of Saturday night’s flute ensemble premieres, tonight we have yMusic in town for a recording session.  A sextet with interesting flexibility with regards to instrumentation, yMusic presents completely different challenges from those we addressed with the flute ensemble.  Finding a personnel list online isn’t easy, so here is the lineup:

Alex Sopp: flutes
Hideaki Aomori: clarinets
CJ Camerieri: trumpet/horn
Rob Moose: violin/guitar
Nadia Sirota: viola
Clarice Jensen: cello

They will be recording the following:

Kenneth Florence: 12,000 Years
Brent Lawrence: Shared Inheritance
Laura Reynolds: Burning Bridges Feels Good (At First)
Nick Rich: Half Remembered

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This Saturday night, we have four premieres of student works for flute ensemble:  Brent Lawrence’s Orange, Green, Darkness, Nick Rich’s Lennon Variations, Cheyne Runnells’ Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing and Alexander Umfleet’s Sunder.

Creating a piece that takes advantage of the benefits and avoids the pitfalls of scoring for multiples of the same instrument is a special challenge, a little cranny in a composer’s attic that deserves its own exploration.  We put a floodlight on this particular nook, listening to several flute ensemble pieces, drafting our own compositions, then workshopping the pieces last fall with the ensemble.   After that, the composers had a few months to refine and recalibrate.

Results on the 22nd.

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“The classical author who wrote his tragedy observing a certain number of known rules is freer than the poet who writes down whatever comes into his head and is slave to other rules of which he knows nothing.”

– Raymond Queneau

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Okay, I know evolution isn’t the right word.  But I’m using it in a common enough misusage to make my point.

Composers growing up in the mid-20th century had an experience unknown to previous generations: hearing music on stations.  First radio stations; later on television.  This new experience, as I’m sure has been noted elsewhere, had a potent impact on musical postmodernism, one of the hallmarks of which is jumping from style to style in seemingly random juxtapositions, as though flipping a dial from one station to another.

The contemporary version of this experience is webbing ones way through the perpetual LOOKATME of the internet, and I think that shift is audible in the music being made now, and will probably be even more evident in the music of the next 10 to 20 years, as composers who experienced the internet in full bloom during their childhoods master the art of explaining their worlds through sound.

So the reason I’m misusing the word “evolution” is because I think the experience of flipping through stations and current online equivalents are more closely related than not: as I say, an audible shift is taking place, but I hear a fair amount of fluency from one to the other, though others may be hearing a revolution.

How can we tell for sure?  Stay tuned, as they used to say.

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I like to think of myself as a competent composer, someone who writes pieces that work in fundamentally sound ways.  But I don’t aspire to competence; some of the notions I chase after take me into unfamiliar terrain and I have to do my best to make them work as well as they can.

As a result, some of my compositions are dogs.

I am very proud of my dogs (though I withdraw them from performance when I can) because they are signs that competence is something I have worked hard to attain without making it my primary aim.  I reserve the right to compose a terrible piece in pursuit of valuable goal.  One of the reasons I became a composer is because the vastness of music forces me to be an eternal student.

I should add that I defend the right of any listener to hate any piece I write – after all, sometimes I will agree.

On the other hand, just because a piece of music turns out to be a dog doesn’t mean we have to kick it around – scratching it behind the ears is a more generous option.

On a perhaps cheerier note, three performances of my music in the definitely-not-canine category to catch this coming week, in Austin, Louisville and New York:

  • March 5: Sonata: Motion.  Tim Hagen, flute; Ben Corbin, piano.  UT Austin, Butler School of Music
  • March 8: Poke.  Low and Lower.  ASTA National Conference, Louisville KY.
  • March 10: What Happened and the NYC premiere of The Voice.  Atlantic Ensemble.  Symphony Space, NYC.

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One of the ancillary benefits of teaching is the pleasure of insight you get into the unfolding of musical minds, watching one young composer after another take wing.  I’ve been especially fortunate these last two years to watch the development of Nick Rich, who has his Master’s recital this Saturday night.  If you want to hear a truly beautiful and imaginative take on what a string quartet is capable of, check out his Songs at Sunset here.

For his recital, Nick has not only pulled together the usual assortment of performing friends, but has three guest ensembles lined up.  Here is the program:

I gotta use words
Lennon Variations
Cool Clear Water

Rewind You, Rewind Me

UNC School of the Arts, Watson Hall, 7:30 pm, March 1.

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