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I’ve written a few times about my experience with the Seattle Chamber Music Society over the past year, but there is one more thing I would like to touch on — in many ways the most important of all.
In May, when I went to visit the SCMS commissioning club to talk about the piece I had written for them, I stayed at the home of seventy-one-year-old cellist Toby Saks. Toby founded SCMS about 30 years ago, so at my first opportunity (as it happened, over appetizers), I asked her how SCMS had come about, because I’m always curious about such things. She seemed very happy to share the story (which is, after all, pretty fascinating) and she gave me a mostly chronological narrative of the first 10-15 years of SCMS over the course of dinner and beyond. Listening to her story gave me wonderful insights into her character: passionate, uncompromising, courageous.
The next morning she asked if I would like to go on a stroll through a nearby park. I’m a big fan of getting a bit of fresh air, spending a half hour or so communing with nature, and so I took her up on it. This walk, much to my surprise, kept going and going. After two hours, during which we got lost several times, we returned to her home. It was noon, so I figured we were in for a well-deserved lunch after our exercise. Instead, she said, “Well, we may as well keep going, down to the waterfront, what do you say?” So I had another 90-minute hike ahead of me.
Indeed, I had nothing to complain about, for our conversation was lively and far-reaching, and when we finished our 3.5 hour “stroll,” the talk continued into lunch. We talked about music, of course — her time as one of the first women in the NY Philharmonic, teaching music fundamentals (which she had been doing at the University of Washington for many years), chamber music playing, music administration – but we also moved on to broader topics: marriage, divorce, parenting, aging, literature, history, friends, human nature, animals.
Funny, I’ve been on longer hikes before, but I believe this was the longest, non-stop, one-on-one conversation I’ve ever engaged in.
One part of our chat that stuck with me was her account of the relationships she had formed through SCMS and, in particular, the times when she had to stop inviting musicians who were no longer playing well enough, which she regarded as a painful but necessary part of her role as Artistic Director. Then the time came when she had to acknowledge that she was no longer the cellist she wanted to be, and she accepted that change gracefully, moving exclusively into the administrative work of the society. After a few years, she decided she had had enough of that work, and she handed her baby over to James Ehnes, stepping aside into the role of local contact and host for visiting musicians. She averred (and James later confirmed this for me) that she gave him complete autonomy in the operation, never interfering with his vision, which is a remarkable thing to do with something you have given so much of your life to.
I left Seattle the next morning eager for my July return, so we could pick up where we left off. But when I got back, her lovely home, which had been a calm refuge on my previous visit, was a chaotic whirl — the SCMS summer season was in full swing, dozens of musicians grabbing meals and rehearsing in various rooms — so I just managed a few quick chats with her. While my piece was being rehearsed, she stretched out on the sofa in the music room and napped peacefully, which I found completely charming.
On July 8th, my piece was premiered downtown, but she wasn’t able to make it because her son and grandson were flying in that evening from Europe. I returned home the next morning sad that we hadn’t had more time to talk.
A few weeks later, I got the shocking news that Toby was terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis she had received just a few days before I had arrived for my performance. I found out that when she learned she was dying she wouldn’t hear of altering any SCMS plans: the home she shared with her husband Marty Greene was still the epicenter of the festival, which ran as scheduled through July 26th. She died on August 1st.
The way she approached death was of a piece with the way she approached life. “Death has never scared me,” she said to the Seattle Times shortly after I last saw her. “I’ve never been afraid of it.”
In the days after she died, I found a wistful little tune looping through my mind, and I sketched out a brief canon for cello and violin. The relationship Toby had with life and death, with SCMS, with violinist James Ehnes – all of these things seemed to be converging in a few notes, in the lovely way music has of finding connections among our least articulate thoughts. When I finished it, though, I realized it was a bit more prosaic and linear than was appropriate: cello leads, violin follows. I tossed it and began again, this time with three cellos playing in a splintered unison. The violin followed as a clearly defined voice, adding its own character to the cellos’ line. Instead of simply leading, the cellos led and responded to the violin line, sometimes as a single voice, sometimes as a warm, choral embrace.
I called it Passing Tones, a name that – like the loss of a loved one – is at once painfully simple and multifaceted. Toby has passed gracefully from this life, as she passed SCMS gracefully to James. The cellos pass a tune to the violin, which passes it back. And passing tones, in musical parlance, are the simplest, most common dissonances in Western Music, present in abundance in pretty much every piece Toby ever played, as she certainly knew, having been a teacher of music fundamentals all these years.
When I felt I had it right, I sent it off to James. I wasn’t sure what he would do with it, but I thought that although I was fulfilling a selfish need in writing the piece – as a way of coping with loss — the result might have some value for others as well.
I’ve since learned that there will be a memorial service for Toby in Benaroya Hall next month – October 14th — and this piece will be performed. I wish I could attend, but I’m hopeful that Passing Tones will have a meaningful presence in my absence.
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This from The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (2006), a collection of studies on the development of expertise in the arts, sciences, sports, and pretty much any other endeavor:
“Automaticity is central to the development of expertise, and practice is the means to automaticity [...] Through the act of practice (with appropriate feedback, monitoring, etc.), the character of cognitive operations changes in a manner that (a) improves the speed of the operations, (b) improves the smoothness of the operations, and (c) reduces the cognitive demands of the operations, this releasing cognitive (e.g. attentional) resources for other (often higher) functions (e.g. planning, self-monitoring).” ~Paul Fletovich, Michael Prietula, and Anders Ericsson, p53
“The key challenge for aspiring expert performers is to avoid the arrested development associated with automaticity and to acquire cognitive skills to support their continued learning and improvement. By actively seeking out demanding tasks -often provided by teachers and coaches – that force the performers to engage in problem solving and to stretch their performance, the expert performers overcome the detrimental effects of automaticity and actively acquire and refine cognitive mechanisms to support continued learning and improvement.”~ Anders Ericsson, p694
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We all know the challenges that come with trying to describe music with words. I have nothing but respect for those critics who are able to do it effectively, regardless of whether I agree with their perspectives or not. Words are wonderful for saying many things; music is wonderful for saying other things. Occasionally, the two overlap, but more frequently they don’t.
Composers pinch their toes in these ill-fitting shoes all the time. Case in point: I recently was asked by an arts administrator to answer the following question with regard to my music:
Briefly describe your work as an artist. Your description might include: the main concerns or issues in your work; your principal influences; or what drives you to make your work. Please limit your response to 250 words.
On the surface, fairly simple. But the can of worms becomes apparent if we rephrase the question like this:
Briefly describe your life. Your description might include: the main concerns or issues in your life; your principal influences; or what drives you to live. Please limit your response to 250 words.
The person asking me this question has my utmost respect and consideration – after all, what can I accomplish without arts administrators doing their wonderful work? But the summary he is calling for presents me with a quandary of focus, like asking a jet pilot to summarize a life of flying while he’s in the midst of some complicated maneuvers. Try as I might, I find the only honest answer to his question goes something like this:
I don’t know how to generalize about my work. Each composition or group of compositions raises its own issues that I find interesting, worth pursuing, often for reasons I don’t fully understand. Once the works are out there, it may be possible for others to generalize about them, but by that time I am more concerned with the next pieces, the next sets of challenges, because those are the issues that only I can address, and they deserve my full attention.
Anything more than that is putting a sumo wrestler’s feet into toe shoes: the result isn’t pretty, and you just annoy the sumo wrestler.
But again, I want to be respectful and considerate, so I need to figure out how to be truthful in a way that honors the question.
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Wish I could find a good way to store music files on Mac. I’ve had it with iTunes. I’m sure it’s great for buying stuff you want to buy, and I have no objection to people buying things, but it’s terrible for storing, finding, adjusting and sharing files you’ve created yourself. In other words, it’s extremely inefficient for a composer.
I’d love to have software that lets me name and file my compositions in a coherent way, doesn’t create multiple redundant files, allows me to shift between aiff and mp formats in a single step, doesn’t require me to sign into a behavior-monitoring system, and doesn’t try to understand my shopping preferences.
I know, I know, that’s way too much to ask.
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In a recent New Yorker article, Sasha Frere-Jones reported that “musicians love to use the word ‘cinematic’ when describing their music.”
Made me stop and think. I’ve known thousands of musicians in my life, and I don’t recall a single one of them using the word “cinematic” to describe their work. I can imagine a few of them using that word, possibly, in certain circumstances, but I’ve known far more who would be uncomfortable with the term, and even a few who would find it offensive.
There’s no question in my mind that Mr. Frere-Jones has heard “cinematic” used by musicians with great frequency, or he wouldn’t have made such a claim. It’s even possible he sent out a questionnaire to thousands of musicians asking them if they loved to use the word “cinematic” when describing their music, and got a unanimous response.
Well, come to think about it, probably not.
In any case, it’s yet another reminder of how enormous our little world is, how many conflicting viewpoints are held by people that outsiders might assume are all in agreement.
I’ve heard a few people use the word “cinematic” to describe my work, and it always leaves me more puzzled than enlightened — though not offended. My music sounds like music to me, not like a movie with the characters, plot, settings and dialogue stripped away. I suppose maybe there is something in the term “cinematic” I just don’t understand.
But at least I’m fairly certain I’m not alone.
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“When you come to a fork in the road…take it.” – Yogi Berra
Working on String Quartet No. 6: Rapid Eye these days. It’s the last of a cycle of six quartets, and as such it has a lot of baggage to claim. First of all, it has to function as its own entity, it has to be a piece that stands alone. At the same time, it can’t ignore the fact that there were five predecessors, all tackling similar themes, all leading to this conclusion.
Working on it got me thinking about some of the differences between life and art. In life, you choose a path, or a path is chosen for you, and you take it. As soon as you commit your first step, you can’t take it back. You can, of course, switch paths at any time, but you can’t undo the time you have spent pursuing your initial track.
In art, though, things are a bit different. Multiple paths are possible, simultaneous multiple paths can even be attractive. This is nowhere truer than in music, which sometimes seems designed for simultaneous tracks heading for different horizons.
Right now, Rapid Eye has two movements, each starting from the same musical gesture, each heading off in its own independent direction.
We can all relate to the narrator in Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, who laments (then takes pride in) the unchosen path.
Art, though, gives us options that aren’t available in other facets of life. Through art, where there’s a fork, the cake can be both had and eaten.
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Today is the first day of classes here at the UNC School of the Arts, time for people to get lost in the wrong hallways, have a few unexpected encounters, scramble into class late, and possibly learn a thing or two that will have a powerful impact on their futures.
And that’s just the teachers.
I met with my students last Friday. A little soon to say, but they seem like an imaginative and curious lot, raring to go.
As I told them, I love my summers, the chance to move my body in ways that have nothing to do with predetermined appointments and spread my mind out as far as it will take me. But around about the second week of August I start to get antsy, thinking about the coming school year, wondering what surprises my students will have in store for me in the coming year.
And now it begins. Whoa, I’m running late…
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Just a few days after complaining that this blog has become a listing of “events, performances and accolades,” I have one of the last to report: the NC Arts Council has awarded me an Artist Fellowship, the highest honor accorded to artists in the state.
This fellowship is going to give me much-needed support as I bring the Invisible Cities String Quartet Cycle to a conclusion with String Quartet No. 6: Rapid Eye. Target for completion: January 2014.
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When I first began to blog on an infinite number of curves, it indeed curved in multiple directions, covering my thoughts and observations on a variety of seemingly unrelated topics. Part of the premise was that all topics are related, even though their relationships are not always readily evident.
More and more, though, I see this blog has become something a little less distinguished, a listing of performances, events and accolades — external signposts, as opposed to thoughts. I’ve been fully aware of this shift as it has been taking place, and I have explained it away to myself through various means. And now it is time for me to own up to what has happened.
There are at least three independent strands that have influenced the shift. First, over the course of eight years, I have said a substantial portion of what I have to say. There are a few things I haven’t gotten to yet, and their times may come, but a lot of my thoughts on the subjects nearest and dearest to my heart are already out there. This is a phenomenon other bloggers have encountered and commented on. The blog as a format has reached a plateau.
Second, I am valuing my privacy more and more. That seems like a funny thing to say because I have always valued my privacy, but every passing year makes privacy feel more precious. I suppose it’s because all of my actions, tastes, interests, etc, have become much easier for strangers to gather and decipher than was the case even eight years ago. It feels, in fact, like the level of privacy I took for granted in my youth is something that would be extremely difficult to attain today, and is probably unimaginable for generations of composers active now and in the years to come.
Finally, I seem to have reached a point in my development where I am more conscious of an urge for purity of expression, as opposed to an urge to try new things. In that sense, infinite curves are not as appealing to me as a few discrete, well-placed dots. That may be a product of my age, or the result of years of compositional growth, or some other factor, I don’t know. Somehow I find the image of the retracted arms of a melanocyte appealing. Melanocytes are the skin cells that create melanin, or pigment. These cells, unlike the other 90% of our skin cells, have long arms, like an octopus, that allow them to send their pigments to the follicles our hair grows from. As we age, the tendrils of these melanocytes retract. Our hair receives less and less pigment, and is allowed to exhibit its true color, which is white. Others choose to see this development as a loss, but I’m inclined to see a gain: instead of dressing itself up with color from the outside, my hair is gradually becoming more and more comfortable just being itself.
In much the same way, I am less and less interested in dressing up my life and art in the colors that I find reaching me through the tendrils of culture. Instead, I am content with the absence of color, a turn to a more nuanced texture. It’s a shift in focus from the infinite to the infinitesimal. That’s not an attitude, a perspective, I can recommend to young composers – and it certainly is not one best suited to the blog format — but it suits me for the time being.
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Sad to be missing Carol Wincenc playing Bacchanal from my flute concerto Orpheus in the Afterworld this weekend at the Gala Concert of the National Flute Association’s annual convention. If anyone out there can make it, it’s this Saturday at 8 pm at the French Quarter Marriott in New Orleans. Ransom Wilson conducts the orchestra.
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