Archive for February, 2005

After the concert Friday night, a woman came up to congratulate me, then said, “I just love hearing a new piece for the first time.” This was a wonderful thing for me to hear, and I told her so. She continued, “I was taught that you should always listen very carefully the first time you hear a new piece, because you will never have that experience [of hearing that music for the first time] again.”

When I heard those words, four pieces immediately popped into my head: 4’33″, Le sacre du printemps, Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and Josquin’s Absalon, fili mi.* I felt a complex mix of emotions: sadness that I would never again experience any of those pieces for the first time, and exhilaration at the thought of all the people who have yet to hear those pieces, who have yet to have the kind of transformative experiences I had when I first heard them.

One of the joys of teaching is being able to vicariously relive this loss of virginity to favorite works, as you share them with avid young listeners.

But I was grateful to this particular listener on Friday night for articulating something that I had begun to take for granted. You should always listen carefully the first time you hear a new piece. Those words will stay with me for some time to come. I think they can apply to a wide range of listening experiences, with new and old music.

I’m reminded of a line I heard about ten years ago that has also stayed with me, though I can’t recall the author. I’d be very pleased if anyone out there could identify the source of this one for me: “The oldest books are new releases to those who haven’t read them.”

*I keep wondering — why these four pieces in particular? Out of the hundreds of compositions that have opened my ears, I really can’t put my finger on why these specific works popped into my head at that moment, but there they were.

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The credibility of composers who also serve as critics has often been questioned. There is a pretty fine article on the topic in NewMusicBox this month by Joshua Kosman. The argument goes something like this: Composers have artistic and professional agendas that limit their ability to listen objectively.

I find this line of argument entirely persuasive. A composer invests a tremendous amount of time and energy in pursuing a specific artistic vision, which is bound to leave blind spots where other artistic visions might be found.

On the other hand, composers have valuable perspectives on the experience of music, being involved on the ground floor, so to speak. Their viewpoints, though they may be biased, can be very insightful.

The most questionable practice is the composer who conducts the premiere of a new work, then reviews the concert. Certainly a composer describing his/her own piece and performance cannot be trusted at all.

On the other hand, if you know the reviewer has such an intimate involvement with the material being reviewed, then you certainly don’t have to fear a hidden agenda: The review is bound to be intensely subjective, with all of the benefits and drawbacks that implies.

So watch for a review of the premiere of Revenant on this page in the coming days. I will do my best to make it pan-jective (combining the best of sub- and ob-).

And you can read it with a grain of salt.

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Rehearsals for Revenant are in full swing, so I may as well take this opportunity to report that I’ve never liked conducting very much. I’m actually pretty good at it, especially when it’s my music, but I only do it when I’m absolutely sure that it’s the best way to get the best performance.

Conducting is one of the two things that keeps me from composing fluently. (The other is music administration, but that’s another story.) I find that the kind of focus required for conducting is anathema to the creative process. I have no difficulty understanding why so few have been able to do both simultaneously. I just can’t help thinking, in the midst of a complex series of cues, “gee, it would be great to put a quintuplet in the flutes here,” which totally blows my concentration for the task at hand.

So, as happy as I am to have the premiere coming, and happy as I am to be able to play a vital role in shaping the performance, a huge part of me can’t wait for Saturday morning, when it will all be over and I can recapture the stillness and free flow of ideas I need to keep writing.

Almost forgot: the Stravinsky Tuesday night was lovely.

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Busy day: I start rehearsals for my horn concerto, and my Stravinsky arrangement premieres tonight. Not much time for blogging. But check out the great thread Jerry Bowles has going on Politics and Music.

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On Friday, we had Composition Juries here. Twice a year, all of our students submit their work of the past six months to the composition faculty. We study their music for a week, then meet with each student individually to give feedback, suggestions, encouragement and criticism.

Once again, I was reminded of how much a composer has to learn in order to communicate his/her ideas effectively. List of basic knowledge requirements, in no particular order:

  • the entire history of music of all cultures.
  • the capabilities and limitations of all instruments, acoustic and electronic.
  • the many and contradictory cultural taboos regarding what the human voice can or cannot do, or should or should not do.
  • mastery of the elusive art of music notation (including the joys and frustrations of notation software).
  • the psychology of rehearsal and live performance.
  • the latest innovations in recording technology.
  • the science of acoustics.
  • current trends in philosophy, art and music theory.
  • traditional and nontraditional principles of harmony, rhythm and counterpoint.

Of course, once you’ve got all that in your arsenal, there are a few more tricks that you’d do well to familiarize yourself with, for example:

  • writing succinct, enlightening, persuasive program and liner notes.
  • pre- and post-concert public speaking.
  • marketing.
  • fundraising.
  • social aptitude, i.e., trying not to offend anyone who might decide to destroy your career.
  • did I mention fundraising?

What have I left out? Well, everything else. Add to that the distracting concerns that students always have: what are my teachers’ tastes, what are my friends writing, how good am I really, etc. With all of these issues to face, it’s amazing how well young composers do, how quickly they progress, how much they manage to say in their music.

Obviously, nobody knows everything on this list, but composers always run the risk of ridicule when their knowledge in any of these categories is deemed insufficient. I suppose the most important characteristic, then, is a healthy balance of self-awareness and blind ambition.

I’m curious to hear from other teachers, students, former students. What do you think the most important requirements for a composition student should be? Is there a way to prioritize? I’m sure there is a wide variety of opinion in this matter. Or is there?

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I’ll be conducting the premiere of Revenant: Concerto for Horn and Orchestra a week from tonight. Revenant is my fourth concerto (I suppose one could call it my fifth, but that’s another story); at this point I’ve developed a very specific take on how concertos should operate.

First and foremost, any concerto I write is going to be primarily about the soloist and the solo instrument. One of my pet peeves is sitting through a concerto in which the soloist is a mere appendage to the Great Genius of a composer who is determined to take center stage at all costs. I’m particularly annoyed when the soloist is drowned out by immense orchestral forces that feature a range of color no single instrument can possibly compete with.

(I suppose this is an understandable mistake for a composer to make: there are so few opportunities to write for orchestra, it’s easy to go overboard when the chance arrives.)

Having said that, a concerto without a driving creative personality is an empty experience, a tightrope walk, at best. The trick for the composer is to measure his/her presence in the composition — to be, in the best sense, a collaborator, guiding the proceedings in a way that never distracts attention from the main purpose of the piece, which is to showcase the mastery of the performer. The way I approach this problem is to give my soloist a measured balance of technical and artistic challenges.

So Revenant’s listeners will hear fast tonguings, sustained high notes, agile leaps — all of the things that test a horn player’s chops. But most of the horn part will have purely musical meaning — any good player could play the notes in these passages, but only the great ones will play them with the fullest sense of context, shaping and purpose.

And therein lies my participation in the proceedings, my personal touch. Anyone can write difficult music, but writing a coherent, twenty-minute piece that rewards the performer’s talent for pacing, form and dramatic timing takes a fair amount of focus and compositional chops.

Revenant is in three movements: Resonance, Revenant and Revelry. (A revenant, by the way, is someone who returns from the dead.) The first movement is a dirge, or, more accurately, the memory of a dirge. The second movement is a simple song-form, with a melody that, instead of returning, floats away into the distance. The third movement is a dance: short, fast, life-affirming.

I had thought, when composing the piece, that I was addressing issues surrounding the death of my father. It came as a surprise to me when I realized, close to completion, that the piece was really about me, about losing one’s way, and stumbling back into a renewed awareness and appreciation of life.

Revenant: Concerto for Horn and Orchestra will premiere on Friday, February 25th at 8:00 in Crawford Hall on the campus of the North Carolina School of the Arts. I will conduct the Carolina Chamber Symphony, with David Jolley as soloist. The performance will be part of the 2005 International Horn Society’s Southeast Workshop. The program will also include Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 and Haydn’s Symphony No. 31, featuring horn players from the Berlin Philharmonic, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Charlotte Symphony.

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As I post these words, Ransom Wilson and the String Quartet of the Hermitage Orchestra are giving the Russian premiere of a piece of mine in St. Petersburg. I consider this to be one of the secret, guilty pleasures of being a composer: while I sit comfortably at home in my studio, fine musicians are sweating over my sixteenth notes halfway around the world.

Composers have so much trouble getting paid for their work, sometimes we have to savor these tiny morsels of psychic income.

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This past weekend I attended three concerts in the third annual Chamber Music Festival of the North Carolina School of the Arts. This festival gives the school an opportunity to showcase the best of its student ensembles. The first festival (in 2003) was comprehensive, with each concert devoted to a particular historical period. Last year’s festival was focused exclusively on music from the twentieth century.

For this year, the decision was made to place no restrictions on repertoire, allowing the chamber coaches to assign works solely based on the educational needs of the ensembles. The results were interesting: we ended up with one 18th-century work, one 19th-century work and one 21st-century work. The rest of the music was written in the 20th century.

So far, so good. But digging deeper was very revealing. Despite the preponderance of 20th-century music, there was very little sign of what we’ve come to understand as modernism. I don’t report that as a positive or a negative, but simply as an interesting sign of the times.

The highlight of Friday evening’s concert was Carlos Chávez’s Xochipilli, subtitled “An Imagined Aztec Music.” Scored for piccolo, flute, Eb clarinet, trombone and five percussionists, the piece evokes Native American rhythms and rituals. The trombonist performs from the rear of the auditorium, playing only in the last two minutes, bringing to mind the sound of a conch shell with blurred glissandos throughout the range of the instrument.

Interesting paradox: of all the pieces played on the festival, this is the one that is easiest to write about and most interesting to read about. From a political standpoint, you have diversity: a Latin composer evoking Native American culture. The instrumentation suggests fascinating color combinations. The trombone glissandos introduce an interesting extension of the traditional pitch palette.

And yet, Xochipilli turned out to be one of the least interesting pieces on the festival. We have to give Chavez a lot of credit for ingenuity (how many composers were writing “imagined Aztec music” for five percussion and four winds in 1940?), but he just didn’t accomplish much with the resources at hand. Until the trombone entrance at the end, there was very little to listen to. So we applaud Chavez for going out on a limb, but note that his footing out there was shaky at best.

By contrast, the most effective piece on Friday evening was Györgi Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for woodwind quintet. Unlike Xochipilli, there is nothing terribly interesting to say about this composition, except that it is a masterpiece of chamber literature written for an instrumental ensemble that many composers have found difficult to master. Nothing particularly progressive about the piece, except to the degree that all great music is a triumph of the creative spirit. Fascinating listening from beginning to end.

Lesson to be learned? Never judge a composition by its press package.

Saturday night’s concert gave us Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet, a great piece for young string players from an educational standpoint, and for that reason a piece that gets a lot of performances in conservatory environments. The musicians on this occasion were all teenagers; they handled the work’s many technical and artistic challenges wonderfully, although at times the performance was a bit rushed. I’ve heard these same young musicians play this piece more effectively in the past. Were they perhaps in a hurry to finish, so they could head across town in time to hear Joshua Bell’s recital?

(I was actually amazed at the large audience we had for Saturday night’s performance, not only competing with J. Bell, but also with a performance by William Bolcom and Joan Morris and a flute recital by Elizabeth Ransom. I’ve heard since that all four concerts were well attended, a firm rebuke to the conventional wisdom that people don’t go to concerts anymore.)

Oddly enough, the only composition on Saturday’s program that was new to me was by the most famous composer: Claude Debussy. His Piano Trio in G Minor was written when he was just eighteen years of age. The primary interest in this piece was the measure of how far the composer progressed from adolescence to full maturity, and how gifted he was at such an early age. But the work suffers from a lack of personality, with four movements that are ill-matched and cover a very narrow expressive range. The outstanding performance only served to underline the paucity of material.

On Sunday’s concert, the one new work to my ears was an attractive saxophone quartet by David Kechley called Stepping Out. Although there was no composition date in the program, it is safe to say that the piece was written in the 1990s, as it featured an easy-going, post-minimalist congeniality that I don’t think was possible before.

So again, the festival favored works from the last 100 years, but there was very little sign that the 20th century was a turbulent time in which the very nature of artistic expression was being called into question. This despite the fact that the faculty at the North Carolina School of the Arts runs the full range of musical tastes, from staunch conservatives of the standard repertoire to progressive explorers of new directions. Perhaps it’s not wise to draw any conclusions from one festival: after all, we could easily have ended up with just works from the 19th century. But the idea that the way we presented the 20th century might reflect more than pure chance gave me food for thought.

Coming away, I was reminded of Jose Ortega y Gasset’s comment: “I feel very twentieth-century, and not at all modern.” Was his perspective destined to become the prevailing wisdom?

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On February 25th, I will conduct the premiere of my Revenant: Concerto for Horn and Orchestra with David Jolley as soloist. The compositional road for Revenant was pretty rocky: I started working on it about a year ago, finished it in November, then realized I hadn’t written the piece I had wanted to write. What to do? I started over. So audiences at the premiere will actually be hearing my second horn concerto, although it won’t be billed as such.

Starting over is both painful and liberating. The painful part is having to ditch ideas you have become very close to. Russell Peck compares it to cutting off fingers. The liberating part is knowing exactly where things went wrong, and how to avoid the mishaps the second time around. I always find tasks easier the second time I do them, and this was no exception: the first version took seven months, the second just two weeks.

I will have more to say about Revenant, revisions, concertos and conducting in upcoming posts.

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Time to try a little experiment. With the help of the amazing Jerry Bowles (and the inspiration of Greg Sandow’s Concert Companion), I have posted a sound-file of the second movement of my Furies and Muses for bassoon and string quartet. It’s 7:45 long, and it features a truly amazing performance by the Cassatt String Quartet and Jeff Keesecker. If you have 7:45 on your hands, just click on the link and give it a listen. Meanwhile, I have written a Composer’s Commentary to go along with the piece, a moment-by-moment breakdown of what I was trying to accomplish and how I did it.

This little experiment seems to go against much of what we have been taught about music — music should speak for itself, right? As far as I’m concerned, this music does speak for itself. I’m just speaking for me. Anyone who is not interested in what I have to say about the piece can simply read no further.

The movement is labeled Aria, but this is an aria about the desire (as opposed to the ability) to sing. It is an aria of tentative attempts and elusive results.

So here goes. Click here to begin. (If your media player takes up the whole window, diminish it so you can read along. On some computers, you may have to hit the back button once the music starts, in order to read the text.)

0:00 The piece opens with the violins playing a muted, one-measure, rocking figure that recurs 55 times, each time altered slightly. In addition, each recurrence features a slight speeding up and slowing down within each measure. As if that weren’t difficult enough to pull off, there is a gradual increase in tempo from bar 1 to bar 49, such that the speed of the piece imperceptibly increases by almost 50% over the course of the first five minutes. Again, in an aria about the inability to sing, elusiveness is the primary compositional objective.

But there is another goal as well. When I wrote the piece in 1997, I was becoming increasingly disturbed by the amount of music I was hearing that was clearly composed for midi (computerized) playback, with tempos and rhythms rigidly fixed to an inaudible drumbeat. Don’t get me wrong: I like a good mechanical rhythm as much as the next guy, but what I was hearing at the time sounded suspiciously like default composing.

So writing this kind of fluctuating tempo was a way for me to celebrate the uncanny manner in which great musicians can feel time together. The violinists (Muneko Otani and Jennifer Leshnower) play this entire, subtly shifting passage as if they were one person. Listen! Aren’t they amazing?

0:23 The bassoon, wrapped in the warmth of the viola and cello, enters on a single note. The tone quality shifts from moment to moment, as each of the three instruments alternates between sustaining and rearticulating the pitch. At times the result is eerily hornlike; at times it approaches a saxophone timbre. The note gradually dies to two instruments, then one, then none.

0:47 Again, the bassoon, viola and cello enter, this time with a little more confidence, adding a second note. Again, they die away, one by one.

1:14 A third attempt, slightly more expansive.

1:41 The fourth try starts off well, but then goes awry, ending up on a strangely distant pitch.

2:10 The wrong direction again, with more persistence. The viola and cello play close to the bridge of their instruments, which gives the sound more of an edge, an added strain to the effort.

2:31 A tentative attempt to correct course.

2:57 Four increasingly intense fragments, each one phasing in and out of the key, each one oddly out of sync with the accompaniment.

4:37 A series of violent outbursts, rapidly alternating with moments of tenderness.

5:00 The first violin spins out of control, separating from the rocking figure for the first time.

5:20 Now the second violin shoots off in a new direction, and the rocking pattern that held the piece together to this point is shattered.

5:30 The five instruments converge rhythmically for the first and only time.

5:40 All five instruments participate in an intense, slow arioso, joining and separating from one another in various pairings. It seems odd to me now, but this passage wasn’t in the original version. After the first performance, though, I felt that the fragments heard so far needed some kind of consummation, even if it was just a consummation of their fragmentedness.

6:55 The violins gradually reestablish the rocking pattern.

7:35 The piece concludes with the same distant, puzzling note first heard at 1:41, a note of conflict, isolation and tender regret.

Again, this aria is the second movement of Furies and Muses. The piece uses Classical forms to explore the fine line between creation and destruction, between order and chaos. If you are interested in hearing/reading more, click here.

Please let me know what you think of this kind of Composer Commentary, and if you have any suggestions for ways to make it more effective.

Oh, and a caveat for those of you who are hearing a piece of mine for the first time: this aria isn’t really typical of how my music sounds, but it is definitely typical of how my music thinks.

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