Archive for June, 2005

The best part about the Outer Banks is the National Seashore – gorgeous beaches that stretch for miles without any sign of commercialization. It’s a trek to get out here (a five-hour drive for me, and I live in-state), so the development further up the coast hasn’t hit this far down. I was never a big beach guy, but this is my seventh summer here, and I’ve come to realize that the beach is never a single thing – every visit is a new experience. Many people can’t imagine going to the beach on anything but a hot, sunny day, but overcast skies sometimes bring out special qualities in the air and in the indigenous populations.

Yesterday, Rebecca and I found some time away from work for a pleasant stroll in the sand, in the course of which we saw a school of dolphins feeding about 30 feet away, a flock of pelicans skirting the waves in tight formation, a beached conch shell, and countless splots of jellyfish. The fact that there was a light drizzle made little difference in our quiet delight. I got some great pictures, but for some reason Blogger isn’t letting me upload them.

Last night’s production of Twelfth Night was a victim of a rainstorm, so instead audiences were treated to an impromptu cabaret act in the Art Gallery.

Fine arts and flip flops – sure suits me.

[S21 update -- somebody has taken a chainsaw to my wiki page. I guess that kind of thing is to be expected, but it seems a shame.]

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Greetings from Roanoke Island Festival Park on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the site of the eighth annual illuminations festival. We’re giving 66 performances in the next 40 days — solo recitals, chamber music, percussion ensemble, brass ensemble, jazz, orchestra, Shakespeare, ballet, contemporary dance and film. Most performances are taking place in the outdoor theater at Festival Park, but some of the more intimate ones will take place in the park’s Art Gallery and in the Elizabethan Gardens.

Guitarist Genevieve Leitner
(While Wiki holds sway at S21, I’m not participating, because I’m on dialup out here. But thanks, whoever it was, for putting up a Wiki page about me.)

This afternoon we had music by Brouwer, Pernambuco, Mertz, Andres, Bach and Stravinsky.

Art galleries encourage focused listening; blindfolds are optional

There are still a number of aspects I have to pull together in the coming week to get the rest of the summer rolling smoothly. I’ll try to check in, as long as the phones still work.

Denis Plutalov performs Agosti’s arrangement of Stravinsky’s “Firebird”

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On Monday, I was involved in a little fender-bender. No big deal – someone backed into me in a parking lot. The insurance companies were contacted, the minor damage was reported and repaired.

On Wednesday, I received sixteen letters in the mail from personal injury lawyers, all promising to see that I would be well repaid for my physical and emotional trauma. All the letters were personalized, with details about the accident.

It’s comforting to know that there is someone out there ready to benefit from every piece of information available on the internet. Who knows, maybe someday someone will make a heap of money from my music.

But it probably won’t be me.

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As someone who benefits daily from what the internet has to offer, I’m not anxious to criticize this splendiferous medium. Not only does it open us up to a wealth of information, it certainly answers the yearning for superficial interaction that seems to be printed on each of our itchy fingertips.

New ways of interacting produce new ways of thinking, which is both exciting and worrisome. On the one hand, it’s great to know that our minds are capable of travelling in directions we couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago. At the same time, there are many new lazy habits of thought and behavior to guard against.

These days, my biggest peeve is our cultural obsession with rating and ranking. I’m not talking about serious, productive criticism. I’m talking about the casual dismissal — and just as casual worship — of art, entertainment, personalities, fashions, etc., that becomes far too facile in our touch-and-go discourse.

This kind of thinking upsets me most when I hear people describe individual composers as overrated. In a culture where the professional, not to mention the artistic, role of composers is grossly undervalued, it’s hard for me to accept the assertion that any composer is getting more accolades than s/he deserves. The truth is, all composers are underrated — some of them are just more underrated than others. If and when composers ever rise to the level of, say, sports figures in the estimation of the general population, then I may begin believing that some composers are overrated. Until then, we are all getting far less appreciation than our efforts warrant.

So you’ll never hear me describe any composer as overrated, though I may criticize his or her approach or results. In my world, that kind of facile assessment is seriously flawed.

In fact, I think it’s fair to call it grossly overrated.

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Last week, I reported on doing time in Revision City, reworking passages from various recently premiered works. Today, I’d like to share what kinds of things typically catch my ear when I’m down to the last few tweaks.

In the first movement from Sonata: Motion for flute and piano, there is a passage that didn’t quite accomplish what I had wanted. If you click here, you can listen to the premiere performance while I describe the problem and my solution. The movement is just under five minutes long.

At 1:44, a melody turns up in the flute, accompanied by a rollicking piano part. Thirty seconds later, the melody repeats a half-step lower over a dissonant pedal. I had wanted this recurrence to begin at a lower level of intensity than its predecessor, but then build up, over the course of about 20 seconds, to an exuberant high, serving as a culmination point in the movement.

To my ear, all of this happens, but I feel like the recurrence lies too low for too long before climbing — it needed a bit more life. So, in the revision, I’ve exaggerated the ornamentation in the line — made it more vocal, in effect — which not only brings some much-needed energy, it also helps distract attention from where the line is headed. That way, when we arrive, the result is both more surprising and more satisfying.

(What I’m trying to describe is only partly a matter of pitch level — obviously, if I just wanted the melody to go higher sooner, the solution would have been easy. What I needed was more energy sooner.)

But you’ll just have to imagine the results for the time being — plans are underway to make a recording, and recordings can take months to years to release.

In any case, this is a good example of a minor revision. The third movement didn’t emerge from my post-premiere chisel nearly so unscathed.

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Jeanne Beaumont

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The illuminations festival was featured in today’s Weekend section of the Wall Street Journal. A six-week festival of music, dance, drama and film on the Outer Banks, illuminations has it all — arts, pristine beaches, seafood, and occasional hordes of mosquitoes. I’m the Music Program Director, so I’ll be heading out there in ten days with some further reports.

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One of my all-time favorites, William Faulkner, is getting a boost from Oprah Winfrey these days. Of course, some of us are far enough out of the mainstream to have heard the news via Greg Sandow. But composers are talking about it on the Forum page. I’ll just use this space to share two of my favorite Faulknerisms:

“The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”

“I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written on it.”

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Last month I had four premieres, which is very unusual for me, and reflects the unusually fortuitous set of creative circumstances I had last summer and fall, which I may write about in a future post.

At this point, I’m dealing with the aftermath of those four premieres. Not just the professional aftermath, which is nice, and for which I am grateful, but the artistic aftermath.

I learned early on not to buy into the popular vision of the creative artist as someone who throws brilliant ideas on a page in a fit of inspiration, then waits for the next fit before starting the next piece. For me, composing is a slow, labor-intensive process. Great ideas are crucial, but they are just the key in the ignition. A whole lot more has to happen if you are ever going to get out of the garage.

One of the most important parts of the process for me is the time of reflection after the premiere, which is also a time of tremendous ruthlessness. At that point, I am in the mindset that says a piece of music is only as great as its weakest moment. I go through the work over and over, both with and without recording, seeking out those moments that don’t measure up. Of course, I do this throughout the composition process, but the post-premiere phase is particularly unsentimental.

After a few days (never in haste), I begin cutting and refurbishing. Sometimes just a single note, or even a single articulation, gets a tweaking. Sometimes (thankfully, not so common at this point in my life) entire passages get tossed.

Russell Peck once likened this aspect of composing to cutting off fingers, but I don’t feel that it’s quite so painful as all that. In fact, I enjoy the idea that I’m getting very close to having the piece just right.

So here I am, in a serious post-premiere phase, revising like crazy. I’ve refinished the flute sonata that was premiered on May 17, which really only had one passage I was unsatisfied with. Now I’m working on the wind ensemble piece. With a large ensemble work, I find it very revealing to collect all of the individual parts and see what the players have written in them. Little indications of what to listen for, what to blend with, and where to catch the conductor’s eye can give me valuable insights into notational refinements.

Next will be the horn concerto from February, and finally the piano quartet from two weeks ago. Through it all, I’m also reworking the piano/vocal score of my opera, which I didn’t pay enough attention to the first time through, in 2001. Composing the opera took so much out of me, I’m afraid I shortchanged the piano/vocal score, thinking it wasn’t all that important. Boy, was I wrong.

Somewhere in there I have to get to work on a new quartet that’s supposed to be premiered in October. But I won’t, I can’t, rush through this final stage of refinement — even if it costs me a few fingers.

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Last month’s survey by the Music Critics Association of North America reported that composers aren’t breaking new ground these days. What does that mean? From a journalist’s point of view, “breaking ground” means novelty, which translates into things that are easy to write about. Putting an unusual sound source on the stage, incorporating new technology or theatrics into performance, even using a catchy or provocative title: these are the things that journalists can grab onto, hooks that make writing a feature or a review on a tight deadline a bit more manageable. None of these things are inherently good or bad, or even inherently new or old, but they can be perceived as newsworthy.

That’s the superficial meaning of “groundbreaking,” but what of the more significant kinds of innovation? Is it true that composers are just rehashing — or to use a very unfashionable word, developing — what’s been done before?

That would be a very sad situation, wouldn’t it?

Or would it?

What does the word “groundbreaking” really mean? Everywhere I look, I see broken ground. I see peaceful meadows, teeming forests and weedy lots dug up the name of progress and growth. Growth and progress can be wonderful things, but too often they just serve as a euphemisms for greed and boredom. Ground sometimes gets torn up just to give people’s lives meaning, to mark territory, or to make room for more expensive, expansive automobiles.

These days, I find myself wanting to repair some of the ground that’s been broken, to write music that connects the dots, rather than ever more distantly scattering them. I take special pride in pieces that don’t wear their innovations on their sleeves, music that doesn’t hit you over the head with its newness. I like a piece whose novelty only becomes apparent when you try to peg it on an earlier generation and find it just doesn’t fit.

The perception that great art must be groundbreaking reminds me of the “be fruitful and multiply” dictum from the Bible. Fine, as long as there was a danger of population extinction, and there were adequate resources in the earth to feed expanding generations. At this point, it would appear that there are enough people on this planet that the best chance we have for extinction is self-destruction, so I’m for population maintenance, not growth.

In the same vein, I think we’ve broken enough ground for the time being — physically, culturally and metaphorically — to satisfy even the most severe cases of attention-deficit disorder. There is a place now in our world for composers, for artists, who can reconnect us with one another, with the past and the future — with solid ground.

Mind you, I don’t believe for a minute that there is nothing new to be done. There are so many possibilities, it’s nauseating.

I just feel that novelty is overrated. If we think like journalists, then newness is everything. If we think like artists, then truth is everything, and truth is one of the oldest things going. And it’s one of the few things that hasn’t lost any value over the years.

So if I end up breaking any ground, I’m going to make sure I’m not just marking my territory. If I break new ground, I hope it will be because I have something healthy to plant.

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