Archive for October, 2005

On Saturday, NCSA’s chamber orchestra, Solisti Symphony, gave a solid performance here of Arnold Schoenberg’s Kammersymphonie No. 1.

A century has gone by since the premiere of this piece, but it remains as freshly challenging for new listeners as ever. As is frequently true with Schoenberg’s works, the problem is not dissonance – harsher dissonances than he ever used have long been commonplace in film music — it’s the density of ideas that can be overwhelming.

What can we say about a piece that has more changes of direction in the first 16 bars than most previous composers put in an entire piece? The audacity is astounding. The music, though never quite incoherent, is hectic as all hell. Themes surface with a quick nod and submerge back into the constantly shifting texture.

Even if you don’t consider the piece an unqualified success, you have to tip your cap that level of innovation, or bullheadedness, or whatever you may wish to call it.

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Sat through a fascinating trio performance on Friday. But it wasn’t a concert.

Or was it?

The theme in our Composition Department this year is collaboration. On Friday, we brought in three guests — choreographer Brenda Daniels, sculptor Greg Shellnut and poet/film editor Julian Semilian – to discuss their creative processes, allowing us to bounce our experiences off of successful practitioners in other art forms.

Brenda Daniels (pictured left) danced and taught in the Merce Cunningham troupe in the 1980s and 90s, which has given much of her choreography a strong modernist bent, evidenced in her collaborations with her husband Jefferson Dalby, a composer of fascinating sound collages. She showed a video of her Kandinsky-influenced “Point At Line and Plane,” for which, Cunningham-like, the dancers didn’t hear the music until the dress rehearsal. Dalby’s tape piece was comprised of found-sound, arranged into rhythmic configurations. (One passage was derived from a recording of their dog, who drinks from his bowl in 7/8 time.) The choreography emphasized linear movement and striking shifts in balance and visual texture.

But Brenda grew up in a household full of Classical music, which has left her with a strong attraction to more traditional modes of expression. She showed another video of a piece of hers that used familiar Spanish guitar music and more conventional partnering steps.

When she speaks of all of her work, her concerns are practical, technical: how can I make this dancer look his best? How shall the male and female figures pair up? Every dance brings with it specific challenges, problems that need to be solved. She seems to have little patience for generalizations, which I admire. When the discussion turned to dealing with creative blocks, her advice was, “Just work every day, do something every day, even if the results aren’t earthshaking, just keep going.” She described Merce Cunningham, now in his 80s, going to the studio to work 365 days a year — Christmas, New Year’s, you name it — even though he can’t even walk any more.

Greg Shellnut, whose 1003 Redux is pictured at left, focused on the desire to keep his work fresh, to avoid repeating himself, even if he created attractive pieces by doing so. And, indeed, his style is hardly recognizable from one work to the next. He spoke of how we learn more about one another by the masks we choose to wear, giving the example of the message we get about someone who dons a Ku Klux Klan hood.

He showed slides of his work, starting with what he called his proudest co-production, his daughter. He described watching her closely during her preverbal infancy, seeing her straining to express herself and understand her environment without the benefit of language, a lesson he has tried to adapt to his own artistic thinking.

“You should be able to make sculpture out of anything you have enough of,” he says, and his pieces abound in creative uses of materials he finds around him in his daily life. Chunks of rubber, suitcases, shoelaces – all become fodder for experiments in design.

He also spoke passionately about the benefit of travel for an artist, how seeing another culture helps one get a better perspective on the meaning of ones own work.

When the discussion turned to collaboration, Greg talked about his work with another sculptor. At one point, they jokingly decided to “do one another,” each one creating work in the style of the other. But they found it was impossible — as much as they felt they understood what made the other’s pieces work, they couldn’t duplicate the process.

Julian Semilian (pictured left) grew up in Romania, spending countless hours in little movie theaters as a boy, taking notes on how his favorite films were put together. He arrived in Hollywood in the 1970s, becoming an apprentice to some of the most successful film editors of the time. By the late 70s and 1980s, he was so much in demand that he was able to put very specific stipulations in his contracts, such as “Every time someone screams at me, I get another $1000 in my paycheck.” (We all should have that one.) As he gradually worked his way up in the system, however, he found himself increasingly stifled, hardened by the intensely capitalist atmosphere. Eventually he realized he had lost his love for film, so he left Hollywood to teach, and has since revitalized his artistic roots through poetry and editing as an art form.

Julian talked about the audience for art, claiming that true artists don’t create for a huge, amorphous concept of “audience,” but rather for one or two or maybe three people at the most. He recounted how a few days earlier a package had arrived in the mail. When he opened it, inside was his latest publication of poetry, and the first thought that went through his mind was, “If only my mother could see this,” at which point he had to wonder if that was really what all of his years of efforts boiled down to.

He also emphasized the importance of economical thinking, of being able to regard an object – whether a line of poetry, a film clip or a phrase of music – and immediately break it down into its essential components, to be rearranged as necessary. He attributed this ability in his life to his mother’s ability to feed and clothe a family living in poverty, just by making the most of the materials she had at hand.

There was far more to digest in the 100-minute seminar, but that was as much as I could get in my hastily scribbled notes.

So, no, it wasn’t a concert, but it certainly delivered everything I hope to get from a concert: lively ideas, vivid expression, and the alchemy of artistic interaction. The students have now been assigned to attend classes taught by these artists, and report back to us what they’ve learned next month.

I am expecting more inspirations and revelations when they do.

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Music from the last forty-eight years, including two premieres and two works by an underestimated twentieth-century master, dealt another full house in Watson Hall on Saturday night.

The occasion was a joint recital by flutist Tadeu Coelho, hornist David Jolley and pianist Eric Larsen. The underestimated master was Francis Poulenc, represented by two pieces from 1957: the popular Sonata for flute and piano and the less frequently performed Elegie for horn and piano. The Sonata seems tireless; is there a chamber work from the latter 20th-century I’ve heard more often? And yet, it remains effortlessly charming, with one of my favorite tempo indications – Allegro malinconico – in the first movement.

The Elegie is a shocking contrast. Composed upon the death of the one of the greatest horn players of all time, Dennis Brain, who was killed in a car accident at the age of 37, the piece is angry, confused, despairing and unsettling – not at all the Gallic sensibility one associates with this composer, and miles away from the Sonata composed at the same time.

There was one duo for flute and horn on the program: Jan Bach’s Four 2-Bit Contraptions from 1964, a diverting set of comic stunts, including parodies of military and waltz music, and a clever evocation of something some of my students have never heard: a skipping LP.

Of the four trios on the concert, two were premieres and the other two were fairly recent works by Katherine Hoover and Eric Ewazen. Hoover’s trio, Summer Night (1986), was a pleasant surprise. I’ve played some of her music and wasn’t hugely impressed, but this piece was very good, with striking ideas and a great sense of timing. The Ewazen trio was a disappointment – the second and third movement had some really beautiful music, but the piece was far longer than its material warranted, and each movement ended with a real clunker of a cadence.

Unfortunate when something so simple can make a good meal leave a bad taste in your mouth.

One of the premieres was by Richard Hermann, a composer/theorist in his mid-fifties from the University of New Mexico. Entitled Zephyrus, the piece traced an elusive sound world from delicate interactions among the three instruments, with a recurrent theme of different timbres on a single pitch passed around the ensemble.

There, I’ve reported as much as I can remember of the rest of the program. Now for the highlight of the evening – for this listener at least – the premiere of my own Embarkation for flute, horn and piano.

Two years ago, David Jolley and the Carolina Chamber Symphony approached me about composing a concerto for horn and orchestra. I was delighted to oblige, of course, and set to work in February 2004. Nine months later, or last November, I completed the piece. The next morning, I woke up, did a quick scan of the score, and realized that I had written a work that was on a far grander scale than I had intended. In other words – it was interminably long.

The premiere was just two months away. In a panic, I set about trying to cut it down to a more manageable size, but my efforts were fruitless. Finally, I realized I had to start over. So David premiered my second horn concerto last February – as it was written in two frenzied weeks in December.

But what to do with the first, sprawling concerto? Well, Saturday night, the first movement was transformed into a trio. We all want to do what we can to save the planet; this was my little contribution to recycling.

The piece is in four sections – ABAB. The A section has a martial air, which really upset me at the time I was writing it, because I’ve never written anything remotely military-sounding, and I certainly had no interest in doing so now. But that was the way the music was coming out, so I went with it. In retrospect, I realize that in February 2004 I was – like everyone else- much concerned with what was going on in Iraq. Great thing, and hard thing, about writing music: you can’t hide from what you are really thinking. And sometimes it comes out in unexpected ways.

The B section is a complete contrast: static, ruminative and pastoral. When the A returns, it is even more aggressive than before, then the return of the B section is even more lyrical and peaceful than its earlier incarnation.

So, two sections that start in completely different places and move in opposite directions. Sound anything like the political climate in 2004?

The performance of the piece was great, and I’m very happy with the first and last sections. The two middle sections need some retooling. In particular, the second A section needs a few stopped horn notes to help punctuate chords in the piano.

But enough about me – how about these listeners? Two Saturday nights in a row, without a note written before the 1920s. Two packed houses, with young and old, music lovers and curiosity seekers, die-hards and first-timers.

I’m starting to believe there is an interested audience out there.

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A cellist hands her instrument to an actor and dances a little shimmy. A percussionist sings a jazzed-up lullabye, tucking his daughter into a bed that rolls around the stage and morphs into a ship. A riddling tap dancer crashes a mad tea party, two crickets chirp in rhymed couplets, and a dragon fills the stage to a menacing drumbeat.

What does this all mean? It means you are witnessing a performance by the Open Dream Ensemble.

On Friday night, I caught a dress rehearsal for the debut of the Open Dream Ensemble, or ODE, a new multidisciplinary art project sponsored by the Kenan Institute for the Arts. ODE is comprised of three musicians (cello, sax, percussion), three actors, three dancers, two artistic directors and a technical designer.

The ensemble performed an original, 60-minute piece called The Amazing Adventures of Anna Marie — and amazing it was indeed. Conceived and written by co-artistic directors Mollye and Kelly Maxner, AAAM is visually and aurally dizzying, taking place in the mind of an eleven-year-old girl as she imagines herself facing her inhibitions and fulfilling her dreams. The remarkably gifted ensemble members, all graduates of the North Carolina School of the Arts, have met up with one another at the intersection of modern dance, new music and contemporary theater to produce a truly original performance experience.

The brains behind ODE belong to my wife, Rebecca Nussbaum, who would have been performing in the ensemble on Friday if she hadn’t just given birth in August. With the support of Kenan, she has been developing the plans for ODE for close to two years. As part of the plan, the ensemble members have all been trained by successful teaching artists from around the country, including members of the Lincoln Center Institute. They will spend the next few months traveling around the region, performing for thousands on stages large and small, and participating in residencies designed to stimulate children and adults with an appreciation for the arts and a better understanding of their own creative potentials.

This debut season is an opportunity to take the ensemble concept for a test drive; future seasons promise increasingly ambitious undertakings. It’s a bit early to prognosticate, but the generous funding, the high-level artistic vision and the educational potential make me think this project is going to be a big winner, which is good news for all of us who care about the present and the future of the arts.

I will be keeping a close eye on this venture for several reasons, and give further updates as appropriate.

UPDATE: Overheard, six-year-old boy after Saturday night’s performance: “Dad, that was the best movie I ever saw!”

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Chamber music demands of a composer the most impeccable technique and depth of thought. I don’t think I will be wrong if I say that composers sometimes hide their poverty-stricken ideas behind the brilliance of orchestral sound. The timbral riches which are at the disposal of the contemporary symphony orchestra are inaccessible to the small chamber ensemble. Thus, to write a chamber work is much harder than to write an orchestral one. — Dmitri Shostakovich

On Saturday night, while all the hoopla was (deservedly) focused in San Francisco, a diverse audience packed Watson Hall for the first concert of the NCSA Chamber Music Society season. I arrived early but had trouble finding a seat, until I managed to squeeze in between an 80-year-old and an 8-year-old. I struck up conversations with each of them, because I’m very curious about people’s relationships to music – and I learned a great deal in the exchanges.

Some might find it crass of me to be interested in such things. Oh well.

The music for the evening was 20th-century Russian: Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev. Note to self: as everyone knows, when you program 20th-century music, you’ll pack the house.

First up was Stravinsky’s brief, understated, but deeply felt Elegie for solo muted viola. Composed in 1944 in memory of violist Alphonse Onnou, the piece occupies a heart-under-sleeve terrain; it’s an introspective, unsentimental, but very moving reflection on the mystery of death.

The novelty work on the program was the first piece on the second half, Prokofiev’s Quintet in G Minor. Originally a ballet entitled Trapeze, the piece was composed in 1924 while Prokofiev was in Paris, eager to make an impression in a town gone Stravinsky-mad. The ballet company, cutting corners financially, restricted the young composer to five instruments: oboe, clarinet, violin, viola and double bass.

The ballet closed after a few performances, so Prokofiev scrounged together six excerpts to create this boisterous, engaging quintet. The music is uneven, but often diverting and occasionally brilliant. It was fun to hear a young composer trying to do what is expected, losing his way from time to time, but having the talent and imagination to transcend the limitations of the instrumentation and the derivative style.

The rest of the program was given over to two Shostakovich warhorses, the Piano Trio in E Minor (1944) and the Piano Quintet in G Minor (1940). The trio is particularly popular on chamber music concerts, and deservedly so: the first two movements are quite fine, and the last two pack a resounding wallop. The quintet is a piece I hadn’t heard in many years, so it was a pleasure to rediscover the tenderness of the fugal second movement and the puzzling charm of the Finale.

The performances were outstanding – but the performers are all friends and colleagues of mine, so my perspective isn’t particularly objective. I will, however, note again that the 300-seat Watson Hall was full well before the music began, two of the works received standing ovations, and the enthusiasm at intermission and afterwards was really lovely to behold.

One gentleman told me, “That Prokofiev was one of the first LPs I ever owned – I bought it back in 1950 and played it over and over again until I wore it out.” When I asked a four-year-old what she thought of the music, she told me that she liked it and so did her kitties.

All in all, not the high-profile evening some experienced Saturday night, but yet another delightful reminder of why we do what we do, why we love what we love, and how many people there are who would love it if we would keep doing what we love to do.

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I’d guess I’ve had over a thousand students in my classrooms and studios over the 21 years I’ve been teaching. There are stereotypes for each instrument, with which anyone who has taught musicians is more than familiar.

But there is a subtle difference between performers and composers (meaning composers who don’t perform) that has become more and more apparent to me.

Performers have a healthy respect for and a clear understanding of the value of practice. If I tell a class that we are going to practice cadences until we are good at them, they will understand what I am saying and get to work with a clear objective and expectation of progress in mind.

If, however, I tell a composer that s/he needs to practice writing endings, the response is often incredulity. Occasionally the student will be mildly hostile to the idea, but more often s/he will just find the notion that one could improve by doing something over and over completely novel.

Many composition students are burdened with the mindset that great composers are born great. They believe that every composition they write has to measure up to the greatest masterpieces in history. It can be hard for them to accept the idea of writing a piece simply in order to become better at composing. The masterpiece syndrome will lead them to complete two to three pieces a year, which, to someone who respects the value of practice means they are making almost no progress.

I have astounded students by telling them I want them to write ten brief works in the coming week, so we can compare the endings and see if there is something to be learned. Students who are burdened with the need to write masterpieces will find it challenging to finish ten pieces in their entire time of study.

Everything that students learn, everything they hear about this art form tells them that they have to produce great music effortlessly, or else they are worthless.

My favorite composer for battling this effortless masterpiece syndrome is Mozart, simply because he is often held up as the most natural composer, the composer who just wrote what God told him to write without the slightest effort.

In fact, Mozart completed almost 300 pieces before he started writing anything that would put him in the history books. If that doesn’t show the benefit of practice, I don’t know what does.

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