Archive for January, 2006

David Cossin is an artist first, a percussionist second.

David was in town this weekend to perform Tan Dun’s Water Concerto, so we had him visit with our percussion and composition students. I love having people here who have followed paths very different from mine.

He started off by playing Ir Shel Shalom by Yoav Gal, a lovely piece for vibraphone and electronics that evoked the world of Bach chorale preludes – a series of tightly knit canons with a recurring, simple phrase sung by a prerecorded soprano over vibe notes transposed into deep bass regions.

Then he demonstrated and improvised on an instrument of his own devising, which he calls, appropriately enough, the Cardboard Tube. Taking a long cardboard tube, available at any fabric shop, he hammers down one end to make it soft and pliable, like a drum head. He then attaches a plastic tube extension, which slides up and down the cardboard tube to get a trombone-like pitch malleability. Finally, a pickup mike is attached to the inside of the extension. Applying tabla drumming techniques to the soft end, he gets a wide variety of pitches and rhythmic patterns. By standing in front of the speaker, he can pull specific pitches out of the feedback, bend them, give them vibrato and squeeze out overtones, all while maintaining a complex rhythmic pulse with his fingers and palms. The effect is mesmerizing, virtuosic – and very beautiful.

Finally he showed a dvd of his brilliant interpretation of Reich’s Piano Phase. He performs one of the parts on a set of drumpads set up on either side of his body, then superimposes (on a scrim) a video of himself playing the other part, so what you see is a four-armed percussionist, with arms that gradually go in and out of phase with one another. The result, as he hoped, is a stunning visual equivalent to the sonic phasing that happens in the music. It was great for the students – and for me – to hear him explain how it all was conceived and designed.

He talked with the students about the issues of the profession: touring with the Bang on a Can All-Stars, his work with Tan Dun on the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the concertos. He urged them to take advantage of their time now to develop their technical chops, because once out in the real world, time and resources for improving oneself get increasingly scarce. He spoke of the difficulties of trying to work in noisy hotel rooms, or without proper instruments to practice on, etc.

We all hear plenty about how conservatories stifle creativity – the truth is, the entire world stifles creativity. We have to take responsibility for not allowing ourselves to be stifled. Wherever you go, you have to carry within you a strong enough spark to persevere under any circumstances.

David Cossin is a great example of a conservatory product who honors his training without being defined by it.

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Today’s the day, so this is my opportunity to weigh in on this too mindlessly worshipped and too frivolously disdained composer.

As far as I’m concerned, Mozart the child genius is a perfectly wonderful thing, not as amazing as some would have it, but definitely up there with the great prodigies.

The Mozart who absolutely astonishes and inspires me, though, is the guy from age 33-35. In those three years, he was

– Terminally ill
– Shut out, for political reasons, from virtually all the professional opportunities available to a composer of his day
– Racing around Vienna to teach piano lessons to uninterested children in their homes
– Deeply in debt and begging for loans from friends and acquaintances
– Supporting a wife and two toddlers (with four children having died in the previous eight years)

In other words, his life was about as grim as it gets. Meanwhile, what was he composing?

– The clarinet concerto
– The last piano concerto
– Two piano sonatas
– Three string quartets
– Two string quintets
– The clarinet quintet
– Two cantatas
– Dozens of songs and other vocal works
– Dozens of occasional dances for orchestra
– Several pieces for mechanical instruments
– Orchestrations for at least three Handel oratorios
Cosi fan tutte
- Die Zauberflöte
- La clemenza di Tito
– The Requiem

In other words, in three perfectly dreadful years, more music than some composers write in a lifetime, and enough masterpieces to make the healthiest and most comfortable composer proud.

That’s the Mozart I celebrate: the Mozart who makes all of my excuses for why I don’t compose more music — and better music — thoroughly embarrassing. The Mozart who makes my complaints about the fact that I don’t get more acclaim for my work seem trivial. The Mozart who showed us that our bleakest moments can be transformed into our most ravishing insights.

Happy quarter-millennium, Wolfi.

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Last Friday, Jennifer Higdon met with our composition students. Interesting person; interesting career. She has led, by her own assertion, a charmed professional life, being in the right place at the right time on several occasions. Her music is very direct, ingratiating, and well conceived.

When we have guest composers, I like to let them talk about whatever they wish – their own music, artistic issues, creative process, whatever. Every guest has something valuable to offer. Jennifer played and talked about a movement from her piano trio and her entire (one-movement) percussion concerto. But the majority of the session seemed to focus on professional development, which I don’t believe had ever happened with a guest composer here before. She had a lot of great suggestions for our students, tips on entering competitions, getting commissions, self-publishing. They ate it up, asking questions and taking notes.

She is certainly a pleasant, unpretentious individual, with a charming disposition, a great sense of humor and a wide-eyed enthusiasm that I can’t help finding infectious.

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Competitions are, as Bartok famously pointed out, for horses. I won a few when I was in my twenties, and quickly decided that they were great professionally, but a bit hard to deal with artistically. I found myself thinking too much about why I had won, or worse, why I hadn’t won.

So I stopped entering competitions, for about fifteen years. Not a great choice professionally, I suppose, but professional success makes me queasy when it isn’t coupled with artistic growth.

Many composers consider composition competitions hopelessly corrupt, with the prize seldom going where it is most deserved. I haven’t completely subscribed to that notion myself, but I suppose it’s a half-empty/half-full perspective – to me, awarding the most deserving work in any competition is such a difficult proposition, it’s a wonder any competition ever comes close to succeeding.

In any case, I’ve started entering competitions again in the last few years. There are a few reasons. First of all, I feel more established in what I am trying to accomplish as a composer, and less prone to letting myself get too self-satisfied or too disheartened by the outcome. Secondly, I’ve come to realize the almost-too-obvious: that all competitions, however corrupt they may be, were originally established by a person or persons who honestly wanted to help living composers out. That’s an idea I can support.

Seems to me there are many more composer competitions now than there were when I stopped entering in the late 80s. Is that a good or a bad thing? It’s a bad thing if we let them be the sole definer of quality. But it may be good in the long run, because it means that each prize carries less weight in the grand scheme of things.

I learned last week that my Revenant: Concerto for Horn and Orchestra won a nice prize from the International Horn Society. The news is gratifying, and also an opportunity to take a closer look at the phenomenon of composition prizes.

First of all, I’m very proud of the piece, which, as I reported about a year ago here, I worked on for about nine months, then completely rewrote in two weeks. As proud as I am, though, I am also aware of a few defects in the music – moments that don’t quite accomplish everything I had hoped. In other words, I have the same relationship with this piece that I have with all of my music – appreciative, but highly critical, and wanting to do better next time.

This particular competition had anonymous entry, which is always reassuring – I hate to think that people are judging what they may believe they know of me, rather than the music itself.

Out of respect for the judges, it would be appropriate to assume that my piece stood out simply as quality music. But there are two aspects to the work that I think may have helped my cause in this competition. First of all, the scope: it’s a twenty-minute concerto, after all, and that has to be more impressive than, say, a five-minute piece for solo horn. This is speculation, of course, but it seems reasonable to suppose that a jury would think that way.

Secondly, the recording I sent in featured David Jolley as the soloist. Again, the competition was anonymous, so the jury wouldn’t have known that they were listening to David, unless they were unusually acute horn aficionados (which may be the case). But they had to at least recognize that they were hearing horn playing on the very highest level, which certainly could have played into their response to the piece.

So was my concerto the best in an absolute sense? Well, I’m not much of a believer in objective standards for music. In other words, I can easily imagine several “bests” in the competition, depending on what each judge felt was most important in a new work. It’s possible that my piece was “best” by one or more of these subjective standards. But I also know that the size of the piece and my good fortune in having the opportunity to write for a topnotch performer could have worked to my advantage.

So I accept the prize for what it is: an acknowledgement of accomplishment, though the exact nature of the accomplishment may be in question. I’m too seasoned to read any larger significance into it. Mostly, I appreciate the time and effort the jury has put into trying to make life for a few composers a little more pleasant. That’s a worthy endeavor, regardless of the outcome.

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Young composers have it really, really hard. Most composition teachers I know do everything they can to help students prepare for the difficulties of the profession, but there really is no way to fully explain to a young musician how tough it can get. Students who struggle with the minimal performance opportunities available while in school are in for a rude awakening when they graduate. The opportunities can go from minimal to zero very quickly.

Soon after graduating, most young composers are faced with the fact that there is virtually no interest or need for their work. It is up to them to create the need and interest.

I had it easy, supposedly. I went into the professional world with a doctorate from a prestigious conservatory and a few substantial prizes under my belt. And yet, in the first six years after graduation, I had but one performance of my music. From my current vantage point, it’s easy for me to see those six years as fruitful in the long run, but at the time they were the longest, most excruciating six years of my life. And I’m one of the lucky ones. Most composers have their horror stories.

One of the problems for young composers is the level of expectation. They come out of school and are immediately thrust into competition with composers who have had years to sharpen their craft and refine their voices. Many of these older composers have worked very hard to find their audience and, sadly, are bent on using their professional status to suppress new ideas that might threaten the position they’ve clawed their way into.

And that’s just the competition from living composers. Composers in the early stages of their careers also find themselves suddenly pitted against centuries of dead composers who got there first and have staked out impressive posthumous territories. Talk about intimidating.

The very idea of “masterpiece” presupposes “mastery,” which can only come with time. First works can be brilliant, beautiful, astonishing – they can be many things, but they are seldom masterful, in the same way as works by a fully mature composer. Young composers who try to rush their way to mastery often end up creating awkward monuments to inexperience. These early works are necessary in their own way, steps that must be taken on the long road to Parnassus.

All of these thoughts have come to me in the last few days in connection with the premiere of my third string quartet. It can take a long time for the most obvious things to dawn on me, and I’m only gradually absorbing the fact that I am no longer a young composer. This realization is both sad and a relief. It’s sad, because my range of potential has, inevitably, narrowed. It’s a relief, though, because I know exactly what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and why – sometimes more than I realize.

In my last post, I expressed concerns about the open rehearsal of my quartet. I needn’t have worried. The musicians were spectacular, they were completely involved in my conception, and they delivered the goods. And, quite frankly, I was an excellent coach, finding just the right words to help them refine their performance so that it positively sparkled.

And I walked away from that rehearsal realizing that I am no longer the young composer that I still carry around inside of me.

So, young composers, stick with it – and someday your reward will also be your loss. This part of your life can be awfully tough, but some of us, at least, are rooting for you.

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I’m off to Greenville, North Carolina today for the premiere of my third string quartet tomorrow night. It will be repeated here on Sunday. The performers are topnotch, but not a regular quartet: Ara Gregorian (director of the Four Seasons Chamber Festival), Ivan Chan (of the Miami String Quartet), Ulrich Eichenauer (former principal viola of the Dresden Phil and member of the Mendelssohn String Quartet) and Michael Kannen (formerly of the Brentano Quartet). They began rehearsing the piece on Tuesday. Tonight I will hear it for the first time in – here’s the catch – an open rehearsal. Not used to having my first rehearsal with an ensemble in front of an audience. Could be pretty interesting.

I’m a bit concerned that this quartet is one of those pieces that looks a lot easier on the page than it actually is. Part of me trusts in the tremendous skills and experience of the performers involved, and part of me is worried that they will just be doing everything they can to hold it together. If so, will I be able to help them? Will the open rehearsal audience be understanding if things aren’t proceeding smoothly? An additional twist is the fact that I only know one of the players, I’ll be meeting the other three for the first time at the rehearsal. Does it seem strange that I find that awkward? It’s so hard for me to establish an effective musical communication instantaneously.

With anything like this, there is always the good chance I’ll end up making a complete ass of myself, which may be more entertaining for the audience than if things proceeded without a hitch. I’ll let you know how it goes when I return.

And if I don’t let you know how it went, I’m sure you’ll understand.

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Just in time to get my new year off to a great start, I’m the featured American composer in the current issue of Chamber Music magazine. The lovely article is by Kyle Gann, and begins, “Allow me to achieve a minor milepost on Chamber Music’s behalf: for the first time here, I’m writing a column about a composer I know only over the Internet.” As much a review of this blog as of my music, the article makes insightful connections between both:

“He is both moderate and moderator, impatient with battles of musical aesthetics in which one side of the coin fights the other for dominance”¦He reserves his anger for the intolerant, and seeks balance”¦

This is just as true in his music. In general it is as finely poised between tonality and atonality as anyone’s I could name. It’s not what one would call intellectual music, but it is written with great care for detail and is often clever.”

Unfortunately, the article is not available online, so if you are dying to read the rest, order your copy soon, while supplies last. I must say, I learned quite a bit from it myself.

And if that doesn’t satisfy, Ken Keuffel wrote an extensive profile (the length and thoroughness of which are very flattering) of me in advance of the premiere of my third string quartet for today’s Winston-Salem Journal. That one you can find here. It even includes a quote from Kyle Gann’s article.

All of this attention is fun, diverting, and good for the ego. Guy in the grocery store says “Hey, you’re famous, aren’t you?” which is both ludicrous and guiltily gratifying. It also provides a nice opportunity to tell a joke about fame I heard from Bobby Mann:

A distinguished professor at an established university teaches a lecture class that has a hundred students in it. At the end of the year, he gives his exam. About an hour into the exam, a young man saunters into the room and, without a word of explanation, picks up an exam booklet and takes a seat. The professor is astonished by the student’s impertinence. Angered, he thinks, “I’ll just let him take the exam, and when he’s finished, I’ll tell him he failed.”

The exam period comes to an end, and everyone comes up to the front of the room to turn in their booklets. All except for the one late student, who still sits at his desk, busily scribbling. The professor, livid at the young man’s audacity, becomes even more vindictive. “I’ll just let him do all the work, then when he turns it in, I’ll tell him he failed.”

An hour goes by. Finally the student comes forward with his exam book, at which point the professor says, “Young man, I don’t even have to look at your exam – you came an hour late, so you failed.”

Quietly, the student says, “Sir, don’t you know who I am?”

The professor is taken aback. “What?”


“NO, I DON’T KNOW WHO YOU ARE,” shouts the professor, fuming, AND FURTHERMORE, I DON’T CARE!”

“Good,” says the student, and he slips his exam booklet into the middle of the pile.

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To start the new year, here’s a big THANK YOU to Jerry Bowles, whose vision and vigilance have made Sequenza21 a real haven for composers and new music fans. Seems like these past few weeks have been very tough ones for Jerry, so I think the anniversary of the S21 blogs is an appropriate time to let him know how much I appreciate all he’s done.

Here’s all best wishes to you, Jerry. Thanks for all your great work.

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