Archive for May, 2006

Complimentary tickets are a great boon to young musicians, enabling them to attend concerts they could not afford to hear otherwise, giving them growth opportunities that will pay dividends for years to come. They are also tremendous for anyone else who – for whatever reason – doesn’t have the wherewithal to pay the price of admission.
But I’m always amazed at the number of people who live perfectly comfortable lifestyles, yet insist on asking for comps at every opportunity. With all of the things we pay for without thinking, why do so many people consider music an essential part of their lives, but one that they should get for free?

In particular, I can’t understand why successful professional musicians want comps – after all, they can take the price of concert admission as a tax deduction.

Music is my favorite thing to spend money on. I hate spending money (although I do, grudgingly) on water and electricity — who owns those things? Who made them?

Just compare to other entertainment options. People pay exorbitant monthly fees just for basic commercial cable. 90% of the channels they are paying for, they never watch. What exactly is their money buying them? Nothing – they are simply paying rent on a wire that runs from the street into their homes. In a sense, they are paying tribute to a more powerful social force – the cable company – as if they were locked in a feudal relationship with an overlord.

The concert world is a very insignificant force in our society. I’m happy to give it all the help it can get. I’m not rolling in dough, but as far as I’m concerned, if you have money to spend, spend it on the things that mean the most to you.

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The Winston-Salem Symphony engaged a new – and very young — music director this season by the name of Robert Moody. I’ve known a wide range of conductors over the years, from dreadful to outstanding, and this guy is for real. The orchestra, without any significant personnel changes, is sounding a helluva lot better than it was a year ago. There are still some weaknesses, but I’m expecting further improvement over the next few seasons as Moody has an opportunity to handpick replacements for departing players.

To celebrate the conclusion of his first season, Moody commissioned a new work by an old friend, Mason Bates. Or, I should say, a young friend – Bates is just 27. At this point, he has already won a Prix de Rome and the Berlin Prize, has received a good pocketful of prominent commissions, and was recently featured in a profile for Symphony magazine by Kyle Gann.

In his other life, Mason also mixes hip-hop and electronica under the dj name of Masonic. One of the focal points of his creative work has been finding ways to combine his love for the textures of electronica with the resources of acoustic instruments.

For the Winston-Salem Symphony commission, Mason came up with Rusty Carolina, a piece in which he performs live electronics from within the percussion section of the orchestra. I was fortunate to hear the piece twice: first at the premiere on Sunday, then in a seminar the composer gave on Tuesday.

Alas, the premiere didn’t go well. The opening section, featuring whirring sounds of katydids and cicadas threaded between the electronics and the orchestra, was fine, but in the middle of the piece, where the electronics provide a groove for some funky orchestra riffs, Mason’s computer shut down. He was able to get it back on track by the end, but you have to feel terrible for the guy – what a nightmare.

The good news is that this was just one of three performances, so Mason had a more representative recording to share with us on Tuesday.

In the seminar, he played recordings of three works: an excerpt from Rundfunk for live electronics and acoustic bass, Digital Loom for organ and electronics, and the dress rehearsal track of Rusty Carolina. Rundfunk showed his purely electronica side, with palpably shifting beat groupings and time-stretching textures. This is a composer for whom melody is treated as a special event – the essence of his work is in the rhythm, harmony and timbre.

Digital Loom is a terrific piece for an unlikely combination: concert pipe organ and prerecorded electronic sound. In five continuous movements, Digital Loom has enormous expressive range, from the rhythmic energy of the second movement (Fanfare with breaks) to the non-metrical haziness of the fourth movement (Geraldine’s parlor). The fifth movement, Deliver us from evil, concludes the piece with a raucous accelerando.

Although he has written a synthesizer concerto, Bates prefers to use electronics as just another section within the orchestra. Rusty Carolina exemplifies this approach, and shows the influence of one of Bates’s primary teachers, John Corigliano. (an aside: I think of Corigliano as one of those composers whose creative range extends far beyond the pigeonholes people have attempted to squeeze around him. But that’s another story.) The piece is scored beautifully – not always with the greatest of practicality, but practicality is not the most important virtue to which music can aspire.

One of the fun things about Mason’s music is his realization that electronica has a fundamental kinship with pointillism. His music careens around the color spectrum and throughout the registers of the orchestra, all in careful counterpoint to an insistent beat.

The title, incidentally, refers to the sound of the summer air in the South – Bates grew up in Richmond, Virginia – a buzzing and rhythmic chirruping that can modulate in and out of pure white noise.

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Over the years, I’ve heard discussions of the value of musical intuition that range from complete dismissal to unwavering reliance. But despite the varying opinions on this topic, there is often a fundamental misunderstanding of what intuition actually is.

Intuition is, very simply, instinct. I don’t think anyone would deny that human beings have instincts, certainly nobody who has watched a baby suck for the first time. Science has made great strides in uncovering the causes of instinctual response, but we still have yet to discover exactly how instinct operates.

Nonetheless, it is time to drop the notion that instinct is simply a misunderstanding of rational processes. Those are two separate phenomena.

Forget also the idea that intuition is somehow the same thing as emotion – we may have intuitive emotional responses to things, just as we may intuitively reach for rational explanations to events in our lives. That doesn’t make any of those three strands of cognition the same.

The homing pigeon doesn’t, as far as we can tell, equate home with happiness, nor does it attempt to find reasons for returning to the roost. It simply does what it knows it must.

Human instinct is less sophisticated than that of most other mammals, and we are far less reliant on instinct to get by in the world. In fact, music may be one of the most powerful payoffs of human instinct. Music certainly doesn’t exist simply to fulfill some rational need.

Humans have, for good reason, well-developed rational faculties, and we shouldn’t hesitate to make the most of them. At the same time, we have rudimentary instincts that – because they are so poorly understood — deserve to be developed and maximized. How we bring these skills into play with one another will affect the way our music works, or doesn’t work, as well as how effectively we are able to continue creating.

Trust your instincts, but don’t make the mistake of believing that trusting your instincts means mistrusting your ability to think through a step-by-step process. The complete engagement of intellect and instinct — that’s part of what it means to be fully sentient beings.

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Titania dozes on a bank where the wild thyme blows, dosed with a potion that evokes visions of all manner of gremlins, fairies — and even an asinine suitor.

Her love is an object of ridicule, her husband plots to steal a baby boy from her, but when morning comes, she calls for music and all is set magically aright.

These are the plot strands of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that provide a backdrop for There Sleeps Titania, a new trio for clarinet, cello and piano I’ve completed this week. The piece features hallucinatory passages, devilish dances, darkly comical interludes and foreboding twists.

One midnight last summer, after my wife had endured over twenty hours of gut-wrenching labor with little progress, she was given a narcotic so she could sleep through the contractions and gather strength for what would surely be a strenuous delivery. Instead of sleeping, though, she wound up coping with a series of waking nightmares. I sat beside her in her delirium, half delirious myself with hunger and exhaustion, listening to her hallucinatory ramblings in the disorienting dimness of the hospital room.

After a couple of hours, she was given an epidural and slowly subsided into fitful sleep. The nurses encouraged me to sleep as well, but I was feeling too helpless, too confused and too frazzled to drop off.

We’ve all had nights that felt like they will never end. This one was spent nodding, twitching, drifting in and out of fantastic visions. Despite years of experience to the contrary, my magical self had given up hope that morning would ever come.

Fortunately, daylight finally trembled through the blinds, my wife moaned awake, and events rushed forward faster than I could take them in. At 8:44 am, after 31 hours, a baby boy arrived on the scene.

He has been casting a spell on both of us ever since.

Magic, delirium, poetry, dread, comedy, a new life: in the foreground, a few notes coalesce into tentative harmonies and motives, pick up momentum, twisting and swirling around one another, pulling disparate thoughts and experiences into their embrace.

Eventually the tumult subsides, the air feels oddly different — more transparent — and a new piece emerges: There Sleeps Titania.

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I seldom listen to a piece of music for the first time with a score in hand. The first hearing is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I prefer to at least have a memory of innocence when digging into the score later.

On the other hand, I seldom listen to recordings when I am first learning a new piece. Again, the first contact with the printed page only happens once – why sully the process of discovery by comparing it with a possibly less-than-perfect reproduction?

And yet, nothing compares with the experience of listening to music while following the ideas as they scurry across the page. I’m starting to fully realize the obvious, that the thousands of times I have delighted in following music in the score as it’s being played has had a profound effect on the way I listen. When I attend a performance, I’m listening actively, anticipating the next moment, whether I know the piece or not. I’m not only listening to ideas as they occur, but also as they progress through the course of the composition.

I say this not to express anything out of the ordinary – musicians listen this way all the time – but to express a renewed astonishment that most listeners have never followed music in a score, have never had what for me is a fundamental listening experience, an experience that all other listening experiences relate back to.

What is it like to listen to music, if one has never followed along on the page? Can I imagine such a thing? Well, yes, I can, to a degree. One of the things I imagine is a focus on the juicy moments in a piece of music, or the overall ambience, as opposed to the way all the moments, juicy and otherwise, add up into a compelling whole over the course of time.

But I wonder, does it make sense for me to try to relate to someone who doesn’t read music? Is it appropriate for me to disdain one of the aspects of listening I enjoy the most?

On the other hand, does it make sense for me to write as if everyone could read music? Isn’t that presupposing an ideal that is not only unrealistic, but also condescending?

And if I reject those two extremes, where is the middle ground?

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One of the most difficult things about dealing with tragedy is facing the feeling of helplessness. What can I do, we think, what can I do to fix this? And all too often the answer is nothing.

On Tuesday morning, Josh Hudson, one of our voice students, was killed in a car crash. The campus was stunned by the news – literally dumbstruck, as it happened, because Josh was one of the leads in the production of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, which was set to open last night and tour the state in the coming weeks. Needless to say, the production and tour have been cancelled, leaving many musicians wandering aimlessly through the final days of the term.

And all of us were left wondering what we could do.

As the details emerged, it appeared likely that Josh had been a victim of his own recklessness, driving his speedy car off the road in the wee hours of the morning. Luckily, there were no other passengers or vehicles involved.

Last night, I began writing a brief (3-minute) elegy for soprano and orchestra. After foraging through various texts that were dismissed for being either inappropriate or vocally awkward, I came up with a simple quatrain of my own:

Oh youth, who sings the night on fire
And drives the hours of darkness through the day,
Now rest your voice and climb behind my steady eyes
To ride the years and mysteries away.

At this point, after about twelve hours of work, the piece is near completion. I expect to have score and parts done by Monday. It is possible that it will be programmed on the final orchestra concert at the end of the month, as a tribute to the departed, with Josh’s teacher, Marilyn Taylor, singing the vocal line. I don’t know, though, what will come of that. It’s just as likely that the piece will never be performed. Regardless, the composition will have served a purpose in me, providing something to do in response to an event for which no response is fully adequate.

As for Josh, he was a remarkably gifted young man whose parents both passed away when he was quite young. It’s difficult to separate the way he died from the energy he brought to performance – he was never afraid to go to the edge, to push himself into uncharted territory. That quality was one of the main reasons he was cast as the lead in the upcoming productions of the Open Dream Ensemble, the multidisciplinary ensemble my wife works for.

One text I considered using is a wonderful verse from Dylan Thomas that suits Josh quite well – and indeed is lovelier than anything I could have come up with, and a suitable close to this brief tribute:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

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I’ve said it many times: I have never liked conducting. My deafness is acute enough that I have to rely on my instincts and experience to get the best out of a performance, which can be risky. But that’s not the biggest problem, because I’ve developed a number of tricks to compensate. The real issue is my disinterest in memorizing music. Memorization is an essential tool for a conductor, but not particularly critical for a composer. Or, I should say, memorizing one’s own music is practically second nature. Memorizing the music of others requires work, work that I find truly tedious.
I’ve been able to get around the memory issues by being an excellent reader: I can scan a score quickly and imagine it in pretty fine detail. But my deteriorating eyesight is making that skill irrelevant when I’m on the podium. Now when I look down at a music stand, sometimes all I see is a blur.

So it is a constant puzzle to me that musicians keep asking me to conduct them in new works – and even more puzzling that I keep agreeing to do it. I wonder if I am being too self-critical, but I don’t think so. I know my skills: I move well, give a clear beat, and communicate in a way that brings out the best in most people. But the impediments posed by my poor memory and my declining eyesight, which have no effect on my composing, make me feel like conducting is a waste of time. I’m not so interested in working that hard on something I know will never be as good as I’d want it to be.

All of this comes to mind following the performance I gave this past week. I conducted professional ensembles in three new works by Sebastian Currier, Luciano Berio and Augusta Read Thomas, and a student ensemble in another work by Thomas.

The Currier got an outstanding performance: metric modulations, outrageous polyrhythms and radical shifts in direction were all accomplished with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of musicality.

As good as the Currier was, the Berio was absolutely dreadful. About a third of the way through, I misread a time signature change. It wasn’t until two measures later that I realized something had gone amiss, as the players started to adjust to where they thought I was. In that situation, one must continue reading forward in the score, while simultaneously scanning backward to see what has gone wrong so adjustments may be made accordingly. A few years ago, I would have been able to fix the problem immediately, but my eyesight now has deteriorated to the point that I was unable to see the page clearly enough to figure out what had happened. Several excruciating measures went by with the musicians playing off of one another by a beat or two, while I kept the beat going in an amorphous time signature. Finally, I decided to latch onto the soprano and bring everyone in line with her, regardless of who was “right.” Things soon came together, and we finished well – in fact, one bar that I had never been satisfied with in rehearsal went perfectly.

If the piece had been completely committed to memory, nothing would have gone wrong – and even if something bad had happened, I would have been able to fix it instantly. And that’s what keeps me from being the kind of conductor I think all music deserves.

Ironically, many people in the audience commented on how beautiful the Berio was afterwards. Two people who knew the piece quite well knew that something was wrong, but not exactly what. Which goes to show how tough life is for critics, who are often expected to assess how a performance went without knowing the music. In this case, the musicians – all outstanding, highly experienced professionals — compensated for being lost by bringing the most beautiful sounds possible from their instruments. And, of course, I projected nothing but utter confidence and musicality from the podium throughout.

But I can’t help feeling that I took the Berio for granted, since it was the easiest piece on the program to put together in rehearsal.

At least I saved the worst performance for the one composer who is no longer with us.

The other two works were by guest composer Augusta Read Thomas: her concertino Passion Prayers, which got a knockout performance from the solo cellist, Zvi Plesser, and The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour, which was played gorgeously by the student ensemble. My command of these two pieces was fine, though not on a par with the highest standards one could wish for. I was able to shape these very challenging works convincingly. But that’s not really enough, as far as I’m concerned.

Augusta was a great guest, working hard to convey her array of ideas, beliefs and experiences to our students in three intensive seminars. She gave them a lot to think about, and a lot to aspire to. Her scat-like renditions of what she is hearing in her imagination are particularly enjoyable and revealing.

l to r: violinist Joseph Genualdi, Augusta Read Thomas, part-time conductor

It is common to describe her music as intensely colorful, but that description can be misleading. The carefully calibrated timbral designs are only part of the equation: she has an outstanding sense of harmonic movement, spacing and balance that plays a major role in the spectacularly sensuous results. This mastery of harmony was something I came to appreciate more deeply in the course of performing her works.

Meanwhile what’s next for me?

Time to make an appointment with the eye doctor.

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It’s been a busy, fun and exhausting week of concerts. In the past seven days, I’ve been involved, to one extent or another, in performances of music by Steve Reich, Patrick Long, Emma Lou Diemer, David del Tredici, David Gillingham, James Stewart, Dylan Zola, Joseph Edwards, Gregory Miles Hoffman and Felix Ventouras.

And this coming Saturday, the American premiere of my What Happened, a piano quartet I blogged about last spring when the Atlantic Ensemble premiered it in Paris. Now they are here, rehearsing. I’m looking forward to a great concert, which will be the end of our season here. Then I will be happy to spend a few more evenings at home for a change, instead of returning from rehearsal at all hours of the night.

Back to work.

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