Archive for October, 2006

We had the outstanding Mirò String Quartet in residence this week. There were many highlights to their visit, but the best part to me was the seminar they gave for our composers. They did a reading session on one of my students’ works, giving feedback on notation, pacing, expression and string technique. Several good points were raised. One in particular resonated strongly, I hope.

Composition students learn a lot about how each instrument functions, and what techniques are specific and idiomatic to each instrument. With this newfound knowledge, there is sometimes a tendency to rely too heavily on the technical side of the instrument, forgetting that this knowledge, for a non-performer, is conceptual, as opposed to tactile.

Example: composer wants a really rough sound from a passage, and instructs the violinist to do a tremolo bowing near the bridge. The result is satisfactory, probably. But it might have been better to simply mark the passage “roughly” and leave it to the violinist to find the best way to get that sound.

I’m not saying that specific technical instructions aren’t a boon in many situations, and, in fact, absolutely necessary in some. But it’s easy to fall in love with a superficial awareness of how the instrument works, at the expense of a deeper awareness of how the musician works.

Giving the performer an idea of the resulting sound you want can actually be much more challenging — and much more rewarding — for everyone than simply saying “put your finger here and move the bow like this.” I suppose there may be some people who go into music because they enjoy following instructions, but I can’t believe there are that many. And I don’t think I would want them playing my music.

All of this brings to mind an experience I had a number of years ago in a similar reading session. The ensemble came to the conclusion of a passage, and I turned to the student composer and asked, “How was that?”

His answer: “Well, could we bring up the volume a bit on the cello?”

Great example of a young composer spending too much time with technology, to the point of being out of touch with what it actually means to perform a piece of music.

Speaking of which, I was a bit disconcerted to see most of the students with their faces buried in copies of the scores at this reading session. There is plenty of time to follow a score while listening to recordings. Young composers need to make use of their opportunities to sit close to a first-rate ensemble, watching their bows, watching the way they interact with one another, gaining insights into how four great musicians think as one.

(And finally, I have to note how much fun it was to have Sandy Yamamoto, Mirò’s second violinist, back all these years later after she swept through my theory classes with flying colors in the late 1980s.)

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Singing silver is on the front page today.

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“Enlightenment is man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. Such immaturity is self-caused if its cause is not lack of intelligence, but by lack of determination and courage to use one’s intelligence without being guided by another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own intelligence!” — Immanuel Kant

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In February, Eastern Michigan University is planning a festival of my music. My understanding at this point is that there will be three concerts, on three consecutive evenings, featuring six of my works: a duo, a trio, a quartet, a quintet, a wind ensemble piece and an orchestral piece.Anthony Iannacone is organizing the event. He first contacted me almost three years ago, but it wasn’t until this past spring that we were able to confirm mutually workable dates.

I’ve not met Tony yet, but we’ve spoken a few times on the phone (actually, we’ve left one another a lot more voicemails than we’ve actually spoken). This week he gave me the tentative programs for the festival. I was surprised to find that they were considering performing Facade, a piece I wrote 23 years ago. The news brought back bittersweet memories.

Facade was premiered at a student composers concert when I was in the graduate program at Juilliard. The piece takes an 1890sish waltz — kind of a salon melody — and twists it through some increasingly irrational Straussian harmonic shifts until it completely shatters into inarticulate fragments. After a minute or two of stumbling about in confusion, it gradually reassembles itself into a fragile version of its former self.

This kind of musical surrealism wasn’t unheard of at the time, and it’s certainly become pretty commonplace since. I had no intention of creating a manifesto; I was just writing what I wanted to hear. So the reaction I got at the premiere really caught me off guard. People were angry, sarcastic, contemptuous.

A few days afterwards, a friend informed me that David Diamond was telling the students in all of his classes that they shouldn’t play my music. I made an appointment with him to find out what he was upset about. He sat with a seething grimace as I tried to explain my train of thought in the piece, saying only, “You can’t do that in music” before showing me the door.

Facade got quite a few performances in the early 1990s, but I don’t think it’s been played in almost ten years. Pulling together a perusal score to send to Tony has me looking back over it for the first time in awhile. Now, of course, I’m struck by the rudimentary instrumental writing – idiomatic enough, to be sure, but not as sensitive to the potential of the instruments as I would like to think I am now. But the piece certainly packs a nice sucker punch.

So off it goes to Ypsilanti.

David, wherever you are, rest in peace.

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Tonight begins the third annual Shake It Up Festival in Greensboro, North Carolina. Run by Composer/Saxophonist Mark Engebretson of UNC-Greensboro, the festival includes three lectures, three pre-concert talks and three concerts.

My Appendage, from 1993, will conclude the final concert on Saturday night.

Appendage is one of my most intense works – I’ve sometimes billed it as “a Psychosexual Song Cycle in Six Consecutive Sections.” The form is interesting: the first five songs gradually accrue motives and text fragments, which finally coalesce into the Last lullabye that concludes the piece. Some people consider it my best work; I think of it as one of the better examples so far of a particular kind of work I do, pieces in which the text is composed as just one of the elements of the music, on equal footing with rhythm, timbre, harmony and melody.

Appendage (1993)

  1. Appendage
  2. tes yeux
  3. warm eyes
  4. Appendage
  5. Recognition
  6. Last lullabye

If you are interested, you can hear it here.

Because of its length (33 minutes) and scoring (soprano, vn, vla, vc, cl, sax, pno) Appendage is hard to program, so I’m particularly appreciative of Mark’s efforts in putting together the forces that will play the piece on Saturday night.

The festival’s focus this year is on composers residing in North and South Carolina. As might be expected from any regional collection of composers, the result is a real mixed bag of styles and artistic interests. Other composers we’ll be hearing: Ben Johnston, Karel Husa, Michael Rothkopf, Scott Lindroth, Reginald Bain, James Paul Sain, John Fitz Rogers, Stephen Anderson, Mark Engebretson, Edward Jacobs, Allen Anderson, John Allemeier, Adam Josephson.

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I started using notation software in 1990. For years, I kept backup copies of all my pieces on diskettes. As time went on, these diskettes were capable of holding more and more information, but they hit a ceiling around the end of the decade. Over the first few years of this century, they were phased out, replaced by CDs.

Since I spend much more time with my head buried in sixteenth notes than I spend keeping up with technological shifts, this change caught me by surprise. I saw the CDs becoming more prevalent, but it didn’t occur to me that diskettes would disappear as quickly as they did. I got two different disk drives to help me get through the transition, but now even those no longer work with current operating systems. As a result, a handful of the pieces I wrote in the 1990s no longer exist – I printed most of them, but not all.

Which is okay – the ones I didn’t print probably weren’t worth the trouble. I don’t find it difficult to move on – I’ve got a lot of new music I want to write. And now my living quarters are more spacious than ten years ago, so I’m able to print everything.

CDs hold a lot more information than diskettes. I could barely fit a large work on a single diskette; I can fit 50 of them on a CD. But I hate backing up files on CD, because I can’t get the rewriteable ones to actually rewrite, so when I revise a piece I have to toss the disk I’ve saved it on. Then sometimes I just want to back up one piece, and it seems a waste to burn a CD for something so small, since it just gets tossed when I make revisions.

Has anyone found a good solution to backing up notation files? If so, I’m all ear. I’d like to be able to keep copies I can make little revisions to from time to time. And I’m on a Mac OS 10.3.9, if that clarifies.

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Kyle Gann rode into town Saturday, his loaded Prius serving as mode of transportation, briefcase and suitcase, unplugged and ready to play. He was here for two reasons: a Composition Seminar called “Great Rhythms of the 1990s” and a performance of his Snake Dance No. 2 by the Philidor Percussion Group.
A high-mileage briefcase is an absolute necessity for anyone who carries around as many scores and recordings as Kyle does. A seemingly tireless proponent of the music he loves, he showed the students pieces by Michael Gordon, Mikel Rouse and John Luther Adams, as well as a few choice samples of his own work, all in a discussion of the polyrhythms that dominated the Downtown scene at the end of the last century. Students practiced performing 9 against 8, saw different ways of notating complex rhythmic relationships, and sampled some of the sonic diversity these rhythmic resources engendered, from heavy metal to blithe transcendence.

The evening concert, subtitled “The American Experimental Tradition,” featured music by Henry Cowell, William Russell, John Cage, Lou Harrison and Kyle Gann. Gann’s piece was easily the most viscerally enjoyable of the group, with four percussionists and the composer playing unison and interlocking rhythms in a constantly shifting pulse – like a heavy groove morphing through a dozen tempos per minute. Formally, the piece alternated between what Gann called poetic and prosaic modes, in a way that is difficult to describe but immediately recognizable. Best of all was the opportunity to watch the composer play his own music – synching up to all the wild metric shifts on his sampler keyboard.

Another treat was William Russell’s Four Dance Movements, three of which were composed in 1933, and the fourth, a tango, in 1990. I wasn’t familiar with these pieces — they are truly gorgeous, in a twisted way. Particularly fun were a waltz in 7/4 and a haunting march in 3/4.

Also on the program: Cowell’s Ostinato pianissimo and Return, Cage’s Trio and Three2 and Harrison’s First Concerto for Flute and Percussion. The members of Philidor – John R. Beck, Rob Falvo, Wiley Sykes – and their guests performed the music admirably, with insightful commentary along the way.

And now I have had the truly weird experience of meeting and spending extended time with someone I felt I already knew, having read Kyle’s blog for about three years now. You know what? It may have been weird, but it was also very pleasant. Conversation over lunch, dinner and postconcert repast ranged easily through many of the same topics each of us has posted on the ether many times before. He was a very gracious, easygoing guest.

And he’s probably over at postclassic right now, denying he was ever here.

picture: Kyle Gann (second from right) rehearsing with Philidor Percussion Group.

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