Archive for February, 2007

As promised in my last post, I’m going to describe the layout of the MUSIC NOW residency day by day. The residency began on Wednesday (Feb 21) with guest composer (me) arriving at the airport in Detroit. I couldn’t help noticing that the organizers had thoughtfully provided a mid-February thaw – temperatures were hovering in the upper 30s, as opposed to the single digits dominating the weather reports for several weeks. Anthony Iannacone, the festival organizer, met me and took me to my hotel. Along the way, we had a chance to get to know one another a bit, enjoying the first of many conversations that covered a wide range of topics. Tony’s about fifteen years older than I am, but we discovered many mutual acquaintances. Both of us had seen some of the worst side of the late, lamented David Diamond. Tony had studied with Vittorio Giannini, one of the founders of the school where I teach. And he remembered one of my favorite teachers, James Sellars, from his student days.

The only scheduled activity was an evening concert of new music performed by Eastern Michigan faculty. None of the pieces were mine, which was an excellent way to start: I was able to listen and learn, get the lay of the land, before making any contributions to the proceedings.

Here’s what I heard: music by Iannacone and two of his students, Joshua Bornfield and Whitney Prince. These impressive pieces gave me a sense of the character of the EMU composition department: traditional musical values, fine craftsmanship, artistic sensitivity.

The other three works on the program made it clear that the department was not dogmatic in its preferences: we heard six lively piano preludes by Ginastera, Reich’s phasing Nagoya Marimbas and Resanovic’s wild foray into cultural morphing, alt.music.ballistix, for clarinet and prerecorded sound.

So this first day was a chance for me to gauge how to maximize my contributions to the festival. When the concert concluded, Tony drove me back to my hotel, where I gave some thought to my Day Two responsibilities, before drifting off to some much-needed sleep.

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I’m back home from the MUSIC NOW fest, but I’m not sure I’ve fully grasped what I’ve seen and heard at EMU in the last few days. I have a feeling that the significance of what I’ve experienced goes far beyond any personal benefits I may have gained, as ample as those are. It certainly went far beyond what I anticipated.
First of all, it’s important to make the nature of this MUSIC NOW festival clear. There’s no other way to say it: over a period of three days, several hundred people got as far inside my compositional head as possible. In contrast to the new music festivals that try to cover all the bases — giving every composer and every approved stylistic trend an equal hearing — this one sacrificed breadth for depth. Before I arrived, six of my compositions (reflecting my work from 1983 to 2005) were rigorously rehearsed by faculty, guest artists and students. Hundreds of students were assigned to write papers on me, on my music, and on my words. They researched, they asked me tough questions, they measured my responses against their own. In addition to the concerts, there were three events in which I spoke, attended by (my guesstimate) 40, 100, and 300 people.

What is the upshot of all this activity? Following a single composer’s thought process as it progresses over the space of 22 years gives these students unique insights into one individual’s artistic mission. Seems to me that they’ve been given a real opportunity to grasp the nature of artistic activity in a way that is clearly distinguished from the superficial handholding many students expect.

After the events of the last few days, these students are in a better position to understand and appreciate the next composer they meet, and the next one, and the one after that. Compare that to the questionable benefit of playing 10 minutes or so of fifteen different composers and identifying general stylistic trends – helpful in its way, but perhaps not as beneficial in the long run.

So much of our world demands that we learn to make snap judgments, marshalling a few salient details into alignment with a bigger picture. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s good to have academic institutions that push us deeper into thought, rather than faster through received opinion.

In the next few posts, I’m going to attempt to lay out how the MUSIC NOW residency worked, in the hope that other institutions may consider using something akin to this format as well. Hopefully I’ll hear from others about similar ventures. I can’t say it is a perfect approach in every way, but it has plenty to recommend it.

It certainly helped that the faculty and students of EMU are exceptionally collegial, curious and mutually supportive human beings.

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I’m having a remarkable time here in Michigan at the MUSIC NOW ’07 Festival. Anthony Iannacone is a wonderful musician and a real gentleman, and we’ve discovered that we have a lot of mutual acquaintances. First day here (Wednesday), I was treated to two fine pieces by his students, Joshua Bornfield and Whitney Prince, on a program of diverse music, stylistically speaking, including composers Nikola Resanovic, Alberto Ginastera, Steve Reich and Iannacone himself.

Last night was a concert of my chamber music, along with two other student pieces, and tonight is a concert of large ensemble work. I’ll have more detail in the coming days, but I’m squeezing this post in between dinner and the concert, so this is it for now.

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On Wednesday I’m off to Michigan for a festival of my music. Eastern Michigan University is mounting quite an impressive show, with three days of events. Students, faculty and guest artists will be performing six pieces of mine: Facade (1983), Dunigan Variations (1991), Furies and Muses (1997), Amadeus ex machina (2001), Big Brothers (2004) and Blown Away (2005). You can read all about the festival here.

I’m looking forward to meeting Anthony Iannacone, who organized this event. Every other year, he has one of these festivals, which they call MUSIC NOW. Students have been studying my scores, writing papers about my work, even contacting me with questions in advance of my visit. Again, it’s all very impressive.

The challenge for me will be the 45-minute convocation speech I’m supposed to give about my music. I work very hard on a daily basis to keep my enormous ego in check; the prospect of talking about myself for 45 minutes is a bit frightening. I’m not sure how I’ll ever stuff that cat back into the bag when it’s all over.

But for now, I have lots of links. Drew Traxler, about whom I wrote in my last post, has more silly Wright Flight cartoons on his page here. And Beau Roberts, one of the other actors in last weekend’s performance, has an interesting post mortem here. And there’s a nice review of the piece in the Mansfield News Journal.

And the amazing Piotr Szewczyk, whose Violin Futura project I’ve chronicled before, premiered my Mister Blister last Monday along with several other works on a New World Symphony Forum Concert. The following day, he had them all posted on YouTube here. Congrats and thanks, Piotr – I’ll be giving you some feedback when I get back from Michigan and have a chance to give a close listen.

Meanwhile, I’ve got to get back to work on this convocation speech.

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As I mentioned in my last post, Wright Flightwas performed on Saturday in Ohio. I came across this unusual marketing for the performance on the net:

UPDATE: Okay, I have to come clean. These aren’t ads, I found them posted on the Myspace page of Drew Traxel, the actor who played Wilbur. I’ve never met Drew, but he seems to be an amusing guy. He shaved his head into what he calls a New Jersey Wraparound in order to look more like the character he was playing:

Here’s Drew before his new do:

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is dedication.

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If you’re in Mansfield, Ohio tonight, stop by the Renaissance Performing Arts Center to hear the Mansfield Symphony perform my Wright Flight. If you can’t make it because you happen to be in southern Florida, please stop by the New World Symphony Forum Concert on Monday night to hear the premiere of my Mister Blister.

Then drop me a note to let me know how it went — I’m pretty busy holding the fort down here.

J. D. McClatchy was our guest in Composition Seminar this week. McClatchy is undoubtedly the most successful librettist in America, having provided the books for eleven operas, including Picker’s Emmeline, Maazel’s 1984, Goldenthal’s Grendel and, by the way, Rorem’s Our Town. He also did the very successful English translation of Magic Flute that the Met produced this season.

We have all manner of musical guests in Composition Seminar, but we’ve never had a Pulitzer-nominated poet before. The fact that he has such wide-ranging experience with composers was an added bonus.

And what a fun guest – graciously opinionated, generously soliciting the students’ thoughts about text-setting, opera, poetry, etc. By chance, we have several composers here who frequently set their own texts (certainly an effective way to avoid copyright issues). When asked his opinion of this practice, he was encouraging, but he cautioned “composers tend to be, of all things, too wordy. Real writers know how to cut the fat out of their texts, giving you all of the essentials with the fewest syllables.”

Point duly noted.

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Ned Rorem came to town this weekend, in the form of his new opera Our Town, based on the Thornton Wilder play. The work was co-commissioned and performed by our A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute. I caught the final dress rehearsal on Wednesday night.
Our Town is an overwhelmingly competent piece. Rorem is a master draftsman – he can conjure up a compelling musical moment with just a few deft strokes of the pen. Flipping through the score is a great lesson in musical economy: the simplest ideas are handled to the greatest possible effect.

In evidence throughout is a Ravellian love for every nuance of harmony, from the sweet pungencies of the “town” music to the parallel organum in the graveyard scene, and the bitter polychords that underscore some of the most despairing moments.

I wouldn’t be a composer if I didn’t feel like there were some things I would have done differently, but then I wouldn’t want to lead the life Rorem has led either, so there’s no reason to think I should want to write the same piece. He’s written the opera the way he should have written it, and we are all the better for his accomplishment.

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“We are an odd people: We make it as difficult as possible for our artists to work honestly while they are alive; either we refuse them money or we ruin them with money; either we flatter them with unhelpful praise or wound them with unhelpful blame, and when they are too old, or too dead, or too beyond dispute to hinder any more, we canonize them, so that what was wild is tamed, what was objecting becomes Authority.” – Jeanette Winterson

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