Archive for March, 2007

I’ve long been intrigued by the behavioral differences between patriarchal and matrilineal societies. In a patriarchal society, the person in charge is typically a leader, the one who ventures out into unknown territory, exhorting everyone else to follow. In a matrilineal society, the person in charge is most often the one at the center, the one who is directly connected to everybody else.

In the new music world, the patriarchal model is held up for praise more often – we tend to honor composers who break new ground and dismiss composers who emphasize communication and centricity.

My ideal new music society would be called parentilineal, I suppose – it would value both leadership and centrality equally. I like to think that having a stable center and an adventurous periphery is the healthiest combination.

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Sundry thoughts upon returning from a week in Tokyo:

RESPECT: I have a newfound admiration for people who treat others with respect. The Japanese are ever-mindful of respectful behavior – a fact I was immediately made aware of on the bus from the airport, when the intercom announced “Mobile Phones Are Not Permitted On This Bus, As They Annoy The Neighbor.”

And you know what? They do.

GOOD TIME TO GO: The Vernal Equinox is a national holiday – a great time to head for Japan’s sacred spots. We found ourselves on beautifully laid-out grounds outside a rural temple. The adjoining cemetery came equipped with a flowing trough of water, with buckets and sponges for respectfully scrubbing your ancestor’s tombstones.

UNEXPECTED CHALLENGE: I don’t have too many problems with allergies, but something in the Edo air hit me pretty fierce, making my eyes and nose run at an Olympic clip. Normally I would take that kind of flow in stride, but there are few things more disgusting to the Japanese than blowing ones nose in public. I spent much of the week sneaking away from the crowds to avail myself of every opportunity for a daub of kleenex.

I resisted the urge to refer to surreptitious syrup-tissues in that last paragraph.

But not in that one.

STRANGEST IMAGE: My one-year-old son fell asleep on one of our forays through the city. The aforementioned allergies happened to hit me pretty hard on that walk, and I have to wonder how I must have looked strolling through some of Tokyo’s busiest streets cradling a limp child in my arms with tears streaming down my cheeks.

SPEAKING OF WALKING: On the streets of Tokyo, walk straight, no wavering, or you are liable to get clipped from behind by a speedy bicyclist. They are fast, they are numerous, and they are generally very safe – but their trajectories are finely calculated, so don’t throw them any curves.

FOR TIRED FEET: I can’t recommend the onsen – Japanese spas – enough. Five of us shared an amazing dinner (30 distinct dishes) followed by neck-deep dips in piping hot tubs. Then we spread out mats in a large room and slept (don’t tell anyone, but some of us slipped out for a 3 a.m. splash in the family tub). Breakfast was almost as sumptuous as dinner, and another trip to the volcanic waters had us all feeling squeaky clean for the day to come.

SPEAKING OF SPEAKING: I’ve journeyed a number of times to Europe and Latin America, but this was my first foray to the Far East. In all of my other overseas trips, no matter how well prepared I was linguistically, there would always come a moment when I would have to explain that I couldn’t understand what was being said. How refreshing to go to a country where everyone immediately assumed I couldn’t speak the native tongue!

TOTING TOTS: There are a lot of good reasons to avoid taking a toddler on a 14-hour plane ride*, but one benefit was the universal goodwill expressed by everyone we encountered, from strangers on the subway to pedestrians on the street. There are some human truths a speechless child can communicate far more eloquently than any of us who spend far too much time typing words onto a screen.

*Although I must say my little guy is a much better traveler than I am – he’s been on 24 plane trips in his short life already, so he has the whole process down pat. He’s the only person I know who actually seems to enjoy going through airport security.

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I taught, or presided over, an interesting class on my compositions at Seisen International School yesterday. The class was comprised of students enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program – in this case, a roomful of 11th graders who have chosen to focus their studies on music. Prior to the class, I was given a list of topics they had covered in music theory, which appeared to be roughly a year-and-a-half’s worth of college curriculum.

The class got off to a rough start, since the first disk I had brought to play turned out to be blank – I found out later that the version of iTunes I had been using was flawed – so I had to improvise my way through a revised class plan.

No problem – I’ve taught thousands of classes by now, so there are a number of topics I can expound on at a moment’s notice.

I found a disk that worked and slipped it into the stereo. Then I asked the question I often use to get started with an unfamiliar group of people: “How would you describe this piece to someone who had never heard it?” This question immediately puts me in touch with the students’ vocabulary and the ways in which they relate to music – do they describe it with technical terms, or emotionally, or in terms of surface features? From there I can refine their responses, help them find the vocabulary to articulate their ideas.

The class was supposed to be about me and my music, but I feel a responsibility with such young listeners to address larger topics, so I turned to the topic of form. The piece I had played was Devotion, so I began discussing Variation form. I showed them how various motifs and gestures in the music were related to one another. We later moved on to binary and ternary forms, for which I was able to play samples from my work.

At that point, I learned something interesting: the students enrolled in this International Baccalaureate are required, by the time they graduate, to compose twenty minutes of music. In a concluding Q&A; session, they asked me great questions about composing – how do I write endings, how do I come up with titles, etc. The questions were fun, illuminating and spirited.

I’m actually indebted to the fact that my wife was there to give a flute demonstration immediately following my presentation: she was better at drawing questions out of the students than I was. She got them to talk about the problems they face in their composing, and grill me for possible solutions.

In any case, the whole experience enhanced my curiosity about the International Baccalaureate program. There are interesting advantages and disadvantages to having teenagers declare their professional focus at such an early age. It certainly seems like a great head start to the more ambitious ones.

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I’ve been in Japan for 24 hours, and I never want to go home again. Not because Tokyo is so wonderful, just because I don’t think I can live through that 22-hour trip (door-to-door) again.

But seriously, things here are off to a wonderful start. Japanese officials, from customs to school guards, have been without exception gracious and helpful every step of the way. I’m in a pleasant hotel, right around the corner from an excellent fresh food market, among other things. Speaking of food, I’ve had several delicious meals already, which is not the way things usually are when I travel in unfamiliar places — usually the first few meals are pretty awful, until I figure out a bit of how to get what I’m looking for.

As for the trip, less said the better. I know a number of people who make the trans-Pacific journey a couple times a month, and I have newfound respect for what they go through. They must have some pretty thick scar tissue over the wounds to their sleep-patterns.

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I’m off to a residency at Seisen International School in Tokyo. I’ve never been to Japan; I’m expecting to learn quite a bit. Hopefully I will be able to report some interesting things from my trip.

I’m also looking forward to the opportunity to visit with some family there — something I seem to be able to do wherever I go.

The front page blogroll hasn’t kept up with my latest posts – if you haven’t seen them, my full blog page is here.

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Below is the convocation speech I gave a few weeks ago for Eastern Michigan University’s Music Now Festival. It doesn’t read like some of my other writing, because the written word doesn’t always translate well into spoken text. I’m indebted to Kyle Gann for warning me that speeches need to contain a healthy amount of redundancy in order to be understood.I’ve included links to listen to the musical excerpts in two formats: AIFF and mp3. Use the mp3 if you want to listen right away; use the AIFF if you are willing to wait a bit for better sound.

So here it is:

First of all, let me thank all of you for taking part in this festival, and for inviting me to take part in this festival. To me, an event like this is an affirmation of the power and relevance of art, the power and relevance of the music of our time, and the power and relevance of gathering together like this, for peaceful purposes, to think, to speak, and to listen.

I have been asked, on this occasion, to talk about my music. Talking about my music is a little awkward for me, for a number of reasons. First, going on at length about myself feels pointlessly egotistical, like a closed circuit, looping back on itself. Second, my music is both the most public and the most private part of my existence: the music itself is public, of course, but what I think of it feels very deeply private. Third, I have an irrational fear that talking about what I do will somehow have a negative impact on the actual doing – I am the type of person who would rather drive the car than look under the hood. Fourth, it is misleading to tie musical ideas into neat little packages, because everything I say involves a decision not to say ten other things that are equally pertinent. And finally, music, like love, is just a very challenging topic to verbalize: there is a narrow margin between anaesthetizing the subject with jargon and drowning it in gushy platitudes.

Nonetheless, the nature of this occasion calls for me to overcome these inner objections and to try to share some insights into what makes my music hum. And hopefully a little time spent examining the engine together won’t do you or me any permanent damage.

Although I like to think that my music covers a lot of ground, all artists have themes and issues that recur throughout their work. In my case, there are three of these recurrent themes I’ll be sharing with you today. First, I have long had a fascination with the musicality of spoken text. Second, I’m very curious about my musical heritage, about finding connections between the European art music tradition and the world I live in here and now. And finally, I am a big fan of musical humor, something I know many composers shy away from.

I am going to play excerpts from five of my works for you this morning, five pieces that illustrate these three concerns.

We’ll start with my interest in connecting with my Classical heritage. Let me first make it clear that I don’t in any way regard this heritage as somehow superior to any other heritage – it just happens to be what I know, what I grew up with, what I’ve studied, and what interests me more than any other.

First I will play some excerpts from a piece called Amadeus ex machina which will be performed here tomorrow night by the orchestra – I’m looking forward to dropping in on a rehearsal a little later today. Amadeus ex machina is a whimsical re-imagining of Mozart’s 40th symphony from the perspective of a sophisticated – but somewhat disoriented – machine. Themes are mixed and matched in odd combinations, key centers are skewed in unexpected directions, and Mozart’s entire composition is condensed into a ten-minute soundbyte. The resulting work can be experienced in a number of ways – as a study of contemporary society’s relationship with its cultural heritage, as a commentary on the interaction of art and technology, or simply as an affectionate spoof of one of the greatest compositions in the Classical canon.

The title comes from the deus ex machina – literally, “god from a machine.” The deus ex machina was a theatrical device in ancient Greece whereby a god was lowered to the stage in a crane to resolve seemingly hopeless plot complications. Likewise, in this piece, as hopelessly tangled as the materials appear to become, everything turns out just fine in the end.

To illustrate how the piece works, let me first play the opening of Mozart’s 40th.

  • Excerpt: Mozart Symphony No. 40, first movement AIFF mp3

From this opening, I lifted two things: the first two notes of the main theme [sing] and the fast repeated notes [sing]. You’ll hear those two ideas form the basis for the opening of my piece. I’ll play the first minute of Amadeus ex machina.

  • Excerpt: Amadeus ex machina: opening – AIFF mp3

So, those two gestures — the fast repeated notes and the two-note motif – are adapted and distorted into something that sounds a bit more contemporary.

Likewise, here is the beginning of the last movement Mozart’s 40th.

  • Excerpt: Mozart Symphony No. 40, fourth movement – AIFF mp3

Now I’ll play the last three minutes of Amadeus ex machina,and you will hear [sing the two motifs] along with the first theme of the first movement providing pretty much all of the material.

  • Excerpt: Amadeus ex machina, conclusion – AIFF mp3

Now, why would I take an old piece and distort it this way? Because it brings me face-to-face with who I am, and where I’ve come from. Grappling with material that’s over two hundred years old makes me keenly aware of the meaning of historical time, of the things that have changed, and the things that haven’t. It’s a postmodern impulse, and it always makes me think of Charles Newman’s definition of postmodernism: He called it “the violent adjacency of pure expressivity and pure accessibility.”

As I said, Amadeus ex machina will be performed by the orchestra here on tomorrow night’s concert. Another piece of mine on this festival that has ties to Classical tradition is Furies and Muses, a quintet for bassoon and strings. Each of the four movements is based on a Classical form: Sonata, Aria, Scherzo and Rondo. Which gives me an opportunity to speak a bit about how I approach traditional forms.

Some traditional forms are very straightforward, and can be adapted to a contemporary language quite readily. The scherzo movement of Furies and Muses is a good example. As many of you know, scherzos are traditionally in ABA, or ternary, form. In this piece, the A section is in a fast and furious — almost cartoonish — triple meter. The B section is a mock-heroic duet for cello and bassoon. I’ll play the entire movement, which is just under five minutes long.

  • excerpt: Furies and Muses, Scherzo – AIFF mp3

Hopefully, although I’ve told you that these first two pieces are examples of my interest in traditional Western music, you will have recognized by this point that they also demonstrate my love for musical humor. In fact, this dual interest – traditional form and levity – reflects my genetic heritage in ways that I find both reassuring and slightly spooky. My mother’s side of the family is German; my father’s side came from Ireland. Although it’s a bit simplistic, it’s not inaccurate to say that these two sides have merged in my music. The German genes believe in rigorous form, while the Irish side believes in not taking itself too seriously. Which is not to say that my father lacked structure or that my mother has no sense of humor. In fact, I suspect those are among the qualities that attracted them to one another in the first place.

As long as we’re on the subject of my gene pool, this is as good time for me to tell you how I got into composing in the first place. I started piano lessons when I was six. I immediately fell in love with my teacher. She was an older woman – I think she was 23. I remember my first lesson: she put my fingers on the keys and showed me where the notes were on the staff. I had no choice: I had to go home and write her a love song. The following week, when I gave it to her, she was delighted. I didn’t have the nerve to tell her how I felt about her, so instead, for the rest of the year, I showed up each week with a new piece.

Unfortunately, my courtship technique didn’t work – after a year of lessons, she married some other guy and moved away. But I was stuck – I couldn’t shake the habit, and I’ve been writing music ever since.

Getting back to my approach to form: again, ternary form is pretty straightforward, as that last scherzo demonstrates. Sonata form, however, is a bit more complex. For me, ternary form is architecture, but sonata form is more akin to drama. In a Classical sonata, conflict is presented, developed, then resolved. I’ve been experimenting, over the years, with sonata forms in which conflict plays out in various ways: instead of simply being resolved, it may lead to further conflict, if that is the nature of the material. In my first string quartet, from 1998, the first movement presents a conflict between a parody of heavy metal and a parody of neoclassicism. Here is the first theme, which is the parody of heavy metal.

  • excerpt: Jests and Tenderness, first movement – AIFF mp3

That loud and rather monotonous theme is pitted against a second theme that awkwardly strives to achieve the textures of Neoclassicism:

  • excerpt: Jests and Tenderness, first movement – AIFF mp3

Over the course of the movement, the conflict between these two themes is developed, but rather than being resolved at the end, the heavy metal theme wins out, pounding the neoclassicism down to a bare whimper. So we have a sonata form in which the first theme destroys the second. I didn’t plan for this to happen, I simply created the two characters and let them interact with one another in a way that respected the integrity of each character, each idea. And this is what I mean by approaching sonata form dramatically, rather than architecturally: musical ideas are treated not as building blocks, but as living individuals, and the form is a result of their interaction over time. I find the sonata form principle particularly interesting in this regard, because it gives us the opportunity to examine how we deal with conflict. How do we deal with conflict? What could be more important? What could be more important in these times than to constantly reconsider and refine how we handle conflict?

As I said at the outset, the third recurring strand in my work is an interest in combining music with spoken text. I love the quirky, syncopated rhythms of American English, whether it is sung or spoken. Over the years, I’ve developed several ways of integrating music and spoken text, sometimes using a complex system of cross-cuing, so that it becomes difficult for the listener to discern who is following whom. Here are the first five minutes of Wright Flight, a piece for three actors, projected images and orchestra that tells the story of the first flight at Kitty Hawk by the Wright brothers. After an orchestral introduction, you will hear the voice of the narrator, one of the witnesses of the first flight. Then you will hear the words of Wilbur and Orville themselves — who, of course, ride onto the stage on a tandem bicycle. You’ll have to imagine the projections: they are all photographs taken over a hundred years ago, mostly by the Wright brothers themselves. Here is the opening of Wright Flight:

excerpt: Wright Flight, opening – AIFF mp3

Over the course of some 30 minutes, this piece uses original letters and diaries of the Wright brothers to build up to the moment of that historic flight, and then to trace the aftermath. The orchestra mostly follows the spoken text, although there are some orchestral cues for the actors as well.

The text functions in a traditional way: to tell a story with a clear beginning, middle and end. The last work I will play for you this morning approaches spoken text in a somewhat more unusual way. The piece is called Appendage, and it’s something of a song cycle in six consecutive sections. In the excerpt I will play, the text is fragmentary, constantly shape-shifting, some of it spoken, some of it sung.

This is a passage of about five minutes, from the middle of Appendage:

  • excerpt: Appendage, part four – AIFF mp3

In the beginning of Appendage, all you get are incoherent fragments, mostly spoken: gradually over the course of some thirty minutes, these fragments cohere, with sung lines becoming more and more prevalent. The piece concludes with a completely sung, plaintive lullaby for a lost child. The excerpt you just heard comes from about halfway through the piece.

Again, I love the interaction between music and spoken text. Each of them has an immediacy that the other lacks, and the poetic potentials of the spoken word and music complement one another on a number of levels.

So those are a few of the ongoing concerns that underlie my music — spoken text, humor and our Classical legacy. Again, I find it very challenging to talk about these things. I’m reminded of composer Ned Rorem’s words on this subject: “Speech is man’s most confused and egocentric expression; his most orderly and magnanimous utterance is music.”

Nonetheless, I hope that spending this time under the hood with me has been at least a little illuminating. I am happy to answer any questions you may have, after which I’ll be getting back behind the wheel at the next available opportunity.

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Day Three, Friday, was a little less intense than its antecedent, but even more fortuitous.

The day began with a dress rehearsal of Blown Away, the most recent piece of mine on the festival. Blown Away was conceived for wind ensemble, one to a part. A few weeks before the festival, Scott Boerma, the conductor of the EMU Wind Symphony (and also a composer), contacted me to ask if I would mind having the piece performed with several players to a part. The thought had never occurred to me, so I was intrigued to find out how it would sound. I told him to go ahead.

The rehearsal was excellent. Boerma has a real mastery of the medium, and he knows how to get the best from young musicians. The expanded scoring traded some clarity for overwhelming power, and I warmed up to it very quickly. I left the rehearsal feeling very confident about the upcoming final concert.

Tony and I had lunch at a Greek restaurant across the street. One of the students was a waitress there, and when she told the owner who I was, he sent over a complimentary dessert: a delicious baklava, in a rather generous portion.

Ah, the perks of celebrity.

At 2:00 we headed over to Alexander Recital Hall for a panel discussion. There were three composer panelists in addition to me: Anthony Iannacone, Whitney Prince and Scott Boerma. Max Plank, the co-organizer of the festival, was the emcee, taking questions from the audience and addressing them to the four of us, each of us taking a turn. It was interesting to hear our responses — where they converged and where we differed. There were questions about style, questions about compositional process, questions about music and culture, and one question directed to me that is particularly pertinent here: “How does your blog impact your professional opportunities?”

The fellow who asked that question came up and introduced himself to me afterwards -it turned out to be none other than Fred Himebaugh, creator of the renowned Fredösphere, one of the first composer blogs I became aware of, back in 2004. We got into a quick conversation about the world of composer blogs. Oddly enough, Anthony Iannacone was not aware of my blog – in fact, I found out he had yet to read any blogs at all. That may be changing, as of this week.

After a break for dinner, we returned to Pease Auditorium for the final concert of the festival. Again, attendance was good. This concert featured EMU’s large ensembles: the Symphony Orchestra, the Chamber Choir, the Percussion Ensemble, the Symphonic Band and the Wind Symphony. I was treated to very nice performances of Amadeus ex machina and Blown Away. The concert also had some great music by Christopher Rouse, Ernst Toch and another Iannacone student: Brian Michael McCloskey. (I really appreciate the way the student works were featured alongside established composers, by the way) But the outstanding work of the evening was Iannacone’s A Whitman Madrigal - a gorgeous setting of Whitman’s The Voice of the Rain for chamber choir and piano. I’ve been aware of Iannacone’s music for some time, but hadn’t been exposed to much of it. I have a distinct feeling that will be changing in the near future – this was really a great piece of music.

Free baklava, unexpected encounters, wonderful new music – what a fantastic day. And all this attention has hardly made my head swell at all.

And that wraps up my report on the 2007 Music Now Fest. Again, I was struck by the difference between festivals that try to cover all of the bases and this one, where the focus was on one composer. I really believe that the participants – myself included – came out of Music Now Fest 2007 with a more substantial understanding of composition than is often the case.

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Day Two, Thursday, was the most intense part of my MUSIC NOW residency. Tony Iannacone picked me up at 9 am from the hotel and brought me to Pease Auditorium, where I was scheduled to give the 11 am Convocation Speech. The stage manager, whose name I wish I could recall, was very patient while I fussed about the playback – I had several samples of my music I wanted to play, and the setup seemed a bit tinny to me. He ended up going to another building to get equipment in order to rig up a more robust system.The audience filtered in as the appointed hour approached. Later, Tony estimated there were about 500 people; I thought there were a bit fewer than that, but the bright spotlights in my eyes made me an unreliable judge. David Woike, the head of the Department of Music and Dance, gave a very kind introduction, and then I launched into my spiel.

The speech, which I will post here later, covered a lot of ground, but hovered around three of my ongoing compositional interests: Classical heritage, spoken text and musical humor.

Forty-five minutes, 2200 words and nine recorded excerpts later, I opened the floor to questions. Tony had warned me that the students were often shy, but he forgot to warn them – they had plenty to ask me. The questions were all good ones — challenging and insightful.

A side-note: some in the audience were amused at the flask I kept taking swigs from during the speech – it looked for all the world like I was tippling from a bottle of gin. During the question-and-answer session, I assured them that it was water – and very tasty water at that.

At 12:00 sharp, Dr. Woike had to put an end to the questions because of time constraints. I was then ushered into a large green room where about a hundred students sat on chairs, tables and the floor. These students turned out to be members of a music literature class taught by Willard Zirk. Zirk had collected questions from the students, written on little slips of paper, and shot them to me. The questions covered a wide range of pertinent topics: my compositional process and preferences, the future of music, etc. The class had studied a score and recording of my Amadeus ex machina, so there were technical questions as well. They had gone through the entire piece, identifying all of the connections to Mozart’s 40th Symphony. I wouldn’t be surprised if they found some that I didn’t realize were there.

We went straight from the literature class to an orchestra rehearsal: Conductor Kevin Miller was brushing up Amadeus ex machina. The piece was just about ready for performance, but they still spent an hour and a half on it, fine tuning every entrance and gesture. I tried to give them helpful feedback, but they were already very well prepared.

At 2:30, Tony took me back to the hotel. My three-and-a-half hours of interacting with these students were very invigorating: they were an inspiring and dedicated bunch, just as a friend of mine, who used to teach there, had told me.

After a chatty dinner, we headed back to Pease Auditorium for the evening concert played by faculty, students and guest artists. The concert was free, and well attended. Four of my works were performed: Facade (1983) for violin and piano, Dunigan Variations (1991) for four flutes, Big Brothers (2004) for saxophones, vibe and piano, and Furies and Muses (1997) for bassoon and string quartet.

In between, they premiered two great little pieces for horn by students, winners of a competition sponsored by faculty hornist Willard Zirk. This was a great idea: I’m going to push for something similar at NC School of the Arts. Faculty members get new works for their instruments, student composers get a professional challenge to rise to, and everybody gets to hear a premiere.

After the concert, there was a lavish reception, which certainly made me feel quite well treated, after which Tony took me back to the hotel.

I’m trying to figure out how to describe the many vivid and revealing discussions I had with Tony Iannacone. As I mentioned in my last post, we have many friends, colleagues and acquaintances in common. I don’t want to betray any confidences, though, so I’ll keep what I’ve learned to myself until I can figure an appropriate way to share a wealth of information I think many would find quite helpful and interesting.

On a personal note: right before the concert, a very familiar looking man came up to me and introduced himself as Tim Dillon. I did a double-take before I realized he was a cousin I hadn’t seen in 40 years. He didn’t look familiar from 40 years ago — after all, we were children then — but he looked like he could have been a long-lost brother. It was a lovely surprise.

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