Archive for April, 2007

We’ve got some surprising young composers around here.

Saturday night was our annual end-of-the-year concert, which I used to call a Student Composers Concert, but I’m calling it a Young Composers Concert these days. Why the change? “Student Composers” implies that listeners shouldn’t expect much, which is only sometimes true; much of what is heard can withstand very high expectations. There are, of course, the pieces that strain to achieve things the composers aren’t ready to achieve — but that’s true, or should be, with composers of any age.

“Young Composers” may carry the same implication to a degree, but it also implies adventurousness, exploration, freedom. And that’s what we got Saturday night: seven composers challenging themselves in seven very different ways.

Then on Monday night, Gregory Miles Hoffman, who studies here with Michael Rothkopf, gave his Master’s recital: two stunning pieces that combined live and electronic elements to gorgeous and harrowing effect and a Pierrot-plus-ensemble song cycle called The Moon Chalks Out Her Message in Letters of Light. This expansive title hints at the expansiveness of the concept and composition: thirty minutes, seven songs, with texts cobbled together from fifty-one different poems in over twenty different languages. The entire thirty minutes stays more or less in one tempo; combined with the constantly shifting languages and delicately morphing timbres, the overall effect is both disorienting and mesmerizing. The piece is filled with felicitous moments, which the student ensemble conveyed beautifully, with special props to mezzo Amy Hartshough for switching from Japanese to Macedonian to Estonian to Khmer from one line to the next.

And tonight another graduation recital – this one by Felix Ventouras, who will be playing his own piano parts in several of his pieces.

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Saturday night, the New York Woodwind Quintet gave the second U.S. performance of Evis Sammoutis’s Metallaxis here. Sammoutis is a 28-year-old Greek composer who moved to England in 1998, where he now teaches composition and guitar. The piece showcases a lot of the standard extended techniques, some of which are more effective than others, but uses them in a way that is more closely integrated with a central artistic vision than is often the case. In other words, the piece is more than a smorgasbord of individual dishes – all of the gestures emanate from the implications of the title, which is the ancient Greek word for transmutation. The piece also engages in some word play with the title, giving the horn a central role as a “metal axis” around which the other instruments revolve.

A good work for (as I’ve noted before) a challenging combination.

The really splendid piece on the program was Pavel Haas’s quintet. Haas, a Jewish composer from Czechoslovakia, died in the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. This piece, written when he was about thirty, is really terrific stuff, with glimpses of Janacek, Moravian modalities and Jewish liturgical music. The third movement is hilarious, and the second is sneak-up-on-you gorgeous.

Because of various travel issues, we had to completely revise the schedule for the quintet’s visit at the last minute, so I didn’t get the opportunity to spend as much time with the musicians as I had hoped. Despite that, though, one of the highlights for me was a very pleasant 4 am chat with Carol Wincenc about quintets, Italian boys’ names that end in A, and teenagers.

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Some of my favorite pieces of music come out of the lied and opera traditions. I’ve composed a number of works in these two traditions, with varying success. But I don’t have the kind of allegiance to either tradition that allows me to overlook their shortcomings.

I gave the second performance of Singing Silver on Tuesday night. It took me a few months to realize that the piece really wants to sidestep these two traditions – lied and opera – and connect with a much older tradition of blending music, poetry and storytelling.

Singing Silver is really a child of the troubadour tradition.

The singing in Singing Silver is part of the instrumental texture; the essence of the piece is in the interplay between spoken text and music. It’s at once a more ancient and more contemporary way of combining words and notes.

First performances are often opportunities for me to workshop pieces, to find their kinks and fully understand their strengths. The first performance of Singing Silver on the Sequenza21 concert last fall was an excellent case in point. I had an opportunity to feel and understand the music from within a specific performance.

I’ve reworked much of the piece, integrating and clarifying the roles of text and music. For the second performance, or the first performance of the newly constituted work, I had several hours of rehearsal in the hall over two days – an impossible luxury at the Sequenza21 concert – with people I trusted giving me feedback on balances and interpretation. I was able to watch a DVD of a rehearsal, in order to make decisions about sound quality, stage setup, and overall artistic impact. We had the chance to design the kind of amplification that would work best for the environment and for the communicative needs of the piece.

For Tuesday’s performance, I was seated in a spotlight stage left, performing the text from memory, with the four musicians (soprano, cello, horn, amplified guitar) seated together stage right. Between us, the stage was dark, with fragments of the text projected onto a screen, fading in and out as I recited the words.

For the performance, the 300-seat hall was practically full, and it felt like I heard positive feedback from everyone who was there.

I’ve had my music performed all over, and there have been some mighty fine performances through the years, for which I’m truly grateful. But nothing beats the kind of oversight I had for every parameter of the performance on Tuesday night, an oversight that is tough to find on the road. To get that kind of control, I would have to be the kind of selfish, demanding person I wouldn’t feel comfortable living with. Here, I get what I want because people trust me, they trust the product I’m working toward, and they honestly wanted to help – and that’s truly gratifying.

Not that everything came out perfectly, of course — there are a couple of small things I would do differently next time — but on the whole, a very satisfying event.

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We’ve got the New York Woodwind Quintet in residence this weekend. They’re playing a new piece called Metallaxis by Evis Sammoutis, a twenty-seven-year-old Greek composer and guitarist now living in England. Sammoutis has won a bunch of prizes at an early age, so I’m very curious. Apparently Metallaxis is a fiesta of extended techniques.
Another piece I’ll be interested in hearing is a quintet by Pavel Haas, the promising young Czech composer whose life was cut short in Auschwitz.

I’m looking forward to meeting the quintet musicians, each of whom I’ve admired for a long while: Carol Wincenc, flute; Stephen Taylor, oboe; Charles Neidich, clarinet; Marc Goldberg, bassoon; William Purvis, horn. As soon as I finish typing, I’m off to the airport to pick up three of them.

Meanwhile, on the homefront, our orchestra spent two-and-a-half hours this week rehearsing and recording a new piece by Felix Ventouras, a student of mine. The piece is called Murder, Hope of Woman, after an early 20th-century play by the Austrian expressionist Oskar Kokoschka. The play is histrionic and nightmarish; the music is appropriately vivid.

And on Thursday night, another student of mine, James Stewart, gave a recital of his music. James has extraordinarily diverse skills: besides composing, he conducted one piece and sang another. Each piece had its fine points, but there were two in particular that deserve mention. The Cry, for guitar and mezzo, set the words “I am hungry, mama,” in several dozen languages from around the world. The piece begins with settings in the languages most distant from English, gradually working its way into European languages, concluding with a plaintive, whispered setting of the words in English. The music is lovely, and the concept is a haunting reminder that hunger knows no political boundaries.

The other piece was Perfectly American, which weaves together the actual words of George Bush, both Clintons, and other prominent political figures to point out their subtle inconsistencies and blatant hypocrisies. The piece is both funny and disturbing, and James sang it with gusto.

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Last Friday, our Composition Seminar focused on the nitty-gritties of being a professional composer. I’m always hesitant to discuss these things with students, because it can be pretty overwhelming to face the challenges of making a living when you are having a hard enough time getting some of your music finished, and an even harder time getting it performed once it’s finished. But I also feel like I’d be doing the students a major disservice if I didn’t touch on some of the realities of life after graduation.

Because of time limitations, the session was devoted almost exclusively to the concert composer profession, such as it is. Topics covered: licensing organizations, publishing, self-publishing, recording, management, taxes, websites, internet resources, competitions, grants, festivals.

All of these students already take career development courses that would have been almost unimaginable when I was a student. In those days, a musician who could present an attractive publicity package was seen as somehow suspect – how could you possibly devote yourself to refining your artistic skills and still have enough time to market yourself? Now all young musicians are expected to have some marketing savvy to go along with their artistic skills.

Is the world a better place for this? A yes or no answer would be foolish, since there are myriad advantages and trade-offs, even within one musician’s career. I tried to emphasize to the students that every career path is different. I told them that they had to constantly reassess and reprioritize their goals, striking the right personal balance between artistic and professional aspirations that would allow them to live the lives they wanted to live.

I hope they benefited. I hope, if they have questions or confusions, they come ask me, instead of stewing in any unhealthy juices.

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“Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories.” — Roger C. Schank, cognitive scientist

I’ve never had much interest in taking an architectural or sculptural approach to music. There are composers who can think spatially about their music, but for me time (music’s medium) and space (the medium of the visual arts) are not equivalent.

Far closer to the way I experience music is the way I experience narrative: events build one on another, leading us from the surface into the depths of an imagined world.

Many composers shudder at the idea of telling stories with music. Certainly, Mickey-Mousing – creating a story by mimicking real sounds with an orchestra – can get tiresome very quickly. But there are many other ways in which stories can be told.

We have to begin by distinguishing between two often-confused terms: story and plot. There is overlap, but they are not synonymous. Plot-driven stories can be very effective, although they don’t tend to be my cup of tea. Hollywood blockbusters are often plot-driven: characters are stock heroes and villains whose thoughts and actions are dictated by the necessities of conflict, climax and resolution.

Again, these stories can be very effective in a visceral way, but they don’t usually leave me with much to savor.

Character-driven stories offer a nice contrast. Individuals are introduced, each with a recognizable personality – not as types, but as fully realized, living beings. These characters interact and develop, and the story evolves from their interaction.

What happens is less important than who happens.

I find this a very effective analogy to the way I experience music. Ideas are introduced, hopefully vivid ideas that seem somehow true yet fresh to my ears. They interact with one another, and I am drawn ever deeper into their world.

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