Archive for July, 2007

I didn’t think you’d be hearing from me this week, but I’ve just found out that my Child’s Play will be performed tomorrow night at the Bowdoin International Music Festival. Studzinski Hall, 7:30 pm. I’m actually going to be an Elliott Carter sandwich — Child’s Play will be framed by two of Carter’s etudes for timpani. Ironically, the timpanist will be a former composition student of mine, Joshua Gates. Sorry I won’t be around to hear it.

You can read about the performance, part of the Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music, here.

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I’m hitting the road for a few weeks, with stops in Manteo, Chicago and Cape May, and I don’t expect I’ll be blogging. I’ll be back sometime the second week of August. Meanwhile, for your dining pleasure.

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Over the years, I’ve come to understand and accept that different composers have very different objectives and inspirations for their music. And indeed, why would we wish for a world in which all composers were after the same results? Isn’t it better to have the tens of thousands of composers in the world reflecting the variety and diversity of tens of thousands of cultures?

So I’ve never gotten riled up when I hear of a composer taking a stance that is antithetical to mine. In fact, I welcome the counterpoint in perspective – with a little effort, I can always understand where another composer is coming from.

That is, until recently. I’ve finally discovered a piece of music that has me stupefied. I’ve finally encountered a composer whose purpose is more obscure than I can grasp.

And to think this piece was introduced to me by my two-year-old.

Okay, I can maybe believe that a farmer would name his dog Bingo. I’m not sure why, but it doesn’t seem completely out of the realm of possibility.

But why on earth would anybody feel so inspired by that name as to write a song about how it’s spelled?

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One of the pieces I’m working on this summer is called Entrance- it’s for flute, alto flute, violin, viola and piano. A nice combination, with a really attractive balance of unity and diversity in timbre.Early in the process of composing, I realized that a lot of the music would have be notated spatially – in other words, instead of using time signatures and rhythms, I would have to use a pretty complex system of cross-cueing among the players.

I took a crack at notating it in Finale. The results were just okay; the process was painfully slow. I tried it in Sibelius, and had the same problem.

So I’ve pulled out my straight-edge, my heavy-duty eraser, a stack of pencils and electric sharpener, and I’m writing large chunks of the piece out by hand. The results are beautiful, and going fairly quickly.

Talk about a trip down memory lane – I started using notation software in 1990 and I haven’t looked back. It’s amazing to re-experience all of the advantages and disadvantages of working by hand. Surrounded by all of these tools, I’m remembering other tools I no longer have, or maybe I still have them but they’re buried so deep in some attic box somewhere, I don’t want to bother digging them out. They’re gone and unlamented. Tools like:

  • Electric eraser – I remember it looked something like a Norelco shaver, with an enormous power cord and an eraser nub that would spin mistakes right off the page.
  • Flexible plastic slur drawer – I don’t think that’s what it was actually called, but that’s what I bought it for: a 12-inch straight-edge you could bend to any shape. Great concept, but the slurs always came out looking really lumpy.
  • White-out – I used to have several bottles on hand – great for shaving a millimeter or two off the end of the staff when a system’s measures didn’t exactly add up to 7 inches.
  • Correction tape – white tape in all different sizes, great for covering up hunks of staff lines in cutaway scores.
    Staff tape – didn’t use it much, but it was nice to have in more experimental scores.
  • .5, .7, .9 millimeter Pentel pencils — .9 for beams, .5 for text, .7 for everything else.
  • Purple “non-reproducing” pencils – for creating a grid so all of your vertical beats would line up. Of course, they were only non-reproducing if you didn’t press down too hard.

Advantages of hand notation? Complete flexibility. Whatever I want on the page, I can put there. The big disadvantage is not so much the time it takes, because I enjoy spending time on my music. The hardest thing is making revisions – no delete button to turn to when you want to cut a few measures.

But I’m actually surprised at what an easy time I’m having to this point. It’s all coming back to me – how to give the ties a nice arc, how to angle the hairpin dynamics, how to stack up chords and accidentals – it’s like tying shoelaces, which, by the way, I only do once every few years. I can’t imagine, though, what notating by hand would be like for someone who was raised on notation software. Where does one learn the rules these days? Why would anyone want to practice a craft like this? Wouldn’t the early stages feel pointlessly frustrating?

But I’m glad I’m doing it now, because I know it’s right for this piece. I love technology, but I try to make a point of keeping a master-servant relationship with it: I make sure it does what I want, rather than bending what I want to fit what it does.

I still can’t seem to resist the urge to hit SAVE each time I finish a page, though.

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Since 1999, I’ve been spending the bulk of my summers out on the Outer Banks, an amazing stretch of coastline with deserted National Seashore about five hours drive from here. I’ve had varying roles in a summer arts festival there over the years, from overseeing the afternoon chamber programs to coordinating all of about a hundred performances of music, dance, drama and film. In the last two summers, I’ve reported on this blog about our activities, especially as they relate to new music.

After eight summers, though, I decided I had had enough, and perhaps the festival had had enough of me as well, so I stepped down to spend more time on composing. Their new season is in its third week now, and I’ve been staying home working on the thing I’d really much rather do: writing music. It’s been a great relief to be able to focus inward more than I have in many summers. I’ll be taking a quick trip out to the festival in a couple of weeks, but just as a spectator.

When I’m there, if anyone asks me any questions about housing, rehearsal schedule, repertoire, driving directions, Xeroxing, lighting, sound, weather, ticket prices, etc. I’ll just smile and shrug my shoulders. I’m just there to listen to the waves and gaze at the amazing array of birds and beach life.

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One of the pieces I’m working on this summer is a composition for nine instruments, about nine minutes long, that’s scheduled for a premiere in November. The scoring is odd: two flutes, baritone sax, trumpet, violin, viola, cello, bass and piano. The unusual combination came about because the piece combines the instrumentation of two other pieces I’m working on: one is for two flutes, violin, viola and cello, and the other is for saxophone, trumpet, bass and piano, each about 8 minutes long. The three pieces will all be premiered on the same concert: one to start the concert, one to conclude, and this nonet, which will come at the end of the first half.

I’ve written before about coming up with titles. I have, generally speaking, two scenarios: either I have the title before I begin working, or I come up with the title when I’m close to finishing.

(There used to be a third scenario: some titles didn’t come until years after I’d written the piece. In this third scenario, an old piece would be running through my head and I’d suddenly understand exactly what it was about, and the title that would best convey its meaning. One of the benefits of growing older is that scenario three has just about vanished.)

This nonet is following scenario two: I began working on it about a month ago, and now that I’m coming down the home stretch, I’ve come up with a title: it will be called Dark Circles. The title seems apt for several reasons. First, the scoring, with the prominent bari sax and the double bass, is pretty dark. Second, the material keeps circling back on itself. Third, much of the music has a hallucinatory quality to it, which works well with the sleeplessness alluded to in the title – the dark circles found under the eyes after a night of insomnia. And finally, I like the way the title Dark Circles manages to sound both menacing and slightly comical, which is certainly true of the piece.

The fun thing about scenario two is watching musical materials gradually take shape in an anything-goes atmosphere, then suddenly seeing them coalesce into a very specific entity. When I have the title ahead of time, composing is a matter of heading toward a known destination. Scenario two is more like wandering off into the wilderness, then suddenly recognizing some familiar features that point you in a specific direction. Now that I have the title, which arrived two days ago, I can pin down all of the details with the central idea in mind, and that’s a great feeling.

But here’s the frustrating thing about titles: Listeners often put a too much stock in them, thinking they “get” the piece if they’ve understood why it has the name it has. I know that people will come up to me after the premiere and ask why I called it Dark Circles, and I’ll do my best to accommodate them with some kind of an answer, when what I’ll really want to say is, “Can we please talk about anything besides the title?”

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“No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

Martha Graham, in a letter to Agnes DeMille

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