Archive for October, 2007

I’m producing a concert of my music herethis Saturday night. It’s an opportunity for me to realize some long-held ambitions.Most thematic programming drives me crazy. The performers gather a few pieces with some very loose connection that can be expressed in a couple of words, and that’s about as far as it goes. In other words, instead of a coherent artistic experience, we are offered a marketing ploy.

I’ve long felt that composers are in a unique position to shape an audience’s experience over the course of an evening in a way that’s simply beyond anything performers can accomplish. Composers can create a set of complementary works that, when performed together, give the concert experience a compelling form. I first tried this eleven years ago: I treated the evening as an extended sonata form. The first two pieces were in dramatic contrast to one another, just as in a sonata exposition. The third piece — which was in two movements, one before and one after intermission — developed ideas from the first two pieces, intensifying their conflict. The evening concluded with a work that resolved the conflicts between the first two pieces, just as in a sonata recapitulation. Of course, nobody in the audience knew that’s what I was doing – they just heard four independent pieces, one of which was, oddly enough, split by intermission. The point wasn’t to impress them with a novel concept, it was to give them a powerful experience that would make sense in ways they couldn’t quite understand. And you know what? I still get rave comments from people who attended that concert, eleven years later.

Now I’m trying something a little more challenging. All but one of the pieces on my concert this Saturday night were written over the course of this past summer. They were written to complement one another, to give a form to an evening with a clearly functioning beginning, middle and end. The program is called “Telling Tales;” the five pieces are:

 

The framing works, Entrance and Exit, use actors and musicians to tell stories of life before and after the concert, serving as connections between the concert experience and life itself. The next two pieces are very different from one another: What Happened is a three-movement piano quartet, and Still Point is a tender love song. Then comes Dark Circles, which is the meeting point for all of the musics on the rest of the concert – it combines all of the instruments and materials of the other four works into a frenzied, hellacious dance. It’s the longest, loudest, densest work on the program.

The scoring of the evening is designed in similar fashion: Entrance (flute, alto flute, violin, viola, piano) is almost all treble; Exit (trumpet, bari sax, cello, double bass, piano) is almost all bass. What Happened covers a wide range with four instruments; Dark Circles covers an even wider range with nine instruments. Still Point is the only work with a singer, and it creates a point of repose at the center of the concert, just as the title implies.

There are other threads that run through the evening, but this summary gives an idea of how it’s going to work – thematic programming the way it should be, as far as I’m concerned.

Program and program notes follow.

TELLING TALES
Music and Stories by Lawrence DillonSaturday, November 3rd, 2007, 7:30 pm
Watson Chamber Music Hall

PROGRAM

Entrance (2007) PREMIERE

Cinny Strickland Graham, Entrance
Elizabeth Ransom, Flute

Rebecca Nussbaum, Alto Flute

Jacqui Carrasco, Violin

Sheila Browne, Viola

Allison Gagnon, Piano

What Happened (2005)

Gathering
Congregation
Scattering

Kevin Lawrence, Violin
Sheila Browne, Viola

Adele O’Dwyer, Cello

Allison Gagnon, Piano

Still Point (2007) text by Shona Simpson

Janine Hawley, Mezzo
Sheila Browne, Viola

Robert Rocco, Piano

Dark Circles (2007) PREMIERE

Rebecca Nussbaum, Flute
Elizabeth Ransom, Flute/Piccolo

Taimur Sullivan, Baritone Saxophone

Judith Saxton, Trumpet

Kevin Lawrence, Violin

Sheila Browne, Viola

Adele O’Dwyer, Cello

Paul Sharpe, Bass

Robert Rocco, Piano

Lawrence Dillon, Conductor

Exit (2007) PREMIERE

Robert Beseda, Exit
Taimur Sullivan, Alto Saxophone

Judith Saxton, Trumpet

Adele O’Dwyer, Cello

Paul Sharpe, Bass

Robert Rocco, Piano

TELLING TALES
Music, as we all know, has no trouble standing on its own, but one of its most endearing characteristics is its ability to meld with any other activity. A natural companion for love, work, play, contemplation, conflict, dancing and dining, to name just a few examples, music can enhance everything it touches.

The combination of music and narrative – both epic and lyric — is the subject of this evening’s program, Telling Tales. Two story-telling pieces – Entrance and Exit – frame a Classically structured piano quartet, a tender love song, and a wild work of nightmarish visions.

Entrance is a quiet welcome to the concert experience, using layers of memory to connect present with past. A story gradually unfolds about an audience member whose mind wanders away from the music, drifting back to another time and place. Her memories of that other world are influenced by the music she is hearing, and, in turn, the music responds to the journey of her imagination.

To perform Entrance, actor and musicians must listen closely to one another, responding to cues in the text and music with prescribed gestures and harmonies. In the end, everything we hear belongs to all of us — has shared resonances, however ephemeral, whose impact over time cannot be foreseen.

To read the text of Entrance, visit the “Selected Works“ page of my website and click on “Entrance.”

What Happened is a piano quartet in three movements: Gathering, Congregation and Scattering. Each movement is a different reaction to the shock of bad news. The central movement is headed by this quote from Daniel Defoe (1703):

Wherever God erects a house of prayer
The Devil builds a chapel there
And ’twill be found, upon examination
The latter has the largest congregation

What Happened was completed in November 2004 and premiered by the Atlantic Ensemble at the Maison danoise of the Cité Universitaire in Paris on May 26, 2005.

Commissioned by author Shona Simpson, Still Point is an homage to her husband, Jonathan Burdette. Ms. Simpson’s lovely sonnet, full of vivid, evocative imagery, captures the stability of great love in the whirlwind of daily activity. This musical setting features a prominent viola part, an instrument for which Dr. Burdette has a particular fondness.

Still Point was premiered two weeks ago on the Blüthner Concert Series, which takes place in the Burdette-Simpson home.

The days rush by in fleets like drifts of clouds.
We mean to note them, find their shapes or plot
their known locations, call their names out loud,
but they are here before we know they’re not.

A flock of starlings wheels and turns and dives
as one, the individual birds suppressed
by boundless number; seamlessly they fly
till darkness forces them, like us, to rest.

I’ve heard that when you die your brain reviews
your life, and pauses on the scenes that mean
the most. But what if days, like clouds, refuse
to stop? Like starlings, won’t alight, be seen?

I seek the one still point in all the roiling air.
I close my eyes, and you are there.

Shona Simpson Spring 2007
Dark Circles is the meeting place for all of the other musics on this evening’s program. Combining the instrumentation of the two works that frame this concert, Entrance and Exit. Dark Circles also uses chords, rhythmic figures and fragments of melody from each of the other pieces. The title refers not only to the dark instrumental colors in evidence throughout, but also the way the musical ideas continually circle back on themselves. Despite the dark timbres, however, the title also has a tongue-in-cheek meaning, since dark circles under the eyes are a product of sleeplessness — a topic of some familiarity to the composer.

The evening begins in contemplation and concludes in ebullience: Exit is a quick spin through an entire life cycle, foretelling the future of an audience member as a metaphorical journey from birth to death and beyond. As in Entrance, the text and music are held together through a complex system of cross-cueing between the actor and musicians. It concludes with an exuberant dance in honor of life and death, and everything on either side.

To read the text of Exit, visit the “Selected Works“ page on my website and click on “Exit.”

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I’m in the initial stages of embarking on a major multimedia project, one that I will be spending much of the next two years on. In early discussions with potential collaborators, it’s become clear that the project can take one of two possible paths, which I think of as esoteric and bourgeois.

The esoteric path is fantastical, messy, open-ended, and something few other composers would attempt. The bourgeois path is cleaner, grounded in everyday reality, and something many other composers might take a crack at.

The benefit of taking the esoteric path is the approval of my respected colleagues and the possibility of the honors one is occasionally accorded within the profession. The drawback is the likelihood that relatively few people will find what I’ve done to be of interest.

The benefit of taking the bourgeois path is the possibility of greater audience approval and more performances. The drawback is less respect from the profession.

Which one do I prefer? Actually, neither. My colleagues already treat me well, and audiences are already kind to me. Another honor, another performance – they are always highly appreciated, but I’m not starving for either, and neither one is a substantial motivation for undertaking a multi-year project.

More importantly, both paths are equally challenging, from a compositional standpoint. Despite conventional new-music wisdom, innovative work isn’t really more difficult to pull off than more traditional stuff. There are lots of other parameters that can make a piece difficult to write, or not difficult to write, besides its uniqueness quotient.

So which path will I take? I’m mulling both of them over, and I’m gradually accruing ideas. I’ll make a decision when I get hit with that one idea that just won’t let me go, the idea that I can’t resist sinking my teeth into for the long haul.

At that point I’ll know which path my idea will take me on, and who will like it, and who won’t.

Will I ever question my decision? Almost certainly. I question everything I do.

But it won’t matter in the end. Ultimately, I have to satisfy the person who climbs out of my side of the bed every morning. And he seems most comfortable when he’s enjoying his work, despite the benefits or fallout.

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I’ve become accustomed to not expecting much from premieres – the conditions are rarely conducive to a first-rate performance – but Saturday night was a lovely exception. The performers really delivered, and Shona Simpson, the poet, gave an eloquent and genuine intro that set the mood beautifully.It didn’t hurt that I was sharing the evening with Chopin, Enescu, Brahms, Loeffler and Prokofiev, and yet my piece was accorded the honor of coming last on the program, and getting the most substantial build-up and response. Seems an appropriate way to treat a premiere, but it’s not the rule.

Quite honestly, Still Point deserved the special treatment – it was clearly the equal or better of any of the other pieces on the program. I don’t say that lightly, but this piece really hits the mark.

And although I’ve remarked on it before, I can’t help but exclaim again about the wonderful atmosphere of these Blüthner concerts. It feels so good to be part of an intimate gathering, sipping wine, gathered around the piano and really focusing on the music, in the way much of this chamber music was meant to be heard. I’m not sure how many of us there were – 40? 50? — but we all shared something very special.

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This Saturday night I’m having a premiere of a piece with an unusual backstory.

Some friends of mine, a couple here in town, inaugurated a chamber music series in their home a couple of years back. They pack 40-50 people into their living room, dining room and another adjoining room while the musicians gather around their Blüthner piano.

The husband is a doctor and the wife is an English professor and writer. Last spring, she approached me with a sonnet she had written in honor of her husband. She wanted to commission me to set the sonnet to music for their chamber series. Since her husband is an amateur violist, I set the piece for mezzo, viola and piano.

She presented the score to her husband for his birthday last Thursday, then sent me this note:

Jonathan spent the whole evening after we gave him the manuscript, going over every note. He had never conceived of anything like this, and I had to keep telling him the timetable, and what order we did everything in, and who knew what when, and we had such a laugh when he realized that when we were all over at your house you had done such a good job keeping the secret! And then I got to tell him about the planning for the concert, and again he could hardly believe it. Anyway, it couldn’t have gone better, as a gift I mean. I don’t think I’ll ever top that one.

Can a composer have a more gratifying reception for a new work than that? I’d trade a thousand anonymous ovations for this.

I wrote about my work on Still Point a bit in June here, but it was still a surprise then, so I couldn’t give any details. I just love the poem — and now I can share it:

Still Point

The days rush by in fleets like drifts of clouds.
We mean to note them, find their shapes or plot
their known locations, call their names out loud,
but they are here before we know they’re not.

A flock of starlings wheels and turns and dives
as one, the individual birds suppressed
by boundless number; seamlessly they fly
till darkness forces them, like us, to rest.

I’ve heard that when you die your brain reviews
your life, and pauses on the scenes that mean
the most. But what if days, like clouds, refuse
to stop? Like starlings, won’t alight, be seen?

I seek the one still point in all the roiling air.
I close my eyes, and you are there.

– Shona Simpson

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I had a first rehearsal the other day of a piece of mine with a group of people who had never played my music before. Always an awkward experience. The toughest part is getting started. We extended the introductory pleasantries a bit too long, putting off the inevitable moment when we had to expose ourselves under the worst of conditions – me with my music only half-understood and half-learned by the performers, and the performers putting their technical prowesses on back-burner while they sifted through unfamiliar challenges.

I had a dream many years ago in which I showed up to a party and felt that something was wrong – all the other guests were suppressing little giggles. Gradually I came to understand that they were passing around Polaroids of me naked. When I woke up, I realized that I was dreaming about the experience of attending a performance of a piece of mine – all of my most intimate thoughts on public display.

I think of that dream each time I have a premiere, and even more each time I walk into the first rehearsal of a new piece.

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The North Carolina School of the Arts has Schools of Dance, Design, Drama, Filmmaking and Music. As one might expect, we have our share of quirky faculty members. Among the quirkiest is Jim Miller, our trombone instructor.
Jim, besides teaching a full studio of trombonists ranging in age from high school to grad students, is Associate Principal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Yes, the LA Phil, the one all the way over there on the left coast. There is no direct flight from Los Angeles to Winston-Salem, but Jim makes the trip faithfully every week, catching a flight out of LAX after every Sunday matinee and racing out of here every Tuesday afternoon to get back in time for the next rehearsal. I don’t know how he does it, but he’s doing something right: his trombone students are excellent.

You can read about his weekly travels/travails here.

Last night, Jim stayed a few extra hours to play a recital here. He gives one of these recitals every year, always featuring a few of his own quirky pieces – virtuosic, improvisational forays for trombone, usually with extended techniques, sometimes with electronics. They’re not really my bag, but I’m glad he does them, because I like the fact that we offer our students and our community a wide assortment of music.

This concert also featured the premiere of Attachment by Jesse Blair, one of our composition students. We had a competition this year for our students to write pieces for various combinations; the three winners are having their pieces premiered on faculty concerts. Jesse is a first-year grad student studying with Michael Rothkopf, and his solo trombone piece was our first winner of the season.

As I post this, Jim is on his way back to LA. Don’t know how he does it, but you gotta love the results.

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As readers of my previous post might surmise, I’m in the midst of an immersement in the world of Robert Schumann, for reasons I may have a chance to explain at some point in the future. And, as readers of a post of mine from a month ago know, I’ve been taking an unusual (for me) vacation from composing.  Reading John Daverio’s excellent biography, I encountered (or perhaps re-encountered, since it sounded so familiar) Schumann’s practice in the 1830s of writing numerous short piano pieces, then organizing selections of them into the sets that would become Papillons, Carnaval, etc.

And I thought, “Of course!” — that’s the solution to a longstanding problem I’ve had: I’ve often felt unsatisfied with my piano writing, and the solution was right in front of me.

Now I’ve started composing piano miniatures, taking, at most, 2-3 days to write each one. I’ll keep doing it until I decide to stop, then I’ll take stock of my collection, winnow out the weaker ones, and decide what the remainder are trying to tell me. Are they etudes? Bagatelles? Preludes? Or something else I can’t foresee?

Having written the first few, I’m finding I like my piano writing more than I realized. I’m also getting excellent practice in speed-composing, conceiving the beginning, middle, ending all in a matter of minutes, then fleshing out the details in a few hours. It’s a great way for me to compose – not all the time, but in counterpoint to longer gestations.

It’s amazing to me how many times I have to relearn this lesson. I seem to need frequent reminders of the very things I frequently remind others about.

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Keep the old in high regard, but approach the new with a warm heart. Do not be prejudiced against unknown names.

Critics should engage themselves with the recent activity of the young creative spirits, rather than dawdle over past love affairs. Fashionable withdrawal into the past of pedantic clinging to antiquated customs or dreaming about youthful infatuations is of no use. Time marches on, and we must march with it.

Love the past, act in the present, and fear the future.

Robert Schumann

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