Archive for January, 2008

Here’s my second annual rant about children’s music, a topic I find constantly confounding. Last year I was befuddled by “Bingo.” This year, “Do a Deer” has my head unhinged.

Forget for a moment the unlikelihood of a family learning solfege in 1930s Austria. Maybe Sister Maria had an Italian or French music teacher, for all I know.

Forget about Si replaced with Ti as the leading tone – maybe she had a British nanny.

What I want to know is why Hammerstein couldn’t come up with a rhyme for “Sol, the Bottom of My Shoe,” or “Sol, a Slice of Fish Filet.” Instead, what do we get? “Sol, a Needle Pulling Thread.” That’s just lousy diction.

But wait a minute: maybe Hammerstein was making fun of amateur music-teachers. Or singers who can’t produce clear consonants, for whom there is no functional difference between sol and sew.

But I suppose that may be a little fa-fetched.

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When our faculty was discussing who we should bring for our annual Twenty-first Century Residency this year, we thought it was about time we invited a youngish composer who hailed from outside the USA. We weren’t able to find a suitable date for the first person we contacted, though, so we started looking elsewhere.
As it happened, Ransom Wilson decided to start a new contemporary ensemble here (see previous post) and had in mind programming a piece by Huang Ruo.That fit beautifully with our department interests, so Ruo was our guest last week for the ACME concert.Huang Ruo is what many composers strive to be: uncompromising artistically and tremendously successful professionally. He often walks the borders between music and not-music, managing to make the fine line come alive through the force of his artistic personality.

He will tell you he is a visually oriented person, and the piece performed here by ACME certainly fits that profile: Confluence for fifteen players and kinetic painter (2005) as the twisty title indicates, incorporates a live painter into the performance. The music, like many of his works, is powerfully visceral — think Varèse with a tender, enigmatic side. The piece falls into six continuous sections, and the artist has to create six improvisatory works in time with the angles and moods of the music as it is played. For this performance, the painter worked offstage with oils and six canvases. There were several cameras trained on him, and the resulting images were projected on a screen over the stage. In other words, we watched each canvas evolve as we listened to the music.

The painter was Joseph Tilford, who is also the dean of our School of Design and Production.

As with many of Ruo’s works, this dance along artistic borders can sound superficial when you read about it, but it is so bound up in his esthetic persona and so potently realized, it is always fully convincing. He is working with inner convictions, not surface gimmicks.

In his seminar, Ruo played other pieces that similarly pushed the audience into unfamiliar territory. He also showed a video of a performance of Confluences in which the artist used water colors on glass – the colors, of course, were in constant motion, which the artist guided and mixed in response to the music. The camera was beneath the glass, so none of his actions were visible, just the smears, drips and blurs. It was mesmerizing.

Oil on canvas was a lot less malleable than water colors on glass, but it did possess the advantage of permanency: the six paintings were auctioned off at the conclusion of the concert, with proceeds benefiting our scholarship funds.

l. to r.: conductor Ransom Wilson, painter Joseph Tilford, composer Huang Ruo
with ACME musicians

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When I was first hired herein 1987, one of my responsibilities was to start a contemporary ensemble. The group I started thrived for about ten years, puttered down for another five years as my composition career started to pick up a tailwind, and halted completely when I became Dean of the school in 2003.The first ten years were mostly fun, although conducting was never something I loved doing – I found that it directly interfered with my composing mindset. In the last few years it became increasingly difficult and frustrating to fit the ensemble in with all of my other responsibilities. I felt guilty when it finally died – I knew the students really loved it and benefited greatly.

So when Ransom Wilson was hired to direct our orchestra this season, I was delighted, but I was even happier when he announced, soon after he arrived, that he intended to start a contemporary ensemble. ACME, as the group is called, gave its first concert this week.

Most musicians know Ransom as the virtuoso flutist from Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Professor at Yale University. Many others realize that he has, in recent years, developed quite a nice little conducting career – he’s conducting Peter Grimes at the Met next month.

Those who have really followed Ransom’s career closely, though, know that he was one of the first mainstream virtuosi to take minimalism seriously in the 1970s, a fact he recounts here. Accordingly, the first half of ACME’s concert this week featured three perspectives of minimalism, which I’ll refer to as Early Phasing, Expressive Potential and Minimalism on Steroids.

The first work was Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood (1973), a composition from what I affectionately think of as the Male Pattern Baldness period of minimalism – so-called because 1] part of the point was to make patterns as clear and obvious as possible, and 2] while men who did it were widely celebrated, women who did it had a hard time being taken seriously. Five musicians perform, armed with claves, one tapping out a steady pulse while the others enter one by one, subtly shifting the pulse groupings. I’ve heard this piece many, many times – it’s a staple of percussion ensembles, as a kind of rhythmic etude that’s great for young players. The piece has done the opposite of growing on me: I found it fascinating the first time I heard it, less and less so with subsequent hearings. Now it leaves me pretty indifferent, although it’s nice to see new young audiences connecting with its straightforward magic.

The next piece was a recent work of Martin Bresnick’s: My Twentieth Century (2002). The text is an adaptation of a wonderfully understated but touching poem by Tom Andrews, listing random things that happened to the author in the century gone by. Bresnick turns the poem into a lovely ritual. The ensemble – flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, piano – play a repetitive Bulgarian dance of death. In varying groups of two, the musicians step forward to two podia to recite individual lines from the poem. The piece finds a wonderful expressivity in predictability: it doesn’t take long to recognize the pattern through which the recurrent line, “My brother died in the twentieth century” will return, and waiting for it to reappear, each time spoken by a different voice, exercises a special kind of fatalistic hypnotism over the listener.

To conclude the first half, we had the large-ensemble version of Michael Gordon’s Yo Shakespeare. The title is a quote from one of the composer’s childhood friends – his telephone salutation whenever he called up Gordon on the phone. Gordon used some of the newly-available software of the early 1990s to create a rhythmic tour-de-force: interlocking tuplets crossing the barline at crazy angles, all with a hyper rock band scoring. The result is both fascinating and exhausting.

For the second half, we got a work from our guest composer – about which more later.

And what does ACME stand for? “Nothing,” says Ransom. “If anything, Another Contemporary Music Ensemble.”

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There is much to be said in favor of an established form, whether blank verse, heroic couplet, or any other. Instead of striving for an original personal form, at the risk of achieving no such thing, the poet employs a given form; he may then devote all his efforts to making it express everything he has to say. With rare exceptions, the more original a poet is, the less he considers it a limitation to employ a given form; furthermore, by continually working with the same form, he will exercise his mind to think easily and naturally within it and will become sensitive to the subtlest variations of which this form is capable.

W.H. Auden, translated from the French by Christine Lalou

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We all know how crucial it is for inexperienced composers to hear their music. I almost said “young composers,” but inexperience isn’t about age, necessarily. Of course, it’s important for all composers to hear their music, but for inexperienced composers every performance is a formative experience.

On Tuesday night, our woodwind faculty gave a concert that was in many ways typical of the music-making around here these days: one piece from the 19th century, two from the early 20th, two from the 1970s and four from the 21st century – including two premieres.

I’ll start with the premieres, since they were both works by students of mine. Our faculty had a reading session of student works in December, giving feedback on notation and idiomatic writing. At the conclusion, they chose pieces by James Stewart and Felix Ventouras to premiere on this concert. They (the performers) were so pleased with the results, they are planning to do the same thing next year, which is really great for us. I’m guessing our students will challenge them a bit more next time around – almost all of them were playing it safe, and I think they had an ear-opening experience when they heard the difficulty of the other pieces on the concert.

Like, for instance, Roshanne Etezady’s Glint for saxophone and clarinet, which is a fiendishly fast, virtuosic display piece. Etezady’s a member of the Minimum Security Composers Collective; this is the first work of hers I’ve heard. The performance sparkled just as the title might lead you to expect.

Igor Begelman (clarinet), Tadeu Coelho (flute) and Taimur Sullivan (saxophone) each played unaccompanied pieces on the program. Knowing them as I do, if you told me that they were going to play solo pieces, I would guess that Igor would play something Russian, Tadeu would play something cute, and Taimur would play something avant-garde/improvisatory. And that’s exactly what they did: we got Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for clarinet, Margaret Cornils Harlequin for flute, and Mai for saxophone by Ryo Noda. This last piece was the most enjoyable for me – Noda is a saxophonist himself, and found beautiful ways to incorporate shakuhachi-like inflections into the piece, a lovely work dedicated to his wife, whose name provided the title.

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The estimable Mr. Claus brought me a copy of Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise for Christmas, which I’ve just finished. I’m not the literary or musical critic this book deserves, but I can offer a bit of a personal appreciation.

Here are seven things I like about The Rest Is Noise:

1. Political nuance – there is no uncomplicated good or evil in this book, just progressions of events told with remarkable evenhandedness. As befits a history of the twentieth century, everything is relative. You can infer a few things about Ross’s preferences, but they are never presented as unmitigated truths.

2. Narrative strategy - Ross uses the following narrative structure repeatedly: a] introduce composer(s), [b] introduce cultural context, and c] trace the impact of composer and culture on one another. Sometimes a and b are reversed for variety. It’s a very effective and illuminating approach. It’s especially nice to have composers’ impacts expanded beyond their peers, which is how music history is usually presented.

3. Personal resonance – I’ve always been a subscriber of the “be careful what you wish for” school, and this book is, among many other things, a confirmation of my worst fears: one story after another unfolds as a tragedy of a composer getting, more or less, exactly what he wanted.

4. Clear-sightedness – Ross understands and accepts that the road to professional success in music is often paved with political shenanigans and dumb luck. Stories of each composer’s rise to prominence are presented frankly, without vitriol or sugarcoating.

5. Humility – for someone with such outstanding narrative gifts, Ross resists the urge to create a false meta-narrative, to explain everything that happens over the course of a hundred years as a reflection of a unifying central hypothesis. That humility works in the book’s favor, resulting in a story that operates much like a piece of music or poetry: we are left with a broad array of powerful impressions from which to draw our own conclusions.

6. Poetic threads – instead of providing a meta-narrative, Ross gives us poetic threads: artistic lineages that connect people, events, and concepts across the decades and the continents. And just when you think he’s stretched a thread to the snapping point, his needle pierces again, and all the loose strands are stitched together.

7. Favorite line – speaking of poetic threads, here’s Ross describing what La Monte Young did to Webern’s textures: “Twelve-tone writing became something like Tai Chi, combat in slow motion.”

If there is an overarching theme, it’s Ross’s desire to place Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus in roughly the same position with regard to the twentieth century as Goethe’s Faust held in the nineteenth century. To the extent that the correlation holds true, I can only hope that the twenty-first century learns to read Mann with a bit more delight and a little less terror.

In any case, thanks, Mr. Claus — you’ve done it again.

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One of the greatest pleasures I find in writing multi-movement works is the opportunity to create formal parallelisms – corresponding passages that converse with one another across broad stretches of music. A nice recent example of this potential is Kyle Gann’s Sunken City, which contrasts two dramatically and subtly differentiated musics in its two movements. Compare the endings of the two movements: the first one ends with a knowing quip, the second with quiet gasp. What do these endings say to one another? What is the connection between them? What separates the wink from the sigh? These questions, and their answers, give me endless satisfaction.

In all of my multi-movement works, I carefully consider how formal parallels interact. Should all the endings be similar? Should I go for maximum contrast in my beginnings? Should there be a gradual development from first movement to last? These questions cannot be answered generically – like many life-choices, the answer is different in each instance.

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This is the third anniversary of an infinite number of curves – time to take a look back at the last 12 months. I always seem to get a perverse pleasure out of doing this several weeks later than everyone else.


Premiere of my new woodwind quintet Child’s Play at Duke University and the North Carolina School of the Arts by Ensemble I-40. I heard the first performance but missed the second. Child’s Play is a lark — an attempt to create a light-hearted piece that reflects the strengths of the woodwind quintet ensemble. It was fun to work with musicians of this caliber, especially Igor Begelman and David Jolley, with whom I’ve worked before, and Joseph Robinson, with whom I was working for the first time.


  • Performances of Wright Flight by the Mansfield Symphony Orchestra. One of the actors created some amusing cartoons on his MySpace page, which I’m sampling here.
  • Premiere of Mister Blister at the New World Symphony Forum Concert — Mister Blister was written for Violin Futura, Piotr Szewczyk’s baby. He commissioned a bunch of two-minute pieces from a variety of composers and played them all over last season — I think he’s playing them again next month in Santa Fe.
  • MusicNow Fest at Eastern Michigan University; performances of Amadeus ex machina, Big Brothers, Blown Away, Façade, Furies and Muses. I had to give a speech, which is not my specialty, but otherwise, the three-day festival was a real pleasure.


Guest lecture at Seisen International School in Tokyo. I spent a week in Japan — my first trip to Asia. Fascinating, fascinating, fascinating. Unlike any of my travels to Latin America or Europe. I’ve tried, but I’ll never find a way to adequately describe my experience.


Performance of Singing Silver at the North Carolina School of the Arts. This was take two: the first performance was on the Sequenza21 concert in New York. For this second performance, I had much more control over the balances and look of the piece, which helped a lot with the results. Mostly I love this piece because it stretches me into unfamiliar territory, which always makes me feel a hair smarter.


Piotr strikes again, performingMister Blister at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.


Furies and Muses featured at the International Double Reed Conference in Ithaca, NY. The performance was organized by Jeff Keesecker. I was very disappointed not to be able to attend; I hadn’t seen Jeff since we recorded the piece about five years ago. He reported that it went very well. I was deeply ensconced in composing four new works for fall premieres.


Child’s Play featured on the 2007 Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music of the Bowdoin International Music Festival. Another performance I was sorry to miss.


Blogger’s holiday.


Exploring my love for spoken rhythms.


Premiere of Still Point. A highlight for the year, in terms of, once again, taking me out of my comfort zone and forcing me to stretch. This was the first time I had set someone else’s words to music in over twenty years. The premiere took place in the living room of a friend; the second performance came two weeks later. Interestingly, the published version is selling well already.


Premieres of Entrance, Exit and Dark Circles on an all-Dillon concert at the North Carolina School of the Arts. This concert was a tremendous consummation for me: I had been dreaming of mounting a performance like this, with a theatrical format for my music, for ten years. I got everything I wanted out of it, especially some scintillating performances.


Announcement of Schumann Trilogy Consortium Commission. I’m very excited about this commission, because it gives me a chance to pull together so many of my interests, on a scale I’ve seldom had access to.

2007 will also go down in history as the year I was mistaken for:

  1. Frankenstein’s monster.
  2. My two-year-old’s big brother.
  3. Both of the above.

The correct answer is number three, of course.

That’s it for 2007. Now here’s my annual, heartfelt thank-you to Jerry Bowles for hosting another year of these random ruminations. I hope you all have a richly rewarding 2008.

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