Archive for March, 2008

The other day, my wife was singing “Scotland’s Burning” to my two-year-old son. He interrupted her halfway through:

“That’s a very powerful song, Mommy.”

“Yes it is,” she replied.

“But you don’t sing it powerfully.”

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This weekend we’ll have the Emerson String Quartet here. They’re playing two concerts, Friday night and Saturday afternoon, with two completely different programs. Each concert will have a newly commissioned work – one by Kaija Saariaho and one by Bright Sheng. Friday night’s program is nice enough – Schubert A Minor, Sheng “The Miraculous“ and Brahms A Minor – but the killer program will be Saturday afternoon: Shostakovich 7th, Saariaho “Terra Memoria,“ Bartók 3rd and Beethoven Op. 59, No. 3.

So far, I haven’t taken any heat for booking them into our 300-seat hall, rather than our two other options, which have 600 and 1200 seats. It was a tough call for me, because I knew we would have no trouble selling out the larger venues. But I also know the other two halls would have compromised the experience for both the quartet and the audience. Chamber music is an intimate artistic expression, more poetry than spectacle. Rather than looking for the most income I could generate from these concerts, or giving as many people as possible the ability to brag about having been there, I’m trying to make sure the experience is maximized for everyone who is there.

Like I said, I haven’t taken any heat for this decision yet – but I’m guessing that will change in the next few days.

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about pianist Menahem Pressler’s residency here. Some nice quotes:

  • “In order to have enough time to practice, I have dinner when I get home, then go to bed, then get up out of bed at 10 pm to practice. You have to be a bit of a maniac.”
  • Looking up towards the ceiling as the opening of a student’s phrase reverberated through the hall: “Hear that up there? Meet it somewhere on its way down!”
  • On interpretive license: “Meat needs seasoning”¦but too much seasoning makes you sick!”
  • “You may not always like [your teachers] but you do love them. And what you learn from them, you take with you through your life.”

On an unrelated note, kudos to my freshman composition student Leo Hurley, who won the Winston-Salem Symphony competition I wrote about here. His piece, Echoes of Red, influenced by Miles Davis and George Gershwin, was premiered by the orchestra three times on Tuesday and Wednesday to thousands of appreciative listeners.


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Last month, I wrote about starting on a new orchestra piece, and the delirium of having the music race through my head day and night. This week, I cleansed my mind somewhat by bringing the music into one of my classes, using it to show the students how I approach creating large forms from simple material. Now I’m feeling a bit saner, because I’ve put this music into ears other than my own.

When I wrote about it last month, I noted that the piece was called Memory Palace without explaining the title. A memory palace is a mnemonic device. If we wish to memorize, for example, a speech, we imagine each element of the speech residing in a different room of an architectural structure. Then we imagine ourselves walking from room to room, visualizing the various speech elements in their spatial contexts.

I had in mind for this piece a single, large movement comprised of numerous small sections, or rooms, each of which would contain a single musical idea. The ideas would accrue and evolve through the course of the piece, as the listener figuratively moves from room to room.

In order to keep this from being a simple intellectual construct, I’m engaging myself with the material on an intuitive level by treating the house I grew up in as my own memory palace – in other words, each section of the piece will focus on a specific room in my childhood home. I visualize each room (I haven’t seen the house in twenty-five years – in fact, it no longer exists), each with a specific memory association. Though the listener won’t be aware, or need to be aware, of these associations, they will help me to attain a strong emotional connection to the material.

That was the plan a month ago – it didn’t take me long to realize I was creating an enormous work for an occasion that couldn’t support the scale of my idea – this piece needs to be completed by the end of April, and it’s going to be scored for a modest orchestra: single winds, piano, strings. Given those parameters, I’ve decided to create a small-scale sketch of the piece – under ten minutes, just three rooms – because I don’t want to shortchange the concept. Not sure what I’m calling it yet – maybe Memory Shack? In any case, if this smaller version is a success, I’ll talk with the conductor about mounting the full-scale work at a later date.

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One of the things that almost all composers discover as they go along is that their musical world becomes more private and more peculiar. There’s less willingness to take in the rest of the world, but at the same time the increasing ability to absorb solitude ensures that one’s train of thought holds firmer.

– John Harbison

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I have known a number of artists who were unpleasant human beings – unpleasant in the way they treat others, and in the way they view themselves. They see the rest of the world from a distance, measuring the value of others by their usefulness to the biggest ego in the room.

I used to think that my quest for artistic heights was an excuse, even an invitation, for bad behavior. Now I realize that achievement and mean-spiritedness are only related if we are willing to be spiritually lazy. There is no reason to choose between artistic accomplishment and interpersonal sensitivity.

I know artists who are rotten human beings, and I have no patience for them. Others may say, “well, sure he’s a pain in the ass, that’s part of being a genius,” but I refuse to go along with that tandem. Nobody has to be a saint, but viciousness shouldn’t be tolerated. Besides, some of the greatest artists I’ve known have been lovely human beings.

A terrific imagination – even an enormous ego – is no excuse for a small mind.

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In January, I wrote about Huang Ruo’s piece for live painter and ensemble, Confluences. Here’s a nicely made film of the performance by the ACME ensemble, Ransom Wilson conducting, with Joseph Tilford painting. Besides the obvious surface beauty of the piece, the development of the five canvases through the course of the piece illuminates the musical form in a way that is completely fresh, and truly lovely.

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There’s a new kid in town: my wife has given birth to my second son, Peter. It’s fair to say I am pretty happy, pretty proud and pretty scatterbrained right now.

The kid obviously has inherited his Dad’s typically erudite facial expressions.

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