Archive for April, 2008

The secret of poetry is never explained — is always new. We have not got farther than mere wonder at the delicacy of the touch, & the eternity it inherits. In every house a child that in mere play utters oracles, & knows not that they are such, ‘Tis as easy as breath. ‘Tis like this gravity, which holds the Universe together, & none knows what it is.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

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We have our end-of-the-year student composers’ concert tonight. Here’s the program:

Music for 8 (2008) Joseph Edwards (b. 1981)

Annalise Stalls, soprano saxophone Joey Trahan, alto saxophone Travis Calvert, tenor saxophone Ryan Lemoine, baritone saxophone Shawn Marcinowski, percussion Scott O’Toole, percussion Nate Tucker, percussion Kyle Duppstadt, percussion

To the Thawing Wind (2007) Leo Hurley (b. 1989)

Brian Ford, violin Ian Livingston, violin Laura Manko, viola Devree Lewis, cello

The Rebotco Encounter (2007) Jesse Blair (b. 1981)

Catherine Tsao, flute Michal Rogalski, oboe Allison Bates, clarinet Robert Perkins, baritone saxophone

A Man of Twists and Turns (2008) Gregory Miles Hoffman (b. 1971)

Brian Ford, violin Ian Livingston, violin Laura Manko, viola Devree Lewis, cello

Lullaby Dreams (2007) Leo Hurley (b. 1989)

Catherine Tsao, alto flute Michal Rogalski, oboe Allison Bates, clarinet Robert Perkins, baritone saxophone

Undertones (2006) Jesse Blair (b. 1981)

Yi-Wen Hsieh, violin Matt Darsey, viola Joy Keown, cello Darrelle Green, bass

Music for Trombone (2008) Lucas Hausrath (b. 1987)

Geoffrey Seelen, trombone

Mafioso Waltz (2008) Michael Ahrens (b. 1972)

Katherine Mount, violin Jesse McAdoo, cello Qiudi Zhang, clarinet John Kossler, guitar Travis Horton, piano

Open Spaces in Compact Places (2008) Lucas Hausrath (b. 1987)

Talya Liebermann, trumpet Samuel Davis-Castro, trumpet Jennifer Weaver, horn Thomas Aaro, trombone Geoff Seelen, trombone

In this silence (2008) Joseph Edwards (b. 1981)

VIOLIN I Brian Ford Yi-Wen Hsieh Leigh Wallenhaupt Alexa Skillicorn
Katherine Mount Ian Livingston
Laura Manko Matt Darsey Elizabeth Moore
Devree Lewis Jesse McAdoo Jessica Tirpak
Darrelle Green Christian Gray
Julie Hammarback
Caleb Hoffman

Organizing all of these bodies to show up in all of the right places for rehearsals has been one of the great pleasures and great challenges of my week. I’ve also learned, day before yesterday, that I will be conducting one of the pieces. Dress rehearsal starts in three hours. I think it’s going to be one of the best student composer concerts we’ve done here – some very ambitious pieces, a lot of deeply committed performers.

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Randall Woolf was in town much of last week. For those of you who are unfamiliar with him, there is a good reason: Randy is one of those composers whose artistic development has been pretty focused, but whose professional profile is all over the map – which is to say that he can’t easily be pegged within a particular milieu.

Whether he is composing for members of Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, orchestrating the film
American Psycho, or creating works for the children’s ensemble Tales and Scales, Randy’s music occupies a terrain both familiar and yet fresh. His preferred medium seems to be the combination of sampled sound and live performers.

Listening to Woolf’s music is akin to looking at a familiar photograph in which each pixel has been magnified. You recognize the sources, but your attention is deepened and blurred through the detailed treatments. He likes to take vernacular styles – anything from hip-hop to country western – and mix them into metrically complex textures, feeding on their inherent energy while simultaneously commenting on that energy and its cultural context.

Imagine Steve Reich focusing his lens on the fine details in life instead of the grand scheme and you have a glimpse of one important facet of Woolf’s world.

Ransom Wilson led our orchestra in a performance of Woolf’s Hee Haw on Saturday night. Scored for chamber orchestra, two singers and sampler, Hee Haw subjects square dance music to sudden shifts in tone and perspective, from the caller’s exhortations to an extended passage of twisted fiddling. It’s funny and invigorating. I couldn’t help thinking, halfway through, that the shifting perspectives and angles ended up producing a cubist — rather than a square — dance.

Randy played a lot of his music for us in Composition Seminar on Friday. Go check out his work on myspace. I enjoyed all of it, but the piece that killed me was Everything is Green, with Rinde Eckart reading a story by David Foster Wallace accompanied by sampled sound and a live flute-and-piano duo. Much of Woolf’s work bristles with layers of energetic activity, but this piece let its poignant story unfold with a lovely balance of intricate yet transparent commentary.

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Who is your enemy?

Some composers wage war against the Classical canon, seeing it as an obstacle to their own artistic fulfillment.

Others decry pop music for dominating the collective conscious with easy-to-swallow formulas.

Still others vent their spleens at complicated, cerebral music, for fostering a general mistrust of new work.

All of these stances are based on reasonable causes. Unfortunately, when we align ourselves with any of these causes, we can end up spending more time pointing fingers than finding solutions.

In a remarkably complex and beautiful essay called Hot Air Gods,* Curtis White described the challenge of “translating beliefs,” of finding commonalities in traditionally antagonistic parties. He cites the recent “turn of Christian evangelicals to a politics that includes environmentalism” — which they call “Creation Care.” In other words, previously antithetical belief systems – the religious right and the environmental left – have found a language through which they can achieve common objectives. Through “Creation Care,” as White notes, the world becomes “if not something holy, then something that ought to be the object of great and abiding Care.”

Can we imagine a similar approach to help us transcend adversarial stances in the music world? After all, all of us want the same thing – enhanced artistic experiences.

Finding the language to bridge these chasms is no easy task, though, and probably one that will take constant tweaking.

Making it even more difficult is our own seemingly boundless enthusiasm for pointing fingers. As White puts it, “Unhappily, we have very little interest in the challenge of translation, largely because we very much wish to remain cordially at one another’s throats.”

*Curtis White: Hot Air Gods, Harpers, Dec. 2007

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For me, the creative act is not unlike being an athlete. If you’re in shape, things tend to flow, and if you’re out of shape, it takes some patience and effort to get back in. If I’ve been away traveling for two or three weeks, I can often have a difficult, stubborn time getting going again.

— John Adams

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I’m the youngest of eight in my family. It’s an unusual position, but certainly not unique. Oddly, I just recently realized that I’ve never knowingly met anyone else who falls into that slot. In the composer world, I do know of one who has two-upped me: Augusta Read Thomas is the youngest of ten.

There are benefits and drawbacks to holding this spot in the queue. Growing up, I had an extensive staircase of human development models ascending before me, whose teachings I think served me well. And as a composer it’s easy for me to imagine my ideal audience – people who are not professional musicians, but whose cultural interests, curiosity and intelligence overlap with mine.

On the other hand, there are disadvantages to being the tail end of a large household. For example, I was in my teens before I really figured out how to brush my teeth – obviously, somebody must have shown me earlier on, but maybe they assumed I was catching on before I really had the hang of it.

It’s also recently struck me that my disinterest in composers who focus on originality may have something to do with my birth order – certainly, growing up, I had frequent reminders that everything I did had been done before. In that situation, there was no competitive advantage in doing things first. Accomplishment had to be measured in some other way, and for me it has always been measured by my ability to improve on what’s already been done.

Obviously, both of these pursuits – firstness and bestness — are praiseworthy. A balanced boat has both bow and stern, and a balanced culture has to have people who are forging ahead to counterpoise the people who are fine-tuning the rudder.

Of course, my whole argument could be stood on its head: why wouldn’t coming last in a large family make me even more obsessed with being the first to do things?

And that’s another skill I learned from my birth order: if you can’t improve on what’s been said before, just stand it on its head.

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In my first year of grad school, I had the misfortune of enrolling in three courses whose professors all had a similar idea on how to start a class. On the first day, all three of them began with the question, “How would you define music?” Then they went around the room, giving each student a chance to answer.

Once all of us had been given an opportunity to fumble for a definition, the teachers demonstrated their boundless wisdom by asserting that music had to have personal expression, which of course is nothing like a definition, and is even tough to defend as a thesis. In a nutshell, Beethoven is music, what is piped into the grocery store is not.

In the first class, when my turn came to define music, I gave a standard avant-gardist’s reply for the time: “Organized sound.” But I knew that was a poor substitute for real thought. In the second class, I said, “I don’t know,” which was more accurate, but left the professor thinking I didn’t care, which isn’t the same thing at all.

By the third class, I had had enough. When my turn came to answer, I said, “What are we trying to achieve with a definition? Are we trying to separate out those things that are worthy of our attention by calling them Music? We can’t simply say that what we like is music and anything we don’t like is something else. Or, to put it another way, if we prove that Shakespeare’s Macbeth is not music, what have we accomplished? Does that give us an excuse to ignore it?”

The teacher smiled, and nodded, and went on to the next student, who said something about melody and harmony. When all the students had taken their turn, he proceeded to expound on his belief that music was all about personal expression, or some such nonsense.

I remember my frustration from that day long ago every time a student says something I’m not quite following. It helps me empathize with students who feel like they are not being heard, and reminds me to make sure I’m listening to everything they say.

Of course, that excludes the mutterings under their breath that they don’t want me to hear.

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The Prism Saxophone Quartet is preparing an upcoming concert of quartets for baritone sax – that’s right, all four players playing the big uncle of the family. Problem: bari saxes require their own plane tickets, so how do the musicians, who live in four different places, afford to get together to rehearse? Answer: they all came here, where we have four baris – two owned by Taimur Sullivan, our sax teacher, and two lent by our students. Prism snuck in here for three days, so our kids got to listen in on rehearsals of one of the more adventurous and successful ensembles in the biz.

And it only took three plane tickets to get them together.

On another note, the Emerson Quartet residency last week was a great success. Two very intense concerts – the encore for the first concert was the fourth of Webern’s Five Pieces – to a packed house, with rock-star lines afterwards for getting CDs autographed.

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