Archive for May, 2008


A true leader always begins by disobeying.

Dolpo saying

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In my last post, I wrote of a commission that was likely but not certain – it’s come through, and it’s quite an interesting commission, both because of the piece I am going to write and because of how I am going to be compensated for my work.

The commission is coming from the Cassatt String Quartet, a wonderful ensemble I’ve worked with before – they premiered and recorded my Furies and Muses for bassoon and string quartet. They have a residency in Texas next January. They have asked me to write a triple quartet for them to play with two high school quartets. I see this as a really fascinating challenge – first of all to write a piece that has twelve “equal” parts, but also to match up musicians of first-rate skills with other musicians who can be expected to play well for their age.

The piece I am working on is called Blossom. Running 6-8 minutes, it will provide the young string players with age-appropriate challenges, while giving them the rare opportunity to play side-by-side with established professionals. Blossom is also an opportunity for me to put my experience as a teacher — my love for the magical symbiosis between master and apprentice — into music.

Blossom will begin with a single note passed around the ensemble, from teacher to student and back again. As the note is passed around, various players will introduce embellishments, gradually taken up by the entire ensemble, until the seed of an idea blossoms into full-fledged theme, unfolding into rich counterpoint by the end.

As for the compensation, Cassatt is working on raising funds for my fee, but because of the short turnaround time and the general tightness of the economy, I suggested another option: if they are unable to come up with the money, I will write Blossom in exchange for their doing a studio recording of another piece of mine. In other words, bypass the cash-strapped economy and deal directly with one another in a barter system. It’s a model I think I may turn to more frequently in the future.

Kind of appeals to my Medieval inner child.

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I haven’t written much about my composing lately, because I’ve found myself — due to some extraordinary good luck and some old-fashioned hard work — teetering on the brinks of four major commissions. One — a consortium commission involving five orchestras — is a done deal, but the music isn’t due until Jan. 2010, so I don’t really feel compelled to dive into it just yet. Another one is pretty much a done deal, just a few technical issues to work out – but that one’s not due until July 2009, so, again, I’ll be in pre-compositional mode until maybe the fall. A third is very likely, but not certain, but it would have to be finished this summer, and I should be hearing yea or nay any time now. And the fourth is probably not worth mentioning, except it’s the biggest, but it wouldn’t be due for another two-and-a-half years, if it works out at all.The nicest thing is I’ve reached the point in my career where I can go to people with my ideas and ask for their support, as opposed to simply reacting to what other people want from me.

With all of this on the horizon, though, I haven’t felt too eager to start anything else major, so I’ve been futzing around with older pieces, refining them and prepping them for recording sessions.

It’s given me some time to reflect on the nature of professional success. Some composers seem to have a nose for money – for relentlessly tracking down funding sources and bagging them one after another, like hunters after prey. I haven’t had that kind of talent, but I’ve learned, very slowly, a few things about finding money.

There are, I think, six primary sources for funding compositional projects:

  • Grants
  • Corporations
  • Individuals
  • Artistic Institutions
  • Educational Institutions
  • Sales

The composers with the greatest professional success seem to tap into several of these sources all at once. For my part, most of my success, such as it is, has come from individual supporters and educational institutions.

The educational institution I’ve benefited from the most has been the North Carolina School of the Arts, which has supplied me with an annual income, materials, performances – and immeasurable inspiration.

But my favorite source of support is the individual donor. There’s nothing like having people who believe in your work so much that they are willing to put their own hard earnings into it. Sometimes that support is modest; sometimes it is really substantial. Either way, it’s a great way to do what you really want to do compositionally, because you have personal support for your vision, as opposed to generic support for your work as a category.

The tough part of getting individual support is talking up what you are trying to do – sometimes I’m very good at it, and sometimes I am hopelessly tongue-tied when it comes to my music. I can’t really say I’m getting better at it, I’m just getting more willing to keep trying, which of course results in increased success (as opposed to not trying, that is).

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One day in the schoolyard, a classmate said, “Let’s play the soft-touch game. See which of us can touch the other the softest. You go first. Touch my arm as soft as you can.” I took the challenge, brushing my index finger as delicately as possible on his forearm. His response? POW! He slugged me as hard as he could, running off laughing, “I lose!”

I wonder how many geeky children have grown up to be composers, taking revenge on their childhood tormentors with a musical bait and switch?

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The Fletcher Opera Institute here just completed a run of Kurt Weill’s Street Scene. It’s my first encounter with the show, which won the first Tony for Best Original Score in 1947. Weill seems to have put everything he knew into it – it’s not an opera that says “here’s who I am” as much as it says “here’s what I can do.” Pucciniesque ensembles rub elbows with blues arias and a very long Broadway dance number – it’s a musical portrait of the cultural melting pot that was so much a part of this nation’s self-image in the mid-twentieth century.

Thursday was opening night, and the huge cast (I counted 31 roles) brought things off swimmingly. Everything went without a hitch until twenty minutes into the second act, when the orchestra suddenly stopped, the singers froze onstage, and the house manager stepped into the audience to announce that a tornado had touched down nearby. He asked us all to get out of our seats and move into the most contained areas of the building. I turned my phone on, and my wife called shortly after: 70 mph winds were battering our house, the power had gone out, and she was huddled in the pitch-black basement with our baby and our puzzled toddler. Naturally, I wanted to run out to the car and get home as quickly as possible, but we weren’t allowed to leave the building. The lights flickered off and on a few times. Gradually, though, as happens with these things, apprehension turned to tedium, as reports of new waves of severe storms spread through the corridor. After an hour and a half, I ventured to the doors, saw that things had calmed down, and headed out to the parking lot. By the time I got home just past midnight, the winds were gone, the rain had all but stopped, and lightning chuckled harmlessly off to the east.

Sunday afternoon we had another tornado watch in effect, but I took a deep breath and headed out to see the matinee, so I could catch the rest of the show. The production was really fine, but I can’t say the whole thing hangs together particularly well. It’s an enormous, ungainly piece of musical theater – and I know its ungainliness is part of the point. I do love, though, the accompanied spoken dialogue – Weill created a very effective underpinning for the text, punching back at verbal jabs with orchestral responses. I suppose the problem could be laid at the libretto’s feet. I don’t know the original play, but it seems to be a mistake to let the playwright adapt his own work – of course he’s going to think that every line is indispensable.

The whole show takes place on the sidewalk in front of a tenement, with glimpses of goings-on through the windows of the building. The effect is as claustrophobic as an outdoor set can be. After the extended rounds of applause died down, I was grateful (and relieved) to step out into the light breeze and sunshine of a lovely May afternoon.

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William Bolcom was in town last week for the premiere of his Four Piedmont Choruses. The Piedmont Chamber Singers, some twenty strong, commissioned the piece for their 30th anniversary. Besides the commission, PCS sponsored a competition for young composers in honor of the occasion, which my student James Stewart won, so the evening also featured the premiere of Stewart’s The Desert.

Bolcom’s piece was performed twice, which is always nice in a premiere, but it was particularly nice this time, because Bill was the pianist in the first performance, and sat in the audience for the second (Ivan Seng, PCS’s regular pianist, played beautifully in the encore).
Four Piedmont Choruses uses wonderful texts by Kathryn Stripling Byer, who was also present. The music is classic Bolcom – craftsmanship, versatility, wit, beauty — all in fine proportion.

Stewart wrote most of The Desert as he was completing his Master’s here a year ago, so it was nicely familiar to me – I felt like a long-lost uncle encountering his successful, grown-up nephew. James’s music is courageous; he’s not afraid of taking aesthetic risks, and he has the good taste to find elegant ways to present his most unusual ideas. The piece is very strong, but I couldn’t help noting one small weak spot, sending him an email the next day with a gentle suggestion – which I know he is mature enough to accept or ignore.

I spent a lot of time with Bill Bolcom five years ago, when we commissioned his eleventh string quartet to commemorate the opening of our new chamber music hall. I’m still not sure if his social awkwardness is general, or if he is especially uncomfortable around other composers. I suspect it is a combination – he is always a little stiff with me, but comments he’s made about unpleasant encounters with other composers back up the impression that he is on his guard, protecting himself from attack.

The program was all American works: Billings, Beach, Dello Joio, Chadwick, Hadley, Bolcom, Stewart and local composer William Stevens, whose Three Not Very Old Ballads was very attractive. The mayor was on hand to issue a proclamation in honor of the PCS’s 30th anniversary, and the chorus responded with well-wrought performances of challenging rep.

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A number of years ago, I found myself in a situation that called for legal advice. I met with an attorney and explained my situation. After listening in blank-faced silence, he launched into an incomprehensible response, full of jargony legalese. I tried to follow what he was saying for a couple of minutes, but it was impossible, so I stopped him and asked if he could please start over in plain English. He gave me a look of utter disdain, and in that moment, I thought, “Wow, is this the way my audiences feel when they hear my music? Are they trying to understand my ideas through a jargon that can only be grasped by taking years of music courses?” And I resolved never to let my language choices get in the way of the ideas I was trying to convey.

I went through a period of writing pieces in which I was absolutely clear about what I wanted to say, determined to find the simplest, most direct way to convey the central concept of a piece to an engaged listener. Although I’ve moved in many different directions since then, that motivation still has strong resonance for me.

I just have no desire to baffle anyone who wants to understand me.

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