Archive for June, 2008

I’m in Chicago for a bit of R&R; and a family wedding. Back next week, y’all.

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I’m judging a competition sponsored by the London Symphony Orchestra and Notion Music this summer. The other two judges are John Corigliano and Carter Burwell- I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know Burwell’s name until I looked him up and found out he is huge in Hollywood, having scored many of the Coen Bros. films, among many other credits.Anyway, I’ve been sent ten scores, the finalists, along with a CD of realizations using Notion software, which uses samples of the London Symphony Orchestra for its sound library. Instead of being asked to pick a winner, I’ve been asked to rank the ten pieces in order of preference.

Creating these rankings really puts me in a tight spot, as far as measuring my own priorities as a composer. For example, in the middle of the pack I have one work that has some really terrific ideas but serious notation and orchestration issues, and another piece that is all cliché from beginning to end, but the most technically polished of the bunch. Which one will be number five, and which one will be number six?

A personal peeve is the ridiculously high horn writing in almost all of the finalists’ scores. But who is to blame them? A computerized horn can hit a hundred high Cs over the course of ten minutes without blinking. But I definitely wouldn’t want to be in the room when the fourth horn player in the LSO attempts the same.

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I wrote the following in response to Jerry Bowles’s challenge to share the Best Live Performances Ever Attended. I have no idea what the best live performance I’ve attended was, so I switched the topic to Most Memorable. I’m reposting it here, because it was so nice to think back on the impact it had on me, over thirty years ago:
Most. Memorable. Performance. Ever.

Mid-70s at a small music camp in Vermont. A quartet of cellists: David Finckel, later of the Emerson Quartet, his cousins Michael and Chris Finckel, both later to become big in NYC new music circles, and Michael and Chris’s father George. The piece was by Michael, for four cellos and narrator. The narration was written for an elderly man we were told was once a fine baritone, but he had had a stroke that left his speech almost indecipherably garbled. I believe he told an old Native American legend, but I may be wrong about that – it was difficult to understand what he was saying. The sound of the English language tortured almost beyond recognition by a man who was doing his damnedest to be as clear as possible was terrifying, beautiful, truly stunning. The cellos imitated his monstrous wailing with overlapping glissandos and bent tones. At the end, all four cellists played their open C strings, gradually turning the tuning pegs down – a slowly blurring tone cluster, descending into inaudibility.

As children, we quickly realize that music speaks to us like nothing else can.

Then, every once in a while, you hear a piece that speaks to you as no other music can.

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I’m proofreading parts for a piece I’m about to send off to the players. I always proofread at the piano, playing through each part, rests and all. Beats the hell out of scanning the page for errors. As I play, I get the performer’s perspective on how the piece reads. Little things I wouldn’t notice on the screen suddenly catch my eye, ear and hand.

Occasionally, when I’m playing through a part at the piano, I’ll get a new idea for the piece. That happened once in this piece, when I realized a cello phrase would make more sense ending on an Eb than a B. I hadn’t noticed it, with everything else that was going on at that moment, but when I played the cello line by itself it was obvious.

Mostly, though, playing each part through at the piano the best way I know to spot all the funky slurs, odd misspellings and awkward line breaks.

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Kyle Gann has some cogent thoughts about Cage here.

On a personal note: I could have survived the twentieth century, albeit a bit less pleasantly, without Cage’s music.

I’m not sure I could have survived the twentieth century without his books.

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I don’t particularly like predicting the future – seems like the straight lines we extrapolate from the past always curve off in unexpected directions — but here’s one I’m sticking with: if developments of the past twenty years are any indication, in another twenty years you’ll need a blowtorch to open shrink-wrap packaging.

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I’ve begun work on Blossom this week, and I’m beginning in a way that is a bit unusual for me. But then, I usually begin each piece in a way that is somehow a departure, because I want to believe, at least, that I have many ways of writing music, not just one.

In any case, with this piece, I am taking the first half-hour of my composing time each day this week to draft the first minute. After one minute is drafted, I stop, and move on to other projects. The next day, I start over, without referring to my previous draft, working out anew the shape of the first minute of this 6-8 minute piece.

At the end of the week, I’ll collect my seven drafts and compare them. They will be fairly similar – maybe one or two of them will be drastically different. Hopefully there will be certain traits common to all seven. These recurring traits will be the fundamental forces, the cornerstones, that shape the piece. Then there will be little ideas that only show up once, but may have just the right quirkiness to make the piece come alive.

Next week, I’ll pounce on the quirks.

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Rob Deemer found this wiki that discusses academic search processes and composition competitions. It rambles a bit, and some of the “facts” are uncheckable, but there are also some good insights shared – albeit anonymously. This is good and useful information – I wish it had been available when I was first entering competitions and the job market 20-25 years ago.

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