Archive for August, 2008

A few months ago, my brother was named Chairman of the Democratic Party in the New Jersey town we grew up in.

Shortly after the announcement, a friend of his who works for the local Republican party tried to strike a deal. “Hey Paul,” she said. “I’ll trade you our crazies for your crazies.”

Something to keep in mind these next few months, as crazies from both sides step into the limelight.

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I haven’t blogged about my travels this summer, but I’ll get around to it eventually. Some complicated stories to tell – this past week I attended the premiere of a piece of mine on the steps of City Hall in Alameda, California. Was it a political event? Well, sort of.

But more on that later — right now I want to spleenify about the deterioration of airline service.

For my Oakland-to-Phoenix flight last week, the ticket agent handed me 12 boarding passes to cover all of the connections – but didn’t give me a little foldover envelope to hold them in. Turns out the airlines have decided to save money by not giving away any more of their little foldover envelopes.

So now I have the first-hand experience to report that it’s hard work keeping twelve boarding passes organized when you haven’t planned for it.

Once on board, as everyone knows, they are now charging for drinks. Not just the alcoholic kind, but juice and water, too. (Never mind that on my six-hour cross-country flight over dinnertime, they were charging for food as well. Fortunately, the cost didn’t have any effect on me – because they ran out of food by the time they got to my seat!)

But getting back to Oakland-Phoenix: all of the preceding annoyances would have been bearable if it hadn’t been for the screen I had in front of my face showing nothing but commercials for two solid hours. I didn’t have the option of turning it off. I felt like one of those bloated post-humans in Wall-E, strapped to my chair and sedated with an endless stream of emptily seductive images.

Don’t even get me started on the two hours of screaming baby I had to endure.

Oh wait, there was no screaming baby – that was me.

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6:00 – Wake up, breakfast, read.
6:45 – Nap.
7:30 – Compose.
9:30 – Leisurely bath.
10:15 – Go for a walk.
10:45 – Play with kids.
12:00 – Lunch.
12:30 – Nap.
1:00 – Compose.
3:00 – Read.
4:00 – Play with kids.
6:00 – Dinner.
7:00 – Compose.
10:00 – Bed.

I’ve never had a day exactly like this one, but it’s nice to fantasize. A few things not on the agenda: shopping, talking on the phone, socializing, housework, office work, traveling, career stuff – most of these things intrude on any given day.

But near perfect is pretty nice, too.

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I wonder if music critics and music lovers realize how much of a role mentorship plays in this profession.It’s certainly not the only factor, but having a well-connected teacher gives a young composer a tremendous boost. If you look at the most successful, prominent composers working today, although there are plenty of exceptions, almost all of them had a teacher who pulled strings for them, behind the scenes or in front of everyone’s eyes, to get them started.

Don’t get me wrong: most of those composers who had strings pulled for them are perfectly deserving. Some aren’t, but no profession has 100% of its top positions filled by competent people – politics is another nice example of a profession where success doesn’t always go to the most capable.

Again, the mentorship process in music doesn’t do a particularly bad job of rewarding accomplishment. I just think it’s important for everyone to understand that it is a central driving force behind the music that gets heard and doesn’t get heard.

A female composer friend once told me – this was a while back – that one of the obstacles women faced is that they didn’t have the same tradition of mentorship in the workplace as men did. She found that older women composers were very competitive with her when she was getting started, and actually blocked her path to opportunities.

If that’s true, I hope it has begun to change.

I have no complaints about my situation – my professional life is very satisfying – but it was tough getting started. Here’s my mentor story:

When I was notified of my acceptance to grad school at Juilliard, I was offered a choice of five teachers: Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, David Diamond, Vincent Persichetti and Roger Sessions. I chose not to choose, figuring I wasn’t worth much if I couldn’t learn a great deal from any one of them.  I ended up being assigned to Persichetti, which suited me well, using a typically perverse reasoning: I figured my music was less like his music than any of the other composers, so I would have the most to learn from him.

Less than two years after I graduated, Persichetti succumbed to cancer. I was twenty-seven and suddenly left with nobody to look after me, professionally speaking.

This isn’t a sob story – there are tons of composers in their twenties who are on their own, or practically on their own. I worked my butt off and, of course, I was very lucky. If I hadn’t worked hard and been lucky, I wouldn’t be typing on this screen right now. And, again, I’m very happy with the scope of my professional life.

But I’ve known composers who didn’t have to work as hard or be as lucky, because of powerful mentors.

And I never would have guessed, when I chose my teacher-to-be-mentor, that 27 years later Babbitt and Carter would have been the two options still standing.

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Last week, I blogged about writing two pieces for a commission from the Cassatt Quartet, and asking them to choose which one they would play.

Now I have my answer.

“Well,” writes second violinist Jennifer Leshnower, “We are split down the middle….typical Quartet!”

Since two of them prefer Brio and two of them prefer Blossom, they’ve put the question right back to me: they want me to choose which piece I like best. I suppose that’s the way it should be. But how do I choose which one I like better? I’d be damning the other one to likely disembowelment, which is hardly a pleasant thought.

Odd, though: I wouldn’t give it a second thought if they had made the decision – it’s just having to decide myself that feels uncomfortable.

So naturally I’ve asked them if they would consider playing both.

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Happy birthday, big guy. You certainly have come a long way.

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A couple of months ago, I wrote about a commission from the Cassatt Quartet for a triple quartet they will premiere with high school string players. I was excited about the challenge of mixing pros and students, but it turned out to be even more challenging than I thought it would be. Let me explain.

The performance will take place in January. The high school students are supposed to begin rehearsing in September, but the Cassatts won’t join them until a week before the concert.

So, in addition to all of the inherent challenges in writing a 12-voice piece and combining different levels of expertise, I had to figure out how to make each of the three quartets coherent in and of itself, so that the students would have something they could rehearse for five months on their own.

Since I’m not a string player, I could only offer my best guess, which, if wrong, would result in a lot of wasted time for everyone. At the same time, I didn’t want to give them baby food. I wanted to make sure I was challenging them in appropriate ways.

What did I do? I ended up writing two pieces, very different from one another, each one presenting complementary challenges. Today I sent PDFs of the two pieces to the Cassatt – they’ll decide which one better suits the situation, at which point I will produce the parts and send them off to the students.

Is that crazy? Actually, I often write two pieces when I’m expected to write one. Though it seems counterintuitive, it helps me work faster — and it definitely helps me clarify the goals of each piece.

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