Archive for December, 2008

We’re off to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Illinois in the next five days. Happy Holidays to all of you — See you back online next year.

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Had a great conversation with Cho-Liang Lin about what we look for in potential students – he teaches violin at Juilliard and Rice. He said he doesn’t accept any students with technical issues, because it’s so difficult to undo bad habits. I replied that I’d rather have a composition student with technical problems than one who was too polished.

I like students who are willing to try things outside of their comfort zones. Students who have perfectly honed contrapuntal, harmonic, orchestral and formal vocabularies often don’t like trying anything new – they’ve invested too much in what they already know. I’d rather have students who have been thrashing about in the dark for a while, stumbling on interesting ideas and finding their own ways to string them together. Those are the ones I can help, because they tend to be more curious about the big artistic issues.

Violinists start with technique, then focus on their artistry. I like young composers who start with an artistic vision, or even just a demonstrated hunger, then find the technique to realize their aspirations.

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We hosted Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for a residency here over the weekend. For me, that meant coordinating the pickup and dropoff times for over a dozen flights, shuttling guests to and from hotel rooms, and being a curious and informative host.

In return, we got a beautiful performance Sunday night, along with five master classes and two chamber coachings. The classes were taught by Ida Kavafian, Paul Neubauer, Fred Sherry, Kurt Muroki and Carol Wincenc. The coachings were done by Cho-Liang Lin and Tara Helen O’Connor.

I’m collecting feedback from the participants on the classes and coachings. The performance was an evening of concertos – seemingly an odd choice for a chamber music society, but they were all Baroque concertos, so they were perfect for the virtuosic ensembles assembled before us. Handel, Telemann, Corelli and Vivaldi held sway in the first half. The second half featured Bach’s fourth and fifth Brandenburgs.

Sharing the stage with the veterans listed above, four outstanding young players made strong impressions: Lily Francis, Arnaud Sussman, Beth Guterman and Priscilla Lee. In particular, Francis and Sussman sparkled as both soloists and ensemble players. And John Gibbons gave a fantastical performance of Handel’s B-flat major harpsichord concerto.

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Last summer, I wrote about The Better Angels of Our Nature, which was one of the winners of Ravinia’s first composer competition. Last week, I was doing a search for information on another piece of mine, and I came across this nice review of the premiere of TBAoON, which took place on November 23rd. Funny part is, Ravinia never told me when they were premiering the piece – I found out by accident. I think this may be the first time I’ve had a piece premiered without at least coaching a dress rehearsal. I’m definitely sure it’s the first time that’s happened with such a renowned institution.

Much to my delight, the narration for the piece was done by none other than Welz Kauffman himself, the CEO of the Ravinia Festival. Not sure if he donned a beard and a stovepipe hat for the occasion, but he certainly had nice things to say in an email to me afterwards.

Maybe someday I’ll get to hear it myself.

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Got a note from a cellist looking for solo pieces to record for an upcoming CD. He wants to know if I have written any unaccompanied cello pieces.

I almost wrote him back saying I hadn’t, but then I gave it another moment’s thought and remembered I had three:

Dele 3: Independividual (1978)
Monody (1988)
Assault, assuage, assimilate (1992)

When I was nineteen, I wrote a cycle of pieces that took well-known masterworks and removed a majority of the voices, testing the limits of their coherence. I called them “decompositions,” and thought them quite witty and fascinating, in a conceptual way. Independividual was the third of these pieces; it consists of the bottom voice of the B Major fugue from Bach’s WTC I. I believe it was only performed once, by bassist Robert Black.

There was a time when I would have been horrified to have anyone know these pieces existed. Now, I find them interesting again – partly because they are so shamelessly sophomoric.

Ten years later, I wrote Monody, which consists almost entirely of double-stops – the G-string sustained throughout, while a freely modal melody meanders over the entire length of the D-string. The cellist who premiered it hated it, possibly for good reason, although he wasn’t exactly a patient man.

Then came Assault, assuage, assimilate, a deliberately provocative title. Ass3, as I like to think of it, has never been performed and, in fact, should not be performed – it’s a piece that should only be recorded. It’s for seven cellos, all recorded by one performer. A solo cello begins with an abrasive, repetitive figure; the others enter one by one, gradually enfolding the aggressive line into a warm embrace.

So today I will respond to this cellist’s request, but I haven’t yet decided what to tell him. Options:

1. I don’t have any solo cello pieces.
2. My solo cello pieces are all very old and no longer represent my compositional thinking.
3. I have three solo cello pieces: Independividual, Monody and Assault, assuage, assimilate. Would you be interested in one of them?

If I take the third option, I’ll be obliged to dig through the cobwebs to see if I can actually find them, a prospect I have little patience for. Which will I do? Gotta decide today.

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