Archive for January, 2009

Some wonderful performances to look forward to, but a brutal travel itinerary this weekend. Over the course of three days, I’ll be boarding a plane on an average of every eight hours.

Part one: a two-day residency in Odessa and Midland Texas, where the Cassatt Quartet will be premiering my Blossom, a triple string quartet, with two local high school quartets on Saturday.

Part two: a visit with old friend and long-time accomplice Bob Yekovich in Houston.

Part three: an all-Dillon concert at the Colburn School of Music in Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon. This one comes courtesy of violinist Danielle Belen – she’ll be playing six of my works with pianist David Fung and violist Juan Miguel Hernandez. I think the audience will be required to show a special geek ID in order to gain entrance – I’m pretty sure the definition of “geek” includes a clause about attending concert of my music during the Super Bowl.

Sixty-four hours, eight flights. As enthusiastic as I am about all of these wonderful musicians playing my music, I’m a bit of a travel-wimp. I’ll probably be screaming in psychic exhaustion as I listen to the eighth flight attendant explain how to buckle a seatbelt.

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Mark Engebretson taught a guest seminar here last Friday. The occasion was a prelude to the premiere of his Deliriade, a concerto for flute and saxophone quartet, on Saturday night. The piece was the first of our new LINKS commissions, sponsored by the Kenan Institute for the Arts.

Yes, you read right: a concerto for flute accompanied by saxophone quartet. It’s the kind of commission one has to scratch one’s head at: just how many performances can this piece expect to get? And further, just how substantial can a piece be with that premise (instrumentation, concerto)? But that was the nature of the commission – a piece to match up supervirtuoso flutist Tadeu Coelho with the PRISM Quartet.

More about the piece later, but the seminar was really intriguing. Mark started out his life as a virtuoso saxophonist himself, so he was certainly the right man for the job. He showed us sketches and talked through his creative process, illustrating points with passages from his scores, and playing midi versions of the passages that make some sort of sense with midi (which doesn’t, of course, include the extended passage in which the saxophonists remove their mouthpieces and blow through the instruments).

Here was the most interesting thing: Mark described a meeting he had with Tadeu early in the process. They spent an hour talking about the piece, then jammed together a bit. Mark recorded the conversation and the jam session, and referred back to the recording throughout the process of composition. His goal was to get as much of Tadeu into the piece as possible, without sacrificing his own artistic vision.

And I thought that was a pretty interesting way to go about it.

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I’m afraid we may be teaching our composition students that new music is cool.

Saturday night, the PRISM Quartet performed here (more about their residency later). As I wrote last time, nu performed here last Tuesday (CVNC review here). And, as I wrote here and here, the previous week we had the Philidor Percussion Group and a faculty voice recital (CVNC reviews here and here).

Two weeks, four concerts – and five premieres. The only concert that didn’t feature a premiere was the contemporary ensemble concert.

Each concert generated a lot of buzz, featured provocative juxtapositions, played to a large, enthusiastic crowd, and left everyone with lots to talk about and ponder afterwards.

Are we giving our students a false impression? Certainly nobody ran the risk of making me think new music was cool when I was a student.

But then, maybe we’re not misleading anyone. Maybe things have really changed.

Sure feels that way.

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The nu ensemble gave a concert in our Watson Hall on Tuesday night. Ransom Wilson conducted four works: Steve Reich’s Eight Lines, John Adams’ Gnarly Buttons, Cindy McTee’s The Twittering Machine and John Orfe’s Oyster.

nu isn’t exactly new – the school’s contemporary ensemble has been called onyx, sace, and briefly, acme. But this was its first concert with the nu name, and considerable excitement had built up in anticipation of this performance – I was fielding phone calls from media outlets near and far in the weeks leading up to Tuesday night, and I lost count of how many students stopped me in the hall to talk about it.

The performance of the Reich was particularly tight and impressive – patterns folded one on the other in perfect synchronicity, which is crucial to making the textures really shimmer. The piece is an expansion, originally done at Ransom Wilson’s suggestion, of the earlier Octet. Live, the music is really gripping in a way recordings can never capture.

Another standout was McTee’s The Twittering Machine. McTee is a name I’ve heard for years, but without encountering any of her music. This piece was really excellent – the scoring was clear and succinct, the ideas were vivid and clearly audible, and the piece really knew what it was about.

And, of course, Adams’ Gnarly Buttons was very powerful. The first movement, truth be told, is not my cup of tea. That kind of cubist approach to shifting perspective on familiar objects – in this case, a 19th-century hymn – briefly appealed to me the first time I heard it done, but I haven’t been able to maintain interest. Probably more a comment on where I’m coming from as anything else. The second movement tickles my ear a bit more, and the final movement is gorgeous. The clarinet soloist was Igor Begelman, sadly giving his final performance on the faculty here. I’ve written about him before: he’s a very special player. I’m very sorry this is his last year here — but he gave us a farewell to remember.

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On Saturday night, we presented a program called “Songs for All Seasons” here – tenor Glenn Siebert, mezzo Janine Hawley and pianist Allison Gagnon performed. The concert included Britten’s Winter Words, Wolf’s Mörike Lieder, Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été and the premiere of An Autumn Evening by Jeremy Phillips.
Jeremy is a freshman comp student here. I’ve reported before on the initiative I’ve begun of having students write pieces for faculty recitals. Jeremy found and set a text by Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables series. It was his first effort in the realm of art song, and it was a great step forward for him. I’m eager to see what where he goes with what he learned in the process.

If you missed it, take heart: the same program will be repeated this Thursday evening at Greensboro College.

The concert also included the premiere of The Best Season II, a piece I wrote last summer. In July, I found myself in a very distressed state of mind, trying to balance a few too many life challenges. At what seemed the darkest moment, I came across this brief, 11th-century poem attributed to Hui-k’ai. I set it to tranquil music twice; ­ the second version was premiered Saturday. Upon completing the work, I felt a tremendous release and sense of comfort — ­ and my life suddenly took a turn for the better.


I’ve posted the text before, but here it is again:

Ten thousand flowers in spring,
the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer,
snow in winter.

If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.

And here’s the funny part, or the sad part, depending on your preference. There was a traffic accident that held us up, so I was late for the concert – and my piece was first on the program. I ran in just as they were singing the last line, whipped off my jacket and ran up the side of the hall for a quick bow. First time I’ve missed a premiere because I got to the concert late.

The place was pretty full, and there weren’t any seats readily available, so we spent the rest of the first half standing in the back. At intermission, we managed to find a couple of seats. Unfortunately, as I sat down, my pants pocket caught on the armrest and my pants tore down the side seam, exposing some of my underwear and even (scandal!) a bit of leg.

Making a gracious exit at the conclusion involved some creative use of walls and furniture, some one-armed hugs (for people who, unlike me, had actually heard my piece), a winter coat draped over my left arm, and a little bit of luck.

Amusing as that was, there was a nicer discovery that evening – I had forgotten how wonderful the vocal writing in Les nuit d’été is. At one point in my student days, I must have listened to that piece a hundred times in a row – I think Berlioz’s approach to text and phrasing had a substantial impact on me. What a pleasure, thirty years later, to realize I had learned my lessons from such a fine source.

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On Monday evening, violinist Danielle Belen will perform my Façade on her Carnegie Hall debut. Danielle was the 2008 Grand Prize Winner in the annual Sphinx competition, which helps promote young Black and Latino musicians. As part of her prize, she’s played concertos last season and this with an amazing list of top orchestras: the Pittsburgh Symphony, Boston Pops, Atlanta Symphony, Florida Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, Naples Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Colorado Symphony and the Nashville Symphony.
She’s also playing this Carnegie debut, and she’ll be releasing a disk of violin works by yours truly on the Naxos label.
Danielle first got in touch with me last August, explaining that Sphinx and Naxos wanted her to record a complete disk of works by a single American composer of her choice. Having listened to a bunch of new music online, she narrowed her options down to a lucky few, then contacted the composers to find out if they had enough solo violin music for a complete disk. I guess I came closest to fulfilling the required parameters, because she had decided on recording my music by the end of September.

She seems to be particularly taken by Façade, which is a nice coincidence, since it was composed the year she was born. (Façade was a student piece; I’ve blogged about it here) Unfortunately, I can’t be there for the Carnegie gig (too many other things going on around here this week), but she’ll be playing a complete recital of my works at the Colburn School in LA on February 1st, after which we’ll convene in Toronto (brrrr) for four days of recording sessions.

Thanks for investing so much of your time and effort in my music, Danielle! Hope your Carnegie show is a big success.

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Tomorrow night, the Philidor Percussion Group will premiere Atmosfouricby Michael Ahrens. Mike is a fascinating guy: he’s in his third year in the Master’s program here, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know him in our weekly lessons. He’s taught me a lot about African rhythms, and his background as a drummer for pop bands gives him a great perspective on Classical traditions. I’ll always remember the enthusiastic awe he expressed upon hearing his first live performance by a professional string quartet (it was Miró), admiring how the music got everyone’s full attention, allowing the pieces to filter into respectful silence, instead of losing the endings in the din of audience noise.

A little background: When I found out last spring that Philidor was going to play here, I asked them if they would sponsor a friendly competition for our composers. They agreed enthusiastically, and gave us some loose parameters. The students began working on their compositions in September; the performers chose Mike’s piece just a few weeks ago. Not only will they play it here tomorrow night, they’ll repeat the performance at UNC-Greensboro on February 2nd (Some of you may know that the UNC system has sixteen campuses throughout the state – it’s one of the stronger state university systems in the country).

There were two runner-ups in the competition: works by freshman Alicia Santee and grad student Tom Brennan. They’ll be performed by our student percussion ensemble in April.

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This is the fourth anniversary of an infinite number of curves- time to take a look back at the last 12 months.


Huang Ruo visits. What a brilliant composer. My connection with music has always been closely related to my connection with literature, so it was fascinating to spend time with someone who is more visually oriented. When I tried to give him directions to a nearby restaurant, he pursed his lips, then said, “Could you draw me a map?” Unfortunately, I’m an autodidact when it comes to map-drawing, and I haven’t committed enough time to it to develop whatever innate talent I may have possessed. I think he ended up going to the school cafeteria.


Fifteen Minutes premiered at the Santa Fe New Music Festival by violinist Piotr Szewczyk. Piotr is an amazing musician and a gifted organizer. He’s played his Violin Futura program, which includes works by a number of S21 frequenters, bunches of times all around the U.S. and Germany.

Birth of my second son, already blowing me away with his brilliance.


Salt Lake Symphony and University of Utah Symphony join the Schumann Trilogy commission. Three pieces for orchestra, singers and actor, on the always-fascinating subject of Robert Schumann.


Randall Woolf visits. Very intense but soft-spoken, with great ideas and a real gift for fruitful collaboration.

The Boise Philharmonic and the Mansfield Symphony join the Schumann Trilogy commission.


Cassatt String Quartet commissions Blossom for their Cassatt in the Basin project. Later this month, I’ll be heading to Odessa and Midland, Texas, where Cassatt will rehearse and perform with two local high school quartets. I ended up writing two pieces, Blossom and Brio, and let the students decide which one to play. The kids picked Blossom. Tough pieces to write, forced me way out of my comfort zone — I love it when that happens. Two other things I love: working with outstanding musicians and working with gifted youth. Now I get to do both at once.


Judged a competition sponsored by the London Symphony with John Corigliano and Carter Burwell. Gig came to me through NOTION notation software. So here’s a plug for NOTION. Check them out.


Winner in the first Ravinia Composer Competition. My piece, The Better Angels of Our Nature, is scored for piano trio and narrator. I was happy to have this opportunity come up: I had always had a vague, patriotic admiration for Abraham Lincoln, but reading his correspondence and speeches gave me more insight into the traits that made him a very special man.


Emerson String Quartet commissions String Quartet No. 5: Through the Night. A dream come true for me, and a total surprise. I picked up violinist Phil Setzer from his hotel to take him to a rehearsal when Emerson played here in March. After exchanging some pleasantries (it was the first time we had ever met), he said, “I’ve been following your music, and I’d like to be very proactive in commissioning a quartet from you.” I almost drove the car off the road. Five months later, the details were finalized.


Daedalus String Quartet commissions String Quartet No. 4: The Infinite Sphere. Daedalus premiered my second string quartet in 2003. The few days I spent with them then made me eager to collaborate with them again. They are an intense, thoughtful and outstanding group of musicians. When the Kenan Institute for the Arts announced its LINKS commissioning program in November 2007, I contacted the quartet to find out if they would be interested in having number four. The logistics for this one took almost a year to work out — and therein lies the explanation of how number four was commissioned “after” number five.


My tributes to Alex and Elliott, two guys who have peeled my socks off on many occasions.










Family time. I had my first son at the age of 46, and my second at age 48. Obviously, it took me a long time to get around to it – I had a lot of trepidation about my ability to cope with fatherhood. So far, I couldn’t be happier with the results, but I think it would have been a disaster if I had tried any earlier in life.

As things have worked out, my family has been one of my best teachers.

And here’s wishing you all a peaceful and productive 2009.

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