Archive for March, 2009

Here’s my third annual rant about children’s music, but this one is almost too obvious:

Can anyone tell me why every kid has to learn how to sing E-I-E-I-O? What in the name of McDonald does that spell?

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We had the PRISM Quartet here for a residency a couple months back, and I got so side-tracked by ensuing events, I never wrote about how wonderful they were. Never mind the brutally beautiful concert they played, featuring Albright, Sciarrino, Engebretson and Bresnick – what really got me was the amazing job they did with our student pieces. Normally, when we bring guest groups in to record student pieces, they give us their all for about 3-4 hours. PRISM requested two different sessions – an open rehearsal on Friday night, and a recording session on Sunday. They wanted a chance to talk with the students about their works, a day to let the music settle in, then an intensive let-it-all-hang-out time with the mikes. The composers got a lot out of it, and the results were really wonderful.

From left to right: Taimur Sullivan, Jesse Blair, Alicia Santee, Matthew Levy, Kenneth Frazelle, Zachary Shemon, Michael Ahrens, Lucas Hausrath, Tom Brennan, Leo Hurley, Timothy McAllister. photo by me.

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Today I get to report on my typo of the month.

A few weeks ago, an evening reading session of student composers’ pieces with our orchestra was postponed because of snow.

I have to chuckle whenever I think of things getting called off here because of snow – the mere threat of flurries in the forecast is enough to shut down schools in the entire county, which is comical to someone who moved here from the northeast.

But on the other hand, it makes sense, when you have as little snow as we have around here – it certainly isn’t economical for the city to maintain snowplow equipment and personnel for an event that might happen every other year. So, in effect, a few inches of snow really can shut things down.

Anyway, I sent out a notice of the cancellation, but through a slip of the speedy fingertips, I typed “postponed because of snot.”

On the other hand, given all of the flu symptoms that were going around, maybe I wasn’t so far off.

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I’ve been spending a lot more time in New York lately. With all the things that city has meant to me over the years, I seem to understand it less and less.

I grew up twenty minutes on the other side of the Hudson; trips under and over the river were frequent. It was a child’s fairyland, and an adolescent’s getaway. In my twenties, it became my home. Now it is my puzzle.

Did I say puzzle? Over the last twenty years, it’s become a place I visit, usually for a couple of days at a time. As with any place one has lived and returned to, it is at once familiar and perplexing. My sense of pacing, as I walk the streets – something I’m always very sensitive to – is just a bit off, where it was once flawless.

Oddly enough, the people look the same to me — but the surfaces have changed frequently and drastically over the years.

Yet one might say that the surfaces of New York are more important than they are elsewhere. Or rather, the way the surfaces change is one of the city’s consistencies. Virtually every surface you encounter is artificial. In some cases this changeability is awkward and embarrassing, like an old man who dresses in the latest fashions to impress a young date. The result is neither fashionable nor deserving of respect.

But more often than not, the changes are just what they are – nothing more nor less than an facade that people are working around the clock to improve — or at least change. The rhythms of those changes don’t necessarily satisfy anyone – one must accept them at their own pace, rather than expecting them to follow a natural sense of propriety.

A lot of these thoughts struck me on a recent visit to the new Alice Tully Hall. It never occurred to me, visiting as a child, and later practically living there as a grad student (in addition to my studies, I was working nights at the Met), that Lincoln Center was a collection of very new buildings – I didn’t have a context extensive enough to assign them a sense of age, though I knew exactly when they were built. Yet now, as the buildings are looking unmistakably old, I can see that they were pretty spanking new when I was a frequent inhabitant.

Always nice to see you, New York – though more and more confounding with each passing year.

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From time to time, questions are raised about the relevance of multi-movement forms. The historical argument is brought to bear: multi-movement forms came about because of the sections of the Mass and collections of dances, the argument goes, which have no bearing on the contemporary concert hall experience.

For me, these historical questions are moot. It makes as much sense to ask “Why break the mass into different sections?” or “Why collect different dances together?” One simple answer: there are many ways to articulate the passage of time, and the passage of time remains one of the most fascinating challenges we grapple with on a daily basis. So why not take advantage of all the ways in which time can be projected through the course of a composition?

Here’s the fun part of multi-movement forms for me: the possibility of having several beginnings and several endings. Beginnings and endings are spectacular moments in life and art, all of them unique and yet all closely related. When I write a piece in four movements, for example, I get to think about four ways of beginning and four ways of ending, all of which can complement or contradict one another.

The parallel perq of writing a single-movement piece is coming up with a variety of transitions from one section to another. Sometimes transitions can be abrupt – now I’m here, now I’m not – and sometimes they can be protracted affairs that take on the weight of independent sections. Between these two extremes, the composer has the opportunity to create the connection that most precisely matches the need.

So should music stick to single-movement forms or multi-movement forms?

As far as I’m concerned, music does a great job of sticking to everything.

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Make-up time. I still haven’t written about the lovely performance I got on Feb. 10 of Still Point at Mannes. The performers were mezzo Theodora Hanslowe, violist Hsin-Yun Huang and pianist Thomas Sauer. And it was particularly touching to have the poet, Shona Simpson, in attendance.

Theodora has a perfect blend of creamy voice and flawless diction. Hsin-Yun has a sound and musicianship to kill for. And Thomas has the full range of touch, from lightest feathers to thickest chest hair.

As I told the audience, Still Point has gone on to a “number of performances” since its memorable premiere in 2007. Composer trick: I didn’t tell them that the “number” was two.

It was also fun to hear Kurtag’s Hommage a Robert Schumann for clarinet, viola and piano on the same concert, with its quirkier-than-thou structure of five very brief (some just a few seconds long) movements followed by an extended isorhythmic motet in the style of Machaut. And what better way to end a motet-movement-in-homage-to-Schumann than to have the clarinetist (Todd Palmer, in this case) punctuate the proceedings with a gentle tap on a bass drum?

Last Thursday, the performers and I convened with Judith Sherman at the American Academy of Arts and Letters to record Still Point. I’ve had four recording sessions with Judy, and they’ve all been ear-opening experiences. Her attention to detail is legendary, and her gentle but exacting manner with musicians is always a recipe for success. I won’t get the results of this session for another couple of months, but I know she will have done everything humanly possible to make me sound good once again.

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I had trepidation about the fact that I might be starting composition too late, that I didn’t have enough technique. But then one of my first teachers, Hall Overton in New York City (who I studied with before I went to Juilliard) asked me to do an assignment, and I said, “Oh, I don’t think I have enough technique.” And he looked me right in the eye and said, “You’ll never have enough technique. Do it.” At first I thought he meant that I would never have enough technique. But he was saying that one should always be honing one’s skills and learning, and that is true.

- Steve Reich

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I’ve crossed the tipping point in the composition of my fourth string quartet. After months of shifting things around into different combinations, all of the elements of the piece have fallen into their proper places. Now it’s just a matter of polishing the surfaces – making all the micro decisions that will help clarify the macro structure.I had been planning for years to write a quartet that emphasized circular forms when, about a year ago, I came across Pascal’s reference to an “infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” That image clarified my thoughts, eventually leading to an enormous, 25-minute rondo made up of seven independent movements.

Rondo forms are characterized by a recurrent A theme interspersed with complementary Bs, Cs, and sometimes even Ds. My recurring A, though, is not a recurring theme, but rather a recurring musical device. The musical device is round technique – the type of circular imitation found in Row, Row, Row Your Boat or Frère Jacques – everyone sings the same thing over and over again, just starting at different times.

The complementary B, C and D sections are mini-rondo forms, 3-5 minutes each. The whole thing plays out in two movements:

1. Round – Rondo – Round – Rondo
2. Round – Rondo – Round

There are thematic recurrences among the various sections, so that the overall thematic structure is this:


The final round plays the first against its inversion. In addition, circular techniques abound on every level of the composition – three of the rounds feature imitation in a circle of fifths, and a recurrent coda section is nothing more than a circle of fifths that accelerates into tonal soup.

Finally, the whole piece, in keeping with the spirit of the Classical rondo, is indebted to the harmonies and rhythms of popular music. It’s easily the most jovial large-scale work I’ve ever produced.

Completion date: July 1.
Premiere: January 2010.


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