Archive for May, 2009

I’m off to New York again tomorrow – this time for three rehearsals and three recording sessions over the course of a week. Saturday and Sunday we rehearse Appendage, then Monday and Tuesday we record it. Wednesday is a rehearsal of What Happened, Friday another recording session from 10 am until we collapse from exhaustion or get enough good takes, whichever comes first. Thursday I’ll sneak off to visit with family I see far too infrequently.

Keep an eye out for me – I may show up in some unexpected places.

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My undergraduate counterpoint class was taught by a fiftyish, alcoholic composer.

He had written the textbook for the class, which we all dutifully purchased. It was a cheaply bound collection of single-sided, typewritten pages, many words crossed out and corrected with scribbles in the margin — and many others that should have received the same treatment.

Some mornings he showed up late for class, mumbled something like, “do chapter six,” then put his head down on the desk, moaned softly for a while and began snoring loudly.

A few years later, when I was in grad school, I heard that he had died in London. The person he specified should be notified in the event of his death – I assume he had no living relatives – was his former teacher, Milton Babbitt.

The guy had gotten off to a pretty good start, winning a BMI Young Composers Award, and having a piece released on a CRI recording.

I remember one time when he had the whole composition department over to his house for dinner. He made a huge pot of chili, and was as happy as I’d ever seen him, scurrying back and forth with steaming bowls. But as the evening drew to a close and we all started saying our goodbyes, I thought he was going to cry.

I’m thinking about him now, as I prepare to take a sabbatical from teaching. Burned out and beat up, he represents for me everything that can go wrong with an artist’s dreams.

On this day when we remember the men and women who have died for our country, here is a quiet toast for all of the Americans who have given their lives to anonymous pursuit of the muse.

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I think I experienced more lightning bolts when I was a kid, but that was before I developed a strong sense of taste. It’s easy to be flooded with ideas when your standards are low. In fact, the ideas I get through bolts of lightning are not very good. For me, the Thomas Edison formula – 95 percent perspiration and 5 percent inspiration – is right. You have to create the conditions for inspiration by working really hard at ideas that might at first seem unpromising. Maybe you have to prepare the synapses for something to happen. Without work, “it” doesn’t just come.

– Steven Stucky

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This week, I received the following lovely email:
Dear Mr. Dillon,

i am a music-education-student of the music-consevatory of cologne. in March 2010 the emerson quartett will play your 5. Quartett “Through the nights”.

In a seminar we prepar worksheets for pupils. These pupils are going to visit the concert. They will prepare the pieces in their music-lessons at school. We are not sure what the central theme of these music-lessons will be. In the moment we think about the theme “pentatonic-the american style?- What was, and what IS the american Style?” The whole programm of the concert contains of american pieces of Dvorak, Barbe, Ives and Dillon.

The question “What is the american Style?” should be the central theme of an interdisciplinary circle of lessons in a few subjects. Is it possible, that you wright us some informations about your piece? Could you send me a few pages of the score? It is very difficult to prepar pupils for the concert, when we do not know something about the piece. I swear, that these informations would not come into the public before the premiere was. Please help us to create “high qualitiy lessons” and give the pupils a better understanding of “new music” ;-)

Thanks a lot

Best regards from Bonn, Germany
Martin Kirchharz

The quest to understand new music continues, and seems to be in intrepid hands, as always.

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There’s a certain kind of concert that can have a bracing place in the new music world. I’m thinking of the performance organized by and for composers, for which the audience is primarily composers and their friends (sometimes I wonder how composers ever find the time or the social skills to make friends, but it does happen). These sparsely attended performances can be wonderful opportunities to try out ideas that may not be ready for general consumption.

Need I add that many of these performances take place in university or conservatory environs? Need I also add that they can occasionally become toxic events, fostering in-bred, mutual-admiration societies, or vicious, politicized back-stabbing?

Such is not always the case but, as in any arena, good intentions have the potential to turn sour. Thankfully, I’ve had more experience with the beneficial aspects of these performances, and just enough of a taste of the negatives to keep me cautious.

I’m reminded of a comment one of my teachers, James Sellars, made years ago. He compared these concerts to the bake sales his aunts had when he was growing up in Arkansas. “Composers come to these concerts to see what everyone else is putting in their pies this year,” he chortled.

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Finally finished the score and parts to Appendage, three weeks before rehearsals begin. What a relief. This is the song cycle that was composed in 1993. Since then, various elements of different versions of the piece had been misplaced, so I had to re-do the entire, 1000-measure piece. Basically a month of data-entry, with very little composing. Total drudgery.

I did make a few adjustments, though. I don’t think I changed more than a handful of notes, but I revised some articulations and refined some of the French poetry – there are passages where the soprano shifts back and forth between singing in English and French. (You can ask me why I chose to have some passages in French, rather than doing the whole thing in English, but I’m not sure I could give you a good answer – it just seemed like the right thing to do for this piece. I blame Bernard Rands’s Canti del sole, a wonderful piece I heard the NY Philharmonic premiere in 1983, for my habit of disregarding language consistency in a number of my vocal works.)

Now I’m finally getting back to work on String Quartet No. 4: The Infinite Sphere. The deadline for this piece is July 1st, but I really need to have it finished by May 29th, for reasons that I may have an opportunity to explain in a later post. Not having a chance to look at it since mid-March was a bit nerve-racking, but it was also wonderfully clarifying: it was great to discover that the piece is 90% right, and that I know exactly what to do in order to bring the other 10% into focus.

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I’m in a very gratifying place right now – last Tuesday night, I got to hear Alicia Willard, a freshman comp student, play vibes in the premiere of her subtle and lovely Irony of the Sentiments on our Percussion Ensemble concert. Saturday night I heard the premiere of her Ganache for piano duo, on the same concert in which the nu contemporary ensemble performed music by students Michael Ahrens (Mutations), Jesse Blair (One of Many Factors), Tom Brennan (Sketches and Rock Creek Bucolic), Lucas Hausrath (Quartet for Piano and Brass), Ted Oliver (Childhood Antics) and Jeremy Phillips (Fire and Ice). Next Monday a student woodwind quintet will top off a program of Fine, Carter and Nielsen with the premiere of Leo Hurley’s new quintet – as yet untitled, I believe.

It’s very satisfying to see all of the hard work that has gone into these compositions pay off, and to see all of these instrumentalists rallying behind their compositional colleagues with some edge-of-your-seat performances.

Makes me very glad I got into this line of work.

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Heard from Judith Sherman, who took part in the historic Carnegie Hall performance of Terry Riley’s In C last Friday night. Judy is, as anyone knows who is familiar with these things, one of the top recording producers in the Classical arena, with a particular expertise in new music. Ten Grammy nominations, with Top Classical Producer wins in 1993 and 2007 etc., etc. Here’s her report:
A mountaintop experience. I hadn’t sung in public since 1978, so it took some time to get flexibility back into the voice, etc. But my, what fun!

She went on to tell me that Mark Stewart, who was playing home-made instruments in the performance, was suffering from shingles. “By the end of the evening, the pain was gone and hasn’t really come back – some itch, but not much pain. So In C cures shingles.”

So you heard it here: drop your anti-viral drugs, gather your friends, get a pulse going and start wailing away on your modules.

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