Archive for May, 2010

A recent red-eye from LA to Philadelphia gave me a few fitful hours to muse about a concert in REDCAT I had just attended.  On the program: five works from the last fifteen years, performed by the Idyllwild Symphony.

There is a lot I could say about the concert, the performances, the audience.  But I want to focus for a moment on the five works by Peter Askim, Vijay Iyer, Pierre Jalbert, Aaron Kernis and me.  Here are sound-byte encapsulations, necessarily leaving out a lot, but fairly accurate within themselves:

  • Askim: Still Points – muscular, poetic concerto for trombone and orchestra
  • Dillon: Figments and Fragments – fantastical reimagining of past musics
  • Iyer: Interventions – gorgeous blend of spectralism, electronics and jazz
  • Jalbert: Les espaces infinis – ethereal, rhapsodic evocation of spaciousness
  • Kernis: Too Hot Toccata – frenetic, virtuosic dance

Five pieces, five different attitudes toward the orchestra and what it can do.  What they all have in common is a high level of skill and imagination in handling the orchestral medium, and the devotion their composers and the orchestra showed in bringing them to life.

As much as these five pieces diverge from one another, they don’t even come close to covering the range of work being created for the orchestra in our time.  Thumping film scores, peaceful ambience, retro serialism, retro Romanticism, noise – you name it, somebody is doing it, and doing it well.

The beginning of the 21st century has been filled with pronouncements about the death of the orchestra.  For artistic and economic reasons, the orchestra is often portrayed as an artistic medium unsuited to our times, quickly losing relevance and on the verge of extinction.

These pronouncements are backed up by the data.  Audiences for orchestra concerts are declining.  The cost of mounting an orchestra concert is far out of proportion to most other forms of music-making.  And the orchestra as we know it was devised to serve societal suppositions that can no longer be taken for granted.

So, is the orchestra on its way out?   It’s a good question, and not one I can pretend to answer.  For me, the death of the orchestra is a scenario I can readily imagine – but it’s only one of several possible outcomes from the current scene.

Setting aside predictions, though, let’s seriously consider for a moment that the orchestra as we know it is now breathing its last.  Let’s assume that the enormous variety and vitality of music being produced these days for the orchestra is a sign of its imminent demise.

If this is how the orchestra dies, then let it be a lesson.  We are all faced with death, and faced with the question of how to die well.  Do we go out kicking and screaming?  Do we fade slowly from sight?  Are we cut down unaware and unprepared?  Do we give up the last beat in our brows with a grateful smile?

The richness of music being created now for orchestra far surpasses that of any period from the past.  If this is how the orchestra dies, then I envy the orchestra.  I would like to die like this, flaming in full crimson, like the maple leaves in autumn, stunning the senses and imagination with infinite variety and splendor before dropping gently to feed the ever-hungry, impassive soil.

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After our final orchestra concert last Friday, I complimented graduate conductor Konstantin Dobroykov on his pacing, the way that he saved his grandest gestures for the pivotal moments of the piece, helping to illuminate the overall form, rather than showboating with every twist and turn of phrase.

He told me he got that from Ransom Wilson, his conducting teacher.  “Don’t be like a dog,” Ransom told him, “peeing on every tree you see.”

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Listening to first edits of some recordings I’ve been making, I’ve realized I’m in the fourth stage of my relationship with glissandos.  Didn’t notice it happening, but stage four is definitely here.

The first stage was my first fifteen-or-so years.  That’s when I experienced glissandos in my everyday existence – on recordings, in performances, singing in the car – without having a name for them, without realizing what they were.

The next stage lasted about seven years.  Having learned what glissandos were, I employed them liberally in my music, recognizing in them a way to skirt traditional note arrangements and intonations, to break myself free from cliché.

Then I burned out on them.  I had heard (and had written) too many pieces that relied on glissandos and other effects to avoid cliché without really establishing anything substantial enough to replace what I was avoiding.  In other words, my glissandos were an effect, not a vocabulary.  They had become their own cliché.  In my third stage, I used glissandos frugally, only when absolutely necessary – and usually for comic effect.  That lasted almost twenty years.

Now I am in my fourth stage.  Glissandos are an important part of my vocabulary. Now I’m very meticulous with them.  They move in precise ways, with clearly defined departure and arrival points, and carefully calibrated rhythms.  They combine and overlap with a specific expressive purpose.  Their presence within a composition is always measured out with an ear to serving the overall artistic goals.

That’s where I’ve been for a bit over ten years.  Will there be a fifth stage?  If so, when will it begin and where will it take me?  Can’t imagine yet.

I should probably stick with stage four.

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This Friday night we have the last of the LINKS premieres: Beatbox flute player Greg Pattillo will unveil Randall Woolf’s new concerto Native Tongues, with Ransom Wilson conducting the UNCSA Symphony Orchestra.

If you haven’t seen Patillo’s beatbox flute in action, it’s pretty amazing, check it out:

beatbox flute

And Randy is a lovely, creative soul.   I wrote about him before, about two years ago, when he was here in spring ’08.   Can’t wait to see what he’s come up with this time.

The LINKS project was a commissioning fund set up the Kenan Institute for the Arts, resulting in this piece as well as commissions of new works by Marc Engebretson, Laura Kaminsky, David Maslanka and myself (String Quartet No. 4: The Infinite Sphere). It was a fantastic initiative over the last three years – hopefully it will be revived, now that the initial run of premieres is coming to an end.

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Had a fantastic time in Idyllwild and Los Angeles, with two great performances of Figments and Fragments.  But no time to bask – we’re coming down the final sprint of our school year.  Guest composer Adam Guettel is presenting a seminar today, composition juries and thesis defenses tomorrow, and next week we wrap up business for the year.  Maybe then I’ll have time for….


By the way, if you are in the vicinity, check out the Daedalus Quartet’s take-no-prisoners performance of my String Quartet No. 4: The Infinite Sphere at the Howland Chamber Series in New York.  This Sunday, 4 pm.  Wish I could be there.

Composition Seminar with Daedalus Quartet (Jan 2010)

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Last night Idyllwild, tonight REDCAT.  Figments and Fragments has launched.

I’ll try to find a way to talk about it at some point, but there are a few other things to get to first.

Like, for example, this idyllic setting.  I’m staying in a cabin at the Quiet Creek Inn, which, true to its name, has a quiet creek running right outside my window:

I’ve had ample opportunity to tramp about the woods, gape at the mountains and chat with the laid-back locals, which is a welcome respite from many of my customary occupations.  Getting here was another story, as my GPS decided to send me 30 minutes down a dirt road that led nowhere.  Let me tell you, driving in reverse for 30 minutes on an unfamiliar, twisty, bumpy road in the dark in a rental car = no fun.  But good comes from anything if you look for it, and for my trouble I got the first draft done yesterday of a love-hate song called GPS Lady.

And I’ve had a chance to get acquainted with the sensational Vijay Iyer, whose work I had heard of without ever experiencing.  I was able to catch a most of a talk Iyer gave on his music Friday, in which he described some of his precompositional processes.  He gave the example of creating an ABABA form with a passage of 28 beats by letting A=6 and B=5.  These beat groupings of 6+5+6+5+6 could then be expressed by 8th notes over the course of 2 measures of 7/4, resulting in a rich rhythmic layering.

(Comical how this kind of verbiage can easily make the music sound more complex than it is – and I’m summarizing it in extremely shortened form — and yet the verbiage is exceedingly simple from a mathematical perspective.)

Vijay was careful to make it clear that this was precompositional thinking, a way of getting into the world of a given piece, rather than music itself.  And I had an epiphany: this was exactly the kind of precompositional thinking I was doing early in my career, and since abandoned.  If I could express it this way, this is an example of starting with a rational construct, then exploring ways to make it musical.  For the last bunch of years, I’ve been starting with an intuitive gesture or passage, then examining it to find the rational underpinnings that could be developed into a composition.

Neither approach is inherently superior, and Vijay’s talk made me want to start using rational processes up front a bit more than I have in recent years.

In any case, Vijay was here to perform in the west coast premiere of his Interventions for piano, electronics and orchestra.  A self-taught pianist with prodigious and sometime unorthodox technique, he wrote this piece some three years ago on commission from the American Composers Orchestra.  It’s one of those works that can seem deceptively simple, though the orchestral parts are very challenging, with overlapping meters and microtonal tunings.  The electronics are middleground and background, but then a lot of what goes on in the piece is middleground and background – even the piano part — Iyer is a master of engaging the attention through understatement.  A gorgeous piece.

vijay iher - dress rehearsal for Interventions

Now it’s time to hop in the car and head for LA.  Tell me your thoughts, GPS Lady, tell me your dreams.

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This Saturday, tenor Christopher Aaron Smith will be singing a recital of new American works in Boston’s Church of St. John Evangelist – music by Dominick DiOrio, Andrew Wilson, Monica Houghton, David Edgar Walther, and David Zannoni.

I had thought the program would also include the long-awaited (by me) premiere of my Dog Songs (1998), but apparently the presenters asked Mr. Smith to replace my piece because the texts were too “racy.”

Dog Songs is a parody of the Romantic song cycle – a high-strung pooch with a poetic temperament yearns for love, questions the meaning of life and reveals his darkest fears.

Not quite sure what they found objectionable about it.  Perhaps it was the conclusion of the cycle, in which the lovesick protagonist is running free through his neighborhood when he encounters a scent left by a terrier he has admired from a distance.  He summons the full force of his deepest artistic aspirations in an effort to frame an appropriate response:

This calls for something special.
Something strong, yet elegant.
Something sparkling, and original,
so she will know
I think of her often.

She will know
I’d like to meet her.

I’ll let her know
I live alone – almost.

And when she wags her tail
the air smells
so sweet!

Could that have been what they found offensive?

Nah – couldn’t be.

In any case, it may all be for the best.  Christopher has promised to reschedule the premiere with another presenter, and I had been kind of sorry he was planning to do it this weekend in the first place, because I’ll be in southern California.

Yes, I’ll be in California – the Idyllwild Symphony Orchestra is playing the not-quite-so-long-awaited premiere of Part One of my Schumann Trilogy.  On Saturday night, they’ll perform it at Idyllwild Arts Academy; on Sunday afternoon they’ll give an encore performance in Los Angeles’s REDCAT.  I’m looking forward to spending a few days in the idyllic setting of the Academy, followed by my first visit inside Disney Hall.

Part One of the trilogy is called Figments and Fragments.  It starts off as a series of brief character pieces.  The pauses between the character pieces gradually take on a life of their own, overwhelming the narrative, until the music disintegrates into paralysis.  The connection to Robert Schumann’s work is occasionally explicit, but more often conceptual.

The seven sections of Figments and Fragments are continuous, as follows:

Demonic March

Don’t think there’s anything there that REDCAT would find offensive, but one never knows.  If you are in LA on Sunday, come on down.  If not, there are performances next fall in Salt Lake City and Boise.  For some reason, this piece is staying on the left side of the continent at this point.  Probably too racy to venture further east.

Peter Askim, Music Director of the Idyllwild Arts Academy Orchestra, has assembled a pretty challenging program.  In addition to my premiere, he’s also conducting Pierre Jalbert’s Les espaces infinis, Aaron Jay Kernis’s Too Hot Toccata, the west coast premiere of Vijay Iyer’s Interventions, and the world premiere of his own trombone concerto, Still Points. I’m looking forward to meeting Peter – he’s managed to find a nice balance between conducting, composing and playing the double bass – no small accomplishment.

And I actually managed to get through a post without saying “string quartet.”


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As I said in my last post, tonight we have our end-of-the-year student composers concert.  Much rehearsing has been done, with one more dress rehearsal left, starting just a few hours from now.

All of which means I can’t be there when the Daedalus Quartet gives the NY premiere of my fourth string quartet tomorrow.  Didn’t even know it was happening until I read about it in the New York Times.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post has checked in with a complimentary perspective on my fifth quartet.  Read all about it.

I told a friend that I had been the beneficiary of an unusual amount of kindness from the press lately.  His response was to assure me that kindness had nothing to do with it.  In his words, “There are special dictionaries printed for newsrooms that are missing the word.”


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