Archive for July, 2010

Here’s my fourth annual diatribe on children’s songs.

Who is This Old Man?  And what gives him the right to play knick-knack on my thumb?  Why can’t he teach me how to play knick-knack, instead of incessantly rolling home at the end of every verse?

There, got that off my chest.  Time to give the dog a bone.

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We had two intriguing guest composers in May, each very distinct from the other.  One of my aspirations as a teacher is to introduce my students to composers from all different scenes, so May was a very satisfying month.

First up was Adam Guettel.  As the son of Mary Rodgers Guettel and the grandson of Richard Rodgers, it’s facile to say that Adam was born to be a theater composer.  Regardless of facility, though, it’s impossible to ignore the way this man’s music is wired to the stage.  “I don’t get abstract music,” he said.  “I’ve got to have a character, I’ve got to have a dramatic situation to bring my music to life.”  As one might guess, Guettel had a tough time as a composition student; he had several stories of clashes with professors who couldn’t abide his artistic sensibilities.   His position on the use of music is extreme – essentially, absolute music has no interest for him.  I’ve known people on the opposite extreme, for whom Stravinsky’s famous dictum that “music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all” may as well be on stone tablets.  I don’t understand either extreme, as I’ve expressed in my music is goop – but I love the fact that there are people who do.

Don’t assume from what I’m writing here that Guettel’s music is some kind of fluff.  He thinks through matters such as pacing and scoring on a very sophisticated level.  In a way, he reminds me a bit of Puccini, and I think Puccini is not taken nearly so seriously as he deserves.

Here’s the beginning of a song of his we looked at.  5/8 most of the way through, but the meters get more complex as it goes on.  Harmony is late-tonal, reminiscent of Ravel:

Build a Bridge – first page

Our students showed him some of their songs, and interestingly enough for someone who can’t abide musical abstraction, his comments were all on specific technical details, as opposed to broader emotional issues.  In other words, instead of asking questions like “what is the character’s motivation here?” he was focusing on exactly how each phrase was shaped, on what tonal areas were connecting with which portions of the text.  Just goes to show, people are not pigeons.

And I know you didn’t need me to tell you that.

Guettel’s visit is the first of several over the coming year.  He is workshopping a new opera called RIP with our Fletcher Opera Institute next season.  Hopefully I’ll have more to report as it approaches.

A week later, we had our final guest seminar with Randall Woolf.  I’ve written about Randy before – he’s another composer who comes from a drastically different perspective from mine, and whose work I hold in high esteem.  He’s integrated his experiences with minimalism, hip-hop, orchestration studies with del Tredici and more into a language that is both cutting edge and eerily familiar.

I have two things to add to what I wrote two years ago: New York City and Revenge.  First, New York.  Randy grew up in Detroit, moved to Boston as a young man, then settled in NYC.  He’s a firm believer that it’s essential for a composer to live in New York, at least for a while.  He made the point that musical events in Manhattan or Brooklyn often don’t get recorded for a couple of years, so you have to be there to get the immediate benefit.  Point taken.  I’m so glad I lived in New York for six years.  There is nothing like the pace at which new music unfolds in the big city.

But I’m also really glad I moved away.  Perhaps a sacrifice in engagement has allowed me more opportunity for reflection.  I’ll never know for sure.  In the 19th century, Paris was the place to be – yet few of the European composers we value from that time made Paris their home.  The good news is that there are many valid paths for a composer to take.   Take on the big city and thrive; head off into the mountains and thrive.  It’s really up to you to make your work matter, wherever you are.

But why listen to me?  I’m the quintessential unreliable narrator.  I just found out I’ve been washing my hair with conditioner instead of shampoo for the last two weeks.

What made Randy endearing was his willingness to engage the students on their level and not only encourage them to move to New York but also give them some very helpful pointers on how to get established there.  Really looking out for what’s best for them.

And now for Revenge.  The full title is The Cameraman’s Revenge, and it’s a film Randy scored with string quartet and electronics.  The Cameraman’s Revenge is an early example of stop-motion animation by Ladislaw Starewicz, a name I had not heard before.  I know, some of you are saying, “Dillon, are you serious?  How could you be so ignorant?”  But this was my first experience with Starewicz’s work.  The Cameraman’s Revenge was made in 1913 in Moscow, and if you aren’t already familiar with it, that is all I’m going to tell you.  Go watch it.

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Got this nifty little device in the mail last month, with the request that I take it for a test drive and tell you all about it.  As you can see, it’s small enough to get lost in a wallet.  What does it do?  Listen up.

This is the Xacti Sound Recorder, and it’s a juicy little gizmo.  It records with three different built-in microphone functions, and interfaces easily with my laptop so I can store and edit recorded files.  The sound is CD-quality, even though the whole thing weighs less than 50 grams and is only 9.4 millimeters thick.

You can read the details here: I’ve just had it for a few weeks, and I’ve already found a bunch of uses for it.  I expect to find more as we get better acquainted.

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Still plowing my way through the events of the first half of 2010, well after most of the dust has settled.  Now it’s time to tackle my May residency at the Idyllwild Arts Academy, right on the edge of San Bernadino National Forest.

This one also comes with a substantial backstory.  But I’m sick of backstories, so I’m cutting straight to May.

Flew into John Wayne Airport, got my rental car and embarked.  I’ve already told the story of my surreal arguments with GPS Lady – I know I had said some harsh things to her, but I think she may have been overreacting a bit when she sent me down a dirt road marked “Trespassers Will Be Executed.”

The Idyllwild Symphony was giving the premiere of my Figments and Fragments, Part One of my Schumann Trilogy.  Imagine Robert Schumann strapped to a bed in a 19th-century madhouse and you have a good insight into how the piece works.  It begins and ends in paralysis – the first paralysis is blissful, the last one is terrified.  Between are a series of character pieces loosely reflecting some of Schumann’s musical interests.  The character pieces are interrupted by increasingly irrational passages, until the material is overwhelmed in the coda.

A side note – I had intended to write a trilogy of pieces on Schumann’s life, but I ended up writing a trilogy on his death, despite my desire to avoid doing just that.  As I’ve discovered many times before, my music likes to make a fool of my intentions.

Another side note – on June 8th, my then-dormant blog got a flood of visits – almost 3000 in one day – from Germany.  I did a double-take when I saw the numbers; then I realized it was Schumann’s 200th birthday, and the Germans were checking out what I had to say about Bobby Cobbler.   Now there’s a country that strongly identifies with its composers.

The premiere at Idyllwild was very nicely done, and the following evening at REDCAT was even better.  Listening live made me realize that a sonic kernel introduced at the outset of the piece – an intertwining of piano, clarinet and vibe – needed to be a little bit more prominent in its recurrences throughout the piece.  It was getting buried by its surroundings, and it really had a lot to do with the developing intrigue of the music, so I had to clean up some of the scoring around it.  I was in luck with this piece: after those initial two performances, two more are scheduled in Salt Lake City and Boise in the fall, so I had the opportunity to make some refinements.  Have I ever mentioned how much I like buffing up a piece after the premiere?  Of course I have.

In keeping with my unique competence (read: incompetence) at getting around, I showed up late for the REDCAT performance, planting my butt in my seat just as they were setting up for my piece, having missed the opening work.  I have an excuse: a road I was planning to use was shut down for shooting an action sequence for a TV series.  As a result, the audience was treated to the unusual sight of Composer Bowing With Jacket Still On:

One more photo, me with Peter Askim, a conductor I hope to see more of in the future.  He’s a very intense and likeable guy, personally and on the podium.

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Greetings from Wintergreen Music Festival, where I’m in residence this week, meeting some brilliant young composers, listening to some great music and catching up with old friends.

I’m here for four days, giving each student two lessons.  One develops a special kind of artistic relationship in such a short time.  Hit and run.  Truthfully, I’ve enjoyed these composers so much, I wish I could have more time to explore their work.  But we do the best we can under the circumstances, and our best isn’t so bad after all.

The students are from all over the eastern seaboard, from Massachusetts to Alabama, so it’s interesting to see how they differ and what they have in common.  How they differ: they have a wide range of musical interests and goals.  What they have in common: the reliance on midi playback is pretty pervasive, and the interest in singing (as a compositional tool) is pretty uncommon.

I’ve also had a nice opportunity to reconnect with two of my mentors from over a quarter-century ago: Larry Alan Smith and Michael White.  We’ve reminisced about old times and caught up on one another’s new circumstances.

And of course, we’ve marveled repeatedly over the fact that all three of us look exactly the same as we did in the early 80s.

Sad, but true.

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Still catching up on some events of the last few months, and today I can report on my adventure with Noizepunk & Das Crooner.

I was in New York for a bunch of recording sessions in March, and got the invitation to stop by the Noizepunk studios, aka Gene Pritsker’s apartment, on the Upper East Side.  I was greeted there by the dynamic duo, and ushered through Gene’s kitchen to the studio where he creates his own inimitable brand of musical mayhem.  And by the way, if you haven’t heard any of Gene’s music, do check it out – fun stuff.

Offered a beer as we slipped through the kitchen, declined.  I’m not a great drinker, and I figure sober is the best way to begin an interview, regardless of how one ends up.  Which reminds me of advice I heard recently from Rosemary Harris: never accept the first drink in new company.  She told the story of her first meeting with Katherine Hepburn, at Hepburn’s apartment, in which she accepted a drink, got tipsy and promptly spewed all over her hostess’s shoes.

I haven’t done much vomiting in my life, but it’s been enough to discourage me from taking any chances.

In any case, I settled into the plush love seat they offered me (all right, so it was a metal foldup) and prepared to do battle.  You see, I had heard a few of NADC’s interviews, and knew they could be a little rough with their guests.  All in good fun, of course, but I was on my guard.  As it turned out, I needn’t have been concerned: they were gracious hosts and genuinely supportive, and I ended up feeling badly about being a bit defensive.

Gene Pritsker and Charles Coleman go back a long ways, to their student days at Manhattan School of Music.  Charles got his start as an opera singer; Gene’s background is in guitar.  So, as you might guess, Charles is the one with the booming vocal presence, and Gene tends to have more of a twangy, side-of-the-mouth delivery.

A word of warning to anyone who does a Noizepunk and Das Crooner interview:  they have two hand-held microphones.   And I mean hand-held by Noizepunk and Das Crooner.  The interviewee sits next to Crooner and waits for the microphone to show up in his face, at which point you get a three-count to come up with some words of  wit or wisdom.  If nothing appropriate occurs, the mike is whisked away while Gene makes a wisecrack, either vocally or with his handily placed synthesizer keyboard.  Stay on your toes!

No pics of this event.   Just a soundfile:  I was honored to be guest number 50 – a pretty good number, as far as they go.  But I’m not sure why I’m publicizing this link – I haven’t listened to it myself yet.  I’ll just take comfort – and distress – in knowing that no matter how goofy I may sound, it wasn’t because of the beer.

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Last time out, I got this blog caught up with Daedalus and The Infinite Sphere.  This time, I’m going to try covering the past six months with the Emerson Quartet and Through the Night.

Once again, I’ll start with the backstory.  In April 2008, we had the Emerson Quartet come to UNCSA for two concerts, including performances of new quartets by Bright Sheng and Kaija Saariaho.  I got the assignment of picking up violinist Philip Setzer at the hotel and bringing him to the school for a master class.  After an exchange of pleasantries, he told me that he had been following my work for some time and wanted to be proactive about commissioning a quartet from me.  I initially thought he was just being polite – I’ve had countless musicians say the same or similar, with no follow-up – but he assured me he was in earnest.

We followed up by phone and email over the next four months before we were able to work out the details, and then I got to work – while simultaneously working on my fourth quartet and the Schumann Trilogy.  Truthfully, it was a tad more than I should have taken on at one time, especially with a preschooler and an infant in the house, but I really wanted to do all of these things.  Couldn’t say no.

As a side note, this was the biggest commission I had ever accepted without a shred of paperwork involved.  We had what used to be called a gentlemen’s agreement, and both sides held up their side of the agreement.  I don’t recommend this for young composers, though, unless there is no choice: get the terms down on paper!  I’ve had too many promising projects fall through to recommend anything else.

On the other hand, I’ve had promising projects committed to paper and they still fell through, so I guess there is no simple solution.

Work on the fifth quartet ran from January to August 2009.  In early February 2010, I showed up at David Finckel and Wu Han’s apartment for a rehearsal.  Because of other obligations, I was there about two weeks earlier than they would have preferred.  They were apologetic at the outset, telling me that the piece wasn’t quite as ready as they would have liked it to be before playing for me.  They needn’t have feared – I’ve heard every possible variant of rehearsal for my music, from pristine excellence to complete disaster.  They were well over on the side of the former, just needing some time to work out a few issues.  Of course, they had no way of knowing that my rehearsal demeanor is well over on the side of low-key – it takes a lot to get me upset – so I understand where they were coming from.

In fact, having me there for an early rehearsal worked out for the best, as I was able to answer numerous questions that could have caused them to waste valuable time playing things differently from the way I had imagined.  And since I had done perhaps the worst job of proofreading on this piece as I’ve done on any piece in the last 30 years, I was happy to be there to answer some very reasonable questions.

Emerson rehearsed a few more times in February, but the next time I met with them was March 9, the day of the premiere, in Cologne.  And that’s where the photojournalism begins.

Here is the Kölner Philharmonie from my hotel window.

And here’s a shot that gives a sense of the layout and scope of the interior – truly a beautiful space, both visually and aurally.

Here is Emerson in dress rehearsal, hours before the premiere.

About 10 years ago, they started performing with violinists and violist standing, while the cellist sits on a raised platform.  The point of standing is to maximize the expressive potential of their bodies in performance.  The point of the raised platform for the cellist is to keep their eye levels on as even a plane as possible, so their interaction on stage can be that of four equals.  Interestingly, though, they rarely rehearse this way: in rehearsal, all four players sit.

Dress rehearsal was, appropriately enough, almost entirely spent on my piece.  The rest of the program was Ives, Barber and Dvorak, stuff they had performed many times before.  A couple things went drastically wrong in rehearsal, but it’s a pretty enormous piece at 33 minutes, so some crazy moments are to be expected.  For the most part, I could tell it was going to be a powerfully convincing presentation.  And I think I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: these guys are a joy to work with.  Gracious, intense, intelligent, no ridiculous ego brandishing.

I’m not the best at gauging numbers, but it appeared that there were about 1000 people in the audience that evening.  I found myself sitting next to a young lawyer.  We struck up a stilted conversation in my jetlagged German, tried switching to French — a disaster for both of us — then settled on English, which she spoke beautifully, despite her protestations to the contrary.  She turned out to be a very astute music lover.

Ives was first, then my piece.  The performance was pretty stunning, as one comes to expect from this group.  They really are amazing.

And the audience response was a real shocker – I don’t remember a more demonstratively enthusiastic ovation for a piece of mine.  Five curtain calls, a solo bow for the composer – it was really an experience I couldn’t have been prepared for.

When the tumult finally died down, we all gathered backstage for an intermission photo.  Left to right: Lawrence Dutton, Philip Setzer, Eugene Drucker, cloud-9-guy, David Finckel, Lourens Langevoort (Director of the Kölner Philharmonie).

For the second half of the concert, I returned to my seat, and my neighbor had some very nice observations about my piece, despite the fact that she hadn’t realized she was sitting next to the composer until I got up to bow.  What a great crowd.

After the concert, twenty minutes of autograph signing and numerous requests for CDs.  Wish I had had my upcoming string quartet disk finished in time – could have sold quite a few.  Then we had a fine dinner with Langevoort in a restaurant above the concert hall, before crashing back at the hotel – short night followed by a long odyssey home for me.

The next chapter in this saga came a month later, when the Emerson Quartet came to UNCSA to give the US premiere of my quartet.  The school was kind enough to fly Welz Kaufmann in for the occasion to moderate a preconcert talk.  Welz had done his homework, carefully studying my first four quartets in preparation for a revealing and insightful conversation.

Then it was time for another delightful dress rehearsal.

Which gives me a good opportunity to report on the tone of the Emerson Quartet’s rehearsals, since I’ve had the privilege of sitting in on three of them.  And I speak as a pretty experienced quartet rehearsal auditor, having heard at least seven wonderful quartets play my music.

First of all, I should tell any young composers out there that working with professional string quartets is as good as it gets.  It’s a demanding lifestyle, making a quartet work, so the musicians involved are always tremendously dedicated.  And the standard of playing is very high; nothing less than the utmost precision and passion for every nuance is acceptable.  There’s no holding back allowed.

I’ve had the amazing fortune to work with some of the best, and the differences among them have more to do with character than quality.  The Emersons are a wonderful example of this.  I tried in vain to get a sense of which player was taking on which role within the rehearsal, but they all do everything – they are really equal partners in crime.  There is no leader (to quote Finckel quoting Soyer: if one person leads, then the others will of necessity be behind).  In addition to being outstanding musicians, they are four very intelligent men, with far-ranging artistic interests, great senses of humor, intense curiosity and engaging personalities.  I’ve loved hearing them hone passages, freely contributing suggestions to me and to one another, sharing insights, knowing just how much comic relief is necessary to keep things moving productively.

If I were to generalize about what distinguishes them from one another, Finckel is the most gregarious, a real connoisseur of people.  Setzer has a quick wit and loves a good laugh (best line: when I asked that a tremolo be played more quietly: “oh, like when your cell phone is on silent mode and it goes off in your shirt pocket and you say Why is my nipple vibrating?”).  Drucker is the most introspective and creative of the group – he is a composer and published novelist in his spare time (what spare time?).  And Dutton is, in some ways, the most pragmatic, down-to-earth, yet deeply soulful player.

What they share is an unsurpassable sense of artistic vision, amazing energy levels and an indefatigable commitment to excellence.

Oh, and there was a concert that evening.  The Winston-Salem audience, having experienced a ridiculous number of hours of my music over the years, was a tad less enthusiastic than the crowd in Cologne.   Which is not to say that their response was anything less than kind, but people here have a strong motivation to keep me from getting a swollen head.

And – dare I say it? – they have good reason to be a bit sick of me by now.

But of course, the Emersons got a prolonged standing ovation, and justifiably.

Another post-performance pic, this time in the lobby.

The ensuing weeks saw performances in Seattle and Washington DC that I was unable to attend.  Once again, overbooked.

Now I’m completing a few revisions.  No surgery, just some cosmetic adjustments. The second movement is fine, but the first, third and fourth movements needed a little buffing.  I’ll mail the new scores and parts off later this week.  Next performances will be in October in New York and Philadelphia – stay tuned.

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The first six months of 2010 were more eventful than this blog could keep up with.  In part, that’s a reflection of a sudden increase in activity on my part, but it also results from the amount of time it takes me to process my experiences and thoughts.

I am not a quick chewer.

Little by little, I’m getting a chance to chew through what I’ve learned these last few months, and I have some thoughts to share.

I’ll start with the Daedalus Quartet’s performance of my fourth string quartet, which took a big chunk of my attention in the month of January.

First, a timeline.  My first sketches for what ultimately became The Infinite Sphere dated from 2002.  Five years later, the Kenan Institute announced their LINKS commissioning initiative, and I got in touch with the Daedalus Quartet about collaborating on a premiere.  We worked out an agreement fairly quickly, and I wrote the bulk of the piece between September 2008 and May 2009.

In January 2010 I flew up to Philadelphia to attend a rehearsal.  By then, Daedalus had learned all the notes and figured out how they wanted to play the piece.  They really had everything down, but I still had a few interpretive clarifications to share.

When I listen to a rehearsal of a new piece, I’m wearing two hats.  I’m listening to the interpretation so I can offer insights into my intentions.  I’m also listening to the piece compositionally, trying to find the weakest moments, the passages that undermine the goals of the music, or don’t live up to the expected level.  When I was a younger, less experienced composer, it was very difficult for me to distinguish between these two types of listening.  In other words, when a passage didn’t sound the way I wanted it to, I had a hard time determining whether the piece was flawed or the performers simply weren’t playing it the way it should be played.

At this point, my ears and mind have suffered enough damage – excuse me, experience – that I have little trouble recognizing the cause of any problems I hear.  With the fourth quartet, a few words were enough to get exactly the performance I wanted to hear.  At the same time, I was able to identify two passages that weren’t working the way I wanted compositionally.

A week later, the piece was premiered at Wolf Trap.  I wasn’t able to be there.  (As a side note, the fact that I’ve only been able to attend one of the five performances this quartet has had really bothered me.  I feel like I haven’t been nearly as attentive as I’d like to be – this piece really deserved better.  But it’s been a very busy time for me.)

The following day, the Daedalus Quartet came to UNCSA for a seminar and a second performance.  And that’s where the pics come in.  A photographer by the name of Allen Aycock was on hand for my composition seminar and has captured, perhaps for the first time, a magic trick of which I am particularly proud: using only my hands, I am able to raise a score of music from waist level to over my head.  Voilà!

Come to think of it, every piece I write seems to start at waist level and end up over my head.

More pics, including a shot of the Daedalus Quartet giving an impromptu reading session of a piece by my student Ryan Dodge.

The performance that night was unbelievable – pristine, passionate, superb in every way.

But getting back to the two passages that weren’t working the way I wanted them to – two weeks went by between the second and third performances, which gave me a chance to correct my mistakes.  I made two 6-bar cuts, one in each of the two movements.

The first cut was of a phrase that leaned a bit too far in the direction of unity – always a tricky balance.  Each piece has to find the right mix of unity and diversity, and this passage erred in favor of unity for six measures, creating a brief dead spot.

Snip, snip – gone!

I had thought the problematic passage in the second movement was a transition, but I realized in performance that it was more than that, it was really a transition to a transition, and the two transitions weakened one another.  Again, out with the virtual scissors and the problem magically disappeared.  Now the passage proceeds directly to where it’s going, as I smile and nod my approval – or is it relief?

Some composers finish a composition and move on to the next piece but, as I said before, I’m a slow chewer, so I take advantage of every opportunity to adjust and refine.  I could give two holy hoots about what date the piece was supposedly completed – as long as I’m still breathing, I reserve the right to make every piece I write as wonderful as it possibly can be.  Art has to trump history.  And if filmmakers can shoot several endings and pick the one that works best after previews, why can’t I do something similar?

The third performance took place at Penn.  As an additional challenge for Daedalus, they spent the majority of the two-week interim in Europe, playing six different concerts in six nights.  Meanwhile, I was emailing them my latest adjustments which, by the way, made for an impossible page turn for the second violinist.  Nonetheless, I know they took the changes in stride even though I wasn’t able to attend the Penn performance because I saw them two days later in New York for the recording session, and it was really exquisite.

We spent about six hours recording, with the expert Judy Sherman guiding the proceedings.

They performed the piece two more times in May, both in New York.  Again, I’m upset that I wasn’t able to hear it live more than once, because I’m guessing it won’t be performed again anytime soon — Kyu Young Kim has left Daedalus, replaced by Ara Gregorian, and I suspect they’ll probably focus Gregorian’s time on learning the rest of their rep and newer commissions.  But one never knows.  I’m so happy with the piece, which is seldom true for me, so it’s a bit sad for me to have missed so much of its inaugural run.  One always hopes a piece can find a life beyond the initial performances, but one never holds ones breath.

And I say that as a man who likes to chew.

UPDATE: I’ve learned that the Daedalus Quartet is including this piece in its 2011-12 offerings, so maybe I’ll be able to hear it live again after all.

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