Archive for September, 2010

God guard me from those thoughts men think
In the mind alone,
He that sings a lasting song
Thinks in a marrow bone

– W. B. Yeats

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I hear a lot of hand-wringing about our wireless world, and aside from the squeaky sound you can sometimes get if you wring your hands just right, it’s not terribly productive.  Sure, it’s true, as we connect ever more widely and virtually, we lose touch with our hereness.  Our primary environment is online, so we let our physical environment go to pot.  What can be done about this?

Squeak, squeak.

I don’t have answers to these all-important questions.  I do, however, have two more far less significant questions about the impact of connecting myself to the ether.

First up, passwords.

When passwords first began creeping into my daily life, maybe fifteen years ago, I came up with what I thought would be a good general-use password, a six-letter word I figured I could remember and nobody else could guess.   I used it for a number of years, and it served me well.

Then passwords started getting more complicated – had to come up with a combination of letters and numbers.  Okay, did that.  Moving on.

At some point in the last few years, the password invasion overwhelmed my world.  I needed more of them.  And more, and more.

Now my passwords had to combine numbers, letters, punctuation marks, foreign diacriticals, no repetitions, and couldn’t have anything to do with anyone I had ever known, anyone I had ever met or anyone I had ever been.

In other words, my personal passwords had become something I couldn’t ever be expected to remember.

I’m making an attempt to remember them all, though, even the ones I no longer use.  I figure I’ve got enough of them by now to make a pretty hefty opera libretto.  Who knows?  That could come in handy someday.

But don’t even get me started on screen names.

Okay, that’s mental, now for the physical aspect of my technohabit.

Because I respect other people (or maybe because I’m impossibly shy), my cell phone is on silent-vibrate mode almost all of the time.

Lately, I’ve noticed I’m getting phantom vibrations in the parts of my body that are adjacent to pockets my phone usually occupies.  I’ll feel my phone go off on my left leg, dig into my pocket to see who is calling and discover the pocket empty.

I’m getting very uncomfortable about this.  My body really shouldn’t miss my cell phone so much it has to make up for its absence by giving me skin-buzzes.

Squeak, squeak.

Speaking of bodies doing remarkable things, Concert Dance, Inc. will be bringing their wonderful choreography for my Better Angels of Our Nature to Pennsylvania for the first time tomorrow night.  Read all about it here.  And if you can’t go, watch it on YouTube.

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Kyle Gann recently wrote a typically nifty little post in which he observed, “I get CDs from composers in their 20s and 30s, all very talented, very accomplished – most of them sounding like they’re trying to be the next John Adams.”  His point was that young composers should branch out a bit, find other influences.  The comments on his post all concurred.  Galen Brown followed up with a thoughtful response about the nature of influence here on S21, which had a host of comments from various perspectives.

I had been thinking much the same thing – that there was an awful lot of Adams appropriation going on among composers in their 20s and 30s — this past spring when I was planning our Composition Department’s 2010-11 course of study, and I decided to take an aggressive approach to the phenomenon.  I have planned this academic year around an intensive study of the works of John Adams.  We have broken our entire department into pairs of students this year; each pair has been assigned one Adams piece to study in depth.  In January and February, these pairs of students will give reports to the rest of the department on the piece they have been assigned.

In March, we’ll all attend a performance by the North Carolina Symphony featuring three Adams pieces, part of their Composer Portrait series.  Along the way, we’ll spark up some provocative discussions about his music and the way it is composed, perceived, performed and discussed.

My hope is that this immersion will serve a positive pedagogical mission. Those students who want to write like Adams will understand exactly what they are doing, rather than just pilfering surface details with no thought for context.  Others may find themselves overdosed on Adams, and react by striking out on contrary paths.

I won’t be encouraging them to move in either direction, but I will be helping them find their way in whichever direction they feel suits them best.

Bottom line: Adams has left a formidable footprint on the new music scene.  Young composers need to come to terms with his legacy – either to follow it or to reject it – and they should do so through knowledge, not ignorance.

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I’ve now completed 22 airplane flights in 2010, with 10 more to go.  I’m thinking I will try to reduce that number drastically in 2011.  Got to cut down on my carbon footprint.

I wouldn’t mind a drastic reduction in airport food intake while I’m at it.

In Salt Lake City now.  Here’s picture of the plane that brought me here.  It’s not a particularly interesting plane, but the backdrop gives you a pretty good sense of the dramatically beautiful mountains and striking sky that SLC residents get to experience on a daily basis.

Again, the plane wasn’t much to brag about.   I was actually pretty envious of the folks who arrived in the plane on the left – the one with the fox on the tail.  That looks pretty cool.

Musicians travel, and there are always those wonderful souls who come to the airport to pick them up, take them to their hotels, and generally make a nice first impression on them.  I’ve been charged with being that soul on many occasions, and I have some tips for would-be wonderful souls.  Most musicians are easy to pick out in a crowded airport: instrument cases are a dead giveaway.  Pianists are a bit tricky: you have to keep an eye peeled for that cute little bag they carry their music in.  Conductors have a larger version of the cute little bag for their scores.

If you ever have to pick up a composer, just look for the person who is walking around in a daze, looking like he’s never seen the inside of an airport before.

I was found wandering in circles by the wonderful composer John Costa, known to many as the brains and brawn behind the Utah Arts Festival commissions.  He proved to be the perfect host to get my first visit to SLC in forty years off to a lovely start.  He took me to the Red Iguana for dinner, which I recommend highly as a place to go if you want to eat far more than you should.

And here is a word to those composers who believe that entering competitions is a waste of time: you are right.  Except.  John reminded me that I applied for a Utah Arts Festival commission a number of years ago.  One of the judges was Robert Baldwin.  I didn’t win, but my piece so impressed Maestro Baldwin that he has gone on to conduct a half dozen or so performances of my music since then, including the premiere I’m in town for now.

That gives me a perfect opportunity to rewind a bit in order to tell you that when I arrived at the airport to await my first flight on Tuesday, I found a note in my inbox from Mr. Baldwin.  Turns out he had sent me links to recordings of the orchestra’s most recent rehearsal of Cool Night.  So my layover time eating lousy airport food was accompanied by the sounds of my music gradually coming into focus in rehearsal – which was accompanied by the earbud bleedthrough of lousy airport music backbeats.

I love the times I live in.

The next day, Mr. Baldwin came to the hotel to personally take me to rehearsal.  I was very curious to finally meet this man who had taken such a liking to my music from afar.  One always has fans who are fans because of personal acquaintance – my mom comes to mind – but people who like your music for itself, as opposed to feeling personally invested in it because their lives are linked to yours is — well, I suppose it’s reassuring to feel the music has legs of its own.  In this case, Robert’s reputation as an excellent conductor had preceded him, which made me doubly curious.

No disappointment to report.  The rehearsal went extremely well, with singers, actor, orchestra and conductor all giving their utmost to make Cool Night glitter.  Then I got to have a nice lunch with Maestro, who turned out to be about the most agreeable person you could imagine.  We commiserated a bit on the challenges of running a music school, the kinds of things faculty and students could never guess about how these seemingly creaky institutions stay afloat, and — every once in awhile — flourish.

And then I had a few hours to stroll the broad boulevards, trying to get a sense of how this city, so different from most of the cities I spend time in, functions.  A lot of the thoughts I had will have to wait for another post, once I’ve had a chance to collect them, or recollect them, with greater clarity.  They have to do with identification vs. understanding, the tug-of-war between protectionism and exploration, and the correct use of resources, spiritual and physical.

My musings, and aimless wanderings, were interrupted by the sight of this forever Young man, exhorting the motorists (and the politicians, one supposes) to turn right at the intersection.

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On the plane tomorrow to Salt Lake City.  Over the course of two days, I’ll have two orchestra rehearsals, a vocal rehearsal, a class and a concert.  As time allows, I’ll try to take in a city I last set foot in 41 years ago.

And now a word about rehearsal etiquette.  Composers aren’t supposed to speak directly to orchestral musicians, unless asked to by the conductor.  If you want the second clarinetist to play a tad louder, you tell the conductor “I’d like the second clarinetist to play a tad louder,” and let Maestro translate your wishes to the musician in question.  Presumably that’s because the musicians have to experience the conductor as the ultimate authority in rehearsal, which is especially tricky when the composer is in the room.  After all, how can the conductor know the piece better than the composer?  Truth is, it’s easy for the conductor to know the piece better than the composer, because the composer has moved on to other works since completing the piece, while the conductor has presumably been immersed in the work at hand over the last few weeks or more.  But I’ve known conductors who have gone out of their way to belittle the composer in rehearsal, as if they felt the need to unquestionably establish their authority.  Unfortunately, they usually end up looking pretty weak in the process.

Most conductors, of course, are incredibly gracious, generous with their time and absolutely sublime colleagues.  I haven’t yet met Robert Baldwin, but our frequent online exchanges (he’s programmed music of mine in the past) have assured me that he’s a very meticulous, pleasant, thoughtful guy, so I’m expecting to have an easy time working with him.  I’m looking forward to our collaboration, and to hearing how these singers and instrumentalists tackle the challenges of Cool Night.  I have to tip my cap to all of them – it is certainly not an easy piece to nail down.

And Mr. Baldwin has just begun a term as Interim Dean at the University of Utah School of Music.  I went down that road in 2003-04, so I know he has more on his hands right now than anyone can be expected to juggle.  Another cap tip.

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Working on a chamber piece with piano right now – there’s an extended passage in the piano part in which one hand is playing a fast, metronomic staccato pattern while the other plays rich, freely rolled chords.  Like one hand is channeling Steve Reich while the other conjures Franz Liszt.

Technically, each hand is only modestly challenging, and I’m guessing that professional pianists will have no trouble putting them together.  But I’m finding my token keyboard skills completely befuddled by this particular blend.  Can’t seem to get even a slight fingerhold on coordinating the two styles.  And that befuddlement makes me wonder if it might not be as effective as I imagine.

I really should put a page or two in front of a pianist to see what reaction I get.  But part of me is afraid to being told it won’t work, because I can hear how cool it would sound if it did work.  If someone told me to forget about it, could I really?

No, I’d stick with it, stubborn little cuss that I am.

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Our school year gets started next week, with lots of goodies in store.  More about those as they come.  In the meantime, an important reminder about how it’s supposed to work from master cellist, chamber musician, teacher and administrator David Finckel:

“Remember that good teaching is really a collaboration between you and the student.”

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Last time out, I mentioned that I had rewritten a stanza of Heinrich Heine’s Der Tod das ist die kühle Nacht as part of the text for Cool Night.   As near as I can tell, this poem has been set by close to a hundred composers, from Brahms to Rakowski.  Which would have been a great reason for me not to set it, if I had been looking for a reason not to set it.  Another reason not to set it is because it didn’t really say what I wanted it to say, or at least not with the imagery I needed to match with the rest of my text.

So let’s look at what I did, or perpetrated, depending on your perspective.

Here’s the original poem:

Der Tod das ist die kühle Nacht,
Das Leben ist der schwüle Tag.
Es dunkelt schon, mich schläfert,
Der Tag hat mich müd gemacht.

Über mein Bett erhebt sich ein Baum,
Drin singt die junge Nachtigall;
Sie singt von lauter Liebe,
Ich hör es sogar im Traum.

Here’s the English translation provided by

Death is the cool night.
Life is the sultry day.
It now grows dark; I’m drowsy,
The day has wearied me.

Above my bed rises a tree,
The young nightingale sings there, it seems;
She sings of naught but love –
I hear it even in my dreams.

Translation copyright © 1996 by Leonard Lehrman

Perfectly lovely.

But I was writing a text that purported to emanate from the delirious mind of Robert Schumann, terminally ensconced in an Endenich sanatorium.  I wanted to tie the tone of Heine’s poem to imagery that would more closely reflect Schumann’s obsessions.

Schumann, throughout his life, but especially in his youth, when he invented the Florestan and Eusebius characters, was in love with butterfly imagery, as a metaphor for transformation into an ideal state.  He picked this interest up early, entranced by the novels and stories of Jean Paul.

Keeping this in mind, I decided to switch the nightingale in the second stanza to a butterfly, which of course meant shifting the described experience from aural (the singing nightingale) to visual (the dancing butterfly).  Here’s my rewrite of stanza two:

Um mein Bett erhebt sich die Hülle,
Drin tanzt die junge Schmetterling;
Sie tanzt die Schritte der Liebe –
Die Flügel erschließen sich in Fülle

[Around my bed arises the cocoon
Where dances the young butterfly
She dances the steps of love –
Her wings unfold in opulence]

Which gave me the connection between Heine’s benedictive tone and the image of a cocoon as a transformative shroud.

I was aided in this process by the perceptive and knowledgeable Hans Gabriel, who immediately grasped what I was trying to do and helped me refine my first draft to more closely match Heine’s Volksliedstrophe form.  In fact, I sent him my draft of the second stanza without telling him anything about the source, and he immediately recognized where it was coming from.  When I expressed concern about an awkward turn of phrase, his response was, “German Romantic poetry is German Romantic poetry – much of it would qualify as ‘awkward’ by the standards of modern German, anyway.”

Just the assurance I needed.

And here’s a thank you to Corey Dargel, without whose simple HTML tip this post would not have been worth the effort.

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