Archive for November, 2010

I got a lot of compliments this fall for being easy to work with, or in the words of one colleague, “not bringing an overblown ego to the table.”

Bringing an overblown ego means making sure that every musical event is about me, me and me.  Bringing an overblown ego means everyone else’s needs and concerns are ignored while they rush to feed my voracious sense of self-worth.

Now I like to think I can be as big a crybaby as anyone, given the right circumstances.

But there’s also something to be said for letting your ego grow to such enormous proportions that it ends up figuring out how to feed itself.

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I’m a quick learner when it comes to some things.

Then there are other topics I can’t seem to get the hang of, no matter how many times they bonk me in the noggin.

I spent a lot of time talking about my music these last few weeks.  My favorite topic, musically speaking, is nobody else’s.  I like to talk about form.  Love to talk about form.  Much more interesting topic than rhythm, timbre, harmony… you name it.

The problem isn’t simply that I like to talk about a subject that makes others swoon, I also like to talk about form in relation to the Classical tradition.   Not cool.   If I take a step back from my own interests for a moment, I can imagine rooms full of people falling asleep while I hold forth in rapturous discourse about formal principles from earlier centuries.  I should learn, at some point, to keep my enthusiasm to myself.

And I know there are a lot of people out there who assume, from my words, that I’m filling old bottles with new wine, plugging my musical ideas into pre-made containers, rather than venturing off into uncharted territory.

So if you ever hear me talking about Classical form in relation to my work, before you hit the snooze button, please be aware of two things:

1.     My approach to form is usually pretty innovative, regardless of how I make it sound when I talk about it.

2.     What a composer does and what a composer likes to talk about are not necessarily the same things.

First, number two: my music makes use of all kinds of interesting coloristic devices, subtle harmonic schemes, captivating rhythms.  Just because I don’t have much to say about that stuff doesn’t mean it isn’t there.  It just means I don’t have much to say about it.  Can’t tell you how often people come up to me after a performance asking how I created some unusual combination of timbres.  Well, yes:  it’s one of the things I do.  Nuff said.

And number one: only a complete lack of imagination could assert that traditional forms like fugue or sonata have nothing to say to us in the early 21st century.  Only a complete lack of imagination could maintain that everything that can be done with those forms has been done.

Regardless of their vitality, though, I seldom take these forms at face value.  Instead, they point my imagination in specific directions: a network of associations, rather than an instruction manual for prefab furniture.

The form of Figments and Fragments is a case in point.  It takes the sequential processes found in early Schumann – collections of character pieces – and gradually expands the cracks between the pieces into an increasingly hectic and disturbed narrative.  In other words, the form of the piece is a strange synthesis of organic and sequential principles.

I know, I know: zzzzzzzzz.  Have a nice nap.

And now here’s a bit of Boise boosterism.  Before last week, the city was on my radar as the capitol of Idaho, and not much more.  After a few days there, though, it captured my interest.  A lot of effort has gone into building a thriving arts environment there over the last 20 years or so, and I’m guessing we will be hearing much more about it in the coming decades.


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Listening to the third orchestra in six months take on my Figments and Fragments in rehearsal this week has been a lovely and nourishing experience.  For some composers (not many), this experience – hearing several different orchestras play a new work in a short time frame – is commonplace.  It’s a new one for me, and one that has opened new ways of thinking about my orchestral writing.  How I would have loved to have had this experience 15-20 years ago!

I had always thought of joint commissions as a way of getting more exposure and more money in the composer’s pocket – in other words, as a professional boost.  Those two benefits are certainly real, but the artistic value of hearing a large work get on its feet in several different venues with several different ensembles is tremendous, at least as great as the professional benefit.

From time to time, we hear of young composers who have this kind of experience, but more often it happens somewhat later in life.  Why?  Because young composers are made more of potential than accomplishment, and commissions seldom come as a result of potential.  It’s an old and venerable rule – people prefer to spend their money on things they know will work.

So somehow one has to refine ones orchestral skills in the absence of this kind of experience.  At least that’s how it has worked for me.

In any case, listening to the Idyllwild Symphony, the Salt Lake Symphony and the Boise Philharmonic put this piece together has taught me a few things I’m happy to know.  It’s given me an opportunity to learn my about my work from several different perspectives.

Over the last few months of his life, Robert Schumann gradually succumbed to a paralysis that eventually left him all but motionless. Figments and Fragments imagines his state of mind while incarcerated in the asylum where he died.  It begins and ends with evocations of paralysis: first a blissful, floating paralysis, then a raging, helpless deep-freeze.  Here’s an excerpt of the first section of the piece, titled Emergence – paralysis as a state of relief, a sensual stasis:

figments and fragments excerpt

By the way, I’m trying not to take too much to heart the fact that this piece is being played on a concert featuring “composers who struggled with mental illness.”

In my case, the struggle is hardly something I’d put in the past tense.

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On Wednesday, I’m off to Boise – my first time in Idaho, though I came close in 1970 (but that’s another story).  There I will be reunited with one of my most faithful champions, Robert Franz.  Robert is Music Director of the Boise Philharmonic and Associate Conductor with the Houston Symphony.

Robert has been involved in probably a dozen premieres and/or commissions of my music over the last 20 years.  I owe a good portion of my orchestral repertoire to his encouragement.  I’ve seen Robert conduct my music with the Carolina Chamber Symphony and the Louisville Orchestra, but this is the first time I’ll be able to hear him lead the orchestra in Boise.

Here are the pieces of mine I know Robert was involved in premiering/commissioning – there may be others that have slipped my mind:

  • Orpheus in the Afterworld (flute concerto)
  • Appearance, Flight, Reflection (symphony)
  • Snegglish Dances
  • Reminiscence
  • Amadeus ex machina
  • Wright Flight
  • Figments and Fragments
  • Cool Night
  • Genealogie

Not too many composers get that kind of support from a single conductor – about 2.5 hours of music  – so I’m extremely grateful for the work he’s done on my behalf.  And it’s been about seven years since I’ve seen him, so I’m looking forward to catching up.

**

My second trip to Salt Lake City earlier this month was just as fascinating as my first in September.  I stayed with Barbara and Richard Fox.  Richard is a cellist with the Salt Lake Symphony, and an exceptionally gracious host.  He gave me a beautifully nuanced history of the region.  His grandmother was one of the original pioneers who made the trek across the plains on foot a century-and-a-half ago.  Compared to that I was feeling pretty wimpy on our 90-minute hike through the outskirts of the city (30 minutes downhill, 60 minutes back up), especially since Richard is maybe a few years older than I am.

sunset from the Foxes' front porch

Richard and Barbara Fox

Another highlight of the trip was, of all things, the preconcert talk I gave.  Well, not the talk itself, I suppose, but the write-up it got on transabled.org.  If you are unfamiliar with the term “transabled,” I’m not going to help you out because the subject matter is complex and controversial.  But the response to my words and music from Chloe, a blogger on the site, was fascinating food for thought.  Read it here.

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Musicians are always confronted with the problem of tempo.  Composers and performers – we all struggle with the same questions.  Exactly how fast should this music be played?   Exactly how slowly or quickly could it be played, without losing its meaning?  Should the tempo be flexible, or unrelenting?

Tempo is both tangible and intangible.  You can set it with a metronome, but you can seldom guarantee that what you set will speak in every acoustic.  As often as possible, I set the tempo with both a metronome marking and an indication of what the music needs to communicate.  And sometimes that combination actually works.

When an incorrect note is played, it is itself – a wrong note – and, at the same time, an impediment to the line – ie, it makes the notes around it harder to understand.

But when a piece of music is played at the wrong tempo – and by “wrong,” I mean a tempo that doesn’t work for either the music or the listening space – then every note is a wrong note, because every note is in the wrong place.

***

Speaking of tempo indications, the Cassatt String Quartet is premiering my tempo-titled piece Brio this Saturday in the Permian Basin.  Read about it here.  If you happen to be there, let me know how it goes – I’m sadly going to miss it.

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I recently had a chance to catch up with the great composer Ben Theirb4 and talk with him about his work.  Here is an excerpt from our conversation:

LD: How does it feel to be such a great composer?

BT: Well, of course, I don’t think of myself as a composer – that term has too much cultural baggage.  Certainly I’m great, but I’m more of an Originator, someone who comes up with completely original ideas that nobody has ever thought of before.  Like for instance, has it ever occurred to you that people are dying all the time and nobody is doing anything about it?   Of course not, because you are not an original like me.  That’s why I wrote my piece “Hamsters.”

LD: “Hamsters?”

BT: Yes – you see, you take a barrel of hamsters and dump them into a piano.  Then you bang on the keys while singing “The hamsters are dying, are dying, are dying, the hamsters are dying and we’re dying too!”

LD: How long does that last?

BT: Until every hamster, or everybody in the audience, is dead.

LD: Very interesting.

BT: Of course it is — I thought of it.  And can you believe it – “Hamsters” has only had 1500 performances in the past year.  How am I supposed to change the world if I can only get 1500 performances a year?

LD: Change the world?

BT: Yes, of course, that’s the artist’s role.  The world is a terrible place.  Everything has to be changed – nothing should stay the same.  For instance, look at my belly button.  Notice anything?

LD:  Um… not really.

BT: You wouldn’t.  See, it’s there in the middle of my stomach.  What a terrible place for my belly button!  Who ever sees it there? That’s why I’m having it surgically removed and grafted onto one of the cables on the Brooklyn Bridge.

LD: Wow.  You are a surgeon, too?

BT: No, of course not, I would have a doctor do the surgery.

LD: Sounds painful.

BT: Not really – one of my devoted assistants has agreed to supply the belly button.  But there will be a humungous flat screen under it saying it’s mine, so it works out well for everyone.  There will also be a webcam trained on it 24/7 so anyone can visit www.ben’sbellybutton.com and see it.

LD: That’s an amazing idea.

BT: No kidding.  But you wouldn’t believe the expense!  The surgeon alone is going to walk off with 5% of the grant I got to do this.  I don’t know how I’m going to make ends meet.  I may have to dip into my beach money.

LD: Beach money?

BT: Yes, I’m working on a performance piece that takes place on all of the most beautiful beaches in the world.  I got a $16 million grant to do on-site research, but I’m so busy being original, I’ve only spent half of it so far.

LD: Wow, I’m impressed by all the original ideas you have.

BT: What can I say?  I’m pretty great.  But it’s not easy being great.  You wouldn’t believe all the people who don’t realize how great I am.

LD: No, seriously?

BT: Yes, it’s a big problem, and I blame it on our public school systems.  If kids aren’t exposed to my work all through grade school, how are they ever going to develop an appreciation for how important I am?

LD: I see.

BT: But I’ve got an answer.  I’m working on a proposal to shut down all the elementary schools and turn the spaces into detention camps for children.  That way I’ll have a captive audience for my work.  Every room will be equipped with a humongous screen, which will alternate showings of my beach piece, my hamster piece, my belly button, etc.  Building the audience of the future.

LD: Sounds like you have it all figured out.

BT: But of course.

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I’m off tomorrow for my second visit to Salt Lake City in as many months.  This time the Salt Lake Symphony, conducted by Sergio Bernal, will perform Figments and Fragments, Part One of the Schumann Trilogy.  It will be nice to catch up with some of the new friends I made in September, and to hear the third performance of this piece in six months.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the long hiatus between the fourth and fifth performance of my fifth quartet, which enabled me to do some picayune revisions.  The same thing has happened with this piece: the last performance was on May 9th.  There was a timbre introduced at the outset – a blend of piano, vibe, clarinet, flutes and muted violins – that recurs at various points throughout the piece.  In performance, I felt that those recurrences weren’t clear enough – they were getting buried in all of the information surrounding them – so I expanded and developed them a bit over the summer.  I think this version will make a bit more sense.

I’ll be giving a preconcert lecture as a guest of the Utah Humanities Council in which I will be talking about this piece and Schumann’s First Symphony, which is also on the program.  I spent a few weeks in close quarters with Schumann’s First about thirty years ago, and I haven’t looked at it since.  At least not until this week, when I’ve been boning up in preparation.  Much more there than I remembered.

So if you are in Salt Lake City Saturday night, come by Libby Gardner Hall at 6:30 to hear me talk about Bobby Cobbler and me.  Better yet, come at 7:30 – the music says more than I ever could.

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