Archive for December, 2010

I’m taking a blog-holiday after this post.  I’ll park an infinite number of curves right here with the following observations:

  • The atmosphere is approximately 62 miles thick.  That means Brooklyn is closer to outer space than it is to Philadelphia.
  • Schoenberg famously said that genius is reserved for the dead.  In these politically cautious times, when everyone in the music world is careful not to make waves, we can update Arnold’s axiom to say that criticism is reserved for the dead.
  • Kenyan proverb: if you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.
  • Recently read in the NY Times that difficulty handling financial matters is an early sign of Alzheimer’s.  Amazing it didn’t occur to them that having to manage ones finances in this mind-bogglingly complicated era could be a cause of Alzheimer’s.

See you in 2011.

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The two weeks that follow Thanksgiving are called “Intensive Arts” around here.  Academic classes are suspended and the students focus entirely on their chosen art form.  In the case of Music students, that means lessons, masterclasses, rehearsals, seminars and performances.  I gave my composition students two lessons a week and a bunch of hard deadlines.  A few of them enrolled in “Dance-a-Day,” in which participating composers were paired off with choreographers for five days to create brief dance pieces on assigned “topics.”  A topic could be a photograph, a series of adjectives, or an abstraction.  It was a great exercise in going from concept to execution to performance in less than three hours.

We also had a couple of seminars.  For one of them, our upperclassmen and grad students were assigned to choose a favorite piece and present it to the rest of the composers.  Alicia Willard, a college junior, chose a pair of Mendelssohn songs.  Enlisting the assistance of a few friends, she presented us with a talk-show format, in which she played Felix Mendelssohn being interviewed by the host.  Another C3, Ted Oliver, was Fanny Mendelssohn, sparking a lively debate, complete with Strangelove accents, about who wrote what.

Favorite line: “Actually, I am rather fond of songs about pain.”

How do you top that?  Our next seminar was with world-renowned conductor John Mauceri, whose scholarly interests and areas of expertise are wide-ranging.  One subject with which he has particularly strong associations is music for film.   He focused on the work of Max Steiner, the Brahms-Mahler protégé who practically invented underscoring.  Mauceri took us back 80 years, when sound film was in its infancy and studios were figuring they could scale back on their music budgets, since dialogue could now be synchronized with image.  Dracula and Frankenstein were two enormously popular horror films in 1931 without a note of music, beyond the credits (Dracula’s credits are accompanied by – believe it or not – a few choice bars from Swan Lake).  When RKO decided to make King Kong in 1933, they still had Max Steiner under contract, and he was instructed by the studio to find pre-existing music for the title sequence.  But the director, Merian C. Cooper, told Steiner to compose music for the whole film on the sly, and the results were, in the film medium, unprecedented.  Most of the fundamental techniques we still associate with film music were invented in the six-week period Steiner worked up the score.

Mauceri, who is UNCSA’s Chancellor, delivered all of this information, and far more, in his characteristically charismatic manner, blending wit with passion and erudition.  I asked him to give this presentation because Steiner gives us an answer to a perennial question faced by all artists, and no more so than now: how do we take our training and heritage, passed down through generations, and apply it to current media and technology?

With a smidgen of imagination, we can always find an answer.

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I’ve learned that my CD Appendage and Other Stories has made it onto Fanfare Magazine’s Best of 2010 Want List.  You can find the disk here.

Two and ¼ of the pieces on this disk feature spoken text with music.  I know there are a handful of people out there who can’t stand it when music and spoken text are combined.  For those people, who have presumably not been exposed to any films made in the last 80 years, or anything done on television in the last 60 years, this disk may not be appropriate.  But if there is a person on your holiday shopping list who has drawn any pleasure from those early 20th century innovations, this package may be your answer.

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Spent a nice chunk of time chatting with Robert Black the other night.  In addition to being one of my oldest friends in the music profession, Robert is familiar to S21 readers as founding bassist for the Bang on a Can All Stars.  Robert and I have known one another since the late 70s, when we were both undergrads at Hartt.  I wrote a ton of pieces for him back then – he single-handedly defined my relationship with the double bass.

Robert reminded me about one piece I wrote called Reverie Scherzo – I think it was 1980 or 81.  I also think Reverie Scherzo was my first composition to feature jump cuts – shifting from one style to another in a manic fashion.  I remember thinking at the time that my education had put too much emphasis on coherence and unity, when incoherence and diversity were much more interesting and challenging.   The title, a mix of French and Italian, juxtaposing dreams and punch lines, suited my temperament at the time —  and, I suppose, still does.

The piece is scored for a trio of bass, trumpet and piano.  Robert has given it a few performances over the years — most recently, as he informed me, last spring, when he featured it on a recital he played at Hartt.  I don’t believe I still have a copy, so I’m thinking I will bug him to mail me one.  As I recall, the piece was amusing and lovely and even a bit theatrical – might be worth a revival.

Last time I saw Robert was certainly a memorable occasion.  We sat in a bar, watching the networks proclaim Al Gore our next president.

And that brings me to my tie-in:

Have the last ten years been a dream or a joke?

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A bunch of years ago, I wrote a lovely little serenade for flute and harp – don’t recall the name.  It was a very chromatic piece, and I spent a lot of time working out the harp pedalings to make it all playable.

The piece was about ten minutes long, ending with a delicate solo for the harp.

I sat cheerfully at the premiere, hearing a piece that was very much as I had imagined.


The final passage came… and it was excruciating.  After ten minutes of pedal changes, the harp was horribly out of tune.  Those final, delicate, ambiguous harmonies jangled like the instrument had been sitting untouched in someone’s attic for a generation.

Lesson learned: too many pedal changes spoil the tuning.  I’ve been very conservative with harp pedalings ever since.

I’m working now on a piece for large ensemble that includes harp.  Because of the nature of the piece, I’m being a bit more ambitious with the pedaling, trying to push to the limits of what the instrument can take without spoiling the pitch.  And I’ve been a bit worried.  Am I setting myself up for another disaster?

Yesterday I bumped into an old harpist friend I hadn’t seen in a couple of years.  After we exchanged pleasantries and caught up with one another’s lives, I mentioned to her my new piece and the concern I was having.  She told me something I never saw in the orchestration books.

“If you stick with flats and naturals, you should be okay,” she said.  She explained that harpists tune all the strings in the flat position (didn’t know that!), so the more you use the sharp position the more detuned the strings will become.

Because of the harp’s unique string-and-pedal configuration, avoiding sharps completely in a chromatic piece is pretty tough.  But it’s good to know that reducing the number of sharps can help keep the instrument in tune.

It’s a tip I’ll take advantage of, both in my own work and for the benefit of my students.

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