Archive for January, 2011

Last week, I wrote about the snag I had hit working on a new saxophone quartet.  I had a good overall concept, but the musical ideas weren’t gaining traction.  Stubborn cus that I am, I had decided to keep digging into them to see if any of them would take hold.

Seems like now I have a clean set of cleats.

Stepping back a bit: I had a commission for a piece for saxophone quartet with the request that it should have something to do with the Mediterranean (I know, sounds weird, but bear with me and I’ll explain it — eventually).  I could have done any number of things having to do with cultures surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, but I felt the need to work a bit closer to home.  I’ve only spent a few hours on the Mediterranean, and it was more than ten years ago, so I didn’t feel a strong personal connection to the requested theme.

I have, on the other hand, spent my entire life on the planet Earth (though some might argue otherwise), and I feel a very powerful sense of devotion and concern for this funny little world.  So I began sketching a piece called Terrenean Meditation, a musical musing on the dirt beneath us and the sky above.

They asked for a Mediterranean theme, and what are they going to get?  A pun.

So that was the overall concept.  Trouble was, the material I was coming up with for saxophone quartet was pretty weak.  After some aimless futzing, I had one little fragment for tenor sax that I thought had a tiny bit of promise.  There was just one problem: I had a nagging sense that the tempo I was hearing for it was actually too fast for it to have the effect I was looking for.

What did I do?  I emailed said fragment to Taimur Sullivan, asking for feedback on the tempo.  He wrote back to tell me that what I had sent was certainly playable.  Yes, I replied, playable – but will it sound fantastic or clunky?

A short while later, my inbox shimmied, and there was an mp3 of Taimur playing my little fragment.  I listened, and the entire piece came to me in a flash.

The fragment I sent him was, as I feared, a bit clunky, but something about hearing him play it turned a key in my brainlock.   I immediately heard how my mindset was wrong, and how to fix it.  That fragment is now gone, absorbed into an exhilarating, delirious texture of spinning figures, a hyper-fast planetary rotation on a constantly shifting axis. Now, a few days later, the piece is practically done.

Incidentally, if you are looking for a masterclass on what a saxophone quartet can do, you can do no better than a new disk called Dedication that Taimur slipped into my hands yesterday.  I don’t think it’s been officially released yet.  The disk has one-minute pieces composed in 2004 for the Prism Quartet by Tim Berne, William Bolcom, Zack Browning, Robert Capanna, Donnacha Dennehy, Dennis DeSantis, Nick Didkovsky, Jason Eckardt, Roshanne Etezady, Reneé Favand-See, Perry Goldstein, Jennifer Higdon, Libby Larsen, Matthew Levy, Keith Moore, Greg Osby, Frank J. Oteri, James Primosch, Tim Ries, Adam Silverman, Ken Ueno, Gregory Wanamaker, and Chen Yi. Whatever you want, it’s in here.  I can’t find an image of it online yet, so here’s a snapshot of it on my (yes it’s green) desk.  Look for it on the innova label this spring.

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For most of the thirty-five years I’ve been involved in composition lessons, both taking and giving, the majority of the interaction went thusly:  student brings in scribbled drafts, teacher decodes scribbles and gives helpful feedback.

Naturally, starting about twenty years ago, those scribbled sheets were gradually replaced by computer printouts.  To this day, some students still bring in handwritten materials, but they are the exception.

In the last few years, paper of any kind has been largely supplanted by on-screen work: the student emails files, brings in a thumb drive, or pulls out a laptop and we look at their budding compositions on a monitor.  At this point in my brief history, these files are in Finale, Sibelius or the occasional pdf.

I’ve adapted to these changes with very few issues.  I now have a gigantic swivel monitor in my studio that can rotate from portrait to landscape depending on the type of score we are studying.  And I can envision the next steps – wall-sized smart-screens – pretty readily.

But there’s been a funny byproduct of this shift that I’m at a loss to explain.  Now when students bring in paper music – either printed or penciled – I’m having an allergic reaction.  About ten minutes into the lesson, I start sneezing and my nose begins to run profusely.  I used to have a box of tissues available in my office for the occasional tearful student (I’m such a stern taskmaster!), but now the tissues come to teacher’s rescue in these awkward moments.  Thankfully, the reaction usually passes within a couple of minutes.

I count myself lucky.  If I were a performing musician, an allergy to notes on paper would be the equivalent of a career-ending injury.

In my case, it’s just a minor enhancement to the vast wealth of the Kleenex corporation.

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I’m in an interesting place with a new piece I’ve begun, a place I’ve found myself several times before.

The piece is for saxophone quartet.  I began with a strong, general concept, then I started sketching various musical ideas.

None of the musical ideas, though, really matched up with the overall concept.  And I’m not really sold on any of them for their own merits, either.

My strategy, in this kind of situation, is to keep futzing with the sketches, in the hopes that at some point there will be a breakthrough, a moment of coalescence when details and outline fall into agreement.  It’s an act of faith, really – there’s nothing in my work on this piece so far that guarantees the outcome I’m seeking.  All I know is that I’ve been here before, and this approach has yielded good results.

Intuitively, it feels like I should step back from the piece and think about it some more from a general perspective before diving further into detailed work.  But in the past that approach has rarely worked for me.  I find I need to get my hands dirty with the substance of the music, the grimy note-to-note unfolding, before the connections I’m looking for will reveal themselves.  If I spend too much time looking at the music from a bird’s-eye view, I usually end up getting lost in the clouds.

Sometimes, though, working from the inside out ends in disaster.  I have, on occasion, dug myself deeper and deeper into a musical ditch, and ended up with a piece that sounded like it never really figured out what it was about.  Those pieces end up in the “unfinished” bin.

That’s where the act of faith comes in.  Experience tells me that, more often than not, this is the way to go.  Wish I could bat a thousand, but I’m resigned to the fact that I can only stay as far above .500 as possible.

The payoff is the occasional home run.

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For Christmas, my mother, who is 91, gave me her international travel journals – accounts of trips she took outside the US from 1956-1982.

Eight international trips in twenty-six years isn’t a lot by today’s standards but, for a woman of her time and circumstances, it represented a concerted effort to experience new lands and cultures.  Especially when seen against the backdrop of her heritage – her parents never left the US – her ability to explore the world was an immense leap, made possible by much improved means of travel.

Reading these journals gives insight into a vanished relationship between carrier and passenger.  Difficult to imagine an airline offering free champagne to everyone on board today.

When I was a teenager, I learned a lot about new music by going to my local library.  There I found recordings and sometimes even scores, of the latest works by Stockhausen, Cage, Boulez, Carter.

There was a period, say 5-15 years ago, when teachers lamented the decline of public libraries, which no longer carried these materials.  Now that gap has been filled: the www gives the young and the curious access to more kinds of music than we could have imagined in my salad days.

We’ve entered college audition season and, as I interview dozens of hopeful, young composers, I am repeatedly astonished by the depth of their awareness of the new music scene.  I meet young men and women who, without having spent a moment in an institution of higher learning, are fluent in Lang, Adams, Bolcom, Gann… you name it.  It’s pretty awesome, in the traditional sense of the word.

Just as astonishing, though, are the ones who show up without the least knowledge of anything, the ones who have found some music software and developed a fair proficiency without exhibiting the slightest curiosity about what anyone else might be doing with some of these same ideas and tools.

When I see them, I think of my mother.  Given an ability to travel that far outstripped that of her forebears, she took advantage and saw a decent chunk of the world.  That, to me, is the assumption: to every generation more is given, and more is expected.

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Work on Shadow on the Sun has me doing a lot more timbral morphing than is my custom.  I tend to gravitate towards monochromatic ensembles, or ensembles that have a narrow timbral range—which is one of the reasons I love writing for string quartet so much — so I can focus the ear on other aspects of musical discourse.  But the aural image I was going for – a corona that is hotter than the surface from which it emanates – called for a more coloristic approach.

The wind ensemble offers a wonderful pallette for kinds of sounds I was seeking.  Because all the instruments (save percussion and harp) are dependent on the human breath, I could easily glide through disparate sound worlds within a shared sonic envelope.  I’ve found that the pieces I’ve written that make use of a wide timbral range benefit from having other musical parameters considerably narrowed, so the connection to breathing was important to me.

I also narrowed the harmonic pallette considerably.  Entire passages consist of nothing more than permutations of a single chord.  For example, I have a passage of sustained saxophones with burbling oboes and bassoons that gradually morphs into muted trumpets and flutes.  The shift in timbre is simultaneous with a shift in harmony, but the first harmony is a c minor-major 43, while the second harmony is an eb minor-major 65.  The next timbral shift takes us to a g minor-major 42.

In other words, the quality of the chord remains constant throughout, with different roots, inversions and spacings.  That harmonic consistency allows me to range through a variety of colors without falling into randomness.

More on this in another post.

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I boarded 34 airplanes in 2010, far more than normal, in pursuit of my compositions, which were flying this way and that before me.  Years like this come along every once in awhile; I’ve learned to enjoy them for what they are, rather than what they may promise.

In addition to stuffing too much airport food into my system, the year gave me an opportunity to see a number of different music scenes in action.

What I found was a lot of dedicated individuals who had studied the challenges and resources presented by their artistic worlds and found ways to optimize their musical experiences, as well as those of the people traveling in the same circles.

In some cases, their efforts are widely recognized and applauded while, in others, the same degree of effort and ingenuity goes largely unnoticed by the rest of the world.

The volume of applause is one kind of measure – but not the only one.

The experience gave me a new appreciation for the intricacies of provincialism.  As defined by the Oxford English dictionary, provincialism can be “Attachment to one’s own province or local area rather than the whole nation or State.”  At its best, provincialism summons enthusiasm and energy to worthy projects that might not otherwise come to fruition.  None of us would welcome a society that has no interest in its own art, one that imports all of its artistic energy from the outside.  Good provincialism supports local composers, artists, writers for what they tell a society about itself.

At its worst, though, provincialism leads to mindless exclusion of ideas from the outside.  We’re all at risk from this negative side of provincialism, whether our province consists of the densest urban territories or the most sparsely inhabited countryside.

(Provincialism of this sort is rampant in our nation’s politics these days, as various parts of the country fire salvos at one another, believing that the shoes that fit one should fit all.  But I’m talking about artistic provincialism here – although, come to think of it, they may be more closely related than I realize.)

A new province has arisen in the 21st century.  It’s the one you and I are communicating across right now, this Wild and Wonderful Web.  In one way, the internet allows us to transcend traditional provinces, as we form alliances with far-flung souls who share our interests and concerns.  As with physical provinces, the value of supporting like-mindedness is crucial to the health of this society.   But, as with physical provinces, there is a down side.  When we disparage experience that differs from ours, when we downplay the importance of what goes on outside of the ether, we are no better than those who refuse to acknowledge the unprecedented power of the virtual.

So, the trick is to find just the right balance — which can shift from day to day, and even hour to hour – between protectionism and adventure.  We watch ourselves, we watch one another, guarding our collective accomplishments from losing touch with either extreme.

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Imagining the impossible can be easy.  If I asked you to form a mental picture of a shadow on the sun, you would be able to do it in an instant.   Never mind the fact that such a phenomenon will never actually occur.

Now imagine that the sun’s corona, the plasma atmosphere that emanates from the sun’s surface, is actually hotter than the surface it comes from.  Easy, right?

But here’s the rub:  the corona actually is hotter than the sun’s surface.  In fact, the temperature of the corona is millions of degrees higher than that of the sun.  Seems impossible, and nobody can explain why.

I’ve been working on a project with ARTStem that has me cautiously circling these ideas, studying them for musical analogues and illuminations.  What is ARTStem?  It’s a project of the Thomas S. Kenan Institute of the Arts to efface the lines between the arts and the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

I was approached about this collaboration a couple of months ago by historian Mike Wakeford, who had noticed a scientific thread in much of my music – a thread I confess hadn’t occurred to me.  He suggested I look into composing a piece that would illuminate one of the STEM subjects.  Intrigued, I embarked on the composition of Shadow on the Sun – a seven-minute work for wind ensemble – which addresses some of these phenomena and paradoxes.

We’re setting up a forum with solar physicist Eric Carlson, conductor Michael Dodds (who will conduct the premiere in March) and me to talk through some of the issues involved, hopefully shedding some light on both physics and musical composition.  I’m looking forward mightily.  We had a brief meeting a couple of weeks ago to spark discussion about topics we could cover.  It was my first meeting with Carlson, and he has the kind of mind I love: an erudite and creative thinker.

More as this story develops over the next two months.

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Today this blog embarks on its seventh year, calling to mind the words of A. A. Milne:

“the only excuse which I have yet discovered for writing anything is that I want to write it; and I should be as proud to be delivered of a Telephone Directory con amore as I should be ashamed to create a Blank Verse Tragedy at the bidding of others.”

So brace yourself for another year of unbidden Blank Verse Comedy from infinite curves.

The new year is a time to shed old habits.  I’m not very good at shedding old habits, though, so I’ll begin this year the same way I have the last five: by reviewing some highlights from the last 12 months.


The Daedalus Quartet premieres The Infinite Sphere in Washington, Winston-Salem and Philadelphia.


Recording Infinite Sphere with the Daedalus Quartet; rehearsing Through the Night with the Emerson QuartetAlbany Records releases Appendage and Other Stories, a disk of vocal works.


Emerson Quartet gives the premiere of Through the Night in Cologne.  Daedalus Quartet records Flight and Air.


First three American performances of Through the Night in Winston-Salem, Seattle and our nation’s capital.


Figments and Fragments debuts in southern California and The Infinite Sphere is played in New York.


Two performances of The Better Angels of Our Nature at the Ravinia Festival.


Guest residency at the Wintergreen Summer Arts Academy.


Fanfare Magazine weighs in on Appendage and Other Stories.


Cool Night debuts in Utah, Better Angels in Pennsylvania.


Emerson Quartet plays Through the Night in New York and Philadelphia; some guest teaching at SUNY Stony Brook and Curtis; Bridge releases Insects and Paper Airplanes.


Figments and Fragments in Salt Lake City and Boise, and a premiere for Brio.


Fanfare Magazine’s “Best of 2010” list for Appendage and Other Stories.

Sometimes old habits taste like old wine; sometimes they taste like old fish.  2010 was one of the good years.  A heartfelt thanks to everyone out there who played, listened to or even thought about my work.

Let’s get 2011 rolling now, shall we?

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