Archive for February, 2011

Three up, three down – looking good, kid.

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Because I have a healthy fear of writer’s block, I have a lot of different approaches to composing.  In other words, instead of having one set way of beginning a new work, I have lots of options.  If one isn’t working, I turn to another, and another, and another.  Some pieces commence at the piano, some with pencil and paper, some on the laptop.

It can become confusing, though.

Has this ever happened to you?  I’m sitting at the piano, trying to find the right combination of notes or gestures to get what I’m after.  Suddenly, it’s there, I’ve got it.  What’s my next impulse?

Hit save.

Where did Mr. Steinway hide that key, anyway?

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Ni Hao, Taipei – next Thursday night my Devotion for flute and strings will have its Asian premiere at Shih Chien University. My Chinese is non-existent, so I have to express appreciation by way of my usual, subpar English.

Chinese and the Romance languages have such differing organizational principles I’m astonished by the people who manage to master both.  Even simply making oneself understood in both languages is a marvelous achievement.

Despite my respect, though, I can’t help being amused by some of the translations one comes across.  Besides Devotion, the program will also include Saint-Saëns’s Une flûte invisible, given in its English incarnation, courtesy of Google, as Stealth Flute.

You can hear a sample of Devotion here, played by Ransom Wilson and the Borromeo String Quartet.

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Here’s a little valentine to my composition students – we’re having an outstanding year.  Check out the slate of performances and recording sessions these young composers are having between now and April.

February 15: Premiere of Noah Ferguson’s Swash, with faculty tubist Matt Ransom as soloist.  UNCSA’s Watson Hall, 7:30 pm.

February 26: Premiere of Ted Oliver’s Frost and Wind, with faculty organist Timothy Olsen and trumpeter Judith Saxton.  UNCSA’s Crawford Hall, 7:30 pm.

February 28 and March 2: Recording sessions of pieces by Ted Oliver, Alicia Willard and Max Witt with the UNCSA Symphony Orchestra.

March 2 and 3: Premiere and three additional performances of Ted Oliver’s Dreamcatcher by the Winston-Salem Symphony, as a result of winning their Mary Starling Composer Competition.

March 25: Recording session with members of the North Carolina Symphony of works by Noah Ferguson, Leo Hurley, Ted Oliver, Zack Polozune, Nicchi Rozsa, Alicia Willard, Max Witt.

March 25: Premiere of Leo Hurley’s String Quartet No. 1 by members of the North Carolina Symphony, as a result of winning their 2011 Young Composers Competition.  Meymandi Hall in Raleigh, 6:00 pm.

March 25: Entire Composition Department will be guests of the North Carolina Symphony for their John Adams Composer Perspectives Concert.  Meymandi Hall in Raleigh, 8:00 pm.

April 16: The UNCSA Symphony Orchestra performs the premieres of Departure by Leo Hurley, Time, Twisting by Alicia Willard and Concertino by Max Witt, as well as an encore performance of Ted Oliver’s Dreamcatcher.  Crawford Hall, 2:00 pm.

Yes, you read that right: one of these guys is getting five performances of an orchestra piece, two recording sessions and a professional premiere.  Of course, these students get other performances I don’t even hear about.  In addition, we’ll have visits from guest composers David Maslanka and David Smooke, as well as a few other department seminars, performances and new music events.

Then things will really get rolling when the calendar turns over to May.

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In 1987, still pretty fresh from grad school, I landed a great job at a wonderful institution – the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.  It’s one of many events in my life that I look back on in wonder at my good fortune.  In so many ways, it’s worked out to be the perfect situation for me.  Great students to challenge and inspire me.  Outstanding colleagues who are always enthusiastic about playing my music.

I’ve had just about every role here possible: teacher, ensemble director, administrator, resident composer – I was even Interim Dean one year.

So I have to admit to being a bit taken aback by what happened the other day.  I was walking down the hallway to my Counterpoint class when a student asked me, “Sir, can I help you find something?”

Could I really have looked that lost?  I suppose that means I really am a composer – walking down a corridor I’ve been walking down since before that student was born, sporting that dazed, outer-space look in my eye that composers get when they are just being themselves.

On a related note (since all notes are related), English critic Jonathan Woolf has weighed in on my latest CD, Bridge’s release of four of my quartets.  And though I can’t promise to find my way to my own kitchen, I can help you find the review:

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Rehearsals have begun for Shadow on the Sun.  For the majority of time I spent working on it, I had in mind a tempo of quarter equals 108-112 for the main body of the piece.  Then, as I was finishing it up, I suddenly felt sorry for the lower brass, who had an awful lot of 16th notes to project for that tempo, and I adjusted to quarter = 104.

Right before the first rehearsal, I got an email from the conductor, Michael Dodds, asking if 104 might be a tad slow for the piece.  I conceded that it might.

I showed up for the second rehearsal and, indeed, 104 was painfully slow.  I gave the thumbs up for the faster tempo, and immediately the music came to life.

One of these days I will finally stop letting other considerations distract me from the importance of having exactly the right tempo.

There just doesn’t seem to be any place for pity in the creative process.

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Besides having one of the coolest names in American Music, Milton Babbitt had the rare privilege and responsibility of defining an entire musical culture.  Somebody had to be Milton Babbitt, and nobody could have been better qualified.

Since he passed away last weekend there have been numerous postings from former students and colleagues attesting to his legacy.  I’m numbered among the many who had frequent interactions with him over a period of about five years – I didn’t study with him privately, but his larger-than-life personality, reputation, intelligence, physical features and booming basso extended his circle far beyond that of most teachers.

Babbitt possessed a quick wit and a shocking frankness.  He could also be astonishingly warm: those of us who knew him as a teacher were as much in awe of his devotion to us as we were of his accomplishments.

Milton was also justly celebrated, I suppose, for his convoluted manner of speaking and writing, juggling subjects and multiple countersubjects in a single sentence.  But that wasn’t the way I experienced him.  I knew him as a brilliant aphorist, the source of pithy, acerbic summations intoned with a melodious charm that elicited uncomfortable chuckles from the students circling him in the hallway, as we tried to sort out the proportions of humor and seriousness contained within.  Two that I recall off the top of my head that seem somehow emblematic:

“If I knew when I was your age what I know now about the composition profession, I never would have gotten into it.”

“Why do music departments have piano majors?  English departments don’t have typing majors!”

And then the elevator light would ding, and he’d be gone.

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