Archive for April, 2011

David Smooke gave a wonderful composition seminar here last week as a prelude to a performance of his 21 Miles to Coolville by Dark in the Song.

Then I found his latest newmusicbox post asking whither the avant garde.  I put my two cents into a comment box and got a viciously blistering response from one of the other posters – a fellow who has viciously blistered me before.

It all got me thinking about my relationship with the avant garde, of which I was a proud member in my student days.  I remembered an undergraduate class I took on Greek mythology with Professor George Evica, who I later found out was under close watch by the FBI for his outspoken radicalism.  (Of course, that was back in the days when outspoken radicalism was something I expected from college professors.)

Evica described for us two complementary approaches to leadership, which he called masculine and feminine.  The masculine approach was to head off into the wilderness and challenge everyone to follow.  In this model, the ultimate praise is recognition for originality, acclaim for doing things first.

The other approach was to lead from the center, to lead by making as many connections as possible.  This approach, which he called feminine, prized relevance over originality.

This was quite a while ago, back in the early heyday of feminist theory.  I don’t feel comfortable with labeling these complementary models as masculine and feminine now, because it seems like there is a short step between those labels and derogatory statements about people not being masculine or feminine enough.

But the idea of these two kinds of leadership still intrigues me.

The notion of the avant garde falls clearly in the first category: the front troops that boldly venture into the unknown.

It strikes me that our current president falls rather neatly into the second category:  someone who wants to lead by forging connections.

To be honest, the image of a bunch of Neanderthals racing off in different directions saying, “ME FIRST, ME FIRST” has stuck with me.  I think, over time, I felt less and less comfortable with that approach to leadership, and more and more inclined to search for connections.

Most leaders use some kind of combination of these two approaches.  The truth is, both kinds of leadership are necessary for a healthy society.  We don’t get anywhere without those people who are driven to try the untried.

And, of course, we aren’t a society if we have no center.

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Back in the summer of 2008, Danielle Belén contacted me with a very attractive proposal:  she wanted to record my complete (or complete up to that point) works for violin on Naxos.  Having recently won the Sphinx Grand Prize, Danielle had been charged with tapping an American composer for her debut recording.

We all know the truism that careers are a matter of who you know.  For the most part, this rule holds true, so it’s particularly gratifying to get this kind of opportunity from a complete stranger out of the blue.

Strangers at the outset, over the next two-plus years Danielle and I corresponded, met in Los Angeles and Winston-Salem, and talked through musical and nonmusical issues.  I quickly discovered that I had a remarkable champion for my works: though our backgrounds are largely dissimilar, Danielle connected with my music on a very deep level.  She got the humor and the emotional range immediately, and her attention to detail was really inspiring.

Now, in April 2011, the relationship Danielle developed with my music has finally come to fruition: Naxos has released the results in an attractive disk, available here.

The recordings are pristine and her collaborators (David Fung, Juan-Miguel Hernandez and Stan Muncy) are outstanding.  But the center that holds it all together is Danielle.  She is the best kind of virtuoso: the kind who puts her considerable gifts in service of the music, rather than making the music kowtow to her own ego.

Her performance of Mister Blister is scorching, Façade mixes an old-world charm with alarming psychotic turns, Bacchus Chaconne is raunchy and Spring Passing is played like a wistful folk tune.  The range of expression alone is impressive – and all of the above and more are on display in the other three works on the disk: Fifteen Minutes, The Voice and Sonata: Motion.

If you gather from this blog post that I’m pretty happy with the results, you don’t know the half of it.

Today, Danielle will be performing the first of several CD release events in a house concert in Santa Monica.  More events are planned over the next 10 months – stay tuned.

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Ever had to talk to an audience from the stage?

Some musicians work hard at this part of their performance, others would rather crawl in a hole and die.  I used to fall squarely into the latter category, but I worked at it and got myself to the point of being pretty comfortable.

Since I know how much work it takes, I scheduled a seminar on public speaking for our composition department last week.

The timing wasn’t a coincidence: the seminar was held three days before four of my students were having new works performed by our orchestra.

In the seminar, three of them got up and talked about their music.  We set it up like the real deal, gathering in the hall where the orchestra concert would take place and using the PA system.  Our coach, Rebecca Nussbaum, critiqued the students, helping them strategize about how to remove filler words like “um” from the proceedings, what to do with their hands, how to get the audience feeling comfortable and on their side.

The results were impressive.  The three coached students talked about their music fluently and engagingly on Saturday, even getting compliments afterwards about their stage savvy.

The fourth student, who is quite charming, intelligent and gifted, but who had been unable to attend the seminar because of another commitment, came across more awkwardly, his posture and demeanor putting the audience ill at ease – in a way that reminded me of myself at that age.

Now I have no problem with people who feel that a polished performance in speaking is somehow untrue to who they really are.  That’s their choice.

But it should be about choice, and real choice is made from knowledge, not ignorance.  In other words, get some coaching on how to do it right, then choose your approach accordingly.

Does that, um, make sense?

Today we have supercool composer David Smooke coming in for a seminar, then a performance by Dark in the Song featuring works by Smooke, Amy Beth Kirsten, Moon Young Ha, Christopher Dietz, Michael Torke and Jacob TV. Spring rolls on.

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Great show coming up here tomorrow afternoon.  Our orchestra will be playing four new pieces by students of mine.   And to make it even better, they’ll be playing each piece twice.  Big up to our conductor, James Allbritten – very nice to have a maestro who is so supportive of the composition students.

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Then on Sunday we’ll have one of the more ambitious senior recitals I’ve ever heard of.  Leo Hurley is presenting seven new works, including a piece for chamber ensemble and dancers, a semi-staged opera scene, a brief film for which he is playing live piano accompaniment, and a set of cabaret songs.

These composers make me proud, every day.

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Here’s a cool pikchah of me with music all over my face.

It’s from the seminar we did here a few weeks ago about the intersection of art and science in advance of the premiere of my Shadow on the Sun.

The seminar was hosted by ARTstem’s Michael Wakeford.  Solar physicist Eric Carlson brought us up to date on the latest findings in sun studies, including some tantalizing paradoxes.  Then I talked about how these issues found their ways into my piece.

Eric made a fascinating philosophical point at the conclusion.  Talking about the equations he could show us that would explain various features of the sun, he said that in the end they were just numbers, just symbols that clarify certain aspects of the way we experience the universe.  As such, they were no more or less accurate than the music I had written, which was also symbolic in nature, and which “explained” solar activity in both rational and intuitive terms.

In certain circles, descriptive music is sneered at as the lowest kind of artistic endeavor.  In Carlson’s formulation, though, artistic description is one of many ways we have of understanding our environment – and understanding our environment is an important enough endeavor that scientists need to use every means at their disposal.

Kind of gives me more respect for what I do.

And now I have to go wipe some of those sixteenth notes off of my nose.

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Young composers looking for a great summer program still have until April 15th to apply to the Wintergreen Summer Music Academy, where I’ll be in residence July 11-22.  We’ll have several new music superheroes to work with, including members of Sequitur, Speculum Musicae and Kaleidoscop.

Everything you need to know to apply is here.  Oh, and one other thing – it’s gorgeous there.

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Took my composition students to hear a rather quirky program performed by the North Carolina Symphony last week.  Six pieces, only two of which I had heard performed live before: Ives’s Unanswered Question and Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine.  Here is the program:

Beethoven: Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (chorus and orch)
Britten: Young Apollo (pno, string quartet and orchestra)
Ives: The Unanswered Question (trumpet, flute quartet and strings)
Adams: Eros Piano (pno and orchestra)
Adams: Short Ride in a Fast Machine (orchestra)
Adams: Harmonium (chorus and orchestra)

Meymandi Hall was full to capacity, and the audience roared its approval at the conclusion.  Clearly this orchestra has found a way to engage its listeners without watering down its programming.  As I remarked to the students after the performance, it’s pretty amazing to hear a subscription orchestra concert in which the closest thing to a warhorse is by a living composer (Short Ride).

Later, I got to thinking about the role of well-publicized premieres in shaping artistic discourse.

Any discussion of the ethos of twentieth-century music takes the legendary premiere of Le Sacre du printemps as one of its starting points.  In 1913, as astonished music students are taught to this day, the premiere of this ballet started a riot in the audience – booing, catcalls, arguments, fistfights – and the work soon after was recognized as a masterpiece, proving, in the logic of this narrative, that music may be despised on first hearing and yet go on to achieve great acclaim.

That model was used as a justification for several generations of works that were intended to annoy or stupefy their listeners.  Some of them turned out to be wonderful works of art, some did not.

In 1981, Edo de Waart conducted the premiere of John Adams’s Harmonium in San Francisco’s Davies Hall.  At the time, it was nearly unheard of for a serious new piece to get the kind of response Harmonium received at its premiere: standing ovations, repeated curtain calls for the composer.

The news of that reception spread quickly in the new music world, and thirty years of new orchestral works that aim to thrill the audience have followed.

Some of those compositions have been wonderful works of art, some have not.

Naturally, this is a gross oversimplification of numerous causes and effects, but still, it’s interesting to compare the impact of Le Sacre on the early twentieth century with the impact of Harmonium on the orchestral music of the last few decades.

In any case, the highlight of the night for me was Eros Piano, Adams’s homage to Feldman.  In some ways, the piece calls to mind a mellow cocktail pianist doodling his way through John Adams’s subconscious, taking time to enjoy every sensuous turn.  Nice to hear a piece for piano and orchestra that isn’t mostly about how many notes a pianist can play per second.

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