Archive for July, 2011

Tonight is the premiere of GPS Lady at the Summerland Music Society in Hudson Falls, NY.  Hope someone lets me know how it goes, since I can’t be there.  Coincidentally, about 10 miles to the west, at Lake Luzerne, Danielle Belén will be performing Façade on Monday.  One of my oldest pieces and one of my newest pieces in close proximity, both about eight hundred miles from here, and I can’t make it to either one.  Instead, I’m deep in the final stages of Sparkling in the Dark, and I’ve begun a fun new piece called Seven Stories.

More about Seven Stories at a later date.  Sparkling in the Dark, as I’ve written before, is my first foray into electronic music in thirty years.  There are a few things I’ve learned how to do in the meantime, a few idioms and genres over which I’ve attained a measure of mastery.  At age 52, embarking on a project as a novice is a fun counterpoise, hopefully healthy, hopefully productive.  I’m learning a lot of the pitfalls one runs into in electronic composition, challenges I’ve read about and heard about and am now experiencing firsthand. It’s putting me in the unfamiliar position of trying to forgive myself for rookie mistakes.

To cope, I’m trying to balance an attitude of cheerful audacity with a set of modest goals: one doesn’t decide to try out rock climbing on Everest.  Sparkling in the Dark is six minutes of straightforward composition, not groundbreaking, just music.

Premiere in November, if I can ever get it finished.

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I have an interesting commissioning story to tell.

A couple of years ago, Christopher Bush, a clarinetist who occasionally comments here on S21, asked me if I would be interested in writing a piece for him.  Chris was a student in one of my classes at UNCSA in the mid-90s; he’s now a great player based in the NYC area.  I said sure, and he proceeded to apply for the usual array of grants that support commissioning.

Unfortunately, our timing wasn’t the best.  As everyone knows, funding for everything dried up in the wake of the fall ’08 financial meltdown; Chris wasn’t able to get any support for the project.  He then suggested Kickstarter as a way of raising funds.  I briefly considered it, but then I got another idea.

As I put it to Chris, I love money, and I’m always very happy to get paid for what I do.  But there are some things that are more important to me, or at least more important under the right circumstances.  In the case of a clarinet piece, I’d just as soon get a bunch of performances for the piece as make a few hundred dollars from a commission.  So I suggested to Chris that he round up all of his clarinet friends to create a cluster premiere of performances around the country, all around the same time.  He agreed, and we targeted fall 2011.

So far, Chris has rounded up seven clarinetists, and we have performances in the works for New York, Boston, Washington DC, Birmingham, Miami and Richmond.  More may develop in the coming months.

Again, I’m a big fan of getting paid, but I also love the idea of bartering – trading commodities.  I can create the music, but I can’t easily organize performances of it in more than a couple of locations.  A network of clarinetists, though, can give me those performances, along with the increased possibility of further performances down the road.

The piece is called GPS Lady;  Chris is playing a pre-premiere preview of the piece this Saturday night at the Summerland Music Society – info here – with pianist Carol Minor.  I won’t be able to attend — but I expect to have the opportunity to catch some further performances as the weather cools.

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Tomorrow I leave Wintergreen; Stephen Dembski takes over as composer in residence for the final two weeks.  I’ve been concerned about friends and family who have been baking in the heat wave sweeping the country while I sit here enjoying the cool mountain air.  Tomorrow I will join them in the oven.

Last night, the Wintergreen Chamber Players performed Furies and Muses in Monticello.  It was a lovely evening, made all the more enjoyable because it gave me a chance to catch up with Judith Shatin, an old friend I hadn’t seen since the 20th century, at intermission.  Tonight they will perform F&M again in Wintergreen.  It’s a big piece; I feel fortunate that it has had so many performances.  This one holds a special place in my heart because it’s being played by an all-female band – and what could be more appropriate for a piece about furies and muses?

This afternoon the composers met over lunch with the extraordinary Franko Bozac, visiting from Croatia.  He demonstrated his amazing facility with the bayan (check him out on youtube!), showing the students how to get lovely effects like ricochet chords, echoes and even the lowing of a contented calf.  The students have now been assigned to write short bayan pieces over the weekend for Monday’s seminar.


Which brings me to a final shout-out to the gifted and inquisitive young composers I’ve had a chance to get to know over the last two weeks.  They came from near and far; it’s been a great honor to share in this portion of their artistic journeys.

l to r: Neil Quillen, Nicholas Landrum, Larry Alan Smith, Marc Hoffeditz, William Healy, Matt Primm, Lawrence Dillon, DeLesslin “Roo” George-Warren, Sarah Wald, Bryce Ingmire

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Italian composers from the 16th and 17th centuries are revered.  In the 18th century they are ridiculed.  The nineteenth century sees them consigned to opera.  In the 20th century, they are ignored.

That, in any case, is the version I got in my music history studies, and it’s a version I’ve heard resonate in conversations among musicians throughout my life.  I’ve heard more than one colleague assert that all American composers are either French or German in bent (Pacific Rim, anyone?), by which I assume they mean formalist (German) or colorist (French).

Why don’t Italian composers get more respect in this country?  I’ve often wondered.

This week I overheard the marvelous conductor Andrea di Mele describe a piece he felt particular affection for.  “It is so simple, it looks like nothing on the page, and then you hear it and it is magic.  Just a few strokes, but the right strokes.”

That’s not the way we tend to praise music on these shores.

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The Quartetto di Sassofoni Accademia has returned to Italy.  They were a bit unsatisfied with one passage in their performance of my Terranean Meditation.  They say they are going to perform it a few hundred times, so I hope they are satisfied at some point.  In any case, their dissatisfaction has reaped me one immediate benefit: they decided to schedule a recording session of the passage in question right before they departed.  On Monday morning, they spent about 45 minutes on one minute of music in the performance tent, running it over and over until it they had several outstanding takes.  Gaetano di Bacco, the soprano player, is an experienced recording engineer – he said he would edit the passage into the performance recording and send it to me.

Then we had fond but hurried farewells, and they sped off to the airport.

Next up, a performance this Thursday night of Furies and Muses by the Wintergreen Chamber Players.  They have been rehearsing already; I will hear them tonight.

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Performers practice.  They practice scales and arpeggios, they practice etudes, they practice improvising, they rehearse how they are going to begin a piece, how they are going to end it.  The sheer repetition of various elements of their craft helps to ensure that they will always have experience to draw on, no matter what performance situation they are thrust into.  If bar 83 goes haywire in the concert, they can pull it back together in bar 84 – because they’ve been there before.

Practicing is less familiar to composers, and for good reason.  We don’t have to display our craft in the moment the way performers do.  We can worry over a passage for days, weeks, months, years.  And we kind of enjoy dealing with unfamiliar situations.

But young composers would do well to practice certain elements of their craft.  There are certain situations we are faced with on a regular basis in the process of composing that we can get better at with familiarity.  Here are two suggestions:

  • Take two ideas from pieces you have written — even two ideas from two different pieces — and write four transitions to get from one idea to the other.  Make one transition as brief as possible; make another transition relatively substantial.
  • Take an idea from a piece you have written and write four compositional endings using that idea.  Write one that trails away into nothing.  Write one that ends abruptly, inconclusively.  Write one that ends emphatically.

Notice that these two compositional exercises use material that you have already devised.  That divorces the exercises from questions of style, language, etc. and also gives you practice tapping the potential of your own ideas.

With practice, these points in the compositional process become avenues, rather than stumbling blocks.

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Soon after I arrived here in Wintergreen, it struck me that all of the composition students, who are all in their early twenties, have written, are writing or will soon write string quartets.  As someone who waited until his forties to venture into this medium, this was an interesting phenomenon.  It raises two complementary questions: why are young composers so fearless when it comes to writing string quartets?  And why did I wait so long?

And then I remembered.  When I was a composition student in the late 1970s, I heard about a festival featuring Elliott Carter and the now-defunct Composers String Quartet, for which the CSQ had an open call for a new music reading session.

They received 1500 submissions.

This was a story I heard from one of my teachers, and it’s possible that he exaggerated the number.  But the story made a strong impression: I vowed I would never write for that ensemble.

Three things have happened since then.  First, a generation of quartets emerged that was attaining an unprecedented degree of virtuosity, especially with regards to pieces that demand extreme levels of rhythmic and technical dexterity.

Second, an bunch of string quartet workshops sprang up around the country: one- or two-week, intensive sessions in which budding quartets worked closely with established ensembles, learning not only how to play at the highest level, but how to survive in a shifting marketplace.

And third, a new type of quartet emerged, one that attracted new audiences by shunning the canonic works of the repertoire and exploring connections with contemporary popular music.

These three developments led to a situation in which string quartets were seen as flexible, adaptable and cool, in a way that wasn’t imaginable 35 years ago.

So perhaps young composers see the string quartet as an opportunity for exposure and exploration, not as an intimidating body of masterpieces.  All in all, a positive turn of events.

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Last night was the premiere of Terranean Meditation on Thomas Jefferson’s property at Monticello.  It was a blast to have poet laureate Rita Dove in the audience.  As the title indicates, this piece is a meditation on our fabulous, amazing planet, a planet unlike any other we have yet discovered.  It is in two movements.  In the first movement, Earth Song, a simple canon is passed around the ensemble, repeated over and over with slight variation, much in the same way the earth spins slowly on its axis, each day much like the last, yet no two days exactly alike.  The second movement, Earth Dance, imagines our planet hurtling at tremendous speed through space – which, of course, it does: the earth circles the sun at about 67,000 mph.  It doesn’t feel that way to us, but our perspective is irrelevant.  To us, a half-million years seems like an extraordinarily long time; to the earth it is just a few spins around the block.

In any case, the second movement features a prestissimo spinning motive, relentless and dizzying.  Part of the earth’s grandeur is the fact that it is at once both fragile and impervious.

Tonight we’ll have the second performance here at Wintergreen.  The Quartetto di Sassofoni Accademia will be scintillating, once again.

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Tomorrow night is the premiere of Terranean Meditation, performed by the Quartetto di Sassofoni Accademia in Monticello, Virginia.  I’ll be there.  Friday night, they will give the second performance in Wintergreen, Virginia.  I’ll be there as well.  On Saturday night, the Daedalus Quartet will perform my String Quartet No. 4: The Infinite Sphere on Music Mountain in Connecticut.  Alas, I will not be there.  I am bummed out that this is the fifth or sixth performance they’ve given of this piece, and I’ve only been able to attend once.  Hopefully someone will let me know how it goes.

A word about the Quartetto di Sassofoni Accademia. This group is to Italian sax quartets what Prism is to American sax quartets.  The same four guys have been together for 26 years; watching them rehearse is a real joy.  And communicating with them, in my broken Italian and their broken English, is an additional source of pleasure — if not mutual mirth.

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I’m starting my fourth day at Wintergreen, and the tempo here is Presto energico.  The students are getting an hour lesson each week, six hours of Composition class, 3 hours of Nuts and Bolts classes, and numerous encounters with new-music specialists from around the world.  In a couple of weeks, the works they composed this past month will get open dress rehearsals, performances and a recording sessions.  Other compositional opportunities are sprouting up as abundantly as festive weeds on a hillside.

In all, it’s an impressive, intensive way for young composers to spread their wings.

The mastermind of it all is Larry Alan Smith, Composition Professor from the Hartt School and Artistic Director of the Wintergreen Summer Arts Festival.  Larry has whipped up a frenzy of activity here, with music, dance, poetry, painting, wine, and probably a bunch of other things I haven’t encountered yet – the schedule of events would make a cozy home for a minotaur.

Speaking of minotaurs, the theme of the festival is Music from the Mediterranean, and the orchestra concert on the afternoon I arrived fit the bill.  Larry conducted music by Corigliano, Stamitz, Glazunov and Mendelssohn, but the highlight was the US premiere of Smith’s saxophone concerto, beautifully played by Gaetano di Bacco.  The piece reflects Larry’s growing interest in his Italian heritage, with lovely lyrical flourishes and a charming pizzicato finale.

But anyway, back to all of the things that are going on here.  The enormous range of events sits, like the powerful body of Babe Ruth, on toothpick legs.  The festival has a lot of enthusiastic volunteers and no full-time staff.  This is the way of arts organizations these days – many are surviving on the boundless energy of a few dedicated individuals.  As an example: I mentioned casually to someone that I was going to need directions to the concert on Thursday night, which is taking place about an hour north of here.  Ten minutes later I had an email from a stranger saying, “I understand you need directions – here they are!”

On the other hand, I’ve been here since Sunday and I haven’t yet received a contract, though the terms of my employment were agreed to last fall.  That’s not a complaint, by the way – far from it, I’m being treated wonderfully here, I couldn’t be happier – but rather a comment on the business end of this profession, in which circumstances that would be unthinkable in any other profession are accepted and appreciated.  Trust and flexibility are important attributes when staffing is scarce.  I’ve known Larry Smith for thirty years, he is a man of his word, and that is good enough.

Meanwhile, I’ve been treated to sumptuous feasts, invigorating mountain hikes, delightful conversation, quiet moments for reflection, inspiring students, thrilling concerts, old friends, new acquaintances.  Precious commodities, all.

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