Archive for August, 2011

“I, too, had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had not made it worth any one’s while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them. The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?”

- Henry David Thoreau

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We’ve shifted from a trimester system to semesters this year, giving us the shortest summer this school has had in its near-50 years of existence.  For our composers, that means we’re hitting the ground running much sooner than usual.  Here’s a rundown of some of the things we’ve got going for the first few weeks of classes.

  • Aug. 21 – Welcome Seminar and pizza party
  • Aug. 22 – begin work on entries for Winston-Salem Symphony competition, percussion ensemble, Espina-Ruiz debut, nu concert
  • Aug. 26 – Composers in the Hood planning committee meeting
  • Aug. 26 – Seminar on extended techniques for double bass with guest bassist Paul Sharpe of the ensemble Low and Lower.
  • Aug. 26 – Steve Reich 75th birthday celebration at Krankie’s bar, with performances of Different Trains, Vermont Counterpoint, etc. by Carolina Summer Music Festival.
  • Aug. 27 – guest composer Heitor Periera
  • Aug. 31 – Cirque du soleil collaboration meeting
  • Sep. 9 – Cirque du soleil improvisations
  • Sep. 16 – Seminar I on composing for percussion ensemble
  • Sep. 20 – performance by saxophonist Taimur Sullivan of New York Counterpoint by Steve Reich, Pimpin’ by Jacob ter Veldhuis and more.
  • Sep. 24 – guest violist Carol Rodland performs the premiere of Augusta Read Thomas’s Dream Catcher
  • Sep. 29 – deadline for scores for Low and Lower
  • Oct. 1 – performance of Joseph Schwantner’s Percussion Concerto by the school orchestra
  • Oct. 1 – Ninetieth Birthday Concert for composer Margaret Sandresky

A lot of ground to cover, and that’s before the semester really starts heating up.

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Lightness isn’t stupidity.  It’s actually a philosophical and aesthetic viewpoint, deeply serious, and has a kind of wisdom – stepping back to be able to laugh at the horrible things even as you’re experiencing them.

– Sarah Ruhl

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I’ve never been the athletic type.  My health has always been good enough that I could take it for granted, which suited me just fine, because I have a natural aversion to exercise and a bit of a self-destructive streak.

With all of that as background, you can imagine how surprised I was to find myself embarking on a workout routine at the beginning of this summer centered on the basketball courts at the local Y.

It all started with a pool membership for my kids.  On our second visit, on a sudden whim, I requested a basketball and headed out onto one of the courts, curious sons in tow.

That first outing was humbling.  I tried out all of my spin moves, heaved up 3-pointers to no avail, and basically looked like an idiot, even to myself.  You see, it was my first time on a basketball court in about 40 years.  My body had changed many times over in the interim, but my brain hadn’t kept track.  After flopping on my ass a few times, I started to get the message.

The next day, finding bruises in places where I didn’t know I had places, I made, for me, a curious decision: I decided to start working on my shot.  I headed back to the Y, got a ball and launched into a disciplined regime.  I picked seven spots on the court, all inside the 3-point arc, and began a personalized drill – 10 shots from each spot, after 70 shots, start over – on which I would spend 30 minutes a day.

What was the point?  The immediate answer was part of an effort to lose some weight.  As I’ve said, I’ve never taken much pleasure from exercise, but I knew that I could stand to shed 10-15 pounds and it wasn’t going to happen just by adjusting my diet.  Some kind of exercise was inevitable, and jumping up and down a few hundred times in a half hour seemed a little less dull when coupled with heaving a ball at a small, impossibly high hoop.

As it turned out, it was oddly liberating to work on something for which I had no expectations.  At age 52, with a vertical leap that wouldn’t make an ant look up, it’s not like I’m headed for the pros.  It called to mind the middle-aged guy who, not having touched a piano since childhood, suddenly gets some software and decides to try his hand at composing.  What’s to lose?

I wouldn’t have minded having some coaching.    I had a fantasy that the bored-looking guy sitting in a foldout chair at the entrance would look up from his hand-held and, admiring my gutsy determination, come over to offer me a few pointers.  But I couldn’t deny that whatever he had on his screen was probably a lot more interesting that the spectacle I was putting on.

Speaking of screens, it’s been bracing to engage in an activity that excludes the possibility of glancing at one.  As with many of us who have bought into the smart-technology loop, I’ve felt my brain rewiring to accommodate and expect a constant flow of fresh input from a pocket companion, a phone that quickly becomes smarter than I am.  Without the opportunity to have my smarts sucked down into the palm of my hand, I found my focus shifting.  After a few weeks, I began to feel an unfamiliar sensation: rising up from the floor in mid-shot, as the ball left my hands, I could feel my fingertips subtly adjusting their balance, compensating for any error in my initial trajectory, in a reflexive effort to guide the ball to its destination.

Brain rewiring?  Consider it done.

I made another interesting discovery:  It didn’t take long before I was getting more satisfaction from missing a shot and having the rebound come right back to me for another attempt than I got from making a shot.  I know there is a compositional metaphor hidden in there somewhere, but I’m going to pass on digging any further to find it.

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We hear a lot about cutting the fat out of public budgets these days.  I have two fat-cutting stories:

  1. An artist I know recently volunteered to visit an elementary school.  When he arrived, the teacher called the principal, who showed up a few minutes later with a zip-lock bag containing six crayons – for 23 children.
  2. An arts organization was recently setting up a free residency for a public elementary school.  The manager emailed the school principal, saying that all they would require was the opportunity to use the school cafeteria for lunch.  The principal’s reply was, “What cafeteria?  Ours was shut down a few years ago because of health hazards, and we haven’t received any funding to do anything about it.”

Watch where you are swinging that knife, you may be hitting some vital organs!

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I’ve been spending a lot of time in art galleries these last few weeks.  Not by design, just as a result of living the life I live and hanging out with the people I hang out with.  One unexpected pleasure has been making the acquaintance with some of the work of Mark Dixon.  Dixon makes useful machines from we usually call “found objects.”  He refers to himself winningly as a “career counselor for unemployed devices” – the complete sentence in his bio reads: “Mark Dixon is an area artist, folk scientist, machine acupuncturist, reverse engineer, and career counselor for unemployed devices.”  Clearly a man with a good perspective on himself, and his work reflects this unorthodox sensibility.

I encountered Dixon’s “Invisible Chair,” a percussion instrument, at the Sawtooth Center last week.  (Dixon belongs to a performance-art band called INVISIBLE, in which he can sometimes be found playing the Selectric Typewriter Piano.)

Check out some of his stuff (especially the wacky SafetyBike video) here.

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It’s amazing how much I can get done, compositionally speaking, when there are no distractions.

When I compose at my computer, I quit my browser and mail programs.  Sometimes I can peek online while I am working, and the brief glances reset my brain for more intensive work.  But usually they pull me too far away from the task at hand, and I lose continuity of thought.  So I switch the internet off.  Sure, I could still pull the handheld from my pocket to check what’s coming in, but that doesn’t seem to be as tempting.

When I was at Wintergreen last month, I was staying in a condo that had no internet access.  I had a five-minute walk uphill to get online, which made it easy enough for me to make use of the web, but also insulated me from its persistent siren.

In two weeks on the mountain, I composed one work, tweaked two others, and drafted a fourth.  That despite attending nine concerts, a bunch of rehearsals, and teaching classes and lessons.  I got more than usual done because I wasn’t getting poked and prodded all day long by the incessant nudge.

Don’t want to rail against the improvements technology has brought me, but it’s nice to escape its more pernicious aspects from time to time.  Every once in awhile, the glowing logo on the lid of my laptop, Satan’s irresistible fruit, seems a little too appropriate.

And, by the way, how long do you suppose it will be before the terms “online” and “offline” sound dated?  More and more of us are connecting without a line in sight.

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When I was a kid, summertime meant packing the family into a car and hitting the road.  Our excursions ranged from 30-minute jaunts to cross-country odysseys.  Nobody imagined the existence of carbon footprints back then.

To pass the time and cool the spirits, we’d sing songs.  One of my favorites was

Oh the ocean waves may roll, may roll,
And the stormy winds may blow, may blow
But we poor sailors keep skipping through the tide
And the landlubbers lie down below, below, below
And the landlubbers lie down below.

When I was little, I imagined the useless landlubbers lying dead at the bottom of the ocean.  It wasn’t until much later that I wondered if maybe they were just huddling beneath the deck, getting seriously seasick.

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