Archive for November, 2011
We’re in the midst of exam week now, but next week we launch into Intensive Arts, our annual two-week free-for-all after fall term.
During Intensive Arts, classes are suspended and students engage solely with their chosen art forms. For musicians, that means lessons, rehearsals, performances and special, one-time seminars.
For the composers, in addition to lessons, we have a few treats in store:
- Dance-a-Day. Students enrolled in the technology courses will be paired up with choreographers from the School of Dance to create and perform eight dance pieces in eight days. A great lesson in going from idea to execution at hyper-speed.
- Composer Focus: Composition students have been broken into groups to study the music of Missy Mazzoli. Each group will give a presentation to the rest of us next Thursday. The following Thursday we’ll meet online with Ms. Mazzoli (thank you, Skype) for a chance to discuss our findings, her music and any other words of wisdom she may have to share.
- Percussion Ensemble: On December 13th, the Percussion Ensemble will premiere pieces by two of our students, winners of their composition contest. The pieces are Bruce Tippette’s Escaping Rapture and Alicia Willard’s Spool.
Much looking forward.
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I’ve developed a small, dry, nagging cough in the past week that doesn’t seem to want to get worse or go away. I brought it with me on Tuesday to the last place I’d want to bring a nagging cough: a recording session.
The occasion was an attempt to capture Sparkling in the Dark in digits. Saxton Rose and Taimur Sullivan played beautifully, while I twisted knobs, pressed keys and sucked hard on my Ricolas.
I’ve mentioned before that Sparkling in the Dark is my first electroacoustic piece, which means I’ve written one more electroacoustic piece than a dead man. Much to my bewilderment, the piece is getting picked up by two other duos for additional performances in the spring. Not bad payoff for my first hack at the electroacoustic job.
Maybe I need to think about upping my advantage over said dead man, before it’s too late. Cough, cough.
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Just finished a new piece this weekend called Poke, subtitled a bagatelle on anti-social media. It’s scored for cello and double bass, with a running (spoken) dialogue between the two musicians as they play, an argument taking place across various social media. It’s a comic turn on the dark underbelly of our online politesse.
Poke is the latest in a series of brief, extremely focused pieces I’ve been composing in preparation for an enormous, long-range project. One or two more of these before I set sail on an extended odyssey. More on that in the spring? I hope so.
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“In politics, as in every other sphere of life, there are two important principles for a man of any sense: don’t cherish too many illusions, and never stop believing that every little bit helps.”
– Italo Calvino
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I’ve just been through a very unusual experience – unusual for me, at least.
On the verge of completing a piece, I’ve tossed it.
I began the piece in early September. It was a high-concept affair. Actually, it hovered between two overlapping concepts, and I assumed that it would settle into one or the other by the time it was done. Instead, it just worked its way to completion, solid from a compositional standpoint, but oddly pointless.
With a few dotted-tees and crossed-eyes, I could have finished it off and sent it to the performers – it was slated for a February premiere – but I knew the piece didn’t really deserve their time — or the audience’s time, for that matter. Instead, I’ve begun a new piece, completely unrelated to the one I almost finished. This one is not hovering, it knows what it is about, and I’m pretty confident it will find its mark.
The experience of tossing a piece that didn’t find its true direction is unusual for me because I’m accustomed to trusting a growing composition to tell me where it needs to go. I’ve been through this process hundreds of times. Sometimes I know exactly where I’m headed; sometimes I am surprised. Either way, though, I am used to finding the focus of the piece by the time it is finished.
The fact that this piece never found its way is cause for reflection. As I said, it’s solid work, has a nice beginning, middle and end. It accomplishes, rather easily, the finite task of being a musical composition. But I need some time to think about why it didn’t end up being something more, when I had believed it would be.
If I ever figure out what happened, maybe I will fish it out of the trash and give it another go.
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Educational programs in composition have a lot of territory to cover. Music can be studied as a purely scientific pursuit, or as a social construct. One can emphasize pedagogical studies, or simply give students a strong political foundation from which to launch their careers. It’s possible to teach composition as a process involving just composer and technology, or to exclude recent technology in favor of live performers. And so forth and so forth.
The best composition programs cover all of these bases, but not equally. Each program has to choose an area (or areas) of emphasis, or risk being so diffused that none of these areas gets the attention and resources they all deserve.
I’d be happy teaching composition at an institution that emphasized any of these areas – they are all of great interest to me. But in the ten years I’ve been running the composition program here at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, I’ve come to realize that this environment is most conducive to emphasizing some of the practical aspects of being a composer, especially in the area of collaboration with other artists.
Over the years, I’ve focused the program on its strengths. My efforts have been aided by the fact that we have an excellent performance faculty dedicated to playing new music. Coupled with the resources provided by our Schools of Dance, Design and Production, Drama and Filmmaking, the opportunities for creative exploration are enormous.
Students here are encouraged to write lots of music, with the thought that one learns more from a few misfires than from sitting alone for long expanses of time trying to craft the perfect composition. Almost everything they write, within reason, gets performed, and — in many ways — after the performance is when the teaching begins.
Performances and recording sessions are arranged both with professionals and with fellow students, so that composers can accurately gauge how their music comes across in a variety of circumstances. And ad hoc opportunities arise almost on a weekly basis.
We are now about a third of the way through the year, so the pace is picking up. Here are the performances and recording sessions we have lined up in 2011-12 – again, more other things arise than I can keep track of.
- October 12 – Performance Hour. Master’s student Bruce W. Tippette premiered his Ignite for solo piano.
- October 29 – Low and Lower. The faculty duo premiered a piece by Master’s student Michael Anderson.
- November 6 – Composers in the Hood. Student-organized concert performed by the composers’ peers.
- December 5-9 – Dance a Day. The brainchild of my colleague Michael Rothkopf, student composers are paired up with choreographers and dance groups to create and perform a new work each day for five successive days.
- December 13 – UNCSA Percussion Ensemble. Premiere of a student composition for four-to-six players. Several pieces will be submitted for consideration; the ones that are not performed will get a reading session later in the year.
- January 24 – Student Composers Concert. Our annual program of music for 1-15 musicians, played by the student new music ensemble.
- February 14 – Oskar Espina-Ruiz Recital. Faculty concert will include the premiere of a student composition for unaccompanied clarinet.
- February 18 – UNCSA Symphony Orchestra. A concert of orchestral works by composition students.
- March 6-7 – Winston-Salem Symphony. Three performances of a new work for orchestra by one of our students.
- April 14 –Forecast Music. A recording session of student compositions by the new music ensemble.
- April tba – M3 Spree. Dance concert with works from December’s Dance a Day fleshed out into polished performances.
These opportunities are the backbone of our program; there are a number of other bones, of course, as well as a few pounds of flesh. Students put on their own recitals (three of them coming up, that I know of), collaborate on film scores and theater pieces, and engage in improv sessions with colleagues. The resources are there for whatever they need to pursue – and if they aren’t, I’ll do everything I can to get them.
Again, all aspects of being a composer are fair game here; these areas of practical experience are just our specialties. For the right composers, it’s an environment to thrive in.
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Tonight everyone is getting an extra hour’s sleep so they can be ready for Composers in the Hood, a concert of works by our students, taking place tomorrow at 2 pm in Hood Recital Hall on the UNCSA campus. On tap: music by Michael Anderson, Kenneth Florence, Lucas Grant, Ted Oliver, Bruce W. Tippette and Alicia Willard. Not in that order.
Speaking of on tap, Thursday night’s Forecast concert was a blast: the beer was flowing and the audience was chill.
Maybe in that order.
For a taste of the ambience, here’s a snap of the sublime Taimur Sullivan and the superb Saxton Rose, performing together for (I believe) the first time in the premiere of Sparkling in the Dark.
The guys will reboot the piece this Tuesday night at UNCSA’s Watson Hall on a concert also featuring music by Caleb Burhans, Sofia Gubaidulina, Francisco Mignone and Jacob Ter Veldhuis. Heads up!
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Ten years ago, a group of Brooklyn composers formed a new music ensemble called Forecast. Their MO was putting together performances of new music in galleries and clubs and places like Galapagos just a little bit before such things became trendy. Last year, Eric Schwartz, one of the founding members of Forecast, moved the band to North Carolina, and Thursday night they’ll play at The Garage, a downtown bar and artist hangout. They are doing music by composers from around the region, including the premiere of my Sparkling in the Dark for soprano sax, bassoon and electronics. Also on the program, The Horror Show, Violin Bonkers and Witchcraft Recipes #5c. Obviously just another staid and stuffy Classical music concert.
The other composers involved, beside Eric and me, are Michael Burns, Mark Engebretson, Kenneth Frazelle and Alejandro Rutty. At this point, the six of us are navigating the logistics of stage setup, rehearsal time and concert order, as a result of which I just had the strange pleasure of putting the words “Sparkling Dress” in my calendar for the first (but hopefully not the last) time.
Thursday night, 8 pm – gown optional.
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