Archive for December, 2011

Though I’ve been observing radio silence the past week, I’ve been doing just fine.  Well, not true, but in the grand scheme of things, close enough.  The laptop that is responsible for the core of my daily life went down for the long-count last Monday, so I have been splitting my core among three other computers that are accustomed to propping up my peripherals.  All of which is to say that I’ve been functioning a little more in the real world and a little less online, which is mostly a good thing.  Except for one problem: my little hack of a cough turned into a full-blown sinus infection, which meant I was getting even less sleep than usual, and fattening up on even more meds than usual.

Excuses, excuses.  But here I am now, with a new computer, and more to say than reporting on the health of my hardware.

As I wrote last time, we had Missy Mazzoli visiting our seminar online this week.  The discussion worked out beautifully, a tribute to Missy’s intelligence and professionalism, and to our students’ preparation.  Here is a snap of the faceless composer on wheels:

In person, her features are far more distinguished, and distinguishable.  The seminar was wide-ranging, flowing evenly between artistic and practical matters.  Missy was candid, supportive and enlightening, as I had hoped she would be.  Asked about whether she ever crosses the fine line between her Classical and Pop leanings, she responded by pointing out the limitations of pop music, citing her preference for the Classical context, within which, as she says, “anything can happen.”

As an example of “anything can happen,” I’ll evidence the UNCSA Percussion Ensemble concert I attended last Tuesday night, which included premieres of two works by students of mine: Bruce Tippette’s Escaping Rapture and Alicia Willard’s Spool.  Both pieces were wonderful – taking full advantage of the instrumental resources and carving out an attractive way of listening within our particular coordinates in space-time.  The program also included a sizzling rendition of the first movement of Zivkovic’s Trio per uno and concluded with a visit from veteran bones player Mitch Boss from Rhythm Bones Central who, before launching into some rags with the students on a couple of cow tibias, informed us that “Music soothes us physically and relieves our minds of pesky internal dialogue,” something I’ve noticed a time or two.

Which brings me back to my checkup yesterday, and the Romanian nurse who presided.  After getting more pertinent information out of me, she asked me what I do.  When I told her I was a composer, she asked if that’s why I didn’t notice when I was getting sick.  I laughed, and asked her why ever did she think composers drift through life without noticing obvious things right in front of their noses, or even behind their noses.  She replied, “What, do you think I have no training?” and she proceeded to grill me on how many Romanian composers I knew.

I was relieved to satisfy her questions — especially since she was getting ready to take my temperature.

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Each year, I pick a living composer for our students to study, someone whose work presents lessons I feel my students should take to heart.  Last year we focused on John C. Adams, a composer who has stood at the pinnacle of the profession for quite some time and whose impact, especially in the orchestra and opera worlds, has been enormous.

This year we’ve been studying the music of Missy Mazzoli, a composer in the early stages of her career.  Last Thursday we gathered for presentations on four of her works: A Thousand Tongues, Magic With Everyday Objects, These Worlds in Us and Still Life With Avalanche. We identified traits and techniques these four works share, as well as distinguishing aspects.  It’s been fascinating to see how the students connect with this music that is by a near-contemporary – at least they are much closer in age to her than they are to me.

This Thursday we’ll be skyping with Missy to discuss her work.  I’ve shared with her five directions I’d like to see the discussion move in, but we’ll see how things play out.  One of the fun things about meeting with a composer online, as opposed to in a classroom, is that the students will get a glimpse into her workspace, in her home in Brooklyn.  It seems a bit intrusive: I know I’m pretty shy about showing people my studio.  But it’s a great opportunity for students who are finding out all the things it means be a composer.

I’ll be curious to see what my students get from this encounter.  My experience with guest composers, both from hosting them and from being one myself, is that sometimes the event is memorable and sometimes it’s largely forgettable, and I’ve never been able to come up with a explanation for why it works one way or the other.  I know that when I’ve been the guest, I’ve done exactly the same things with different gatherings and had completely different responses.  With composers I’ve brought in, I’ve had students sit stone-faced for 90 minutes, then tell me later that it was the most wonderful thing they’ve ever experienced.  I’ve also seen them pepper a guest with questions and exclamations, only to come out of it having learned nothing.  Seems to be a matter of getting the right ingredients into the cauldron, then hoping for some kind of synthesis.

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Sunday marks the 103rd birthday of one of the idols of my youth, Elliott Carter.  I learned so much from studying his scores in my teens, and I learned so much more from my interactions with him as a grad student.

Carter has thrown down many gauntlets for the composition world in his life, but none is more imposing than the challenge he gives us to this day: the accomplishment of consistent growth and compositional productivity over an unprecedented time span.  He’s made me give a lot of thought (probably more than necessary) to the question of what bodily and mental capacities are absolutely essential for me to continue composing.  In a way, he has encouraged me to strip down my necessities to a bare minimum, to find ways to compose even if my eyesight fails me, even if my hearing fades away, even if my fingers lose their independence.  He has also encouraged me — all of us — to continue to learn and grow well beyond our student years.

Hats off, Elliott, and many happy returns.

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Just had a strange thought: in 3.5 decades of having my music performed in public, I don’t recall ever having a piece played in the month of December.  That can’t be right, can it?  And yet, it makes sense.  ‘Tis the season for very specific types of music-making that haven’t been my bread-and-butter.

And while I’m here (actually, I’m in Chicago right now), here’s a congratulations to my friend Judith Sherman for her Grammy nomination in the category of Producer of the Year, Classical. I’d like to think my album Insects and Paper Airplanes put her over the top, but that point is debatable.

Meanwhile, cue up the Handel and Tchaikovsky, and bundle up for January.

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