Archive for January, 2012

On Friday, poet Joe Mills was our guest in Composition Seminar.  Joe has secured solid footing in the free-verse narrative terrain, with poems that speak to our collective struggles with identity.  He hails from the Midwest, and his use of the language reflects the reticence of his roots.  As he put it, while Eskimos have fifty words for “snow,” his family has one word for fifty emotions.  No matter how high or low things get, the question “How ya feelin’?” could always be answered by “Fine.”

As he described his upbringing, I found myself imagining him with a pitchfork and a pair of spectacles, his piercing eyes fitting nicely into a Grant Wood painting.

Joe’s economy with language enables him to make rich, direct connections between the felt moment and the imagined eternity, as in this excerpt from Somewhere During the Spin Cycle:

Drive long enough
and mile markers skitter
across the road
like rabid shadows,
the “winding curves”
from their signs,
the pavement itself
shrugs, stretches, twistsuntil you’re convinced
you’re riding
the back of a living thing.

As he described his approach to composition, I found myself nodding in recognition at almost every turn.   It’s a certain kind of wonderful to hear an artist from another discipline speak of his work in words that resonate powerfully with ones own experience — and how much better when that artist is a poet, someone who can make experience come alive with a sure grasp of the peculiar weight of each word.

Joe talked about how often poetry comes from painful experience, while stressing the importance of transcending the experience, being true to the poem.  He described the familiar sensation of having to express oneself after an intense event, likening it to the need to grab a barf bag when overcome by a nasty stomach bug.  As he put it, that kind of relief is important and valuable – “but please don’t show me the bag and say ‘Look what I made!’”  A poem has to find its own way, apart from the initial impetus.

Joe also addressed the challenge of identifying what makes a poem good, describing an assignment he gives his students: write a bad poem in five minutes.  He says his students have no trouble with this assignment – coming up with elements of bad poetry is easy, much easier than defining its opposite.

After the seminar, I managed to commit an artistic misdemeanor when I tried to tell Joe how a particular poem of his had resonated powerfully with me.  I paraphrased his poem, essentially obliterating it.  My brain stood by in disbelief, listening to my mouth fumble for words.  It was a potent reminder of how difficult it is to speak to artists about their work, how irresistible that need can be, and the patience we need to muster when others speak to us.

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This week, Low and Lower takes off for an Alaska tour, with Poke in their baggage.  They have promised to hit “every concert hall, mountaintop, igloo and hollowed-out snowbank in the great state.”  They’ve also promised to create a mockumentary of their travails.  They start up this weekend with Kenai and Anchorage.  Click the links for more info.

A couple of pages of Poke, to send them on their way:

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Tonight, premiere of Poke, tomorrow night, performance of Child’s Play.  But the majority of my attention is focused on this coming Tuesday night, when our students will unveil nine new pieces:

A Thousand Pictures – Alicia Willard

First Snow – Kenneth Florence

The Devil and Tom Walker – Colin Laursen

Mystic Willows – Bruce Tippette

The Degradation of the Orchestra – Lucas Grant

Duo – Noah Ferguson

Burning of the Sky – Zachary Polozune

Wormhole – Michael Anderson

Reign-Man – Ted Oliver

The rehearsal process has been full of the requisite leaps and stumbles one expects in the process of any premiere, times nine.  If most of the elements fall in place for tomorrow’s dress rehearsal, we’ll be in good shape.

Meanwhile, 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 technological formats.  Over the course of the piece, the two “text”, “friend” and “like” one another with increasing fury, as their virtual exchanges completely obliterate their real lives in a comic turn on the dark underbelly of our online politesse.  For the performers, it’s a virtuosic tightrope walk — I’m looking forward to seeing Low and Lower keep it aloft tonight.

And Child’s Play, from five years ago, will surely give me a wave of nostalgia tomorrow night. It was composed when my first son was a toddler.  At the time, I was astonished by the way he could veer from being quietly charming one moment to downright dangerous the next. The piece shifts gears the way a toddler walks — in fits and jerks, wobbling uncertainly, then suddenly careening off the walls.  Nice write-up about it in the Winston-Salem Journal here.  I’m expecting the Carolina Chamber Players to put it safely to bed.

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“Learning is experience.  Everything else is just information.”

– Albert Einstein

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Paid a visit to an audiologist the other day.  I’ve felt like my hearing might be worsening over the past year or so, and I hadn’t actually had it checked in some forty years, so I googled the closest ear doctor and paid him a visit.

Thought I might be in for an interesting visit when the last question on the sheet the receptionist handed me was, “Have you ever studied a musical instrument?”

Then she gave me a bio sheet for Dr. Mills, and I have to admit I was ready to walk out, because I don’t think the doctor’s personal life is something I should have to trouble myself with.  But I refrained from bolting and read it anyway.  The sheet gave a few standard facts about him, then described the profound stutter he had gone to great lengths to overcome, establishing in him the gifts of patience and willingness to listen.

Dr. Mills came out to the waiting room to greet me – another surprise – then walked me back to his office.  He spoke slowly and carefully, probing my history and current circumstances, and I was happy I had read his bio, so I could restrain myself from my ugly habit of interrupting people who don’t speak as quickly as I might like.

But that’s all almost beside the point — I wouldn’t be writing about any of this if it weren’t for the results of the test.  I was put in a closet-sized chamber with tiny speakers inserted in my ears.  After playing me a lovely assortment of sine waves, Dr. Mills fed me some white noise, and asked me, from the adjoining room, to repeat the words he was saying.  When the test was complete, he showed me the results, which indicated that my right ear has a minor hearing loss in the medium-high register – so minor, he said, that most people wouldn’t notice it.  The fascinating thing, though, as far as he was concerned, was the way I discerned speech through noise.  Most people, he told me, begin to lose the ability to understand words as the volume of noise approaches the volume of speech.  When the volume of noise equals the volume of speech, the average person is able to understand about 25% of the words.  In my case, however, he increased the noise level above the speech level, and I was still able to discern 90% of what he was saying.

He attributed these results to my musical training, which I have to admit was a nicely scientific affirmation of something one always assumes.  Turns out he is a big supporter of the local symphony, and had attended the percussion ensemble concert I wrote about last month, so he clearly has more than a passing interest in the subject.  Very odd that I’ve had two interactions with medical personnel in the past month (see here for the last one) that introduced me to people who have an active interest in what I do, when I had become accustomed to doctors who found my profession at least uninteresting and at best mysterious.

The whole thing gave me food for thought, especially as it raises issues of the trained vs. the untrained ear.  Training, I suppose, is only one part of the equation – a more crucial ingredient may simply be a lifetime of daily close listening, keeping the wax away.

I remember a class I took years ago in which a student defended his analysis of a composition by saying, “this is the way I hear it” – to which the teacher responded, “you can train yourself to hear it any way you want to hear it.”  I always liked that idea, and my experience the other day confirms its plausibility.  The human organism is astounding, we can teach ourselves to hear the things that matter most to us.  If you want to hear noise as music — just practice.  If you want to hear a clear distinction between noise and music – again, just practice.

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Last August, I began work on a fairly large, complex piece for actor and chamber ensemble.  I took a few breaks from it over the course of the last few months to write some other pieces, each time returning to it refreshed and with a deepened perspective.

Among other challenges I set for myself in this piece was to create an innocent, wide-eyed narrator for the story I was composing.  Through the course of the journey of this story, I wanted the narrator, which was not human, to maintain its sense of wonder, avoiding the clichéd route of innocence crushed through bitter experience.

Upon completing a performable draft of the piece this month, I had a surprising realization: the story I had written could work equally well with a world-weary — even cynical — narrator, a personality in complete opposition to the one I had initially imagined.

How far apart are worldliness and innocence?  How comfortably could they co-exist in the same person?  This week I’ve been measuring the difference, trying out various balances in tone, trying to create just the right level of cognitive dissonance, much in the way I would explore varying shades of intensity in a harmonic scheme.  In the process, I’ve been getting a fascinating lesson in character development, making me feel ever more sensitive to the implications of my artistic choices.

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Attended a symposium recently at which a creaky old question was asked: “Is it possible to shock the audience anymore?”

With one exception, the panelists agreed that it was no longer possible to shock the audience.  The one exception felt that it could still be shocking to present extreme situations in a matter-of-fact way.

Here’s my opinion: shocking an audience is easy – too easy.  Here’s how you do it: wire the seats with enough voltage, then flip a switch.  I guarantee your audience will be shocked.

Seem like a silly answer?  As far as I’m concerned, if your main objective is to shock your audience, then it’s silly to try anything less than what I’ve suggested.  Why pretend you have any other agenda?

If, on the other hand, you have other aspirations in mind, then forget about superficial goals like shocking your audience.  Respect your listener and say what you have to say as clearly and convincingly as possible.  Shock tactics are for destroyers, not creators.

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Time to start my seventh year of blogging (old-fashioned, eh?) with a review of the sixth.  Here’s where I was in 2011.


Eye on the horizon with Shadow on the Sun and Terranean Meditation.


Devotion across the ocean.


NPR, The Juilliard Journal, Gramophone and American Record Guide have me covered.


Naxos releases my violin music.  Does that mean it was in captivity?


Pecorsi musicali says ciao.


Lauren Flanigan and Le Train Bleu whip out my music at Galapagos.


Terranean Meditation takes off in Wintergreen.


Just working on my jumper.


Youtubing is about as close as I get to participating in an extreme sport.


Come on down, Italo Calvino.


Sparkling in the Dark, in a bar and in a hall.


Composer on wheels.

So now on to 2012, which promises much, but guarantees only to take my old-fashionedness to new levels.

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