Archive for March, 2012

Here’s a shout out to the New Music Ensemble of Florida State University, directed by Clifton Callender, which will be performing Sparkling in the Dark tomorrow at 8:30 pm.  Look for Javier Rodriguez and Matthew Gelband to bring it home.  Hope everything goes well, guys!

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Had a fun chat with an old friend, a mezzo-soprano who runs a chamber series in Austin.  She told me about learning a new work by one of the most prominent members of our composer community and visiting him to get a coaching.  When she sang through the piece, he told her to forget everything she had learned about diction and use a more natural, “American” approach to singing, for which he held up Doris Day as a model.  He said his students all want the voices they write for amplified, and he tells them that they don’t want amplification, they want the natural diction exemplified by, again, Doris Day.

She went to work on her approach to diction, using Doris as a model.  When she got up in front of the ensemble, though, she ran into problems.  Turned out her revised diction was making it difficult for her to project over the instruments.

Which brings me to a question: has anyone ever heard Doris Day sing without a microphone?  I’ve only heard her in the movies, where the balances were carefully calibrated in a studio setting.  I honestly can’t imagine her singing in front of any size ensemble without a plugged-in boost.  Could my esteemed colleague really have been that unaware?  Or was something lost in the translation of this story?

It all brings me back to a contention I think is undeniable: this continent does not have an influential tradition of live, acoustic singing that characterizes the music from elsewhere.   Sure, Native Americans and others have long-standing traditions, but they have been deeply marginalized by the culture at large.  The sound many of us associate with traditional American singing was created in recording studios, and mimicked with varying success in live performance via amplification.

For a lot of American composers, called upon to reflect and direct the musical culture, this situation puts us in a bind.  The sound we often imagine as true to our heritage is simply not available in a live setting.  For some composers, this is a minor issue.  For the rest of us, it seems necessary to either learn the intricacies of vocal amplification or to become tight with someone who has, someone we can trust to understand our yearnings and pleadings.

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Our last senior recital of the year is coming up this Sunday afternoon, and it looks like a doozy.  Alicia Willard, in addition to being an excellent pianist and percussionist, is showcasing her compositions for us.  Alicia has been a wonderful student over the last four years, and her music comfortably traverses a broad range of expression, from cozily intimate to delightfully demented.  A persistent theme throughout her work is the intersection of music and poetry, sometimes as song, more often as artistic commentary, a conversation between music and word that transcends performance.  This Sunday’s program features a percussion ensemble piece called Spool (a nifty reverse on another composition called Loops), a mixed quintet called February, Nine Impressions for violin and piano, Periwinkle for mezzo and piano, and a final, rather terrifying piece for piano and percussion called Ballad of the Ill.  She’s lined up an impressive group of performers (including herself) to champion her work – should be a wonderful afternoon.

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We’re in the middle of a mini-festival of music combining acoustic instruments and technology.  We got started on Friday with a seminar led by my colleague Michael Rothkopf on some of the cutting-edge work he has done in this arena.  Tomorrow night we’ll have a concert called “New Sounds, Innovation and Virtuosity,” featuring music by Rothkopf and guest composer (and old friend) Robert Yekovich, who is currently Dean of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University.  Shepherd is sending us bassist Timothy Pitts, and pianist Aleck Karis and clarinetist Allen Blustine will be joining us from Speculum Musicae.

On Wednesday, Yekovich will lead a seminar on his work.  It will be great to catch up with him – our opportunities have been few and far between over the past decade or so.

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“Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millennium, I would choose this one: The sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times–noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring–belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty, old cars.”

– Italo Calvino

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Sometime in the early 90s I became addicted to fast tempos.  Fast tempos allowed me to revel in rhythmic detail without resorting to fussy notation.  They also generated an energy level that seemed in keeping with the speed of life around me.

As soon as I noticed my growing addiction, I began finding ways to subvert it, looking for a balance of expression that reflected the balance of forces around me and within me.  By the end of the century, I felt comfortable writing with an enormous range of metronome markings, each of which had a multiplicity of meanings in my expressive lexicon.

When I had Bernard Rands here as a guest about ten years ago, I was surprised to find that all of his tempos are multiples of 12, as in 48, 60, 72, 84, 96, etc.  It seemed both randomly limited and oddly liberating.  More precise indications, eg quarter = 71.3, are fine in the studio, but music written for live performance asks for a bit of flexibility to take into account variance in acoustics, instruments, personal temperaments.  Rands’s approach allowed him that flexibility, while giving him clearly distinguishable increments to choose from.

More recently, I’ve begun to notice something new coming from my students.  The fast tempos I was enamored with twenty years ago are their moderatos.  Twentyish composers think nothing of metronome markings of 200+.  It makes sense, given the music and technology they grew up with, so I find myself torn between urging them to broaden their vocabularies and encouraging them to leap ever farther off the deep end.

Usually, I push them both ways.  Funny how often that works.

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Three new video links for your enjoyment.

First up, a lively edit of a lively live performance of my anti-social media duo Poke by Low and Lower, shot at U of Alaska Fairbanks:

 

 

Number two, the premiere of Multiplicity with a half-dozen of the finest from Colburn:

 

 

And finally, my debut on Italian television last week, with an RAI feature on Terranean Meditation, played by the Quartetto Sassofoni d’Accademia.  There’s eleven-and-a-half minutes of news before the music segment gets rolling (hint, hint):

 

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Spring Break begins today, time for travel, R&R and, of course, time to refocus.  I’m off for a quick jaunt to NJ, NY and PA, then back home to hone my next project: Butterfly and Crab.

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