Archive for May, 2012

Some composers put an enormous amount of detail into their notation.  I see two primary trends in the last half-century (others exist, of course) that have led to this situation.

The development of electronic sound production and modification gave composers unprecedented control over every detail of a composition.  For composers who place a high value on unprecedentedness, this was catnip, and fools, as well as angels, rushed in.  The experience of manipulating every aspect of electronic sound led many of them to question whether the same kind of control could be exercised in acoustic music.  Again, unprecedented artistic territory so, again, very attractive to many.

At this point, the novelty of hyper-controlled notation has worn off.  This means that composers who were in it for the value of working in unprecedented terrain have moved on to new horizons.  The composers who remain devoted to notating every twitch and tic of their music are the ones who care deeply about the shape of every moment in their compositions.  As fellow composers, as fellow human beings, we shouldn’t find this puzzling – we are very close to living in a paradise where every one of us can care deeply about things that do not give many other people cause to hoot.

The other trend is the soaring cost, and declining subsidy, of orchestras, which has created a situation in which orchestral performances are rehearsed on a tight clock, and a high programming value is given to compositions that are so familiar or so comprehensively notated that they can be prepared in one or two rehearsals – in other words, repertoire for which the interpretive decisions have already been made.  Unlike the first trend, this one is not creative, but economic.

Some composers, bred in the womb of current orchestral notation practices, bring the same level of notational detail to their chamber and solo works, where it is not quite so crucial.  Even here, though, there are many performers who appreciate knowing that the composer knows what she wants.  In fact, I’ve seen situations in which performers have asked a composer how a particular passage should be played, the composer responded, “I’d like you to decide,” and the performer responded with an unspoken, “if you don’t care, why should I?” kind of performance.

But we can all come up with anecdotes to serve our positions and preferences.  The goal is to find the right fit for each of us, rather than being flummoxed by the fact that we can’t all squeeze into the same shoe.

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I love reading about music.  One of the best things in my musical life over the last ten years or so is the ease with which I can read about music pretty much any time I like.

Of course, listening to music is great, too.  But the nice thing about reading about music is the fact that you have to use your imagination.  When someone with a vivid command of the English language puts sound into words, it sparks all kinds of personal associations and ideas that can lead to new work.  The resulting piece can have a kinship with the original, but often in a way that nobody but the composer could identify.

Whereas, hearing.  When I hear a piece, I can be similarly inspired to compose a response — but sound responding to sound often ends up sounding derivative.

So here is a big thank-you to all of those wonderful people who write about music.  It’s a skill I’ve never been able to master, and one that I value more and more.


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A few weeks ago I wrote about some of the advantages of aging in this profession.  There are some perks, though, to being a young composer these days.

The internet-abetted ability to connect directly with audiences around the world is an obvious boon – so well-documented that nobody needs me to provide further comment. But there is another difference I seldom hear mentioned.

When I was in my 20s, there was a general understanding that composers my age had to bide their time, pay their dues, get a few gray hairs, come to grips with modernism, forge a personal style, before anyone took them seriously.  The new-music world was ruled by composers in their 40s and older.  If we were patient and put in the hard work, our time would come.

Some of that attitude lingers, of course, but two other attitudes have become more prominent: a belief that authenticity can trump mastery, and a belief that young composers hold the key to understanding the present and the future.  As a result, young composers are much more frequently thrust into the spotlight than they were 30 years ago.  Add to that the proliferation made possible by technology over the last few decades, and professional ascents are happening much more quickly now.

Of course, quick ascents can be dizzying.  I’ve known a few composers in their 20s and 30s who have been crowned as artistic successes and have lost their way artistically.

In any case, there is more of a chance, however slender, these days that a young composer will get an enormous reaction based on a small sample of work.  That occasionally happened when I was younger, but it seems much more common now.

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In my last post, I mentioned that I am working on four pieces right now.  That’s one more piece than my optimal number.  The one extra piece is a huge one for soprano and eight instruments, and I had hoped to have it done by now.  The premiere isn’t until October, so I’m not sweating, but it has been a long and bumpy ride.

I started this piece last July.  I thought it was done in January, but then I had one of those oops-I-don’t-think-this-is-going-to-work moments, and I had to completely rethink my approach.

There are a lot of challenges involved, but one of the most difficult comes from the fact that more than 90% of the text, which I’m writing myself, is spoken.  I have this ongoing fascination with the ways that stories are constructed, and how those constructions can map onto live music.  Sometimes singing is an appropriate way to explore this fascination, but more often I need spoken text.  I’ve used actors with varying degrees of success, but sometimes I need a performer with more sophisticated musical knowledge.  So this piece is scored for a soprano who mostly speaks and occasionally sings.  That’s not a foolproof recipe – in fact, it’s a scenario that any sane composer should avoid like the plague – but it’s what I need to do for this piece, regardless of how much more difficult I am making things for myself.

This particular instance poses an extra challenge, because the first-person narration comes from an inanimate object.

(And here’s an insert for all of those people who find anthropomorphism distasteful: a lot of inscrutable things become clear when you look through inanimate eyes.)

Anyway, I’m at a funny stage with the piece.  I’ve decided it’s time to create a piano/vocal score — always a frustrating process, winnowing down all those fascinating instrumental details to just two staves.  The spoken text makes the process even more exasperating, since text spacing and musical spacing follow very different rules on the page.  My music notation software happily updates the measure spacing with each new note, zipping my text off the margins into unselectable territory.  To add to my aggravation, I’m creating this version of the score to get a different perspective on the flow of the piece, and there is a very real possibility that I will discover a flaw requiring extensive renovation – in which case I will have to create a whole new piano/vocal score once I revise the piece.  If that turns out to be the case, I will definitely be at the point of WHY-OH-WHY-DO-I-DO-THIS-TO-MYSELF???

But the answer is easy.  I have a sound in my head, I have a particular unfolding of ideas in my mind, and I’m in a state of perpetual, slow torture until I figure out how to give them life.

Reminds me of the composer who informed his audience, “I’ve had this music annoying the hell out of me for the last two years.  Now it’s your turn.”

Oh wait.  That was me.

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Or not.

A few months ago, there was a strong possibility that I would be in Paris today for the premiere of my string trio Saturn Dreams of Mercury.  But things have a way of working out in opposition to our expectations, so I’m home, working on a nonet, a septet and two concertos.

It’s actually the second time this year I have not been to Europe.  I had a premiere in Italy I had to miss back in February because of schedule complications.

It’s easy to whine for Paris and pine for Rome, but hopefully there will be other opportunities, and right now I’m having such a great time composing it’s hard to get too worked up about where I’m not going.

Travel is very stimulating, but it definitely slugs your creative routines in the kisser.

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The term “maverick” comes from the American southwest in the days before the American southwest became associated with cultural hubs like Santa Fe.

We’re talking 19th century, when the southwest was a renegade region known as Texas.  Samuel Maverick was a mid-century landowner and politician who fought for Texas’s independence from Mexico.  His later habit of leaving his cattle unbranded, whatever his reasons, delivered his name into the popular lexicon as a term for someone who goes his own way, who refuses to follow the crowd.

In recent decades, the word has found some traction as a moniker for composers who stand outside of – and even actively avoid – historical tides.  This usage is` really no more awkward than any other, but it poses problems for anyone who feels that cities are the most natural breeding grounds for innovative work.  It’s difficult to expand the definition of “maverick” to include people who gravitate to large urban centers, places where one must subscribe to myriad small and large social conventions in order to survive.

In the case of new music, it can often feel like branding is everything.  Certainly the people who do the branding, the ones who decide what is important to our culture, live in cities, not off by themselves in the wilderness. It’s easy to imagine an enormous number of unbranded calves that simply go unnoticed by history.

It makes sense to me, as someone who is neither a maverick nor an urban dweller (at least not at this point), to celebrate artistic accomplishments regardless of their source.  There are certainly composers who head off into the cultural wilderness and create work that is insightful and enduring.  Likewise, there are composers who cluster into cells of like-minded artists and show us things we never could have seen otherwise.  The former we could call mavericks; the latter await a more suitable term.

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