Archive for September, 2012

This afternoon we have our first composers concert in Hood Recital Hall, a performance organized, rehearsed and performed by students.  Here what’s coming:

Bruce Tippette: Motion
Kenneth Florence: Sleep Stuck
Clayton Davidson: Fragmentation Blade
Clayton Davidson: Branched Polymers
Quinn Dougherty: But For to Spangle the Black Weeds of Night/An Ear of Corn in Silent Sight/And Know Those Bodies High Reign on the Light
Derek Arnold: Sonata in G Major
Cheyne Runnells: Derpin
Nicholas Rich: Flocking

I’m eager to see and hear what these wonderfully creative, high-energy artists have in store for their audience.  I feel sometimes as if I’ve got a studio full of rockets ready to blast off, and one of my most important responsibilities is to count backwards.

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This Friday, we’re pooling some awesome collective wisdom for mutual benefit.  Turns out that 2/3rds of our Composition majors have moderate-to-advanced proficiency on electric guitar, so we’re getting them all to bring their instruments and show us their stuff.

The electric guitar is a fascinating instrument to get to know these days, for a number of reasons:

  • It’s hard to name an instrument that is more emblematic of the music of the last half-century.  Sure, there are others that are in the mix, but the electric guitar is so much a part of our collective awareness, it’s impossible to discount.
  • Many wonderful rock guitarists are Classically trained, but many more are not.  Consequently, there are a lot of conflicting traditions for this instrument, even in such a short history.
  •  Because so many of the musicians who play this instrument are self-taught, approaches to playing it can be deeply personal, which complicates the process of notation.
  • Even the acoustic guitar raises daunting issues for composers who aren’t used to it.  Throw in the ramifications raised by the color range of the electric version, and the possibilities can be overwhelming.

So we’re going to share stories, techniques, notations, frustrations – get it all out there.  The whole process will be overseen by guitarist-composers Kenneth Florence and Nicholas Rich, who have prepared information and examples for those of us who lack a tactile relationship with this beast.  Then everyone will have a month to come up with a mini-composition for the guitar electric, and K and N will perform the results.  I’m expecting a lot of useful insights to arise, and I’m including myself on the list of those who stand to gain from the experience.

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I’ve lost count of how many printers I’ve killed over the years.  I don’t think I ever met one I could cohabitate with.  My standards are, all experience to the contrary, way too high.  I cherish two unreasonable notions: 1. It should be fairly easy for a printer to spew out a 50-page score without extensive hand-holding, and 2. Over time, printers will get better, so my next one will be more reliable than my last.

This second belief is the most difficult to defend.  After all, it’s clear from my expectations that — despite all my experience — I’m not getting any smarter.

How lovely that so many people are just as happy to receive PDFs as hard copies these days.  I’m perfectly willing to delegate the printing responsibilities elsewhere.

And here’s a big shout-out to the Atlantic Ensemble as they repeat their brilliant, all-Dillon program for a new audience in Nashville tomorrow.  Sorry to miss!

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A 2005 survey by the Music Critics Association of North America reported that composers aren’t breaking new ground these days. What does that mean? From a journalist’s point of view, “breaking ground” means novelty, which translates into things that are easy to write about. Putting an unusual sound source on the stage, incorporating new technology or theatrics into performance, even using a catchy or provocative title: these are the things that journalists can grab onto, hooks that make writing a feature or a review on a tight deadline a bit more manageable. None of these things are inherently good or bad, or even inherently new or old, but they can be perceived as newsworthy.

That’s the superficial meaning of “groundbreaking,” but what of the more significant kinds of innovation? Is it true that composers are just rehashing — or to use a very unfashionable word, developing — what’s been done before?

That would be a very sad situation, wouldn’t it?

Or would it?

What does the word “groundbreaking” really mean? Everywhere I look, I see broken ground. I see peaceful meadows, teeming forests and weedy lots dug up the name of progress and growth. Growth and progress can be wonderful things, but too often they just serve as a euphemisms for greed and boredom. Ground sometimes gets torn up just to give people’s lives meaning, to mark territory, or to make room for more expensive, expansive automobiles.

These days, I find myself wanting to repair some of the ground that’s been broken, to write music that connects the dots, rather than ever more distantly scattering them. I take special pride in pieces that don’t wear their innovations on their sleeves, music that doesn’t hit you over the head with its newness. I like a piece whose novelty only becomes apparent when you try to peg it on an earlier generation and find it just doesn’t fit.

The perception that great art must be groundbreaking reminds me of the “be fruitful and multiply” dictum from the Bible. Fine, as long as there was a danger of population extinction, and there were adequate resources in the earth to feed expanding generations. At this point, it would appear that there are enough people on this planet that the best chance we have for extinction is self-destruction, so I’m for population maintenance, not growth.

In the same vein, I think we’ve broken enough ground for the time being — physically, culturally and metaphorically — to satisfy even the most severe cases of attention-deficit disorder. There is a place now in our world for composers, for artists, who can reconnect us with one another, with the past and the future — with solid ground.

Mind you, I don’t believe for a minute that there is nothing new being done, or nothing new to be done. There are so many possibilities, it’s nauseating.

I just feel that novelty is overrated. If we think like journalists, then newness is everything. If we think like artists, then truth is everything, and truth is one of the oldest things going. And it’s one of the few things that hasn’t lost any value over the years.

So if I end up breaking any ground, I’m going to make sure I’m not just marking my territory. If I break new ground, I hope it will be because I have something healthy to plant.

[First posted June 7, 2005]

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As I wrote last time, I’m off to Tennessee in a couple of days for the premiere of Saturn Dreams of Mercury.  What I neglected to mention is that this premiere is one chunk of an all-Dillon program, sandwiched between two talks featuring my voice, and hopefully some of my thoughts.   The concert program has music for strings with and without piano, including (in addition to the premiere of SDoM) The Voice, What Happened, and String Quartet No. 4: The Infinite Sphere.  It’s a demanding evening of sawing and ivory tickling for the Atlantic Ensemble, one they are planning to repeat in the spring.

Oddly enough, though I’ve lived next door for a quarter-century, this will only be my second visit to the Volunteer State (barring layovers in Memphis airport) and – to my knowledge – the first time my music has shared the air with the western slopes of the Blue Ridge.  Looking forward to an exquisite drive, struggling to keep my eyes on the road.


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In outlining his second artistic principle – Quickness – Italo Calvino describes himself as “a Saturn who dreams of being a Mercury,” an older man predisposed to introversion and melancholy who nonetheless aspires to the speed and agility of the young god in winged sandals.

That image tweaked a musical response from me last February, and the result was Saturn Dreams of Mercury, a string trio that the Atlantic Ensemble will premiere in Cookeville, TN next Monday.  I have a great history with this ensemble – Wei Tsun Chang and Seanad Dunigan Chang have been playing my music for about twenty years – and we had a good time reconnecting in a Skype rehearsal a few weeks ago.  I’ll be coming ‘round the mountains on Sunday for more rehearsal and premiere.  More ‘bout it next time.

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Great to see John Cage getting his due in centennial celebrations this week, and throughout the year.  Though he has been dismissed by many (not so frequently now as in his time), he never seemed to be short of enthusiastic followers, and for good reason.

We’re having a major Cage celebration here this fall, thanks to the organizational genius of my friend and eminent pianist Louis Goldstein.  Here’s a rundown of the first month of festivities:

  • Sept 28 – MUSICIRCUS. Musicians from all around the region will congregate for a performance of this happening from 1967.
  • Oct 4 – Brian Butler, Chair of the Philosophy Department at University of North Carolina-Asheville, will discuss “From the Ironist to the Anarchist Poet: Richard Rorty, Buckminster Fuller and John Cage on the poetic construction of political possibility.”
  • Oct, 9-11 – Rob Haskins (University of New Hampshire), author of Anarchic Societies of Sounds: The Number Pieces of John Cage and a musicologist who has specialized in late Cage, will give a lecture and perform one of Cage’s mesostic poems.
  • Oct 10 – Rob Haskins and Louis Goldstein perform Cage’s Two2 for two pianos.
  • Oct 14 – all-Cage recital by pianist Stephen Drury.
  • Oct 23, 24 – Marjorie Perloff, one of the foremost American critics of contemporary poetry, will lecture on “John Cage as a Conceptual Poet.”
  • Oct 28 – Dancing Cage.
  • Oct 29 – Opening of “Cage Rocks,” a show of Cage drawings, prints, and watercolors in the Hanes Art Gallery.

All events will take place on the campus of our crosstown neighbor, Wake Forest University.

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I was sorry to hear, at the beginning of the summer, about all the Sibelius employees who lost their jobs when the UK office was shut down.  I really can’t imagine what it would be like to devote my life to mastering a particular skill, then have absolutely no way to continue using that skill, and have to learn, at the drop of a hat, a completely new skill to feed myself and my loved ones.

By comparison, losing the use of whatever software I’ve employed to notate my music seems far less dire.  I can print out hard copies and save PDFs for as long as hard copies and PDFs are viable.  I can learn new software for new compositions, or go back to pencil and paper if need be.  Not something I would choose to do, but I know I can do it.

What worries me more than the shutdown of any particular software company is a more pernicious thought.  What ever will we all do when these software companies collude to start making money off of particular commands?  Surely it wouldn’t be hard to require that a user be online to operate Sibelius, Finale, Word, whatever – and then how long would it take before they could start charging us 12 cents every time we hit Save?

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