Archive for March, 2013

I mentioned a month ago my appearance on the Composers Now Festival courtesy of the American Composers Alliance, now I have the proof: post-concert pics and video, courtesy of the intrepid Gina Genova of ACA.

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I’m heading out this afternoon for a residency at the Blair School of Music.  Tomorrow night I give a lectern-lecture on my music, followed by a Nightcap Concert featuring The Voice, Saturn Dreams of Mercury, What Happened and String Quartet No. 4: The Infinite Sphere all played by the Atlantic Ensemble.  If you see me, tell me I sent you.  Details here.

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Fun weekend on tap: Tomorrow the world premiere of Kenneth Frazelle’s The Book of Days, commissioned by the Secrest Artist Series (the same bunch that commissioned Lang’s Love Fail) and performed by the Strata Trio.  The next night, bassoonist extraordinaire Saxton Rose is the soloist for Avatar by Dana Wilson on our Wind Ensemble concert.  Then, on Saturday night, Composition student Bruce Tippette has his Master’s recital, with performances of Evening Glimmer, Intrigue, Quartet Fo(u)r Bassoons, Motion, A Sprightly Dance and Chai.

And one matinee: if you can get yourself to the Bach’s Lunch program on Friday at Starmount Presbyterian in Greensboro, NC, you can catch Low and Lower giving what I believe is their 12th performance of Poke.

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Coached a fine young flutist who was working on my flute concerto the other day.  The piece was completed in 1994, so I would have been working on it about 20 years ago.  Going back to a piece that old is an exercise in wonderment – surprise at how good it is, surprise at how bad it is, and the disorienting experience of coming face-to-face with a composer in his early 30s who happens to be me, a me I could never be again – nor would I want to be.

These are familiar sensations to all composers, to one degree or another.  But I also found myself confronting another experience I haven’t heard discussed so often.

Every musical idea has multiple potentials.  Composing is, in a sense, a matter of choosing which potentials to tap into once an idea has been set in motion.  That same idea, in a different work, could just as easily head off in a completely different direction.  I frequently find myself going back to ideas from previous works, trying out new trajectories, exploring characteristics left untouched in earlier compositions.  In that sense, an idea gets developed within a given piece, but also gets developed over the course of my output.

Looking through the 20-year-old flute concerto, I found a number of seeds that bore different fruit in other works, some earlier, some later.  There were even a couple of notions I still find useful today.

And then there are the dead ends: ideas that served their purposes in the concerto, but have had no further use.  As I study them, I can’t help but wonder what they lacked, why certain collections of notes, rhythms or gestures have a more powerful personal resonance than others.  It’s as though some musical ideas promise hidden kernels of truth that keep me digging away, through the hours, through the years, hoping to uncover them.

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Faced with a number of short flights in recent weeks, I grabbed a copy of Composers Letters, edited by Jan Fielden, that I found in my home (not sure how it got there, having never read it before).  The book, which came out roughly 20 years ago, presents selected correspondence of European composers from Monteverdi to Britten.  Perfect bite-sized chunks for bouncing from terminal to flight to terminal to flight.

Reading it brought me face-to-face with the belief that successful composers need to be vicious people.  There is a long and honorable tradition in this regard: as the editor quotes Auden’s words to a young Benjamin Britten, “If you are really to develop to your full stature, you will have, I think, to…make others suffer, in ways which are totally strange to you at present, and against every conscious value that you have, i.e., you will have to be able to say what you never yet have had the right to say – God, I’m a shit…”

At the time this book came out, I don’t think I would have admitted to subscribing to this belief, but twenty years later, I’ve come to realize the degree to which it appealed to me at that time.  I was in a place where I delighted in exposing the raw underbelly of history, and of human interaction. Now, though I suppose raw underbellies deserve to be exposed as much as anything else, I’ve learned the danger that lies in zooming in on the underbelly to such a degree that all other aspects fall from view.

Flipping through the book, it is easy to say now that Lully was a special flavor of crème du chien, while Haydn was most assuredly not.  I’ll leave it to others to argue as to which one was the better composer.  Although perhaps that is beside the point, since Auden specifically referenced “stature,” by which standard it makes sense to say that Lully achieved great stature in the musical world at a younger age than did Haydn.  And maybe that’s what all of this is about.

Having known a good many composers — close friends, enemies, teachers, students, acquaintances — I feel safe in saying that some of them are, or were, pretty vicious people.  The vicious ones are sometimes excellent composers, and they sometimes have tremendous stature within the profession.  But I have known vicious composers who accomplished little and gained little from their accomplishments.  I’ve also known composers who were perfectly lovely people, and their accomplishments and gains have varied as much as have those of the meanies.

In my case, I like to think that I have become a bit more benevolent over the years (though I still have to keep tabs on my propensity for putting people who take presumptions in their place – it doesn’t do anyone any good), and my music is, on the whole, marginally better than it was when I was less accommodating, which is to say I still write really fantastic stuff from time to time, and the stuff in between the fantastic stuff is mostly pretty decent, with an occasional misfire.  Or, to hopefully put it more clearly, becoming a kinder person has not had a detrimental effect on my work, nor has it improved my work noticeably.   Any improvement that’s occurred is solely a matter of practice.

But the concept of the horrid person who creates sublime art is a powerful paradox.  People who are as easily seduced by paradox as I once was will find it difficult to resist.

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Generally speaking, if you want to find me-the-teacher, it’s best to visit the UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, where I can more dependably be found than anywhere else.  For a few days in June, though, I’ll be in residence at the Charlotte New Music Festival and Composers Workshop, the brainchild of the remarkable young composer Elizabeth Kowalski.  Elizabeth launched this frigate last summer, and I was a happy sailor in its maiden voyage.  She organized a full roster of events, classes, lessons and concerts last time around, and she’s got another great lineup going again this summer.  Read all about it here, and sign up if you want to catch my act on June 24-25.  Also on board: composers John Allemeier, Armando Bayolo, Craig Bove, Mark Engebretson and Ronald Parks.

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When I first moved from NY to NC in 1987, I had to adjust to, among other things, the early emergence and sustained resonance of spring.  After all these years, I’m still taken aback by the vivid colors of late February.  Now it’s March, and the seasonal shift is in full swing, though the equinox is still half a month away.

But spring has many meanings, and many manifestations.  Right now, in the tail wind of winter, I’m in the middle of spring break, a time of intense creative focus.  String Quartet No. 6 is a mess of scribbles now, showing its outlines and some random details, much as the nascent spring is apparent in the expanded boughs and dotted hues.

I will likely be writing further about this piece in the coming months (it’s not due until next winter) but this week I will content myself with the writing, instead of the writing about.

So for now, check out Low and Lower’s performance last Friday of an excerpt from Poke on WGBH’s “Drive Time Live:”

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