I like to think of myself as a competent composer, someone who writes pieces that work in fundamentally sound ways.  But I don’t aspire to competence; some of the notions I chase after take me into unfamiliar terrain and I have to do my best to make them work as well as they can.

As a result, some of my compositions are dogs.

I am very proud of my dogs (though I withdraw them from performance when I can) because they are signs that competence is something I have worked hard to attain without making it my primary aim.  I reserve the right to compose a terrible piece in pursuit of valuable goal.  One of the reasons I became a composer is because the vastness of music forces me to be an eternal student.

I should add that I defend the right of any listener to hate any piece I write – after all, sometimes I will agree.

On the other hand, just because a piece of music turns out to be a dog doesn’t mean we have to kick it around – scratching it behind the ears is a more generous option.

On a perhaps cheerier note, three performances of my music in the definitely-not-canine category to catch this coming week, in Austin, Louisville and New York:

  • March 5: Sonata: Motion.  Tim Hagen, flute; Ben Corbin, piano.  UT Austin, Butler School of Music
  • March 8: Poke.  Low and Lower.  ASTA National Conference, Louisville KY.
  • March 10: What Happened and the NYC premiere of The Voice.  Atlantic Ensemble.  Symphony Space, NYC.

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One of the ancillary benefits of teaching is the pleasure of insight you get into the unfolding of musical minds, watching one young composer after another take wing.  I’ve been especially fortunate these last two years to watch the development of Nick Rich, who has his Master’s recital this Saturday night.  If you want to hear a truly beautiful and imaginative take on what a string quartet is capable of, check out his Songs at Sunset here.

For his recital, Nick has not only pulled together the usual assortment of performing friends, but has three guest ensembles lined up.  Here is the program:

I gotta use words
Lennon Variations
Cool Clear Water

Rewind You, Rewind Me

UNC School of the Arts, Watson Hall, 7:30 pm, March 1.

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Probably too many of my recent posts are about upcoming concerts here, but I can’t ignore the fact that it’s a busy month for new music fans.  Tonight is the student composers concert I wrote about last time.  Tomorrow afternoon, Forecast Music will play a program called Brooklyn Sounds: Copland Meets the Moderns, with music by Eric Schwartz, John Corigliano, Timo Andres and Derek Bermel in addition to Aaron Copland.  Click for details.

Coming on Tuesday is the Espina/Browne/Shteinberg Trio, with a program including Kenneth Frazelle’s Winter Turns, György Kurtág’s Hommage à R. Sch and Daniel Weymouth’s Echo Location and Echo, a Trifle.  All of which makes lovely company for the NC premiere of my GPS Lady.  Here’s what I wrote about it for the program notes:

One night, driving a rental car through rural California in search of a music festival, I found myself, at the insistence of my GPS, on a one-way dirt road.  I had already been behind the wheel for a long time, and my ability to focus
was dissolving as the hours became wee.  Unable to resist the cajoling
voice of my positioning system, I continued a ways down this dirt road,
hoping to find some sign of my destination.  Instead, I encountered a
crudely painted board that said COME ANY CLOSER AND I WILL SHOOT.
Needing no further inducement, I put the car in reverse and backed out
the twisty, pitted path, no less in the dark than I was when I began my
journey. Unperturbed, my GPS patiently encouraged me to continue forward,
her soothing voice half persuading me that a quick bullet would be far
preferable to further thrashing through the darkness.

GPS Lady is a love song to technology, a rumination on our sometimes perilous relationships with these maddening and comforting devices — maddening because they can be so witlessly wrong, and comforting because no matter how bad things get, their confidence never wavers.

Much more about the concert here.

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Bustling around to various rehearsals this week, as the nu ensemble prepares a concert of music by our wonderful students.  I expect everyone on the planet, all 7 billion of you, will be there, so get your seats early: Saturday, Feb. 22, 7:30 pm, Watson Hall, UNC School of the Arts.  Here is what we will hear, for the first time:

Ethan Swofford: Whistler’s Trio

Dayton Hare: Dedalus Fugue

Clayton Davidson: Every Bump in the Road

Cheyne Runnells: Rise and Plummet

Dak Van Vranken: My Mechanical Skin

Kenneth Florence: Silver Cord

Zachary Mackey: The Mountain Summit

Alexander Umfleet: Ira

Derek Arnold: How to Talk to Women (or Table for One on the Rocks)

Brent Lawrence: Travel

Laura Reynolds: Grown Up and Sea of Plastic

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We’ve got the Fire Pink Trio here this Saturday night, performing music to celebrate “the goddesses in our lives” – a program of works by women (Adrienne Albert, Mel Bonis and Hillary Tann) called Women of Note.  I love the way flute, viola and harp complement one another, and this group is terrific, so it’s a program I’m happily looking forward to.

On a completely unrelated note, I’d love for everyone who writes about music to take a moment to look up the difference between “compliment” and “complement,” if the difference is not already clear.  My mind does a double-take every time I see those two confused, and I’ve been encountering this mixup so often lately in articles on new music that this poor old brain is getting awfully bruised, banging about in my cranium.

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I’m working on new versions of two old pieces of mine, a process that would normally be more maddening than enjoyable, but in this case the process has been very pleasant.

One of them is an arrangement of a piano solo for two pianists.  I’ve never written a successful piano duo, partly because I couldn’t find a satisfying way to sustain the use of all four hands for any amount of time.  Attending a piano duo concert a few weeks ago, it struck me how wonderfully 3-hand piano works – that, in fact, the way to go about it is to write a 3-hand piece with the fourth hand occasionally added in, just at the moments of greatest density.  As long as the fourth hand isn’t always the same one, an immense textural and interactive variety is available. That reminded me that I had a solo piece I had written a couple of years ago which had left me unsatisfied by what I was able to accomplish with just two hands, so now I am rethinking it as a piano duo.  Some ¾ of the way through at this point, I’m feeling very happy with how it’s going.

The other arrangement is a commission to create an orchestral version of Poke, a cello/bass duo.  Where the piano duo is offering me an expanded pallet of pitch material, this orchestration offers an expanded pallet of timbral possibilities – which I am politely declining.  Poke won’t benefit from a colorful setting – it can only work through an arrangement that captures the black-and-white clarity of the original.  Since orchestras aren’t afforded the amount of rehearsal time given to chamber music, though, I’m having to rethink some of the metrical complexity.  Where the original featured patterns that defied the ear’s efforts to group into recognizable collections, the orchestral version will have to find large structures to feed the local shifts into, so that everyone involved can maintain their bearings.  At the same time, it’s giving me an expanded pallet of possibilities to achieve the metrical shenanigans I’m after.  Much more creative, and enjoyable, than just plugging notes into instruments.

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Two of my colleagues gave a joint seminar on Friday, each discussing a piece that was premiered last year, each piece a reflection on the concerto tradition.

Michael Rothkopf went first, with a presentation on Gitanjali for flute and computer.  Michael has been working for years with interactive electronics, music in which a computer responds in real time to decisions made by a live performer.  One of the challenges, he said, of working with this medium is the fact that one cannot really get a sense of the range of possible responses (by the computer) without listening to multiple performances.  That’s where the concerto tradition came in.  Adapting the 18th-century concerto first-movement form, with a double exposition, gave him an opportunity to run through the same material twice, each time getting different results from the computerized interaction.  In each exposition, the flute plays the same rhythms, but with different notes, reminiscent of the way Bach brings back the opening rhythmic scheme with completely different notes in a number of works (see, for example, the Sarabande from the d minor French Suite).  The rhythmic consistency in the flute anchors the disparate responses of the computerized interaction.

Then Kenneth Frazelle spoke about his Triple Concerto for violin, cello and piano with orchestra.  Ken began the process of writing this piece, as he frequently does, by listening to as many works for this medium as he could get his hands on, noting how various composers from the past have handled the ensemble.  Rather than strictly treating the trio as a set group vs. the orchestra, he settled on a three-movement form, designating a lead soloist for each movement: the piano begins the piece with an emphatic call to arms (and fingers), the cello leads the soulful variations of the second movement, and the third movement features the light-hearted antics of the violin.

I hope all of our students spend the rest of their lives writing exactly the music they want to write, and the music they want to hear.  But I couldn’t help noting, after experiencing these two dramatically different compositions, how many of the performances one gets come from this old impetus: performer says “write me a piece,” and composer responds with music that somehow showcases the performer’s gifts: the concerto tradition.  It’s a beautiful relationship, and these two works presented wonderful examples for young composers, the challenge of giving voice to another, or speaking with someone else’s voice, always conveying one’s own ideas, yet tailoring those ideas in a way that gracefully defers to the strengths of the collaborator.

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“…the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.”

– C.S. Lewis

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nitpicky hat

I’ve got my nitpicky hat on.  My students have to have their orchestra scores done for the Winston-Salem Symphony by Tuesday, so we are deep into proofing phase.

When my nitpicky hat is on, it’s best if I don’t offer an opinion on anything but spellings and formatting, so this is a good time to point you to the opinion of someone else, namely Toronto composer and critic Colin Eatock, who had some very nice things to say about me in a piece he posted in the waning hours of 2013, called New Music I Like.

Mr. Eatock is kind enough to say my music is “never lazy,” and I only wish that could be true.  The truth is that the lazy bits stick to the roof of my mouth like peanut butter, only to be dispersed with a severe tongue-lashing.  On the other hand, when he says “The kind of hyper-seriousness that attached itself to many modernist works is conspicuously absent,” I can only breathe a sigh of relief.   Serious, yes.  Hyper?  Please, no.

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The CanAm Piano Duo is in town for a concert this Tuesday night.  They’ll be playing John Corigliano’s Kaleidoscope, but the real attraction for me will be the premiere of Dak Van Vranken’s Lights on the Water.  Dak is a sophomore here, studying with Kenneth Frazelle.

In other news, I’ve completed Rapid Eye and mailed it off to the Carpe Diem String Quartet.  Since it’s the sixth and final work in a cycle I’ve been working on since 1998, I have even more heavily mixed emotions than I usually have when finishing a major work.  Maybe I will be able to address those feelings in a meaningful way in some later post, but I’m not making any promises.  It may be best, after all, to stick to making music.

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