The world is so full of a number of things,
I ‘m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

–       Robert Louis Stevenson

The title of this post will raise some hackles, as there are gobs of composers who style themselves postmodernists as a cover for lazy composing.  But the practitioners of every style, every genre of music throughout history, are mostly hacks, so we shouldn’t be surprised if the rule holds true for this one.

Lazy composing, post-postmodern-style, can mean slapping borrowed ideas together randomly, without purpose, to cover up an inability to devise ones own thoughts, or to cover up the inability to investigate the potentials of a given thought.

Lazy composing, post-postmodern-style, can also mean license to revel in old techniques, to hang onto compositional habits derived from ways of viewing the world that are inappropriate for our times.

Postmodernism has been defined as “the violent adjacency…of pure expressivity and pure accessibility,”* a definition that carries equal parts truth and vitriol. Classic Postmodernists (to coin, tongue-in-cheek), overwhelmed by the sheer velocity of civilization, resorted to the shock of clashing ideologies: a wallop of Beethoven with a smack of Beatles.  The world is so incoherent — they seemed to say — that coherent art is a lie.  To the postmodernists, art had to be chaotic, a chaos comprised of coherent parts combined in ways that subverted their meaning.  The postmodernists had been born into the certainty of modernist aims and felt assaulted by, among other things, the rise of pop culture, which called those aims into question.

The children of postmodernism, on the other hand, were not raised in the purity of modernist pursuits.  We were born into a multicultural world, a world of parallel, powerful (yet distinct) value systems.  Rather than railing at the lack of uniformity, we rather enjoyed having a multiplicity of options.  Rather than bashing the heads of opposing viewpoints against one another, we sought common denominators for distant equations.

It’s taken me an awfully long time to comprehend the meaning of the postmodern inheritance in my work, but an awfully long time is a wonderful thing to have when it comes to meaning.  At this point, with 30+ years of compositional adventures behind me, so much more is clear.  I was, from early on, powerfully drawn to postmodern impulses, yet strangely distant as well.  From my current vantage point, I can see I was taking postmodern techniques and applying them in a way that reflected my time: I have lived in an era of muchness, an era when all of history is part of our present, all of our world cultures mingle in our living rooms.  This plenitude is its own form of chaos, and its own form of coherence.

The artists I admire are the ones who can find agreement where previous generations found conflict, rhymes where history has taught us we should find randomness.

I’ve found myself, and many others of my generation, drawn to a pursuit that seems both timely and easily disdained in these days of shattered focus.  We have wanted to create works that try to resolve possibly unresolveable tensions, hoping that at least the effort might prove of value.

Some broad generalizations in all of this, but the broad view is helpful from time to time.  As Popeye knew, and all children must discover, we yam what we yam: conveyers of a legacy and challengers of that legacy.  We don’t have a name for the artists who grew up in post-postmodern times, but they’ve grown up, and are having their say.

*Charles Newman, The Post-Modern Aura (1985)

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This past week has seen three major deadlines come and go for my students.  First, and biggest, was the deadline for compositions for the nu ensemble, the new-music band batoned by Saxton Rose.  Their concert is on February 22nd; this past Wednesday was the deadline for penultimate drafts, so parts could be assigned.  Now the composers have until January 15th to make whatever tweaks they please to make the pieces as fine as they can be.  We’ve got a horde of pieces, from solo piano to chamber orchestra.

Next up was the deadline for flute ensemble works, organized by Tadeu Coelho.  Tadeu was looking for pieces for 7-14 players, bass to piccolo, for a concert on March 22nd, a tour, and publication.  After the seminar we had on flute ensemble back in September, students had a fair sense of the strange range of possibilities from various combinations of flutes. We had five submissions, ranging from prickly aleatoric to sweet lullaby.  With all the flute ensembles out there (seriously, there are gobs of them), performance opportunities abound.

And last was a deadline for guitar ensemble works, for a performance on April 1st featuring music from the 16th and 21st centuries.  Three guesses which century our students were charged with representing.

All of these deadlines have had my inbox and outbox jammed with PDFs, as I shared years of proofreading experience with relative neophytes.  Now that all those deadlines are past, I’d like to take a deep breath – except Composition Jury packets are due this Thursday.

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Gave a seminar on my music here last week.  I’m 54 years old, and almost all of our students are considerably younger than that, so I began with an attempt to define the differences between my concerns 30+ years into a career in composition with the challenges that face them closer to the outsets of their compositional journeys.  My purpose was to make sure they weren’t trying to do things that didn’t fit the stage their work was in.  I told them I can dress like a 20 year old, but it’s best for everyone if I don’t.  In the same way, I can write music like a 20 year old, but the results are more embarrassing than enlightening.  All by way of illustrating that it’s important for them to do the things that one can only do at their age, and use me as a model either for the things they’d like to be doing down the line, or for the things they’d like to avoid as they get older.

Of course, these aren’t hard-and-fast rules, just guidelines.  Fine for me to dress like a 20 year old in the privacy of my own planet.

A common truism in our profession is that Beethoven’s late quartets are still contemporary, that they stand outside of time.  I can acknowledge the spirit behind this assertion, but I think students have long been misled by many teachers’ emphasis on these late works.  For young composers, it’s important to place these works firmly in the 1820s, emerging from the pen of a guy who had a complete grasp of his materials and was stretching them beyond what had previously been imaginable. “Study the late quartets,” I told the class, “but also study Beethoven’s early quartets, from opus 18.”  That’s when he was patiently mastering every element of the music of his time, making it his own, and writing excellent compositions to boot.  I’ve seen young composers miss out on that step in the process of finding their way, reaching for the mastery of the late quartets without realizing that the path to mastery is a long one.  (Another way to look at it: if you master something on the first or second try, you aren’t really setting your sites very high.) In particular, I’ve seen young composers who were singled out for their remarkable achievements struggle to find any depth in their work because their progress was short-circuited by being thrust under the spotlight.

I pointed out two opposing traps that young composers often fall into:

  1. Sticking with what you are good at.  Over time, artists tend to focus their work on the things that are most important to them.  If you start from a very narrow foundation, you will focus yourself out of existence.  Use this time to try things that are out of your comfort zone.  The benefit down the road is huge.
  2.  Fear of commitment.  Somehow (I have a few theories on this) it’s become fashionable for composers to feel like every piece has to invent its own rules and materials.  To a degree, this is healthy.  But at some point, we have to wonder when the relationship between composer and materials will ever get beyond the point of superficial acquaintance.  As uncomfortable as it can be, one has to be able to say, “This is me, warts and all.”  Make the commitment.  Or you can be like me: make several.

Hopefully the students kept those ideas in mind as I proceeded to dig into my own work.  I’m happy to be where I am at this point in my life, but I also know the value of young ears – that’s something I will never have again, and anyone who has them should make good use of them while they last.

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Tonight is the first of seven performances of Fall Dance here, featuring the premiere of Brenda Daniels’ What Happened choreography.  I wrote What Happened in 2004-05; how fantastic, all these years later, to see it come to life in physical gestures, gestures I never could have imagined when I wrote the piece but that seem perfectly right when I watch the dance unfold.

I won’t catch it tonight, but I’ll be there for the official opening night tomorrow night, and rumor has it that I’ll be onstage afterwards for a little post-premiere discussion.  I’ll believe it when I see it.

City paper has the story here.

Rosalie O’Connor photo
Dancer Frankie Peterson in UNCSA’s production of Shen Wei’s ‘Rite of Spring’.

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I’ve mentioned a few times the piece I wrote – Passing Tones — in memory of Toby Saks back in August.  Now the whole memorial event is on YouTube.  The entire hour and ¾ is an amazing watch – fantastic performances by some of the finest musicians in the country, interspersed with tributes to this wonderful artist and human being.  My piece shows up at 59:30, four minutes of a lovely, finely detailed performance by James Ehnes, Jeremy Turner, Robert deMaine and Andrés Díaz.

A full listing of all the performers, speakers and works can be found here:

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“Narrow minds devoid of imagination. Intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems. Those are the things that really frighten me. What I absolutely fear and loathe.”

– Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

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Gearing up for the nu concert this Thursday night.  Great to have a contemporary ensemble concert where the oldest work is from six years ago.  Here is the program, led by Music Director Saxton Rose:

David Biedenbender – Schism (2011)
for chamber orchestra

Frances White – The Ocean Inside (2007)
for alto flute, clarinet, violin, cello, percussion, piano, and electronic sound

Robbie McCarthy – Four-Letter-Word (2012)
for oboe, soprano saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon


Bill Ryan – Smoke (2010)
for saxophone ensemble

Alfonso Fuentes – Cuarteto para la Coexistencia (2010)
for flute, clarinet, violin, cello

David T. Little – and the sky was still there (2010)
for solo electric violin, video and playback
with violin soloist Lucia Kobza

John Orfe – Dowland Remix (2010)
for chamber orchestra

October 24th, 2013, 7:30pm, Watson Hall, UNCSA

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Just heard a composer speak approvingly of another composer who “changed the way we listen to music.”

I can think of two reasons to want to change the way people listen to music.

One is to elicit just the kind of admiration I heard expressed, as in: “wow, that’s amazing, he changed the way people listen to music!”  I can understand wanting to change the way people listen to music in order to get that reaction – it’s always pleasant to be admired.

On the other hand, doing things just to earn admiration seems to be aiming a bit low.

Another reason to change the way people listen to music is because you believe there is something inherently wrong with the way people listen to music.  Now I can nitpick with the best of them about the way people listen to music, ways that don’t suit my interests or beliefs, but I have to say that the ways that people have listened to music – I mean all over the world, throughout the millennia – may be one of the things I like the most about human civilization.

So, no, I don’t really want to change the way people listen to music.  I’ll leave that to people who can come up with better reasons than I can.

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Acknowledgements, appreciation and recognitions to share:

First, here’s a thank-you to the Mallarmé Chamber Players, who are performing my Bacchus Chaconne on their STRING JAM program at the Casbah Club in Durham, NC this Saturday night.

Then, best wishes to the Atlantic Ensemble in their European premiere of Saturn Dreams of Mercury, also this Saturday (although a good deal earlier, due to longitudinal differences) at the Accueil Musical de St Merry in Paris.

And finally, as I noted a couple of weeks ago, the Seattle Chamber Music Society is premiering Passing Tones this coming Monday at the Toby Saks Memorial Service in Benaroya Hall.

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My relationship with the express train of technology has been utilitarian: not passionate, but appreciative.  I board from time to time for a few stops, then get off where I need to be and let it rush on.

One of my misgivings about enrolling at Juilliard in 1981 was the fact that they had, at that time, no facilities for electronic music.  The little work I had done with electronics in the 70s had me mad to do more, to explore all the possibilities of this exciting new medium.  My first summer in New York, I enrolled in a course in electronic music led by Charles Dodge, a composer whose work I admired, at Brooklyn College.

By the end of that session, I had produced one bad composition and developed a deep appreciation for expertise.  I found that the work I had done in electronic music a few years earlier was by then hopelessly outdated, and the current technology (again, this was 1981) demanded a dedication of time and an access to resources that I couldn’t manage, and that I wasn’t sure I would want to invest if I had it available.  Instead, I devoted my time to developing other compositional skills.

One of the things I focused on was received notions of form: the meanings of traditional musical forms, how those meanings resonate today, and how they don’t.  That focus allows people to easily peg me as backward looking, and I don’t deny that I enjoy the view over my shoulder, but I also like looking straight ahead, without flinching.

I remember men, proud corporate types, sipping scotches and grumbling about the death of the traveling salesman when I was a child.  “People today think you can just get on the phone and make a sale,” they’d moan.  “You just can’t do that.  You’ve got to go there, meet people, form relationships.”

Of course, as it turned out, you could do that – the phone has become myriad communication devices and platforms, all substituting speed for presence.  Some things are lost in the process, and others are gained.  But, as much as one might wish to lament the losses, this is the nature of doing business as human beings: we have, as a species, an unappeasable itch to move on to new things.  Assessing what we’ve left behind is important, but obsessing over the past is tiresome, at best.  Every advance we make leaves something behind, and eventually we will be left behind ourselves.

That shouldn’t be news, though one hardly dares to raise the topic.   The human race won’t last forever, and when it is gone much will be lost.  Who is to say what will be gained?

So the train rumbles on, and I imagine it will continue making stops for me for some time to come.  When it doesn’t, I’ll be happy to get a deep familiarity with the surrounding (hopefully quiet) terrain.  Moving quickly has its advantages, and its drawbacks.

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