Today is the first day of classes here at the UNC School of the Arts, time for people to get lost in the wrong hallways, have a few unexpected encounters, scramble into class late, and possibly learn a thing or two that will have a powerful impact on their futures.

And that’s just the teachers.

I met with my students last Friday.  A little soon to say, but they seem like an imaginative and curious lot, raring to go.

As I told them, I love my summers, the chance to move my body in ways that have nothing to do with predetermined appointments and spread my mind out as far as it will take me.  But around about the second week of August I start to get antsy, thinking about the coming school year, wondering what surprises my students will have in store for me in the coming year.

And now it begins.  Whoa, I’m running late…

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Just a few days after complaining that this blog has become a listing of “events, performances and accolades,” I have one of the last to report: the NC Arts Council has awarded me an Artist Fellowship, the highest honor accorded to artists in the state.

This fellowship is going to give me much-needed support as I bring the Invisible Cities String Quartet Cycle to a conclusion with String Quartet No. 6: Rapid Eye.  Target for completion: January 2014.

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When I first began to blog on an infinite number of curves, it indeed curved in multiple directions, covering my thoughts and observations on a variety of seemingly unrelated topics.    Part of the premise was that all topics are related, even though their relationships are not always readily evident.

More and more, though, I see this blog has become something a little less distinguished, a listing of performances, events and accolades — external signposts, as opposed to thoughts.  I’ve been fully aware of this shift as it has been taking place, and I have explained it away to myself through various means.  And now it is time for me to own up to what has happened.

There are at least three independent strands that have influenced the shift.  First, over the course of eight years, I have said a substantial portion of what I have to say.  There are a few things I haven’t gotten to yet, and their times may come, but a lot of my thoughts on the subjects nearest and dearest to my heart are already out there.  This is a phenomenon other bloggers have encountered and commented on.  The blog as a format has reached a plateau.

Second, I am valuing my privacy more and more.  That seems like a funny thing to say because I have always valued my privacy, but every passing year makes privacy feel more precious.  I suppose it’s because all of my actions, tastes, interests, etc, have become much easier for strangers to gather and decipher than was the case even eight years ago.  It feels, in fact, like the level of privacy I took for granted in my youth is something that would be extremely difficult to attain today, and is probably unimaginable for generations of composers active now and in the years to come.

Finally, I seem to have reached a point in my development where I am more conscious of an urge for purity of expression, as opposed to an urge to try new things.  In that sense, infinite curves are not as appealing to me as a few discrete, well-placed dots.  That may be a product of my age, or the result of years of compositional growth, or some other factor, I don’t know.  Somehow I find the image of the retracted arms of a melanocyte appealing.  Melanocytes are the skin cells that create melanin, or pigment.  These cells, unlike the other 90% of our skin cells, have long arms, like an octopus, that allow them to send their pigments to the follicles our hair grows from.  As we age, the tendrils of these melanocytes retract.  Our hair receives less and less pigment, and is allowed to exhibit its true color, which is white.  Others choose to see this development as a loss, but I’m inclined to see a gain: instead of dressing itself up with color from the outside, my hair is gradually becoming more and more comfortable just being itself.

In much the same way, I am less and less interested in dressing up my life and art in the colors that I find reaching me through the tendrils of culture.  Instead, I am content with the absence of color, a turn to a more nuanced texture. It’s a shift in focus from the infinite to the infinitesimal.  That’s not an attitude, a perspective, I can recommend to young composers – and it certainly is not one best suited to the blog format — but it suits me for the time being.

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Sad to be missing Carol Wincenc playing Bacchanal from my flute concerto Orpheus in the Afterworld this weekend at the Gala Concert of the National Flute Association’s annual convention.  If anyone out there can make it, it’s this Saturday at 8 pm at the French Quarter Marriott in New Orleans.  Ransom Wilson conducts the orchestra.

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I’ve been very pleasantly diverted the last few weeks by a number of things, but it’s time for me to catch this weblog up a bit.  Here’s a nice review of the premiere of Sanctuary:

And the interview I did with KUOW’s Dave Beck – starts about 14 minutes into the segment, and lasts for about 14 minutes:

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I’m headed back to Seattle this weekend for the premiere of Sanctuary by the Seattle Chamber Music Society.  Here’s a bit about the piece:

Sanctuary (2013)

Domed and Steepled Solitude
Winged Sandals
Scents and Recollection
A Reliable Pulse

A peaceful refuge, a shelter, a sanctuary: all creatures require an opportunity to retreat from oppressive forces, to find respite from the burdens and demands of life.  Sanctuary explores four of these havens in four movements, all connecting the world in which we live to the world we imagine.

When Mark Twain first visited New York City, he spoke of a “domed and steepled solitude, where a stranger is lonely among a million of his race.”  The first movement of Sanctuary pits overwhelming clamor against quiet introspection — the initial tempo indication is Tranquillo vs. furioso – gradually subsiding into gently rolling harmonies.

Many of us have felt the seductive nature of speed (the state of motion, not the amphetamine), whether found in running shoes, in the air, in amusement park rides, on the highways.   Leaving the rest of the world in a blur enables us to find, if only briefly, a sense of repose and wonder.  The second movement celebrates speed in a scherzo named for the conveyance favored by Mercury, the swift messenger god of ancient Rome.

Scents and Recollection traces the path from sensory experience to memory, so lovingly described by Proust in À la recherche du temps perdu.  A single note blossoms into a many-voiced aria from a bygone era, leading to the peaceful, rocking harmonies that concluded the first movement.

All life ends, but life itself endures.  As we ponder our individual fates, we can’t help but seek reassurance in the consistent rhythms coursing through the vessels of our mortality.  A Reliable Pulse finds refuge from darkest fears in the steady but fragile patterns of life:  a beating heart, an exuberant dance.

And here is the video SCMS has posted about the piece:


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I’m off to the second edition of the Charlotte New Music Festival tomorrow, though it’s already half over.  I’ll give two lectures and teach a few scads of lessons.

CNMF is the tireless work of Elizabeth Kowalski, a Charlotte-based composer with some serious organizational skills.  She has created a monster out of seemingly nothing.  You can read the feature article (from the Charlotte Observer) about this festival and her work on it here.

For my part, I’m happy to be chipping in with my colleagues John Allemeier, Armando Bayolo, Craig Bove, Mark Engebretson and Ronald Parks.  We’ll do everything we can to make the festival proud.

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This Thursday night, Broomstick will get its second performance as part of the Charlotte New Music Festival.  Here’s what I wrote about the piece when it was premiered last month:

To illustrate the first of his six artistic principles – Lightness – Italo Calvino recalls the weight of the domestic life borne by women through the centuries. In a leap that conveys the power of the imagination, these women took the tool of their servitude – the broom – and transformed it into an extraordinary symbol of lightness and power, donning their steep-peaked hats and soaring off to the moon.

Performance details here.

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Next Wednesday, June 19th, the Atlantic Ensemble will wash up in Truro, Massachusetts with a performance of Saturn Dreams of Mercury.  Here’s what I wrote about the piece for the premiere last fall:

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.

Performance details here.

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Or Trouble Squared?

I’m in the thick of composing a double concerto for cello, bass and orchestra.  I’m having a fantastic time with it, partly because it poses some terrific challenges.

First of all, any concerto presents a balance problem – one player vs. many.  The balance problem, for me, manifests itself in two ways: volume and color.  Without much prodding, the orchestra can easily produce enough sheer volume to consume the soloist.  Add the range of color the orchestra has at its disposal, and a solo instrument can quickly seem dull by comparison.

Some instruments have a prominence, an attention-getting quality, that helps offset this balance problem.  Unfortunately, neither the cello nor the bass is one of these instruments.  Sure, there are some successful cello concertos and some interesting bass concertos, but it often boils down to a choice between sacrificing the possibilities that the orchestra brings to the table or creating a piece in which the soloist saws away to no discernible effect.

Then there is the problem of matching the cello and bass with one another, making them equal partners.  The part of the cello range that extends above where the bass can play (barring harmonics) can be very powerful, whereas the part of the bass range that lies below the cello is, however wonderful in its own right, easily overwhelmed.  It’s difficult to keep the bass from sounding like a weaker sibling, and the cello from sounding like a smartass bully.

My first concerto was a triple concerto for oboe, oboe d’amore and English horn, a fun commission I got right out of grad school.  I had great dreams for the piece.  Whatever qualities it may have had, though, it mostly served as a quick introduction between me and the concerto world.  The oboists were clearly audible most of the time, but I found that wasn’t enough.  Whenever they were covered up, one couldn’t even tell if they were playing – so much of oboe playing is invisible – and the disconnect between what I was seeing (three musicians standing up in front of the orchestra) and what I was hearing (a rich orchestral texture with no solo element) bothered me.

(Whenever a student of mine is working on a concerto, I always point out that pizzicato is a concerto’s best friend.  The entire string family, playing pizzicato, can provide a full backdrop for a soloist that never risks overpowering the main voice.  I only wish I had taken that advice a bit more frequently in the five concertos I’ve written.)

Of course, I’m well aware that nobody in the audience will (or should) care a bit about the challenges I face in writing a piece.  “That wasn’t bad for a cello-bass concerto” is not the kind of reaction I’m looking for.  The piece has to somehow transcend its limitations, make us hear only opportunities.  And yet it can’t sound like it wants to be something other than it is, which is a piece that features cello and bass accompanied by orchestra.

So this is the private battle I’m engaged in these days.   Right now I’ve completed two drafts, which means I’ve set up a very specific relationship between the two soloists and a general idea of the relationship between the soloists and the orchestra.  Next I need to get down-and-dirty with the orchestral details, answering questions of how much is enough, how much is too much.

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