Archive for the “Composers” Category

Being myself a composer who’s worked a LOT with dancers, I can say that there’s not much more synergistic a musical experience. While the communication can sometimes be strange and strained, with mutual openess and patience all of that gives way to a work where both arts can penetrate and change the other in remarkable and surprising ways.

Composer Chris Becker (whose wonderful CD Saints and Devils got a lot of play on my stereo last year) is right now collaborating with choreographer Sasha Soreff on a piece for an upcoming performance in late June. As he works through it, Chris is going to try to blog a bit about the whole process. It promises to be an informative read, so check in there regularly.

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With most musicians the obsession of Brian Eno tends toward the analogy of driving on the highway: anyone driving faster than me is insane, and anyone going slower than me is an idiot.  I’ve done more than my share of eye-rolling as it seems nearly any musician will pledge some allegiance to ‘Brain One’ no matter how tenuous the connection, yet it is undeniable how pervasive an effect Eno has had on the world.  From his early work with Roxy Music, then moving on into a solo career where he largely created the ambient movement (along with significant contributions to progressive rock and world music) we could stop there and have a significant figure to consider. Then of course we would be leaving out, world-renowned producer, visual artist, writer, and visionary thinker who helps found organizations like The Long Now Foundation. Author David Sheppard acknowledges that on the highway of Brian Eno, he drives in the unrestricted lane of the autobahn. I drive pretty fast myself, so I was quite excited to encounter this book.

The biography of a renaissance man (truly an apt description here) must be one of the harder tasks in telling the story of a life.  There are so many avenues to walk down it would be easy to lose focus. Sheppard starts off, “You couldn’t make him up.  Or at least if you did no one would quite believe you.”  The density of Eno’s multi-varied accomplishments is something that Sheppard is acutely aware of and are enumerated with humor and appropriate awe in his opening chapter.  Indeed there are so many facets to Eno that Sheppard could only hope to build a frame around him and “try to fit a skyscraper into a suitcase.”  Nonetheless with this book we are treated to a wonderful framing of an inconceivably accomplished life.

Of course this biography is destined to be incomplete as Brian Eno is alive and well (61 today), but we are left with a detailed tent pole chronology that gives us an excellent portrait of the man up to very recent history (Spring 2008).  While the opening chapters provide a warmly detailed account of Sheppard’s interest in Eno as well as the years of his upbringing, the bulk of the book deals (understandably) with his professional life.  There is a dizzying plethora of material on Eno as so many love to explore every inch of his output.  Certainly this is in no small part due to Eno’s enthusiasms for being interviewed and giving talks, but Sheppard has been exceptionally detailed in finding choice interviews and quotes from Eno’s many collaborators.  Beyond that, he had the handy cooperation of Eno himself and his wife Anthea to provide new and revealing detail.  While Sheppard is clearly a fan’s fan, he manages to temper the honorifics and hyperbole with a critical eye to give us much better than what could have been a gushing tome.

While Eno’s published diary gives us a personal insight and Eric Tamm’s book gave us a detailed musicology, Sheppard’s biography fills a much needed space in providing a fabulous and engrossing bridge between the two.  He gracefully merges groundbreaking collaborations, ideas, and music with an intimate portrait that is equally fascinating.

On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno” by David Sheppard, 2008, hardcover: 480 pages, $18.45 on Amazon, ISBN 978-1-55652-942-9.

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The photos to the right show where I make all of my music; the top is from the early 1990s, the bottom from 2007. The equipment has changed drastically but one thing remains a constant, in every workspace I’ve had going back to the mid-’70s… See the single sheet of paper tacked on the wall with an image of a piano keyboard, a long row of notes from low to high, and lots of lines above that? It’s a photocopy of a chart from a book I once owned, on the ranges of all the orchestral instruments. It also includes the frequency in hertz, as well as the naming convention of each note. Michael Urich in La Porte, TX has even been kind enough to offer an exact copy of it online.

Recently I spotted another by Charles Houghton-Webb over at BWMusic, that I think will become the new candidate for my wall; in addition to all the original has, this one extends the range, color-codes some stuff, and adds the standard MIDI note numbers for each pitch. It’s also a PDF file, so the print quality’s a bit better (the PDF is password-protected, but Charles offers the password right there on the page). Plenty of this information has long been internalized, but it’s still something I glance at almost automatically a few times during the composition of any piece.

So how about it? Do any of you have some little, almost-totemic item that stays at your own workspaces, no matter when or where?

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washington composers forum websiteEven though I’m down in Houston now, I still get my regular monthly email update from the Washington Composers Forum.

Christopher Shanin has put quite a bit of effort into both the site, and keeping it full of current and interesting news. And just as important, he truly works to create regular and real-life opportunities for local composers to share their music and ideas, with both themselves and the public.

Of course there’s the more general American Composers Forum, which is an umbrella linking forums in places like Atlanta, Philadelphia, D.C., etc.; and the even more broad American Music Center and the Society of Composers Incorporated. But I’d like to hear from you, about whatever similar, specifically local organizations are at work in your own piece of turf ( I know, I know, I could look them all up on Google; but I’ve got a life, too, and don’t see why we can’t pick all your brains a bit).

Who’s doing what in your town? Are they active, sporadic, or comatose? Promote calls for scores and concerts, just hang out for an occasional chat, or exist pretty much in name only?  Tell me all in the comments — and link ‘em if you got ‘em…

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Having just viewed from only slightly afar (my television) the Latin Grammys held this year here in Houston, I thought I’d conterbalance the crushing Juanes domination by mentioning that there was also a Grammy for Best Classical Contemporary Composition buried down in there somewhere. For both sentimental and musical reasons I was rooting for Jorge Liderman‘s Barcelonazo, but the awards held true to form and picked a tremendously “pleasant” piece by the Costa Rican composer Carlos José Castro. I’ve managed to dig up links to a snatch (or more) of all the nominated pieces, though how long the links keep working is anyone’s guess:

Barcelonazo – Jorge Liderman, composer (Jorge Liderman) / Track from: Barcelonazo

Concierto Del Sol (Winner)– Carlos José Castro, composer (Orquesta Filarmónica De Costa Rica) / Track from: Orquesta Filarmónica De Costa Rica

Non Divisi – Roberto Valera, composer (Camerata Romeu) / Track from: Non Divisi

Tahhiyya Li Ossoulina – Sérgio Assad, composer (Sérgio y Odair Assad) / Track from: Jardim Abandonado

Variación Del Recuerdo – Aurelio De La Vega, composer (The North/South Chamber Orchestra) / Track from: Remembrances-Recuerdos

So you all can be the judge…

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I just finished reading Molly Sheridan’s interview with David Morneau, who spent the past year writing a 60-second piece every day, over at New Music Box. With Morneau’s project, 60×60 (which Morneau sites as his inspiration), and the Microscore Project, music of extremely short duration seems to be all the rage these days. Are we seeing the rise of the miniature as a new net-fueled genre? Any veterans of composing mini-music or attending the relevant concerts care to contribute lessons learned?

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Geoff Edgers over at’s Exhibitionist blog, posted a few thoughts today on composers’ attitudes to their early works. Some keep ‘em, some never want them to see the light of day, and some wish that, even if they might have become popular, they’d just go away.

I know I’m a pack-rat. I still have every cassette tape recording I ever made in my bedroom, starting at about age 15; and in a box in my garage is the musty, yellowed remnants of my first-ever score (titled Mountains, it opens with long string runs up and down a C diatonic scale… pretty darn original, huh?). I’m fifty-freaking-two now, and so much of this early stuff is embarassing, hilarious, even painful — so why do I still keep it all around? I suppose simply because it’s a record of me; most everything I became musically is hiding out in this or that phrase or moment.

How about you? Are you a hoarder, historian, or spin-meister? Do you want your musical story with warts and all, or all neat and tidy?

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A few nicely surprising identifications, but if the combined brainpower of the S21 crowd only recognized two-thirds of the 36 faces, seems — what with the long, cold and snowy holidays coming up — a little catching up on any of these diverse and worthwhile composers would be time well-spent:

1. Maryanne Amacher  2. Gerald Barry  3. Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

4. David Behrman  5. Earle Brown  6. Allison Cameron

7. Maria de Alvear  8. Francis Dhomont  9. Allain Gaussin

10. Francisco Guerrero-Marin  11. Kamran Ince  12. Iván Naranjo

13. Alphonse Izzo  14. Monique Jean  15. Camille Kerger

16. Christina Kubisch  17. Paul Lansky  18. Mario Lavista

19. Daniel Lentz  20. Stanley Lunetta  21. Marc Mellits

22. Gilberto Mendes  23. John Howell Morrison  24. Gráinne Mulvey

25. Sarah Peebles  26. Christopher Penrose  27. Eliane Radigue

28. John Rea  29. Marga Richter  30. Linda Catlin Smith

31. Yasunao Tone  32. Lois V. Vierk  33. María Cecilia Villanueva

34. Claude Vivier  35. James Wood  36. Isang Yun

Why these, here and now? Just as with the monoliths, as soon as you dig them up and fly to Jupiter, they’re not nearly as exciting… I happen to have a folder with all kinds of composer portraits, that I attach to the I.D. tags of MP3s in my collection. I like to put a face on the person behind the piece, to take a little time to not just know the music but the living, breathing person as well. These were just a few, chosen almost at random, of the folks I listen to with some regularity, and don’t see why you shouldn’t too.

As to the fabulous 4-CD prize, technically Kyle Gann got the most, but that’s almost too easy for our resident vetran of the trenches. David Toub wins in the creatively weird category, hands down!… But the real award should end up with John “Sparky” Prokop, for getting almost as many as Mr. Gann, and showing a certain depth and breadth in who he was able to pick out. So Sparky, head to my website and find the email address at the bottom of most any page, send me a little note & I’ll be sending YOU a Cage-feast for your holiday repast.

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Like the Monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey, this link simply appears, unbidden… What does it mean? What purpose can there be?… WHO will discover the answer?… (and win my own copy of the Asphodel 4-CD John Cage Atlas Eclipticalis & Winter Music delivered to their door?…) All I know is the magic number seems to be 32…

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A few days ago in the Guardian, our latest young-wunderkind export Nico Muhly (sorry Nico, I wasn’t being mean, really!) jotted down a few thoughts on the current state of ‘crossover’ between classical and pop (serious crossover, that is; Yannis and Bocellis need not apply). It’s a good read, with a number of relevant observations. One in particular struck me, and I quote:

Everybody knows Prince’s song Kiss. I once heard him perform it with just an acoustic guitar sitting on an office chair in the middle of Madison Square Garden in New York City; the core nugget of the song remained the same, while the arrangement changed entirely. This is the wonderful flexibility built into popular music; in classical, you can’t randomly decide to change up your set at the last minute and do Die Schöne Müllerin with Thomas Quasthoff accompanying himself on the autoharp.

Traditionally, I think it would be safe to say that the best kind of old-fashioned pop song is one that can bear the weight of infinite variations; you can imagine songs such as Like a Virgin or Kiss or Jolene working themselves out in a variety of situations. This is built into the genre inasmuch as the recording is one type of documentation of the art and the live performance another. I would then argue that the inverse is true of 20th- and 21st-century classical music (let’s leave the older ones out of it for the time being): you like to think that something like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring banks on its specific details (that pair of tuned antique cymbals in the Augurs of Spring), just as something like Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians works because of the perfect combination of this many marimbas and that many pianos.

The intersection between the two genres is coming from artists who want to have it both ways, but who don’t talk about it.


In the 19th and early-20th century, it was pretty standard procedure for composers to learn about cutting-edge works at the piano, regardless of the actual instruments the score called for. I happen to love hearing the two-piano rehearsal version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (the dissonances take on a extra weight that’s missing in the orchestration), and have even enjoyed a couple nice rock-band performances (Fireworks comes to mind). But since the 1960s there’s a whole raft of stuff that calls for ‘this sound, and this sound only’. Original scores tended to become almost sacrosanct objects. There is another crowd, though, that all along has purposely kept their scores more open to timbral variation.

So, just wondering which side of the fence you all have been coming down on lately; if you stick pretty close to one side or the other, or do a little climbing over now and then?

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