Archive for November, 2006

Spiral Frog
In late August, Universal Music Group (the world’s largest music company and parent of dozens of labels such as Geffen Records, Motown and Universal Music Classics) announced its agreement to offer free legal downloads of music from its entire, vast catalogue through a new online service called Spiral Frog.

Industry consultant Celia Hirschman said in a radio interview that the major labels each negotiated with New York based Spiral Frog to get a $2 million upfront payment. It’s unclear how much, if any, of that pre-launch money will go to the artists themselves.

The company will generate revenue and pay royalties to artists and record companies through advertising. Perry Ellis, Levi’s, Aeropostale, and Benetton may be among the companies to place advertisements there.

What will be the nature of this advertising? According to Reuter’s, consumers will be subjected to a 90 second audio advertisement for every track downloaded. That’s 15 minutes of advertising for a 10-track album. (Imagine downloading Schubert’s song cycles Winterreisse or Die schöne Müllerin, where each track would be roughly 2 minutes!) Spiral Frog describes it thusly: “The company’s research revealed that consumers are more than willing to ”˜pay’ for their content by watching non-intrusive, contextually-relevant, targeted advertising in an online entertainment environment where advertising is already part of the overall experience.” Brace yourself, while corporate America tries to sell you it’s wretched things.

Rumors are rampant among bloggers regarding what happens after that, because of the unknown nature of the particular Digital Rights Management technology that will be embedded into all the tracks. They haven’t disclosed it yet. According to Spiral Frog’s press release, “Digital rights management technology is built-in to all audio and video content as part of measures the company and its partners are actively taking to address piracy.” DRM is, to put it lightly, a controversial subject. See what wikipedia says about it. In the end, though, piracy is not a technical problem, it’s a social one.

Some suggest that the track will be erased anywhere from one month to six months after the download, with various scenarios involving whether or not the consumer logs back in to the website within a certain period, and views more advertising to retain the tracks’ viability. Others suggest there will be links to third party sites of the record labels’ choosing if you’d like to buy your freedom to at least skip the ads.

Spiral Frog states that its intention is to combat piracy by offering a legal alternative to piracy, which, according to International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI) outpaces legal downloads by an estimated 40 tracks for every 1. Incompatible with the ubiquitous iPod MP3 player, the in-between-the-lines intention is to take down the 500-pound gorilla, iTunes, which has maintained its 80% share of legally downloaded music for so long it’s the envy and target for everyone from Bill Gates (Zune) to MTV (Urge). I would not be the first to suggest that iTunes’ success is due in no small part to its being DRM-free.

The SpiralFrog website is still dormant, though due to go live in the U.S. and Canada in December 2006 (just in time to shake things up for Christmas-Hanu-kwanza spendphase?) and in the U.K. in January 2007. The IFPI has predicted that 180 million MP3 players will be sold worldwide this year, many of them incompatible with Apple’s services.

If you want to see some alternative business models to iTunes that are also DRM-free, see:

Amie Street

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I’m going to interrupt my Latvian narrative to report some sad news.


Mexican composer Ramón Montes de Oca Téllez (b. Mexico City, 1953) died from a massive heart attack while driving alone between Mexico City and Guanajuato, on the morning of November 9.

Ramón was an award-winning and well-known composer in Mexico, but his work was also regularly performed abroad, in the United States (he’s an alumnus of Southern Oregon University), Europe and South America. His terminal studies were with Mario Lavista at the Conservatorio Nacional de Música. He enjoyed annual trips to give lectures at the Conservatory of the Autonomous Community of Madrid. He was an Associate Professor at the School of Music of the University of Guanajuato, and the director of the Contemporary Music Cycle of the Festival Internacional Cervantino. It was in this last capacity that I knew him.

The Cervantino Festival is a big deal in Mexico. October 2006 saw the 34th edition of the festival, and the city of Guanajuato floods with tourists. The tourists are primarily from within Mexico, which is great. The festival invites artists from all over the world, giving performances of Music, Visual Art, Dance, Opera, Theater, and every year, they place a special focus on a particular part of the world and a particular state in Mexico. In 2006 it was the U.K. and Chiapas.

The place becomes very carnival-like, with dancing and singing in the streets late into the night. But the festival is taken very seriously. The invited artists are first rate, world class, and the performances are well attended. Every performance I attended was filled to capacity or past it, including all the concerts of contemporary music, and the audiences are supportive and enthusiastic.

I went to the Festival Cervantino twice. The first time was in October 2001. The excellent pianist and fervent supporter of new music, Ana Cervantes, was giving a recital on the contemporary cycle, and had arranged an invitation for me. It was a strange time, so soon after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I remember reading about the anthrax attacks and thinking the world truly had become a strange, different, and unsafe place. Cervantino was a welcome distraction.

Nestled in the mountains of the Sierra de Guanajuato, its name originates from the word Quanax-juato, or, in the indigenous dialect of the region, “Place of Frogs”. It feels a little bit like a Mexican version of San Francisco, topographically and attitudinally. It’s a pretty, idyllic city, and is drawing more and more American ex-pats there. Not nearly as many as nearby San Miguel De Allende, where there are some 8,000 English-speaking retirees. Ana Cervantes, originally from New Jersey, is in the process of having a beautiful house built into a hillside in Guanajuato.

Back in 2001, I met several Mexican composers, and three of them stood out for me, as outstanding composers and people, and Ramón was one of them. I was excited to see him again in 2006, and happy to note that he hadn’t changed a bit in the interim. In addition to being a warm, ingratiating person and talented composer, Ramón was the quintessential smooth Latin man. He was always dressed in a blazer and jeans, always sporting shoulder length hair, usually done in a ponytail, and always with a cigarette in hand, and always in the company of a beautiful, much younger woman. Maybe that description makes him sound smarmy, or like a clichéd, aging hipster, but he wasn’t. And the great thing about him in that respect was that he never seemed to be trying to pretend he was younger, never trying to be hip. I’m sure it was simply his confidence and sense of self that drew others to him.

Ana Cervantes said: “It’s a terrible, an unspeakable loss for new music, particularly for new music in México. The Ciclo de Música Contemporánea was a model for any such cycle in the world, hard to imagine it being done better. For all of us here, for the young composers he mentored, in personal as well as professional terms, it’s awful. We’re all still reeling, at least I am; certainly we are all still grieving and missing him awfully. Everyone expects him to come walking round the corner at any minute.”

This most recent project that brought me to Mexico was Ana’s Rumor de Páramo (Murmurs from the Wasteland). Cervantes commissioned 18 composers (from Mexico, The U.S., U.K. and Spain) to write short piano pieces to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Pedro Páramo, an important proto-magical-realist novel by Mexican author Juan Rulfo. My Murmuring in Comala was written for this project. Ramón’s piece, and I believe I read it was his final work, was called Ecos de llano. Ana’s concert at Cervantino was filled past capacity so that they opened the balcony overlooking the hall. She recorded twelve of the pieces for a compact disc that was released at the premiere. The remaining pieces, Ramón’s among them, will be recorded for a future disc.

I felt lucky to be a part of the project and to twice have had the experience of going to Cervantino. It’s one of the things that makes being a composer feel truly worthwhile: to travel someplace new and make happy connections with people you otherwise would never meet. What a blessing, when you really think about it. Descanse en paz, Ramón Montes de Oca Téllez (1953-2006).

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My first two posts focused on positive aspects of being here in Liepaja. This one will represent an opposing experience.

In the summer of 2005 I was thrilled after a meeting with the second conductor of the Liepaja Symphony Orchestra, Jekabs Ozolins. I’d brought a couple of scores along, including a short, brisk, opener of a piece, which Ozolins, through a translator, agreed to premiere in December of that year, on a concert that was also to be a birthday celebration concert for him. I was astounded. Wow! Easy as that! This piece had been selected for a reading by Philip Brunelle and the Plymouth Music Series Ensemble Orchestra in Minnesota through the American Composers Forum a couple of years earlier. I made some revisions to the score based on that reading, but the piece had never otherwise been performed publicly, so I was quite excited.

I feel compelled to momentarily digress here. I wonder about the role of orchestral music in building a career. Must I have at least one successful orchestral piece to have a successful career? (I guess here comes the concomitant question: how does one define success?) Can I build my career one chamber music piece at a time? These are legitimate questions because orchestral performances are generally higher profile, generate higher commissions and royalties, etc., than most chamber music performances. To be quite honest, I get that nagging, negative voice in my head about my orchestral stuff. I wish I had as much confidence in writing orchestral music as I have in writing chamber music. I haven’t had as many opportunities to hear what I’ve written for orchestra and learn from my mistakes. I have had some string orchestra pieces performed, and my doctoral thesis piece, a 24-minute work for piano and orchestra, won a performance prize at the University of Minnesota, which lead to a second performance of one movement from it on Long Island. Aside from that, a sort of feedback loop has evolved. I focus on chamber music and choral music, which leads to chamber and choral music commissions, which leads to writing more chamber and choral music. I have developed almost no relationships with orchestral conductors, and find them often impossible to reach or requiring an inexplicable amount of ring-kissing. But I also stop here to admit that I haven’t tried to reach them with the same zeal as I began approaching chamber musicians when I got out of grad school. In part it was because I could get to good chamber musicians without going directly through the filter of their management. Anyway, in short, my working knowledge of orchestral writing is lagging behind my other work. I will expand on this later, as I revised the piece that was performed here in Liepaja, the silver lining in this particular black cloud.

Okay. So I thought I would let my uncensored (but arbitrary or unrelated stuff edited out) emails speak for themselves, a sort of countdown to the performance and wrap-up.

I am having a frustrating experience with the local orchestra. The trumpet is featured prominently in my piece and is a bit virtuosic. The performance is supposed to happen THIS SUNDAY, and the trumpet player doesn’t want to learn his part. I quickly rewrote it a bit, giving some of his stuff to the oboes, some of the oboes’ stuff to the clarinets. Which all meant about 4 hours of surprise work. Only to find out that the conductor during the rehearsal today (I didn’t go because it was the first rehearsal, but I’m going tomorrow) was babying the trumpet player (who still was unhappy… basically doesn’t want to practice… it’s partly not his fault: the conductor had the parts last week and never warned the trumpet player his part was challenging) and rearranging things on the fly (I got all this second-hand, so who knows the details…). So I told the trumpet player (through a translator) that he needs to learn his part. I’m sorry, but the part is for trumpet and it’s not my fault you didn’t get your part earlier or that you didn’t know about it. The orchestration is built around the trumpet, because it can cut through the orchestra even if there’s a lot of stuff happening around it. He reportedly agreed to try this time. We’ll see what I get tomorrow. (Do you think I should pull the piece? I’ve never done it, ever, but I’m considering it.)

The trumpet player seems to be on the way to working out his shit. Rehearsal was scary at first yesterday, but improved after an hour spent on it. I think maybe I’ll get an hour today too. I’m leaving for the rehearsal in about 30 minutes or so, I don’t know about Saturday. There were still some musicians that didn’t show up if you could believe it. One of the percussionists was missing as well as one of the clarinets. I have no idea why. But I feel a great deal of relief. I won’t have to pull the piece from the concert, and I don’t expect to be embarrassed to take my bow when it’s done. Whew. I had Kristine call the trumpet player that evening to thank him… Try to get some good will coming my way. Otherwise, the musicians were typically Latvian… I got no real vibe from them at all. Enigmatic. The piece is the one that Philip Brunelle read through a few years ago and I rewrote after. They’re going to be recording the concert, so I’ll post it on my site ASAP. Oh and I finished rewriting the Trio today.

Man o man. Where to begin… Over the last few days, the conductor has hardly acknowledged me, and the guy who has been translating has acted increasingly burdened. Some people aren’t making eye contact while others look at me sympathetically. But I’ve been getting little information and no insights into how the conductor is thinking. So, yesterday was a bust at the rehearsal. The trumpet player wasn’t there, as well as one or two of the French horns, because they are part of the Latvian Army Orchestra too, and they had a rehearsal. Still no bass clarinet or full percussion section. So, in some ways the piece seemed worse. One of the percussionists was playing louder than before. Some of the changes I’d asked for the previous day weren’t made. It was still under tempo. They ran through it twice and I made some corrections at the end (some of them repeated) and hoped that today’s rehearsal would be the one where everything came together. So today everyone was there except two of the three percussionists. And the trumpet player, since he has gigs tonight decided to hold back, play down the octave, sometimes, quietly. Most if not all of the changes still weren’t made. And they played through it once. Without turning around to where I am sitting at the rear of the hall for my reaction, the conductor begins moving on to the next piece. At this point, I start feeling more infuriated than I can take. As the musicians are rearranging their music, I shout out “This is RIDICULOUS!!!” (Realizing afterwards how very Harry Potter that sounded”¦) The conductor freezes and motions to Dzintars, who doesn’t apparently translate, but maybe because he doesn’t need to. Dzintars asks, “You… have some… wishes?” I then shout, “DAUDZ!!” (MANY). They confer for a minute and then Dzintars asks if it can wait until the end of the rehearsal. I say that I’m concerned because there’s only one rehearsal left but yes. I then go have tea with my friend Oleksij and calm myself. He comes back with me and translates instead of Dzintars. Which is a good thing because I’m sick of thanking Dzintars anyway and I’m sick of his acting so put out by it.
So, I think yelling is a good thing because Jekabs (the conductor) is acting friendly again and a little sheepish, I guess, and apologetic because the musicians aren’t exactly reliable. I apologize for my outburst. We sit down with him and I go through my list of suggestions, and he promises that the piece will get a half hour of rehearsal tomorrow, that he’ll start with all my corrections and that all the musicians will finally be there. (I think that since there is no union allowed (it was forbidden by the principal conductor), and since basically the administration and city give the musicians the bare minimum they can get away with, many of the musicians give them exactly that in return). I left the meeting feeling a helluva lot better, but we’ll see what fruit it bears. Nothing like waiting until the last minute to know what the musicians are gonna do.
I already caught wind of some of the blowback too… some of the musicians of course agree with my reaction, while others were offended on the conductor’s behalf. Not that it really matters. Sometimes I guess it really is more important to be right than to be liked, as much as I want to be liked by everyone I deal with professionally. I just like it better of course when there’s good will there. I don’t expect perfection, just professionalism and effort, I guess.
And of course, I realized that I need to keep in perspective that this is simply a concert happening in a small city in Eastern Europe. This is not the Kennedy Center or Avery Fisher or Royal Albert Hall or whatever. I just hate taking a bow for a shit performance. Whew. Thanks for reading all this venting.

Okay, so how it went. I’m really at a loss to describe the performance and the experience in general. I think I’m confused, really. So, I told you that after the yelling episode, the conductor spent 40 minutes going over the score with me, promised me to give it 30 minutes the next day at rehearsal. I left feeling good despite having ruffled some feathers. Sunday comes and I show up at 3, my slot in the rehearsal. All the players are there. They’re running late, which is no surprise, because there’s also a choir and soloists involved in the concert. Rather than 30 minutes of focused rehearsal, I get what I got yesterday, a few comments and a single run through, this time with an angry preliminary exchange with one of the percussionists. Again, he moved on right away, no word to me. He did, though, fix two or three things with the comments at the beginning. One of them wasn’t the fact that HE always slowed the tempo down from about 132 to around 120 by two thirds through the piece.
By the way, I realize I didn’t mention that one of the other issues on the table for me was that the orchestra didn’t have all the instruments I’d asked for, namely the Eb Clarinet, which takes a bunch of solos. But that’s the only one. I couldn’t tell WHICH instruments would ultimately be there for the concert, because the FINAL rehearsal was the only one with all of them there. And I remind you that the first trumpet’s initial reaction to the piece was that he couldn’t/didn’t want to do it. Remember I also rushed a quick edited rewrite to accommodate the trumpet, which everyone promptly ignored. Ozolins, the conductor, had his own rewrite ideas. He gave some of the trumpet’s solos to the oboe, which of course, isn’t going to cut through what the trumpet can cut through. And he also, inexplicably, gave one of the clarinet’s solos to the oboe. Ultimately, in retrospect, if he’d forced the trumpet player to do his f***ing job, there would’ve been a hell of a lot fewer balance issues. (The trumpet player in Brunelle’s orchestra could play it better than this guy after 45 minutes of sight-reading.) And also remember I’d said that it seemed like the trumpet player in the second rehearsal was going to pull it together. But he wasn’t there for the third rehearsal, claimed to be holding back because he had a gig that night of the fourth rehearsal, and here we were at the final one. It seems in the end that Ozolins told the trumpet player to take whichever ones he wanted to take, because he’d doubled them in the oboe or clarinet or whatever. He didn’t take many.
Okay. So, I leave the rehearsal and resign myself to whatever is going to happen during the performance. The concert starts at 5. The concert, by the way, if I didn’t say it before, is in celebration of the conductor’s 60th birthday. The first hour is all choral pieces. By the way, there is NO printed program, so I can’t even get credit with ASCAP. Anyway, my piece is third or fourth after a short break. The first third of the piece (A): not bad despite the wussy trumpet… second third (B, a big swing band-style section): also not bad if a little sloppy and beginning to get a little cacophonous… final third (A’) slower and sloppier and the trumpet player’s being even a bigger whimp but Ozolins makes a big gesture of the finish. I take my bow and receive a big flower. The performance was better than any rehearsal had been. I feel okay. Not great, but okay. And I decide also that there are still a handful of things I would like to change in the piece regardless of the performance.
Now. The concert goes on. And on. And on. I’ve mentioned that Latvians are a pretty shy culture. Unless they’ve got a captive audience and a microphone. This guy Ozolins has directed many of the city’s ensembles over the course of the years, and, since the funding I guess comes from municipal sources, there were literally a couple dozen people who took the mic, made some speech, gave flowers, blah blah blah. For how long? Four and a half hours in total. By eight o’clock I don’t care a damn about my performance and I want to chew my own leg off. By nine I fantasize about tackling various speakers. Between speakers there are cheezy Latvian pop/folk song arrangements for choir and orchestra. Daudz.
One of the other pieces on the program was Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, and I realize just how different the American pieces are from everything else on the program. My piece, which I think of as conservative and accessible, seemed almost radically dissonant.
I begin doubting the piece itself, thinking whether I should just throw it out, rewrite it or what. I do think, honestly, that the piece suffers a bit from the same things I was talking about recently. It’s overly dense. Too bad that Argento wasn’t a better or more engaged teacher. I need to let it sit before I decide my next move.

WRAP-UP and back to the present:
I realize that some of this last email makes me look a little bit like a baby, but it does also speak a little to Latvian culture, so I left it in. Some of this was also part of a continuing conversation I was having with a fellow U of Minnesota graduate, and I mentioned Dominick Argento because he is such a brilliant and light orchestrator. (But by the time I was studying with him, his foot was half out the door on his way to retirement, and he didn’t really invest himself in his students the way that some of my other professors did.)

So, in the end, several months later, I sat down with the piece again and gave it a good butchering. I mean, a real overhaul. It was so different by the end of the process, I changed the title of it, something I’ve never done before. But I guess I wanted to somehow reflect its new essence, and to shed what felt like baggage.

Also, there were several musicians in the orchestra that liked my piece, which led to two new pieces being commissioned and other pieces getting performances. These commissions and performances involved musicians that were so enthusiastic that the idea of forming my own ensemble emerged.

In my next posts, I’ll describe those intermediate projects.

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