After the concert in LiepÄja, we were all fired up to perform in CÄ“sis. Latvijas Koncerti arranged for a small bus to chauffeur us there, and the trip took a bit over five and a half hours, CÄ“sis being over an hour on the other side of RÄ«ga. I’m becoming accustomed to these Baltic summers, where the sun just hangs there, beating down for hours and hours. But it accumulates on bus rides, like we’re bugs under a magnifying glass, and it seems to be a distinctly un-Latvian thing to roll the windows all the way down and let the wind whip on through. So, the trip felt long.
Now, there had been some weirdness about the scheduling of this concert. Our contact in CÄ“sis insisted on changing the date from the originally scheduled one, claiming she thought she couldn’t get an audience for reasons that weren’t entirely clear, but seemed to have something to do with people having too much to do on the weekends now that summer was coming. We agreed to move the date to this one, which coincided with the city’s anniversary, and indeed there were easily over a thousand people milling around, browsing the offering of local vendors, watching some formal dancers, listening to drummers, a flamenco(ish) guitarist (amplified) and a performance that may or may not have been sanctioned but looked like a cross between some circusy acrobatics and a bunch of hippies playing hackey-sack.
The Gallery space where we were to perform was just next to all this. The space was lovely, actually. Here’s a photo of the piano trio warming up before the performance.
But, as you can imagine, the noise coming from outside was constant and distracting. And there was a video in the room on a constant loop, that we didn’t think to ask to have turned off, of a man’s face emerging from a tub of milk or something that included him smiling creepily then gasping a little bit once every five minutes or so. But that part wasn’t the bad part. The bad part was that, as far as we could tell, the only promotion for the concert, in the end, was a single poster placed outside the building. (We later learned, for example, that the nearby music school never learned of the performance.) And this meant that the audience was very small, and very quiet.
Generally speaking, Latvians have described themselves to me as shy and reserved (I remember many years ago seeing a segment on 60 Minutes or CBS Sunday Morning (Man! I miss CBS Sunday Morning!) about how painfully shy Finnish people are, and how many of them remain single because they’re too afraid of the rejection, for example. Anyway, the lack of energy in the room was truly disconcerting.
There was a growing sort of inside joke in the ensemble. A few posts ago, I talked about trying to lighten the mood of the ensemble, ease the nervous tension, be a cheerleader. One of the things that spontaneously happened during the final rehearsal before the performance in Durbe, was that during the final piece where we all play together, this sort of fiddle-tune Irish folk medley where I play the bodhrÃ¡n, in order to get them energized, I cried out a couple of loud, wild hillbilly hoots. Now, they only smiled in reaction, but secretly, they loved it. When we performed in LiepÄja, a couple of them gave me the big eye, waiting for me to give a big shout during the finale. Now it was time for me to be shy, and I whimped out, and they gave me hell for it. So here we were in CÄ“sis, and I gave a big howl, stomped my feet a couple of times, and I saw one person in the audience give a big smile. That was the only noticeable change in the room. That was a hard concert.
At the same time, there was a silver lining after all. We were invited to give the concert in RÄ«ga, on June 18th, at the Jaunais RÄ«gas TeÄtris. CÄ“sis, by the way, is the home of one of the national beers, and it’s not a bad beer. Before getting back on the bus, we loaded up on pizza (not as good as the beer, and I miss NY pizza even more than I miss CBS Sunday Morning) and good, cold, dark beer, which is no small consolation either.
Next up is a second, slightly truncated version of the concert back here in LiepÄja that we will give on June 17th. Here’s what one of the flyers looks like.
I just uploaded to YouTube a second video from the LiepÄja concert, this time of the string quartet playing Set fire to have light. Click on the link for a PDF of the score if you’d like to follow along. The title is taken from a poem by Rumi, and the piece employs Arabic rhythmic (iqa’at) and scalar (maqamat) modes. I wasn’t trying to write an overtly Arabic piece, but rather to see what I could derive from an exploration of these specific materials. The quartet members are: Baiba Lasmane, Ginta AlÅ¾Äne, Tatjana Borovika and Dina PuÄ·ite.
Here is the poster that was displayed in LiepÄja and CÄ“sis advertising our concerts.
This past week, between Sunday and Saturday, we gave three performances, one each in Durbe, LiepÄja and CÄ“sis. As one might expect, the week brought both problems and successes.
The performance in Durbe was sort of a trial run, a very necessary one, as it shone a spotlight on things I hadn’t thought enough about. It wasn’t a bad concert, but it was nervous, rushed, and bumpy in many senses. I had to emcee, stage-manage, turn pages for one piece and perform too. Speaking in Latvian is not my strong suit, and I wrongly figured I would stage-manage and introduce each piece simultaneously. This meant once or twice giving my back to the audience as I spoke and moved chairs and music stands at the same time. Nothing that seemed deliberately rude, but just trying to hurry, hurry, hurry, as if apologizing for taking people’s time, something that I afterwards remedied.
In fact, the whole week was illuminating on several fronts: about my own writing, the musicians’ experience of my music and their own attitudes about performing (with sub-differences related to gender and/or culture), the details of which I may go into at a later time.
But suffice it to say that over-preparation, under-preparation, nervous energy or self-esteem issues almost invariably led to faster tempos taken in the first concert. (And the concomitant problems of faster tempi, namely that the musical ideas don’t really get a chance to breathe or be properly heard).
So, I wasn’t the only one trying to hurry, hurry, hurry, as if apologizing for taking people’s time. In fact it was only the clarinetist, Uldis, who seemed completely immune to any problem. In between the first and second concert, I wound up talking to the string quartet musicians about body language and tempo and expressivity and such, and generally playing the good cop, as their problem was that they were essentially over-prepared (and also, I think, a little intimidated by Uldis’ confidence and reputation when they played the quintet with him). Alternately, with the pianists, I wound up sort of playing the bad cop, as one of them was less prepared and they so rarely agreed with each other about interpretation and tone.
The concert in LiepÄja was GREAT. I was calm, and so were the musicians. The hall was nearly full, we all played well, and the audience was enthusiastic enough to demand an encore. There was good energy all around. As a bonus, one representative from each of the two funding bodies that supported these concerts attended, and both were happy. One of the winners at that performance was Dina PuÄ·ite, the cellist. She is a lovely, mild-mannered woman. And my duet for cello and clarinet requires a certain rock-inflected attitude, which I had to several times coax from her though it was clearly there. Many of her colleagues in the LiepÄja Symphony were in the audience, and went nuts for her performance. You can see it here:
To be continued…
A few things to report as I surface to breathe. First, as an update to my entry of a few months back, I was accepted into the European American Musical Alliance summer program in Paris. I will go there for the month of July to study conducting with Mark Shapiro (from Mannes in New York). Should be great fun, and from what I understand, a fairly intensive experience. And an expensive one too, as I discovered after sifting through the available apartments for the month of July via craigslist.
Second, on a whim, I threw my hat in the ring to be considered for a commission from the Manhattan Choral Ensemble, directed by Tom Cunningham. They run a small commissioning program that echoes the Dale Warland Singers’ model. They commission three or four composers to write short works, give them a performance, and then select one of those composers to receive a larger commission for the next season. To my happy surprise, I was chosen, along with composers Patrick Castillo, Karen Siegel, and Davide Zannoni. Six degrees of separation / Small world spoiler alert: I’ve known Davide for years. The only hitch was I had less than a month to write the thing.
No matter. I had it in the back of my mind to set some of Carl Sandburg’s poetry. A former composition student back in New York kept bringing in these amazing Sandburg poems, and I resolved to get around to setting Sandburg at some point, and this seemed a good a time as any. I dug through a batch, and settled on the anti-war poem Jaws:
SEVEN nations stood with their hands on the jaws of death.
It was the first week in August, Nineteen Hundred Fourteen.
I was listening, you were listening, the whole world was listening,
And all of us heard a Voice murmuring:
“I am the way and the light,
He that believeth in me
Shall not perish
But shall have everlasting life.”
Seven nations listening heard the Voice and answered:
The jaws of death began clicking and they go on clicking.
For obvious reasons, one usually just uses the title of the poem as the title of the piece, but in this case, for equally obvious reasons, I’m not calling it Jaws, but rather The Whole World was Listening. I set it for soprano solo, tenor solo, off-stage quartet and divisi choir, and for the first time, included some aleatoric elements as well as specific movements the choir must make. They will perform it on June 8 in New York. The concert is not announced on their web site yet, but I trust it will be soon enough.
In the meantime, I interrupted a piece I was working on for Putni, a setting of a Federico Garcia Lorca poem, called El Paso de la Seguiriya:
Entre mariposas negras,”¨
va una muchacha morena ”¨junto
a una blanca serpiente”¨ de niebla.
Tierra de luz,”¨
cielo de tierra.
Va encadenada al temblor
”¨de un ritmo que nunca llega;
”¨tiene el corazÃ³n de plata
”¨y un puÃ±al en la diestra.
Â¿A dÃ³nde vas, siguiriya”¨
con un ritmo sin cabeza?
”¨Â¿Qué luna recogerÃ¡”¨
tu dolor de cal y adelfa?
Tierra de luz,”¨
cielo de tierra.
I was attracted to the possibilities inherent in the lines, Tierra de luz, cielo de tierra (Earth of light, Sky of Earth). Spring-boarding off the Flamenco workshop I gave them in February, I’m trying to engage with (yet not limit myself to) Flamenco rhythms and harmonies, and this piece also includes palmas and contrapalmas parts for the singers to clap. I hope to finish it soon.
Also in the meantime, preparations for my All Griffin concert are proceeding as we make our mad dash for the finish line. We’ve got about 75 minutes of my music in rehearsals, which have been going essentially smoothly. I gave an interview for the city’s main daily, Kurzemes Vards, yesterday, and the posters are coming tomorrow. We will give four or five performances over the next six weeks in LiepÄja (2), Durbe, Cesis, and possibly RÄ«ga. I did arrange for a recording engineer, and will enlist the daughter of one of the pianists to video record it. So, I’ll post some stuff on YouTube and/or make a podcast of it for anyone who wants to hear it.
After I’d been here in LiepÄja for about a year, this sort of strange but organic thing happened, that would never have happened (for me anyway) in New York. Quite a few pieces of mine have been performed here since I moved here, many of which I have blogged about:
• the orchestra piece performed by the LiepÄja Symphony (now called Pick it up and run with it);
• the piece that Putni took on tour (The Moon of the Floating World);
• a piano duo (Do Not Go Gentle);
• a duet for alto saxophone and viola (for the straight way was lost);
• a clarinet quartet (Panta Rei);
• a choral piece (Aija Å½uÅ¾u).
• a piano trio (three musicians from the LSO (Cambiando Paisajes));
• and the two pieces I wrote for my friend Olexij: the quartet for trumpet, clarinet, saxophone and bassoon, (Not Waving but Drowning) and the piece for the chamber orchestra at the site of the destroyed bridge (Elegy).
On top of those pieces, I’d also given a few scores away over the course of the year. The cool and organic thing that began to happen is that several musicians took it upon themselves to organize small chamber groups to start working on my music. Dina PuÄ·ite and Ginta Alzane, the cellist and violinist who’d played my trio, without my even knowing it at first (happy surprise!), roped in two more colleagues from the LSO and began working on a fairly challenging string quartet of mine, one that uses Arabis scalar and rhythmic modes (Set fire to have light). And a local pianist, Ludmila Irina started working on a duet of mine with her clarinetist husband (Jazz Suite).
It suddenly started to seem like enough local musicians were all concurrently working on enough of my music to perhaps justify a concert, and they all were not only ammenable to the idea but excited by the prospect. I was encouraged to begin thinking about a program. And in a relatively short time it came together. Perhaps an odd combination but a relatively portable one, and one for which I already had or could rearrange a few pieces: clarinet, string quartet, piano four hands and percussion.
The Griffin Ensemble was born. And I say that with uncessary but very real sheepishness. Two of the best known composers of our time started their own ensembles when they were beginning. But there’s a part of me that feels immodest in doing so. Whatever. I’ll get over it.
The next step was to figure out how I could get the musicians, though they all across the board offered to play a concert for nothing. In the end we applied for a grant, in a process that resembles nothing exactly that I’ve experienced or heard of in America. But all the same, we got funding for one performance (hooray!) and are awaiting word for another two. The performance(s) will take place here in May.
I haven’t finished getting the music ready yet, and I am going to compose something new as a finale to the concert, something fun for the entire ensemble to play, either an arrangement of some Irish trad music or something original but inspired by it, so I can give my new bodhrÃ¡n a spin (so to speak) in public.
Wow, it’s been a month since my last post. But I’ve got good reasons, being on the road for most of the time since Christmas. I welcomed in the New Year in Switzerland. We were there for an expensive week of bears, fondue, mountains, markets, churches and art. We went to Lucerne, Bern, Interlaken and Zurich. Beautiful country. Efficient rail system. Friendly people. Did I mention expensive? So expensive, getting the check is like a twice-daily ice-water bath. Brr.
After a two day stop in Riga, I headed for New York for two weeks, where I enjoyed a performance of a song cycle of mine for high voice, clarinet and piano called The Far Field, attended the Chamber Music America Conference in Manhattan, went to a good friend’s wedding, and also managed to squeeze in some business and shopping errands between visits to friends and family.
The Far Field performance was special for me, as it’s one of those pieces of mine that I have always felt especially close to, yet it isn’t performed much. Sort of like that awkward kid with a heart of gold that sits off to the left somewhere in third grade and you know can grow up to be somebody if people just give her a chance. It’s a big piece, about 22 minutes long, a setting of a difficult poem by Theodore Roethke that basically looks death in the face and comes to accept it as a beautiful and necessary thing. You can read the poem here. Soprano Melissa Fogarty, did a really great job with it. The whole occasion was doubly special because Melissa and I were also friends in high school together. We had a mini high school reunion of five after the performance at a local lounge together with the other musicians, Chris Cullen and Laura Barger.
Anyway, one of the errands I ran while in New York will allow me to segue back to my narrative about Latvia. Actually, I’m just going to do the reverse: jump back to Latvia and then tie it back to New York.
One of the friends I’ve made in Liepaja is Oleksiy Demchenko, the third trumpet player in the Liepaja Symphony. Helping our friendship along is the fact that he studied in Holland and thus speaks English fluently. And since he is originally from Kiev, we also share something of the outsider status.
If Oleksiy were born in America in the last 20 years, he’d be medicated for Attention Deficit Disorder. He has a million ideas and lots of energy but little mind for details or organization or follow-through. He manages occasionally to get things done in spite of himself in a place like Liepaja because 1.) Latvians don’t typically take initiative but hey, want to be entertained as much as the next guy, and 2.) They are too shy to tell him to go to hell when they find themselves suddenly doing so much of the work.
Back in July, Oleksiy managed to get a little money for him and three other musicians to form a quartet called ÄŒetri VÄ“ji (Four Winds, in this case trumpet, clarinet, saxophone and bassoon), and to pay me a little something to write them a new piece. It was for a festival of music and art with a theme of water, so I wrote an 8 minute piece inspired by the Stevie Smith poem Not Waving But Drowning. I wasn’t there for the performance, but the musicians raved about the piece.
A week or so later, I got a call from Oleksiy. A freighter ship had destroyed the 100 year-old swing bridge that connects Karosta with the rest of the City of Liepaja. Karosta (Navy harbour) is a northern neighborhood occupying one third of Liepaja city, and by way of analogy sort of plays the same role to Liepaja that Brooklyn plays to New York. And for the residents of Karosta, it was as if the Brooklyn Bridge had just been destroyed. Well, maybe not. The Karosta Channel Bridge was not beautiful and was in awful disrepair, but its destruction cut off one of only two connections to the rest of the city, now forcing every commuter to a newer, longer route. It was big news, and many people were affected by it.
Karosta was the western-most military base of the USSR during the Soviet occupation. Many streets and houses of Karosta are now empty, as the population dropped from roughly 25 -30,000 in 1994, to approximately 7,000 living there today. Its architecture reflects an interaction between tsarist Russian elegance, epitomized by a gorgeous orthodox cathedral visible at a fair distance, and soviet militarism, epitomized by the graceless rows of abandoned concrete housing blocks.
It is a Russian tradition that a memorial service is performed 40 days after a death. And Oleksiy had the idea that he wanted to organize a sort of public art multimedia Requiem for this bridge. Which meant my composing the music, and I’m still not sure why I agreed to it, but I did. I guess it appealed to my occasional campy side. I’m going to tell my campy side to shut up next time. A videographer gathered footage, while I wrote a 13-minute piece for 11 musicians from the Liepaja Symphony to go with it.
Did I mention the A.D.D.? I had a little more than 2 weeks to do it, as not all the musicians were secured right away. I compensated by cannibalizing Monteverdi, as the brass were to be placed originally on the other side of the bridge, and I wanted to get something equivalent to his polychoral stuff while cutting down on the actual amount of music I needed to write. The deadline loomed large and fast, and I suggested putting off the performance, but Oleksiy was determined to pull it off. I told him that he needed to buckle down and get all his organizational ducks in a row, especially given all that work I was doing out of friendship. And he did.
All except get a conductor, which at the last minute fell to me. That shouldn’t be a problem, but it is. Conducting frightens me. I’ve done it a few times anyway, conducting a handful of choral premieres in New York from time to time. But I’ve never felt comfortable with it, partly from lack of experience, but also because the two times I ever studied conducting were lackluster experiences at best.
When I was an undergraduate at Queens College in the late eighties, the professor who taught conducting that semester was, frankly, half blind. Maybe more than half. Seriously. I’m not trying to be disrespectful. He simply had an ailment that was getting past him and he should have retired by then but hadn’t yet. He had enlarged copies of the music and couldn’t see three feet away, best I could tell. Glass lenses as thick as a sponge. I was probably nineteen or twenty years old and didn’t care that I wasn’t learning much. I happily skated through with a completely undeserved A-. I have no idea how he determined my grade.
Fast forward to graduate school in Minnesota. My roommate was also a composer in the program, and he got the idea that we should put together an independent study witht the orchestra conductor called “Conducting for Composers”. Knowing that it was time to take my medicine, I signed up too. There were at least seven of us. Now this guy wasn’t blind. But he did become invisible. Meaning, we all met twice, as far as I can remember. The first session he talked about how he had to practice conducting underwater as a student, how that helped with gesture. Cool. The second session he showed us a picture of himself with Aaron Copland. Cool. Then I think he went out of town and I can’t for the life of me remember another session.
Fast forward again back to Liepaja. Maybe now you understand my trepidation, standing in front of this group of professional musicians. I’m not claiming total stupidity. I’ve been watching conductors for years and can tell a good one when I see one, and have picked up a few things by observing them. I stole my mother’s car when I was 15 and drove it perfectly, never having taken a lesson, never having been behind the wheel. I learned what I needed to know just by watching her drive. I made it through the rehearsals (two) and performance without (I think) coming off as a complete hack, and for one small minute, I’d felt like I’d understood something I hadn’t understood before. There was one passage, where I got a rush, that sense of driving the orchestra, of playing it rather than following it, and I realized something viscerally in that instant why conductors are attracted to the profession.
About 100 or more local residents and a television crew showed up by car, on foot or bicycle for the outdoor, nighttime screening and performance.
There are many reasons why I came to Liepaja, and one of them was to have a place where I could do a personal and creative reassessment of myself, as a person, a composer and as a musician. A few months ago I surfed to the website of the European American Musical Alliance, which offers amongst its programs a month-long summer conducting workshop in Paris. One of the errands I ran while in New York a few weeks ago was to put in my application for this program. Wish me luck.