Author Archive

Randy Nordschow wrote the following at NMBx in late June :

“The work I’ve created up to this point spurs from a rather skeptical aesthetic standpoint, fostered by a barrage of things I just don’t buy into, such as: Music has the ability to communicate something “meant” by its creator; music is inherently emotional; yada, yada, yada—you know, stuff like that.

For me, music is a byproduct of artistic ideas haphazardly materialized in the form of vibrating air. It’s the artistic impetus behind the will to set those vibrations into motion, and not necessarily the sonic results of whatever is written on the page (or not), that matters more to me. There’s a certain amount of artistic cynicism that I harbor in order to tap into the concepts and materials that I use and the ways in which I use them when throwing together a new composition. Yes, it’s all so self-aware and postmodern, which I actually enjoy.

[Recently, though,] I was half-swayed to drop my attitude, so to speak, when it comes to my approach to composition. Where to go from here? Well, I was thinking of trying to write a piece without an ounce of irony. This, I’m sure, will be easier typed than done.”

Amen to his last sentence – it’s damn hard to make each note count.

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June 15, 2008
 
Back last night from the gigantic four-day  gathering in Denver of more than 3,000 folks  involved in today’s worlds   of music, theatre and dance.  
       The scope was  huge and the slant was definitely towards  identifying and speaking to the needs  of organizations, rather than those of  the individual artist.    That said, there was still  a fair amount of useful – essential – information  presented for the composer.
In a following post  I’ll get to my thoughts on the general  tenor and slant of NPAC.  Here I concentrate on summarizing some  the  preliminary findings of the national survey of composers just completed (a project jointly supported by  American Music Center, American Composers Forum and Meet The Composer, with essential input from ASCAP and BMI):
-         1,331 composers took the survey. 
         Participation was voluntary, via  the internet.  Anyone who believes s/he is a composer was eligible to answer – no distinction between ‘composer-in-embryo’ and ‘professional’. 
-         We’re mostly concentrated in urban areas.  (No surprise.)      But every state sent in at least one response. 
-         We’re a highly educated bunch.  85% of us have a college degree, and many continue beyond the baccalaureate. 
-         We’re close to 80%  white male.  Women comprise about 20% of respondents.
-         Income:  While c.  6% of respondents report annual income in six figures, the average  annual income  – from all sources -  is  $46,000.   Income specifically from composing activities  averagrd $7,000.
              (Composing activities include commissions,  grants and prizes,  royalties, honoraria  for leading masterclasses and concert Q&A, etc.)
 
Identifying  composers’ quality of life issues are also part of this survey – an important part.   Virtually the first item to appear on the power-point itemization  was that We Have No Union ( or guild)  -  to  watch over the profession,  establish an accepted fee schedule, assist in obtaining healthcare, etc.

I made the point from the floor that the organizations sponsoring this survey must  make it their mission to increase public awareness of our  existence as a profession.    (This means from every standpoint, including that of the IRS. )

The survey will continue, focusing on the four largest urban areas, according to the now-established composer concentrations. 
  
    

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Gloss: It’s the Words, not the Music  
October 29, 2007
 
Reading Taruskin’s  “this is the way it went” summary of classical music’s 20th-century tribulations in The New Republic, I was uncomfortable: naturally – I’m in this business, and would like to know it’s a going concern.  But I did have to nod finally when I remembered the following:
I’m a big science-fiction fan.   Recently, I read a compendium of short fiction culled from the early golden-age (the pulps period), including some early Asimov, and then moved right on to  Richard Morgan’s Thirteen.  Music references couldn’t be more different:  Space explorers of the future in the early stories routinely reference purely instrumental music, citing composers quite up-to-date for their day — Bartok, Shostakovich,  even Stravinsky and Barber  — and sometimes talked about what the music did along the way, and how it made them feel.  Yet similar characters in newer sf  refer only to texted music, even in made-up titles — and the music is exclusively rock (not even jazz). 

This exposes a trend I’ve  noticed in the last decades:  We  now need  the presence – the “crutch” – of words, no matter the artform.  ( Think Jenny Holzer in visual art.)   

Whatever happened to the ability to revel simply in sounds, without engaging the sense side of our brains?

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Recently Frank Oteri wrote to describe a current  project of AMC and ACF to prepare an updated statiscal portrait of today’s composers –  where we live, what genres we address, where our financial support comes from, etc.

     I’m more interested in who we are artistically. Do we still write complex music?  Are our fabrics rich or thin?  How have today’s habits of listening looped back, affecting the content/style of what we produce?  How have general financial constraints — coupled with the beckoning finger of the educational market – affected decisions as to what we produce?

    So I ask again (as in my August post) Pete Townshend’s question:   Who are YOU?  

 

 

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The phenomenally gifted Harlem Quartet  offered the first three performances of  my new  String Quartet –  eight, seven and six days ago back East  (Cornell, Eastman, Syracuse).   I was able to be present only for the very first performance and without question  believe it to be  the best world premiere  to date of  any of my works. Yes, the audience response was prolonged and effusive – but  what  most touched me was the superb close attention to – and love of – my notes on the part of this great quartet.   This was the real deal:   They absolutely the music, and made it their own.    I was personally sure about this piece  once I had wrestled it into final form on the page –  but now, thanks to HQ,  anyone can hear it  just the way  I imagined it would sound.  Hats off to Ilmar, Melissa, Miguel and Desmond! 

Ed. Note:  The Harlem Quartet will be appearing at Carnegie Hall this Tuesday night, September 25, as part of the Sphinx Laureates Concert.

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Last April  MSR Classics released a CD of my concert music based on ragtime. Prestidigitations – Contemporary Concert Rags by J L Zaimont.  For years  I’ve been writing  rags -  some on my own prompting, some on commission – because of an itch to do with this American dance idiom something similar to what Chopin did with mazurkas and polonaises.  Most are big framed  five-part rondos   but each is in a different tempo stretching  the forms along with  the  concept of  syncope.  

For years  I’ve been writing  rags -  some on my own prompting, some on commission – because of an itch to do with this American dance idiom something similar to what Chopin did with mazurkas and polonaises.  Most are big framed  five-part rondos   but each is in a different tempo stretching  the forms along with  the  concept of  syncope. The time seemed right  to gather them as a group.   On two other  discs  (‘03, ’05)  a single rag was added in , and reviewers appeared  fascinated by  the idea  (several  using the word  ‘irresistible’ – or as one UK critic put it , “irritatingly catchy”).    Some are for piano alone while  others are for  various forces, broadened out  to society orchestra  in two arrangements  by David Reffkin.  (David directs San Francisco’s  American Ragtime Ensemble, featured on the disc.)  We recorded in San Francisco  last October.   (I play on a few cuts, and had a hilarious  telephone rehearsal in advance with flutist Elizabeth Owens – she being in SF and me in Maricopa, Arizona  – neither  one of us having access to any sort of advanced technology!) 

Without intending to, the disc is functioning as quasi litmus test,  pinpointing  a “divide “ in ways of hearing.  Early write-ups in ragtime and classical journals  illustrate the distinction in outlooks:  While all the writers agree that this is (quality) contemporary music,   for the classical folks the music is easy to take in, but  for the ragtimers noticeably more knotty.    

The classical writers (again) spend words on  the ‘novel’  concept, whereas the ragtimers  advise repeated hearings so a  traditional  listener  gets  comfortable with unusual forms.   

Is  Prestidigitations  the work of my alter ego?    I’m not   a fusionist,  but  ragtime reaches me …  who doesn’t like a  good tune, music that  feels neat to play,   and every once in awhile writing in major?

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Andrew Waggoner’s recent NewMusicBox essay deals with the  perils of entering most public spaces these days due to  the onslaught of pumped-in music,  most of it monotonously pop and largely negligible.   There’s an undertone of anger in the piece the author readily acknowledges,  in that we’re  not able to change the situation – so we have to duck out, feeling somewhat impotent, so as to recover  the quiet  necessary for hearing inside one’s head.

I’ve also written about this, along with  other present-day vexations for a composer, over the past half-dozen years.   (Most recently:  Imaging the Composer Today, published this month in the IAWM Journal,  a small tweaking of the Keynote address given last fall at the  College Music Society national conference.)  My take though, is a bit different:

I consider it a strength move to boycott the places which are the worst offenders. And I believe it’s an act of confidence to create for oneself  personal spaces  where serenity, contemplation and the required think-environment  — so necessary to beginning a new piece – can prevail.

Lutoslawski observed “People whose sensibility is destroyed by music in trains, airports, lifts, cannot concentrate on a Beethoven quartet.”  Largely  true. But even as we bemoan the diminishment of the capacity for active listening en masse,  we do,  each, take steps to  preserve that capacity for ourselves. 

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Relocating to Arizona has been wonderful.  After I stepped away from teaching and in early ‘06 moved to this clean, dry climate with its endless vista of sky, my creativity has surged.   Once all the mechanics of moving were sorted out, I began to  feel as if  twenty years have been stripped away, and I’m just approaching age 40 – a composer’s  ‘prime time’.

Especially this last half-year has been chock-full of new notes. Two big pieces just finished ( three premieres looming in Sept.-Oct.), another premiere and  new  CD released in March ,  a big essay  published and another furbished up for issue next year, and feature articles in summer issues of  two magazines.  

And it’s not just me.  My husband, Gary, has gone back to his art  — which  I  see as having parallels with my music.  With communication  nowadays requiring  on-the-spot definition,  I welcome the comparison.   We both Gary share these traits:   Tradition made fresh, overall modernist viewpoint,   engage with the subject in a dramatic way, high quotient of design on every level,  emotional impact,  huge scope.    (Take a look at one of Gary’s recent works from the Large Animal series,   4 ft x 7.5 ft, cut paper on paper. )

Warthog.jpg     

In later posts I plan to write about specific pieces under development, about being a teacher of composers (composer blogs now largely  tilt towards a comp.  student’s perspective), and something on navigating the waters of the current  new-music scene.  But this opening post is just to get things started.

What’s your  answer  to  Pete Townshend’s  question,
               Who are you?  (Boop-boop, Boop-boop)

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