Author Archive

Serendipity!    About one month apart comes news of two different – and successful – approaches by artists intent to reach their publics direct, bypassing any agent, gallery owner, or other middleman.

I discovered the first on a plane back from Vienna in an article in The Economist  detailing  a two-day auction of artist Damien Hirst’s newest works.   (The article appeared  last month on the day Lehman Brothers collapsed.)  The experimental sale of   pieces by the artist well-known for various  works featuring a shark as icon, took place at Sotheby’s in London; it was preceded by  “unprecedented  public interest” in the week prior to the sale, with 21,000 visitors coming to view the sale preview in an eleven-day period.

The Hirst sale included at last one bidding war via telephone, and  netted an amazing total of 178 million dollars.   ( Damien Hirst  himself was not present at the first evening, understandably finding the occasion “too stressful”.  )

The second item is from today’s NY Times Magazine, titled Painting by Numbers.

Two art directors in the NY ad business,  have  web-based art enterprise which sells original works and began by selling to a targeted list of  folks who were their internet contacts.  The novelty here is that the artworks – minimal, ‘iconic’ in look -  each carry realistic price-tags, mostly quite low;  and the subject of each painting is a portrait of the thing the makers wish to buy with the proceeds of the sale.  Examples  of their works already sold:  bottle of aspirin;  plane ticket; hotel room for a night in Las Vegas; new bikini; good luck (this picture was free !).

Each of these enterprises appeals to a quite differentiated  group of buyers ( big bucks /   modest bucks).  Both appear to be successful.

What kind of lesson lurks here for composers — ?

“L’audace, toujours l’audace!”
– Georges Danton

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We in the arts  like to live out loud in 2008, talking about almost everything (in detail)   – except  $$.

Since for most of us an artist’s life doesn’t actually pay well, we become our own patrons and subsidize our heart’s work with a day job of some sort.  For many composers, the day job is teaching. 

For that reason I was much struck by the poignancy of David Gessner’s comments in Sunday’s  NY Times , adapted here  for composers:

      Even if we grant that you can be as original within the university as up in your garret, we must concede the possibility that something is lost by living a divided life.   Intensity perhaps.   The ability to focus hard and long on big, ambitious projects.
      A great [creator] , after all, must travel daily to a mental subcontinent, must rip into the work, experiencing the exertion of it, the anxiety of it and, once in a blue moon, the glory of it. It’s fine for  [composers]  to talk in self-help jargon about how their lives require “balance” and “shifting gears” between teaching and [composing], but below that civil language lurks the uncomfortable fact that the creation of [music]  requires a degree of monomania, and that it is, at least in part, an irrational enterprise.  It’s hard to throw your whole self into something when that self has another job.

 – David Gessner, NY Times Magazine (Sunday Sept. 21, 2008). 
           “Those Who Write, Teach”

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Composers’ natural allies are performers, listeners.
And Studio Teachers.

Kids study their instrument around the world in formalized settings, then finish up with a degree or two from Conservatory or University.   Their studio teacher, with whom they study one-on-one, personifies  their instrument, and serves as  a siphon for the selection of  pieces the student will spend many practice-hours on.

Though it’s true that great swatches of ‘educational music’ are weak, forgettable, composing repertoire works for  developing musicians  can be  a strategic  ( if occasional)  goal  for alert composers.   Having a piece selected for an organization’s  state-wide, national or international  repertoire list  means a  tangible boost for that work.  And  a useful spotlight for the composer.    

It also means that someone musically sophisticated is paying attention not just to the virtuoso, but to the budding  performer.

My article “Embracing New Music” In the current issue of American Music Teacher  magazine invites the teacher-performer to take a fresh, positive  look at recent works  they and their students will enjoy spending time with.  (The music excerpts are all by composers other than myself.)  

It recapitulates the ebb and flow of interest in newer music over the past century,  and  also probes the reasons  why studio teachers might be reluctant  to include very-new works for study as repertoire — meaning something the student will spend many hours on,  not just sight-read.   All of this is presented positively,  with the sense of excitement at the potential of a major discovery.

Included is a sidebar on the issue of how a composer gets “branded”.

Read it, then  comment.  

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Composers’ natural allies are performers, listeners.
And Studio Teachers.

Kids study their instrument around the world in formalized settings, then finish up with a degree or two from Conservatory or University.   Their studio teacher, with whom they study one-on-one, personifies  their instrument, and serves as  a siphon for the selection of  pieces the student will spend many practice-hours on.

Though it’s true that great swatches of ‘educational music’ are weak, forgettable, composing repertoire works for  developing musicians  can be  a strategic  ( if occasional)  goal  for alert composers.   Having a piece selected for an organization’s  state-wide, national or international  repertoire list  means a  tangible boost for that work.  And  a useful spotlight for the composer.    

It also means that someone musically sophisticated is paying attention not just to the virtuoso, but to the budding  performer.

My article “Embracing New Music” In the current issue of American Music Teacher  magazine invites the teacher-performer to take a fresh, positive  look at recent works  they and their students will enjoy spending time with.  (The music excerpts are all by composers other than myself.)  

It recapitulates the ebb and flow of interest in newer music over the past century,  and  also probes the reasons  why studio teachers might be reluctant  to include very-new works for study as repertoire — meaning something the student will spend many hours on,  not just sight-read.   All of this is presented positively,  with the sense of excitement at the potential of a major discovery.

Included is a sidebar on the issue of how a composer gets “branded”.

Read it, then  comment.  

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What musical features engage you?

Our era exalts the idea of mass approval, mass appeal.   Yet even though we recognize  Rodney King’s  genial entreaty “Can’t we all get along?” as nice in theory,  it  does disappear in practice.  

Making choices  is not  a betrayal. When we get right down to what items are on any single  listener’s playlist of  favorites  (‘can’t-do-withouts’),  there are all sorts of cut-outs operating to arrive at  those very selections.    It can only be  a positive that  composers and listeners possess a developed sense of self, even as they remain open – wisely – to explore within an infinity of options.  

My  personal  threshold is pretty high.  But I know that if a piece misses my expectations in  basic ways  I’ll turn aside – and fast.   

What do I expect from a piece?  

  • It requires active, not passive, listening.
  • It is  ‘fresh’ in some way — let the composer spin convention, even if just a  little bit.    
  • It is  genuine. 
  • The music conveys,  somehow, that the composer cares about the notes.
  • And, preferably, the music does not give up  its  entire essence on a single hearing.

What frames your listening?

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Just in time for Halloween comes the eerie coincidence to read at one sitting Richard Taruskin’s (TNR) article  and Lawrence Dillon’s recent comments on the composer’s dilemma:  What  choice of outlook to adopt  for new-made music?  Either give the public what you believe it already wants, or write to push the high-art envelope in terms of innovation.   

Calculated? – yes.  Valid? – no.  [ Unless you're writing jingles. ]

If our work has any integrity, it already speaks inimitably as we speak. We don’t ordinarily have such decisions to make – there turns out to be one right way for the piece to manifest, and that’s the one right way it should come to life. 

Artists can (if they wish) make taste.  And there are, among us,   composers who see their place as being neither revolutionaries nor panderers,  but evolutionaries.   These are folks who do not put on new coats for each piece.    Their music knows and respects what came before; presses innovation forward when the moment calls for it;  and   cares not too much if – at first hearing – all of the piece is revealed to all the listeners.  

These composers know that art is a mirror and a lens – they presume a piece will have future performances which continue to reveal its contents, flavor, and character across time.    And they count on being able to reach listeners  repeatedly over years with various works, each of which is meant to have lasting resonance in some way.

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Coming up this weekend is the premiere of my new String Quartet – The Figure, performed by the excellent Harlem Quartet.  ( 9/ 15 – Syracuse University,   9/16– Eastman ,  9/17 – Cornell) 

The 16-minute Quartet was composed in January and February, during  which time I felt almost as if  I was working in a trance:  the materials grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.    It is traditional in no way  –  not in its forms, nor  its sounds nor  its character.   It’s cast in 2 movements,  but only as I was about half-way through the second did the a title  suggest itself.   (Playing on the fact that the term “figure” is  meaningful in visual arts and literature, as well as in music.)

Everything in the Quartet derives from the materials of its tripartite figure.   And since these are revealed differently in the two movements – obscured in the first;  in the second initially outlined harshly, but then interrupted  increasingly by a softened, melodic version of  itself –   I  titled each movement accordingly:   1 -  In Shadow ,    2 – In Bright Light.
 
Overall  the Quartet is  dramatic in its character, but woven in its form.  It changes on a dime from inward to outward musics,  from  romantic sweep to  angular exclamation –   at one point  (at the height of  Shadow’s  central sprint),  I ask the players to stamp their feet,  several times,   for unison emphasis – and the movements  interrelate .    Example:  There’s a shard which appears only once in the first movement that  in the second becomes  seriously meaningful.

The Harlem Quartet is very interested in the piece, and we’ve already had some spirited rehearsals (by electronic means); we meet in person at Syracuse on Friday.

[Five other of my works will also be done at Syracuse across  the two  Saturday concerts. ]

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During September and October  in addition to first  performances of  three brand-new pieces there’ll be a  sort-of first performance of a fourth.  This  ‘sort-of’ premiere  (at Syracuse University, September 15th 8:00 PM)  is of my Serenade  for Violin and Organ. 
        
At times composers can’t accurately predict  what will spark performer interest.  I know it’s a surprise to me  sometimes: More than once when I’ve written a piece just for myself to play that  caught on with other pianists,  developing  a hardy  after-life.  

Serenade was composed in one day in March of 2006, originally for piano.  A  close relative’s serious illness had me brooding, so I sat down to write music  she would enjoy hearing.   She loves the kind of lush jazz chords typical of ‘40s big-bands, so I began with the same major-7th chord as  David Raksin used in  “Laura”  and progressed from there in  sustained quiet affect.    The resulting  five-minute movement is something of a lone-wolf  — it stays  in one meter throughout with a  circular melody that never resolves;  and  the music begins and ends almost without definition.  Because  its background rhythm is a consistent  slow syncopation, I included it on the Prestidigitations CD as  coda.

When the Syracuse concert came up,  the organ professor wanted to play, so I  suggested he adapt Serenade ( a melody with  worked-out harmonic support ) and sent along the music.   He really liked it and slated the transcribed version for the mid-September concert (I’ll be there).

The music is mine, but this version is his.  Vested interest is spread, and anticipated pleasure in the offering is shared.  (A report on the transcription  will follow later this month.) 

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While cover art may have something to do with the impulse to purchase a particular recording,  it’s unclear just how  important it is to separately title a CD. 

I don’t recall titles being an issue in the days of LPs;  a list of works and the names of the performers and composers were generally what we saw on album covers.   And the Schwann catalogue (plus Fanfare, Stereo Review, High Fidelity and  other record review journals)  organized their  write-ups  just  the way we do today, according to the  artist’s surname.   Nevertheless,  starting about a decade ago I began to  create titles separately for discs of my music, in part as  a way to keep track of  which piece(s) were on which disc. 

 This has turned out to be a fun thing to do –  and takes as much thought as designing titles which matter for the pieces  themselves.   If there’s any ‘theme ‘ at all  implicit to this particular  group of pieces,  the CD title  offers the listener a guide,   suggesting  at least one way to approach this music.   My first try at titling was for the  1996 CD Neon Rhythm –  a natural choice considering that the disc features the cool color of winds  and most of  the music is built on dance rhythms.

 For each later recording  there is a small side-story  just about the titling process.   The one with  the best inside joke is a  2005 Albany disc  of  small-forces chamber music.   I had the good fortune to have my husband  create  that cover art.   When Gary and I discussed the music to be included and he  heard that one of the titles I was tossing around  was “pure colors”,  he went away and came back with a design featuring anything but the pure  variant of each color !:  they’re all off-tone variations of prime colors,  and the whole thing is based on versions of a single  angled shape.   Considering the ‘angularity’ of several pieces on the disc   — especially  WIZARDS, and clarinet solo Astral –   the design concept fit perfectly, and it remains my favorite CD cover so far.

A  full list of  my CDs with cover thumbnails may be found here.

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