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Thoughts on a Philosophy of Programming (#1)

I’ve had it with categories!

We’ve just finished two months with specialist focus — February: African-American History Month and March: Women’s History Month – and every year in March there’s a bump-up in performances of my music. (Tania Leon once mentioned that her works get more frequent playing in February and March than at any other point around the calendar.)

Good? Not-so-good? Healthy? Unhealthy?

I am fascinated by, and yet deplore, the penchant for programming by categories. I like to imagine how to replicate the thinking behind the planning of a particular ensemble’s season. And knee-jerk, lip-service nods in select directions irk me no end.

Whatever happened to the philosophy of programming according to music the artist/ensemble finds fascinating in its own right, and return the favor by inviting listeners to join in the discovery? The aura of “Duty” is a pall indeed.

Sigh! :: In the latter ‘90s a respected musicologist colleague came to me privately to ask for my recommendations for *one* work by a woman to add to his basic music-history syllabus.
Instead, I gave him a list of 8 pieces, scattered across the 19th and 20th centuries and suggested he acquaint himself with all of them and then pick for himself. Rebecca Clarke’s great Viola Sonata eventually made its way into his course offering.

Sigh! :: It’s equally not helpful for someone as sensitive as Rob Deemer to punt when he addresses the question. In a recent NMBox posting he waffles by simply listing more than 200 names of female composers.
What good is it to have so large a field? According to a telling anecdote in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”, we withdraw when there are more than c. six choices at hand. Two hundred is 194 too many.
Why are people – good people, sensitive, knowledgeable people – reluctant to express their opinion? Why run scared of standing behind your principles, your choices?

Over the years I’ve kept sporadic data on the frequency of programming music composed by women in various genres. (This was begun during the ‘80s, when I was working on the volumes of The Musical Woman book series.) While it’s changed fractionally in some smaller genres – and in a major way in the pop-music sphere — for symphonic music and for larger chamber works it hasn’t materially budged.

Composing Women are still scraping our way towards some semblance of parity.

I close by citing my own comments from an interview published in FANFARE magazine last fall:

Q: Do you think we have reached a point in America where it is now superfluous to identify a composer with the appellation of “woman?”

“Adjective Composer” — what an unwieldy term! But once composers who were female started to get together in the ‘70s and ‘80s and we began to recognize that while we generally knew what we all were up to, we didn’t know much at all about our sister composers from the past. Our group was musically active — writing, getting played – but what amazed me was that past composers of distinction –- like Elizabeth Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, Lili Boulanger, Ruth Crawford, Rebecca Clarke, Amy Beach — who were celebrated in their own time seemed invisible to history once their era was past. We all knew Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann as pianists, but how many of us at that point knew a note of what they’d composed? It became really clear that something had to be done to stop the progressive erosion of the historical record. Stopping the erosion, and shedding light on distinguished present-day practitioners of all music specialties was what motivated my creating the books.

But that was then. Now, thirty years later we’re more visible (like raisins in a muffin), and four Pulitzer Prizes have gone to women. But grouping together all the women who write music is tricky — our affinity is only skin-deep since we span all styles and every approach to guiding sound over time.

Surely but slowly we’re being folded into the general stream of all-music. I’d welcome the day the adjective disappears. And signs are encouraging, now that more baccalaureate degrees go to women than to men. But I keep my eye on the stats, since even today in the US we’re not yet being programmed anywhere near Germaine Tailleferre’s 18% “share” of Les Six.

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The NY premiere of WIZARDS went really well, and there’s an appreciative write-up of the piece within a review of Young-Ah Tak’s solo debut recital of last Thursday night at Weill/Carnegie. (Posted by independent critic Mark Greenfest in the online arts magazine SoundWordSight.)

Young-Ah’s playing was at a high level indeed — her delivery of the Kirchner Sonata was the finest I’ve ever heard. The Celementi, Schubert-Liszt transcriptions, and especially Schubert’s great C minor Sonata were well-sculpted and intelligently thought-through.

The whirlwind trip was chock-full of meetings. Now, though, I’m glad to be back home in AZ and back to the Symphony tomorrow. (84 degrees today – yummmm.) And also looking forward to next weekend: NAMA at ASU. ( Lydia Artymiw and the Zagreb Saxophone Quartet tackle Shostakovich – should be good.)

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“WIZARDS” This Thursday at Carnegie

I’ll be in NY for a day this Thursday, March 8th when my solo piano piece WIZARDS – Three Magic Masters gets its formal New York premiere at the New York Recital Debut of acclaimed Korean pianist Young-Ah Tak. The concert, 8:00 PM at Weill Recital Hall/Carnegie Hall, is presented by the Korea Music Foundation.

—- I’m always surprised at the pieces that catch on. Especially the piano pieces, which have different ‘flavors’ of appeal, some reaching pianists who are more poetic, others pianists who are more power-forward players. WIZARDS wraps both aspects into its compact length – and Young-Ah Tak (no stranger to the S21 community!) is a competition winner who enjoys all sides of what the piece proposes. (She’s played it on many recitals already.)

Young-Ah has had considerable international exposure. Her collaborative New York debut was at Alice Tully Hall with the Juilliard Symphony, and she has appeared at the Kennedy Center, Jordan Hall in Boston, Ravinia Festival, Music@Menlo, the Wharton Center in Michigan, Banff Centre for the Arts, and at major concert halls in her native Korea. She was recently named a Steinway artist, has already recorded on Albany and a current solo disc for MSR Classics, and is assistant professor of piano at Southeastern University in Florida.

(Quite a few players have ‘chimed’ with WIZARDS. Its 2nd recording is just out, and within the past 5 months has been done – by a number of pianists – several times in Florida, in Georgia, in the Chicago area, in Mississippi, in various South American cities, and elsewhere. )

The interesting March 8th program also includes Leon Kirchner’s Piano Sonata No.1 (1948), Muzio Clementi’s Sonata in B-flat Major, Op.24 No.2, the Schubert/Liszt Zwei Lieder Transcriptions and Schubert’s Sonata in C Minor, D. 958.

—–
This performance follows one day after the University of Minnesota’s Symphonic Band led by Jerry Luckhardt presents my “Israeli Rhapsody”, a big-framed 2007 piece with good history so far (selected 2 years back for Collegiate Honor Bands in both Virginia and MN).

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Just
finishing  up a week-long residency in
Minnesota, with activities primarily centered in the Bands program at the
University of Minnesota School of Music.


Rehearsals
have been ongoing for two  good-size  pieces, one for symphonic band and the other
for large wind ensemble.

 

In
early March the Symphonic Band, led by Jerry Luckhardt, will perform “Israeli
Rhapsody”.  It was commissioned by the
Kaplan Foundation in 2007 and has been already perform by collegiate
honor/all-state bands in  Virginia
and  Minnesota.

 

Tomorrow
night, Feb. 9th,  brings the
regional premiere of  CONCERTO for Piano
and Wind Orchestra ‘Solar Traveller’.   
Piano soloist  Timothy Lovelace
will be partnered by the legendary Craig Kirchhoff  directing the University of Minnesota  Wind Ensemble. 

       The preliminaries included separate
seminars for the graduate Conductors, 
this evening’s  lecture for the
Composition program,  and  a Thursday morning  session for the Piano Division  centered on the CONCERTO.  

 

      Minnesota Public Radio has posted a
segment of an interview on the piece I did with classical director Steve
Staruch; this includes  excerpts from the
piece as well as the interview in streamed form,  along with other info on the piece and the
regional premiere.       (
Accessed at  classicalmpr.org )

 

~~   The weather in Minneapolis this last week
has been a perfect incarnation of

         “Minnesota Nice!”

   

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Time Travel in 2012

I’ve started work on the “Pure, Cool (Water)” Symphony No. 4 full score.
[ Word came in just before the holiday that the UnitedStatesArtists Project to provide foundation funding for this stage of the symphony’s development had funded successfully - actually surpassing its goal by a comfortable margin. Lucky…]

It’s pure heaven being in lock-down, pushing all else aside for 4 or 5 days at a time in order just to immerse myself in the *hard joy* of solving a myriad of acoustic/logistical puzzles in order to get the music out!

Ah – but the rhythm of the outer world can’t be denied forever….
It’s something composers deal with all the time — the reality that our internal attention is focused on the *next* music, the *next* premiere, the *next* recording, and the necessity to divide attention from what’s transpiring today. “Today” – today’s performance, lecture, masterclasses, etc – is already a done deal mentally by the time it actually rolls around.

On most of my residencies in the past 10 years or so I’ve taken along the score of the piece I’m actually working on – something due for premiere 6 to 16 months out. It’s a constant mental / temporal juggle, but an easy rhythm to maintain once you’re used to it.

Who says Time Travel is only possible in Science Fiction??

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Taking a Flyer

I’m experimenting with a trial balloon in crowd sourcing.
UnitedStatesArtists.org has now listed a project involving one development stage for my new big piece: Pure, Cool (Water) – Symphony No. 4.

Why this project?
It’s a piece close to my own heart – five movements for large orchestra, c. 33 minutes long – the newest piece aligning my continuing fascination with phenomena of the natural world with a family focus of long standing centered on environmental preservation: enhancing water quality control and preserving this crucial natural resource.

Equally important to the project coming forward in this way is the truth that artists can get typed.
Demand doesn’t always subsume to our creative visions for the future:
Commissions frequently are based upon an acquaintanceship with a composer’s existing music, primarily the works for a particular medium. Commissioners don’t always track the trend of a composer’s fresh imagining, nor perhaps be quite ready to support a brand-new vision; and it’s especially difficult if the new piece is in a medium for which the composer has written relatively little so far. Since my chamber music and solo pieces are better known than the orchestra works, the current Symphony seems an intriguing, and honest, way to try out a relatively new method for garnering support.
(Plus: If this support does materialize, the contributions from orchestra co-commissioners can be kept to a modest level, resulting in greater number of performances right off the bat, across the country.)

Why this method?

I often whisper in the ear of musicians about to go onstage with their first performance of a work of mine “Take the Dare!”
– With the new Symphony, I’m taking my own advice.

Why this portal?

Unlike other portals, USArtists Projects sets a relatively high bar for vetting the artists they invite in – a credential already in place such as a Guggenheim, or Bush Foundation Fellowship. In addition, they include a fair number of foundations among long term participants. And the project presentations themselves are elaborate, involving video, audio, images and plenty of text.

The project is titled Developing the Full Score of “Pure, Cool (Water)” Symphony.
It will run for one-and-a-half months and can be viewed under my name at unitedstatesartistsprojects.org.

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A bit of nice news —

My recent 2011 Navona CD “Eternal Evolution” is on FANFARE magazine’s Want List for 2011 ( Nov./Dec. issue). The expanded CD includes 4 of my chamber pieces in wonderful performances by the Harlem Quartet and Awadagin Pratt.

(The magazine’s current Sept./Oct. issue carries an interview with me, plus two reviews of this disc and of my Naxos orchestra disc of 2010.)

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Returning now to the world (after being sidelined for three weeks by an ailment that persisted), I’ve begun to get my piano chops back, practicing 1-2 hours per day. What’s striking to reconsider is how some composers write every time out with the understanding of how a piece feels to play (as well as sounds).

I pulled up as exemplars 3 pieces I’d enjoyed playing in recital in years past: Bach Italian Concerto, Chopin Ballade in F minor, Ravel Tombeau de Couperin. While all three were still ‘in the fingers’, the Bach was relatively swiftly recovered, and the Ravel just purled out straight from my artistic center.

The Ballade was another story, though: It was a feat of will to keep the passage-work clean as both hands lifted, directly repeating the same pattern over (and over) – but one octave higher each time.
Your weight then shifts with each iteration; the positioning of the hands relative one to another also alters; and even the spot at which you strike the key changes, moving front to back. There’s a ‘choreography’ to delivering the music easily, and that was the last thing to be recovered.

It led me to mull again why certain pieces just feel right from the get-go. Bach is sublime this way: Your hands balance beautifully; much of the time you need to assume a very slight ‘grasping’ position to let the notes fall under the fingers perfectly – but when you do, the music feels as natural as sunshine. (For a treat from time to time, I’ll read all the way through the Toccatas, or English Suites – they just flow without knots.)

But the Ravel is in a class by itself. Not only does it fit the hand perfectly, but the balance of activity levels from moment to moment by each hand in turn, or cooperatively, lets you remain oriented by feel alone to the precise weight balance + positioning of the trunk of the body in relationship to the keyboard. Once you do this, playing these passage is as close to effortless as piano music is possible to get.
– And the movements of Tombeau de Couprin have plenty of places where the choreography of the inter-relation of the hands is delicious: Try untangling the inner pages of the Fugue, the chordal melody crossing its lacey accompaniment in the trio of the Menuet, or positioning all those piston-attacks in the Toccata (both soft and plenty loud). It’s an intricate dance whose steps are fascinating and absorbing for each player to work out!

As a composer who has written a fair bit for my instrument — but who waited to open this chapter in my catalog until I felt I had something particular to contribute — I tip my hat to the masters of the past who write with skill and imagination, and yet feeling within themselves what really works for the instrument!

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MusicMaker (JLZ) #32

When I’m deep into a piece everything changes – what I read, what I eat and when I eat, how I experience time. Breakfast often at 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon (very sparse) and dinner if I remember.

The music at hand is all-consuming – it becomes my world, and everything else falls away. (Gary’s wonderful: he keeps his own counsel, immerses himself in his current artwork and knows not to try to chat in the morning.)

At night, however, I do keep up with the world – long talks, phone, news and other TV, reading. But even the recreation is geared to problem solving: cop shows, crossword puzzles, and mystery writers who know how to engineer good plots, like Michael Connelly, Jonathan Kellerman, James Lee Burke. Dorothy Sayers too.
And all my reading at these times is  fiction: I like to visit around in other people’s imaginations.

       What do you read when you’re composing?

       Read the rest of this entry »

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String-forward folks in the New York area might like to know that my String Quartet ‘The Figure’ is programmed next Sunday at the Summergarden concert at The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. The exciting program will also include the New York premieres of Louis Andriessen’s Facing Death and Carson Cooman’s Four Aphoristic Inventions, Tombeau-Aria and Estampie,and the Western Hemisphere premiere of Jiří Kadeřábek’s Barefoot Boy! Performers will be members of The New Juilliard Ensemble – David Fulmer, violin, Rebekah Durham, violin, Jennifer Chang, viola and Avery Waite, cello.The July 24th 8:00 PM program is free and seating is on a first-come, first-served basis.

My two-movement String Quartet ‘The Figure’ was written in 2007 and has since been recorded for a Navona CD of my more recent chamber music for strings and piano by the Harlem Quartet (the premiering ensemble), with pianist Awadagin Pratt.

I consider the Quartet to be a very representative piece, so I’ll be in New York for a quick weekend visit .
            — If you get to the concert, let’s say hello in person!

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