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July 4th and JLZ

Yesterday the Milken Archive posted and Tweeted about the connection between my Sacred Service and our nation’s birthday.
MilkenArchive
#4thofJuly means reexamining Judith Lang Zaimont’s ‘Sacred Service for the Sabbath Evening.’ Here’s why: http://bit.ly/lS5LvT #musicmonday

= The 70-minute work for baritone solo, chorus and orchestra is an American Service setting – largely in English — and was a bicentennial commission.

Click forward to a longer interview discussing all of the music on the Naxos CD that, along with a large excerpt from the Service, includes the dramatic cantata Parable – A Tale of Isaac and Abram, and two smaller texted pieces, A Woman of Valor for mezzo and string quartet and the choral Meditations at the Time of the New Year .
(Full interview at http://www.milkenarchive.org/articles/view/a-woman-of-valor )

We touched a bit on the activity of composing itself:

MA: What aspects of composing have been especially gratifying to you?
JLZ: Funny, the first answer that pops out is the fact that what I do takes place in time, out of time. That is, I can spend as much time on a measure, on a figure, on a moment in the music as I need to, to get it absolutely right. What am I comparing this to? Through my teens, and into the first part of my 20s, my sister Doris and I were a duo piano team [as The Lang Sisters]. We toured around the country, we constantly made recordings, we were on radio and television. The Lang Sisters were getting a pretty fair reputation, with lots of experience. But what I found was that the performing almost never was satisfying for me.
MA: Why is that?
JLZ: Things come and go. The passages are there and then they’re gone. You can’t call them back and fix and correct them. And in composing, you can do that. You can live with the moment for as long as you need to make it right.

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Awhile back, I heard a well-regarded poet read her words so woefully on the PBS ‘News Hour’ that I truly could not follow the thread of meaning — the delivery was wooden, and so very artifical.   In response, I wrote this:

The Music in Language
           by Judith Lang Zaimont
           [ (c) copyright 2009 ]

He squawks, he shrieks,
he pounds the tonic accents with such force
      that I, as listener,
      shiver from the assault of passion.

She, a renowned poet,
delivers in so mundane a monotone
       that meaning is lost in waves
       of falling intonation, arbitrarily
       marking the end of every line
               — her delivery, so leached of contrast
                   that all I, a listener,
                   can glean
                  is what she telegraphs:
       This writer’s great detachment from the stuff of words.

Why, over and over
                do we, as listeners,
                suffer a newscaster’s dreary delivery
                in one of just two modes,
                         polar opposites
                        “perky” or “solemn” ? –
No shades of variant meaning
no middle ground.

Why do we, as passengers,
                puzzle through flight attendants’
                irksome unreasoned stress on all
                the small, connective, throwaway words?
Why not stress “life jacket”, “seat belts” ?
They’re important phrases
                whose high freight of meaning
                demands stress at highest pitch.

Actors know.
Actors know the secret of the music in language.

Pacing – let’s have a sliver of silence
               before the keyword –
               a half-beat of nothing.
Color — from shout to whispered syllable
              (perhaps a whisper delayed).
Tempo — a stutter, a torrent, a mechanistic drone.
Add in Pitch to shed needle spots
              right where meaning demands it .
These devices grant message to our delivery.

Music is in all these – and through music
              thus
              meaning.

Yes, we compose our thoughts.
Why not, then ,
              like great maestros channeling a tonal army,
              why not compose our saying of them?

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Composers In Mysteries

Step past those tormented, fictional Wagner aspirants in bible-length novels — and for today let’s also set aside Thomas Mann. I’m a mystery nut, and I relish the present-day novels of Sara Paretsky, a mystery master who threads music into almost everything she writes. And in more than one of her books, the composers themselves show up.

Paretsky’s protagonist is V. I. Warshawski (Victoria Iphigenia – Vic for short), a Chicago PI who’s obstinate, cunning, intuitive, a quick thinker, and a general pain in the neck to many of her associates but who sticks with it, thinking through every case even as she hares around the state until the mystery in solved, no matter the bruises or bullet wounds that come her way. The daughter of a singer (mom) and a police detective, Vic keeps a piano in her apartment and often breaks into snatches of aria. (She’s also an expert basketball player and very accurate with a handgun.) Two of Vic’s close friends, both doctors, are Holocaust survivors who support Chicago’s symphony and chamber music scene, so Vic gets to a concert from time to time.

In one Paretsky short story, a composer of the distant past turns out to be an ancestor of Vic’s. And in the layered novel I’m now reading, Body Work, one character is a bassist in both jazz and early music groups, so lyrics by the trobairitz Maria de Ventadorn turn up.

But the most memorable composer appearance is in an earlier Paretsky book where one of the doctor’s sons (a cellist) comes to town with his girlfriend, Israeli composer and piano prodigy Or Nevitzky, whose new chamber piece is premiered and described in detail. — I have to believe Nevitzky stands in for Shulamit Ran, whose bio is virtually the same as the fictional character’s, and who has long been associated with music in Chicago.

It means a lot to come across a composer – someone who does what I do: who worries away at the problem at hand, never letting go until the solution is clear – in a genre book where the genre connotes “action”. Composers often don’t move when we do our thing; we can sit quiet and in place for hour after hour. And we might never be as tormented, as picturesque, as Holmes with his cocaine and dolorous violin, when we’re thinking things out. But we do hang in there until the solution is clear — just like Vic.

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Another of Smooke’s 2/22/11 NMBx comments just made me laugh. “Most people’s tastes ossify by the time they reach maturity, and throughout their adult life they seek comfort through repeated encounters with the art of their youth.”

Very Not-So. Born-in-the-bone composers possess a big bump of curiosity about music — about all the arts, about life — which gets scratched regularly, and often. The “non-Pergolesi”s among us know that our individual artistic voices mature over time — that we come into our own just about when a professional baseball player’s career is winding down.

We continue actively to meet music in score and in sound. We constantly evaluate, re-assess, incorporate a new approach or perspective when it works with what we’re all about. We welcome fresh approaches (that aren’t gimmicks), and have no fear to step out, step forward. In short, no calcification!

[ What about academia, you ask? Well… maybe. But I suspect a large part of the slow-to-change, “I-teach-as-I-was-taught” groove comes from the fact that source materials -- anthologies, music history and appreciation texts – just plain do not keep up. But there are fuddy-duddies out there, unhappily. ]

I’m so sure that the next-biggest-thing will be the product of a mature music creator that the annual prize I endow (through IAWM) is specifically for a composer over 30 whose music has not yet been published or performed in a principal venue.

There’s wisdom – seasoned, at that – to discover your position within the continuum that runs from “Time is of the essence” to “All things come to the one who waits.”

~ One happy proponent of ‘hearing it all, all the time’ is Frank Oteri . He often writes in NMBx about his philosophy of openness to all the music out there, as on March 1st: “I’ve attempted to eschew self-selection and try to approach everything with completely open eyes, ears, and heart.”

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Music Maker JLZ 26

A recent NewMusicBox column was titled “Changing Tastes” ( Feb. 22, 2011). In it David Smooke discusses, with some wonder, the fact that his musical tastes have changed over ten years.

I certainly agree with one of his observations : “The works that really get my brain buzzing [now] don’t always work in one hearing…. Their elusive logic excites me.” What’s most meaningful here is an underlying acceptance that we’ll want to hear the piece more than once.

This chimes with what Leo Kraft has said many times — that what we get from a first hearing basically is that something in the music calls us back to want to hear it again. The music might delight, irritate, mystify or confuse in a way we find intriguing, but overall it has to have an impact, inviting us back to hear it again.   What music shouldn’t ever do is be so boring, so transparent — or signal so constantly about what we’re about to hear that we know too well what will come next — that it leaves us afterward saying “So what?” That’s death for art.

We have no control over the life circumstances of the people listening to our music. We can’t prescribe how folks take in — process, comprehend – what we put forth. All we can do is remain true to the internal prompts that keep our music vital: that it be fresh in concept and intriguing in its clothing out, that it warrant its length ( short or long), and that it offer something to savor through repeat hearings (and in multiple performances).

[ Recently I heard from a performer who was readying a Naxos disc of my music for next year, that the reason he chose one of these pieces was because it mystified yet interested him when he heard someone else play it – he just had to put it through the rehearsal-performance crucible himself in order to find out what makes it tick. ]

Yes, our age demands lots of product. And some of it is intended to have a shelf-life as brief as a quart of milk’s. But if the intention behind what we do is to make something more durable, then we’ve got to do precisely that – honestly.

============
From Richard Nilsen’s Feb. 27th AZ Republic review of an Arizona MusicFest concert ( Arutunian trumpet concerto, M. Bates “Desert Transport”, Rachmaninoff Symphony #2). His says of one work: “Completely competent, even magnificent in its craftsmanship, but we’ve heard this music before in other contexts. Is that enough to make it musically satisfying?”
But of the Rach: “It was music to break your heart…. When it’s over you come away knowing you’ve been through an experience… of deep, profound emotion.   Competence cannot do that.”

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I’ve been following the Bravo TV  reality series, “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist”  ( fifth episode this week).   It tracks  a group  of  young-ish  artists, most of whom  have already   been exhibited ,  and  assigns  them a fresh project each week  to be conceived and completed  in about  1.5 days.    

    The completed works  are  then displayed  in a private gallery showing followed by a critiqued from  a panel  of  judges ( a core or regulars, plus  one  fresh prominent figure per week;   one week it was Andres Serrano.)   The projects range from utilitarian-but-arty  (design a book cover for a classic novel re-issue)  to  almost-unspecified  ( “do something outrageous”),  and at times  the artists  receive their assignments  by lot,  with no say as to  the subject agreeing with their own affinities ( or preferred medium).

 Although  it’s  the  usual  winnowing-out  design typical of such programs – and   I don’t at all care  who gets  tapped as eventual  winner –  I’d pinpoint  the same  two interesting  elements within each   hour-long segment :

  •  The very different  processes each  of the artists  follows  in      interpreting  the assigned  project.   These are profiled in some detail – surprise!  — and follow  the  gradual  development  of each new work.  This   manages to take  up a big slice  of  the program, some  20+  minutes.  

        It’s exhilarating to see cameras  paying attention to  a working-out  that stems from  labor which is  primarily  ‘head-work’ .     And  rare.

•  A refrain in the judges’  comments,  present virtually every week:    that  the works  they find  successful  do  *in some respect*  provide  for  viewers to respond  to the piece – and  actively.    ( For example,  they very much admired  works  in which the artist incorporated a mirror,  or  sign-in boards  to register comment, or  placed  him/herself actually  physically into the piece ; etc. )    

       Of course the judges  want  the artist’s   individual  personality  to be expressed in the  piece – but  beyond that,  and  far  from an auteur context where a viewer is only meant to “receive” an utterly  complete document -  the judges want the  art to  invite  the viewer  to respond, so that the work is ‘incomplete’  unless and until someone reacts to it in a way  that  registers to other viewers.  ( This  forested  tree  demands the  listening ear  be there !  so  its fall  can  be  heard.) 

 There’s  plenty of opinion flying about throughout  the episode  — in addition to the judges,  the artists  themselves comment  liberally on one another’s  work  throughout the show.    If  you pay no mind to the trumped-up  personality  conflicts  and  the  bland  or fatuous criticism  ( or the commercials),  the  show  can  be worth screening. 

         The level  of  the  works  — particularly  those by  three of the competitors  still ‘alive’ – is  certainly  professional.    And  the prize is  $100,000.  plus  a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum.     Sarah Jessica Parker  is  one of the program originators.

               – Would that composers could reap the same  on-camera attention for our head-scratching  hours…!

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October 3 , 2009

My Concerto for Piano and Wind Orchestra gets its world premiere in Baltimore on October 7th , and I‘ll be there. It’s scored for soloist and large wind ensemble; Harlan Parker conducts the Peabody Conservatory Wind Ensemble with Timothy Hoft as piano soloist. The program also includes Husa’s Music for Prague 1968, and works by Carolyn Bremer and Percy Grainger.

Subtitled “Solar Traveller”, the three-movement Concerto is a half-hour long, and is definitely absolute music. Over the years I’ve written works which center in the vastness, wonder, and beauty of sky and space – music that has to do with appreciating natural cycles and the discovery of whole systems outside our normal frames of reference. These pieces are not program music but they all carry descriptive titles. So does the Concerto; its three movements are “Outward Bound”, “Nocturne (Lunar)”, and “Ad astra per aspera”. Its only programmatic element is an embedded technical feature – each movement’s core material is a progressively smaller musical interval, thus mirroring the compressive forces associated with the propulsion necessary to leave Earth’s gravity.

Quite by chance, the Concerto is timely – just in the past two weeks we’ve learned that NASA has uncovered evidence of water hidden on both the Moon and Mars(!). For myself, living in Arizona has as benefit a state mandate that the night sky not be cluttered with light – I’m someone who faithfully tracks the space station on its night-time visible passes across the sky’s dome, and thrills at the sight.

[“Solar Traveller” was commissioned by partnerships of wind ensemble conductors and pianists at Peabody Conservatory, Eastman School of Music, Indiana State University, Louisiana State University, Shepherd University, Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Southern Mississippi. Individual state premieres will take place over this season and the next. ]

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September 1, 2009

With “BEASTS”, the newest movement recently posted, I’ve been musing on a particular side-note to this summer ‘experiment’ . http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nr6XFT6z1Fo

We started the series because I was annoyed to see some recordings/performances of selected pieces of mine get co-opted for YouTube presentations I considered to be lame, or — in one case – a copyright infringement as regards the art work.

Because I cannot endorse composing originally for a royalty-free medium, my project’s premise is to use only single movements from larger works, and only music from already-issued LP/CDs, with consent obtained ahead of time from the conductors and publishers.

The response from many (around the world) has been to correspond privately with me about the music – music which they are first encountering via the videos, years after the recordings were issued: Source recordings for these videos appeared first in 1979, 1995, 1998, and 2007. And three of the four movements have been available on the Internet — for free — for at least 2 years

We consider the series is successful on its own terms – for example, Texas Public Radio’s Classical Blog has linked to two of the movements . This suggests the timeliness for a discussion now on the reach, and clout, of this type of communications channel.

Composers should look to develop professional guidelines for projects like these that can serve as targeted conduits to a different, broader audience.

BEASTS

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August 17, 2009

~ A mysterious sequence of night visions.

The newest movement in the suite of four Music/Art videos being posted over the summer months, partnering my husband Gary’s artwork and my music.

“ Borealis ”
- now ready to view at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZPg8vdqoJg

very different from last month’s light-hearted first movement,
“The Joy of Dance” ( now widely available ).

The project is a collaboration between the Arizona artists and NY videographer Michael Bregman.

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August 10, 2009

This just in by email last night from a composer back East.
(I’ve been corresponding with a number of composers since my newest Music/Art video came out last week – “Borealis”. )

Here is an experienced composer speaking from his heart:

“I dream of the day when I can find large enough uninterrupted periods of time to actually write music as I
want to. Knowing even as I do how hard it is to get any of performed — most of the music I’ve written has been for specific programming needs for specific groups I’ve been involved with so it’s always gotten performed, and I haven’t had the problem of writing something and then hoping someone
wants it performed. But that also has limited me in what I could write since I had to take the technical limitations of
the personnel in the groups into account. And ultimately the greatest limiting factor was the lack of time to
experiment, change, re-listen, explore and finally end with works which allowed/forced me to work beyond what I had thought my capabilities are.”

We’re in an era of funding contraction. And I fearthat makes it ever more challenging today for an American composer to establish a distinct personality in new music – one which may not gibe so readily with established styles.

Yet some of us continue to make that statement, take that risk.

J L Zaimont

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

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