Archive for the “Uncategorized” Category

December 9, 2008
Science Fiction — with all its parallel universes –  has nothing on  the myriad  worlds comprising the realm of New Music.  

   
What ‘stars’ we navigate by,  what  principles of operation frame and validate our individual bodies of work are exceedingly  personal, and – more than ever before -  idiosyncratic.  
Niche mentality  much too  often brings disdain towards those only slightly-different from ourselves.  I worry that there’s a  consistent, fair bit of sniping across our chosen borders.   
            How do we talk  meaningfully across these?   Is it possible to exactly hear  , with every nuance intact,  just what another composer is saying?    
             Does your world  contain a population greater than one ?  
All hail sympathetic  translators! (“Good fences [should] make good neighbors.”) 
             Zealots need not apply….

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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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August 27, 2008
We’ll get to $$ matters in a future post.  Today:  Pitfalls of paying too much attention to what you think listeners want to hear.
In today’s NY Times  David Brooks writes about the ‘airlessness’  of designing  anything  — in his case, a presidential campaign – by adhering too closely  to  focus  group feedback.  Brooks warns Obama to  “ avoid the focus group over-managing that killed the passion out of men [like] Gore and Kerry.”
~ Do you tailor your work according to audience expectation?  To what extent?
 

In the arts we see this :  Two Russians  made an ironic  career of designing their pictures  according to majority wishes expressed by municipal focus groups, coming together to state what they’d  like to see in a picture:  Abraham Lincoln/George Washington;  a dog;  some water;  trees; etc.     The point wasn’t the pictures;  they were lame.  The point was the emptiness of trying to be “all things to all people”.  
In music, over and over,   I see  composers looking to erase the personal  in their work.   Is it still too painful  to express directly, without any kind of  protective, 
dis-avowing filter?       Or are these composers looking specifically to give back to listeners what the new-fashioned habits of listening seem to crave?
Perhaps guided by attention spans  of slightly greater than a gnat’s length,  a  revised  habit of listening has developed over the last 10 years.  It partakes  of the music,  dipping into a piece, then  letting attention wander for a bit , then dipping into it at some later point, etc.; and it  tends  to connect better with single-affect material,  and  — even more –  with music which does not  narrate, journey,  progress or even develop .
 
Quite different from the previous,  former-age pattern of intense connection in listening — tracking the music’s progress closely, pretty much attentive throughout.  Do   today’s audiences expect  some additional  visual/performance  complement,  some stimulus to another sense along with hearing? 
They seem nervous without that  (manifesting  ADD on a monumental scale).
 
[ In 2003 a photographer, snapping me for a photo to go with a newspaper profile,  remarked that his four-year-old daughter  got very nervous whenever there was silence in their home.  She just expected a bed of noise,  or some  background music to be present as  underscore -- not to be  focussed on --  but just there; and she was  tremendously uneasy when that underscore was gone.  ]
 

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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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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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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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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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