Archive for the “Composers” Category

Between mid-October 2010 and late March 2011 three CDs of my music in various genres have been recorded and a fourth disc is planned for late June. These will come out in separate issues, each on a distinct label: Naxos, Navona, and MSR (the June and March sessions together forming a 2-disc survey).

The Navona disc is first to be out (formal release on April 26th). It features the Harlem Quartet and Awadagin Pratt performing chamber music for strings and piano, titled “Eternal Evolution”. It was recorded in December — in bitter cold, between snow storms — at the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center at SUNY Purchase. (A great space, this is the fourth CD of my music captured in that hall.) Adam Abeshouse is producer/engineer.

The recording sessions were terrific and the performances are exemplary – I wanted to let loose quite amazing musicians within my sound-world, and see what resulted. Plus the disc is for me a first: an expanded CD, which when played through a computer will also scroll the scores for two of the pieces, show additional photos, and display program notes and bios more detailed than the norm while including large score extracts within the discussion.

“Eternal Evolution” was designed with two goals in mind:
- as a showcase for the performers (featuring the energetic and lyric Harlem Quartet both as ensemble and as individual players, and Awadagin in repertoire not normally associated with his very expressive, visceral playing) ;
- as a platform primarily for more recent music, notably String Quartet “The Figure”.

This is my first string quartet, written in mid-2007, at age 61. (I waited until I had something particular to say in that medium — just as with my first piano concerto, Concerto for Piano and Wind Orchestra ‘Solar Traveller’, written at age 65.) When a medium has been so completely and imaginatively explored by composers who came before, the composer now should be sure that the music in her head is distinct and urgent enough to be a warranted addition to rep.

[ = I also chuckle at the thought I “out-Brahms”ed Johannes. His first symphony was written at age 40; mine didn’t appear until I was 50. Between teaching and serving the needs of hordes of students along with family, I’m a prime instance of “late bloomer”. ]

Other pieces on “Eternal Evolution” are ZONES – Piano Trio No. 2, Serenade (for piano trio), and the virtuosic viola solo, Astral … a mirror life on the astral plane …


ETERNAL EVOLUTION. front panelsJudith Zaimont's Newest CD

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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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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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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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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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