Archive for August, 2007

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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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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Andrew Waggoner’s recent NewMusicBox essay deals with the  perils of entering most public spaces these days due to  the onslaught of pumped-in music,  most of it monotonously pop and largely negligible.   There’s an undertone of anger in the piece the author readily acknowledges,  in that we’re  not able to change the situation – so we have to duck out, feeling somewhat impotent, so as to recover  the quiet  necessary for hearing inside one’s head.

I’ve also written about this, along with  other present-day vexations for a composer, over the past half-dozen years.   (Most recently:  Imaging the Composer Today, published this month in the IAWM Journal,  a small tweaking of the Keynote address given last fall at the  College Music Society national conference.)  My take though, is a bit different:

I consider it a strength move to boycott the places which are the worst offenders. And I believe it’s an act of confidence to create for oneself  personal spaces  where serenity, contemplation and the required think-environment  — so necessary to beginning a new piece – can prevail.

Lutoslawski observed “People whose sensibility is destroyed by music in trains, airports, lifts, cannot concentrate on a Beethoven quartet.”  Largely  true. But even as we bemoan the diminishment of the capacity for active listening en masse,  we do,  each, take steps to  preserve that capacity for ourselves. 

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Relocating to Arizona has been wonderful.  After I stepped away from teaching and in early ‘06 moved to this clean, dry climate with its endless vista of sky, my creativity has surged.   Once all the mechanics of moving were sorted out, I began to  feel as if  twenty years have been stripped away, and I’m just approaching age 40 – a composer’s  ‘prime time’.

Especially this last half-year has been chock-full of new notes. Two big pieces just finished ( three premieres looming in Sept.-Oct.), another premiere and  new  CD released in March ,  a big essay  published and another furbished up for issue next year, and feature articles in summer issues of  two magazines.  

And it’s not just me.  My husband, Gary, has gone back to his art  — which  I  see as having parallels with my music.  With communication  nowadays requiring  on-the-spot definition,  I welcome the comparison.   We both Gary share these traits:   Tradition made fresh, overall modernist viewpoint,   engage with the subject in a dramatic way, high quotient of design on every level,  emotional impact,  huge scope.    (Take a look at one of Gary’s recent works from the Large Animal series,   4 ft x 7.5 ft, cut paper on paper. )

Warthog.jpg     

In later posts I plan to write about specific pieces under development, about being a teacher of composers (composer blogs now largely  tilt towards a comp.  student’s perspective), and something on navigating the waters of the current  new-music scene.  But this opening post is just to get things started.

What’s your  answer  to  Pete Townshend’s  question,
               Who are you?  (Boop-boop, Boop-boop)

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