The phenomenally gifted Harlem Quartet  offered the first three performances of  my new  String Quartet –  eight, seven and six days ago back East  (Cornell, Eastman, Syracuse).   I was able to be present only for the very first performance and without question  believe it to be  the best world premiere  to date of  any of my works. Yes, the audience response was prolonged and effusive – but  what  most touched me was the superb close attention to – and love of – my notes on the part of this great quartet.   This was the real deal:   They absolutely the music, and made it their own.    I was personally sure about this piece  once I had wrestled it into final form on the page –  but now, thanks to HQ,  anyone can hear it  just the way  I imagined it would sound.  Hats off to Ilmar, Melissa, Miguel and Desmond! 

Ed. Note:  The Harlem Quartet will be appearing at Carnegie Hall this Tuesday night, September 25, as part of the Sphinx Laureates Concert.

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Coming up this weekend is the premiere of my new String Quartet – The Figure, performed by the excellent Harlem Quartet.  ( 9/ 15 – Syracuse University,   9/16– Eastman ,  9/17 – Cornell) 

The 16-minute Quartet was composed in January and February, during  which time I felt almost as if  I was working in a trance:  the materials grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.    It is traditional in no way  –  not in its forms, nor  its sounds nor  its character.   It’s cast in 2 movements,  but only as I was about half-way through the second did the a title  suggest itself.   (Playing on the fact that the term “figure” is  meaningful in visual arts and literature, as well as in music.)

Everything in the Quartet derives from the materials of its tripartite figure.   And since these are revealed differently in the two movements – obscured in the first;  in the second initially outlined harshly, but then interrupted  increasingly by a softened, melodic version of  itself –   I  titled each movement accordingly:   1 -  In Shadow ,    2 – In Bright Light.
 
Overall  the Quartet is  dramatic in its character, but woven in its form.  It changes on a dime from inward to outward musics,  from  romantic sweep to  angular exclamation –   at one point  (at the height of  Shadow’s  central sprint),  I ask the players to stamp their feet,  several times,   for unison emphasis – and the movements  interrelate .    Example:  There’s a shard which appears only once in the first movement that  in the second becomes  seriously meaningful.

The Harlem Quartet is very interested in the piece, and we’ve already had some spirited rehearsals (by electronic means); we meet in person at Syracuse on Friday.

[Five other of my works will also be done at Syracuse across  the two  Saturday concerts. ]

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During September and October  in addition to first  performances of  three brand-new pieces there’ll be a  sort-of first performance of a fourth.  This  ‘sort-of’ premiere  (at Syracuse University, September 15th 8:00 PM)  is of my Serenade  for Violin and Organ. 
        
At times composers can’t accurately predict  what will spark performer interest.  I know it’s a surprise to me  sometimes: More than once when I’ve written a piece just for myself to play that  caught on with other pianists,  developing  a hardy  after-life.  

Serenade was composed in one day in March of 2006, originally for piano.  A  close relative’s serious illness had me brooding, so I sat down to write music  she would enjoy hearing.   She loves the kind of lush jazz chords typical of ‘40s big-bands, so I began with the same major-7th chord as  David Raksin used in  “Laura”  and progressed from there in  sustained quiet affect.    The resulting  five-minute movement is something of a lone-wolf  — it stays  in one meter throughout with a  circular melody that never resolves;  and  the music begins and ends almost without definition.  Because  its background rhythm is a consistent  slow syncopation, I included it on the Prestidigitations CD as  coda.

When the Syracuse concert came up,  the organ professor wanted to play, so I  suggested he adapt Serenade ( a melody with  worked-out harmonic support ) and sent along the music.   He really liked it and slated the transcribed version for the mid-September concert (I’ll be there).

The music is mine, but this version is his.  Vested interest is spread, and anticipated pleasure in the offering is shared.  (A report on the transcription  will follow later this month.) 

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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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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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