The phenomenally gifted Harlem QuartetÂ offered the first three performances ofÂ my new Â String Quartet â€“ Â eight, seven and six days agoÂ back EastÂ (Cornell, Eastman, Syracuse).Â Â I was able to be present only for the very first performance and without questionÂ believe it to beÂ theÂ best world premiereÂ to date ofÂ any of my works. Yes, the audience response was prolonged and effusive â€“ butÂ whatÂ most touched me was the superb close attention to â€“ and love of â€“ my notes on the part of this great quartet.Â Â This was the real deal: Â Â They absolutely the music, and made it their own.Â Â Â Â I was personally sure about this piece Â once I had wrestled it into final form on the page – Â but now, thanks to HQ, Â anyone can hear itÂ just the wayÂ I imagined it would sound.Â Â Hats off to Ilmar, Melissa, Miguel and Desmond!Â
Ed. Note:Â The Harlem Quartet will be appearing at Carnegie HallÂ 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 â€“ The Figure, performed by the excellent Harlem Quartet.Â ( 9/ 15 â€“ Syracuse University,Â Â 9/16â€“ Eastman ,Â 9/17 â€“ Cornell)Â
The 16-minute Quartet was composed in January and February, duringÂ which time I felt almost as ifÂ I was working in a trance:Â the materials grabbed me and wouldnâ€™t let go.Â Â Â It is traditional in no wayÂ â€“Â not in its forms, norÂ its sounds norÂ its character.Â Â Itâ€™s cast in 2 movements,Â but only as I was about half-way through the second did the a titleÂ suggest itself.Â Â (Playing on the fact that the term â€œfigureâ€ isÂ meaningful in visual arts and literature, as well as in music.)
Everything in the Quartet derives from the materials of its tripartite figure.Â Â And since these are revealed differently in the two movements â€“ obscured in the first;Â in the second initially outlined harshly, but then interruptedÂ increasingly by a softened, melodic version ofÂ itself –Â Â IÂ titled each movement accordingly:Â Â 1 -Â In Shadow ,Â Â Â 2 â€“ In Bright Light.
OverallÂ the Quartet isÂ dramatic in its character, but woven in its form.Â It changes on a dime from inward to outward musics,Â fromÂ romantic sweep toÂ angular exclamation –Â Â at one pointÂ (at the height ofÂ Shadowâ€™sÂ central sprint),Â I ask the players to stamp their feet,Â several times,Â Â for unison emphasis â€“ and the movementsÂ interrelate .Â Â Â Example:Â Thereâ€™s a shard which appears only once in the first movement thatÂ in the second becomesÂ seriously meaningful.
The Harlem Quartet is very interested in the piece, and weâ€™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 acrossÂ the twoÂ Saturday concerts. ]
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During September and OctoberÂ in addition to firstÂ performances ofÂ three brand-new pieces thereâ€™ll be aÂ sort-of first performance of a fourth.Â ThisÂ â€˜sort-ofâ€™ premiereÂ (at Syracuse University, September 15th 8:00 PM)Â is of my SerenadeÂ for Violin and Organ.Â
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At times composers canâ€™t accurately predictÂ what will spark performer interest.Â I know itâ€™s a surprise to meÂ sometimes: More than once when Iâ€™ve written a piece just for myself to play thatÂ caught on with other pianists,Â developingÂ a hardyÂ after-life.Â Â
Serenade was composed in one day in March of 2006, originally for piano.Â AÂ close relativeâ€™s serious illness had me brooding, so I sat down to write musicÂ she would enjoy hearing.Â Â She loves the kind of lush jazz chords typical of â€˜40s big-bands, so I began with the same major-7th chord asÂ David Raksin used inÂ â€œLauraâ€Â and progressed from there inÂ sustained quiet affect.Â Â Â The resultingÂ five-minute movement is something of a lone-wolfÂ — it staysÂ in one meter throughout with aÂ circular melody that never resolves;Â andÂ the music begins and ends almost without definition.Â BecauseÂ its background rhythm is a consistentÂ slow syncopation, I included it on the Prestidigitations CD asÂ coda.
When the Syracuse concert came up,Â the organ professor wanted to play, so IÂ suggested he adapt Serenade ( a melody withÂ worked-out harmonic support ) and sent along the music.Â Â He really liked it and slated the transcribed version for the mid-September concert (Iâ€™ll be there).
The music is mine, but this version is his.Â Vested interest is spread, and anticipated pleasure in the offering is shared.Â (A report on the transcriptionÂ will follow later this month.)Â
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Last April Â MSR Classics released a CD ofÂ my concert music based on ragtime.Â Prestidigitations â€“ Contemporary Concert Rags by J L Zaimont.Â Â For years Â Iâ€™ve been writing Â rags -Â some on my own prompting, some on commission â€“ because of an itch to do with this American dance idiom something similar to what Chopin did with mazurkas and polonaises.Â Most are big framedÂ five-part rondos Â Â but each is in a different tempo stretchingÂ the forms along with Â the Â concept of Â syncope.Â Â
For years Â Iâ€™ve been writing Â rags -Â some on my own prompting, some on commission â€“ because of an itch to do with this American dance idiom something similar to what Chopin did with mazurkas and polonaises.Â Most are big framedÂ five-part rondos Â Â but each is in a different tempo stretchingÂ the forms along with Â the Â concept of Â syncope.Â The time seemed rightÂ to gather them as a group.Â Â Â On two otherÂ discsÂ (â€˜03, â€™05) Â a single rag was added in , and reviewers appeared Â fascinated by Â the idea Â (several Â using the word Â â€˜irresistibleâ€™ â€“ or as one UK critic put it , â€œirritatingly catchyâ€).Â Â Â Some are for piano alone while Â others are for Â various forces, broadened out Â to society orchestra Â in two arrangements Â by David Reffkin. Â (David directs San Franciscoâ€™sÂ American Ragtime Ensemble, featured on the disc.)Â We recorded in San Francisco Â last October.Â Â (I play on a few cuts, and had a hilarious Â telephone rehearsal in advance with flutist Elizabeth Owens â€“ she being in SF and me in Maricopa, Arizona Â – neither Â one of us having access to any sort of advanced technology!)Â
Without intending to, the disc is functioning as quasi litmus test,Â pinpointing Â a â€œdivide â€œ in ways of hearing.Â Early write-ups in ragtime and classical journalsÂ illustrate the distinction in outlooks: Â While all the writers agree that this is (quality) contemporary music, Â Â for the classical folks the music is easy to take in, but Â for the ragtimers noticeably more knotty.Â Â Â Â
The classical writers (again) spend words on Â the â€˜novelâ€™ Â concept, whereas the ragtimersÂ advise repeated hearings so a Â traditional Â listener Â getsÂ comfortable with unusual forms.Â Â Â
IsÂ PrestidigitationsÂ the work of my alter ego?Â Â Â Iâ€™m not Â Â a fusionist, Â but Â ragtime reaches me â€¦ Â who doesnâ€™t like aÂ good tune, music thatÂ feels neat to play, Â Â and every once in awhileÂ writing in major?
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While cover art may have something to do with the impulse to purchase a particular recording,Â itâ€™s unclear just howÂ important it is to separately title a CD.Â
I donâ€™t recall titles being an issue in the days of LPs;Â a list of works and the names of the performers and composers were generally what we saw on album covers.Â Â And the Schwann catalogue (plus Fanfare, Stereo Review, High Fidelity andÂ other record review journals)Â organized theirÂ write-upsÂ justÂ the way we do today, according to theÂ artistâ€™s surname.Â Â Nevertheless,Â starting about a decade ago I began toÂ create titles separately for discs of my music, in part asÂ a way to keep track ofÂ which piece(s) were on which disc.Â
Â This has turned out to be a fun thing to do –Â and takes as much thought as designing titles which matter for the piecesÂ themselves.Â Â If thereâ€™s any â€˜theme â€˜ at allÂ implicit to this particularÂ group of pieces,Â the CD titleÂ offers the listener a guide,Â Â suggestingÂ at least one way to approach this music.Â Â My first try at titling was for theÂ 1996 CD Neon Rhythm –Â a natural choice considering that the disc features the cool color of windsÂ and most ofÂ the music is built on dance rhythms.
Â For each later recordingÂ there is a small side-storyÂ just about the titling process.Â Â The one withÂ the best inside joke is aÂ 2005 Albany discÂ ofÂ small-forces chamber music.Â Â I had the good fortune to have my husbandÂ createÂ that cover art.Â Â When Gary and I discussed the music to be included and heÂ heard that one of the titles I was tossing aroundÂ was â€œpure colorsâ€,Â he went away and came back with a design featuring anything but the pureÂ variant of each color !:Â theyâ€™re all off-tone variations of prime colors,Â and the whole thing is based on versions of a singleÂ angled shape.Â Â Considering the â€˜angularityâ€™ of several pieces on the discÂ Â — especiallyÂ WIZARDS, and clarinet solo Astral –Â Â the design concept fit perfectly, and it remains my favorite CD cover so far.
AÂ full list ofÂ my CDs with cover thumbnails may be found here.
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Andrew Waggonerâ€™s recent NewMusicBox essay deals with theÂ perils of entering most public spaces these days due to Â the onslaught of pumped-in music, Â most of it monotonously pop and largely negligible.Â Â Â Thereâ€™s an undertone of anger in the piece the author readily acknowledges, Â in that weâ€™reÂ not able to change the situation â€“ so we have to duck out, feeling somewhat impotent, so as to recoverÂ the quiet Â necessary for hearing inside oneâ€™s head.
Iâ€™ve also written about this, along withÂ other present-day vexations for a composer,Â over the past half-dozen years. Â Â (Most recently:Â Â Imaging the Composer Today, published this month in the IAWM Journal,Â a small tweaking of the Keynote address given last fall at the Â College Music Society national conference.)Â 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 itâ€™s an act of confidence to create for oneselfÂ personal spacesÂ where serenity, contemplation and the required think-environmentÂ — so necessary to beginning a new piece â€“ can prevail.
Lutoslawski observed â€œPeople whose sensibility is destroyed by music in trains, airports, lifts, cannot concentrate on a Beethoven quartet.â€Â LargelyÂ true.Â But even as we bemoan the diminishment of the capacity for active listening en masse,Â we do,Â each,Â take steps toÂ preserve that capacity for ourselves.Â
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Relocating to Arizona has been wonderful.Â After I stepped away from teaching and in early â€˜06 moved to this clean, dry climate with its endless vista of sky, my creativity has surged.Â Â Once all the mechanics of moving were sorted out, I began toÂ feel as ifÂ twenty years have been stripped away, and Iâ€™m just approaching age 40 â€“ a composerâ€™sÂ â€˜prime timeâ€™.
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 andÂ newÂ CD released in March ,Â a big essayÂ published and another furbished up for issue next year, and feature articles in summer issues ofÂ two magazines.Â Â
And itâ€™s not just me.Â My husband, Gary, has gone back to his artÂ — whichÂ IÂ see as having parallels with my music.Â With communicationÂ nowadays requiringÂ on-the-spot definition,Â I welcome the comparison.Â Â We both Gary share these traits:Â Â Tradition made fresh, overall modernist viewpoint,Â Â engage with the subject in a dramatic way, high quotient of design on every level,Â emotional impact,Â huge scope.Â Â Â (Take a look at one of Garyâ€™s recent works from the Large Animal series,Â Â 4 ft x 7.5 ft, cut paper on paper. )
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In later posts I plan to write about specific pieces under development, about being a teacher of composers (composer blogs now largelyÂ tilt towards a comp.Â studentâ€™s perspective), and something on navigating the waters of the currentÂ new-music scene.Â But this opening post is just to get things started.
Whatâ€™s yourÂ answerÂ toÂ Pete Townshendâ€™sÂ question,
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Who are you?Â (Boop-boop, Boop-boop)
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