Sounds of the Undead…Composers

Come in costume!!!!

This will be the first concert of the New Music Brandeis season. And what better way to kick off the year, and get in the Halloween spirit, than a “Costume” concert! Dress your best, and come here some wonderful works by Brandeis composers, featuring two works by yours truly: “I Felt a Funeral” (text by Emily Dickinson) for soprano and piano, performed by Kim Soby and Alexander Lane; and the premiere of “Trickle-Down Tango”, performed by The Gentlemen’s Very (Very) High Art Society of South Waltham, marking my debut on the Melodica (unless you count this)!

The Decline of the Orchestra: New Horizons?

I’ve read many articles of late (such as this one) talking about yet another symphony orchestra that is headed for bankruptcy, or is locked in disputes over salary cuts, etc. It is indeed a sad thing to see orchestras in dire shape. The musical world is definitely feeling the economic hit, along with other sectors, and orchestras have long been the “large corporations” of that world.

However, maybe we can also see this as an opportunity. There are many other avenues for musicians to explore outside the realm of large concert halls. What about chamber ensembles? What about pairing with composers, applying for grants to commission new works? Many musicians I know in Boston are able to piece together decent livings through freelancing, playing in various traditional and/or new music ensembles, raising money (through grants, fundraising, etc) for their own creative projects and collaborations, and teaching.

Yes, orchestras play an important role in the preservation of great works, and their disappearance would be a tragedy, as would the disappearance of museums or great past works of literature. But perhaps we should also embrace the reality of a shift in paradigm, and equip ourselves to not only survive, but to thrive within this change of environment.

New Camera and Boiling Water

Lauren and I recently gifted ourselves (for our 6th anniversary) a Nikon D3100 DSLR camera, which I have to say is a pretty remarkable piece of equipment, based on my limited experience (1 month and 11 days, as of this post). Besides taking great pictures – a good quality for any camera to possess – it also takes full HD 1080p video. It is this feature that I, while admittedly on a lot of pain meds for my back, was inspired to use while we were boiling water for what turned out to be pretty amazing homemade eggplant lasagna, using eggplants and tomatoes given to us by our next door neighbors from their epic garden. Lauren of course made the mistake of pointing out to me how cool the boiling water looked in the particular pot we were using, at which point I of course grabbed the camera and commandeered the pot for 5 minutes or so, while she was waiting to, you know, cook pasta.

Anyways, the resulting video, to my very untrained eye, looked quite cool, experimental, and edgy. I’m sure to any actual video artist, it looks like some hack grabbed a camera and taped water boiling. And they was right. I then decided it would go particularly well with a percussion quartet piece I wrote earlier in the year, performed by the Talujon Percussion Group. So I opened iMovie for like the second time ever, and with my cunning expertise, assembled the following product (there are even titles and credits and fade outs and things, which is cool):

League of Composers/ISCM Award!

This week I received the exciting news that my piece Self, Analyzed (2010) for flute, bass clarinet, percussion, guitar, and toy piano was the winner of the 2012 League of Composers/ISCM Composers’ Competition! This is a national award, with over a hundred applicants each year, and only one (or sometimes two) annual winner(s), so it’s pretty big news! I’m both honored and humbled to receive this award, especially since it means a New York performance of the work sometime in the 2013-14 or 2014-15 concert season. Seems this piece has become my “ringer” as of late. I guess at some point I’ll have to write something else that measures up (or that again uses toy piano, haha).

Below is a recording of the work, performed by the incomparable East Coast Contemporary Ensemble (ECCE) at the Fenway Center in Boston on May 3, 2011:

‘Cycles’ for violin and violoncello

At long last, I received the recording of Cycles, for violin and cello, written for and premiered as part of New Music on the Point in VT earlier this summer (for more info on NMOP, read my previous blog entry). I was particularly anticipating the arrival of this recording, because – at least at the time – I thought it was a fun piece to write, and hopefully to listen to. It’s different than things I’ve written previously, and I pretty deliberately let myself be “encouraged”, or “inspired”, or maybe “directed by” the influence of Ravel, Stravinsky, and Bartok (among lots of others). Not that it’s exactly “imitative”, but you can definitely feel their aura in the room. Although if you told me it sounds like any one of these composers, I’d take it as a compliment!

So in any event, I thought it would be a cool piece, and in rehearsals, I thought it sounded cool, and in the performance I think I thought it sounded cool, though I’m usually a wreck for premieres, so I don’t remember much. Anyways, with the arrival of the recording, I could at last sit down and hear once and for all whether or not it did indeed “sound cool”. Turns out it did. At least that’s my opinion. But if you disagree, I can always say we have “aesthetic differences of opinion” or something else smart-sounding. I am almost a doctor, you know.

But don’t just take my word for it. Or do, especially if yours is different. Here’s the live recording from the premiere at the University of Vermont on June 16th, performed by the incomparable Ari Streisfeld (of the JACK Quartet) on violin, and Justin “Look-out-for-this-guy-because-he’s-only-a-freshman-and-he-already-kicks-ass” Lepard on cello. Enjoy!

Atlantic Center for the Arts Residency 2012

I’m finally back home after my “East Coast Summer Art Tour Extravaganzathon 2012”, which began with 2 weeks in Vermont at New Music on the Point, continued (after a week home) with a 3 week residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida, and wrapped up with a brief stop-over in North Carolina to see the family before driving back up the coast to good ol’ Massachusetts. And boy are my arms tired…

So it’s been a busy summer, and it’s good to be back in one place for a little while before  school/ work/ etc start back up. It is a bit bitter-sweet, however, as I had a wonderful time at each place, and was in the company of many wonderful, talented, and creative people. My stay at ACA was especially eye-opening, as I was able to work and converse with artists from other disciplines. Musicians are a great breed, and I’ve been fortunate to know composers and performers working in a wide range of styles and genres, but it was a completely different level of revelation getting inside the heads of poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, and performance artists. As artists, we all think about, worry over, and strive for similar things, but we do so in vastly different ways and from vastly different perspectives, depending on our discipline. And what’s wonderful is how much we can learn from each other, and how much of what we learn we can adapt and apply to our own work.

For me, listening to how visual artists think about and deal with “space” was particularly revelatory. Music is such an abstract thing sometimes, and it was immensely grounding to see and hear an evolving artistic process in a more “tangible” medium. Performance artists also deal with space, in a much more kinetic manner, and the way in which they discuss “activating” a space – transforming it in such a way that you see and interact with it differently – hit particularly close to home, confirming and expanding ideas I’ve lately been attempting to bring into my music.

In terms of process, it was nice to find kindred spirits among the literary artists in the group. In a way, writers (poets and playwrights especially) also deal with a somewhat abstract or intangible medium. The words on a page could, in a way, be a sort of visible or tangible art, but the work really comes to life only when read aloud or performed, much like music. Also, composers and playwrights share the beautiful and terrifying necessity of creating something which is then entrusted to others to convey to an audience. So there was much commiserating on this point.

All in all, the feeling from the residency was one of kinship, camaraderie,  and rejuvenation. An artist’s “tank” can empty pretty fast in the midst of everyday life and culture, so to be able to immerse one’s self in such an artistically rich and fertile environment from time to time is crucial. It’s easy in our society for artistic souls to feel out of place, isolated, or a bit “weird” – all of which, admittedly, we are to some degree. Having places like ACA, where we can go and celebrate our collective “weirdness” for a while, reminds us that even if we are all islands, there are bridges in between.

NMOP 2012

Well, I’m currently home for a brief time before heading out again, this time to a much warmer climate (Atlantic Center for the Arts, New Smyrna Beach, FL). The last two weeks, as some of you may know, were spent on the shores of lovely Lake Dunmore in Leicester, VT, where I was a composition fellow at New Music on the Point. Now, I’ve attended conferences like this before, and they all have their pluses and minuses, but I can say without a doubt that this one is by far my favorite. I was in the midst of a tremendously talented and wonderful group of peers, and we all seemed to click right away, which always makes for a pleasant environment.

Speaking of environment, I’m not sure we could have asked for a better one! The lake was pristine, the weather (for the most part) divine, and the hiking was fantastic. If we could have gotten rid of a few more mosquitoes, I’d say it would have been perfect. But that’s what DEET is for, I guess. Still, the setting was idyllic.

Of course, we weren’t just there to sit around on the beach (though we did do a lot of that). Luckily, we were fortunate enough to have a plethora of talented professionals working with us, including faculty composers Kathryn Alexander and Laura Schwendinger; guest composers Robert Morris, Michael Klingbeil, and Paul Chihara; faculty performers Jennifer Beattie (mezzo), Donna Loewy (piano), and the incomparable JACK Quartet; and guest performer Paul Sperry (tenor). And these guys weren’t just in and out for rehearsals. They lived on campus, ate with us, hiked with us, kayaked with us, beached and swam with us, talked around campfires with us, and of course, made great music! It’s always refreshing to meet such a warm, truly invested, down-to-earth group of people.

This description, of course, applied to the fellows themselves as well. The composers, string players, and vocalists were all extremely talented, flexible, and open to both giving and receiving advice/ feedback, which made for a wonderful exchange of ideas, and created a feeling of true collaboration. I was especially grateful to get to work with Tara Khozein (soprano) and Edo Frenkel (composer/ pianist) on the premiere of my new song, I Felt a Funeral, based on text by Emily Dickinson, and with Ari Streisfeld (violinist of the JACK Quartet) and Justin Lepard (cellist) on the premiere of my string duo, Cycles. I’m honored to say I’ve made a group of lifelong friends, and I’d jump at the chance to work with any of them again!

All in all, NMOP is a true gem in a sea of not-always-so-wonderful summer programs. They have something truly special happening, and I look forward to seeing it grow. Kudos to all involved!

The Semester of Marathon Composing Comes to an End

At long last, the semester comes to a close. The final total comes to five new pieces, and right at an hour of music written since January! If I weren’t a student of Davy Rakowski, I might be tempted to find that impressive. Always nice to have guys like him around to keep me humble.

The latest completions came this past week: I Felt a Funeral for medium-high voice and piano (based on the poem by Emily Dickinson), and Cycles for violin and cello – both written for New Music on the Point in Leicester, VT, where they will be premiered this summer. Amazingly, these were both written in the last 3 1/2 weeks! And right now I even think I like them. Hopefully that will last…

Of course, as always, endings bring new beginnings. I’ve been commissioned to write a work for chamber wind ensemble by my Alma Mater, East Carolina University! The premiere will take place during the 2013 NewMusic@ECU Festival in Greenville, NC. My name’s even on the website! Right there alongside Augusta Reed Thomas…now that’s a crazy feeling. It’s like I’m a real composer or something…

Fortunately, I’ll have some time to get started this summer. I’ve been accepted as an Associate Artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, FL, with Master Artist (and my past teacher) Melinda Wagner! 3 weeks in Florida in the middle of the summer, so obviously I’ll be staying inside in the A/C to write. I’ll also be hanging out with fellow Brandesians Peter Van Zandt Lane and Seunghee Lee, and fellow NEC grad Liza White. Looks like Boston’s heading south!

But for now, I’m taking a little break. After I grade papers. And submit grades. Then I’ll take a break.

“Ponder” Premiere

Well sports fans, after much writing, editing, rehearsing, and yes, pondering, last Thursday finally saw the premiere of Ponder for 4-part brass choir, to be played around a body of water. For those of you following along, you’ll remember this work was written for the 2012 Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Arts at Brandeis University (for most of you, who aren’t following along, you can see my previous blog for more details).

The weather forecast for the day said chance of showers, but the “hourly” assured me that there would be no rain until 8pm (performance was at 6pm). So of course, it began raining at exactly 6:08, and rained of and on for the next half-hour. On the bright side, once the performance was over, it didn’t rain anymore the whole evening. Thank you, New England Meteorology.

But in all honesty, I (and everyone in attendance) think the rain actually enhanced the overall experience. The sound of the rain and the ripples on the pond were quite beautiful, as was the moment when, without being asked, members of the audience each grabbed an umbrella and went to stand with a musician, covering us as we continued playing. It was one of those true “wow” moments in life.

Best of all, my family was there for the performance! My wife, Lauren, was there (as she always is because she’s so awesome), and my parents came up from NC for the weekend, so I had a very sympathetic audience.  🙂 Toby couldn’t come, but I know he would have if he could. He’s a busy guy. (He’s actually my dog)

And the icing on the cake: I found out Monday that I am the recipient of the 2012 Anna Walinska Prize for outstanding work on the festival! That’s much better than what I get for outstanding parking tickets…

Anyways, it was a wonderful experience, and a wonderful weekend. A full recording/ video will be coming soon, but in the meantime, there’s a video/ interview on the university website, and below are a few shots from the event.


…in which I use a 12-tone electric bass line

For the 2-3 of you keeping track, I can now announce the completion of TWO of my “works in the queue“. Ponder, written for the 2012 Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Arts, was completed last week, only a “little” behind schedule (what’s a deadline, anyway? Oh yeah…).

The latest double-barline comes at the end of RAWR, written for The Gentlemen’s Very (Very) High Art Society of South Waltham, Brandeis’s Official Unofficial Graduate Composers Ensemble, of which yours truly is a distinguished member in good standing. Instrumentation of the piece (and the group) is piccolo, trumpet (not to be confused with “piccolo trumpet”, though that’s a thought…), flugelbone (yes, really), bassoon, piano, drums, and pink sparkly electric bass (Yes, the sparkles matter. Pink not so much, though it helps).

The title comes from the most stereotypical sound I could think of for lead singers in most death metal bands (for example) (or this, definitely this). The piece itself sounds kind of like what happens when a composer with a “classical” training and a sort-of jazz background listens to a lot of Frank Zappa and spy movie/ cartoon soundtracks, watches Metalocalypse, and decides to write a piece. Actually that’s exactly what it sounds like. Or Weather Report, according to Herr Professor Davy Rakowski. But don’t take our word for it. Now, through the miracle of those highly talented Sibelius Sounds and MIDI, you, Dear Reader, can decide for yourself, and post what you think is wrong with me in the comments section. Unless it’s mean. Don’t be mean.

Oh, and it uses a 12-tone electric bass line. Not the whole time, though.

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