Rainbow's End

I am returning to Pittsburgh for the final three performances of The Summer King, which has played (since Saturday) to very responsive, near-capacity audiences at the 2,800 seat Benedum Centre for the Arts. Tomorrow’s morning performance - the student matinee - has been sold out for some time - and the hall will be filled by school kids as young as 8 years old. Which is a very good thing, since I’ll be attending with three eight-year-olds of my own. My boys Satchel, Pablo and Levi are taking their first plane trip, followed shortly thereafter by their first opera (one that just happens to have been written by their dad). 

The euphoria of the last week has been tempered only by exhaustion, as I trudged through a seemingly endless array of telephone interviews, rehearsals, campus visits, and family arrivals in the run-up to the opera’s premiere this last Saturday. We composers of concert music and opera don’t so often find ourselves smack dab in the center of the limelight, and don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun place to be. But also, quite draining. I’m an extrovert by nature, and my inclination is to say yes to everything - to share myself whenever it seems it might be meaningful or helpful to do so. And I also have this strong desire - in the face of family and friends spending hundreds of dollars and traveling hundreds of miles to support my creation - to be demonstrative in appreciation. Devin - my partner (romantic, not business) - arrived during our final dress rehearsal Thursday night, and was instrumental in getting me to rein it in, stay focused, and not spread myself thin to a point where I would simply disappear if I turned sideways. 

Saturday night, when the Summer King officially launched itself upon the world, was unforgettable, and hard to describe. Some time late on Friday, the day after the final orchestral dress, I submitted my final notes to Pittsburgh Opera Music Director Antony Walker. My notes for the final rehearsals all had to do with balance - a critical component in the world of opera, where singers sing without microphones and need to be heard above a lush and potent orchestra. I brought dynamics down, and cut certain percussion hits - things like tambourines and cymbals, whose transients have the capacity to completely obliterate the comprehensibility of text. Sometimes it was as simple as having the brass start their crescendo two beats later. Bit by bit, we got it sorted. 

The moment I hit send on those notes, and thus essentially completed my real, creative responsibilities to this production, I started to feel genuinely nervous. It was nervousness without specificity - inner acknowledgment that the piece I’d worked on for so long was now spinning into existence, and the arrival of family, friends, former students, reviewers, and a healthy-sized general audience just added to the reality of it all.

On premiere night, after a luxurious, if rushed, dinner with Devin, Sam Helfrich (stage director) and leadership of Pittsburgh Opera and Michigan Opera Theatre (who will present this production in 2018), I was whisked across the street to the Benedum and thrust upon the stage in the closing five minutes of the pre-concert talk, where I uttered words that were - according to Pittsburgh Pirates owner Bob Nutting, then in the audience - “brilliant, if not necessarily coherent.” 

A short while later, after hobnobbing and greeting and hugging and smiling my way through the warm and eager masses - and dashing briefly backstage to impart upon the cast my babbling cocktail of goading and gratitude - I made it to my seat, reconnected with Devin, and let the opera wash over me. 

The Pittsburgh Opera production of the Summer King is so strong - each element so tightly hewn, the singing, orchestra, lights, sets, costumes, and video design - and is so generously representative of my intentions for the piece, that I felt the strange sense that what was really and truly up for consideration was the piece itself. So often as composers we have the sensation that an audience is hearing 73% or 85% or 61% of the piece we actually wrote. The humble among us blame ourselves - the piece was too hard, impractical, especially given the rehearsal time. And to be sure, all of these statements are true about the Summer King, and yet somehow all of the performers are living up to just about every note, and I’m hearing a piece that is in the 98-99% range of what I wrote and conceived [and even closer, after each successive performance]. It’s better than I ever imagined was possible. So what’s left is: is it good? Does the structure work? Are the characters clearly enough delineated, and are the larger points of the opera coherently (to use that word again) articulated?

Fortunately, I’ll have three more viewings during which I can contemplate these issues. On opening night the room was feverish with excitement, and the audience was wonderfully responsive, including leaping to their feet at the final curtain for one of the loveliest standing ovations I’ve experienced (rivaled only by the standing ovation this piece received when given its concert premiere, in an earlier version, by Portland Ovations in 2014). 

A mostly complimentary review hit the Pittsburgh Post Gazette almost immediately, followed by several more. As I mentioned to my friend, composer Matt Schickele, the review we composers generally really want to see is: “this opera makes any subsequent effort in the genre pointless.” And these were not that - but they were intelligent and thoughtful, positive in sum, and had kind things to say about my music, the production, cast, and the ambition of the project. 

The overall response to the piece, for me, is still to be ascertained. For the next period of time, I’ll receive an influx of feedback, and all of it is welcome (if sometimes painful). At some point, I expect general opinion to coalesce around two or three central points (in terms of criticism - apart from the everyone-should-stop-writing-opera-now thing), and I’ll have some time to decide what, if any changes, I might wish to make for subsequent productions. 

I came home this past Monday to find my opera plastered all over the front (and back!) page of my hometown paper, the Portland Press Herald, (no sign of my OLD hometown paper, the New York Times, at these performances so far, and that’s a bit of a disappointment). And I was treated very kindly when I briefly showed my face at the University of Southern Maine for two days of lessons and classes. 

Now - back with my boys for the last shout of this tumultuous but wonderful period in my life. Devin and her son Parker (also 8!) join us on Friday, and more friends and family will be attending in the coming days. I am looking forward to some restful and peaceful days in the coming weeks - maybe stealing off to an island someplace with Dev, drinking some tropical drinks, and skimming rocks and cellphones into the turquoise sea. The immense desire to be thoroughly lazy won’t stay with me long - given my history - but I’ll embrace it while it’s here.


Flying home from Pittsburgh to Maine via Detroit. Through a series of mishaps my flight was changed, I barely made it, and then found myself on a plane with only 3 other passengers. Everyone upgraded to first class. Drinks on the house. It’s been that sort of couple days. 

Rehearsals have begun for the Summer King. All of a sudden the fantasies and imaginings of a quarter of a lifetime have materialized in live bodies, in voices, in an opera company aflutter with activity, all dedicated to this crazy dream I held onto for an improbable amount of time - a time beyond reason. 

 Mezzo soprano Denyce Graves with Dan Sonenberg

Mezzo soprano Denyce Graves with Dan Sonenberg

Yesterday I met the great mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, who is playing the role of Grace in the Summer King - Josh Gibson’s later-in-life love, about whom very little is known. Her first words to me, upon learning I was the composer, were: “So you’re the one responsible for these rhythms!” And though there was a hint of jest to her statement, there was also a true, if gentle, scolding. My rhythms are death on singers. I transcribe vocal rhythms over-exactly. I displace the grid, so that the vocal “downbeats” don’t align with the metrical downbeats. On first glance it looks like I don’t understand prosody. There’s a lot of counting. I know it to be true, my lifelong goal to be interesting yet simple, rather than naturalistic at the expense of excessive complexity, is to date rather minimally achieved. Yet after singers learn my style, at least so I’ve been told, they detect a method to the madness, the counting falls away, phrases lock into place and begin to scan. Singers in this production who have worked with me before simply nod and say, "I'm used to it with him."

Today, day two, Ms. Graves and I had some further conversation. [This after my having a first encounter with the splendor and commitment she brings to the role of Grace.] She asked me where this obsession with the Negro Leagues, with Josh, came from. And I gave her the answer I give everyone who asks: I don’t know. I’ve had it since forever. Since I was a boy, avidly consuming baseball history, drawn immediately and deeply to the sad story of baseball’s terrible “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” but also to the larger-than-life heroes, clowns, and villains of the Negro League universe. Satch’s amazing way with words, and supreme, almost preternatural confidence and ability. Josh’s childlike zeal for the game, mythical power, but also the agonizing arc of his life through to its ultimate tragedy. 

The interest took hold when I was a child. And I see my own children, who of course are now learning this story, stare at the bare facts of it with incredulity. Why on earth wasn’t the greatest hitter in baseball allowed to play Major League baseball? Ever. In his life. Because of the color of his skin? Is this some kind of joke? I like to believe I’ve raised them in a household, and in a value system, where such facts immediately stink of absurdity and vileness. Where they need to be explained, and yet remain unexplainable. But I know I’ve raised them in a world where such facts don’t so deeply contrast our current situation. For its ability to widen my eyes and shock my imagination into motion, the story of the Negro Leagues, and especially of Josh, lodged in me from a very young age. And I’ve always known it to be a story whose relevance was eternal.

So I tried to explain to Ms. Graves why I wrote the opera, why I stuck with it for so long, why I felt a compulsion to continue - for years before anyone had even the slightest interest in it, and when it felt like the most impractical project ever conceived. And she looked at me and said: “This is a gift. To all of us. You were born to write this opera.” And then she said, “I am proud of you.”  

In a brief instant, Ms. Graves gave me the answer I could never seem to formulate, to the project's obvious Why. Born to write this opera. And what's more, proud of me. One of the greatest opera singers of our time. Ten-time Sesame Street alumnus and iconic, definitive Carmen, bringing Grace to life, and proud. As moments go, this one's a keeper. 

So, as my journey home continues (and now I’m on the second leg, this time back in coach, cramming my six-foot frame into the middle seat of a three-seater, but still riding those waves of rapture so that I don’t hardly care (and anything is tolerable for one hour and twenty-four)), I take Ms. Grave’s words, and the miracle of these last several days, and let them swish warmly around inside. I leave behind the most talented group of musicians I’ve been fortunate to work with on a major project, and a creative and musical team who are hellbent on bringing this vision, MY vision, to robust, complete fruition. I have absolute faith in stage director Sam Helfritch, Maestro Antony Walker, and everyone toiling under their guidance. The attention to detail, the striving for accuracy, for vision, for perfection; the love and craft all of these brilliant artists have now directed squarely on my little opera, which I don’t think anyone really believed I’d finish once upon a time, fills my cup beyond capacity. 

In this life we make our own luck. Or rather, we make ourselves available for luck to smile upon us. I worked at this opera for a long time. In the early years, I moved at a glacial pace, well aware that I was overmatched by both the musical and narrative demands of this epic tale. The process was learning the musical language of this opera, the musical necessities of all opera, and the vast, complex history that underlay my singular hero’s poignant and meaningful life. I found talented collaborators, Daniel Nester in the early days, and Mark Campbell for the home stretch, who brought poetry, dramaturgy, and clarity to my sometimes muddled vision. And somehow I stayed in the game long enough for luck to find me. For organizations and individuals with a crazy, imaginative bent, to encourage me, give me opportunity, and eventually, take an outsize risk on the dream. 

I have posted an extensive thank you further down on this blog, so I won’t repeat here the ever-growing list of people and organizations to whom this opera veritably owes its life. But they must all know that my debt of gratitude to them is lifelong. I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to be this grateful; and so lucky to take my turn at telling the story of an essential American hero on a grand stage with a cast and team whose talent so thrillingly amplifies and exaggerates my own.

Virtual wonderland

This fall, while I was reorchestrating my revised opera, I made virtual instruments a bigger part of my process than ever before. Most of us who use notation programs (I use Finale) rely, at least to some extent, on decent midi playback of our music, though at the same time most of us working professionally as composers know you can only rely on that playback to give you limited usable intelligence.

It is also generally agreed upon - at least in the circles in which I run - that midi playback in the professional engraving programs (by which, for now, I mean Finale, Sibelius, and, I guess, Dorico) is clunky and difficult to control. The concert music composers (for lack of a better term) I've spoken with who make a real effort to create high quality, realistic midi mock-ups of their compositions, almost to a one, do the actual midi manipulation in a DAW such as Logic or Cubase, rather than attempting to fight with the notation software. So the process is something like, compose the piece in the notation program using the built-in, inferior sounds, then export a midi file, open in the DAW, and really perfect the midi rendition of the piece. (And there may be a very good reason for doing this - like entering the piece into a competition, or trying to secure a commission for it.) 

Interestingly, in my green foray into this world, I discovered that for composers working in film and video games, the process is reversed. That is to say, composition takes place in the DAW - often with the piano roll editor as the main composing environment - and then, only if necessary, the midi may be brought into a notation program to generate parts and a score for live musicians, who will only set eyes on this music if the budget allows it. I've learned a bunch about this world by hanging out on the vi-control forum, where I always feel very much like an alien (in a mostly enjoyable way). 

Never one to be satisfied with the conventional wisdom, I spent a good part of the fall trying to master the vagaries of Finale's "Human Playback" system - which is the built-in system of translating musical notation into midi events. For instance, the presence of staccato markings over specific notes in the score needs to trigger a switch to the staccato sample, say on cello, so that you're not just hearing the same sound with shorter note values, but a different sample altogether - one actually played staccato. I struggled with customizing Finale's Human Playback settings for use with "third party" sample libraries (i.e. not the built-in Garritan samples) for the entirety of the orchestrating process, until, by the end, I had gotten quite good at it - and also come to understand the real limitations of manipulating midi data in a program like Finale (it is less limited, I think, than a lot of people realize, and yet still... quite limited. I dream of writing a tome on the subject). 

When I was done orchestrating and preparing parts, I spent the last couple of weeks of 2016 doing an elaborate midi mock-up of one of the opera's scenes - the finale of Act I. I already had the pretty-goodish midi demo generated directly from Finale, but I wanted to see if I could achieve something better. I think, in a way, it was my way of not being able to let go of the project that had consumed so many years of my life. The result has clear strengths and weaknesses. Any midi mockup of a human voice begs a lot from a listener, and I'll understand if you don't survive nearly 9 minutes of this. But the voices here aren't actually that bad (the soloists are Vienna Symphonic Library's Vienna Solo Voices) - there are even a few moments where I think they sound genuinely pretty! Also - if you feel like fast forwarding to about the middle, the character of the music changes from dissonant contemporary art music to a lilting, ensemble mariachi number (and there's a lovely little guitar cadenza right at the end). 

When I was done with that, I finally let myself let the opera go, and tried my mockup skills on someone ELSE's music. Here's a quick job I did of Stravinsky's "Greeting Prelude," which is an adorable little version of Happy Birthday he wrote in celebration of Pierre Monteux's birthday. I entered the score into Finale, exported midi, and then played around for a couple of days in Logic:

After that, my semester started (after a fall sabbatical) and I was mad busy. Didn't really have time to play around with this stuff much. But then, in a composition lesson, a student played me some film music that had inspired him - just for piano and cello. More and more students' first exposure to music composition these days is via films, and, to an even larger extent, video games. Hearing the piece he played me, I thought - here's an interesting challenge. Write a piece totally unlike myself, a pretty and sad bit of film music, and write TO a sample library (i.e. write specifically with my virtual instrument's capabilities in mind, rather than thinking of the human who would ultimately play it, with the midi playback just a stopgap facsimile of the real thing). I picked up this very cool cello library by Cinesamples - called Tina Guo Acoustic Legato Cello - and wrote this short little romantic/filmy thing. My goal initially was just to be convincing and realistic, but like any music I work on, I grew to like it a good deal - you have to.

That's a little walk through some of the virtual music making I've been doing - mainly just to teach myself this world, and also to find a point of connection with some of my students. But I think also because I love the idea of just working up a complete thing, something not requiring interpretation or expensive rehearsals... something I just have and can share. I think that's what drew me to making rock albums. Not exactly sure where this little adventure takes me, and not sure how long I can dabble with it in the face of upcoming projects. But for the time being, I am a happy dabbler. 

New photos!

photo by Wohler and co. 

Had a great time working again with my former-student turned superlative portrait photographer Will Wohler. It is great working with a photographer who is a musician - especially a percussionist like me. But for those of us who are not used to being photographed a whole bunch, it's great to have someone who can elicit a smile, and tell you to breathe when you're looking awkward, pent up, or pretentious (that's just a face for us composers when the camera comes out, and someone's got to be able to call it!) 

What was fun was working in my natural habitat. Will came to USM, where I teach, and we met in my office in Corthell Hall. We started there, and then wandered around to all kinds of great spaces - the concert hall, the little lounge area behind the concert hall that gets beautiful light and is surprisingly never occupied by anyone, a couple of stairwells (one of which previously served me as an echo chamber for an earlier project), and even outside the front doors, in front of Corthell's brick wall on a chilly February morning. 

Early this afternoon, shortly before the great blizzard of 2017 arrived, Will and I met up at Tandem Coffee in Portland and looked through the shots, honing in on three (you can see the other two in the images section of this website, each available in color and black and white). Will blogged about it here, and it prompted me to fire up this moribund venue, which I hope to be populating with a bit more content in the coming weeks. 

Summer King - some thanks

With today’s announcement that Pittsburgh Opera will present the staged World Premiere of my opera, The Summer King, it seems to me a new blog post is in order.

I will write more substantive words later. For now I just want to acknowledge several key people for their role in making this momentous day come to pass. 

Sean Gibson, Josh’s great grandson, runs the Josh Gibson Foundation in Pittsburgh. They do tremendous work for the community, particularly for the city’s young people. The Foundation also plays a central role in keeping Josh’s legacy alive in the city and beyond. I am so fortunate to have had Sean as a partner in this project for nearly ten years. He has lent material support (most particularly with wonderful images of Josh), has told me countless family stories, and generally been as generous as I could have ever hoped. It is very important to me that Josh’s family feel that he is fairly treated and accurately represented, and with Sean’s collaboration this is an attainable goal. 

My original collaborator on the libretto was poet Dan Nester, who contributed much fine work and bounced ideas around with me with vigor in the early going. Some of his excellent writing remains in the finished opera. 

I have received additional and exceptional help on the libretto from the very accomplished librettist Mark Campbell, whose tough love has been pivotal as I work to complete a substantial revision of the 2014 version of the opera. Matt Gray, at AOP, has a been an integral voice in this process as well.

Steve Osgood was involved in the opera from its very beginnings, back in 2003, to the concert world premiere in Portland, Maine in 2014. He is a veritable wonder, and his contribution to the work is incalculably deep. 

Charity Wicks, as vocal coach, associate conductor, and rehearsal AND recording pianist has been on so many occasions a source of calm and confidence. (And she’s the best sight reader I’ve ever seen). 

Elizabeth Scott, who when I met her was a vice president at Major League Baseball by day, and an opera conductor by night, conducted several important workshops of the opera, and has been a very valued advisor through the years. 

Lemuel Wade brought a generous, creative spirit and an unfailing calm to this project - which was sorely needed in some of the most chaotic and terrifying moments. Lem was the stage director for the Portland performance, and he gave a new meaning and depth to “semi-staged.” Sadly, Lem did not survive the year after the performance, and we lost him much too soon. He will always hold a special place in my heart. 

Ned Canty met with me numerous times during the earlier development of the piece when I was desperately trying to craft, (and re-craft) the treatment for the opera, and also directed the first ever complete libretto reading of the piece, a decade ago at Symphony Space in New York. 

All of the singers who have sung in workshops and/or the concert premiere, have brought the characters to life for me and illustrated the strength and weaknesses of the material, oftentimes expanding my original conception of the roles. There are too many to name, but I can’t not mention Leon Brown, Candice Hoyes, Robert Hoyt, Patrick Miller, Kenneth Kellogg, Martin Bakari, Christian Figueroa, Kyle Guillermo, Cameo Humes, Matthew LaBerge, Stephanie McGuire, Jason McKinney, Nicole Mitchell, Lori-Kaye Miller, Kenneth Overton, Gregory Rahming, Rishi Ranes, Lynn Randolph, Aaren Rivard, Stephen Salters, Malcolm Smith, Anthony Turner, Jorell Williams, and Josh Witham.

Bob Russell, director of the USM Chamber Singers, lent me his group and his talent for an important early demo of the Mexican scene.

Charles Jarden, diretor of American Opera Projects, has been a tireless supporter of the opera and friend to me for over a decade, and has played a major role in bringing it to the attention of the larger opera community. 

Opera America gave the work pivotal exposure by featuring it in several workshops in January 2014, which first brought the project to the attention of Pittsburgh Opera. 

Fort Worth Opera, under the leadership of Darren K. Woods, selected The Summer King for inclusion in its first ever Frontiers festival of new, unpublished American opera in 2013. This first dose of national recognition played a very important role in generating the momentum for all that was to come (plus it was a great experience). 

The Corporation of Yaddo awarded me a pivotal residency in 2011, during which I completed theoriginal piano-vocal score of the work. 

The University of Southern Maine has gone to exceptional lengths to support this work, including sponsoring a successful NEA application, awarding me several fellowships and now a sabbatical, all to ensure that I have sufficient time to complete the piece (both the original version, and now the revision). Specific nods go to my former dean, Lynn Kuzma, my current one, Adam Tuchinsky, and the former and current directors of the School of Music, Scott Harris and Alan Kaschub. Many of the fine musicians at the Merrill Auditorium Premiere were USM faculty members, and they played the challenging score with grace, musicality, and precision. The staff of the school of music too, particularly Chris Alden Kinne, Binney Brackett, and Lori Arsenault, have been amazing colleagues in navigating this journey. 

It is also essential that I mention the team of USM students who worked with me toward the original Portland premiere, some of whom have been helping me in the aftermath. The team included Emma Clarke, Jimmy Dority, Josh Newton, Jordan Guerette and Roy MacNeil, and since 2013 has been lead by the tireless Aaron Clarke, who has picked up the business of preparing contemporary opera materials with mesmerizing speed and has emerged as an important advisor to me in the process (as well as having become a terrific composer in his own right). 

Of course the National Endowment for the Arts Opera Artworks division, then under the supervision of Wayne Brown, did us a great service with their award. 

Over 100 Kickstarter supporters at various levels leapt generously and quickly to this opera’s support when other avenues of fundraising had been exhausted. 

The Maine Arts Commission has supported the project in numerous ways, including awarding me a grant that allowed for a full-fledged demo of the Mexican scene in 2012. 

The Bob Crewe Foundation gave us generous support at another critical moment - there were so many. 

Margaret Wilkis was resourceful, imaginative, and ultimately successful and helping us reach our overall fundraising goal. She was also always a joy to work with. 

My deepest gratitude is retained for Portland Ovations, and particularly their visionary leader, Aimée Petrin. In 2013, Aimée decided to venture into the realm of contemporary opera in a major way, selecting the Summer King to be the grand finale of the 2013-14 Portland Ovations season. To date, no one has taken a bigger chance, or garnered for the piece a greater reward, than Aimée in this blind, beautiful leap of faith. The full concert performance at Merrill in 2014 was not only a major factor in selling the idea of the opera to Pittsburgh, but also contributed to the opera’s exposure and viability in ways that are too numerous to list. Ovatations’ hope was always that this opera would go on to have a greater life, and not culminate in a single performance (even if that performance remains the greatest night of my life to date). The most gratifying aspect of the current announcement and plan for a staged premiere is that Aimée and the team at Ovations can know their gamble paid off in tremendous way, and that their organization helped give birth to a work now beginning its life on the national stage. I clearly have shortage of words on this, so I’ll stop now.

Lastly, how can I express the multitudes of my gratitude for Pittsburgh Opera, and particularly their fearless leader, Christopher Hahn. Another general director might sign on to do a stripped down version of the opera in a secondary house… 8 instruments and 4 singers, sock puppets. Christopher knew from the start what the scope of this piece was, and never saw it going anywhere other than Pittsburgh’s majestic Benedum Theatre. It was my fervent hope that Pittsburgh Opera would recognize just what this story could mean for the city, and why it was such a good piece to bring there - to make there. I am so excited and truly honored to have the opportunity to present this piece to the people of Pittsburgh, and I am humbled to my core by Pittsburgh Opera’s bold and dazzling leap of faith. With great risk comes great reward, and I am so eager to set about keeping my end of the bargain!

A writer responds to criticism

Hi folks. I logged in to consider writing a blog post today, maybe something about Bowie, who died yesterday, Jan 10, 2016. And I found this unpublished post that I guess I wrote in December, 2014. I remember wanting to write something like this, but not actually doing it. I think when I wrote it I decided it would be crazy to publish, but reading it now it seems mostly harmless - though I can't imagine anyone have a burning urge to read it. In the interest of totality, I publish it now - it's about the solo album I released in September 2014 - Peaks Island Ferry. [p.s. the special surprise I mention doesn't materialize, but it is actually the next blog entry (below this one)]

[The following written on December 6, 2014)

Greetings - been a while since I've populated this space with content. In the intervening time, my opera has had its concert premiere, and I've released an album, Peaks Island Ferry, and that is the subject of the current post. As an unsigned, independant recording artist, without a significant track record even of live performance, it is a pretty tough thing to put a recording of original songs into the world. Though I have been a songwriter my whole life - long before I ever considered myself a "composer" - and though by rights I probably SHOULD have recorded my first album many moons hence, for one reason or another I only felt the significant urge now. After the premiere of my opera, I devoted my full "summer off" (we academics get summers "off," with the expectation that we will produce creative or scholarly work during that time..."publish or perish," as they say) to recording and mixing this album of songs I had written over the course of the last four years.

As it was a very personal document, I decided from the outset that I would need for the most part to be the only person in studio, and that I would play all the instruments. Through the years I have gained sufficient chops on all of the major rock instruments to hold my own if the compositions are my own and tailored to my specific strengths and weaknesses. Some of the drum tracks had been recorded the previous summer, when I had drums and a recording rig set up in the barn of my previous residence, but otherwise it was a ground up affair. I worked long hours, hard hours, both recording and also learning the songs on each instrument. I recorded at my school, the University of Southern Maine, where I have been developing a digital recording studio for several years. This was my chance to put the equipment (and my know how with it) to the test. It was a labor of love but also insanity, as for the full duration I didn't know whether all this effort would even count as "scholarship" for my job, and certainly no one had commissioned this work, and no one was lined up at Bullmoose waiting for it. It was destined to be just another drop in the ever overfull bucket of independent music recordings. A bucket filled with sound and fury, but mostly signifying nothing. 

Anyway, I got the thing finished and was very pleased with it. I felt certain it would at least make a splash on the local scene, and I think it's a solid piece of work. I thought the fact that I had had a widely publicized operatic premiere in Portland earlier in the same year might buy me some interest in this project, at least to the extent that it would be reviewed in all the local publications and maybe generate some buzz. Happily, I did get a handful of reviews, and I did manage to sit for a few weeks on the local best selling CD charts. (I received about $140 from sales in the local record store, another $100 or so via Bandcamp, another $40 or $50 from live sales. Maybe I made back about $300 of the $1200 I had spent for final mixing, mastering, and pressing - and keep in mind I hired no sessison musicians and engineered most of the recording myself). 

Though the reviewers all had kind things to say about the album, I emerged from the process feeling somewhat disappointed, as though no one had engaged the album as I hoped they would, at least not fully. At least not fully. I did get some useful criticism, some of it generous, along with some criticism that I thought was misguided and off the mark, and it's always struck me that it would be nice for an artist to have an opportunity to respond to such criticism. And hey, I have a blog, so I'll do it. And no one will read it, but it will part of the public record and that's good enough for me. 

Without further ado, here's all the press I got, with my responses, and then a special bonus at the end. 

First, a preview from the Portland Phoenix

USM resident composer Dan Sonenberg has been busy this summer, following up his epic, baseball-themed opera with a full-length solo record, Peaks Island Ferry, which hists Bull Moose today. It's kind of like David Bowie doing Frank Zappa songs, with some of the intricacy you'd expect from a classical composer, and plenty of drama, but also a directness and silliness that might surprise you.   - Sam Pfeifle

This was a generous preview from Sam P, the most important reviewer of Portland record releases, in the Phoenix's Fall Preview. Sam has generally been generous with me, and gave my band Lovers of Fiction's EP a near-rave when it was released last year. In published reviews I have often been linked to Zappa, and I am not fully sure why. Maybe because he was also a composer of both concert and rock works? He is not a signficant influence and I don't really hear him in my music. Bowie, on the other hand, is at the center of my musicality. I don't know where the silliness is - and I was really hoping that Sam would follow this blurb up with one of his full-length weekly reviews in the Phoenix, but it was not to be. That was no small disappointment to me, but I can't say I was thoroughly ignored. 

After this came a full length live blogging of a first listen by old friend Mike K. He published his responses, song by song, one comment at a time to Facebook, and then linked (at my request) to the whole thing on his blog. Mike's review was part affectionate critique from a friend and part public criticism - he revealed more knowledge in it of my life's work than any other reviewer, but also was giving his responses to a first listen on the fly. After one listen he thought the best path was to condence the thing by chopping off several of the first songs and the last, Resolution Time, to make an unassailably strong EP. Along the way he offers many accurate assessments about the influences (of course he had an unfair advantage) in play, and his review is well worth a read even if I don't quote it at length here. 

The first published full length review came from Chris Busby in the Bollard

Dan Sonenberg occupies a unique position in the local music scene, straddling the spheres of classical and popular music. His opera about Negro League baseball great Josh Gibson, The Summer King, premiered earlier this year at Merrill Auditorium. Last year, his rock band, Lovers of Fiction, released an excellent, albeit short (three-song) EP, titled The Bear. There’s a Lovers of Fiction full-length in the works, but in the interim we have a solo album from the pop side of Sonenberg’s brain.

Peaks Island Ferry is a concept album about an all-too-familiar phenomenon: the bitter break-up. Musically, Peaks is a treat. It opens with “Turn Me Over,” a Lennon-esque power ballad refined by some lovely operatic flourishes. John’s an explicit reference point in the next track, “Yoko Song,” the most “rock” number on an album where acoustic guitar and piano predominate. (With the exception of strings on one track, Sonenberg plays all the instruments, and does do deftly.)

There are shades of John’s drinking buddy, Harry Nilsson, elsewhere on Peaks, especially “Everybody’s Going to Sleep” and “Happy Birthday.” Sonenberg doesn’t have Nilsson’s vocal range (what mortal does?), but that doesn’t stop him from attempting to hit the high notes, and when his voice cracks from the effort it only echoes what the lyrics are telling us: we’re listening to a broken man. “Happy birthday to the woman I’ve wronged / I’ve made such a mess of it all,” Sonenberg croons on the latter. “Brokenhearted pretty much all the time / And feeling suburban / These bottles of bourbon don’t lie.”

Peaks includes an alternate version of “Everyone at Target Drives a Honda,” a punchy rocker from The Bear, here stripped down to piano and voice and simply titled “Target.” It’s still the best evocation I’ve heard of that tortuous experience one has when your ex- still lives in town and you go about your days half-hoping, half-dreading your next encounter.

Sonenberg lays it on a bit thick at the album’s end. The title track neatly sums up the story and provides a sense of resigned acceptance, making the next and final song, “Resolution Time,” superfluous, if not downright indulgent, with its corny “Auld Lang Syne” quotes. A lot of listeners will find the whole album too melodramatic, but it depends which end of the ferry ride you’re on. If you’re stranded on your own emotional island with the cold season blowing in, Peaks may very well be exactly what you need.   -Chris Busby

This is clearly a well written and intelligent review. He gets my influences right, makes a smart choice about what lyric to quote, and says some very kind things about some of the songs. I never heard the first track as Lennonesque but was thrilled to hear him make the connection. After Chris B's total rave of the Lovers of Fiction EP, I was really hoping he would hear this solo effort as more of a cohesive whole and, you know...a masterpiece. That he didn't is not only fair, but what makes a horserace. If you read Mike K's review too, you'll see that Chris B was not alone in questioning the wisdom of including Resolution Time. And in truth, it is the oldest song on the album and stems practically from another era (it was written to celebrate New Years 2007). Still, though, I stand by my choice of that song to close the album, as I feel it puts an ironic punctuation mark on all that has come before. More on this below - but ultimately I think this was a fair write up. 

After a few weeks of my eagerly checking the Portland Pheonix before giving up on them every writing a review came this from Emily Burnham in the Bangor Daily News

Dan Sonenberg references Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman in his influences, and boy, is that true — “Peaks Island Ferry” is full of piano-driven, classic songwriting, sung from the woozy, jaded perspective of a guy who’s been through some stuff. With the exception of one track on the album, Sonenberg plays everything, from drums and backing vocals to the crisp guitar lines on “Yoko Song.” Sonenberg, who also plays in the indie rock band Lovers of Fiction, recorded many of the songs on this album while living on Peaks Island in Casco Bay, and that Maine imagery is prevalent through many of these songs, like the melancholy “Bar Harbor” or the title track. You get the sense that Sonenberg is reflecting on a number of major changes in life — a failed relationship, perhaps, and he wears his heart on his sleeve because of it. He certainly has a way with melodies, in the same way Billy Joel might if he came of age in the 1990s. The album’s strongest points are when Sonenberg indulges in his inner bombastic 70s troubadour, like the Bowie-esque breakdown in “Resolution Time” or the tortured torch song “Target.” It’s a refreshing departure from the norm, in terms of Maine bands. - Emily Burnham

How can I complain about this? Can't. I like that she looked up what I said my influences were and then confirmed it, love that she referenced the instrumentation, and acknowledged the overall theme of the album. I don't know exactly what Billy Joel coming of age in the 90s means, but I'm down with that - I have respect for Billy Joel even though he has become tragically unhip of late. 

About a week later came this pair of reviews in Dispatch magazine - I'll post the photos since these are unlinkable. 

In some ways this is the review I was most waiting for. Kyle Gervais was the one reviewer to outright diss Lovers of Fiction's EP last year. About that disk he wrote: "The Bear is difficult to listen to but because you can hear the potential in moments that you can't help but be impressed by on a record that just, as a whole, doesn't work." And - and this is relevant - "...the lyrics are just silly, or trying to be funny as evidenced by "Everyone at Target Drives a Honda." Yes, it makes me smirk, but does it make me want to listen to the song after the minor novelty has worn off?" - That song is actually reconceived as a slow piano torch song on my solo album, entitled simply "Target," and the newer recording, truth be told, was conceived in direct response to this review. Because I was shocked that anyone could listen to that whole song and hear at as anything other than a song about obsession and desperation, smirky novelty title notwithstanding. Kyle G. obviously finds all my stuff a difficult listen, but I am very happy with his review here. The first sentence is of course a joy - and I'm really glad someone somewhere commented on the guitar sounds, on which I worked very hard. Also - his point about not delivering on the energy promised in the first track actually rang true for me - that was a learning moment, though I still haven't fully processed what to do with the info. "Debatable left turns" is potentially a strange turn of phrase, but I imagine it refers to my penchant for occasional odd harmonic progressions, and as such, I'll take it. Overally? Kyle G and I are friends again (in reality we've never met). 

Sam Ueda is a new reviewer at Dispatch, and places Kyle Gervais's annagram Amanda Gervasi, who was very kind to The Bear. I like this review too - took a little bit for me to own and appreciate "Dad Rock" but let's be real, I am on the cover with my son and making a record that bleeds 1970s. I think every word of this review is fair and accurate - except maybe "smarmy" for the guitar solos - really? To my listening the only song where the vox are mixed a bit too loud is "Yoko Song," and I'd love to hear more specifics about that, but look at the word count these poor guys have to work within. Thanks Dispatch - much obliged!

The most mixed/mediocre review I recevied for Peaks Island Ferry came from a music reviewing blog called The Equal Ground. I submitted the album to them for consideration, and they responded with good news - they liked it and wanted to review it. The way it works is no one they approve gets a bad review, but they range in rating from 3 to 5 out of 5. Also, if you want anything more than just a mention in their "weekly roundup," you need to pay a fee - from $25 to $40. I know the notion horrifies a lot of people, and several advised me not to pay. But the truth is, as a dilletente in the rock business with absolutely no name recognition outside of my home town of Portland and no plans to tour any time soon, I really could use a rave review on an indie music website, and I hadn't heard back from any of the free ones to which I submitted. I paid the mininum and was told then next day that my review would run on December 4. That was more than a month away at the time. I woke up on the 4th eager to see what the news the nation at large would receive about my opus, and sadly, it was pretty bleak. I was given a 3.5 out of 5, among the lowest ratings they give, and the following review: 

Dan Sonenberg is no newcomer to music. He is a composer of the opera “The Summer King,” is the front man and principal songwriter for the band Lovers of Fiction and is also a professor of composition and music theory at the University of Southern Maine. Sonenberg released his own solo album entitled Peaks Island Ferry. He wears his influences on his sleeves and the most obvious are Billy Joel, David Bowie and Elton John. 

Sonenberg’s biggest strength is songwriting. Whether it’s a sparse piano song or a layered pop song it is well written. In fact Sonenberg has a number of other strengths, which include his technical and creative ability, an ear for aesthetics and versatility. One area that I thought needed some tweaking was his vocals. Sonenberg is a decent vocalist but he often exaggerates nuances within his natural voice from song to song and sometimes line for line which seems a bit self indulgent. Sometimes he sounds like Elton John, sometimes like an alternative version of Bowie and sorta like someone delivering lines in a play. The other slight issue is his delivery on certain words. He sometimes misses the mark. For example on “Everybody's Going to Sleep” he sings the line “ We’ll greet with a song and a smile” and when comes to the word “smile” it is not exactly flattering.

The good news is that other than these vocal discrepancies the album as a whole is quite enjoyable. Some songs are better than others so let’s dig into the details.

The album starts off with “Turn Me Over,” which is basically split down the middle between Elton John and David Bowie. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable song even though I was hoping for some elements that didn’t feel so derived from his influences. “Every Message is Erased” is a good song all around. It has a “Piano Man” essence to it but is also one of the most inspired vocal performances.

Another highlight is the sparse “Target,” which contains frivolous lyrics that are some of his best amongst the album. To Sonenberg’s credit his vocal delivery works here and despite the rather silly lyrics created an engaging dichotomy. As the album progresses there are a number of highlights, which include “Happy Birthday” and closer “Resolution Time.”

Sonenberg delivers some quality material on Peaks Island Ferry. It doesn't all work but it is pretty easy to look past. The next time you are at a piano bar without a piano man just pop this in. 

 Overall it's not a terrible review, but there are aspects of it that really rankle me, and I'm glad to have this space in which to vent! First of all, no one has ever listed Elton John among my influences, and I am decidedly not a fan. Oh he's all right, but almost nothing Elton has done has really moved me, and I have spent no serious amount of time learning his tricks and emulating them. I DID grow up in a househould with Billy Joel playing all the time, however, and with a piano-centric rock album I understand the urge to compare to Billy, though Randy Newman is so obviously more of an appropriate grab. 

The problem with this review is often its syntax - oftentimes I'm scratching my head trying to figure out what exactly the reviewer is saying. I have read the following over and over and can't quite figure it out: 

Sonenberg is a decent vocalist but he often exaggerates nuances within his natural voice from song to song and sometimes line for line which seems a bit self indulgent.

What does it mean to exaggerate nuances within one's natural voice? Line for line, even? I want to absorb this as a potentially reasonable critique of my singing, but I am not fully sure I know how to. I don't think I'm the greatest singer - and certainly my abilities have faded since my singer-songwriter heyday in my early twenties. But this just feels like a messy, aimless criticism. He specifically criticizes the way I sing "smile" on Everybody's Going to Sleep, and fair enough - it's a middle aged guy with a challenged falsetto. It was hard to record that, and I thought I did okay, and that if anything the slight scratchiness presented world weariness rather a non-flattering tone. Oh well. 

A critique of "Turn Me Over" as derrivative surprises me, though actually I do feel like Mikey K in his blog entry said it was nothing new. To me there are some striking aspects of originality in that song, including the step down a half step from the intro's A major to the verse's Bb, and the circularity of construction with an ever expanding chorus. Also, the vocal lines acrobatics - clearly a tough match for my vocal abilities (and now that I think of it, maaaybe something Elton would do well). But okay, it's "enjoyable," so there's that. 

"Target" has "frivolous lyrics that are some of the best on the album." This is probably the price I pay for choosing as my catch phrase "everyone at Target drives a Honda." It's a sad song about an obsessed person - if you're gonna make blanket statements (self-contradictory ones, no less) why not quote a line?

Ultimately the line that best sums up what this review can do for me is: "It doesn't all work but it is pretty easy to look past." I imagine the writer means the flaws are easy to look past, but in the context of their website, the whole album will be quicky forgotten, buried in their archives. Well and good. It's the weakest review, but also the most poorly written, and I'll have to satisfy myself that it takes quality to suss out quality. Right? 

my favorite review of Peaks Island Ferry

Dan Sonenberg’s debut solo album arrives in the same year his full length opera, The Summer King, received its premiere, and a year after his indie rock band Lovers of Fiction released its debut EP, The Bear, to local acclaim in Portland, Maine. On Peaks Island Ferry, Sonenberg plays all instruments except for strings on one of the tracks (his arrangement), and the performances are solid throughout, with sporadic memorable moments on guitar, bass, drums, piano and Hammond organ. If Sonenberg’s voice is perhaps his weakest asset, he employs it to good effect on this neo-70s piano-laden cycle of torch and torched songs, projecting the crags and strains of genuine lived experience. 

 Peaks Island ferry is a breakup album of sorts, though on closer inspection it is clear something darker is afoot. In the opening track, the soulful lover’s complaint “Turn Me Over,” the narrator feels like a record only half played, a “cup off coffee,” undervalued, uncherished, and laments “but if you turned me over, you’d find I’m not like any other guy.” At the back end of the album, after considerable drama has unfolded, comes Resolution Time, a cynical New Year’s anthem proclaiming “every new year’s resolution does no good at all.” It is as if all the agonies that come in between have left the album’s narrator no wiser, primed to do it all over again in perpetuity. A piano outro based on Auld Lang Syne - a persistent reference in the song - feeds easily right back into the opening track, whose extended piano intro is even in the same key of A major. One imagines Sonenberg hoping his listener will just spin the thing on endless repeat, crying along with its auteur into a bottle of bourbon at the futility of it all. 

 The interior songs chart a clear arc, even if their narrative isn’t entirely transparent. Early on we hear of forbidden, catastrophic love in “Yoko Song,” a clear affair in “Every Message is Erased,” consuming jealousy in both “Bar Harbor” and “Target,” and ultimately confession and apology in “Happy Birthday” (“Happy birthday to the woman I’ve wronged, I’ve made such a mess at of it all”) and acceptance and transcendence in the title track, which is the album’s poppiest yet most profound number. 

 Sprinkled into the mix, somewhat surprisingly, are two lullabies - the Nillsonesque “Everybody’s Going to Sleep Now,” and the quasi chanson (complete with melodica solo) “Lullaby Waltz.” I am not sure if these interludes work in this context, though they do provide respite from the litany of despair represented by the album’s other tracks. Furthermore, they engage the album’s cover, rear, and label photos, which present Sonenberg’s triplet sons - one at a time - with him in desolate island landscapes, suggesting the presence of innocent witnesses to this disaster. The lullabies also serve to divide Peaks Island Ferry into three neat subsections, which we might call The Affair, the Aftermath, and Realization. 

 Musically the album wears some of its influences on its sleeve - there are distinct strains of Harry Nillson and Randy Newman, vocal arrangements harken to early Bowie, and the sparseness of the instrumentation - often just piano, bass and drums - along with the brutal confessional nature of the thing can’t help but invoke Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, which must have been a model. The production is fine, sometimes vocals are mixed too loud,  and it reads as an upscale DYI effort (Sonenberg recorded and mixed himself, but brought in Steve Drown as a professional finisher and had the album professionally mastered). 


Peaks Island Ferry is a thoroughgoing song cycle and a well conceived one at that. It also exists in a tradition of self-indulgent singer-songwriter confessionalism that may or may not have reached its apex in the early 70s, an era Sonenberg clearly holds dear. The lyrics are sharp and the songwriting sophisticated, but I hope that this artist can turn his gaze outward for his next effort.  

The Summer King at Opera America's New Works Forum

Last week I had the privilege of being a featured composer at Opera America’s 3rd annual New Works Forum in New York City. The event is designed for those opera professionals throughout the country interested in new American opera to gather and discuss the associated challenges in bringing such works to the stage. Generally four or five operas are featured during the three-day conference as well, usually about 20-45 minute excerpts in piano-vocal format with singers.

Steve Osgood leads the ensemble. Photo by Audrey Saccone, courtesy of Opera AmericaThis year, however, it was my good fortune to have the Summer King slated for a more featured role. Almost the entire final day of the New Works Forum was devoted to my opera, with a libretto reading by actors in the morning, and then two consecutive performances of three scenes from the opera in the afternoon, the first in piano-vocal format, and the next, the grand finale, with orchestra. This is the first time a work has been featured with orchestra at the NWF, and the size of the ensemble (16 players, including two percussionists with reasonably large setups) prompted a venue change from the National Opera Center, on 7th Avenue near 29th street, where the conference’s other events all took place, to the Mary Flagler Cary Hall at the Dimenna center on 39th Street near 10th Avenue.

It is self evident that the opportunity to hear three scenes from an opera with orchestra, a little bit beyond midway through the orchestrating process, is a tremendous advantage for its composer. By itself, that made the entire endeavor worth its weight in gold. And I was pleasantly surprised with the effectiveness of the orchestrations overall. I seem to have held percussion in check, the surface of the music is colorful but not overwrought, and I do not seem to have buried the singers for the most part.  Several attendees did raise some concerns about balance and prevalence of brass, while some noted the discrepancy between hearing the work in a concert setting, with instrumental musicians on the stage, versus employing a theatrical pit for the ensemble as you would in a full production. This experience has certainly nudged us towards stashing the orchestra in the pit for the Maine concert premiere in May. Fortunately I will soon have a professional recording of the day’s events to study, and hope to attain full mastery of the specific challenges attendant to marrying my music to this particular assemblage of tone color. 

Stephen Salters as Josh Gibson. Photo by Audrey Saccone, courtesy of Opera America.In addition to the golden chance to hear my orchestration in process, the day of Summer King had more to offer me and my audience. The morning libretto reading presented almost the entire libretto (not the first scene, or the two short final scenes), read without music by actors, who had had several rehearsals in advance, yielding something closer to a full fledged “performance,” though still on book. This allowed the audience members to have a broader contextual understanding of the piece than that they could get from only the three scenes presented with music. Also, it provided a glimpse into the painstaking process of opera development, as conference-goers who attended all three of the day’s workshops were able to trace the development of the opera in much the same way I’ve experienced it – drawn over ten years, of course. It is amazing that even at this late stage of the opera’s incarnation, I still heard new meanings in many of the opera’s lines as they rolled of the tongues of these talented performers.

A word about the attendees of the New Works Forum. This was an event not open to the general public (and thus does some general confusion exist among friends and colleagues about what, in fact, I was doing in New York last week). Only individual and institutional members of Opera America who had registered for the event could be there, and these included opera general directors, artistic directors, young artist program directors, publishers, and a smattering of composers and librettists. To call it an elite crowd from the perspective of opera would be an understatement. These were people who know the craft and the business intimately, and could extrapolate the dramatic effectiveness of raw  material with significantly more quickness and depth than you would expect from a lay audience. Included in the mix were representatives from several companies I would very much like to see mount the staged world premiere of The Summer King. Not a bad opportunity to grab their ears for a little while.

After each of the three workshops – libretto, piano-vocal and orchestral, I found myself on the hot seat, taking questions from a moderator, and also from this illustrious crowd. Some questioned the logic of not having the lead character, Josh Gibson, have an aria of his own. Though this is very much by design, and not unique in the opera literature, it was a thoughtful conversation that actually lingered throughout the day (prompted in no small part by the singer playing Josh’s interest in the matter). Fortunately, for my sanity, quite a few people seemed to be genuinely moved and impressed at each leg of the day, and expressed as much publicly, giving me the requisite courage to march on to the next segment. It is not really a question of not feeling confident in the work. More about the intensity of experiencing this work that has existed so privately, inside my head and my imagination, given voice for the first time in public, and co-processing both my OWN reaction to the performances and the audience’s, which was almost immediately related back to me after each segment.

In the end, I was more than satisfied – I felt blessed. A troika of partners was involved in getting me to this wonderful moment in my operatic journey: Opera America, who sponsored the entire thing, American Opera Projects, who has been involved in the opera’s development since the very beginning, and Portland Ovations, whose courageous decision to present the concert premiere this coming May has been the catalyst for all of the wonderful developments the opera has enjoyed this year, including this one. I was treated like royalty, like Cinderella (in her good moments) every step of the way – from generous accommodation in New York, to eager, inspired, and respectful treatment by all of the many performers involved (around 40 when actors, singers and musicians are tallied up), to loving and supportive guidance from the benevolent staff and leadership of Opera America. The beautiful informational video Opera America produced as an introduction to the events around my opera gives some idea of the level of professionalism and passion they brought to every aspect of this venture. The commitment and abilities of my creative team, led by Conductor Steven Osgood, Assintant Conductor Charity Wicks, and Director Lemuel Wade, cannot be overstated. The information gleaned in rehearsals, and particularly on that magical last day, will guide me significantly in the frenetic weeks to come.

The wealth of opinions by important opera people about my work must, of course, be treated with care. I feel the need to bottle the feedback, continue working, and then allow myself to fully grapple with the various ideas offered after such time that I – and a public – have experienced the work in entirety, with orchestra. As much as the combination of a libretto reading and almost one third of the opera’s music can tell such an elite audience, I must balance that with the fact that I have been living with this opera for a decade, its music, its characters, its plot. There is virtually no moment about which I have not agonized, and I made the decisions I made for a reason in almost every case. This is NOT to say that the decisions were all right, or that objective and experienced listeners aren’t capable of offering insight that I, in my closeness to the project, would never otherwise have stumbled upon. But more just an acknowledgment, after seeing how much more of the opera’s emotional impact audience members were able to absorb from the orchestral version than from the piano-vocal, that I need to allow the original conception a true and full airing before diving into revision mode.

These are joyous “problems” to be thinking about, alongside the more urgent one of simply getting the work done on time – which must be my religion for the next several months. My carriage may have turned back into a pumpkin for now, but I am hoping one of those I danced with last week will arrive before too long with the glass slipper. After having toiled for so so very long in isolation on this project that is so very dear to my heart, it was simply splendid to be allowed to sparkle for an afternoon. On this, the 67th anniversary of Josh Gibson’s death, I hope for more sparkling days ahead, so that this opera may sing long and proud, as Josh deserved to. 

On Critics and Being Reviewed

1)   It is always nice to be reviewed – flattering that someone took the time to consider your work thoughtfully and seriously. And to write about it in a public forum.

2)   Reviewers often favor snark, or a clever turn of phrase, over heartfelt and justified criticism and I don’t know why. The only place for sarcasm or nastiness is when the work of art under consideration is manipulative, exclusively profit-oriented, or so hopelessly devoid of merit as to demand almost immediate scorn. 

3)   There is a special relationship between the reviewer, and the reviewee. The reviewer holds the power, for the most part, and can help form opinions about work that those reading the review have not yet encountered. But the reviewee knows his or her work infinitely better than the reviewer, and can see through poorly thought out, insubstantial criticism rather instantly. All but the most astute, articulate and penetrating of reviewers are absolutely naked, and utterly exposed before their reviewees.

4)   It is almost always harder to make art than to criticize it. Reviewers should never, but very often do, assume a position of superiority to the object of their scrutiny and its creator. 

5)   It strikes me that it would be innovative and engaging for a publication to allow an occasional rebuttal from a creator of art that has been negatively reviewed. Reviewers get to play god with relatively impunity; they should have to face the music themselves sometimes.

6)   I do value reviewers, and there is a place for good criticism.

7)   I remember the general tone of all my positive reviews, and just about every word of all my negative reviews. 

Maelstroms of Modern Music

Just departed: the Da Capo Chamber Players, who swept through the University of Southern Maine as the second elite NYC-based new music ensemble to grace our concert hall this semester, the first having been the excellent and often electric string quartet, Ethel. Both ensembles came to play student compositions written expressly for their visit, and enacted for the aspiring artistes that rare act of sorcery: bringing a complex piece of modern music into intelligible and emotionally meaningful form in a manner of minutes.

Ethel’s trip to USM was a bonus, a special add-on to their Portland Ovations-sponsored visit to town for a fabulous concert at USM’s Hannaford Hall (no USM sponsorship of that concert, just the rented space). We were offered a short reading session (2 hours) and I was asked if I could come up with 6-8 student pieces for the reading. Could I ever. My students leapt at the opportunity, writing complex, ambitious and idiomatic pieces that prompted Ethel to stay for an extra half an hour, shredding through the newness with aplomb. Man that was a fun day, back in January. I just had the opportunity to revisit the pieces, editing the audio and sending the wave files to Ethel founder and violist Ralph Farris for a grant app and possible other exciting uses. The admiration we felt for them was, apparently, reciprocated.

 This more recent visitation, that of Da Capo, was a longer affair. Thanks to the largesse of the Gorham Cultural Affairs Committee, who offers an annual grant on an alternating basis to music, theatre and art, and the National Endowment of the Arts, who bestowed a grant upon Da Capo, we were able to invite them to USM for a three-day residency, that was to include an open rehearsal, concert, two reading sessions of student works, a master class, a public lecture on art and music, and a visit to the USM Composers Ensemble. With the dates set a year in advance, there was much waiting and eager expectation among the students AND myself – I was tapped to write a new piece for the Da Capo concert. Of course there was a major snow storm on the first day of the residency (because why would anyone think a Tuesday in late March is “safe” in Maine?) but more on that…

 The Da Capo Chamber Players were founded way back in 1970 by my first composition teacher, Joan Tower, who conceived of the group as a vehicle for her own compositions and that of her peer composers. Through the years, they have commissioned and premiered countless works from basically all of the important composers of our time, and since the early 1980s they were installed at Bard College – where I first encountered them – to coach student performers, perform, and most importantly, read student works. As a young composer at Bard, all of my early pieces were rehearsed and performed by these experts, and the pieces sang to life with a greater intensity and purpose than, really, they had any right to.

Over the years, the make-up of the group has changed of course. Today, the only founding member left is the indefatigable flutist Pat Spencer, whose zeal for new music, all these years later, remains undiminished. After I sent Pat my piece for the concert, she asked if Da Capo could play it on their annual Celebrate Bard concert a week before the Maine trip. Of course I agreed, and as a result I had the pleasure of heading down to Pat’s Upper West Side apartment for a first rehearsal. Sitting practically in the laps of the performers, I had the pleasure of reacquainting myself with the working intensity of Da Capo, their accuracy, their commitment to understanding the piece on a deep level, the lines, the groove, the world of emotion that simmers inside the notes and rhythms. It is business, rehearsing with them, because time is at a premium. They work quickly and with discipline, but they are ever welcoming of the composer’s presence. Slight suggestions from me yielded instant results. My at-times vague musical instructions were translated perfectly into technical realities. When my piece was humming along quite nicely, and only then, I was dispatched into the welcoming arms of sunny Broadway and Zabar’s.

The opportunity to share this treasure of a group with my students at USM thrilled me. My student composers are well advanced over where I was as a Bard undergraduate (granted several of them are graduate students, and even many of the undergraduates are so-called “non-traditional” students, with quite a bit more life and musical experience than I had at that time). I knew they would make the Da Capoistes sing for their supper, so to speak, and so they did. Seven composers composed nine pieces, and every moment of the five allotted hours for readings was productively spent.

The Da Capo concert was spectacular. After being snowed in on their first day in Maine, conducting rehearsals in a conference room at the Clarion Hotel with a digital keyboard, and cramming two days’ activities into a marathon Wednesday, they arrived full force on the stage, with a first half featuring Valerie Coleman’s Portraits of Langston (2007) (including wonderful readings of Hughes’ poems by USM theatre major Nathan Lapointe) and my new Delve (2013) (which will probably get its own blog post), and a second half comprised entirely of the best performance I have ever experienced of Schoenberg’s seminal masterpiece Pierrot Lunaire. Soprano Lucy Shelton, who essentially owns that piece these days, came for the concert, stayed an extra day due to snow, and then spent 40 or so minutes demonstrating to the students and other audience members what an expressionist, terrifying, hysterical, soulful, and more than anything, unique piece of music that truly is. If skeptics among my students weren’t necessarily entirely won over (and many were), no one left doubting the potential of Pierrot as a singular work of theatrical music.

 In a two-hour master class (also on Wednesday), Da Capo members coached two student chamber ensembles. First, the USM String Quartet performed, playing my 2008 string quartet Sirens of Sombor, which they have been working up all semester. What a treat to see Curtis Macomber quickly understand the piece and deftly guide the musicians toward a realization that was not just consistent with, but really superior to my original conception. And then, to watch guest artist pianist Chris Oldfather leaping around the room to help Roy MacNeil and Mark Rossnagel bring Messiaen’s Theme and Variations for piano and violin to life was entertaining and exhilarating.

On the last day, Pat Spencer gave one of the better slide lectures you’ll see – a consideration of the relationship between Paul Klee’s paintings and music, replete with musical demonstrations from the Da Capos (special favorites: Bach’s augmentation fugue, and Klee’s Ad Parnasum). 

I sensed a genuine buzz amongst my students after Da Capo left town. It was as if the friendliest of tornadoes had wound its way through the building, shaking up everyone’s conception of what it was to make music, and what it was to love modern music. Speaking personally, I love great new music groups more than anything. They approach new work with a sense of commitment and responsibility, as if it is their duty to realize not only the composer’s conception, but also the piece’s utmost potential. They tackle difficult rhythms and harmonies like child’s play, and still have the ears to hear when something doesn’t sound right within the context of the piece’s world. Having both Ethel and Da Capo visit during the same semester has widened many an eye, and warmed many a heart. It has also sent many a pro musicker traveling back to Gotham with an enhanced view of the music-writing going on in sleepy Gorham, Maine. 

A Composers Ensemble comes of age

One of the things I love best about my gig at the University of Southern Maine is the ensemble I founded back in 2005 - the USM Composers Ensemble. My thought was to try to deal with two problems that plague university composition students in one fell swoop. 1) The diffulty in coraling student performers for new student pieces, and 2) the difficulty in obtainining performances of large ensemble works. 

So in my first full year on the tenure track, I tacked up a poster advertising a new ensemble, and the fun began. In the early days we were small, and rather oddly proportioned. The very first incarnation had two oboes and a soprano sax (which was played by a professional jazz oboist). In subsequent semesters we found ourselves overflowing with electric guitar, theremin, bagpipes, steel pan and other delights. The challenge was always to make music for the instrumentalists at hand, knowing that you could bring in works-in-process, hear readings, go home and revise, and come back the next week. You were guaranteed a weekly rehearsal (one in the early days, two starting a few years back). Most importantly, I aimed to foster an atmosphere of total acceptance and non-judging, in which composers at various stages of development felt free to try things out amidst the total support of their peers. As composers in our program have developed, this hasn't always been so easy - since some have become VERY good, and very accomplished. It is also at times a challenge to balance the desire to become a kind of elite new music ensemble, with the group's core imperative to be a laboratory and a learning platform. We've managed it, I think, to date, somehow. 

The group has varied in size widely. We've been as small as 8, and as large - in the most recent semester - as 30(!). In recent years, there has been a trend toward more traditionally orchestral instrumentation. So much so, in fact, that in the last semester we really did have a little chamber orchestra (2 fl, 3 cl, 2 sax, 3 hns, 1tbn, tuba, gtr, 1 perc, piano, 3 vlns, vla, cb, and 8 singers). The growing strength of the USM string program has resulted in the Composers Ensemble have a strong core string section - something we never even dreamed of in the early days. After years thinking - gosh, I wish I had an opportunity like this when I was a student - I succumbed to the ultimate temptation and began writing for the group this year. I did it with some initial feelings of guilt, since it really is designed as a platform for the students to experiment with their own music. But I think my writing for the group has been helpful - my music is generally difficult (and I apparently have no concept of what it means to write a "student piece"). The two times I've written for the ensemble, my pieces felt pretty hopeless until the late going, when somehow, they miraculously came together. What I adore? Going to work, my job, and conducting rehearsals of my music. And also? Pushing my ensemble to play the same brand of contemporary music I ask professionals to tackle. Does it earn me some enmity along the way? Yeah probably, but we always all seem to be friends at the after-party!  Here's my first effort for the group, What Comes After K, in our Spring '12 incarnation, 13-strong. (looks VERY chamber after this last semester). 

The Fall 2012 semester was the first time that some students - senior music education majors - were required to take the course (it had been exclusively elective until then). So we swelled to a staggering 30. The scope of the ensemble presented real challanges - since we always begin the semester without a note written. Composers needed to have some mastery of orchestration to deal with this group, and the challenges of pulling together wholly new music for such a thick and complicated texture was immense. To make matters worse, I enlisted the entire group to attempt a performance of a wonderful Cantata written by a former grad student of mine, Don Pride. The piece is written for tenor soloist, choir, and two percussionists. So I basically turned the whole group into a choir for half of our rehearsals, one charged with learning a densly chromatic and rhythmically adventurous score. This was a way to maximize our early rehearsal time, since in the beginning of the semester - when pieces are short and really larval - we sometimes do have time on our hands. 

As composers set to work, though, we began to feel the pinch! In my own piece, I took advantage of the presence of a great electric guitarist, Jimmy Dority, and the choir, to write a kind of concerto for electric guitar, chamber orchestra and choir. The text I selected was culled first from the Wikipedia article on valve amplifiers (words selected at random, and in some cases misquoted), and then - for the choral solo section - from an old New York Times article (1928) about vacuum tubes. As is often the case, rehearsals went down to the wire, with the dress rehearsal having its typically essential urgency. 

The concert came off. But the weather was foul, and the turnout was slimmer than it's been in a long time. What a bummer to put sooo much work in (writing, rehearsing, and presenting sparkling new works for large ensemble - the likes of which rarely get heard in these parts) and have so few witness it. With two weeks remaining in the semester, I took what I thought was the only appropriate action. I enlisted the entire ensemble to use our remaining meeting times for recording sessions, stretching well into finals week, a time when most ensembles have long since given up the ghost. This also gave me a chance to show off the current state of the USM mobile recording studio, which has been a pet project of mine for the last few years. 

After much much work on all our parts, the result is a shiny new E.P. of which I could not be more proud. You can preview my own piece here (since it's MY blog!)  and you can listen to and even purchsase the entire album right here (listen to the stunning audio quality of the first piece, Tim Burns' five-movement Goyaesques.) 

Henceforth, an end-of-term series of recording sessions will be built into our curriculum. So more to come, I hope! 

Late fall update

Howdy. I have found it somewhat difficult to maintain even my already condemnable summer level of output in this place. So it goes; full-time teaching, triplet parenthood, an election season, and attempts to carry on something of a creative inner (and outer) life take their toll, but I've not abandoned this lovely space just yet. 

I am also, for the moment, back on facebook for probably the longest stretch of time in over a year. Facebook is a heartless time suck that gives the illusion of bringing people close together, when what it really does is just lower the threshold of "staying in touch" to such a miniscule level that human interaction becomes devoid of most commitment and meaning. But yeah, it's also fun sometimes. 

It's particularly fun around election time, I confess - though at this stage the election has me tied up in so many knots of panic I'm feeling the urge to tune OUT all the chatter. I'm not listening to news, and I know that more or less any day I'll blot out facebook again too - return to the softer, warmer world of inner and familial sounds - diminish my public profile, for some productive slice of weeks or months. 

Part of the reason I've found it difficult to leave right now is there is sort of lots going on, and I have the illusion that advocating and prosletyzing on facebook for concerts and other events does some good. I'm not sure it's really true - since the signal to noise ratio is so shabby I think just about everything gets scrolled past, but oh well. Just about everyone on there - and I'm absolutely no exception - is saying "look what I've done! Listen to my stuff! Check out my show! Aren't I great!" The sum total is just kinda white noise, but I get that heroin-drip sensation of comfort every time I stick my head back in. What to do? Must reassert discipline, when possible, as soon as possible, I suppose. 

Meanwhile, let me rattle of a few instances of come to my show, look what I'm doing, and aren't I great - in the decidedly more intimate confines of my blog-cave.

I received some good news about my opera - which, for those who imagine me tortured in some cave desperately hoping for someone to mount a production (a vision not entirely disconnected from reality), may come as some relief. Fort Worth Opera will feature excerpts of The Summer King, along with seven other operas by composers of quite impressive pedigree, at their inaugural Frontiers program this coming May. It's an opportunity to present the opera to opera folk of various stripes, make some connections, and also hear some more of the piece - all of which fill me with some glee. And it's also a chance to go to Texas during a period we in Maine call "late late winter." 

In a few weeks I'll be traveling back to my old stomping ground, NYC, to perform four out of seven of my Jarring Dances for Clarinet(s) and Steel-String Guitar. To date, clarinettist Maria Wagner and I remain the only people who have played these pieces (a situation I hope will change soon) - but at least we've played them a bunch. This our second trip to New York to offer them, and it feels good to be airing them out again. We are older and wiser than we were the last time we performed them, about 1.5 years ago, and I have high hopes for this gig. It also puts me on a program with some old composer friends and opera composers, Randall Eng and Conrad Cummings. The Dances were written over a furiously intense week back in February, 2011 - I set a challenge to myself to write a piece each night for a week. The result, if you can believe it, was not only a piece that I really like a good bit, but also, a transformation in my rate of production. Since that piece, I now write fast (when I can write at all). This is probably the topic for another blog post that's all about me me me in the future, so stay tuned and keep that breath baited. 

Also, I just put down the double bar line on a new piece for my Composers Ensemble at the University of Southern Maine. I have been leading this group since I founded it back in 2005, but only this year, 2012, have I succumbed to the great tempation to contribute my own music. Last semester I wrote What Comes After K, and this time - taking advantage of our striking numerical advantage (the group this term is quite literally a chamber orchestra with choir) - I've written an odd little mini electric guitar concerto for chamber orchestra, choir and guitar. It's called Tube Top, and is a flight of fancy - a celebration of the tube amplifier, with texts drawn from the Wikipedia article on Valve Amplifiers and a 1928 New York Times article announcing the invention of the UX215 - a bold new type of tube that heralded great and loud things for the future. The work is about 6.5 minutes long, and something of a feat to put together, what with the blazing guitar runs (performed by my student and bandmate Jimmy Dority), mechanistic choral outbursts, and grooving ensemble work. Next semester, I fear, my schedule won't allow for me to write for Composers Ensemble, which is a shame. Can you imagine the joy it brings me having as part of my job the preperation and performance of my own music? It is a greedy pleasure, made irresistable by the ensemble's late rise from apprenticeship to mastery, and I am grateful for a spot on the program, alongside inspiring and ever-improving works by grad and under-grad student maestros. That shinola hits the fan at Corthell Hall at USM Gorham on December 1, 8pm. (Free show!) 

Back in late September, as I mentioned in my last post, pianist Bridget Convey and percussionist Lynn Vartan were in Maine for a terrific residency. There were concerts at Bowdoin College and USM, and a great master class at USM featuring student performers and composers. I have rarely been so delighted at a premiere performance of one of my own works - and I am hoping to be able to share video proof of the awesomeness soon. Check this very spot. 

The rock band, Lovers of Fiction, has been a little bit on the back burner as its various members juggle ridiculous quantities of Things to Do, but we are hoping to make a small joyful noise before 2012 expires (I - having a pretty great New Year's song in my back pocket, know just the date for us, actually...) 

And next up for me seems to be a 10-12 minute piece for the Da Capo Chamber Players, who will be up in Maine for a 3-day residency this coming March. As Da Capo was a major part of my musical infancy - residents as they were at my alma mater, Bard College - this is as joyful a reunion as I could imagine. The opportunity to share the new music finesse and generosity that has characterized that group for four decades with my own students is nothing short of sublime. 

Well, thanks for tuning in - I'll try to blip in again soon with updates and silly other stuff. 

41 Fathead premieres...some thoughts

[UPDATE of October 5 - I have now added audio of the world premiere of this piece at the end of this post.]

Greetings folks and apologies for my long absence, which I imagine has been twisting you into pretzels of despair. 

Next weekend promises to be one of the busier musical weekends to date in my young life, and I wanted to share some thoughts on a composition that I’m having premiered (over a year after its composition) by two wonderful musicians, pianist Bridget Convey, and percussionist Lynn Vartan (in from Utah for the occasion).

The oddly titled 41 Fathead arose from a commission by these two performers for their Maine residency, which was envisioned several years ago, initially planned for last November, and then rescheduled for this September. The opportunity to write for piano and percussion, two instruments near and dear to my heart (I play both, but percussion will always always be my native tongue) was irresistible, and I was fortunate to be able to fund the commission with a Maine Arts Commission Good Idea Grant.

Last summer, near the beginning of my momentus Fall sabbatical, I interrupted furious work on my opera, The Summer King, to fulfill this commission. I had just turned 41, which was a momentous and long-dreaded age for me – the age at which my father, one week fresh off of his third New York City marathon, dropped dead on his morning jog. In an always-seeming-non-coincidence, it was actually the day of my first drum lesson. I was eleven years old (it was Halloween, 1981), and I had walked back home after the lesson to find an empty house and no explanation. Several hours later my aunt and sister arrived to let me in and deliver the stunning, surreal news. It took me a good thirty years to address the strange marriage of those two life-changing events in any form of art. 

It had long been on my mind to write a memorial piece for my father, and as the first new piece of my 41st year, the subtext of the composition was a matter of little choice. But I had more recently been plagued by another loss – that of my old college friend Christopher Hume. I have written of Chris’s passing elsewhere (and, have apparently been the source of this info for many unwitting web surfers, searching for news of their old friend, collaborator, or mentor). Chris’s influence on the course of my own musical life is equal to that of my most significant composition teachers. During my sophomore year, we lived in the same dorm, down the hall from one another. To the not-quite-delight of our neighbors, we would sometimes open our doors, plug our guitars in, and trade fours at maximum volume. Chris was a self-described “composer,” which was exotic and strange to me. But he was also a burning electric guitarist, as well as a deeply skilled, and deeply self-confident classical guitarist. His broad ranging musical interests were paralleled only by his unending sense of mischief, of impish gamesmanship and dryly arch humor. Chris would give poetry readings, his voice amplified and distorted, a wah-wah pedal in play. His poems, “Bee Sting,” “Meatwagon,” “Gibley,” were their own fresh brand of sound art, and in the creative hipster enclave of Bard he established his own personal plane of strangeness and inspiration. For a time, I was completely and utterly under his spell, monkeying his mannerisms, his speech; hanging on his every musical judgment (he was immensely judgmental. He HATED Stravinsky and Bartok; adored Ravel and Debussy; but adored above all else, the semi-obscure Spanish composer Federico Mompou).

Chris was reckless with his own health in college – he experimented and indulged with almost everything, and he seemed anyway of particularly weak constitution. I remember several hospital stays, and endless stories of epic excess. The morning after I returned home from Dutchess County Hospital, having drunk myself there in an ill-conceived public drinking challenge (these sort of things happened at Bard back in the day), Chris greeted me as a kind of conquering hero. “You must have one hell of a hangover,” he said. When I told him “nope, feel fresh as a daisy,” he simply clapped my back and said “The man!” His respect, however ill-gotten, always meant the world to me, as I perpetually saw myself as a sad gray also-ran next to his bedazzling wicked charisma and flair. It took me many years to recognize that he harbored genuine musical respect for me, and I realized it almost too late. Back in the day, Chris volunteered to record my singer-songwriter concerts, helped engrave parts for my senior project orchestral composition (for precious little compensation, an early adaptor – and to a professional degree – of the musical engraving software that would transform modern music composition) and was a particularly vocal supporter of my song "Tiny Town." Years later, in a series of emails shortly before his death, he paid me complements that I’m too modest to share, but that touched me to my core. Behind the madcap exterior, I knew then as now, there was a sensitive and loving soul, and my encounter with both – the inner and the outer Hume – were signally important.

 After college Chris and I lost touch for many years. Occasionally I would have a strange, anonymous (but unmistakably Chris) message on my answering machine, leaving neither name nor return number. Then, in about 2005, Chris and I got back in touch and exchanged many emails. He was back in Long Island, living with his folks, and both convalescing and working on various musical projects of great import. It seemed difficult, in these days, to distinguish fact from fantasy – although after Chris’s death, when I went back to read all of his emails, I was struck my how thoroughly cogent they in fact were. Chris had been felled by chronic ailments, was more or less bedridden, but was still harboring a dream of traveling to Japan to teach. He had made arrangements with some school out there, and ended up selling much of his prized musical possessions to afford passage – at least this is how I understood it. Apparently, though, when he DID finally get out there, the trip was a disaster; he was taken advantage of, and left in a dismal financial and personal position. He made his way back to the States, and after some side-travels, back to his parents’ home. We exchanged a couple of emails in January 2007, after the whole disaster had unfolded, but nothing too detailed. I wish now that I had asked more questions. He took his own life later that month.

Chris’s death, like my father’s, has been a slow burn. We had been so infrequently in touch, and in some ways the news was so unsurprising (hard to explain exactly why), that at first it registered almost as a matter of course. Who could imagine Chris Hume in old age? But over the years, the pain of his early demise has magnified; it makes less and less sense, feels more desperate and tragic. I suppose our losses are part of what makes us who we are, and they stay with us, growing and revealing meaning through the years. I think of Chris so often – his influence on me, how he thoroughly shaped the course of my life, and how I wish I could share my music with him today.

Similarly, I wish my father had a chance to see the musician I’ve become, and hear the music I’ve written. He was a successful businessman, but also a talented amateur musician, with a burning intensity that kept him up through the nights, working in his basement shop, building, of all things, guitars. He died on the day of my first drum lesson, and so never heard any of the countless high school bands I played in, or my early college forays into composition, to say nothing of the later pieces that were, you know, real music. I was just a kid who couldn’t sit still, banged on everything, and was offered drum lessons as an outlet for unruly and unfocused percussive energy.

So I felt emotional during my 41st year. And I thought of that pivotal number, 41. 4-1. In musical terms, in the 12-tone system where each pitch has a corresponding integer value (C=0, C#=1, D=2 etc.), 4-1 is E-C#: a descending minor third. This interval had particular significance with regards to Chris. In ear training class, he taught us all to remember the descending minor third by referencing the childhood taunt “fat-head.” It was such an effective mnemonic that the interval was almost instantly so dubbed by all of us, and I don’t think any member of that class has ceased thinking of it as "the fathead" to this day. So these swirling thoughts and numbers, 41, fathead, coalesced rather effortlessly into a piece about both childish exuberance, mischief, and ultimately, mourning and loss. The two moods occur interchangeably throughout the piece, which is an extended etude on the interval of a minor third. In the end, the mournful sensibility wins out, but ultimately sparks a moment of catharsis, when the two instrumental performers begin to sing that timeless mnemonic, “fathead,” in music that is ethereal and transcendent.

Written right before the electric sabbatical push that resulted in the completion of my opera, this work is most definitely the most personal and emotional piece of music I have yet penned. I have been living with it only in my ears and imagination for long enough, and am so eager to hear the premiere performances at Bowdoin College and the University of Southern Maine next weekend. Concerts are at Bowdoin on Friday, September 28, and the University of Southern Maine on Sunday, September 30. 

UPDATE! Here's audio of the second performance from the premiere weekend - this is Bridget and Lynn being thoroughly and deeply awesome throughout. 

The Mexican Scene

My great summer labor of love is now complete and I am ready to share. As readers of my blog and followers of my tweets know, I have been working for several months on a demo of a scene from my opera – the Mexican scene that opens the second act. If you are inclined to cut right to the chase and listen to the scene, that is okay by me, just scroll to the bottom of this post. Though you might wish to check out the synopsis of the opera first – and particularly of that scene. Context is everything!

But for those still reading HERE, I wanted to sketch out the rationale, genesis, a process behind this recording project, since I imagine there are aspects to the composition and realization of opera that may be foreign to some…I mean at least one of my readers.


 As I have said elsewhere (though perhaps not in public, perhaps only in grant applications), opera is a tricky thing generally, and writing an opera on spec (i.e. without a commission) is an order of magnitude trickier. Of course writing on spec happens often in the world of the arts. Most writers write their first (and sometimes subsequent) novels on spec, and then send them out to prospective agents and publishers hoping for a bite. Similarly, visual artists often make their first works, or first efforts in a new body of work, without necessarily having a venue or assured representation. The thing with these forms is, however, they are what they are, and readily so. Meaning, if I write my novel, I can hand it to you, you can read it, and I can feel assured that you’ve come in direct contact with the work of art as I conceived it. (Whether you understood it is of course another matter, but irrelevant for now).  With a painting it’s even better, since I can look at you looking at my painting and know that at least the entire thing has sat before your eyes.

The case is quite obviously different with music; perilously so with opera. These days, most composers are generating at least decent midi demos of their instrumental pieces, using software such as Finale or Sibelius, and sometimes even editing further in more dedicated sequencing or recording programs.  The trouble comes when the human voice is involved, since voice is among the weakest of sampled sounds, and even when it’s a decent patch, it is next to impossible to sample words – or at least the right words!

 So opera composers writing on spec are in a bind. I finished my entire opera at the end of last year, but still, no one has heard it yet (including me). I have done play-throughs of sections, had live performances, workshops, and done several recording sessions, so that now I have little bits and pieces and even some larger bits and pieces of the whole thing to share, but I still, to this date, cannot just hand my opera to someone and expect them to get it, or be able to digest its totality in any way at all. There are a handful of truly exceptional score readers out there who can “hear” some semblance of the full texture by reading through the score, but particularly with contemporary music, where harmonic schema are so varied and individualized, I am always skeptical that anyone can really accomplish this feat anymore.

 So there is a great frustration, upon completing a great opera (if I dare take such liberty!) that absolutely no one can judge it on its merits. There is required an additional step of translation, of realization, before someone can evaluate the work as a whole. And needless to say, that remains the case even after this most recent demo, which constitutes less than one sixth of the entire opera. Nonetheless, however, it is a more ambitious and more demonstrative piece of tape by a long way than any I’ve had at my disposal to date.


My ambition was to demo up one of the most elaborate, sexiest sections of the opera, to show its potential and get prospective producers, directors, funders et al excited. As I have mentioned previously, the sexiest and best scene for this purpose would be the tavern scene, Act I Scene 4, but the overall demands of that scene – the most difficult and complex music of the opera – made even contemplating a serious pass at a demo too daunting. The runner-up was the Mexico scene, which had the advantage of having been scored from the get-go for piano and mariachi band (two violins, two trumpets, double bass, guitar, castanets). As with the rest of the opera’s score, as it currently exists, the piano is a stand-in for an orchestra whose size and exact make-up will be largely contingent on what’s on offer from the lucky company who gets to do this thing first. I have deliberately kept my options open by not finalizing orchestration for much of the opera, but there are some scenes so contingent on specific sounds that semi-orchestration was essential.

Making the Recording

So after deciding that it was the Mexican scene, I had to come up with a plan of action. The scene involves a choir, the aforementioned mariachi band, a mariachi vocal trio, and six total solo singers. My initial impulse was that I needed MONEY, and help from friends! I applied to grants from the Maine Arts Commission and the Faculty Senate of my own institution, the University of Southern Maine, and fortunately was successful in both cases. The combined money would still not be quite enough for me to hire all of the professional instrumentalists and singers I would need, but it was at least ballpark (I wouldn’t be hopelessly bankrupting myself and my family in the process…only partially!)

 Bob Russell, USM’s choral director graciously agreed to lend me the talents of his ensemble and himself for the recording. I would have their penultimate rehearsal of the semester to rehearse, and their final 1.5 hour rehearsal for recording. There are only three choral sections in the scene, and they are reasonably short, so this seemed doable. But as this was coming together midway through the spring semester, I did not feel prepared to gather all of the horses I needed for the full scene, since it involved hiring singers (most likely from out of town) and other logistics. Since the ensemble needed to play alongside the chorus, I needed all of the instrumentalists on board for our early May session. It all came together beautifully, and at the time I posted some vids of the action.

 We did the recording almost entirely with in-house equipment, by the way, as one of my projects over the last several years has been cultivating a mobile and quite capable recording studio at USM. With the help of local recording guru Steve Drown, who did bring with him some extra fancy microphones, we were able to gather some beautiful sounds, and documented the placement of every player and every mic, so that we could blend the takes with later sessions.

 Meanwhile, my friend and advisor Tim Steele, a vocal coach at NEC, helped me find personnel for the next phase of the recording. It has been a priority of mine since the inception of this opera that the African American roles (with which this opera is obviously rife) be performed by African American singers, even for a purely audio-recording. Certainly at least part of the rationale there is that I am aiming to develop relationships with singers who might partake in subsequent workshops, recordings, or even full productions. I have not always been able to keep entirely to this plan, but generally it’s worked out. Through Tim I found the great Laurelle Mathison, a mezzo, and Christian Figueroa, a native Spanish-speaking tenor ideally suited to perform the colorful role of Señor Alcalde, the mayor of Vera Cruz. I had previously brought Ron Williams up to Maine to sing the role of Josh Gibson in some live excerpts of the opera, so he was a natural fit. I engaged Tim as a vocal coach, and he worked with the singers in Boston; I came down for a final meeting before the recording.  

 The work was additionally bolstered by some of USM’s finest student and recent-alumni performers, including tenors Jesse Wakeman and Jeff Caron, baritone Josh Miller, percussionist Josh Champagne, and piccolo player Nicole Rawding. The only thing I was not able to get in place in time for our two recording sessions, scheduled for July, was my mariachi vocal trio. So I put it off, and planned to overdub them at a later time.

During two intense recording sessions in early July at USM, we recorded the remainder of the scene. I conducted, Steve was back at the sound controls; singers drove up from Boston, others rolled in from nearer by; my ensemble reconvened, and we spent six hours working methodically. It is certainly an interesting challenge to record an opera with players and singers who have not previously performed the piece! Which is to say, if we were coming off the heels of a 4 or 6 performance run, it would be logical and easy to progress to the recording studio. But in this case, everyone was essentially learning the music as it was being recorded. At least learning how to play it together. On paper it’s such a daunting concept that I’m glad I didn’t think about it too much beforehand.

 When these sessions were done, I then spent the next two weeks hunched in front of a ProTools workstation, editing together what felt like hundreds of takes, putting sonic events that took place months apart into close and seamless succession.

Meanwhile, the search was ON for the last piece of the puzzle, my mariachi vocal trio. After hearing Christian Figueroa give such life to the role of Señor Alcalde, I decided it was essential to find native Spanish speakers, ideally Mexican, with some actual mariachi experience. With certainty, this meant leaving Maine! Fortunately I was able to liberate a little bit of additional research funding, since the new fiscal year had begun.  Since my former home base of NYC is still where I have the most contacts (and feel the most comfortable), I set my sights there, and enlisted some friends to get singer recommendations. Thanks in large part to Facebook (!), I was connected with Mauricio Trejo, who is Mexican and a sometime mariachi performer, and also Alex Guerrero and Rod Gomez, the last of whom is Pilipino, and knows only “book Spanish.” We shared a good laugh over this when we met at a New York Recording studio for the first time. Nonetheless, my mariachis comported themselves brilliantly during our two-hour session at Second Story Sound under the guidance of myself and engineer Alejandro Venguer

 Drove back to Maine with my little hard drive, hit the ProTools studio again for several evenings, filtering in the newly recorded material. Then, persuaded the great and good Ron Williams to record some off stage dialogue for me w/ audacity, which he sent me as a WAV file. And finally, just this morning in fact, I met with Steve Drown for final editing and mixing. Steve, benevolent soul that he is, complimented me on my many splices (but wasn’t shy about fixing the ones that needed it). He did that magically-make-everything-sound-better thing.

So here it is. Countless hours of work, rehearsals and recordings in three states, six vocal soloists, a choir, two conductors, two sound engineers and nine instrumentalists, all so that I could share these 19 minutes of my opera with someone (and especially you). Well, and me. I hope you enjoy it. Please feel free to share, though I’d prefer a link to this website than to the SoundCloud page, since context is kind of everything! (If you are interested in receiving higher quality audio, or additional materials about the opera, please contact me

On this recording: 
Wendell Smith: Jesse Wakeman (tenor) 
Gus Greenlee: Jeff Caron (tenor) 
Señor Alacalde: Christian Figueroa (tenor) 
Grace: Laurelle Mathison (mezzo) 
Josh Gibson: Ron Williams (baritone) 
Sam Bankhead: Josh Miller (baritone) 
Mariachi vocal trio: Mauricio Trejo (tenor), Alex Guerrero (tenor), Rod Gomez (baritone)

Violins: Jenny Elowitch, Rob Lehmann, Dino Liva 
Trumpets: Alan Kaschub, Michelle Kingston 
Bass: Joshua DeScherer 
Guitar: Don Pride 
Castanets: Josh Champagne 
Piano: Bridget Convey 
Piccolo: Nicole Rawding



The University of Southern Maine Chamber Singers, Robert Russell, conductor

Conductor: Daniel Sonenberg (Robert Russell for the choral sections)

Recorded by Steve Drown at the University of Southern Maine

Overdubs recorded by: Alejandro Venguer, Second Story Sound, NYC

Edited by Daniel Sonenberg 
Mixed and Mastered by Steve Drown and Daniel Sonenberg


Vera Cruz, Mexico, 1941.
PRELUDE: Wendell Smith asks Gus Greenlee, who has now been out of baseball for three years, why, after all he did for his players, they still abandoned him to play in the Mexican baseball league. Gus replies that the only thing his money couldn’t buy them, what they got down south, was dignity.
SCENE: A tremendous celebration, featuring Mexican music and proclamations by the mayor of Vera Cruz, Señor Alcalde. Josh is initially nowhere to be found, but ultimately stumbles on stage with a somewhat ornery disposition. He receives his prize money for being named Player of the Year, and complains about being paid in “Mex dollars,” before acknowledging that life south of the border is pretty good. He wonders why they should ever go home, while Grace tells him to enjoy the “high living” tonight, but be prepared to go back to the states and conquer the “whole white world” tomorrow. While others celebrate, Grace and Josh steal away to smoke a joint, and Josh, who grows increasingly agitated, collapses at the end of the scene (initially pulling Grace down with him).

SYNOPSIS OF SCENE Vera Cruz, Mexico, 1941.
PRELUDE: Wendell Smith asks Gus Greenlee, who has now been out of baseball for three years, why, after all he did for his players, they still abandoned him to play in the Mexican baseball league. Gus replies that the only thing his money couldn’t buy them, what they got down south, was dignity.
SCENE: A tremendous celebration, featuring Mexican music and proclamations by the mayor of Vera Cruz, Señor Alcalde. Josh is initially nowhere to be found, but ultimately stumbles on stage with a somewhat ornery disposition. He receives his prize money for being named Player of the Year, and complains about being paid in “Mex dollars,” before acknowledging that life south of the border is pretty good. He wonders why they should ever go home, while Grace tells him to enjoy the “high living” tonight, but be prepared to go back to the states and conquer the “whole white world” tomorrow. While others celebrate, Grace and Josh steal away to smoke a joint, and Josh, who grows increasingly agitated, collapses at the end of the scene (initially pulling Grace down with him).




Meditation on Rufus et al

Me and the missus got out to a rare concert the other night, Rufus Wainwright at Portland's State Theatre. For a city of its size, Portland is blessed with some simply outstanding performance venues, and I don't think any beats the State. It has a long storied history, and apparently goes through extended periods of being closed (it was is one and presumed dead for the first few years of my Portland residency). Then it comes back to life and is all art deco and loaded up with charm, good sound, a great bar area behind the orchestra seats. All the performers the other night made mention of what a cool space it was, and I think they meant it. And - with a pair of tix coming in at about $90 including fees, it was a pretty reasonable way to experience what felt in all ways like a high-class affair.

I'm writing two days after the concert, but so much about it has stuck with me. So I'm sitting in Portland's Bard Coffee blogging - it's I guess a way of intellectually vomiting out the experience so that my digestion can start processing yesterday, today and tomorrow again. There is loud music playing here - which is the drawback to most coffee places. But they make the best coffee I've had north of Cafe Grumpy, so I'll abide. If this post is pure horseshit, you know why. 

I am especially drawn to Rufus Wainwright, and I see him as such a curious case. My review of his concert is etic, rather than emic, in that I am not really a deeply-rooted fan. I have one album, haven't listened to it much, and don't really have anything close to command of his oeuvre. The first song I heard of his was "Oh What a World," which seems to be a good little microcosmic display of what he's all about. Namely, quite obviously the best male singer in pop music today, the best melodist, and a person with some serious taste issues. The first couple of minutes of that song hit me like a thunderbolt - a SAVIOR! But the gradual and ultimately over-the-top incursion of Bolero into the fabric is such a thoroughly wrong turn, and carried through to such complete and utter catastrophe, that one can't in fact help but tip one's hat. He poured a bucket of ink on his Guernica. Wiped out what was destined to be my favorite record in ages. And yet I listen to that song, and often, each time reliving all the hope and frustration a four-minute pop song can possibly bring. 

The concert was something like that, I suppose. Rufus's talent level is off the spectrum. I like seeing a pop star, or any artist really, and thinking, no, he's not like me, he's other (and by other I mean much more talented - talent oozing from his pores, leaving puddles everywhere he turns). Knowing nothing, I have the sense that music must always have come really easily to Rufus. He is, of course, the offspring of two very capable songwriters from the folk world, Loudon Wainwright III, and Kate McGarrigle. Songwriting seems an absolute joke to him, to be honest. And his songwriting has everything I love about songwriting, namely, an endless supply of beautiful melodies, and a bold harmonic sensibility - literally EVERY song had at least one thunderbolt of a harmonic progression that prompted a fast exhale from me. His melodic and harmonic sensibilities are entirely intertwined, such that his wonderful melodies are strengthened at every turn by his relentlessly excellent chord progressions. Unlike some songwriters, though, most notably John Lennon, he isn't entirely dependent on chord movement to give his melodies life (go listen to "Julia" to see what I'm talking about with Lennon. Dude could make one note the best melody on God's earth.) In the audience on Tuesday, I was just dumbfounded as one song after another that I didn't previously know rolled off the stage and swept me up in its sheer brilliance of construction. 

And then there is his voice, which is simply an order of magnitude better than anyone's this side of Thom Yorke. To me his voice is a clear relative of Syd Barret's, Robyn Hitchcock's, and even a little bit of Lennon's, insomuch as there is a slight graininess woven in with the irresistible creaminess, colored by a hint of a British sensibility. He has a considerably wider range than all of those singers too, and on Tuesday he flew comfortably to heights in Harold Arlen's (greatest song ever) "The Man That Got Away", all the way down to basso profundo in a cover of his dad's "One Man Guy." With a voice like that, he could get away with being a really terrible songwriter, or at least a lazy one - especially with the show biz connections he was born into. All things combined, he's a performer/writer on the space alien level - he's a Bowie, a McCartney - an aberration in the gene pool, an inexplicable mutation. 

But he isn't quite Bowie. McCartney might be more apt. And here's where my critique comes in. His generally six-piece band the other night was entirely uninspiring - boring even. He had two electric guitarists, a bassist (who was musical director too), a piano/keys player, a drummer, and then himself on occasional guitar and piano. I suppose the biggest offense is that it was just too much. Too much sound, none of it very interesting. The guitarists, I suppose, were the worst offenders - noodly, tired-sounding, dated, I don't what really - I just almost constantly found myself listening past them. Bass was fine. Drums were as entirely unremarkable as drums could possibly be - I'd do better imagining them, honestly. Piano/Keys guy was capable, thought the keys sounds were often overwhelming and annoying. On the few instances where Rufus stripped down the group, the sound was great. And on the one instance when he performed a song solo w/ piano, it was a revelation. The guy is simply a monster, and really anything covering him up is a detriment. Maybe it's like how I really don't like getting whipped cream and fudge on truly first rate ice cream - I want to taste the actual stuff. But more than that, there was just a real more-for-more's-sake aesthetic at play. Some of the tunes certainly lent themselves well to rocking out, but a three- or four-piece band (including Rufus) would have been sufficient. 

I say more McCartney than Bowie because McCartney - as sheer a talent as he is - really (and quite obviously) did by far his best work when he had John Lennon present as a collaborator, editor, and competitor. I think Rufus would benefit from such a presence, someone of equal gifts to filter his choices and direct his unfathomable talents toward good rather than evil. Bowie - whose incredible talent is sometimes overlooked due to his showmanship and his chameleon-like aptitude for staying relevant - surrounded himself, at least in the golden era, with a better band. Bowie's Spiders' era band complimented everything he did and made it better, the whole was always greater, never less than the sum of its parts. 

There were other items of considerable interest on that concert. A short opening set was played by one of Rufus's backing singers, the mesmerizing and delightfully androgynous  Krystle Warren. I say that because - with her hat on, I mistook her for a dude for about three quarters of the evening. Her set was great, but the highlight of her night was a performance of one of Rufus's mum's tunes, "I Don't Know." Rufus, an apparently generous star, yielded the stage to two of his band members to perform songs from a recent tribute film to Kate McGarrigle, and both were really superb. But Krystle's performance of "I Don't Know" was a thing that blew me backwards, reevaluating all my prior singing and songwriting (negatively). Here's a YouTube clip of it from earlier on the tour. I don't think a song, or its performance, can be all that much better. Her vocal aptitude is indicative of one of Rufus's strengths in assembling an ensemble - he certainly has an ear for voices. His backing singers seem to come from the same distant singing planet as he does. By rights no one should sound this good vocally - in the trio performance of "One Man Guy" I was veritably stunned by the vocal harmonies. Just shrink the band (and make them better). 

After Krystle Warren's short set, the son of another famous singing bard, Adam Cohen (Leonard's boy), did a set that was quite perfect. I previously knew about Adam Cohen only because of another Adam Cohen, founder of the Indie band the Mommyheads, who subsequently changed his name to Adam Elk so as to avoid confusion with his more well-connected namesake. Cohen's band was three-piece: himself on guitar, a female cellist/baby guitar playing singer, and a male combo percussionist/keyboard player (2 limbs on perc, 1 on other - I'm starting to LOVE that route). Cohen is clearly possessed of his father's literary gifts - his lyrics were uniformly outstanding. What's more, the ensemble arrangements were transparent, and never short of the perfect compliment to the songs and their singer. Cohen's voice is not dissimilar to his father's, though perhaps less unique and more conventionally poppy. Definitely more rangy. He is by no means Rufus's equal in talent (have I mentioned that basically no one is?) But in taste he is superior, and his ensemble was better by a good bunch. 

A highlight of the evening was Rufus calling Adam C out for one of his encores, and the two singing Leonard Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel." It was an interesting capper on an evening featuring sons of famous men, one probably living in the shadow of his iconic dad, the other having surpassed the accomplishment of his, each, I imagine with particular feelings about their own lineage. I know not what it must feel like, but it was nice for it not to be the elephant in the room, with both men offering soulful and strong renditions of songs of their fathers. 

The 24 hr. Yips – or Chuck Knoblauch Disease – or Spastic Ankle

I am premiering my new piece, Takes One to Know One, this coming Thursday. I’m playing kick drum and floor tom – which is deeply in my comfort zone, as drums is my first instrument. And it’s a good thing, since the other members of my ensemble (Ben Noyes, cello; Josh DeScherer, bass; and Maria Wagner, bass clarinet) are all the ilk who are actually professional performers a good bunch of the time (more than say, once a year, which is where I’ve been living these past couple).

Anyway, prep has been going nicely. I’ve gotten out to the drums and practiced muchly, worked out all the trouble spots, played along w/ the midi, felt great about the gig. First couple of rehearsals went fine.

Then yesterday, when I went out to the drums after a weekend away to just brush back the dust, I was confronted with a problem. My kick drum foot was just completely daft – non-responsive, spastic, a waste of an appendage. Here’s the opening of the perc part:

You might think that at such a clip, the opening 7 measures would be the potential trouble spot, but they’re a breeze. What I was unable to play – suddenly – with any modicum of steadiness or musicality was the passage starting in the middle of m. 7. Repeated notes on the kick drum were just not coming. It happened early yesterday, and remained a problem when we gathered to rehearse last night.

I couldn’t help thinking of old Chuck Knoblauch. I remember being so excited when the Yankees acquired him to play 2nd base. He was a gold glove fielder, a speed demon, and a hitter. And he did all right in the beginning, but shortly after his arrival, he began to lose his ability to throw the ball to first base. Understand that from second to first is probably the easiest throw in the game. Yet Chucky Garlic would take a routine grounder, pause for a sec, and then throw it three feet over the sad first baseman’s outstretched glove. I was actually at the game in…um…’99 or so, when Knoblauch made three horrendous throwing errors, one of which sailed into the stands and hit Keith Olberman’s mother. (she lived)

There is a history of this in baseball. Steve Blass, Steve Sax, but I’m not sure any demise was quite as tragic as Chuck K’s. Because Chuck could still hit, and run, and could still actually make the tough plays. It was the routine plays in which he just came apart. The thing he had done 10,000 times and could do in his sleep, he was suddenly unable to do at all. He sought counseling, switched to left field, left the Yankees, and was soon out of baseball altogether, a sure hall-of-fame career completely derailed.

It is probably fortunate that my career as a kick drum/floor tom specialist is not off to as auspicious a start as Chuck’s baseball career was. Nonetheless, I was aware of the potential of this becoming a full blown mental catastrophe, something I couldn’t get over, like ever. I mean, the inability to hit quick repeated notes on the kick drum, when my training was really as a rock drummer, is borderline unfathomable. And certainly made me live in terror of this final passage, a routine ground ball if ever there was one:

But I took cellist Ben’s advice. I blamed the kick drum pedal. Got up this morning, went to the barn with my Allen Key and my drum key, adjusted the thing every which way, arranged it so the beater actually sat a good couple of inches closer to the head, and what do you know, my problem was essentially gone. The finesse returned, the odd yips that so blighted the prospects of a smash debut this Thursday? Nowhere to be found. Well, not exactly true. I was a bit yippy on some of those kick hits, but the absolute spazziness was vanquished. Years of counseling and an ultimate demotion to left field averted. 

Chamber music kick drum/floor tom hall of fame, here I come. 

A Gloriously ADD Musical Summer

I never considered myself a geek; but I may be slightly off there, since at least one part of me sees “ADD” and thinks “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.” So be it; that’s not the ADD I mean (and yes, that’s two semicolons in the first paragraph, which is now through.)

I am sitting on a porch overlooking Sylvester Cove in Deer Isle, Maine, thanks to the hospitality of some good friends – a composer/writer pair to which we feel some considerable kinship. This is a pause, a caesura if you will, amidst a musical summer that is proceeding willy-nilly in no fewer than three directions at once. I had a vision for the summer in the early going, and to date I am on track. It went something like this: May-June, compose chamber music; July: record opera demo and perform chamber music; August – be a rock star and then go on vacation.

In May and June I DID compose chamber music. Two pieces, totaling 17 minutes, which is bountiful for me in a short time span. I am only slightly sad that I did not keep up the composing momentum into July, but it was not my plan to do so. I think I am coming to terms with the pros and cons of being quite obviously ADD (the other ADD) – needing to have multiple balls in the air at any given time, needing to be able to shift foci, to nurture wildly different projects and just keep bouncing from one to the next. This probably hampers my overall success in any one given field, I imagine, but it is also likely beneficial for my development as a human.

In particular, I have loved concentrating on performance in a more prolonged and disciplined way than I have in a very long time. There is something so essential about performing music, feeling it come to life under your hands, taking responsibility for your own actions (with the pen, or the metaphorical pen, as it were). In the old days, I composed music at the piano, and could really play some semblance of any piece I was working on right there, from memory.  Then, gradually the computer took over my process – first just in the engraving stage, and bit by bit in the composing stage too. Now I write exclusively at the computer, only occasionally checking a harmony on the ivories. This means I work faster, activate more complex textures, but don’t experience the real physicality of music-making in my process. For the most part, this is probably healthy, but it leaves me searching out other avenues for physical mus-emoting.

The wonderful upshot of right now for me is, in this first Summer in nearly a decade where I don’t have an opera weighing heavily on my consciousness (the completion of an opera, anyway – I still have the placing of an opera on the brain), my days have been varied and filled with music. I am moving closer to integrating the vastly disparate musics that have always tickled my brain. Last week I had a particularly nice stretch of days. On Monday evening I gathered with several former and one current graduate student and we shared our efforts for the Rapido composition contest (about which I’ve said nothing in this space – and won’t until the semi-finalists are announced on August 6); then I spent the next day editing the big demo of The Summer King’s Mexican scene I’ve been assembling for a good several months (very nearly done w/ that); then that evening we had a rehearsal of my new piece Takes One to Know One – which I think I’ve yammered about in this space (and will be premiered in Brunswick, Maine on July 26), and then Wednesday night my rock band, Lovers of Fiction, rehearsed. Of course, interspersed with all these vibrant and soul-stimulating activities were copious helpings of childcare and some managing/grading of the on-line course I’m teaching now (all vibrant and soul-stimulating too, if differently so).

I am musically happy right now – for this little slice of my life anyway. And it’s because my ADD-addled brain is being allowed to jump from thing to thing. I have increasingly little patience for music genre snobs. Those who hate classical, or hate rock, or hip-hop or really anything. The different musics exercise different parts of our brains and bodies, the best exemplars of any genre are always worthwhile, and usually wonderful. I wonder how people who truly love music, or claim to, can confine themselves to only one variety. Privileging the mind or the body, always at the expense of the other, feeling superior because you’re pushing yourself that much less toward full capacity? I am, I suppose, a relatively haphazard musician, living a relatively sloppy musical life. But if not a master, if only a jack, I am a joyful jack indeed.