Opera and Alligator

Catchy title eh? Bet you're wondering what comes next. Well, this will be mainly an update post on things me me me, so if that has you grabbing for Mucinex, it's okay to tune out now. 

Hello, Dear Reader. (actually - I'll note with some glee that readership has been slowly climbing here, despite my near total inactivity the past couple of weeks. Granted with the numbers I play with, a large percentage increase isn't exactly difficult to come by, but still, welcome one and all).

As I have publicized a bit on Twitter, I've been busy this week preparing for and then recording the big Mexican scene from my opera The Summer King.  This (the recording of this scene) is a project that's been coming together for some time now. My goal was to record one of the flashier scenes in the opera - one that's more than just a couple of singers or maybe a trio, but instead features chorus, a vocal trio, and - that most essential of opera ingredients - a mariachi band. It is not, in fact, the most elaborate scene in the opera. That honor goes to Act I Scene 4, the scene in Gus Greenlee's Crawford Grill.  In terms of ambition and scope that scene (clocking in at about 22 minutes) trumps anything I've written. It's been completed for two years now, and I haven't heard a note of it (performed by humans) but that's just what this whole process is - a leap of faith and a game of patience. I judged the scene too difficult to attempt to demo (a judgment that received vociferous seconds from the knowledegable vocal faculty at the institution where I teach), but the Mexican scene is a close second. My hope is that it will be sexy enough for, you know, opera companies and funders to say "oh!" Cuz that's what I imagine you need in this racket. 

Anyhoo, Bob Russell, who directs USM's  elite vocal group, the USM Chamber Singers generously agreed to lend me the services of his racehorse ensemble, complete with him at the podium. But this needed to be done before the school term was out, and would have to take place during one 1.5 hour session. This meant getting my mariachi ensemble (2 violins, 2 trumpets, contrabass, nylon string guitar, castanets) and pianist on board for the session. I was fortunate to receive some funding from both the Maine Arts Commission (an Arts Visibility Grant) and my school (a Faculty Senate Research Award), and so I hired professional instrumentalists and principle singers. No principle singers at that first session though. Here's a little clip:

That session was a happy education for me. I'm used to my music being very difficult to put together, and in some respects this is one of the more difficult scenes of the opera. But the musicians I hired came prepared (as pros do), and pretty much handled what I threw them with ease. The small chorus was similarly quick on their feet (we had had the benefit of one rehearsal together two days before). 

That portion completed, my next task was to find singers for the recording sessions in which we'd complete the rest of the scene - which was in fact the lion's share. Because it has been a priority of mine throughout the development of this project to cast African-American singers in the African-American roles (i.e. almost all the roles), I realized it would be essential to venture out of Maine (where there may, or may not, be one professional black opera singer somewhere...we haven't met yet if he or she's here). My friend Tim Steele, who works as a vocal coach at NEC was very helpful in getting me connected with two terrific singers, Laurelle Mathison (Grace) and Christian Figueroa (Señor Alcalde, the mayor of Vera Cruz), and I had already worked with the splendid (and super rhythmically accurate) Ron Williams when he sang for me here in Maine in April.

Herein lie some of the difficulties of being a composer living outside a major arts hub like NYC or Boston.  I engaged Tim as a pianist/vocal coach, and he met once with the singers without me, and then once in the basement of NEC with me there. That's four hours of driving, and two hours of rehearsal - but worth every moment! This was last Sunday. And then the big sessions with no chorus, but three principle singers, two smaller roles (Wendell Smith and Gus Greenlee, wondefully executed by USM students Jesse Wakemen and Jeff Caron), and in the closing moments, a piccolo (played divinely by Nicole Rawding).

I elected to conduct the sessions myself, which was gutsy considering that my string section consisted of Rob Lehmann (director of the USM orchestra) and Jenny Elowitch (director of the Portland Chamber Music Festival and someone who's played under a TON of great conductors!) And it's not exactly an easy scene to conduct - with tempi generally hovering around quarter = 160, frequent time changes, some very fast alternations of half note and quarter note meters, and some rather death defying accels near the end (oh I can't wait for you to hear it!) But I believe in the two sessions we forged, ensemble and I, a rather loving pair, as I never really claimed to be other than what I am, a composer with a slightly broken stick, and they helped me by telling me what they most needed from me! I was also able, being at the helm, to make changes quickly, on the fly, to attempt sections as often as I wanted - to decide exactly what was the priority, and what was good enough. When things weren't working, I had the option of slowing down and figuring out why not. (Not panicking is the thing I'm proudest of this week!) A defter conductor may have pulled off the task with greater finesse, but I think I ended up getting most closely what I wanted this way. 

It is so thrilling to hear a big complex scene come to life after living with it for a year (I wrote this scene last August-September) in midi and my imagination. Just hearing Bridget Convey, my awesome pianist (she just smiles and blazes through the tied-over and syncopated quarter-note triplets in the right hand over straight running eighths in the left...never a hiccup) warming up sections in the down times sent chills through my works. And to finally hear Josh and Grace, stoned, exuberant, singing of "high living" with big, beautiful voices, it was all I could do to suppress the inner Chris Farley ("that was awesome!") demon and wave the stick up and down more or less correctly. 

What remains is the Mariachi vocal trio, who sing intermittently throughout the scene. I was originally planning to do it up here with USM students, who I know would do a fine job of it. But after hearing Christian, a native spanish speaker, give life to the role of Alcalde (exactly as I imagined it all these months) I realized I needed to strive for some greater authenticity. So I am now in the process of putting together a trio of native Spanish speaking tenors in New York City, and I will travel down and book a little studio time to have them do the overdubs there. I am long since out of grant funding and running through what pawltry numbers still exist on the family ledger (i.e. stealing food from the mouths of babes), and running on fumes, eager to get my operatic demo package together and out to opera companies (some of whom are actually waiting for it). But I've also learned to accept the pace of working on such a monstrous project. What's another few weeks, a month, (and another five bills!) when I've been working on this opera for nearly ten years?

And all this time you're wondering, yeah, but what about the alligator? Well here's what. Thursday morning (July 5), after the beautiful 9 foot Steinway was good and tuned up, I found myself alone in the hall, with a bunch of microphones, and my handy little Tascam 4 channel digital recorder. I couldn't resist the opportunity to record my Alligator Song, which is a condensed history of the New York Alligator-in-the-Sewer urban legend. The song tells not only of the events, but also of their ascendence to myth and eternity. The song was actually instigated by my son Pablo, who one day just started singing "The Alligator, The Alligator, The Alligator." I offered to finish the tune and he grudgingly aquiesced, and then I did LOTS of research (no really!) and thus was the Alligator Song born. It's recorded here with just the stereo built-in condensers of my Tascam placed near about five feet from the open lid of the Steinway, and a single Miktech C7 on my vocals. Oh...and some slop thrown on the vocals after the fact in Logic. Forgive me! And enjoy!

Rock Band Art Man

I am playing in a rock band for the first time in a long time. I was in another band a few years back, but it was more of a folkish-country outfit, and I was the mostly well behaved seen-but-only-slightly-heard drummer (at least that was the job description! - here's a clip). I played in the bona fide 90s Indie rock band Trike for a time in, you know, the 90s (culminating in my drumming for Billy Dechand's solo album Pop Another Cork - here's the title track), and then in college I was in the before-its-time supergroup Toothbucket (no real weblink for that one!), and then in high school, the intelli-pop power trio Delayed Green Wait.  Amazingly, this last, oldest band, represents the last time I was a principle creative member of a band - as I shared songwriting and vocal duties with now-Seattle-based guitar wiz Lexi Stern. In retrospect, our apex came when we played a CBGB Audition Showcase in 1985, when CBGB was a) still open and b) still at least somewhat relevant. I was 15. I played another coupla non-audition gigs there with Trike, and that is the extent of my rock cred, I suppose. 

But now I am suddenly the principle singer and songwriter in a new band full of terrific talent (the oldest of whom was 1 when I played that first CB's gig). We are called Lovers of Fiction, and have been playing for just a little bit now. We even got a nice little shoutout in last week's Portland Phoenix - not bad for a band that's rehearsed 4 times (but stay tuned for deets about a show on August 17!). We exist because over the last couple of years I've found myself increasingly with the urge to return to my pop-song writing roots, and I've assembled a decent size set-list's worth of material. You can hear a few of the demos here, but note those are all me alone, with precious few real instruments, and were made before the existence of the Lovers

All of the above is a prelude to another kind of meditation I've wanted to attempt, this about the comparative experiences of being IN a rock band (and playing my own music) and writing chamber music for others to perform. I have very little experience playing actual chamber music. I never quite mastered an instrument with sufficient classical precision to put myself in that spot. Though I did play guitar for my Jarring Dances, drums for my old piece Mejdoub (pno., cl, e. gtr., accrdn., drms) and I'll be playing percussion in the upcoming premiere of my piece Takes One To Know One. In each of those cases, I wrote a part tailor-suited for my (limited, in that context) abilities. It's funny how now, all these years after being an active rock drummer, I can sit behind a kit w/ some bona fide skilled players and feel completely at home, while the prospect of sitting in w/ some serious chamber music performers and playing drums on my own piece terrifies me. Context is everything, as someone once said.

The creation process of rock band vs. concert music (the term I'll use today for music built upon the classical tradition of recitals, quiet concert halls, precise detail, and all that) - at least from the compositional perspective - is not very different. Most of my rock band stuff is demoed out pretty thoroughly, with multiple parts figured out - an arrangement, if you will. In my best moments I get a pretty close approximation of the sound of real humans - here's a decent sample (though the song is a touch closer to Billy Joel than I ever hoped I'd get!)

Making those recordings is not so different from sitting at my computer trudging away at Finale at some new chamber composition. In both cases I like to come up w/ a recording that comes pretty close to what a real performance would sound like - and I do spend a little extra time fine tuning the midi demos of my concert pieces. Here's an example of one of those - my yet-to-be-premiered piece 41 Fathead, for piano and percussion, in which both performers are asked to sing at the end of the piece. My friend Elizabeth Burd helped me out by demoing the vocal parts at the end with, you know, her actual voice. For what it's worth, I think this is probably my best piece of chamber music to date (and NOT the most recent...I finished this back in July 2011, so have had time to form at least something of an objective opinion!). This will premiered at concerts at Bowdoin College and the University of Southern Maine in late September, 2012.

The real difference is in what happens next. With the chamber music, I deliver written-out parts and score to the performers, and they will gather and attempt to capture my intentions to the most minute detail. Of course they will bring to the table their own styles and musicianship, and invariably, fine classical performers find things in my music - connections, ways of phrasing, etc. - that I didn't consciously put there. That said, though, they will be working towards something that's actually pretty close to the above demo - just with some LIFE added! Midi demos can be pretty convincing as long as they don't involve strings (the absolute worst of sampled instruments...even the high-dollar samples need to be extensively coddled to sound like musicians).

In the band, however, things go differently. I bring in my demo recordings, and even - in the luxuriously wonderful case of THIS band, where every member reads music fluently - written out arrangements of sections, but these are viewed only as starting points, even suggestions. It is understood that the band, as an organic entity, is going to find its own sound and its own way into this music. There is absolutely no preconception that our goal is to emulate what's on the "page" (and the "page" in this case - as w/ most popular music forms these days - is the recording, first and foremost). One thing that results from this credo is players play their best music - you know, stuff that's hyper-idiomatically conceived not just for their instruments, but for themselves as instrumentalists. In a band, the players are generally going to do what they do best, if given half an opportunity. That's not necessarily true in concert music - unless (as is ideal) there's been a close colaborative relationship between composer and performer(s), and ideally one with some longevity to it.

And when the band has some seasoned players, who have been through the ropes in several different genres, there's a great luxury of being able to pivot between different styles just with a mere comment - "let's play this like 70s Funk, and then switch to a more Zappa-like vibe"). In concert music, those effects would have had to be laboriously researched, internalized, and notated but just the one bloke at the computer.

Finally, in a band set to play all original tunes, the tunes will generally be learned completely before they are presented live. They will be perfected over weekly meetings, and only when the ensemble is truly kicking do they go out before the masses. This is often not the case with new concert music - where musicians' valuable time and scant funding often precludes truly adequate rehearsal time, and the prime moving force on when a piece gets performed is when the concert's been scheduled. AND, often the piece then doesn't get played again by the same ensemble. A band plays its music again and again, perfecting it further in live performance.

As the creative principle in both situations, there are things to adore about each. As far as concert music goes, as much as I love the electric and stimulating vibe of a great rock show, I also do love the notion of an entirely quiet audience, attuned to every detail of what I wrote - just as the performers, highly skilled and trained musicians, are lovingly and exactingly trying realize my vision. That is just a very, very good place to be. But in the band, I love the irreverance, the non-fetishism of the printed document, the notion that music is ever in flux, and what the composer thought at the time of inspiration is the beginning, not the beginning, middle and end, of the disucssion.

Oh. And I also kinda wanna be a rock star. Which you can do in each format to an extent, but probably moreso in, you know, the rock star genre.


Meditation on teaching composition

It occurred to me today that I've been teaching private composition for just about 10 years. Been teaching college for closer to 15. It is with some trepidation that I commence setting some of my accrued thoughts on the matter on cyber-paper, seeing as a) the readership of this blog is, well, largely current and former students so far (mostly former, I think), and b) it is probably foolish to give away too many secrets...you might need them. And yet, on I go.

I know some colleagues find teaching composition (well, teaching anything, for that matter) particularly taxing, and there have been times when I counted myself among their lot. In some ways, teaching composition requires the teacher to expend very similar energy as when composing - and in an even more compressed and intense way. You make aesthetic judgments and distinctions, you propose alternatives and solutions, you endeavor to understand quickly where the piece-in-progress is coming from, where it is going, and, by the way, what its mission is. These are the very machinations of composition, and to spend a day embarking on one such adventure after another, with nary an ounce of personal product of which to boast at day's end (when composing one's own music is generally impossible), can be deflating.

Similarly, if one is blessed with bright, talented, and most importantly, productive students, as I have been through much of my private composition teaching career, it can also be deflating in a way. We artists are fundamentally selfish, I'm sorry to say. As long as we still call ourselves artists, our burning concerns are a) how and when can I make more art and b) how can I make the world love (and buy) my art? But when teaching is at full peak - say the last two months of any semester - it becomes nearly impossible to produce one's own work with any consistency. I am not talking of the profs at cushy schools with 2-2 loads and sabbaticals every couple of years. But nor the poor blokes with 5-4 loads and endless administrative headaches. No. Just us working Joes teaching reasonable but certainly not cushy loads, who get pretty drastically overloaded when a semester approaches its end, what with all the concerts, projects, and occasional meltdowns we must juggle.

So, potentially deflating to have bright-eyed and bushy-tailed makers of music wandering in each week excitedly navigating their way toward completed compositions while I know I'm going home to a pile yay high of George Crumb essays. (mark my words, there are MUCH worse things that could await one, and I know it!)

And of course, there's that attendant fear of - what if I don't know what to say? Will we be left staring at each other blankly when the music has stopped, and me left meekly uttering "let's listen to it again." (I generally do a lot of that anyway, as I like to hear a piece a good several times before speaking of it from on high).

Somehow, though, over the years - perhaps not gradually, but more suddenly over the past several - teaching composition has begun to have a profoundly positive effect on my own writing. How to describe exactly what it is? I think it has to do with what's starting to seem like the theme of this blog, which is (say it with me) accepting and embracing your own (er, MY own) limitations. Through years of teaching, I've come to understand that I have certain strengths, certain perceptive insights into particular domains of music, and that I can offer what I can offer, and not really much more. Over time, this has helped me codify the list I presented earlier here, the list of items that are important to me in music, my compositional credo, as it were. Things like don't murder the downbeat (hi Josh), counterpoint and voice leading trump all, and long phrases are to be cherished. (yes, not all of these were in that list - it's always evolving). And perhaps most of all questions of form - not in terms of established pre-ordained formulae, but assessing a piece's energy along its path.

Once I could identify and articulate just what these specialties - if you will - were, it became much easier to turn that composition teacher's gaze inward. For the longest time I found myself thinking, during composition lessons, gee, why is it so easy to tell this other person how to fix his or her piece, but always so difficult to do that for myself. I don't know if it's just from repeated exposure to that hot seat (opine, be smart, or fail!), but of late I find I can almost stand out of my body and look in on my works as the benevolent teacher. I can hear what I'd say to someone else if they brought in my sketch. This needs to go on longer. Why so square? Can you take a risk here somewhere, anywhere? That stuff.

Most of the composition teachers I had, I had for a long time, and I knew it was time to move on when I could anticipate just what they were going to say when I showed them my work. I understand now, and perhaps always did, that this was not a shortcoming on their part. This was just evidence that a kind of transference had taken place - I now carried their aesthetic evaluative systems within myself, at least to a degree. They had given me what they were meant to give me, and I had somehow ingested it and kept their voice within me. I hope the students who study with me leave at least with some of that - "if I showed this to Dan, I know just what he'd say." It's surprising though, that I'm the one feeling that. That is, if I showed it to me, I know just what I'd say.

The realization that teaching composition has honed my own compositional craft - perhaps more gradually than I realize - has made teaching fresh and new, and really a joy. I do not get deflated by productive students! (only unproductive ones) - and the inspiration carried into my office is just that, inspiring. In talking about those pieces, I'm learning ever more what's important in mine. Put like that, it feels rather obvious...at least to me. But it took me quite some time to figure this out. It's cool. Makes me want to do this thing for another twenty or thirty years. Make it so.

Pitch is less important than you think?

Hey ho - time I checked in in these parts. Happy news today, as I put the double bar down on my new composition, which is called Takes One To Know One. It's a 10.5 minute single-movement piece for bass clarinet, cello, double bass, and percussion (floor tom and kick drum), and I will be playing the percussion part at the premiere on July 26 at the Frontier cafe in Brunwick Maine. As was the case with the last time I wrote myself into a piece, I imagine I may expend more blood, sweat and tears learning the thing than I did these past two weeks writing it. I suppose it is good to occasionally write myself into the hot seat, if only to feel the pain I so routinely inflict on others. For whatever reason, I was not born to write easy music. My pieces never just fall together like buttah, first reading. It's a haul each and every time, no matter how simple I think I've been. I think I said somewhere in this blog about turning 40 and embracing my limitations. Yeah. That.

Anyhoo, I got some nice composerly feedback from the last post, so I'm emboldened to throw my hat further into the ring on the whole Ima-tell-you-how-I-compose thing. I was thinking, in particular, of one of the items in my bulleted list.  I wrote that "pitch is less important than you think," and then I thought about that for a couple of days. In some ways - at least in my music - it's rather obviously not true. Pitch matters a whole heck of a lot to me. My music doesn't rely much on dramatic extended techniques such as multiphonics, and really does in fact tend to foreground pitch. I suppose it's more that I've reached a place in my own composing where I've decided I'm not going to worry about pitch anymore.

We composers go through rigorous training, and so much of it involves learning new and ever-more-complicated ways to think about and grapple with pitch. As a music educator, I am as guilty of extending this tradition as anyone. Ask anyone who's taken my Music Theory and Aural Skills 4 class, where poor undergraduates are asked not only to memorize ALL of the Forte set-class labels (ok...that's a JOKE, but I think to some it feels that way)...(you get the picture, it's taxing). So many of these methods, be it the tonal system, set-class theory, 12-tone technique, or what have you, seem to have at their core a fundamental mistrust of the composer's ear. Well, at least if they are being taught from the compositional perspective. In music theory classes there is something almost sinful about composing "by ear." That's not what we're there for! We're there to EXPAND the ear's capacity, to force ourselves to make music of strange, unfamiliar and even forbidding materials. This is, for the most part, good and proper in my book.

But so much of this thinking expands beyond the academy. And indeed - post-academic life (well actually, have I ever experienced THAT??), or rather post-school composing, seems for many to be a years-long process of shedding the accrued baggage, the ways of thinking and ordering and labeling that seem, while one is Ivory Tower-confined, to be essential. Or, for some, continuing to drink the Kool Aid. So many composers, when presenting their work, talk of the elaborate pitch schemata at play in their music, the synthetic scales, the set transformations, the large-scale key structures, and on it goes. Some of the music then turns out to be very good, so I shan't fault them. My old teacher Daron Hagen used to tell me, "whatever it takes to trick yourself into writing music," and I wholeheartedly agree.

But it occurs to ME that a good musical thinker, one with ears, one with years and years of jumping through these various pitch hoops, has much of this magic brewing within, on a deeper and more unconscious level, than can every really be ecompassed by theory-speak. There comes a time, I believe, when composing "by ear alone" is a necessity. This may seem simplistic or a truism, but I hope it really isn't.

I used to be worried about my pieces starting and ending in the same key. I also used to feel that my music suffered for not having the elaborate key architectures of, say, a Mahler Symphony. Who knows, maybe it's in fact true! But I don't worry that way any more. I have come to trust my instincts on pitch, both in the immediate, microcosmic sense (this chord to that chord), and in the grander, macrocosmic, structural sense. When I listen through to my work-in-progress, over and over, I have an inner sense of when the key (to the extent that there are, in fact keys - I use this term VERY loosely here) needs to change, where home is, if home can change, and how pieces need to develop in the realm of pitch. I've let go of the feeling - drilled into me during years of schooling - that pieces with tonal overtones all have essentially the same mission in this world. Much as I praised Schenker in my prior post, that aspect of his thought seems inapplicable to my own writing. I do believe my current pieces have very satisfying, logical, and complex journies in pitchspace - but I can't sit down and map them out for you. (I actually probably could, if I took the time, but I don't wanna).

Furthermore, I believe I've developed a sensibility about melody such that I don't really need to limit myself to particular scales, or to be aware at all times what labels I'm invoking with my melodic grasping. There's some kind of irony here, perhaps, because as a theory instructor and suriving dissertator, I can take my superman analytical gaze to just about anything and make some egghead sense of it. But I prefer to keep myself willfully in the dark when it comes to my own music, more and more relying on the logic of the ear, and a deep trust in my unconscious. It's basic stuff, but hard won in this case.

Of course, there are certain times in which theoretical chops just sort of kick in. Certainly in writing chorale-like passages, of which my new piece has plenty - my voice-leading sensibilities, honed over years of evaluating student counterpoint and harmony exercises - do tend to kick in. But even there, my thinking is about 99% voice leading, and only 1% about resulting simultaneities, which I prefer to evaluate and tweak...again...(don't get annoyed)...exclusively by ear. Also, I actually love the sound of 12-tone music, but for me 12-tone has always been a seasoning, sprinkled judiciously at just the right moment - never a core-defining grail. I think it's possible to write 12-tone or almost-12-tone music by ear, but it's a LOT quicker to make yourself a Babbitt Square!

So, pitch is NOT less important than you think. But THINKING about pitch IS! Obviously, my points extend to those composers who did NOT go through endless schooling. Though the sad fact is, they tend to have greater trust in their ears to begin with. For myself, it's about learning to really believe in my ears, and that they'll guide me through a complex web of pitch relationships each time out, as long as I listen carefully, and listen again and again to the whole piece (it's impossible to overstress that). I think this newfound trust is part of the reason I'm composing fast now. I make decisions quickly, and trust that the inner computer is working, guiding me in ways my theory-teacher brain never could.

the 40 yr+ aesthetic and a bulleted list

Frequent commenter, and to boot one of this blog's only readers, Josh Newton has been philosophizing about compositional process over on his new blog. Got me thinking a bit about my own, and also got me a bit excited about the prospect of having this space - so uncluttered by staring and judging eyes - to diarize and perhaps even lay out, gradually, the fundamentals of my aesthetic. It occurs to me that I do have one - perhaps it arrived when I turned forty. I've heard life begins at 40, and for me there's some truth to it. Maybe there's something about turning 40 that enables you to embrace yourself, stop worrying about all those things you aren't, all those skills you never got around to mastering, and instead start being happy about those special core-defining limitations, in all their beauty, that make you what you are.

Somehow for me, shortly after my 40th birthday, composition got a whole lot easier. Of course I still say this with some trepidation, as if at any moment the magic fount could be choked, the muse put down with hemlock. But say it I will, because in truth I am not so worried. It is a fact known to all creative types that when it's going well, when the music floweth, it feels certain that the spring will provide forever. And when it's going badly, it is a near certainty that an idea of any worth will never again arrive.

And what I'm saying is composition got easier. When I sit down to write now, for about the last year and a half, I write. I seem not to have bad days. It started with a challenge I set for myself back in February, 2011. It was February break, and my wife had asked me for a composition to be performed at her installation The Jar Project. After some success writing a piece the first night, I set myself the task of writing 7 short pieces for clarinet and guitar over the course of a week. It was really quite a dare, since I've historically been a slow and agonized composer. Somehow, though, the necessity to finish a piece every day broke some kind of restraining belt in my engine. I found myself able to turn off the inner critic, and to just welcome in the sounds I wanted to hear. The resulting piece, a 7-part suite called Seven Jarring Dances for Clarinet(s) and Steel-String Guitar, is something of which I'm quite proud, even though it is perhaps a little bit of a stylistic anomaly for me.

Since then, though I have not given myself such severe nightly deadlines, music has just come easier. Perhaps the greatest testament to this is that I finished my opera. Those who know me and know of this project might say, yeah but Dan, you'd been working on it for like eight years! That notwithstanding, I was actually not even done with the first act of the Summer King when 2011 rolled around. In the time between the end of the my spring semester in May, until the end of my sabbatical in January, I wrote seven scenes - approximately 75 minutes of music. This in addition to an eleven-minute piece for percussion and piano (which will be premiered this coming September).

For some, I know, this STILL is not impressive output. And I am not saying all this to brag (I swear, I had a college roommate who's favorite four-word phrase in the English language was "not to brag but..." you won't hear them too often from me, suffice to say). The point is, for ME it's a world of difference. Somehow, I've found a way to let the music roll forth, rather than fighting it every step of the way.

I am not exactly sure what the secret is - though I think that Jar Project piece holds some of the keys. First thing was, I said to myself, I'm going to write every night, and if it means I write shit, so be it. And I also said I'm not going to write smart, or trendy, or hip music. I'm just gonna write what I know how to write - gonna play to my strengths (that also factored in because I knew I'd have to play the guitar part, and I'm no virtuoso).

In any case, I'd like to end with a bulleted list that encompasses some of my credo vis a vis composition. My aesthetic, modes of being, thinking, and feeling in music may not be entirely encompassed in these items, but hey, it's a start.

  • Composition is 10% generation, and 90% editing. Write ANYTHING, and then massage it till it's good.
  • Form is understanding the accrued energy of a piece at any given moment. (credit: David Del Tredici) Pre-existing forms don't, as a rule, work for me.
  • Pitch is a lot less important than we think it is (and I'm fundamentally a tonal-leaning composer)
  • Line is a lot MORE important than we think it is. It's everything. I'm no Schenkerian, but he was absolutely right in realizing this, and his work has plenty of relevance to living composers (though making reductive graphs is always a pain and a lot of Schenkerian analysis bends itself into a pretzel to state what is obvious to a good, careful listener).
  • I prefer Finale to Sibelius because it enables me to play with rhythm far more freely. Sibelius doesn't let you transform existing rhythms like Finale does (but it's MUCH better for formatting).
  • These tenets or principles or whatever they are only apply (for me) to art music, or concert music, or whatever awful phrase-of-the-week we're using. Pop songs have different rules so stay tuned.
  • Don't murder the downbeat.
  • Don't take yourself or your music too seriously. Just write.
  • If something feels embarrassing, that's a very good sign. 
  • If it starts sounding like other music, lean into that. (credit: Joan Tower)
  • Counterpoint is really important, and in some ways not that complicated. Have stuff happen not all at the same time, basically.
  • Have stuff bleed over the seams.
  • Trust your ear over theory in working out large-scale tonal schemes, and individual harmonic progressions.
  • I love midi playback (for pieces where it's applicable). Listen to the WHOLE piece in progress as often as possible (ideal for runners w/ i-devices).
  • As perhaps the last generation to have gone through college writing pieces with pencil and paper, and staying up all night to copy parts, I LOVE composing on computer. Not just engraving, composing.
  • Do not go searching for your voice. Write music you love, again and again, and your voice will come. It's up to others to judge it.

Art Song/Pop Song (part 3) - short response to another comment

A little comment activity has prompted me to revive this new blog - even as I'm on vacay in NYC. Anything I say is said in the hotel bathrobe, in other words, and understand it as such.

My old pal Squidocto furthers the tradition of commenters with cred here. Aren't I spesh! The end of his comment goes like this:

While I, like you, truly enjoy thinking about questions such as "art song" vs. "pop song," you seem to actually think there might be definitions for the terms that would hold true. You can't really think that, can you? There will always always be multiple exceptions to any definition, right? I guess I need to know your answer to that question before I decide whether to hug you or smack you next time I see you. Heh.

I think in some ways this is a fair point. But as I think I've said above (it's been a while since I wrote those words - and I am somewhat partial to John Lennon's way of disowning just about everything he ever said in the past cuz it was how he felt THEN), it's not hard-fast rules I'm after (even though I do recall enumerating some rules), but rather a kind of continuum. That is to say, there are qualities that are germane to art songs, and qualities germane to pop songs, and each may spill over to the other and often does. Of course for any list of pop song or art song rules I write up, there are going to be tons of examples that break the "rules." But those are - and I ultimately love this cliche - the exceptions that prove the rule. Those are the moments of given works rubbing up against their genre and creating special interest. Can Radiohead's "Everything In Its Right Place" really be categorized as either pop song or electronics-enhanced art song? I would argue yes - it's STILL essentially a pop song, but there are certainly elements that call that categorization into question. 

I think in every one of these posts I need to remind readers that I'm talking about "art song" as a rather specific genre, and that my definition of it is NOT "contains artistry," or "is art." I think ANY song, in any genre may be artistic, or be art, or lie just about anywhere on that continuum (I love continuums). So I suppose "art song" is a rather unfortunate designation, since built into the name is a sort of elitist poke at other song forms.

Lastly - and I AM trying to keep this short - I do really like thinking of these distinctions and categorizations, insomuch as they facilitate thought about what qualities define genres and make, say, two genres different from one another. I am done with saying there are no categorical distinctions between jazz song, pop song, art song, folk song, etc. I like an awful lot thinking up what the core elements of these different styles are, if only to better contemplate those musical exemplars that steadfastly refuse to be categorized - what is it that they HAVE that makes us category-librarians have such trouble shelving them?

My next post will be about the joy of being in a rock band for the first time in more than a decade. So stay tuned. And here's a shout out to frequent Sonenblog commenter Josh Newton's new blog, where he is talking about some similar kinds of issues, but staying so far on the arty side of life!

Art Song/Pop Song (part 3) - short response to another comment

A little comment activity has prompted me to revive this new blog - even as I'm on vacay in NYC. Anything I say is said in the hotel bathrobe, in other words, and understand it as such.

My old pal Squidocto furthers the tradition of commenters with cred here. Aren't I spesh! The end of his comment goes like this:

While I, like you, truly enjoy thinking about questions such as "art song" vs. "pop song," you seem to actually think there might be definitions for the terms that would hold true. You can't really think that, can you? There will always always be multiple exceptions to any definition, right? I guess I need to know your answer to that question before I decide whether to hug you or smack you next time I see you. Heh.

I think in some ways this is a fair point. But as I think I've said above (it's been a while since I wrote those words - and I am somewhat partial to John Lennon's way of disowning just about everything he ever said in the past cuz it was how he felt THEN), it's not hard-fast rules I'm after (even though I do recall enumerating some rules), but rather a kind of continuum. That is to say, there are qualities that are germane to art songs, and qualities germane to pop songs, and each may spill over to the other and often does. Of course for any list of pop song or art song rules I write up, there are going to be tons of examples that break the "rules." But those are - and I ultimately love this cliche - the exceptions that prove the rule. Those are the moments of given works rubbing up against their genres and creating special interest. Can Radiohead's "Everything In Its Right Place" really be categorized as either pop song or electronics-enhanced art song? I would argue yes - it's STILL essentially a pop song, but there are certainly elements that call that categorization into question. 

I think in every one of these posts I need to remind readers that I'm talking about "art song" as a rather specific genre, and that my definition of it is NOT "contains artistry," or "is art." I think ANY song, in any genre may be artistic, or be art, or lie just about anywhere on that continuum (I love continuums). So I suppose "art song" is a rather unfortunate designation, since built into the name is a sort of elitist poke at other song forms.

Lastly - and I AM trying to keep this short - I do really like thinking of these distinctions and categorizations, insomuch as they facilitate thought about what qualities define genres and make, say, two genres different from one another. I am done with saying there are no categorical distinctions between jazz song, pop song, art song, folk song, etc. I like an awful lot thinking up what the core elements of these different styles are, if only to better contemplate those musical exemplars that steadfastly refuse to be categorized - what is it that they HAVE that makes us category-librarians have such trouble shelving them?

My next post will be about the joy of being in a rock band for the first time in more than a decade. So stay tuned. And here's a shout out to frequent Sonenblog commenter Josh Newton's new blog, where he is talking about some similar kinds of issues, but staying so far on the arty side of life!

Art Song/Pop Song (part 2) - a response to some comments

Greetings folks. It’s come to my attention that there may be something going on with comments. First off, I didn’t realize some were awaiting approval, because I didn’t get email notification. Now I know to check, and I’ll soon fix that. If you make a comment and don’t see it within say 24 hours, probably best to drop me a line and say what the eff.

My last post prompted some responses from songwriters/composers with quite a bit of cred, and I’m going to devote this post to responding, and in the process, further developing my thoughts on this matter.

First John C., who is a singer (both popular AND classical), actor, songwriter, composer, and all kinds of other stuff to boot. I’ll respond bit by bit.

John C.

I used to think that it was some quality of the composer that made something an art song... but now, having been a creator of both art song and pop song (and also feeling that some of my pop songs are greater works of art than some [see: most] of my art songs), I know that that's a load of bunk.

Yes – we agree here. It is not a question of a quality threshold, beyond which point all songs are granted art song status.

In class (not yours), I was taught that some element of the orchestration or the quality of the text made it an art song- I remember discussing at length whether or not a microphone could be used

Well, what if the recently departed Dietrich Fischer Dieskau were playing Yankee Stadium? He’d need a mic, and he’d still be singing art songs! But seriously, I think that's a very legitimate question (one which I will address more seriously, but not in this post).

(I still contend that Kurt Elling's "The Sleepers" is an art song- I mean, it's got a string quartet and the text is by Whitman!).

Here John’s raised two interesting qualities that we generally associate with art song:

1)    Orchestration and minimal use of technology.

2)    The setting of a poetic, or at least pre-existing text.

 I think both of these cut close to some core normative attributes of art song. To start with the second, in art song, the text is a “text” and not a “lyric.” In pop, whether the lyric is written first (as I often at least imagine the case to be with Tin Pan Alley tunes), concurrently with the music (which I think is common in rock) or afterwards (also common, I believe, in rock), it is conceived as a lyric, a bundle of words that is somehow incomplete until animated and elucidated (or further obscured) by musical setting.

In “art song,” I would say the normal condition is that the text exists first, either as a poem, a portion of prose, a cookie fortune, what have you. Sure there are the exceptions that prove the rule the Paul Bowleses and Charles Iveses (it is funny that both of my examples had to end in “s” eh?) that occasionally wrote their own art song texts, and we know not at what point in the process.

So then, is “Sleepers” an art song? I am new to the piece, but can form some quick opinions.

On first and a half listen, I would say no, not an art song. I remind you at this point that for me (as I believe, for John,) this is not a qualitative judgment. Let me see if I can quantify why it’s not (for me), and maybe that will get us somewhere.

Reason: There is a stylistic footprint here, and it belongs to another style, namely jazz song. Despite the presence of a string quartet, the rhythmic propulsion – straight four, lightly swung, tasteful jazz brushing on the kit, and the mellow crooning over some lush extended chords are what’s most important in this song. Though the string quartet hearkens to classical music, its use here is not classical – it’s too groove oriented for that. And the overall groove of the piece trumps the importance of the text, which bends more to it than vice versa. I will go out on a limb here and say that any percussive element whose function is strictly, or at least mostly to keep time and establish groove is inconsistent with art song style. Lastly, but importantly, the text is backgrounded to other elements in the mix, even to the singer’s vocal style.

I imagine of the vast multitudes reading this blog post, there is not unanimity of opinion on the above paragraph; I feel confident guessing that at least a slice of my reading populace thinks I’m twisted, possibly even evil now, and so be it. I would still like to cull from this example some art song characteristics, that can then be tested against future examples.

1) An “art song” can make references to other styles, but when those references become so dominating that they are no longer allusion but instead a genre inhabitation whole hog,  the song in question is not an art song. It is an x song (and for “x” insert “pop,” “jazz,” “rock,” what have you).

Of course this reason immediately crushes any possibility that a “pop song” can be an “art song,” and as such may need future refining, since that is actually the core question I’m investigating.

2) The text – its rhythms and meanings – is central to an art song. The rhythm of the song accommodates the text, and not the other way around. And the singer’s style is secondary to his or her clarity, and felicity to the sound and meaning of the words. The words in an art song, are ideally at the front of the texture.

 I’m just gonna let that one sit for a bit.

Back to John C:

 But while "respected" (whatever that means) poetry set to music is almost always automatically considered an art song, Bernstein showed us with La Bonne Cuisine that even recipes can make for engaging and witty art songs.

Great example, as I love those Bernstein songs (and they inspired my own The Art of Eating, which is not available on this site but probably should be - instead you can listen to my setting of the most ghastly recipe in human history). But certainly in contemporary art music there is no requirement of an art song text to be a poem (I would be disgraced were such a rule in place – witness my Detuned Radio, which IS available here, and has not a single poem in its pages).

So, if it's not the orchestration, nor the text, nor the background of the composer... what makes something an art song?

Good question. See my answers 1 and 2 above!

To me, the only qualifier is the same as that which makes any object art: intent. All of my songs are works of art, yet only a handful are "art songs." What makes them such? My having said so.

 No – I won’t buy that. Copout. Intent, in the long run, matters not a whit. I am far more sympathetic to the listener than the composer when it comes to sorting out the meaning and even the genre of musical artworks.

For the last little bit of this post, let me turn to my old friend and sometime collaborator Billy Dechand, St. Louis based composer, songwriter, producer, web-tv host, blogger, and much more who, like John C above, has plenty of experience in both the popular and artsy-fartsy domains:

Billy D.

Can pop be art? Yes.

I agree. Although, as I’ve stated several times, I distinguish “art” from “art song.” I think pop can most certainly be art, but I’m not yet convinced that pop songs can be art songs.

Can art songs be pop? Not by my definition. The label implies that A) they are too weird to be popular, or B) they are deliberately distinguishing themselves from pop by giving themselves that name.

This is curious. I do not think that the label “art song” implies weirdness – it just implies a particular style, as I’ve been arguing. I have the sense that Billy is talking here from the perspective of pop, and not the other way around. In other words, from within the pop tradition (so the “art songs” he is imagining or conjuring here are in fact written with more trappings of pop (instrumentation, commercial context, relationship to text, role of percussion, etc.) than art song.

If I follow Billy D correctly – I’ll note that “Pop,” by its very nature implies an appeal to the popular. Weird pop is generally disdained by most as self conscious, pretentious, or irrelevant. Of course, all of these might be arguments for such songs’ inclusion in the art song category, since ostensibly, the weirder they are, the further from the mainstream, the less inculpated in the “starmaker machinery behind the popular song.” (though this doesn't resolve the other stylistic requirements I've been setting forth). And that’s a thorny distinction between art song and pop song that needs to be made: it’s in a pop song’s very DNA to reach masses of people, to appeal to not just their musical sensibility but also their buying priorities. At some point, I will flesh out how that is at least in part true of even the weirdest, most erudite, esoteric and enlightened of pop songs. Meanwhile we’d like to think an art song’s imagined audience is Art itself – the God of Art or the Muse. It strives for Truth, yes? Though in reality there have always been commissioners, patrons, juries, etc. who were VERY important to please. Still, there's a substantial difference between those individual (wealthy) opinion-holders, and the platinum record public.

From this – perhaps my own discussion and potential misreading of Billy’s comment – I think I can cull one more normative value of art songs:

3) Art songs appeal to Art and Truth rather than to Popularity. At least they purport to. I realize full well what a can of worms this third value opens up, and rather than sort through those worms, I think I’ll stop here.  This value can seem to be making a qualitative statement - the one I've argued all along I'm not trying to make. But so be it for now... I will sort these things out in time.

Art Song/Pop Song (part 1)

It seems I have more to say about that Krugman blog post. So much so, in fact, that you'll note the "part 1" in my title here - there's no way I can fit it all in one post. I mean I could - but I'm told blog posts really aren't meant to be endless, as I like to make them be.

Let me jump in with this quote from Krugman:

And don’t let the trappings of pop performance fool you: many of these musicians are deeply sophisticated. Some commenters mentioned the passing of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who brought lieder to a wide audience (and my mother was a Fischer-Dieskau fanatic!); listen to Feist for a while, and you’ll realize that what she’s writing are art songs, in some sense very much in the same tradition.

This question comes up often in my life: are pop songs, or rather can pop songs be art songs? In that Rorem article I referred to last time, he argues that the Beatles were essentially writing lieder (which is German for "songs," - but generally refers specifically to art songs when spoken in English (whether they be German art songs is another matter)). They were just Schuberts with moppy hair.

Joni Mitchell (a topic on which I have some cred) defiantly claimed, early in her career, that the critics who had her pegged as a folkie were all wrong, and that she was in fact writing art songs. And her songs certainly were extremely complex (though some art songs are extremely simple).

In each of these cases, Krugman on Feist, Rorem on the Beatles, and Mitchell on herself, the appeal to  "art song" status is an appeal for legitimacy, as if somehow an art song were more valuable than a pop song. In fact, I think many may take that as a near truism, and many others (pop fans) may take it as absurd (because art songs are unlistenable).

For my first entry on the matter, I simply want to argue that the difference between "pop song" and "art song" is one of style, and not one of quality. With a little thought this should be obvious. There are many bad art songs, and many good pop songs. And vise versa. There are probably relatively few art songs that are better than, say, "Hey Jude," but that doesn't necessarily make "Hey Jude" an art song. (And I'm not trying to be polemical by saying there are few art songs better than "Hey Jude." Fact is, 99% of all music written in every genre is bad. Take a great exemplar of any style, and it is better than, in relative terms, most other stuff in all styles, because most stuff is bad. It just is. Even most late 18th-century symphonies were bad.)

By saying that any pop song that is sophisticated ascends to the rank of art song, we risk completely missing many of the points of pop, and risk making some extreme euro-centric value judgments. Is "Sex Machine" a hopeless contender for "art song" status because it stays on I for a hundred-and-change bars (before crashing through to the subdominant when the maestro beckons "take it to the bridge!")? Are the song's brilliant polyrhythmic play, its incessant appeal to the body, its singer's gutteral and acrobatic wordplay (which makes any attempt to separate words and music impossible) all incapable of being elements of art? Or can we acknowledge that there is art here, if not necessarily art song?

And what of "Hey Jude" anyway? It flows on like a lied for its first half, I suppose, with essentially a piano-vocal texture and some elegantly functional chord progressions, but is it then disqualified in its anthemic closing section - as designed for mantra-like slavish repetition by hypnotized stadium-dwelling fans as any three-minute patch of sound ever was? Is there a similar passage of repetition in any art song? One that appeals so thoroughly to our innate need for the endless repetition of catchy melody as to bypass the intellect altogether? Or is the genius in the nah-nah-nah-nahs a wonderstroke of proportion in composition? Does it make "Hey Jude" a late Beethovensque symphonic movement? Even I am guilty of such appeals to legitimacy in my previous blog post (see my comment on Abbey Road).

I think this way lies madness. I think pop songs can be art, and art songs can be mindless, but pop songs are almost never art songs and vise versa. The question is, what separates these genres?

That's a question I'd like to think and blog on over the next little while, so I hope you'll stay tuned!

A response to Mr. Krugman - some thoughts on pop and art musics

I have been thinking that my next blog post would somehow be about pop music, since my next venture in this world is a bona fide rock band that's planning to play the odd scraps of pop music I've churned out over the past half-decade or so. So I'm grateful that Nobel laureate and everyone's favorite (or most-loathed) economist Paul Krugman put his foot in the pop-classical chasm. And put his foot in it he did, from the perspective of your local cyberhood art music composer. First moment of trouble:

I guess the first thing to say is that while I grew up in a house saturated with classical music, in my late middle age I find great solace in the fact that people are making great music now.

This prompted an obvious, if necessary retort from that overseer of all musics contemporary, Alex Ross:

Among notable rejoinders in the Comments section (generally a reliable melting pot of whackjobs of all stripes) of Krugman's blog post is a three-paragraph response from notable composer Derek Bermel. He takes particular issue with the following statement by Krugman:

it’s clear, if you think about it, that the real classical music of my generation — classical in the true sense, meaning that it endures and will continue to be played for a long time — was actually pop/rock/folk. It may offend some peoples’ sense of dignity, but the reality is that the Beatles are at this point as solidly embedded in the Western canon as Beethoven and Brahms — and rightly so.

Bermel responds: 

...There are so many things wrong with this statement. How is it clear, and what is the evidence that Feist and Arcade Fire will endure? Because the Beatles did?

Music, and art in general, is a fluid thing. In cultures around the world - not only Europe but also China, India, Indonesia, also in Africa and South America - 'classical' performance traditions are preserved and passed along with care to successive generations. This requires time, energy, and money, but it is worth it. The strange thing is that celebrated pop musicians - including Elvis Costello, Lady Gaga, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Trent Reznor, Johnny Greenwood, Alicia Keys, Billy Joel, Bryce and Aaron Dessner -- and on and on -- acknowledge the value of classical music; they appreciate, support, and even write for the concert hall.

I agree with Bermel that there's much wrong with Krugman's statement - though I'm not 100% sure what his (Bermel's) subsquent point is. Perhaps it is a distinction between 'classical' performance traditions, which need to preserved and passed along at great expense, and popular onces, which are enmeshed - and in some sense compromised by - the mass culture industry. This argument is deeply interesting, and has interested scholars back to the granddaddy of anti-pop philophes, Theodore Adorno.

From my perspective Krugman's crime is oversimplification. The difference between "classical music" and pop, or say "art song" and "pop song" is very, very complicated. Certainly proximity to the arms of mass dissemination does matter in evaluating a work's stature as art or product. It's simplistic to say the classical music of our time was pop, rock and folk - even aside from the absurd diss that implies to the Pendereckis, Glasses,  Reichs, dare I say even Stravinskys (who was active in the love decade), and more recently the Towers, Wolfes, Curriers, Adamses, etc. who have, in fact, been busy writing...the classical music of our time. The pop music we still talk about after decades is important because, at least in part, it sold lots and lots of records, and made lots and lots of money. That is true of just about every pop record whose admittance to the canon is under consideration.

It is not really my interest to pursue that much further - since it's been done elsewhere. Are the Beatles the new Beethoven? That is a tough question. Beethoven - and almost ALL of his classical brethren (forgive the masculine term, but if we're talking pre-20th century it is what it is) are most esteemed for their large form compositions. Beethoven's symphonies, sonatas and quartets are the epicenter to his claim as an eternal. For Mozart - it is his operas. Lots and lots of other great stuff, but without the operas, I don't know that people would be developing Mozart Oversaturation Syndrome with the same frequency that they are. Go down the line, and find me a composer who is esteemed for his or her songs? Schubert? True. Though some were gathered in cycles - which were the rock albums of their day and you're kidding yourself if you think otherwise. But Schubert does have a bunch of large form works that are celebrated - the few immortal symphonies (the one and a half, let's say), and his share of quartets, quintets, and sonatas. But he is the exception that proves the rule, insomuch as it's his songwriting that grants him immortality. Says me.

There's Hugo Wolf. But I think I've said enough about him.

Are the Beatles great art? I can't imagine arguing otherwise - and the number of thinking people who can is dwindling. Even back in the day, as staunch a conservative (at least in these matters) as Ned Rorem was proclaiming their ascendance into the pantheon. But what they didn't leave us with - what so few pop artists do - is a catalogue of long forms. Yes, there's Abbey Road side 2 - which is absolutely a multi-movement symphony. And then the whole of Sgt. Pepper's, and the coherent (but not necessarily un-reorderable) Revolver and Rubber Soul.

I do not say this to denigrate their accomplishment. I'm more saying that that is what pop music is. It's the short form in all of its glory. It's the thrill of a good idea - because few if any great pop songs are written without a great idea. You have to have one, because there's no time for significant development. Beethoven was famously a mezzo mezzo melodist. I mean, it took him what, three decades to write his only truly great pop tune? The fifth symphony "tune" in anyone else's hands would have been simply an uninspired melodic fragment, leading nowhere in particular. You can get away with that if you're a) writing a long form where the brilliance of your individual ideas is rather secondary to what you will do with them and b) Beethoven.

A pop song needs a good idea. Often that good idea is "the hook" - and most good pop songs have one (and many good "art songs" don't). In a quite interesting book that as far as I can tell no one's read or heard of, Walter Rimler argues the best rock songwriters generally accomplish their greatest work under the age of 25. I think there is some truth to this. That is the time when good ideas are flooding the mind of a talented writer (I've met some). The ideas come fast and furiously, and must be processed and made into work. A great pop song should take at most an afternoon to write (though finishing the words can take a year). The Kinks' early hits - if you believe Ray Davies - generally took under half an hour (you'll note "You Really Got Me" has precious few words to slow things down).

This too is not meant to denigrate pop, which I love, and to which I am returning. It's more to say that great pop, a great pop song, most often has at its center a great idea. And that idea is then fleshed out - and given supporting matter (often, verses) so that it can shine. You write your best pop songs when you're young, impatient, don't know any better, don't question yourself, and learn to recognize a good idea when it invades your headspace.

I write both "classical" (which is such a loathsome term) and pop music. I have no trouble, at this stage of my artistic development, beginning a classical piece. I put very little emphasis on how such a piece begins. Any beginning can lead to a great piece - it doesn't matter so much. How I develop my material, how I let one thing play against another, expand one melody, contract another, combine them, change rhythm, and on and on - these are the things that will matter. Sure it's nice to have a piece start like Beethoven's Fifth - which the great master fooled you, after the fact, into believing was not only a great, but perhaps the great idea. But it is not necessity. Workaday materials - in an extended form - can yield a whole that far transcends the sum of its paltry parts.

Not so with pop songs, and I don't try to write them anymore. I wait for them to find me. They start with an idea, which is usually offered immediately by yours truly to iPhone Voice Memo (because I've learned that I remember nothing). They come in bunches, and then they don't come at all - no ideas, for months at a time. I can still write classical then - because I don't really need ideas to do that. And I'm fortunate, or unfortunate, not to have to earn my peanuts writing hits.

Whether Arcade Fire is writing "Art Songs," as Krugman contends, is a discussion for another day - and one that I think is worth having. There may be a continuum between the song that is pure art, and the one that is pure product. But I like the tensions that spill forth when we force ourselves to draw a line and take a stand. I also like forcing people to name the five best Beatle songs, which is insanity.

Krugman, by simplistically saying that pop, rock and folk are the "classical" music of his generation, not only deals a profound gut punch to a class of highly effective artists who don't deserve it, but also misses some important distinctions between the two genres. Again - I don't believe in a hard fast division, I believe in a continuum. But I believe it's really there, and while I love the two genres equally (perhaps I love one more equally than the other, but I'm not telling), I'm not ready to toss aside the difference.

A welcome, and some thoughts about The Summer King

Greetings friends,

Welcome to my new website. I have been essentially without one since a horrific hard drive crash (we all have at least one in our lives, right?) wiped out my old site back in 2007. In the intervening years I have maintained (and then stopped maintaining) two blogs: one about just about everything, the other more narrowly focused on my (if I do say so) rather engaging offspring. This website - and certainly this blog - will also be narrow in focus. It will be about music, and a lot of the time, about my music.

Part of the reason that I am a) able and b) motivated to make this little splash in the cyber-verse is the recent completion of my opera, The Summer King. Able, because I'm staring down the first summer in nine years when I don't have an opera to complete, and motivated because I want the world to know about my opera, and to have a place to come geek out to the soothing sounds and tales contained within my most tragic of baseball operas. Since The Summer King is a large part of why this website and blog are coming into existence at this moment, I thought it'd be an appropriate place to launch my blogosphere resurgence.

I barely remember a time when I was not at least talking about writing an opera about Josh Gibson. (I'll provide several hyper-links to histories of the man, since one thing I've come to know over the years is that he is unjustly not a household name, at least not universally). What drew me, a baseball-obsessed white Jewish kid from the suburbs of New York City, to Negro League ball in the first place is difficult to surmise exactly - but the attraction took hold early. Of course the figure of Satchel Paige - who we should be able to agree is the most colorful character in baseball history - loomed large in my childhood imagination, a hero who triumphed over injustice with humor and catch phrases, a lanky, mythical god who veritably defined the position I dreamed of playing in little league. I devoured stories of Negro League ball as a child, even as I cheered my beloved Yankees to three penants and two World Series victories (I'm not counting '76, I was too scant) before my 11th birthday.

When Josh emerged as THE player for me, I do not know. I was certainly drawn to the injustice of segregated ball, and perhaps no player better embodies the great tragedy of black ball before integration than Gibson, who died three months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Some say he died of a broken heart at not having been chosen to be the one, and some say that's apocryphal. But of course his heart was broken - at 35 years old, suffering from a brain tumor (most likely), weight gain, alcohol and drug abuse (most likely), imaginary visitations by Joe DiMaggio, alive just long enough to experience his own obselecence, knowing he had been among the greatest ballplayers ever, maybe the greatest hitter, but that he had been passed over, and that his induction to Cooperstown was not forthcoming. It was, of course - but not until 25 years after his death. He would be the second Negro League player afforded such an honor, and the first never to have played in the white majors.

So Gibson, fun-loving and child-like in youth, brooding and unsteady in premature old age, was what drew me. What story seemed to need telling. In the early process of planning for the opera, several people urged me away from him. I should write an opera on Satchel, or Jackie, those were the true operatic heroes - they fought for something, stood for something, triumphed, each in his own way. What did Josh fight for? Was his story truly tragic, or only sad? I did not have answers to these questions, but I knew that this was the piece I needed to write, that Josh was my protagonist, and that if I spent enough time with him, with his story and his world, its meaning would become clear to me - whatever knowledge simmered deep in my unconscious would bubble eventually to the surface.

In the early going I collaborated with the wonderful poet, Daniel Nester. We played catch, visited a Negro League shop in Brooklyn, talked about Josh Gibson books, exchanged emails, and Dan wrote an initial scene which I set for American Opera Projects' inaugural season of Composers and the Voice. The only surviving bit from that first scene, which I now call The Summer King Suite, was Grace's Aria, which you can hear right here. Subsequently Dan and I went back to the grindstone, hammered out draft after draft of a full two-act treatment, met in consultation with folks at American Opera Projects and other fine artists, and Dan wrote me two full libretto drafts, one of which was given a public reading at Symphony Space in New York.

Josh Gibson famously said "I don't break my bats, I just wear them out." And that, I fear, is what I did to poor Dan Nester. In my search for the meaning of Josh's story, and my need to create a work that was compelling, true to history, and at once heartbreaking and uplifting, I badgered the poor man with endless emails, requests for rewrites, revisions, further amendments to the treatment. As has happened previously in opera history, we ultimately had a parting of the ways, with Dan amicably allowing me to retain what portions of his work I chose for the final libretto in accordance with our signed collaborator's agreement. About half of his excellent words remain in the finished opera.

Following our breakup came a period of drift for me, uncertainty about whether this opera I so dreamed of making could ever be finished. I pursued other potential librettists, before ultimately coming to the conclusion that my vision for the opera was so thoroughly my own (and still evolving) that it just wouldn't work to bring on another collaborator. I am probably a difficult person with which to collaborate - emotional about the work, at times unyielding...I suppose life brings us to a place where we discover such things. I wrote the remainder of the words myself (with one secret and, by the author's request, unattributed contribution in Act I Scene 3).

A seminal moment came for me when I attended a performance of Janacek's opera Jenufa at Glimmerglass Opera. By the final act, I found myself weeping, completely forgetting that I was a composer, just swept up in the emotional arc of the masterpiece. I understood then that I wanted my opera to do THAT. Not to be cerebral, overly artistic, or abstract, but to be clear, narrative, deeply expressive, accessible and challenging, and most of all, to go for the jugular. Opera, I decided then, was not the best medium if what one wants to be is subtle. My story was SAD, and I didn't want to beat around that bush.

But, there is also joy in my story. After meeting with Josh's grandson Sean Gibson of the Josh Gibson Foundation, and the Negro league baseball historian Rob Ruck, and walking through Josh's old neighborhoods in Pittsburgh and Homestead, and reading, reading, mulling, mulling and talking with various other folks, particularly AOP's former artistic director Steven Osgood, I came to truly understand the tale I had to tell. About Josh - how he was like Moses and led his people to the promised land, even if he could not, would not, traverse its border. How his greatness on the field, and his perserverence through the grueling Negro League lifestyle created the momentum that allowed for a whole new generation, led by Jackie Robinson, to tear down that wall. And also about the Negro Leagues themselves, shrouded to this day in mystery, conjecture, incomplete statistics, one maybe-apocryphal tale after another, and yet a glorious world unto itself, populated by black-owned teams and businesses, fans, larger-than-life ballplayers, a bustling, thriving universe with Josh at its very core, which rather quickly ceased to be after integration.

The story is one of injustice, to be sure, but not only injustice - which is how it is often portrayed. Segregation was a great historical crime - but there was a wealth of culture and tradition surrounding black baseball, and it brought a lot of people tremendous joy. Josh Gibson led his people to the promised land of integration, but not all of his people. Because when integration first came, only the greatest of Negro League players (even if many were past their prime) were allowed through the doorway. Many others saw their livelihoods and their whole social environments decimated. Workaday, skilled ballplayers, the kind who today make slightly above minimum wage, say half a mil per year, found their glorious world crumbling, and faced inglorious professions, uncertainty, and signficiant loss of stature. Alongside Josh's, I wanted to tell their story as well, and it is embodied perhaps most directly in the character of the Elder Barber in The Summer King. He is a former ballplayer who carries on endlessly about the great Josh Gibson, only momentarily (in the first scene) begrudging his own sad fate ("I cut when I should be taking cuts...").

My opera is about those Negro Leaguers who didn't make it to the white leagues, particularly their greatest champion, but also his lesser, or perhaps older, colleagues. Throughout the opera a question is raised about a famous home run Josh was reported to have hit completely OUT of Yankee Stadium as a youngster in 1930. The recurring tale becomes a kind of metaphor for all of Negro League history. We have so little film footage, the stats are so incomplete, did it really happen? Does anyone really know? The Summer King answers that question with a resounding yes. It portrays the injustice Josh suffered, the way in which he was celebrated by his many fans at home and abroad, the too-little-known and extremely beautiful corner of history he made brilliant, and the cost - on him and his colleagues - of both segregation and integration.

It is my greatest work to date, and I hope you (and I!) will hear and see a full production soon. In the meantime, I hope you will spend some time exploring the synopsis, audio and visual excerpts, and other info here.