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.

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. 

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. 

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.