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! 

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.