lovers of fiction

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. 

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.