In Praise of the Curated Collection

December 9th, 2014

Grouping of CDs deacquisitioned from the Upper Arlington Public Library.

I pulled out a CD I hadn’t listened to in a while:  RCA Victor 60757-2 RC, a 1991 recording of music by Ernest Bloch and Max Bruch, with Charles Mackerras, Ofra Harnoy, and the London Philharmonic.  I don’t know why I felt like hearing it, except that it sounds really great on my stereo.  My copy is one I picked up a library sale at the Upper Arlington Public Library a few years back, and I actually listened to it when it was still in the collection, before it was deacquisitioned and I picked it up for a buck or so.  The case is cracked, the booklet is missing, and there are no fewer than five stickers between the case and the CD.  I would have encountered it first when it was relatively new, and I was working my way through all of the UAPL’s orchestral CDs.  That same day at the sale, I picked up a couple of others–Telarc’s recording of Michael Murray playing Joseph Jongen, Robert Shaw’s Berlioz Requiem, the English String Orchestra playing Finzi, and one of Gerard Schwarz’ discs of David Diamond’s music.  Some of these–the Jongen and the Bloch especially–I remember from my high school days in the early 90s, and it doesn’t bother me that the Berlioz skips (I know I had it out the summer after my freshman year of college).

I have no idea who was in charge of choosing CDs at the UAPL in the late 80s and early 90s.  It was the era when CDs still had some cachet (for the record, the CD is my personal preference for recorded music, and I think it’s basically been downhill since then).  The 90s seem to have actually been a really good time for recorded classical music, in retrospect.  Labels had worked their way through the standard repertoire, and had really figured out how to get good sounds into digital media–the Bloch is stunning when I can get the house nice and quiet, with a presence that is warm and pure.  Wonderful stuff was available, and the rule was that you could check out four CD titles (making multi-disc sets work nicely), and keep them for two weeks.  I’m not sure exactly when I started, but by the time I could drive myself to the library, I was getting my four CDs, playing them into the ground on the vertical-loading boom box in my room while I did homework, got ready for school, or read books (mostly also picked up at the library, about ten books for every four CDs), and then going back for four more, every two weeks, more or less year-round.  After I graduated high school, I fell back into the habit when I came home on breaks, got a public library in Cincinnati, since the University library didn’t lend recordings to undergrads, and did the same thing every time I moved thereafter.  The day after I moved back in with my parents in 1999, I was at the UAPL, being told that my tattered card, still in my wallet, was no longer in the system, and on more than one occasion, I have had only my signed apartment lease to present to the librarian in a new town.

But back to the topic at hand:  learning classical music from the collection at the UAPL shaped who I am as a musician and a composer.  Whoever was in charge of building the collection had very specific tastes, and I was introduced to postmodernism before I knew what it was.  Operas by Philip Glass and John Adams were on the menu, as were works by Steve Reich (Music for 18 Musicians).  There was Bruckner (I remember that towering finale of the Eighth Symphony stuck in my head for a full day of school when I was a senior in high school), Mahler (who I didn’t understand) and Shostakovich (who I did–the Seventh!).  The summer of 1993, I was obsessed with the Ring cycle, and listened to all of it on Deutsche Grammophone, and then again the next summer when I had my wisdom teeth out.  Gorecki, Hanson, Hovhaness, Corigliano, Messiaen.  If I had waited on my formal education to catch up to these, it would have been three or more years before I heard a note.  The wonderful recording of Slatkin and St. Louis with Vaughan Williams and Barber.  The symphonies of Sibelius and Nielsen (how could a seventeen-year-old boy not pick up something called “The Inextinguishable?”).  Blomstedt and San Francisco playing Hindemith.

I could never have bought this many CDs for myself, even if I could have found my way to such things.  I could have asked my parents, but the money probably wasn’t there.  I had the beginnings of my own collection, but wouldn’t have known what to get if I had somehow gotten the money.  Over the years, I have bought a few of those recordings–Gorecki, Hovhaness, Hindemith–but for the most part, they are housed in my memory.

Arguably, today’s budding musicians have access to all this and more, and more easily.  But what Spotify, Amazon, and the rest miss is the curated aspect of that collection.  The UAPL didn’t have everything, but what it had I today recognize as being strong, and more important, deliberate (yes, there was the expected “100 Great Melodies of Classical Music” and a plethora of Cincinnati Pops recordings as well, but I quickly found my way around those things).    Someone–again, I never found out who–picked out those recordings, exercised taste, built a collection–not just a mass of CDs, but a collection of interesting, relevant, and important recordings.  And those CDs, coming home with me four at a time, made me a musician, then a composer.

I was an innocent, finding my way through what seems like a much richer landscape than we see today.  If I had come to the library, and there had been nothing but compilations and crossover, I would be a different person today.  Who is guiding today’s seventeen-year-olds?  Can they blunder into John Luther Adams and Nico Muhly the way I fell into Phillip Glass and Henryk Gorecki?  Who is curating for them?  I’m fairly certain that there is no algorithim that can bring a young ear to a relatively broad (although my listening in those years had holes), yet also targeted and interesting sense of taste in the same way.  With the Internet, it is perpetually “People who purchased… also bought,” or “Pay extra and you can skip an unlimited number of times.”  The freedom to browse, to try on, to walk around in music, confident that some human being spent part of a limited budget to put that music in your path–this is what I had in the early 1990s on Tremont Road.  And so I’ll put on my Bloch and Bruch CD again, and remember the time when it, and my ears, were new, and again feel gratitude to that curator I never met.

Is not holiday in your galaxy?

November 27th, 2014

As usual, all attempts to explain what follows are somewhat futile.

So, to my fellow Schattenjaggers, and to those who have not yet found their cubes and been recruited (in whatever century they may be):  Remember what you did (or will do) in those Universes, and try to be worthy of it in this one.  Think of each other fondly, and often.  Keep fighting mediocrity.  And take it to the next level.  On behalf of Matt Specter, who is slow on the draw this year and won’t join facebook, I give you Chapter 51: Zek, a.k.a., The Thanksgiving Chapter.

No quote fits this chapter.

_____________

“Mmm, come, come. With a Jedi it is time to eat as well,” said Yoda.

Yoda had laid out quite a spread. We didn’t know what anything was, but
there sure was an awful lot of it.

“Eat, eat. Mmmm, good food, yes? M-hm-hm-hm-hm-hm-hm. Ohhh.”

We sat down around the tiny table, careful not to bang our heads on the
low ceiling.

“Mmmm…Came you very far, yes? Hungry you must be! Eat, eat.”

We looked at each other hesitatingly. Quite frankly, the stuff looked
and smelled gross. Finally, Saunders decided we had better not make an
incident, and started scooping himself some glop.

“Why all the food?” asked Saunders conversationally, as the rest of us
followed his lead and helped ourselves.

“Is it not holiday in universe from where you came?”

I almost dropped by plate of swamp algae. I wasn’t shocked that Yoda
knew where we were from, but Yoda’s use of the word ‘Holiday’…

I looked at my watch, which still continued to function as if I were
walking around earth. The date said 11/27.

“You made us Thanksgiving dinner?” I asked Yoda.

“Yes! Yes…good food we have, talk we will. Work I not on holidays,
whatever universe may they be in. Come, eat, eat.”

I paused for a moment, then said genuinely and sincerely, “Thank you.”
The others turned to look at me, shocked by my sudden mood swing.
Slowly they seemed to realize that this really was our Thanksgiving
dinner, and that we should be truly thankful for it. Yoda had gone to
great trouble to make us feel welcome. I smiled, and took a bite of my
food.

It was nasty. I chewed slowly, fighting the urge to spit it back out.
Everyone around me was having a similar reaction, except for Yoda, who
ate with wild abandon, constantly commenting on the quality of the food.

Suddenly, he stopped, and looked up in shock.

“Ohhh…” he said, “Forgot I the most important thing!”

We all watched with intent curiosity as he picked up an empty bowl, got
up from the table, went over to the corner of the room, and opened a
large door, revealing a small horse-like creature. Yoda placed the bowl
on the ground in front of the horse-thing, then calmy went to its side
and punched it in the gut. The horse responded by vomiting into the
bowl. We stared in a mixture of horror, confusion, and nausea, as Yoda
brought the bowl back to the table, and began to spoon it over his food
like gravy. Suzanne had her hand over her mouth, and Loren looked
green.

Yoda finished scooping, and offered the bowl to us.

“Use the horse puke,” he said, “Use the horse puke!”
__________________________

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Matt

Being Here, Not Being There

October 18th, 2014

Last Sunday, October 12, was a big day for my music.  Here in Cleveland, Liliana Garlisi gave the first performance in Ohio of the complete Starry Wanderers on a concert of the Cleveland Composers Guild.  And, in St. Louis, Avguste Antonov was the soloist in the world premiere of my piano concerto, with the University City Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Leon Burke.  Both concerts happened more or less simultaneously, and while I was glad to be here in Cleveland for Liliana’s fantastic performance, missing the concert in St. Louis stung a bit.

The good news first.  Liliana gave an amazing reading, from memory, of Starry Wanderers.  As a composer, the feeling of having someone take a piece that seriously is second-to-none.  Dianna Anderson, who gave the premiere of Starry Wanderers and my piano sonata, has treated my work in the same way, as though she were playing Beethoven or Scriabin rather than the work of a relatively obscure Midwesterner.  I now consider myself fortunate to have collaborated with three pianists who bring that kind of musicianship to the table.

During Lilian’s performance, a child who had been brought to the concert began to fuss, and let’s just say that it won’t be a pristine recording.  A colleague at the concert expressed her dismay in an email later this week, and while I appreciate her sentiment on behalf of Liliana and myself, I personally think that it’s wrong.

I teach students every day who don’t buy into the “pristine concert hall” experience.  In fact, it is one of the factors they find most intimidating when they attend concerts as required.  In our kid-friendly world, how can we expect that people won’t bring their children to something that children have every right to experience?  I was fortunate to grow up in a time and place where schoolchildren were regularly exposed to such things–the Columbus Symphony Orchestra gave a concert at my high school twice while I was there–but with budgets and grants increasingly less available, this just doesn’t happen as often.

If someone wants to come to a concert on which my piece is being played, and the only way that they can do so is to bring their young child, then let them come.  The point of a concert is not to make the perfect recording — if that is what is required, then the dress rehearsal should be recorded, or a studio session scheduled.  I put my music before the public so as many people as possible can experience it in the way it was intended to be heard–played by a living person in front of a living audience.  I would no more ask my audience not to breathe.  I would love to know that my music elicits audible responses from time to time–laughs, gasps, sighs, cries, whatever.  And if that recording is so important, than whoever listens to it will have affirmation that it is, in fact, a live recording rather than a studio recording with applause edited in at the end.

The St. Louis performance went well, so I’m told.  It was frustrating that a piece I had been thinking about for twenty years, and spent most of 2013 writing, was premiered without my being present.  I talked with Leon Burke over the phone, and he also tried to have me listen in on a rehearsal over his cell phone.  This was frustrating, because as I followed the score, I could almost hear my piece through the distortion, if I really squinted my ears.  I held on until the end of the run-through, so that I could take a moment to thank the players, but there wasn’t really much that I could tell them.  I’ve seen pictures of the performance on the Internet, and the concert was recorded and videoed, so hopefully I will have those artifacts–again, the recording is crucial, but is not the piece itself.  I wasn’t there because the funding was there from the orchestra to bring me out, and the composition business has done well this year, but there was no money for a plane ticket.  As a younger, single man, I would have hopped in the car and driven the eight hours, and probably driven back immediately after the concert so that I wouldn’t miss class on Monday morning, but I have responsibilities now.  I had been hoping for a second performance in Pennsylvania this year, but that doesn’t seem like it will materialize, so at this point, there is a major work of mine that has been premiered, but that I haven’t heard, except as a ghost of itself through a cell phone.  Avguste, having taken the time to learn the piece, is now behind it, and hopes to play it again in 2015-2016, but nothing firm has been committed.  The irony is that usually I take a performance that goes on without me as a sign that I’m making progress as a composer, but it has happened only rarely for a premiere.  The last time a piece was premiered without me, though, was in 2009, when my flight to North Dakota was cancelled, and I missed Dianna Anderson’s premiere of Starry Wanderers, which has gone on to be a relatively important piece, and was the start of a significant collaboration with my former teacher.  Perhaps, then, there are more and better things in store for this concerto.

John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit in Cleveland

September 21st, 2014

About a month ago, my old college classmate Doug Perkins posted a notice on facebook about an upcoming performance of Inuksuit, John Luther Adams’ piece for lots of percussionists.  He was looking for volunteers (a trick that probably only really would work with percussionists, by the way… try getting ninety-nine string players to play a concert-length piece with two rehearsals and no pay), and as I tried to put him in touch with people, he mentioned that Group 1 requires conch players, and that it was nice to seed the group with a couple of brass players who could really blow.  I needed no more invitation.  A few days later, the conch I ordered from Steve Weiss had arrived.  Yesterday and today I took part in the rehearsals and performance of what is really an epic piece, with the composer in attendance, and with huge organizational assistance from my former theory student Amy Garapic.  It’s a small world (as if we didn’t need reminders).

I met all sorts of players–musicians came from six states, some of whom had played the piece before, and this reinforces my idea that music is about people.

Trying to understand Adams’ piece while playing my part (breathing, conch shell calls, a hand siren, a brake drum, and a triangle) wasn’t easy, but at today’s performance in Lake View Cemetery, I think it’s starting to make sense.

Homo sapiens is a species that is in the world, but not completely of it.  We are born breathing, living, like any other life form, but we eventually come to overwhelm our surroundings.  I asked John Luther Adams whether he had an ideal site in mind for the work, and he said that he did not–just as humanity has adapted itself (or adapted the environment to itself) no matter where it finds itself, in my “meaning” of the work.  It builds, and builds, and builds for nearly forty minutes–my hands are sore from cranking my siren, but the siren is perhaps representative of the crisis, or urgency created by our very presence.  And, finally, there is the moment when all of the “human” sounds give way, fading into the distance as the piece merges with its environment, and the performers merge with the audience.  The audience today didn’t know when to applaud, and there was a good minute of silence at the end, as the wind blew, and the sounds of Cleveland reclaimed the space, the space in which lie the remains of those humans who made Cleveland prosperous, but filthy, with a burning river, now decaying back into the dust from which they were formed.  In the end, the planet will remain after us.

This is only my program, of course, and if I had been an audience member instead of a performer, I might have come away with a very different idea.  The audience seemed at first festive, then curious, then rapt.  There were people taking cell phone pictures, and children playing, and some people who stumbled on to us during a Sunday afternoon stroll, but I think many had a kind of spiritual experience, akin to worship (incidentally, the wind seemed to be strongest at the beginning and the end, dying off in the middle–it seems to me that if you perform a piece about God’s creation on a Sunday morning, He will probably take an interest).  An incredible way to spend a weekend!

A student’s question

August 26th, 2014

I’ve been teaching composition to a very talented young man, Cooper Wood for not quite two years now.  This week he discovered Varese, and emailed me with a question:  

I’ve been doing a lot of listening to 20th century composers recently because I want to liberate myself from composing invariably in a tonal idiom. I’ve been listening to Antheil, Cowell, Varesé, and Hovannes [sic]. I love the sound all of them have, but every time I try to compose non tonally I get stuck and fall back on tonalism. When and how did you sort of break free from tonalism and started relying on other parameters of music to compose?

Here’s my response:

Boy, this is a big question.

We’ve never really talked about how I got going in composition. My junior year of high school, I had a free period and didn’t want to take a study hall, so my guidance counselor suggested our school’s gifted and talented program, in which about twenty of us pursued our own interests and passions, with a teacher to facilitate things (and make sure we actually did something). The year before, I had taken a class in computer graphics and sound in which we learned Encore, an early notation program, so I had developed a taste for moving notes around. Based on that, I decided that my “thing” would be composition, and I now had a class period every day to devote to it. I didn’t really know where to start, and I didn’t have very much guidance, which in some ways was a blessing, because I had to figure things out on my own. Up until this point, I loved doing music, was excited about it, and even thought of myself as rather good at it, but I had never thought of making it a profession before, and I wasn’t even taking private trombone lessons. That year, I worked through a part-writing book, practiced a lot of trombone, listened to a ton of music (the public library let you check out four CDs every week, and I had my driver’s license by that point, so I could get there when I wanted to go; they had a great selection of classical music, including a good amount of the cool late-minimalist stuff that was coming out in the 80s and 90s).

There was one other composer in the class, Renee Goubeaux, who was later my first girlfriend, and is now a cellist in the Toledo Symphony Orchestra.  We sort of spurred each other on, sharing stuff with each other and talking about pieces we wanted to write.  I had done a lot of reading, and was starting to put sounds with what I had read.  I tried to write a few pieces–I was interested in writing band music, canons, modal things that incorporated serial transformations.  We performed a couple of pieces as part of the performances that the class would put on.

The next year, my senior year, I did more of the same, culminating with my senior thesis, a concerto for trombone and string orchestra.  I played in the Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestra that year, and auditioned for colleges as a trombone performance and music education major.  I thought that perhaps composition would have some place in what I was doing in college, but I didn’t feel like I had been doing it long enough to make it my main focus.  I did take some private lessons as an undergrad with Wes Flinn, who is now on faculty at the University of Minnesota-Morris, and with Joel Hoffmann, who is still at CCM.  I immensely enjoyed taking orchestration and studying counterpoint in my theory classes, but I still didn’t consider myself a composer.

Despite all the listening I had done, I still didn’t understand that a composer didn’t have to be someone who wrote pretty melodies–I thought there had to be a catchy tune, somehow.  It didn’t seem to occur to me that what I was hearing in, say, Philip Glass, wasn’t about tune at all–it just sounded good.  In those pre-Internet days, scores were hard to come by, and I wouldn’t have necessarily thought to go looking for them, either.  So I spent years thinking of myself as an arranger, or as someone with an interest in composition but not doing much composing.

I’ve also realized that I never really was a “tonal” composer, in that I never took the time to really absorb the language to tonal music and let that be my pure expression.  Perhaps this is my background as a trombonist instead of a pianist, or just listening to years of rock music (my other favorite music), and then being dumped into the world of wind ensemble literature in college (although we played Persichetti in high school, too).  I have a real ear for orchestration and a strong rhythmic understanding of things (we’ve discussed this), but I’m not a tonal harmonic composer in my heart of hearts.

I also am not a part of what used to be called the “avant-garde,” and what these days we refer to as “new complexity.”  I don’t compose tonally, but I don’t compose in such a way as to be deliberately ground-breaking or difficult all the time.  I want to compose music that expresses what I want to express while also being something people want to hear and perform.  Sometimes I’m successful in this, sometimes not.

So–as much as I’ve been exposing you to post-tonal methods, techniques, materials, and repertoire, if you are, in your heart-of-hearts, a “tonal” composer, you need to write that way.  Study the rest, because it may come in handy someday.  What I’ve been trying to get you away from isn’t “tonal” composition, but writing that is merely a copy of historical styles.  There are reasons to write like Chopin or Mozart, but it’s difficult to be taken seriously in 2014 if that’s all you do (in fact, I’ve found it useful to engage in style copies at several different points in my career).

That trombone concerto back in 1994 was an attempt to be tonal.  I didn’t follow the “rules” very well, and as satisfying as it was to write that piece, it wasn’t very successful from a musical standpoint.  The very next piece I wrote, a song cycle, worries much less about keys and more about rhythm and the flow of melody–it was my first vocal piece, setting some of my favorite poems from high school English class.

In some ways, the important thing is to keep writing, keep listening, keep reading.  If I push you on to certain things, it’s because I think it’s my job as your teacher to try to help you get into a college program, and that means we have a hard deadline about twenty-eight months from now.  Your personal style–tonal or not–will develop as long as you keep writing, keep listening, keep reading.

I hope this helps!

On Being A Real Composer

August 21st, 2014

I teach for a living, but my passion is doing music, and for me that means conducting, playing occasionally, but most of all composing. Any day that I “get to” do something compserly is a good day, for the most part. The University City Symphony Orchestra and Avguste Antonov, with conductor Leon Burke, will present the world premiere of my piano concerto–the work that occupied me through most of 2013–on October 12, and the orchestra’s order for the score and parts came through PayPal yesterday. I’ve been preparing for this, trying to make sure that I am ready to have the materials printed in a professional manner, so this morning, I took a CD of PDF files down to Copy King and met with John Schneeberger over them. Very excited to pick up three sets of parts next week! A very composerly way to begin the day–wake up, get the kids going, go see about having my music printed.

The Fifth Beard

May 27th, 2014

A few days ago, I shaved off my facial hair, which I’ve had since the winter of 2006.  It was getting scraggly, had become hopelessly asymmetrical, and I kept nicking my mustache in the same spot with my razor, creating a divot.  So, with two weeks until summer classes start, I’m now growing my Fifth Beard.

I grew my First Beard in July 1993, while I was backpacking at Philmont Scout Ranch.  When we got back to Base Camp, I shaved off everything but the mustache and goatee.  I then had to talk my dad into letting me keep it, which he did, provided I was clean-shaven when school started.  I had it during my last Band Camp with my high school marching band, and I was glad that I was able to grow it, but didn’t mind getting rid of it all that much, because there was a diagonal red stripe below my lower lip that didn’t match the rest.  I have a picture from the last day of Band Camp of me with the beard, where I’m playing a trombone solo, looking sharp in my aviator-style prescription sunglasses (which I still use!), and that year’s band t-shirt, which had a Where the Wild Things Are theme, and which I sadly no longer own, as it got trashed at the mulch sale the next spring.

My Second Beard came about two years later, in June or July of 1995.  I was at Brevard Music Center in North Carolina, and my girlfriend asked me to grow it.  After a few days, she trimmed it up into a mustache and goatee, and a few days after that, decided she didn’t like it, so I cut it off.  The whole second beard couldn’t have lasted much more than two weeks or so.  Sometimes things are fleeting.

The Third Beard was also fleeting.  I was living in Macon, Georgia, and over the Christmas holidays in 1998 and 1999, I grew it out, thinking to make a more mature look during my first year of teaching school.  The day before school was to start again, I was convinced to shave it.  Thinking back, that was probably the right move, because I don’t remember any of the other teachers (male teachers, that is) having a goatee, and my principal, Mr. Sheftall, was the kind of guy who would tell one of his teachers to shave it off.

Then there was a pretty long spell of being clean-shaven while some big stuff happened in my life–I moved back to Ohio, taught in Springfield, then in Elyria, met and married Becky, the love of my life, and got started on graduate school.  I probably *should* have grown my beard out at some point, because I think I look better with it when I keep up with it, for one thing, and also because shaving around my mouth plus playing trombone really irritated that area, and I would get pimples right where my lips met the skin of the rest of my face, often right in the spot where the rim of my mouthpiece lands.  It never really occurred to me, though.  For whatever reason, even though I had tried it three times, two at my own instigation, it never crossed my mind.

Then, in December 2005, came the Fourth Beard, and it has really become a part of my image.  I grew it because one of my fellow students at Ohio State grew one, and Becky said it looked good.  Only half-joking, I told her that I had better grow mine out, too, and she liked the idea, and the results.  I kept it until last Saturday, May 25, which means that it saw me through the second half of grad school, my first college teaching gig in Oklahoma, the birth of both of my children, some good things, some bad things.  I’ve had it the entire time I’ve been on Facebook and the entire time I’ve had my own website.  No one at my current job has ever seen me without it, and neither had Noah and Melia, or my neice Emma (or her dad Steve, for that matter), until last Saturday.  Noah had seen pictures of Becky and me from our wedding, when I was clean-shaven, and since then, he’s been pointing at the picture we have in the living room saying, “Daddy, you shaved off your mustache before the wedding.”  Yes, and no, Noah.  Yes and no.

One reason I kept the beard was that my dermatologist told me that keeping any skin covered reduces the chance of my skin cancer recurring, and I’m all in favor of that, so I’m growing it back.  I wasn’t sure what would be under there–would nine years show unpleasantly?  Becky says I look younger without it, but that I look better with it, so it’s coming back.  I think it’s the Will Riker effect–Jonathan Frakes looked much better in subsequent seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, not just because his uniform had been redesigned, but because of his excellent facial hair.  To wit:

(Although did they also change his eye color, or is it just the lighting?)

Anyway, I should have known as early as 1989 or so what a beard could do for a trombone player (whether or not he happens to be first officer of a Galaxy-class starship).  Clearly, I have learned something in all those years.

So… what will the Fifth Beard hold?  How long will it last?  Until tenure?  Full professor?  Until Melia is in elementary school, or Noah is in middle school?  Perhaps it will be the beard I wear to the premiere of my first symphony.  Maybe I will get better at taking care of it and it will be the beard I have the rest of my life.  Only three days in, I’m still in the growth stage, and I’m considering whether to go with the full beard (a la Number One) or stick with the goatee (I could do that, then shave my head and have a Benjamin Sisko thing… nah…).

 

Glenn Gould: Fifty Years of Solitude

April 10th, 2014

Fifty years ago today, April 10, 1964, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould gave his last public performance.

Sometime around twenty years ago, I discovered Glenn Gould, first through Evan Eisenberg’s book The Recording Angel, and later, and more importantly, through Francois Girard’s film Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, which my father and I went to see at the Drexel Theatre in Columbus on its first release, sometime in late 1993 or early 1994.  Coincidentally, I’ve been showing this film to my music appreciation students this week.  I love it for my own reasons, of course, but I love the way it (and Gould’s story) portrays the eternal triangle of composer-performer-audience, and shows that this triangle is perhaps not as eternal as we once thought it.

I also love that it’s a grown-up movie.  It isn’t a romantic comedy, and there are no explosions, which right away make it very different from what my students are accustomed to seeing.  On the other hand, the movie’s structure as a set of short vignettes, no more than about five minutes long each, is perfect for the way that many of them have encountered media–through YouTube clips, Vine videos, and the like.  It deals with genius, with the plans our parents set into motion for us, with what an intelligent person does when he can no longer tolerate the path of his life, it deals with the consequences of personal decisions, and it deals with death.  And it’s funny.  Very funny, on a couple of occasions.

But more importantly, trying to explain Gould to my students every semester makes me rethink why he was so important to me in the first place.  So here’s what I have this time around.

In 1993 and 1994, I was excited about going to college, and I didn’t only consider going as a music major.  I prepared my own audition repertoire, and when I took auditions, I hadn’t had a regular private trombone teacher in two years.  I practiced, and I played, and I began to study music theory.  I had some experience on piano to fall back upon, and I had started to compose a little.  I would eventually complete a trombone concerto as my senior thesis, without much guidance other than my own reading and listening.  It wasn’t particularly good, and I wasn’t a standout candidate for conservatory.  I’m still amazed that Tony Chipurn took me into his studio at CCM because I had a lot of catching up to do in terms of my technique, although I was just fine in theory and history classes.

It has been said that it is a mistake to make a career of music if one has other options, and I certainly did.  If I had really understood the differences in the educational approaches of different schools, I might have made a very different decision.  I also might have made a very different decision if I hadn’t known about Glenn Gould.

I learned about Glenn Gould the man before I ever heard Glenn Gould the pianist.  What struck me was his personality, both as displayed in Girard’s film and in Otto Friederich’s Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations.  A musician, yes, but a true intellectual.  A man of staggering intellect.  And a man whose personality seemed to fit my own–exacting, idealistic, introverted, yet brilliant (I thought quite a bit of myself), uncompromising (at eighteen, I hadn’t had much to compromise over).  Seeing a potential future self in Gould, I could begin to see a future as a musician.  Composer?  Perhaps.  Band director?  If necessary.  I’m not completely sure what I wanted from my years at CCM when I got there, except to immerse myself in this musical world and somehow come out transfigured, shining-faced, prepared to be audacious, brilliant, uncompromising.

Almost the first thing I did on arriving in Cincinnati was find my way to the listening center in the music library, and have the attendant–Ben Rydell–put on Gould’s 1955 Goldberg Variations.  My first hearing, the first music I heard as a college student.  Even though it is the 1981 recording of that piece that I have played again and again after finally receiving it for Christmas that year, the notes of Gould’s breakthrough record were what bracketed my time in college.  My idea of what Bach could be was transformed, of course, and when I took piano lessons with Dianna Anderson, I drove her nuts trying to play Bach the way Gould did, but it was more than that.  I genuinely attempted to channel Gould, in my young, awkward, deliberately boisterous way, at once musical, literary, philosophical.  Those who were there may remember some of it, the heart-on-the-sleeve, Young Werther-type who walked around Cincinnati that year, reveling in the freedom to simply be a student of music, to keep my own hours, to determine for myself just how much solitude I needed (perhaps it was because my birth cohort is relatively small, but it seemed that there were any number of places for a person to be alone on that campus).

What does Gould mean for my students, then?  I wish I could get them to think more deeply about it–they aren’t always in that habit.  I think that Gould is the precursor of the postmodern performer–after all, he quit performing three years before the Beatles did.  There are any number of popular music stars today, particularly in techno and EDM, who only give lip service to the idea of public performance.  Is playing a set of recorded music a public performance?  Not in any kind of traditional sense, but I think Glenn Gould would have appreciated it.  While “artists” (and my students use this word more frequently than “musician” to describe musical performers) may appear before the public, many do not truly perform their music before the public, preferring to lip synch instead.  YouTube is filled with mashups–the result of the public doing just what Gould imagined–creating performances out of existing material.  In a sense, we have arrived at Gould’s future.

The world of Glenn Gould recedes from us a little more each year–I noticed this particularly on this week’s viewing’s of Thirty Two Short Films, with its typewriters, phone booths, and newspaper stock prices.  In 1993, only ten years on, things were not so different–after all, Gould’s second reading of the Goldberg Variations was recorded digitally and released on CD.  Now I find myself explaining some of the technology to the students, alongside with the idea that a man might then (as now) devote his entire life to performing the music of someone else.  This in particular baffles my students, who think of a “song”  (always a song) as being linked with a specific performer rather than a composer or songwriter.  I try to imagine what Gould and his producers were doing–making the first recordings which have withstood the test of time and changes of medium, and I see that if it hadn’t been Gould to quit the stage, it would have been someone.

And yet, the man fascinates me, and I think will continue to do so until I am older than he was at his death when I was only six years old.

Congratulations on fifty years of solitude, Mr. Gould.

Composing and Conducting

March 30th, 2014

I was very pleased to get an envelope with a completed commissioning agreement in it from Wes Flinn the other day, which means that I’m writing a tuba-euphonium quartet for him.  The whole-consort genres can be intimidating, but I’ve generally had some success with them–my Sevens for four trumpets won an award, and Nod a Don is being played both here in Cleveland and at the National Flute Association conference in Chicago in the next six months.  These kinds of short chamber pieces aren’t necessarily the enormously thrilling kinds of work (like a piano concert0) that I long to do, but it’s a pleasure to write for an old friend, to get a performance relatively quickly, and to not write something that is as consuming as, say, a piano concerto.  In fact, since we have a new baby this year, I’m deliberately giving myself more small projects that will fit better into the time available for composition.  Other projects this year (I think) include a piano cycle based on L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels and a band version of my 2008 piano cycle Starry Wanderers.  

Two weeks ago, I enjoyed a fantastic premiere of Azteca Dances, a woodwind quintet that I composed “for the drawer” back in Oklahoma.  The performers weren’t completely satisfied, but I was, so there’s that.  I’m happy to have found the Cleveland Composers Guild as an outlet for my work, although there will need to be more than that to really sustain things in a performance sense.

Not much to this entry, but nothing in particular to say right now, and I want to get to composing tonight!

 

What Happens When You Don’t Practice

January 28th, 2014

I last picked up my trombone around December 1 or so, sometime before we left for Oklahoma to go get our baby girl Melia, so it had been about sixty days since I even touched the instrument. I took it to school with me during reading week, but for the first three-and-a-half weeks back, it sat forlornly in my office. I really need a reason to play the thing other than “I went to conservatory and feel guilty every day that I don’t practice now.”

But, today, I got in forty minutes on the trombone, and it went something like this.

“I guess I will need the Super-Slick today after all.”

“Is this the right mouthpiece?”

“That note shouldn’t sound like that.”

“Did my lips get skinnier?”

“Hey, that note was in tune!”

“I used to have bigger lungs than this.”

“Ooh… that note was *not* in tune.”

“How does that warm-up routine go?”

“That felt better than I remember it.”

“That didn’t.”

“High notes don’t feel so bad.”

“Yes, they do!”

“That felt like that old guy I used to play with in high school that made me think I’ll never let my tone sound like that.”

“Definitely need to do this more often.”

“Maybe a couple of heads from the Real Book would be a good idea.”

“All the heads in the Real Book are in bad keys and emphasize the tubby range of the instrument, but don’t go low enough for me to take them up an octave. It’s a saxophonist conspiracy.”

“My left arm is tired.”

“My right arm is tired.”

“That was a passable attempt at Bitsch etude number 4.”

“Is that my spit valve cork coming loose?”

“No.”

“I still can’t play pedal tones like Chad Arnow.”

“Gotta get more gigs and have a reason to practice.”

“Time to go home.”