Composing From the Heart

June 29th, 2015

My composition student, Cooper Wood, asked me a good question, and the answer is my next post:

I want to know your thoughts on a question of mine. Every time I sit down to compose, if I’m composing straight from my heart and my inspiration it’s always relatively tonal. Anytime I force myself to write atonally I don’t have that same emotional attachment to it compared to the tonal music I compose. I just feel cold and detached from it like it’s just some academic exercise. I know music is meant to be intellectual but it almost feels too intellectual. So all of this leads to my question: is it possible to be a tonal composer in the twenty first century? And if so, what’s the extent?

My answer:
In a word, yes, of course you can be a tonal composer.  All the tonal music that you hear on TV, in the movies, in video games–someone is writing that.  Sometimes it’s recycled from music of the past, but not always; indeed, more often than not, the media is using original music.  In fact, if you want to make a living just composing (and not teaching), tonal music is the way to go.
The truth is that very few composers, commercial or academic, write truly atonal music anymore, if the definition of “atonal music” is music that has no clear central pitch and avoids the impression that there is one.
Composers of “serious” music (or art music, or concert music, or academic music, or whatever you want to call it) have often avoided purely tonal music over the last few decades.  Some of them write atonal or nearly-atonal music, while others are still exploring the tonal and functional systems.    Others are hardly interested in any kind of systematic harmony at all, and focus on electronic music, or spectral formations, or writing for percussion, or sound installations, or whatever.   In the twenty-first century, there is room for all.  Are they writing “from the heart” or as an intellectual exercise?  It can be tough to know.  An academic may be writing “from the desire to secure tenure.”  A concert composer may write in an intellectually daring style to make a political point, or to curry favor with critics, or make a statement in a particular musical scene.
There are many reasons to write music, and communicating a personal, emotional experience is only one of them.  A composers’ reasons for writing may vary from piece to piece, or over the course of his or her career.  Alex Shapiro is a good example of a composer who made it in the commercial world and was very successful there, but quit to focus on concert music because she wanted to write for different reasons.  Her music is mostly, well, hers.  She spent years working on deadline, mastering the craft of making effective music, and now is able to turn that experience to creating music that is from the heart instead of “made to order.”
Give a listen to John Luther Adams‘ work as well.  The power of his music lies not in his choice of harmonic language, but in the way he lets sounds unfold, slowly, patiently, in much the same way as the ecological processes that inspire him.  He could have written Become Ocean using only traditional harmonic materials, because the piece isn’t about harmony–it is about shifting masses of sound and slow timbral evolutions that mimic the slow, barely perceptible changes that fundamentally alter the world around us.  Is he composing from the heart?  I believe so.
My own music, very different from Alex’s or John’s, of course, is probably more head than heart most of the time.  This is because of who I am, I suppose–I am an emotional person, but I’m also really good at doing the midwestern, heterosexual male thing of trapping most of those emotions well below the surface, and I’ve come to see that this is often true in my music as well.  When I started composing, in high school, I was, as you are now, still in the process of finding my adult self.  I read the biographies of a couple of the great composers–Wagner and Mahler–who seemed to be ruled by emotion, at least in their musical affairs.  It was the Romantic era, of course.  But I also studied history and science and mathematics, and discussed these, especially history, fairly in-depth with a close friend in long, drawn-out conversations that I cherish and miss.  I’ve always been interested in facts, and I don’t know when I began to look at emotion as sloppy, corny, and somehow less worthy, but that is my default mode–that making emotional decisions is often a mistake (perhaps because some of the big decisions I made that way early on didn’t lead where I thought they would lead–mistake is not quite the word; perhaps because one particular emotional investment of those years didn’t pay out (there was this girl…)).
At any rate, I now find myself trying to infuse emotion more deeply into my music.  It isn’t that I think the only thing missing from what I’ve written so far is “heart.”  As I said–you can write good music without heart, mostly from the head, and such music can be appealing, even beloved. My band piece Moriarty’s Necktie is a very “head” kind of piece, but it always has a strong impact on an audience because it works in proven musical and dramatic ways.  I wrote it very quickly, once I got started, and I was relatively close to the deadline, so it had to get finished.  There is “heart” in it–it is music that was inspired by the drive between Columbus (home) and Oklahoma (work, at the time), and the germ of it came to me as I was driving through St. Louis.  The working out, however, was largely a “head” act.  Some of the pieces in my piano cycle Starry Wanderers are from the heart–I am passionately interested in the planets, and I have been for more than thirty years now, so I have feelings about all of them.   Even so, some of those pieces were written to complete the cycle and have more head than heart in them as a result.  Would it have been wiser to wait it out until I could write an emotional piano piece about, say, Neptune?  Perhaps.  Would the piece have ever been finished?  Perhaps not.
In my newest piece, …into the suggestive waters…, which will be premiered in November, I made a specific effort to tap into one specific emotion–nostalgia.  My public persona about nostalgia is that it is a waste of time, that it gets one mired in the past.  Too often, I have felt nostalgia turn into self-recrimination, or jealously, or regret (the -algia part means “pain,” of course), and I also try to avoid any kind of “Golden Age” thinking.  It just all seems counterproductive.  But, being out of high school twenty years, and writing a piece for my hometown, it seemed appropriate, and I decided to get nostalgic.  For several weeks, I thought about the past, wrote about it a little, and just tried to let myself feel it in my spare time.  I chose a motive that had nostalgic meaning for me, and started to write with it.  The piece began to take shape.
And here is the point that you should get from all of this:  most composers consider “heart” to be crucial to the creative process.  It is “heart” that makes a piece something that an audience can connect with; it is “heart” that makes us want to write a piece of music (an inherently impractical act most of the time) in the first place; it is often “heart” that allows us to connect with some musical fragment in such a way that we want to amplify it into an entire sound experience.
However, if you rely completely on “heart,” it can be very difficult to get things done.  Your intellectual approach to music must take over at some point.  Perhaps you can even imagine a piece from beginning to end using only heart–“head” still has to take over for things like orchestration, typesetting, layout, and the rest, or it will never be played.  More likely, “heart” will take you fifteen or twenty bars, and then “head” has to figure out what to do next.  Should I repeat? Should I use contrast?  Should I write a variation?  Should I modulate or reharmonize?  Should I change rhythm or meter?  Does this fit with the rest of the piece, or should I save it for something else?  Does this music send the right “heart” message?  Is it playable?  Is it really as good as my heart says it is?  The “head” answers these questions.  The “head” keeps you from reinventing the wheel every time you sit down.  The “heart” may provide the impetus and the passion, but the “head” sees the project through to the end and solves the problems that come up.
And that’s what we’re doing, I think.  I don’t know if “heart” can be taught, but if it can be, I’m only marginally-qualified to teach it.  “Head” can certainly be taught, and I know I can teach it because I’ve watched you learn it over the last three years.  Working in different styles–tonal, atonal, synthetic scale, serial, whatever–with or without “heart,” does a couple of things.  First, it helps you find your personal language.  If I let you compose only the way you did before you came to me three years ago, you would still be writing bad Mozart.  This may speak to your “heart,” but I think that it is easy to be fooled by that–it actually feels good to write something that flows quickly and smoothly onto the page, and it is a fun exercise that I should pursue more often.  You can’t have Mozart’s language.  He wrote the way he wrote because he lived the life he lived in the time and place that he lived it.  If he had lived in Madison, Ohio in 2015, he would have written differently.  Second, trying out a wide variety of styles forces you to confront a variety of problems, and in so doing, you gain a variety of tools that you can apply to your music going forward.  We’ve worked on variation, counterpoint, and now orchestration.  We’ve studied various approaches to harmony and form.  These are all tools that can be useful, but only if you know how to use them.  As the old saying goes, when your only tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.  If your “head” can reach for a tool and get the right one “without looking,” there is that much more opportunity for your “heart” to get involved.  Keep working on finding this balance.
If your “heart” says you need to write tonal music, then write tonal music.  Two caveats, though:  always be ready to let your “head” help you solve the problems that come up; and write tonal music that only you could write.
I hope this helps.

On Cool

May 30th, 2015

Have I really not posted since February?  Apparently so, and it’s been a busy couple of months.

I’ve just finished reading Cool: How the Brain’s Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World by Steven Quartz and Anette Asp.  Not the best book I’ve ever read–frankly, it’s a little bit scattered and tries to cover too much ground as it looks at “cool” from both the neurological/psychological and sociological/economic aspects.  It’s almost two books jammed into one cover.  Chapters 5 through 8, which deal primarily with the appearance of “cool” in the late-modern consumer culture are what intrigue me the most, though.  I’m fascinated by Quartz and Asp’s suggestion that the very notion of “cool” seems to have changed in the 1990s, and having just finished W. Joseph Campbell’s 1995: The Year the Future Began, I’m inclined to see this shift as partly the result of the mass use of the Internet as a commercial and social force.  According to Quartz and Asp, the shift from what they term “rebel cool” to “DotCool” is a shift from a reaction to a hierarchical society to a broader participation in a pluralistic society.

Whether we truly live in a pluralistic society, of course, is up for debate, but it is undeniable that even if, as Adorno claimed, mass culture is merely the illusion of choice, Americans have exponentially more choices at their fingertips today than twenty years ago.  I love Quartz and Asp’s way of showing how “rebel cool” sold itself out and became the commodity of mass consumer culture, the vehicle through which we are expected to encounter products.  The promise of mass individuality has always seemed phony to me–how can I be an individual by doing the same thing as everyone else?  Quartz and Asp also call out “alternative” music in a delightful way that echoes my feelings on it since I first heard the term.  I’ll be introducing the students in my Popular Music courses to many of the ideas Quartz and Asp touch on, primarily because so many of their examples are musical, and, of course, popular music has been one of the wellsprings of cool over the last sixty years.  (There is room here for more thought–Quartz and Asp suggest that cool has at least some of its roots in the rebellious artistic movements of the 20s–Schoenberg, Picasso, and the like, but I wonder what impact “oppositional subcultures” had on popular music before the “rebel cool” ethos embraced jazz and rock.)

I’ve never really thought of myself as “cool,” and this certainly stems from my experiences in elementary and middle school.  Quartz and Asp suggest that the American high school experience has morphed from the hierarchic structure explored in, perhaps, The Breakfast Club, to a more pluralistic approach in which cliques of students no longer aim at “status” or “popularity.”  I can’t speak to whether this is true–I confess to having a somewhat deficient “radar” for this sort of thing.  As far as I can tell, “cool” began very early–perhaps in around second grade, if not before.  I would say that my elementary and middle school environments were, for the most part, quite hierarchic and status driven, with all sorts of the symbols and signals that Quartz and Asp describe.  For the most part, I lacked these signals and symbols.  My family lived comfortably, but for whatever reason, I was content to let my parents choose my clothing well into high school, and I for the most part respected their rule that toys stayed at home.  These, in my experience, were the primary status symbols of my growing up in the 1980s.  My brother and I were dressed nicely, but never with the latest fashions, for the most part.  There were no alligators on our shirts, to borrow Quartz and Asp’s favorite image.  In my elementary school, for boys, the most important status symbols were Transformers toys, and while my brother and I had our fair share of these, they largely stayed at home.  Yes, the point of bringing Optimus Prime was so that you could play with him at recess, but I realize now that my peers and I were already dragged into the consumer culture in which it isn’t enough merely to own a thing, but it is also necessary to display it prominently.  I was not without friends, in elementary school, certainly far from it, but I remember struggling to keep at least one friend in competition with another boy who always seemed to have something interesting to bring to recess.

And this, I suppose, is “cool” at its most insidious–that it drives nine-year-olds to obsess over colored pieces of plastic and metal.

Middle school was extremely status-driven and hierarchic, with clothes finally displacing toys, I suppose, along with the divide between students who were adept at sailing the seas of hormones (Charlie Reed) and those who were (ahem) not.  I remember thinking for a long time that it seemed like some cruel game that someone had set up, with rules that were rigidly, firmly in place, until they were changed, but no rule book in sight, along with few referees (or at least not enough to prevent a fair amount of misery).

Years later, as a teacher, I would become familiar with the fact that school cohorts seem to alternate in terms of behavior, with one class being “fun” and the one following it being more “difficult.”  My personal theory is that once a class develops a personality, teachers react.  A good class has relaxed, looser discipline by the end of the year because they are less challenging to their teachers.  The next class comes in, and teachers begin with the looser discipline from the beginning of the year, but because they haven’t laid the groundwork of behavioral expectations, the new class takes advantage.  They become unruly, and the teacher tightens up by the end of the year, and then begins the next year in the “tight” disciplinary mode, and the two-year cycle begins again.  The effects of this are amplified as, year after year, the students move on to new teachers who have always taught the class preceding them.

I was the student who kept my nose to the grindstone and did my work.  I had friends, again, and a run-in or two with bullies, but that was always more verbal than anything else, because I was on the tall side of average.  Any bullies I encountered soon got bored with me, because I stayed calm and didn’t let them under my skin, although one guy made a good portion of my sixth-grade year miserable just by his relentless presence.  I realize now that he probably had very little waiting for him at home and really just needed friends much more than I did.  I was certainly not “cool,” and for most of middle school, I could have told you who the “cool” kids were.  On our class trip to Washington, DC in eighth-grade, we were placed into small groups for reflection and writing, and somehow my room of four “not-cool” guys was grouped with a room of four “cool” girls.  I still wonder if it was some kind of social experiment our teachers were having.  (For the record, I may not have been “cool,” but that was a great trip).

My high school, in the early 90s, seems to have been entering the “pluralistic” phase Quartz and Asp describe, at least from my perspective.  Perhaps it was simply big enough that status and hierarchy didn’t matter, although the point of outward status symbols is that they allow individuals to determine at a glance the relative status of a stranger, so if there were a status hierarchy in place, I should have felt it more.  There were times that I felt very “in” and others that I felt “out,” in those four years.  I worried tremendously about girls and I did my schoolwork, and yes, there were girls who I felt were “out of my league,” including one who agreed to a date and then blew me off.  There was some status sorting happening, but not as rigidly or as intensely as my wife describes in here high school experience around the same time.  Perhaps she simply worried about it more, having to move to a new school about halfway through high school and having attended many different schools growing up, where I made it through late-elementary, middle and high school with the same students, augmented by new groups every time we moved to a higher school.  Today, I am linked to many of my high school classmates through social media, and they are a fair variety–from our class officers, to the people I was in band with, to people I never really talked to in high school.  On the other hand, I haven’t kept in close touch with anyone, and the best I can hope for is that many of my classmates remember me as the guy who ran for class president twice and lost, but was overall a good guy.

Did I witness this shift from “rebel cool” to “DotCool?”  It seems to ring true.  It would have happened during my high school and college years, and even though I was fourteen in 1990 and twenty-four in 2000, it seemed like I wasn’t the only one changing.  1995 was an epic year–Campbell is right, and I’ve been teaching it that way to my students.  I also teach them that grunge was in many ways the last original form of rock and that everything since has been repetition, which has always seemed to place my own experience too close to the center of things, so it’s nice to receive some support for that view from Quartz and Asp.  My college experience (admittedly as a music major) had relatively little to do with any kind of opposition to conformity, and I watched the shift to pluralism in both my ideals and the larger society.  That isn’t to say it wasn’t without status, but this was somewhat dampened in the world of the music conservatory by the presence of so many people who were focused on the work at hand.  Perhaps in the larger University of Cincinnati, frat boys and sorority girls were much important, but though I saw their sweatshirts (status symbols again), I didn’t give it much thought (but even though I didn’t know one house from another, I’m sure it made a difference to those wrapped up in Greek life).

In graduate school, I felt “cool.”  I taught admiring undergraduates as a teaching assistant, with one class in particular enthralled by my real world experience as a music teacher and even a small clutch of “disciples.”  Not to mention a couple of friendships that have turned out to endure, and several artistic collaborations.  I felt much the same way in Oklahoma at my first teaching job–for a red state, the culture felt very communal, with a large measure of equality between students and professors.  Lakeland is different, but I’m teaching a different kind of student, since my classes are intended for non-majors.  On the whole, I’m not sure my current students feel that I’m “cool,” except in the “DotCool” sense where someone who does interesting and creative work is “cool.”

Some thoughts, anyway.


February Thoughts

February 11th, 2015

The month of February and I have never gotten along well.

Some thoughts:

It really is just bad luck that every time I’ve turned on public radio in the last few days there has been a story about death.  Not just reporting the facts of one or more deaths, but actually about death.

There will not be this little daylight again until sometime in October.

I am now immune to the particular viruses that have given me stomach flu and laryngitis this month.  Their offspring may be mutated bastards, but I won’t be troubled by the originals.

Only a few more weeks of scraping before driving.  Which digs into the composition time I’ve tried to block out for myself in the mornings.

I can’t really be expected to try to write music under these circumstances anyway.  As Jennifer Jolley puts it, “why compose when you can blog?”

I’m halfway through this year’s installment of Best American Short Stories, and if they seem evenly split between love and death, that’s normal.  Literature is about love and death.

February is the shortest month, and there’s a good reason for that.

There’s no pleasing singers, especially in February.

The urge to go to bed at a reasonable time and not get up until March is completely acceptable.

I am a better person for refusing to go to the Wendy’s that smells like a sewer inside.  I’m not so sure about driving extra to get to the Wendy’s with the fancy Coke machine.

If I lose my voice and can’t talk in class, that might actually be an improvement.

At least I get to go to a Cleveland Orchestra concert this week.  Only some of the music they’re going to play is about the pointlessness and futility of trying to master one’s own destiny.  The rest is by a composer who couldn’t think of anything else to say and took the last thirty years of his life off.

Seventeen more days until March.

The idea of “nostalgia” doesn’t mix well with February.  It becomes too much -algia.

And what’s the point of being nostalgic anyway?  February was awful  in almost any year I can think of.

It may be February, bit it isn’t Simon Kenton Winter Camp in 1989-90 over New Years.  That was some horrific awfulness and a misguided idea if I ever heard one.  I still can’t believe my parents paid for me to do that, and that I thought it would be fun.

It also isn’t the winter of 1999-2000.  That was some Grade A awfulness, although I was at least busy that February.

And–OMEA Convention was in Cleveland this year, and I didn’t go, which is some February awfulness avoided.

Well, this is dismal, and it’s time for class.  Enough griping about my first-world problems.

January Thoughts

January 31st, 2015

I’very never tried to write a post from my phone before. I guess there’s a first for everything.

This term I am teaching a section of my popular music class online. I have avoided this since coming to Lakeland, but there is no doubt that online coursework is here to stay. Our online sections regularly fill, and at the least I need to understand the online environment. It was not easy getting the course started but now, three weeks in, I am seeing some positive components.

I’m also having to replace an ensemble director for the first time at Lakeland. Chris Robinson directed the chorus for a dozen years and turned in his resignation three weeks ago. I hired an interim, Joan Bendix, who began rehearsals this week. I think she will hold things together while we search for a permanent replacement.

I’m also writing my first piece for chamber orchestra, and for the first time in a while, the work isn’t going quickly. I’ve only been at it for a week, so perhaps it just needs time. Time is limited: I get four forty-minute sessions a week before class, which is enough to get started and not much else. The piece is due in May, so there is time still. I’m envisioning a very emotional piece, rooted in nostalgia, so there is much pondering to be done.

Some thoughts, anyway.

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

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

Yoda finished scooping, and offered the bowl to us.

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

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!


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.