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?”


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

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

“Time to go home.”

Perspective and Perception

January 19th, 2014

It’s been a busy winter so far in the Saunders household.  In December, I wrapped up my piano concerto just in time for us to drive to Oklahoma to pick up our new baby girl, Melia Noelle.  She’s doing wonderfully, and it’s great to have a baby in the house again.  This is my second time becoming a father, of course, and fatherhood has been the second greatest adventure of my life so far (with marriage being the first).  I’ve been learning by watching Noah the last three-and-a-half years, and now I can learn by watching Melia, too.  It’s yet another change in perspective for me, because I’ve never lived with a little girl before–I only have one brother.  The next eighteen years or so should prove very educational.  Six months ago, we thought that Noah was it, and our household would max out at three, but having a sibling is going to bring a balance to Noah’s life that I think is critical–not that single children can’t grow up to be good people, of course, but my life has been profoundly different–and better–because I had to learn to live with my brother (who now lives in Germany, and who I miss horrendously every day!).  As much as Becky’s life and my life changed on December 6, Noah’s life changed even more, because Melia will probably be the one who he knows the longest.

Noah has a change in perception coming up.  At preschool, he failed an eye exam a couple of months back, so we followed up with a pediatric opthamologist.  He seems to have the same astigmatism that both his parents have, but is apparently hyperopic, or far-sighted, where Becky and I are both near-sighted.  We didn’t suspect that he had vision problems, but it explains some things that we chalked up to his personality–namely, that he won’t sit still to learn letters and words (I backed way off of that this summer when it was frustrating us to the point that it seemed to be doing more harm than good).  If he is, in fact, hyperopic (which we will determine at a follow-up appointment), the kid can only see the flashcards with a lot of strain and concentration, which is tiring and taxing to the three-year-old attention span.  It probably means glasses, and many kids have a degree of hyperopia.

What struck me, though, is how his world will change when he got those glasses.  Like the souls in Plato’s cave, Noah has no idea that the world can look any differently than it does–and frankly, those of us with corrected vision have no assurance that we see things as they are, either.  Descartes held that only an evil demon of a God would make reality an illusion, but to an extent it is–we only perceive a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic and sonic spectra, and most of the Universe is beyond our ability to detect because of the finite speed of light.  We are limited to three dimensions and time flows in a single direction from our experience.  Yet, when Noah gets his glasses, everything will change.  Meanwhile, I’m planning to buy one of those sets of letters that you see in classrooms above the blackboard for Noah’s playroom wall.  And I have no idea how you keep glasses on a three-year-old’s face…

Cleveland Orchestra plays Barber, Schumann, Copland

December 1st, 2013

Always a joy to head down to Severance Hall to hear the local band, the Cleveland Orchestra, and that’s where Dan Perttu and I were last night.  Marin Alsop conducted Barber’s Second Essay, Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and Copland’s Third Symphony.  A stellar performance in many respects.

Some thoughts.  I want to try out some of Maestra Alsop’s moves–in both of the 20th-century pieces, her baton arm was frequently quite low–almost at waist level–as it went away from her body.  Not so much in the Schumann, which of course has considerably more lightness both in tone and in what is actually required of the orchestra.  The “low beat” is something I associate with choral conducting, but I always liked the way it can encourage a group to give a full-bodied, massive tone–if it can be seen over the podium!

The Barber may be something that is in the realm of possibility for the Lakeland Civic Orchestra, and I need to look into it.  I wasn’t very familiar with it before I decided to attend this concert and did some preparatory listening.  A somewhat hesitant start from the orchestra, but a thrilling conclusion.

The Schumann piano concerto has been one of my favorites for many years, which means that I usually want to hear it just-so.  Pianist David Fray was competent, but not astonishing, at least not from where I sat.  It seemed, particularly in the outer movements, that he had somewhere else that he needed to be just then.  In particular, the first movement cadenza felt rushed–for a part of the piece that certainly invites a pianist to take some time and space, no matter what tempo one chooses for the main body of the movement.

The Copland was splendidly done.  Alsop gave a wonderfully cogent explanation of the motivic structure of the piece before playing it that, I think, would help almost any audience hear what Copland does with the “Common Man” material.  The full performance was revelatory–I had only heard the piece on CD before, and to me one the advantages of watching a live performance is the visual reinforcement of a composer’s orchestrational technique.  There are doublings, of course, that only really great players can make work–horn and flute, for example, but of course the Clevelanders play them with ease.  My only quibble was a lack of energy and drive in the second movement, but it is, after all, an enormous piece, and to expend so much in the scherzo would endanger the effectiveness of the finale.

Also picked up trombonist Massimo La Rosa’s new CD in the gift shop, and I’m about halfway through listening to it as I type this entry.  An interesting balance of standard repertoire and new transcriptions, including a daring trombone version of the Bach G-major cello suite.  Love his tone and musicality (the solo in the first movement of the Copland last night was exquisite)!

One of the exciting things about conducting the Lakeland Civic Orchestra is going to a concert like this and seeing four or five of the orchestra members in attendance–what a change from previous groups!

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

October 6th, 2013

It’s been a “moving wood” kind of composition weekend, meaning that I’ve been working, but mostly by Cut and Paste in Sibelius.  In addition to a quick arrangement of a Christmas carol, I now have a “preview” score (about six minutes out of twenty) for my Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.  I’ve posted it on my website, so all you pianist and conductor types should take a look.  Avguste Antonov will be giving the premiere performances during the 2014-2015 season, and there are still slots available for any orchestra who wants to get on board then.  If you’re a pianist, I’d be happy to talk to you about 2015-2016 and beyond!  Here’s the link to my website where you can download the PDF–it’s right on top of the page, so it will be easy to find.

Writing this piece has been a long-term goal and dream of mine.  I think I first thought about writing a piano concerto in about 1994, when I read Atlas Shrugged (I know, I know…), in which a fictitious piano concerto features prominently.  I’m not really writing anything else important or large-scale for the rest of 2013, and I’m hoping for five or more performances in 2014-2015 (at least, that’s how Avguste and I have written the commission).

It has, frankly, taken me years to feel like I am a composer who can pull this off, and even longer to decide that I should.  I’ve written here before about my policy of writing nothing without a commission, and one result of that is that when people aren’t beating down my door for new pieces, I’m forced to decide on my own what project I would like to pursue next, and then make it count.  I played the Beethoven Choral Fantasy for my music appreciation students last week, and remembered how it has been presented as the “warm-up” piece for the Ninth Symphony (I’m not so sure about that).  At any rate, several of my pieces over the last few years have been warm-ups for this concerto.

In 2008 or so, I made a conscious decision to focus on longer works that were also organic, rather than modular, in their construction.  One technique for building a longer piece is to write several shorter sections, and then piece them together, and I felt like my longer pieces up to that time followed that model too frequently.  It is relatively easy to write a 3-5 minute piece, or to write a string of 3-5 minute pieces to create a suite.  The first piece that I really felt break through in this way was my Piano Trio, from the summer of 2009, and I followed it the next year with my most recent band piece, Moriarty’s Necktie, from the Spring of 2011, which I think is wonderfully organic, although nothing like the concerto I’m working on now.

Then there was the problem of the piano.  My piano chops are somewhat limited, and building the confidence to write a concerto meant that I needed the confidence that I was a good composer of piano music.  Again, the Piano Trio contributed to this, but my collaboration with Dianna Anderson, first on the piano cycle Starry Wanderers (composed in 2008) and then on my Piano Sonata (2010, another effort at large-scale organic form), was the turning point in feeling that I could write piano music that a pianist would want to play.  It was Avguste Antonov’s subsequent performances of both of these pieces over the last two years that led me realize that I had found the right pianist for a concerto.

And of course, the concerto itself.  The first piece for more than two instruments that I ever wrote was a concerto for trombone and string orchestra that was my high school Senior Thesis, and which, thankfully, hasn’t seen the light of day since 1994.  Since then, I’ve written three more concerti (although none called such) for solo instrument with band–trombone, guitar and clarinet.  The premiere of Daytime Drama with Magie Smith and Kenneth Kohlenberg last year is only the most recent of these, and I will give a “second premiere” of Homo sapiens trombonensis in Granville, Ohio next month.

Last, I needed to think of myself as an orchestral composer again.  In the summer of 2012, I composed my Suite for String Orchestra (also a landmark in finding a project I wanted to do and making it happen) while I was still living in Oklahoma.  My string writing was somewhat tentative–it had been five years since an orchestra had played my music, and I had focused on band and piano.  Then, after arriving here in Ohio for my new job, I also found myself the conductor of the Lakeland Civic Orchestra, leading the group in music that I had taught to my students in the abstract–as studies in orchestration–but now dealing with the music from the standpoint of making it all work.  Two more orchestra pieces followed–an arrangement of a short choral piece, and the score for the silent film Le Voyage Dans La Lune.  Neither is an example of my “pure” compositional style, but both gave me invaluable experience with the orchestra and allowed me to apply what I was learning from my work as a conductor.

And so, the gestation has been long, but the piano concerto is coming.  I think it has been worth the wait.

Well-Tempered Summer

August 31st, 2013

With only teaching one class during the Summer term, it made sense to find a project, so I brought home two scores–Beethoven’s string quartets, and book 1 of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.  I barely cracked the Beethoven–that may be next summer’s project–but playing through Bach has been good for my limited piano chops and, as always, a glimpse at the mind of one of the greatest composers who has ever lived.

I bought my first copy of the Well-Tempered Clavier as an undergraduate, after discovering the recordings of Glenn Gould and the c-minor Prelude and Fugue in our music history anthology.  I played from it now and again, but couldn’t really make my fingers work from it; in orchestration class, I scored the D-major fugue as my final project.  Then, after graduation, my copy disappeared, probably mistakenly picked up by a young piano student (taking lessons from my roommate) on her way out the door.  May she get as much from it as I have.

I purchased another copy around 2000, but never did much with it until I took advanced 18th-century counterpoint from Jan Radzynski as a doctoral student.  The subject of the course was fugue, so we duly studied many of the expositions.  At my first college position, in Oklahoma, I taught Form and Analysis, so I conducted in-depth analyses of the pieces found in that course’s anthology, and worked up the F-major fugue to an acceptable level.  I’ve also done an analysis of the e-minor fugue for this blog.

This summer, though, I’ve kept my score for WTC I on the piano rack continuously, picking through the pieces as they caught my fancy and generally enjoying Bach’s mastery of the form.  Some notable observations:

The c-minor fugue was really the one that started my interest in this collection back in about 1995, and I don’t know if it’s anthologized so often because it’s near the front of the volume, or because it’s just about perfect.

The c#-major prelude caught my fingers this summer–I wish I had the skills to play it well or the time to learn it passably.

The two five-voice fugues–c# minor and bb minor–are sprawling examples of the ricercar, and stunning in their effectiveness.  The c#-minor double fugue is particularly amazing.

I hated the D-major fugue when it was assigned to me in orchestration class and I really listened to it for the first time, but I came to love it, and for all its strangeness, I still do.  A fugue as the first part of a French overture…

The d-minor prelude is the kind of moto perpetuo that attracts so many of us to Bach in the first place–wondrous arpeggios against a simple bass.

The d-minor fugue is everything the one in c minor is, but features the subject in inversion and a real answer.  Genius!

The irony of the E-flat major set is that the prelude takes much longer than the fugue to play…

The e-flat-minor fugue has it all–inversion, stretto, augmentation–in the ricercar manner.

The E-major prelude has a wonderful lyricism mixed with surprising chromatic movements as punctuation, and ends without a perfect authentic cadence.

The F-major set is bright and sparkling, with a stretto-obsessed canzona-type fugue.

My copious notes on the F#-major fugue date from from graduate school, and Dr. Radzynski chose wisely.

For such a key as G major, Bach chooses a fugue subject that allows a pianist to be brilliant in that comfortable key.

The g-minor pieces are wondrous, and a joy to play, as are those in A-flat major.

The g#-minor fugue is in a daunting key, but well worth the effort, as Bach makes very interesting use of countersubject technique.

The subject of the A-major fugue is daring–only the best pianist can make it work when it’s surrounded by other voices.

I discovered the a-minor prelude last winter, and wish I would have known it sooner.  A little masterpiece, and the same is true of the fugue.

The Bb-major prelude is the perfect antidote to the long the fugue which precedes it, with its stile brise approach.  The repetition in the subject of its own fugue is infectious!

The b-minor prelude was clearly meant to be a trio sonata movement.  I may have to set it for brass trio…

The book ends with a fugue in b-minor that is almost a summation of all that has come before.

I don’t need to recommend this work, of course, but I do so anyway.  It is critical for a composer to have analysis projects of this sort–they are composition lessons with our greatest predecessors, and none of those more deserves our attention than J.S. Bach.