Harmony

June 23rd, 2016

Yet another post in response to a question from my student Cooper Wood, who sent a text message yesterday asking, in part, how I work with harmony, and how I structure chords.  Early on in my lessons at Ohio State, Donald Harris put a similar question to me, and I don’t quite remember my answer–I’m not sure that I was able to answer him at that point, so here, twelve years later, is an attempt.

I have often thought of composers falling into three groups–harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic.  Beethoven and I are rhythmic composers, and for us, if the rhythm is correct, the harmony and melody will fall into place around it through the application of motivic constructions and a sense of when the harmony needs to change.  It is not that a rhythmic composer ignores harmony but that the musical meaning isn’t concentrated there.  As interesting as Beethoven’s harmonic language can be, there is no equivalent to the Tristan chord in his work.

Two things I don’t do, at least not regularly:  I don’t consider my work from a functional/tonal perspective, at least not during the writing of it, and I don’t simply sit at the piano and let my fingers fall where they may, to see what kinds of chords come out.  That is to say, I rarely think of chords in either sense–neither as units functioning in some system nor as groups of notes played simultaneously.

Here, then, are some of the ways that I think about harmony:

Thickness of texture: Is this a moment in the piece where a more complex, richer sound is required? This makes harmony into a timbral decision, where there is a continuum, something like this:

Single line—Octave doubling—Non-octave doubling—Two or more parallel intervals—Voice-leading—Clusters

My 2010 Piano Sonata displays almost all of these at some point.

Scale and Mode: While I rarely explicitly choose a specific scale or mode, melodically, my music often behaves in modal ways, and I feel that introducing an accidental is a change in harmony.  On the small scale, this may happen quickly.  I notice a distinct preference in my music for flats over sharps, and my feeling about accidentals is that they point, so I am frequently choosing notes that point down a half-step.  My trombone concerto Homo sapiens trombonensis (2005) includes examples of this sort of thinking.

Consonance and Dissonance: I spent several years before graduate school trying to come to terms with my personal approach to dissonance, as nothing, at least to my thinking at the time, says more about a composer than his or her use of harmonic language.  I still hold to Vincent Persichetti’s idea, laid out in Twentieth-Century Harmony, that the degree of dissonance is something that a composer must tightly control.  So, in my work, I tend to make harmonic decisions based on how consonant or dissonant a passage needs to be, adding notes when appropriate, and thinning out the texture when necessary.  For me, chord constructive is an additive conception.

Organum: William Russo’s book Composing Music was at one time a standard title on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, and though I never bought the book, I certainly read large chunks in comfortable chairs.  One idea that stuck with me is what he calls organum–doubling a line at a parallel interval to increase the complexity of the timbre.  A key feature of my style for at least the past ten years has been melodic doubling in sevenths, usually minor sevenths, although sometimes following the diatonic scale.  Much of my piano music uses these parallel sevenths, beginning with 2008’s Starry Wanderers.

Set Class: In some of my works, I have, early on in the process, discovered a set that appeals to me, and based the work on that to one degree or another.  This is usually an outgrowth of my work with motive, and in some ways, the set becomes a harmonic motive.  In my most recent work for solo piano, The Rainbow’s Daughter, I found myself drawn to the set [0236] during the composing of the first movement, “Polychrome’s Prism.”  Its two thirds (which I wrote as two sixths) slide easily into a minor triad, giving the sense of refraction that I wanted to suggest.  In the subsequent movements, I found that I could turn [0236] just as easily into an augmented, diminished, or major triad, and the structure of what is one of my most harmonically-conceived pieces became clear.

Counterpoint: I often attempt to combine melodies, resulting in harmonic structures.  My training in 16th-century counterpoint (begun with Dan Trueman in music theory at CCM, and continued in self-study, most significantly in Schubert’s Modal Counterpoint: Renaissance Stylewhich I used as a teaching text) and in 18th-century counterpoint (with Jan Radzynski at Ohio State), had the desired effect–it gave me a sense of the possibilities of the ars combinatoria and as a result, I think about the direction of each voice in a composition, with the resulting variety of rhythmic and melodic direction.  I don’t, however, generally include canon, fugato, or strictly fugal sections in my work.  I don’t find that these techniques provide sufficient reward for the effort involved.

Layering: In place of imitative counterpoint, I often choose a layered approach, in which small, repeated melodic/rhythmic units either build a texture through successive entrances or appear simultaneously.  I used this extensively in my 2010 band piece Moriarty’s Necktie, and the idea of adding a layer is never far from my mind, although this rarely results in a simple melody+figuration texture.

So–I don’t know that I have answered the question put to me now by both my teacher and my student, but these are some of the things that I think about as I work.  For Cooper, I hope this helps.  For Don, just know that I am still working on that answer for you.

On Memorial Day

May 30th, 2016

I’m struck by Memorial Day this year, partly by seeing social media posts reminding us of the differences between Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Armed Forces Day, and then seeing so many people confused by the meanings of the three.

This year, I have a profound sense of gratitude.  In Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, we were always involved with Memorial Day–placing flags on the graves of veterans in cemeteries many years, but I particularly remember the observances in Upper Arlington in the late 1980s.  The VFW or American Legion (I don’t remember which) organized the ceremony, and this year, I particularly recall the presence of two “gold star” mothers–women whose sons didn’t return from World War II.  They would have been in their eighties then, and are surely gone now–it was my great-grandparents’ generation who bore the children who fought that war–and they were accorded places of honor, and escorted by the veterans while we all stood at attention.

The sacrifice that so many made in the bloody conflicts of the past does not go unnoticed.  My mother won’t be a gold star mother, in all likelihood, and the men I graduated high school with have lived in peace.  Some of them joined the military, including my close friend Brad Klemesrud, but none did so against their will, or in the face of an existential threat to our nation.  There has been war during my lifetime, and there have been combat deaths, and there have been the specters of nuclear holocaust and terrorism, but my life has been the result of a long peace purchased at high cost, and maintained at a high cost.

Founding father John Adams wrote, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

I am privileged to live in Adams’ third generation, and I am intensely grateful to those who made the sacrifices that our nation observes today.

In memoriam Donald Harris

March 29th, 2016

Tonight I received the news that Donald Harris, my graduate advisor at Ohio State, and mentor since then, has passed away.   His obituary is here.

I quickly wrote a facebook post:

In 2003, Becky and I went to Ann Arbor to see the composition program at the University of Michigan. That day I met an alumnus of that school, Donald Harris, who was there to present his Second String Quartet to the composition studio. A week later, we met on his home turf at Ohio State, and not quite a year after that, I joined his studio. His guidance was gentle but always true, and I was privileged to be hooded by him in 2007, the same year we co-curated the OSU New Music Festival. In the years since then, he continued to be an encouraging mentor, and gave his seal of approval last summer of my first piece for a professional orchestra. All his students will have to finish music without him now, but I will hear his lessons every time I sit down to compose. Thank you, Don, for making a music teacher with ideas into a composer, and for letting me into your world over the last thirteen years.

But there’s more to the story. I lucked into Ohio State, and I lucked into being Don’s student. It was the right program for me, in the right city (my hometown), at the right time.  I wasn’t coming straight from undergraduate studies, but from six sometimes-great but mostly not-so-great years of public school teaching. When I visited Michigan, I felt like just another prospective student, but the faculty at Ohio State, especially Don, made me feel welcome from the moment I set foot on campus. Even that first day, Don took me to his favorite place on campus–the cafe in the ground floor of the Wexner Center for the Arts, a building he had built during his time as dean. I came to regard the Wexner Center as my place, too, always making a point to take in the exhibitions, and grabbing a quick study session in there between class and rehearsals (and several times nearly losing my balance on the slick marble strips in the sidewalk whenever it rained).

I was fortunate at Ohio State to study composition also with two other great teachers–Jan Radzynski and Thomas Wells, both of whom helped shape the composer and teacher I am today–but I kept coming back to Don for guidance and instruction. At some point, he began to play his works-in-progress for me as well, starting with Kaleidoscope, the piece that would eventually grow into his Second Symphony. He was in the midst of a period of, for him, increased productivity, perhaps the pent-up work of his years as an administrator, perhaps just a sense that it was time. He had made the transition from pen to computer by the time I met him, and perhaps the change of tools was a part of this as well. As I gained his confidence, he gave me responsibilities as well as assignments. I turned the pages for the pianist on a recital that included his Fantasy for violin and piano, a simple thing, on the face of it, but a real challenge in its way, given the music involved. He urged me to take the OSU Composers Workshop concerts on the road to Port Clinton, Ohio, and I found myself organizing and leading my fellow students in this, two summers in a row. In my last year at Ohio State, he not only guided me through my candidacy exam, DMA document, and graduation piece, but also asked me to co-curate the New Music Festival for that year.  These are the things graduate students do, of course, and I had done some of them before, and may have done some of them with another teacher, but with Don’s guidance and advice, they always made sense, and they were never too onerous. He was making me into a composer, but also into a colleague, a point he underscored just before my oral doctoral exams when he told me that the committee was testing me out to decide whether I was fit to be a professor.

He is my connection to the core of the profession I have chosen for myself.  His teachers were Ross Lee Finney, Max Deutsch (a pupil himself of Arnold Schoenberg), and the great Nadia Boulanger. He knew all of Les Six, as well as Messiaen and Boulez, along with Copland, and so many other great American composers. He produced the first French performance of Ives’ Fourth Symphony. He was pals with Gunther Schuller and Lukas Foss. Along the way, he learned how to handle any situation, musical or professional, with both candor and grace, something I aspire to as much as his compositional ability.

After I graduated, I didn’t see Don as frequently, since Becky and I moved to Oklahoma to take my first teaching job (partly on the strength of his letter of reference).  I visited from time to time, and we were comfortable enough together that he would let me see him at his worst–after his broken hip, and during his fight with Parkinson’s disease. We would share coffee or a meal, and catch up, and I would always bring my latest scores and he his. He arranged for me to be commissioned to write a piece for the 2010 edition of the OSU New Music Festival, held in his honor, and the result was one of the works I am most proud out, Moriarty’s Necktie. The last time we met in his apartment on Long Street in Columbus, I played my piano sonata for him, and he played the Second Symphony for me. Every time I came to their home, he and his lovely wife, Marilyn, were gracious and kind hosts, even when there was work to do.

The last time we met, Don was in assisted living. He still wanted to see my latest work–forever my teacher–and I showed him the newly-finished score to …into the suggestive waters… He said that he was still composing, and with luck there is at least one more premiere for Don in the future.

I am grateful for our thirteen-year relationship–first student and teacher, then colleagues, then, I hope, friends. My sincerest condolences to Marilyn and their families on their loss.

Seven Last Words: A Primer

February 10th, 2016

The Prodigal Blogger returns, after a busy season of holidays and the first month of the New Year have passed!

I am looking forward to the premieres, one at a time, of my new set of organ pieces, Seven Last Words, over the season of Lent.  Rob Shuss, organist at Shoregate United Methodist Church in Willowick, my home church, will play a new piece in the set during the 10am worship service at Shoregate.  The premiere will stretch through Lent, beginning on Sunday, February 14, continuing every Sunday until Palm Sunday, March 20, and concluding with Good Friday worship on March 25.

I wanted to take a moment to put down a few ideas to help explain the piece, how it is put together, and what it means.

This work was the result of a conversation Pastor Jon Wilterdink and I had about the role of art and music in Christian worship.  Shoregate has a strong, diverse musical tradition that incorporates many members of the congregation in both vocal and instrumental music, and the church where I grew up had a similar relationship to music.  It is safe to say that much of who I am as a musician was formed in the church, both by participation and by listening to the music of others.  At the time of our conversation, Pastor Jon was planning a more music-centered worship for Advent, and wondered if something similar could be done for Lent.

The Lenten season is central to my experience of the Christian faith.  The Scriptures for Lent emphasize Jesus’ humanity while at the same time underscoring His divinity, and there is a relentless intensification as the Church once again follows his ministry as it begins in earnest, culminates in triumph and ends in seeming tragedy.  I thought immediately of the theme of Christ’s Seven Last Words from the cross, the utterances (not words, but phrases, really) that the various Gospel writers recorded during his public execution.[1]

I thought immediately, too, of Rob Shuss, Shoregate’s wonderful organist, who provides the support for so much of our music making.  A set of solo organ pieces would be an opportunity to show his talents and abilities in a new light.  It would, also, be a challenge for me as a composer–although I have included organ in music for larger ensembles, and arranged the music of others for organ, these are my first solo organ pieces.  Each instrument has its quirks and unique abilities, but organ is special because each instrument has a somewhat unique set of capabilities, and even instruments manufactured to be identical are installed in different locations.  A piece for organ, then, will, more so than for other genres, rely much more intently on the skill of the performer to make decisions about the overall sound that will work best on any given instrument.  Not being an organist myself, I have made suggestions regarding the registration, or specific sounds to be mixed and blended, but in the end, I have to trust that Rob will work with my notes and Shoregate’s instrument to produce a clear, effective performance.

Since my new work was to be seven pieces, each about 4 minutes long, but spread over 40 days, I looked for ways to organize the entire set and make them coherent and relevant.  Each piece is a short meditation on the “word” at hand, and each is influenced by one of the Psalms, which Jesus often quoted and turned to during his agony.  But, to ensure that the pieces would not be seven independent pieces bunched together, I found three musical ways to unify the set.  If, someday, someone chooses to play all seven pieces in one sitting (which would take about 30 minutes), I hope the work can be heard as a unified whole, more than the sum of its parts.

An overall plan emerged, then, before I had written a note of music.  This is not unusual for a composer, and for any large work, one needs to have a road map of sorts in mind.  There may be detours along the way, or the journey to a complete piece may end up with a completely different destination, but without an ending in mind, the route will either ramble aimlessly, or simply never leave home.  Since there is nothing better for the creative process than a good spreadsheet, I fired up Microsoft Excel and laid out my ideas, one row for each of the seven pieces, and a column for the various Scriptures and attributes I hoped to incorporate.

To hold the seven pieces together musically, I used several devices.  First, all seven pieces have the same pitch, C, as their tonic, or musical home base.  Each piece, however, uses one of the seven diatonic modes.  Without going down the rabbit hole of music theory, a mode is a major scale (do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do) that chooses a note other than do as its tonic pitch (home base).[2]    At any rate, each piece has C as its home base, but uses a slightly different scale.  Over the seven pieces, the modes are organized so that the first piece uses the brightest mode (Lydian) and the last piece uses the darkest mode (Locrian).  Each mode has seven pitches, and between any two consecutive pieces, six of those seven pitches are held in common.  The result is a gradual shift from light to dark as the tonic pitch remains the same while the other pitches change, symbolizing the progression to the darkest day of the Church calendar, Good Friday.  Each piece begins and ends with a cluster of all seven pitches for that mode played at the same time.  The cluster is repeated three times, to remind us of the three nails that held Jesus to the cross.

Lastly, each piece is centered around a musical interval–the distance between two pitches.  Musicians number these intervals by counting the number of note names involved–a third, for example, might be the notes B and D.  Counting those note names and the note C between gives us the name “third.”  (Incidentally, we name intervals this way for the same reason that we speak of Jesus rising from the dead on the “third day”–because the Greeks and Romans didn’t have a concept of zero.) I’ve chosen these intervals for their traditional symbolism, and they remind us of various aspects of the Crucifixion.

Here is a summary of all seven pieces:

1.  Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.  Luke 23:34.  To be performed the First Sunday in Lent (February 14).  It uses the Lydian mode (a G-major scale, starting on C), and centers on the interval of the second, symbolizing duality, important here as Christ’s nature as fully man and fully God.  It is associated with Psalm 3.

2. Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.  Luke 23:43.  For the Second Sunday in Lent (February 21).  It uses the Ionian mode (also known as the C-major scale), and emphasizes the interval of the unison (or first), symbolizing unity, the final covenant that God makes with us through the Crucifixion.  Is is accompanied by Psalm 62.

3. Dear woman, here is your son… here is your mother. John 19:26-27.  For the Third Sunday in Lent (February 28).  This piece uses the Mixolydian mode (an F-major scale, starting on C), and focuses on the fourth to represent the church and the imperative that we have to care for each other as if we were born into the same family.  Psalm 2 is the reading for this piece.

4. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34.  For the Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 6).  This piece uses the Dorian mode (a B-flat-major scale, starting on C).  This middle piece, using the middle mode, is inspired by the only one of the Seven Last Words to appear in more than one Gospel.  Its musical interval is the sixth, symbolizing Satan, and the temptation that is memorialized in the whole Lenten season, and that must have been renewed for Jesus as he hung on the cross.  The text is the wrenching Psalm 22, also the source of Jesus’ words.

5. I thirst.  John 19:28.  For the Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 13).  This piece uses the Aeolian mode (also called the C-minor scale).  The number five has often been used to symbolize humanity, and since this Last Word underscores Jesus’ own human needs, the interval of the fifth plays a prominent role.  Psalm 42 restates this literal thirst as a spiritual thirst.

6. It is finished.  John 19:29-30.  For Palm Sunday (March 20).  The dark Phrygian mode (an A-flat major scale, starting on C) contrasts the triumph of Palm Sunday with the suffering to come.  The musical interval of the seventh, symbolizing God, reminds us that what is finished at this moment is not only the man Jesus’ life, but God’s plan to finally redeem his creation.  At this central moment of history, it is only fitting to consider Psalm 118, the literal middle book of the Protestant Bible.

7. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.  Luke 23:46.  For Good Friday (March 25).  The darkest mode, Locrian (an D-flat major scale, starting on C) completes the cycle of modes.  The interval of the third symbolizes the Trinity, reunited at the moment of Jesus’ death.  Psalm 31 provides the accompanying text.

I hope that hearing these pieces through the season of Lent will help you focus your attention on the topics of the season and consider, as I often have, the grandeur and majesty of God’s grace, through Jesus’ suffering as a human being.  It is my hope that, after Good Friday, we will feel the depths of that darkest moment, and that Easter will thus be all the brighter for us as we celebrate anew the risen Lord.


 

 [1] These seven verses have often been a theme for composers over the centuries.  The two most famous pieces are Théodore Dubois’ oratorio Les sept paroles du Christan 1867 work for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra; and Hadyn’s Die Worte des Erlösers am Kreuzein versions for orchestra, orchestra with chorus, and string quartet, from 1786.  Both pieces last over an hour in full performance, and I take some inspiration from them, but neither piece is really my model for Seven Last Words.

[2] If you want to know more about modes, here’s a pretty good YouTube video about it.

What I’ve Been Writing, and a World Premiere

November 28th, 2015

I took a moment this morning to put the final touches on one work, and “check in” with two more.

I spent part of October finishing a new piano cycle, The Rainbow’s Daughter.  This is one of those rare pieces that I’ve written without a commission, although the first movement, “Polychrome’s Prism,” was composed as part of the Cleveland Composer’s Guild collaboration with the Music Settlement for Taniya Dsouza, a student of Nella Kammerman here in Cleveland.  I wanted to explore more fully the character of Polychrome, who appears in L. Frank Baum’s The Road to Oz, the fourth of his Oz novels.  I discovered Polychrome as I was reading the Oz books to my son, Noah, and thinking about a set of pieces based on characters from this land across the desert.  I knew that I didn’t want to focus on the obvious foursome–Dorothy, the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion–but on at least a few of the other very interesting characters in Baum’s world.  I considered writing short sketches about several subjects, but in writing “Polychrome’s Prism,” I discovered a tetrachord, [0236], that could be easily modified to any of the four triads.  “Prism” made use of the minor triad, so I developed a plan to base three subsequent movements on the augmented, diminished and major triads.  Thus, “Polychrome’s Passion,” “Polychrome’s Pearl,” and “Polychrome’s Power.”  It has been interesting, and refreshing, to write a piece using such specific harmonic materials.  This is not my typical way of composing, but it felt like a necessary and important exercise.  The four pieces seem to speak a common language, and, as intended, reflect a single character.  I am now, of course, stuck with a piece that has no plan for a performance.  I will send it out to some of my previous collaborators, or perhaps find a performer for an upcoming Cleveland Composers Guild performance.

In October, I also began work on a commission from Renee Goubeaux, a cellist with the Toledo Symphony, for a new work for cello and piano.  It has been nearly a decade since I wrote for a solo stringed instrument, and it has been fun digging into the capabilities and potential of a world I haven’t visited in a while.  I have the piece about half-written–it will be a ten- to twelve-minute piece, and there is currently about six minutes of music, but it is on hold while I’ve given the draft to Renee for comment.  I’m curious to see how this part of the collaboration works.  Renee and I went to high school together, and she is the first composer I ever met–we both started composing in the gifted and talented program.  I don’t think she has kept up with that side of her creative work, but she at least knows about the process of putting notes on paper, and it will be interesting to bring someone with her background in at this phase of the creative process.  The piece is tentatively titled Meditation, since I’ve been reading Marcus Aurelius this fall.

Earlier this month, I sat down with Jon Wilterdink, our pastor at Shoregate United Methodist Church, for lunch in the cafeteria at Lakeland.  We discussed worship and the arts, and what the church can be doing to foster the work of artists.  I had reached out to him after reading this article on the subject.  At the end of our conversation, he asked me to contribute musically to our worship for the coming Lenten season.  The idea that immediately came to mind was a cycle of organ pieces based on the Seven Last Words of Christ.  Rob Shuss, our organist, was game, so I have started writing, according to a fairly intricate plan.  I have associated each saying with several Scriptural and musical elements, so each movement will also refer to one of Jesus’ parables and to a Psalm, as well as being focused on a specific diatonic mode (progressing from Lydian to Locrian over the course of the cycle), and emphasize a diatonic interval within that mode.  The pieces will be premiered on the six Sundays in Lent (beginning Febraury 14, 2016) and on Good Friday.  This is my first work for organ, so I’m taking some time to try to understand this instrument, but also trying to work steadily, as Rob will need the pieces as soon as possible.  I have written the first movement, “Father forgive them,” in Lydian mode, emphasizing the interval of the second, and associated with Psalm 3, and the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

This is my first sacred music written on commission in many years, and the first to be performed in over a decade.  One struggle I have had as a composer is finding outlets and opportunities to write music about my faith.  There is a huge demand for music in the church, of course, but not for work that pushes musical boundaries in search of a spiritual experience.  The difficult thing has been to find a community that meets our spiritual needs but that is also interested in what I can offer.  I’m excited to make this attempt, although 28 minutes of music for an unfamiliar instrument in just a couple of months is a little daunting.  At least Christmas break is in the intervening period, and the later pieces can be polished even as the earlier ones are being premiered.

Speaking of premieres, Antoine Clark and the McConnell Arts Center Chamber Orchestra gave a splendid first performance of my work …into the suggestive waters… in Worthington, Ohio on November 1.  Becky was unable to attend because of back troubles, but my father and brother came along, and my mother came to the dress rehearsal so that she could watch the kids during the concert.  Having a professional orchestra commission and play my music was a fantastic feeling.  I now need to work on getting a second performance of the piece somewhere, and that means leaning on conductors and sending them the excellent recording of the premiere.  I made some great contacts at the post-concert reception, and I would love to increase the presence of my music in my hometown.

Program Notes

October 26th, 2015

I don’t know if anyone ever reads the program notes I write for the Lakeland Civic Orchestra or for my own music.  I assume that audience members get bored and eventually turn to them, but I think I am the rare person who eagerly jumps to the notes before the concert or during intermission.  However, I’ve come to a couple of ideas to make them better and more interesting.

I love the big-time orchestra practice of listing the instrumentation for large pieces in a conspicuous place–the Cleveland Orchestra puts it in a sidebar with the other vital statistics for the piece, including the Orchestra’s own history with it, which I find fascinating.  How long did it take a world-class orchestra to get around to programming pieces that would become standard repertoire?  At any rate, my practice for the Lakeland Civic Orchestra has been to put this information in a short, introductory paragraph, which I then follow by a less-formal, more explanatory paragraph or two, depending on the complexity and history of the piece.  I have come to consider writing the program notes a crucial part of my own preparation, as I summarize my conception and understanding of the piece.

What to explain, though, and how to say it?

I’m always amazed at concerts of new music to read notes that are blow-by-blow musical descriptions of a piece.  “The first theme, a haunting sea chanty for nose flute, lasts seven bars and is in alternating duple and triple meter.”  I can’t abide this, and I cringe when I see it.  How could one possibly sit in a concert with the express intent of counting measures?  In this age, if one is truly interested in such things, it is usually quite easy to inquire about the score.  Tell something about the piece–how it came to be, what it’s about, what it’s not about, how it makes someone feel, why it exists.  If the foremost achievement of your work is how it is put together, it isn’t much of a piece (unless you are Bach, in which case, your mastery is likely self-evident, and there is no need to write about your pieces form in the program note).  One of the rare big-time orchestra program notes I read in this fashion, a Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra note on Ravel’s Bolero from the mid-1990s, did, in fact, include a section-by-section accounting of which instruments played the melody.  Useful as a reference, perhaps, but are we then expected to sit, pencils in hand, and check off the solos as they appear?  It’s not as though there are likely to be surprise substitutions.  While I admit to a certain satisfaction of filling in the scorecard at a baseball game, where following the details minutely can focus one’s attention on the event at hand in a situation in which there are many distractions (most of them edible or potable), attending a concert isn’t the same thing.  Or, perhaps there are audience members who would like a scorecard of sorts.  Witness the Baltimore Symphony’s experimentation with live-tweeting of concerts, although I think this more a testament to our addiction to our mobile communications technology than an indication of some latent demand for on-the-fly musical analysis.

My other beef is bad writing in program notes, particularly passive voice.  Authors of the type of note described above are particularly vulnerable to passive voice, creating zombie sentence after zombie sentence (if you can put the words by zombies after the verb, a sentence is in passive voice), but they are not unique in their infection with this plague.  Again, when composers are permitted to write their own notes, quality often goes down, a thing which I find inexplicable, as I can’t imagine a composer who is not also a voracious reader and thus, hopefully, a passable writer.  At the very least, we should have the capacity to self-edit and revise until something is good.

I see no reason why a program note ought not to begin with the title of the composition as the subject of the first sentence (not as a title with a colon following it, mind you, but as an integral part of the paragraph).  It should be in boldface and, if not a generic title, in italics.  In 2015, these are not optional.  Give us something to make us want to hear the music–a good story, the inspiration for the title, the importance of this piece to your oeuvre, or how much you enjoyed collaborating with the person you wrote it for.  Give the reader a sense of what it was like to compose the piece, or what it will be like to hear it.  The most common question I get from audience members is “how did you think of it?”  This is a hard question to answer, but they want to know.  Even if it is complete fabrication, because your piece is perfectly absolute with no clear inspiration, you must listen to it afresh, with the ears of an audience member, and attempt to come up with something that will help explain why you did what you did.

Remember, too, that a good note isn’t simply spewed onto the page–do not wait until you are working on conference or festival submissions to write the note.  I don’t consider a piece finished until I’ve completed my short, written justification of it, so make note-writing a part of the compositional process.  I am focusing on being more reflective about my life lately, and it occurs to me that writing the program note is a fantastic post-compositional way to reflect on the act of composing, and on the project just completed.

My thoughts.

College Towns (As in a Dream)

September 19th, 2015

I dreamed last night that we returned to Goodwell, Oklahoma, the town that is centered around Oklahoma Panhandle State University, where I had my first college teaching job for five years.  We were trying to visit my dean, Sara Richter, but her office had been moved from its academic location to the backroom of a Big 12-themed store located on campus.  Dr. Richter would have hated such a move, of course, and it seemed extremely unlikely, for Goodwell, by virtue of of its relative isolation, perhaps, has been spared the invasion of national chains and franchises common to so many colleges these days.

In the awful, awful Rocky and Bullwinkle movie from about 15 years ago, a running gag has Rocky exclaiming on a cross-country road trip, “There’s that same town again,” as they pass various towns, a comment that, compared to the 1960s, all of our towns are starting to look the same, offering the same amenities.  Today this is nowhere more true than the college campus.  Starbucks is prominently featured in the new student center at North Carolina’s High Point University, where I spent a weekend at a conference last spring.  I haven’t been back to my alma mater, the University of Cincinnati in years, but the last time I was there, the dilapidated, but unique, strip of restaurants and businesses on Calhoun Street had been replaced by much taller, and much more expensive, retail and apartment housing,  similar to the South Campus Gateway district that I found in Columbus during my time at Ohio State.  Few campuses seem to be immune.  The current master plan at Lakeland Community College, my current workplace, includes space for either a clinic operated by one of the major healthcare chains in the area or–as tantalizingly hinted by the architect in the presentation I attended last month–retail.

But OPSU, at least the OPSU of three years ago when we left it, existed in isolation.  The town is served by a gas station, a convenience store (“Coldest Beer in Town”) and a restuarant that, in my five years there, changed hands twice without any noticeable change in menu.  The only sign of homogenized, national-scale services was the Sodexo contract for food service on campus, and every hamburger I ate in the grill made my bowels revolt.  It was a splendid isolation.  The town of Guymon, ten miles up the road, offered a few, though not all, of the chains, and hosted a Wal-Mart, the only one for many miles in any direction.

Did it effect the lives of college students?  In the age of Amazon, when anything in the world can be delivered to the doorstep, it didn’t.  We yearned for a Chipotle or a Chili’s, or even a Starbucks at times, but there was a greater impact.  At a 1200-student school, the Homecoming parade was still a big deal, with student organizations creating floats and local school bands participating.  Students knew each other, and had copious time to spend together, because jobs were few and far-between, and tuition cheap enough that many could forego them.  There was no Greek system, but there were parties, and it was possible to organize on-campus events–like the Art Club’s annual Dorm of Doom haunted house–that engendered lines around the block.  There are lessons in leadership to be learned here–lessons in citizenship and persistence and determination and improvisation that one doesn’t find sitting in a fancy student union sipping Starbucks or eating Pizza Hut.  The isolation induced mistakes, as well.  Dr. Richter told the story of two football players who, wanting to head up to Guymon but lacking a car, hopped on a slow-moving freight train for the ten-mile trip only to find that the train sped up on the way out of town.  By the time they were able to get off, they were in Nebraska, and the coach’s response to their long-distance phone call for help was, “You got there, you figure out how to get back in time for practice.”  Is this the kind of lesson we are now afraid for our students to learn?

It figures into the current narrative about the college experience–students as customers, who are to receive some product that will enhance their adult lives (in the measurable financial sense, more often than not), all while living with the comforts of home that they have become accustomed to.  OPSU had the sparkling Fitness Center, and a cluster of new dormitories where apartment-style living replaced the bathroom-at-the-end-of-the-hall model of the older units.  I stayed in one of those old-style dorms for two years as an undergraduate, and did so again for a few days when I attended a conference at Western Illinois University.  The experience was striking–after ten years of adulthood, I was astounded that I had once lived in such conditions.  On the other hand, as a college freshman, I remember being excited about the dormitory–the proximity to friends, the little piece of space that I could make my own, the newness and wonder of the whole experience.  Other than a winter quarter that involved phony fire alarms every night, my dorm experience was a good one, although I was glad to move to an apartment during my sophomore year (I did miss the mean plan, though!).

And then the furor over “trigger warnings.”  My popular music class is one where such statements might be seen as appropriate from time to time, and I certainly have had students who seem to be the sensitive type to want to avoid frank discussions of certain topics.  Trigger warnings seem to me more a symptom than a disease–in a time when “coddled” Millennials, backed up by their “helicopter parents” demand an easy, smooth transition to adulthood with no bumps or jars along the way; all in a political climate that the professoriate deems hostile to the purposes of higher education (or at least some of them).  We fear for our jobs, on at least some level, thus, trigger warnings.

And then there’s the levy at Lakeland.  I will vote for it, of course, but my first reaction to seeing the plans for the money was that, again, the sorely needed updates to the arts areas are passed over, completely.  One hopes that a rising tide will lift all boats, and, frankly, there appears to be some hope that some of the needed purchases can begin to be made–chairs, piano lab–out of regular funds.  A change in administration has promise, and a tenured music department chair is becoming less afraid to ask, and to continue asking.  If the levy passes and the building continues as planned, Lakeland will continue its march toward the homogenized campus–more business brought in, more faux-monumental architecture, more conveniences for students, but we also cannot remain where we are.

A ramble, I suppose, like the dream that started it.

What I did this summer

August 30th, 2015

It’s been a year of little activity here on the blog, because it’s just been a busy year, particularly this summer.  Now that my summer break is wrapping up, it’s time to reflect.  Are there other things I could be doing just now?  Perhaps, but this may very well facilitate those things, so here we go.

In a life tied to the rhythms of the American academic calendar, summer has always been a time when I’ve experienced changes, extraordinary events, and a different kind of growth than can happen with a more “regular” schedule.  In 1984, when I was eight, my father’s job relocated to Columbus just after school ended in June, and it was a summer of transition, seeing my parents figure out things I had never imagined–just how do you move a family to an unfamiliar city?  In 1990, I had my first teenaged summer as I was getting ready to enter high school, spending four weeks away from home, mostly without my parents.  Six years later, after my second year of college, I moved into my first apartment and stopped Living at Home, spending a long, hot summer in Cincinnati to work and practice.  In 1998, I graduated college and moved to Georgia, and it might have been the climate, but the next fifteen months had the feel of a long, interminable summer as I had my first teaching job, explored a strange town, went through the end of the relationship that had brought me there, and  returned to Ohio in a manner that felt like failure–a failure I think I have overcome, slowly, but importantly.  2004 was the beginning of Becky’s and my marriage and the change to a career in higher education, and both events have changed me for the better, and 2007 was the summer of moving to the Oklahoma Panhandle.

Before this year, the last “adventurous” summer was 2012, the year I took my current job as Lakeland Community College and Becky, Noah, and I moved back to Ohio.  Cross-country drives, money spent somewhat more freely, and the improvisatory feeling that has to come with relocating one’s entire life.  Becky and I travel well together, so the stress wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, and we were both excited to be returning to our home state.   Our new place was smaller, but we both recognized that it was probably temporary (it was), and that living in Northeast Ohio would offer much more (it does).

So to this summer–2015.  We found out in the spring that Becky would need to have a second back surgery to repair a herniated disc.  The previous surgery, in April 2012, was in a different locations, and Becky’s spine had continued to degenerate.  The doctor called for a twelve-week recovery in which Becky would not be able to do any lifting, including lifting our daughter Melia, who is 20-months old today and still wears diapers and sleeps in a crib.  We realized that, while family and friends could help some, I would need to be more-or-less constantly around.

I think of myself as a “hands-on” father, as my dad was.  Since I work and Becky stays home, she normally has more contact with Noah and Melia than I do, but I do my part.  I cook, I clean (when prodded), and I change diapers.  I read and play with the kids, and generally participate in the life of the family.  I don’t view my job as father as any less of a full-time commitment than my commitment to my wife–and I don’t stop being a husband or father at any point.  This summer required some changes, though.

With Becky unable to lift Melia, I needed to be around more or less constantly.  Twice over the course of the summer, I left on other outings, and we had another adult come to the house to help out.  We took the lifting restrictions very seriously, and this meant that I couldn’t teach from school, as I have most summers, going back to my time at Oklahoma Panhandle State University.  I assigned myself an online section of my popular music class over the summer, which filled nicely and paid better than teaching in-person has over the past couple of summers.

The routine was a little rough–up at 6:15am or so to work on the online course until one of the kids, usually Noah, would wake up.  Hopefully at around 8:15, but more frequently at about 7:30.  I would race to read emails, grade work, and, hopefully, compose during this time.  Once the kids were awake, trying to work was counterproductive.

I talked to a composer once at a conference who described waking up in the small hours of the morning to get come writing done before the kids, and I didn’t quite believe him.  The truth is that it works.  The morning is an underrated time, and at our house it is relatively quiet and still on our quiet street.  I’m actually keeping my early wake-up call going forward–we’ll see if that works out.  I was able to put the finishing touches on my new chamber orchestra piece, …into the suggestive waters…, work on a new piece for Massimo LaRosa of the Cleveland Orchestra, and write a little bit (not much) of piano music.  I also kept to the grading schedule for my class, got my course packets for fall semester in on time, worked on projects remotely with my composition student Cooper Wood (who is going to be good very soon), and kept pace with emails, which don’t seem to slow down.

In all, though, I didn’t accomplish my work-related goals this summer.  I usually don’t, and that’s alright.  I generally set loftier goals for myself than are really reasonable, and it’s more important, probably, to have time to decompress, to spend with family.

Once my morning work session was over (generally concluding with an interruption from Noah when he woke up), it was downstairs for breakfast for three (or four, letting Becky rest as much as possible or as she wanted).  Noah has been eating brown sugar Pop-Tarts and waffles most of the summer.  I’ve started to try to eliminate suspicious food dyes from his diet (and by extension, from the rest of us), and Becky and I think it has made a difference.  I worked all summer to get more fresh fruit and vegetables into our diets, compared to what we had been eating before.  Melia has been enjoying a banana or some strawberries every morning with her breakfast, but Noah has been resistant–he is a picky eater.

By 9:00, breakfast was wrapping up, and getting “ready for the day” by 10am was my goal for the kids and I–Becky being a grown-up could follow her own schedule.  Noah is largely able to get himself ready, even if he won’t admit it.  Melia, of course, needs “full service.”  By late morning, Melia would be ready for her morning nap, and Noah and I would begin “activities.”  I hope to continue this–one of the problems with the American educational system is that kids can take steps backward academically during the summer months.  I worked this summer to make sure that Noah will be ready for kindergarten, which begins at the end of this week.  On most days we spent an hour working on letters, phonics sounds, a little bit of math, artistic or problem-solving activities, and, excitingly, piano.  He was somewhat difficult–not the easiest student, but then he hasn’t had to learn to be a student yet, which was another reason that I wanted to work with him this summer.  I think he made good progress.  Some days this routine was interrupted by a doctor’s appointment, or Sunday church, or some other project, but I would guess that we worked on this about half the days of the summer.  Noah knows his letters and the sounds that go with them, and he is starting to be able to write them and be interested in writing them.  He learned four songs by rote on the piano, and is starting to know the letter names.  I’ve been working with him on five-finger exercises for the various keys.  I don’t know that piano will be his “primary” instrument, but if it provides a firm basis for whatever he does later on, then I will be pleased.

Lunch–always tricky.  It is easy to “run and get,” which I don’t think happened more than about once this summer if we were not out and about.  Lots of peanut butter sandwiches, dinner leftovers, and other improvisations, but many apples and grapes and carrots consumed as well.

Afternoons could be any number of things.  I made a list at the beginning of the summer of things to do with the kids–some free, some not.  We got to most of the free ones and many of the cheap ones.  We went to the movies several times: always on Mondays when our local theater is cheap.  As Becky got better, she began to join us more and more.  We visited Cleveland’s West Side Market, and the Metroparks Zoo.  We played miniature golf and went bowling.  There were many visits to the playground at the park, and a couple of trips to the local spray pad.  The weather has been beautiful this summer, after a rainy spell in June, and we’ve been outside a great deal, which I think has been good for everyone.  We didn’t do everything on my list–we didn’t get to the museums in University Circle, but honestly Melia is still about a year or two away from making that a really beneficial thing.

One of my favorite parts of the summer was planning and cooking our dinners.  I grilled about twice a week, which Noah looked forward to because it meant more outside time, which Melia began to join in on toward the end of the summer.  I had a stable of regular meals, but made some fun discoveries as well, and had a great time finding fresh produce to go along with main courses.  I think we have basically eaten well, and I’ve introduced more salad to our dinners.  As the kids can be relied upon to eat more, having a salad pads the meal for Becky and me without increasing the price and fat content of the meal by expanding the main dish.  Successes–figuring out how to grill pork chops in a way that Becky likes; finding the best rice to go with enchiladas; getting Noah and Melia to eat corn on the cob.  Failure–no one but me likes quinoa.

Then cleaning–at our house, the dishwasher needs to be run every day, and after dinner was that time.  I wasn’t the best at keeping up with cleaning, but the house hasn’t been a sty, either, and the kitchen has been my priority.  Next came bath and bedtime for Melia–about 8pm.  Noah and I then had an hour, which we usually spent on a bike ride.  He is an excellent cyclist for a five-year-old, and we could make it to one of two parks and back, although he had a nasty spill in June that resulted in a scraped hand and knee, a lot of tears and a long walk home as I carried his bike and awkwardly walked mine.

This was the first summer in a long time that I really slipped into a different rhythm–away from work, away from school.  It is also the last summer that isn’t a summer break for both of our kids–Noah started kindergarten last week, and I’m glad to have that summer as a memory for all four of us–a memory of how our son was when he was only ours, and not shared with society.  School will change him–it already has–as it changes us all.  Becky worries that her convalescence ruined our summer, but she couldn’t be more wrong.  In an important sense, it made this summer possible by making it necessary.  I’m back at school now, too, a week, and it is good to be back, but I am missing my family, and there won’t be another one like it.  I am keeping the early-morning work session–only now it is dedicated to composition–but it is now followed by a much less leisurely routine that ends when I put Noah on the school bus.  He barely looks back–I don’t know that he understands that one thing has ended and another begun, but Becky and I certainly do.  Ahh… summer.

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.