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 addition 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 sort, 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.


February Thoughts

February 11th, 2015

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

Some thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s no pleasing singers, especially in February.

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

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

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

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

Seventeen more days until March.

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

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

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

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

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

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

January Thoughts

January 31st, 2015

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

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

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

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

Some thoughts, anyway.

In Praise of the Curated Collection

December 9th, 2014

Grouping of CDs deacquisitioned from the Upper Arlington Public Library.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is not holiday in your galaxy?

November 27th, 2014

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

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

No quote fits this chapter.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suddenly, he stopped, and looked up in shock.

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

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

Yoda finished scooping, and offered the bowl to us.

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

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!


Being Here, Not Being There

October 18th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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