Thursday, March 19, 2015

Three Ways To Escape A Cul-de-sac

I live on a cul-de-sac in a relatively quiet northeast suburb of Atlanta. It’s a lovely little section of the street; quiet and safe from this city’s raging traffic (attributes that were especially important when my children were small). Besides its practical benefits, I’ve always preferred a cul-de-sac to a road that abruptly reaches a dead end. The design just strikes me as a more thoughtful and aesthetically pleasing way to end a street.

However, whether it’s a circle or a sudden dead end, the road is still going nowhere.

For the past few months I have been thinking about how my creative life resembles a cul-de-sac. As a composer, being creative is a prerequisite for success. However, as a composer working in academia, I often find that my creativity is rerouted. Instead of composing new music, I find that I use my creative muscle more often in service of committee work or in solving petty office politics. After awhile, I find that being creative in this manner is akin to driving around a cul-de-sac. There is the illusion of forward progress but I’m not really getting anywhere.

Unlike real cul-de-sacs, creative dead-ends are harder to escape. The obligations of the academic life obscure the exit. Because I must exercise my creativity everyday, I am lulled into the aesthetically pleasing circle of the cul-de-sac and tricked into thinking that I am being inventive or, at the very least, productive in some menial way. However, this is not the kind of creativity I signed up for at the conservatory. 

Given the realities of my situation, it becomes important for me to constantly be on the lookout for exit routes from the circuitous path I sometimes follow. Exit routes are usually always there – it’s just a matter of recognizing them. While there may be others, I have found that there are usually three big activities that serve as exits from the cul-de-sac.

1. Surround yourself with inspiring people.

My epic lunch with some fabulous composers.
(L-R: Alvin Singleton, Alex Shapiro,
yours truly & Carman Moore)
If the bulk of your interactions are with others who are trapped in the same cul-de-sac with you, it’s easy to descend into bitterness and endless reflection of every nuance found along the never-ending path of the circle. I was recently reminded how important it is to make contact with those who are outside that environment. A few weeks ago, I went on a business trip to New York City teaching a master class at New York University and attending a meeting of a board I sit on. My master class and board meeting were separated by a day. Therefore, I took advantage of the time to schedule a lunch on the off day with some wonderful composer colleagues who I had not seen in some time. Originally scheduled as a long 90-minute lunch, our time morphed into an epic five and a half hour reunion. Lunch spilled over into dessert then spilled over again into afternoon cocktails. The conversation had nothing to do with committee reports, office politics or any other non-artistic minutia. We talked, laughed and engaged in ideas that covered topics as broad as the art form we all work within. Five and half hours may seem like a very long time to sit in conversation with anyone about anything. However, nourished with such great artistic discourse, I felt that I had only been with my friends for minutes – not hours. The cul-de-sac of dreary academic work was but a distant memory. After it was over, rather than feeling exhausted and “talked out,” I felt light and very energetic.

Interactions, such as the unique lunch I had in New York, are a fantastic way to escape the cul-de-sac. I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to be in the company of those that will inspire me both intellectually as well as artistically.

2. Encounter great Art.

While trudging along the cul-de-sac, it is easy to become fatigued. I sometimes find myself opting to stay at home and regroup rather than attend a concert. As soon as this happens, I know that I have fallen into the trap. Sometimes it takes effort to get off the couch and encounter great Art – especially after a long day of paper pushing. However, the rewards of making this effort are well worth it as I discovered on that same trip to New York a few weeks ago.

It was bitterly cold the day of my insanely long lunch with friends. As we sat and talked throughout the afternoon, temperatures descended into the 20’s and at least five inches of snow blanketed the urban landscape. It so happened that there was a concert of contemporary music taking place that same night up at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. Given that I was at Lincoln Center and given the bitter cold, the trek up to Columbia University seemed formidable. It would have been much easier to hail a cab and get back to my hotel on the East side. Yet, I had been very inspired by my conversations during the afternoon and decided to attend the concert despite my longing for a warm drink and soft bed. I’m so very glad I took the time and made the effort to go. The concert was one of the Composer Portrait concerts given at the Miller Theatre focusing on the work of a single composer. That evening, the famed JACK String Quartet and the wonderful Third Coast Percussion Ensemble from Chicago were on hand to perform the music of the great American composer, Augusta Read Thomas. In the same way that the sparking conversation with brilliant composers invigorated me, I was likewise inspired by the superbly performed work of this extraordinary composer. As the exquisite music washed over me, I again felt the cares of my academic life fade into almost non-existence.

That concert reminded me of the power of music and that attending such events – especially when I don’t feel like it - is another critically important exit route from the cul-de-sac.

3. Just work.

Evidence that I can, on occasion,
focus on real work: my newly completed
work for string orchestra and D.J.
When I surround myself with inspiring people and regularly encounter great Art, I find that it becomes easier to discern what obligations can bind me to the drudgery of the cul-de-sac and away from my true work: the creation of new music and contributing to the artistic expression of my time. Once I can make the distinction between my true work and my obligations, a balanced perspective begins to develop. I know that I must duck into the cul-de-sac for necessary tasks. However, this is simply an obligatory tangent. Once completed, the tasks of the cul-de-sac can be released and I am free to exit from that little circle – despite its aesthetically appealing nature.

Creating Art and dealing with all the impediments associated with this monumental endeavor is hard work. It’s much easier to craft a long report for a committee than to write a single good musical phrase. Maybe that’s why I spend so much time draping unnecessary weights upon myself; to fool myself into thinking I am productive. The reality is I just need to work on what’s really important. In the end, it is not the cul-de-sac that ensnares me but I who trap myself. Hiding behind obligations associated with an academic appointment is no excuse. Surrounding myself with great people and great Art gives me the strength to properly order my priorities. It also guides me towards a path of focusing on the work I know to be important in my life.

Now, that’s a road going somewhere.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Coda & Prelude

I have arrived at a familiar annual benchmark: the beginning of a new calendar year. With the turning of a page in the calendar and a few days of rest between semesters, I can’t help but sift through the remnants of 2014 before plunging fully into this new year.

The back half of 2014 was certainly dominated, at least within the confines of this blog, by the lockout of the Atlanta Symphony musicians by the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC) board. A few weeks after my last blog post in October, a resolution to this painful start to the symphony’s 70th season was reached. As far as I can tell, the bleeding has been stopped and healing has begun. The musicians agreed to a new four-year contract and on November 13, 2014, the orchestra was back in business with Maestro Robert Spano leading the the symphony and the ASO Chorus in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. I was on hand the next week (November 22) to hear performances of Debussy’s Première rhapsody (featuring principal clarinetist Laura Ardan), Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and the Symphony No. 3 by Atlanta based composer Richard Prior. The symphony was still using many subs as many of the regular ASO members had not yet returned from out of town gigs they had accepted during the lockout. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in Symphony Hall was electric, The orchestra gave a heartfelt and wondrously musical performance and sounded as though much of the rust accumulated by weeks of walking a picket line instead of playing concerts had been shaken off. What struck me about the program selection was that it seemed to be a microcosm of everything that this orchestra does best. It was a concert that first featured a truly wonderful soloist from the very ranks of the ensemble itself. I have had the very good fortune of working with Laura Ardan on several projects in the past and know from personal experience that she is an exceptional artist. It was great to be reminded that this ensemble is comprised of many such exceptional artists throughout. The concert also spotlighted a relatively new composition. The programming of contemporary orchestral music has long been a hallmark of Robert Spano’s tenure at the helm of the orchestra. As a composer, I have always  admired this significant facet of the orchestra’s artistic vision. Finally, the concert reminded us all once again that the ASO can deftly move from the contemporary to convincing and riveting presentations of some of the greatest works of Western Civilization as exemplified by Beethoven’s fifth symphony. 

As good as it was to be back in Symphony Hall and hearing great music being performed by an elite orchestra, I still could not shake some troubling thoughts. First, the newly inked four-year deal will not guarantee that musician salaries will return to pre-2011 levels or even reach those levels by the end of the contract period. Second, in addition to other concessions, health insurance costs for the players have also gone up. Finally, there are still many questions surrounding the finances of the WAC and how it allocates funding to the symphony. Despite these shortcomings, the musicians did win one significant victory. The WAC board had pushed hard to dictate the size of the orchestra. This was an egregious demand and ultimately, the line in the sand that the players would not cross. The new contract stipulates that the compliment of the orchestra will grow back to near its pre-2011 level of 95 players. While this is still smaller than other major symphony orchestras, the restoration of performers nevertheless allows the group to remain at the status of a top tier professional orchestra. 

So if I examine the glass as half full, the orchestra emerged from an acrimonious stand-off with administrators and won a hard fought victory over the size of the ensemble; a critical component to maintaining artistic integrity. Without this victory, the ASO would have been reduced to a regional training orchestra and lose its luster as one of the finest orchestras in the country. If, on the other hand, I look at the glass as half empty, I see a struggle that resulted in lower pay and higher insurance costs for the musicians and a battle that merely returns the group (almost) to where it was back in 2011 in four years time. Then there is the WAC board. It still calls the shots for the orchestra and its chairman, Douglas Hertz famously described the symphony supporters and musicians as “crazy people” ( I can’t help but be nervous about what lurks ahead in four years when this contract ends.

Still, things could have turned out much, much worse. The ASO musicians as well as the musical soul of the city of Atlanta have been spared. I choose, therefore, to look at the glass as very much half full.

My first film credit!
This goes for 2014 in my personal corner of Atlanta as well. Aside from blogging about the ASO lockout, I spent my year writing music for wonderful musicians, receiving performances at national and international festivals and conferences and even having the great fortune of seeing a commercial film featuring my first significant film score widely released. Yet, I can’t help but ask myself some honest questions. Should I have written more music? Received more performances? Generally, been more active? 

The honest answer is yes. I should have done more. That’s why, as I shift my attention from the year now gone and look forward, I am excited by my upcoming commissions, opportunities and scheduled performances of my work. With the lockout of the ASO resolved, I somehow feel as though the creative environment in Atlanta is more secure, at least for the time being. With the musicians back at work, it’s time for me to do the same. The Holidays are over, 2014 is in the books and the manuscript paper is empty!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Walkin’ the Walk

There’s an old expression: it’s not enough to “talk the talk,” one must also “walk the walk.” On Friday, October 10, 2014, student composers and performers from the Georgia State University School of Music did just that. Having heard about the lockout of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians by the Woodruff Arts Center board, the students decided that simply talking about the injustice among themselves and via social media channels was simply not enough. So on that beautiful, sunny afternoon, they took to Woodruff Park and the streets of downtown Atlanta with the purpose of drawing attention to the very damaging lockout, supporting the musicians of the orchestra and calling for change. For a solid hour they put on an amazing concert of improvised performances and demonstrated with homemade signs their support for the orchestra musicians. It was real old-fashioned, grassroots activism and it was a joy to behold. 

As a composer and longtime member of the Atlanta musical community, my outrage over the state of affairs regarding the Atlanta Symphony’s current situation is understandable. However, students have many issues tugging at their time. They can be forgiven for sometimes not realizing that a particular moment in time is significant or, for that matter, even relevant to them. This is what made last Friday’s event all the more special for me. Here were young people fired up and enthusiastically taking time away from studies and their own busy schedules to support a cause bigger than themselves. As a friend to many musicians in the orchestra, a supporter of the symphony musicians and a performer myself, it was very gratifying to witness this outpouring of energy. As a teacher, watching the students and observing their passion for the symphony made me very proud indeed.

I am, however, above all else, a composer. Therefore I couldn’t help but listen to the actual music being created on the fly that afternoon. Sometimes silly, sometimes intensely rhythmic, the “piece” being created by student composers and student performers alike ebbed and flowed with various emotions during the 60 minute performance. What struck me however was the very honest music making taking place. I don’t think these students, many of whom had never really improvised this long in public before, could have maintained such energy without truly believing in the cause that drew them together that afternoon. This observation was confirmed for me by hearing the finale of their improvised concert: student composers and performers together locked arm in arm singing a cappella the words “Save Our Symphony.” At that moment, the music turned from rollicking improvisation to a heartfelt anthem.

I doubt I could have composed anything more powerful.

Below are more photos and a video from the event:

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Learning New Changes

Among other musical pursuits, I spent a good many years of my youth playing jazz piano. I was most heavily involved with jazz during my high school and undergraduate college years before concentrating more seriously on clarinet performance and, of course, musical composition. 

As a jazz pianist, I was constantly learning new tunes and trying to figure out the best voicings for the chord progressions found within them on the keyboard. In jazz parlance, this is called learning the changes of a tune. Learning new changes was critical to my development as a jazz pianist. I haven’t thought about this aspect of my musical career in years but somehow, a recent interview that appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution with the Doug Hertz, chairman of the Governing Board of the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC), caused me to see a relationship between learning changes and management’s position in the current lockout of the Atlanta Symphony musicians. Just as I could not be an effective pianist without understanding my art and learning the changes to grow as an artist, so too I sincerely believe that the so-called “arts leaders” in Atlanta - as exemplified by Mr. Hertz - need to grow beyond their narrow conceptions of art. It’s time to learn some new changes. 

The AJC article has inflamed the internet and the supporters of the Atlanta Symphony musicians. As I read the piece I was struck by how profound the disconnect is between how a “businessman” views the arts and how I, as a musical artist, view the very same endeavor. There are three quotes that have especially caused me great concern. In the first, Mr. Hertz states: 

“…I think the corporate community and the philanthropic community understands, like any businessperson would, we’re not going to make an investment in a business that keeps losing money.” 

First off, the ASO is not a business. It is a wondrous assemblage of incredible performing artists. Through their collective efforts, these artists create something that goes beyond simple economics; beyond widgets, stocks and profit margins. This miracle of an ensemble resurrects Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Stravinsky. This very same group turns the scribblings of contemporary composers into the compelling soundtrack of the 21st Century. The group takes a room full of silence and transforms it into sound so meaningful that hearts are stirred and eyes are damp with emotion. I believe it stands as the very bulwark of civilization in an age of barbarous hatred. If the WAC truly loved the arts and understood their importance its concern over the bottom line would only motivate it to increase support for these musicians; not lock them out of their music hall, strip them of their health care and dignity and opine about red ink. My children are a “business” that also keep losing me money. Should I lock them out of the house? Do you love the arts that much, Mr. Hertz? Do you understand that you are not running a “business” here? You are charged with maintaining a miracle. 

In another part of the interview, Mr. Hertz asserts that the WAC has tried to erase the orchestra’s deficit. Because the performers have challenged the efficacy of the WAC’s efforts in this regard, Mr. Hertz says: 

“It makes you wonder, you know, are we supporting a bunch of crazy people.”

How disheartening. In reading these words, my heart sinks. How can you negotiate with someone who calls you “crazy” in public? Obviously, Mr. Hertz does not hold the performing artists in the same high regard as do I and many others like me. How truly tragic it is that he cannot fathom the lifelong sacrifices, the unyielding discipline, years of tedious work, the bitter sacrifices and the uncontainable commitment to ART that it takes to earn a spot in the ASO. Does he understand that if these “crazy” people were wearing numbers on jerseys and competed on an athletic field the same talent and work ethic they possess would garner championship rings, gold medals and salaries that would dwarf his paycheck? Since I really, truly believe what I wrote about the orchestra earlier in this article, it is beyond my comprehension how they can be so glibly labeled. Name calling is a last refuge of those standing in the very shallow end of the pool, bereft of any integrity and awash in pettiness. Professed leaders in the arts should be better than that. 

One last breathtaking quote. In discussing the size of the orchestra and who should be allowed to choose, Mr. Hertz says, 

“Well, it’s my impression that our symphony orchestra got the same artistic reviews over this past year as they have had in previous years. We had 116 separate musicians that played with our orchestra (who were) not part of our (88-musician) complement — 116 additional musicians who sat in just last year. Yet no one’s told me that artistically we were any better or worse.” 

A great meme circulating on Facebook!
My God…you don’t know? You can’t tell on your own? You need to be told how the group is doing artistically? Even worse, the comment seems to indicate that you are fine with status quo artistry. Never mind constantly trying to improve and grow (something artist do all the time). Everything is great because no one has informed you that the orchestra is any better or worse. So we’re good, right? 

If I walked into any corporate office in America and gave my “impressions” on how the business was operating based on what others told me, having no personal background or training in the field, I would be laughed off the property. Likewise, if you do not personally possess the artistic credentials to make expert calls on this issue on your own and you are being advised by such luminaries as Robert Spano and Donald Runnicles that the long term use of subs - no matter how talented they are in their own right - is not the way world class orchestras operate, should you not heed their words? This comment is astonishing to me because it seems as though you are unconcerned with what the experts in the field advise. 

The WAC has to learn new changes. It must change the way it thinks. “Impressions” are irrelevant. The board’s sole job is to keep this miracle known as the ASO performing. This is a critically important, even sacred, responsibility. This is what you signed on to do because, ostensibly, you love this orchestra. If the money happens to fall short, this is a problem for the board, not the musicians

They have given enough. 

CODA: A message from some great composers...