Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Outer Artist - Part 3: Multitasking

Third in a series on the “business” of being a composer…

It’s not uncommon for students to come into composition lessons brimming with ideas and music. This creative enthusiasm is, of course, most pronounced at the outset of a semester, well before the burdens of the average term begin to weigh a student down. As discussed at some length in my previous blog post, part of the reason that students begin to experience a let-down in creative activity is due to their failure in differentiating their “work” (i.e., composing) from their obligations. However, there is another factor that may contribute to the inevitable slow down of output. Simply put, students may be too discursive in their creative energy. Very often, students will bring in bits and pieces of several pieces they are working on: 10 measures of a string quartet here; a few bars of a piano sonata there; a diagram of the form for their proposed orchestra piece, etc. In showing me all these musical fragments, the student will express frustration in not knowing how to proceed or “being stuck” or even experiencing the dreaded “writer’s block.” Their frustration leads to questions such as, “How can I organize these ideas? How do I overcome this block?”

When thinking about how one writes music I usually do not focus on the actual creative act itself. For me, this is a mystery. It is something that is essentially unteachable. One moment there is an empty stave and the next, there are a series of notes; one carefully placed after another. Where did those notes come from? How were they selected? Why are they in that order? Do they have to be in that order? Why are those notes designated for those particular instruments or voices? How is it that one minute there is nothing and the next, music appears? How exactly did that happen?

These are questions I have a hard enough time trying to answer for myself let alone trying to answer for someone else. In fact, I would never try to answer for another composer. Once a series of notes is on the page, I can look at them; analyze them; rearrange them; and begin to discern a pattern. Once there are notes, I can help a student composer begin the process of refining his or her craft. But how to conjure the music up in the first place? As I’ve touched on in previous articles, creating something out of nothing requires a good imagination, the drive to communicate something, having something one feels is worthwhile to say in the first place and the skills to effectively translate ideas to someone else.

Every creative artist knows what I’m talking about when I say there is a very lonely moment early in the creative process where no one can help you. It’s the moment of the blank page. No one can give you creativity. No one can lend you talent or determination. No one can pop open your skull and pour in the imagination and experience you need to draw upon to create. A person is alone in this endeavor and absolutely alone at the moment of creation. This is where the “Inner Artist”dwells.

However, this series of articles concerns itself with the “Outer Artist.” So stipulating that I really can’t help someone be “creative,” let me circle back to the point of frustration expressed by student composers. How can they proceed when they are “stuck?” In these cases my advice to the student is always the same: “You cannot actively work on more than one piece at the same time.” Part of the frustration a composer feels may well stem from actively trying to compose several works simultaneously. Inevitably, a composer will begin to drift towards one piece over another. Seeing a look of disappointment in their eyes when I share this view with my students, I quickly add. “I want you to hear me clearly. I do think you can - and should - work on more than one piece at a time. You just cannot actively do so.”

So what’s the trick then? For me, it helps to consider that there are five distinct stages in music composition:
• an idea;
• active writing;
• notation/score & part preparation;
• rehearsal; and
• performance practice.

In the first stage, a composer is struck with an idea. It may be nothing more than the desire to create a work using a particular instrumentation. Perhaps the idea is to compose a piece for a friend. In my case, an idea is planted in me the moment person or ensemble commissions a new work. I have recently been commissioned to write works by several groups. For each one, my imagination immediately began working on basic ideas of shape, form, duration, timbral possibilities. I find myself shifting my thoughts from piece to piece; rolling ideas around in my mind like beautifully polished gems in my hands. Not a note has been written, and yet - at least imaginatively - I am already “composing.” My aural imagination works quickly, almost effortlessly, fueled by over 30 years of experience in composing, performing and listening. It is also fueled by a lifetime of reading, writing, drawing and viewing as well. The larger the aural imagination, the easier it is to “compose” in stage one.

Having developed my ideas internally, I find that when I move into stage two - active composing - the music seems to flow a bit easier. This is the stage where decisions about actual notes happen. It’s the active stage of writing music into blank music staves. Of course, the work does not always progress smoothly in this stage. I often have rolled up pieces of paper lying about my feet and a seemingly endless stack of sketches before working out exactly what I want to say. For me, this is the hardest stage. However, I can’t imagine how much more difficult the process would be if I had not had some initial ideas to prime the pump.

Once a piece is completed, I move into stage three: notation. This is a stage that seems foreign to many composers now because so many use a computer to compose music. I am just old enough to have begun my career before computer notation was viable. I learned all about the proper rules of notation from the master music calligrapher, Eric Benson, while a doctoral student at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Since all my compositions began as hand-written pencil manuscripts, it was simply part of the process to spend a great deal of time notating them by hand as well. Even when I moved away from inks and vellum paper and finally embraced computer notation, I never lost the sense that notation was a separate craft from active composition. To this day, most of my music is still hand-written. The advantage of treating notation as a separate activity is that it also serves as another stage in actually composing music. As I carefully notate a piece that has already been hand written, note by note I am essentially proofreading my work as well. Often during this process, significant alterations are made and mistakes are corrected. By making the piece better, I am still composing. For those students who actively write at the computer in stage two, I urge them not to worry too much about notational issues such as formatting pages, correcting weird looking articulations and phrases, etc. If they work at a computer, my advice is to try and write in a landscape view to escape the temptation of integrating format with active composing. Trying to notate while actively composing may slow down the creative process. Allowing for the luxury of a second pass through the piece, once fully written, to deal with proper notational issues provides the same opportunity I enjoy by going from hand-written score to computer notation.

Valuable rehearsal (composing) time! Yours truly pictured
at a neoPhonia dress rehearsal on Feb. 17, 2014. We were
working on "Cavafy Moods" by Yiorgos Vassilandonakis
premiered on Feb. 18, 2014.
Once a piece is finished and beautifully notated, the composition process is still not complete. I consider rehearsals to be a very valuable opportunity for refining a composition. It is so valuable that I consider it the fourth stage in the creative process. We all know how awful  a computer-generated rendition of acoustic music can sound. Therefore, even though a compeer may think he or she knows what an acoustic piece is going to sound like, a first rehearsal can still be surprising. It is in rehearsal that performers can (and should) be allowed to refine the music.  (Don’t worry about conductors. They will most definitely refine the music!) Most often it is dynamics that need to be adjusted. However, I have often made even more substantive changes on the fly during a rehearsal based on conductor or performer comments; altering the actual notes in a phrase; changing octaves; etc. This is still composition! In fact, it is perhaps the most exciting type of composing. It is an opportunity to receive instant feedback. Even if a composer is not present for rehearsals, sometimes just asking the players remotely for their input is valuable. As a composer gains more experience, this stage may become less critical. In fact, I often tell my students that a long term goal should be to reach a point where ideas and clarity of musical notation are so precisely presented that a composer should arrive to a premiere having never worked with performers and still be happy with how the piece sounds. Yet, think about how far so many of us are from that! Only by working with performers and learning in the rehearsal process do we begin towards that lofty goal.

Great way to assess my music! The
recently released solo album by
trombonist, Jonathan Whitaker

Features my work, "Tonoi VIII."
The final stage in the composition process is a retroactive assessment of a piece. Once a work is performed, the composer hopes for repeat performances and/or a very good recording that can be shared either through traditional distribution channels or via more personal means such as YouTube, Soundcloud, etc. (Always with the understanding that players have agreed to the distribution of their performances.) A good solid recording certainly aids other performers interested in performing a work. However, I always find it fascinating to hear different interpretations of my music in live performance. It is inevitable that different performers will be bring unique elements to a piece. If that were not the case, why are there hundreds of recordings of Beethoven symphonies? While I am not a big fan of major revisions to a piece after a premiere (I tend to preach a “fix-it-in-the-next-piece” approach), I nevertheless can learn from pieces that get several performances. It is in this context that I learn whether or not what I’ve written is simply unplayable and not particularly idiomatic or whether my initial assessment of a work is the result of an aberrant poor performance. This critical listening aids my aural imagination. I am therefore better poised when again entering stage one of the composition process.

So, by my way of thinking, it is actually possible to work on more than one piece at a time. My caveat is that each piece should be in a different creative stage. During the course a hypothetical (and extremely wonderful) day, a composer could be thinking about an upcoming piece (stage one), actively composing a work (stage two), working on the notation for a finished work (stage three) attending the rehearsal of another completed work (stage four) and going to concert where an older work, with some kind of performance history, is being performed by players who have never presented the work. Admittedly, that would be a pretty good day. However, I hope it illustrates my point. 

“How” to write music is obviously a complex question. Yet, it has been my experience that when students are curious, fill their aural imaginations, embrace the notion that composition is their work, elevating its priority in their lives, and furthermore try to compose within the five stages of creativity outlined above, their music seems to flow better. They have less creative blocks and seem to make real progress as creative artists. Thinking this way sure hasn’t hurt me, either. 

Of course, your mileage may vary. It’s not a one-size-fits-all theory; just a way of thinking that seems valuable to me. How does it strike you? Next month, I’ll be back with part four! If this post interests you, be sure to check out the other entries in this series: “The Outer Artist Part 1: Taking Stock” and “The Outer Artist Part 2: Due Diligence.” As always, if you find any of this useful, please feel free to repost or forward to other interested parties. I also welcome comments on anything I’ve scribbled down here!   

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Outer Artist - Part 2: Due Diligence

Second in a series on the “business” of being a composer…

After an unintentional hiatus, I return this month to the second in a series on the “business” side of being a composer. Longtime readers of this blog (and I appreciate both of you very much) will remember from my last post that these blog articles are expanded versions of lectures I give in my Composition Seminar class every three to four years. In the inaugural post of this series, I suggested that if one is interested in a career as a composer of art music, it’s best to begin by asking three very fundamental questions: Why do I compose? What should I compose? And how do I go about composing?

Last time, I spent a lot of virtual ink on the questions of why and what (although I still have more to say on this latter question in a future post). For now, as promised, I’d like to more fully tackle the issue of how one should approach writing music. 

I’d like to begin by presenting a scenario that many of my composer colleagues, who also teach for a living, will surely recognize. It’s about the fourth or fifth week into a new semester; just about the time schedules start to squeeze students and they begin to realize that they may have bitten off more than they can chew. The amount of newly composed material has slowly been diminishing over the weeks after a heady start to a new term full of promise and resolutions. Finally, the lesson arrives wherein a student informs me that there is hardly any new music to show because “I had so much work to do for [fill in the blank] this week that I just couldn’t find the time to write much.”

This is the point where I pounce upon the word “work.” 

When the excuse of having “too much work” that interferes with composing is offered, I remind my students that they are confusing their work with their obligations. These are not always the same thing. I believe that a composer’s work is to write music. Period. It should be the single most important aspect of a creative life. If it is not, future disappointments will be unbearable.

As my students will attest, I constantly preach that a composer should furthermore write everyday. This may seem unreasonable at first; especially given the time demands of a student composer then considering the even greater time demands of a professional composer. To my way of thinking, however, there are three ways to develop the discipline of daily writing despite heavy schedule constraints. One way is to consider when and where the creative act of composition takes place. Another way is to consider the creative process as taking place in five stages. The third and most important way to truly develop an ongoing and disciplined creative output, however, is to recognize the difference between work and obligation. 

I often use myself as an example. As a professor at a moderately large school of music, I certainly have my share of obligations. I must prepare and teach classes; I must teach individual composition lessons; I must plan and curate new music concerts; and I must endure a never-ending parade of meetings and produce volumes of bureaucratic paperwork. All this is just for my university gig. I’m also heavily involved with other organizations (both professional music organizations and other non-music groups). I’m certainly not alone in rattling off a plethora of activities. Every composer and professional musician can probably cite even greater lists of obligations as compared to mine. The point is, all of these activities are very important. 

But they are not my work. 

That committee meeting? An obligation. That class? An obligation. These are activities that I take very seriously and undertake to the very best of my ability. But they are not my work. My work is composing music. I always find myself wanting to complete obligations as quickly as possible - without sacrificing quality - in order to get back to work. 

I want to get back to work because I have answered the question of why I want to compose. If a person has really thought about why they write music, the question of how begins to answer itself. Once the mindset of work vs. obligation took hold, I began making the time to compose daily. It became a necessity for me. In approaching composition in this manner, I also found it much easier to prioritize my tasks and not be led too deeply down rabbit holes that robbed me of creative energy. This is the critical first step in learning how to compose. Composition must be a priority. It is a life’s work.

As a composer accepts the commitment of dedicating his or her life to creating music, it follows that time must be carved out to compose. Time is a tricky subject and one that I probably could write another whole article on. A composer has to be in control of two rates of time simultaneously: the actual performance duration of a piece of music and the time it takes to actually compose the music. These can be wildly divergent. The best example is music at a very fast tempo. Let’s say a certain section of a piece requires about 60 seconds of very fast moving music written for several instruments in intricate counterpoint. To work all that out may take hours. It might even take days. What it won’t take is 60 seconds to compose. This might seem self-evident but often less experienced composers seriously underestimate how long it will take to compose even a very few minutes of actual performed music. Couple this underestimation with a confusion about what constitutes work versus an obligation and you arrive at the lesson I described earlier where a student has not had time to compose during an entire week. For a student to miss this type of deadline for a lesson is problematic but correctible. For a composer to miss a professional deadline on a commission could be career threatening. 

There’s no way to get better at predicting how much time it takes to write a piece outside of learning how one’s personal creative energy flows. To learn this, a person must compose a lot of music and that brings us back around to the notion that one should write everyday. Otherwise, gaining the proper experience might take too long or stall altogether leaving a composer hopelessly frustrated.

What I am describing is no different, of course, than what it takes to become a fine musician, actor, dancer, painter or athlete. All these disciplines (and many more) demand daily commitment by their practitioners to move beyond mere hobby status. Serious composers must work likewise. In order to aid in the development of this daily practice, I often advise students to pick something that is consistent with respect to their daily writing. This can be either a time of day or a physical location (or both). Sure, ideally one should be able to compose anywhere and at anytime. This is an admirable goal yet rare is the composer who starts off able to work in this fashion. For less experienced composers finding a time of day that feels best or a special desk or room helps immeasurably. While I can now compose just about anywhere and anytime, I still have my special preferences. I personally prefer to compose either in the early morning or very late at night while the world is quiet. I also have a special corner of my studio where my composition desk sits. No other activity ever takes place in this corner. I do not grade papers or do taxes or even write long blog articles there. I only compose. Simply by sitting in the chair of that desk, I am somehow ready to work. 

So if you are ready to be a professional composer, know why you must write; understand what types of music you are interested exploring; and recognize the difference between your work and your obligations. Then, find something consistent everyday that will aid you in your work.  

In my next post, I will continue on this topic of how to write music and drill further down into more of the nuts and bolts of my philosophy of composing. What are those five stages of creative activity alluded to above? Can one really compose everyday? Can more than one piece be written at the same time? I’ll explore these questions in the next installment of this series. (This time, I hope it won’t take four months to get uploaded!) 

As always, if you find this series useful, please feel free to repost or forward to other interested parties. I also welcome comments on anything I’ve scribbled down here!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Outer Artist - Part 1: Taking Stock

First in a series on the "business" of being a composer...

The creative artist is in a very hard profession. The pay is terrible, the work is arduous, rejection is rampant and our modern society, in general, is at best ambivalent and at worst openly hostile to the efforts of an artist. I’m sure this is the case with all serious artists over many disciplines. It is certainly true in my particular neighborhood of artistic expression, music composition. 

Hard as it is to try and survive as a composer on my own, I also find myself in the position of training future composers to take their places among the wounded and weary artistic warriors on a very bleak cultural landscape. Who signs up for this kind of abuse willingly? Do budding young composers really know what awaits them outside the relatively safe confines of a university? What sort of advice can I possibly give? These questions are complicated by a trend in our society to treat higher education as a sort of high-end vocational training with studies that lead to guaranteed employment.   

Some of the most difficult questions asked by composition students just starting out are “What can I do with a degree in music composition? Can I make a living as a professional composer?” The answer to these questions is not always what an idealistic, aspiring artist wants to hear. However, it is important for me to always be truthful with my students. Sometimes being truthful means telling young composers that their music needs more work in a lesson and sometimes it means sitting them down and letting them know what they are in for once they graduate. 

But it also means I have a responsibility to give them a chance to succeed.

Sign of success? The new release on
Albany Records featuring my work
of the same name.
That’s precisely what I am trying to do this fall in my Composition Seminar class at the Georgia State University School of Music. Every three to four years, I devote an entire academic year discussing what I believe goes into a successful career as a professional composer. In class lectures, I try to focus on topics that don't always get addressed in proper depth within the boundaries of a normal composition lesson. In lessons, I am focused primarily on the actual music a student brings in and how to improve a young composer's craft. But what comes next? What is the next step after the music is written and the applause at a composition recital fades away? What is one to do with that portfolio of music and diploma?

I deliver a lot of information in a 50-minute class lecture and I realize that those Keynote slides move by quickly. After my first lecture this week, one of the students asked if I would post the slides online. Normally, I don’t upload my slide presentations but this year, I have decided to expand upon my class lectures in a series of posts here in my blog. Mostly, I'm doing this as a service to my students. However, I hope they may also be of benefit to any other interested persons wandering onto this blog.

One caveat: most of these thoughts are purely my own. I don’t pretend to have all the answers nor do I imagine that everything I suggest is the only way to go about creating a successful career. I simply hope to share some personal insights informed by my more than 30 years of experience in writing music.

So...where to begin?

Oddly enough, I choose not to start with anything more concrete than three basic one-word questions. These questions, in descending order, are: 

3. How? 
2. What?  
1. Why?

Before we can talk about making a living as a composer, I think it is essential that a person peek behind their perceived motivations for wanting to write music in the first place. These three questions, answered honestly, go a long way to providing that insight. 

Let’s look at the third question first: HOW? 

How do I create music? Is it a daily necessity? Is it a chore? Do I try to fit composition in-between other activities or do I make it a priority?  How do I go about the physical act of composition itself? Do I sit in front of a computer and use notation software to input notes? Do I eschew formal notation, at least at first, in favor of other electronic means of creating sound (including anything from more advanced computer music programs such as Max MSP all the way down to Garageband)? Do I actually use a pencil and manuscript paper and compose long hand? Do I need a keyboard or other musical source to compose or can I hear it in my head; composing silently without the aid of an instrument?

I naturally have a few thoughts on these questions. However, I’ll hold off for now and expand upon the “how” question in my next blog post. For the moment, I don’t think I could answer any of those questions unless I first considered another question: WHAT?

What kind of music do I like? Why am I drawn to this type of music? Is my taste a product of exposure to lots of music or through a more narrow pathway? Do I have a relatively fluent understanding of, or at the very least a passing acquaintance with, many genres of music; both within the so-called “Classical Tradition” as well as outside? Am I curious? Do I care about what others are writing?

Great cartoon going around online that speaks
to the light of the artist in contemporary society.
Knowing what I like to compose really informs how I go about the actual work of creating music. The type of music I have the most passion for will also guide how I use my time and set my priorities. Yet, I find that most young composers have an extremely narrow view of what they like. It’s usually informed by their tastes in movie music and pop music (and by “pop,” I mean anything from heavy metal to hip-hop). In entrance interviews/juries for those students interested in our composition program, I often ask what music students enjoy and listen to on a regular basis. Most often, they cite commercial film composers and pop bands/artists. If they mention “classical” composers, the names brought up are very rarely active contemporary (or even living) composers. I’m much more likely to hear the names Debussy, Bartók, Stravinsky rather than Lang, Saariaho, Higdon, Muly, etc. Many contemporary, living composers are not even on the radar of incoming students professing a desire to get into the field. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to enjoy specific genres of music, of course. Nevertheless, I believe someone who professes a desire to create music and develop a personal voice should not limit their listening to just what they know or like.

That’s why I stress (and actually require) students in my seminar to attend and write about contemporary music concerts for credit. The reason for this is simple. I believe that knowing what you like to compose is informed by a very good aural imagination. It’s impossible to develop a useful and expansive aural imagination unless one is CURIOUS

Perhaps this is the greatest foe I have in teaching students; the chronic lack of curiosity. If you are not curious, truly curious and interested in exploring the vast sonic world around you, I believe you are entering our field already at a disadvantage. If you are deeply uninterested in anything outside of a narrow scope of musical expression, you should seriously consider music composition as a fun hobby and find something else that you are truly, passionately interested in exploring.

Knowing what you want to compose and getting a firm handle on how to accomplish that task is still not enough. Before you can truly know how to compose and what to create, you must still answer the hardest question of all: WHY?

Why do I want to compose music? For me, “why” is the biggest question. It is far easier to rattle off methodologies and point to influences than deal with one’s true motivations. A much more personal response is required to honestly answer the question of why compose at all. I don’t think one should shy away from a big answer to a big question. Do you write music because you feel incomplete and through the creation of music you feel whole? Do you write because you are absolutely compelled to share an idea, no matter the cost? Do you write because you believe such an act is the deliberate and defining act of civilization and by so doing, you are contributing to and building up our culture? Do you write because by creating something out of nothing, your actions are an image of the very creation of the universe itself?

You see what I’m getting at here. 

What is the deep, compelling and driving force that prompts the creative act? No two answers are likely to be the same. However, I believe the answer to this question should be authentic and life-defining. Otherwise, writing music is truly a lot of work for nothing. By truly understanding why you compose, you begin to grasp more clearly what it is you want to write; what kind of music best expresses this deep, compelling force of creation. Then, figuring out how to do this comes into focus.

(For another insight into the “why” question. See my previous blog posting, “Looking For A Sign.”)

It’s no small thing to grapple with these three questions. They are not likely to be answered all at once or even in the order I propose. Most likely, they become a lifelong pursuit. However, I believe that those composers who have “succeeded” in the field of composition have dealt with these issues in some form or fashion and can address them. By seriously considering and trying to answer these three questions, I furthermore believe that one begins along the path leading to a successful career. Finally, in dealing with these questions, volunteering for a job with bad pay, hard work, rejection and no recognition starts to make a little sense.    

Next time: a little more on the “how” question!

If you find this series useful, please feel free to repost or forward to other interested parties. I also welcome comments on anything I’ve scribbled!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Looking For A Sign

A few weeks ago, I read a blog post by composer Rob Deemer entitled, “The Big Picture.” In his post, Deemer speaks about his “continual and simultaneous state of reflection on the past and projection towards the future.” Like Deemer, I compose and teach for living. His bi-directional perspective therefore resonates with me; especially in August as a new school year draws near. Artists within the academy may well be prone to this type of reflection given the natural cycles of our profession. While most people pause and reflect around the turn of the calendar year, those in the academy also have an opportunity to reflect at the end of semester and summer cycles as well. 

Most people move to the rhythms of the five-day work week. The weekend is not so much a point of reflection as it is a time of temporary pause and refreshment from the daily grind. American society tends to regard the work week as a kind of tedious necessity and therefore we often see pop-culture references to “Hump Day” or “T.G.I.F.” These references all imply a dissatisfaction with daily work and the passionate anticipation of the coming days off. It’s no surprise then that as the weekend begins to wane, a bit of anxiety about returning to the “normal routine” creeps in. 

Creative artists do not always follow this same rhythm. For those of us who dedicate our lives to the creation of Art, there is no such thing as a five-day work week. We tend not to view our “jobs” as tedious or some sort of necessary grind in need of alleviation. The necessity of our work is driven by deeper impulses. 

Trying to maintain an artistic life within academia is a little more complicated. My cycle is a bit of a hybridization between these two types of working lifestyles; a superimposition of a five-day work week on top of free-flowing creative pursuits. Within this odd, isorhythmic life, my work is not relegated to a 40-hour week nor even confined to a single location; an office. Therefore, I am left with the question: what, exactly, is my work? If traditional workspace boundaries and calendar workdays do not necessary apply, I join Deemer in wondering what my discernible signposts may be. What defines my goals? 

I can’t speak for all artists, naturally, but as for myself, I have always made a distinction between my obligations and my work. I have very real and important obligations associated with my academic appointment. I take them seriously and give them my full attention. However, I will never consider some of these obligations, my work. It is not my work to sit in endless meetings discussing topics very far away from the creative process. Nor is it my work to write up reports on subjects not particularly relevant to the creation of art that sit on administrators’ desks. These are obligations. My work, first and foremost, is to compose music. It’s that simple. A complimentary aspect to this work is teaching. The teaching component of my work is a joy for it allows me to give back to another generation and, selfishly, it makes me a better composer. 

With apologies to Robert Heinlein, the artist in academia is a “stranger in a strange land.” Square pegs in round holes, we are compelled to refer to art as “research,” our concerts take place at “conferences” and we document our creative work as “professional development.” Again, I consider Rob Deemer’s blog post. In his particular case, having attained an important goal, promotion and tenure at his university, Deemer now finds the simultaneous reflection on the past and projection towards the future a bit “paralyzing, especially if there are no overarching goals to act as signposts on the road.” 

A good example of why I compose. The Perimeter Flutes
giving a wonderful premiere performance of my work,
"Chasing Time" - August 3, 2013
My perspective, having gone through tenure and promotion to Associate Professor back in 2004 and promotion to Full Professor in 2010, is guided by one over-arching question: WHY do I compose? I have touched on this topic before in this blog but I return to it again because it is the essential question of my artistic life. Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that I want to remain a “stranger in a strange land.” In concentrating on this goal, I am continually provoked by the question of why I do what I do. If I do not keep regarding myself as a stranger, and do not continually assess my deep reasons for creating music, I fear I might assimilate into the academic environment to the extent that my understanding of my work changes. I fear that I will begin to view committees, academic rank and reports as work. I fear that I will begin to make references to “Hump Day” or “T.G.I.F.” in casual conversations with colleagues; wishing the days to pass quickly. Despite my best intentions, I nevertheless fall prey to this mentality all the time; especially in August. There are times when I look at the month of August as one big “Sunday afternoon;” the waning of an extended break from the routine. As the days pass, I notice shadows lengthening and the shortening daylight hours. The inevitability of the fall semester becomes more apparent. Soon the leaves will begin to change and my my working days will be altered. I begin to think about faculty meetings, committee meetings, reports and all the other obligations of an academic career and I begin to have the same sense of anxiety as experienced by someone dreading the weekend’s conclusion. 

However, by really focusing on the distinction between obligations as opposed to my actual work, I find that I can better prioritize my life. While there are necessary and important obligations added from August to May, my “signposts on the road” are not really dictated by the academy, my physical surroundings nor the rhythms of the calendar directly. My signpost is a continual beacon leading towards the next composition; the next interesting project; the next opportunity to try and say something of importance through art; my work. This signpost has a single word on it: “Why?”

A truthful answer to that question is the goal.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Simple Question

I have been thinking recently about my first composition teacher, Roger Hannay (1930-2006). It’s the mid-point of the year and a time I typically pause to take stock of my creative output. In looking at my work over the past six months, I can’t help but hear my old mentor’s voice, somehow clearer than before. What I remember most right now is not so much all the good and valuable technical training Roger provided. Rather, it’s a question he once asked me.

Atlanta composers chatting it up after a recent
performance by Terminus Ensemble in Atlanta.
L-R: Natalie Williams, yours truly, John Anthony Lennon,
Tim Jansa & Adam Scott Neal.
I just completed my fifth composition of 2013 a few days ago, a piece for solo soprano saxophone. I’m already prepping for the sixth work, a large piece for solo tenor and orchestra. There are several more pieces in the queue after that. I’m not sure about all composers, but this seems like a lot for me – especially given all the outside obligations inherent in an academic career. However, as I look over my catalog, I notice that I have been on this accelerated writing pace over the past few years. Since the beginning of 2011, I have finished 17 pieces. Gazing suspiciously on these compositions, it is natural to assume that a torrent of notes does not necessarily equal quality. After all, Edgard Varèse has very few surviving works in his catalog and is nevertheless recognized (and rightly so) as one of the seminal figures of the early 20th Century. The irony that my 17 pieces written over the past two and half years equals the entire number of pieces in Varèse’s catalog (as listed in his Wikipedia article) is not lost on me. Surely, none of these 17 works measure up to even the least of the pieces in Varèse’s entire surviving catalog.

However, focusing on one composer with an extraordinarily small catalog is too narrow a view. History is, of course, replete with great composers who have literally hundreds of compositions in their respective catalogs. So where does that leave me? Why do I compose so many pieces? What compels me to jump right into a new project having barely completed the previous one?

The new release on Albany Records featuring two works
of mine: "Tonoi VII" & "An Empty Blouse"
It’s these questions that bring me back again to Roger. I often tell the story of an important exchange I had with him early in my studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I may have already recounted it in some past entry in this blog. It’s still worth repeating. One day, probably sometime in the spring of 1983, I arrived to my lesson in good spirits having just finished a composition. I remember proudly presenting all the little doodles contained in my thick stack of dog-eared manuscript paper and eagerly awaiting some sort of praise from my teacher. Instead, as he looked over my work, Roger casually asked what I was working on at the moment. I froze. What was he talking about? Didn’t he see all that work right before his eyes? When I finally stammered out my answer, that he was looking at what I had been doing, Roger glanced up and informed me that if I was not currently working on a piece, then I wasn’t really a composer.

Over the years, I have thought a lot about that statement. I don’t believe Roger literally meant that unless I was actively composing a new work daily I could not consider myself a composer. I think, instead, he was communicating two important ideas to me. First, you cannot simply rest on past achievements. It doesn’t matter if your finest work is behind you. A creative artist must push ahead and explore. Your best work will certainly be in the past if you cease to create in the present. The second idea follows naturally from this first one. A composer must have a good work ethic. You cannot move forward and explore without considerable effort and determination. This is especially true of the path taken by creative artists.

One of the first public screenings of "A Free Bird," an
independent comedy with a film score by yours truly!
It’s no accident, therefore, that 2011 was the beginning of an active writing period for me. I had just been promoted to the rank of Full Professor at my university in the spring of 2010 and Roger’s question rang loudly in my thoughts. “What are you working on now?”  Yes, as all the pictures in this post demonstrate, over the past few months there have been lots of performances, a new commercial recording and even my debut as a film composer. But still I hear the words, “What are you working on now?”

It’s not hubris that compels me to increase my creative activities precisely at a time when it doesn’t matter as much in my professional academic career. It’s fear. It’s the fear of standing still; growing stagnant. Mostly, however, it’s the ghostly voice of my teacher ringing up through the decades challenging me to keep moving. It is neither particularly virtuous nor deleterious to write a lot of music. The same may be said for those who create at a more deliberate pace. What’s important is the attitude of the artist. It’s not about how fast or how much you write or the size of your catalog. In the end, it’s about being able to answer a simple question:

What are you working on now?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

To Thine Own Self…

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the 2013 New Music USA Awards Ceremony held at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City. The energy at this event was palpable as some of the heaviest hitters in the field were in attendance. Even with a casual look at the program, names such as John Luther Adams, Anthony Braxton, John Kander, William Kraft, Meredith Monk and the JACK Quartet among others immediately caught my eye. All of these award recipients (with the exception of Braxton) were present. The evening also featured magnificent live performances of music. Members of Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble and The M6 teamed up for a gorgeous reading of Monk’s Jewish Storyteller/Dance/Dream from Book of Days. Another real treat were performances by Face the Music, an ensemble comprised of high school students from the Kaufman Music Center under the direction of Jennifer Undercofler. The young performers gave a very spirited and respectable performance of Lick by Julia Wolfe as well as a work by one of their own members, bassist Ethan Cohn’s Lionfish.

The view from the top of the New Museum of
Contemporary Art in NYC. The breathtaking
Freedom Tower dominates the skyline.
It might be easy to get swept up in a bit of stargazing in such surroundings (and I do confess to a bit of that), but I had another important takeaway from the event. It was readily apparent to me from the outset that each of the recognized composers and ensembles had extremely diverse and distinctive voices. There was nothing cookie-cutter about the evening. Even for someone outside the contemporary music world, it would be very difficult to confuse the music of John Luther Adams with Meredith Monk or John Kander. The award recipients had all cultivated distinctive and highly personal voices. These were creative artists who were neither timid nor worried about fitting in or sounding like everyone else. It’s a wonderful model that can never be displayed often enough.

It’s easy sometimes for me to fall into a bit of despondency from time to time over lack of recognition on a national stage, perceived snubs, etc. I’m sure it’s the same for all creative artists. I’m convinced, however, that the way out of such valleys is not to try and sound like those who are “successful.” There is room at the creative table for many voices. To truly cultivate one’s artistic voice, there is just one important question that needs to be asked: Why do you create?

When someone finds out that I am a composer – and they move past the novelty that such persons still exist – I am asked, “what kind of music do you compose?” Usually, my answer – given in nervous fits and starts – revolves around the “what” and “how” of my work. When the composer Alvin Singleton is asked the very same question, (“what kind of music do you write?”) his quick and assured response is “wonderful music.” I love this answer because, at its heart, it comes from a clear understanding of the “why” question.

Hanging out with some truly distinctive and wonderful
composers after the awards ceremony in Little Italy.
(L-R: Carman Moore; yours truly, Alex Shapiro &
Alvin Singleton)
To write personal, distinctive and wonderful music, a composer knows – at the very deepest level – why he or she is compelled to create music. The answer to “why do you write” is no doubt different for each composer. It is a question that has been considered and cultivated through the unique life experience of the successful artist. Yet, to understand why one creates is still not enough. Composers of significance also are fearless. They are sensitive to what moves them and explore those facets of creativity that speak most insistently to them, irrespective of where their journey may lead. For some, these explorations lead to highly experimental and genuinely genre-bending pieces. For others – and I include myself in this group – the exploration simply bolsters the courage to compose music that seems, at least on the surface, more conventional in nature.

There was a time when I was a little embarrassed that I conceived of music in more “traditional” ways. I felt that because I am drawn to explorations of harmony, melody and pulse driven rhythm I was somehow not modern; not relevant.

Increasingly, none of that matters anymore.

As I progress in my career, I am gaining a clearer understanding of why I write. I know what is important to me and I strive with every piece to hone my craft in order to better express myself. I’m also trying to be more courageous. With each passing year and each completed piece, I try to better understand how to write what I want without resting on mere craft. Most importantly, I’m beginning to understand that it’s fine to want to be like the “successful” composers; as long as I do it my way and not theirs.

So what kind of music do I write? Just listen.

The day that a listener can discern the answer to that question without me spilling a long string of inadequate words is the day I become a “successful” composer. I won’t need anyone’s validation or award. The work itself will be the reward and the recognition will eventually follow. Or, it won’t. Again, it doesn’t matter.

To be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with award ceremonies, prizes and all the other measures of “success.” Our nation is fortunate that wonderful organizations such as New Music USA exist and promote contemporary composers and their work. But it is important for me to keep a balanced perspective. Somehow, I don’t believe any of the composers receiving awards in Manhattan a few weeks ago created their distinctive art with ceremonies in mind.

Neither should I.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Birds Of A Feather: Five Reasons We Should Still Flock Together

Although it seems a long time ago, it has only been a week since I traveled to Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio for the National Conference of the Society of Composers, Inc. (SCI). Because I find air travel inherently tedious, I began jotting down a few thoughts about this recent experience on the return flight while my impressions were still fresh (and to kill some time aboard the plane). Now that I've let a whole week slip by, I suppose it’s time to finish my thoughts.

L-R: Yours truly, newly elected President of SCI,
James Paul Sain & newly elected Chairman of the
SCI Executive Committee, Mike McFerron
Attendance at a conference, such as the recently concluded SCI event, is certainly not a new experience for me. I've been to many such gatherings over the years. As a composer working in academia, it comes with the territory. The acronyms of the sponsoring organizations may change (SCI, CMS, SEAMUS, etc.) but the format for a conference generally remains constant: a group of composers have pieces selected by peer-review to be performed for one another. 

At first glance, these events seem to be rather odd affairs for composers to attend. It’s true that many concerts of contemporary music are given at a conference. However, aside from outward appearances, there are significant differences between a “traditional” concert and one presented at an academic conference.

Wonderful performance of my piece,
"Citizens of Nowhere" at the SCI Conference
by Casey Grev, sax & Cody Grabbe, b. clar.
One important, and immediately apparent difference is the make-up of the audience. While it is unlikely that anyone might turn away an interested person outside the organization from wandering into a conference concert, the audience often consists predominantly of other composers. This can be a bit unnerving to the composer whose work is being performed. Unlike general concert goers, an audience made up of composers is a knowledgeable group of people. They tend to listen more carefully and analytically. They have a knowledge of contemporary repertoire that allows for instantaneous and automatic comparisons of the piece being performed with the vast cannon of literature. Worst of all, they usually know when a performance goes poorly and if it is the fault of the performers or the composer.

Another difference is the sheer number of concerts presented in succession. It’s true that at music festivals, such as Spoleto USA held each spring in Charleston, SC, a great many concerts are presented usually beginning in the late morning or noon hour and continuing throughout the day. Yet patrons of these kinds of festivals freely choose a selected sampling of the total concert offerings. At a conference, on the other hand, it is not uncommon for a participant to attend nearly all the concerts presented. This can make for a sometimes grueling marathon of music; listening intently for hours upon end until everything begins to sound the same.

Sometimes I ask myself, why travel to such an event? Conferences seem very insular; composers having their music performed for one another with no apparent care for the outside world. What’s the benefit of taking part in such an endeavor? It sometimes seems like there must be a better way to accumulate Frequent Flyer Points.

There are five reasons, actually, I still think conferences are useful to composers. Maybe even important.
  1. For younger composers, acceptance through peer-review at a conference is very similar to winning a composition prize. It carries a certain gravitas and signals to others in the field that the composer is of a certain stature and is to be taken a little bit more seriously. For student composers especially, selection at a conference is a signifiant item to place in a curricular vitae.
  2. Conferences are great places for composers to encounter new works and composers beyond the same “big names” that win the major awards or whose names appear regularly in New York Times reviews. Despite the fatigue of sitting through many concerts, a piece can still grab one’s attention and inspire the attentive composer in the audience.
  3. Conferences are also wonderful places to meet very talented performers who, by their very presence at the event, demonstrate a dedication to performing new music. This is no small opportunity. The composer who pays attention, identifies and makes contact with such performers. A valuable professional connection is made and the possibility of collaboration is a simple email away after the conference ends. This opportunity for collaboration, by the way, exists also with fellow composers. 
  4. For the young composer in academia, perhaps the most compelling reason to attend such conferences is to satisfy the demands of an academic career. Upper administrators in a university are usually non-musicians that hold creative artists to the same standards as other academic disciplines. To “present” one’s “research” through peer-review demonstrates good standing in the field and is enormously helpful in the promotion and tenure process. This is a very serious concern for the composer in academia and one that is thankfully addressed by the existence of such events.
  5. For older composers, such as myself, the critical need for presentation in order to earn promotion and tenure is no longer relevant. It’s not even the performance of a work that is of critical artistic importance. Often, the pieces I send in for a conference already have a rich performance history. However, I was reminded again this past week up in Columbus how nice and truly beneficial it is to simply have the opportunity to chat, face-to-face over coffee or at dinner, with colleagues around the country and compare notes. 
I don’t attend academic conferences as often as I once did. However, my experiences last weekend in Columbus have reaffirmed that I will probably never abandon them completely. This SCI Conference has made me a better pedagogue for my students and a more inspired composer as well.  All that and the Frequent Flyer Points, too!

What do you think? Do academic conferences still matter to you?