Friday, February 16, 2018

Call & Response (Part 1)

There is probably no denying that the best way for a composer to get music performed is by developing strong personal relationships and writing music for friends. While well worth it, this approach takes time and much effort. That's why contests and score calls from prestigious organizers and performers can sometimes seem much more alluring. I suppose deep down many of us want to be “award-winning” composers. Winning a competition or having a piece selected as a result of a score call is a great way to boost the fragile creative ego, jump-start a new relationship with performers, and add an important line in a curricular vita. I have been regularly perusing score calls for most of my career as a composer. Every week or so, I check such sites as “SCION” published by the Society of Composers, Inc. (SCI) and the “Composer’s Site” webpage among others. At this point, I continue foraging for opportunities as much out of habit as out of an earnest desire to present my music. I also continue to receive a steady stream of direct email notifications concerning opportunities to submit my work. (When you get rejected by as many presenters as I have over the years, you end up on many email lists.) Given all these resources, I think I am usually up to date on the various opportunities out there for composers at any given time. I’ve also been at this for quite a while and have seen almost every imaginable type of score call.

Recently, I came across an opportunity listing that actually caused me to stop in my virtual tracks and chuckle. When describing the parameters of a particular score call, an organization wrote:

Works must be written for this specific instrumentation:
Soprano, accordion, cello, and clarinet
Soprano and accordion
Soprano and banjo

Of course, I immediately posted a snarky comment about this on my Facebook page and received many equally snarky comments and “likes.” However, this particular score call caused me to think about all the things that drive me crazy as a composer about such calls. To be fair, I have also been a presenter myself and issued my own score calls and am fully aware of many things that drive presenters equally crazy about composers.  So, in no particular order, this blog post and the one to follow will list my Top 3 items that both composers and presenters should think about when issuing and responding to score calls.

In this post, let’s start with Presenters.

1. The Tailor-Made Submission

Once in a while, submitting to an opportunity really pays off.
Just ask Caroline Shaw and Roomful of Teeth! This photo
taken on January 21, 2018 after a performance at
Georgia State University.
In this type of score call, the presenter requires a composer to create a brand-new piece of music tailored specifically for a particular opportunity. Usually, the submitted piece(s) cannot have been premiered in public. This kind of call is an immediate non-starter for me. The nature of competitions (at least in my experience) is that composers have about a 10% chance of success. Why then should a composer expend the energy to write a new piece specifically for a call when the high odds are the work will not be selected? What happens to the piece then? This issue is really exacerbated when the instrumentation called for is non-standard; like a soprano and banjo, for instance.

If an ensemble or presenter is really interested in generating repertoire for themselves, I advise the Verdehr Trio model. This ensemble, founded in 1972 and comprised of Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr, clarinet, Walter Verdehr, violin, and Silvia Roederer, piano, has commissioned over 200 new works. They mostly did this by working directly with composers. No contest necessary. Over the years, the clarinet, violin, piano trio has become a standard medium for composition largely due to the efforts of the Verdehr Trio.

2. Entry Fees

Sometimes, it feels just like gambling when paying a fee to
participate in a call for scores...
Entry fees always cause heated discussions within composer circles. Many composers adamantly dislike the inclusion of such fees in any score call. The presenter should be aware of this animus when contemplating the inclusion of a fee for a planned score call. The higher the fee, the more outrage a presenter may illicit. Nothing causes red flags to go up for a composer more than a high entry fee with the promise of a cash prize for the winner of the contest and a caveat stating that if submission quality is lacking, no prize will be awarded. A composer is left to suspect that the contest was just a funding opportunity for the presenter at the expense of composers anxious to get their music heard. Preying on this type of composer anxiety really doesn’t sit well with many creative artists. Most professional musicians rightly expect to be paid for their services. Why is a composer expected to not only compose a work for free but to actually pay for the 90% probability of receiving a rejection letter?  

Ironically, this will also be my #2 Item on the forthcoming Composers list (Part 2 of this blog post) because I can see another side to this issue…

3. The “Logan’s Run” Syndrome

In the 1976 film, Logan’s Run (based on the book by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson), one of the themes explored is that of youth worship. The story takes place in a future where the remnants of humanity live utopian lives filled with hedonistic pleasures until they reach the age of the 30 and are euthanized. There seems to be a bit of this type of youth worship in many score calls. Opportunities for composers older than 30 are certainly far fewer than for calls aimed at “emerging composers.” It’s as if once a composer reaches 30 (or older), he or she has already had a successful career and should not be afforded many more opportunities. In many professional contact sports, it’s easy to see how a person over the age of 30 can be considered “old.” This line of thinking is far less convincing when applied to creative artists. While I believe it is vitally important to provide meaningful opportunities for young and “emerging” composers, it also strikes me that by tilting too far in the direction of youth and inexperience, we seem to be excluding many gifted, experienced composers over the age of 30 who have simply had the misfortune of not becoming famous fast enough.

While I could toss in a few more, I’ll stop with these “Top 3” issues for now. My colleagues can probably cite others. In my next post I will switch sides and talk to my fellow composers. There are things we should think about in the submission process as well! Until then, it’s time for me to go back online and look for the next opportunity…

Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Creative Paradox - or - How Embracing the Dark Side Made Me a Better Composer

Like so many others during these waning hours of December, I can’t help but briefly pause and reflect on 2017 before charging forward into the new year. In 2017, I was again blessed to compose music, teach, travel, and receive many performances of my music, much as I have in the past. However, two events, oddly related to one another, stand out this year.

From the Georgia State University School of Music
website: the official announcement of the new gig!
The first of these noteworthy events took place back in June. At that time, I was appointed the Interim Director of the Georgia State University School of Music, an institution where I have taught for over 20 years. Sharp readers of this blog may note that this is about the time that my (more or less) regular postings here abruptly ceased. This is probably not surprising. Moving from my position as a long time senior faculty member to what many in my profession refer to as the “Dark Side” (i.e., administration) was very significant and, in many ways, life changing. I have keenly felt a much higher level of responsibility while working through a steep learning curve over the past seven months. I still feel like I am drinking water out of a gushing fire hydrant.

The wonderful contemporary music group,
Unheard-of//Ensemble performing my work, "Frontlash"
at Weill Recital Hall in NYC - 12.18.17
However, I have also found my new role surprisingly exhilarating. After having done the same thing over and over again for over 20 years, perhaps I was ready for a big change. However, despite all of the new responsibilities associated with the administrative position, I was grateful to still be able to continue teaching a bit. Bringing with it exciting new challenges and the ability to maintain my teaching to a degree, this new job seemed to have offered nothing but positives. Nevertheless, despite being generally happy with the new gig, there was one thing that concerned me at the outset: how would this administrative work affect my creative activity? Would I suddenly cease to be an active composer?

I was determined to maintain my compositional output. However, to accomplish this, I soon realized that I needed to change my life even more. In addition to being a full-time 12-month employee (good-bye long summer vacations) and learning a completely new set of skills associated with the new job, I needed to also significantly change my personal work habits. It was readily apparent, even after my first week, that late-night composing would no longer work in my “new normal” schedule. After a full day, I found that my creative energies were nearly non-existent. I therefore made the very painful decision (for me) to become a “morning person.”

Finding time to work despite the new gig and travels.
This Sonata for Violin & Piano was completed in July while
  teaching at the 3rd Summer Music Performance Program
in Thessaloniki, Greece. 
I have never been a fan of the morning. Given my preference, I would sleep late, work from the late morning to the afternoon, take a break for a workout, then dinner, and then proceed to compose until the very wee hours of the morning. That type of schedule didn’t really work well when I was a faculty member and it certainly wasn’t going to work now. So, I made peace with the idea that I would rise very early, get in a brisk workout and then compose before heading into the office every day. At first, I was skeptical that this new work flow would allow me to maintain my past productivity. After all, excluding the weekends, I no longer have large blocks of time to simply compose. Now, I must work every day, at a specific time, and for a very specific duration. As it turns out, I was right. I found that I was not maintaining my past productivity.

I was exceeding it.

In looking back over the year, I am shocked to find that I have composed over twice the amount of music I usually produce in a single year. Moreover, I still compose by hand. I have avoided the temptation to compose directly into the computer, although I know that would save me the step of taking my pencil score and notating it later via computer notation software.

Obligatory photo at Carnegie Hall. Why not?
I don't get a piece performed there everyday!
Somehow, landing the gig as Interim Director of the GSU School of Music has not only reinvigorated my academic career, but has somehow also refocused my creative activity. In a paradoxical twist, having much less time has actually given me the liberty to produce more music. I find that since I do not have any time to waste, I simply try to make good use of the time I have been given. This includes, by the way, carving out time to relax. I’m not a hermit - having closed myself off from everything but university work and composing. I enjoy my family, go to concerts and movies, cook, read, travel, and have been known to binge a show or two on Netflix from time to time. However, having been privileged to take on a bigger role at my university has made me much more purposeful in my use of time.

I mentioned early on in this post that there were two major events that occurred in life during 2017 and that they were related. The second event was the recent performance of my work Frontlash (commissioned by the very talented contemporary music group, Unheard-of//Ensemble) at the Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall in New York City. Having a work performed at Carnegie Hall is a dream that almost every composer has and many have attained. This was my first time and I found myself deeply humbled and honored by the experience. Perhaps more importantly, Frontlash, having been composed after my appointment as Interim Director of the GSU School of Music and a product of my new work flow, is early validation for me. This particular piece and its successful performance indicate that if I continue to use my time wisely, I may be able to achieve success as an administrator and maintain a positive career trajectory as a creative artist.

With that kind of validation as a tailwind, I look forward to 2018!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Tale of Two Cities

I have a somewhat complicated relationship with Atlanta. While I consider myself a native, I was not actually born in this city. I arrived in Boulder, Colorado while my father was completing his Masters degree in Music Education at the University of Colorado. After my birth, my family lived all of six months more in Boulder before heading back to my father’s hometown of Atlanta. I therefore have no memory of my western birthplace. Growing up, Atlanta and the Deep South were all I knew. When I left Georgia to continue my education, I never in a thousand years thought I would ever make it back down to the South much less get back to Atlanta. Yet, that is exactly what happened.

Even after I first arrived back, my wife and I thought our stay would be brief. But an adjunct position at the Georgia State University School of Music turned into a full-time Visiting Professor position which led me to a full-time tenure-track gig and ultimately to my current position as a full Professor of Composition. Along the way, I did apply for other job opportunities in academia and even came very close to leaving on at least one occasion. However, for better or worse, Atlanta continues to hold me close as a native son, despite my “transplanted” birth, my improbable return after school, and my best efforts to leave.

When I travel, I'm often asked,"What is Atlanta like?" I usually have a couple of glib responses at the ready. First, I say that Atlanta reminds me of a mini-Los Angeles with its urban sprawl, over-development, massive highway system, smog alerts, and horrific traffic. Second, I characterize the identity of the city as a teenager that shows a lot of talent and potential but doesn't really know what it wants to be when it grows up. This is especially true of the contemporary arts to which I am particularly attuned. It seems that my relationship with Atlanta is not the only one that is complicated. Atlanta’s relationship with the contemporary arts is not exactly crystal clear either. In fact, it appears to me that Atlanta seems to have two identities in this area. Two recent events really tell the tale of the two cities that are Atlanta.

Robert Spano
First, there is the Atlanta that is beginning to take itself seriously as a center for contemporary classical music. This started when Robert Spano first arrived in town back in 2001 to helm the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. I'll never forget that one of his first actions after arriving was to set-up a meeting with all the local composers organized by the now sadly defunct Atlanta Chapter of the American Composers Forum. It was a generous gesture and we were all thrilled to learn that Spano was determined to program more contemporary music with the symphony. He has certainly held true to his promise. Over the years, Spano has championed the music of Jennifer Higdon, Michael Gandolfi, Osvaldo Golijov, Christopher Theofanidis, and Adam Schoenberg; going so far as to christen these particular artists part of his "Atlanta School" of composers. Of course, the music of many other living composers - including Alvin Singleton, John Adams and Jonathan Leshnoff - is also heard often in the Woodruff Arts Center

Another sure sign of Atlanta's rising importance as a center for contemporary music is the recently concluded SoundNOW Contemporary Music Festival. It's one thing to put on such a festival once but quite another to do it again with more participating ensembles, concerts and greater press coverage. Such was the case during the first week in April 2017. The Second Annual SoundNOW Festival featured nine ensembles and eight concerts at various venues in the city during the span of a single week. As Doug DeLoach, a writer for the popular Atlanta magazine Creative Loafing, stated in his preview of the festival, "Based on recent experiences at chamber music recitals, the time for this music truly has arrived and its impact is reverberating across generations." I am more than proud to be a co-founder and artistic board member of SoundNOW and in some small way contributing to the field in what I hope is a meaningful way.

Photo: Charlie McCullers/Atlanta Ballet
Despite these and other bright spots in the contemporary arts, there is, unfortunately, a second Atlanta that is not quite as progressive in its outlook. Falling right in the middle of the SoundNOW Festival came the devastating news that 13 dancers in the Atlanta Ballet were leaving the company. The reason for their departure is very troubling. reports that "In a move that dramatically changes the future face of Atlanta Ballet, 13 dancers — almost 50 percent of the company — will not be back for the 2017–18 season.  Multiple sources within the company told ArtsATL that the departures are the culmination of a culture clash between the open and modernistic atmosphere fostered by previous artistic director John McFall that was embraced by the dancers, and the classical ballet ethos favored by Gennadi Nedvigin, the new Bolshoi-trained artistic director." Gone among the star-level dancers is my friend Tara Lee who I had the incredible fortune to collaborate with on a project with the ballet several years ago. So, yeah, this news saddens me on a personal level.

While no one wants to abandon the classics nor is suggesting that Tchaikovsky should no longer be performed by the Atlanta Ballet, I find it deeply disconcerting that an "open and modernistic atmosphere" may be ending at this fine institution. I'm sure that things will be better than canned music and Swan Lake at every performance but it is very regrettable that initiatives like John McFall's "New Choreographic Voices" - an initiative that gave me the opportunity to collaborate with Tara Lee on a new ballet piece - seem to be terminated. I can only hope and pray that this kind of regression will be limited to the Atlanta Ballet and be very short-lived. 

Amazing moment during the SoundNOW Festival:
composer John Luther Adams greets his old
teacher, Charles Knox - the "Dean" of Atlanta
If we turn our backs on modern - even experimental - music, visual art, theatre, cinema, and dance, we risk condemning these art forms to dusty museums instead of vibrant living reflections of our 21st Century reality. I understand that this type of art is not everyone's cup of tea and that presenters do have to think about their audiences when programming performances or curating exhibitions. However, we have pop culture to placate us. True Art needs to push us sometimes. Like a good sermon, Art should comfort those who suffer and challenge those who are comfortable.

In early April 2017, two paths were clearly revealed in this city. This is why Atlanta reminds me of a gifted adolescent still stumbling towards full potential. I hope that when this teenager matures, it will embrace a culture that, while cherishing the old, will continue to celebrate the contemporary voices of our time. It is the obligation of every artist in this city - irrespective of discipline - as well as every consumer and patron of artistic expression to ensure this happens. When a culture only looks backward in its art, it ceases to grow.

It's up to all of us to make sure this does not happen on our watch.