Friday, March 17, 2017

Snapshot of a Career

A couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune of receiving three performances of my music in the span of two days. The pieces and performance venues were amazingly diverse: a quirky chamber piece performed at a hipster club in downtown Atlanta; a large symphonic wind ensemble premiere given in the outer suburbs; and a saxophone quartet performed in Trento, Italy. This may not seem like a big deal to many. However, unless a contemporary classical composer is of a certain prominent standing within the profession, receiving so many performances in a 48 hour period is somewhat of an anomaly. This occurrence was special enough, in fact, that the conductor of the wind ensemble premiere quipped in a recent Facebook post, “You had a huge weekend - composers don't often get three performances of their works in a month, let alone over a weekend!” 

I have spoken in the past of the “feast or famine” nature of a professional composition career within the confines of this blog. The two-day flurry of performances certainly qualifies as period of feasting. However, in thinking over the events of that weekend, I find that those 48 hours were also a fairly good snapshot of my career to date. To be sure, the weekend was not indicative of the frequency that my music is performed on a regular basis. Rather, it was instructive as a model of how at least one composer goes about getting his work heard over the long haul.

The first thing I noticed, as noted above, was the sheer diversity of performance venues and types of compositions performed over that weekend. The programmed works included a large ensemble, small ensembles, a piece with an unconventional instrumentation, pieces with standard instrumentation, and performances taking place at local venues and an international venue. This variety suggests a broad portfolio of works and a willingness to seek out as many performance opportunities as possible. 

The next thing that caught my attention was exactly how the pieces came to be programmed. Out of the three performances, two of them were made possible due to my friendship with the performers. The third performance was the result of my submission to an online score call. While it might be tempting to infer that I should expect roughly full third of my performances to result from submissions to outside opportunities, this is simply not the case. At best, I usually am successful in these types of submissions somewhere around 10% of the time. The more instructive lesson here is that the majority of my performances during that weekend were the result of personal relationships. I am certainly not the first composer to notice this and am a member of a large chorus singing the praises of composing for one’s friends. Developing good relationships and writing for friends is often the composer’s best way to get music performed. Sometimes - especially if performers feel that the process was collaborative between themselves and a composer - musicians will do far more than simply perform a piece. They might even champion a work, give it many repeat performances, and actually commission new compositions. 

Chamber Cartel performing So Small Against the Sky
While writing for friends is extremely important, I still often submit compositions to outside score calls and similar opportunities. I just temper my expectations. I recognize that the majority of my success will not be a result of applying to every opportunity for which I am eligible. Nevertheless, a certain percentage of performances do come out of this kind of activity. Submitting work to outside score calls is not just a way of expanding performance opportunities. If successful, these submissions may lead to the formation of new personal relationships. These relationships then naturally lead into more chances to compose new works and receive performances. This is exactly the case with one performance of my music from the weekend under review. I was very fortunate that my saxophone quartet Wandering Into Myth was accepted for performance at an international festival during that weekend of concerts. As a result of this acceptance, I learned that one of the performers has become interested in a solo saxophone piece of mine and may now give more performances and make a studio recording of that composition. As a side note, this performer was able to discover my additional music for saxophone by simply visiting my website. This is another instance where having a robust web presence has helped my career. 

Yours truly working with the Gwinnett
Symphony Wind Orchestra
Another activity associated with my extraordinary weekend involved me simply showing up. Again, this sounds like a small thing, but it is really important for composers to make the effort to attend performances - especially of their own music. While at the Saturday performance of my chamber piece, So Small Against The Stars given by the new music ensemble Chamber Cartel, I had an opportunity to meet the performers of another new music group also featured on the concert: the Unheard-of//Ensemble based out of New York. In striking up a conversation with the performers of the New York group, it turns out that I may have an opportunity to collaborate with them and compose a new piece to be premiered next year. At the Sunday concert featuring the premiere of my work for symphonic band, Rituals at the Center of the Universe given by the Gwinnett Symphony Wind Orchestra, I had an opportunity to meet with two conductors attending the concert. As a result of conversations at a post-concert dinner, there might be opportunities for me to compose new works or have existing compositions for symphonic winds and symphony orchestra performed in the near future. Showing up and making connections can never be underestimated. Even if a composer doesn’t have a piece on a particular concert and there are no immediate projects emanating from these kinds of encounters, the seeds are nevertheless planted for future collaborations.   

The Gwinnett Symphony Wind Orchestra premiering
Rituals at the Center of the Universe.
Finally, my rewarding weekend wasn’t all roses and applause. Rejection letters also found their way into my email inbox during those 48 hours. It’s astonishing how quickly - even in the midst of a great run - these kinds of letters bring me crashing back to reality. No matter how much success one experiences, the hard truth is there will always be more rejections than successes and no matter how small they are, they will all hurt and make a composer feel worthless. I actually spent time after reading the rejections in between concerts of my music feeling like my career was in the toilet and that I was a failure. I had to pull myself out of my self-pity and look at the big picture. This turns out to be good advice for a career in general. When rejection comes - as it always does, often in great big batches hard to endure - it’s important to take stock, dwell on what successes have been earned and - most importantly - get back to work.

I really appreciated the amazing recent spate of concerts featuring my music and remain very grateful to those who performed and premiered my music. However, an additional gift of the extraordinary 48 hours, was how those performances revealed my career in microcosm. The weekend afforded me the opportunity to stand back, consider a larger picture, and put my work as a creative artist into perspective. Now that the elation of all those concerts has abated, I am challenged to work even harder so that such weekends become less of an anomaly and more the norm. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Just Three Things

Many composers view success in a professional career as a prolonged famine broken up periodically by short bursts of feasting. While this is mostly true for me, I currently find myself in one of those rare periods of feasting. In January, I was fortunate to have my work eights shades of metal included in the 18th Biennial Festival of New Music hosted by the Florida State University College of Music. Just days after this wonderful festival, I was privileged to receive a premiere of Echoes In The Wind by the fabulous Atlanta Chamber Winds. I now look forward to the premiere of my large symphonic wind ensemble piece Rituals at the Center of the Universe on March 5, 2017 to be given by the Gwinnett Symphonic Wind Orchestra – the same date, coincidentally, my saxophone quartet Wandering Into Myth receives a performance by the MotoContrario Ensemble at the Festival Contrasti 2017 in Trento, Italy. There are also other scattered performances of my music scheduled throughout the spring.  

Guitarist Luther Enloe premiering
 "TONOI XI"at a recent neoPhonia
New Music Ensemble concert.
This period of creative feasting, coming as it has for me after a very long famine, is not the result of sheer luck or serendipity. During a dry creative period, there is much to be done by a composer to ensure another feast will occur. Professional famines just don’t end naturally by themselves. This point was driven home to me recently at the Festival of New Music in Tallahassee where I had a brief encounter with a graduate student. After the usual pleasantries at a concert reception, the student shared how many DMA programs he had applied to without success before his acceptance at FSU and how happy he was to land in such a good program. Soon the conversation turned towards what his future as a professional composer would look like after graduation. Would achieving professional goals always be this hard? As this was a social occasion, there was no time to launch into a long-winded lecture on what goes into a professional career. I had a lot to communicate to this young composer and a very short window of opportunity. Given these constraints, I told him that I believe that there are just three things to keep in mind.

1. Work. Hard.

My students know my simple three-word mantra: Write Every Day. There is just no getting around the fact that a composer must compose. This is an activity and not a theoretical discussion. Most of the time, writing daily can be difficult. A composer’s time is very limited and it is easy to succumb to the pressures of outside demands. Nevertheless, to be successful, a composer must learn to work every day in some fashion. We cannot afford to leave musical ideas unattended for days on end and expect to be productive.

It’s also not good enough to simply scribble notes on a page just to feel that something was accomplished. The work must be of excellent quality. A composer should never take short cuts in the creative process nor settle for anything less than his or her very best effort. This goes for the preparation of scores and parts as well. A composer must sweat every detail – no matter how small. I am reminded of the story of Steve Jobs who, upon the launch of the iPhone, called an engineer at Google on a Sunday morning with a design complaint. It turns out that the hue of the color in the second “o” of the Google logo was not of sufficient quality. Jobs politely, but firmly, asked that this flaw be corrected. This is the type of attention to detail and dedication to quality it takes to be a good composer. If there is one musical phrase, one misplaced articulation or dynamic marking, or even one tiny note nestled within a myriad of notes that is not “quite right” a composer must take the time to correct his or her work. It doesn’t matter that an audience member might not perceive the flaw immediately. If one is inspired to create a work of Art, the craftsmanship behind communicating that inspiration must match the heights of the inspiration. Inspiration without good craft is just as bad as good craft without inspiration.  

This leads me to a final part of working hard: feeding that inspiration. I refer to this inspiration as the aural imagination and part of working hard is encountering art, literature and ideas that are bigger than yourself. The composer must read voraciously, visit museums, and attend concerts, opera, the theatre and the ballet as much as possible. Good composers have a thirsty curiosity that, when addressed, fuels the aural imagination and leads to the creation of quality music.  

2. Be a “YES” Person.

Hanging out with the cool kids at a recent
concert reception in Tallahassee. (L-R):
Amy Williams, yours truly & Lansing McLoskey.
Within reason, a composer should agree to almost everything related to the creation of new music. If a performer, conductor or presenter asks a composer if there is interest in a project, the answer should almost always be yes! Assuming a very good work ethic (see above), the composer should have a good idea of his or her creative abilities and how long it will take to accomplish a project. If there is a realistic expectation of successfully fulfilling a request, and the request is not somehow contrary to a composer’s ethics, a composer should agree to the project. No matter what it is!

Quick anecdote: after a successful first commission for the Nashville Chamber Orchestra, I was fortunate enough to be commissioned for a second work. I was asked by the conductor if I would be willing to compose a double concerto for Celtic Fiddle and Bluegrass Fiddle and – by the way – the Bluegrass player could not read music like a classically trained player. The orchestra needed the score in three months. “You in?” the conductor asked. Of course, at the time I didn’t have the slightest idea of how to write idiomatically within these genres. I had some passing familiarity with the styles but that was it. This was a request way outside my comfort zone working with musical styles I had heretofore had no interest in. To pull this off, I would have become very fluent in the styles and solve the logistical problem of writing music for a consummate world-class Bluegrass performer (Stuart Duncan) who, nevertheless, did not read music like a classically trained performer. This would take a LOT of work and be a very risky career move.

I said, “Yes, of course! No problem!”   

Then I panicked! Once I said yes, I was now obligated to complete the task! Therefore, after the panic attack subsided, I went to work researching Celtic and Bluegrass musical styles, taking a Celtic Fiddle orchestration lesson, and composing daily. I made it happen. Not pursuing this commission would have possibly made sense but taking it on resulted in one of my favorite works, Long Journey Home, which has enjoyed a performance life outside the original commission. Composing this piece enabled me to grow significantly as an artist.

Lastly, being a “yes” person presupposes a positive outlook and a humble spirit. Perhaps more important than anything is being a kind and caring artist; generous with your time and supportive of your colleagues. Nobody wants to work with a selfish or difficult person.

2. Show Up.

I believe composers lead professional lives that are at times very solitary. That a composer needs solitude to create music should not be too surprising. The composition of contemporary classical music is rarely collaborative at the writing stage. To be sure, there is much room for collaboration once music has been written. However, at the outset, a composer is faced with what I often refer to as the lonely moment when he or she stares at a blank page and must summon ideas from somewhere. While the aural imagination is a great reservoir from which to draw ideas, the composer must still ultimately grapple with creation alone.

Faculty & students at FSU performing my "eight shades
of metal" at the 18th Biennial Festival of New Music.
Outside of the creative process, however, it is a different story. I believe it is of great benefit to all composers to be very extroverted within the field. That means attending as many Arts events – especially concerts – as possible. Not only does this type of activity feed the aural imagination, attendance of as many events as possible allows for the composer to be visible to peers, audience members, performers, conductors and presenters. Being “seen” gets the composer involved in the field and allows for the opportunity for future collaborations. There have been many times that a new creative project has been hatched at a reception of a concert where my music wasn’t even being performed. I simply was an audience member. However, performers and fellow composers usually appreciate and remember the support. Being “seen” and active is the first step in the necessary work of creating one’s own opportunities.

Showing up in the real world is very important but the composer should not forget about the virtual world as well. I tell my students often that they should be professionally active online. Composers can be visible by contributing socially responsible items of interest to social media outlets, by reading blogs devoted to the field and engaging authors via comments, and by prowling online listings of composition opportunities ( being a great resource) and submitting to as many score calls as possible. It is one of the great regrets of my professional life that I did not submit to more opportunities when I was younger. While it is true that you cannot build a career off the hopes of success in such submissions, the occasional award or performance opportunity due to a successful submission becomes a new avenue to make meaningful connections with performers, conductors, and presenters in the field.

I’m sure that the time it took read this entire blog post is longer than my actual conversation with the grad student in Tallahassee. I hope I was succinct enough to effectively communicate my belief that forging a professional career as a composer and keeping a creative famine at bay boils down to just three things: working hard, saying “yes,” and showing up. Sounds easy enough. However, it’s not just glib small talk at a reception. Like most meaningful endeavors, success in the simple things sometimes takes a lifetime of practice.  

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Becoming Music

For many, 2016 cannot end soon enough. While the last twelve months have been widely considered an extraordinarily tumultuous period of time, has this year really been worse than others in recent memory? Why do so many feel that way? The year certainly saw its share of natural disasters and the continued ugliness of injustice and violence around the world. Sadly, it’s hard to single out 2016 as noteworthy in this respect. These things occur far too often to be unique to any one year. Maybe the feeling that 2016 was somehow more disruptive than most years can be traced to significant world events such as the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union as well as Donald Trump’s improbable victory in a very contentious American presidential election. It is safe to say these were events that very few thought even remotely possible this time last year. 

Pierre Boulez: Became music on Jan. 5, 2016
However, I personally don't believe natural disasters, injustice, violence, or even massive tectonic shifts on the geopolitical stage have fueled the sense that 2016 is a year somehow different than most in recent memory. Rather, it is the perception that an inordinate number of extraordinary persons have left us this year. While the world mourns many important figures from the world of politics, science and sports who died in 2016, it is the loss of an artist that we feel almost personally. As a musician, I can’t help but remember how I felt when I heard that David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Leonard Cohen and Prince had each passed. Each news bulletin seemed to be like a punch in the gut. More than that, this kind of sad news seems to keep recurring in rapid succession. To prove the point, since I began working on this blog post, singer George Michael and Hollywood legend Carrie Fisher both passed within days of each other. 

Steven Stucky: Became music on Feb. 14, 2016
Since all art enters our senses in deep and personal ways, the loss of an artist can sometimes hurt more than even the loss of an important world figure. Artistic creation is a deep and abiding solace during the endless cycle of tumult in our world. It stands against the grain as an essential act of creation amid a world that seems determined at times to destroy itself. Therefore, the loss of so many great musicians, as well as important artists from other disciplines (including author Harper Lee, playwright Peter Shaffer, and actors Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, and the aforementioned Carrie Fisher among many others), seems to overshadow the news stories of the year. This concentration of artistic loss in 2016 is why I believe so many look forward to turning the calendar page and rebooting in a few days.

Leslie Bassett: Became music on
Feb. 4, 2016
The community of contemporary classical music is, unfortunately, not immune to loss. While much of the world mourns the passing of beloved celebrity icons, those of us who compose art music find ourselves reeling from what also seems to us to be the passing of an inordinate number of extraordinary composers. A quick look on the internet brings up a stunning list of significant composers who died in 2016: Pierre Boulez (January 5), Leslie Bassett (February 4), Steven Stucky (February 14), Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (March 14), Einojuhani Rautavaara (July 27), Pauline Oliveros (November 24) and Karel Husa (December 14) among many others. The list doesn’t read so much like a roster of names as it does a catalogue of some of the most important and influential composers of the 20th and 21st Centuries. 

It is probably too soon to truly calculate the abiding
Pauline Oliveros: Became music on Nov. 24, 2016
significance of these composers and how their legacy will impact future generations. This is something better suited to music scholars and an endeavor that will certainly take many years to unpack. Sifting among the dying embers of 2016 however, I am just left with two simple thoughts. While seemingly unrelated, 2016 has given these thoughts a special connection and significance for me. 

Karel Husa: Became music on Dec. 14, 2016
The first is a memory associated with the great composer Karel Husa. He is the only composer among the luminaries who have passed in 2016 with whom I had a meaningful interaction. It wasn’t even a long personal association. Sometime in the early 1990s, Husa was in residence as a guest composer at the Cleveland Institute of Music where I was working on my DMA. As a grad assistant, it was my job to drive guest composers and performing artists around the city as well as back and forth from the airport. After his residency, I drove Husa back to the airport as was my duty. However, it was no simple obligation. The short period of time spent in the car with Husa was a joyful experience. He was very warm and engaging while we traveled; asking me questions about myself and at least appearing to take a very real interest in my responses. When the time came for him to leave my beaten up old Honda Civic, he thanked me for the ride as if I had provided some sort of extraordinary service and told me that if I ever needed anything from him, to please contact him anytime. He then reached into a bag and pulled out a signed copy of the score to his third string quartet and gave it to me as a keepsake. I will never forget his generous spirit and kindness. 

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies:
Became music on Mar. 14, 2016
The second thought I have as 2016 draws to a close is a quote from a popular cable television show. In the HBO science-fiction series Westworld, Anthony Hopkins portrays the character of Dr. Robert Ford, one of the geniuses behind the creation of a futuristic theme park populated by life-like androids. I’m a sucker for good science-fiction shows and enjoyed the first season run of Westworld. However, there is a quote that the character says on the final episode of the season that I find most relevant considering the important composers who have recently left this earth. At one point near the end of the episode, Dr. Ford says, “"Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin never died. They simply became music.” There is some debate online whether this is an originally scripted line or an actual quote from another source. For me, it doesn't matter. The quote deeply resonates with me and is how I think about the recent losses of Boulez, Bassett, Stucky, Maxwell Davies, Rautavaara, Oliveros and, of course, Husa. 

Einojuhani Rautavaara:
Became music on Jul. 27, 2016
As I contemplate these seemingly disparate ideas, it occurs to me that more than even becoming music, the imprint of kindness upon another sojourner on this planet is the most significant of legacies. There are two lessons that 2016 can teach me if I will simply pay attention. First, I must remember to always be as genuinely kind as Karel Husa. Secondly, I must continue to work hard at creating - rather than destroying - so that I may be transformed into something as beautiful as music instead of being hard-hearted and becoming just another cog in a selfish world.  

If I can take these two lessons to heart, maybe 2016 will not have been such a bad year after all.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Hopeful Signs

There is no doubt that we live in turbulent times. As of this writing, the state of Louisiana is drowning under catastrophic flooding while southern California is on fire. The world is reeling from one savage act of violence after another on an almost weekly basis. As if all this were not enough, the American people are embroiled in a bitter Presidential election cycle that is dramatically polarizing our society. It is easy to despair in such times. One looks somewhere…anywhere…for the slightest glimmer of hope and good news. Here within the local confines of Atlanta, at least within the Arts and the Music community in particular, there are some encouraging signs. Three pieces of musical news have recently buoyed my spirits.

First, there is the great turnaround in the fortunes of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; certainly a crown jewel of the musical arts community here in Atlanta. It was only two years ago that the symphony had locked out its musicians for nine weeks, delayed the start of the concert season (canceling many performances) and sought to reduce the number of full-time orchestra members to 76. Management insisted that due to a dire financial situation, these actions were absolutely necessary if the orchestra was to survive. Those on the other side (including the musicians, community members, the national press and even this blog) argued that the cuts were too Draconian and that if implemented, there would be no orchestra left – at least not at the same caliber it had been. The acrimony on both sides was so intense that the ASO’s president resigned and the future of this great orchestra looked bleak.

What a difference two years make! A few weeks ago, as detailed in a recent article in, the ASO announced that it had closed its 2015-16 fiscal year with a budget surplus for the second straight year! In more good news, the ASO Musicians’ Endowment Fund had raised over $20 million on its way to an expected $25 million goal this year. The grim outlook for an important cultural institution in the city, as well as the nation, suddenly has a much brighter forecast.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra - back on track!
From a wonderful and hopeful turnaround at the city’s artistic heart, I am thrilled with some good news coming out of my place of employment, Georgia State University. I have been a faculty member at this institution for well over 20 years. In all that time, the dream of truly elevating the Arts seemed nothing but wishful thinking. However, several years ago, as part of the university’s Strategic Plan, the creation of a new College of the Arts was mandated. July 1, 2016 marked the official beginning of this newly created College. (For more details, check out the press release.) For a long-time faculty member such as myself, this hardly seems real. Georgia State University has recently catapulted itself into one of the largest universities in the country with an enrollment just over 50,000 students. Its reputation for innovation within an urban environment is rising throughout academic circles nationally. It is clearly a rejuvenated institution on a mission. That the Arts would now be elevated within this context is extremely significant.

Atlanta has already become a very hot destination for film and TV productions with such big budget movies as Captain America: Civil War and Spiderman: Homecoming as well as highly rated TV series such as The Walking Dead filming in town and helping to make the city another great center for the entertainment industry. With the turnaround of the ASO at the highest professional artistic level and the creation of the new College of the Arts within the state’s largest university located in the very heart of the city – just two train stops from the Woodruff Arts Center – Atlanta seems poised to also become the next great artistic center in the country.

While the changing fortunes of the ASO and GSU are a bit outside my personal pay grade and influence, there is a personal endeavor with which I am associated that I consider another very hopeful sign for the cultural life of the city. Over the summer, I spent three very long and productive meetings setting up the strategic plan for the nascent SoundNOW Contemporary Music Festival. As a co-founder of the festival, it was a desire of mine to spotlight the great work being done in contemporary classical music by the many professional chamber ensembles in the city of Atlanta devoted to the music of our time. It is a simple idea. Set performances by the various groups in town to occur within a one-week period of time to draw attention to not only the great local performing artists in Atlanta but also to the city’s diverse and excellent community of composers. You can read about the first festival in a recent article.

The SoundNOW Artistic Board at a recent strategic planning
meeting! (Pictured L-R: yours truly, Caleb Herron, Brent
Milam, Olivia Kieffer & Amy O'Dell
It is a wonderful sign that the inaugural festival was very successful given its initial scope and mission. However, as laudable and interesting as this event was, the real trick is to replicate, sustain and grow this initiative. With the amount of strategic planning I and the other members of the artistic board have put in over the summer, coupled with the fact we have already set the dates and booked initial groups for our second festival (April 2-9, 2017), I am very optimistic that this annual event has the potential to elevate contemporary classical music in Atlanta in much the same way that the ASO and GSU are elevating the Arts in general within the city.  

From the highest echelons of the Woodruff Arts Center all the way down to our personal initiatives, hopeful signs abound in Atlanta. But, so what? What does all this matter? What difference can these small, albeit hopeful, signs within one American city possibly make amid a world tortured by violence, political rancor and natural disasters on an almost biblical scale? I firmly believe that the Arts are one of the great civilizing forces in human society. However, the Arts are very difficult to nourish and maintain. It is always easier to destroy than it is to create. It is always easier to hate than to love, forgive and listen past our own prejudices to truly understand where our neighbor is coming from. The hard work of creative expression is an important exercise we must pursue in order to better our society and, yes, even our natural environment. A civilization truly sensitive to creative expression does not easily slip into practices that harm our world. That is why the Arts are so critically essential to humanity. That’s why they should be celebrated, cultivated and taught to our children. Budget surpluses in an orchestra, re-organizations within a university and the development of grassroots artistic endeavors in and of themselves are not really important. Taken by themselves, they are, at best, anomalies within a dreary environment. However, when considering them together, a pattern emerges. These types of hopeful signs describe what deeply motivates a community. To persevere and create great Art as well as make it possible to reach higher creative heights despite all the bad news crashing in around us tells the story of at least one city’s optimism and desire for a better and more peaceful society.

Good news and hopeful signs in our little corner of the world may yet translate to better news for a very troubled world in the long run. We all have the power to make it so.

Do we have the desire?