Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Passion Trap


Why do we do it?

I’m talking about the desire to create art within a modern American society that is, at best, indifferent or, at worst, hostile towards the arts. It’s a question I’ve been asking of myself as I’ve navigated through another extremely busy fall. For the past three months, I’ve been composing new works, presenting concerts, and traveling every weekend playing Greek gigs or attending performances of my compositions. All the while, I’ve also been engaged in heavy teaching and service loads at my university. Yet my bank account in no way reflects the amount of effort I have made in my professional life. Now that autumn is winding down, exhausted, I’m left to wonder why I do what I do. It obviously is not for the money. Maybe I cling to some 19th Century Romantic image of the misunderstood artist producing work for future generations while marginalized or ignored by the current generation. This image can serve as a balm applied to the chaffing of indifference. However, I personally find this image self-indulgent. It does not really ring true for me anyway. In reality, I believe that I’ve actually walked into a trap.

Donald Erb (1927-2008)
One of my very first lessons as a young composition student was learning that it wasn’t enough to merely “find my own voice” but to passionately pursue it. An audience can always tell when a work has passion and when it does not. As my great teacher and mentor Donald Erb always said, “A craftsman can create entertainment, but you need more than that to create art. There has to be something inside you pushing out or all a person will ever write is a craftsman-like piece. And that's not quite good enough.” Being passionate and endeavoring to create art at a high level may be regarded as its own reward, however, therein lies the trap. While I must have passion to create great art, that very same passion pushes me to create work whether or not it is fully appreciated.

Yours truly performing at the
2012 Atlanta Greek Festival
This passion trap applies to performers as well as composers. There is a joke going around the Internet about a client wishing to hire a six-piece band for an event. When the bandleader quotes a price of $2000 for a six-hour gig, the client balks. The bandleader counters, “Okay, find six plumbers and find out what they charge for six hours of work. We’ll play for half of that.” It’s an amusing story except for the fact that in real life, the bandleader would probably take the gig at the lower price or another band would. The musicians would then still perform at their highest capable level. The passion good musicians have for making music would not allow for anything less. So what has the client learned? Artists will give the same effort for less money.

The ASO and Chorus at Carnegie Hall on October 27.
(Photo by Chris Lee)
From the humble cover band to the highest levels of orchestral concert music, the passion trap is present. As I have recounted in past blog entries, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has recently endured a brutal labor dispute. As Scott Freeman notes in his recent article for ArtsATL.com, “The two-year contract that the musicians accepted included a total of $5.2 million in salary concessions, an average pay cut of about 16 percent for each. The size of the orchestra fell from 93 to 88. Under the terms of the deal, the ASO will go from a 52-week orchestra to 41 weeks this season and 42 weeks in the second year.” Not long after this dispute was resolved and the season began, the ASO performed a concert in Carnegie Hall that had been planned before the lockout. How did the musicians respond to their drastic cuts in salary, orchestra size and their season? The members of the orchestra behaved as all wonderful and passionate artists do when they are onstage. They performed brilliantly and received great reviews. The bitterness of the labor dispute dissolved for a moment and all that remained was the music. What does management take away from this?

I do not mean to suggest that the musicians should have protested their mistreatment by performing below their abilities. I don’t think any of us should do that. Returning to my realm of music composition, I readily acknowledge that even if I were not paid for a commission, I would still try to compose an excellent piece of music. However, I can’t help but wonder if, somehow, I unintentionally contribute to a culture that fosters indifference to the arts and the exploitation of creative artists. The musicians of the ASO or that cover band may not have had many options in their negotiations. Do I have more choices? There have been plenty of times when a commission has come my way and when the talk turned to payment for work, I was informed that there was no budget for that. Most often, I’ve written the piece anyway and was appreciative of the performance. Yet, what’s the message I’m sending? Not many other professions operate this way. To take just one example, no entrepreneur would engage in the creation of a product if satisfaction for a job well done were the only reward. No one consistently gives a product away for free. There needs to be a profit involved or the business collapses.

So what am I to do? Trapped within my passion for creating great art, I fear that by sticking to my guns and demanding payment for everything at all times, presenters or potential performers will simply move on to the next composer. If, on the other hand, I compose works and never receive (or even ask for) payment for my efforts, how can I be a professional composer? How can I justify all the hard work involved?

For the serious composer, there is no easy exit from this trap short of being “discovered” or winning a significant prize. Therefore, I’ve come to believe that my best bet is to follow the admonition of being “wise as [a serpent] and harmless as [a dove]” (Matthew 10:16). Christ gave this instruction to His disciples so that they would not be unnecessarily wounded as they preached the gospel. This is good advice within the narrow field of the arts as well. There is no need for me to be unnecessarily wounded in an agreement with a performer, presenter or ensemble. Being wise as a serpent means to take my career seriously. If it feels like I’m being taken advantage of, I probably am. It wouldn’t hurt to channel a little of that reptilian wisdom on occasion and take a pass on certain opportunities. However, this cannot be my rigid credo. By also trying to be as harmless as a dove, I must strive to not carry a chip on my shoulder nor retaliate against perceived injustices. Sometimes it really is in my best interest to simply write the stupid piece for free or at a huge discount. I have to remember that, like myself, most presenters, performing groups or individual musicians do not have deep pockets. Being harmless as a dove means I charge when and as much as I can as the specific situation warrants. It means that sometimes, when the budget is tight, I work out acceptable in-kind service arrangements such as guaranteed performances of a commission, guaranteed recording of the work, release of the performance for recordings and/or online streaming, etc. Being harmless as a dove also means treating every opportunity as unique and not applying a one-size-fits-all approach. Being wise like a serpent but harmless as a dove during negotiations may be all I need to establish myself as a true professional.

In the end, walking into this passion trap seems to be my only option. However, there’s no need to go in with my eyes closed, hoping for the best. How I proceed is important. Knowing that it can be a trap, yet walking in anyway, eyes wide open, with caution and confidence makes all the difference.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

What's In It For Me?


I, like many in the city of Atlanta, have been following the recent events that have regrettably led to a lockout of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians along with the suspension of their salaries and health benefits. This is a story that has troubled me both personally and professionally. 

At first, one may wonder how the difficulties facing this orchestra affect me, a relatively unknown composer. After all, the ASO has never programmed my music. Why should I care? If the orchestra were to disappear tomorrow, would it impact my professional career in any material way? These are short-sighted and selfish questions. I am, of course, deeply affected by what is happening at the Woodruff Arts Center on three basic levels. 

First, I am concerned on a personal level for the individual performers who make up the symphony. The story of the current situation has been covered quite well by Scott Freeman and Mark Gresham in a recent article over at ArtsATL.com. While I have read this piece as well as press releases from both the musicians and management, I do not pretend to know the intricacies of the labor dispute. What I do know is the membership of the ASO. I consider many of the musicians in the orchestra colleagues, having worked closely with them in various performances of my chamber music in the city over the years. More than that, many of the musicians are friends of mine. These are dedicated artists who have sacrificed much throughout their lives to make it into the chairs they occupy in the orchestra. Many of them have children, spouses or other significant persons who depend upon them. This lockout is already wreaking a heavy and terrible human toll. 

Secondly, I have a large personal stake in the health of the ASO. Few composers go it alone. Unless writing solely for electronic instruments, we are dependent upon performers to breathe life into our scores. The ASO has always been a shining beacon of art and culture in the city of Atlanta and beyond. It has been a center of gravity drawing some of the finest performers in the world to the city and creating a vibrant artistic eco-system wherein composers like myself can thrive. Throughout my professional travels in the musical world, it has been made quite apparent that my peers also hold this orchestra in very high esteem. The fact that this lockout has become a leading story nationally speaks to the importance of the orchestra not only to the city of Atlanta but also to the entire nation. Every day that the lockout continues further jeopardizes the current season as well as the very future of the orchestra itself. Should the orchestra not quickly recover from this lockout, I fear irreparable harm will come to the entire Atlanta arts community. Many fine artists may choose to leave the city. The brightest and most talented musicians exiting conservatories and schools of music may think twice about even bothering to audition in Atlanta. It is irrelevant whether or not the symphony performs my music or not. It is even irrelevant if they play any contemporary music at all. All of us left standing will be the poorer in the wake of a potential talent drain. Moreover, the entire city of Atlanta will be diminished in the eyes of the country. The ramifications of this lockout are, indeed, far reaching and will linger for years.

Finally, I am troubled by this lockout because I believe it to be a bit unfair. Despite what little I know about the current labor dispute, it seems to me that the musicians themselves are not solely responsible for the budget deficits plaguing the orchestra. They are powerless to make the types of decisions that lead to budget shortfalls. After years of sacrifice, untold hours of practice, success through a highly competitive audition process and daily rehearsal/concert schedules, their job is to perform the music placed before them at the highest possible level. At this job, they consistently succeed beyond expectations. 

Both sides have indicated that a solution may not be far off. I am confident that the administration loves this orchestra as much as anyone and wishes to preserve it. With all respect, I do not believe that this lockout is a useful tactic. It is my fervent hope that the lockout will be lifted as soon as possible and the musicians’ salaries and health benefits will be restored. I furthermore hope that both sides continue to actively work for a solution that everyone can live with. The arts in Atlanta depend upon it.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Labor Pains


It has not been the best of times for one of Atlanta’s most venerable performing groups, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Over the past few weeks, several emerging stories concerning the orchestra have caught the attention of the press as well as the local arts community. First, there is the increasingly contentious contract dispute between the ASO Players Association and the orchestra’s board and management. The details can be found in an article written by Mark Gresham. Unfortunately, stories of major orchestras running up deficits, operating in the red and ultimately facing financial crisis are far too common in our nation. The reasons for this rising phenomenon are varied and far too complex to discuss within the confines of this small blog post. The bottom line is that this type of dispute casts a pall over the artistry of the orchestra and makes many within the arts community nervous about the future.

A second story that has become another public relations issue for the ASO, even as it struggles with its current labor dispute, deals with community outreach. The orchestra management has recently informed some local high school choruses that they will not be invited to perform with the ASO this year, as they have in the past, for an annual Holiday concert. Citing issues of diversity, the management is seeking to include other groups for this year’s concert. Regrettably, this has caused a firestorm of protest within the community. Exactly what the ASO does not need at this time!

Finally, another article trending in Atlanta has to do with a recent performance by a pseudo-pop/classical vocal group, Il Divo. This group is the operatic crossover vocal quartet created in 2004 by American Idol fixture Simon Cowell. They were featured on summer pops concert billed as “Il Divo and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.” However, the orchestra did not actually perform. They were asked to simply pantomime to pre-recorded backing tracks provided by the vocal group. To add to the ignominy, the orchestra members did not learn of this until they showed up for the gig and it wasn’t even the ASO they were using as backing tracks but a completely different recorded orchestra. This story, again covered by Mark Gresham, is detailed in a recent article published in ArtsATL.com.
The fabulous musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

What does all of this have to do with composers? All of these stories have one common thread: the mistreatment of professional musicians. As a composer who interacts with performers frequently, this is an issue that must be taken to heart. How do we show our appreciation to those who have devoted their lives to performing at the very highest level? In the recent London Olympic Games, we all marveled and swooned over the accomplishments of athletes. Yet, does it ever cross our minds that every member of a professional orchestra like the ASO has put in the same – if not more - countless hours of practice?

It’s bad enough when management balks at salaries or when pros are forced into humiliating situations such as the Il Divo concert. It’s worse when we, as composers, treat performers the same way; when we look upon them as means to an end – namely the performance of our music – and not as highly trained professionals, colleagues and artists without whom our music remains nothing more than silent designs on paper. Of course, composers are rarely in a position to threaten a musician’s salary and most of us don’t consciously think about ways to demean performers intentionally. However, we often do lots of little things that show a lack of respect. How often are we late in delivering a score and parts? How often is our printed music not clearly notated and error-free? How often do we write unidiomatic musical lines? Do we micro-manage a rehearsal? Do we properly acknowledge and thank performers after a concert? Dealing with composers can be another road hazard the professional musician quietly deals with.

Yet despite it all, musicians continue to perform. They grit their teeth and play that Il Divo gig; they spend their valuable time practicing our music; they do their best to count our incomprehensible rhythms and navigate the unidiomatic parts we composers bring to them on short notice before a concert; they usually always go that extra mile. Remember that public relations miscue spoken of earlier wherein certain high school choruses in Atlanta will not be invited to perform with the ASO? The orchestra members have responded in a press release detailing their offer to play for the kids for free. This doesn't surprise me. Most of the finest musicians I know are also the most generous people I know. I can’t help but think of all the times fabulous performers have also played my music for free or, often, for payment far below what they should have earned.

My hope is that the recent ASO stories all conclude in ways that strengthen the organization. These stories have reminded me that performers put up with a lot. While I shouldn’t feel nervous about composing challenging music or following my own artistic voice, I need to balance my writing with courtesy and respect.  It’s the very the least I can do.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Memory Eternal


My mother, Beatrice with my daughter
Eleni taken in the mid-2000s.

There is a tradition within Orthodox Christianity that has been occupying my thoughts and my work of late. This tradition has to do with how the Church deals with death. Specifically, the Church calls into remembrance the person departed this life at regular intervals beyond the funeral. Typically, a small memorial service is chanted forty days after the death, or to use the Orthodox theological term, the “falling asleep," of a loved one. This service also occurs on the one-year anniversary, the three-year anniversary and as often after those milestones as family members wish to commemorate the event. As I draw near to the forty day memorial service for my mother, Beatrice Demos Sotis, who died on June 19, 2012, I am grateful for these constant opportunities to remember her life. During the first few days after her death, my family and I were occupied with all the necessary details involved in planning a funeral. We were also all in shock and perhaps not grasping the loss fully. With time, the reality of the separation between ourselves and my mother has had time to sink in more fully. This separation is a wound that will never fully heal. The forty day memorial service and subsequent formal remembrances do not exist in order to constantly revisit a painful time but rather to reapply a soothing balm on this slowly healing wound.
Those of us who create art, whether visually, theatrically, with letters or, as in my case, with music, also tend to formally remember these types events within our work. Drawing upon our experiences of mourning may not occur at regular intervals as in the tradition of the Church, but these experiences inevitably find their way repeatedly into our creative process. This is certainly the case with me.
My mom in her high school days.
The piece I am currently composing, an orchestra work, has been altered from its original plan to now serve as a memorial to my mother. I had completed the first movement of the composition while in residence at the MacDowell Colony back in May. The music flowed quickly then and I was able to write almost six minutes of fast moving music in two weeks. I’m working much more deliberately now. The second movement of the work, now the core of the whole piece, prominently makes use of a Byzantine hymn chanted at the Orthodox Funeral Service. I have been attempting to carefully weave this melody with slow moving and intricate counterpoint as well as constantly shifting harmonies. I don’t think it’s the complexity of what I’m trying to compose that has slowed me down. Rather, slowly writing this movement has been a  therapeutic endeavor. It’s no coincidence that it has taken me about forty days to write and is nearing its completion as I approach my mother’s forty day memorial service.
While working, my mind has been constantly drawn back to memories of my mother. In fact, as I continue to compose the music, I’m not sure if it is the music that elicits the memories or whether it is the memories themselves that are creating the music. It’s a fine line to be sure.
In the end, finely written obituaries, beautiful graveside eulogies and a stack of heart felt scores written in her memory, will never be able to fully express my feelings towards my mother and the exquisitely profound impact she had upon my life. In similar fashion to the memorial services that will be continually offered on her behalf within the Church, my own music will now forever return to her regularly even as it still does to my father who passed away almost 25 years ago. I still feel his loss keenly and I’m sure I will always feel the same way about my mother. 
May their Memories be Eternal.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Crossroad


It’s not often that I am at a loss for words. It’s even less often that events leave me at a loss for emotion. Yet I found myself in such a state on the evening of May 18, 2012. On that brisk spring night, I reached an intersection of euphoria and anguish. 
Readers of this blog have been aware for sometime that I have been working on a new commissioned work for the Atlanta Ballet. The past several blog entries have, in fact, been devoted exclusively to describing my collaborative process with choreographer Tara Lee and composing for the ballet. I also had alluded to the fact that I would be missing the premiere performances of my work because of my residency at the MacDowell Artists Colony. Missing the premiere was not the cause of my anguish, however. Far from it.
Exterior of my studio, Sprague Smith, at the
MacDowell Colony
Being a Fellow at the MacDowell Colony was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career to date. It’s hard to put into words how stimulating it was to be in such a creative environment. The property is draped in beauty and stillness and as such, I found it easy to focus on my work. My days were devoted exclusively to writing music. I wasn’t even interrupted for lunch. A basket simply appeared around noon daily without fanfare containing a delicious meal. Equally stimulating to creativity was my interaction with the other brilliant Fellows residing with me at the colony. These Fellows were from varied disciplines and thus I was surrounded by writers, poets, film makers, visual artists and, of course, other composers whose company I found to be quite inspiring. I learned a great deal through casual conversations over meals as well as at “formal” presentations of respective colonists’ work.
From "Pavo," dancers Christine Winkler and John Welker.
Photo by CHARLIE MCCULLERS
On the evening of May 18, I was still in residence at MacDowell and was spending the evening, as I had for the past two weeks, in my studio, Sprague Smith. On that very same evening, the premiere of my ballet piece, Pavo, was taking place back in Atlanta. I was elated by a steady stream of text messages from the musicians letting me know how things were going. The premiere seemed to have been very well-received. Although disappointed to be missing the performances, my disappointment was largely offset by a warm feeling of satisfaction knowing that the reason for my absence was due to my residency at MacDowell. It was one of those rare moments for a composer where all the hard work seemed to be paying off. It wasn’t just a single great premiere but the simultaneity of the premiere and my MacDowell residency that made me feel good about my career in general. 
Yet, earlier that same day, I received a phone call from my wife informing me that my mother was in serious medical condition and that I needed to cut my residency short and return home immediately. I could not get a flight back to Atlanta until May 19 and therefore found myself in my studio at MacDowell that Friday evening at the intersection of euphoria and anguish. It was a curious feeling to have such extremes occurring literally at the same time: the aforementioned joy about my residency and premiere coupled with anguished worry about what was going on at home. 
Interior of my studio at MacDowell.
For a long while, I lay motionless on my bed with a thousand thoughts and emotions swirling inside of me. At one point, I literally became numb. Then, almost without thinking, a got up and went to my desk and began writing. I had nearly completed the movement I was working on when I received the news from home and decided that I needed to finish my work before journeying home. It may seem like an odd reaction to everything going on at that moment. However, in retrospect, I think that that is where creative artists sometimes live: at the crossroad of joy and sadness; euphoria and anguish. 
It’s been several weeks now since my time at MacDowell and the premiere of Pavo. As of this writing, the summer looks like it will be a difficult one for my family and myself. However, I take solace both in my Faith as well as in the warm memories of MacDowell and my collaboration with Tara Lee, the musicians, and everyone at the Atlanta Ballet. It is also not lost upon me, after thinking about things for a few weeks, that on the evening of May 18, I not only experienced both joy and sadness but somehow found the strength to rise up from my bed and get to work. 
That’s the thing about being at a crossroad. One usually does not stay there. However, which way you proceed makes all the difference. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Is It Modern?


Fifth in a series on my collaboration with the Atlanta Ballet.

The premiere of Pavo is only seven days away. Since posting my last article, I have made some tweaks to the score based on feedback from Tara and have attended two very productive rehearsals with the musicians. Today, dancers and live music will be put together for the first time. Ironically, I will be waiting for texts, phone calls or email messages to learn how rehearsals went. The same goes for the actual performances themselves. This is because I am writing this blog entry from the serene beauty of the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. I will not complete my residency here until after all five performances of Pavo have taken place.

The fabulous musicians of Pavo: (L-R): Jan Berry Baker
(sax); Michael Celbuski (perc.) & Charae Krueger (cello)
How is this possible? It is simply a result of timing. My commission from the Ballet came after I had already been awarded the Fellowship and residency. I will write about my experiences at the MacDowell Colony in a later blog entry. For now, I thought I would touch on something that I have rarely discussed in this series: the actual music for Pavo. In past articles, I have commented on issues of collaboration as well as developing a dramatic narrative and theme for the piece. I have been keenly aware throughout the process that music is not the central aspect of the work. People are paying money to see wonderful dancers, breathtaking choreography as well as beautiful costumes and set design. Yet, without the music none of the above would be possible. I’m reminded of the comic scene in the film Amadeus (1984) where Emperor Joseph II attends a rehearsal of one of Mozart’s operas. Mozart had written a scene incorporating ballet expressly against the wishes of the monarch. Instead of cutting the scene, the composer instructs the dancers to perform their choreographed steps in utter silence. The perplexed emperor looks on and asks, “Is it modern?”

Our incredible D.J., Jen Mitchell
Clearly, the music is important. For this particular work, the music is also unusual in two basic ways. The first has to do with instrumentation. I began work on the score with an ensemble largely selected by Tara. Coming from a background of dance, Tara was not tied down to established chamber music norms. We were given a budget to accommodate four performers and Tara simply selected instruments that were attractive to her. She had some help by visiting my website and hearing some of the chamber pieces I had written prior to this collaboration. This is how we arrived at the unusual combination of saxophone (soprano doubling on alto), cello, percussion and, most intriguing, a D.J.

Detail from the score.
Luckily, I had written a short piece a few years ago for clarinet, violin and D.J. so I had some inkling of how to proceed. The trick is in writing music that can exist on top of electronic dance tracks and feel as though it belongs with the underlying groove. As I wrote lines for the instruments, I had to imagine how they would interact with more complex grooves underneath. I trusted that Jen Mitchell (our D.J.) would be able to select tracks in the same key centers as the music I was writing. That’s why I like working with a good D.J. like Jen. She is used to matching tracks based on key and is also able to adjust tempi as well. In short, D.Js. like Jen have to use their ears as well as any “traditional” musician. However, there is more than simply matching tempo and key center. The grooves have to allow space for the instrumentalists. Otherwise, the piece could feel like poor karaoke. This issue was solved by writing music in the upper ranges of the instruments and by Jen’s careful selection of tracks with a deep bass and little high resonances on top to interfere with what the instrumentalists were doing.

Tara follows along & keeps us
 on track during rehearsal!
Another issue we encountered had to do with the phrasing of musical ideas. I usually do not write music with phrases that are symmetrical. Because virtually all groove-oriented music is in recurring 4 or 8 measure phrases, my instrumental lines continually move in and out of phase with the tracks. The underlying tempo remains constant but the resulting combination feels like a very hip hemiola. Fortunately, the dancers in the company are all very hip themselves and this phasing does not throw them off!

The other non-traditional aspect of the piece is its overall structure. As mentioned in some detail in my last article, the dramatic narrative of Pavo demanded a five-movement scheme played continuously without pause. There is nothing unusual about this. What is a bit non-standard is the fact that the more energetic music, including the aforementioned groove-oriented combination of D.J. and instrumentalists, occurs in the first half of the 18-minute work. The piece concludes with a slower, lyrical section. Typically, music is not structured moving from fast to slow. More often, it is exactly the reverse. I must admit to feeling a bit of pressure to write music powerful enough to make for a satisfying ending. After hearing the computer realization of the piece for the first time, Tara was quick to point out that this structure works. I’m grateful for her confidence.

Composing Pavo and working with Tara has been a uniquely positive and exhilarating experience. More than that, it’s been a distinct pleasure. I think we’ve created good art and I have made new friends along the way. This work is one of those pieces that, for me, pokes a little bit above the others in my catalog. It’s a piece that has stretched me as an artist and taught me how to be a more sensitive collaborator. I’m very appreciative of the opportunity given to me by the Atlanta Ballet and their Artistic Director, John McFall. It is a great honor to have been entrusted with creating a new work with Tara and this distinguished company. At this point, there is very little left to say, within the confines of this blog, about Pavo. Now, the rest will be said onstage.





Pavo premiere performances will take place on May 18, 19, and 20, 2012 in Atlanta, GA at the Alliance Theater, Woodruff Arts Center. Click HERE for more information. If you go to the performances, drop me a line here and let me know what you think!  

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What's In A Name?


Fourth in a series on my collaboration with the Atlanta Ballet

So far in this series of blogs about my commission for the Atlanta Ballet and my collaborative work with choreographer  and dancer Tara Lee, I have focused broadly on how the project was started and how it has changed over the course of our working together. Yet, these are not usually the first things people ask about when they find out I am working with the Ballet. The most common questions I receive are, “What is the ballet about?” and “What is the name of the piece?”

Like everything else about the project, the name and concept have undergone several changes since Tara and I initially met months ago. Tara’s earliest idea was that of a continuum. We were not sure where this continuum began nor where it led. It was the barest of ideas. Through multiple conversations, the idea of continuum began to evolve. What if we were not talking about a linear continuum but rather a cyclic continuum? The idea of cycles began to take root. We even came up with a working title for the piece: revolve. It was still a nascent thought, however, until Tara presented a more concrete programmatic element.

The finished score!
One afternoon, while meeting at the ballet studios, Tara shared an article with me that had been posted on Facebook entitled, The Peacock Pose: Dance with Divinity by Catherine Ghosh. This article helped Tara form a more definite idea about the dramatic narrative of the work. The imagery of the peacock seemed to unify our amorphous concepts by incorporating three ideas from the mayurasana, or the so-called peacock pose in Yoga to our pre-existing notion of cycles. Tara was also inspired at this point by hearing samples of the music I had composed for certain sections of the piece. After hearing my sketches, thinking about cycles and reading Catherine Ghosh’s article, she proposed that we change the name of the piece from revolve to Pavo - the Latin word for peacock.

To quote Ms. Ghosh, from her article: “Overflowing with rich symbolism, the image of a peacock displaying its fan of feathers has been as cherished as a rising sun, a picture of the heavenly constellations in the sky, a hundred eyes and the wheel of immortality.” Throughout history, the image of the peacock has captivated many diverse cultures and religious traditions. Within my own faith tradition, I was well aware of the peacock’s depiction in Byzantine art as the soul and its beautiful, incorruptible status as well as the Orthodox Christian view of the peacock as an ancient symbol of the Resurrection: as he sheds his feathers, the peacock grows more brilliant ones than those he lost. I was thrilled with Tara’s concept and finally felt some solid ground beneath my compositional feet. It wasn’t long after Tara presented this idea to me that I completed the entire score.
Pavo is cast into five movements played without interruption. This seamless series of events is the remnant of our earliest concept of a continuum. First, the piece begins with a relatively slow and atmospheric introduction. This introduction leads directly into the second movement and the first aspect of the peacock pose we wish to highlight. The movement is entitled the poisons. The music and dance concern themselves with the peacock’s uncanny ability to digest snakes, poison and all. From this, we move directly to the third movement, the gathering storm. This movement plays with the imagery of the wonderful, restless dancing a peacock performs just prior to rainstorms. Having reached a very energetic and rhythmic high point, the music and dance abruptly shift gears and move directly into the climatic section of the piece: the fourth movement entitled transfigurations. Peacocks choose mates for life and as such have become a symbol of fidelity. In this movement, there are two ideas at play. First there is the aspect of faithfulness and strength. Secondly, there is the subtext of cycles remaining from our very earliest ideas about the piece. Now, however, we focus on the individual and the breaking out of personal cycles. These cycles can represent negative aspects of our lives (addictions, poor choices, bad habits, etc.) or the entire cycle of our lives. In either context, the individual has the ability to break negative cycles as well as transcend the earthly life cycle. Tara has conceived of an abstract narrative where one dancer represents the peacock and another an individual caught within a cycle. The peacock dances and absorbs the poison of negative cycles and in a lyric duet, helps to show a transfiguring pathway to the individual. Thus, this movement provides a context wherein the dancers are transfigured beyond the circle they began within. After this climatic dance, the music ends quietly with an atmospheric fifth movement: an epilogue. This music is a sort of retrograde of the ideas found in the introduction. Ultimately, we leave the listener with a question: will I choose to transcend my own cycle or remain within?
At long last, all the elements are set. We have a narrative, the score is complete, there is choreography, dancers have already started rehearsing with computer renditions of the piece and the musicians have their respective parts. Now we enter the eye of the hurricane and await the rehearsals with musicians and dancers, adding in set design and lighting along the way. I can hardly wait!