Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"Dear Composer..."

There are many wonderful moments in the professional life of a composer: the satisfaction of a newly completed work; hearing a piece come to life for the first time - especially in the hands of very talented and experienced performers; a good review; and, of course, the thrill of the premiere itself complete with a warm reception from the audience. Then there are the downsides: hours of work; writer's block; deadline stress; editing scores and parts; lack of time to work; less than stellar reviews; and especially the arrival of the very thin envelope in the mail. 

All composers recognize this envelope immediately. On the outside, there is the logo of the competition or ensemble to whom we sent our music in hopes of winning an award or performance opportunity. On the inside there is only the thin piece of paper. It doesn't matter the contest or the sponsoring organization, they all contain pretty much the same prose:

"Dear Composer,
Thank you for your submission to [insert name of sponsor]. After a careful review of all submissions, we are sorry to inform you that [name of your favorite piece] was not selected for the [insert name of opportunity] at this time. There were a large number of applicants this year and the selection process was extremely difficult. 
We wish you best of luck in your future creative work and encourage you to submit again next year."

This is the letter we receive most often. One would imagine that a composer would become numb to the familiar words in the thin envelope over the years. Yet, strangely, this letter always stings me. Everytime. These messages also seem to come in bunches and are not merely confined to the  thin envelope waiting patiently in the mailbox, but lurk in email mailboxes as well. The only way to make them stop, seemingly, is to just stop sending music out.

But that's no answer.

All creative artists must embrace the unending cycle of defeats and victories that define our careers. It helps me a little bit to also find myself often on the other side of that message; sitting on a selection committee that ultimately decides against awarding an opportunity to another composer. Some decisions are no-brainers. Many, however, are reached achingly and after much discussion. 

This week's thin envelope and letter.
This week, as I am smarting from a couple of rejection letters, I try to remember an incident that happened to me many years ago. I was out of town sitting on a panel that was charged with evaluating compositions for a funding opportunity. There were a great number of applicants and the process took several days to complete. One evening, the panel, along with the facilitator, went out to dinner after a long day of evaluating composition entries. At the dinner, the facilitator of the panel introduced me to one of his colleagues (not on the panel but joining us for dinner) and remarked to this person what a good orchestral composer I was. This immediately raised my eyebrows. Not that I don't think I can write well for orchestra, it was just that I had not talked about or presented my music to this facilitator. I couldn't help but ask him how he was aware of my orchestral work. He responded that he had recently sat on a panel that was evaluating orchestral submissions for a composition contest and revealed to me that my piece was the last one cut before the panel arrived at a prize winner. "Yeah, " he continued, "everyone really loved your work."

At first I wasn't sure how to react. My first cynical thought was, "All right! Out of all the losers...I was the BEST loser!" Yet, I was oddly flattered nevertheless. At least I had been in the game; a real contender. It just hadn't worked out that time. And in the end, that's what keeps me submitting. There are just so many composers vying for so few opportunities that most of the time, you just miss. One can either be constantly hurt, pick up one's toys and run home or rub the sting out and try again.

I guess I'll try again.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

How We Make The Sausage

What ProTools thinks my music looks like.
Making music in a studio is a completely different process than performing it live on stage. I suppose the closest analogy is that of movie making as compared to live theatre. Any live performance is a completely linear endeavor. You begin at the beginning and proceed straightway to the end. If any mistakes are made, you simply move on and hope the audience did not notice. Most times they don't. 

It's a completely different matter once you begin to commit any live performance to the recorded audio and/or video medium. Major errors cannot be left to stand. A recorded performance mistake that was once a passing gaff in an otherwise stellar live performance turns into a very noticeable stain. It doesn't matter how impeccable the rest of the beautiful white gown looks if there is a small spot of tomato sauce on the front. That's why, for both performers and the composers whose music they are committing to posterity, a recording session is a much more daunting and exhausting experience than simply playing music live in front of an audience.

Clarinetist Ken Long in the studio recording "Tonoi III."
I've been involved in many recording projects over the years and find myself this weekend in the familiar position of overseeing some recordings of my music. Although I've gone through it many times, I still find it a bizarre experience. By necessity, we are recording sections of my music out of order and then fashioning the sections together to restore the sense of the piece. It's anything  but the linear experience of a live performance. The music begins to lose meaning as we work diligently, for example, to correct one small phrase in a fast moving section of music. Imagine taking a simple straight-forward sentence like "The boys play baseball every Saturday" and focusing on the words "baseball every" over and over again. If you repeat those words a great deal, they lose their meaning first as words (sounding like random syllables) as well as their context. Now imagine having to re-orient yourself and splice the words "baseball every" to the string of words "The boys play." Now imagine repeating this process for hours. It's no wonder we all leave with our heads spinning, making a beeline for the nearest bar!

Aside from the urgency of "getting it right" for the recording, I, like every composer, feel the pressure of making any recording of my music perfect because in all reality - it will be the ONLY studio recording the work will EVER get. The performers understand this as well and are usually extremely dedicated to giving the best performance possible. I'm very fortunate in that I can personally program live performances of my music prior to heading into the studio. Musicians feel somewhat more comfortable in a recording session having already learned a piece well enough to present in a recent public performance. That's why I programmed my earlier neoPhonia concert just prior to these recording sessions and chose to present the very same music in concert that is currently being recorded. 

It's a long, crazy and exhausting journey from composing a piece, rehearsing it, premiering it then, finally, to entering a studio for hours to record it. (Then there's all the post production - but that's another story entirely!) It's a process, however, that I joyfully enter into repeatedly. Once the final product is created, I always forget about the process of making the sausage and just enjoy it!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

It's Always Something...

I've been presenting contemporary music concerts now for over 15 years and have been involved in performing in them for a considerably longer time. Over the years, it never ceases to amaze me how much effort it takes to put on a concert - especially a "new music" concert. My first composition teacher, Roger Hannay (1930-2006), who also ran a contemporary music ensemble at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, always bemoaned the fact that it took almost Herculean efforts sometimes to produce even a single event. This is true, of course, for any concert, but even more so for the presentation of contemporary music.

Like most new music groups nestled within the academy, my ensemble, neoPhonia, has no set rehearsal time within the School of Music. Students do not receive much credit for enrolling in the ensemble and what little credit they do receive does not count towards core performance requirements in their curriculum. The fact that it is difficult to get students to participate regularly is almost moot as one considers that a significant portion of the contemporary music repertoire is technically too imposing for a lot of students (especially undergraduates). With ad hoc rehearsal times the only resource, a presenter like myself most often turns to faculty performers or outside professional performers to present pieces. I am more blessed than most as I have wonderful colleagues at my school who often perform on my neoPhonia concerts purely as a service to the school and a personal favor to me. Without their generosity, presenting concerts would be impossible. However, I cannot continually ask my friends to perform for free and so must find funding to either pay them in ways that do not interfere with established protocols for payment within a state university (not easy) or pay outside professionals. Given that my annual budget devoted exclusively to contemporary music is, on average, a paltry sum, this is a challenge in and of itself.

With every concert, I dance around repertoire and how it may be performed. Can students do it? Can faculty colleagues help? Do I have funds for outside guests artists? Can I obtain the music easily? Are there other technical issues to be resolved? In the case of electronics - do we have the equipment and staff necessary at any given time to mount a program requiring the use of technology?

Pianist Brandt Fredriksen & clarinetist Ken Long
at the neoPhonia dress rehearsal.
Once all those hurdles are overcome - there's the inevitable unforeseen event that can threaten the entire production. Such was the case this past Tuesday night at the second neoPhonia concert of the season. I had thought this to be a wonderfully easy production. Two outstanding performers from our faculty, clarinetist Ken Long and pianist Brandt Fredriksen had agreed to perform the entire concert and the repertoire was securely covered. For once, I thought there would be no issues. However, four days before the concert, I learned that the lift for the orchestra pit in the recital hall had malfunctioned. The concert would have to proceed with a giant square hole in the stage. This would be fine, of course, for an opera with a orchestra in the pit, but not ideal for a chamber concert. Not only would placing the performers behind the pit compromise the sound a bit in the hall, it also would just look ridiculous.

I would not have blamed the performers for canceling the performance under the circumstances. However, to their great credit (and my considerable relief) they were extremely flexible and gave an incredible performance despite the less than ideal performing conditions.

Basking in the afterglow of the successful concert, it's hard to imagine my next event. However, I produce four of these each season and the next one looms just 89 days away. Everything looks fine for this upcoming event - performers and repertoire are secured...

What could possibly go wrong...?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Necessary Hubris

I've never read the very first entry of a blog before so I'm not quite sure how to begin. I suppose it might be useful (at least for me) to describe what I'd like to accomplish with this space. Then again, maybe I should just launch directly into a topic and pretend that this has been an ongoing endeavor. In some ways, the latter is more honest; less contrived.

Although I haven't been formally chronicling my thoughts and experiences for public consumption up to this point in my career, I have, nevertheless, been sharing them with anyone within earshot for years. My students are easy targets because, as captive audiences, there is little escape during class or composition lessons. But lately, as I have somehow moved out of that "emerging" stage of my career as a composer into "mid-career" status, I have felt the need to begin jotting down my ideas for a wider audience. I suppose I got the bug to start my own blog after a series of articles written for the American Music Center's NewMusicBox this past summer. For the AMC webzine, I had a very particular subject to cover. It's not as clear with this personal blog. Who am I and what can I possibly add to the chatter here in cyberspace?

Like most creative artists, it's a sometimes (okay, mostly) chaotic life I lead. I'm foremost a composer. However, I make my primary living within the confines of higher education as a music professor. I have run a new music ensemble for over 15 years, serving as artistic director and when necessity dictates, also serving as a conductor. I try to also perform as a clarinetist as much as possible. Not serious contemporary "art music," mind you, but mostly Greek folk music. (I'm the guy in the band performing at a Greek Festival as patrons, oblivious to the music and enjoying meat on a stick, casually walk by.) I am a third generation Greek-American raised in Atlanta and equally steeped in the cultures of Greece and the American deep south. On top of all the craziness found in dual careers in the arts and higher education, I have a big fat Greek life complete with lots of relatives, food and drama. I love to cook big messy complicated meals for as many guests my wife will allow me to invite over to our home. I'm a father, a son, a husband, a brother, a teacher, a student, a cook, a performer and a sinner trying to do better day by day.

And all of this - plus more - gets poured into my compositions.

So this will be a big fat Greek messy blog mostly about composing. It's another composer creating another blog that no one asked for. Hubris on my part? Absolutely. But for one composer amid a perpetually growing throng - a necessary hubris.