Friday, December 9, 2011

Old School Thinking

The respected composer David Lang recently released a new album on the Cantaloupe Music label entitled “this was written by hand.” The album consists of two works for solo piano performed beautifully by Andrew Zolinsky. One composition is entitled “memory pieces” – a cycle of memorial works written for Lang’s friends and the other piece is the one that bears the album’s name. It’s a name that caught my eye even before I noticed who wrote the music. In doing just a bit of cursory research, I learned that “this was written by hand” was a work created by Lang after the composer realized that he had not physically written a piece of music with a pencil since purchasing a personal computer in 1993. In his liner notes, the composer wonders whether “…the means of writing had any effect on the writing itself.”

In coming across this piece, I’m struck by just how “old school” my method of writing music has remained over the years. I was frankly astonished that a composer of my generation had not written music by hand since 1993. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. My surprise speaks more about my own working habits than anything else. With very rare exceptions, all of my music is still written by hand. Pencil against paper; eraser dust and overhead light; instead of the clicking of keys (computer or keyboard), the quiet rubbing of lead onto manuscript with only occasional breaks in the relative silence as an electric pencil sharpener whines in the air from time to time.

From days gone by: the tools of the notation trade...
I have written several works solely at the computer and have disliked the process. For me, there is something very genuine about the act of physical writing. The pencil is a metaphor of the creative process for me. As I write, I give of myself and as the music is slowly formed, I am slowly drained – much as the pencil slowly diminishes in size until it becomes too small to use. All of its energy and life now lay spread upon pages and pages of manuscript paper. I’d like to think that I have poured out myself equally upon that paper. This is the true act of composing for me. Using a computer seems like a cheat or rather, a penalty for my misuse of time and the resulting necessity to speed up the process a bit to meet a deadline. There’s no doubt in my mind that the means of writing – for me – absolutely has a profound effect on the writing itself. This is probably not discernable by a listener, yet it is absolutely something that I feel as I write.

A portion of my doctoral dissertation from 1991:
lovingly written and engraved by hand
Of course, this can only be true for me personally. It would be patently absurd for me to suggest that using a pencil is the “correct” way of composing. The mere fact that David Lang has not used a pencil in nearly 20 years and his career is much more successful than mine is a testament to this. Also, most of my students have rarely – if ever in their entire lives – used a pencil and paper exclusively for writing. Moreover, they will most likely never abandon the computer. In my early years as a composition teacher in the mid 1990’s, I used to force students to write with pencil and paper. I felt that their creativity was being dictated by how well they knew how to use computer notation software. Over the years, I have largely abandoned this rigid stance. In trying to enforce this posture, I began to look more and more like a horse and buggy driver wistfully gazing upon a beautifully crafted carriage as cars sped by.

And yet…

I can’t help but feel a little sad – and more than a little old – when simply writing a piece of music by hand has become such a novelty that it garners attention. “Writing by hand” has now joined “cooking from scratch” as an activity rarely practiced by many and I can’t shake the feeling that we are all somehow the poorer for it. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Old Dog...New Tricks

I’m closing in on three decades of composing music. It’s hard for me to even look at that sentence, after having written it, and believe that it’s true.  After so much time, it seems logical that my years of experience would have led me to many different types of projects. While it’s true that my catalog is ripe with orchestral, chamber, vocal and band music, there are still, nevertheless, many genres that have eluded me. Opera, ballet and film scoring immediately come to mind.

I can now scratch at least one of those genres off the list. I have recently completed my first movie sound track: the score to an independently produced comedy. I found the process extremely interesting and instructive in two major ways. The first has to do with my selection as the film’s composer. I was connected to the director of the film via Facebook. He and I were high school classmates who had, over the years, lost touch with one another. When I began plunging into social media in a big way a few years ago, he was one of the many old friends who “found” me and wanted to befriend me on the social media behemoth.

At first, I had a particularly “old school” notion about how I would acquire “friends” on Facebook. Namely, they would have to be people that I knew really well and with whom I was already interacting with on a relatively frequent basis. This was certainly not the case with every old high school friend who “befriended” me. However, it began to occur to me that social media could be used for much more than keeping up with close friends. Here were opportunities to reconnect with people from my past, strengthen ties with acquaintances and, most importantly, make new connections.

After accepting my old classmate’s friend request, he soon contacted me directly and explained that he was directing a new feature length motion picture and, having noticed my career path as a composer and given our past association, was interested in having me score the film. The power of the Internet within the context of social media was driven home to me immediately. Here was an opportunity that came my way simply due to my clicking a button on a social media site. From that point forward, the lesson has not been lost on me and I have embraced social media in a big way. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, you name it and I’ve probably got a profile page on it!

Having learned my lesson with respect to social media, the second fascinating aspect of this project was simply learning the ropes of film scoring itself. Having never attempted this before, everything seemed new to me. I suppose I was slightly prepared for the project having written several large-scale vocal works. In the writing of these vocal works, I learned to make the music subservient to the text. This skill came in handy as now my music would need to be subservient to the characters, their dialogue onscreen as well as to the tastes and preferences of the director. If you do not truly enjoy collaboration – film scoring is certainly not for you.

In my case, the process of writing film music was liberating in a strange way. Having so many constraints thrust upon me sharpened my compositional chops considerably. I enjoyed the challenge of fitting specific types of music to very specific time frames (ranging from segments of 18 seconds to ten minutes). Then there was the added complexity of writing music for a comedy. Coming up with ideas that were light enough for the comedic material without sounding trite posed a huge challenge. In the end, I felt that I was largely successful in my efforts. I composed 25 segments of music with a total duration of over 50 minutes, crafted music that satisfied the needs of the movie, the wishes of the director and still nourished me as an artist. I’m sure that the entire project has made me a better composer and a more sensitive collaborator. Yet, I still have a long way to go before I master this genre. If anything, I now know what I don’t know about writing music for film!

However, it’s a comfort to know that even after so much time composing, this old dog can still learn a few new tricks…

Monday, October 10, 2011

Busy Work

When thinking about how to begin this month’s blog posting, my first thought was to make excuses for the length of time since my last article. Of course, such hubris presupposes that there is some sort of pent-up demand for my thoughts online and much of the world’s unrest stems from the frustration felt worldwide by the lack of timely posted articles on Greek & Composing. Or it assumes that anyone noticed that it’s been over six weeks since the last posting. Or that anyone even reads this blog! On Planet Nick, I’m sure this is the case, but back on Planet Earth, I’m guessing not so much.

Yours truly performing at the
2011 Atlanta Greek Festival
So I then thought to whine and complain about my fall schedule and how incredibly hectic my life has been lately. It’s hard to imagine something more endearing than someone telling you how busy they are. As delightful a read that might have been, I refrained from going in that direction because I remembered one simple truth:

We’re all busy.

Sure, I’d like to think that I’m doing unique and amazing work and that by burning the candle proverbially at both ends I’m somehow a really important creative artist. However, there is probably a medical intern somewhere just now getting off a 24 hour shift at the hospital having participated in the saving of someone’s life along the way. There is also, most likely, an immigrant worker just now completing another day of backbreaking labor. In short, there are many people much busier than I could ever imagine.

Composer Alvin Singleton visiting a recent Composition
Seminar at Georgia State University
Also – I have no real cause for complaint. Most of the activities that have me feeling a bit overwhelmed are largely self-inflicted. No one put a gun to my head and compelled me to say “yes” to every project I have undertaken. I volunteered for this.

And what, exactly, am I complaining about? That I’m writing too much music? That too many outstanding performers are interested in what meager efforts I can muster for them to perform? Should I be upset that I’m performing too many Greek Festivals this fall? That I am somehow not being fairly compensated for these performances? Am I to be resentful that I have too many talented students? That these students challenge me to be a better teacher and composer or that I am able to teach them within the safety net of tenure in a university?

A few of the pieces I've completed this year...
At the end of the day, I must remember that all this composing, teaching and performing – while hectic at times – is a blessing. These activities – especially during peak times - teach me discipline, feed my creative spirit and strengthen me as an artist. Instead of bitter complaint, I need to simply be grateful and appreciative of this wonderful, busy, work.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Remembering Fred

Frederick Fox (1931 - 2011)

I heard some very sad news this afternoon. It came, as most of my news now reaches me, via a Twitter feed. Composer Frederick Fox has passed away. He had served as professor of composition at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music for 23 years, 13 of those as chair of the Composition Department. Fred retired from IU in April of 1997 but left a significant legacy both in the founding of the IU New Music Ensemble in 1974 as well as in all of the students he guided over the years.

I never studied privately with Fred during my years at IU (1985 – 1988) but he was surely a huge force both in the Composition Department as well as the whole school. I did have the great fortune, however, of taking orchestration as an independent study with him and did, of course, have an opportunity to take a few lessons with him over the years as well. Much of what I learned about orchestration did not come from a textbook but certainly came from Fred. I will also always remember his very kind words and encouragement about my music when he did have an opportunity to look it over.

More than anything, however, I remember Fred’s irreverent personality. I remember how once he and Donald Erb (my mentor) were irritated at a concert they were attending in the old Recital Hall at IU and began sailing paper airplanes made out of programs from the balcony. (Try getting away with that in these ultra sensitive PC times!) I also remember him relentlessly teasing me about being Greek. I have no idea why…but it was always a source of great amusement to him to refer to me, not by name, but simply as “The Greek.”  This was often followed by an off-color comment and roaring laughter as he ambled down a hallway leaving me bewildered.

There will no doubt be many, many stories told and written about Fred. He was a wonderful, wonderful composer and a fabulous teacher and he will surely be missed. I will leave it to others – those closer to him than I was - to speak more deeply of his work and his influence upon their careers. However, I cannot resist one last story:

When I first arrived in Bloomington, I had to take an aural skills placement exam. I was directed to Fred’s office. Those of you who knew Fred absolutely remember what his office looked like! A cross between Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and the attic of a very eccentric uncle, it even surpassed, in some ways, Donald Erb’s studio in terms of the sheer volume of kitschy artifacts - and that’s saying something! I knocked upon his door tentatively and he flung it open and asked in a gruff voice “You here for the test?” Eyes looking wide as I made my way in, I didn’t answer at first.

“Take that thing off!!!” he bellowed.

Startled from my gazing, I mumbled, “Wha…? Take off what?”

“That tie! Take it off! We don’t wear that stuff around here!”

He then proceeded to rip off my tie. It was a mustard yellow color with little red polka dots and I was very proud of it. A real 1980’s power tie that all the lawyers were wearing on L.A. Law. After he wrangled the tie off of me, he threw it on a hanging pterodactyl swaying lazily from his ceiling – held in place only by fishing line. After my exam was over, he began pushing me out the door. When I feebly asked if I could get my tie back he shouted “NO!” and slammed the door shut.

For the next three years, I would drop by often and visit my tie. It remained draped around the pterodactyl during my entire stay at IU. When the day of my graduation finally arrived, I popped in to say my good-byes and glancing up at the tie I knew that it had become a permanent fixture.

Nearly ten years later, I was teaching as a Visiting Professor of composition at the Georgia State University School of Music. I had recently sent off an immensely talented student to IU. In the spring of 1997, the student came back to visit me after his first year up in Bloomington and told me of Fred’s retirement. He also said that Fred had a gift for me. He handed me a small white box.

It was the tie.

I pray that Fred and Don continue to sail their paper airplanes down to us from their heavenly perches. May their memories be eternal.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Art Isn't Always Beautiful

“Art isn’t always beautiful.”

I’m paraphrasing here, but these were sentiments expressed by Donald Erb during one of our composition lessons in the early 1990’s. I can’t recall the circumstances that prompted his comment, but I’ve been reminded of my mentor’s words recently, having followed the controversy swirling around an album cover designed for Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 performed by the Kronos Quartet. Much has been written about the choice to use the stark photo taken by Masatomo Kuriya that captured one tower aflame as a second jet hurtled toward the other. The image is heart breaking and cannot help but stir up deep emotions in those who remember the awful events of September 11, 2001. Nonesuch, the label publishing the recording, has subsequently pulled the album cover. A different image will be used when the album is released on September 20.  For his part, Reich issued the following statement on the Nonesuch website:

“As a composer I want people to listen to my music without something distracting them. The present cover of WTC 9/11 will, for many, act as a distraction from listening and so, with the gracious agreement of Nonesuch, the cover is being changed.
When the cover was being designed, I believed, as did all the staff at Nonesuch and the art director, that a piece of music with documentary material from an event would best be matched with a documentary photograph of that event. I felt that the photo suggested by our art director was very powerful, and Nonesuch backed me up. All of us felt that anyone seeing the cover would feel the same way.
When the cover was released on the Nonesuch site and elsewhere, there was, instead, an outpouring of controversy mostly by people who had never heard the music.”

It’s true that Art isn’t always “beautiful.” Sometimes an artist feels compelled to react to very ugly aspects of the human condition from time to time. An artistic response to tragedy, in fact, is essential. Reaction to tragedy through the depiction of images, words or music makes us unique among the creatures of this earth. However, as artists, we do not live in a vacuum. How we react, artistically, is equally important. As members of a community, we must remind ourselves that powerful artistic works offered up for public consideration will affect our neighbors in profound and perhaps even unintended ways.

There has been some cynical talk that Reich and/or Nonesuch cooked up the album cover and its subsequent removal from the CD in order to promote sales of the recording. I have a hard time believing this. After all, Steve Reich is a Pulitzer Prize winning composer whose name is in virtually every textbook on 20th Century music written in the last few decades. The group performing his work, the Kronos Quartet, is one of the most highly respected and successful chamber ensembles of our time. They could have issued a cover that was simply the color blue and sold a healthy number of CDs. I also agree with Anne Midgette who wrote, in her thoughtful August 12 Washington Post column, “I don’t think Reich and Nonesuch advocated the use of this image lightly or unthinkingly.” How could they? For his part, Reich was living in Manhattan on 9/11. I’m betting he experienced the horrors of that day in a more personal way than most of those now taking umbrage at his use of the photo.  

Part of me also wants to defend the choice of the cover art precisely because of its unflinching nature. What happened on 9/11 was brutal and shocking. Sometimes I think it shouldn’t be sanitized by the removal of all documentation of the events that transpired that day. Again referring to her column, Ann Midgette expresses a similar concern, writing “…in the well-meaning wish to guard everyone’s feelings, we risk losing sight of the inherent transformative process of a work of art.”

However, I am ultimately glad the decision to replace the cover art was made. For me, it’s not so much a question of the “big picture” (i.e., the role of Art in society). I’m glad the decision was made because I believe that remembering the events of 9/11 need not push us, as a society, to abandon our compassion. It’s only been ten years. That’s not a long time. Almost everyone who witnessed the attacks around the world (and especially in the United States) can still tell you precisely where they were and exactly what they were doing when they first heard and saw the news. If someone like me, a relatively unknown composer living 850 miles away from Manhattan, can remember each minute detail of that day – how much more do the families of those who lost loved ones remember? I believe they not only recall each and every agonizing second but remember as well, each and every beautiful face that was taken away. I’m glad the decision to remove the cover art was made because it is the compassionate thing to do for those still suffering in ways that defy my comprehension.

Yes, artists need to be free to deal with large events like 9/11 as they see fit. Yes, audiences must understand that an artist is sometimes not working primarily to simply entertain them. And yes…Art is not always beautiful because what it deals with sometimes is certainly not beautiful. Yet if, as artists, we ask our audience to journey with us as we explore the dark crevices of our humanity, let us respect the fact that this can be, at times, a painful journey.

Perhaps in the future, we will be ready for a piece of music with documentary material from 9/11 that is matched with a documentary photograph of those events.

But not today.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


The beautiful low country.

During this time of year, those who know me primarily as a college professor often say things like, “Must be nice to have your summers off…” or words to that effect. Some of these comments are made sarcastically and others more wistfully. However, anyone who teaches for a living hears these sorts of comments often and we all share the same eye-rolling response – if only inwardly. Every teacher – from kindergarten to college professor – works untold hours, usually for demeaning wages. This work hardly ceases during the summer. The same can be said for composers. Although I compose throughout the year, it’s during the summer months that I try to double (or in the case of this summer in particular, triple) my creative output.

One of the many bike trails on Kiawah.
To be a productive composer, I often tell my students that there needs to be some sort of constant in the writing process. Usually, what I mean by this is that a composer, to work diligently and effectively, must either write daily at the same time or in the same location. Sometimes it is both. For me, that is somewhat the case. I tend to always write in my home studio and usually late in the evenings into the wee hours of the morning. Over the years, I have learned to be flexible and alter the time that I write but not so much the location. There is one notable exception to this location rule I have set for myself. The exception involves leaving Atlanta to write in a very different environment. Since it is usually impossible to take significant time away from a project, composing in a different location for some specific time, serves as a pseudo “vacation” of sorts. A change of physical surroundings also helps stimulate the old creative juices.

Good advice for island travel and for faculty meetings.
Many composers find such changes in locale through residencies in artist colonies. Personally, I find this kind of residency a bit challenging. There are three reasons for this. First, I don’t want to leave my wife and children for a very extended period of time. This was especially the case when the kids were much younger and my wife needed my help. Now my children have reached their teenage years and are a bit more self-sufficient. It now might be possible to entertain a residency at a colony except for the remaining two reasons, the second of which has to do with gigs. I am loath to turn down relatively lucrative gigs with my Greek band due to an extended residency at an artist colony. There are many gigs during the spring and summer months and these are precisely the months I’m not obligated to teach a heavy semester load. Even so – it is very tempting still to just block out a few weeks and take the hit in terms of opportunity cost for the benefit of a change of scenery and time to work exclusively on my writing. However, the third reason I still do not apply for a residency at an artist colony has to do with the fact that I already have access to a colony of sorts.

For about 20 years, my family has vacationed at Kiawah Island. My in-laws have owned a house on the island, located near Charleston, SC, for many years and it has served as the “artist colony” that would otherwise elude me. Almost half the pieces in my catalog have had a significant portion of their total length composed while on the island. I’ve recently returned from a brief stay on Kiawah and even though this particular visit was not as long as some others in the past, I still managed to complete a significant portion of a project I’m working on. Although, I retain my habit of writing late in the evening into the early hours of the morning, the change of scenery is extremely stimulating to my creative process. 

For those of us in the grind of writing everyday – and I’m a firm believer that one should write every day – working away from home in another location for some period of time is very important. Whether one applies for a residency at a beautiful artist colony or can escape to a personal “colony,” as in my case, the benefits of work away from home are significant. The change of scenery reinvigorates the creative process and, perhaps more importantly, provides the “vacation” that everyone needs from time to time. This is all accomplished without sacrificing progress in writing.

After all, no one really gets to “take the summer off…”

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Breaking Up Is...Not That Hard, Actually

I suppose I should be a little bit angry.

A couple of weeks ago, I received one of those thin envelopes in the mail. Typically, these kinds of envelopes contain disappointing news concerning the results of a score call, contest or other opportunity. Normally, when I see the thin envelope, I’m mentally prepared as I slowly open it and read the predictable content. However, the thin envelope that came the other day was not from any contest or score call. It was, rather, from a publisher who has carried my music for the last 20 years. It’s not unusual to receive hard copy mailings from time to time so I thought nothing of it. In fact, I don’t think I even opened that letter first. When I did finally get around to peering within the envelope, I read a lot about mergers and acquisitions, marketing plans, ideas of promotion and the making of…uh-oh…difficult decisions. Then the punch line – I was being dropped from the catalog.

Is this where they are storing my scores?
There was, at once, a flood of thoughts as I put the letter down. Was I really being rejected after 20 years? How would this impact my career? Would this loss tarnish my professional standing or reputation? Then, I was seized with anger. However, this anger was short-lived and was soon followed by absolute calm. I began to honestly question the ways that the publisher had really helped me over the years. This particular publisher carried two of my orchestral works in their catalog. One had moderate success and the second was never sold or rented. As I no longer held the copyright to this second work, I could not send out the physical score to orchestras, score calls or other opportunities on my own. I helplessly observed that the promotion of this piece was relegated to just another name in a long list of names, buried in an index using a very small font type. I began to feel that my work had been crated and stored in some nameless warehouse in much the same way as the Ark of the Covenant was at the end of the film, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I suppose I should be angry…

Yet, the more I think about it, the more I realize that this is actually a blessing in disguise. This news has allowed me to shed the final vestige of an older 20th Century model for music publishing, promotion and distribution. It occurs to me that I will now regain control over these works. It is also not lost upon me that I have sold more physical copies of music on my own, through my own website and as my own ASCAP registered publisher in the last five months than had my publisher sold in the prior five years.

Just as I finally gave up on hand calligraphy for music notation in the early 1990’s - putting away my rapidograph pens, vellum paper, straight edges and ink and embracing computer notation programs – so now I need to finally give up on the notion of the traditional music publisher and embrace the freedom to publish, promote and distribute my own work in ways that work best for me.

Of course, as a composer who works within academia, being dropped from a publisher might have been more devastating news; especially had it occurred while I was still untenured and at a junior rank. As it stands for me personally, this is a bullet that has been dodged. My task now, within my institution at least, is to be sure that administrators understand that the old “publish or perish” paradigm no longer works for composers. Nor is it even in our self-interest anymore. The obvious trend is toward self-publishing. There are already many notable examples of high profile composers within the field already engaging in this activity. There once was a time when “doing it all yourself” made no sense. Now, however, with the rise of social media and a more powerful world wide web, the hurdles of promotion and distribution are greatly eased.

Now naturally, it’s never good news to learn that you are rejected and yes, I should be a little angry. The truth be told – I am. However, I’m angry not because I was dropped from a music publisher’s catalog.

I’m angry because I didn’t drop them first.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Summer Job

Back when I was in high school, and spring would roll around, an annual event  - as dependable as the vernal equinox itself – occurred in my house. My father would one day casually ask me from behind his newspaper, “So, what have you got lined up for the summer?” Of course, he meant a summer job and of course, I hadn’t even begun thinking about looking for work when the question was posed. I’d make some vague list of plans that I thought would placate him for the moment and then begin to earnestly look for work. In my house, there was no hanging out during the summer with nothing to do. Over the years, I took many summer jobs: yard man for the neighborhood, clerk at a record store (remember those?), waiter and a ride operator at Six Flags amusement park among many other day gigs.

Now, of course, the job has changed for me, but one thing has remained constant: there is a pressing need to “line something up” for the summer. On the surface, this need is necessitated by a professor’s nine-month contract. There is no income during the summer so those of us in the academy are used to the notion of lining up summer work. Often, this means teaching summer school and/or receiving grants for summer research. For the composer working within the academy, the summer also is an unparalleled opportunity for writing. Many pressures of the academic year are removed and there is finally time to think. Within a university, my “research” is writing music. So it is appropriate and beneficial to apply for summer research funding to compose. It’s also one of the increasingly few “perks” of working in higher education. Knowing that summer must be filled, spurs me to develop projects throughout the year with the expectation that the bulk of composing will take place in the relatively calm summer months. I don’t write exclusively in the summer – but it is a time that a significant amount of work is accomplished. This summer is no different than others gone by except for one thing: everything has panned out.

Like many composers, I don’t have the luxury of sifting through myriads of commissions that have fallen before me like manna from heaven. To be sure, there are a few. However, part of lining up summer work entails me pitching projects to performers or ensembles. Some proposals work out, many do not. Therefore, like any good salesman, I toss a lot of ideas against the wall and hope that some will stick. This summer, almost every proposal has met with success and this – coupled with several legit commissions out of the blue – have me a bit nervous.

It’s only May and the summer – like an inviting country road – beckons; full of promise. Yet there are a fistful of chamber works, a double concerto and a film score to complete before September. I do write quickly… but even so – I’m a bit apprehensive. Yet, I must confess that I’m also more than a bit excited. I’m one of those people who thrive on impending deadlines and self-inflicted pressure. I also take solace in a quote attributed to Leonard Bernstein that I often share with my students: “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.” Only history will judge if what I write this summer will be “great.” However, I do have a plan and I definitely don’t have enough time. I’m halfway there!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

"...with a little help from my friends..."

I have a recurring daydream. If you’re a composer, maybe you’ve had it too. It’s the one where a major music director from one of the Big Five symphony orchestras, or a well-known performer or chamber ensemble contacts me after perusing my website and offers me a commission. OK, so perhaps it’s not a daydream. It’s a delusion; somewhere akin to a 10-year-old who catches a foul ball at a baseball game and secretly hopes the manager of the team noticed what a great play was made.

L-R: Demondrae Thurman, myself, Randall Coleman &
Jon Whitaker after a recent performance of my music.
Of course, back on planet Earth, it almost never works this way. It’s exceedingly rare to be simply “discovered” and catapulted into a career. Most composers I know – especially the composer writing this blog entry – need to work on their careers and try to put themselves into a position where their work is noticed. But how do you go about doing that?

There are two givens a composer needs before even thinking about getting into a position where they find themselves in the spotlight. First, one must actually write good music on a consistent basis. This involves hard, diligent and consistent work. It may involve several college degrees – or it may not. However, it usually always involves some sort of apprenticeship with a more experienced composer. This may be in the traditional composition lesson via a degree program at the music school of your choice – or simply working privately with a composer after the day gig. The second given is that a composer must put themselves into a position TO be noticed. In the 21st Century, that probably means an easy-to-find web presence. Composers should have a place they call “home” online (a website, blog, etc.) as well as good social media skills via the ubiquitous Facebook and other online social media outlets such as Twitter and LinkedIn among others.

My friend, Theofilos Sotiriadis from Thessaloniki, Greece
performing on the last neoPhonia concert in April.
Given you work hard, have some training and are established on the web, what’s next? How does the composer get the music “out there?” One way, of course, is by entering every possible score call and opportunity published. No guarantees there, however. Every opportunity has many applicants. The bigger the prize, the fiercer the competition one encounters. I’d hate for my only opportunity for performance and “discovery” to be left solely to the vagaries and subjectivity of a contest. So where does that leave a composer?

I had the good fortune a couple of years ago to sit on a panel with the distinguished American composer, Libby Larsen. She was a guest on our campus and our Director of Bands organized a joint panel discussion with student composers and performers. When, during the Q&A session, a student asked what was the best advice she could give to a young composer, Ms. Larsen, without hesitation and with firm resolve answered, “You must write for your friends.”

Therein lies one of the most important tools a composer has to control a career. It would not take much research to quickly discover that most composers throughout history wrote for their friends and great pieces of music often resulted from these relationships. A performer who personally likes you and your music is apt to give you a wonderful performance. Friends are much more likely to champion a work and breathe life into your composition by programming it more than once; giving a piece of music an actual performance history and exposing it to an even wider audience. A friend is more likely to allow you to stream all or part of their live performance of your work on a website or via a blog thus widening your audience even further. Friends tell other friends about your music and your connections to one friend lead to opportunities with another. I could write several paragraphs outlining example after example in my own career where this has been the case. In fact, all of this is brought to my mind by several recent activities I have been engaged in just this spring.

My friend, Christos Galileas, recording a
chamber piece of mine last week.
Since the start of the new year, I have had the great fortune of having several of my works recorded for various commercial CD releases due directly to relationships I have with performers. Friends from Greece have been in the United States this month not only performing on my neoPhonia series but also actively discussing future projects. I have had four recent performances of a brand new work by two good friends of mine who have championed the work I wrote for them. We’re now talking about future concerto projects! I just got back from hearing a double concerto of mine written for euphonium, trombone and winds wherein the soloists embraced my music, took ownership of it and suggested slight revisions that exponentially improved the work. This last point is the most important for me. Writing for friends encourages true artistic collaboration. It releases the creative spirit in performers and greatly benefits the composer. Like just about everything in life, a composer cannot succeed alone. Left solely to my own devices, I would be nowhere. Through community, we lift each other up and journey towards the fulfillment of our great potential - together.

Although it is unlikely that I will ever get that phone call from a famous conductor out of the blue, I continue to enjoy a rich artistic life made possible through my friends. A commission from the New York Philharmonic would be great, of course, but it might not necessarily guarantee happiness. Sometimes the true, heartfelt embrace of your friend onstage amid applause after a performance is the most important and lasting reward – and maybe all the “discovery” I need.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Am I Here Yet?

If you are a composer who regularly trolls through score call listings for contests, festivals or conference submissions, the following sentence (or one very much like it) will be very familiar:

“The [name of sponsor] is pleased to announce the [name of opportunity], designed to support the creation and premiere of new works by emerging composers.”

When I come upon this phrase, I usually pass on by without reading the remainder of the score call. In this particular context – a score call – I am well aware of what “emerging” means: 35 or younger; preferably younger. Now this is fine, of course. Commissioning groups are well within their rights to qualify the parameters of their score calls. And to be fair, groups do not limit calls on the basis of age in all instances. Often, contests or other opportunities may be restricted by geographical location, gender or ethnicity. Also, just to stem the wave of sympathy now being directed my way, there are plenty of opportunities out there with absolutely no restrictions. So, no worries; I’m not left weeping in my studio, destitute of opportunities. My issue, then, is not with qualifying factors placed on score calls. It is, rather, with the specific term “emerging.”

I’ve been thinking about this for a few weeks now; ever since reading the wonderful blog post by composer Alexandra Gardner in the American Music Center webzine, NewMusicBox entitled “Composer Emerging.” In her post, Gardner asks, “…how does an "emerging composer" turn into a straight up "composer"? By finishing a doctoral degree? With a tenure track teaching position or other substantial music-related gig? Upon receiving a commission from a major orchestra or signing with a major publisher? A big award such as a Guggenheim fellowship or Rome Prize? I have no idea!”

I don’t think anyone has a clear idea. If you ask ten different composers what “emerging” status means, I suspect you will get at least eleven different answers. For me, the answer is a bit fuzzy as well. I believe most composers are in a state where they have emerged, are emerging and hope someday to emerge. This fuzzy area can be flanked, however, with two pretty clear endpoints: at one end is someone (age is irrelevant) who has either never completed a piece or, having written a work, never had the composition performed in front of an audience.

On the far end, we have the “famous” composer (age, again, irrelevant). To my way of thinking, these “famous” composers share at least five attributes. First, they have garnered significant recognition in the field. This recognition is at a high level as demonstrated by big time commissions by big time ensembles (i.e., major symphony orchestras or well-known chamber groups such as eighth blackbird or the Kronos Quartet). These commissions are usually accompanied with big time grants and awards such as those Gardner lists: a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Rome Prize – I’ll throw in a Grawemeyer Award and, of course, the Holy Grail, a Pulitzer Prize. Second, “famous” composers often have older works continually performed. This is a huge distinction from most rank and file composers. As hard as it is to get just a single premiere, it is exponentially more difficult to get second or third performances of a piece. (And really, anything over three performances of the same work is just crazy talk.) Third, I have no way of knowing this for sure, but I imagine “famous” composers do not usually troll through score call listings for contests, festivals or conference submissions. They are probably too busy with the aforementioned commissions several years out to bother entering most contests. If they attend a festival or conference, it is usually not because they had a single piece selected through an adjudicated process. Rather, they were selected to be the distinguished composer-in-residence for the event. Fourth, “famous” composers probably earn a significant income from commissions, royalties, sales of recorded music and sales of physical music. Some may even live completely off of these revenue streams. Finally, I’m guessing every composer I would identify as “famous,” would point to someone else who they feel is more accomplished.

So where does that leave the rest of us? In that great fuzzy middle of having emerged, in the process of emerging and hoping to emerge. My answer to Gardner’s question of how an "emerging composer" turns into a straight up "composer" is simple: we are ALL straight up composers. We have varying degrees of experience, academic credentials, recognition and, yes, age. However, once we put pencil to paper (or for my younger colleagues, pixels to computer screens); once we create our first electronic piece, devoid of traditional notes but full of passion; once we sit horrified or enraptured as our music is performed in public; once we hear applause and stand in the audience as performers recognize us from the stage; once we send off that first piece and get that first rejection letter; once we have done any of those things - we have emerged. After that, we should just relax about our status. We’re all emerging composers; even the “famous” ones.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Composer from Somewhere

For every composer, there usually comes a moment when you must decide to follow the inner voice that pushes toward an aesthetic that is meaningful and authentic to your being or write music to be “accepted” by others.  I’ve thought about this lately and tried to recall the moment I made my own decision in the matter. What prompted these thoughts was the recent premiere of a chamber work of mine for clarinet and saxophone that I entitled Citizens of Nowhere. The title is taken from an article of the same name written in 2003 by Paul Kingsnorth in The New Statesman. The article puts forth the assertion that a new global middle class is emerging that is, as Kingsnorth puts it “…Rootless, technocratic, unburdened by the baggage of locality… [existing] in every nation but [feeling] attached to none.”

Yours truly, playing at a recent
Greek Festival in Ocala, Florida
In addition to my activities as a composer, I am also a traveling, gigging musician. I wander the southeast performing with my Greek band at festivals and private affairs many weekends out of the year. As such, I often find myself within the environment created by the fruit of these “citizens of nowhere;” awakening in chain hotels flanked by chain restaurants and big box retailers. More than this simple comparison, however, I believe the notion of the “citizen of nowhere” sometimes extends to the current state of contemporary music composition as well. I can’t help but think about how many “composers of nowhere” there seem to be. Over the years I have attended many contemporary music conferences and festivals or sat on composition panels where one contemporary piece is presented after another. Very quickly, they all begin to sound alike; originating from a nondescript geographical area and possessing all the same textbook techniques. Thus, the title of the Kingsnorth article and the class it described resonated with me in an unintentional way.

As a student, I was firmly on the path of nowhere. To be taken seriously as a composer, I felt I needed to incorporate techniques that didn’t necessarily represent me personally but were in keeping with the music that my peers were writing. There were actually two moments that pushed me towards embracing a more personal compositional voice. The first occurred in 1986 while I was in a lesson with my teacher, Donald Erb. Of course, back in those days, lessons always began with a long interval of silence as my mentor carefully examined my music. There was no computer notation playback of the score with cheesy, artificially generated sounds. There was not even a computer. During this particular lesson and the opening silence, I began to grow panicked as I realized, to my utter horror, that I had incorporated – overtly incorporated mind you – elements of Greek folk rhythms and folk tunes in an otherwise dourly constructed academic piece. How could this happen? Damn all those Greek gigs! They somehow worked their way into my “serious” writing! As Erb continued to study the score, my discomfort reached such heights that I interrupted his concentration and began to apologize for all the “Greek stuff” littering my composition. “I don’t know what you are apologizing about,” he said without lifting his eyes from my smudged score, “the Greek stuff is the only thing that’s interesting about this piece.”

That lesson did not immediately change the way I approached writing music. However, Erb’s comment tickled the back of my mind from that moment forward. Was it actually OK to clearly cross the bounds of my “serious” music and my gig life? It would be another 11 years before I finally made the decision to follow my inner voice. The year was 1997 and this time I was no longer a student. I remember sitting quietly working on a large piece for TTBB choir and orchestra when I bumped into a small dilemma. I noticed that after tracking dutifully along for sometime in some kind of amorphous dissonance, I reached a sonority that got that old tickle from Erb’s lesson to act up again. I stared at the sonority I had just written and realized that I was sitting on a suspended B Major chord. All I needed to do was resolve the 4th degree down to reach a consonant triad. I struggled for hours finding one way after another out of the situation so as not to give any sense of tonality to the piece. And yet, I erased each clever escape and returned to the sonority; wondering if I should just go ahead and land on the chord. What if doing so would be the only really interesting thing in the whole piece? In the moment that I decided to embrace the triad where my writing had led, I embraced the idea that I would, in addition to following craft, follow my heart as well and write what I wanted to write.

Not long after this, more tonal aspects – heavily imbued with my Greek heritage – crept into my compositions and before I knew it, I was developing a personal voice and writing music that I actually enjoyed listening to myself! I finally had become a composer of somewhere.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Taste of Music

Poussin Saltimbocca: the fourth course at the
Grove Park Inn Culinary Getaway.
Anyone who knows me at all, knows that I love to cook. I believe it's the only non-musical activity I engage in on a regular basis. Mostly, I like to prepare heavy Greek and Italian dishes with some side trips into certain Latin cuisines. There are obvious connections between cooking and composing, of course. The combining of ingredients is much like the combining of musical sounds. Chefs develop an individual style usually based upon their training and background much as a composer develops a unique musical voice. Good chefs are also mindful of time - making sure that different ingredients begin cooking at separate times in order to insure that all items are warm and ready for the table at the same time. This is very similar to a composer's concern for unveiling musical materials in a proper pace as the piece moves along in time in order to to maintain a sense of structure. I also can't help but be reminded of the similarity between chefs and composers when, after spending hours (sometimes days) in the cooking process, those at the table finish off the meal in minutes (or seconds if you count hungry teenagers). How like the process of crafting a piece of music this is! Composing a piece may take weeks (or more) to compose and rehearse and then is seemingly over in the blink of an eye at the premiere.

Sumac Dusted Carolina Bison: the fifth course at the
Grove Park Inn Culinary Getaway.
Two recent events have also reminded me of another way cooking is like composing. The first of these events took place several weeks ago as my wife and I celebrated our 20th Wedding Anniversary at the gorgeous Grove Park Inn located in Asheville, North Carolina. We just happened to plan our stay during a culinary weekend and thus had an opportunity to enjoy a five-hour, six-course meal at the resort's acclaimed Horizons Restaurant. The striking aspect of this meal was its collaborative nature. Four chefs combined to present the six courses. Each course was paired with a different wine and/or drink with the wine maker and distillery manager also on hand. Intricately prepared, each course needed to work in context with the others. Care was also taken to select a compatible winemaker and then to be sure that the pairings worked with the different offerings. This task of pairing wine and food was left to yet a different member of the culinary staff. One of the more unique, experimental and perhaps even risky collaborations occurred at the beginning of the meal. The person responsible for the pairings created an aperitif that consisted of 1 part Four Roses Bourbon and 2 parts Niagra Ice Wine. Both the distillery manager from Four Roses Bourbon and wine maker of Sparkman Cellars admitted later that they each had grave doubts about the concoction. However both of them - along with the rest of us - were pleasantly surprised. The drink was delicious both as a refreshing stand alone offering as well as the prelude to the amazing meal to come. Somehow this collaboration seemed more intimate. It's one thing to try and pair disparate items and quite another to literally mix them together to create something wonderful.

Candied Ginger Carrot Cake: the sixth course
at the Grove Park Inn Culinary Getaway.
The thoughts of this type of collaboration were brought back to mind at the second event that reminded of the connection between food and music. This event is more recent. I have just returned from Huntsville, Alabama where the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra performed an older piece of mine entitled epiphanies. I have to admit that I was a little surprised at just how really good this group is! In addition to being able to work with a fine orchestra, I had the good fortune of also having an opportunity to work with conductor Daniel Boico, who, at the time of this writing, is currently serving as the Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic. I say that I am fortunate to have worked with this conductor not so much because he is a very fine artist - which he certainly is - but also because of his collaborative nature. In my first meeting with him prior to a rehearsal, Boico went over the piece with me and shared his thoughts about how he was interpreting the music. It was immediately evident to me that he had spent some time with the work and had definite ideas of how to proceed. And yet, he wanted to talk things over with me first. He sought my opinion on his ideas. There have been many times in the past when a conductor - especially an orchestral conductor - has simply pushed an interpretation without consultation. Sometimes I have never been invited to attend even a single rehearsal. This is not collaboration. Rather, it is an occupational hazard of being a composer. Boico certainly had strong opinions about how and why he might change a tempo marking here or there. Yet he always had a rationale for his decision; a rationale he shared with me. There was an immediate trust that was formed between us. This trust allowed me to let his vision of the music mix with mine to create something wonderful in the same way that the Niagra Bourbon Cocktail had at our dinner weeks ago. 

As I always remind my students, I believe that the act of composing music goes through five stages: first is a conceptual stage; second an active writing stage; third a notation/engraving/part preparation stage; fourth, the rehearsal stage wherein collaboration takes place with performers; and fifth, the created stage wherein the music is brought to life for an audience. It is the fourth stage that many of us overlook. Rather than thinking a piece is completed after a double bar is drawn, it is vital for composers to recognize that collaboration is part of the compositional process. Both my meal at the Grove Park Inn and my work with Daniel Boico and the Huntsville Symphony have reminded how important it is to work with performers as a piece begins to come alive in sound. Great collaboration usually leads to great art - whether in matters of food or sound.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Snow Days

A rare sight outside my front window.
During the second week of January, a somewhat rare event took place in Atlanta. The city was completely shut down for a week due to a significant snow and ice storm. Atlanta, being a southern city generally oblivious to winter - I mean, real winter - was caught wholly unprepared. Only a handful of salt trucks labored to make just the most essential roads passable. They were generally unsuccessful in this endeavor and so, most citizens - myself included - found themselves trapped at home.

It was a very odd week for the city. The novelty of snow closed schools and businesses for days. In fact, people are still talking about it weeks after. I couldn't help but smile about the reaction to the weather having spent many years living up north - first in Bloomington, Indiana and then on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio. Of course, such snow falls as we received in Atlanta, are the norm up north. I remember it once snowing more during a single exam I took up at the Cleveland Institute of Music than the whole evening of Sunday, January 9 when the storm blew through. Yet, I no longer live up north and this kind of weather is truly remarkable. I had almost forgotten how beautifully new fallen snow can transform a familiar landscape. It's not that snow is not lovely and magical up north - it is. It's just that it becomes a little routine. Part of the novelty of the week down here was due to the disruption of a normal routine. Up north, unless the storm is truly massive, such snow as we received might hardly get a special mention on the news.

I put the extra time to good use. While my family huddled around a blazing fire, eyes glued to movies courtesy of Netflix and iTunes, I sat busily preparing a score in my basement studio. I still compose music using a No. 2 pencil and manuscript paper and so, when a piece is completed, still must notate the music using music notation software. It can be a somewhat tedious process and as I sat clicking away at the computer keyboard, I began to think about my composition career in terms of the piled up snow outside my window.

For me, the completion of a new work is always a magical moment. I am at once filled with relief that a piece is completed, nervous anticipation at how the players will react once the music is delivered and a bit of apprehension at how an audience will respond to my effort. However, I don't want this feeling to be as rare an occurrence as a snow storm in the deep south. I don't want the process of preparing a score, putting it in rehearsal and attending a premiere to be a disruption to a normal routine. These activities must in and of themselves be a major part of the normal routine.

A creative artist working within the sphere of the academy must constantly guard against this. It is so easy for the composer working within a university to be sucked into endless committee meetings, petty faculty bickering, mounds of student work to be graded and the slowly creeping paralysis of lowered expectations.

Somehow, living up north, I never truly lost my sense of wonder at significant snowfall. However, I did not treat it as a rare event. So long as I can see that my creative output as a composer follows a similar pattern, I know that I will remain moving in the right direction.