Monday, October 13, 2014

Walkin’ the Walk

There’s an old expression: it’s not enough to “talk the talk,” one must also “walk the walk.” On Friday, October 10, 2014, student composers and performers from the Georgia State University School of Music did just that. Having heard about the lockout of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians by the Woodruff Arts Center board, the students decided that simply talking about the injustice among themselves and via social media channels was simply not enough. So on that beautiful, sunny afternoon, they took to Woodruff Park and the streets of downtown Atlanta with the purpose of drawing attention to the very damaging lockout, supporting the musicians of the orchestra and calling for change. For a solid hour they put on an amazing concert of improvised performances and demonstrated with homemade signs their support for the orchestra musicians. It was real old-fashioned, grassroots activism and it was a joy to behold. 

As a composer and longtime member of the Atlanta musical community, my outrage over the state of affairs regarding the Atlanta Symphony’s current situation is understandable. However, students have many issues tugging at their time. They can be forgiven for sometimes not realizing that a particular moment in time is significant or, for that matter, even relevant to them. This is what made last Friday’s event all the more special for me. Here were young people fired up and enthusiastically taking time away from studies and their own busy schedules to support a cause bigger than themselves. As a friend to many musicians in the orchestra, a supporter of the symphony musicians and a performer myself, it was very gratifying to witness this outpouring of energy. As a teacher, watching the students and observing their passion for the symphony made me very proud indeed.

I am, however, above all else, a composer. Therefore I couldn’t help but listen to the actual music being created on the fly that afternoon. Sometimes silly, sometimes intensely rhythmic, the “piece” being created by student composers and student performers alike ebbed and flowed with various emotions during the 60 minute performance. What struck me however was the very honest music making taking place. I don’t think these students, many of whom had never really improvised this long in public before, could have maintained such energy without truly believing in the cause that drew them together that afternoon. This observation was confirmed for me by hearing the finale of their improvised concert: student composers and performers together locked arm in arm singing a cappella the words “Save Our Symphony.” At that moment, the music turned from rollicking improvisation to a heartfelt anthem.

I doubt I could have composed anything more powerful.

Below are more photos and a video from the event:

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Learning New Changes

Among other musical pursuits, I spent a good many years of my youth playing jazz piano. I was most heavily involved with jazz during my high school and undergraduate college years before concentrating more seriously on clarinet performance and, of course, musical composition. 

As a jazz pianist, I was constantly learning new tunes and trying to figure out the best voicings for the chord progressions found within them on the keyboard. In jazz parlance, this is called learning the changes of a tune. Learning new changes was critical to my development as a jazz pianist. I haven’t thought about this aspect of my musical career in years but somehow, a recent interview that appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution with the Doug Hertz, chairman of the Governing Board of the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC), caused me to see a relationship between learning changes and management’s position in the current lockout of the Atlanta Symphony musicians. Just as I could not be an effective pianist without understanding my art and learning the changes to grow as an artist, so too I sincerely believe that the so-called “arts leaders” in Atlanta - as exemplified by Mr. Hertz - need to grow beyond their narrow conceptions of art. It’s time to learn some new changes. 

The AJC article has inflamed the internet and the supporters of the Atlanta Symphony musicians. As I read the piece I was struck by how profound the disconnect is between how a “businessman” views the arts and how I, as a musical artist, view the very same endeavor. There are three quotes that have especially caused me great concern. In the first, Mr. Hertz states: 

“…I think the corporate community and the philanthropic community understands, like any businessperson would, we’re not going to make an investment in a business that keeps losing money.” 

First off, the ASO is not a business. It is a wondrous assemblage of incredible performing artists. Through their collective efforts, these artists create something that goes beyond simple economics; beyond widgets, stocks and profit margins. This miracle of an ensemble resurrects Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Stravinsky. This very same group turns the scribblings of contemporary composers into the compelling soundtrack of the 21st Century. The group takes a room full of silence and transforms it into sound so meaningful that hearts are stirred and eyes are damp with emotion. I believe it stands as the very bulwark of civilization in an age of barbarous hatred. If the WAC truly loved the arts and understood their importance its concern over the bottom line would only motivate it to increase support for these musicians; not lock them out of their music hall, strip them of their health care and dignity and opine about red ink. My children are a “business” that also keep losing me money. Should I lock them out of the house? Do you love the arts that much, Mr. Hertz? Do you understand that you are not running a “business” here? You are charged with maintaining a miracle. 

In another part of the interview, Mr. Hertz asserts that the WAC has tried to erase the orchestra’s deficit. Because the performers have challenged the efficacy of the WAC’s efforts in this regard, Mr. Hertz says: 

“It makes you wonder, you know, are we supporting a bunch of crazy people.”

How disheartening. In reading these words, my heart sinks. How can you negotiate with someone who calls you “crazy” in public? Obviously, Mr. Hertz does not hold the performing artists in the same high regard as do I and many others like me. How truly tragic it is that he cannot fathom the lifelong sacrifices, the unyielding discipline, years of tedious work, the bitter sacrifices and the uncontainable commitment to ART that it takes to earn a spot in the ASO. Does he understand that if these “crazy” people were wearing numbers on jerseys and competed on an athletic field the same talent and work ethic they possess would garner championship rings, gold medals and salaries that would dwarf his paycheck? Since I really, truly believe what I wrote about the orchestra earlier in this article, it is beyond my comprehension how they can be so glibly labeled. Name calling is a last refuge of those standing in the very shallow end of the pool, bereft of any integrity and awash in pettiness. Professed leaders in the arts should be better than that. 

One last breathtaking quote. In discussing the size of the orchestra and who should be allowed to choose, Mr. Hertz says, 

“Well, it’s my impression that our symphony orchestra got the same artistic reviews over this past year as they have had in previous years. We had 116 separate musicians that played with our orchestra (who were) not part of our (88-musician) complement — 116 additional musicians who sat in just last year. Yet no one’s told me that artistically we were any better or worse.” 

A great meme circulating on Facebook!
My God…you don’t know? You can’t tell on your own? You need to be told how the group is doing artistically? Even worse, the comment seems to indicate that you are fine with status quo artistry. Never mind constantly trying to improve and grow (something artist do all the time). Everything is great because no one has informed you that the orchestra is any better or worse. So we’re good, right? 

If I walked into any corporate office in America and gave my “impressions” on how the business was operating based on what others told me, having no personal background or training in the field, I would be laughed off the property. Likewise, if you do not personally possess the artistic credentials to make expert calls on this issue on your own and you are being advised by such luminaries as Robert Spano and Donald Runnicles that the long term use of subs - no matter how talented they are in their own right - is not the way world class orchestras operate, should you not heed their words? This comment is astonishing to me because it seems as though you are unconcerned with what the experts in the field advise. 

The WAC has to learn new changes. It must change the way it thinks. “Impressions” are irrelevant. The board’s sole job is to keep this miracle known as the ASO performing. This is a critically important, even sacred, responsibility. This is what you signed on to do because, ostensibly, you love this orchestra. If the money happens to fall short, this is a problem for the board, not the musicians

They have given enough. 

CODA: A message from some great composers...

Friday, September 26, 2014

Aftertones of Silence

A very deep and profound piece of music was performed on the evening of September 25, 2014. At 7:30 PM, at the very time the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was to begin performing the opening concert of their 70th Anniversary Season, orchestra musicians, area students and devoted audience members stood in utter silence in front of the locked doors of the Woodruff Arts Center.

The "opening night" program.
I have been a working composer and performing musician for well over 30 years. I can tell stories of musical performances that were so moving that I could not read the music in front of me because of the tears that filled my eyes. I will add tonight’s event among the very top of these rare and beautiful experiences. It was a privilege to be standing shoulder to shoulder with so many people who love this orchestra and are truly devastated by the shabby treatment world class musicians are receiving at the hands of merciless administrators.

As we stood in huddled silence around the musicians, dressed in their concert black and cradling their precious instruments, I think we all instinctively knew that this was a seminal moment for this orchestra. More than that, it felt like a seminal moment for the entire city of Atlanta. This line drawn in the earth; this powerful deafening silence ringing through the skyscrapers of Midtown Atlanta; this flowering of support in a desert of despair - all bore witness to the resolve of many against the few arrogant forces seeking to undermine true artistry.

The scene in front of the Woodruff Arts Center: Sept. 25, 2014
When the silence reached its climax, the assembled began to applaud. And they continued to applaud. One by one, orchestra members turned and faced their audience. Many of them were visibly moved by this display of love and support. What a powerful moment! What a memorable performance! If we hadn’t really known before, we all knew then and there that the power of music to transform was real. It was real because we all stood transformed by silence and the mere memory of music. In that one moment, it was clear that lockouts and threats were powerless against the simple silence of principle and deep integrity. As a friend of mine in the orchestra reminded me this morning, this is a true existential moment for all of us who love the arts in this city. Though administrators may hide behind spreadsheets and budget reports, this conflict is not about money at all. This is a conflict between those who wish to control the transforming power of music and those who have dedicated their lives to liberating it for us all.

Normally, it is a composer that creates music that musicians perform. Tonight, however, the plaza of the Woodruff Arts Center rang with a piece of music that no composer could hope to match. It was a composition written in the hearts of the men and women of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

It is a work of art I will never forget.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Killing Mahler

I’m taking a break in this blog from my ongoing series, The Outer Artist, to comment on the ongoing lockout of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians by management. If you follow me on any number of the social media platforms where I regularly post, you know that this is a topic that has been weighing on my mind of late.

A lot of ink has been spilt outlining the situation; much of it from outside Atlanta. For a detailed report of where we are as of this writing, I encourage you to read an excellent article posted by Jenny Jarvie in To quote Jarvie’s article: 

“A major sticking point — one the musicians say they are unwilling to negotiate on — is management’s refusal to commit to a certain size of the orchestra. This would break with decades of U.S. orchestral history; all of the nation’s top companies have long specified the number of musicians in their collective bargaining agreements. Under the management proposal, the company’s president and CEO, Stanley Romanstein, would have final say on whether to fill orchestra vacancies. Romanstein, who declined requests for an interview last week, has said he is simply searching for a more “prudent” approach: under management’s proposal, any time a musician retired or departed, Romanstein would engage in a strategic conversation with music director Robert Spano about the importance of the vacant position. Romanstein, however, would hold the ultimate decision-making power.”

ASO musicians on the picket line. Photo by Mark Gresham.
So why should a composer care about this? After all, most major orchestras are not exactly beating paths toward contemporary music and relatively unknown composers. So does a composer really have a stake in the lockout of orchestral musicians? Does the compliment of players in the ensemble really affect a typical, non-famous, run-of-the-mill composer out there?

Obviously, I think it does or I wouldn’t be taking the time to write this. There is no need for me to catalog all the many injustices being heaped upon the orchestra players. These are well documented, easy to find online and worth your time to read. I’d like to approach this growing catastrophe from a different angle. Although I do quite a bit of performing, I am in no way able to truly speak from the perspective of an artist the caliber of any member of the ASO. However, I can offer one composer’s perspective.

First, let me backtrack by drawing an analogy. Aside from being a composer, I am a Grade-A class nerd. I’ve collected thousands of comic books, been to my fair share of comic book conventions over the years and have been known to indulge in science fiction/fantasy movies, TV shows and books on occasion. Really, I’m just one step away from dressing up and joining the parade at DragonCon. As a nerd, it’s no surprise then that many of my analogies are based on Star Trek. This to much eye-rolling from my students and family alike. What does something as inconsequential as a TV program have to do with the very real and serious issues a facing the arts community in Atlanta? For an answer, I turn to the final episode of the venerable series Star Trek: The Next Generation. In an episode entitled “All Good Things…” Captain Picard encounters a phenomenon that disrupts not only the present but the future and the past as well. If left unchecked, the phenomenon would cause devastation to the entire universal timeline.

Without trying to be too melodramatic (or nerdy), I believe that’s exactly what the consequences will be for the Atlanta arts community if this highly destructive lockout is not ended as quickly as possible. It’s literally destroying our art here in the present, in the future and in the past.

Let’s look at the present. As I write these words, there are men and women facing very difficult circumstances. Their very lives and the lives of those they love are being affected by management’s actions. Right now, instead of preparing for the opening of their 70th Season, they walk a picket line. They are without a job. In a week or so, their season will begin to be dismantled – one concert at a time. At the end of the month, their health benefits will cease. These men and women are not unskilled laborers being treated poorly. That would be bad enough. No, these are artists. These are people who have sacrificed much and devoted their lives to perfecting their talent. Through indescribable hard work and determination they have earned a seat in one of the preeminent orchestras in the country if not the world. Their very presence in this city not only enriches our city’s culture from Symphony Hall but from all the various outside chamber ensembles and teaching venues where they can also be found. The symphony is, quite simply, the hub for an entire artistic eco-system. Moreover, world-class symphony musicians also draw more like-minded and talented artists to them, further enriching this city. Proof? Would Robert Spano have taken a job with a second rate regional orchestra? All that was happening and now it is not. For me, the work of world-class performing artists like the ASO musicians is a balm that soothes an increasingly savage world. Now, that balm has suddenly been removed and we are all already feeling the discomfort.

What about the future? If management gets its way, these artists will begin fleeing the city of Atlanta in droves. Moreover, any new talent that had eyes on Atlanta will quickly look elsewhere. There is evidence that this is already happening. Please read the compelling article by bassist Andrew Goodlett. He is a young double bass player who had hopes of coming to Atlanta but is now rethinking this course of action: The future looks increasingly bleak for the Atlanta arts scene if great young players like Andrew take a pass on moving here. If the orchestra simply becomes a AAA or AA farm club for the pros, how long will it be before the other arts in the city follow suit? To quote Andrew Goodlett, “I completely stand by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians when they say they are an incredibly important part of the arts in their city. But I think America needs to understand they are their flagship arts organization not just for the city of Atlanta or state Georgia, but an entire region of the country.”

If the present and future look grim, surely the past is secure, right? Not really. If management – not Robert Spano - gets to determine the size of an orchestra, it then becomes very easy to value-engineer Mahler, Bruckner, Stravinsky, Berlioz and even Tchaikovsky (among many others) right out of existence in Atlanta. Why pay all that extra money in musician fees for Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring when you can program a nice compact little Mozart symphony far more cheaply? This is not meant as a pejorative statement about Mozart, however if economics – not artistic vision – exclusively determine what can or cannot be programmed, a significant portion of our rich musical past may simply disappear. 

As a composer, this disruption to the timeline is not a plot out of science fiction. It’s very real. How can one get new music performed in the present climate of uncertainty? What kind of future will there be to get new works performed if no one is left to commission new pieces? What happens when vibrant chamber ensembles where orchestra players perform vanish? Who will be left to teach the next generation? What happens to the arts eco-system when the hub is irreparably degraded? It’s also disheartening for a composer to potentially watch Mahler disappear from Atlanta. If the past can be disposed of so easily, what are the chances for a modern composer?

I urge all composers – in and outside of Atlanta; student or seasoned pro alike – to lend whatever support you can to the ASO Symphony Musicians. This fight is all of our fight. Here are three ways to help: 
  1. Share, tweet, and retweet articles about the plight of our musicians to all your social media networks as often as time allows. 
  2. “Like” Save Our Symphony Atlanta on Facebook:
  3. If you are able to help out financially, visit:
Every little bit helps. We cannot allow the ASO to be degraded and its musicians broken and scattered. Our musical present, future and even past depend upon supporting this wonderful orchestra.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Outer Artist - Part 6: It’s Not About You - It’s About What You Do

Sixth in a series on the “business” of being a composer…

In my previous post, I shared a not-so-secret desire that most composers possess: the longing to get their music “out there.” It’s not enough to merely write music. Having spent weeks, months or sometimes even years composing a new work, most composers are not content to simply sit alone and experience the fruit of their compositional efforts by listening to computer generated realizations of acoustic instruments. Even for purely electronic compositions, most of us want to share our art with others. Therefore, to varying degrees, composers are always on the lookout for more opportunities to write that next piece and get it performed in front of an audience. As mentioned last time, I just happen to have six strategies for getting my compositions “out there.” These are strategies that have helped me along the way. In last month's blog post, I wrote in some detail about the first three of these strategies. Once again, these first three - for those not scoring at home - are: 

1. write for your friends; 
2. students: your composition recital is not just a hoop; and 
3. send your scores out to as many opportunities as you can. 

There are an additional three actions that round out my top six strategies for getting one’s music performed. These strategies, however, are in my list due to an uncomfortable realization. It’s not about you - it’s about what you do. To paraphrase Officer Jim Malone (the character brilliantly portrayed by Sean Connery in Brian De Palma's 1987 film, The Untouchables): “You said you wanted to get your music performed. Do you really wanna get it performed? You see what I’m saying is, what are you prepared to do? ” 

Well, here is what I am prepared to do:

4. Think like a presenter.

A recent work that poses no major
logistical problems for presenters.
It takes a certain amount of hubris to be a composer. After all, a composer assumes that what has been written is so important that it warrants a group of strangers to leave their homes, deal with parking and other transportation issues, sometimes even part with money and then give up a portion of their lifespan in order to sit quietly and attentively listen. A composer also assumes that the music written is so compelling that it warrants a casual expectation that musicians will devote hours and hours of their time and energy to practicing the new work then give up an evening of their life to perform the music all for the perk of being grossly underpaid (if paid at all) for their trouble. Finally, the composer is often blissfully unconcerned with how a new piece might integrate with other works on a program or with any logistics associated with its presentation

Composers may not think this way consciously, of course. However, on some level, I must admit to having held each of these assumptions myself. Over the years, experience taught me that to truly get my music performed often, I had to lay aside many of these assumptions and selfish expectations. Once I began to understand that it is impossible for a composer to successfully (and consistently) receive performances without the help of others, I began to stop thinking exclusively of my own desires and began to take into account other factors. I stopped thinking exclusively as a composer and began also thinking like those upon whose help I depend to get my music heard.

First and foremost, a composer is dependent upon a presenter to program his or her music on a concert. The presenter could be a conductor trying to put together a program. The presenter could also just as easily be a performer or chamber ensemble. The presenter could even be another composer hosting a conference or festival and responsible for filling slots in a series of concerts. What are the issues that presenters commonly think about? 

Instrumentation and technical requirements. 

Are pieces easy to program or do they require a lot of extra work? Does the score call for instruments not readily accessible by the group? Are there lots of parts that require doubling? (If professional players are employed, doubling requirements result in higher fees and may even include additional cartage fees.) Are you using percussion? If so, does your score call for 27 different percussion instruments including a full set of timpani, chimes and every drum known to the civilized world? Who has to cart all that gear? How long is it going to take to set-up and tear-down? Beyond percussion, does the score call for an intricate technical set-up involving computers, proprietary software, effects processing, lights, the presence of audio engineers and hours of pre-concert set-up time? 

Or, are we talking about a simple woodwind quintet? 

When composing a new work, I try to always consider how my choices in writing might affect the decisions of future presenters. The more difficult I make it to perform a piece, the more likely a presenter might take a pass on my score. The music itself might be brilliant but the logistics necessary to perform the piece could be insurmountable for some presenters. Of course, there are many well-known composers out there with reputations for writing extremely difficult and technically demanding music. But for me, that’s the point. I am not well-known. I don’t have the luxury of fame. Fame in our field often removes shackles and allows a composer to do whatever he or she wants. Relative obscurity makes such demands a possible impediment to repeated performances. This does not mean that a composer must exclusively write technically and logistically simple music. It simply means that one should pay attention. Think about what a presenter has to do to mount a piece of music. It might behoove the less well-known composer, if possible, to present a musical idea in a simpler way as long as artistic integrity is not compromised

Duration of the piece. 

How long is the composition? Total duration often signals where a piece may be slotted in a program order. It is useful for a composer to imagine where a presenter might place a piece on a concert. Is the work 5 minutes or less? If so short, why even program it? Perhaps it would serve as a fanfare or small overture in relation to the other pieces on a concert. If so - market it that way. The current “Goldilocks” range for contemporary music is approximately 10 minutes in total duration. Most contests and score calls seek works of this time frame (give or take a couple of minutes). It's always handy to have a bunch of pieces with this duration in one’s catalog. A piece lasting over 15 minutes tends to be considered more of a major work. Given that most concerts contain well less than two full hours of actual music (not counting an intermission or set-up between pieces), a single piece lasting 15 minutes or longer could constitute 20% or more of the total music offered on one concert. Why would a presenter devote so much time on a program to just one composer? If you have won major prizes and enjoy high recognition in the field, it makes sense. If your awards are more modest and your visibility not quite as high, then a long piece might be a harder sell. 

Ensemble MD7. Grateful for their recent commission
& premiere of my music. Photo: Mira Herak Usenik
All bets are off for commissions, of course. I just completed a 20 minute commissioned work for a chamber group with a non-standard instrumentation. I was guaranteed not only a premiere (which occurred a few days ago as of this writing) but at least one subsequent performance as well. Since it was an international commission, I decided to pursue the opportunity. However, outside of this commissioning ensemble, I know, in my heart, that the future of this particular piece is uncertain. Nevertheless, I made the conscious decision to proceed with the work anyway. 

Making these types of decisions about a composition brings me to the fifth of my six strategies for getting music off the computer or desk and into the concert hall: think like an entrepreneur. 

But more on that in the next exciting installment of this nail-biting series! As always, if you find any of this useful, please feel free to repost or forward to other interested parties. I also welcome comments on anything I’ve scribbled down here!