Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Becoming Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Hopeful Signs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do we have the desire?

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Summer Circuit

Professional musicians and academics share a similar yearly cycle. Most musical groups work within a season that begins in the fall and ends in the late spring/early summer. For those musicians – and in my case, composers – who work within the academy, there is a similar yearly schedule. Given this fall/spring season, many tend to assume (if they even think about artists and teachers at all) that musicians and academics simply “take the summer off” lounging at the pool and binging on Netflix for three months. How often I have heard the sentiment “wow…I wish I had my whole summer off…” by friends and family.

Truth is – there is very little time off during the summer months. For academics, this very short time-span is the single best period to further research that affects chances for promotion and tenure. For composers in the professional world (Mahler famously comes to mind) the brief summer months may simply be the only time to compose.

The Athens Saxophone Quartet in concert -
May 7, 2016 • Nicosia, CYPRUS
Yet, for many professional musicians (in or out of academia), summer does not actually afford the opportunity to recharge after the considerable demands of a performance season. Most of the time, summer is a time to continue performing at music festivals. Throughout the summer months, music festivals (large and prestigious as well as small and energetic) dot the landscape of our country as well as around the globe. Many of these festivals tend to mimic programming found in established ensemble seasons – meaning there is often a disparity between presenting older more “established repertoire” as compared to featuring contemporary music. However, there are still many festivals and conferences during the summer where a composer may find opportunities for performances of newer pieces.

I am grateful to be included among many other composers during the summer of 2016 who have received performances of pieces during the “off season.” For me, three particular events come to mind. First, I had the great fortune of having my work for saxophone quartet, Wandering Into Myth, performed at the International Conference: Wind Orchestras in Cyprus and Greece (May 7, 2016 in Nicosia, Cyprus). Sadly, I could not make the trek to Cyprus but having heard previous performances by the group that commissioned the work (the fabulous Athens Saxophone Quartet) I have no doubt of the quality of its presentation.

My "Two Tapestries for Brass Quintet" performance at the New
Music On The Bayou Summer Festival - June 3, 2016
Next, I was pleased to attend the inaugural New Music On the Bayou Summer Festival (June 1 – 4, 2016, Monroe, Louisiana) where my Two Tapestries for Brass Quintet received a really wonderful performance. In addition to the thrill of hearing my music performed at a very high level, the festival provided me with the opportunity to meet many new composers and performers from not only around the country but from around the world as well! I was amazed that talented composers from as far away as Italy and Mexico attended this festival. (This made me feel a little guilty for not making more of an effort to hear my work in Cyprus earlier!)

Lara Saville Dahl (oboe), Tania Maxwell Clements (viola)
and Tatiana Musanova (piano) performing my "Suite for
Oboe, Viola & Piano" at the 2016 IDRS Conference.
Later in the month of June, I was in the audience when my Suite for Oboe, Viola and Piano was performed at the 2016 International Double Reed Society Conference in Columbus, Georgia (June 28). I was doubly honored to have my music presented at this event not only because the piece itself was selected but also because my wonderful colleague, oboist Lara Saville Dahl, made the work part of her proposal for performance at the conference. I am forever grateful to the wonderful friends and colleagues in my life who regard my music high enough to include on their respective programs.

Finally, while not strictly speaking a performance at a summer festival, I was nevertheless just as thrilled to learn that the new recording on ABLAZE Records, New Choral Voices, Vol. 1, featuring my SATB a cappella work Every Good & Perfect Gift, was released in the late spring of 2016 both in physical and digital formats.

After a busy first half of the summer, I have settled into my more rigorous writing routine that has seen the completion of one new chamber work and the start of new work for symphonic wind ensemble commissioned by the Gwinnett Symphony Wind Orchestra. This routine, however, will be very short indeed as the new academic school year is barreling towards me like a runaway train. Wait…summer is nearly over already…?

One last mention – in case any reader may (rightly) feel that a good portion of this blog post was a thinly disguised self-promotional newsletter – I write this article as a form of therapy after receiving FOUR rejection letters for opportunities I really desired this past week (two yesterday alone). So there’s that.

From feeling unconquerable one moment to regarding myself as the worst composer ever in the next moment, I never cease to be reminded of the constant ebb and flow of an artistic life. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Roommate Issues

Success is often compared to a journey leading to a destination. People are said to have “made it to the top” and business plans cite “milestones” to mark progress. However, I don’t think about success in terms of a journey or a goal. Rather, I tend to think of success as a companion with whom I have a relationship. Like any healthy relationship, a significant amount of work is necessary to make the connection last.

The problem is that success is only an infrequent guest. My true artistic companions – the roommates of my creative life – seem to be disappointment and rejection.

A good way to court success: create your own music festival!
Here is the Artistic Board of SoundNOW the evening we
formally created the event (Feb. 2016). (L-R): Caleb Herron,
Amy O'Dell, yours truly, Olivia Kieffer & Brent Milam
There are, of course, many definitions of “success” that go beyond an artistic career. Outside my calling as a composer, I do feel very successful in my personal life. However, within the context of a professional career in the Arts, it is simply a truth that all artists must come to terms with rejection and disappointment at various points in their lives. All artists, especially composers, are well aware of their frequent visits. They show up so frequently for me that I have stopped thinking of them as “visits” altogether. Artistic disappointment and rejection have moved into my creative life as roommates. Yet, I am not alone in sharing my life with these unwanted housemates. Many artists have them hanging around, taking up space and using up valuable energy. After a certain amount of time, dealing with disappointment and rejection ceases to be “romantic” or a weirdly narcissistic badge of honor for the martyred artist.

After awhile, it just gets old.

I believe I am safe in assuming that there are thousands of composers within the United States with more being churned out of conservatories and music schools every year. I’m also not going out on much of a limb to note that contemporary classical music is not very high on anyone’s list of music streams, download purchases or even physical CD sales (if that is even a thing anymore). We can’t even agree on what to call our genre! Is it “Alternative Classical?”; “Art Music?”; “Contemporary Classical?” With so many composers, so few outlets for expression, no clearly defined genre and – at best – societal indifference to our work, there is no way success will simply show up on a composer’s doorstep, much less remain for an extended period of time.

The Clibber Jones Ensemble premiering my piece
Zero Hour. Part of the inaugural SoundNOW Festival!
The initial way a composer goes about courting success in such an environment is by submitting work to external opportunities such as contests, festivals and conference score calls with the hope of attracting the desired housemate. I am a big advocate of this and even highly encourage my students to engage in such submissions. However, relying exclusively on these kinds of opportunities can paradoxically be just the sort of energy that feeds unwanted guests. The odds are usually long against winning a contest or having work selected for a festival and invites rejection into the creative life. Unsuccessful submissions also richly feed disappointment. In order to nudge these roommates out the door, it’s best not to provide too much hospitality.

Chamber Cartel premiering my piece So Small Against The
Stars. Part of the inaugural SoundNOW Festival!
The artist who tires of disappointment and rejection faces three options: redefine “success”; make a life so barren of creative activity that disappointment and rejection leave out of sheer boredom; or actively refuse to serve these lousy roommates and make their environment inhospitable in order to force them out. For me, the first option seems like a cop-out and the second option is essentially a form of artistic suicide. The third option, while certainly more work, not only keeps unwanted roomies at bay but actively courts the very roommate I desire: success. Yet there’s more to simply refusing to serve rejection and disappointment. Should these undesirable guests finally leave but the “creative house” remains empty, they will return with greater ferocity. Their absence must be replaced. It is important for an artist to therefore actively pursue success. While courting success will still involve submitting work to outside score calls, there is an additional, and more pro-active, way to attract this more appealing roommate: a composer must create his or her own opportunities.

Not getting your music performed as much as you would like? Organize your own concert! Conductors and performers are unaware of your work? Promote yourself tirelessly online and in social media! No one is commissioning you to compose a new piece? Make friends with performers and write for them! Sometimes, substantive opportunities are nothing more than a flash of inspiration that one is not afraid to pursue. This is precisely how the SoundNOW Contemporary Music Festival, a brand new festival I am involved with, got off the ground. Click HERE to read more about the creation of this endeavor.

Creating a successful contemporary music festival certainly kept disappointment and rejection away this past spring. What really attracted the more desirable companion of success, however, was maintaining control over my own creative life. The success of SoundNOW was not dependent upon the subjective whims of an adjudication panel but rather through hard work. The same can be said of the group I founded back in 1996, the neoPhonia New Music Ensemble. Both activities have yielded success in my personal artistic career. Of course, engaging in these types of activities is risky and a bit daunting at first. It also takes lots of work to create a robust presence on the web and in social media; another very pro-active way to create opportunities. However, these types of actions nurture a relationship with success. Any healthy relationship always involves risk and hard work.

Disappointment and rejection will always be a part of my life as a composer. Selection panels will always be subjective and there are always better composers out there that will edge me out of opportunities. However, creating my own opportunities goes a long way to flipping my roommate paradigm. By taking control of my own artistic career, I should only need to put up with occasional visits from disappointment and rejection while enjoying the companionship of success.

It’s really up to me.