Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Creative Paradox - or - How Embracing the Dark Side Made Me a Better Composer

Like so many others during these waning hours of December, I can’t help but briefly pause and reflect on 2017 before charging forward into the new year. In 2017, I was again blessed to compose music, teach, travel, and receive many performances of my music, much as I have in the past. However, two events, oddly related to one another, stand out this year.

From the Georgia State University School of Music
website: the official announcement of the new gig!
The first of these noteworthy events took place back in June. At that time, I was appointed the Interim Director of the Georgia State University School of Music, an institution where I have taught for over 20 years. Sharp readers of this blog may note that this is about the time that my (more or less) regular postings here abruptly ceased. This is probably not surprising. Moving from my position as a long time senior faculty member to what many in my profession refer to as the “Dark Side” (i.e., administration) was very significant and, in many ways, life changing. I have keenly felt a much higher level of responsibility while working through a steep learning curve over the past seven months. I still feel like I am drinking water out of a gushing fire hydrant.

The wonderful contemporary music group,
Unheard-of//Ensemble performing my work, "Frontlash"
at Weill Recital Hall in NYC - 12.18.17
However, I have also found my new role surprisingly exhilarating. After having done the same thing over and over again for over 20 years, perhaps I was ready for a big change. However, despite all of the new responsibilities associated with the administrative position, I was grateful to still be able to continue teaching a bit. Bringing with it exciting new challenges and the ability to maintain my teaching to a degree, this new job seemed to have offered nothing but positives. Nevertheless, despite being generally happy with the new gig, there was one thing that concerned me at the outset: how would this administrative work affect my creative activity? Would I suddenly cease to be an active composer?

I was determined to maintain my compositional output. However, to accomplish this, I soon realized that I needed to change my life even more. In addition to being a full-time 12-month employee (good-bye long summer vacations) and learning a completely new set of skills associated with the new job, I needed to also significantly change my personal work habits. It was readily apparent, even after my first week, that late-night composing would no longer work in my “new normal” schedule. After a full day, I found that my creative energies were nearly non-existent. I therefore made the very painful decision (for me) to become a “morning person.”

Finding time to work despite the new gig and travels.
This Sonata for Violin & Piano was completed in July while
  teaching at the 3rd Summer Music Performance Program
in Thessaloniki, Greece. 
I have never been a fan of the morning. Given my preference, I would sleep late, work from the late morning to the afternoon, take a break for a workout, then dinner, and then proceed to compose until the very wee hours of the morning. That type of schedule didn’t really work well when I was a faculty member and it certainly wasn’t going to work now. So, I made peace with the idea that I would rise very early, get in a brisk workout and then compose before heading into the office every day. At first, I was skeptical that this new work flow would allow me to maintain my past productivity. After all, excluding the weekends, I no longer have large blocks of time to simply compose. Now, I must work every day, at a specific time, and for a very specific duration. As it turns out, I was right. I found that I was not maintaining my past productivity.

I was exceeding it.

In looking back over the year, I am shocked to find that I have composed over twice the amount of music I usually produce in a single year. Moreover, I still compose by hand. I have avoided the temptation to compose directly into the computer, although I know that would save me the step of taking my pencil score and notating it later via computer notation software.

Obligatory photo at Carnegie Hall. Why not?
I don't get a piece performed there everyday!
Somehow, landing the gig as Interim Director of the GSU School of Music has not only reinvigorated my academic career, but has somehow also refocused my creative activity. In a paradoxical twist, having much less time has actually given me the liberty to produce more music. I find that since I do not have any time to waste, I simply try to make good use of the time I have been given. This includes, by the way, carving out time to relax. I’m not a hermit - having closed myself off from everything but university work and composing. I enjoy my family, go to concerts and movies, cook, read, travel, and have been known to binge a show or two on Netflix from time to time. However, having been privileged to take on a bigger role at my university has made me much more purposeful in my use of time.

I mentioned early on in this post that there were two major events that occurred in life during 2017 and that they were related. The second event was the recent performance of my work Frontlash (commissioned by the very talented contemporary music group, Unheard-of//Ensemble) at the Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall in New York City. Having a work performed at Carnegie Hall is a dream that almost every composer has and many have attained. This was my first time and I found myself deeply humbled and honored by the experience. Perhaps more importantly, Frontlash, having been composed after my appointment as Interim Director of the GSU School of Music and a product of my new work flow, is early validation for me. This particular piece and its successful performance indicate that if I continue to use my time wisely, I may be able to achieve success as an administrator and maintain a positive career trajectory as a creative artist.

With that kind of validation as a tailwind, I look forward to 2018!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Tale of Two Cities

I have a somewhat complicated relationship with Atlanta. While I consider myself a native, I was not actually born in this city. I arrived in Boulder, Colorado while my father was completing his Masters degree in Music Education at the University of Colorado. After my birth, my family lived all of six months more in Boulder before heading back to my father’s hometown of Atlanta. I therefore have no memory of my western birthplace. Growing up, Atlanta and the Deep South were all I knew. When I left Georgia to continue my education, I never in a thousand years thought I would ever make it back down to the South much less get back to Atlanta. Yet, that is exactly what happened.

Even after I first arrived back, my wife and I thought our stay would be brief. But an adjunct position at the Georgia State University School of Music turned into a full-time Visiting Professor position which led me to a full-time tenure-track gig and ultimately to my current position as a full Professor of Composition. Along the way, I did apply for other job opportunities in academia and even came very close to leaving on at least one occasion. However, for better or worse, Atlanta continues to hold me close as a native son, despite my “transplanted” birth, my improbable return after school, and my best efforts to leave.

When I travel, I'm often asked,"What is Atlanta like?" I usually have a couple of glib responses at the ready. First, I say that Atlanta reminds me of a mini-Los Angeles with its urban sprawl, over-development, massive highway system, smog alerts, and horrific traffic. Second, I characterize the identity of the city as a teenager that shows a lot of talent and potential but doesn't really know what it wants to be when it grows up. This is especially true of the contemporary arts to which I am particularly attuned. It seems that my relationship with Atlanta is not the only one that is complicated. Atlanta’s relationship with the contemporary arts is not exactly crystal clear either. In fact, it appears to me that Atlanta seems to have two identities in this area. Two recent events really tell the tale of the two cities that are Atlanta.

Robert Spano
First, there is the Atlanta that is beginning to take itself seriously as a center for contemporary classical music. This started when Robert Spano first arrived in town back in 2001 to helm the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. I'll never forget that one of his first actions after arriving was to set-up a meeting with all the local composers organized by the now sadly defunct Atlanta Chapter of the American Composers Forum. It was a generous gesture and we were all thrilled to learn that Spano was determined to program more contemporary music with the symphony. He has certainly held true to his promise. Over the years, Spano has championed the music of Jennifer Higdon, Michael Gandolfi, Osvaldo Golijov, Christopher Theofanidis, and Adam Schoenberg; going so far as to christen these particular artists part of his "Atlanta School" of composers. Of course, the music of many other living composers - including Alvin Singleton, John Adams and Jonathan Leshnoff - is also heard often in the Woodruff Arts Center

Another sure sign of Atlanta's rising importance as a center for contemporary music is the recently concluded SoundNOW Contemporary Music Festival. It's one thing to put on such a festival once but quite another to do it again with more participating ensembles, concerts and greater press coverage. Such was the case during the first week in April 2017. The Second Annual SoundNOW Festival featured nine ensembles and eight concerts at various venues in the city during the span of a single week. As Doug DeLoach, a writer for the popular Atlanta magazine Creative Loafing, stated in his preview of the festival, "Based on recent experiences at chamber music recitals, the time for this music truly has arrived and its impact is reverberating across generations." I am more than proud to be a co-founder and artistic board member of SoundNOW and in some small way contributing to the field in what I hope is a meaningful way.

Photo: Charlie McCullers/Atlanta Ballet
Despite these and other bright spots in the contemporary arts, there is, unfortunately, a second Atlanta that is not quite as progressive in its outlook. Falling right in the middle of the SoundNOW Festival came the devastating news that 13 dancers in the Atlanta Ballet were leaving the company. The reason for their departure is very troubling. reports that "In a move that dramatically changes the future face of Atlanta Ballet, 13 dancers — almost 50 percent of the company — will not be back for the 2017–18 season.  Multiple sources within the company told ArtsATL that the departures are the culmination of a culture clash between the open and modernistic atmosphere fostered by previous artistic director John McFall that was embraced by the dancers, and the classical ballet ethos favored by Gennadi Nedvigin, the new Bolshoi-trained artistic director." Gone among the star-level dancers is my friend Tara Lee who I had the incredible fortune to collaborate with on a project with the ballet several years ago. So, yeah, this news saddens me on a personal level.

While no one wants to abandon the classics nor is suggesting that Tchaikovsky should no longer be performed by the Atlanta Ballet, I find it deeply disconcerting that an "open and modernistic atmosphere" may be ending at this fine institution. I'm sure that things will be better than canned music and Swan Lake at every performance but it is very regrettable that initiatives like John McFall's "New Choreographic Voices" - an initiative that gave me the opportunity to collaborate with Tara Lee on a new ballet piece - seem to be terminated. I can only hope and pray that this kind of regression will be limited to the Atlanta Ballet and be very short-lived. 

Amazing moment during the SoundNOW Festival:
composer John Luther Adams greets his old
teacher, Charles Knox - the "Dean" of Atlanta
If we turn our backs on modern - even experimental - music, visual art, theatre, cinema, and dance, we risk condemning these art forms to dusty museums instead of vibrant living reflections of our 21st Century reality. I understand that this type of art is not everyone's cup of tea and that presenters do have to think about their audiences when programming performances or curating exhibitions. However, we have pop culture to placate us. True Art needs to push us sometimes. Like a good sermon, Art should comfort those who suffer and challenge those who are comfortable.

In early April 2017, two paths were clearly revealed in this city. This is why Atlanta reminds me of a gifted adolescent still stumbling towards full potential. I hope that when this teenager matures, it will embrace a culture that, while cherishing the old, will continue to celebrate the contemporary voices of our time. It is the obligation of every artist in this city - irrespective of discipline - as well as every consumer and patron of artistic expression to ensure this happens. When a culture only looks backward in its art, it ceases to grow.

It's up to all of us to make sure this does not happen on our watch.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Snapshot of a Career

A couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune of receiving three performances of my music in the span of two days. The pieces and performance venues were amazingly diverse: a quirky chamber piece performed at a hipster club in downtown Atlanta; a large symphonic wind ensemble premiere given in the outer suburbs; and a saxophone quartet performed in Trento, Italy. This may not seem like a big deal to many. However, unless a contemporary classical composer is of a certain prominent standing within the profession, receiving so many performances in a 48 hour period is somewhat of an anomaly. This occurrence was special enough, in fact, that the conductor of the wind ensemble premiere quipped in a recent Facebook post, “You had a huge weekend - composers don't often get three performances of their works in a month, let alone over a weekend!” 

I have spoken in the past of the “feast or famine” nature of a professional composition career within the confines of this blog. The two-day flurry of performances certainly qualifies as period of feasting. However, in thinking over the events of that weekend, I find that those 48 hours were also a fairly good snapshot of my career to date. To be sure, the weekend was not indicative of the frequency that my music is performed on a regular basis. Rather, it was instructive as a model of how at least one composer goes about getting his work heard over the long haul.

The first thing I noticed, as noted above, was the sheer diversity of performance venues and types of compositions performed over that weekend. The programmed works included a large ensemble, small ensembles, a piece with an unconventional instrumentation, pieces with standard instrumentation, and performances taking place at local venues and an international venue. This variety suggests a broad portfolio of works and a willingness to seek out as many performance opportunities as possible. 

The next thing that caught my attention was exactly how the pieces came to be programmed. Out of the three performances, two of them were made possible due to my friendship with the performers. The third performance was the result of my submission to an online score call. While it might be tempting to infer that I should expect roughly full third of my performances to result from submissions to outside opportunities, this is simply not the case. At best, I usually am successful in these types of submissions somewhere around 10% of the time. The more instructive lesson here is that the majority of my performances during that weekend were the result of personal relationships. I am certainly not the first composer to notice this and am a member of a large chorus singing the praises of composing for one’s friends. Developing good relationships and writing for friends is often the composer’s best way to get music performed. Sometimes - especially if performers feel that the process was collaborative between themselves and a composer - musicians will do far more than simply perform a piece. They might even champion a work, give it many repeat performances, and actually commission new compositions. 

Chamber Cartel performing So Small Against the Sky
While writing for friends is extremely important, I still often submit compositions to outside score calls and similar opportunities. I just temper my expectations. I recognize that the majority of my success will not be a result of applying to every opportunity for which I am eligible. Nevertheless, a certain percentage of performances do come out of this kind of activity. Submitting work to outside score calls is not just a way of expanding performance opportunities. If successful, these submissions may lead to the formation of new personal relationships. These relationships then naturally lead into more chances to compose new works and receive performances. This is exactly the case with one performance of my music from the weekend under review. I was very fortunate that my saxophone quartet Wandering Into Myth was accepted for performance at an international festival during that weekend of concerts. As a result of this acceptance, I learned that one of the performers has become interested in a solo saxophone piece of mine and may now give more performances and make a studio recording of that composition. As a side note, this performer was able to discover my additional music for saxophone by simply visiting my website. This is another instance where having a robust web presence has helped my career. 

Yours truly working with the Gwinnett
Symphony Wind Orchestra
Another activity associated with my extraordinary weekend involved me simply showing up. Again, this sounds like a small thing, but it is really important for composers to make the effort to attend performances - especially of their own music. While at the Saturday performance of my chamber piece, So Small Against The Stars given by the new music ensemble Chamber Cartel, I had an opportunity to meet the performers of another new music group also featured on the concert: the Unheard-of//Ensemble based out of New York. In striking up a conversation with the performers of the New York group, it turns out that I may have an opportunity to collaborate with them and compose a new piece to be premiered next year. At the Sunday concert featuring the premiere of my work for symphonic band, Rituals at the Center of the Universe given by the Gwinnett Symphony Wind Orchestra, I had an opportunity to meet with two conductors attending the concert. As a result of conversations at a post-concert dinner, there might be opportunities for me to compose new works or have existing compositions for symphonic winds and symphony orchestra performed in the near future. Showing up and making connections can never be underestimated. Even if a composer doesn’t have a piece on a particular concert and there are no immediate projects emanating from these kinds of encounters, the seeds are nevertheless planted for future collaborations.   

The Gwinnett Symphony Wind Orchestra premiering
Rituals at the Center of the Universe.
Finally, my rewarding weekend wasn’t all roses and applause. Rejection letters also found their way into my email inbox during those 48 hours. It’s astonishing how quickly - even in the midst of a great run - these kinds of letters bring me crashing back to reality. No matter how much success one experiences, the hard truth is there will always be more rejections than successes and no matter how small they are, they will all hurt and make a composer feel worthless. I actually spent time after reading the rejections in between concerts of my music feeling like my career was in the toilet and that I was a failure. I had to pull myself out of my self-pity and look at the big picture. This turns out to be good advice for a career in general. When rejection comes - as it always does, often in great big batches hard to endure - it’s important to take stock, dwell on what successes have been earned and - most importantly - get back to work.

I really appreciated the amazing recent spate of concerts featuring my music and remain very grateful to those who performed and premiered my music. However, an additional gift of the extraordinary 48 hours, was how those performances revealed my career in microcosm. The weekend afforded me the opportunity to stand back, consider a larger picture, and put my work as a creative artist into perspective. Now that the elation of all those concerts has abated, I am challenged to work even harder so that such weekends become less of an anomaly and more the norm. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Just Three Things

Many composers view success in a professional career as a prolonged famine broken up periodically by short bursts of feasting. While this is mostly true for me, I currently find myself in one of those rare periods of feasting. In January, I was fortunate to have my work eights shades of metal included in the 18th Biennial Festival of New Music hosted by the Florida State University College of Music. Just days after this wonderful festival, I was privileged to receive a premiere of Echoes In The Wind by the fabulous Atlanta Chamber Winds. I now look forward to the premiere of my large symphonic wind ensemble piece Rituals at the Center of the Universe on March 5, 2017 to be given by the Gwinnett Symphonic Wind Orchestra – the same date, coincidentally, my saxophone quartet Wandering Into Myth receives a performance by the MotoContrario Ensemble at the Festival Contrasti 2017 in Trento, Italy. There are also other scattered performances of my music scheduled throughout the spring.  

Guitarist Luther Enloe premiering
 "TONOI XI"at a recent neoPhonia
New Music Ensemble concert.
This period of creative feasting, coming as it has for me after a very long famine, is not the result of sheer luck or serendipity. During a dry creative period, there is much to be done by a composer to ensure another feast will occur. Professional famines just don’t end naturally by themselves. This point was driven home to me recently at the Festival of New Music in Tallahassee where I had a brief encounter with a graduate student. After the usual pleasantries at a concert reception, the student shared how many DMA programs he had applied to without success before his acceptance at FSU and how happy he was to land in such a good program. Soon the conversation turned towards what his future as a professional composer would look like after graduation. Would achieving professional goals always be this hard? As this was a social occasion, there was no time to launch into a long-winded lecture on what goes into a professional career. I had a lot to communicate to this young composer and a very short window of opportunity. Given these constraints, I told him that I believe that there are just three things to keep in mind.

1. Work. Hard.

My students know my simple three-word mantra: Write Every Day. There is just no getting around the fact that a composer must compose. This is an activity and not a theoretical discussion. Most of the time, writing daily can be difficult. A composer’s time is very limited and it is easy to succumb to the pressures of outside demands. Nevertheless, to be successful, a composer must learn to work every day in some fashion. We cannot afford to leave musical ideas unattended for days on end and expect to be productive.

It’s also not good enough to simply scribble notes on a page just to feel that something was accomplished. The work must be of excellent quality. A composer should never take short cuts in the creative process nor settle for anything less than his or her very best effort. This goes for the preparation of scores and parts as well. A composer must sweat every detail – no matter how small. I am reminded of the story of Steve Jobs who, upon the launch of the iPhone, called an engineer at Google on a Sunday morning with a design complaint. It turns out that the hue of the color in the second “o” of the Google logo was not of sufficient quality. Jobs politely, but firmly, asked that this flaw be corrected. This is the type of attention to detail and dedication to quality it takes to be a good composer. If there is one musical phrase, one misplaced articulation or dynamic marking, or even one tiny note nestled within a myriad of notes that is not “quite right” a composer must take the time to correct his or her work. It doesn’t matter that an audience member might not perceive the flaw immediately. If one is inspired to create a work of Art, the craftsmanship behind communicating that inspiration must match the heights of the inspiration. Inspiration without good craft is just as bad as good craft without inspiration.  

This leads me to a final part of working hard: feeding that inspiration. I refer to this inspiration as the aural imagination and part of working hard is encountering art, literature and ideas that are bigger than yourself. The composer must read voraciously, visit museums, and attend concerts, opera, the theatre and the ballet as much as possible. Good composers have a thirsty curiosity that, when addressed, fuels the aural imagination and leads to the creation of quality music.  

2. Be a “YES” Person.

Hanging out with the cool kids at a recent
concert reception in Tallahassee. (L-R):
Amy Williams, yours truly & Lansing McLoskey.
Within reason, a composer should agree to almost everything related to the creation of new music. If a performer, conductor or presenter asks a composer if there is interest in a project, the answer should almost always be yes! Assuming a very good work ethic (see above), the composer should have a good idea of his or her creative abilities and how long it will take to accomplish a project. If there is a realistic expectation of successfully fulfilling a request, and the request is not somehow contrary to a composer’s ethics, a composer should agree to the project. No matter what it is!

Quick anecdote: after a successful first commission for the Nashville Chamber Orchestra, I was fortunate enough to be commissioned for a second work. I was asked by the conductor if I would be willing to compose a double concerto for Celtic Fiddle and Bluegrass Fiddle and – by the way – the Bluegrass player could not read music like a classically trained player. The orchestra needed the score in three months. “You in?” the conductor asked. Of course, at the time I didn’t have the slightest idea of how to write idiomatically within these genres. I had some passing familiarity with the styles but that was it. This was a request way outside my comfort zone working with musical styles I had heretofore had no interest in. To pull this off, I would have become very fluent in the styles and solve the logistical problem of writing music for a consummate world-class Bluegrass performer (Stuart Duncan) who, nevertheless, did not read music like a classically trained performer. This would take a LOT of work and be a very risky career move.

I said, “Yes, of course! No problem!”   

Then I panicked! Once I said yes, I was now obligated to complete the task! Therefore, after the panic attack subsided, I went to work researching Celtic and Bluegrass musical styles, taking a Celtic Fiddle orchestration lesson, and composing daily. I made it happen. Not pursuing this commission would have possibly made sense but taking it on resulted in one of my favorite works, Long Journey Home, which has enjoyed a performance life outside the original commission. Composing this piece enabled me to grow significantly as an artist.

Lastly, being a “yes” person presupposes a positive outlook and a humble spirit. Perhaps more important than anything is being a kind and caring artist; generous with your time and supportive of your colleagues. Nobody wants to work with a selfish or difficult person.

2. Show Up.

I believe composers lead professional lives that are at times very solitary. That a composer needs solitude to create music should not be too surprising. The composition of contemporary classical music is rarely collaborative at the writing stage. To be sure, there is much room for collaboration once music has been written. However, at the outset, a composer is faced with what I often refer to as the lonely moment when he or she stares at a blank page and must summon ideas from somewhere. While the aural imagination is a great reservoir from which to draw ideas, the composer must still ultimately grapple with creation alone.

Faculty & students at FSU performing my "eight shades
of metal" at the 18th Biennial Festival of New Music.
Outside of the creative process, however, it is a different story. I believe it is of great benefit to all composers to be very extroverted within the field. That means attending as many Arts events – especially concerts – as possible. Not only does this type of activity feed the aural imagination, attendance of as many events as possible allows for the composer to be visible to peers, audience members, performers, conductors and presenters. Being “seen” gets the composer involved in the field and allows for the opportunity for future collaborations. There have been many times that a new creative project has been hatched at a reception of a concert where my music wasn’t even being performed. I simply was an audience member. However, performers and fellow composers usually appreciate and remember the support. Being “seen” and active is the first step in the necessary work of creating one’s own opportunities.

Showing up in the real world is very important but the composer should not forget about the virtual world as well. I tell my students often that they should be professionally active online. Composers can be visible by contributing socially responsible items of interest to social media outlets, by reading blogs devoted to the field and engaging authors via comments, and by prowling online listings of composition opportunities ( being a great resource) and submitting to as many score calls as possible. It is one of the great regrets of my professional life that I did not submit to more opportunities when I was younger. While it is true that you cannot build a career off the hopes of success in such submissions, the occasional award or performance opportunity due to a successful submission becomes a new avenue to make meaningful connections with performers, conductors, and presenters in the field.

I’m sure that the time it took read this entire blog post is longer than my actual conversation with the grad student in Tallahassee. I hope I was succinct enough to effectively communicate my belief that forging a professional career as a composer and keeping a creative famine at bay boils down to just three things: working hard, saying “yes,” and showing up. Sounds easy enough. However, it’s not just glib small talk at a reception. Like most meaningful endeavors, success in the simple things sometimes takes a lifetime of practice.