As you can see from the tagline on my home page, I am not just a composer. In fact, I’ve been publishing my observations on a wide range of topics for a very long time.
When I was in Middle School, my ambitious older brother Jonathan decided the local paper needed a weekly movie review column and, when he went off to college, my twin and I took up the work. My internet/blogosphere debut came a few years ago on RiceStandard.org, a student-run news and satire website founded by my twin, Matthew, at Rice University, which we both attended. Although I did a couple of music posts for the Rice Standard, I didn’t start seriously writing about my chosen field until September 2010 when I began reviewing concerts for Sequenza21.com, eventually adding CD reviews and event previews for Sequenza21, ChamberMusicianToday.com and UMSLobby.org.
What you will find here – in this post, even – is different from my other work because I will focus on deeper, more abstract and personal issues in my journey as a living American composer. Additionally, I plan to discuss the interactions I have with other composers and musicians in addition to working out inner conflicts and other frustrations. My field reporting will begin in a couple weeks when I start my Individual Studies program at the Aspen Music Festival in Aspen, Colorado and continue with my second year at the University of Michigan. I couldn’t be more excited for both experiences, and I can’t wait to relate my impressions of the people and music I encounter.
Though I don’t start the Aspen program until July 25th, it has already consumed much of my summer with its CompLink project, essentially a ‘commission’ to be performed at the end of our time in Colorado. I chose to write a Horn Trio, which turned out to be much easier to compose than title. One of my long-standing musical ambitions has been the marriage of the style of contemporary music with the visceral rhythmic intensity of hardcore heavy metal in the ilk of Megadeth, Slayer and other bands. I very satisfactorily incorporated these influences into the musical fabric of the Horn Trio, but struggled mightily to put a name on it.
At first, I wanted something militaristic to honor the apocalyptic imagery of the heavy metal songs I love. Yet, the mood of the piece was not aggressive enough to justify, in my mind, the first title I came up with: Infiltrate/Permeate/Detonate. My fear was that the audience would scratch their heads or exchange curious looks for 2/3 of the piece until the music’s energy level totally overflowed, so I chose an alternative theme more fitting for the slithering, timorous and ominous characteristics of the piece: witchcraft. Immediately, I decided to play on Walpurgisnacht, the spooky festival of witches in wizards celebrated in Northwern European cultures. In German lore, this pagan gathering takes place on Mt. Brocken, so I titled the piece: Unmasking the Brocken Spectre, to illustrate a journey through the mountain mists that ultimately unveils dark, devilish revelry. Though not perfect, I think it will do a good job to hint at the mood and scope of the piece without leading the audience to build expectations the music would not fulfill.
I feel like managing expectations is an important concept for composers to keep in mind, particularly in terms of a work’s title. My next project, a commission from the Western Connecticut Youth Orchestra (WCYO), amplifies this idea to a new level of intensity in my experience as I attempt to gauge the expectations of the orchestra’s board, conductor and players, many of whom haven’t heard any concert music more adventurous than Aaron Copland’s populist output.
This opportunity came from pure luck and charisma after I approached the group’s conductor, Petko Dimitrov, at the WCYO’s annual year-end garden party last summer. I was a trumpet player in the orchestra when it was a subsidiary of the Ridgefield Symphony, and Maestro Dimitrov was thrilled at the thought of an alumnus composing an original piece for the WCYO’s upcoming 10th Anniversary season. For me, I have been waiting to write an orchestra piece for a while, and I’m not fazed by working with a youth group. My confidence is boosted by Maestro Dimitrov who has defied the stereotype of orchestra conductors and encouraged me to, “write an orchestra piece and don’t worry about us, we’ll do our best.”
So, here I am, in the midst of writing an orchestra that I want to sound like it was written for the New York Phil but isn’t too far out of the grasp of a talented bunch of Middle and High Schoolers. My first material was very dissonant and abstract, an off-chute of the melodic techniques I had employed in Unmasking the Brocken Spectre, and I found myself lacking inspiration after forcing out 2 ½ minutes of material
Then my girlfriend Sara and I watched the Gene Kelly classic Singin’ In the Rain.
I was enthralled by the lush music that accompanies the romantic scenes in the film and decided to take my orchestra piece in a new direction. In about three days I’ve crafted four minutes of beautiful, yearning love music in the stylistic blend of Strauss, Massanet, and Wagner, but that is just the beginning of my new plan: this overtly sappy opening I’ve constructed is tongue-in-cheek, a joke of sorts which will slowly dissolve into total dissonant and aleatoric chaos.
I like this structural concept because it will ease the members of the orchestra into my sound world, and hopefully boost their confidence with material that is more familiar to them before I knock their socks off with wild harmonic, rhythmic and tonal disorder. The transition between the two principle sections will be a major challenge for me, however, so I am approaching it from either side and working on the beginning of the crazed music before I bridge it with the tonal section I’ve already finished.
The beginning of the chaotic, dissonant music smacks of Charles Ives and features the theme from the ‘love music’ in multiple keys and different mensurations/rhythms along with unrelated, highly dissonant music. My hope is that this section – which lasts for about a minute – will transition nicely to passages where part of the orchestra will improvise while other instruments play together within the meter of the music. I believe the kids in the orchestra will enjoy the opportunity to make up their own rhythms at these points, and the effect should yield the kind of shimmering texture of irregular rhythms I’m looking for.
I think it is imperative for a piece to have a clear structural direction, or gravity, and this orchestra piece should, if I fulfill my ambitions. Despite the complexity of the material the work will present to the players and audience, I believe the simple impulse of the musical structure – fading from familiar territory to a foreign soundscape – will be clear, exciting and satisfying. Moreover, the musical-narrative line I’ve planned out represents the kind of drama I like to include in my music, though often these concepts manifest themselves more subtly than in this instance.
Most importantly, this piece and the process I’ve illustrated describe my relationship with musical style; essentially, my philosophy on how I want my music to sound. First of all, I don’t believe I should write entire pieces in the style of Mahler – it is 2011 and I want my music to sound like I wrote it, not someone else. Secondly, I feel responsible, in a historical sense, to reflect the music of the last 100 years. Along the same lines, I don’t believe I should shut out any kind of music from my pool of influences, nor restrict myself from writing music with a certain kind of characteristic, regardless of its dissonance or consonance. Everything depends on the internal rhetoric of the piece I’m working on, or what I like to say the piece is “about”.
There is nothing more critical to my compositional process than determining what a given piece is “about”. Thankfully, I’ve had that nearly from the beginning with this orchestra piece, but more often than not I encounter a drawn out struggle to identify this extremely abstract notion. The “about” is what you discover in a musical analysis, a combination of elements that explains what goes on in a piece of music from beginning to end, but it is more challenging to identify when the piece your working on is in flux, unfinished and you look at it from the inside out.
Hopefully, armed with knowing what it is “about”, this orchestra piece will continue to come along as easily as it has the last week or so and I can move on to the other projects in my compositional hopper. Time will tell if my designs are realized as dramatically and wildly as I’ve imagined them. Until I begin my time at Aspen, I am certain the immense task of writing an orchestra piece will produce many more facets of my compositional process to observe, critique and discuss