I arrived in Aspen around lunchtime last Monday, July 25th. The day felt like my first day at a new elementary school. Flashy, unfamiliar shops and restaurants lined the streets leading to my final destination: the student services office of the Aspen Music Festival, where I would register and officially begin my time as a music composition student here.
It didn’t take long for me to spot the other composers (most of the other students were carrying instruments…) because my roommate for the summer, Michael-Thomas Foumai, already knew a couple from other programs he had done. There are 12 of us in total, and the age range spans rising sophomores in college to doctoral students. The schools represented here are, essentially, what I call the ‘usual suspects’, big-name places like Indiana and Yale, which are very well known for producing strong composers. As much as the “new kid at school” feeling was hard to shake, my main point of anxiety centered on getting to know these other kids’ music. Involuntarily, I wondered: is their music good? (if so, is my music as good?) is their music not-so-good? (if so, is my music worse than I thought?).
Of course, these are stupid questions.
For better or worse, my music is only as good as I make it. Having Stravinsky as a colleague at Aspen right now doesn’t mean I would pump out L’Histoire du Soldat or even the Ebony Concerto just from being in his presence. Yet, there is an attitude among student composers to judge themselves through the summer programs, or music schools they go to. Granted, it is hard not to get carried away when you read about the accomplishments of former Aspen composition students in the concert programs, but we all need to remember that for every Mason Bates, Joel Puckett and Karim Al-Zand there were many, many more whose post-Aspen careers didn’t seem noteworthy to whoever put those programs together.
Thus, the first step I took to break the ice here at Aspen was reminding myself – along the lines of my last post – that simply being here isn’t enough, I need to make the most of the opportunities I’ll come by the next four weeks.
Sydney Hodkinson and George Tsontakis said as much to all of us composition students in our program orientation, specifically declaring that the people we meet here will be the greatest resource Aspen can offer. I can already tell this begins with the other people in the composition program, all of whom have strong creative minds and well-developed, personal musical sensibilities. So far, our master classes have been astounding: I have never been in a setting like that – any formal presentation of colleagues’ compositions – and heard such wildly diverse and consistently good music. Moreover, our discussions were much more active and constructive than those I experienced in my graduate and under-graduate education.
As cynical as it will seem, I am surprised how friendly, inquisitive and supportive the other composers are. The breadth of music we’ve shared – from Trevor Doherty’s traditionally crafted and contrapuntal String Trio to David Roberts‘ white noise composition or Steven Snowden’s abstract and dramatic work for three percussionists, A Man With a Gun Lives Here – has been so wide, I am certain no one’s personal taste covers all of it. Yet, so far, our discussions’ level of condescension has been refreshingly low. This ‘tolerant’ attitude even extends to those of us who enjoy asking questions in the master class setting, something for which I have received harsh criticism from fellow students in the past (in my undergrad, a DMA student called me an “asshole” for asking questions to a guest composer in our composition seminar).
I think the best representation of my colleague’s enthusiastic, up-for-anything character is the ‘exquisite corpse’ project designed by Dan Schlosberg and Brendan Faegre. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term ‘exquisite corpse’, it refers – in music – to a group composition where the participants write their section in ignorance of the music that comes before except for the very end of the directly preceding section (to prevent impractical transitions). Coincidentally, David Biedenbender and I have organized a larger-scale ‘exquisite corpse’ at the University of Michigan this summer, but this Aspen project is more exciting, in a way, because we are going to do it all in a week. Dan and Brendan planned the parameters of the ‘corpse’ beautifully – each composer is responsible for approximately 15 seconds of music, there is a set instrument list, the music should be sight-readable – but, best of all, they have come up with a way for all of us to get something played by the crack Aspen Contemporary Ensemble.
Every composer here is participating, and we hope it is successful enough to become an annual tradition. I am very impressed with Dan and Brendan’s leadership, but, more so, I am taken aback by the reception this project has gotten from the rest of the composers here. There are many composers I’ve met who, for whatever reason, wouldn’t want to have fun like this with their music, so I am proud of all of us for getting so excited about this out-of-the-box bonding activity.
What also speaks volumes is Syd and George’s reaction to this scheme. Dan and Brendan first presented the idea to George and he immediately took it under his wing and, though we all threw it on him in a master class, Syd was immediately supportive of the project as long as we understood the piece would get, “six seconds of rehearsal time”. I’ve found Syd and George are very special teachers because they both are so incredibly straightforward. Both possess keen senses of humor, a personable level of modesty and neither are bitter nor ego-centric nor arrogant. These are two accomplished, experienced composers who have a lot to teach us.
I am studying with Syd and I love that he wants to teach me the hard things about writing music. His pedagogical style is extremely to-the-point – he said in my first lesson, “I only tell you about the bad things in your music” – but not derogatory. If nothing else, Syd is frank: either your piece works or it doesn’t, and he tells you his reasons why. Yet, he recognizes his judgments are his own and doesn’t attempt to enforce any ‘universal’ truths…though his opinions are very, very strong.
We spent my first lesson discussing Clavdia, a work for five players I completed in September 2010. I invite you to listen to it on my music page and see if you agree with his criticisms. Namely, he disliked the work’s segmented structure and lack of transitions, something I’ve heard from many other professors whom I’ve shown the piece. I absolutely agree this is something I struggled with in the work, as illustrated by an eightfold attempt to connect the second and third main sections of the piece. That transition still doesn’t work.
I blame Clavdia’s transitional deficiency on my priorities writing the piece, which centered on creating strong identities for my three main sections of material. Of course, these sections became too different, at least so dissimilar that connecting was too challenging for me to accomplish in 9 minutes of music. Fortunately for me, the piece I’m working on now – the orchestra piece I discussed in my first observation – will be a great vehicle for me to hone this area of my craft. I will work on it with Syd for the first time on Wednesday, so check in next week to see what he thinks.