Is What’s Clear To Me Clear To You?

So often, it is through the prism of another’s art that we see our own most clearly. At least, that was my experience with a master class Jessye Norman led at the University of Michigan a little over a week ago. I went out of curiosity and courtesy to a soprano I know who asked me to go with her, and left the hall amazed by Ms. Norman’s insights, and how her wisdom related to my life as a composer.


Although Ms. Norman dispensed manifold nuggets of vocal advice, there was one overarching theme to her criticism: clarity. Singers’ attentiveness to lucid diction is obvious because they are the only performers who have to deal with texts, yet the afternoon’s lessons were not limited to vowel-sound production. Ms. Norman’s sense of clarity is more holistic and extends from tedious pronunciation to the singers’ emotional understanding of their texts and, most importantly, the way they interface and relate to their own physiology. Ms. Norman advocated intrapersonal clarity, focusing a singer’s physical/emotional understanding of their voice and how it responds to any situation from too much mucous to a tricky ‘schwa’ at the end of a line of Apollinaire. I immediately began to look for parallels in my own pursuits, and didn’t have to look far because I also work with texts – writing them, that is – much of the time.


For a singer, and a writer, it is imperative to recognize and distill what the text is trying to communicate. Unfortunately, it isn’t too difficult to lose sight of a piece of writing’s message – especially when you are the author, producing an original text for a blog, web publication or class. Because composers are often called on to explain their music, the illusory nature of this literary clarity is important for all of us to bear in mind, so much so that Kristin Kuster spent an entire Graduate Composition Seminar discussing how not to be clear when writing prose.


The subject for our discussion was David Smooke’s recent NewMusicBox article titled, The Audience Does Not Exist. We read it before class and then collectively broke it down line-by-line, examining what each word revealed about Smooke’s point-of-view. We discovered mixed messages and confusing implications – basically, we couldn’t find a focused point for the piece. The article begins discussing ‘The Audience’, why a composer shouldn’t write for ‘The Audience’, and wraps up with a whirlwind soliloquy on musical meaning, the ethics of being a composer and finally asserts, “Write the music that you love and that’s honest to you.” I admit our obsessively microscopic analysis of the article narrowed our perspective on Smooke’s message. Nevertheless, I stand by class’ agreement that the piece’s aim was muddy and unclear.


This doesn’t mean Smooke’s final argument isn’t the his most important; it simply comes out of nowhere seeing that the article’s object up to that point is ‘The Audience’. Seen broadly like this, there is a lot of evidence that Smooke communicated his ideas unclearly. However, looking at the article with the detailed method about which Professor Kuster was so adamant suggests, with more certainty, that ‘doing what one loves’ is not always at the forefront of this article’s message. The first paragraph, with its use of, “insidious” and “People”, is evidence enough that the author has taken a defensive position. Smooke has drawn a line in the sand separating him from these “People”, who he goes on to explain are composers who “appease” their listeners and, by doing so, have turned ‘The Audience’ away from the music he composes and cherishes.


I actually sympathize with Smooke – not because I also feel threatened by an “Audience-pleasing orthodoxy” – insofar as I detect a fragile and personal undercurrent to his sense of vulnerability. One of the sentences Professor Kuster pointed out implies where I think Smooke is coming from, “concepts like infinite yearning can be embarrassingly difficult to express through words.” These words are a window into what Smooke feels is at stake: his ability to express his most sensitive thoughts. Unwittingly, the delayed thesis of his article – that is, ‘do what you love’ – comes to the surface: Smooke loves his music because it is absolutely honest to himself and allows him to convey his most ineffable, fleeting thoughts and feelings. If everyone did the same, there wouldn’t be any pressure to conform to a mythical, non-existent “Audience”.


Sadly, the continuity of this message is only detectable through a very thorough and close reading of the article, something much more common in a literature classroom than the blogosphere. Of course, that was precisely Professor Kuster’s reason for sharing and examining Smooke’s post with us. Yet, clarity shouldn’t only be on a composer’s mind when he or she blogs or writes program notes. Like what Jessye Norman expressed to the singers in her master class, composers should look for deep, personal and musical clarity, at least from piece to piece, if not on a larger scale. It is like the title of this post, which I borrowed by John Cage’s 1958 essay Composition as Process: whether writing words or music, composers need to ask themselves, “is what’s clear to me clear to you?”.


Like a written text, a piece of music should have a clear meaning – I like to say a piece is “about” something – and it is important the communication of said message is not undermined by the surface and/or inner workings of the music. I’ve recently run into issues of communicative ‘interference’ with the orchestra piece I finished in August, Throes of Love. The point of the piece is complicated and requires a sophisticated form that must prepare and subvert certain expectations held by the listener in order to succeed. What I lost – and need to now find – as I worked on the piece was the music’s precise message and rhetorical tone. When I presented Throes of Love to Evan Chambers, my private instructor, he was confused as to what the piece is “about”, and I couldn’t clarify in anything more than general terms.


Although Throes of Love is flawed by its lack of clarity, I can fix the piece and maintain the complexity I desire. One of the most amazing things about music is that it can be extremely abstract and complicated and still convey an unambiguous message. I felt as much was confirmed to me during a performance of John Cage’s Credo in US I attended the night before I went to the Jessye Norman master class. The piece is a fairly early work (1942), but abounds with the same elements of chance, noise and realism Cage advocated throughout his life. For example, one of the parts is for phonograph and radios, which are ostensibly set to any working station the player can find. At one point in the piece, the radios came on for a couple seconds, but long enough for the speaker on-air to say, “these things are all perfectly good.” The audience giggled and the players grinned knowing Cage’s indeterminate techniques had yielded a resplendently beautiful moment. It was pure chance that the talking head would involuntarily bless the noises and rhythms filling the hall with that aphorism, but isn’t that the kind of real-world coincidence Cage sought to explore in his music?


I had previously been skeptical Cage’s reputation as a composer, but that performance of Credo in US revealed the beauty and power of his music with ineradicable clarity. Though I am no expert on Cage’s philosophy, I get the sense his willingness to give up compositional control arose from his understanding that the musical message he desired to communicate could not be synthesized deterministically. Like David Smooke, Cage obviously loved the way he created his compositions, but I believe his sense of artistic clarity is much more profound and holistic, not unlike the intrapersonal clarity I mentioned in the same breath as Jessye Norman’s master class.


I desire an artistic vision as unencumbered and pellucid as Cage’s as much as I know it will manifest itself much differently in me. Right now, I need to refine the clarity of what is in front of me – Throes of Love – but I will also remember to expand it from the most transient and local situations I come across to long-term, persistent aspects of my life. Like singing a line of text, my sense of compositional clarity is as much reliant on the details of my work as it is on the larger themes of my artistic ambitions. The key to balancing these levels of detail is uniting them with my sense of self, with the values I cherish. If I can do that, clarity with come easily in all areas of my work because I will be doing what I love, doing what is natural to my body, mind and artistic spirit.





The Case For Character

My first experience writing for and working with an orchestra was about five years ago, half way through my freshman year at Rice University in Houston, Texas. The composition department had a (now-discontinued) partnership with one of the city’s many community orchestras – this one was in the Woodlands. I was among the lucky six or seven of us who got to work with the group writing soundtracks to accompany original animations produced by local high-schoolers.


This was a pretty exciting opportunity for me at the time and it has affected me ever since, but not because of anything good. You see, lurking in the shadows of my approach to this project was a healthy amount of naivety, the kind one can expect from a green freshman in college. My obliviousness didn’t so much manifest itself in the demands of my score; instead, my innocence left me unprepared to deal with the symphony’s conductor (one of that certain species of orchestra directors we composers are prone to whisper about at private gatherings). My rude awakening came in the first rehearsal when the he refused to play my piece at the tempo I had marked. To repair the synchronicity between the score and the video, the Maestro just crossed out about 15 measures of music right before my eyes. I was nonplussed, shocked, so stunned I didn’t react at first, despite the anger and embarrassment I still feel.


Almost every composer I’ve met has a similar horror story, but, much like Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, we resign ourselves to put up with this “fuzzy-end-of-the-lollipop” treatment. It is hard for the young composer to bring him/herself to challenge a conductor/performer because it may jeopardize the performance, although being run-around like I was is obviously disrespectful. This came up at Aspen, and Syd Hodkinson spoke in favor of standing up for oneself, which is obviously the right thing to do in such a situation, though it very hard. Sadly, the professional pressures of being a young composer, building one’s career, networking and seizing opportunities don’t tolerate that kind of idealism, preferring – if not promoting – a conceding pragmatism in terms of decorum (and musical content?).


I’m not here to lament the low station of composers in the status quo of American concert music. Like Greek mythology’s Tantalus, that discussion will remain eternally dissatisfied. The fact of the matter is, situations like the aforementioned come from a pretty simple place: people don’t always respect other people. Of course, mourning the poor sociability of professional musicians is also a futile literary expedition. Because it I don’t enjoy fighting fire with fire, I want to tell you about a person I’ve recently worked with who gives me hope, a conductor who I wish could redefine the stereotype single-handedly: Petko Dimitrov.


Petko is a young, pretty accomplished Bulgarian conductor who has been the assistant conductor with Symphony in C for three years and, since 2007, has led the Western Connecticut Youth Orchestra (henceforth, WCYO) based in my hometown of Ridgefield, Connecticut. It probably won’t come as a surprise that I’ve worked with him through the second of these groups, the WCYO, who – as I’ve mentioned in earlier ‘Observations’ – commissioned me last summer to write a work for their upcoming 10th anniversary season. Petko has been nothing but courteous, friendly and open with me throughout the 16 months we’ve had in connection to this project. In contrast to the archetype of orchestral conductors – the kind whose first words to a colleague of mine once were, “are you going to fuck with my players?” – Petko encouraged me to be daring and bold, even in spite of his orchestra’s technical limitations.


Wednesday morning I presented my piece, Throes of Love, to Petko and Laurie Kenagy, the WCYO’s artistic director, and his positive energy returned with as much strength as ever. Petko has an infectious laugh and I was happy to throw in a few successful jokes as I showed them the sections of heavy string divisi, aleatory, and instrumental noise I threw into the music to break up an otherwise traditional orchestral presentation. Because Petko and I had discussed all these elements before I composed the piece, I wasn’t surprised at his welcoming attitude. However, I was blown away when he started talking about the different orchestral call-for-scores he thought I should send the piece to. Although I plan on using the work as my Masters’ thesis, I wasn’t planning on sending it around to competitions until its premiered because I had written it for them. Yet, here is the conductor who commissioned me suggesting opportunities I should pursue with the piece, including Symphony in C’s own call-for-scores.


In contrast to my first interaction with a professional conductor, Petko has refused to make this project about him, instead focusing his energy on making this opportunity as favorable for me as possible. I imagine it helps that Petko is an alum of the University of Michigan and that I am an alum of the WCYO, giving us an above-average connection from the get-go. Yet, I think a lot of it has to do with Petko. The man is proud but seemingly devoid of ego, so grounded he was exceedingly apologetic when he asked to postpone our first phone chat last November so he could watch the Bulgarian National Soccer Team play a match.


I call attention to Petko’s personability because – cynically – I find it tragically absent in our field. The presiding sentiment in professional concert music is to be sterile and aloof, when just the opposite is what we probably need to build an audience. Clearly, chinks in the armor exist, whether they be Yuja Wang’s miniskirt, Rob Deemer’s New York Times Op-ed on composers from a couple months back, or Petko’s approachability. To this end, we composers don’t always help ourselves out. The wheedling sycophantism with which we stereotypically – in some cases, realistically – approach interactions with performers and conductors is an instant turn-off and, when paired with the perceived burden of communicating what we write, produces a divide between the ‘us’ who create contemporary music and the ‘them’ who bring it to the stage.


Naturally, personalities can only be helped to a certain extent: we are who we are. Moreover, individuals’ characters and musics often bleed together. I’ve already ranted about Kevin Puts, who takes a very defensive position regarding the content of his compositions, justifying his neo-classical predilections with the aphorism, “a composer must be forgiven if he wants to spend his life creating beautiful things.” Surprisingly, I found a counter-personality in a composer whose music is very close to Puts’ in terms of style: David Matthews.


Matthews is much older then Puts, but has only written neo-Romantic music throughout his career. He also believes triadic, functional harmonies are extremely beautiful, but chooses to write in that parlance because that’s kind of music that best expresses what he wants to express. I’m sure the same is true for Puts, but Matthews doesn’t impose his musical language as dogmatically. When he spoke my class of composers at Aspen he emphasized, beyond anything else, the necessity for a composer to find the aural vocabulary that is the most sincere to them, regardless of its content or implications.


I think it important to note that, unlike Puts, Matthews began his career at a time when writing neo-classical music was considered heretical (Matthews illustrated this point with an anecdote about Boulez who, when asked about Benjamin Britten’s music, claimed the English composer, “does not exist”). There were serious professional risks involved with Matthew’s stylistic choices, but he valued character and artistic integrity over anything else. Although there was something rebellious about Matthews’ music, he had deeper motivations to write it. Today, composers can’t attempt that same kind of rebellion. Matthews’ professed – so did George Tsontakis – as much to us, and went so far as to say we may be challenged by not having any musical dogmas against which to define ourselves. Such a struggle for individual identity is another discussion; the point I am trying to make is that I found Matthews’ genuine disposition to beirreproachably endearing, much like Petko’s.


Were more composers so personable, we may enjoy less standoffish relationships with performers, conductors and – frankly – the larger public. Of course, I know other charming, magnetic personalities beyond Petko Dimitrov, and I sense that younger generations of performers, conductors and composers don’t carry the same disingenuous, self-centered personalities as their forebears. However, like rehearsal technique, musical economy and the countless other things we just don’t talk about enough: character really matters.

I think, universally speaking, doing the right thing and treating people with respect are two grossly undervalued concepts. They are no less critical in a world as small and collaborative as ours.

What Aspen Taught Me: Economy

My last Thursday at the Aspen Music Festival featured a lesson with George Tsontakis and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what he told me. The lesson was a little strange because it was only 30 minutes and we talked about my horn trio (The Brocken Spectre), which he was hearing for the first time. Having a lesson about a first-listen isn’t terribly uncommon or problematic, but George also hadn’t heard any of my other music, so, going into it, I felt like the odds were against us making a good connection. At first, George was complimentary about the piece, but then he dove pretty hard into an area of the piece I hadn’t really thought about, a musical concept whose role in the piece I disagreed with him on, a criticism that – though, it isn’t necessarily damning – I took issue with:




This is one of those “composer terms”; one of the rare quantifiable elements of a piece and something I hold rather mixed feelings about. Economy is a huge role player in how highly we musical academics regard the work of common-practice-period composers (I am the first to admit the jaw-dropping-ness of discovering the pervasiveness of simple materials in Beethoven symphonies or Mozart sonatas), and also justifies certain more recent composers’ complex pre-compositional organization. Also, there are many composers my age to whom a piece’s value is directly related to the degree to which it is “economical”, or who think the highest compliment they can give/receive is that they compose “economical” music.


I know and respect where support for musical economy comes from and – for the most part – I agree with it because many of the pieces I respect the most are extremely economical works. My favorite example is Ellsworth Milburn’s String Quartet no. 2, which develops a simple semitone motive on a journey from highly chromatic expressionism to tertian semi-tonality (the ‘lightbulb’ moment in the piece is when the motive is incorporated into a 4-3 suspension in a major triad; the remoteness of the gesture’s surroundings compared to the rest of the piece make this turn of events impossible to predict and – to my ears – infinitely more satisfying). However, the power of this piece rests in the perceptibility of its economy, something certain famously economical works don’t always possess. Take the ‘Nacht’ movement of Pierrot Lunaire, for example. It is a passacaglia, but the theme is extremely well-concealed at times, requiring – at least in the case of my first 20th-century theory class – an instructor to prove the pervasiveness of Schoenberg’s iconic three-note idea.


The reason I disagreed with George’s harping on the economy of The Brocken Spectre is that I wrote the piece very economically, this quality just isn’t always transparent. Being a young composer, I’ve written plenty of uneconomical music (see Clavdia on my music page, for one such piece) in my time, but I took particular care to create a tightly-knit musical framework with this horn trio. Confident in my compositional discipline, I countered almost every ostensibly unconnected moment George brought up, identifying the preceding place in the piece where the germ of the given idea was sewn into the piece’s fabric. Granted, there are a few moments that seem to come out of nowhere, but they are just more subtly connected to what comes before.


When George recognized the varying transparency of my material’s connectivity, he also criticized it because he believed the relationships were too abstract to generate structural meaning. He pointed to the clarity with which triplets transform their role in the piece, using the success of this economized idea to demonstrate the ostensible failure of other moments. One such obscured strategy is the intervallic consistency of my melodic material, which is subtle and potentially difficult to detect on the first listen. Along these lines, George argued when an idea (say, a brief melody in the piano) reappeared later on in a different scoring (say, violin and horn doubled at the octave), and if an idea recurred but was transformed (say, expanded by a couple beats) the connection between the two events is lost.


My consternation arose because: 1. George’s interpretation holds extremely limited criteria on how recurrence or repetition create musical meaning 2. it contradicts multiple examples of musical economy I’m familiar with in extant compositions.


Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony will be my following argument’s only evidence, but I’m sure you can think of your own similar examples. To begin, the final movement has many transparent and obscure references – internal and external – to justify the economy of its material. The most traditional of these is the way Shostakovich builds to the quintal/quartal tutti climax about two-thirds through the movement (maybe a little later, I’m not going to get all academic with bar numbers). When the climax occurs, we predominantly hear the dotted-rhythms of the melody in the winds in brass, but he has prepared our ears for the tune in the quieter preceding section using the same (or very closely related) melodic material as a bass line in the pizzicato strings. In my mind, the change in orchestration does not interfere with the listener’s ability to recognize the material connection of these two parts of the piece, although I believe conscious recognition isn’t even necessary for passage like this one to succeed.


Along these lines, let’s discuss the Wagner quote that appears multiple times in this final movement. The symbolism of the quotation (it is the leitmotif that appears in the horns/trombones just prior to ‘Siegfriedstrauermarsch’ in Götterdämmerung) is clear – the Fifteenth Symphony was written as Shostakovich lay dying in the hospital and this reference is obviously the composer’s personal reflection on his imminent passing on – and identifiable to connoisseurs of classic music, but the passage feels organic to the entire symphony for a different reason. The symphony’s second movement begins with a similarly scored brass chorale whose harmonic progression and counterpoint is very similar to the Wagner quote, yet not at all identical. He is preparing us for the Wagner quote by familiarizing his audience with this certain orchestral sound. In other words, it is possible to build a connection between disparate passages in a large (or small) work simply by uniting their ensemble textures or orchestration – in this case, the notes don’t play a role of these moments’ economy-of-means.


Finally, there is a very profound percussion sectional at the end of the piece. It is meaningful in a programmatic context because it is Shostakovich’s musical representation of the medical equipment keeping him alive and monitoring his vital signs. Simply put, it is a bizarre and dramatic moment, which Shostakovich prepares by very briefly including the music in the jaunty third movement. Not only does this music’s initial emotional/musical context differ extremely from its reappearance in the symphony’s closing minutes, Shostakovich transforms the idea with injecting string melodies and new percussion passages. Nevertheless, the impact of the ticking percussion part is strengthened by the audience’s aural preparedness for the effect. In other words, transforming an idea upon its reoccurrence doesn’t necessarily tarnish its economic validity.


According to the logic George applied to my piece last Thursday, the connectivity between these three moments and the music that prepares them should be impalpable. Obviously, that is not the case. Furthermore, it probably isn’t even necessary to be able to point to two passage’s material connections while you listen to a piece for the first time. Our brain attempts to distinguish patterns in the music we hear, which leads me to believe we can subconsciously identify extremely subtle and ostensibly imperceptible material connections and relationships every time we listen to music. After all, isn’t this kind of ability at the heart of most musical analysis? Don’t we feel a level of economy and interconnectedness before we identify it?


A completely different counterargument to the asserted necessity of musical economy involves music that makes no attempt to be economical. Chance music, sound mass music and improvised music eschew the editorial facets of traditional composition (the ability to revise that allows the composer control enough to design highly complicated relationships between his/her music’s material) and, by design, do not have the same economy of means as their written-out counterpart. Even many through-composed works – like Ligeti’s Requiem – challenge the rigid definition of musical economy enforced by many composers. Clearly, it would be absurd to invalidate all these musics and pieces of music because they lack tight-knit economy-of-means. So, should composers value it as much as they do?


I think it would be both flippant and dangerous to rebel against such a classic principle of music composition on account of one lesson that rubbed me the wrong way. George is a very smart man and a very good teacher. His sensitivity to economy is personal – as he repeatedly acknowledged – and important because closely controlling a piece’s economy-of-means can often lead to good things and powerful musical events. If anything, the Shostakovich I mentioned to refute George’s philosophy is a great proof for the flexibility and effectiveness of this compositional axiom. Yet, I also think it is important to accept it is possible to create beautiful, successful music that lacks a strong musical economy (just listen to John Cage’s Some of ‘Harmonie of Maine if you don’t believe me).


In the end, I suppose it is up to me – and every other composer – to choose the degree to which I want to regulate my piece’s material and be true to that decision.


(The penultimate sentence connects to something I’ll discuss in my next ‘Observation’: character. By which I mean personal character, not musical character. So check in later to read about

These last 10 days at the Aspen Music Festival

The period from last Monday (August 1) to last night has been among the most emotional and challenging of my brief compositional career, replete with erratic highs and lows, causes for celebration and concern all condensed into a little over a week. Like the end of my last observation, which closed with an innocent plug for a post-lesson review, my consternation and joy has mostly come from the writing an orchestra piece I’m work on, which is tentatively called: Throes of Love. The work’s title is important to my story because it not only reflects the music’s content/form, it also accurately illustrates pains I’ve gone through as I’ve worked on it this week.


My journey, so to speak, began last Wednesday around 3 PM (MDT) when I left my lesson with dashed hopes and serious doubts about the work I knew I had to do. Upon reflection, I went into the day with naïve optimism, which had been bolstered by the fun I’d had the two days before building friendships and seemingly taking control of my experience at the festival. To that date, the only bump in the road I’d faced in Aspen was a severe scheduling snafu that left me without a complete ensemble within two weeks of my performance here, which is tomorrow. However, I had found the needed violinist that Sunday, and, as a result, I thought things were looking up.


Thus, armed with confidence in the relationships I was making at the festival, the status of my horn trio and the integrity of the idea behind this orchestra piece I walked into my lesson with an unbeknownst bulls-eye on my chest. Essentially, I had gotten too caught up in how great I felt about the idea behind the piece and not executed it very well at all. To review, the scheme of the work is a bit of ‘trickeration’ where the opening amorous tonal section suddenly gives way to total dissonant and aleatoric insanity. I never equivocated on the strength of this idea but, once I had it, got too cavalier about putting it together and wrote really terrible tonal music.


The disappointment that overcame me as I walked out of the classroom Wednesday afternoon didn’t come from the fact that the music I had written had problems – every composer works through crappy music during the process of writing good music. Rather, I was troubled I had failed to recognize the inadequacy of what I had written. To be blunt, I don’t think I’ll ever succeed in this field if I can’t detect when I’m headed in the wrong direction with a piece, and I was nonplussed by my lack of recognition in this case. I was disturbed I had been blinded by my internal intellectual smugness.


It isn’t unusual for me to go through this kind of emotional cycle as I work on a piece, in fact most of the other composers I’ve talked to about this also experience varying positive and negative feelings as they progress in their compositional process. I don’t believe it is problematic to have self-doubt because it helps me stay motivated (in fact, a lot of successful professional athletes have similar psychologies), but there is a balance between healthily deflating one’s ego and becoming consumed by low self-esteem. Uncharacteristically, I was very intimidated by the steep compositional mountain I knew I had to climb before my next meeting with Syd. There was no avoiding the fact that I needed to gut 80% of what I had (about 5’30” – 6′ of music) and replace it with inventive counterpoint based on a motive that would function in the tonal section of the piece and also fit inconspicuously into the non-tonal soundscape I had planned for later on in the work.


I needed a kick in the pants to get out of my funk, and I got one from my girlfriend who, after listening to my doleful venting for long enough, sobered my perspective with the pithy aphorism, “welcome to being human”. Wittingly, she excited my brain like a horse agitated by newly sharpened spurs and – by the end of that evening’s Gabriel Kahane recital – I had the crucial motive figured out.  For the next week I worked around the clock either sketching, composing or engraving the revisions to my piece, more than once going back and re-working a newly composed section to smooth out its flaws.


Yesterday’s lesson was a stark and welcome contrast to its predecessor. Syd wasn’t glowing, because that isn’t his style. But, I was thrilled his critiques were extremely local and nit-picky; like he talked to me about notated out ritardandos and that kind of detail-oriented stuff. He did compliment my counterpoint outright, which pleased me enormously, but I was extremely happy with the lesson because he didn’t speak in general terms like the week before. The effort I had put into fixing the piece was obvious, and the solutions I employed were so satisfactory to me, had Syd taken issue with them I would have protested his opinion. Thankfully, that wasn’t necessary and I was reward with an incredible sense of accomplishment and I look forward to finishing the piece for next week’s lesson.


However, the smile on my face didn’t last forever because fixing this piece is only one of the challenges I encountered this week. As I mentioned earlier, I was victim to organizational failure when it came to finding players to perform my horn trio, Unmasking the Brocken Spectre (yes, that title will change), and, though I found a violinist, new issues continued to arise. Principle among these was that my horn player was never given her music. Though she was able to play off the score until I gave her the music, this fact is absolutely unacceptable. I even felt a little disrespected because the festival gave us composers very specific instructions about submitting our music early so players would have time to practice the parts before we got arrived in Aspen.


To be frank, had I known I needed to get players to play my piece on my first day here I could have done a more expedient and effective job than the festival’s infrastructure. Yet, besides this significant issue, I have unconditionally loved every moment I’ve had here. I also realize a large part of this problem lies in misunderstandings and failures to communicate on the part of instrumentalists the festival organizers couldn’t control. Nevertheless, I think it is fair to expect – after paying full tuition – such a critical aspect of my program to be better organized.


In spite of what feels like a cosmic conspiracy to make my time in Aspen as frustrating as possible, I have also witnessed, in the last ten days, some wonderfully inspiring and gratifying behavior on the part of my fellow composers. I know I mentioned in my last observation how considerate and enthusiastic the other composers here are. This week, Dan Schlosberg and Steven Snowden showed an amazing amount of selflessness and dedication to two projects we had in the works: our concert’s poster (below) and the engraving of the exquisite corpse composition I talked about in my last post.


Maybe I’m a little jaded from my undergraduate experience, but I haven’t run into a ton of stand-up guys – or girls – in my time as a composition student. Yet, Dan and Steven broke that stereotype with their willingness to sacrifice their time and help these initiatives come to fruition. Of course, there are other friendly, loyal individuals in our field – I am friends with several of them at the University of Michigan – but it is too often that I come across a colleague who is only interested in what he or she is doing. This week, I sensed a strong spirit of community in the composition program here thanks in large part to Steve, Dan and the rest of the composers here who contributed, in their own way, to the exquisite corpse project.


For a long time, I’ve held the belief that, in order for our field to flourish, composers need to let go of their personal predilections, judgments and opinions on artistic propriety and come together as a community working towards the common goal of increasing our music’s cultural/social relevance. I think, above all the aesthetic factors, our world has weakened in the last 60 years because of infighting and a lack of leadership. Although I feel like my generation of composers is mostly supportive of individuals’ diverse pursuits, there are still pockets of resistance, cliques and isolated personalities who hold dear specific stipulations on what makes a composer ‘legitimate’.


Naturally, these divisive ideologies could not survive in a tight-knit community, and – thanks to Dan, Steve and countless others I know and don’t yet know – I have hope such a spirit can grow strong in the world of new music. As renowned Bass soloist and composer Edgar Meyer noted to our composition seminar last Saturday, communal activities are largely absent – have always been absent – in the world of concert music. Yet, with projects like our Aspen exquisite corpse, a similar ‘composers’ quilt’ we are doing at Michigan and other such endeavors, the sense of isolationism that predominates our field should be mitigated. Hopefully, more and more student composers will learn to look beyond the blank page in front of them.

Breaking Ice at the Aspen Music Festival

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.

If Composers Were Pianos

I am often asked what instruments I play. Even when I explain I am a composer and I don’t really perform, people want to know what I play, so I tell them. Literally speaking, composing has nothing in common with playing an instrument, but I feel like making an irreconcilable distinction between playing an instrument and writing music is a little flawed. Perhaps I am diving a little too deeply into the abstract underbelly of music composition, but I feel compelled to insist that each composer is an instrument on his or her own.


The term I’d use to identify my idea of a composer’s instrument is compositional voice, or tone. It is the idea that individual composers’ music possesses specific and personal elements that identify it as the product of their unique creative spirit. Beyond this crude definition, I think it is best to explore on a case-by-case basis. For example, Richard Strauss’ music often features direct modulations by third, or John Adams’ operas use a highly rhythmic and repetitive style of text setting.  These personal tropes are particularly easy to recognize in the common practice period, but this principle applies to 20th-century and living composers just as easily, though one’s criteria may be less specific than the examples I’ve given. John Zorn’s compositions Forbidden Fruit and Chimeras are particularly illustrative of this, seeing as they are generically bonded by their stylistic diversity and convivial treatment of instrumental color, despite their dramatically dissimilar musical content.


I imagine many of my peer composers – those of us in college or graduate school – would agree that, despite the self-evidence of distinct compositional voices, this topic is not commonly discussed and certainly not taught as part of a music school’s composition curriculum. Truthfully, I derived this principle from allusion and indirect conversations, mainly with fellow students. Most of the composition professors and guest composers I’ve come across avoid discussing the idea of personal compositional voice or tone more than superficially. The reason for this eludes me: either they find the subject too complex to articulate, feel they must protect their students or believe this is one of the many ineffable areas of our art form, a mystery of writing music that must be learned independently through experience but cannot be taught.


Ironically, I believe the way composition curricula avoid a straightforward discussion of personal voice is leading many peers of mine astray. The contrived vagaries of music composition – namely, the artificial insistence that composition is too complicated to objectively analyze and judge – leave many impressionable minds lost. When faced with the fundamental and formative decision of doing what is right (in my mind, pushing oneself to develop an individual, personal style) and what is easy (mimicking the work of others or following a bandwagon), too many talented, young personalities in our field pursue the latter.


My epiphany on this topic occurred in an unconventional classroom at the University of Michigan School of Music: head piano technician Robert Grijalva’s workshop. Just like the role of mycology in John Cage’s Music Lover’s Field Companion, the craft of piano maintenance has cast light onto fundamental truths in the world of music. And, although I can’t deny claiming, “all I need to know about being a composer I can learn from maintaining a piano” is naïve; the parallels between the trades have forever altered my perspective on the best way to be a composer.


One such commonality is the piano world’s ‘tonal schools’, which equate to composers’ stylistic schools. The analogy is so close that, much like musical style, variations in pianos’ ‘tonality’ reflect culture and geography while giving each instrument – and instrument maker – a unique sound. Furthermore, piano technicians also struggle to balance the clear, quantifiable aspects of their work with its more complex and abstract elements. In other words, as much as piano technicians rely on math and engineering, they employ a good deal of intuition, just like composers.


Mechanics and instinct come together most dramatically in the process of ‘voicing’ a piano. This is the acme of piano technology because the work is extremely fragile and instrument-specific. A technician must artfully combine adjustments in the piano’s action, hammers and strings to produce the best sound for a given piano. Additionally, the instrument leads the technician to its best sound almost similarly to a work in progress ‘telling’ the composer where it needs to go. Before long, it was clear to me that piano technology’s blend of conscious and subconscious labor, explicit and implicit decision-making and situational individuality closely resembled the characteristics of music composition.


The analogy I’ve already made between works and progress and pianos in need of maintenance is straightforward. And, to view being a composer like being a piano technician at work is informative in its own right, though limited. The most important element I think a composer can study in this metaphor is the simple process of diagnosis enjoyed by piano technicians. A piece of music in the midst of composition is not too different from a piano in need of repair. Both objects are incomplete and must be improved in order to achieve their potential. Moreover, there are rigid parameters that can limit the kind of maintenance we can attempt on both the piano and the unfinished work. Whether this means an instrument’s range, timbre or idiomatic characteristics, the quality of a piano’s materials or any of an infinite list of circumstances, composers and piano technicians are both forced to find a balance between what they want to do and what a given situation will allow.


However, this comparison only scratches the surface of what piano technology can teach students of music composition because, if we accept the idea that a composer’s ‘instrument’ is their personal voice, it becomes clear that a composer is not only analogous to the piano technician, but also to the piano. My argument hinges on the equating the respective concepts of ‘voices’ in piano technology and music composition. Like the individual characteristics of a given composer’s output, pianos’ sounds differ from instrument to instrument. Likewise, both terms can be categorized into ‘schools’ whereby a new perspective on a composer or piano’s ‘voice’ can be gained.


Bearing this argument in mind, I believe if composers in my peer group were pianos, many of us would be in poor condition. We would not struggle identifying the importance of having a voice, but we would fail to recognize the necessity of individuality when we maintain it. It is far easier to copy another’s music or process than look inside ourselves, at the unique characteristics of our musical machinery, and determine the manner in which we should balance/manifest them in our music. Imagine how confounded you would be if a piano technician attempted to voice your Steinway piano like it were a Yamaha, or tuned it while wearing earplugs. The same can be said for composer who simply regurgitates, ignoring their intuition and, above all, the impulses of their personal voice as they put notes on the page.


Inexperience and insecurity, of course, account for a lot of the poor ‘voicing’ one hears in the work of young composers. It takes time to become comfortable with one’s personal creativity, the strength and distinctiveness of which varies from composer to composer. I have already mentioned the lack of guidance in area of personal development student composers suffer during their education. It is safe to say that composition departments are in a reactionary phase right now, replacing the strict aesthetic ‘requirements’ enforced by musical academics in the 1960s, 70s and – perhaps – 80s, with a spirit of total freedom.


I do not advocate the re-installation of the stylistic ‘fascism’ I’ve heard described by guest composers and professors, but I am disturbed by an unintended consequence of the laissez-faire instruction my colleagues and I presently enjoy: complacency. I fear too many of my peers refuse to push themselves and our art. These are many of the same people who would rather follow in the paths of others than create something on their own (the extremity of which is not important!). For whatever reason, their process of musical discovery ends after its first step – they find something that works on a basic level and refuse to make even slight progress.


I believe a major cause of this problem is a perception of destination; the assumption your growth ends at a given point, such as when you win that first award or get into that prestigious program/school. There is a failure to acknowledge what we accomplish in one piece won’t last forever, that success – whatever we define that to be – is not so much achieved as it is sustained. The same is true for maintaining a piano’s voicing: it is a fluid entity trapped in the rigid furniture of the piano and requires constant attention and adjustment year-to-year, even week-to-week or month-to-month.


In my mind, this is the most important lesson I have learned – any composer can learn – from the art of piano maintenance. Furthermore, like a piano technician confronts the nuances of each piano, composers experience a renewed process of discovery with each piece. With this in mind, I find the idea of composers’ “maturation” seems misguided. No doubt much is gained from time, practice and experience, but the creative spirit never stops growing: composers exist in a state of eternal artistic pubescence.


I’m attracted to this metaphor involving piano technology because, to me, it represents a kind of objectivity unfound in an increasingly disparate world of composers. On one hand our individuality and freedom has created the most diverse aesthetic landscape in history; yet, we also use a contrived sense artistic privacy to shield ourselves from the truths behind what we do. As Roger Reynolds controversially told my colleagues and I at Michigan in a master class last November: composing is not mysterious – he claimed it was not intuitive at all, actually – we just make choices. Unlike Dr. Reynolds, I cannot deny the role of intuition in the act of composing music. Nevertheless, I disavow clichéd aphorisms about our music coming ‘from our heart’ and other ‘impregnable’ testaments to how ineffable, indescribable – even divine – the process of music composition can be.


Being a composer is challenging. We must make sense of incredibly abstract materials, rarely enjoy absolute meaning in what we produce and suffer from amplified self-doubt thanks to our field’s shrinking role in America’s culture milieu. Yet, just like most professions, the path to success, the way to achieve one’s potential is easy to follow as long as you’re willing to put in the time and work.


Thanks to my experience with Piano Technology, I feel like I know how to do my best work as a composer and member of our community. The results of my career are inconsequential because I know I’ll be carried as far as my talent will take me. I know I will use my voice to its most beautiful and powerful because I’ve learned how to find it and keep it strong for all the years I’m creating music. It seems clear enough to me that our art would thrive more than it ever has if more composers were to do the same.

Overture: Introduction and Recap

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, 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, eventually adding CD reviews and event previews for Sequenza21, and


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