Photo by hira3 via Flickr. Licensed under CC-BY-NC.

At one university I attended, Famous Ensemble came to visit the composers’ seminar: the topic was “How to Make It In the 21st Century Music World.” I walked into the room excited and bright-eyed, ready to take notes. Students asked questions like: “What are your favorite pieces?” “When I send you my score what can I do to ensure it gets considered?” Over the course of the lecture, my eyes kept getting drawn to a faculty member in the corner, who was staring at his iPhone the whole time, even while the extremely polite members of Famous Ensemble were talking. I was shocked – how rude, and what a wasted opportunity. I couldn’t understand it.

By some time later, I had sat through what felt like a hundred seminars with famous performers, composers, and conductors. The opening speeches were the same. The questions from the crowd were the same (“what are your favorite pieces?” “When I send you my score what can I do to ensure it gets considered?”) By the time I saw Famous Ensemble again at yet another composers’ seminar (some years after the first), I understood why that faculty member was more interested in his iPhone: he’d heard the same thing a thousand times before.

But he was still wrong – after all, the problem wasn’t the artists who showed up to share their work and thoughts with us. The problem was us. We asked them about craft, economics, career, technical specifications. We forgot to challenge them, to engage them in questions about art and music and how the two fit into this ever-factioning cultural world. Most artists, I think, have a lot to talk about. How exciting those hundreds of seminars would have been if we’d only done our job.

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Last week, the American music world’s shine grew just a little dimmer.

Richard Toensing (‘Dick’ to his students), a composer, conductor and music educator, passed away on July 3, just a month after announcing to his friends and colleagues that he’d been diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer.

The honors Dick achieved in his time on Earth place him in the finest class of American composers. You can read about them in his obituary, here. But since his accomplishments have already been well-documented (and maybe since I tend to think we spend entirely too much time talking about awards and jobs in this business), I’m going to use this space to share some other thoughts. (more…)

“Composing Diary” is an ongoing series detailing my misadventures in writing a piece for Alarm Will Sound. You can see previous entries here.

"Rust and Blue," by Mark Rothko. Presented under fair use guidelines for criticism.
“Rust and Blue,” by Mark Rothko. Presented under fair use guidelines for criticism.

Day 7

Still no title for the piece. Still no concrete subject matter. I haven’t yet discovered what this piece is about, speaking in strictly non-musical terms. There are a diverse set of reactions to this kind of block: I go through a cycle of freaking out, taking walks, watching hockey, trying to write, freaking out some more, taking wa- oh look, there’s another hockey game on, freaking out just a bit to round out the cycle…

I could do this forever. But I still have a piece to write. Gotta figure something out. The next strategy of breaking the funk is to fill my eyes and ears with idea food.

The great thing about being an artist is that there are ten million different ways to procrastinate that can still help you with the task at hand. When I’m paralyzed by severe writer’s block of this magnitude, my go-to coping mechanism is to consume art by others. This includes score study, of course – John Adams and I have gotten quite close this week. But the artistic landscape is so much more complex than the tiny swath of it which art music makes up. There are valuable creative lessons to be learned from graphic novels, short stories, cinema, you name it. Any artistic form in which expectations are set up, to be either fulfilled or defied; in which disparate elements are played against and in harmony with each other; any art that requires an investment of time and energy in order to be understood and appreciated holds a lesson for an artist in any other tradition. It’s why no matter how busy you are, I always recommend sacrificing time in the practice room or at the writing desk to read a good book, see a movie, or visit an art museum. As the incredible Alex Shapiro would say, that’s where the music comes from.

Today my attention is being given to a few different pieces. I’m getting back to tearing through my most recent Best American Short Stories acquisition. Shortly thereafter I’m moving on to a few Wilfred Owen poems. I think briefly about making a trip to the always-inspiring UMMA, but the freezing grey weather gets the better of me. Instead, I’m looking at some of my favorite paintings by the always incredible Mark Rothko.

Rothko is, in my humble and barely-educated opinion, one of the best American painters to ever live. I say this because… well, for one thing, it’s true. For another, I identify strongly with the idea behind “Color Field” painting. The Wikipedia article offers a great, detailed description of the history and tradition of Color Field. It’s a diverse and storied tradition with a complex heritage, but some threads emerge, including a primary one: stark, vibrant colors in contrast with one another. Within the abstraction of this contrast are hard-hitting, soul-shaking questions and emotions. And no artist exemplifies that theatre better than Rothko, who once said that his paintings were about, among other things, “tragedy, ecstasy, [and] doom.” Dramatic, epic catharsis conveyed with the use of a handful of colors – just like in music, every emotional reaction comes purely from contrast.

Tonight I meditate on one particular Rothko: Rust and Blue, from 1951. I’m not looking for anything in particular, having forgotten for the moment about my somewhat urgent quest for inspiration; I just admire the structure, the complex texture of each color and the story the painting invites. Why these three colors? Rothko was, especially in his later years, consumed by color, and would use countless unorthodox methods to get the right ones – what brought him to pit these three against one another? Once he chose his materials, what prompted the placement? The blue in the middle could have gone just as easily and with just as satisfying contrast on the bottom, right? And the title… “Rust and Blue” are two colors, where the painting has three. The rust is clear, the blue is clear, but the bottom color is… something else. Is it a blue? Sort of. Perhaps Rothko meant it to fall under the large auspices of that single word, along with the middle color. Perhaps he meant it as a subsidiary element, a supporting character to the violent juxtaposition of the two colors in the upper two thirds of the painting. Or maybe the answer is something else.

Of course, getting answers to all these questions isn’t really the point. At the moment, I’m more fascinated by the very fact that a painting with no concrete elements, only abstract ones, has the ability to ask such questions. The title, which is so often a way to cover abstract elements with a concrete blanket, is no help – all Rothko’s titles usually do is remind the viewer what they see. Everything is in the abstract. And yet, there’s a narrative. A story.

So tonight, it turns out, I’m inspired after all by the art I’m consuming. I’ve been fighting to get started, but telling myself that the starting place must be a title. I’ve been convinced for a long time that the right place to begin a story is the name, and that the elements follow from there. But with these piece, seeing as that hasn’t worked, I’m going to try something different. I’m going to work without a title, and tell my story completely through contrast and color. And like Rothko, I’m going to think in color.

Photo by Hamed Saber. CC-A.
Photo by Hamed Saber. CC-A.

Having sent off the finished version of my latest piece (Dragonfly for Neal Titus, a percussionist at UNC Greeley) a few days ago, I spent the weekend in that comfortable lull between pieces. The bizarre cocktail of accomplished afterglow and postpartum depression that comes with finishing a project is, altogether, a sweet one, and it’s important to enjoy the silences before jumping forward. It doesn’t necessarily count as “rest” – there’s not really such a thing for a doctoral student, I find – but for just a few days, it’s nice to have the answer to “what are you working on?” be a relaxed, peaceful, “nothing.”

But the weekend is just about over, and I’m jumping into the next project: a piece for the unbelievably-awesome new music orchestra Alarm Will Sound, to be workshopped and premiered as part of the Mizzou International Composers Festival, where I’m extremely lucky to be a resident this summer. This kind of project is a new one for me, never having written for an ensemble this versatile (or, for that matter, this awesome). Simultaneously, I’ve been trying to fill this space with words on a much more regular basis, both to encourage readership and to provide myself with much-needed venting therapy. Why not try killing two birds with one stone?

Without further ado, I give you the first installment of my Composing Diary, which will track my various misadventures in writing this piece, from the blank page to the finished score. Follow along if you like, and feel free to chime in with your ideas; I might learn something. (more…)

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Photo by velkr0 – CC-A.

Way back in 2007, I had a conversation I’ll never forget with a Professor at an Important University. I had just accepted my admissions offer from the University of Colorado. Professor and I were talking about graduate school, the right choices for a young composer, and why I was choosing to go to Colorado. It was a heated discussion, as this person had some strong opinions about my decisions (not very positive opinions, at that). I didn’t pay much attention; after all, I was 21 and I knew everything. But among Professor’s diatribes, he/she said something that has always stuck with me: “Don’t be one of these composers that lives their entire creative lives in the academy,” said Professor. “Graduate with the Master’s and leave. Take time off before your doctorate. Go out and connect with real people, real working musicians. Grow up at least a bit outside of the university.”

And after I graduated, in no small part due to this conversation with Professor, I did.

Fast forward to last week. The ever-amazing Brain Pickings published a small excerpt from Susan Sontag’s diaries. (more…)

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Here’s a little-known fact: it wasn’t long ago that, for a while, I seriously considered giving up composition and going to law school.

It wasn’t because I was tired of music – far from it. It wasn’t because I was worried about a professional composer’s questionable job prospects – because as I was informed by everyone I’ve ever met, I would make a terrible lawyer. It wasn’t even because I’m super passionate about the legal system.

I flirted with the idea of going to law school because I am absolutely disgusted with the state of copyright in the United States. (more…)

Photo by DMJarvey. CC-A.
Photo by DMJarvey. CC-A.

NHL hockey is back.

NHL hockey is back, my friends.

Let me repeat that.

NHL. Hockey. Is. Back.

Granted, it’s back from what was an absolutely absurd lockout which insulted the sport and its fans (if you want to learn about the lockout from people who really understand it, the Wikipedia article does an expectedly-great job of outlining the core issues). Granted, I’ve been complaining to anyone who would listen for the last three months that I’ll never watch another NHL game again; that I as a fan can’t be treated like this; that from here on it’s only the college and junior offerings (of which there are MANY in Michigan) that will receive my money and my fandom.

But I’m only human. Like a recently-dumped partner still on the leash, I’m back to following stats, watching highlight reels and predicting this year’s Stanley Cup winner (hint: not my San Jose Sharks). NHL hockey officially has its greedy little hooks in me again.

Yes, I am head-over-heels in love with the sport on ice, it’s true. But the reasons for my sheep-like flocking back to the NHL are more complex, and they have a lot to do with my reasons for being a composer. (more…)

Photo by nomilknocry. CC-A.
Photo by nomilknocry. CC-A.

My mornings often start the same: a sunny alarm jingle. A lingering war with the snooze button. A reluctant trudge from the bedroom to the shower. Highlights from last night’s Daily Show or a brief spin of Nils Petter Molvaer. Finally, a bowl of freshly-made oatmeal… accompanied by lots, and lots, and lots of freshly-made coffee.

Coffee, either black or with a splash of skim milk, is a key thread in the fabric of my life. I have a cup in the morning, a cup in the afternoon, and often an emergency cup before class (likely needed because of the amount of coffee that I drink, but whatever).  It’s not just the caffeine that fuels my coffee addiction. It’s the sensory assault of complex, yet rewarding aromas and tastes that shocks one awake; the remarkable ability of a brown-black liquid to simultaneously speed up and slow down time; the delicate balance of water, grounds and time – which I haven’t yet perfected – that will determine whether the five-minute drinking experience is a rich bath of smoky, chocolaty velvet or a charred mess of disgusting, caffeinated water. Coffee is more than a start to the day: it’s a concentration etude, a meditation. To borrow a phrase from Vonnegut, it’s a “Buddhist catnap.” (more…)