The brilliant Andrew Allen and Gordon Hicken of Rogue Two, who commissioned Step Inside for soprano EQ146.jpgsax and marimba, have just released their tremendous first album! The aptly-named Step Inside features the premiere recording of the same piece, alongside other amazing music by composer-friends Jesse Jones, Jay Batzner, and many others. Makes a terrific stocking stuffer for your favorite new music fan! Get it now via digital download here — CD’s available for order soon!

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.

Yes, this place has been awfully quiet for interminably long. As it turns out, writing a doctoral dissertation takes a lot of time. But there are some exciting things in the works, and during my first summer of DOCTOR-HOOD I plan to be spending a lot more time here! Remember that you can keep up with my day to day by following me on Twitter.

In the meantime, a humble offering: a performance by the Georgia Tech concert band, dir. Chaowen Ting, of For Angels, Slow Ascending – enjoy!

Photo by Paola Frogheri. CC-BY-NC-SA
Photo by Paola Frogheri. CC-BY-NC-SA

Just like the rest of academia, doctoral students usually don’t do coursework in the summer. But don’t you dare call it a vacation.

Somewhere between high school and now, my summers stopped being vacation and became the golden opportunity to do all of the things that are vitally important to my artistic growth and couldn’t possibly have happened during the previous nine months. This particular summer, that involves (among other things) writing the curriculum and copy for a new ear training software; a new piece for trumpet and a handful of Gershwin arrangements for the fall; reviewing a groundbreaking new text from Prof. Ed Sarath; spending much-needed time with my wonderful fiancee and last (but CERTAINLY not least), beginning the process of studying for my oral preliminary exams next May.

(more…)

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

Photo by Jodi-Renee Giron.
Photo by Jodi-Renee Giron.

Finishing Day

The one on the left in the picture above is me. The much more handsome gentleman on the right is my friend Nacho.

Nacho is an eight-year-old living in Denver. He’s an unbelievably smart little guy, a gifted musician, and the unofficial mascot of the Denver jazz community. He loves the Avengers and has a soft spot for Phineas and Ferb. He also has terrible asthma that occasionally threatens his life, but unless you caught a glimpse of his red emergency inhaler you’d never know it. You’d only ever see an affectionate kid with a biting sense of humor, an inspiring sense of wonder, and a craving for ice cream.

It’s a while since I last updated my virtual diary with news about this piece for Alarm Will Sound, but the last three months summarize to this: wall after wall after wall. It’s not hard for me to understand the reasons why. This semester’s uneven schedule and random engagements made it tough to settle into a writing routine. Composing for such a phenomenal collection of musical superheroes as Alarm Will Sound carries a lot of pressure, and it affected my ability to love any idea that came out of the pencil; nothing was ever good enough. I chiseled away at the diamond block encasing this piece as best I could, using art, free association, and any other technique I could conjure. Little to nothing worked.

Then something happened: Nacho went back to the hospital. (more…)

Photo by James Cridland. CC-A.
Photo by James Cridland. CC-A.

Dear composers,

You’re probably wondering why I gathered you all here today.

Some of you are probably pretty irritated; you were likely doing extremely important things, and here’s this under-the-radar composer calling you to the internets for a meeting. I’m sorry for the inconvenience; but I promise we’ll be brief.

Let me cut right to the chase: we’ve got a problem with competitions.

I can see some of you already heading for the door. Okay, so it’s not news. We hate competitions. It goes against what it means to be a creative artist to try to be the best creative artist. The time we spend proofing our scores for tiny collisions, double-checking guidelines to make sure we submit by certified mail and not registered mail, and filling out forms that certify that yes, this poet did die in 1803 is all time we could spend writing new music. Competitions are a distraction from making art and a wedge in a community that should be sticking together. And really, they’re unnecessary to making a career in composition if you’re smart and easy to work with.

So, if you’re one of those composers who doesn’t participate in competitions, you can go. Thanks for coming.

The rest of you – the composers who enter competitions – we need to talk.  (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…)

This evening’s adventure in internal struggle:

I’m at the finishing stages of a choral piece, a setting of two texts by the incomparable Federico Garcia Lorca. The piece itself is written, the notes and lyrics are into the notation program. For me, the last stage is to add and finalize the dynamics, articulations, and other expressive markings in the score – I call this “painting” the score (because it adds color to the music – get it???)

Lots of composers put this portion of the process nearer the beginning of the compositional timeline; I’ve never been able to, for a few reasons. Chiefly, when my music is freshly written, I don’t frankly know what the character of it is right away, save for general dichotomies like “loud/soft” or “quick/slow”. More to the point here, though, is the second problem: I can never decide what to paint with. Every dynamic and articulation is a choice. Some are bigger than others, obviously, but every one affects the music. The ones I really struggle with don’t just stop at the music; they can affect a composer’s relationship to the performer. (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…)