Attempting to Iron

A few days ago I flew to Cleveland to compete in this year’s “Iron Composer” competition. The competition is sponsored by Analog Arts and hosted by the Music Department of the Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory. Five composers, selected from a pool of about a hundred applicants, are given an instrumentation, a “secret ingredient,” and five hours to compose a piece, which is then rehearsed that afternoon and performed that evening in front of a live audience, a radio audience and a panel of judges. The judges rate the pieces on originality, use of the secret ingredient, technical mastery and overall presentation; the audience also votes for their favorite. The judges’ choice is named this year’s Iron Composer, but everyone gets at least a little prize money. The other competitors were Can Bilir, Jennifer Jolley, Christoffer Schunk, and Jakub Polaczyk.

This was the third year I’d applied, and I was thrilled to be picked. Interestingly, Joe Drew, who organizes the competition, is very open about how he selects the finalists: he winnows down the field to the most qualified group, and then concentrates on the music and the bios to create a diverse group of musical styles and backgrounds.

The evening before the competition, the five of us gave a symposium for the composition students at the conservatory, a large and equally diverse group who had been told they had to be there, and promised pizza, but who also seemed to be quite interested. Then, after attempting to get a good night’s sleep, we all showed up at nine the next morning to be told what we’d be writing that day.

This year’s competition was for brass trio (including a double-belled trumpet, which none of the five of us had ever seen before), and the secret ingredient was: audience participation. Each of us drew a card with one of five modalities on it that had to be worked into our pieces: humming, whistling, clapping, foot-stomping, and, for me, finger snapping. This took all five of us by surprise; even though it was pretty obvious from past years that they took great pride in coming up with a vast variety of secret ingredients, none of us had seen that coming. (Past secret ingredients had included the four-note theme from The Jetsons; the story of Little Red Riding Hood; an antique music box; a painting; a collection of rocks from a local quarry; and eight seconds of silence.)

We all scurried to the donated faculty offices that were to be our studios for the day, set up our laptops and set to work. I had actually “trained” for the competition a bit, giving myself 90 minutes to write a 90-second piece a couple of times over the prior couple of weeks. So I had some notion of how fast I was going to need to work, although I hadn’t tried to sustain it for five hours. As it turned out, those five hours absolutely flew; when they dropped off lunch halfway through the writing session I was shocked. I was watching the clock so as not to get penalized for going over time, so I wasn’t surprised when Joe knocked on my door and announced “Time!”, but I did have the sensation that those five hours had passed by faster than any equivalent tine period of my life. You could say I was having fun—and I was—but I think I had just experienced five hours of being in what athletes call The Zone.

We each got a half an hour of rehearsal with the trio. It was here I discovered that I hadn’t quite made allowance enough for the minimal rehearsal time; my introduction, a passage of staggered entrances in 7/8, was too hard to coordinate in such a short period. The players asked me to conduct the performance,as they had several of the other composers; even so, that passage turned out a bit ragged.

The concert—broadcast live by Cleveland’s classical radio station, WCLV, and structured accordingly—was a great deal of fun. The composers sat on stage, coming up to introduce our own pieces (and then conduct them). The audience jumped into their role as performers enthusiastically. The music was strikingly diverse, as Joe had intended; the judges took a positive tone even when they had criticisms to offer.

When the points were tallied, I had tied for second, but was awarded third place, as the composer with whom I’d tied had received more points for originality and use of the secret ingredient—I’d scored higher on technical mastery and overall presentation, but the rules specified that the first two categories were to be used to break a tie. This is an interesting bias, and one I’m going to explore more in a further post.

The whole experience was a great deal of fun, and I highly recommend future iterations to any interested composers. The audio from this year’s competition will be posted on the Iron Composer website in a few weeks.

Musical Fanfiction…?

My teenage son recently introduced me to the world of fanfiction. For those to whom this is a new concept: the word refers to usually short pieces of fiction written using characters, themes, or settings from established authors’ published works, TV shows, or movies. For obvious copyright reasons, fanfiction is never commercially published. I believe it has existed since the days of mimeographs, but it has taken on a new and very burgeoning life in the era of the Internet. (Occasionally one sees licensed novels based on characters from other works, such as successful movie franchises or even successful novel franchises. These are not the same thing.)

I’ve been hearing about this for years, and it has always seems to me to be a reasonably suspect area of human endeavor; why would anyone with creative talent want to waste his or her time on other people’s materials? And, indeed, Sturgeon’s Law probably applies (usually rendered as “90% of everything is crap”), although this is also true of ostensibly more original efforts. But, at my son’s insistence, I finally dipped a toe into something he had been talking about for weeks: a novel-length opus called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. This piece takes the original character set and the premise of the Harry Potter series, but steers it in a different direction with the assumption that Harry is a budding scientist.

The effect is… startling. And, eventually, quite engaging. I would not have guessed when I sat down to read it that it would  turn out to be as much of a page turner as the original series. It is obviously part of the 10% not covered by Sturgeons Law. And yet — you can’t say that it stands on its own. Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality could not exist without the original Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. The pace is all wrong for a novel; the author relies on the reader’s experience of the original series to substitute for exposition. Somewhat like the original tune of a standard in a jazz improvisation, the original is always lurking behind what you are reading.

Why is there no fanfiction in music? Or… is there? The analogy to sampling in recent pop music is pretty clear. And for some strange reason that has even been declared a fair use of copyrighted material. But what about classical music? (With all of the usual caveats about what the term “classical music” means.) Pop music is again a great user of older “classical” material, as illustrated in this list of 10 modern songs written by classical composers. Okay, but what about classical composers using other classical music?

They do, of course. “Composer A’s variations on a Theme by Composer B ” turns up century after century. In more recent times, postmodern composers have raided the vaults of antiquity for materials to use in their own works. Usually they use fragments, however, rather than appropriating themes and making a whole new piece. The only piece I can think of that repurposes its source material quite as thoroughly as Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality does is the third movement movement of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, in which the third movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony is quoted at such length that one could be forgiven for thinking the movement consisted of the Mahler original. And then, of course, there is John Cage’s Cheap Imitation, which takes the rhythmic structure of a piece by Erik Satie as the basis for a new piece of music.

What would a real classical musical equivalent of fanfiction sound like? I can imagine, perhaps, taking a secondary theme or piece of transitional material from a well-known opus and making that the basis for a new piece of music. (Playing in Broadway pits, I have often had the urge to take that insistent little piece of inner melodic material that no one in the audience ever hears and use it as the theme for a piece.) Still, the culture of reverence surrounding the “masterpieces” of classical music is such that I doubt such an effort would be looked on favorably by most aficionados. If someone were to use the opening two bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony  and then write a completely different piece based on that same motive— a reasonable equivalent to the Harry Potter fanfiction discussed above —I would expect it to be taken as sacrilege.

There are many ways to base a piece of music on other music (as opposed to on an extramusical impulse or an abstract one). I am in the middle of writing an Alleluia which includes the Dies Irae as important musical material. The Dies Irae has been quoted by many, many composers, but I’m not aware of any piece that takes it as the primary theme. I guess I’m a fan of whatever anonymous medieval monk wrote the piece; it’s a terrific tune. So that makes this Alleluia…?

What are Composers Made Of?

I found out a few days ago that I’ve been selected to compete in this year’s Iron Composer competition (sponsored by Analog Arts at Baldwin-Wallace College).

“What the heck is that?” I can hear you asking. It’s like this: the five of us who were selected will travel to Cleveland, Ohio on September 5th. There will be an orientation that afternoon and a symposium about our work that evening. Then the next morning at 9:30 am we will be given an instrumentation and a “secret ingredient.” We will then have five hours to compose a piece of music. At 3:00 pm the performers(s) will start rehearsing; at 8 pm there’s a concert, with a live radio broadcast and web simulcast. The pieces will be judged by a panel on originality, technical command, overall presentation and use of the Secret Ingredient, and the composer whose piece scores the highest will be named Iron Composer 2013.

This is by analogy with the Iron Chef TV show, of course. I haven’t seen any of the previous competitions, so I don’t know yet how far they’re going to milk that connection, but the choice of Secret Ingredients from past years seems to indicate a healthy sense of humor about the whole thing: they’ve used

  • The theme from The Jetsons
  • Pebbles and rocks from a local quarry
  • Antique music boxes
  • Eight seconds of silence.
  • Monet’s painting of a sunrise

The performers have included a woodwind quintet, a piano trio, flute and cello duo, an organist, and a trio of prepared piano, tuba and clarinet.

I’m totally stoked about the whole thing. I went to school in Cleveland (the Cleveland Institute of Music), and so while it’s not my home town, I lived there during some of my formative years. Since the other competitors hail from Delaware, California, Turkey and Poland, I’ve decided until notified otherwise that I’m a hometown favorite.

How hard is writing a piece in five hours going to be? In general I compose pretty quickly, and actually, I’ve done it before; the West Point Woodwind Quintet, who have already played a couple of pieces of mine, had posted a call for scores commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Civil War while I was in the middle of writing something else. I wanted to submit a piece, but I didn’t want to seriously derail what I was working on. The solution (yes, inspired by the notion of the Iron Composer competition) was to give myself those same five hours start to finish to write the piece and extract the parts. That worked just fine—I’m a shoo-in to win this thing! Except they didn’t choose my piece—so there’s no way I’ll ever be able to win here either!

I can’t say I’m that worked up about where I come in the ranking, actually. Even the fifth-place finisher gets a small cash prize; the folks at Analog Arts seem to have decided that a winner-take-all model isn’t appropriate for the kind of celebration of composing that they are after. (They refer to all the selected competitors as “finalists.”) This strikes me as wise. The whole notion of competition in the arts is inherently a little odd, since art actually happens in the interaction between performer and audience member. Everyone who hears a piece of music hears it differently; everyone who hears a concert with five pieces of music will hear them all differently.

Still, competitions and contests and calls for scores are part of life for musicians and composers. I expect to enjoy this one immensely, which means I’ve already won, yes?

Posterity? What Posterity?

Shortly after I graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Music, I was hired by a local church music director to recopy some choral works by a couple of obscure Baroque composers; I believe their names were Kittel and Krebs. (I remember thinking of them at the time as Kibble and Bits.) It remains the only time in my career so far when my conservatory-mandated knowledge of soprano and mezzo-soprano clefs was useful; one of the principal aims of the recopying was to put the higher parts in treble clef.

My employer being a forward-looking sort, I was asked to deliver the finished product as a file in the new, then-state-of-the-art music notation software, which I think was called Professional Composer. The printout, this being the mid 1980s, was dot matrix.

An article in the New York Times about the challenges of maintaining technologically-based art got me remembering those days. The article is about a piece of early Internet art whose platform is long gone and whose code is buggy, but even those of us who are still writing acoustic music for live performers make our sheet music using software these days. Kittel and Krebs’ music was around to be recopied after three hundred years; I don’t know what vault it had been sitting in, or where my employer had gotten it, but it was there. By contrast, my version of it from twenty-five years ago is certainly unreadable by today’s computers, and I doubt the dot-matrix printouts have held up all that well either.

I started using notation software for my own music in the early 1990s. The files for some of the pieces from those years are already corrupted (as are their backups). If I don’t have printouts of them, they’re gone for good.

Will anyone be able to read my music three hundred years from now? (Leaving aside the question of whether they would want to.) While I print my music out on pretty good quality paper, I doubt it would be considered archival quality. The digital files can be copied ad infinitum, but even if make it down to the 24th century uncorrupted, it’s a pretty safe bet that neither Finale nor the Mac OS will be around in anything like their current forms.

What about PDF files? It’s just barely possible that those will turn out to be universal in whatever our digital future holds, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. By then our descendants will all be accessing their cloud-memories via their brain-implants anyway, so even a music historian might be stymied by something as archaic as a file designed to give the appearance of a piece of paper (smoothed-out tree pulp, their archives will tell them).

Audio files might have a better chance. Even if they do get those brain implants working, I doubt they’ll be feeding music directly into the auditory nerve and bypassing the eardrums. But much of the audio content on the web is in mp3 format, which will undoubtedly be obsolete within our lifetimes as storage and bandwidth both get cheaper. CD players won’t last the century, and no one really knows how durable CDs are over the long run anyway.

But perhaps future music historians will have specialized tools, virtual machines running in their skullware which will allow them to open reconstructed, de-corrupted Finale or Sibelius files directly in their visual cortices. On the other hand, maybe the survivors of the apocalypse will only be able to access paper sheet music, which they will then promptly burn to keep warm.

Ah well. I wasn’t really writing music for posterity, anyway. I don’t know that any composer ever really did (except maybe Brahms).


Giant Composers

Every year for the past few years I’ve had the privilege of serving as one of the music directors for the NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program‘s end-of-year readings. The program hires professional actors, directors and music directors to do  staged readings of first-year students’ 20-minute and the graduating students’ 90-minute thesis musicals.These young writers are wildly talented and astonishingly accomplished. I can perhaps modestly lay claim to a similar talent, but I can’t pretend even to myself that I was that sophisticated at that age. (Kids today are growing up so fast.)

There’s a wide range of styles represented by the composers in the program—or so I hear. I’ve been pegged by the folks who run the program as someone who can handle the complicated ones, and so invariably I’m paired with the teams whose composer writes intricate, harmonically complex music with elaborate polyrhythms, quasi-tonal or atonal passages, and dense piano parts.

This year I did two of the 90-minute readings back-to-back, and so I was immersed in this music for the better part of two weeks. I found myself wondering where all this musical complexity comes from, but it wasn’t hard to figure out once I started thinking about it. There’s a Giant Composer looming over their generation.

When I was the age these composers are now, the Giant Composer, for those of us who aspired to write musical theatre, was Stephen Sondheim. His scores to Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Follies, Company and Merrily We Roll Along were awe-inspiring masterpieces that smashed every previous notion of what theatre music could be. As a young theatre composer, you could either say you hated Sondheim, and do your best to write completely differently, or you could worship him, attempt to master his musical language and hope you’d someday be able to write something half as good. I chose the latter route, studying the scores like Scripture. Many of my peers did too, and most of us spent many years writing what I later came to call “bad Sondheim”—music that was overly complex and not particularly satisfying. (I eventually wiggled out from under the influence, and my musical theatre music now tends toward pop vocabularies. Click here for some examples.)

But there were a couple of my generational cohort who got it right, who assimilated Sondheim’s influence and went beyond it to develop their own unique voice. Chief among them is Adam Guettel, composer of Floyd Collins and Light in the Piazza. His music is—what was that list?—”intricate, harmonically complex music with elaborate polyrhythms, quasi-tonal or atonal passages, and dense piano parts.” I get the definite sense that Guettel is the Giant Composer for theatre composers in their twenties. (Jason Robert Brown [Parade, The Last Five Years] is a similar voice, but to my mind slightly less of a looming influence.)

The pieces I’m music directing at NYU are by the composers who have chosen to deal with their generation’s Giant Composer by following in his footsteps. It’s got to be a daunting challenge. Sometimes the scores I’m handed seem needlessly complex—why use a three-note chord where seven notes will do?—but very often they’re thrilling and emotionally satisfying. Certain musical tropes seem on the verge of becoming cliches, as in the tonic triad with added fourth, which seemed to turn up in pretty much every song in both of the shows I did this year; but while the influence is highly noticeable, it doesn’t sound like “bad Guettel.”

There have been Giant Composers scattered through the history of Western music. Wagner comes to mind; if you were composing in the mid-19th century, whatever you thought of his music, you had to come to grips with it. Beethoven, of course. The twin titans Schoenberg and Stravinsky, offering a double Hobson’s choice to the composers of the early 20th century. More recently? John Cage. Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

I suspect that there are going to be fewer “classical” Giant Composers in the coming years, just because the  concert music world has fragmented so much stylistically. As the Internet takes us from a “famous for 15 minutes” model to a “famous to 15 people” one, it’s going to be harder for any one person to break out that way. Musical theatre is still a pretty self-contained community, though; it’s possible for a composer to track and absorb close to everything that gets written and produced in a given year. So you never know. Some now-young composer could rise up to loom over a new generation. In the musical theatre world, it could even be one of those kids from NYU.

On Failure

Last week I attempted to scuba dive for the first time. It did not go well.

I’ve gotten to snorkel a few times in my life, and always found it fascinating. If I’d grown up a couple of decades later, amidst the burgeoning amount of underwater photography and video of recent times, I’d probably have gone through an “I want to be a marine biologist when I grow up!” phase, as so many kids today seem to. So the one-day “resort course” in scuba seemed a natural way to use a day on a recent family vacation. The course consists of a two-hour class and then a short dive.

The class starts with a video with basic information and safety rules: Don’t touch the coral. Don’t EVER hold your breath. You’ll need to pop your ears on the way down to equalize the pressure in the air spaces in your head, but it’ll take care of itself on the way back up. Here’s how you adjust your buoyancy, but for this short course you’re not going to do it yourself, the instructor is. Did we mention don’t ever hold your breath?

Then into the pool for the practical part of the course: put on a wetsuit. Get strapped into the harness with the air tank. Practice breathing through the regulator. Learn a few of the underwater hand signals: thumbs up means go up; thumbs down means go down; waggling a hand as if to say “only so-so” means there’s a problem; the okay sign means everything’s okay. Practice clearing water out of the face mask by blowing out hard through your nose. Practice retrieving the regulator if you lose it. (This was the biggest surprise of the class to me: you have to keep the regulator in your mouth by clenching it there. I’d have thought it was strapped on somehow.)

All of that successfully concluded, we went to lunch, and reconvened at the dock a couple of hours later. We were only one of several dive groups going to the same spot on a local reef; as the beginners, we’d be the last ones off the boat. We’d also be descending by rappelling (more or less) down the boat’s mooring rope, so that the instructor knew exactly where we’d be.

The moment comes. Giant stride off the back of the boat, while holding the mask in place, just like in the movies. Swim around to the front of the boat where the mooring line is. Start down the rope; the underwater vista maybe 30 or 40 feet below is breathtaking and tantalizing. Hand over hand down the rope, popping my ears. Popping my ears: pinch the nose and force air into the Eustachian tubes. Wait, it’s not working. My ears aren’t popping. What the hell? Every time I try and blow into my ears, the air just comes out my mouth. I can’t just stop and figure it out; the rest of the party is halfway down the rope. The instructor looks up at me; I waggle my hand and point to my ear. He swims up and surfaces with me and “suggests” I head back to the boat. I do.

Drying off and waiting for the rest of the divers to come back, I figure out that, having internalized the instruction to never, ever hold my breath while scuba diving, I  somehow convinced myself not to close my glottis while trying to pop my ears, which of course made it completely ineffective. Glumly sitting wrapped in a towel, I decide that if I can somehow make an analogy to something musical, I can get a blog post out of this, and it won’t have been a complete humiliating waste of time.

So here’s the analogy: The pool portion of the course had us practice everything required for the dive—except popping our ears, because there’s no way to do that in the pool. And who needs training for that, anyway? It comes naturally, right? This reminded me, without too much forcing, of music school, where we who trained as composers were taught an awful lot of skills—but not how to build a career. Networking comes naturally, right?

For some people it does. Composers, like other types of writers and like many performing musicians, tend to be people who are very comfortable alone in a room for long stretches of time, and possibly not as comfortable, say, approaching strangers at receptions. This has certainly been my experience. However, networking turns out to be the primary ingredient in getting all the way underwater to an actual career.

I didn’t get another chance to dive and salvage my pride—the weather turned nasty, and there were no more opportunities on that vacation. Perhaps there will be others later. Chances to network come more frequently, though, and the definition of success is blurrier. If you see me at a post-concert reception holding my nose, chances are I’ll be trying to pop my ears.

(Speaking of success: one reviewer so far has recommended my CD Seventeen Windows, which was released last month by Albany Records. You can read the recommendation here. (The CD is also available from and iTunes.))

Mistakes Were Made

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to attend quite a few performances of my music in the last year or so. It’s always a treat to sit in the audience and listen to the familiar notes unfold, only now with the added personality and spin the individual performers bring to it. It’s not as much of a treat to listen to the occasional wrong notes, wrong rhythms, wrong entrances or wrong tempos.

Despite the talent and dedication of the performers, errata do creep in. Sometimes they’re unnoticeable to anyone other than the composer (and presumably—hopefully—the performer in question); sometimes they’re fairly flagrant and difficult to ignore. (It’s not a good sign when the first thing a performer says to you after a concert is “Sorry!”)

Sometimes mistakes just happen, no matter how well-prepared a performer is. But new music, particularly down at the grass roots where no one’s getting paid very much, if at all, is often under-rehearsed. And, by definition, new music is, well, new. It’s not going to have the same challenges the performers spent years on as they were growing up learning their instruments. It’s not going to be “in the ear.”

Last week saw the world premiere of my saxophone quartet Ruck by the Dave Noland Saxophone Quartet. I went to a rehearsal with them the day before the premiere; they’re terrific players, and were giving the piece a fantastic ride. But there was one difficult section, full of mixed meters and unpredictable entrances (from about 45″ in to about 1’45”) in the video, below) where they kept not all getting to the end at the same time. Derailment. They worked on it a fair amount while I was there, and assured me they’d work on it again in the morning before the 1 pm concert, and sure enough, in performance they nailed it. A couple of other moments were slightly off—but nothing that detracted from the flow of the music, and what turned out to be a very exciting performance.

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Most errata don’t affect the overall way the piece works. (Thank goodness for that—lord knows I’ve played enough wrong notes while performing my own music.) You never know whether even a serious error is going to affect the audience’s perception of the performance. I’ve had performances I was sure had been ruined by incorrect tempos receive rapturous responses; I’ve had a simple counting mistake in the final bar make an otherwise successful performance land with a wet thud.

But it’s a real issue for composers. One colleague of mine told me that he made it a point never to write anything that couldn’t be sight-read. I can’t seem to bring myself to do that, but there’s always the question, “Is my music too hard?” You wouldn’t think so—we’ve all been to immaculate performances of extremely difficult music. I’ve been to immaculate performances of Elliott Carter string quartets, for cryin’ out out loud—if musicians can play that, how hard can my stuff be?

Come to think of it, though, if there were mistakes in a performance of an Elliott Carter string quartet, how would I know? They’re complicated enough that they sound completely new to me every time I hear them anyway. What makes a performance seem immaculate is the performers’ conviction, not their accuracy. That’s where the magic happens, if it happens. And if I had to choose between a committed but inaccurate performance and an accurate but lackluster one, I know which I’d pick.


In which I learn of a gap in my education

I bought a new piano last month.

Actually, I bought two new pianos last month. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I bought a new piano twice.

My old piano, a Baldwin Howard console spinet (may it rest in peace) had been a member of the household for over 25 years; I bought it used when I first came to New York, despite the fact that it showed signs of an already checkered past, including a side panel near the keyboard that looked as though it had been gnawed on by beavers. I’ve written a lot of music at that piano, rehearsed a lot of singers, learned a lot of shows. But its long history finally caught up to it. Over the last several years, every time a piano tuner has opened the case, he or she has heaved a deep sigh and jerry-rigged another repair. Finally last fall, one member of that fraternity (after the sigh) said to me, “I could order parts and repair those keys. …but why?

The time had clearly come. So I hied myself to Beethoven Pianos on West 58th Street and spent an afternoon in their crowded basement showroom, standing in front of all the upright pianos  putting them through their paces, looking for that magic combination of touch, sound, price and appearance—appearance because my piano is in the living room of my New York apartment, which also (along with price, of course) explains why a grand piano was not an option. I quickly determined that forty-eight inches was the maximum height for my new piano—I often write standing up with a score pad on top of the piano, and I’m not a tall man.

David at his new new piano

I finally settled on a brand new Pearl River, a Chinese-made piano for a very good price. We set a delivery date, shook hands and parted the best of friends.

I shall gloss over the details of the actual delivery—one of the piano movers was a new man, literally on his first day on the job, and it was a little tense. But finally they got Pearl in place, and I sat down to play. And realized with a sinking feeling that something…was….wrong.

The keyboard seemed very high off the ground. I cranked the bench up. And up some more. And up to its maximum height, at which point I could indeed play, but felt as though I was precariously perched on a ladder. I suddenly realized that I’d never actually sat down to play the piano in the store; it was crowded, they didn’t have benches in front of every piano, and why would I bother? Piano keyboards are all the same height off the ground, right?

Wrong, as it turns out. Now, I’ve been playing piano for over forty years, and professionally for over twenty-five, and since pianists don’t carry their own instruments, I’ve played hundreds of pianos in my life. Of course not all of them have had their keyboards at the correct height—which is a royal pain in the ass—but I’d always figured that the problem was with the bench, or lack thereof, or the dolly (since pianos don’t roll very well on those tiny little wheels, they’re put up on dollies more often than not). Somehow I’d missed the fact that different models of piano have their keyboards at different heights. Twenty-eight inches off the floor is fairly usual, but they range from twenty-six to the Pearl River’s gargantuan thirty-and-a-half.

I spent a day and a half trying and failing to convince myself that it really didn’t matter. Then I went back to Beethoven Pianos with my hat in my hand and my tail between my legs, begging them to let me trade my brand new piano for another one. (They were very gracious.) This time I brought a tape measure, and dragged a piano bench all around the showroom. I left with a delivery date for my new new piano, a Yamaha UX with a comfortable twenty-eight-inch keyboard height. It was delivered a couple of days later by an expert team of piano movers, and it’s been tuned—by the tuner who first tuned that old Baldwin Howard all those years ago, as it happens. He told me that I’d gone from a bicycle to a Ferrari.

I’m playing more, and writing more at the piano instead of at the computer, both of which I regard as positive developments.

Most of the piano pieces that became Seventeen Windows (due out on a CD of that title from Albany Records next month) were written at that old Baldwin, with me imagining how it would sound on a real piano. Now I’ll be able to write piano music without having to imagine so hard. Meanwhile, here’s Jenny Lin playing Window I from the CD:

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Why Write Music?

Why would anyone spend the hours and hours it takes to do such a thing, anyway? Even a short piece of music, even a song, generally represents an immense amount of labor on someone’s part.

I’ve been mulling this over, and have come up with a few possible reasons, some more likely than others:

1) For money.

This, I trust, needs no explanation.

2) To express yourself.

Express what exactly? Your mood? Your opinions? Your personality? Improvisation is a better bet for expressing how you feel at any given moment. If you’re a singer/songwriter, and you still feel the way you did when you wrote it, then a song is a good vehicle for self-expression. A string quartet not so much; emotional or intellectual content may be there for the performers to dig into and bring out, but it’s there because it was constructed to be there, not because the composer poured it there like milk into a waffle mix.

3) For someone to play.

True enough, but I’m betting pretty rare. Not that there aren’t plenty of composers who write music for themselves or others to play, but I doubt that there are many for whom that’s the primary impetus. Maybe those who play rare or unusual instruments and need repertoire.

4) For someone to listen to.

Well, yes. But who? Someone specific? Not usually. The whole world? Not that likely unless you’re writing pop songs. A specific community? That’s quite likely.  Posterity? That would be the specific community of people who appreciate you after you’re dead much more than anyone did while you’re alive. (It’s always nice to have imaginary friends.)

5) To make the world a better place.

It doesn’t work.  Plato notwithstanding (“let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws”), I doubt any piece of music ever changed anyone’s mind permanently. Besides, whatever your music does to make people better—and can you prove it?—there’s another piece of music that does exactly the opposite.

6) To prove your reproductive fitness.

I’m a big believer in evolutionary psychology, the notion that the roots of much of our behavior can be traced to our evolutionary background as tribal primates. (I’m grossly oversimplifying, of course.) It’s the only remotely satisfying explanation I’ve heard for why people are the way they are, and why we do the things we do. The origins of music from this point of view are controversial, but one plausible theory is that it has its origins in courtship displays, not unlike those of birds. Certainly a lot of young men (I was one, once) start writing music to impress girls. (Sometimes it works!)

More generally, though, the idea is that our various biological drives are sublimated into our complex modern societal activities. For a male, at least, a display of status, strength or daring can signal that he’s worthy of a mate, an imperative to follow even if he already has a mate, or has no interest in one. Composer examples of these might be Brahms (I’m the heir to Bach and Beethoven!); Wagner (Mine’s longer than anyone else’s!); and perhaps Beethoven, Debussy or Cage (I’m staking out territory where no one has dared go before!).

And of course there’s the well-known equivalence between any artist’s work and their children; it’s not too far-fetched (to me, anyway) that another biological imperative that gets translated into composing for some is the urge to spread one’s genes.

7) For fun.

I will confess that when I’m composing I often picture myself as a four-year-old playing with blocks. That’s the thing about writing music; it’s work, often difficult work, but it’s also play of the most rewarding kind.

For myself I suspect that several of the above factors are relevant; I’d imagine that for most of us it’s at least that complicated. And undoubtedly I’ve overlooked some, perhaps most. If there’s a reason to write music I haven’t thought of, please let me know!


On Hiatus

This blog is on hiatus while I’m serving as Associate Conductor of How The Grinch Stole Christmas. I’ll resume after the new year. Happy Holidays!