Something Borrowed

A very interesting article by Alex Temple on (and the vigorous discussion that follows it) deals with the questions surrounding “borrowed” musical materials. The point is made pretty early on that all musical materials are borrowed, particularly at this late date. Whether you’re writing European modernist music or neotonal music, or just plain tonal music, or borrowing from a non-European musical culture, or pop music, someone else used those vocabularies first. The frenzied quest for the creation of a completely personal idiom seems to have been largely abandoned, and no wonder—it’s like looking for undiscovered territory in Manhattan. There actually are a couple of spots in Central Park from which you can’t see buildings, at least in the summer when the trees have leaves, but there are still gum wrappers on the ground. Someone has been there first. It’s the combination of influences and materials that makes the individual voice these days.

This article was fresh in my mind when I went this afternoon to a concert by Max Lifschitz’s highly esteemed group North/South Consonance. It included a couple of tonal works by young composers. The vocabularies used were extremely familiar, and, frankly, the pieces were not very interesting. The first on the concert was by a composer for whom the use of tonal materials was apparently a major departure, and it reminded me forcibly of the type of piano pieces I used to write when I was in high school; the same chord progressions, the same innately repetitive and overly repeated theme. The second sounded like an excerpt from a film score—I’m sure someone more versed in film music than I could have pinpointed the influences. (The two other pieces on the concert, both more dissonant and by older composers, were much more successful.)

Neither of the tonal pieces made use of the full textural palette of the instrumental forces playing them. Neither of them had much in the way of surprise. It made me wonder if the use of too-familiar materials makes it more difficult to engage the audience, in that the balance between recognition and surprise so central to the experience of music is skewed as soon as the piece starts. Of course, we’re engaged by familiar materials when we hear a piece of 18th- or 19th-century music we haven’t heard before, so perhaps there are questions of authenticity in play here as well. But it’s as though these composers, having decided to write music in tonal vocabularies, thought that that would take care of making their pieces fun to listen to. Unfortunately, if you’re going to write tonal music, you need to find some other way to surprise your audience other than with your harmonic materials.

I’m not attempting to be prescriptivist here; I draw from familiar tonal vocabularies a lot. Seventeen Windows, my suite of short piano pieces (available, ahem, on CD or for download from Albany Records), does it often quite consciously; Window XI is marked “Rock and Roll!” as the tempo marking, and the opening rhythm was stolen from a Queen song. Windows V and XV are both based on my memories of playing Chopin as a kid. Window XIV is a tribute to big band jazz. My piece for string orchestra and soprano, Deep Woods: The Unicorn Sings to Memory (on a text by Peter S. Beagle), is as tonal as it gets.

While I’m a big fan of the crumbling of the hegemony of dissonance and “difficult” idioms in concert music, I think it may even be harder to write a good, interesting, memorable 21st-century tonal piece than it is to write a dissonant one. If nothing else, there are far more cliches to steer clear of.



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.

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!


Words With Friends, Calligraphy & a Mystery

I recently started playing “Words With Friends,” the hit online game that got Alec Baldwin in so much trouble. A high school classmate challenged me to a game, and since it was the holidays, I thought, “Why not?”

I was astonished to learn that it is a direct ripoff of Scrabble. The bonus squares are laid out on the board differently; some of the letters have different point scores; and you can’t bluff or challenge (the computer just rejects any word not in its dictionary). Other than that—identical. Presumably, just different enough to avoid a lawsuit. So the question immediately arose: why has this game so thoroughly outpaced the online version of Scrabble?

Having now played both a few times, both on a computer and on my phone, I can report that Words With Friends has a noticeably better playing experience. Rearranging tiles is easy (and well-animated) in WWF, difficult in Scrabble. The chat interface in WWF works as you’d intuitively expect it to; the iPhone’s Scrabble app is the only text-using app I’ve encountered that doesn’t use the iPhone’s autocorrect feature, and scrolls your chat comment out of the single-line text field as you’re typing it. Frustrating! (Scrabble does get a point for allowing you to turn the sound effects off.)

All that—plus marketing—probably explains the old stalwart’s defeat at the hands of the challenger. Structurally, they’re nearly identical as games. The surface is different though, and a more appealing surface will beat out a lesser one any day. I would rather listen to any given piece of music performed by a string orchestra than, say, a kazoo choir, no matter how gifted the kazooists.

I have been working on structuring my music more consciously; I’m currently half-way through a sonata-shaped piece in four movements for cello and piano, and I think the whole piece is going to revolve around tension between B and C, with the different movements having different tonal centers in relation to those two pitches. I’m quite happy about this scheme, because it gives me a way to tie the whole piece together, gives an arc to it, and lays down something I can push against to get restarted when I get stuck writing it. But I’m trying to keep in mind that that’s unlikely to be at all noticeable to the vast majority of listeners who don’t have perfect pitch. That can’t be what the piece is about, in other words. The structure has to be taken for granted from the listener’s point of view, as though the piece were a building. “Wow! I sure appreciate the way the walls hold up the roof!” is not something an architect expects to hear.

By way of further illustration, I’m offering the piece below, Calligraphy Circle, my submission to a competition for one-minute pieces  for clarinet and piano (a MIDI realization). The competition specified that the pieces should in some way be about Japan.

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Hopefully something like the spirit of the image to the left came across. Knowing that the clarinet part uses the five notes of a Japanese pentatonic scale, transposed all the way through the circle of 5ths from the beginning of the piece to the end, and the piano part does the same thing backwards, doesn’t make the piece sound better, does it? Now, the fact that the rhythms in the clarinet part gradually change from very short and very long notes at the beginning of the piece to middle-duration notes in the middle and then back, that you might have heard and appreciated. (If so, thank you! I put that there.)



On an unrelated note—looking at my website’s statistics for the year, I notice that my song “Our Lady of the Interstate” (from Dreamhousewords by Barbara DeCesare) has been streamed more than eight times as much as its next nearest competitor. Eight times!  That’s not quite going viral, at this level—going vaguely bacterial, maybe—but I’m desperately curious to know what that’s all about. Why that song? Who are these hundreds of people who have listened to this song? Or is it one person who’s listened to it hundreds of times? (In case anyone other than that one person is curious, here it is below:)

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Imaginary IRS Agents, the H-word, and a Funeral

In David Smooke’s recent entry on New Music Box Chatter, he brings up the problematic question of what work is for a composer, particularly a composer who does not make a living at it. If you earn your money through one or more day jobs, and spend your “free” time composing (as well as the requisite networking and other promotion of your music), are you a professional composer? Is it your job? Is it your vocation? Your avocation?Are you working when you’re listening to music? When you stare out the window or take a walk, both of which are often necessary parts of the compositional process?

Nowhere does he mention the dreaded “h” word—hobby, which is quite right and proper. That word only occurs to me in the bleakest hours. But it does sometimes pop up.

I make most of my living as a musician, though little enough of it is from composing. But I put far more energy into composing, than, say, practicing, not to mention money, now that the tools of the composer’s trade include computers and keyboards rather than just paper and pen. In imaginary conversations with IRS agents wondering why a pair of monitor speakers should be business deductions for a pianist and copyist, I’ve justified the expense by telling them to imagine that I run a business that makes, sells and services widgets, and that I do put a lot of my resources into designs for new widgets, since that’s where I’d really like the business to go.

(What—you don’t have imaginary conversations with IRS agents?)

I’d love to have composing be a larger part of my income, and I hope I am working towards that, not least because when I am doing something else for money there’s less time to compose. Over the last couple of weeks, for example, I’ve spent a large enough chunk of time on a “day job” type gig that I haven’t written a note. I’m helping the composer of a ballet create a “virtual orchestra” version of one of his scores, because the company that commissioned it wants to revive it, and apparently not only can’t afford an orchestra but can’t afford even to make a recording of a real chamber orchestra. I’m grateful for the work—and learning a great deal about working with MIDI files—but I’m a little conflicted about the project.

I’ve taken different stances on live vs. MIDI music in the past; I actually refused to let  my series of children’s musicals, Story Salad, be performed with taped, synthesized music, causing the company that had formed specifically to take over the shows from the original producers to hire another composer to write another show with the same name. But when the Strollers, a community theatre in Maplewood, New Jersey, wanted to produce another children’s show, Cat: The Adventures of a Caterpillar, I made a MIDI realization of the accompaniment for them myself—after they told me they didn’t have anyone to play the piano for them. I guess the difference is the availability of alternatives. Or perhaps the difference was simply that Story Salad had had a 13-year run by that point, and Cat was receiving its premiere, and like most composers (I imagine) I’m a whore for a performance.

One thing about MIDI realizations, though—they’re always in tune. I attended a funeral this week, which was a perfectly lovely funeral except that the funeral home’s piano was out of tune. I fancied I could hear it sliding even further out of tune as it was played, and could only imagine the pianist’s feelings. (It needed new hammers, too.) I don’t know that anyone noticed other than me—it wasn’t a particularly musical crowd—and certainly it seems petty to mention such a thing at a funeral, when the larger issues of life, death and eternity are in the air. But still. It doesn’t cost that much to tune a piano. I should know, because I have to pay for it as a business expense, since I’m a professional composer. When I’m not working.

Does Size Matter?

Last week was performing. This week is recording. (I thought I was going to be doing some arranging, too, but that’s another story.) And, of course, composing when I get the right kind of time…

I’ve been thinking about audiences because the audiences for the performances I did last week were so unique, and so varied. We “pre-premiered” Family Opera Initiative‘s production of Kitty Brazelton‘s Cat in one performance at the Southampton Fresh Air Home (a camp for kids with physical disabilities) and two performances at the Parrish Art Museum, one for about 80 day campers and one for families. The show contains plenty of audience participation, including two sing-alongs and a storm in which everyone in the audience is supposed to shake a noisemaker, so you get a real sense of the audience. The Fresh Air Home audience was about thirty middle- and high-school girls, mostly in wheelchairs (the boys were taking their swim test). They were attentive and very absorbed. The day campers (about 4-7 years old) participated lustily, but got a little bored in the slow parts. The family audience was very shy.

When you perform (in most cases) your audience is a group of people. You may or may not know any of them, but you are very aware of how they’re reacting. But when you record—as I’m doing later this week—your audience is not present. The music you’re making is going to be listened to most likely by someone listening alone, and you have to imagine that person’s reactions. Especially when you’re mixing, or even just listening back to a take, you have to stop being you, and pretend to be someone who’s never heard that music before.

When you create piano arrangements for someone else’s melodies, for hire (I recently started on a project like this, but—well, that’s another story), your audience is actually the composer—sure, other people will hear it eventually, but there’s one person you have to please.

And when you compose—your audience is another audience of one, but in this case it’s yourself. With any luck, anyone else who hears it will like it too…

99% Perspiration

It’s been very hot here in New York City. Drippingly, oozingly hot. Disgustingly humid and hot. Unless, of course, you’re inside with the A/C cranked up—then it’s generally too cold, and dry. Unless, of course, said A/C doesn’t work very well, in which case it’s too warm to be comfortable, and too cool to sweat.

Most of life in this time and place is 99% perspiration, but the title of this post reference’s Thomas Edison’s famous quote that “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” I won’t make any claim to know what genius is like, but I think that’s true of creative work in general, and it’s certainly true of composing, in my experience. Every good idea means minutes or hours of work to flesh it out. So do the bad ones—most of the work is turning the bad ones into good ones, or working them out enough to know they’re not salvageable.

There are always exceptions, though—some of the most satisfying pieces are the ones that write themselves; they seem as though you’re discovering them, not writing them, that they were always there. My pieces Song for an Accident and Like Water fall into that category.

I haven’t had a lot of time for the sit-and-stew type of composing lately—I’ve been music directing a workshop of a new children’s opera by Kitty Brazelton, under the auspices of the Family Opera Initiative, which has been intense and exhausting. (It’s their rehearsal studio that’s insufficiently air-conditioned, not that I’m complaining.) So the only type of composing I’ve been doing is on-the-fly, which in my case at least means grabbing on to inspirations as they sleet past.

At one point on Saturday I realized why, in my own current project, the string parts underneath the soprano’s first entrance weren’t working, and what to do about it. I was walking through the Prince Street subway station at the time, and was due at rehearsal in five minutes, so there wasn’t going to be any time to do anything except try to remember until I got home. But 30 minutes’ work after I did get home fixed the first five measures, and I can continue that process once the workshop is over.

Similarly, Erik and I were discussing the next song in our musical, and we stumbled upon a terrific idea of how to musicalize a particular scene. The more we both thought about it, the more we both liked it. “That’s an interesting idea.” “Actually, that’s a really interesting idea.” “Come to think of it, I don’t recall ever seeing that done before.” “Me either!”

So we know exactly what to do with the number. Actually making it happen is going to take hours, and it will be a sweaty task whether the air conditioners are working or not.

Why write music?

A post by Joelle Zigman on New Music Box Chatter on the difference between songwriting and composing got me thinking about why I started writing music, why I write music now and how those answers have changed.

I wrote my first songs in the throes of adolescent hormones; I was awestruck by feminine beauty and the twin floods of insecurity and desire that were swamping my emotional life. Songwriting was an outlet for that, although because I couldn’t sing, and I was playing piano rather than guitar, they didn’t have much of a life as performance pieces. Occasionally I would play one for a girl, and she would be somewhat impressed, and it wouldn’t change my life much.

While still in high school, though, a friend asked me to write a musical with him. It was terrible, of course, but it was my first experience of writing music because I could, rather than because I had to—of writing music that solved problems and expressed emotions that weren’t necessarily what I was feeling at the moment I was writing.

My application to the Cleveland Institute of Music required me to submit two “classical” pieces as well as my songs. I wrote two piano pieces; they were the first pieces I’d written that weren’t meant to be sung. I got accepted, and was immersed in the culture of the Serious Composer for the first time. My classmates scoffed at anything I wrote that had a key signature; songwriting took a back seat for a while, and I wrote music because it was part of my classwork, and to explore all the new sonic toys I had to play with.

Fast forward to middle age: I’ve largely recovered from my education. I write songs; I write art songs; I write songs for musicals; I write concert music. I’ve written a few tunes for Muzak. For any given piece, I’m writing that one because I can: because some sonic idea has caught my imagination and won’t let go, whether it’s the sound of a solo bassoon changing tempo every measure, or the thought that the subtext of this poem would be perfectly expressed by strings, or the fact that this lyric has rhythms in it which would let the character say that.

But why do I write music at all? I’m afraid that hasn’t changed that much. If I go for too long without writing some music, I get cranky: several decades after the onset of puberty, I still write music because I have to.