Yearly Archives: 2018

Incantation, op. 35

for tuba and marimba (2017)

I composed this piece in two spells, first in January-February 2017, then in November-December. The first version was called Turn, named for the wiggling figure that appears in the tuba part in the 4th measure and suffuses the entire work. In the end, I was unsatisfied with that version, and revisited the piece at the end of 2017 in order to compose a new second half.

In its final form, Incantation plays with the idea of magic – or what appears to be magic – and how a ‘sorcerer’ can capitalize on a chance occurrence to cast a spell over the members of a tribe. The piece is in dialogue with Revueltas’s Sensemaya, a natural starting point given that work’s opening solo for the tuba.

Incantation was commissioned and premiered by theBrassTaps Duo, comprised of Evan Zegiel, tuba, and Anthony DeMartinis, percussion, and sponsored by a consortium of tubists in the University of Michigan tuba studio.

A New Season

Well, it’s official: I’m a music director again. A full-time conductor at the helm of a performing organization. It’s a group in Seattle (well, two groups in one) called Orchestra Seattle and the Seattle Chamber Singers, an august institution fifty years in the making.

And what’s more, I’m extremely happy about it, though it was not obvious to me that I would again endeavor to fill such a role. For the past two years, I’ve been living the life of a full-time composer/orchestrator and a very part-time conductor. Before that I’d been a music director, an assistant conductor, and a music teacher, mostly all at the same time, and after five years of that, I thought it was time to focus on my composing career (writing / recording / promoting my own music, conducting and performing it, serving as a guest clinician, etc.)

But then this job came open, and it seemed like such an ideal match for my talents and goals that I couldn’t wait to pursue it. And it’s turned out to be true. OSSCS combines the best aspects of a professional, youth, and community groups. Its players and singers take their music-making very seriously and they operate at a pace that keeps things interesting but allows them to go deep into the music.

Programming-wise, it’s a kid in a candy shop situation for me; with a chorus and an orchestra that concertize together as one, the sky’s the limit. I can program a single concert with oratorio, a cappella, symphonic, concertant, and chamber music. It’s about making the most compelling music statement possible and expressing Big Ideas.

I wanted to do something really special for my inaugural season, so I’ve decided to present a retrospective of the music of Lili Boulanger. Here’s the season overview, and here’s a video I made laying out the concept and repertoire:

Of course being a music director comes laden with responsibility. A conductor is the focus of a community, a rabbi, a priest, a teacher, but also a scholar, and a dancer, and a performer. The best ones find a way to be simultaneously a celebrity hovering in the clouds and a mensch walking upon the earth.

A composer, on the other hand, is a kook living alone on an island who crafts meticulous messages and places them in delicate bottles and throws them into a vast, chaotic ocean. It’s a monk-like existence where you can live inside the sound world of your own imagination and not talk to another person for days at a time.

What I’ve found is that I need a little of both if I’m going to stay sane, and that’s why I’m so in love with this job. It roots me in an open-hearted musical community full of artistic possibility, while still allowing me to pursue the composing life of my inner weirdo. I consider myself awfully lucky to be in this situation and I can’t wait to get started.

 

Quality Musicians

I recently had occasion to visit my friend Stephen Campbell, professor of trumpet at Ball State University, and I noticed a great list he had created and posted on his door, which I share with you now:

Quality Musicians…

  1. understand where and how they fit in the musical fabric at all times.
  2. do what they can to make their work effective “in the hall.”
  3. realize that playing in a large ensemble demands even more clarity than performing with a smaller group.
  4. pace themselves during rehearsals and performances.
  5. remember that higher notes sound louder than lower notes. Longer notes also sound louder than shorter notes.
  6. don’t blast away in loud tutti passages, leaving themselves overly tired for solos or exposed passages.
  7. know to play softer and less aggressively in unison sections.
  8. play their best, regardless of who is on the podium.
  9. do not play as loudly as possible, even when the conductor asks for the same.
  10. are not defensive about suggestions from colleagues or the podium.
  11. do not take up valuable rehearsal time asking dumb questions.
  12. who are section leaders will be more effective with consistent playing rather than a lot of talking and gesturing.
  13. are always supportive and considerate of their colleagues.
  14. who are section players are more “chameleon-like” so as to be in a better position to follow the principal player and create a unified section.
  15. realize they may be “the problem.”
  16. always come to the first rehearsal prepared.
  17. are not born. We become quality musicians only through experience, honing our skills and instincts, and constantly listening.

Conductors

In about a month I’ll return to the Pierre Monteux School once again as Composer-in-Residence. Two projects are on the docket: a performance of my trio and the premiere of a new kids piece Carnival of the Animals: Maine Edition.

It’s a region-specific version of the old classic, so you’ve got movements like The Puffin, The Lobster, The Porcupine, The Eagle, etc.  In a nod to Saint-Saëns cheeky inclusion of “Pianists” in the original, I’ve included “Conductors” in my set.

Which brings me to my poem, which I’d really like you to read, because I am inordinately proud of it:

Conductors

Now we behold a rare sort of bird,
As odd as a duck and twice as absurd.
It thinks itself graceful, as smooth as a swan,
Look there in its wing: it holds a baton.

But unlike most others, this bird doesn’t sing,
It stands at the front and starts flapping its wing.
And lo and behold, musicians will play,
The Conductor will help them together to stay.

Conductor 1 starts full string section.

But observing this species while out in the field,
Some musicians will think that they’d rather not yield.
“A conductor direct me? What does she know?
Her style’s not learnèd and her tempo’s too slow!”

Conductor 2 starts inner circle strings; same music, half-step lower, faster tempo, senza vibrato. (Other strings stay with Conductor 1.)

But for others such methods are stuffy and prim;
Study and practice can strike them as grim.
“Students are eager, and they’ll think I’m cool.
Teaching’s the game – I’ll conduct in a school!”

Conductor 3 starts woodwinds; half-step higher, slower tempo, beginning band style (Orchestras 1 & 2 continue apace.)

Some others will think “I make a great host,
So I’ll give the crowds what they all want most.
Arrangements of rock, pop, and jazz – that’s my game;
There’s no way in the world that those could be lame!”

Conductor 4 starts brass; pops style. (Others continue as before.)

Then there are those who will spurn with derision
All music from the past, as lacking in vision.
“I’ll serve up the sounds that are loved by the few,
Bleak and discordant and aggressively new!”

Conductor 5 starts piano & percussion; high modernist style. (All others continue.)

What a mess, what a noise these birds have let loose!
I can’t take any more of this aural abuse!
There’s only one thing to do: I myself will try it
In the hopes of getting some peace and some quiet!

Narrator gives voracious cut-off. Musicians stop, conductors keep conducting.

Well there they go on, flapping their wings;
Thinking they rule over woodwinds and strings.
But musicians, I find, are always best led
By leaders who don’t let it go to their head.

Conductors realize; begin shouting at each other. Narrator cues a big unison ‘button’ to end the piece.

An experiment

I’ve just recorded a new little pièce d’occasion of mine, titled Dans les champs de Valensole, and in order to present it to the world, I’ve made two videos and uploaded them both to YouTube. The question is: which will the algorithm find more enticing?

The first one features me and Kevin performing “live” and featuring beautiful shots of the lavender fields of southern France:

The second features the rolling score:

I’ve posted them both in various places just to get the ball rolling. My mother thinks its insane that anyone would prefer to watch the score video, but I think she underestimates the popularity of the medium, or the number of classical music nerds who sit around and watch this kind of stuff all day.

I particularly wonder which cellists will prefer – to see the player in action, or to see what it is that he’s actually playing.

Only time will tell. I’ll share the results in a couple of months.