It’s a busy and thrilling moment for me up here in the Pacific Northwest, all to do with preparing new music, by me and by my friends. I can honestly say that I’ve been embraced by a regional community of composers, arguably for the first time in my professional life.
On the concert, I’ll conduct a new song cycle by Robert Kyr, and playing the viola in my piece will be Kenji Bunch, whom, frankly, I’ve thought of as a big famous composer ever since the Ahn Trio released “Music for my Favorite Insomniac” in 2008:
This summer, I spent many an hour creating “critical editions” of the music of two Seattle composers, Carol Sams and Huntley Beyer. I’m currently in rehearsals for Carol’s The Earthmakers, a monumental work if ever there was one, and, in my view among the very best oratorios composed in the past 50 years (if not the past 100.)
Kia (that’s Carol) wrote The Earthmakers in 1986 (which, she continues to claim, was before I was born, in spite of my protestations to the contrary.) It’s an oratorio in 16 movements that tells the story of the creation of the world from a variety of cultural perspectives—Zuni, Inuit, Melanesian, Biblical, scientific, etc.
Every second I spend with this piece is filled with excitement as it comes to life in my inner ear and in rehearsals with the chorus, soloists, and orchestra. Each section flows naturally from what came before, but never in the way you’d expect. Simply put, it’s a masterpiece, and I can’t wait to perform it, not only now, but many times in the future.
The Earthmakers is on a concert I’m doing with OSSCS called “Origins,” and we’re kicking things off with music by a composer who wrote his first concert work for this very occasion. Carlos Garcia (whose instagram, @carlosgarsizzle, is highly recommended) created this little mockup, which to me sounds like a fully produced Hans Zimmer score, to give you a taste of the real thing until we make our live recording.
I’m now at the point in my career where I’m regularly conducting pieces for the second, and I gotta say, it’s pretty great.
Don’t get me wrong—I love adding pieces to my repertoire, and I’d say at least 50% of what I program is new to me. But I’m understanding the wisdom of my teacher David Effron, who used to say that conducting a piece for the first time was “pure hell,” and that the first time was really the 0th time.
[It turns out Mr. Effron said a lot of things that, 10 years down the line, I’m finding to be true, for example, that the reason he loved conducting concerts so much was that that was the only time when nobody could bother him with a question or complaint.]
It’s not that you work less the second time you conduct a piece—much to the contrary. It’s that the work that you starts at a much deeper level. You’re able to focus on the rich inner life of the piece without having to master the technical details of who enters where and what’s a divisi and what’s not.
Plus, you’re not struggling with the ‘aural ideation’ the second time through, that process of imagining the sound of the music by reading the dots on the page. After you’ve conducted a piece once, its sound is lodged in your head in a way that it can never be just from listening to recordings or playing it in an orchestra.
Although that’s not quite true. Because as I come back to these pieces, I find so many new details that I’m shocked I missed on the first pass. So the real, complete sound of the score isn’t really in my head, but some baseline version is, onto which I can build.
And it’s not just the details—it’s the big picture too. It’s like going to a new location for the first time; it always takes longer than you expect, and you’re looking for the street signs and navigating the traffic flow. But when it’s a road you’ve trod many times, you know innately where you’re going, so you can enjoy the trip and spot the little surprises along the way.
All this makes me eager to do more pieces for the second time, but also to do more for the first time, so I can get to the second time sooner.
I was in Georgia recently conducting one of the all-state groups, and as there were about 20 hours of non-stop rehearsal, I decided to leaven the proceedings with a little Ask a Maestro Live.
Why did you become a musician? Because I hate money. What’s your favorite instrument? None, but if I had it all to do over again, I would play the bass. Who’s your favorite composer? Beethoven & Ravel & Schnittke & Sondheim.
What’s the hardest piece you’ve ever conducted? Ah, now there’s an intriguing question. The answer, of course, is The Rite of Spring, and I say that not having even conducted the whole thing. But a VERY hard piece to conduct is one that I did recently, Lili Boulanger’s Du fond de l’abîme:
I don’t post much video of myself conducting these days, but I wanted to get this online because I am in awe of this piece and in deep sympathy with its composer, and more than that, because nobody knows it or how dope it is to conduct – and they should.
So what makes a piece hard to conduct? Many things, but here are some:
Lots of tempo and meter changes, especially fast mixed-meter passages
An unusual or unique ‘architecture’ that makes it hard to keep the long-term plan in view and pace it just right
Complex orchestration (especially a large orchestra used subtly)
Complicated harmonic nuances that have to be shaded just right and prepared with tempo nuances
Intense musical expressivity that covers a wide range of emotions
Du fond de l’abîme (“Out of the Depths”, aka the De Profundis, aka Psalm 130) has all of these (except mixed meters), and what’s more, the individual writing for the instruments is very challenging (hardest orchestral bass part I’ve ever seen), and the same can be said of the choral writing and of the solo writing for the mezzo soprano, who has to sing with a tone like liquid mercury, both hovering over the intangible textures of the orchestra (+chorus) and at once delivering the most earthy, heart-wrenching phrases imaginable.
An additional challenge is that a lot of the piece is slow, and the slow parts are entrancing in their affect, so if you don’t calibrate the tempi just right, they’ll turn from hypnotic to soporific. Plus, there are extremely drawn out accelerandi, like going from quarter = 63 to quarter = 80 over the course of 50 bars.
Anyway, I don’t pretend that my, or the orchestra’s, or the chorus’s performance was perfect – far from it (which just makes me want to do it again!) There are corners I wish I had turned more gracefully, pacing I wish I had controlled better, and lines I wish I had internalized more thoroughly.
But whatever, sometimes you do a special project and it’s not perfect, but it leaves you with an irrepressible feeling, and you’ve got to get it out into the world. The next time someone asks me what’s the hardest piece to conduct, I’ll probably still say The Rite of Spring, but if they ask me what’s the most rewarding piece to conduct, I will absolutely say Du fond de l’abîme, and when they ask me who my favorite composer is, Lili Boulanger will be on the list.
If you are preparing a 10 minute piece and you have…
…5 minutes: • Do the beginning and the ending, and any tempo changes in the middle.
…10 minutes: • Play the whole thing once through
…20 minutes: • Play the whole thing twice through
…30 minutes: • Play it once through • Go over any trouble spots • Play it through again
…60 minutes: • Play it through • Go back and work on: rhythm/pulse, intonation, dynamics, balance, phrasing/color, basically in that order (although see below). Once one problem is solved – say, a tuning issue – immediately focus your attention on the next level (balance/color/phrasing). • Play it again (twice if possible)
Other tips: • Conductors: don’t let any section sit around too long without playing • Attack whatever problems you hear. Don’t be cute, or overly methodical, just fix what needs fixing. • Some problems will fix themselves; it takes experience to intuit which those are. • Don’t stop too much; some problems will not fix themselves until people have time to practice individually. • Try to balance stopping for detail work with playing through longer passages. • Conductors: when you’re playing through a long passage, dog-ear the corners of your score when you hear issues arise so you’ll be able to locate them as soon as you stop. • Take notes right after rehearsal; a lot of niggling details can be fixed by giving a list to the orchestra (dynamic changes, note errors, etc.) • When it comes to intonation, don’t be afraid to fix things that sound out of tune, even if you don’t know exactly how to tackle them. If you don’t know if something is sharp or flat, just admit it. • Or take a guess. If you guess wrong, you’ll quickly figure out that the other option was right. • When it comes to tuning chords, here’s a tried-and-true method: have the people who play the root play their note mf. Then add the 5th of the chord playing mp. Then add the third playing p. Once you’ve got the sonority ringing true, people can go back to their regular dynamics. • A well-said image, analogy, or story can inspire a whole new level of playing, but these have to be used sparingly. • Stay positive, but don’t accept unacceptable results.
Which is a bummer! I built this program around Boulanger’s setting of the 129th psalm. Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms was a natural pairing, then I got to thinking about other psalms, going back as far as I could and up to the present day. Here’s what we were supposed to have performed tonight:
SCHÜTZ Alleluja! Lobet den Herrn! HILDEGAARD Karitas habundat SHAW and the swallow STRAVINSKY Symphony of Psalms DVORAK Žalm 149 BOULANGER Psaume CXXIX WHITE Psalm 46
It’s a wildly eclectic program spanning 900 years of music, performed in five different languages, but I’m telling you – it works!
Or so went my hypothesis anyway. I had prepared my pre-concert lecture to explain how it works, pointing out the many cross-pollinations that bounce around in this program. Since I couldn’t give it in person, here you have it:
Same Text, Different Worlds
There are two pieces on the program that share the same text: Heinrich Schütz’s Alleluia (1619) and the last movement of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (1930), the text being that of the 150th psalm.
Here’s how Schütz sets the first lines, “Alleluja! Lobet den Herrn” (“Hallelujah! Praise the lord”)
And here’s Stravinsky’s setting of the same words, this time in Latin:
It’s immediately clear a) that we’re in two totally different sound worlds and b) that Igor Stravinsky has an awfully dour way with the word “Hallelujah”.
In fact, Stravinsky’s setting of this whole text is quite peculiar, and a case could be made that it’s hardly a musical setting of the text at all, and more a symphony to which words were appended.
Listen, for example, to the way Schütz and Stravinsky set the baldly evocative words, “Praise him with timbrel and dance, praise him with strings and organ”:
I’m not saying that a composer has to be literal with their word painting, but this psalm invites it brazenly, and it’s a bold choice to ignore it outright.
The irony here is that Stravinsky considered the music in this movement to be the single most literal musical depiction he ever composed, particularly the following passage, which depicts Elijah riding a fiery chariot through the sky. The horns and triplets represent the stomping of hooves:
Apparently Stravinsky was even embarrassed that he had written something so literal, which may well be, but it’s worth pointing out that this text contains not a single mention of a horse, a chariot, or the prophet Elijah.
Sing we and chant it
Chant plays a major role in this program, most obviously with the work of the 12th century mystic, Hildegaard von Bingen:
There was a major revival of interest in chant in Parisian musical circles around the time that Lili Boulanger was receiving her education (you’ll hear it a ton in Fauré, d’Indy, Franck, and Duruflé). Listen to the first vocal line of her setting of the 129th psalm with the Hildegaard in mind:
Even a composer like Dvorak, whose setting of the 149th psalm has a bright, festive, dance-like atmosphere, uses a bit of chantish writing to invoke the solemnity of his material:
There are two contemporary works on the program, one by Caroline Shaw, the other by yours truly. (One of these composers has won the Pulitzer Prize in Music; it’s hardly worth quibbling over which it was.)
We’re composers of the same generation who mainly write in the sphere of tonal music, and what’s more, we both use some of the same techniques, one of which is writing in parallel harmonies.
Listen to this complete performance of and the swallow and I’ll explain what I mean:
Right from the start, you’re getting parallel harmonies – a G-flat major chord moves up to a B-flat minor chord, same voicing, all the parts moving in parallel motion. Another way of putting it is that she’s writing melodies, but instead of using single notes, she uses stacked chords.
This is something that I do a lot, but whereas Shaw’s writing (in this piece) tends towards modality, mine tends towards chromaticism, since I most commonly maintain the chord qualities with each melodic move.
[I am so sorry for that last paragraph. This is the kind of jargon that I would entirely eschew in a pre-concert lecture, but I would have extra tools to explain myself, like a piano and my insouciant charm.]
A simpler version of this is to say that, had I written the opening of and the swallow, it might have had a B-flat major chord instead of a B-flat minor chord, which would sound crunchier and less mellifluous.
Check out, for example, the dissonances in the opening bars of my piece:
Lots more could be said about this program, and it’s a shame that I won’t get a chance to present all these pieces in one evening, because I really believe they have all sorts of interesting resonances with each other.
But the wheels have been churning, and I think I’ve figured out how to scrap this program for parts, leading to many new programs, perhaps even more diverting and ingenious than this one, so stay tuned!
An angel has come down heaven and uploaded Stephen Sondheim’s 1994 appearance on “Inside the Actor’s Studio” to YouTube, and since I’ve given up the pretense that this space is anything other than a Sondheim fan blog, here it is:
This might actually be my favorite Sondheim interview, though it’s hard to pick because Sondheim always says the exact same things any time he is questioned. He would make a remarkably good political candidate; he is relentlessly on message.
By the way children, this is the sort of programming that used to air regularly on Bravo. It was basically ITAS, Mindwalk, and England, My England on a loop. Go ahead, click that link to Mindwalk and just imagine that playing on Bravo today. It is literally three people walking around Mont Saint-Michel for two hours talking about Systems Theory to the accompaniment of Philip Glass music. My recollection is that it ran almost every day.
As much as I despise James Lipton, I always dreamed of being interviewed on ITAS so that I could answer the famous Proust/Apostrophe/Bouillon de Culture questionnaire that he asked at the end of each episode. But that’s not going to happen, so here are my answers:
What is your favorite word? Euphony
What is your least favorite word? Wart
What is your favorite drug? Green tea
The sound or noise you love the most? Gentle birdsong
The sound or noise you hate? Open-mouthed chewing; leaf blowers, lawnmowers, motorcycles
What is your favorite curse word? Heaven forfend!
If you couldn’t do what you’re doing now, what job would you like most? Diction coach… although this is part of my current job, so maybe curtsey reviewer?
What job would you like least? Football player
What would you like to come back as if you could be reincarnated? One of those bacteria that live in liquid asphalt. I would finally be warm enough.
If Heaven exists what would you like to hear god say when you arrive? I’m your Auntie Mame!
Here, for your auditory delectation, is my appearance on Kyle Marshall’s excellent “Putting it Together” podcast, a nerdy Sondheim gabfest that is for me what a politics or sports podcast is for “normal” people.
I was so excited that I probably got a little out of control. The episode is seventy minutes long and we are talking about the Overture and “Let me entertain you” from Gypsy. But it’s your holiday gift, so you’d better enjoy it!
This coming February 9, I’m going to premiere a new orchestration of my setting of the 46th psalm (titled, aptly, Psalm 46), realizing an intention that I’ve harbored since I composed the piece in 2011. The piece was originally scored for organ, handbells, brass and timpani (and choir).
As I’ve come back to the piece to give it its new orchestral garb, the memories of its creation have come flooding back. It’s my own little Proustian madeleine.
I composed Psalm 46 in one of my off-years from full-time conducting, ironically enough, right after having completed my masters degree (…in conducting.) It wasn’t for a lack of trying that I didn’t have a job; I had applied for every position I could find. I was roundly rejected from every one.
So I decided to move back to Chicago from Bloomington, IN, which was a bit of a let down, but it seemed like the best choice. My professional network was in Chicago, and I assumed I could always pick up a bit of extra work giving lectures for the Chicago Symphony (it turned out they only offered me 3 concerts that season.)
I rented a little apartment in Ukrainian Village on Chicago’s west side. My landlady was a somber Polish woman whom I hardly ever saw since she spent most of her time in Poland “visiting her son”. When I asked where he lived, she told me he was dead. That has always stuck with me.
My landlady owned only half three of my building’s six units. The others were owned by a truly loathsome man who lived on the top floor with his wife. He was immature and aggressive, a bully and a tormenter. He was so abhorrent that – and I’m not making this up – the previous tenant in my apartment had defecated in the communal washing machine as a final act of retribution.
This landlord and his equally detestable wife often had violent shouting matches. During one such outburst, when they were arguing about something to do with the building, I heard them refer to me as “the composer”, which I’ll admit I did appreciate.
This year when I didn’t have a real job was a challenge but it also proved that I had very many loyal friends who were willing to help me. Most of that help came in the guise of commissions for new pieces. Psalm 46 was one of those works.
The piece was commissioned by the church where I had been working right before I left for Bloomington, and it’s really a testament to the kindness of that congregation, since I had left after only a year when they were fully expecting me to stick around for at least four or five.
The commission was quite specific with regards to instrumentation: it would be written to celebrate the retirement of their longtime organist (a dear friend) who was also the director of the handbell program. As the church also had a resident brass ensemble, they were to be included as well.
As happy as I was to have the commission, that ensemble was a field of land mines. Writing for organ is always fraught, though Mike, the organist was and is a good friend and a dream to work with, and he greatly improved my writing for the instrument.
Nobody could improve my writing for the handbells though; they simply shouldn’t be written for.
Inexplicably, some people enjoy the so-called English handbell choir. To me, they sound like the unholy union of a tin can and a cowbell, and what’s more, I can not fathom why anyone would want to play in an ensemble where you only get to play one note (“But if you play the little ones, you can play up to four at a time!” I am told. Gee willikers.)
Compositionally, this piece was a big step in my development. Parts of it were probably a bit too outré for those lovely singers in suburban Illinois, but they tackled their task with gusto, led by my successor, who turned out to be a petty bitch. He actually kicked me out of the dress rehearsal of my own piece when I tried to adjust the balance from where I was sitting in the back of the sanctuary.
But now I get a second go on this piece. In addition to re-scoring it for large orchestra, I’ve also added some extra amens for the chorus at the end, since one of the original chorus members complained to me that she was miffed that the chorus didn’t get to sing the end the piece. (They still don’t, but they get much closer.)
The thing I’m most looking forward to hearing is the work’s major climax, a huge modulation that takes place near the end of the piece, landing on a monumental C major chord. I remember being so delighted by that passage when I wrote it that I called my friend Tim and begged him to come over and listen to it.
But there was something that robbed that moment of its fullest glory, something I desperately wanted but couldn’t have: a cymbal crash. I’ve been awaiting that cymbal crash for 8 years, and now, god willing, I’ll finally get to hear it.
I was recently a guest on Seattle’s classical music station, 98.1 KingFM, on a program called “Musical Chairs” in which local musicians choose a handful of their favorite recordings and explain why they’re important to them.
Royalties and copyrights prevent the station can’t post these episodes on its web site, so I thought I’d assemble my little list here:
1) William White, Acadia Fanfare
This piece has turned into a real calling card for me – this season alone it will receive 5 or 6 separate performances, and I used it as the kickoff of my very first concert as music director of OSSCS. I wrote it for the Monteux School, so in addition to trying to capture the effect of Acadia National Park, it’s also got allusions to French music (Ravel and Debussy). And of course to Sondheim – always Sondheim.
2) Lili Boulanger, Psalm 24
Lili Boulanger is the focus of my season with OSSCS – we’re doing one of her works on every concert. I chose this piece for the first concert because a) it’s the first piece of hers I ever learned and b) it’s just so damned trilling. Her musical language owes debts to many sources, but I’m at a loss to figure out exactly where this piece sprung from. Her voice is vital and original, and I’m really hoping that our audiences will have a deep appreciation for her art after this season is over.
3) Maurice Ravel, La Valse
Speaking of French music and L’École Monteux, this is a piece that I learned in Maine and have come back to many times over. Monteux recorded the work several times – you’ll find versions from 1930, 1941, and 1965 on YouTube. The ’65 version with the LSO is the most famous and most widely available, but I much prefer this version with the San Francisco Symphony from ’41.
This is a piece that tells a real story in music, in this case, the story of the desolation of the European “Old World” in World War I.
4) Heinrich Schütz, “Alleluja! Lobet den Herrn”
I wanted to be sure to get a bit of early music on the list, and this is such a splendid work. I took a semester-long course on the music of Schütz when I was in grad school at IU, and his work has spoken to me ever since. It’s not all just “Saul, Saul”! (Though, that piece is deservedly celebrated.)
5) Arturo Marquez, Danzon No. 2
This piece makes me think fondly on all of my time spent working with youth orchestras. Whenever I’ve done this piece, I’ve added choreography and staging, and the kids always bring a ton of ideas to bring the piece to life. It’s endless fun and brings a real feel of collaboration to the life of an orchestra.
6) Quinn Mason, Concerto for Violin and Chamber Ensemble
I wanted to include something from the next generation of composers, and as far as I’m concerned, Quinn Mason is a leading voice of the under 25 crowd. He and I have been correspondents for at least a year now, and I’ve been thrilled to observe his development as a composer and the advancement of his career. I’ve never come across a composer who produces music so voluminously before – it seems like every other week, Quinn is sending me another movement of a symphony or suite or chamber piece. He’s starting to be recognized for the incredible talent he has, which is a welcome development in American musical life.