The Key of David

While I was in Chicago last month (to give a slew of pre-concert lectures for the symphony), I took one evening to record a piece that’s been in need of a recording for quite a while now, “O Clavis David,” for choir and organ:

As to the recording session itself, all I can say is, if you hire the right people, you’ll get a good product, and thankfully I had a friend who knew all the right people to hire.

Of course, where organs are concerned you don’t just need the right person playing (which I had) but you also need the right person to record (ditto) and you darn well better make sure you’ve got a quality instrument in an excellent acoustic.

This recording was made at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, which boasts a blazing hot E. M. Skinner organ. When I walked into the church and heard the organist practicing his part, I practically thought he was going to knock my ears off my head.

Luckily he pulled it back (just a little) for the session, but saints alive is that a phenomenal instrument. The piece was written for the Flentrop organ at St. Mark’s in Seattle, which couldn’t be more different, but that’s the thing with writing for the organ — you do your best to make a piece that will work in many different settings, because you never know what you’re going to get.

Costume Party

This first appeared as an essay on Tone Prose, a weekly Substack newsletter about the world of classical music.

The other day I was perusing the r/Seattle subreddit and I came across a question to the effect of: “My boyfriend and I want to get dressed up and go out for a fancy evening. Where in Seattle would we feel comfortable?”

The answers were predictable: “oh Seattle is so casual, you can wear whatever you want, nobody cares.” Indeed, that is true: in Seattle you can wear whatever you want and nobody cares. But I have a sneaking suspicion that’s not what the questioner was really asking.

What the questioner wanted to know is: where can we get dressed up and go out for a night on the town *and be surrounded by other fancy people*?” 

Now, one of the answers on the thread actually did suggest the Symphony and the Opera, and it’s not a bad answer, because those spaces are, at the broadest level, fancier than most spaces you come across in Seattle. But truth be told, most symphony goers dress “smart casual” at best, and certainly not in anything that could be said to resemble formalwear.

If we’re being honest, that’s the case in most concert halls and opera houses throughout the country, and indeed the world, though overall fashion standards are perhaps a tad more elevated in Europe and Asia than they are in North America.

People in the Classical Music Industrial Complex are always talking about how we need to make the experience of going to a performance more relatable, more easy-going, more casual, because that will connect with real people. And indeed, many orchestras, including the Seattle Symphony, have given up their white ties and their tails and adopted the All-Black Visual Succubus attire.

Now a slight tangent: I have a friend, a real dweeb of a fellow, who’s very into swords and sandals and fantasy. He decided to level up his involvement in his hobby and participate in a LARPing weekend. That stands for “Live Action Role Playing,” and it’s becoming a bigger and bigger thing. The idea is, you and 250 other losers dress up as characters from medieval fantasy, go camping out in the woods, and essentially bring a D&D campaign to life, complete with props, magic powers, multiple “lives”, strength/healing levels, baddies, bosses — the whole thing. The way I understand it, it’s historical reenactment meets video games meets kink play.

These LARP people take the whole thing rather seriously (as you might imagine) and so you have to send a photo of your costume even to get approved to participate. I thought it all sounded absurd (it still does) but what my friend said is that on Saturday at 10:00 am, when everyone showed up on the field of battle to start the game, he was overwhelmed by the power of seeing so many other dorks all dressed like warriors and elves and wizards.

Just once, I’d like to have that experience in the concert hall. I think a major symphony orchestra could at the very least try a single concert where a fancy dress code is enforced. We’d get to experience music the way our grandparents and great-grandparents did. You could even program period-appropriate music. It wouldn’t even be that hard! Start with a 1950s night where the audience just wore regular suits, ties, and dresses, and play a mix of Arnold Schoenberg and Leroy Anderson.

But there’s a real chance to level up, and wouldn’t it be fun to go to a concert where not only the orchestra, but also hundreds or thousands of audience members were wearing white tie and tails, ball gowns and jewels? We could have Brahms and Tchaikovsky and Offenbach for a treat. 

Yes indeed, concerts should be LARPing – Listening Attired (as) Reactionary Posh (human beings). Now that’s my idea of a good time!!

Word of Mouth

Last month, I (along with like, 120 other people) gave the world premiere of my latest work, also my biggest work, also my first stab at something akin to an opera, a piece called Cassandra:

And now I’ve got a problem, because I want to do it again.

Well, I don’t necessarily have to do it again; I’d be more than happy for someone else to take the baton, not to mention all the behind-the-scenes planning and production work that would be required to mount it.

The piece is an opera-oratorio, which means that it could be presented in a concert setting or in a fully-staged production. But naturally, I want the whole enchilada: costumes, sets, dancing, acting — all of it.

Cassandra was very well received, probably the greatest triumph of my career thus yet. And the number one comment I got was: “when are we going to see it again?” (sometimes rendered as “when are we going to see it on stage?”)

And the truth of the matter is: probably not until I decide to program it again! Big pieces are a tricky business for a composer, and this piece is big in two dimensions: it’s too long to convince someone to put on a symphonic program and the orchestra is too large to convince someone to mount operatically.

Like most composers, my most successful pieces are the little guys: my duet for clarinet and violin, my concert opener orchestra piece, my little string orchestra piece, and my far-and-away bestseller, my duet for tuba and marimba. My symphony, my choir concerto, and my horn trio languish.

Those are the very few of my pieces that have achieved liftoff and gotten past the orbit of my immediate circle of performer-friends. And hey, that’s not to besmirch the colleagues of my acquaintance who have done what they could to champion my music — I am eternally grateful to them all!

But the thing is, I just don’t know many people who would be in a position to mount a piece like Cassandra. I’ve had many folks suggest conductors I could get in touch with, and that’s very kind of them, but here’s the thing: if you know a conductor who would be open to examining this work, YOU need to get in touch with them.

Composers are considered the least reliable sources on their own music, and nobody is ever looked upon with greater suspicion than a composer trying to promote a large work. Asking someone to spend an hour listening to a piece of new music is a hard sell on its own.

So you, you out there, if you were at the concert, or you watched the recording, and you heard something special, and you know someone in a position of programming authority who would even be willing to give it a listen, please give me a little help. So far, this piece has achieved a 100% success rate in engaging an audience and leaving them wanting more. In the past month, I’ve encountered many people who were at the concert, and they have shared with me their genuine enthusiasm for this piece, and I can tell the difference between real emotion and mere politesse.

And while you’re at it, see if you can get them to program a big festival of my stuff that includes all those other pieces too. 😉

Honegger on Composition

About a week ago, I attended a performance of Arthur Honegger’s third symphony, the “Liturgique” and I was drawn to this little quote in the program notes: “Composing is not a profession. It is a mania — a harmless madness.”

I think that’s bang on the money, so I dug up its source, a little book called I am a Composer, and I thought I’d share some other choice quotations. Honegger is refreshingly realistic (cynical, even) in his perspective about life as a composer in the modern age (1952), and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Let’s start here:

The profession of composer of music offers the peculiarity of being the activity and the preoccupation of a man who exerts himself to manufacture a product which no one is eager to consume. I might even compare it to the manufacture of top hats, button shoes, and whalebone corsets. The contemporary composer is therefore a sort of intruder who persists in stubbornly trying to impose himself at a banquet to which he has not been invited.

And now onto the process of composition itself, this masterly metaphor:

To be as frank as possible, a great share of my work eludes my conscious will. To write music is to raise a ladder without a wall to lean it against. There is no scaffolding: the building under construction is held in balance only by the miracle of a kind of internal logic, an innate sense of proportion. I am at once the architect and the spectator of my own work: I work and I judge. 

When an unforeseen obstacle arrests me, I leave my construction and sit in the seat of the listener, saying to myself: “After having heard the foregoing, what shall I hope for that will give me, if not the thrill of genius, at least the impression of success? What, logically, must happen to give me satisfaction?” And I try to find the next step, not the banal formula which would occur to everyone, but, on the contrary, an element of freshness, a rebound of interest. Step by step, following this method, my score is accomplished. 

This is the funniest one I’ve come across so far, where he talks about his work as a professor of composition:

My class always begins — and you can confirm this — with a little speech of which this is roughly the substance:

“Gentlemen, do you sincerely wish to become composers of music? Have you reflected carefully on what awaits you? If you write music, you will not be paid and you will not earn a living. If your father can afford to support you, then nothing prevents you from putting black marks on paper. You will learn that, wherever you go, what you value above all other things will have but a secondary importance for others; they will show no impatience to discover you and your sonata. Your only excuse is to write honestly the music that you wish to express, to bring to it all the pains, all the knowledge, which a man of probity would give to the most serious actions of his life. Suppose for a single moment that you thirty-seven men are — I do not say men of genius, but of talent — and that each one writes in a single year one worhty composition which deserves to be produced; that would unloose a veritable catastrophe in the musical world.”

And finally, the opening quote fleshed out into its full paragraph:

Composing is not a profession. It is a mania — a harmless madness, because it is rare to see an unknown composer give way to violent demonstrations and disturbances of the public peace, unless in a concert hall at the performance of a rival’s work. More often he is preoccupied, distraught, saddened by the proofs of incomprehension on the part of his contemporaries. If he is not ridiculous because of his arrogance and presumption, he will be as timid as a person afflicted by some abnormality which, it so happens, is not constantly on exhibition for all to see. And there you are!

Le plus ça change, le plus c’est la même chose!

This post is slightly expanded from a column in my weekly Substack newsletter, Tone Prose.


How copyright law promotes bad behavior in the world of classical music

This post is slightly adapted from an edition of my newsletter, Tone Prose. Subscribe for more ranting and raving!

I’ve got a concert coming up on April 6, 2024 which will feature the premiere of my new opera-oratorio Cassandra, but the program is equally exciting because it will bring me once again into collaboration with the great young pianist Joseph Vaz. Joey’s going to play Rhapsody in Blue, and having received the performance materials for this work, I’m struck by outrage, and I wish to make it known!

The publisher of Rhapsody in Blue, European-American Music, has abused its copyright privileges to offer a substandard product to interpreters of this work, and thus made the correct execution and performance of Gershwin’s music much more challenging than it should be. And while I (Will) am happy to name and shame EAM, they are simply representative of the industry-wide malfeasance. The real problem though, is the law itself.

What is Copyright?

Essentially, a copyright is a monopoly on a piece of intellectual property, such as a book, movie, recording, or, in the present case, a piece of music.

Now I don’t think you have to be the most rapacious libertarian capitalist in the world to reach the conclusion that monopolies are bad. But you don’t have to be a pinko commie tool to think that a limited monopoly granted to an artist might be good. After all, if you create an original work, shouldn’t you get some period of exclusivity in which to exploit your creation?

The first copyright law in the United States, the Copyright Act of 1790, did just that: it gave authors exclusivity on their works for a period of 14 years with an optional 14 year extension. That, I will grant, is a reasonable way of doing things. Of course, if you create a successful bit of IP, you’ll want to exploit it for as long as possible, so as corporations came on the scene and lobbyists started doing their dirty work, the original copyright provisions got distended to grossly disproportionate forms, culminating in the famous “Sonny Bono” Act of 1998. Cui bono? Sonny!

[A brief aside: don’t let Sonny Bono’s cameo on The Golden Girls fool you — he was one bad hombre. Aside from his rotten-to-the-core copyright extension act designed to protect Disney’s copyright on Mickey Mouse, he was also a raging NIMBY exclusionist zoning champion as mayor of Palm Springs, and gave Newt Gingrich PR advice.]

The Baroque State of U.S. Copyright Law

In the US, we are currently operating under a dual copyright regime:

  1. For works created prior to 1978, the maximum copyright duration is 95 years from the date of publication, or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter.
  2. For works created in or after 1978, the maximum copyright duration is “life of the author” + 70 years.

As to the question of Rhapsody in Blue, attentive readers of Listener Laurie’s comment will have noted that 2024 is the centennial of this great masterpiece of symphonic jazz. So, you might ask yourself, shouldn’t the music be in the public domain? Can’t you just download the parts from the Internet Music Score Library Project? Why does a publisher have to be involved at all?

Enter Ferde Grofé

First thing first: the original score of Rhapsody in Blue *is* in the public domain, and you *can* download it from imslp. The problem is, the original version of Rhapsody in Blue isn’t the version that anyone actually plays.

Well, it’s not *no one* who plays it — in fact, there’s a very cool recording of the original version, scored for Paul Whiteman’s dance band in 1924, performed by George Gershwin himself on a piano roll, with MTT conducting. (The tempi are nuts.) But Gershwin didn’t *orchestrate* the Rhapsody. That job was left to American composer Ferde Grofé (of “On the Trail” fame). Grofé revised and expanded this version in 1926, but it wasn’t until 1942 that he scored it for a normally-constituted symphony orchestra, and that’s now the version that “everyone” plays.

Material Interests

This 1942 version of Rhapsody in Blue remains under copyright until 2038. Which means that the publisher, European-American Music, retains a monopoly on the performing materials for another 14 years.

As we all know, the problem with a monopoly is that the monopolizer has no incentive to provide their customer with a decent product or service, and that’s exactly the problem here. First off, I placed Harmonia’s rental order for these materials back in May of 2023. I signed a contract that stated exactly when the sheet music was to arrive. That date came and went, and when I contacted EAM, it turned out they had lost track of the order.

Then things got worse: EAM sent me a freshly printed set of parts. These parts were engraved in 1942 using 1942 technology and 1942 Broadway notational conventions. When you first glance at the music on the page, it doesn’t look too shabby. But take a closer look:

Notice, for example, that after the first line of music, the clef is never re-printed, and neither is the key signature. That’s very poor indeed. The problems don’t stop there though: these parts were written so that the piece could be performed with any hackneyed, ill-constituted civic band, and so the parts are laden with cues to such an extent that they are almost impossible to read. This tendency reaches its ne plus ultra in the first violin part, which is clearly designed as a quasi conductor’s score for concertmasters who are also the leaders of their bands.


And now for the pièce de résistance: EAM doesn’t just sent the parts, they also send a printout of the 30-page errata list of corrections that need to be marked into all the parts.

Just think about this for a second: the parts were engraved in 1942. This errata list was compiled in 1990. That means that the publisher has had 34 years during which they could have re-engraved the piece so as to incorporate all these corrections.

But why would they? That might cost… oh a few thousand bucks I guess? It’s so much easier to make the renters of this material do the work themselves (as I did.) Who are the renters going to complain to? What competitor are they going to turn to? There is none — that’s the whole point of a monopoly!

Bad Actors, Bad Incentives

This whole thing reminds me of the problem with drivers.

Bad drivers should certainly be held to account for speeding and running stop signs. It’s antisocial behavior that can easily get people hurt or killed. But the real criminals are the transportation engineers and urban planners who have designed the road infrastructure that encourages speeding. The real criminals are the lobbyists who have been working on behalf of the auto manufacturers for a century to ensure that America is designed for car dependence. The real criminals are the lawmakers and politicians who have created a permissive legal structure where killing someone with a private automobile isn’t even considered a case of criminal conduct.

Preaching, Practicing

I’d be a fool if I didn’t mention that I, as a publisher of my own music, try to do everything that EAM doesn’t. First off, for the most part, I sell rather than rent. People can buy my music directly from this web site, print out their own copies (in whatever numbers they like) and perform it to their heart’s content. I also try very hard to make sure that the editions offered on this site are free from mistakes (though I am convinced it is a metaphysical impossibility to get them all.)