My latest piece is called The Muses. I’d love to tell you what genre it falls into, but I honestly don’t know. Hence this blog post.
To get the ball rolling, here’s how The Muses works: the piece is for chorus & orchestra, and it sets to music an Ancient Greek text by the 1st century historian Diodorus Siculus. The text gives a background summary of the nine muses of Greek myth. Each muse is named along with her area of specialty (music, dance, history, etc.), followed by a short etymological description of what the name means.
Men have given the Muses their name from the word muein, which signifies the teaching of those things which are noble and expedient and are not known by the uneducated. For the name of each Muse, they say, men have found a reason appropriate to her: Cleio is so named because the praise which poets sing in their encomia bestows great glory (kleos) upon those who are praised…
Before Diodorus launches into the list of the nine names, he starts with a brief discourse on the word “muse” itself. Of course, that’s where my piece starts, and that first bit becomes the introduction to the nine episodes that constitute the piece.
Given the shape of this text, I considered writing a theme and variations, one variation for each of the muses, but I scrapped that idea when the text didn’t want to coalesce into a clear “theme” (i.e. a single, singable melody.) The introduction, which would have been a “theme” became more of a “thematic field” with melodic bits that I immediately started to develop.
But I didn’t give up on the idea entirely. Which is to say that those melodic bits from the opening section became the basis for MOST of the music in each of the episodes. But each episode also has some stuff that’s new, and occasionally I re-used material that was introduced in one episode in a later episode.
So, you could call this piece a “thematic field and development episodes” but that doesn’t really have much of a ring to it. The next best thing I could come up with was “tone poem for chorus and orchestra.” And I suppose that it might be considered a tone poem, but I’m hesitant to call it one because usually in tone poetry there is a dramatic element, i.e. something happens. (Consider z.B. Dvorak’s The Wood Dove or Strauss’s Don Juan.)
Another thing that it might be but it’s not is a “choral symphony.” I would put something like Rachmaninoff’s The Bells in this group. The Muses is just one movement and has no symphonic impetus behind it.
Now that I’ve ruled all those out, I think I might have put my finger on it. You know what this piece really is? It’s a ballet chanté. It should have been obvious to me that I was writing a dance piece without the dance given that it was a response to Daphnis et Chloé. And yet, someone I didn’t realize it. But I’ll tell you how I figured it out:
Not two months ago, a conductor friend called to tell me that he was planning to perform my Recollected Dances as a ballet with his company in the suburbs of Seattle. I went to the performance and I fell in love with it. It worked incredibly well, and it’s made me realize that a ton of my music (maybe all of it?) would benefit from a choreographic treatment.
The Muses would just work SO WELL as a ballet, and I think that many smaller companies would love it. It’s basically got nine solos for nine ballerinas, any of which could easily be supported by the corps. And there’s no obvious reason it needs to include boys (but there’s no reason it couldn’t) so I think it’s pretty flexible and would play to many company’s strengths.
So I guess this post turned from a plea for help into an exhortative advertisement to regional ballet companies. That’s blogging for you!
One of the great pleasures of having your own podcast is that you get to go on other people’s podcasts. It’s a whole ecosystem out there, and we’re all in it together!
I get a little hyper when I go on other people’s shows because I’m usually talking about myself or my work, subjects upon which I am but rarely asked to opine. On my show The Classical Gabfest, the whole point is that my cohosts and I don’t talk about ourselves, we talk about music and news. Of course our personal lives come through in little glimpses, and I quite like that. It’s good to get to know someone slowly.
But, if you are curious to hear my thoughts on conducting, composing, and non-classical music…
This is an interview show wherein artistic guests talk about the professional demons that have haunted them along their career paths. We had the hosts on our show in January, at which time Kensho and Tiffany and I revealed a bit about our ups and downs and bumps along the road.
In my episode, I ended up talking more abstractly about the conducting profession as a whole, but I definitely got into some of my own stuff. I think it was a good conversation.
Also an interview podcast, this time specifically for composers. The host, Steve Danielson, is a choral conductor and composer so the guests mainly come from the choral world. He’s had one some pretty well-known figures, Jake Runestad being a standout example.
I really like the structure of this show. In the first half, Steve asks the composer about their musical background and career; in the second half, he plays four representative works (chosen by the composer) and has a little discussion about how each fits into their output and artistry.
I chose my works based on whom I perceived his audience to be — mainly choral music aficionados — so I started off with a very old choral piece (which I still quite like) and then moved onto brass music (a movement from The Dwarf Planets), my piano sonata, and Acadia Fanfare.
On another show (or a different day) I might have chosen four different works, but I think these ones serve their purpose quite well.
Putting It Together
In my most recent episode, we talked about what is easily the most fucked up song in the very fucked up (and completely perfect in every way) Sweeney Todd. It’s pretty wild!
The Classical Gabfest
Did you think I wasn’t going to include my own show in this little list? Not bloody likely! We just did another All-Games Extravaganza this week, and those tend to be very popular with our hardcore user base, so here it is:
In this week’s edition of the Gabfest (technically the Lovefest) we talked about Music of the Heart for our movie club, a 1999 tearjerker about an inner city violin teacher played by Meryl Streep. I called it “one step removed from a Hallmark film,” a statement I stand by, but Tiffany thought it should be part of the core canon of beloved classical movies.
I was willing to grant that it’s not a bad movie per se, but it will never enter into my personal pantheon. So what would I put in my personal pantheon? Well, I’m glad you asked:
10. La Pianiste
I’m starting this list with the single most f*cked up movie about music. La Pianiste (â€œThe Piano Teacherâ€) stars Isabelle Hupert as a sexually repressed classical musician who experiences the grave misfortune of seeing her kinkiest desires come true. (See Å½iÅ¾ek for a deeper analysis.)
For most of its running time, La Pianiste falls into my favorite genre of movie, which is â€œmoody French art film with almost no dialogueâ€ (more on that below.)
9. The Red Violin
Another movie that came out when I was a teenager and did surprisingly well at the box office. It’s basically The Da Vinci Code of the violin, and it’s more than slightly ridiculous. But it’s got a cool score by John Corigliano performed by Josh Bell (both of whom, apparently, also acted as script consultants.) I doubt this one holds up particularly well, but it was fun at the time.
8. Hangover Square
If you think I’ve only seen this movie because of the position it holds in Sondheim lore, you’re absolutely right. Sondheim often told the story of how when he was 10 or 11 years old, he watched this movie like 100 times with the intention of memorizing its score. (Just listen to the podcast episode in my last post.) It’s about an Edwardian-era composer-pianist who goes insane, and the picture ends with the character playing the piano as he’s engulfed in flames. Neat stuff!
This is the second most f*cked up movie on this list, an avant-garde phantasmagoria of a biopic. Ken Russell also made movies about Elgar, Delius, Tchaikovsky, and Liszt, but I haven’t seen any of those (though I’d quite like to.) It’s been a long time since I saw this movie, and I only saw it once, but like… this isn’t a movie that you easily forget.
A performer biopic for a change. This movie came out in the US when I was 13 and it was something of a sensation. And for good reason â€” it’s a fantastic movie! It spurred in me a several months’ long obsessed with the Rachmaninoff piano concertos. Been a while since I’ve seen it, but I would guess that it holds up quite well.
5. Immortal Beloved
I watched this movie so. many. times when I was a kid. Beethoven was, after all, my favorite composer (still is!) and this movie was the best available depiction of him on screen. I think Gary Oldman does a great job portraying Beethoven and overall the film holds up pretty well. It’s always fun to see Isabella Rossellini and she matches Oldman beat for beat as his main love interest. The period details and are very good as are the musical depictions. There’s one big criticism though, which is that in the scene depicting Napoleon’s invasion of Vienna, there are two shots that are edited out of order. See if you can spot them!
4. England, My England
Now we get into one of my weird hobby horses, which is the fact that when I was a teenager, Bravo TV â€” yes, that Bravo TV of â€œReal Housewivesâ€ fame â€” was an extremely highbrow channel that ran a steady stream of artsy-fartsy European films; it would be hard for me to explain how much of a formative impact this had on me. (Exhibit A in just how obscure most of their programming was: Bernt Capra’s Mindwalk, which I also watched several times, barely understanding any of it.)
Anyway, England, My England is the story of Henry Purcell, easily one of my top 10 favorite composers, and it’s a very good movie. Once again, it’s slightly experimental, but it works incredibly well and the music is fantastic. Simon Callow plays Charles II and he can essentially do no wrong (see below.)
3. Tous les matins du monde
This movie has everything. First off, it’s the paradigm of a moody French art film with almost no dialogue. Second, it’s all about sulky old French viol music from the early Baroque. Third, it’s got smokeshow Guillaume Depardieu rocking the most luscious locks in all of Europe (sadly, he died shortly after making the movie.)
The movie itself is a sort of dual-biopic about the composer Marin Marais (played by both Guillaume and Gerard Depardieu) and his teacher, who is only known to history as M. de Sainte-Colombe. MdSC was a petty nobleman who revolutionized the viol as an instrument and the music written for it. Jordi Savall does the music and it is first rate. I wrote a piece inspired by this music (and, in a way, the movie itself.)
This really is one of the best movies ever made, and not just about music. The performances are â€” without exception â€” superb. Tom Hulce paints a portrait of Mozart that is so vivid it has no chance of ever being matched. Simon Callow was born to play Emanuel Schikaneder, and of course F. Murray Abraham is perfect as Salieri.
I just finished reading Jan Swafford’s recent biography of Mozart, and after 750 pages, my big takeaway was that Amadeus gets Mozart so so so right. Now, the scolds among you will complain that the contents of the movie are ahistorical. I take the point, but in a broader sense, I think this movie’s history is perfect. The plot is not factually accurate, but the costumes, settings, style, and background detail are all spot on. And of course, the plot wasn’t trying to be perfect â€” it was Peter Shaffer’s retelling of the story of Cain and Abel. Mozart and Salieri were polite (and even friendly) rivals in real life. (Salieri did Mozart the honor of conducting his 40th symphony with an orchestra of 180 people!)
Ok this is it, easily one of my top 2 or 3 favorites movies of all time. Moodier, Frenchier, and silenter than any other film on this list, Bleu is the story of Julie, a contemporary composer living and working in Paris in the early 90’s. When her husband â€” also a composer â€” dies in a car accident (along with her daughter) she is forced to reconstruct her life from the ground up.
Why did I click so hard with this movie when I was 13? Who can say. I was in the formative stage of my lifelong loves of the French language, of classical music, and of art film. Later I came to find out that this is widely considered Kieslowski’s masterpiece and that it was Juliette Binoche’s breakout role, but I had no idea of either of those facts at the time.
The music in the film is one of the focal points, as several of the main characters are composers. The score by Zbigniew Preisner has come in for a lot of criticism over the years, with many listeners finding it overwrought. And in a way it is, but it’s also hauntingly beautiful if you give yourself over to it, and of course, encountering it as a young teenager, I was easy prey for its intensity.
You won’t have to dig too deeply into this blog (or any of my other public-facing work) to know that Stephen Sondheim is easily my favorite American composer of the latter-20th century and a major influence on my own work.
Thankfully, my co-hosts on The Classical Gabfest were willing to let me have this week’s episode to myself. In lieu of our normal roundtable discussion, I created an audio documentary devoted to Sondheim’s work as a composer.
It’s hardly surprising that the discourse around Sondheim in the past two weeks has been heavy on his lyrics and light on his music; music is just harder to talk about, especially without resorting to non-technical terminology. (Sondheim even said as much in his two-volume book of lyrics.)
But with an audio medium, the job becomes (slightly) more feasible. I put a lot of myself into this podcast, and I hope it brings classical music lovers closer to Sondheim and Sondheim lovers closer to classical music.
I did an interview with Sergio Canovas who runs one of those great YouTube channels that digs up obscure symphonic music. He reached out after digging up my own obscure musical Symphony in Three Movements. You can read Sergio’s translation on his site, or read what I wrote in English here:
What is, in your opinion, the current state of classical music in the United States today?
In one sense, classical music is incredibly strong in the U.S. today. We have some of the finest conservatories in the world; because of this, the U.S. is home to a large number of exquisitely trained musicians.
However, many of these people will find it hard to make a living in classical music after they leave music school. Governments in the U.S., both at the federal and state levels, provide very little funding for the arts, and classical music is becoming less and less of a priority as funding organizations (both public and private) seek to bolster art forms that originate outside the European hegemonic sphere.
In the past decade, large classical music institutions in our major cities have attracted quite a bit of private money though, and they seem to be safe from major catastrophes. (The Metropolitan Opera in New York is, perhaps, an exception to this.) The situation with orchestras, opera companies, and chamber music presenters in smaller cities is more complicated: some of those communities are able to maintain classical music institutions in spite of declining populations because the people who remain are older and have more conservative taste. However, this is a mixed bag.
In terms of general interest in classical music among U.S.-Americans, I think it is quite low overall, but the accessibility of the internet might be changing this. Where I live, in Seattle, there is a thriving community of amateur classical musicians, mostly people who work in the technology sector. Many of these people earned music degrees at university, but they have gone on to careers in computer programming or other related professions, and now they pursue classical music performance as a passion (or, in some cases, as an addiction!)
What is the relationship between composers and audience?
I think very carefully about the audience for my works, and I try to write music that will appeal to each specific audience. Am I writing for an audience that is accustomed to â€œnew musicâ€ or one that barely knows about traditional classical music? My goal as a composer is to meet an audience where they are, to connect with them, and then to take them on a journey.
Since orchestral music attracts the largest audience, I try to use a particularly approachable musical language in orchestral music. That doesnâ€™t mean that the language canâ€™t have dissonance or other challenging features â€” many people today are quite familiar with a certain â€œlight modernismâ€ that they have heard in film scores, particularly in thrillers and horror films.
I believe that once an audience trusts you â€” trusts that you are writing music for them, not music intended to bewilder them or show off your own intellect â€” they will willingly follow you on the musical journey you have created for them, and that they will enjoy the surprises and challenges you include along the way.
What do you conceive when you think of a Symphony?
For me, a symphony should have an emotional sweep like that of a novel or a film. I particularly admire â€œcyclicalâ€ symphonies, such as Franckâ€™s symphony in D minor or Sibeliusâ€™s first symphony, where themes reappear throughout the various movements like characters in a play.
A symphony should tell a story, but not a literal one: music stubbornly resists most attempts at literal depiction. Rather, music is the language of emotions, and therefore a symphony can (and should) explore the internal drama of the human experience.
Of course, when I conceive of a symphony, I naturally reflect on the great tradition that stems back to Haydn and Mozart. I am intensely interested in the ways the form has been altered and reshaped during its nearly 300 year history. One may think that everything that can be done with the symphony has already been done, but I am constantly amazed at how many different approaches to this form exist. Every symphony solves the puzzle in a different way.
Is there a place for the symphonic genre in the XXI century?
I see no reason why the symphony should not continue into the 21st century, but there are many forces working against it. Generally speaking, it seems that large new works are only accepted if they are multimedia or collaborative â€” pieces with narration, singing, dancing, film, or theatrical elements. At least, that would appear to be the case in the United States.
But the symphony (in its unadorned form) has much to offer audiences in the 21st century. It offers a different way of interacting with music (and indeed with artistic expression) than any other art form. Because the orchestra offers so much coloristic variety, a symphonic composer can constantly surprise and refocus the listener, even over a long time span.
We still find a place for excellent literary fiction in our cultural world today (for example, the novels of Elena Ferrante), and for artistic films and plays. I think there are many more people who would also appreciate large scale symphonic music if they could be exposed to it. We tend to direct our efforts at exposing classical music to new audiences at children and underserved communities â€” which is a good thing to do â€” but there is also a large audience of mainstream adults who are generally interested in fine arts but lack exposure to classical music.
Not only are you a composer, but also a conductor. Does the music you perform influence your compositions?
Yes. I trained as a composer at university, but I have pursued conducting as my profession, and because of this, I have spent many hundreds of hours studying the orchestral works of the great composers; they have, in effect, become my most important composition teachers.
When I conduct a work, I analyze it deeply, trying to understand every bit of its structure and harmony. I examine its smallest details, its largest forms, and everything in between. I deconstruct its melodies and counterpoint and seek to understand everything the composer has put into the work.
Many composers try to hide their influences or claim to renounce them. I prefer to celebrate mine. I think that greatness in any artistic pursuit comes from building on the work of those who went before you. Beethoven was a great composer because he built upon the work of Mozart and Haydn. Schnittke was great because he built upon the work of Mahler and Shostakovich.
Do you believe in inspiration or hard work? Perhaps both?
Naturally, both are important.
Other crucial attributes for a composer include: wide-ranging curiosity about the world; intellectual rigor; a fascination with puzzles, logic, and design; a profound emotional honesty; an intense desire to communicate; openness to collaboration and interpretation; a constantly evolving understanding of oneâ€™s own work habits and needs; a fascination with history (music history in particular); and a desire to engage with â€œeternal philosophyâ€.
By “eternal philosophy” I am referring to the aspects of meaning in human life that are consistent from generation to generation. In certain ways, our technological age is very different from the era of the Ancient Greeks, the Medieval Arabs, or the Qing dynasty in China. But in some crucial ways, the way we experience life internally as human beings is the same in all of them. Composers need to try to get to the core of that inner human experience that transcends the ages.
I think that every composition should have some music that embarrasses its composer, at least slightly â€” something quirky that reveals a bit of bad taste or childish enthusiasm.
What has been your best experience at the podium? And the worst?
It would be hard to top the experience I had in June 2015 conducting the final movement of my symphony at Carnegie Hall. I had been the conductor of the Cincinnati Youth Symphony for four years and had personally selected all the students in the orchestra. I had worked with many of them closely for several years and I had composed the symphony with them specifically in mind. The program included my work, as well as selections from Prokofievâ€™s Romeo and Juliet and two works by Alfred Schnittke, perhaps my favorite 20th century composer. It was my last concert with the orchestra, and one that I will never forget.
More recently, I conducted The Rite of Spring with my current orchestra in Seattle. It was a major challenge for them, but they worked extremely hard and delivered a fine performance. I also conducted Lili Boulangerâ€™s â€œDu fond de lâ€™abÃ®meâ€ with them, which I rate as one of the most important choral-orchestral works ever produced. At first, the musicians were skeptical, but by the time we got to the concert, they had all fallen in love with it.
I have had to conduct the first movement of Brahmsâ€™ 3rd symphony several times, always in conducting auditions. I adore Brahms’ music, and in particular this symphony, but it is extremely challenging to conduct. When you have only a few minutes to â€œcrash through itâ€ with an orchestra, the results are terrible, at least in my experience.
One day I hope very much to program it on a concert and devote the necessary time to rehearsing it and getting comfortable with its intricacies.
Who would you consider the quintessential American composer?
For me, the â€œquintessentialâ€ American composer has to be someone who can write in both classical and popular styles and blend the two; ideally it should be someone who has made contributions to the concert hall, the Broadway stage, and the Hollywood film industry (since those are the quintessential American genres.)
With that in mind, I would choose Leonard Bernstein. His music for West Side Story incorporates many different popular styles, but he also carries off a 12-tone fugue in a work that went on to be adapted into one of the most popular movies of all time.
Honorable mentions: John Philip Sousa, Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, Billy Strayhorn, Aaron Copland, Stephen Sondheim, and John Williams. The closest we have to a â€œquintessential American composerâ€ today is probably Jennifer Higdon, though she has not (yet) branched out into non-concert media.
What emergent composers are you interested in or follow?
The emerging composer whose work I am most interested in is a young American composer from Dallas, TX named Quinn Mason. I became aware of Quinnâ€™s music about four years ago when he reached out to me via email and asked me to review some of his compositions.
I have received many such emails from young composers and I am always happy to listen to what they send and to offer advice. Sometimes, the music they send is very good indeed, but I have never encountered another young composer with Quinnâ€™s talents and abilities. His music immediately revealed itself as the work of a young artist who was thoroughly mastering his craft and emerging with an original voice.
What is your opinion on film music? Especially with regards to classical music.
I am a great lover of film music, but only the kind of film music that is connected to classical music in some way. I adore the scores from Classic Hollywood by people like Bernard Herrmann, Max Steiner, and Miklos Rozsa.
Among film composers working today, there are only a few who interest me. My favorite contemporary film composer is Alberto Iglesias, and indeed he is one of my favorite contemporary composers in any genre. I worship the films of Pedro AlmodÃ³var, in large part because of the contribution of Iglesias.
Besides Iglesias, there are some French composers whose film scores I quite admire, particularly the scores of Philippe Rombi for the films of FranÃ§ois Ozon and the scores of Alexandre Desplat for the films of Wes Anderson.
One thing really bothers me with film soundtracks though: when a historical picture does not use a period score. Unfortunately, this is extremely common; itâ€™s the exception when a period picture uses music appropriate to the time.
Do you listen to other types of music?
Yes, I listen to a lot of â€œgolden eraâ€ Broadway show tunes. I consider Stephen Sondheim a living deity sent to earth from heaven; he is easily my favorite living composer in any genre. His work is almost totally overlooked by the classical music establishment, and this is a pity. His music combines the best of the great Broadway tradition (Gershwin, Arlen, and Styne) with the best of the 20th century classical music tradition (Ravel, Stravinsky, and Rachmaninoff.)
Aside from that, I do not listen to many other types of music. My main interest is in discovering little-known works of classical music by obscure composers (as I often do on the Sergio Canovas YouTube channel!) Even when I donâ€™t love the music, I almost always find something interesting to learn from it.
Any recent personal anecdote?
Weâ€™re now at the beginning of June 2021, and life in the US is starting to return to normal. I received my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine on May 12. I was able to go to a small house party, a â€˜diletto musicaleâ€™ if you will, last weekend and perform some of my recent compositions for an invited audience in Portland, Oregon.
Even better, my ensemble has returned to musical life with outdoor rehearsals and several concerts scheduled for this summer â€” our first time making music together since February 2020!