Posts Categorized: Posts

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.)

An Hour of Newly Recorded Music

Well, not quite an hour, but pretty close.

First up, Clarinet Quintet, op. 55, a piece that I wrote as a birthday gift for my college buddy Jeremy. It was commissioned by his siblings for his fortieth birthday. The birthday gift was the first movement. The second, third, and fourth movements were gravy because I wanted to make it into a full work. (Much the same thing happened with my trio for horn, viola, and piano.)

What was fun about this project was that I had the first movement premiered (with Jeremy in the audience) in Seattle by some friends over the summer. Hearing the first movement clarified for me what I wanted to do with the rest of the piece, and the latter movements were composed very quickly.

The demo recording was made in Portland with musicians from the Oregon Symphony, most notably their principal clarinetist, James Shields. It was a very fun day featuring a huge assortment of baked goods from Shoofly Vegan Bakery. God I miss Portland’s vegan food scene. Seattle doesn’t hold a candle.

Next up, 11 Bagatelles, op. 56 for solo piano. I also composed these in 2023, sporadically during the months of April through July (between writing the first movement of the Clarinet Quintet and the later movements.) They were written for my great piano muse Joseph Vaz.

Joey started agitating for more piano music in the lead-up to the highly successful New York premiere of the piano sonata I wrote for him. I thought he was crazy to ask for more. I don’t think of myself as a person who has facility writing for the piano, and he’s given me all sorts of guff about not writing “pianistically.” And yet, he kept asking, so I kept writing. (He’s asked for even more!!)

Joseph recorded these tracks in New York at the Manhattan School of Music. It was a great weekend; I came to town not only for the recording, but also to see Here We Are, the new Sondheim show. The night after the recording I went and screamed my heart out at Uncle Charlie’s with my friend Tim, as I am wont to do.

Last up is an older work, or, shall we say, a piece that has been in development for several years now, my Suite for Solo Cello, op. 36. It’s a little embarrassing to admit that, when I first wrote this, large chunks of it were extremely difficult, maybe unplayable; I should have had a better sense of the cello’s capabilities given my heritage as a violist.

I’d been trying to interest cellists in this piece for a while, but I think they maintained a polite distance because of the challenges. What I really needed was a cellist to workshop the piece with me, and my friend Ryan Farris finally stepped up to the plate this past summer.

We worked on the piece over a the course of a few months, making all sorts of adjustments and re-writes and recorded it in August. I give Ryan all the thanks and credit in the world for pulling off what he did, but I’m still planning to make an alternate arrangement for two cellos. I think it will be a more successful work.

I have to admit though that I love hearing the struggle of the piece in its current incarnation. It’s craggy and austere, and part of me thinks I should just let it exist as the stunted, gnarled oak that it is currently.

Do the Right Thing

A post-mortem on Stephen Sondheim’s posthumous production

I went to New York this past weekend to see the world premiere of Here We Are, the musical that Stephen Sondheim was working on at the time of his death in November, 2021. If he’d only been alive to complete it, it would have been wonderful. But he didn’t, so what we have is an incomplete masterpiece.

The existence of a masterpiece left incomplete at the time of its author’s death compels a question upon the people left responsible for the work: what’s the “moral” way forward? Do you let the public hear it in its incompletion? Do you guard it? Do you destroy it? How do you do the right thing?

Before I get into the solution proffered by Sondheim’s estate and his co-creators — and my opinion thereof — let’s take a brief diversion into musical history.

The Classics

The two most famous incomplete works in the classical canon are Mozart’s Requiem and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. 

In the case of the Mozart, they did the wrong thing: the widow Constanze brought in two of her late husband’s colleagues to comb through his remaining sketches and bring the work to completion. Franz Xaver Süssmayr did the lion’s share of the work and wrote some of his own original music to fill in gaps (including complete movements) where no Mozart sketches existed.

This collaborative version of the piece was accepted into the repertoire early on, and it now has a performing tradition of well over two hundred years, so most folks have decided to be okay with it (including me.) But in recent years, musicologists have come to think that they know better than musicians who actually interacted with Mozart while he was alive, and it seems that new completions are cropping up with increasing regularity. This is doing even wronger things.

In the case of Schubert’s B minor symphony, the unfinishedness was leveraged as a selling point (doubtless due in part to the romanticized history of Mozart’s Requiem) and even though Schubert left behind a third movement in short score (and even about a hundred measures in full score) this movement has never caught wind, though it has been completed by scholars. The completion has occasionally been performed and it has been recorded, so you can listen to it right now if you’re interested. This is doing the right thing: the greater public can hear what Schubert actually wrote, and the cognoscenti can listen to a realization of what Schubert might have written, understanding the context full well.

The Stage

Opera offers more gray areas than purely instrumental music, because a composer generally composes the music of an opera to a fully-formed pre-existing libretto. So if the music of the opera is close enough to the finish line, it can be possible — and justified — to finish the piece by bringing the composer’s work to its logical conclusion using sketches and grafting on music from earlier in the show (particularly in music dramas that use leitmotivs) as was the case with Puccini’s Turandot and Berg’s Lulu (one of Sondheim’s favorites.)

I think both of those completions fall into the “do the right thing” category because it would be such a loss not to be able to hear the work that these great artists did write, but you can’t just truncate the story ten minutes before its conclusion. In theory, you could stop the music and have the singers simply speak the rest of the libretto, but this would be jarring to the point of distraction in a thru-composed work and would completely ruin the effect of everything that had come before.

However, this is not the case with musicals, and this brings us to the curious case of Here We Are.

Words and Music

The development history of this show was chronicled quite ably by Frank Rich writing for Vulture. To sum it up, the team (Sondheim, writer David Ives, and director Joe Mantello) had been working on the piece since the early 2010s. Lacking any real production deadlines, Sondheim did what he was wont to do and chipped away at the songs bit by bit, putting it together in a procrastinatory fashion. 

(To give the guy a break: he was in his ninth decade, he was managing several film adaptation projects and stage revivals, and he was — seemingly — responding personally to every random scrap of paper that had ever been addressed to him.)

In September of 2021, Sondheim went on Colbert and announced that the project was picking up steam again, and that he hoped it would be produced in the coming season. Two months later, the day after Thanksgiving, he died.

When Sondheim died, he had written all the songs and scene for the first act, as well as the first three numbers of the second act. That’s a substantial amount of material, enough that a case could be made for going forward with the project. But how to go forward? Should they fill the gaps in the second act with reprises from the first? Should they hire a composer to write ersatz-Sondheim, perhaps based on his sketches? Should they simply end the show with the third song in the second act? What’s doing the right thing — by Sondheim, by the producers, by the audience?

To the immense credit of the producers of Here We Are at the Shed, the solution they have chosen is both the simplest one and the right one to boot: after the third song the second act, the second act of Here We Are becomes a straight play bereft of singing. As you may have read in the Frank Rich piece, the final 45 minutes of the show do include a few instrumental cues based on earlier music, but these cues come fewer and further between as the show continues, such that the greater part of the second act feels notably different than everything that preceded it.

These Are My Takes

I love everything that Sondheim wrote for this show, and I am eternally thankful that the show has been produced so that people like me can have a chance to see and hear it. But there is no question of it being a completed work — it is not. And I say this in spite of what Ives and Mantello told Frank Rich, namely that this “two-thirds sung, one-third spoken” concept was a deliberate dramaturgical decision made by the creative team prior to Sondheim’s death, on the grounds that the material demanded it.

Their claim is that because the characters in the second act find themselves stuck in one place, it doesn’t make sense for them to keep singing. My counterclaim is that this is complete and total bullshit.

I’m not saying that Ives and Mantello are necessarily lying, because it’s possible to believe that they had actually reached such an agreement with Sondheim. The scenario I imagine is this: 

With a production announced and a deadline finally looming, Sondheim was struggling to finish the score (par for the course with him), and his co-authors didn’t have the deftness of touch that Hal Prince and James Lapine had had in compelling him to work. So they created a well-intentioned excuse that would let him off the hook, but also let them move forward with the production, and Sondheim leapt at this “gentleman’s agreement.” 

That may well be what happened, but if it is, I think it’s important to acknowledge the reality that these three creators chose to enter into a shared delusion for practical purposes; this was not a path born of legitimate artistic values.

All you have to do is watch the show to reach the conclusion that it was meant to have been musicalized. There’s nothing in the libretto after that third song of the second act that is so radically different from what preceded it that it begs for dry recitation. In fact, there are several moments that positively cry out for songs, the two most notable being a long conversation between two characters about the meaning of life, and the very end of the show, where you’d expect a big reprise.

Now, assuming that my hypothetical scenario was what actually transpired – that there was a tacit agreement to move the show forward as a musical-play hybrid and thus let Sondheim off the hook – I know in my heart of hearts that Sondheim would have seen this version and written the remaining songs in show. Sondheim had a long history of building the plane at 30,000 feet (not unlike most other musical theater writers) and there are many spectacular examples of him writing his best work on short notice during previews (“Comedy Tonight”, “Send in the Clowns”, “Children and Art”, etc.) I think it’s a good bet that he would have completed the show even more brilliantly than he had begun it. 

So my one and only complaint in this whole saga is that Ives and Mantello are propagating this white lie that the show as it stands is what Sondheim really wanted it to be. It’s just not, and that’s ok. These guys have done the right thing by mounting the show with the songs that Sondheim wrote and letting us see the rest in draft form, thus allowing us to understand the full shape of the piece. But there’s no denying that it goes from color to black and white.

Once again, I’m purely grateful and not at all sorry that I got to experience Here We Are. (Speaking of which, they should have gone with Sondheim’s title, Square One.) I doubt this show is going to get produced many more times. Maybe they’ll take it to London, and perhaps a few regional theaters will mount their own productions, but this work can’t be said to be part of the canon. I’m sure they’ll film it, and I hope they’ll release the video and audio recordings.

Here We Are is a little world unto itself, but it’s a stump. It will always be a stump, but with this production, we can appreciate it for what it is and imagine what it might have been.


My friends Kyle and Colm and I recorded a conversation for Kyle’s podcast after seeing the show for the second time, and you can listen to that here:

Harmonia 2023–2024: Prophecy

The time has come for me to present Harmonia’s upcoming concert season, in which every single program fills me with exuberant happiness at the prospect of being able to conduct such wonderful music. If you’re in Seattle (or if you remain partial to livestreamed concertizing) I would encourage you to subscribe today!

The season theme is Prophecy and if that doesn’t pique your curiosity, I don’t know what will!


SHOSTAKOVICH Festive Overture
MUSSORGSKY arr. RAVEL Pictures at an Exhibition

Find me a more festive season opener than this one — I dare you! What I like about this concert is the elegance of the nationalistic equation: Russian + French = Russian+French.

The Seasons

HAYDN The Seasons

When I tell my buddies in the orchestra world that I’m going to do The Seasons this year, they have no clue what I’m talking about and they just sort of brush it off. But this is a huge work! It’s an evening of four choral symphonies, which also function as a quasi-opera. It’s Haydn’s most Mozartean work—certainly from a melodic standpoint—but it’s built upon Haydn’s rock-solid compositional prowess and its infused by his never-ending font of inventive creativity.


HANDEL Messiah

I have yet to get bored of this piece in spite of conducting it every year. Now that I know it quite well, it’s a rush to perform it. The piece has so much dramatic tension, and if you time everything just right, it spins out in an unbeatable progression. I continue to have fun at the harpsichord (see what I did there?) and my continuo partners and I seem to be finding more Vivaldian possibilities in our approach to the score with each passing year.

New Paths

BRAHMS Hungarian Dance No. 5
R. SCHUMANN Manfred Overture
C. SCHUMANN arr. WHITE Three Romances for Violin
BRAHMS Symphony No. 2

The idea here was to look at the prophesy from a music-historical lens: when Robert Schumann met the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms, he wrote a very intimidating article called “New Paths” in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung in which he hailed Brahms as the future of classical music. It kind of psyched Brahms out, but thanks to the persistent mentorship of Clara Schumann, he was able to fulfill this promise.


LASSUS Prophetiae sibyllarum
S. BRISTOW Winter Solstice [world premiere]
J. FRENCH Hear My Voice
J. S. BACH Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf
C. KREEK Psalm 137
S. ROSSI Al Naharot Bavel

Like so many choral programs, this concert features a wide variety of works, but the main event is Lassu’s Prophetiae sibyllarum, a cycle of twelve motets that are composed in a highly chromatic language reminiscent of Gesualdo. These pieces get written about all the time, but not so rarely performed. I’ve been wanting to perform Salamone Rossi for quite a while, and I’m also delighted to have another premiere by Harmonia’s collaborative / orchestral keyboard player Sheila Bristow.


BERNSTEIN Candide Overture
GERSHWIN Rhapsody in Blue
WHITE Cassandra [world premiere]

OK, this is obviously a super fun one, and it’ll be even more fun because my boy Joey is coming out to do the piano solo in the Gershwin. So what’s this Cassandra thing all about? Well, it’s going to be a big one. An opera-oratorio modeled (in some ways) on Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. I’m working with my cousin, a Latinist, on the libretto. This will probably end up being my single largest-scale single work.

And if you are inferring from the various verb tenses in those last few sentences that I haven’t finished writing it yet, you’d be correct!

The Ordering of Moses

COLERIDGE-TAYLOR La caprice de Nannette
DVORAK Largo from Symphony No. 9
R. NATHANIEL DETT The Ordering of Moses

This program has been brewing in my mind since my time as assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony. Dett’s Moses, a major oratorio that combines Old Testament scripture with African American spirituals, was premiered by the CSO in 1937. The premiere was broadcast on the radio, and there’s a famous story that the radio station switched away from the concert mid-stream due to complaints from racist white listeners calling in.

To the best of my knowledge, that rumor has never been substantiated, but it’s interesting that it was still floating around Cincinnati when the orchestra revived the piece in 2014. I worked hard on that concert and I’ve been enamored of the piece ever since. I’m thrilled to finally be able to bring it to life, though once again, I won’t be conducting it, as I’ve invited my friend Marques L. A. Garrett to do the honors.

What Music Tells Me

There’s a new album out that I’d like to shill for, and you’ll never guess who’s a featured composer on it.

What Music Tells Me by the Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble

Of course, it’s my solemn duty to tell you that you should purchase a physical copy of the disc directly from the label, MSR Classics, but I’ll drop a few more links below:

The album is mostly arrangements for brass & organ of standard orchestral repertoire: Egmont Overture, “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral,” the Brahms Haydn Variations, and Messaien’s Apparition de l’église éternelle to name a few. There’s one bit of church music (also in an arrangement), Healey Willan’s “How They So Softly Rest.“ And it will come as no surprise—given the title of the album—that Gustav Mahler is also represented on the disc, though not with his third symphony as you might expect, but with the final two movements of his second (!!) All the arrangements are by Craig Garner and I truly cannot praise him and his work highly enough. The man has wrought pure magic from these 7 or 8 instruments in a way that I scarcely could have thought possible.

My piece is the major outlier on the disc, not just for being the only work by a living composer, but for its sheer weirdness. I’d written a bunch of stuff for the Gargoyles before, most notably, a crowd pleaser called The Dwarf Planets (featured on their 2015 album Flourishes, Tales and Symphonies.) This new piece, Flood of Waters is something else altogether. In a lot of ways, it picks up from the gnarly opening of the last movement of The Dwarf Planets and extrapolates it to a further order of gnarlitude. It’s raucous, loud, dissonant, and perhaps even transgressive.

I was in Chicago in 2019 for the recording session, and let me tell you, it was a wild night. The group was positioned in the rear balcony of St. John Cantius Church, the echt conservative Latin rite monastery just off the Chicago blue line stop. The recording engineer—and I think I can get away with saying this now that it’s all said and done—was a cantankerous old guy with a big reputation and a short fuse. His stress levels were through the roof and he got very mad many, many times during the session.

In fairness to this guy a) he’s a multiple Grammy award winning producer, so I suppose he knew what he was doing and b) the set up for this session was absolutely insane. They had to drive a cherry picker into church sanctuary, like the thing that the phone company uses to lift workers up to the top of the pole, and they had bundles of wires cascading down the stairwell.

The thing that really threw this guy for a loop though, was how loud my piece was. Too loud, according to him. He suggested that I should make it softer and… what do you even say to that? It reminded me of the time in 2008 when I moved from Chicago to Bloomington, and the head of the moving crew offered me $300 not to move my piano.

In the end, he was able to adjust his levels sufficiently to capture the sound. But like… you gotta agree it’s kind of badass that I wrote something so loud that a Grammy-winning producer told me it was too loud, right? Maybe I’m in the wrong genre. Heavy Metal, here I come.

What’s wrong with my iPad?

I know that this question would be much better suited to Reddit than the landing page of my professional website, but what gives? I set up my iPad to film the conductor perspective at my recent concert of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and about 30 seconds into the performance, the iPad switched to slo-mo!

In the end, I thought it looked kind of cool, so I posted it.

The even weirder thing is that it went back to regular mode for the third movement. I am truly flummoxed.

Luckily I was able to figure out how to speed up the footage, so it’s all good (though I think the sped-up version looks like a bit like a kinescope, but whatcha gonna do?)

Anyway, conducting Beethoven’s ninth: thrill of a lifetime, incredible privilege, hope to do it again immediately.

Something New

Over the course of this past season (which is not yet over) I’ve conducted four—count ’em, FOUR—world premieres. I consider myself something of a new music guy, and to people who are vaguely familiarity with my gestalt, that probably doesn’t come as a surprise. My close friends (and regular listeners of my dearly departed podcast) might privately chuckle at that self-characterization though, since I tend to be cranky unto the point of ornery about most new music.

I don’t know if premiering four new works sounds like a lot, but trust me, it was. Every piece is different, but they all require hard work, especially when they’re written for large forces.

Huntley Beyer, World Out of Balance

Huntley Beyer is a Seattle guy who played oboe in the Harmonia Orchestra for at least a decade in the 80s and 90s. He’s a deeply spiritual person in an almost pantheistic vein; ironically, he spent the better part of his career teaching music at a Catholic day school.

This piece had an extremely strange gestation. It began life as an auction item at Harmonia’s annual fundraising gala. The winner was supposed to get something like a 5-minute chamber piece for one voice or one instrument with piano accompaniment.

Well, you’ll see from the run time on the above video (62 minutes) that things took a rather different turn. The auction winners were old friends of Huntley’s who shared his proclivity for compositions of grand spiritual dimensions and they wanted to pack the piece full of big ideas.

And they did! The piece ballooned to a 15-movement oratorio for soloists, chorus, and orchestra. This was the major work on Harmonia’s opening concert of the season, which is totally insane now that I look back at it. Usually, conductors like to get the ball rolling with something familiar, so that everyone can shake off the summer-induced rustiness and deliver an assured first performance right off the bat.

I seem to be compelled towards a different tack. In 2019, I gave the fourth-ever performance of Carol Sams’ The Earthmakers, and though it wasn’t a premiere, it had the feel of a premiere since it hadn’t been mounted since the 90s. As with World Out of Balance, that piece was also a big success, so I think there’s a good case to be made for kicking off a season with one of these insanely bold projects, “shooting the moon,” as it were.

Robert Kechley, Hard Times: Antiphonal Conversations

Bob is another Seattle guy, and like Huntley, he’s a musician’s musician who made his living teaching, conducting, performing, and doing whatever other musical hustling had to be done. His father Gerald was a distinguished professor of composition at the University of Washington who died recently at something like 102 years old.

Bob was something of a wunderkind and he maintains his facility at the keyboard and his fascinating with contrapuntal textures. He’s written tons of music for Harmonia over the course of the past several decades (he was a founding member of the group) and his work has a reputation with our musicians as being extremely challenging. A reputation, I might add, that is wholly deserved!

From a technical conducting standpoint, this piece is about as hard as it gets. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have heart. It’s not bleep-bloop music, just genuinely complex, mostly-tonal modernism. It’s scored for a bazonkers ensemble of two (amplified) solo harpsichords, 9 strings, 8 winds+another string bass, brass septet, and two percussionists.

What made this piece really hard for me was the layout of the score and the stage. Because the piece is supposed to reflect various factions of our society existing at odds with one another, the groups are placed as far apart as possible on the stage. (Originally, Bob had wanted the brass players to play from the rear balcony. Cool idea, but I had to give that bit of the concept the axe for practicality’s sake.) The score is laid out in a stunningly unfamiliar fashion, so it took much rewiring of my brain to connect a marked cue to a physical player on the stage. Somehow we managed, and this piece really connected with our audience.

Sheila Bristow, When Music Sounds

Sheila is also a local artist, and just like the fellas, she’s a working musician (a local hero, really) who wears many a hat: she’s Harmonia’s choral accompanist and orchestral keyboardist, as well as a church musician, a university teacher, a vocal coach, and whatever else comes up.

To her great credit (and my great relief) Sheila created a work that was a bit more practical in its demands upon our orchestra, chorus, and—critically—conductor. She created a three-movement work setting poetry that praises Music itself. The work moves from a Britten-esque diaphany that recalls that composer’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, through to a more Vaughan Williamsy three-quarter time waltz, and ends with a dance movement that recalls… well, I don’t know whom it recalls.

Having listed those movements though, I’ll say that the music is pure Sheila. She and I have similar approaches to our influences, I think, in that we take what we like and leave what we don’t like. I am particularly pleased that she and I happen to like the same things in Britten and Vaughan Williams (and therefore, I assume, dislike the other things.)

Quinn Mason, Symphony No. 5 “Harmonia”

Quinn Mason’s new symphony is in a bit of a different category from the first three pieces I premiered this season. For one, it’s written for a standard orchestra without voices. For another, it’s not written by a local composer. And perhaps most pertinent for my own relationship with the music, it’s written by a composer whom I consider a protégé in addition to being a friend and colleague (as are Huntley, Bob, and Sheila.)

Quinn, of course, is much younger than the rest of the bunch, and though he already has a distinct musical voice, he is still developing that voice with every piece. Of the four composers I worked with this season, Quinn and I have the most history together and the most sympathy as fellow composers. Quinn first contacted me when he was still a teenager, and he sought me out because he knew and liked my music. I responded enthusiastically to him because I was gobsmacked by the pieces he sent me for review.

Since that time, I’ve commissioned three pieces from Quinn: A Joyous Trilogy, In Memory, and now the new symphony. I’ve also conducted two of his other works, Toast of the Town and Reflections on a Memorial. I’ve advised him on all those pieces (and plenty of others) and I would say that we understand each other musically on an instinctual level. I get what he’s saying, and he gets how I say it.

Quinn has become highly sought after in the past few years, so it was a privilege that he composed a symphony for Harmonia (and even titled the piece after the group!) He hasn’t let his rising celebrity go to his head though, and he was more than willing to re-work the piece as he sent me drafts for feedback.

The final product is a piece full of romantic themes, smoldering orchestration, and contemplative moods. It’s cyclical, always a favorite attribute of mine in a symphonic work. It’s unusual for a symphony, in that it’s in a three-movement, slow-fast-slow form. The piece moves at its own pace, and I would call it an experimental work.

“Experimental” is a term that, for whatever reason, has gotten associated with a certain brand of new music (avant-garde, theatrical, extendedly technical, etc.) but I would beg people to keep in mind that composers who work in more traditional forms with more traditional tonal vocabularies are still finding ways to innovate and experiment even a full 200-years into the symphonic tradition.

We are very lucky for that fact, and we are very lucky to have these four pieces in the world. I consider myself a happy, accomplished, exhausted midwife.

In Memoriam Easley Blackwood

[Before you start reading, know that this is an extremely long and intensely personal essay about my fraught relationship with a troubled mentor figure. I wrote it for myself and I might have let it get a bit out of control. It’s like twice the length of a New Yorker article, and I mean one of the long ones. I doubt that even my mother will read it in its entirety.]

Easley Blackwood, composer, pianist, professor, eccentric, died last month at the age of 89. Easley was my teacher for six years, from 2002–2008. When we met, I was a second-year student at the University of Chicago and Easley was professor emeritus, a bit of a legend in the music department. He taught one course per year; I took three of those courses: Orchestration, The String Quartet, and Acoustics and Tuning Theory.

Easley and I became close during my college years, and our association continued after I graduated and began working as a musician. I was an ambitious young person with my heart set on becoming a great composer-conductor, and I hoped Easley would be the mentor who would grant me entrée into the musical world I hoped to take by storm.

Easley himself had tremendous mentorship as a young person; his teachers read like a Who’s Who of 20th century musical titans. As a teenager, he came to the attention of Aaron Copland, then he went to Yale to study with Paul Hindemith, followed by post-graduate studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, and a summer course with Olivier Messiaen. He even got to take Bernstein’s conducting course at Tanglewood.

This all led to a rather stunning compositional début at the age of 26, when his first symphony was performed and recorded by the Boston Symphony. According to Easley, this opportunity arose via the “Old Boys’ network” into which he had been received (led, ironically, by Nadia Boulanger.) His subsequent career saw him work with many luminaries, including George Szell and Georg Solti.

When I met Easley, his star had faded considerably, but he was only ten years on from having had his fifth symphony premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and CDs of his work as a composer and pianist were being issued with regularity (produced by Cedille Records, where he sat on the board.)

[Side note: Cedille Records was founded—and is still run—by a guy named Jim Ginsburg. One night in 2006 or 2007, Easley brought me as his guest to a Cedille Records company dinner, and for some mysterious reason, I was seated next to Jim’s mother Ruth, aka the Notorious RBG.]

All that’s to say, Easley was an impressive figure, and I was an impressionable youngster. I hoped that Easley would be my protector and promoter, but in the end, he was a mentor manqué. He was happy to have me as an acolyte, but loath to assume any of the responsibilities of mentorship.


It’s strange to see a photo of Young Easley. He was exactly 50 years my senior, which meant that when I met him, he was just about to turn 70. He always seemed older though. People who knew him in his 40s and 50s said they had thought he was 85.

Easley found me as a doe-eyed, attentive young man of 19, and for him, this was an appealing proposition. I was eager to drink in his knowledge and he was a marvel in the classroom. Day one, minute one of his orchestration course, when the clock struck 10:00 am, he walked to the board and drew the playable range of the flute on a staff, launching into a disquisition on the instrument’s history, its registers, and its repertoire. There was no syllabus or textbook; he taught the entire course off the top of his head. All of his symphonies had been performed by orchestras and conductors that were among the world’s most accomplished. Who needs a textbook?

I already had a solid grasp of orchestration when I began Easley’s class, so he noticed me early on. After a week or two, we began striking up conversations in the little lobby of the fourth floor of Goodspeed Hall prior to the beginning of class. These chats soon garnered me a dinner invitation.

Bon appétit

Dinners with Easley were a hedonistic ritual, a continuation of habits he’d picked up in his early 20s in Paris. I would pick him up in my car around 4:15 in the afternoon and we would drive downtown to one of his chosen restaurants, arriving by 5:00. (Easley had to give up his driver’s license at some point in the late 80s after a major crash involving a DUI.) Easley’s palate was eclectic; we would go for sushi or Brazilian charcuterie just as often as we would go for his true favorite, French brasserie fare.

[Another side note: in addition to the many other problematic effects resulting from my association with Easley Blackwood, I blame him for diverting me from the path to veganism. I entered college as a vegetarian, but by my junior year—after so many steakhouse dinners—I had reverted to meat-eating. It was my choice, and I accept the responsibility, but I probably could have gone vegan a good five or six years earlier without his influence.]

Dinner for Easley always began with drinks, usually two double martinis, though at Brasserie Jo (his favorite, and, truth be told, mine) he would instead indulge in a Ricard. He always ordered lavishly for his meal: steak frites, enormous plates of sushi, osso buco, whole fish, etc. (Easley rarely ate breakfast or lunch.) His dinner was accompanied by three glasses of wine. Easley never ate dessert, but he always drank two double B&Bs after dinner. (For the uninitiated, that’s Benedictine and Brandy, a truly vile concoction that most people mix with water. Not Easley.)

Looking back on these bacchanalian feasts from the vantage point of my present abstemiousness, I see them as horrific indulgences. At the time, I considered them the height of old world living, and in a way, they were. Easley was clear that dinner should be an unrushed affair, and that wine and conversation should flow uninterrupted for several hours at a time.

Well, perhaps not so much “conversation” as “oration.” Easley was a monologue artist. At first, this presented no problem; I wanted nothing more than to hear his stories about the musical legends of the 20th century. 

Bernstein had kicked a student out of his conducting seminar for coming unprepared to conduct Sibelius 2, yelling at him on the way out that he should at least have listened to a recording. Koussevitsky demeaned the Boston Symphony’s counting in Copland’s Appalachian Spring telling them that 5/4 was easy to count – “One two three four and five! One two three four and five!” Nadia Boulanger demanded that her students dress in mourning and visit her salon for a recreation of Lili’s funeral on the anniversary of her sister’s death every year. Shostakovich came to Chicago for cataract surgery and met with Easley, telling him that he admired the end of his piano concerto for being “a trick ending, but not a wrong ending.” Solti invited Easley up to his apartment at the Drake Hotel to discuss his fourth symphony, having marked the score to the hilt in an incomprehensible array of brightly colored pencils. Easley commissioned a solo piano piece from Charles Wuorinen with the only proviso being that he didn’t want any extended techniques involving the inside of the instrument, and Wuorinen produced a piece that instructed him to bang his hand on the strings in the first bar.

Easley with Sir Georg Solti

Obviously these stories made a big impression on me such that I can recount them twenty years later. Like I said, I was a sponge. Unfortunately, these stories were really just a lure, so that Easley would have a rapt audience when he launched into his true passion: hard right Republican politics.

Grand Old Party

Bet you didn’t see that one coming, did you!? A university music professor whose formative years were spent at Yale, followed by a somewhat bohemian stint in 1950s Paris, after which he toured Europe as the accompanist to an African-American soprano… not, perhaps, the most common description of a GOP loyalist. Not to mention that Easley was avowedly (and sort of openly) gay.

For whatever reason, he remained an Indiana boy at heart and he retained his parents’ Republican politics. He considered Lyndon Johnson the originator of “the big lie,” i.e. racial equality. He claimed not to be anti-semitic, but he sure told a lot of jokes about Jews! He was an avowed misogynist and, in a twist that will surprise precisely no one, he was as homophobic a gay man as I’ve ever known.

Easley toed the GOP party line. He was happy to vote for George W. Bush and was all for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He read the New York Times every day because, he said, it was “useful to know what the enemy was thinking.” Easley never had a TV, but somehow he found his way to every Fox News talking point. 

As you might imagine, Easley’s political proclivities made his time in academia frustrating for him (and everyone around him.) But he reveled in antagonism, and he used his political and social stances as a tool of provocation, especially against his colleagues—in spite of the fact that what he really wanted (I believe) was their love and respect. 

Be that as it may, I absolve Easely of nothing. If he was infected with GOP brain worms, it’s because he snorted them straight into his cerebellum.

The Gong Show

Spending time with Easley could be fun – at the very least, it made for great stories to tell my fellow students in the music department.

Easley’s idea of a good time was hanging out in his apartment, smoking pot (which had been a daily ritual for him from the ages of 20-60), playing his oversized tam-tam, and listening to impressionist or modern music at full blast. The tam-tam that resided in his apartment studio had supposedly been smuggled into the US from China in the early 70’s at the behest of some agent of the Chicago Symphony, but was rejected by the CSO for being “too unpredictable” (as he told me with excessive pride.)

I learned a lot of music in Easley’s studio. I vividly remember listening for the first time to the Manfred Symphony, Daphnis et Chloé, The Miraculous Mandarin, and La Péri blasting from Easley’s speakers while following along in the dusty study scores that he had bought in Paris in the ‘50s, all accompanied by his commentaries on form and orchestration.

Even Easley’s hi-fi setup was inconceivably eccentric. He had built it himself in the 60s. It was a mono system, which he claimed was better than stereo. He created this insanely powerful invention using the best hardware he could get his hands on in the mid-20th century, big vacuum tubes and amplitude gauges and who knows what else. But the crucial bit of info for your mind’s eye is that the components were uncased – they were arrayed on his carpet, covering an area of probably a couple square meters, all wired together god knows how. I’m no fire marshal, but it always struck me as being wildly unsafe.

Blackwood Convention

Of course, the one body of repertoire I learned from Easley that I couldn’t have learned anywhere else was Easley’s own music. Since his death, I’ve been listening to it again for the first time in a long time. All music accrues the emotional detritus as we live with it; for me, Easley’s music is positively caked with the stuff.

Easley was a composer with distinct early, middle, and late periods (like some others) but his evolution as a composer followed a trajectory all its own. His first works (for example, the Symphony No. 1) were definitely Modernist, an amalgam of  Schoenberg, Shostakovich, and maybe a little Bartók. This early period lasted about 20 years, from the mid-’50s to the mid-’70s. Starting in the ’60s, his music moved firmly into the realm of high academic modernism.

His second period, beginning in the early 1970s, was microtonal, and this period represents what is far and away his most important contribution to both the art and the science of music. Spurred by a grant from the NEH, Easley embarked upon an ambitious research project to analyze the tuning properties and tonal qualities of tuning systems that subdivided of the octave in different numbers of equal steps, and he produced an (unpublished) book about his discoveries as well as the piece which would be the most interesting and career-defining of his life: his 12 Microtonal Etudes for Electronic Media.

[A quick note: Easley did publish a book about tuning theory (The Structure of Recognizable Diatonic Tunings) but this was separate from his research project into equal-division microtonality.]

The album cover from the original 1980 LP

You’d be forgiven for thinking that a composer whose work moved from dissonant modernism to microtonality (and electronic media) was advancing further into the realms of the avant-garde, but with Easley, that’s not what happened. His goal in the microtonal studies was to find the tonal characteristics of different subdivisions of the octave. 

This next bit is technical, but it’s really what Easley’s known for, so I’d like to give a bit of explanation. As a point of departure, let’s start by analyzing the tonal properties of the 12-note equal-tempered chromatic system that we’re all familiar with. In this system, the twelve notes can be divided into four discrete augmented triad sonorities (starting on C, C-sharp, D, and D-sharp), three discrete fully-diminished 7th sonorities (starting on C, C-sharp, and D), and 2 discrete whole tone scales (starting on C and C-sharp.)

Now imagine that you instead divide the octave into 18 steps instead of 12. You now have six possible discrete augmented triads and three discrete whole tone scales. But fully diminished seventh chords don’t exist, because 18 isn’t divisible by 4.

Easley wrote one étude for each of the divisions of the octave from 13-24 notes. He wrote the music for electronic media because that offered him the only means of realizing his creation. He wanted the music to sound as “normal” as possible, both in terms of sonority and timbre; ironically, what he created sounds like an alien simulacrum of human music.


After creating the microtonal études to study the tonal properties of these exotic tuning systems, Easley realized there was one system whose tonalities he had not yet explored: 12-note equal tuning. This launched the final phase of Easley’s work as a composer, his arch conservative neo-tonal period. 

You’ll see written sometimes that Easley’s traditionally tonal music was his worst. I disagree, though I acknowledge that some of his tonal music is mediocre. Too often it sounds like he’s completing a harmony exercise assigned to him by Nadia Boulanger. Having said that, some of it is exquisite, and I think that all of his best pieces come from his tonal period.

At the risk of playing the armchair psychiatrist, I’ll say I believe there were subconscious motivations for Easley’s return to tonality. His oddball foray into the world of math, science, and physics had separated him from the world of professional composition for something like a decade. Whereas he’d had some heat in his career during the 50s and 60s, during which time he split his weeks between Chicago and New York and was published by Schirmer, by the 70s, his career had stalled. (He always referred to a composer’s mid career as “the bad years.”) He bought back the rights to all his music from Schirmer and became his own publisher.

Easley had been successful as an atonal composer, meaning that he had garnered the respect of the academic-based musical establishment—a notoriously fickle and backstabbing bunch—but of course, atonal modernism has never garnered the genuine affection of concert audiences. So when he lost ties with the elite musical world, he didn’t have much left.

Writing tonal music, I think, gave him the two things that he sought the most: the genuine appreciation of music-loving audiences and the opprobrium of the academic cabal. It’s not hard to see his goals as a musical conservative aligning with his goals as a political conservative. I say that with caution, because I do love a lot of Easley’s tonal music, and I’m of course a bit of a neo-tonalist myself. I don’t think that writing traditional classical music has to mean that a composer is a reactionary. In Easley’s case, the two went together.

When I first met Easley in 2002, he was firmly in the tonalist camp, and his confident stance made a big impression on me. I had read everything Leonard Bernstein had to say on the matter of atonality v. tonality, and whatever Lenny did was right by me. The fact that Easley was on the side of good, and that he proclaimed the gospel with a convert’s fervor drew me ever more to him.


It was winter of 2003 when Easley contracted the illness that nearly killed him.

He had complained about numbness in his fingers and toes for a couple weeks, and he was getting progressively weaker when he finally scheduled a doctor’s appointment. I drove him to his appointment at Northwestern’s downtown medical center. He could barely walk the few yards from the car to the front entrance, even with my assistance.

Upon seeing Easley, the doctor immediately transferred him to the hospital, and his condition worsened quickly. It was Easley’s tremendous good fortune that a member of the medical staff happened to have experience with Gullain-Barré syndrome and was able to diagnose it within just a couple days.

Guillain-Barré syndrome is an auto-immune disease whose cause remains mysterious. It may be bacterial, but its course is likely influenced by genetic predispositions. The autoimmune system attacks peripheral nerves and damages their myelin insulation. It’s quite rare, appearing in only 1-2 out of 100,000 people. It’s more common in men than women, and more common in older people than in the young.

I don’t know exactly what treatments Easley was given, but they worked, and it was something of a miracle. According to Easley (never the most reliable of sources, but in this case, I have little reason to doubt him) his medical team examined the literature and could find no other case in which a person of his age responded so well to treatment and had such a complete recovery.

That’s not to say that he had an easy time of it. His hospital stay was complicated by the fact that didn’t have access to booze, so on top of his Guillain-Barré, he had a bad case of the DTs. He would frequently hallucinate a tiger prowling around his room, among other mysterious visions. 

I have to admit that we enjoyed a certain morbid humor listening to Easley’s ramblings. I remember that at one point, a Vivaldi concerto was playing over the radio in his hospital room, and Easley talked about how pleasant and dance-like it was. I was there with a fellow student and we both cracked up, because that was just so un-Easley.


Easley’s recovery took a long time; he lived in a rehab center for at least two months. During this whole ordeal, I was looking after his affairs. I visited his apartment every day to feed his disgusting cats, who were both over 20 years old. Easley had long ago given up trying to get them to control their bowels. I gave the place a deep cleaning (the most disgusting feat of my life; think Hercules cleaning the Augean stables) and tried to get his affairs in order, checking his mail and handling certain matters on his behalf.

What I did, I did out of love and respect, and what I really wanted in return was for Easley to take this miracle for the once-in-a-lifetime chance that it was and use it as an opportunity for a fresh start. For a very limited time, he did.

In rehab, Easley learned to fry an egg for the first time in his life (a feat of which he was quite proud) and other basic domestic arts. Not long after he finished rehab, one of his cats died and then the other, and he took advantage of the chance to replace his carpets and buy new furniture (THANK GOD.) He owned the apartment adjacent to his and he hired a contractor to knock down part of a wall, connecting the two units into a suite.

[Easley never gave me a satisfactory answer as to why he owned both units; the best I could piece together, he was threatened with eviction by the condo association—either because of the foul odor emanating from his living quarters or the endless banging of the piano and ear-splitting stereo system (probably both)—and I think he was forced to purchase a buffer unit between him and the rest of the hallway.]

But soon enough, Easley reverted to his old ways, his absinthe and his wine, his lavish spreads, his droning political discourse, his accusations against his many perceived enemies. I had wished that he would change his outlook on life not only for his mental health, but just so he would be more tolerable to be around. I had my own sanity to look out for.

Alas, even a brush with death could do precious little to change Easley Blackwood.


Easley’s bout with Guillain-Barré had interrupted his work on a composition for unaccompanied choir, his A King James Magnificat, a work that would turn out to be crucial for our relationship.

From an aesthetic point of view, it is utterly baffling that Easley would have taken on this project. He had never written anything for choir and he could barely even tolerate the sound of the human voice. Plus, Easley was about the least religious person you could ever hope to meet.

The piece was a commission from a friend and former student, whom I believe had taken music courses with Easley in the ‘70s, but had gone on to become a high ranking district judge. Easley claimed that the judge—a married man, whom, one presumes, was quite pious—had been in love with him for decades. If so, I suppose that commissioning a piece of sacred choral music was his love language.

As soon as he could, Easley returned to his work on the Magnificat, and he had finished it by the spring of 2004, the end of my third year of college. The commission hadn’t had a performance attached to it, so the premiere was up for grabs. I proposed to my choir director that I could conduct it with the U of C Motet Choir, and he was game.

[Another sidebar to mention Randi Ellefson, our choir director, who was both a fantastic musician and a great person, and who was the one truly selfless, supportive mentor I had at that time. He gave me conducting instruction and let me conduct Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb as a sophomore, the single most important project in my Bildung as a conductor.]

L to R: Gene the judge, moi, Easley; this is the only photo I have of me with EB.

Easley didn’t have any better options, and I think he was genuinely delighted with the idea that I would conduct the premiere his piece. Telling him that the project had been approved is maybe the one time I can remember him seeming happy and proud of me. The premiere took place in December 2004, when I was a fourth year.

Easley’s Magnificat is not a great piece of music. It’s square and a bit homely, and the choral writing isn’t particularly brilliant or inventive. It takes advantage of none of the innovations of 20th or 21st century choral writing, and, truth be told, not many from the 19th century either. More than any of his other works, this piece suffers from his Achilles’ heel as a composer of writing music that sounds like a harmony exercise.

There is one interesting little innovation in the piece though: Easley begins it with the words “And Mary said.” That’s clever and unusual, and gives the canticle a narrative framing and an in media res quality that, as far as I know, is unique among the thousands of Magnificat settings composed over the past 500 years.


Now allow me, if you will, to shift the focus of this tract further from Easley and more onto my own story.

By the end of my college career, I knew that I wanted to pursue a graduate degree in conducting. My top school was Juilliard (whose isn’t?) and even though I hadn’t studied at a conservatory, I thought I had at least a bit of a shot at getting in because the director of Juilliard’s conducting program was James DePriest, the very conductor who had premiered Easley’s fifth symphony with the Chicago Symphony 15 years earlier.

The application was due on December 1, I asked Easley for letters of recommendation sometime in October or November—plenty of time for a normal, retired, unencumbered person to complete them. An emeritus professor—say—recommending—perhaps—a young man who admired him deeply and devoted his little free time to socializing with him, after having given over six months of his life (during which time he remained a full-time student) attending to said professor’s health and affairs, and whom said professor had entrusted with the premiere of his latest composition.

You can see where I’m going with this, I’m sure. Easley did not write the recommendations—at least not in time for the deadline. He would mention writing them when I saw him, but December 1 came and went. Sometime around January 15, when I hadn’t heard anything from Juilliard, I called and asked about the status of my application. They told me was not complete, because they were waiting on letters of recommendation.

[In fairness to Easley… well, maybe not so much fairness to him, but in equal discredit to another of my recently deceased so-called mentors, I had also asked Michael Jinbo, the Monteux School’s music director, for letters of recommendation, and he also neglected to write them. I found out later that Michael had something of a reputation for this dereliction of duty. Michael, notably, had also been one of Easley’s students.]

Long story short, I did not matriculate to Juilliard in 2005, nor to any other graduate program. I kept living in Hyde Park and continued my relationship with Easley for another three years, at which point I applied to grad school again. That time, I made sure Easley wrote the letters. [And I didn’t ask Michael.]

In Spiritum Sanctum

To my own credit, I did launch my career as a full-time professional conductor immediately following my graduation from college. My two gigs were conducting the Hyde Park Youth Symphony and (much more lucratively) serving as interim choir director at a church in Barrington, IL, a far-flung exurb of Chicago.

I’ve talked a bit about my time in Barrington in other contexts, but suffice to say, the way the church saw it, they were hiring a substitute choir director for about six months; the way *I* saw it, I was coming in as Johann Sebastian Bach II and it was my duty to compose service music prodigiously, culminating with a grand oratorio during Holy Week.

Easley knew little about my personal life or professional activities. He was so self-absorbed, he just couldn’t bring himself to care. I would mention things to him and he would distractedly listen for as long as he could tolerate not talking. Then I’d get an earful about George W. Bush.

Once Easter 2006 was over, and all my music had been performed and recorded, I worked up the courage to present him with scores and recordings (an act that—quite obviously—should not have required even a shred of courage!)

It remains a minor point of pride that, having been confronted with my accomplishment, Easley was impressed. Up to that point, he had never taken me seriously as a composer, which was fair enough, because I hadn’t shown him many of my compositions, feeling that they were not presentable enough to merit his attention. 

But after seeing all the church anthems and fanfares and such, he took note, and this led to the final chapter in our relationship.

American Choral Premieres

Now back to the Magnificat.

After the premiere, Easley wanted to have the piece recorded, and he proposed a project to his label: a disc of contemporary American choral music which he would curate, centering around his Magnificat.

Naturally, I hoped that I would get to conduct the recording, but Easley was not in favor of the U of C motet choir. The premiere had been successful (basically), but the U of C is hardly known for its performing ensembles, and the choir sounded like a student choir. Plus, Cedille had a relationship with the William Ferris Chorale that both parties were eager to develop. 

The Ferris Chorale was a fine choral ensemble that had its own well-established music director, Paul French, who naturally was not going to cede his place at the helm of an important recording project to a random college student. But now that Easley had seen my work in choral composition, he dangled a new prospect in front of me: that I might have a work of my own included on the album.

I can’t remember exactly whose idea it was for me to write a Nunc Dimittis, but it made sense, since it’s the canticle that pairs with the Magnificat in the evening service. As I wrote the piece, I remember trying very hard to include certain overt acts of homage to Easley’s Mag while also proclaiming my own independent voice as clearly as possible. 

As I mentioned above, I thought that Ealsey’s piece had one really charming feature: his “And Mary said” framing text. I decided to take that concept and run with it, so I dug even earlier into the biblical narrative preceding the Song of Simeon (the Nunc Dimittis text.) As with Easley’s Magnificat, this feature ended up being the most interesting thing about my piece. My Nunc Dimittis has a few things that I’m still proud of, but it’s not nearly up to the standard of the church music I had written the year before.


Easley had dangled the prospect of including some of my music on the album, and dangle is the operative word. Nothing was definite, and as far as I can tell, he didn’t even mention my name to the conductor or the producer or the record label during pre-production. Maybe Easley was as unimpressed then as I am now with my Nunc, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Easley had cottoned onto the fact that my patience with him was waning, and that he was using the prospect of including my work on this disc to keep me in his orbit.

In November 2007, I reapplied to grad schools, and this time I didn’t leave my recommendations to chance; I sat down with Easley and wrote the recommendations with him, taking dictation at his own computer, insisting that we not leave for dinner until they were completed. And of course, it took all of ten minutes, which is all that it ever takes to write a recommendation. To this day, whenever someone asks me for a recommendation, I write it immediately.

With the recommendations written and my applications submitted, Easley had lost a key lever of control over me. That may sound callous and instrumentalizing, but I hope I’ve it made clear that it worked both ways with Easley. All he had left was the prospect of including the Nunc on the CD. And as it turned out, that wasn’t enough.

My relationship with Easley came to an end on a night in mid-December of 2007. We went out to dinner and I think Easley got even more drunk than usual. I probably had a drink or two myself, but I was scared sober while on that drive home, because there were already several inches of snow on the ground, and it just kept coming.

My car at that time was basically fit for the scrap heap, and that winter it had lost power while I was driving in a couple terrifying instances. I had mastered a number of little tricks to keep the car alive in dire circumstances (never turning on the defroster at the same time as the heat, for example.)

Easley didn’t sense the immense amount of stress I was under on that drive. He kept yelling at me to crank up the heat, to run the windshield wipers faster, to get out of one lane and into the other, to drive faster. It was all I could take, and that night, after I had safely conveyed him to his residence, I resolved never to speak to him again. 


To this day, I feel badly for Easley that I broke off with him; I also think it was the healthiest decision of my life and I harbor no guilt whatsoever.

After the rift, Easley had one last card to play and he played it. He emailed me saying that the producer and conductor of the album had accepted my work for inclusion on the album. It’s pathetic and revealing that this is what it came to. It wasn’t until exerted my independence from him that he lifted a finger to help me, in the hopes that it would bring me back into his life.

It didn’t though, and what’s more, I found out from the record label that this was an unfunded opportunity, meaning that I would have to pay for the choir’s rehearsal and recording time myself.

I scrounged together the money and the session was secured, but it was scheduled at a time that I couldn’t be there. Paul French reviewed the piece in depth with me, and I remember being so taken aback by how much time and attention he had given to interpreting what I had written. As should be obvious by now, I was not accustomed to such treatment.

The singers did a professional job, but this was a last-minute add-on, and without my having been there in person, nobody was there who really cared about the results. Alas, the recording lacks the nuance, style, and pacing that I was hoping to get out of the piece, which to this day remains unperformed.


The following spring, I was accepted into the conducting studio at Indiana University, and I moved to Bloomington during the summer. “American Choral Premieres” was released the following year. I was smart enough to keep my misgivings about the piece and the performance to myself, and having my music included on a commercial release gave me a major confidence boost at an institution where I basically assumed that everyone around me was thrice the musician that I could ever be.

I don’t know what happened to Easley in the years following our break. I presume that he kept to his usual patterns of overindulgence, that he wrote some more music, and that he repelled many more people than he endeared himself to.

In the wake of his death however, I have learned some very sad things about his final years. Sometime around 2019 or 2020, he was committed to a nursing home, suffering from progressive dementia. According to a person who remained close to him, Easley spent much of the past three years lying in the fetal position, acting aggressively toward visitors and healthcare workers. (Unless, I am told, they really buttered him up for a long time with encomia to his genius, in which case, he could pay attention for a little while without snarling.)

Easley’s story is depressing—not just his death, but his life. He had prodigious gifts, professional success, and he had stashed enough money away that his intense end-of-life needs could be taken care of adequately. But he just couldn’t get past himself, in spite of the fact that some people (i.e. me) genuinely wanted to like him and connect with him.

On that note, I want to emphasize that I cared about Easley a great deal, in spite of his intensely dislikeable qualities and actions, including a lot of stuff that, for propriety’s sake, I have elected not to include in this essay. In 2003, after I dropped him off at the hospital, I was inconsolable, positive that he would not live to the end of the week. I remember being profoundly embarrassed when I ran into one of my friends in the stairwell, sobbing uncontrollably.

When I think of Easley, I’m reminded of the lyrics to ”I Guess I’ll Miss the Man”  from Stephen Schwartz’s musical Pippin:

I guess I’ll miss the man
Explain it, if you can
His face was far from fine
But still I’ll miss his face
And wonder if he’s missing mine.

Some days he wouldn’t say
A pleasant word all day
Some days he’d scowl and curse
But there were other days
When he was really even worse.

He never smiled enough
But though his words were gruff
I liked his shy, sad glance
I never told him so
But then, I never got the chance.

Some men are heroes
Some men outshine the sun
Some men are simple, good men
This man wasn’t one.

And I won’t miss his moods
His gloomy solitudes
His blunt and thoughtless style
But please, don’t get me wrong
He was the best to come along
In a long, long while.


There is one bright spot in the ongoing story of Easley Blackwood, which is that Easley’s microtonal compositions—surely his most important works—have found a devoted following in the age of the internet. A small but zealous community of online microtonal enthusiasts have formed a YouTube community based around it. I watch their videos and read their comments. These are Easley’s people, and it gladdens me to see that his music has allowed them to find each other.

I know from one such video that Easley was at least somewhat aware of this new wave of enthusiasm for his work. A young composer named Stephen Weigel, who is very active on YouTube, interviewed Easley in the nursing home as part of the research for his master’s thesis. You can watch his defense here where he talks about visiting Easley and analyzing his music.

I’ve written this essay piecemeal over many weeks since Easley’s death, and during that time, I’ve re-listened to all of his recorded output. It’s taken me back to the time I spent with him, more vividly than I had expected.

My favorite thing that Easley ever wrote, alas, is not one of his original compositions. Rather, it’s his adaptations of two songs by Erik Satie, “La diva de l’empire” and “Je te veux.” 

Easley had nothing but scorn for Satie’s technical skill as a composer. When he was hired by Cedille Records to orchestrate these two songs for a small instrumental ensemble, he took the opportunity to “fix” them, adding intros and outros, correcting the harmonies, and even rewriting bits of the melodies.

When you compare Easley’s versions to the Satie originals (here and here), you can hear just how superb Easley’s improvements are. The songs are now voluptuous, idiomatic, and polished. When I listen to what Satie wrote, frankly, I’m embarrassed for him. When I listen to Easley’s versions, I smile. This was the one time where Easley’s instinct for pedantry (nurtured by Nadia Boulanger) was actually a benefit rather than a hindrance. He took these breezy parlor songs and turned them into miniature masterpieces.

Easley always said that he didn’t care what happened to his music after his death. But I’m glad that the microtonal nerds have his études, and I’m glad that I have these songs.