Music for orchestra
...evocative music that appeals directly to the imagination.
...an excellent piece of work...
Robert C. Marsh - Chicago Sun Times
...an attractive, original work...
Larry Katzenstein - St.Louis Post-Dispatch
There was an examination for upper division study in music composition administered by Indiana University in South Bend. In one of the parts of the exam, the student was to provide a preliminary sketch for a new work. For my answer, my sketch was a work for an ensemble large enough to realize the sounding of layers of complex sonorities, overlapping each other with hairpin dynamics. I set the idea aside, not having any possible chance of getting it played or read, but kept listening to it in my head, by now, knowing it was for a large orchestra. A formal plan emerged, (An expansive Simple Ternary) one that was vitally related to the pitch logic and temporal structure for the piece:
A: With a 12 tone row as the source, row order is obscured by asymmetrical segmentation combined with verticalization. With the overlapping layers as mentioned above, rhythm is unfocussed, although there is a sense of gathering momentum that leads to...
B: The row is presented in a more linear fashion and rhythm is propulsive, full of drive. The energy potential and clarity of purpose hinted at in the A section has come into focus. There is a clear, culminating climax that leads too...
A' The material of the opening section is returned to, foreshortened and in retrograde.
The title is purposefully imprecise. Cumulo Nimbus is the proper name for a general type of "fluffy" white cloud and Cumulus is the precise name for a storm cloud. The A-B-A' plan described above is an imprecise metaphor for a natural entity that has potential energy and the components that may crystallize, (The A section) potential crystallized into explosive action (The B section) and a dissipation of energy, returning to the opening state. (The A' section)
Cumulus Nimbus - Backstory
The backstory for Cumulus Nimbus is extensive. Thus, I will break it up into smaller chapters, influenced in part by Berlioz’ hilarious and informative autobiography.
The World’s Oldest Prodigy
(apologies to Havergal Brian)
This work established me as a musical prodigy, albeit delayed by about a decade.
I began my formal musical training at the age of 18. I was admitted to the local satellite of Indiana University because I was a Hoosier and could fog a mirror with my breath. My studies focussed on general undergraduate requirements. In that first year, my emphasis was on art history.
At first, I was not able to read music and I can recall painfully searching for notes on the clunky upright piano at home. This piano had been painted blue in house paint in a moment of perverse inspiration by I-forget-who. Not all of the keys worked.
As part of the undergraduate program at IUSB, there was an upper-division examination in the junior year, I believe, meant as a confirmation that the student was capable of continuing study in composition. I wasn’t actually a composition major until my second year of study at IUSB. As part of the examination, the student was to begin a new project conceptually, lay out a few ideas about the possible form and provide a few sketches. (Provide hypertext to sketches here) This idea was the germ for Cumulus Nimbus, grounded in the notion that a large ensemble, an orchestra would be the appropriate ensemble for presenting stratified layers of complex chords. So it could be said that Cumulus Nimbus was begun when my musical age as defined by formal training was actually about 2 or 3 years old.
Damn the Torpedoes
While I did not fully commit to seeing the idea forward during the remainder of my undergraduate degree, I remember working on parts of it in my head as I walked to school from the house in Edison Park where I rented a room from my older brother. The practice of listening to music while walking was a great boon to my composition, an opportunity to practice transcribing what I thought I heard.
I returned to the idea as my thesis while working on my Masters Degree in Composition at the Eastman School of Music. One element added to the idea was the use of a 12 tone row as the fundamental means of pitch organization for the piece. I chose that pitch logic for a few reasons:
It would help me regulate the sonorities that existed. They were complex and non-tertian in nature.
This project would help me deal with my aversion to 12 tone composition. I was going through a three step process regarding dodecaphony:
At first, I was amazed and excited about any compositional process of any kind.
After being subjected to the current (general) academic view of the primacy of the 12 tone approach, worse yet, to the overlong exhaustions of this process in the music that held that view, I had held an adversarial point of view.
In progress at the time was the notion that it was up to the individual composer to determine the application of a given compositional process. Having a better knowledge of the repertoire helped. In summary, there is nothing automatically validating or invalidating about ANY process or style. It is up to the composer to apply processes to further worthy musical objectives.
For more in depth information about some of the compositional process behind Cumulus Nimbus go here.
My professor at the time, Warren Benson, was helpful in the preparation of the thesis. But, he also made it clear that the composition of a new work for large orchestra would have a limited chance of every receiving a performance.
Cumulus Nimbus came up again in a discussion with my teacher at The University of Texas, where I did my doctorate. To paraphrase Barton McLean, “you’ll learn your lesson as it gathers dust on a shelf somewhere.” By that time, I had come to understand my real motivation for writing the piece:
I could hear it
To someone who could not read music with any fluency by the age of 18, who had been allowed into a solid program at a satellite campus for a fine music school, this was miraculous. My ear training was allowing me to imagine a full orchestra making sounds that I liked.
There was a period of time during my education where I wondered about pursuing conducting beyond the many ad hoc performances I had given.
I organized a reading session at UT. Even though there were missing instruments and working with a short-handed string group, the results were promising. If I ever find the tape and convert it to the digital realm, I’ll share any presentable parts.
The Big Time
The Big Apple, Meet Me in St. Louis, My Kind of Town and the Louisville Slugger.
Every year, Broadcast Music Incorporated holds a competition for young composers. I and my composer friends would attempt to enter it every year. The process could be challenging:
Serious work was always done on vellum or onion skin with india ink. The only way to print your score was to mail it (your originals!) away to a place that would print it (a Diazo process as used in the making of blueprints) and bind it.
It wasn’t for free
Timetable management was crucial if you wanted to hit competition deadlines
You had to be sure to include a self-addressed stamped envelope
You had to be sure to weigh the materials twice to pay postage for the return trip
At a post office, not necessarily convenient to a student with no car
You had to get your teacher to sign off on your submitted composition
After submitting your materials, you would begin a nervous waiting game after a while. Typically, you received your music back with a form letter letting you know that there were many fine entries. (yours not being among the anointed) Fellow composition major and fine composer, Mark Saya claimed that there was evidence that his music had been used to temporarily wrap fish, gallows humor being the sole solace for rejection of one’s precious scribbling.
My last gasp at the BMI occurred by the sheerest of eligibility margins. If I had been born a day earlier instead of January 1st, I would have been too old. Contradicting the adage, “a day late and a dollar short”, I won.
BMI does a pretty amazing thing in that, besides the prize money, you are flown to NYC for an awards ceremony. My first cab ride into The City was a beautiful thing: It was a lovely spring day, windows down, the smiling Filipino cab-driver, upon learning this was my maiden voyage, gave me a wild, swerving trip. Dropped off at the Warwick Hotel, I was advised by the doorman (a doorman!) to not leave my bags unattended on the pavement, lest a local avail themselves of my paltry garments. The lobby was red velvet and brass.
I would learn long after I had returned to my apartment at the time in Austin, that when the Beatles first invaded America, they stayed at the Warwick. Had I known, I would have availed myself of the complimentary stationery and toiletries and made a shrine that traveled with me for the rest of my life. That's not creepy, right?
During my stay, I was able to have dinner with Joseph Schwantner and his wife, who had just seen Sweeney Todd in it's opening run and were very impressed. That may have been my first taste of New York style cheese cake. I think I may be carrying some of those calories to this day.
There was a presentation ceremony and the winners that year, which included Anne LeBaron and Danial Asia, had a group photo taken. Lacking a proper suit or fashion sense, I had cobbled together something that included a dark jacket and tie over white pants. In spite of my fashion-averse tendencies I was invited to join BMI by James G. Roy, a Southern gentleman who remarked as part of his invitation, "Many are called, but few are chosen." Who knew that membership in Broadcast Music Incorporated could be so biblical?
The Lullaby of My Sorrows
...genius shines radiantly throughout...
M.J. Albacete - The Canton Repository
During my student years I argued with some of my composition teachers over whether it was possible to compose "serious" tonal music in the late 20th century. Of course, there were contemporary transformations of tonality at the time, but in these particular arguments I wondered why a tertian hierarchical syntax might not still achieve the same success in expressing musical ideas as any other pitch logic.
With this concern in mind, I had noted a number of contemporary pieces that made use of quotes, often in an evocative, dream-like manner. A few examples were Rochberg's "Music for the Magic Theater" and Crumb's "Ancient Voices of Children". In the case of The Lullaby of My Sorrows, the quoted music is from Brahms opus 117 Intermezzi, three poignant pieces that he referred to as the "lullabies of his sorrow".
I devised an inversion of the "quote piece" approach:
Using 20th Century techniques, I transformed the quoted music so that it sounds like contemporary music.
The opening of the Lullaby of My Sorrows with the Eb pedal is a dreamy collage of the first themes from each of Brahms Intermezzi. This opening gives way to a clearer use of tonal music. The theme at this point is purposely derived from the variation theme of the Mozart Sonata for Piano, K 331. This theme was also used in my favorite piece by Max Reger, Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart. I learned later that Mozart may have derived this theme from a keyboard work by Frescobaldi. Thus,
I composed original music that makes use of the tertian hierarchical syntax.
My second theme, (heard in the provided excerpt) is not derived directly from anything, but could only exist as a resonant response that comes from my love of the tonal repertoire, particularly influenced by Brahms.
On An Expanding Universe
...one of the best new works brought to the stage of Memorial Auditorium by the North Carolina Symphony.
Nancy R. Ping-Robbins - The News and Observer
...sounded simply sensational.
Carl J. Halperin - The Spectator
Commissioned by the Brooklyn Philharmonic in 1984 for a concert honoring Duke Ellington. As stated elsewhere, I have reservations about the commissioning process. The reason this one went forward is that by the time I had composed Cumulus Nimbus, The Lullaby of My Sorrows and other music for orchestra not yet on this website, I was sketching others ideas (Labors of Love) for orchestra. For Relentless Time, I explored a combination of ideas that interested me:
An application of "pitch field" composition as has occurred in the works of Luciano Berio (examples include certain passages of the great Sinfonia and the beautiful Points on the Curve to Find) that pitch logic heard from the very opening.
An approach to scoring that creates an acoustic delay effect. Beginning at 3:51.
A reference to the pulsations prevalent in the wonderful Music for 18 Musicians of Steve Reich
Within those passages there are layers of indeterminate time including echo-effect trumpets that slow their repeated notes down independent of the steady eighth notes.
Returning to the scorned-by-my-dissertation-committee, Clarion. There has been a multi-generational tradition for composers to write "struggle pieces." Some examples:
Beethoven - 5th Symphony
Brahms - 1st Symphony
Tchaikovsky - 4th Symphony
Mahler - 2nd Symphony
Shostakovich - 5th Symphony
These works begin with a dark, tumultuous tone that, through the course of the work resolves in triumph, euphonious and ecstatic. (I do contend that the end of Tchaikovsky's 4th is purposefully frantic, that the darkness expressed earlier is still there.) Intense conflict is necessary to drive the form, employing sharp contrasts of tonal center and thematic construction to those ends.
I found myself in a place where non-tonal pitch logic was the norm in "serious" concert music while there was activity on the part of certain 20th Century composers to use the hierarchical tertian pitch logic that dominated practice from about 1600 into the late 19th Century. (ex: Rochberg 3rd String Quartet, Part B (Variations) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ye8Roh_k11w)
This use of that particular tonal syntax has often been mischaracterized as a "return to tonality", as if the motivation behind its use was to replace non tonal syntax.
With Clarion, I envisioned a form arising from a dialogue, at times, an argument between non-tonal and tonal pitch logic. In the end, these approaches are proven to be convincingly interconnected.
The entire brass section begins off-stage, initially heard as calls from a distance, a technique used by Beethoven and Mahler, among others. With the brass presenting the tonal music, there is a back and forth that culminates in this series of events:
The brass processes onto the stage, playing a contemplative, stately sort of music.
They are interrupted by the woodwinds, percussion and strings with music that builds to an emphasis of the minor 9th interval formed between C# and D in an ongoing chaotic swirl of sound.
The brass plays a chorale underneath the tumult, barely perceptible at first, but swelling steadily until it becomes an implacable sonic force that absorbs all instruments into a Dominant function sonority.
An earlier theme in Bb Major is stated, the entire orchestra in agreement.
In the the coda, is a series of sonorities that would be prohibitively difficult to analyze as being in the key of Bb Major, but sound coherent to this work because of the presence of non-tonal music earlier in the piece.
This is a crucial culmination of my intent to prove the thesis of tonality/non-tonality as a viable dialectic.
for youth orchestra
Music for String Orchestra
Chronological Variations (Recapitulation I)
I compose for orchestra because I can hear the fully scored music in my head without needing it to be read or performed.
Because of this, most of my orchestra pieces are Labors of Love. Only Relentless Time, Kaleidoscopic Image and Chronological Variations were commissions. The other reason I compose for orchestra is because I love this community of musicians. This love is also combined with respect, which is why my work is challenging. Great players do not mind hard work provided that results are effective sonically. Most of the pieces below have received multiple performances from professional symphonies that include The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Louis Symphony, The Louisville Orchestra, The North Carolina Symphony, The Canton Symphony, The Honolulu Symphony, The Fort Worth Symphony, The Omaha Symphony, among others.
Yes, this is my calligraphy
The Lullaby of My Sorrows - Backstory
The first version of The Lullaby of My Sorrows was for chamber ensemble, presented in a recital during my doctoral years at The University of Texas.The chamber ensemble form was really a sort of test run in preparation for the Lullaby becoming a work for orchestra, an orchestra of the same size as that usually specified by Brahms with a couple of notable additions:
Vibraphone - The pedal-sustained bell-like timbre is very supportive of surreal passages where quotes from Brahms opus 117 Intermezzi are transformed into music that sounds contemporary.
Piano - The piano works as a sonic bridge to the Intermezzo source although it plays only one direct quote from the Brahms.*
At the heart of the conception of the Lullaby is a dialectic between two musical styles:
Music that sounds contemporary but is, in fact, derived directly from quotes taken from the Brahms opus 117 Intermezzi.
Music that sounds as if it were written in the 19th century, but was composed around 1980, its existence a natural response to my love for that repertoire and its syntax.
At first, the two musical states are presented in turn:
Contemporary sounding music derived from the first themes of the Brahms Intermezzi.
First tonal theme in Eb
Contemporary sounding music derived from the second themes of the Brahms Intermezzi
Second tonal theme in g minor
After that, there is an ongoing synthesis, a blending of theme and style, which led to a connection that filled me with wonder, perhaps a slight feeling of horror:
*There is a return to my second original theme in eb minor (around the 8:55 mark on the complete recording) which is accompanied by Brahms left hand accompaniment in the B section of his first Intermezzo. The Brahms accompaniment is unaltered and fits perfectly with my theme. This was not planned. It was discovered.
Some times being a composer will provide surprising rewards and luxury:
Well received performances of the Lullaby of My Sorrows led to its appearance on a concert given by the Honolulu Symphony. Rehearsals started before the New Year and performances occurred after, lengthening our stay to 12 days. 12 days in Hawaii!
Michele and I were picked up at the airport by a white stretch limo, snorkeled in Hanauma Bay, had the best cheeseburgers ever at Kua Aina, a hangout for surfers of the storied Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore, marveled at the politeness of Honolulu’s traffic (honking is regarded as bad form) and were feted with a 7 course meal where I struggled and stammered in my decline of the eye of the main course fish. In retrospect, I really should have eaten the eye.
The genesis for this piece grew from a criticism of contemporary musical culture, particularly new music for orchestra. There was this tendency for pieces to end by dying out, grinding to a halt. Of course, this criticism was especially leveled at myself, having previously composed Cumulus Nimbus (it’s high energy middle section reaching an explosive climax that motivated the following denouement) and The Lullaby of My Sorrows whose somber finish felt consistent with the essential tone of the foundational material. (Brahms, Three Intermezzi, opus 117)
How to do this without being cheap? I devised a plan where the high energy opening featured a confusion of conflicting layers of 16th note subdivision:
Layer 1: 3 16ths
Layer 2: 4 16ths
Layer 3: 7 16ths (4+3)
Layer 4: 9 16ths (4+3+2)
I was and continue to be fascinated by certain properties of phase in music with influences that ranged from Steve Reich (well, duh!) to King Crimson (Frame by Frame, among others) to the Cars. (the Cars?!?…Touch and Go, give it a listen)
Because I didn’t want this piece to be entirely motivated by process, another lyrical passage was composed as an antithesis that would ultimately be combined with the music driven by process.
Each of the 16th note groupings listed above gets a section where their respective subdivisions dominate. Ultimately there is a buildup where the different subdivisions reassemble into a high energy presentation of simultaneity.
On An Expanding Universe - Backstory
There is an overall positive tone that matches a period of time where I was getting to know Michele.
The premiere was given by the North Carolina Symphony, conducted by Gerhardt Zimmermann, who has been such a great supporter of my music. In the area is a renowned Research Triangle comprised of North Carolina State University, Duke and University of North Carolina in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. After one of the performances I was warmly congratulated by a couple of research scientists for correlations they noted to cosmic expansion in my composition. In truth, my ideas about expansion were less lofty and cosmic, maybe impressionistic? I wonder what they would think of Xenakis’ Pithoprakta?
Relentless Time - Backstory
The commission by the Brooklyn Philharmonic was on a hard deadline. I think I was first contacted in October of 1983. It was to be premiered in March with a January deadline for submitting the score. At the time, I was teaching full-time at The University of Arizona. Noting the time crunch, I devised this plan:
When I traveled back to spend Christmas holidays with my family in South Bend, Indiana, I would
travel by train, booking a roomette.
use the no-phone, no-interruption, constant-sense-of-motion, fascinating-scenery (it had an observation car!) trip to compose.
get NOTHING done during my Christmas/New Years visit with family and friends
finish writing on the return trip
Hit the copy table, pull a couple of all-nighters
Send the score by Federal Express to Maestro Lukas Foss
My plan was perfect except for this hitch:
Arriving back at my apartment in the Catalina foothills of Tucson, I opened my score folio to discover that an interior section, about 3 minutes of music, had been left on the train. A few minutes of frantic phone calls revealed that the to-this-day-undiscovered* section would not be returned in time to meet a deadline that was days away. There was no time for denial, recriminations and blood sacrifice to Saint Cecilia. I resolved to write the missing section from memory, feeling confident that I had about 94% clearly in my head, (Remember what I said at the top of the page about how writing a new work for orchestra means being able to hear it? This story is proof that that is a very good thing.) persuading myself that the estimated 6% that I could not remember would just have to be an improvement on the missing music. Music that is be fated to travel back and forth from LA to New Orleans on the Sunset Limited for the remainder of Amtrak’s existence.
*So how did this music disappear? I think this is what happened. Roomettes are like Swiss army knives. Perhaps Transformers might be a more topical reference, but, as I have found what I have seen of the movies to be crushingly unwatchable, I would rather that the reader contemplate a quaint knife.**
Back to the roomette, the bed folds up above the window, leaving 2 built-in chairs facing each other with the option of a table that folds into the wall. So, it wasn’t just my fevered imagination when departing the chamber, I thought I heard, faint as rustling manuscript, “For the love of God, Montressor!”
** If I had been watching a Transformers movie with a Swiss army knife nearby, I might not be here today.
Originally for 2 pianos and choir and a commission by the Pittsford High School in Rochester, New York. It was part of an outreach program I participated in during my second year at The Eastman School of Music. Besides composing this work, other responsibilities at Pittsford HS included some private instruction and a few seminars on new music.
Sous tes voiles,
Sous ta brise et tes parfums,
Je rêve aux amours défunts.
La sereine mélancolie
Vient éclore au fond de mon cœur,
Et j’entends l’âme de ma mie
Tressaillir dans le bois rêveur.
Nuit d’étoiles …
Je revois à notre fontaine
Tes regards bleus comme les cieux;
Cette rose, c’est ton haleine,
Et ces étoiles sont tes yeux.
Nuit d’étoiles …
Night of stars
Beneath your veils,
In your breeze and fragrance,
I dream of the loves that are dead.
Arises in the depths of my heart,
And I hear the soul of my love
starting to life in the dreamy forest
This is an extra section in the English translation that I used.
[In the shade of the foliage,
When softly, I sigh to myself
You return, poor, awakened soul,
All white in your shroud.]
I see again at our fountain,
Your eyes as blue as the skies;
That rose is your breath,
And those stars are your eyes.
Alas, the choral piece hasn’t been performed. At least, not to my knowledge.
By the time I was finished with this, I started to hear its potential as a purely instrumental work for orchestra.
Looking over the version for choir recently, I think it might actually be good and I will revise and recopy it as time and concentration allow.
Backstory - Nuit D’etoiles
1. Sleep Deprivation Experiment in Buckeye country
As serene as the orchestra version is you will note that the text is melancholic, somewhat morbid, tragic even. I have an affinity for the contemplation of mortality as may be noticed elsewhere in my music. The premiere of Nuit D'etoiles was given in early January of 1991 by the Canton Symphony Orchestra in upstate Ohio. Around this time, I was involved with the completion of a VERY challenging commission. That piece, written for a large chamber ensemble, was entitled Cripples and written in collaboration with choreographer, Michael Kelly Bruce. We had had two successful collaborations before when we were colleagues on the faculty at Southern Methodist University. (In Time and foreverandever) By 1991, Michael had moved to the dance faculty at Ohio State University and we attempted to make the collaboration work via long distance phone calls. Alas, we just couldn’t seem to get a handle on this project.
Thus, with the premiere up in Canton coming up, I traveled first to Columbus, Ohio with some sketches, scheduling about a week to focus on finishing it there, but, due to the lack of clarity on what the piece was about, working toward completion was a GRIND that turned nightmarish:
I put in 6 all-nighters within a 10 day period.
The 4 nights of sleep were NOT the recommended 6 to 8 hours, more like 2 to 4.
There was a stretch of NO SLEEP for about 70 hours.
I would be locked into the Music Building at OSU after normal operating hours.
In the middle of one of those nights, at a breaking point of fatigue and stress, I allowed a thought to form in my addled brain:
“You are being paid and paid well because someone actually wants your music. You do realize that you asked for this?”
At which point, I began to laugh...
not a pleasant laugh, oh no.
For a while, I was unable to stop.
If anyone was unfortunate enough to be in or near that space around 3 in the morning, I am SO SORRY for your ongoing, waking-up-screaming-in-the-middle-of-the-night episodes and ongoing therapy as a result of what you had the misfortune to hear that night.
Just be grateful that I didn’t have an iPhone handy with its voice memo feature: Had I the presence of mind to record my breakdown, it might have been used as
A cautionary tool for parents concerned about their child pursuing a career in composing contemporary music
A screening device in upper division exams for composition to confirm whether the candidate “has what it takes” to continue their efforts
A track on one of those Sounds for the Haunted House recordings that certain households play to enhance their Halloween displays
The snowy, middle of the night bus ride up from Columbus to Canton for the premiere of Nuit d’Etoiles was surreal, filled with half-waking, apocalyptic visions of jet fighter pilots flying into war because all of this was happening right when Operation Desert Storm was commencing.
2. Odd Jobs
Besides the residency at Pittsford High School, described by Billy Harper, a fellow composition major/program participant as “our pig that shits nickels.”, I kept body and soul together during that second year at Eastman via the following tasks:
Teaching Assistant for Joseph Schwantner
He gave me very little to do, bless him. There were highlights:
He shared what he was doing with his calligraphy, which was inventive and beautiful, influenced by George Crumb’s score design
A notable example being …and the mountains rising nowhere… for wind ensemble, which was premiered that year. A rare and wonderful event where everyone present knew that this piece of new music was an unequivocal triumph of concept and execution.
He brought in a prize possession to show me once: A vintage Gibson SG Special in beautiful condition. I hope he still has it.
Baritone section leader at a church near Eastman in downtown Rochester. Because of the proximity to Eastman, the area churches performed very solid repertoire (Mendelssohn, Schubert, Mozart, Brahms, etc.) consistently.
Bass player/guitarist/vocalist in a cover band, put together by local chanteuse, the genial Heather (Elliott, I think) and besides myself, fellow Eastman composer, David Hienick (a fine pianist) and John Rafalak. (an… interesting drummer) Interesting, in that he was time-challenged, with a unique propensity of playing fills whose endpoints were indeterminate; maybe 7 eighth notes long, maybe 22 incomplete sixteenth note triplets in length, transforming the simplest standard or middle-of-the-road pop song into an example of The New Complexity, years ahead of its time. Every drum break had Dave and I playing guess-the-downbeat throughout the gig.
One story stands out:
Heather, in an effort to solidify our “look” had acquired shirts made of the satiny Quiana fabric that graced the discos that littered the ‘70s. These shirts were perfect vehicles for displaying perspiration (me) and/or figure flaws. (John) On a bathroom break, I got to experience the disturbing sensation of being accosted verbally by a perfect stranger. Tempted as I was to give up the urinal and continue to relieve myself in the direction of my antagonist, I finished up and turned to see that Willy Loman was not a fictional character. Reeking of liquor and poor life choices, he proceeded with his critique of the band, focusing on our attire. He was so pleased that his booze-addled brain could form the word “ragamuffin” that it became his mantra. I began to tire of his nose-to-nose confrontation, repeating to him the word “OK” in a rising tone that he should have seen was code for: “ I will let you throw the first punch…”, when Dave walked in. Seeing that he was surrounded, drunken double-vision a likely factor, he muttered off. Irrepressible Dave delivered a parting observation:
“Hey! Your pants are baggy!”
That Droopy McSuitPants continued his boozy stagger out of the men's room and didn’t “get it” was the perfect finishing touch to Dave’s jest. When you’re playing covers of Captain and Tenille in airport bars while attending The Eastman School of Music, you get the good times when you can.
The essential idea behind Stratae (Layers) was to compose a piece for large ensembles that could be performed by different subsets of the main ensemble:
The Foundational ensemble
Full Orchestra / winds-percussion-strings
• Winds and percussion only
• Woodwinds, percussion and strings only
• Brass, percussion and strings only
• Strings only
The overarching objective was to create significantly different listening experiences based on the ensemble used, that each layer by itself was worth listening to and that each use of combined layers would provide an interaction that redefined the contribution of each layer to the resultant music.
I have yet to hear any version besides the full orchestra but remain fascinated by the possibility that each version produces a different piece
Stratae - Backstory
The incredible lightness of a dissertation
Stratae was not meant to be my Dissertation for my Doctorate of Musical Arts degree from The University of Texas at Austin.
My dissertation composition was intended to be Clarion, which is listed below. Clarion was originally written for a large trombone ensemble and an excellent one was at the University of Texas under the direction of Donald Knaub. I'll say more about Clarion below and only remark now that it was a substantial and demanding work, about 15 minutes long, a serious work that addressed ideas about an emerging type of contemporary music dialectic. Because I had finished required course work, I departed Austin, Texas in 1982, my initial plans being to find free-lance work in Chicago. In the course of my explorations, I was contacted by the University of Kentucky. They had had a search for a music theory professor that had not found a suitable candidate. My mentor at the University of Texas, Barton McLean, had recommended me to a long time friend of his, Richard Domek, who was Dean of Fine Arts at UK at that time.
Thus, I found myself one fine autumn afternoon answering a phone call in my musty, furnished one room apartment in Lexington to get the news that my dissertation had been rejected by the dissertation committee on the grounds that it lacked substance.
Well, excuse me for doing an efficient copy job on the Clarion trombone choir version, done on double-sided paper which lowered the number of pages and heft of the score.
What makes the story worth telling is that the bearer of bad tidings, Dr. John Grubbs, Director of Graduate Studies, had a wispy, ephemeral voice, even under the best of acoustic conditions. As he struggled to respond to my shock and incredulousness, his voice, made even less substantial by the long distance phone connection, seemed to steadily fade into a ghostly whisper. I believe I may have changed the shape of the right side of my head as I pressed the receiver tighter and tighter into my skull in a desperate attempt to hear his rationalization. Toward the end, only the vaguest fragments were discernible.
A possible transcription:
Dr Grubbs: "....please understand that the committee would have liked to have seem more .............tened detail with reference to the aesthetics of the Lone Star State, its barbecue, steer-rasslin' and blue bon............holding the values of a university who's football program is highly respec.............. even with the storied presence of a dumb animal whose branding by an even dumber animal was so sloppy that a score which indicated what could only have been a dreadful excuse for a football contest ultimately led to a mascot name so stupid, it stands out in the disreputable, shame-drenched world of mascots. I am sorry for your disappointment, b..................ommittee is very busy, unable to really discern what is actually happening in the music and can only assess its quality via quantity......................hook 'em.................hook 'em......................."
Clarion - backstory
The illegal midnight boat ride and the perfect fifth
While the abstract idea about a dialectic between non-tonal and tonal music was something I had been pondering for a while, the actually start of Clarion came about the way I prefer any piece to start:
I heard something
To begin work on a piece, I will often just listen.
Often, I don't even have a particular medium in mind.
I just let my mind improvise.
It always finds something, but that doesn't mean that I use it.
I especially like to listen when I'm in motion, walking being heavily favored.
It's also part of the reason I have loved traveling by train.
In this particular instance, newly arrived in Austin, Texas, to begin work on a Doctorate of Musical Arts in Composition, I had been invited to a midnight boat ride by someone I knew from my days at Indiana University at South Bend. It was on the 4th of July. They wanted to introduce me to the joys of Lake Travis after dark, often revving the craft up to bracing velocities, the bow lifting, a spray lifting aft-ward where I sat, in an effect that was at once dramatic and lyrical.
In one of the calmer interludes, I heard, in my "mind's ear" a horn play a Bb rising to an F. So simple, yet it sounded like a signal, pregnant with possibilities.
I don't have perfect pitch, but I have a well developed pitch memory. It is a developable skill that I may describe elsewhere.
The captain decided to add an extra thrill to one of his sprints by turning off the running lights. As invisible as we might have seemed, we were visible enough to the Lake Police.
Time and energy allowing, I will comment on my life of crime elsewhere.
Jamming with Doc
One of the greatest pleasures in getting my music performed by professional orchestras was the opportunity to be a part of this musical community with its rich and varied repertoire. I was always excited by the entire concert, curious about the music directors programming choices and came to all of the rehearsals where I could experience the rehearsal process for the all of the pieces. Of the conductors who performed my music, Zimmermann and Slatkin stood out as innovative programmers, visionaries with a strength of purpose that generated a sense of excitement in the orchestra and the audience.
So it was with the premiere of Clarion, where maestro Zimmermann had placed it on a concert with Tchaikovsky's rarely performed symphonic poem, Francesca da Rimini and another piece by a contemporary composer, the Concerto for Doc, by Stephen Paulus, written for Doc Severinsen. Let's just take a moment here to reflect on the program:
An obscure tone poem and TWO contemporary works, one of them a premiere!!!
At that time, I was playing coffee houses in the Dallas/Fort Worth area so consistently that I deemed it best to fly my steel string acoustic guitar with me so that I could stay in shape for coming gigs. During breaks in the orchestra rehearsals, I would practice backstage. Doc would also warm up for the Paulus concerto by going to the backstage men's room and peeling the paint off of the wall, playing high and hard in the reverberant space. When he ventured out to check on where things were in the rehearsal schedule, horn in hand, he walked by and I threw a couple of chords and a groove out to him. He stiffened, turned around and immediately settled in. We played, members of the staff and orchestra gathering. There is so much joy, a truly simple yet deep joy when musicians play off each other. and, it didn't end there...
The dress rehearsal for the concert was one where an audience could pay to attend. I think the Paulus was last on the schedule and, as always, I was out in the hall, basking in the observation process in the polishing of the concerto.
Doc is as spontaneous as he is generous and talented.
Imagine the electric surprise, when, after the Paulus had been rehearsed, he peered into the audience...
"Where's Kevin?...Kevin!...get yer geetar, boy!"
So I flew backstage, grabbed my guitar and we played Misty for the attendees.
The dress rehearsal was being covered by the local newspaper. The next day, there was a story and so it was that Doc and I played the encore for the concert on the subsequent performance. We played Misty and our own version of Matchbox.
Epilogue: There next day, I'm flying out of Cleveland and am approached by a pleasant woman, possibly in her 60s, given her gray hair. She had been at the orchestra concert, a regular, and let me know that that was her favorite concert of all time.
Over the years, I have attended many seminars and presentations where the place of new music in orchestra performance is discussed. For too often, words like "accessible" and phrases like "the audience wants/expects standard repertoire/the familiar" are bandied about either by cynical composers or conductors lacking vision.
Accessibility for it's own sake is worthless
Audibility is priceless
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