Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Talking Points

For those of you who asked (you don't know who you are). I am currently writing a piece for 'cello and string orchestra with the working title Right Wing Echo Chamber.

It's pretty much writing itself. It presents some interesting compositional problems.

How could I NOT have one? Part 3

While shopping for Sound Machine boxes online — to replace them what am going to be gifted to our office staff — a third one, not sold at the Paper Source, was discovered. Hee hee hee.

Beats the hell out of the MIDI

Vermonters. We're stoic.

"Stoic". I don't get to use that many words where the "oi" is pronounced like that, and two syllables. Why, bejeezum crow, it's like the "oe" in "poet". But surely digressing is being done, and by me.

Vermonters. Stoic.

I haven't officially been a Vermonter since 1976, but even though it's easy to get rid of the accent (loike, droi, kay-e-ah-ooh) the stoicity within remains.

An oft-told joke in these parts has to do with Mark Twain giving a humorous lecture in a Vermont town to a sea of stone-cold frowns. Getting nowhere, he cut the lecture short, changed clothes, and slipped into the crowd afterwards, incognito. Where he heard one of the audience say, "Wa'n't he funny. Wa'n't he funny! I had ever'thin' I could do t' keep fr'm laughin'!"

I'm typing this in Vermont, where Beff 'n' I have been for a few weeks. Yesterday I got to experience hundreds of miles of non-interstate roads in Vermont, and for a good cause.

But first let me backtrack. Backtracking will be done by me. Vermonters love the passive voice. "Time f' th' milkin' 'f th' kay-e-ah-ohhs t' be done by me."

Well, maybe not.

Backtracking, though. I'm all over it like a cheap suit.

So last fall I got an e-mail from I-Chen Yeh, a graduate student in the contemporary performance DMA at Bowling Green State University. She said she was writing her dissertation on my piano études, and would it be okay to do an interview. Yes, I replied. I was stoic.

Wait. A dissertation. On me? Jeezum crow. Am I the kind of guy about whom dissertations are written? Well, I know I-Chen's answer.

I-Chen suggested an in person interview, and in early March she flew in from Ohio, and we met at my place of employment. Last minute, she also revealed that she had learned five toods and wanted me to coach her. Cool. Wow.

Wait. I'm the kind of guy about whom dissertations are written? Wow.

I-Chen said she was coming with "my boyfriend Karl", also in the contemporary performance program. And also a pianist. We met up in Slosberg Hall, and Karl's function was exclusively the media guy. He pointed a video camera for the coaching, recorded the interview, and when I-Chen played the toods, he turned pages.

I thought her playing was marvelous, even transcendent. I kept inviting our senior administrator Mark in to watch her play. And with her permission, I Flip-videoed and YouTubed her. Here she is in my C minor prelude ripoff, with Karl turning pages.

Since our interview, lunch, and tourlet of the Maynard area, I've been in touch with various notes about the ideas behind the études that she may find interesting. And meanwhile, I liked her playing so much that I suggested she suggest (to suggest one suggest is not in the passive voice, but it will do) — that is, suggesting was done by me that suggesting could be done by her for a custom-made étude. Doing that was done by her, and writing her a tood on her premise was done by me.

I-Chen also had with her all nine existing Peters étude books. Which impressed the heck out of me, since I hadn't even gotten a copy of Book IX from the publisher yet.

I-Chen is special.

I'm not.

Being impressed soon melted into being hurt. As I autographed all nine books, with lengthy tributes, frequently stopping to shake my hand and say, in as subtle way as possible, "Ow".

Offhandedly, I-Chen told me last month that Karl — the point-the-microphone guy — was going to be a Fellow at the Bang on a Can Summer Institute at the Mass MOCA, and he was learning two as-yet-unperformed toods. Nice. I invited both of them to visit in Vermont, should the timing work.

Last week Karl e-mailed that he was going to perform the two toods on an afternoon concert at the Institute. I said we had company and I probably couldn't make it. But étude premieres! Movies for YouTube! Cheap suit. Oh — I didn't bring the Flip Video to Vermont. Oh! But the iPod nano takes video. Ooh! Ooh!

Scheming was done by me.

Google Maps calculated my drive to North Adams — being that it was non-interstate and secondary roads — at 3 hours 37 minutes. So I followed Route 7 through its winding trajectory and its many towns with town greens and gazebos (gazebi?), and experienced a lovely 20 minute construction delay — some of which could be observed by those so delayed, as five or six people held traffic still in both directions while the placement of a single construction barrel was debated. During this time, stoicity was not much in evidence from those whose vehicles were not moving.

Anyway. I made it to the Mass MOCA in time to meet Karl and hear the two toods, both of them slightly more than two years old, and which so far had only existed on my computer in MIDI realizations. While the concert was being set up, I took out the nano and filmed away. Filming away was being done by me. The piano was in one of many large wood-floored galleries, with a large sculpture at one end, and a set of paintings framing the other.

Of course, there wasn't time to do a lot of commentary or coaching. We only had ten or fifteen minutes, as a large ensemble piece was also being set up. And when he played, here's what happened.

Understand that in both of these cases, while I held the iPod nano as still as I could, that I was hearing a physical manifestation of 2-year-old pieces for the first time. Karl's playing was, of course (hence these videos) fantastic. And my pieces sounded amazing. They were interpreted, they had flawless technique, and they were so much better than the MIDI.

What would I have said about these pieces before I heard them performed? Ah, well, What's Hairpinning I wrote when it was warm in April, and Verizon FIOS people came to my house to get me to switch. I did. And, uh, Diminishing Return was the first thing I wrote at my residency at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation (uh, I had a residency at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation), when I had to write a big piece "responding to jazz" and I didn't have any ideas yet. No ideas were yet had, by me.

And now? These two toods are kickass. Karl is The Man.

Karl asked me for suggestions. I said, "They sound great. Exactly what I was thinking". The part I left out was, "You, sir, seem to be a God of the piano." That was me being stoic.

And meanwhile, an onlooker/onlistener came up to me after the runthrough of Hairpinning to comment on the D's, and the "Scriabin chord."

So the concert actually happened in two locations of the museum. A solo cello piece and a solo glockenspiel piece were performed, contextualized in a very large gallery displaying a sculpture made of long nylon strings arc'ed and specially lit. Then the concert moved to the smaller gallery, where Karl introduced my pieces, introduced me (I had to make note that this was a world premiere), and the concert ended with three iterations of a very short John Zorn piece for large ensemble.

All in all a great concert, great performances.

Followed by the drive back, using a different route — not involving construction delays — which took 3 hours 37 minutes. And, of course, the immediate YouTubing of the two new toods.

They seem not to suck.

Wait. People are writing dissertations on me?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

How could I NOT have one? Part 2

The trip Beff and I took into Boston is well documented here. There were, however, two of these for sale at the Paper Source. We also absconded with a Cartoon Special, which will also be gifted to our office staff. Naturally, I got another one.

The Computer Changed Everything. Again.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Another article about the good old days and how we had to walk uphill seven miles to school, on our backs, while juggling ferrets.

The ferrets. They bite.

It's not exactly news that the computer changed lots of stuff in lots of artistic fields. Poets and novelists and painters and (guess what, a new category) computer artists and ... composers have seen everything change, in every level of the supply chain from (here's this silly phrase again) the creative process to production. High end tools quickly, and breathtakingly, became available to the masses. Well, to the masses who could afford computers.

And we all know how the masses ruin everything when they get their own way.

Heck, even I (you know this was going to get to me, and breathtakingly quickly) dabbled in high end typography. Typography! Moi, not trained as an artist (the A++ I got for my profile drawing in seventh grade doesn't count, and why not?) was able, with font specimen books, a scanner, three bits of software (Adobe Streamline, Adobe Illustrator, and Fontographer) to completely rock out the computer font world, right when Windows 3.1 — the release that allowed unlimited different fonts to display and print — was released. People clamored for fonts, fonts, fonts, and a new kind of kitsch sprang forth, unbidden: the flyer with way too many fonts.

But this post is not about fonts. Or is about to be not about fonts. But before I leave this topic. The grunge font fad in the mid 90s? My fault. Sorry.

Here's your taste of the old days. I wrote my first piece ever for my high school band in 1975. This places my year of birth somewhere between 1957 and 1960 by virtue of the use of the word "my". I purchased (uh, got my dad to purchase) special 24-line music paper with teeny weeny staves in Burlington. On every page of manuscript, even before I started writing, I dutifully captioned each staff: Flute 1&2; Oboe 1&2; Clarinet 1; Clarinet 2; Clarinet 3; Alto Clarinet ... and so on, and so on. On every page. Every. Page.

And then it was time to write. On each teeny line I wrote in all the parts I was hearing, with a #2 pencil. Every part, of course, included the notes and rhythms, dynamics, and rehearsal numbers (rehearsal numbers! I had to think way ahead here). That the piece I wrote was a pretty obvious amalgam stealing all the coolest parts of band pieces I'd played in All-State and All-New England isn't even germane here. Hey, it was my first piece.

I can't use the expression "before the ink was even dry" here, since I used a pencil. So, um ... before the piece was even finished, the first few pages were already smudgy. I had not yet discovered the composer's first most important tool: fixative. "Fixative and forget it", we used to say in my grad school days.

We were complete and total nerds.

Carbon-based scores would deteriorate this way, naturally. The way you work around the smudgies is to make a photocopy, of course. And naturally, no photocopiers in town could handle the large-format music paper.

But I finished my piece. Meaning I was nowhere near finished. Because nobody in my high school band (all of whom were born between 1957 and 1960) could play from my score. And not just because of the photocopier paper size issue. Everybody had to have their own parts, showing only what they played, and transposed. Now, Dad was okay buying me exotic music paper, but he drew the line at buying me a copyist. I had to copy and transpose all the parts myself. And when would I find the time?

Well, as it turns out, our chorus and band did an exchange concert in Scarborough, Ontario that year, which necessitated a seven-hour bus ride each way. It is during those two bus rides that I copied maybe a third to a half of the parts — which, of course, didn't have all that many straight lines. The other parts? Copied whenever there was time.

Duration of composition: five days. Duration of parts-copying: about three weeks. Piece's performance time: 7 minutes.

Once I got to college, it was time for some serious musico-copyage gear, and my teacher got me hooked on some nice people in Utah to get my scores produced. Utah! The nerd gear changed, though. Scores of odd sizes photocopied double-sided were 30 cents a page. Ozalid scores were 9 cents. Ozalid? To take advantage of the steep discount, I now had to (get my father to) buy music paper printed on sheer, semi-transparent paper, buy a bunch of calligraphy pens and an electric eraser, and learn music copying again. The staves were printed on the side on which you didn't copy, so that the electric eraser wouldn't erase the staves. Worse still, I had to become an afficionado of earthworm-shaped eraser parts for the electric eraser.

And when the nicely coil-bound scores got back from Utah, they looked nice. And smelled bad. 'cause, you see, the cheaper ozalid process used ammonia, just like blueprints. So in my conservatory years, you could always tell the composers — they were the ones who smelled like cleaning fluid. (The early music majors always smelled like laundry day, but that's another issue entirely)

And those ammonia pages? Eventually the odor faded. But so did the pages, when exposed to light. After three or four years all my scores had pages with brown edges. Luckily I discovered this about when I was ready to call them all juvenilia and chuck them on artistic grounds, anyway.

And the nice folks in Utah (it was Orem, by the way) wrote to say photocopy prices had come down to Ozalid rates and they were getting rid of their Ozalid stuff. Apparently they got tired of smelling like composers.

So then music copying for me reverted to the carbon-based process. I now used mechanical pencil (HB leads, or something like that), regular erasers, regular paper (I think a lot of it was actually green paper), calligraphy pens for the beams, rulers, fixative, and non-photo blue pencils. The non-photo blue pencils were for drawing guidelines on large scores so that the beats would line up properly — and would not show up when photocopied (hence the name).

When in Rome, I was seeking such a pencil for my last hand-copied score, and went into an art store. With the Italian vocabulary of a three-year-old, I tried asking for one (Cerco una matita "non-photo blue", azzurro chi non ... chi non ... non é visibile quando ... quando ... Xerox?) The proprietor pointed me to the dark blue pencils. I bought the lightest one.

The last essential piece of equipment was the sock. Yes, the sock.

When copying large scores in pencil, my arm and the side of my hand would tend to sweat. I mean, don't yours? Sweat makes smudge, smudge makes ugly, ugly makes Davy a dull boy. So to keep the sweat from interacting with the page, I cut off the toe end of a sock and placed it over my writing hand and forearm. I was not a very good date.

I wrote a violin concerto movement — it was going to be my dissertation piece, but it wasn't -- for violin and 18 instruments. When I got into Tanglewood, I was eager to get it played, and I didn't get much notice. Certainly not enough time to do proper parts. So I was introduced to the paste-up part. I absconded with some free photocopying at the Princeton music department, and cut up each page of the full score into the lines of the individual parts, then pasted all the lines for the instruments onto blank pages, and ... whoa, my eyelids are drooping with boredom as I type this. Well, I had a bunch of paste-up parts that took a couple of days to do, instead of proper copied parts, which would have taken about two or three weeks. And boy were those parts ugly. They looked like laundry day.

And that was my glamorous life until computers.

And of course, just about everyone else was doing music notation on their computers before I was. Because, you see, I had the sock. I doubt anybody else did. When I got a publisher and wanted pieces engraved, I went to my friends at Scores International, who engraved pieces using the SCORE notation program. It cost something like $14 to $20 per page, and it came out of my pocket. This part is unremarkable except for a few details. Composer Danny Kastner owned and ran the business, and he had not fifteen, but thirty minutes of fame — first as a contestant on The Apprentice, and then as a victim on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

I also named one of my fonts after Danny. It is called Kastner-Casual.

Meanwhile, some of my students were using notation programs and brought in their sketches as laser-printed pages that looked, to a newbie, like engraved music. What does a composition teacher do with an engraved score? "I can't comment. Your piece is finished. It's already been engraved." But the telltale signs of a sketch were there (and this particular sign persists to this day) — usually the score ended with 20 to 30 blank measures, all of them with whole rests. Uh huh. So the audience can't applaud for a minute or two after the piece is over, right?

Once a student working on a deadline for an ensemble piece used her engraving software to play what she had so far to me over the phone. It was a bunch of beeps and squawks that sounded like amoebas having an argument. I said it sounded fine, and to keep going.

One of my students had a side business engraving music, and offered to engrave a piece of mine using Finale. My employer gave me some professional expenses, and I had to use the money before the end of the fiscal year or forfeit it. So I told the editors at Peters that a piece they'd taken would be engraved in Finale, and I got a stern letter back: Beware of students using Finale. The ties look too flat and the spacing is awful. Bye.

The student engraved the piece. He made the ties loopier and fixed the default spacing algorithms. The score looks neither half bad nor half good.

In the summer of 1993 we were living in Spencer, Massachusetts and Beff was doing adjunct work in the Worcester college scene. A potentially more permanent job came up at a place where she had already adjuncted. "Familiarity with Finale music software" was a stated job requirement. I used my academic discount to buy Finale, and we both jumped into the steep learning curve that was Finale Music Notation Software, version 3.0.

Those even nerdier than I tell me that by not using Finale 1 and 2, I missed nothing.

Our hardware was about a generation and a half behind state of the art — a Macintosh SE with an internal 20 megabyte hard drive. It wasn't the ideal platform for complicated music software, but it was what we had. The first thing we discovered about Finale 3.0 was that when you double-clicked on it, you had just about enough time to go out and raise a family before it was ready for you to start working. And that it could play back the music you entered such that it sounded like amoebas arguing.

I decided to learn Finale with the immersion technique (since it didn't also teach you a foreign language). I had just written my fourth piano étude, a complicated monster of an étude if ever there was one, that would take me, the computer, Finale, and the entire cosmos, to the limit. I embarked.

It was excruciating.

Hard as it was to get the notes in just right, I discovered what point-zero software really means. After I'd spent a week getting about four-fifths of the notes in, I opened up my file to the message "This file can not be opened by Finale".


Slang word for intercourse.

Most recent backup opened. "This file can not be opened by Finale".

Slang word for intercourse.

Less recent backup opened. Ah, the first half or so of the piece was there, and could be opened. More notes added. Saved to another file. "This file can not be opened by Finale."

Slang word for excrement. Slang word for intercourse.

Backup reopened. Enough new notes entered to fill a page. Saved. All is well. New file started, at the halfway point in the piece. Notes entered and saved without incident. Printout sent to the editors, eleven pages total. Marked-up edited copy returned with unbelievably particular edits. Time spent to edit score to editors' specifications: five full days.

Thus, my trial by fire, and copious use of slang words. Much-welcome Finale fix arrives on floppy disk.

Subsequently, I became pretty good, and fast, at getting scores into Finale, and learned all the tricks for getting stuff to look good — or at least to the Peters editors' standards. And the first time I had to do parts for a large piece, it pretty much paid for itself.

First symphony, hand-copied. Parts farmed out (to copyists in Utah, it turns out). Time it took me: zero. Cost to me: $4300.

Persistent Memory, Finale files. Parts done by me. Time it took: one and a half days. Cost to me: $0.

And whereas my scores had usually been published "in facsimile" (translation: we saved a bundle on engraving), now they can look "engraved", scare quotes intentional.

My method of working has not changed during the computer age. I still write short scores (when writing for large ensembles) onto oblong paper before doing the full score. I usually do the writing during the day and the entering of the same music into Finale in the evening. The sketches have all kinds of chicken scratches and notes to myself, and (importantly) room to change my mind.

What has changed is the default working method of a lot of composers, particularly younger ones — the ones who never cut the toes off of their socks. Thus has my life teaching composition changed, as well.

First check out this very interesting blog post by John Mackey about his working method. It's a method that works exceedingly well for him, but which wouldn't work for me at all.

For the sake of contrast, here is some music I wrote this morning. It is not yet entered into Finale. But I will, Oscar, I will.

I would have a hard time deciphering those chicken scratches and arrows, personal notes, etc., of mine in a lesson, though it might would be fun doing that. Much more likely, it wouldn't be fun.

Meanwhile, it is now more common than not in a composition lesson for the victim either to give me a flash drive with a Finale file, or a MIDI file, or a PDF, or all of those — or to bring his/her own computer with all the Finale or Sibelius files ready for playback and live(!) editing. I can make suggestions that the victim will either make note of in the actual file with the text tool, or do an actual live revision as I watch (or pretend to watch). And the part of the lesson where I struggle through a complex score at the piano — gone! Or at least much less common.

Speaking of PDFs. Well, obviously now I can send out scores and parts as PDFs in e-mail instead of taking the time to print and bind copies, package them, and go to the post office. Did I mention ... I have a tabloid-capable laser printer and binding equipment?

And with the MIDI playback. I'm actually not fond of MIDI for a lot of stuff, but I have found one and only one way to make that feature useful. Hearing the notes I wrote played back in quasi-real time gives me some indication of when my compositional timing is off. More often than not, I add beats or passages when the MIDI "tells" me I made a boo-boo.

Score production isn't the only thing for composers that's been vastly transformed by the computer, too. CD-burning has long replaced cassette duplications for performance recordings, videos of pieces can be published on YouTube, and lots of recordings of hard-to-find pieces are now available in various corners of the Internet.

And much to the chagrin of Beff, I now get to keep all of my socks.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Das obligate willkommen

I now have a blog. Somewhere, an angel has lost his wings.

Instead of making "welcome to my blog!" my first post, I have decided to flip convention on its ear, which has gotta hurt. But first.

Sorry I haven't blogged for a while. I'll be back up to speed soon, I promise.

I know I've been lax at blogging. I'll return soon with all kinds of fascinating news.

Wow, has it been this long since I last blogged? Well, I'm back. Tomorrow.

There. Now the apologies nobody is asking for are taken care of for the next twelve months.

Willkommen to my fifth blog post. During my first sabbatical I established a personal web page. I'm now on my second sabbatical.

I can't say with any certainty what I will blog about, nor can I say I won't be self-indulgent (in the immortal words of Milton Babbitt, there's no one else I'd rather indulge). And why blog?

Because science has shown that life is one hundred percent fatal.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Law of the Letter

I was once fond of saying that one of the earliest symptoms that you are making it as a composer is when you write more recommendation letters than you ask for.

Of course I was fond of saying it. It had just happened to me. People wanted my opinion about other composers! In academic offices all over America, people were asking, "who the hell is this Ma... Ma... Makowski guy?"

So when I'm writing, oh, let's say, fifty or sixty times more letters than I ask for, then I'm fifty or sixty times as important as I was then, right? Uh, well, as anyone who follows the "recommendation and professional letter" tally on my website knows, I already write about that many. And according to the latest figures, I'm only 1.4398 times as important as I was then. It's true.

Due to the structure of the merit system (don't get me started), once you've gotten to a certain level — you're faculty, you have a reputation, you've taught at a conference or festival — this is where the real glamour of being a composer kicks in.

Writing letters for students, former students, and other composers is a necessary evil — though you could dispute both of those words. So much stuff that is important for a composer building a career requires, um, independent verification. Call me an Independent Verifier. IV for short, or 4.

Friday, July 16, 2010

How could I NOT have one? Part 1

Beff and I had serious business to conduct in Boston recently, which we scheduled around the spotty commuter rail service. Even after a long lunch, there was time to kill, so we spent time in The Paper Source across from Porter Square station, a Cambridge-type establishment if there ever was one.

In which we found a number of novelty items, including this one. On the package, it says it is perfect for board meetings, phone conversations, family dining, school assembly, open-plan offices, public libraries, and speeches. The real trick, of course, is doing all of those at once.

I plan on gifting it to our office staff. So, naturally, I got another one.

The Big Easy.

Easy is hard.

I'm not sure how many things I am known for as a composer, but I'm sure at least some of them have names. Wickid had is probably one of the more common ones (at least in the upper right hand corner of the country), and complex, and intricate, and sometimes even funny. Perhaps in another blog post I'll try to say more about why hard is easy and easy is hard for me, but that will require the kind of thought and reflection not normally available to me on a beautiful summer's day.

Today is a beautiful summer's day.

The great composers didn't seem to have much of a problem dialing it down. Easy -- or relatively easy -- pieces by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and (swoon) Bartók abound. The musical argument in their easy pieces is not, however, simple, as this example from Bartók, this from Beethoven, this one from Bach will attest. Note particularly in the Bach that the performer is a very young child.

Wouldn't it be nice to be able to write easy pieces that children can play and maybe not outgrow?

This leads me to a point about why composers ought to be able to, and want to, write easy music -- especially, to write easy music that is not dumbed down to fit some guidelines drafted by a few people with Masters degrees in education sitting in a windowless room (oops. Where did that come from?) A good composer should be able -- at least occasionally -- to craft a good, engaging, and taut musical argument that doesn't require superhuman effort either of the performer or of the listener. As students develop their technique, they should be given good music, not just edu-music. This way they can also develop an appreciation for progressively more complex musical construction, and for the deeper emotion that comes from it -- while also finder deeper meaning in the easy pieces.

It's hard to get emotional about a piece specifically designed to incorporate the pinky.

It isn't easy writing good easy stuff, though. And, in limited doses, I relish the challenge.

The first time I was ever asked to write something for young performers was by Jim Goldsworthy, way back when I taught at Stanford. He wanted me to write pieces that his students at the Nueva Learning Center, aged 5 to 7, could play. He loaned me copies of his students' method books, and had them all fill out surveys about what sports they liked, and what was their favorite music.

When I got the materials, my reaction was typical: wtf?

The average length of the pieces Jim's students had learned was 8 measures, and the pieces were written on giant grand staves with really big notes. Not often did both hands play together. Not ever did either hand play as many as two notes at once.

I had to make my brain bigger to get through this challenge (there was an analog service for this at the time, but now it's all done on the internet). The a-ha! was when I discovered that in one of the method books there were recital pieces in which students played duets with their teacher -- a bigass grand staff with a single teeny tiny staff below it. The lower staff was a part for the teacher to play as an accompaniment -- usually adding richness (and bass!) to the piano texture.

Thus, my collection of pieces was a collection of duets notated thusly. Each piece was 12 to 16 measures long, and was named after a student. Usually I used something the student had indicated as "favorite music" in the student's eponymous piece. So, for instance, "Casey's Waltz", if I am remembering correctly, responded to Casey's listing of The Nutcracker Suite as his favorite music by using the opening Nutcracker melody as a waltz melody. Other pieces were written similarly.

I recall arriving at the night of the premieres, and the students treated me like a rock star -- taking their cues from Jim, of course. And each performance was flawless. Now that I think about it, the students who played the premieres that night are now in their very late 20's. I don't know if any of them still play piano, or if they remember their Rakowski premieres. But that night was certainly memorable. And maybe, just maybe, they remember the day they premiered new pieces by a living composer.

And this leads me to reveal an incontrovertible fact: I'm old.

About seven years ago, Jim came back for more -- this time for piano four hands pieces for students ages 11-13 whom he taught in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. It was a similar experience, flawlessly performed. And this time I simply titled the pieces with numbers and invited the students and the audience to make up their own names for the pieces.

Last summer, the Music Teachers Association of California worked with Gene Caprioglio at Peters to commission me for five or six minutes of intermediate-level music for piano four hands. I was told the performers would be 11 to 13 years old, and could play Bach inventions and simple Beethoven and Mozart pieces. What do I know from Intermediate? But I was certainly glad that I wasn't quoted any edu-composers as models. I worked with Cathy O'Connor on the specs, and turned in my pieces in mid-July last year. I breathed a sigh of relief when she told me the difficulty level was exactly right; she followed up with a list of eight or nine editing errors I'd made.

Besides writing the pieces, I was also contracted to appear at the MTAC convention and coach various performers who were to premiere them. This happened over the most recent Independence Day weekend at the Airport Marriott in Los Angeles. So to L.A. flew I, mulled about a bit, scarfed many a Buffalo wing, and did my duty, which was a lot of fun. Peters had produced some very beautiful scores (for purchase, of course), and I spent a small eternity autographing them. The performers ranged in age from 9 to 16; they got together and autographed one of the scores and gave it me.

I only bring this up now because I have discovered that the parents of one of players in the duos filmed a performance and posted it on YouTube. And now the reader of this blog can determine if I was successful in writing a not-dumb piece -- or if I am a blowhard. Or both. The performance is by Sam Yang and Andrea Tam. And to cross all the i's and dot the t's, the piece is called Étude-Fantasies, Edition Peters 68307, copyright © by C.F. Peters Corporation. And yes, that is I making a cameo at the end, while correctly utilizing the predicate nominative.

There is a corollary. And it has to do with my no-longer-ever-expanding collection of piano études. At least ninety percent of the études are wickid had, and I can't come close to performing them myself. Besides being a failed trombonist, I am a mediocre pianist. But I do like to be able to get in on the act on occasion, so I created another (sigh) rule: one étude in each book of ten must be easy enough for me to play. Don't believe me? Here's the list, with YouTube links as appropriate.

Book #1: Les Arbres Embués
Book #2: The Third, Man
Book #3: Roll Your Own
Book #4: Chorale Fantasy
Book #6: Eight Misbehavin'
Book #7: Rick's Mood
Book #8: Upon Reflection
Book #9: Berceuse
Book #10: Quietude

So there.

There has been motion towards compiling a separate Peters edition of the "easy" études. If that happens, I will either let you know or not let you know.

Meanwhile, I'll be starting a new piece shortly. It's going to be wickid had.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

I Dreamed a Dream.

I dreamed music again this morning.

This time, the music was in third person. I've had lots of dreams in which music was in the first person (by me); some where it was in the third person and by someone identifiable; and, like this morning, some in which it was written by anonymous.

This morning it was complex ballet/dance music on a large stage with complicated choreography, and in the foreground I was a fly on the wall watching some old-time Hollywood-style intrigue going on with agents about the dancers, the performers, and (of all things) the performing rights. The music was far too complex, and I woke up too late after the music happened, for me to remember it with any precision; and it was really unlike anything I would write myself. I have had other dreams in which I was able to remember the music, and could remember enough of it to be able to write at least some of it down.

Earlier this week I dreamed about encountering orchestral music, on recording, in an editing session that was taking place in what I would call an industrial building, very dark, with black walls. The music was quite colorful, and in the dream it had a patriotic title and was identified as a piece by Augusta Read Thomas, from 1976. This being a dream, it didn't occur to me that Gusty would have had to have written it when she was 12 -- or, for that matter, that a large industrial building with black walls was a strange place to have an editing session.

Three or four years ago I dreamed of being at a chamber music recital -- I was offstage and to the right side of the performers, as I always seem to be in these music dreams -- and a complex piece for about six players with beautiful textures, several fast ostinati, and pretty static harmony was being played. On the program the piece was attributed to Evan Ziporyn. As with the other dreams, the music was rather too complicated for me to remember enough when I woke up to write it down. And as was the case for the music I dreamed in third person, it wasn't at all similar to anything I myself would write.

Pause to reflect. Why would I dream Evan Ziporyn's music? Why would I dream Gusty Thomas's music? Why would I dream music at all? Is it common to dream music? Do musicians dream music more than non-musicians? Why do I almost never hear from any of my composer friends about music they've dreamed? (Hayes Biggs recently related that he'd had a dream in which he was singing a pop song that didn't exist outside of the dream)

About three weeks ago, I had a dream of music in the third person, with a pretty specific (and, of course, weird) context. It occurred in a small, hot room somewhat similar to a speakeasy, and I was accompanying a very flamboyant singer. My instrument was a frying pan, and when I pressed on the frying pan with my fingers, notes came out. I played it with both hands, and its response and "musical space" were rougly equivalent to a piano keyboard. This was simple, symmetrically phrased music, and as I comped on the frying pan, I imitated the singer's lines in the space between phrases, as flamboyantly as I could, given the limitations of my frying pan keyboard technique.

This music was sufficiently simple, and was repeated a sufficient number of times in the dream that when I woke up, I had a perfect memory of the music, and I was able to write it down without checking the notes at the piano. It went something like the music in the example to the left here. I did not remember any of the words.

I'm not a composer of Broadway-style songs, nor am I a particular afficianado of them, so it should be surprising that when I dream I'm playing something, it is in this particular style, which is not at all like the music I write.

Last December, I dreamed of being at a salsa dance party in a club (I don't have this dream anywhere near often enough), and in this dream there was a repeated bass line in minor, with some salsa hits over it. That's the A minor bass line to the left of this paragraph.

As far as I know, I've dreamed music for all of my life. I remember having anxiety dreams in high school, and of two varieties: the customary one about having to go on stage to be in a play I've never rehearsed, and one about being in the audience for a band or orchestra performance that goes horribly wrong. I still have the dream about the play perhaps once a year (and, since I've been teaching at universities, a similar one about the first day of classes and being forced to teach a subject I know nothing about, and in a classroom I can't find...). The one about the performance gone wrong -- hardly ever.