two quotes from distinctly different lands

Today I ran across two quotes that seemed to sum up two of my great feelings in life:The first was a sign off shout from GOOMF! If you don't know GOOMF!, it's an Onion Sports Network parody of Face-Off from ESPN. And it's magical. Really magical. The cast off shout of record:

"Your parents either told you horrible lies, or you chose to listen to all the wrong parts of sentences."

Talk about magical wisdom. It's true, isn't it? It's all about how we listen, what we listen for in a conversation. We all perceive things differently, and are willing to toss out anything that doesn't go along with our preconceived ideas. 

The other quote I grabbed from Ethan Iverson giving a great discussion of why competitions aren't great for art: especially a performance competition of Jazz. 

"We need more audience for jazz, and the way to get that audience is not to play jazz correctly. The way to get that audience is to make essential new music."

Man, he just really nailed that one on the head, didn't he. Iverson also tosses in a little dig against competitions in the classical world, at least in sense that they don't work well.

The largest truth comes in the idea of writing or playing for someone else. You know so-and-so is a judge. S/he likes this particular style. If I do that well, I have a better chance of winning. In the classical world, you can browse winners of competitions and see the aesthetic leanings of the competition, be it traditional, complexity, post-minimalist, whatever. Maybe that means "only submit to competitions where your style fits." Of course, if you're pushing for your own path, it's hard to find that competition. 

So what's that mean? Well it means quote 1 sticks into quote 2. A lot of people tell you that you have to be successful. Success is dictated in many ways. I've gotten advice lately that while my CV is strong, it's lacking one big thing- a named award. If I listen to all the wrong parts of what I'm being told, it means I compromise the idea of quote 2- I write for a judge. I look to see winners, and say "well, I can write in a really complex style. If it gets me an award, then it's worth it." Will winning that award suddenly make me "successful?" Will I now, undoubtedly, get a job wherever I want? N'ah, it'll make some nice introductions, give me a couple more opportunities, but I can do that without the competition.

That's listening to the wrong part. Listen to the part that says "Write the best music you can, get a nice recording, and send it out. Everywhere." And still submit. Because you never really know what'll happen. Music is highly subjective, and if you resonate with just one person, all of a sudden you've got an award.

And because if you start listening to all the wrong parts of sentences, you'll start to lose yourself, and when you lose yourself, you've lost a deep connection to what you're doing. Then creation halts.

So listen to the whole sentence, and work for your love of what you do.


unbridled simplicity

Took a very long train ride a couple days ago. It ended up being 9.5 hours on the train instead of 6.5. A crane had fallen across the tracks outside Chicago.

Finding things to do on long trips is always a pain. At least on Amtrak, there are outlets. Electrical ones, I mean, not just outlets to relieve tedium. Two things happened on this trip that reminded me of the wonders of simplicity.

First was meeting a man named Chris. He was now retired, taking a train trip to visit his kids in California. He was meeting some in Albuquerque and camping in New Mexico before heading to SoCal and camping there. We discussed many things- he was one of those types that had a million jobs: a part-time luthier in NYC living with 2 flamenco guitarists and another luthier; a youth counselor heading several small town organizations outside San Fran; making posters and doing advertising for theaters. We talked about throwing TVs off buildings, lighting pianos on fire, and coming up with a class called "Music and Pyrotechnics."

We sat staring at the still scenery in the observation car having this conversation. I had a beer, he had what i assumed was a jack and coke, since it was in a glass and no can in sight. They called his dinner reservation, and he thanked me for the conversation. Chris said he felt reinvigorated- he was retired, but still spry and wily, and needed something to pass the time. He was thinking of going back to some of his old posters, ideas from the 60s for bands like the Santana Blues Band (before it was just Santana) and sprucing them up, making them animated gifs or short films. Chris thanked me for being creative, and passing that spirit onto someone that needed reminded of how you can turn anything into art, be creative with anything, even a train sitting still thanks to a fallen crane.

It made me appreciate a simple conversation with a stranger, an activity I often avoid.

The second experience happened later, sitting in my seat as the sun started to set. I was tired of reading- had already gone through 200 pages or so that day in a novel by C.J. Cherryh. Good trilogy, but after reading 700 pages in the last 4 days, i was shot.

So i turned on compy and flipped to the scores I had loaded on my computer. Ligeti String Quartet 2, Ferneyhough String Quartets 2, 3, and 4. I decided to start with the Ligeti- might as well go in chronological order.

It starts with a grand pause. I've always disliked pieces starting with grand pauses. From there, i started taking it apart. Pitch, rhythm, timbre/orchestration, energy. What i found all at once surprised me and didn't surprise me.

Ligeti SQ 2, Mvt 1- Allegro Nervoso. Man, does Ligeti nail nervous. and it's simple, dastardly simple. Ligeti moves from a range of a major second to a perfect fifth, each part moves from playing one note to playing three or four. the rhythm speeds up, the dynamic ebbs and flows, but never above quiet.

The energy sits, there, but not there. You feel a pull, like toward the center of a turn, but something moves opposite. The only comparison i came up with is centrifugal force, in one way reactive, and in another false. There is motion, a sort of swirling type, moving thanks to the tremolo always applied and the speeding of rhythm and expansion of pitch. Then, suddenly, after only a minute or so of music, it bursts out, hitting a moment where all 12 equal tempered pitches are present (13 notes in vln 1, 11 in vln2...the missing note from vln 2 played twice in vln 1. no coincidence, too contrived). It's the water flying from the bucket...only to be caught by the next nervous energy moment.

Back and forth, building energy that goes nowhere, suddenly releasing it. Tension, release, but not release into a nice major chord, but a bursting forth f the built up energy.

It's simple, really. 3 pitches, to 5, to 12, and shrink it back down to the 3. Pitch contour is static, then back and forth in a small area, then large sweeps. Rhythm starts slow, speeds up, burst forth. register and spectral content change from harmonics, high, whispy, sine wave like to mid register, full tone, strong. and then all back again.

So simple, so straight forward...so wonderfully executed.

Simplicity- a straight forward idea executed perfectly.

Simplicity- a talk with a stranger that is invigorating.

Not a bad trip, considering the long delay.


Death of brutal honesty

Marvin Hamlisch died last week, 8/6/2012, at the age of 68 due to a brief illness. I'm late to the party in saying fare well to a legendary man.

I met Hamlisch once, at a masterclass. The folks at Brooklyn College arranged for Hamlisch to listen to scenes from a recently minted set of short operas by BC students, including a scene from Cake. I believe we performed the second scene, even though I asked for the aria to be performed.

Honestly, I don't remember much of what was said to me or the other students. But I do remember one major character trait of Mr. Hamlisch- brutal honesty. Almost to the level of devastating. I can't remember the exact words, but I do remember him explaining how he was going to be frank, possibly brutal, because we needed to hear these things as composers.

And he was correct. 100% correct in fact.

Marvin Hamlisch was a different breed of masterclass presenter. Often in a masterclass, the "master" tip-toes around ideas, asks a few questions, and doesn't add much to the conversation. Hamlisch wasn't afraid to state his opinion of a piece, drive right to the heart of the matter. I respected it then, I respect it now.

Hamlisch's musical output was prodigious. He was decorated, worked as a pops conductor, and accomplished great things for musical theater. In one sitting, I could tell he had a great musical mind, and used it to create what he enjoyed the most- musical theater.

Hamlisch will be missed for his musical works and his conducting. Even more so, I will miss him for being one of a slowly disappearing breed- a man unafraid to challenge young composers, say he thinks a composition is total shit, and explain why he thinks it's total shit. He was a man that was honest enough to tell me I sucked, which led me not to despair, but to sit down and figure out really deeply WHY I sucked.

Cheers to you Mr. Marvin Hamlisch, the only man who has had the balls to tell me my music was inferior and shouldn't be performed as it stands. You were right, though I would have liked your opinions on my last work. Maybe, just maybe, I could have piqued your interest. Perhaps you'll have chance to listen now that you're not so busy.

Fare the well Marvin Hamlisch


Random People can be Amazing

I've sat in my fair share of coffee shops. The now-defunct Muddy's by UMKC's was a mainstay for me. Strangers sitting nearby and asking what i'm doing as I was hunched over staff paper wasn't all that uncommon. A pleasant conversation would ensue, then we'd part ways. But nothing this awesome ever happened to me


Russell Kirsch.


I ran into Simon Emmerson as I left the bathroom, but we were in attendance at a conference together...And I'd seen him multiple times. That was a fluke in timing.

This is unbelievable.

and remember:

"Nothing is witheld from us which we have conceived to do."


"Do things that have never been done before."

If you can dream it, you can do it. And you should.


Several Days Later

Friday was the premiere of 2 new pieces by me, All Things are Not Equal and You Can't See the Stars in the City (you can here recordings from the rehearsals here.) Street Cleaning was also performed, with me doing a great impression of a methed up hobo...but only after putting the audience to ease with a soft spoken introduction where i was more humble than usual. It's all about the stage presence.

I also performed on 4 more pieces during the course of the night. And lent a helpful hand by recording the concert with some fancy gear. I've been going through the recordings, cleaning them up, etc. Should have it done in short order.

The day following the performance, i was tired. It's still pretty stressful hearing your music performed, whether for an audience of 5 or 500. We didn't have either of those numbers (my guess would be the 40-60 range, which was less than i thought would be there, after we blew out La Esquina a year ago...) and, of course, it was a bit nerve wracking. Actually, I was much more afraid of La Esquina getting packed in like sardines, which happened a year ago. I'm claustrophobic, so even the thought of the small space packed to the brim had be uncomfortable.

2 days after the performance, i worked on the recordings a bit. They sound surprisingly good. A little mixing voodoo and they'll be golden. Listening to the recordings a couple days later was nice, as I was able to remove more of the subjectivity of the performance.

And let me say a couple things about the performance, objectively:

  1. there are some killer solos. Nick Howell's solo on Hunter Long's "This Self-Imposed Abyss" sounded good to me then, but i was busy counting and playing backgrounds. on the recording, it blew me away. Fantastic
  2. The group, overall, sounded pretty balanced
  3. We play a lot louder in concert and lose some of the dynamic contrast we worked hard on in rehearsal. 
  4. There was a lot of energy, a mixed sort of energy. Some was a nervous, forward pushing energy; some was a relaxed, focused energy. Most performers strive for the focused energy, but something can be said for the nervous pushing energy. It made Street Cleaning more raw than usual, which was fun.
  5. There are always things to work on. Recordings don't lie too much. well, they do on tone colour, but not much else. I didn't play any major lines really, so I can't critique my playing- my "soloing" on Street Cleaning was just kinda, well, it was what it was. LOL. i wasn't trying to play a beautiful solo, more a "character" solo...which I think I did well enough. 
Overall, a special thanks to Black House Collective for the opportunity. A special thanks to Eli Hougland and Stamos Martin  for coming in just to play 2 tunes.

And, of course, thanks to all that showed up!

Oh, and this. "Now this is the plan. Get your ass to Mars." YAY SCIENCE!!!


I wish my hair was as awesome...

As Mark Applebaum's

I don't usually like Ted Talks. Most are benign, easy listening versions of good talks. And, honestly, this talk isn't all that different.

But it serves as great reminders to let your creativity be what it wants to be. As a composer, it's easy to get bogged down in some ideas- performability, standard notation, preconceived conventions (usually based on genre), fear (of new things, of not being good enough, of making something people won't like, of making something uninteresting, of breaking the piano, of pissing off the concertmaster)

So take it as a reminder about being an artist- do what your artistic idea has you do. And be entertained by just how "crazy" Mark Applebaum is.

And I will admit it here- I really wanted to go to Stanford. It was my top choice of schools for my doctorate. My life placed me at UMKC for many reasons, and I do not regret being here...But every time I see what's happening at Stanford, I know, deep down, that it's where I probably would have fit in the best. UMKC has been great to me, no question. I've learned a great deal here. It's a case of the "grass is always greener on the other side."

So, lesson 2? Take your time and apply everywhere you're thinking about for grad schools, or else you WILL get that "greener on the other side" shit stuck in your brain.

Enjoy a manic Mark Applebaum