Event 3- when the birds flew into town

I've done the production manager thing before. Contacted venues, gotten gear lists together, driven a 24' box truck, gone to rehearsals, heck i've even judged competitions before.

But nothing compared to when eighth blackbird came to town.

For those not in the know, check out the about on their page and catch the part where they've won a couple Grammy's (no. 73, a couple down the list, for 2012). They are the premier chamber ensemble in the nation, possibly world. Complete beasts.

I mean their playing. They're all delightful people. I had several great conversations with various members, including a fairly long one with Lisa Kaplan as I showed her cross campus.

Oh, the event! right. Through the Barr Institute at UMKC, eighth blackbird presented various masterclasses for the past year, a concert of music of their choice, and then one other project. The other project was put out as a submission to the conservatory at large. Groups, or individuals, could write proposals.

When eighth blackbird had come to town in April, I was talking to a local museum about hosting a series of concerts through the conservatory. We were in the final stages of putting together quite the idea- a commissioning project where each semester 5 students would be chosen to compose site specific pieces based upon art on display. And the goal was to have a "resident ensemble," maybe start with the university new music ensemble, Musica Nova, then see who would be game. Pretty frackin' cool right? Well, this idea got brought up during a large conversation with 8bb that somehow became them asking questions about what the composers organization on campus did. They loved the idea, the novel concept, the cultural link, and Matthew Duvall said "that's the kind of concert that if someone pitched it to us, we'd consider it." Being an opportunist, I said "Hey, so, we've got this concert we're planning in the fall, and I heard you'd be around..." It was a good laugh.

The this project proposal came around.

And I was flat out told "John, you have to submit that project. but spruce it up a bit." So I did. Instead of just 8bb playing the pieces, I pitched it as a "side-by-side" where UMKC student performers would get to work with 8bb, prepare brand new music submitted by composition students, and we'd hold a concert at the museum. Dance was even added in collaboration, so they get to say they've worked with 8bb (though I'm not sure how important that is to dance. Hopefully really important).

It was accepted. and I thought "woo! venue is already in! I won't have to do anything for this at all. Maybe they'll have me collect the scores or something."

Oh man...was I wrong.

So, long story made medium, the original venue had some issues. There was some turn over, all our efforts were lost in the shuffle, and come August, no venue. Well, shit. We were hell bent on the concert being off campus, so I set to work. Sadly, I couldn't find a "free" place, but I got a decent deal on a space for an all day rental (we had no idea at the time of booking how much time, so i said quote all day, we'll pay all day, and you'll prolly come out ahead. Fast way to get a yes). Alright, great...then came me being the middle man to get everything paid for. If you've never had to deal with that in a university (or other really large company) then I pray you never do. If it wasn't for great administrators, and certain higher ups covering my ass, I would have lost it

Ok, ok, we've got a venue! it's booked! Reception? uh uh uh...ok, held off as long as we could...No! We'll just go to a bar afterwards. we'll all be tired anyway, and we will need to get everything put away. Ok, great. Piano? SHIT, PIANO! WE NEED A PIANO!!!! WHY IS IT IN FOUR WEEKS AND I FORGOT TO EVEN GET A PIANO?!?!?!?!

To be fair, by this time about 5 people were involved in various fashions with ordering, coordinating, etc, and none of us remembered piano. Ok, no big deal, piano received. Great, how do we get equipment to the place? I suggested a 14' truck. Oh, good, someone else is driving...

Wait, what, he can't drive? Ok, fine, that's fine. OH, it's a 24' truck? well...shit...at least it's automatic. one less thing to worry about.

So here I am, night before, tired as balls, can't sleep. Have to be up at 7 to be at rehearsal (just in case, I was at almost all the rehearsals). Get there, drinking coffee, ok, I'll get the truck, load it...

And then the day went normally. Loaded a truck, drove it downtown, set-up stuff, drove truck back, got some lunch. The, uh, normal people in the venue complained about the noise...yeah, Stamos' piece is hella loud after all. But we did SAY from the beginning "rehearsals start at 2, show at 5:30." Guess that didn't make it throughout the company. Alright, fun. We're here, we paid, not much can be done.

Show is beyond packed. Standing room only, and we're in there like sardines. John Corigliano is in the audience, in town to begin his Barr Laureate status. And here I am, hopping up in front of everyone. Little sleep, only a couple weeks after comps, during which I was dealing with every pitfall possible in getting this concert to happen. I'm sure I looked like hell.

Then the concert happened. It was fantastic. 8bb and all the conservatory students played the hell out of the pieces.

In the aftermath, even more great news. Hey, remember that $4K you asked for, and proposed that since it's a project effecting at least 4 different student groups, that'd only be $1K a piece? Yeah, we decided it's really only for 1 group, and we're giving you a total of $1780. Oh, no no no, not for this one project...for the year. Yep, you're actually getting less than every other year. Have a great year!

But, ya know what? the concert was awesome. 8bb was awesome. The food afterwards was delicious

And, I learned I can still back a 24' box truck down a narrow alley without trying


Event 2- The Art of Revision

At 28, I've written more than a few papers. Short essays, long research papers, reviews, fiction, plays, poems; you name it and I've probably dabbled in it. I'm fairly competent; my grammar is generally acceptable, spelling pretty good, my research is top notch, and I try to be at least somewhat interesting. Good enough to "High Pass" my comprehensive exams research essay. Good enough to present at conferences, and maybe get published. Not so good as to get a book picked up by a publisher.

Editing, however, has always been a weak point. It's been a main area of focus over the last two years. It's an art. David Mamet answered the question "what do you do?" with "I shave syllables." In essence, that's what most writers do. Not so much the case with me until about a year ago, when I did 5 revisions on a 12 page research paper. This was completely unheard of at the time.

But nothing touched doing my Fulbright application. The process really started going in August, ramping up through September till crunch time in October. From the end of August till I submitted the app in mid-October, editing my Fulbright essays was a nightly endeavor.

The total writing was 3 pages.

My personal essay was alright from the beginning. I still managed 8 revisions. There was shaving to be done, phrases to tighten, words to cut, and always the small grammar errors here and there. But the story was there and somewhat compelling, if one could call my life compelling.

The research proposal was another matter. 2 pages that would grab the reader, give them all the pertinent information, list a methodology, and layout a timeline. Alright, I can do the last three, but grabbing the attention of the reader? I figured the idea would be enough for that: Travel to Sweden, interview heavy metal and death metal musicians specifically about the use of folklore and folk melodies, and any connections to political and social messages in the music. Use that info to help write an opera, all the while using the resources at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. Sounds interesting, right?

I revised that puppy 12 times by the end. This was easily a record for me. Even by the end, I wasn't all that confident in my work. It's a beastly amount of work, finding that balance between interesting and "academic." I feel like I had a more free style younger in life, but was forced into a more academic style of writing. And here I am applying for a prestigious academic fellowship, and I'm being told "Be more interesting! You sound too academic!" Who would have thought?

But it was an amazing process. I'm not expecting good news on the Fulbright. If I don't receive one, it doesn't diminish what I took away in the process: learning to juggle edits from multiple sources, examining the nuance caused by simple grammar changes, learning the style dictated by grants and fellowships, and seeing the massive amount of support needed to succeed in such an endeavor.

Whether I get one or not, the process was definitely worth the time

And all this was made all the more challenging considering I turned it in during my comprehensive exam, while also planning a concert with eighth blackbird. Easy to concentrate.


Event 1- Doctoral Comprehensive Exams

all doctoral students in every discipline dread their comprehensive exam. It's a major point in your degree, a make it or break it test. If you pass, you're "home free" to work on research and finish your dissertation (and any random courses you've got left). If you fail, well...you get multiple chances.

My DMA Comps was made up of 4 parts- a take home repertory essay, a drop the needle listening test, a "drop the score" theory exam, and major area questions. The test took my two weeks to complete. In those two weeks, I spent about 52 hours just taking the test. This doesn't include the 2 hours a night i spent "studying" for the listening exam.

the take home essay is, really, a full blown research paper. You're given a choice of topics Friday morning, and then have till Monday morning to turn in a 2500 word paper with bibliography, footnotes,  and title page. The 5 topics given were varied, and I think just about anyone taking the exam could find something they wouldn't mind spending time with. For me, I chose a question about the influence of 3 librettists of composers. Each pair had to be active collaborators and be from different time periods. If you know anything about me, then you know that this is right up my alley. As soon as I saw the question, I knew the pairings, though my brain totally died on the name of the librettist that did late Verdi. D'uh, Arrigo Boito, composer of one of my favourite operas, Mephistofele. So, I pumped that puppy out with time to spare. The other pairings were equally obvious- Da Ponte and Mozart, and Weill and Brecht. Turned it in Sunday night around 8, after a third revision. To do better, I would have needed a couple days off to get "fresh eyes."

The listening and theory were on the same day. For  the listening, everyone taking the test crowds into a large computer lab, plugs in headphones, and at the drop of 9am, the listening appear on blackboard. You then have three hours to identify nine examples- time period, genre, possible composer, and a couple paragraphs of style characteristics. The examples were drop the needle (meaning it starts anywhere in the piece), could be from any time period, by any composer...And judging from their choices, don't really have to be "representative" of a time period. You're given roughly 1-2 minutes of each excerpt.

A random test that includes all Western art music ever composed. There's no real way to study for it, just practice listening in general. I went to a couple sessions on that and felt more than comfortable with it. Then I read my Grout...namely the beginning through Renaissance. Once we hit common practice I'm fairly confident.

And boy, I thought I bombed that test. damn...completely insane. Nothing really prepares you for this...well...

Unless you had music history with Matthew Balensuela. Then you're fine. Luckily, I did...

After the listening, the proctor gives you a choice of scores to analyze, compare, and contrast. the range was again bountiful. I think there were 6 pairings to choose from? man, it's hazy. I chose a "new music" pairing, Xenakis Mists and Crumb Processional.

There were some particular bits we were told to look at, namely the use of time in the piece, as well as pitch content. Three hours to do the analysis and compare and contrast isn't much time at all. Both pieces were 10 pages long, so I went for a quick overview, tried to find some sort of major pitch structure, and then how they used the structures to define different time scalings. If i hadn't known basic background theory of each composer to begin with, I would have been screwed. Luckily, both were semi-straight forward pieces representative of Xenakis and Crumbs general style. I was definitely hurried like crazy, but I was able to pump out around the 5 pages they asked for and give some decent discussion.

The area-questions are what most people are used to- you have a panel, they submit up to 6 hours of questions, and you answer them. I decided on a varied group, Dr. Jim Mobberley for Composition, Dr. Reynold Simpson for Comp/Theory, and Dr. William Everett for musicology. Hell, if i have to answer questions, i might as well be entertained.

I tackled Dr. Everett first, since I felt like he'd be the wild-card. A few short questions were great: "describe your music in 20 seconds to a non-musician," and "describe your music in 20 seconds to a musician." I took him at his word, and each answer was about a third to a half of a page (general reading time is 1-1.5 minutes per page). Heck, i even timed myself, just to be sure.

The other two questions revolved around music, politics, and nationalism. I did a small amount of research for each. mainly, if i had to look up a bit, i cited it. I can never remember the furiant rhythm. heh. All in all, not a bad set of questions.

Dr. Simpson's questions were a series of "you should know this verbatim OR know exactly where to find it." I tried each question without looking it up then found the resource and listed things off if I felt behind. The only one that was a bit of challenge for "off the top of my head" was "find all the trichord subsets and pentachord supersets of this tetrachord." I missed a subset and superset from my own work. Thankfully i knew exactly where to look this up.

As for Dr. Mobberley, two questions, deep thinking about my future. Wouldn't expect anything less from the guru himself.

Area questions are "cake," in as much as they tend to cover what you've actually STUDIED in school. Yeah, i said it. I've got bones with the system, and generally think we should limit a comprehensive exam to just area questions. Just stipulate that you must have one faculty from theory, one from history/musicology, and one from your major area (so, theory has to have 2 theory, performance would have their private instructor). Then make the questions open ended- no time limit, etc, just have to coordinate with the comp head (that you choose). So, if a history professor demands that you right a rep essay in a weekend, no problem. With technology, I don't see this as a problem, as timing "tests" is cake. 

This all took my 52 hours (18 for area, roughly 28 for the take home, and 6 hours for the listening/theory). Do i feel smart because of it? that I somehow proved I learned all my lessons?

Nope, not at all.

Did I pass? Yep, even "High Pass" on the repertory essay.

Do I care? only that I now can just work on a dissertation and be test free.

All this, while finishing a Fulbright app (which i turned in between take home and listening/theory) and spending what seemed like endless hours organizing a concert (which included judging pieces the weekend i did the take home essay), and, ya know, taking classes and teaching. Life.

But that's another story...


What a couple months...

I disappeared for a while. For good reasons, I promise. It's been a crazy month...well, a bit over a month. The basic break down

1) Doctoral Comprehensive Exam- This ate 2 weeks of my life in early October, plus a few weeks prior studying

2) Fulbright application- Turned this puppy in DURING my comps. Yep, I finished my 48 hour essay, had a week of studying for my comprehensive listening test (meaning any piece from any time period, drop the needle style) ahead of me...and what did I do instead? Spent hours almost every night editing and rewriting a Fulbright proposal.

3) eight blackbird side-by-side concert- I organized this bad boy: Found the space, took all the submissions and organized sending them out, did initial judging of each selection (21 entries, done in one night), found the space, negotiated price of space and dealt with logistics, attended rehearsals, helped show 8bb around to all their various coachings (man, their schedule was NUTS!), loaded all the equipment and moved it to the space in a 24' box truck, set it up, tore it down, and then drank...This was a huge project that took lots of help from faculty and students (Shout-out to Joseph Kern for all his work with Musica Nova!)

Won't be doing that again for quite some time!

4) concert with KcEMA at La Esquina, Perceptions and Realities...this was an "easy" one

5) Installed an interactive installation designed with Bobby Zokaites called "The Machine the Sneetches Built," ran the opening, and had to set-up all the tech each morning, then chilled in the gallery in case anyone had questions. This was another huge opportunity thanks to ArtSounds, UMKC Conservatory, UMKC Community Music and Dance Academy, Kansas City Art Institute, and Charlotte Street. It was a resounding success in the community, especially on opening night! There will be photos and video up soon, hopefully.

So, I've been busy. All of these things deserve their own blogposts, and I think I'll get on that. Thanksgiving break starts tonight after we tear down The Machine, so maybe I'll write a bunch and time the posts, or something fancy like that. I mean, that can't be any harder than dealing with WiiMotes