Wyner and Thomas laid a litte smack down

And I'm more than ok with that. Criticism is an art that seems to be falling away in the arts. There's not enough "holy crap, this sucks! and let me tell you why I think it sucks!" We coddle the youth, say "that's nice, but you could maybe do this thing a bit better," and when they don't change it we chalk it up as a learning experience. It's a mindset I've actually been trying to change in myself.

Socratic method is all well and good. Leading people to their mistakes. But, sometimes, the best way to do that is to give your honest opinion. "I don't like this passage. I think it's this problem. Why don't we find out why?" rather than "That's nice, I like it. But..." It's a change, and one that needs to happen.

And that's exactly what I got from Yehudi Wyner and Augusta Read Thomas. I played Till Coffee Do Us Part for Wyner. He praised the lyricism of the vocal writing. And attacked the instrumental writing quite heavily.

Wyner felt that the instrumental writing was getting in the way of the singing. It was at times too dense without any harmonic support for the singers. I shrugged at that, since that was more or less the style I was going for in the beginning. However, he didn't even like the later parts that were traditionally founded. Wyner thought the harmonizations in the strings got in the way, and that they didn't offer much harmonic support.

I appreciate those comments. I will take a look at the beginning again--it is very likely that the thick nature is causing issues. In a previous editing, that section was thinned out, and an entire section removed, but I may not have gone far enough. Time for some erasing.

Then there was the plot. Boy did Wyner dislike the plot. Elevating coffee to being an opera, creating a farce. He thought I failed miserably. But he couldn't give me a why. Another student in the masterclass did, after much questioning give me a good solid answer: The conflict starts too early, and that makes it not seem like it's going anywhere. AH! That's some incredibly good criticism. And there's a damn good chance he's right. In fact, I'm pretty sure I agree with him. But, it took some intense questioning, more or less forcing an articulate answer to get it from him.

All in all, I agreed with a lot of what Yehudi Wyner said--vocal writing is hard, opera is even harder. Setting prose is a bitch, and it's very easy to let the background, and your grand theories, get in the way of good writing. Can you write a dense, complicated opera? I totally think so. Shadowtime by Ferneyhough is fantastic. But it will be a tough piece to sell.

And that farce and parody are not everyone's cup of tea, and people are much less forgiving on it. A good farce is worth a million dramas, but people forgive a drama.


Augusta Read Thomas was the same as she's ever been. Many years ago, I was in a masterclass with her--it was 2005, I believe, and the piece was one of my first. Possibly my first to really be played in public. A little duet from trombone and marimba. It used mutes, some dead strokes, mallet changes, all sorts of things I felt to be very "avant-garde." I was, after all, the "crazy composer" in the group. LOL

I remember a few things from that masterclass. One was Thomas praising my lyricism in my writing AND playing. Bad idea--never nurture a musician, they might see you 8 years later! lolz. Another bit was being able to sing your music. I nailed that bit, but others had some difficulty. Of course, I was also PLAYING mine, so it's almost like cheating--singing what I play was a normal part of my trombone lessons. And I remember something she said to another student: "I hear Beethoven, a Schubert, and maybe a little Brahms. But I don't hear any of you! You are what you eat--or listen to. Listen to yourself!"

Ah, for a 20 year old just starting in composition, this was a big eye opener!

With that knowledge, I entered my masterclass with All Things Are Not Equal: Sinfonietta Edition, recently recorded by Ensemble Signal, Brad Lubman conducting. It's a piece that's about as unpretentious as you can get. Straight forward, jazz and funk "inspired" (hell, it's easier to classify in those terms than "contemporary!"), and by todays standards, somewhat short. The performance is solid, and it was obvious the group had fun.

I came prepared. Thomas listened, gave some initial thoughts. The biggest one? She didn't think it went far enough. I stayed tied to my groove, let the groove playout, and didn't do much variation. True enough. And I didn't set out to do much variation. And then the singing started.

First it was "sing the first groove." Easy enough. Alright, now do a simple variation. Then another. Alright, now do something far away from the groove, harmonically and stylistically. Ok, do another, but add in longer notes.

I did all these without breaking much of a sweat. I did have a tendency to speed up, which annoyed me .As I was snapping and improvising, I actually said "I keep speeding up. Ugh," then went back into the singing. I added in all sorts of things--pitch, percussive sounds, all sorts of consonants and vowels, mixed and matched from whatever...and I always made a point to end by grabbing the groove right where it should be when I ended. Ok, that last bit was me showing off.

The looks from the assembled group were, well...worth the showing off. Even Augusta Read Thomas looked suitable impressed. Of course, I knew something like this was coming--I had practicing the grooves a bit, and had all the lines in my head, so I could sing them. And while I'm a crappy improviser on trombone, that's a problem with my control of the instrument, not the brain. This played into my strengths. And when it was done, I already knew where it was going...

Hey, John, since you can come up with all these ideas spur of the moment, why aren't any in here? Where's all that crazy improvisational writing? I sputtered the easy answer: "You write a simple tune to allow people to improvise around. In this case a groove, and setting up a certain feel. Then the soloist would do their thing. Guess I flubbed a bit when I reduced the improvising..."

Ah, see, I had. And Thomas called me one it. She more or less had said that in her comments, that it didn't go "far enough," but she wanted to prove that point unequivocally. And she did. I softball'ed the transcription. The statement of "I did it in 24 hours and didn't give it much thought," is a poor answer, so I didn't give it. There's no reason for half-assed work. And it All Things is a bit half-assed. Written quickly (over about 4 days), re-orchestrated even quick (24 hours over about 2 days). It was half-assed. And I rightly got called on it.


Really, Wyner and Thomas were telling me the same thing--I hadn't treated the material with enough care. This echoed Ferneyhough's earlier masterclass. It seems to be an issue. And all three pieces were developed quite differently. It took me 8 months or so to write Dance. Till Coffee was a solid 2-3 months, though definitely rushed toward the end. All Things was about a week total. And yet they all had issues with "care."

I just finished revising Cake for a performance in November. The same could easily be said of that score, and I spent about a year on it!  A YEAR! And while, musically, I think it's alright, notationally it was horrid. Lack of care, in this case toward the presentation.

So, two things came out of this--1) Direct criticism is a good thing! 2) Don't be a jerk and half-ass any of your work. Even if you worked your ass off on the first draft, you've got three or four more to go!

More than one draft? IN MUSIC?!? SHEER FOLLY!

Bruckner would disagree, I think...


Ferneyhough and Me (part 2)

Many moons ago, I wrote a blog entry about Brian Ferneyhough. At that point, I had not met him. My thoughts came from various quotations from a rather old article/interview with Ferneyhough.

A few weeks ago, I got to meet Brian Ferneyhough. My first impression actually came through talking to a few of his students in attendance. We traded stories over some fabulous Korean food. Getting the "inside scoop" from his students was nice--I got to hear the good and the bad. And from two different types of students: one an ardent supporter; the other more disillusioned. Both agreed, however, that whether or not you buy into Ferneyhough's aesthetics or theories, that there's no denying he's brilliant.

I went into the masterclass a bit worried. What would I show him? I was assured that Ferneyhough actually didn't push his aesthetics onto composers, and worked from within the pieces. So, I thought I'd bring a piece that's a couple years old, but one dear to me that I honestly think is a pretty good piece--Dance of Disillusionment and Despair. Dance is a piece I've always enjoyed, and many others seemed to as well. However, I haven't been able to get it a life outside the 2 performances in 2011. I've been showing it in masterclasses, hoping to figure out what I can do to bring it along. John Corigliano really hated it.

Ferneyhough, however, didn't hate it. He did, however, dislike the contraints I put on the music. By choosing (arbitrarily) to make each movement 1 minute, he felt like I shortchanged the material. Almost every movement he would say: I like where this is going, you're starting to make something, then it ends.

At first he wasn't sure about the construction, with some movements having dense material, other movements being incredibly sparse (especially pitch-wise). When I told him the decision came from mapping measures in the first movement through the whole piece, he flipped through the whole piece, skipped to the beginning a few times, and said (paraphrased, of course. as was the earlier): Ah, ok. Fair enough. It appears you stuck pretty well to that. Sometimes, I don't like what happens, but it's a clear reason and you stick to it. Fair enough.

Finally, he came to the main points. And they were quite poignant. I had written a 17 minute piece...that was meant to be 35-45 minutes. I shortchanged my material in every movement. And, the endings...By making so many endings, I played out the possibilities.

Food for thought from Brian Ferneyhough: There are a million ways to begin a piece, but only a dozen or so ways to end one.

And when you have 13 endings, you're bound to have repeats.

What struck me about Ferneyhough was how romantically he talks about music. He quickly fell into the world of Dance, which is fairly Romantic. And then, during his talk, he referred to his own music in much the same way. Systems be damned, it was supposed to be musical, even Romantic. Ferneyhough seemed to use the different systems and construction methods just as a structuring device, a way to limit his own thought moving through his pieces.

When you look at a Ferneyhough score, "Romantic" isn't the first word that pops into your brain. When you hear some recordings, "mechanical" seems more like what should be heard.

I got to hear five pieces by Ferneyhough during June in Buffalo: Incipits, Exordium, Terrain, Mnemosyne, and Intermedio alla Ciaccona. This festival was the first time I've ever gotten to hear any of Ferneyhough's music live. And it was a treat. I'll even forgive JACK Quartet for changing their program and playing Exordium instead of String Quartet No. 2, even though SQ No. 2 is one of my favourite pieces of all time.

It's a great mix. Terrain and Intermedio had Irvine Arditti as the soloist, Terrain with Ensemble Signal. Terrain was handled masterfully by Talea Ensemble, JACK took on Exordium, and Mnemosyne was performed by Keiko Murakami (I believe) of Ensemble Linea (I can't find my program, but she's listed as the regularly flutist with Ensemble Linea).

Everyone played passionately. This doesn't mean they missed notes--they were all inscrutably perfect. But there was music in every note. Every awkward leap, every crunchy harmony, all the subdivisions within subdivisions moving at different time ratios, every nuance had meaning. Watching Arditti play Terrain and Intermedio was astounding. There was no break, no phrase that wasn't carefully attended to. JACK playing Exordium was masterful, with Arditti watching from the audience (and clapping quite enthusiastically when I stole a look in his direction).

This all leads me to one major thought: Ferneyhough, while writing in a method that some would call "dense," is still trying to reach people. He still wants an audience to get a reaction from the piece, to be drawn into that world. In the masterclass, the way he talked about my piece was more about how I failed to do exactly that. And hearing his music live, I was drawn into the music, the drama, the entire experience. During his pieces, I found myself moving closer to the edge of my seat, listening with full attention. If I didn't have full attention, I'd miss a single detail, and the following sequence may be rendered meaningless.

Ferneyhough creates experiences. Let go of the preconception, of the "i don't understand." Stop trying to understand and just listen, be a part of the music. Maybe, eventually, you can listen and "understand" but that's not really the point. He's giving you all the information, and, just like in a certain author's books, you don't have to READ the whole page, just relax, and skim, and the information will "magically" come to the surface. Ferneyhough is like that.

And what I learned from him is I'm not there yet.


Charles Wuorinen and "entrepreneurship"

I'm back from Portugal, which means getting to work on this blogging thing...maybe. Still so much to do before heading to Stockholm. Being a globe-trotter is awesome, but tiring.

Anyway, to the topic on hand. Charles Wuorinen is a fiery fellow. He has his opinions and convictions, and he will stick to them whole-heartedly. I respect that. His speeches are blunt, forceful, and thought-provoking.

There was a phrase I latched onto during his talk--"Cultural Barbarism." One area that I think Wuorinen moved dangerously into with his talk was a pushing a stratified class system. Wuorinen discussed how the "elite" of the country no longer cared about the arts, especially music. He said that there hadn't been a president since Richard Nixon that enjoyed classical music, and even Nixon used to have to sneak off into the closet to listen to symphonies. As for the non-"elites" of the country, well...

Wuorinen basically told us not to worry about them. The problem was the learned people didn't understand music: politicians, business-people, professors, other artist. Wuorninen seemed to feel that "normal" people wouldn't understand the music, and didn't need to understand it. And that groups like Bang on a Can played up to the audience, lowering the quality of music, and leading further into this cultural barbarism.

Wuorinen also said that the government (any and all) had no place in the arts anyway. That the only real way to move ahead in music is through personal relationships, mainly with the "elite." He made reference to all sorts of classic examples: Bach, Mozart, and how Beethoven tried to ruin the system.

I asked Wuorinen "What can we do then, as composers, to be 'cultural ambassadors,' and help fix this problem." Wuorinen gave a succinct answer: (paraphrased) All you can do is change the mind of one or two people, preferably with money.

Like I said, he can be provocative. At the very least, coming out of his talk, the young composers had some of the most interesting arguments. I won't dwell on everything, but I'll hit a few points.

First, I agree somewhat with Wuorinen about the lack of appreciation for art music. and I think there is a sort of "cultural barbarism" happening, but i don't think it's in the way he's discussing. Wuorinen seems to think that art music has always been relegated to cultural elite, and that's pretty much where it should stay. Then he bemoans how the rich and powerful don't give us money anymore. I don't see that as the problem.

A bigger problem is people saying "It's [art/classical/instrumental] music and I don't/can't understand it," and never giving it a fair chance. It's closing your ears and mind, not even letting the music in. Where does this come from? Well, there are lots of places, but I tend to think the attack on academics in America, particularly in the arts, is a nice portion. I've found the best way to change people's minds is to follow Wuorinen's idea: One person at a time. But I think you can change a lot of people's minds, one person at a time.

And the first play we need to start was also suggested by Wuorinen, and I agree: other artists. I don't know how many art openings in the US I've been to where the music was a friend of the artist...with a guitar singing some folk rock type tunes with crappy lyrics. Here's an artist, taking themselves seriously, perhaps working in a very abstract form. It's high art, not pop art, not pop in general. And yet the choice of accompanying music has nothing to do with the art, or even within a similar area of art. Why?

Because artists take the same perspective as most of the rest of the public. Not all, of course, but I see the problem most with the younger generation.

Now, let me say this now, I'm not blaming them in some way, saying young artists doing this are horrible people. That's definitely not it. But, they're a group that, as composers, we HAVE to work with, get on our side, and do more than just ignore. Composers ignore artists as much (or maybe more) than artists ignore composers. Eventually, we have to reach across the aisle.

Also, Wuorinen really ripped into the music and entrepreneurship bit. There's been so much written about it, from older articles in businessweek, to David Cutler writing all sorts of stuff on "new ideas" to help create entrepreneurs. This post isn't to run through the merits (or lack thereof) of the ideas, but to point out one thing Wuorinen said that I agree with: a great musician, created through rigorous training and performance experience will always have a better chance of success than someone that learns some tricks for making a quick buck.

Wuorinen attacked the movement away from creating extremely strong, well trained, almost over-practiced musicians to instead making "artists" that seemed more intent on making money than great music (or art). This is one point I completely agree with. Now, does that mean we shouldn't be learning how to live with our skills? Well...Wuorinen would be against pretty much everything Cutler suggests, but I'm not. But Wuorinen does have a point about being a great musicians first.

Traditional models of making money in the arts are gone. Symphony jobs have always been sparse and difficult, and are now even more so. Apocalyptica and Zoe Keating are much more well known that JACK quartet (though that really does need to change. HOLY SHIT is JACK quartet amazing). And more and more classically trained musicians are turning from "art" music performance to popular music performance...the music "they grew up with." Is this cultural barbarism? Is what I do "elitist" even though I make no bones about writing music that I honestly believe anyone can enjoy? And do we need to go back to a more direct patronage system to make it all "work?"

Somewhere in the middle is usually the answer to me. I'm still chewing over bits of this and figuring out what exactly the best path is. I'm not a "conservative" guy by any stretch: I've collaborated with artists (and done pretty well with it, I think), I've had pieces played by a group that's more "jazz" than "classical" and had large audiences, I've written two operas that played to sold out crowds, I've gone to academic festivals, played in wine bars and museums, given academic papers, and even had a comedic play (the kind without music) produced to nearly sold out crowds. Perhaps I am, in some sense, an entrepreneur. But I've done all these things WITHOUT the lure of money.

Does this make me an entrepreneur? Maybe...But how much of it have I done AFTER I became at least a proficient musician? and how long did it take me to develop as a musician because I did more areas of study, spread myself out? and how many areas am I REALLY proficient at?

The times I split, i learned much less--as an undergrad, I was not a fantastic trombonist NOR a fantastic educator/conductor (was doing secondary instrumental, after all). I was ok at both. Same during my MM as a composer and audio engineer. It wasn't till my doctorate when I said "Alright, now I get serious about writing music" that I REALLY developed in one area heavily. Compare my MM and DMA compositions and you'd agree that there's been a pretty hefty push forward. Age helps, but intense study helps way more.

Anyway, again, there is no answer here...But Wuorinen gave me something to think about, if for no other reason that he incited me during the talk. I couldn't avoid what he was saying, I had to face it. I didn't like it all, but I was forced to figure out exactly why.

So, thank you Charles Wuorinen, for challenging me. It's something that doesn't happen every day, and I appreciate it. This is a lot of words just to say:

Challenge Accepted


JiB Told Me to Do It

This week has been insane. Completely. Effing. Insane.

In all the best ways.

Too many things happened this week, and I have been far too busy and exhausted to begin to sort it all out. But here are some highlights that I plan/hope to discuss and put into a larger context:

These topics may all be discussed. Sometimes they'll get shoved together, more than one in a post. Maybe they'll span more than one post. I have no idea at this point.

But this process will be mostly for my own benefit. It's about decompressing all the information that's been shoved into my poor little brain. But hopefully more people will get a great deal out of it.

Ya know the worst part? I don't really have time to write these or decompress. On Saturday, I leave for Lisbon, Portugal, and Electroacoustic Musical Studies Conference 2013. So, instead of really being able to reflect, I'll be preparing for round 2, this time all EA instead of acoustic.

Shift gears, be prepared for anything

And always, ALWAYS be prepared to sing. Because ya never know when you'll be singing all the lines from your own piece, or as a great singer found out, auditioning for some opera and/or ensemble solo work.