There are a lot of different forms of music being made - and laptop music is a recent addition to the list. I'm not talking about writing music on the laptop to have it played back (although that's certainly a tool composers have really taken advantage of allowing new compositions to be self-published). Nor am I talking about using the computer tied to a synthesiser to generate sounds. This new form is actually making the laptop itself a musical instrument. Ok - there are a lot of different forms of music, most of which will go by the wayside as a fade, an exploration, but nothing will come of them. I think this one has real possibilities. - It's not going to replace the orchestra for many things, but it is augmenting it.
Monday, April 28, 2008
I am not trying to be morbid, but rather pay respects to fellow musicians/composers. We live in a world where Mozarts' can die bankrupt, and Beethovens' popularity wains as they get older. Society finds gems and celebrates them, but then all to quickly the attention fades and new gems are found and celebrated. When people pass, it is important (IMHO) to mark, with some reverence, their contribution to this world. So, if you were not aware of the two composers who have recently passed, take a moment and find out more about them. Both were innovators.
Jimmy Giuffre died on Thursday in Massechutes; he was 86.
He composed "Four Bothers" which was a hit for Woody Herman's band in 1947. After early experience in jazz bands, Mr. Giuffre took an interest in counterpoint, fugues and other elements of classical music. He became identified with John Lewis, George Russell, Gunther Schuller and other musicians who sought to blend jazz and classical music in a style known as Third Stream. He also formed a group called Jimmy Giuffre 3 with guitarist Jim Hall and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer.
As his musical style moved further and further from mainstream, Jimmy directed his attentions to composing and teaching. He started composing for theater, ballet and commercials and also taught at New York University, the New School and the New England Conservatory of Music. "I don't play to win a mass audience, although I wouldn't shun them if they wanted to come along," he told The Washington Post in 1964. "The best way to win a mass audience is to cater to the most familiar. If I wanted that, I'd play with Guy Lombardo or Lawrence Welk."
After experimenting with electronic music in the 1980s, Mr. Giuffre returned to his earlier style and toured internationally until 1996 when he also retired from teaching.
The music world morns the loss of another composer today.
Tristram Cary died Thursday; he was 82.
Some may know him for his music used in the Doctor Who series, but he is also one of the pioneers of electronic music in Britian. He was educated in classical music at the Westminster School in London. Whle working as a radar operator during World War II, he developed a variety of concepts in electronic music, eventually leading him to co-develope the EMS VCS3 synthesiser, used by a number of avant-gard musicians including The Who and Pink Floyd.
Cary was one of the first British composers to work in musique concrète. In 1967 he created the first electronic music studio of the Royal College of Music.
Friday, April 25, 2008
There seems to be thread developing on this blog (not surprising since it's a thread that exists in my life and this blog is an extension of that...) - the effects of classical music on other forms of music and the effects of those other forms on classical music.
On the 28th, I blog'd about My Classical Music Style, discussing the elements of "pop" music that is leaking into my classical writing. My good friend Shay commented on the effects of classical music in his own "Americana" style (click here for a listen). On the 18th I posted a note about the Blending of jazz and classical music by not only me but other composers as well. And today the Telegraph writes of how Folk and Classical are blending.
The basic thread is "we are a product of our roots" so let's not deny them. Schoenberg said (roughly), there is no new music that is not built on what comes before. And in our modern world where all forms of music is recorded (thus preserved), and available to download (another thread developing) there has never been a better chance to be exposed and thus influenced by a vast array of music styles. I look forward to what composers in twenty or thirty years are composing as it will undoutably but something very different and yet reminiscent of today.
I only hope that somewhere in that mix my own music can play a role of influence.
I am all in favour of playing classical music in as many venues as possible, but I'm not sure how I feel about this one. Music, of all forms, should produce harmony, be a way of bringing people together, not run them off or create a further divide between the ages.
In the store in Northhampton they are using classical music to "attack" the youth (ok, in a non-violent way) - but the concept is, "The teenagers hate the music so much that whenever it plays they simply move away." And since the idea of playing it is to push away the teenagers, this tells the teenagers - We don't want you. We are doing something you "hate" intensionally - which only serves to create more anger an animosity amoung the youth (IMHO).
In England there is a device known as the Mosquito which emits a high pitched frequency that typically only the young can hear. This is done for the same reason, to drive off the youth and prevent mayhem. However, in France, where it is (IMHO unfortunately) called the Beethoven, there is a call to ban the device - for even though it is effective, it is seen as discriminatory towards the youth.
This is not a call to allow the youth (or anyone) to be allowed to be disruptive. This is rather a question of the method. If we, as a society, segregate into groups (and music is used to help force the segregation) then the music used will be seen in a negative light (more so than it already is). This is not good news for classical musicians. Eventually those youth will grow up and replace the "older" segment of society. If they have grown up hating classical music, where will we find our audience?
Thursday, April 24, 2008
When I was young I played trombone... well, I still play the trombone on occasion, but that's not the point. When I was young and playing the trombone I was exposed to a variety of different music styles. The concert band played mostly classical music, but occasionally band tunes from the likes of Souza. The stage band played jazz tunes from the big band era to modern Dave Brubeck and Chuck Mangione. Outside of band there was disco, which was great for dancing but not something I actually listened to, or other popular music from people like Miami Sound Machine or the harder edged anthem rock bands like Kansas, Styx, Yes, Led Zeppelin (the list goes on). Without realising it, these sounds affected my musical tastes, interests and have crept into my compositions.
My classical compositional background leads me to want to score the music, so very little of anything I write isn't done with notation software at some point. (I rather enjoy putting the little black dots on the screen.) Still, there are elements of these other artists that affect what I write and in some respect how I write.
Sometimes I sit at the piano (without a formal education in how to play it properly) and bang away at things that I think sound good. If I hit on something I really like, I jot it down (to be input into the computer later). These bangings come in three forms, deep pounding, full, rich chords like you might hear out of Holst's The Planets or some late 70's anthem rock song, jarring rhythms reminiscent of Brubeck's Take Five or lyrical and highly melodic as you might find with Chopin or Miami Sound Machine. You're probably cringing to think I put the two of those in the same category, but I really love Chopin wove his melodies and harmonies together, and when I listen to Miami Sound Machine I find their melodies and the rhythmic interplay of the accompaniment to be very similar to what Chopin did.
Philip Glass, Steven Reich and the other's of the minimalist school speak of the influence rock and roll had on their musical tastes, so it shouldn't surprise me to find the music of my generation the late 70's, early 80's has done the same with me. For me, however, rather than see these influences of popular and classical as coming from different worlds, I am finding the similarities.
Holst, Dvorak, Shostakovich all dealt with melodies and strong layered sounds. Led Zeppelin certainly has layers to its music and you have to admit a bar chord with a bit of distortion is certainly a strong sound - and what would "Stairway to Heaven" be without it's melody - which is learned by every guitarist on the face of the earth. Maybe the overall structures of the pieces are different, although Holst certainly wrote a number of strophic hymns, it wasn't really a form he used for his major classical works. But I think if you analyze Kansas "Leftoverture" you'll find more than just strophic structures too.
Brubeck's Take Five is still one of my all time favourite pieces. I just love the 5/4 metre. How interesting that Holst used irregular metres in Mars.
As I prepare to present to the world (or at least to Edinburgh) my music in a formal way, I am doing so with the understanding my musical background is not just built on old, dead composers, but some very recent, live ones as well. And their musical history is not so far from those dead composers to unrecognisable. I hope the my music celebrates all that's wonderful in the old and new, a blending of them in such a way to create yet again something newer - which may be influential to others.
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
More than just a few download music sites are encouraging classical music creators to provide music for downloads. eMusic just signed noteworthy independent classical music label to their growing list (they just surpassed 2million downloads). Crucial Music is trying to add to their collection as well. Music.com, Sony, Naxos, Warner Bros all expect classical music to represent between 10-16% of their download revenue and that doesn't even begin to speak of the exposure this means to composers and performers alike.
So, while posting music to your own website might be one way of getting it out there, I strongly encourage all you aspiring composers to start posting your music to other media sites as well. It may not garner enough to pay the mortgage on your home, but the exposure is invaluable!
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Preparing for a classical music concert has a number of factors involved; only one of them is finding the talent. While I have been blessed with both the Edinburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Edinburgh Quartet agreeing to work with me on this concert, I am also attempting to put on the work-in-progress opera "It Must Be Fate". This requires not only singers but instrumentalists (and, even though we're staging it oratorio style - long list of reasons why) the piece needs movement - dance).
The original concept for the opera was a blending of urban styles with more
classical lyric lines (you'd be surprised how similar some of the urban lyric
lines are to classical ones). But, urban music style really needs drums, bass
and effects/amplification and more. The music was progressing nicely, but to
accomplish it on stage we were talking about pre-recorded music. This was possible,
but not right for the oratorio style performance. One of the reasons we're going
with the oratorio style performance is the music is just too difficult to learn/memorise
in such a short time frame considering all the other things we are attempting
to achieve. We could probably get professional singers to master the music,
but that would dramatically increase costs. Add in a sound system to reproduce
the pre-recorded music and costs continued to skyrocket. Plus, we'd have to
put the speakers on the stage in such a way they didn't interfere with the orchestra
late, or the speakers would have to be moved - a logistical nightmare. As we
approached closer to the concert it became apparent that attempting this for
a work-in-progress was unreasonable, unfeasible, and very unaffordable! So,
we opted for a less "concert" approach and working with just a piano.
The sound isn't quite right, but the singers are much happier with having a
live musician - sort of a security blanket.
Then we get into the actual composition. When working with a fuller sounds (drums, bass, electronics) there are a lot of things the accompaniment does that translating it to the piano doesn't seem to work. To have a driving bass line thump, thump, thumping away is one thing, but to ask the pianist to thump, thump, thump with the left hand - while filling out some of the harmonies was a bit much, not to mention my love of rhythmic complexity meant the pianist was having to deal with 3, 4 and 5 rhythmic lines all at the same time. We have an amazing pianist, but this was really asking too much - particularly for a work-in-progress performance. (note: it also didn't sound right as all the lines were in the same instrument so they blended together too much. When they are done by very separate sounds, the rhythmic lines can each be distinguished, but not so when they are all played by one instrument).
So, the composition had to change - and this proved to be a good thing. I was forced to take a look at the music again, to really think about what I was trying to say with the music behind the words, what the words were trying to say but not vocalising. A number of elements came out that were not part of the opera before - and that's a good thing.
However, another element was added that wasn't - and that was a similarity of sound. As I mentioned earlier, I had to trim some of the lines from the piano reduction. But I had to do more than that. In a club, you can dance to the same basic rhythm, the same pulse for extended periods of time, because the timbre changes, the piece(s) changes and so there it does not become monotonous. When it's just piano it does. This isn't to say all the music sounds the same - but the plan for the piece was to have a thread of an underlying pulse throughout the opera. The pulse does shift, but subtly and not by accelerando or rallentando.
Part of the problem is the style of the piano arrangement. So, I am going through the music and seeing where a different sort of layering is possible, moving the tessitura to a new area of the piano - and yet still keep the focus on the voices. Obviously the re-working of the music isn't done yet. But we'll find out how well I do come 4th of June.
Monday, April 21, 2008
Do you self-promote or do you find an agent to promote you? Getting an Agent would seem to be the easiest answer, but an Agent may be promoting a dozen or more people - who's to say you'll be the focus of their attention?
Some say do the job you do well and let other's do the jobs they do. If you're a software engineer, rebuilding a car engine isn't something you should attempt if you need the car engine to run. If you look into rebuilding car engines as a hobby, or curiosity - and there is no need for the engine to actually function when you're done - great! But, if you need the car tomorrow, hire a mechanic. Is this true for agents as well?
Certainly the world of Classical Music is vast; finding the right person to talk to in order to get a piece performed is a skill all of it's own. Spending time trolling the web, making phone calls (sending emails) and reading the stacks of magazines about who's doing what where isn't necessarily the most effective use of one's talents. Numerous composers have personal websites - and that is certainly a start, but just having a website doesn't mean anyone ever sees it. The chances of someone who might want to perform your work randomly finding your site is virtually non-existent if you don't have some means of posting the URL in places that might garner your site some attention.
I have found many composers through their comments on blogs (their sites are linked to their names). Ok, so posting onto blogs is one way of getting attention - but that means you'd better have something worthwhile to say. Random comments just to promote a blog only make the author sound like an idiot which tends to send people in the other direction.
I've seen a couple of ads on Google for composer's websites (popping up because I'm searching for Classical Music or some such thing and their engine says an ad for a composer would be a good thing to show me). It sort of works - ie., I followed the link (more out of curiosity than anything else) - but found in three cases that the linked sites were no longer functional. Well, advertising is good if it works. Google's engine targets the audience, so this might seem like a good option. But if by the time people find you your site is no longer running than the ad didn't really work.
There are books that list Who's Who in the music world - a list of some 10k names with addresses and the like. This might sound like a great tool for contacting people - and if you know who you're looking for, yes, it is a real help. What it doesn't tell you is if they are someone who might be interested in your work. So what if you have an address or phone number... If you call someone out of the blue are they really going to talk to you? Maybe (if you have a good phone personality - but that gets back to specific talents - and I'm not sure I trust my phone personality to get me past the "Hello, this is Chip Michael..."
Music Publishers (like Boosey-Hawkes) will do some market flogging of your works, but like agents, they will spend the bulk of their time on people who bring in the most money. So, if you're like me, an unknown, getting more than just a listing is rare.
What about composer forums or artist collectives? The Scottish Music Centre attempts to promote Scottish music, and if you're looking for New Scottish music this might be a good source. However, Craig Armstrong (film composer) has only one score listed and that's from 1988, so either he feels he has outgrown the organisation or it wasn't worth his time. James MacMillan, on the other hand, has 41 listings; it obviously seems to work for him. The lesson here is to know your audience and where they are likely to go to find you (or where they look to find material you might be able to provide).
Some of the more prominent collectives are ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc). Both of these are huge organisations, but fairly specialised. While there are some things they both do, there are some things one is better at than the other, so you really have to know what it is you're trying to achieve when you contact these organisations. Bands that write their own stuff tend to go with BMI, while (of the people I've talked to) composers tend to favour ASCAP.
There are other organisations/collectives out there. The American Composers Orchestra comes up pretty prominently on searches, as does the American Composers Forum and the Music Publishers' Association. There are literally hundred of others, some that cater to composer's from a specific state or region (Australia born composers verses UK born composers), others that focus on a style of music. Each one is trying to fill their niche, and if their niche is your niche, it just may be a good fit.
If you're looking to get into Film scoring there are organisations that try and pool resources, provide a central location for job postings to allow artists in one field find artists in another. Talent Circle is a collective for people in the UK film industry and Mandy is for the world film industry at large.
On the other hand, finding the right agent can be a chore in and of itself. James MacMillan and Peter Maxwell Davies (a pair of Scottish Composers) are members of intermusica. Hot House Music works out of London and represents people like Hans Zimmer. Film Music Network provides a service of matching composers with agents - sounds nice, but you have to join their network to have it work for you. Taxi is another network which provides a similar service, but is extended to musicians of all sorts. If what you want to do is get into film scoring, Film Score Monthly has a nice article with some advice from agent Richard Kraft about attempting to becoming a film composer - and finding an agent which is anything but encouraging (a good read, but it isn't meant to get your hopes up).
What about posting your music on other websites? There are a host of sites where you can post your music, either in audio form or in midi. Most of these cater to older (out of copyright) compositions/composers - but some do post current composers works if posted by the composer. Classical Archives is one of my favourites for a source of material. However, if you post your music here you are allowing anyone to download it for free.
I don't have an answer for myself as yet. I think I am probably at the stage I need an agent if I am to go any further. But it is rather like taking a plunge in to a cold pool - you just have to do it. However, depending on how the concert goes, I think a agent is the next step for me. A decent webpage is also on the list (more than just this blog or my music website - which desperately needs work). And then there are all those compositions I'm eager to get started on...
Friday, April 18, 2008
It's interesting how music has moved through phases in the last century, sort of making it up as it goes along. In the nineteen-thirties, Gershwin wasn't considered (by many) to be a "classical composer" because he came from a background of jazz and "show tunes"; his music was too improvised. When Copeland turned to incorporating jazz styles, he was cautioned for getting too "low brow," too free with his music. Classical music needed to strive for something new, not succumb to the music of the masses. For years the two worlds seemed to be separated by some arbitrary class structure.
However, jazz has become so much a part of our musical consciousness that "classical" musicians are incorporating elements of it in their music all over the place. Many of the biggest names in "pop/jazz" world reference their classical roots (Beyoncé Knowles). According to a NY Times music review, Bill Frisell wrote a series of string quartet pieces incorporating a host of different jazz elements, most notably improvisation. André Previn is considered a "superstar" in both forms. Brian Ferneyhough writes that elements of his Second String Quartet are to sound "improvised" even though the music is meticulously scored. More and more respected composers are using improvisational sections in their classical music. However classical musicians still tend to balk at this inclusion as it is unfamiliar territory, the world of improvisation is not black and white, but shades of many different colours.
This wonderful article on Solarfantasy on the History of Jazz and Classical Music discusses the idea that Bach was a master improviser. This skill was expected of organists of his day. Liszt was also extremely skilled at improvisation occasionally performing impromptu concerts completely improvised. Czerny speaks of Beethoven coming in one afternoon and playing nearly the entire third movement of his piano sonata number 29, Opus 106 before he began writing down the notes, and there were few changes from what we have now as what was played that afternoon.
Numerous composers I have spoken with, or read their bios on their blogs speak of jazz as an influence in their musical style, or they speak of improvising at the piano when creating a piece (or both). I was fortunate enough to hear Rohan de Saram perform at the Sound Festival in Aberdeen with Fred Frith in a half hour "jam" session, that was amazing. Earlier at the festival, in Fred's Master Class on Improvisation, he spoke of the need for classical musicians to explore improvisation and for composers to incorporate it as a means to better meld the performer's interpretation and the composer's music.
What is also interesting is the growing acceptance of jazz music in the classical world. Jazz musicians have often taken classical melodies and "jazzed" them up, or, as evidenced by the Ornette Coleman Quartet, taken jazz tunes to new levels treating them as equals to the classical melodies they embelish - as they did with Gershwin's "Embraceable You". If you google "Gershwin" and "Rhapsody" in the news and you'll find an amazing assortment of upcoming concerts featuring this piece.
Maybe the time has come when the search for new music has come upon the idea that it's been with us all along, we just need to relax and "go with it."
Thursday, April 17, 2008
Geoff Edgers of Boston.com posted an article a few days ago relating to composers thoughts on their early works. I found it interesting that Geoff doesn't feel composers like Mozart were embarrassed by their early works. When I was doing a paper on Haydn's string quartets I ran across something that suggested Haydn feel his later quartets were built upon what he'd learned in the earlier ones, and found the early ones immature in comparison. Thus the early ones were a necessary stepping stone, but not of the quality (maybe I'm reading too much into this comparison based on my own feelings about my early works - more on that later).
Steve Layton of Sequenza21.com posted a query for other composers to comment on their impressions of their early works. While I did post a comment, I thought a more thorough response was appropriate.
First of all, it's difficult for me to really speak about early works when I am just preparing to premier my first symphony - at the same time presenting an opera as a work in progress and my first real string quartet piece (beyond little "songs" of 5-6 mins in length). So, in many respects I am at the stage Webern was when he labels his Passacaglia Opus 1.1
That's probably a good way to look at it. Pieces I wrote even two years ago seem childish, immature to what I'm writing now. However, there are some works "Zachariah was an old man " is still a work in progress. The initial seed is too good and I wasn't "mature" enough as a composer to finish it. I'm not sure I'm ready now (but don't really have the time to think about it with the upcoming concert). Other pieces, like "The Artisan" are good, but need fine tuning to bring them up to a level. "Darkness Falls" is a piece I probably won't go back to, but it certainly shows the development process leading up to the Preludes (Prelude 9) written a year later. Nearly four years ago I wrote a lullaby for the birth of my first grandson, Avery and then wrote one for the birth of his brother Curran last year.2 While Curran's piece shows more harmonic development, both are lovely little pieces, which I hope my grandsons take pride in as they grow up.
I guess what I am trying to say (in terms of my own writing) is the music I was writing 3, 4 or 5 years ago had something to them - not everything I wrote, but certainly some of the pieces. So, in that respect, they were the first glimmers of who I am (who I have become). Maybe, in another 3 or 4 years I will have moved on even further and I'll give up thinking they have worth. But that's not the case now.
Having said that, there are things I did twenty years ago (not compositionally - but in terms of living) that effect who I am today. By saying, "I wish I'd never done that" would be like say, "I don't like who I am" and I do like who I am - so I don't not wish I'd done that. I think composing is much the same way. There are bits of music that I listen to now that I think, "yea, that's a pile of c***" - but, it was necessary to write it.
On the flip side, I have yet to write c*** for the sake of a project - and I know composers who do, material they know is c*** at the time they are writing it, but it fills the need for a project they're getting paid for. (Ah, the dreaded mammon) I hope I never have (or decide) to do this. It is (IMHO) the step toward forsaking one's musical soul for material gain - and a step away from producing something worthwhile.
1 - Webern had just earned his doctorate in music when we wrote the Passacaglia. I have just (am just) finishing my Bachelors. While I am considerably older than Webern was (having come back to music after 15 years in the high tech industry), I am much younger in terms of education. It will be interesting to see how the next few years affect my music.
2 - Sincere thanks to Jayne Craig for providing her lovely voice to the recording of these lullaby's. She has also agreed to play the role of Chlotho in the opera "It Must Be Fate", so you will have a chance to hear her live; a real treat.
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
The Seattle Symphony's Spring Festival is going to honor immigrant composers, people who came to the US to further their musical career. and they're calling the programme "Coming to America: Composers in Pursuit of a Dream." While I was at Napier University (Edinburgh, Scotland) we studied a number of these composers like Stravinsky, Schoenburg. We studied other's who aren't included in the programme, like Dvorák, Holst, Brittan and Ferneyhough (to be fair Holst only came over to promote his works in the US and Brittan eventually moved back to the UK). We also studied composers like Cage who went the other direction (at least for a while).
As an American in the UK, I often wonder whether I'll be considered a "British" composer because of my educational stint here, or an American one because of my birth. I suppose some of that depends on when (and where) my fame occurs (soon would be nice!). It probably also depends on where the publicity is happening, ie. the London Times is more likely to want to leverage my British educational roots for the human interest angle, while the New York Times will want to highlight my American birth. And in that regard Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming and California can all lay local "son" claims as places I have lived.
In a world made increasingly smaller with air travel and internet, the idea of composer living and working in only one region is almost unheard of. Certainly during Mozart's time, composers travelled about Europe to learn and grow as composers. That was extended to the US in the late 19th century with ocean liner traffic and made pretty much global by mid-20th century with airplanes. Now, with the internet, composers and discuss ideas, share scores and experience new sounds without leaving the comfort of their island homes (nod to Peter Maxwell Davies who lives on an Island in the Orkneys).
There are a dozen composers I speak with on a fairly regular basis, all of whom live in various parts of the world. I will be able to stay in touch with people I know now in Edinburgh regardless of where my music career takes me - and I'm glad of that. I can't say I'm a very active Facebook member (I do have one, I just don't check it near often enough), but the concept is right.
However, there is something about living in a place that affects more than a conversation (or an email) can ever match. My time here in Edinburgh has exposed me to new thoughts about what music is, but it's also taught me a different way of looking at the world in general. What impact did coming to America have on those Immigrant Composers? Holst used it to gain notoriety, Brittan used it to learn, Schoenberg taught others (Ferneyhough is still doing this) and Dvo?ák so fell in love with the place he wrote a symphony about it. I don't know that I'll write a symphony about Edinburgh or Scotland (Mendelssohn already wrote The Hebrides and the Scottish Symphony), but certainly living here has had an affect on my music (more than just the education at Napier).
But I am hoping to expand that to a much greater exposure. I'm not done travelling/living
in various parts of the world. While there is something to be said for living
in a town where you can meet the right people for a career - I have been encouraged
to move to either London or New York to further my own - I am not done learning.
I can only hope that the result of my travels is a music that touches the hearts
of people like those great composers before me. I also hope that (compliments
of the internet) I can still meet the people I need to in order to actually
achieve a career.
- side note: If anyone has any suggestions as to how I can better further the career side, comments are more than welcome.
Monday, April 14, 2008
Philip Glass is famous and being famous he is under the scrutiny of critics. There will be people that will enjoy his works under the auspice of, "He's famous; he must be good." And there are people who will chide him with "He just does the same thing over and over and over again."
The Metropolitan Opera's most recent product is "Satyagraha" based on the life of Mohandas Ghandi and written by Philip Glass. As religious and political worlds collide with the Olympics in China and the protests concerning the fate of Tibet, this opera couldn't be more timely. Ghandi, a man devoted to peaceful protests and intense meditation is portrayed in minimalist music, repetitive motives that attempt to create a trance like state. How could you find fault with these concepts? And yet...
Critics seem to have taken these polar opposites in terms of their reviews of this production. Ronald Blum, an Associated Press writer, speaks of the music as "an aural jackhammer" pounding the listener into submission. However, Jeremy Eichler, a Boston Globe staff writer, finds the score having a "subdued grace, sensual richness, and hypnotic power." Mark Swed, of the LA Times, says, "To sit in the large, tasteless house in Lincoln Center and, after hours of, say, Wagner, fall under the spell of a soprano or bass as the midnight hour approaches is, for many of us, the definition of opera."
This production is the Metropolitan Opera premier of "Satyagraha", even though it was written in 1980 and is a shared production with the English National Opera. When it was produced in London last year where it received a review from Agnes Kory for MusicalCriticism.com. She spoke of the "stage spectacle well worth seeing. It is entertaining, fascinating and informative. However, it is debatable whether Glass' composition, described as his second opera, can be regarded as opera." Ben Hogwood, of musicOHM.com, wrote of the same production feeling "the opera was a moving, calming experience, yet it transmitted an inner energy, rather like a meditation session - a power that should not be underestimated."
Publicity is a good thing, sometimes. Press can make or break a production. On Broadway, a musical, playing to sold out crowds, can end up closing in a few weeks if it fails to win a Tony - or can close after a few nights if even one reviewer roasts it over the coals. Yet, writers have to have thick skin to make it in this business. Even the most famous are subject to criticism, and will have their detractors. The hope is to write something that enough people enjoy, gaining a measure of success - to eventually become part of the standard repertoire for opera houses around the world. Because, writing a piece isn't enough if it never gets performed.
As Eddie and I prepare to present a work in progress with "It Must Be Fate," we approach the production with the idea that this is what we think opera today ought to be - not what people say opera is. We are attempting some new things in terms of what has done before, both in terms of music and story concept. However, being new doesn't mean it will be enjoyed. Glass' concept of repetitive music has seen both approval and abhorrence. Not everyone believes in Fate, but that doesn't mean she doesn't exist
Here is an article that appeared in the internal magazine for Scottish Widows (the company I work for). Free publicity is always good... The formatting isn't quite what it is in the magazine, but there's only so much you can do with the html in a blogger post
Saturday, April 12, 2008
Eddie and I took in an ecat concert last night, “String Quartet on the Tight-Rope” with the Quatuor Diotima, and some interesting events occurred (for me, at least). The expertise of the players was very evident in their handling of pieces from James Dillon (Fourth String Quartet), Henri Dutilleux (Ainsi la Nuit) and Helmut Lachenmann (Gran Torso) (they also performed Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, but I’ll speak of that later). Each of these three composers are still living and their compositions are cutting edge music, with the Dillon piece, his Fourth String Quartet, the most recent - completed in January 2005. All three pieces are excellent examples of the European exploration of new sound, what ecat is all about.
One of the first things that struck me was the awareness that I was able to understand the form of the pieces just on listening to them. I won’t say that I could achieve an in-depth musical analysis of them just through aural exploration, but even grasping large connected elements was an epiphany for me last night. Up to this point, these musical styles always felt random and disjointed - a collection of noises with no real purpose. Before last night, I always left concerts of this type of music wondering why I’d bothered to go. (I went because, as a composer, it’s important to explore music in a wide variety of forms – even forms I may never write it).
Last night, however, I got it. At least, grasping the organization of pieces in a grander sense was very enlightening – particularly since previous to this my only means of understand what the composer was attempting was through analysis of the written work – and I am a believer that if the only way the music makes sense is by exploring the written page, then it doesn’t really classify as music (for me). This means I am gaining the skill of understanding disparate elements aurally, and it should translate into a better weaving of ideas into my own compositions.
Next was the appreciation of skilled musicianship. This wasn’t the first time I’d been exposed to “extreme” musicianship up close. Any of the ecat concerts is a good example of amazing musical craft in terms of performance. Probably the first enjoyable exposure to this form was with solo flute works performed by Richard Craig. His mastery of the flute created a fascination for the techniques used in works by Ferneyhough, Fox and Dillon (oh, there’s that composer again), even though, during that concert, I didn’t grasp the overall sense of the music.
I am not a “new complexity” composer, although there are certainly elements of this style of compositional technique that have a real potential. However, the complexity of the music often tends to put the music out of reach for most people so the audience appeal is limited (note: it’s taken me several years of exploring the sounds of this music to grasp the over all structure). But that doesn’t speak of the musicianship it takes to perform it.
Quartuor Diotima did an amazing job of keeping the music held tightly together, even when there was no clear pulse or continuity of time (for most of the evening) to keep the players in sync. Each of the three pieces had moments where the players were expected to play “notes” (this term is used extremely loosely in context of this music) together to create a “harmony” (again, term used loosely) of sound. And yet, for most of the time, each player is performing their own elements, creating a kaleidoscope of sound. I still don’t grasp how they do it (and I may never grasp it), but it was amazing listening, and watching them do it so very well.
The last interesting event (at least the last I will discuss here) was the juxtaposition between elements of these three pieces and the Beethoven. For me, Beethoven’s was the most enjoyable, although I think the Edinburgh Quartet actually does a better job of performing the piece. It’s not just that Beethoven’s piece is more familiar to me, or that the style of music is more familiar – but that (for me) it is more musical. Lachenmann’s Gran Torso was an exploration of the various sounds that can be made by the quartet and not necessarily by the strings – but by striking or bowing along on the body of the instruments, using the bow in a variety of techniques other than across the strings and plucking or striking the strings with the frog. Yes, all of these methods produced sounds, but it wasn’t musical (IMHO). There wasn’t even a sense of rhythm even though the musicians obviously kept some sense of rhythm in their heads as they were able to maintain a collective progression of the piece. Dutilleux’s Ainsi la Nuit was more musical in terms of using the instruments in more traditional ways, but the notes were so extreme and the elements so disparate it was a struggle to gain an overall flow to the work. Dillon’s Fourth String Quartet was the most enjoyable of these three pieces, but I like Dillon’s work (at least what I’ve heard). Dillon left me wondering as to his titles though. His third movement is entitled “Love is a pleasure accompanied by the idea of an external cause” and yet, I didn’t hear “love” in the music – certainly there was a lot of external cause, but love and pleasure weren’t aspects I would have attributed to the music on just listening to it.
Each of these pieces showed ways in which to use a quartet in an extreme manner, exploring new ways of producing sound (note: I did not say music). These pieces and the performers showed potentials, but not necessarily realization, i.e. they showed us what might be possible to do with a quartet, but didn’t take it to the point that I felt I enjoyed what was produced. Again, I like Dillon, so if I had to choose one that came close that one did for me – but still, close is not all the way.
Beethoven, on the other hand, didn’t even explore the variety of techniques considered standard at the time. In the Grosse Fuge, there is no pizzicato, nor use of mutes. Beethoven wrote a piece just using standard notation with no tricks, other than the extreme intricacy of his fugal writing (that is amazing! – and I’m not even a particular fan of this piece).
As a composer, I am interested in new ways of exploring music, but as Gary Bachland wrote to me “pre-compositional limitations are a marvelous way of pruning all those options into a few worth chasing down.” He went on, “If one were to follow ‘clutter’ from the beginning of the huge symphonies forward, by the time one gets to works of Carter and Birtwhistle, the complexities are so great that general audiences no longer appreciate the musical ‘arguments’. If you have something clear to say, you will find out how to say it, or, taking the path of least resistance, add clutter to clutter in hopes that it will look as if you have something valid to say.” This is a great way to describe these pieces – added clutter in hopes it had something valid to say. During the Lachenmann piece there was a section where the viola was playing in a style that was so quiet, the piece was reminiscent of Cage’s 4’33” – an exploration as to the sounds an audience makes during a performance.
It was an interesting evening. I am glad I went. Will I compose anything like these other modern composers? Not likely; I have enough clutter to clear out of my own compositions without trying to add their techniques.
Friday, April 11, 2008
- How much should the character say?
- What portion of their back-story must be told, what can just be hinted at?
- Would they use slang?
- If they say A, then would B follow, or would they jump to K?
- Will they be honest?
- Monologue (Aria) or dialogue?
Opera can be murky, uncertain. Characters can have hidden motives; they can lie about their feelings. Back-story can be communicated only via the printed programme. Audiences are expected to just 'roll with it' - Pagliacci is a clown, therefore he is tortured and a little off-balance, therefore when we see him go bonkers over his wife's infidelity we can accept it - because he is bonkers!
Writing for the musical stage is a unique skill. Allowing characters to 'sing' their feelings means the writer must approach the words with an ear to musicality, while trying to maintain character, motivation, dramatic and narrative thrust. In Musical Theatre a writer is constrained by the necessity of being direct and honest. Musical songs are about how things are, or how the character feels about how things are. Musical characters generally do not lie to the audience - they do not have hidden motives. In the Musical, the music most often directly supports the character's motivation and feelings. Opera? Well, Opera is an entirely different beast.
In Opera the music can be used to put the lie to the character's words. The gentle profession of love can be turned sinister simply by underpinning it with tri-tones, diminished 5ths and suspense chords. Similar to writing for film (where the motto is 'show, don't tell'), the librettist of an opera must be aware of those places where the music can 'fill in the blanks' and apprise the audience of the words not said - the feelings unvoiced.
So the librettist must add to the list of questions that any writer asks of themselves:
- Are they being honest here? With the other characters, with themselves?
- Would it be better to allow the music to tell the story here? To show that the character is of 2 minds?
- Are my words getting in the way of the music?
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
What is the role of an accompaniment, particularly in terms of an opera? Some could argue it is to provide a sense of pitch for the vocalists, although how anyone gets their pitch in Berg's Wozzeck is beyond me - and certainly at the professional level the vocalists should be able to know their pitch without the assistance of the accompaniment. It could be to provide a subplot to the text being sung. Certainly in Brittan's Rape of Lucretia, or Peter Grimes, the music provides a huge amount of subtext to the words, but what of atmosphere? Should the accompaniment also provide atmosphere to the scene, a setting or mood to extend the lyrics into a scene?
For me I think all of the above reasons have their moments in an opera. While I agree a professional opera singer should be of a quality to not need the crutch of always having their pitch, there is something to be said for making the music accessible, to both the audience and the vocalist. If the music is too difficult then it will never be performed by anyone outside the extremely professional - and an opera of extreme music means very few productions. By providing an accompaniment that flows with the vocal line, which would also provide a sense of pitch, also makes for music that more than just the musically elite can enjoy. Not all operas should require a PhD in music with an in-depth knowledge of the piece being performed to be enjoyed. One of the reasons Puccini's Turendot is still performed so often is the beautiful music (certainly not the story line). This is music that even the casual opera lover can really enjoy.
Providing subplot to the text is one of the major features in opera (IMHO) as opposed to straight theatre or even musical theatre. In the straight theatre the actors have numerous lines to be able to create nuances to their character, so not every word the actor speaks needs to be honest - as the subtext is in as much as what is not said as what is. Musical theatre needs the lyrics to be brutally honest so the point is clear; the music most often corresponds directly to the words and sentiment to drive home the point. In Opera, however, the music is the subtext, the thoughts not said, the feelings unspoken and the power behind the art form.
However, having said all this there are times when the accompaniment can get in the way, when the desire to extend the sentiment through music can actually detract from the lyrics, from the vocals, from the performance. This is when setting the mood, and only the mood is important. There are times when the vocalist is alone and the power of their solo performance is paramount. If the accompaniment becomes too noticeable, then it is no longer just one performer on stage, but two.
I am working on a portion of "It Must Be Fate" - an aria (if you will) when Jarad sings his frustration with the Fates. He is railing against the hand he's be dealt. The accompaniment was initially a flowing repetitive line on solo piano (although I may add some sustained strings to smooth out the rather fast 5/8 tempo). There are few changes in the piano line, with a repetitive low C pulsing at the start of nearly every bar. Does it need to change; should it drop to a B-natural (in a piece based in C Phrygian) to add tension? Surely his railing against the fates is a tense moment?
It is a difficult decision. When the accompaniment shifts, even slightly, it becomes noticeable and the focus, even for a moment, moves from Jarad (the vocalist) to the accompaniment. However, if there is no change, then the accompaniment fades into the background, beating on, continuing to pulse, weaving in a trance like state (remember: this is an opera about the fates - who are the weavers of our lives). The power of the piece lies with the vocalist - and, if done right, can really be a chance to shine, to bring the audience into his heart, his soul, through the anxiety of his performance. Maybe I am asking a lot from the performer, but any more than Berg asks of his? What I am asking is for a performance, that is more than just beautifully sung - but also beautifully acted - a complete performance.
We'll see how successful I am come the 4th of June.
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
We'd like to announce the Edinburgh Quartet has agreed to premier a new string quartet piece at the 4 June Concert. This is an exciting addition as it adds a nice dimension to the concert and continues a relationship with the quartet that has proved to be very rewarding.
Previously the Edinburgh Quartet has performed "Aegidios" and "Weighting the Return" at concerts at St Giles.
Friday, April 4, 2008
There are a number of instruments I love writing for, but for one reason or another are not included in this concert. When selecting music for a concert, it is important the overall programme has flow and continuity, which means some pieces just don’t work together, or for reasons of time, there just isn’t room to put them into the programme. This is a bit of a frustration for me because, as a composer, there are so many tonal colours I’d like to explore. There will be other concerts with other opportunities to explore these lovely instruments - so, while I regret not including them, they are far from being forgotten.
The piano isn’t really included in this concert (although there is some discussion about having a small bit played at the opening – sort of a prelude to the concert). I have a number of pieces, most notably a series of twelve Piano Preludes which explore the merging of two keys, one for each hand. It would have been really nice to include these into the concert, but I wrote the Piano Preludes to flow from one to another, performable as a twelve movement concert piece – lasting thirty-five minutes. There just wasn’t enough time to perform the complete set in the concert, and I would like their first performance to be complete.
I have long had a love affair with the harp. It is (IMHO) one of the loveliest instruments to write for. Like the piano, it has a large range (although the Clairshach does not have quite as large a range – but the levers used to provide incidentals can provide some very interesting options in terms of tuning) and performs a glissando unlike anything else in the orchestra. The harp is not included in the instrument selection for this concert, and I have some regrets about that. I find it a very versatile instrument, adding a unique colour to the music (and I'm not alone in that opinion). Five years ago I wrote a trio of pieces for Harp, Violin and Cello which are still some of my favourite pieces, even though stylistically they are very different than what I have written the last couple of years. And thus the reason these pieces are not part of the concert.
The marimba is beautiful, with its ability to create shimmering sustains or warm arpeggios. A good player (and I know one) can really make this instrument sing. But when I began writing the symphony I wanted to write for what is considered a standard triple wind ensemble. While many orchestras do have mallet players amid their percussionists, this instrument is not quite part of the standard makeup. So, I didn’t include a marimba part in the symphony. Another one of my orchestral works does use the marimba (along with the harp) to create a unique series of pedal tones that seem to vibrate under the rest of the orchestra. Since we already have the orchestra playing the symphony (and that’s fifty minutes long) there was no reason to include this other piece.
Saxophones are widely underused in classical music (IMHO). Their distinctive sound adds a colour that just isn’t found anywhere else. Like clarinets, saxophones can bend notes which can give the music an emotional impact as if tapping into the very soul of the performer. It’s this versatility that I’ve just begun to explore. Unfortunately, I don’t really have any pieces of note that could be included, so this instrument too will be missing from the concert.
There will be other concerts. So, there will be chances to explore these wonderful instruments. Still, there is a sense of regret they are not in this one – rather like having a family reunion where a few of the family members couldn’t attend.
Thursday, April 3, 2008
There is also the question of Fate in the singular. The Fates were typically portrayed as three women, the Moriai spoken of collectively, but not in the singular. Thus the concept of a single entity of "Fate" didn't exist. Nor would Classical Greek necessarily consider the Moriai to be responsible for the unavoidability of said "it" as, while they were the keepers of mans' thread (life span), it was Zeus who ultimately determined a man's fate. The Moriai were simply the weavers of the thread. Of course, there is the problem of differing interpretations. Not all Greek authors treat the Fates the same, sometimes giving them powers over man, other times just keeping the keepers of the threads.
The concept that something must be fate comes to us from a Christian concept of God's intervention in our lives - and thus broaches the whole idea of freewill verses divine plan. If our lives are part of a divine plan, how can we have freewill, the power to control our own lives? Philosophers have been debating this question for centuries (long before Christ, as Plato and Aristotle weigh in on the question).
Add to this our concepts of who the Fates were is only illuminated by the surviving literature. In Classical Greek literature, what we have are not the common tales, stories that everyone would know, but rather the works of literature which refer to these common tales obtusely, rather than in direct terms. Today, when we reference the "glass slipper" or "turning into a pumpkin", these refer to tales from our childhood, reference we just expect our audience to know and understand; they don't need explaining. However, to someone who doesn't grow up with the story of Cinderella, the concept of what I mean when I say "I turn into a pumpkin at midnight" is completely foreign to them. To the Classical Greeks, the Moriai must have been so common, so much a part of their culture, there was no reason to explain who and what they did. In this instance, they were very much a part of the fabric of Classical Greek thinking.
So, in dealing with the title of our opera, is it "It Must Be Fate" an appropriate title, given the subject matter is dealing with Classical Greek figures, the Moriai and thus should have some understanding in Classical Greek concepts? However, that said, perhaps the concept it must be fate, which is so much a part of our modern thinking (even though we tend to have the hubris to feel we are in control of our own destiny - which, if you think about it is an oxymoron, because, if it's your destiny, it's fated and therefore out of your control....) we do not fully realise where the concept came from. I said earlier it is a Christian concept, but how we perceive God (Jehovah) is based on concepts of Jove, the Roman Supreme God, who is based on Zeus. So, it is possible the concept of Fate (singular), God's intervention in our lives as something that is rooted in Classical Greek concepts, but not concept recorded in literature, because the concept was so accepted as part of society there was no need to elucidate it.
Thought and language is not a static entity. Concepts, which become woven into our society, are retained, if only as ghosts of their former selves, affecting future thoughts. A good example of this is "May the Force be with you." Not everyone in a modern society has seen the film Star Wars, but you'd be hard pressed to find someone who does not know what this statement means. In 100 years, we will likely still have the phrase. What concepts it will conjure may be vastly different than what we think today - but I have no doubt the concept of the force will play a role in our concept of God(s) and divinity for future generations. However, fifty years ago, this statement had no reference at all. Force was not used in this construct until the film (at least not in any literature I am aware of).
Maybe Zeus and Moriai were so much a part of the fabric of the Classical Greek culture they didn't need explanation. The thread of thought from then to now has shifted and changed. Saying something must be fate doesn't need further explanation, although not everyone would agree some event was indeed fated. Maybe, just maybe, it's time we remind ourselves of our past and how we got where we are. Maybe, just maybe, this is necessary as we look toward the future. Maybe, just maybe, this is fate.
έτσι το θέλει η μοίρα!
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
My respect for composers in the past continues to grow, particularly in terms of producing the parts for their music. The orchestration of a work is one thing, and I don't want to make little of the effort in getting the orchestration right. Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition is owed much to the popularity of the music. Certainly numerous books have been written on the subject of orchestration (I owned at least a half dozen, which I refer to often). Orchestration of a piece, while important, is creative, in many ways, very much like composing. The orchestrator is making personal choices as to what instruments, dynamics, articulations - and so on - to create the sound he/she wants.
However, the copiest, the poor bloke who ends up putting pen to paper so the various musicians can turn those little black spots into something wonderful, is just moving those little black dots from one page to another. There is craft involved (it has to be ledgible), there is certainly patience (which I find in short supply), and there is attention to detail (which I definately have none of).
Software tools today do a great deal of the work. Sibelius 4 (they are now on version 5, but I've yet to upgrade) will take your orchestral score and parse it out into the variuos instruments, but this is only a rough draft and a lot of amendments will need to be made to make each individual part print perfect. Finale Allegro does perhaps a better job of moving from score to part, but there is still a vast number of edits to be done before the printed copy should find it's way to the musicians. If you're working with a standard triple wind orchestra, this means there are at least twenty-seven different parts that will need to be created for each movement. I know this because that's how many I'm having to do. Multiply that by the number of movements (in my case, five) and you end up with a fair number of parts that have to be "cleaned-up" before they're ready for prime time.
However, both of these pieces of software are new additions to the composers/arrangers/orchestrators/copiests toolkit. Before computers, all of this work was done by hand, and in terms of the greats, Beethoven, Mahler, Ravel..., they did all the copy work themselves, putting ink to paper by hand - and if they made a mistake (they were working with ink and not pencils) they scratched it out and moved on (or threw the page away and started over). I'm not a music historian, so I can't comment as to how often they made mistakes in the parts they created - but the sheer weight of all that work is daunting.
Having said all this, my respect for the professionals in the industry today who do this job, copying music from score to parts, is in no way diminished. As I mentioned above, software tools do a lot of the work, but there are still a lot of fiddly bits that have to be cleaned up before it's playable. Conductor/composer/arranger Pete Anthony, who seems to conduct the music for half the films in the cinema (he is credited with conducting 16 films in 2007 and orchestrating half of those), must have some secret in creating parts from a score. He does enough of this kind of work, he has to be not only very good at it, but extremely fast. In the film industry, time is money and if it takes the copiest too long to get the part to the orchestra or if the players have to take an inordinant amount of time familiarizing themselves with the music the costs of the recording session rise accordingly.
So, hats off to all those copiests out there, those that use computers and especially to those before computers did so much work for us.
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
Not that I'm planning on dieing anytime soon, but it seems that (according to the BBC) composers tend to live unusual lives and die unusual deaths. As I am just starting my career - and this concert is the debut of my 1st Symphony, I can safely say the "curse" of number 9 is a ways away.