28 December 2006

Living In a Box?

In composition, there is a fine line between "finding your voice" and painting by number; between giving each piece a personal touch and writing the same piece over and over. As a composer, I have never been particularly interested in larger guiding principles such as sonata form, serialism, metric modulation, etc. even though there are plenty of pieces I enjoy by other composers which use these devices. In fact, I usually enjoy listening to them right up until the point where I start to really hear the method, at which point the music always loses a little bit of its luster, at least to me.

Of course, some if not all of these devices were codified as such after the fact, but even so, later composers often pick them up and embrace them as part and parcel of their compositional technique. Not to say that this is wrong in any intrinsic sense, but I have never understood this, nor have I ever felt compelled to do it, even when the method is of my own invention, as in the piece I wrote which followed a nearly strict pattern of meter changes: 7/4 5/4 3/4 -or- 7/4 5/4 7/4 5/4 3/4. This led to a cool "counting down" effect whereby the bars got progressively shorter; the process would then repeat itself. Among all of my compositions, this idea had the most possibilities for further development; however, I have yet to find what I deem a legitimate need or even a suitable use for it outside of the piece from which it arose as an intuitive creation. That's just how I am.

I believe that the "personal voice" operates on deeper level than the compositional device. I tremendously enjoy approaching each subsequent piece as an opportunity to create something entirely different from everything else I have written, and it particularly intrigues me when composers say things along the lines of "Oh, I've moved on to x approach" or "I only work in x medium/style now." I always want to ask, "What was it about the previous approach was preventing you from taking the new approach?" I'd like to think that the ideal for a composer would be to be able to answer "Nothing," meaning of course that you would not need to change approaches midstream in the first place.

26 December 2006

Lost (not the TV show)

About a month ago now, I mailed entries to two composition contests by way of Priority Mail. As always, I availed myself of the USPS's delivery confirmation option. This service provides no indemnity coverage, but it does tell you when your stuff was delivered...if it was delivered. That's where the story gets interesting, for it appears that according to both the delivery confirmation (or lack thereof) and the people administering the respective contests, the envelopes were in fact never delivered.

One contest had a December 1 postmark deadline, so unless the original envelope turns up and makes it there before they start the judging, that one is a lost cause. No big deal; I threw that one together just for the hell of it and wasn't honestly expecting anything to come of it. The other one is a different story; I wrote the piece especially for it and was hopeful of at least turning someone's head on the committee. The deadline for that one is not until sometime next month, so I should still be able to enter...that is unless this is part of a larger plot by Kinko's to get all of my money from making x number of copies of my pieces. Or perhaps it's a sign from God that these contests aren't worth the trouble, which if I believed in God would be very thoughtful of him to say to me because he'd probably be correct. Of course, even without a God, there's still the blogosphere to tell me this, but as an uncompromising autodidact with no teachers to advocate for my work and very little hope of getting anything performed by anyone but myself, what else is there to do but force someone somewhere to at least see my name flash before their tired little eyes before they glaze over for good, leading them to throw the rest of the entries in the recycling bin and name their cousin the winner?

I do remember overhearing one rather distinguished comp professor say that students should enter as many contests as they feel inclined to because only good things can come of it. Well, kind of. That's only if your magnum opus actually gets out of the damn neighborhood post office. I would normally say that it's always worth it for me to enter these things. I'm very competitive by nature; the satisfaction from winning (it has happened a couple of times somehow or another) is too much fun, while being pissed off at not winning gets me about as motivated to write as ever (sad but true). But having my entry lost in the mail? That pisses me off in a much more counterproductive way, the way that makes me not want to even bother sending the damn thing again even if there's still plenty of time. "It probably sucks anyway," or "I'll bet everyone entering is out of my league" are among the thoughts crossing my mind. Of course, I will do it one way or the other just so that I can look forward to being doubly pissed of when I don't win jack, or going totally ape shit when I'm crowned the winner.

BUT...if they lose my stuff again, expect the next entry to be a Cage-inspired work for fist and postal employee that will get more performances than any previous work of mine. Anyone know of contests for works that eventually land the composer in jail?

(If there's one thing I've learned from communicating via the internet, it's that thanks to the few of you out there who are argumentative literal minded dopes, I ought to say overtly that the last two sentences constitute a classic example of sarcasm, a time-honored literary device that is easily lost over a computer screen. In other words, it was a joke guys; you can't sue me. But seriously, if you know of a comp contest for that kind of thing...)

Orchestral Excerpt = Poorly Orchestrated?

Allow me to reflect on my most recent yet only marginally successful attempts to hack through a few of the orchestral excerpts I've been putting off learning for, oh, let's see here, my entire existence:

I've heard it said about orchestral excerpts for tuba that either anyone can play them or no one can play them. It's funny because its true. What does it mean when something that "anyone can play" (mind you I am talking figuratively here) has become a standard excerpt? Most typically, it's because it's important thematically AND it's famous. The Meistersinger excerpt would be exhibit A; not the most demanding thing in the world, but where else in the entire repertoire (let alone in such a famous piece) does the tuba play the entire tune?

On the other hand, the mechanism by which an excerpt from a more obscure piece becomes a staple of the audition circuit should serve as a warning to all of us wannabe composers. The only way an excerpt from a second rate piece becomes standard is if it's so hard that even the best orchestral players in the world have to practice it for years to get it right. In other words, such excerpts represent things you really shouldn't write (or at least not with the expectation of it being played correctly by mortals).

Now comes the part where I get to whine (eat your hearts out, singers). Want to know how NOT to write for tuba? Just take a look at the Fountains of Rome excerpt. If an undergraduate comp student brought something like that to their lesson, they'd be buried beneath a heap of the usual criticisms. (although come to think of it, I can't say it's not idiomatic; I guess that makes it more "idealistic" than "unrealistic?" It's damn near impossible to play in any case.)

As of today, my new goal as an orchestral composer is that if in the unlikely event anything I ever write gets called on an audition, that it be for the first reason and not the second reason (i.e. because it's famous and catchy, NOT because only 1% of everyone ever to play that instrument can even imagine making it happen). Meanwhile, pardon the clatter while I continue to fluff and cack my way through Fountains a la the other 99%

Some Housekeeping

By popular demand, I've added links to some of my music. Be nice. I regret that I do not currently have a decent recording of an entire "classical" composition to share with y'all. I think I will work on doing something with MIDI. In the meantime, you'll have to settle for all that jazz and the finale of my trumpet sonata.

Also, I have enabled comment moderation with hopes of alleviating the spam comments I've been receiving lately. To the spammers: my you-know-what works just fine, thank you.

19 December 2006

Perfunctory Holiday Wishes

Merry Christmakwanzaakah to all you brass types out there:

click here

12 December 2006

My Ongoing Adversarial Relationship With The Act of Revision (particularly as manifested in my "classical" compositions)

As listeners, we often experience the phenomenon of a piece "growing" on us. It is not an unusual occurrence, but what if the piece is one that you wrote yourself? This would seem on the surface to be an almost impossible situation; don't you "know" the piece better than anyone else if you wrote it? Maybe it is a natural consequence of what some would see as the inherent flaws in my autodidactic approach to composition, but my own pieces often grow on me. I think I know the reason: I often make compositional choices (i.e. note choices) based on some kind of gut feeling of necessity that I cannot really explain at the time. At the immediate completion of the piece, I hear the awkwardness and almost want to change it, but I can rack my brains for hours finding an array of "satisfactory" solutions only to discard them all in favor of the original "flawed" version. Something always tells me not to change it. I recently listened back to a piece I had nearly forgotten about that has several such moments; I liked most of them and didn't like some of them, but most of all, I still cannot fathom changing anything in it. It seems to me that the rhetoric of contemporary composition pedagogy is one of striving for an odd ideal of perfection; not perfection in the abstract, but some kind of relative perfection, the best you can possibly do under the circumstances as determined not by you yourself but by your teacher and peers. I used the word "choice" earlier, but actually, come to think of it, what I'm getting at is that these things are not choices at all but inevitabilities; isn't that called having a strong vision or personal voice or one of those other press release buzzwords? According to the 60 Minutes story, the sole kink in the armor of whiz kid Jay Greenberg is an even stronger aversion to revision than what I'm describing. Perhaps a baseball analogy would be appropriate here: when Twins manager Ron Gardenhire was asked when phenom Joe Mauer would start hitting for power, he replied that he was not going to be the one to mess up Mauer's swing by telling him to hit the ball out of the park all the time. Anyone who followed the Twins regular season surge last season can see that Gardy knows what he's talking about.

My Ongoing Congenial Relationship With The Act of Revelation (particularly as manifested in 1960's Blue Note recordings)

From Bob Blumenthal's notes to the Rudy Van Gelder edition of "Unity" by Larry Young:
"From its first appearance in the world of jazz, the Hammond B-3 organ has been a controversial instrument. Some revere it as a platform for blues expression, or a keyboard approximation of big band dynamics, or the harbinger of old/new acid grooves; and others, many of whom fashion themselves the most "serious" of jazz fans, consider it a whiny, unsubtle, roller-rinky contraption deserving neither attention nor respect. For nearly a quarter-century, the surest way to make listeners in the latter category do an about-face has been to play them this album."
I generally liked the B-3 before, but this album is certainly all its cracked up to be in the notes. I thought of this quote because I recently listened for the first time in years to Wayne Shorter's "Juju." There is a similar contingent of people who "don't get" Wayne Shorter; I "don't like" some of it (a more honest way to put it, I think), but if you know anyone who wonders why Shorter is considered a master, play them this album. Be sure to stand at least five feet away as a rapid "about-face" is imminent.

Everyone Knows Someone...

...who used to play tuba. Be it a parent, sibling, significant other, or themselves, I cannot believe the number of people who come up to me at gigs and tell me that they or someone close to them plays or used to play the instrument. I asked the drummer last night if anyone ever comes up to him at gigs and starts talking about how they used to play drums. He said no, but that his older brother did used to play the tuba. See my point?

08 December 2006


Is this progress?

05 December 2006

CD Baby "Out on a Limb" Project Review: Second Installment

A few months ago, I purchased 10 CDs from CD Baby, all by artists I had never heard of previously. I used only the 2 minute sound samples on their pages to judge their work. Needless to say there have been hits and misses, but overall, it has been a successful idea and I'm sure that when I have some disposable income again, I will give it another shot. I highly recommend that you try it sometime; everyone is quick to talk about how many diverse musicians there are working today and how the internet has put them only a click away, yet if we don't actually check them out, none of that matters...so take advantage of it! Anyway, I mentioned one of the "hits" here a while back, so in the interest of equal time, I thought I should also give some props to another gem of the bunch, "Also Not Pictured" by the group Equilateral. I remember that about a year ago there was another band playing a club date in Minneapolis that was billed as "Iowa's hippest contribution to modern jazz" or something to that effect. Whatever the prowess of that band might have been, their marketing department had better come up with a new soundbite, because I would be shocked if anything hipper than Equilateral has ever come out of Iowa, musically or otherwise (and no, covered bridges are NOT hip). The players are individually virtuosic and are equally comfortable playing tunes, playing free, or playing anywhere in between. The tune "Mastroiology" in particular is a real tour de force for saxophonist Chris Merz, both as a player and composer. It knocked me off my chair...which was exactly what I was looking for. There is so much going on (even in Iowa!) that we all owe it to ourselves to seek it out. Unfortunately, it seems that one problem with the internet age is that the good stuff is not the stuff that falls in your lap. At least it is out there somewhere, even if you have to go out on a limb to get it.

22 November 2006

An Awkward Silence

The phone rang late last night. It was a musician friend of mine. Get this: someone had given him an iTunes gift certificate and he wanted to know if I could recommend a piece by John Cage! I haven't laughed that hard in a long time...but then there was a pause. While I've read and been tremendously influenced by Cage's writings, I had to admit to almost complete ignorance of his actual compositions. In order to circumvent this inconvenient and embarrassing fact, I just told my friend that the more indeterminate a piece is, the more the performers (rather than the composer) will influence the perceived quality of the music. Perhaps it is fitting that Cage is the recipient (or non-recipient) of many backhanded compliments ("more a philosopher than a composer"?). After all, he aimed to destroy the very mechanism by which accolades are bestowed. Nonetheless, he had enough impact that years after his death, people are still going to iTunes to download his, um...I had better be careful here...recordings of sonic realizations of his scores. I will say this: I have heard two of his pieces performed by top-notch ensembles/performers. Both were highly indeterminate and I tremendously enjoyed them both. That might say more about me than it does about Cage (or at least that's what he would have said), but I think the man deserves some credit; he deserves to be listened to; he deserves to have a piece OTHER than 4'33'' associated with his name; and I had better put my money where my mouth is and pick up some recordings. So...uh, can anyone else recommend ME a recording of a piece by John Cage?

07 November 2006

The Difference Between Composition and Improvisation

Gunther Schuller caused quite a stir when he published his analysis of Sonny Rollins solo on Blue Seven. His point (ostensibly, that a jazz performance can make use of motivic development both as extensively and effectively as a classical piece, and therefore deserves to be taken just as seriously) needed to be made, remains valid, and is well taken by this writer. I do, however, want to offer a slightly different perspective based on my intuitive reactions as both a listener and a player, which is that while motivic development is (usually) nice when it happens during a jazz solo, I believe that jazz (and all improvised music) stands on its own as serious music even in absence of this device. In fact, I actually think that it is important that it is not overused, and that it does not dominate one's approach to improvisation.
The reason I say this is that improvisation is, well, improvisation. You could call it "spontaneous composition;" indeed, there are many famous and infamous quotes from jazz legends about the extemporaneous nature of soloing. The most incisive, however (from Steve Lacy if I'm not mistaken), is the one that acknowledges the most important consequence of this distinction between composition and improvisation, namely that improvisation does not allow for revision after the fact: once the music happens, it is out there and then it is gone, whether the players realized their musical intent(s) accurately or not, and whether or not anyone listening is even aware of this. This is the challenge that those of us who improvise (in any genre) accept each time we step out, but it is not a challenge to create the same thing spontaneously that we would create through composition and revision. While we may work at perfecting our technique and approach, it would not be worth the trouble to attempt to truly become spontaneous composers. If we so valued the opportunity to revise and perfect smaller details of the performance, improvisation would probably be the wrong medium for us.
Of course, one must draw the line somewhere. By this logic, even technical proficiency could be labeled a mere "detail" and thrown out the window. Obviously, this is not quite the point I'm trying to make. Of all the various challenges faced by the improvisor, effective motivic development is probably the hardest for the musician to create spontaneously (and in some sense, also the hardest to create with much forethought and revision; just ask a composer). In a sense, in puts the player in the same position as the listener in that they must perceive and follow the progress of such development in music they are hearing for the first (and perhaps last) time. In this age of home recording and internet distribution, perhaps it is more valid than ever to value motivic development in improvised music; nonetheless, it simply cannot become the be all and end all of improvised music because that is not what improvised music is. It is a question of choosing the right tool for the job: one does not use a hacksaw to cut down a large tree because the hacksaw is needlessly cumbersome on account of being too small and not sharp enough; similarly, to choose improvisation as one's medium for creating profound motivic development akin to that traditionally valued most highly by European classical music is, while not fruitless in every case, certainly a more cumbersome way to go about it.
In this sense, motivic development taken to extremes in an improvised context is essentially another form of empty virtuosity, just like playing high or fast simply for the sake of playing high or fast. I have always felt (and this is, of course, an opinion and not a fact) that the traditional jazz approach of improvising on the harmonic structure of the tune lends every such performance a sort of inherent claim to motivic development. And of course, the possibilities for developing the melody are more numerous than most players (myself included, shamefully) are willing or able to explore in the heat of the moment. Where does further development of melodic cells, contours, or pet licks fit into this picture? For me, it is mostly as a composer and less as an improvisor.

04 November 2006

Smoke and Mirrors

I really hate the way solo tuba CD's are recorded. It would guess that it is an effort to recreate the sense of space and reverberance from a recital or concert hall, but instead, what you get is a recording where you have to turn the volume way up just to be able to hear it, and where the piano is, if not louder, than at least clearer and "closer" sounding than the tuba. I have personally always been partial to the sound obtained from placing the mic much closer, about a foot above the bell of the tuba; that point, however, brings us to the real issue here, which is that the closer one mics the horn, the more audible every little mistake becomes. I think tubists are sacrificing that more "immediate" sound that I prefer in order to appear "perfect." With digital editing and what not, the pressure to eliminate any perceptible mistake in the performance is indeed high. Add to that the fact that these recordings are going to be heard by lots of other tuba players, and one almost has no choice. Nonetheless, I'd like to see that change. In the end, it is futile to try to appear perfect; it is equally futile to try to create the impression of space on recording. That, I would argue, is not the point of recording anyway.

Against The Gesture

To refer to a passage or a piece of music as a gesture is to insult its distinctive characteristics and autonomous nature. As mere gesture, all crescendos are alike, as are all diminuendos, all fugato passages, and so on. To delight in gesture is to hear the music without really listening. An attentive listener comes away from the experience with an impression that defies the very concept of musical gesture as it is impossible to ignore those unique characteristics which lend each piece its engaging (or not) qualities.

30 October 2006

Theory and Composition

Colin Holter of New Music Box makes an interesting point in a recent post when he writes that, "our 'instincts' may themselves be nothing more than theory internalized directly through study and indirectly through listening." As someone who often blindly asserts the superiority of "instincts" over "theory," I feel that I owe myself a closer investigation of this statement. First off, let's distinguish between instincts that are acquired unintentionally/subconsciously and those that one actively seeks to ingrain. As Colin's statement implies, you can make most anything habitual/instinctive if you choose to (this, I assume is what he means by the phrase "internalized directly through study"); conversely, some things enter your psyche without your being aware of them, or perhaps even without you wanting them there (i.e. Colin's "indirectly"). But where it is in fact a conscious choice, it is what you choose to internalize and why that are the more intriguing questions. I have never been concerned as much with the question of mechanism ("direct" versus "indirect" or conscious versus subconscious) as with the nature of the subject matter one chooses to deal with and the reasoning underlying this decision.
As raw information to be processed by the intellect, "theory" per se is intrinsically very different from sound or score. Theory contains interpolations and extrapolations from what the composers actually wrote; it embodies the biases of individual theorists; and it always eliminates more possibilities than it enables. What prevents me from writing a dodecaphonic piece is not so much the fact that I possess only a dilettante's understanding of the theory, but the fact that the music that my instincts (whatever their origin) lead me to create does not conform to this very specific criterion. Furthermore, it bears mentioning that I am statistically far less likely to compose a piece that conforms to "total serialism" than to compose a piece that conforms to Schoenberg's "method of composing with 12 tones." This is because Schoenberg's theory is less comprehensive than that of the total serialists, and hence precludes fewer possibilities (interestingly, Schoenberg was known to follow his musical "instincts" rather than his "theory" if there was a perceived conflict between the two at any given moment in the process, which is not true, I don't think, of many who later took up the various offshoots of his idea). By choosing to listen to and perform such music without dabbling in the underlying prescriptive theory, one chooses to deal with some information and not with other information. That is my choice. I don’t view it as “indirect” or “subconscious” study; to the contrary, I have a good ear and I pay close attention to what certain combinations of notes sound like, and if I have any use for them, well, there they are.
A composer who makes a conscious decision to work in a dodecaphonic idiom has also decided not to work in many other idioms. Conversely, by choosing not to be governed by "theory," one chooses to leave many more moment-to-moment sonic possibilities open. The decision not to internalize prescriptive theory is both equally valid and equally consequential as the decision to do so. Colin's statement clarifies an important point, namely that perhaps there is no such thing as not following one's instincts when composing. To be an exceptionally unique and instinctive exponent of this process is not so much a question of the learning process, but a much simpler question about the subject matter one chooses to learn about, the specific intent behind this decision, and the specific effect on one's work.

28 October 2006

Duck and Cover

Do you nod off at concerts? Do you find the concert hall to be cold and stale? Do you have trouble sitting still for longer than 30 seconds? Well then this is for you. Watch your head though; the metaphors fly at you quickly from all directions.

Finding the Energy to Make Music

I'm not talking about inspiration or motivation; I'm talking about electricity! A cursory glance around my study reveals that of all the tools I rely on as a musician, only the tuba is exclusively human-powered. The rest? A stereo for listening; a desktop computer and printer for music notation, typing and slow internet access; a laptop computer for recording and fast internet access; and an audio interface, microphone and headphones for recording onto the laptop. I use most if not all of these gadgets for multiple hours each day. When I use them all at once, the room is a sea of blinking lights. It looks like the aliens have finally landed. Add to this the fact that I work in this room almost exclusively at night (meaning that there is always a light on), that I waste untold amounts of paper trying to print out my compositions and running into various printer malfunctions and driver conflicts, and that I log more miles in my car than I'd like to admit (about 400-500 each month; you can't carry a tuba on a bike...or at least you shouldn't). The realities of our collective energy usage should be enough to make a conservationist out of anyone, even musicians. We do tend to be left leaning in general. My mom raised me to be environmentally conscious, so much so that even some of my left leaning friends think I'm a little bit obsessive about this. But we also seem to think that what we do is sooooo very important (yes, I'm especially talking to my fellow composers here) that we can suspend our principles for the sake of our work. Or, perhaps we simply have no choice. I wish I had some reliable statistics and a background in electrical engineering. Anyone with such knowledge care to venture a guess as to how I stack up to the average American in terms of energy use?

The New Avant-Garde

I was at a rehearsal a few weeks ago and one of the musicians said something really deep: "Harmony is the new avant-garde." I've heard people say similar things, but this really seemed to put everything in perspective. Of all the elements music has traditionally been divided into, harmony is indeed the most lacking on commercial radio right now. This helped me make a connection to another issue I'd been thinking about recently, which is that for some time now, there has been a wing of "contemporary" music that maintains that the symphony and concerto are dead forms. Others may go as far as to say this about the symphony orchestra in general, and yes, you'll even hear it uttered occasionally that instruments played by real people are obsolete. For the first time ever, I started to wonder a couple of weeks ago if I really had anything meaningful to contribute as an orchestral composer, or perhaps if it was even still possible to have anything meaningful to contribute as an orchestral composer. I still think the answer is yes, at least to the latter if not the former. But with all the recent talk of "saving" classical music, I started to wonder what position it would put us in if classical music indeed "died." The answer is clear: eventually, the orchestra would be new again. People would forget about it, or be born and raised without knowing it ever existed. Then suddenly, a revival would be upon us. The craze would sweep the country. There would be professional and community groups popping up left and right to capitalize on the opportunity. Well...I'm not betting on this happening, but I think that given the present conditions, there is nowhere to go but up: from now on, the more marginalized the orchestra gets, the cooler it gets. Perhaps the symphony is the new avant-garde.

13 October 2006

Mini or Apple?

Question of the day: does or does not Minneapolis have a "scene"? The reason I ask is because of the curious things I hear people say around here. It seems that Joe Schmoe on the street thinks we have a great scene while the musicians think it barely exists. Is this true everywhere or is this unique? Have non-participants simply created the myth of a scene in order to validate their fondness for the area? For my part, I cannot see myself ever making a living working only as a musician in this city, even if we include teaching in the discussion. There are a few paying gigs and a few students; it has bailed me out of some jams for sure, but I perceive a lack of interest, apathy, and often downright hostility towards most of the music I am interested in, even among many fellow musicians, and that includes some pretty mainstream stuff (see my response to a thread at Greg Sandow's blog where I related the story of the reception Bach is getting nowadays). Music is not "in the air" here, despite talk of the great scene. It has been uttered many times within earshot this blogger that the Twin Cities are comparable to a "big city" music scene, that our players stand up to any others, that the improvised music scene here is better than in Chicago, and that we have the "fourth most active" jazz scene in the USA (you can dig that curious claim here. So, without resorting to mere venting, I want to ask anyone from the Twin Cities with an opinion or experience: do we or do we not have a scene on our hands? I want to know who exactly is so "active" here, more active than Dallas, San Francisco, Boston, etc...because it's not me or any of my crew. I also want to know if anyone from other places can corroborate something I was told a few weeks ago, namely that the scene here is so incestuous (even as music scenes go) that touring groups from out of town often don't bother trying to book shows here. Are we truly a Mini Apple, or just mini?

07 October 2006

I used to hate marching band...

...when I was in high school. It was always more about marching than band. Our group was small, so there was no concert band, jazz band, pep band, marching band, etc. etc. We were THE band, whatever capacity we may be called upon to serve in. It is a testament to how much I hated marching band that I actually looked forward to the transition to concert band and jazz band, which were often frustrating in their own right. Fast forward to today: I have been seriously digging this. These guys are not so much a marching jazz band as they are a jazz marching band. This is the kind of thing I tend to avoid for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which are my experiences in high school jazz band, but it occurred to me that you could very easily apply this sort of approach with younger students. It could be done without any written music, and could, though I am generally opposed to this, conceivably include popm music from the radio that kids actually like. (although, in truth, when I ask my tuba students what they listen to, they usually say...NOTHING at all!!!) After establishing the program, upperclassmen could teach incoming freshmen their parts each year in sectional rehearsals for any repeated repertoire; the band could also add new pieces and actually have a say in what they would be. This sort of approach could be hugely successful for programs like the one at my high school, which was (1) small, (2) included a huge range of ability levels, and (3) included some supremely talented percussionists who could not read music. Rather than being forced to first read the music and then committ it to memory (few of the kids were equally comfortable doing both of those things), students could teach each other their parts by ear, and even have a hand in picking and arranging the tunes. This would kill several birds with one stone as far as it would challenge all of the students (not just the ones who play in jazz band) to, if not actually improvise, then perform their parts in a less constrained way than they would in concert band (kind of like the Mingus band operated on recordings like Blues and Roots) and would provide an excellent basis for some very basic teaching of theory. Any JHS or HS band directors out there interested in taking this idea up?

22 September 2006

The Study: Connecting Non-Music Majors with Applied Instructors

Following up on the comments I've received so far about my study, I want to expand on the idea that public universities could be more proactive in finding ways to offer applied study to the general student body. Here are the considerations: (1) Applied study as a college course is unusually expensive because of the teacher-to-student ratio (1:1) (2) Graduate students who aspire to a college teaching position as applied instructors need to gain relevant experience and to document it in such a way that it makes them more employable Simply opening enrollment in one-on-one lessons as an elective to the entire student body is not feasible for music departments because of the cost and the need to ensure competency in prospective students. Nonetheless, it seems to me that where there are both students looking for lessons and instructors who want to teach them, a solution ought to be possible. The main obstacle is making it "formal." In other words, the graduate students could simply offer to teach non-music majors privately, as they are likely already doing with high school age and younger kids from the community, but this would not necessarily make them more employable in practice: the job descriptions for the positions they aspire to usually contain some statement along the lines of "demonstrated success teaching at the college level," and simply taking on more private students who happen to be enrolled in some college or another, while it may indeed be legitimately valuable to their development as teachers, will not necessarily be recognized by potential employers as a valid substitute for acting as a teaching assistant or adjunct instructor. What I propose is a hybrid system. Instead of enrolling each applied student in lessons for university credit, the teaching assistant would enroll themselves in a 1-credit independent study course with an applied faculty member as their advisor. They would be responsible for recruiting students, scheduling lessons, and setting rates. Free from the financial burden of for-credit applied study, the university could still make two crucial contributions: provide the teaching assistant space to use for teaching (in most cases, a medium-sized practice room would be sufficient), and make the name and contact information for each prospective instructor available to interested non-music majors and the community at large, especially through the course catalog, but also through whatever central administrative unit within the department handles enrollment issues. The teaching assistant's faculty advisor would sit in on the lessons throughout the semester. The total amount of such observation would only need to be commensurate with the number of credits the teaching assistant is enrolled in; this time, however, need not be uniformly distributed, meaning that the advisor could easily work around other commitments. The TA, for their part, would need to ensure that they have or can easily recruit enough students to teach for at least this many hours in a given semester). The advisor would coach the TA, observe their progress throughout the semester, and assign a grade; hence, the TA would not only gain valuable teaching experience but also have it documented on their transcript. The advantages of such a situation over the current one are numerous. Most importantly, it connects supply and demand, which benefits both teacher and student. It also provides the TA with the type of direct supervision and feedback that music education majors are required to receive by way of the student teaching requirement, an equivalent to which does not typically exist in the case of performance degrees outside of the TA system, but which could only be highly beneficial to the performance student. Also, whereas colleges that do allow non-majors to register for lessons typically do so by audition only in order to assure a certain level of competency, the instructor would have the option to accept raw beginners as well, an experience that, while perhaps not directly applicable to their future as instructors at the college level, can only be beneficial and eye-opening overall. There are undoubtedly a few students at every school who have never played an instrument but would like to at least give it a shot casually, and this would create an opportunity for them that does not presently exist in the college environment (piano and guitar are, to my knowledge, the only notable exceptions). Finally, much ink and emotion has been spilled over the fact that music schools (and perhaps colleges in general) do not prepare students for the harsh realities of the “real world.” I have, in fact, heard it suggested numerous times that aspiring performers and composers would be better off majoring in business than in music. Well, here is a chance for students to get in touch with their inner entrepreneur. Although I believe that the college itself essentially has an obligation to fulfill by referring interested non-music majors to prospective instructors, my system is still somewhat dependent on the ability of the prospective teacher to recruit students from both inside and outside of the immediate college environment. This is certainly a demand that is rarely placed on music students, but also one which could only strengthen their pedigree as freelancers. The primary disadvantage here is that the students taught by the TA in this scenario do not receive college credit. It bears mentioning here the unfortunate fact that given the present cost of college credits nationwide, studying an instrument through a college is absurdly expensive in comparison to going through a private instructor or even a music store or independent music school. Before my alma mater switched to a flat-rate credit system, credits were around $270 each. Weekly hour lessons for a 15 week semester were 4 credits, and we were charged an additional fee of several hundred dollars per 2 credits of lessons. I estimated at the time that each lesson was costing nearly $100. Of course, elite musicians who are in high demand do occasionally charge this much or more, and many of the instructors at my school were certainly worthy of being considered as part of this group. On the other hand, one can get lessons from a competent independent instructor for less than half this much (often much less) and I'm assuming that to the students who would be served by my proposal (i.e. non-music majors), the decrease in cost from exorbitant to affordable would far outweigh any decrease in the quality of instruction from world-class to merely competent. Another obstacle I can foresee is the possibility that there are legal problems with a public institution presiding over this kind of system, one where the students are paying the teaching assistant "under the table." On the other hand, the instructor would not be an employee of the school but merely registered for a class. And as mentioned earlier, many graduate students teach independently anyway; could it possibly be illegal for the institution to merely acknowledge that this takes place as long as the income is reported for tax purposes? Finally, it bears mentioning that students tend to be disappointed when turned over to a TA in lieu of a professor as this is often interpreted (and this is probably correct most of the time) to mean that they are viewed as somehow less important. Could this serve as a deterrent to prospective applied students and defeat the purpose of implementing such a system? In a prestigious department, at least, this perception should be easily overcome after the independent study program has been in place for a few years as students will come to realize that they are dealing with instructors who are themselves prepared to assume a professorship. I do, however, think that this system could be implemented quite effectively even where the TA's are undergraduate upperclassmen. I, for one, would have jumped at the chance as a senior in college as I have spent the time immediately following college acclimating myself to the demands of independent private teaching (an activity which most of us performance majors will be taking up at some point whether we initially plan on it or not). This is certainly a topic where I could use some feedback from professors and administrators. Anyone out there?

A (Non-) Tribute to the Tributes

Just as TV and movie producers seem to be running low on ideas these days, it seems like every other new jazz release is a tribute to someone else. Do we really have nothing better to do than worship our elders? Are we all just so smitten with dead guys that we just can't go on without paying homage? Or is this just a marketing ploy? When classical musicians, who have to be at least as desperate as jazz players when it comes to CD sales, need to name drop, all they have to do is program the music of a famous composer. It's not often that one sees albums with titles like "Tribute to Mozart" or "Joe Schmoe Pays Homage to the Total Serialists." I know it's petty, but at the least, I'd rather see more albums with titles like "Marsalis Plays Monk" or "Joe Henderson plays the music of Billy Strayhorn" just to emphasize that we are indeed saluting the music and not the person, as well as that the modern artist is actually making a musical contribution to the album rather than simply trying to ride the coattails of the masters. In jazz, hero worship is often a symptom of dogma. Now that the tribute thing is old news, it seems that artists and promoters feel they have to drop multiple names in order to get our attention. Directions in Music was devoted to the music of John Coltrane AND Miles Davis. Meanwhile, Robin Eubanks pays tribute to four (count 'em, four) trombonists on a single album, as if the relative obscurity of the instrument means that it's foremost exponents are each about a quarter as marketable as those on more visible instruments. And I'll vomit if I hear about another guitar album that makes a pun on "Wes" and "West." I count myself as a fan of each and every one of the artists I've mentioned, whether they are giving or receiving the salute. I myself aspire to record an entire album of Oliver Nelson tunes; I even penned an original entitled "Tribute to Oliver Nelson" at the age of 19. However, I've soured somewhat on this idea because I'm growing weary of all the tributes. Indeed, I've heard the old farts talk as if anything short of dedicating an album to a given major figure is tantamount to spitting on their grave. We need to do away with this line of thinking. After all, dropping names for financial benefit represents a greater level of disrespect than does mere ignorance. The gesture is starting to lose its significance. If we’re going to salute, let’s do it out of genuine reverence for the music of others and organic musical inspiration from within ourselves.

30 August 2006

Artificial Acoustics

Had the pleaure of taking in a marimba recital by Nathaniel Bartlett yesterday. He has a very interesting and surprisingly (to me) successful system of creating the iilusion of a larger concert hall. Four speakers are set up surrounding the audience; mics pick up the sound of the instrument, which goes to a computer; the computer adds the reverb and the next thing you know, you're in a large, reverberant room. At first, I thought to myself "How gimmicky" but it actually worked VERY well. Perhaps tuba players will be stealing this technique in the near future as our instruments are also made to sound ideal in larger, more reverberant spaces than are often available. Aside from matters of acoustics, it bears mentioning that Mr. Bartlett showed himself to be a fine player and very intelligent speaker.

26 August 2006

Study of Public University Music Programs

Read my study here. Post any thoughts you might have as comments to this thread.

20 August 2006

My Name Is Albert Ayler

Saw this short film yesterday as part of the Sound Unseen Festival. Ayler is one of those figures who, despite my best efforts to educate myself about as much music as possible, I still have barely had a chance to listen to at all. Unfortunately, while the movie was exceptionally informative, I still didn't get to hear much music. It serves as a reminder that being an "expert" means listening and digesting a lot of actual music rather than keeping track of biographies. The biographies, after all, are only significant because of the music that the individual made. I need to check out some Ayler.

18 August 2006

Musicologists: You Have a Choice to Make

It was long before my time but nonetheless not too terribly long ago that a college course on the history of European classical music would simply have been called "Music History." Somewhere in the intervening time period, Europeans (and Americans) have become more aware, respectful (and in some cases enamored) of musical traditions from other parts of the world, some of which rival the European tradition in age, refinement, or both. In an effort to acknowledge these traditions and the place they occupy in their respective cultures, the textbook used by most university music departments in their history classes now bears the title "A History of Western Music." But by the time it finally caught on, this minor qualification was wholly insufficient, for the United States had become the scene of a musical cross-polinization that would pose even stickier problems. Since that time, jazz, blues, rock, pop, and rap musicians (man, am I going to take some heat for those last two) have all made significant contributions to Westerm music per se, but none are represented adequately in most universities' music degree program curricula. Musicologists have seemingly chosen to lump this vast body of work together, equating jazz with rock with rap, and make no effort to consider works individually, thus precluding the drawing of any distinction between meritorious and superficial works from each area. This is not "Music History" or even "Western Music History"; it is "Western Classical Music History." How uncomfortable it would make these musicologists to sample the far-reaching and vital European contributions to jazz. How enlightening it could be for them to experience a profound musical statement made by an electric guitarist. And how embarrassing it would be to have a genre in the title of their course or textbook (everyone knows genres are, like, so last century). Alas, it seems that they have avoided it as long as they can. Thelonious Monk is very Western and so very musical; to omit his work from any history of Western music is becoming more egregious with each passing day. Multiply this single case by several hundred others, and thus a technicality balloons into a crisis. Hence, to the musicologists out there, I propose two options regarding next year's courses: add an adjective or add a semester.

How do I drive this thing?

This blog will be devoted to all things musical. I will not be discussing what I had for dinner last night or complaining about my friends. If you absolutely must know these things, send me an e-mail or something. I want to use this space for discussion and debate about various musical topics. I am interested in classical music, for one, but this is not a "saving classical music" site. I am working on creating a personal website that will feature a large-scale project of mine that I hope to debate here soon. Stay tuned for that. Until then, read my senseless rants and tell me what you think.