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.