15 December 2008


One of the most significant validations of my disinclination towards taking composition lessons came when I overheard two graduate comp students sounding more like a couple of undergraduate performance majors. "When's you're next lesson?" one asked the other. "Tomorrow," he replied, in obvious anguish, "and I haven't written anything this week."

The successful imposition of a steady rate of production on the creative process is sometimes cited as an important exercise in compositional potency, akin to weight lifting in athletics, or long tones in brass playing. Assuming they can cut it, this prepares the student for a career as a Professional Composer, which entails accepting commissions with strict deadlines and turning out pieces to meet them the way bakers turn out loaves of bread every morning.

I once read, though I've forgotten where, that Webern's concept of condensation taken together with his relatively small output led some of his more devout followers to demonize high rates of compositional productivity in general. This, I think, would be just as much of a mistake as to expect everyone to be able to compose right on schedule.

It is becoming more apparent to me that I am not getting any better at meeting deadlines, and that my best work is done when it is undertaken just because, not only without a specific deadline, but also without any real idea of if or when it might be performed. I'm hardly the first person to feel this way, and yet the idea that Professional Composers must learn to deliver the goods on time in order to earn their stripes persists. Hence, though it's hard to say I'm happy not to have commissions piling up, I do see a silver lining in that I'm free to do what I want and write on my own schedule. I also am not any more inclined to see a composition teacher than I was before, since that would only earn me the worst of both worlds (all the deadlines, none of the performances).

See Satie's The Musician's Day for a piece of writing that captures the absurdity of scheduling time to be creative.

10 December 2008

Contradictions To Be Done Away With

(1) Louis Armstrong took his unconventional trumpet and vocal technique and figured out how to make great music with it, but Miles Davis just didn't know how to play the trumpet.

(2) Music that needs to be explained is too intellectual, but musicians that don't talk to their audience are arrogant.

(3) Jazz originated in the West, but it doesn't belong in a book or a course entitled "A History of Western Music."

(4) White jazz musicians who apply classical concepts to their jazz work are dishonoring jazz's African-American origins, but white jazz musicians who overtly imitate seminal African-American artists are just stealing from them for their own material gain, and/or because they have nothing original to say.

(5) No one wants to be labeled "avant-garde" by others (especially in person), but everyone labels themselves "avant-garde" given the chance (especially on their MySpace pages).

08 December 2008


The danger early on for me was being typecast as a percussion composer. I wrote a couple of little percussion pieces when I was still a student that began to get played a lot and are still played a lot, but I then realized that everyone was thinking of me as "Oh, he writes great percussion music." And so I purposely have said no for many, many years to any percussion ensemble request because I just don't want to be thought of as just that.

-Composer Christopher Rouse on Typecasting

I read those words several months ago and gave a cursory thought to those composers (including, I suspect, many "tuba composers") who have, in fact, not merely fallen into but actively cultivated such a typecast reputation as a way of ensuring performances and exposure from sources (like tuba players) eager to have anything they can get their hands on in the way of new music (note lower case). As a composer who could use some performances and exposure myself, I also had to snicker at the idea of turning down a commission of any kind, although I suppose it's more understandable from someone like Rouse who has had a great amount of success.

What only recently occurred to me, and hence reminded me of ths article, is that in my determination to prove the viability of the tuba in jazz, I have willingly contributed to my own typecasting as a jazz specialist. While this has no doubt yielded a smattering of success in this particular area, I've recently realized that the reason I have no opportunities whatsoever to perform classical music is that I haven't been trying real hard to find them. Viewing things in contrast to my jazz experience, where I've always been the outsider, it once seemed safe to assume that since my instrument was already a "standard" part of the orchestra, making things happen on the classical side would be easier. What I've since realized is that working without institutional support poses many of the same challenges to a classical musicians as a jazz musician, and that the time has come to apply the jazz model to my classical endeavors.

Since I first began playing professional (read: paying) gigs as a teen, a good 95% of those gigs have been non-classical. These have been mostly "money gigs," usually involving doing something not so near and dear to my heart, like being part of an ad hoc dixie-pep band for a football-themed US Bank regional conference. It's not easy to find a gig of any kind (let alone a paying one) playing my own music, yet "jazz" of almost any kind seems to be tolerated by quite a few bars and restaurants as peripherally related to the rock and pop that they normally host. This imputed similarity seems to me to be impossible without the counterweight of classical music dragging the stylistic center of gravity so far to the other side: what I do and what these venues normally host could not possibly be considered similar at all without there being something so dissimilar from both of them, something so demonized both aesthetically and socially in these circles, lurking out there beyond the pale. If you show up with a drum set, that's usually enough; show up with a stack of charts and music stands and refuse to go through the PA, and you start to draw negative attention to yourself.

For the last several years, my emphasis on playing jazz has led me to table any serious searching for alternative venues for concert music (an issue of great importance to me, if not only in theory) simply because this imputed similarity ensures that I at least have the option of performing at the established venues, if only infrequently, and this, being the path of least resistance, is the one I've taken. I do, however, take offense to the afore mentioned dynamic that makes this possible; I also have higher aspirations than to play in bars for the rest of my life, no matter what kind of music it is. Seeing that such venues likely wouldn't tolerate a "classical" presentation (though I look forward to duping them into it at some point just to see what happens), a renewed dedication to performing "classical" music necessitates a renewed search for appropriate places to present it, and (equally difficult) people to perform it with.

Though things are far from peachy in the Minneapolis jazz scene, there is at least a small network of accomplished players devoted to writing and performing their own music, as well as resurrecting works of the occasional forgotten genius, and making a good faith effort to find or make opportunities to present this work publicly. I can't say the same about classical music: the mention of getting a chamber group together to operate along these lines has been met more than once with, "When you have a [paying] gig lined up, let me know." The brass quintet in particular seems to be viewed by many as simply a cash cow project for the church and wedding circuits (for the record, if I ever get married, I want the Milo Fine Free Jazz Ensemble to play). The possibility that 5 brass players might "start a band" as an outlet for their own creativity rather than a business venture seems to be a remote one in these parts.

As an alternative to Greg Sandow's extolling of pop culture and Drew McManus' extolling of tuba players (flattered as we are, he obviously hasn't seen our dark side) as providing models for reforming the attitudes and presentation of classical music, I would humbly suggest that classical musicians look to the jazz world for a better model of vitality and viability. It's true, the saying goes that the best way to make a million dollars playing jazz is to start with 2 million; I'm not talking about money here. Money can do you-know-what with itself. I'm still waiting to meet classical players who put the realization of their artistic vision ahead of getting paid for playing their instrument any way they can. Certainly, there are plenty of non-classical players who fall into this trap as well, but there also seem to be enough high-minded ones to make up the difference.

To overcome this, I've decided that maybe I have to undo some of the typecasting that I've worked so hard to establish. Obviously, the idea, via Rouse, of refusing to play jazz anymore doesn't appeal to me at all (if Rouse really loved writing for percussion, he wouldn't/couldn't have refused commissions to do it). Instead, I've resolved to attempt to import just a little bit of the selfless devotion to art that is, in my limited experience, on display more often in jazz circles than classical ones. Once I'm typecast as someone who can't be typecast, I'll know I've succeeded.