Why bother composing?

Jeffrey Parola sounds kinda bummed in his latest blog post. He outlines the all too familiar plight of the contemporary concert music composer (no appreciation, money, and little hope of either). He then earnestly asks: Why do we bother?

In my mind the answer is simple. Creation of music that didn’t exist before HAS to be its own reward, devoid of compensation, recognition, or praise. If that drive for creation for its own sake doesn’t exist, I might humbly suggest that a composer should just stop.

Praise is nice, and earning a living doing something that you love is great, but just because you love something doesn’t mean you can make a living at it. And just because you wrote something doesn’t mean anyone should care. Money and acknowledgement have to be secondary concerns for a composer.

Of course we should try to capitalize on our work. Self-promote, market, try to get people to listen, care, and support . But that’s not WHY you should write. You write because no one else will create the things that you will create. And ideally you will love what you’ve written so much that promotion will be easy and enthusiasm will be contagious. But even if it’s not, you should like what you’ve created so much that even if no one else seems to care, it was worth the effort.

Perhaps that sounds kinda glib and self evident. But there’s a real nugget in there. A composer should think about the music they love and why they love it. They should think about how they feel when they listen to it. Then they should listen to their own music, and if they don’t feel similarly, maybe they’re doing something wrong. After all, if you don’t love listening to your own work passionately, why should anyone else?

And if you DO love listening to your own work, what else do you really need? Perhaps money and adulation will follow, perhaps it won’t. But you’ve made music that you love and that you love to hear. Strive for those things that we associate with success, but don’t let those goals ever be mistaken for the real reason you write music.

(By the way, you should listen Jeffrey’s work. It’s some really lovely stuff. All of it. And then maybe go write some of your own.)

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Aug 2012

June 24 – Sneak Peak of Failing That (my solo opera)

I’ve been doing a lot of composing so far this year. In addition to an encore for the Hilary Hahn competition (which didn’t result in an honorable mention, but did result in a pretty cool piece for violin and piano), I’ve been chugging away on the solo opera that’s been a good four years in the making. I’ve got a solid chunk of 50 minutes of music (i.e. 50 milliWagners) composed, which is about two thirds of the final piece.


I’m going to perform that 50 minute chunk as part of the Solo Sunday performance series at Stage Werx. If you’re in San Francisco next weekend, please come on by.

Failing That – A Minor Tragedy
Part of Solo Sundays
7pm Sunday, June 24
446 Valencia St, SF CA


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Jun 2012

The Tauntaun Song

Last month I participated in A Musical Emergency, which is a loose collective of theater and music folks in SF that turns popular stories or movies into full length musicals. They divide the story up into bite sized chunks and everyone’s responsible for telling their part of the story however they feel. The movie was Empire Strikes Back. And the scene I chose was the scene where Han saves Luke from Hoth. Sung from the perspective of the Tauntaun. I wrote the first half and adapted the second half from A Little Fall Of Rain from Les Miz. It’s… a little sad. I don’t know about you, but that scene kinda traumatized me. I think it shows.

May the 4th Be With You

(Oh, and I took the helmet and chest panel off before sitting at the piano. It’s hard to play in the full costume.)

Edit: I posted a link to a higher quality video. Enjoy.

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May 2012

I Hate This So You Can Tell Who I Am

Today’s blog entry in Deceptive Cadence echos a theme of my Voice Box radio show with Chloe Veltman and the corresponding conversation on Lisa Hirsch’s blog. Specifically, musical taste, both what you love and despise, is often more about self identification, ego, and image than it is about the music at hand. Some of the comments (predictably, this is an NPR blog after all) argue that opera is clearly more worthy since singers dedicate decades of their lives and thousands of dollars to honing their craft. But even that argument buys into it’s own narrative of ‘hard work and dedication’ over the narrative of ‘overcoming a hostile environment through self promotion’ prevalent in rap. (Although I’m veering dangerously close to a cultural relativism war that I’m ill-equipped for.)

I know which I prefer (even though I dislike most opera). But of course I would. And even those who loudly extoll the virtues of both wear their eclecticism on their sleeves. To paraphrase Buckaroo Banzai, No matter what you like, there you are.


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Feb 2012

Come for the Schoenberg, stay for the Johnson

In today's very special episode, Pierrot learns that you can "Just Say No" to the moon and STILL be cool.

The Avant Music Festival got a lot of press earlier this week for their part in the John Cage centennial, a sold out marathon concert of his works. While I missed that extravaganza, I was able to swing by for the third concert of this, their third year. The first half was dedicated to Schoenberg’s seminal expressionist work, Pierrot Lunaire, the second to a song cycle by composer Jenny Olivia Johnson.

Premiered in 1912, Pierrot Lunaire represents one half of a great fork in the road of 20th century music. If one follows the road labeled Pierrot, one ends up in the expanse of expressionist atonalism and serialism. If one follows the road labeled Le Sacre (premiered just seven months later), one ends up in the world of polytonal neoclassicism. My tastes have always leaned towards the latter path, and while there are many works down the heady Viennese path that I love (more often than not, they’re composed by Berg) much of Schoenberg’s work leaves me cold.

Pierrot is not an exception. It’s a prickly chin-scratcher with a dense poetic text that feels oh so arty that it simply MUST be good for you. There are bits that are genuinely funny (those wacky German expressionists, smoking their bald pates) but most of the time I feel like I’m far too removed from the culture to really understand what’s supposed to be going on.

Wednesday’s performance was a strong one. The ensemble chose to stage the work, with projections, semi-mobile instrumentalists and a dancer performing the role of Pierrot. The multi-media aspect helped distract me from the chilly material and emphasized Schoenberg’s unique handling of the ensemble, with different movements featuring different groupings of instruments. Megan Schubert’s Sprechstimme was beautifully expressive with a ringing soprano head resonance that was, for me, a welcome change from the gruffer, Lotte Lenye-like contralto hues that I seem to associate with the technique.

But the surprise triumph of the evening was Jenny Olivia Johnson’s deeply moving and beautiful meditations on the trials of young adult-hood. Her After School Vespers combines four songs, each focusing on topics such as cutting, binge drinking, and molestation. If Schoenberg’s work was from a culture too foreign to relate to, Johnson’s ran the risk of covering territory too familiar to be taken seriously.

But more often than not, Johnson’s treatments are effective, particularly Cutting with its jarring use of a driving industrial sample, and Dollar Beers (Redondo Beach ’96) with its languorous descending chord progression. The latter two pieces, while also lovely and haunting, exposed a stylistic similarity in the cycle that made one yearn for more variety. The structure for each song seemed repetitive, a soprano intones individual notes in a haze of reverb as the ensemble builds diatonic clusters. Intensity builds slowly, eventually reaching a climax that finds the soprano sustaining fortissimo notes at the upper end of her register, a device that is perhaps best used only once in a song cycle. Still, when the concert was finished, I found myself disappointed that there was no recording of the piece for me to buy at the merch table. These are pieces I am looking forward to hearing again (as opposed to Pierrot, which I only need to hear once a decade, per stipulations of contemporary composer’s collective agreement no. 3324. I’m certified moon-sickness free until 2022.)

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Feb 2012

Review: Little Match Girl Passion – Death Speaks

To get to Dinkelspiel Auditorium for an 8pm concert on a Wednesday requires leaving San Francisco at 6pm, an hour to get to Palo Alto fighting traffic all the way, and then another 45 minutes to an hour to fight the crowds to get a scarce campus parking space. Things will be different when Stanford Lively Arts moves to their new Bing Concert Hall next year, but last week this two hour pre show experience consisting of two of the least pleasant activities known to modern man might explain the surprising number of empty seats for a world premiere concert featuring the rock stars (literally) of the new music scene.

David Lang‘s The Little Match Girl Passion was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2008 and spawned a co-commission from Carnegie Hall and Stanford Lively Arts, resulting in the night’s other work Death Speaks. The first piece (according to Lang’s pre-show speech, specifically made to allow those poor souls still searching for parking a chance to find their seats) came from Lang’s urge to explore the liturgical history of classical music in a context outside of religion. What would happen if we take the witnessing of Jesus’s suffering and instead witness an ordinary person’s suffering. Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of a street waif freezing to death in plain sight serves as the narrative structure for this experiment.

And a most successful experiment it is. The piece is exquisitely sung by Paul Hillier’s Theater Of Voices, while accompanying themselves with an assortment of percussion instruments. The pathos and emotional heft of the story is belied by the pristine, almost chilly treatment of the text. The story is told in simple language, witnessing a painful tragedy in a series of matter of fact observations (“So the little girl went on with her little naked feet, which were quite red and blue with the cold.”) Lang sets this text on a simple, halting, repeating staccato line which is both impassive and somewhat childlike. There is little room for the voice to impose any sort of expression on these lines, which seems to make us, the audience, the true witnesses, respond with that much more intensity, with more outrage. How dare that soprano sing of those red and blue feet without DOING something about it! Interspersed in the narrative were moments of beatific beauty, invocations of mercy and patience and suffering. The piece is moving, devastating, and gorgeous, a monument to a religion of humanity that goes beyond any doctrine.

For the follow up piece, Lang took the bits of text throughout Schubert’s songs where Death is personified and given a voice. He then assembled an all star cast that reads as the who’s who of the new music world:  Bryce Dessner (of The National), Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond), Owen Pallett (of Owen Pallett) and Nico Muhly (of everywhere). I wish I could say the new piece was anywhere near as effective a work as the first half. Lang chose to stretch the text over longer vocal lines lines. In the audience talk back session afterwards he explained that he wanted to emphasize the text (and Worden’s voice) more, but the effect of elongating the text was to reduce it to sound and pitch as opposed to words and meaning. And without a narrative to latch onto, the piece washes over without much investment or involvement on a first listen.

Perhaps most disappointing, with the exception of Worden’s voice (and Pallett’s voice in an all too brief section of the final song), the parts could have been played by any instrumentalists familiar with modern performance practices. There was precious little Muhly-ness, Pallett-ness, or Dessner-ness on display, they all seemed subsumed in the common goal of Lang-ness, which may have been quite disappointing to concertgoers enticed by the high profile ensemble. A more cynical person than myself might catch a whiff of stunt casting, a move designed to please marketing departments everywhere. But for more charitable folks (such as myself) this was a genuine mutual admiration society whose sum ended up, in this case at least, much less than the parts.

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Jan 2012

The worst music ever written

A couple of weeks ago I recorded an episode of VoiceBox with Chloe Veltman about the worst vocal music ever written. While preparing for the show I did my best to try to analyze the nature of “badness”, perhaps even creating a taxonomy of characteristics that contribute to bad music. The goal was to not simply list bad songs, but to try to get a better understanding of what makes bad bad.

One thing that we found was that it was much easier to judge the merits of popular music. As Chloe pointed out in her blog entry about the show, people are much less comfortable imposing such value judgments on classical music. I think this is for a few reasons. For one thing, aficionados of classical music often harbor notions that their music has more merit than mere “popular” music. At the same time, they feel that their music is rarified and, therefore, under constant threat of marginalization (witness the death of classical music that’s been a constant source of print articles over the past several decades). From this perspective saying that a particular piece of classical music is “bad” exposes you attacks of “you’re just not smart enough to get it” from one end and provides ammunition to those folks who don’t like classical music on the other.

For that reason, most of the show focuses on popular music, which, fortunately, has many examples of bad music. I’ll probably make some enemies with this show. My own subjective tastes leak through. Fans of Bare Naked Ladies and Celine Dion might end up boycotting my site, but I think most of my other examples of bad music will be generally agreed upon.

I’m particularly fond of the last portion of the show where I launch into a spirited case for The Shaggs aptly named “Philosophy of the World” as being a truly amazing album. I will stand by that argument until I die. There is no other album like it. It exists outside of judgment, convention, or taste. It exists outside of reason. It out-Duchamps Duchamp, out-Cages Cage. It is the voice of the very artistic soul of mankind channeled through three adolescent girls by means of sixties guitar rock. I am so glad it exists.

If you don’t like it, you’re just not smart enough to get it.

To hear the entire broadcast until the end of the week (Jan 20, 2012), visit this link to get the KALW local music player, then scroll to the bottom and click on “VoiceBox with Chloe Veltman”


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Jan 2012

Is Sondheim Classical?

The Australian Broadcasting Company recently released a list of the “Top 100 Classical Pieces of the 20th Century.”  As with any list, there is much fodder for discussion, debate and derision (judging from this list, Stravinsky apparently stopped composing after 1913). Blogger, pianist, and educator Elissa Milne was particularly disturbed by the complete omission of Sondheim’s work, particularly considering the inclusion of Bernstein’s West Side Story in the top 20.

Now I love Sondheim’s work with a fiery passion. My first exposure to Sweeney Todd in middle school forever altered my understanding of musical theater and its possibilities. The most viewed posts on this blog are in depth analysis of his works. Stephen Sondheim is no slouch. However, I find that his exclusion from this list of classical works, even in light of West Side Story‘s inclusion, makes perfect sense. There is something inherently more classical about West Side Story than any of Sondheim’s work.

In my admittedly unconvincing responses to Elissa’s tweets, character challenged as they were, I pointed out that West Side Story is more suited for the concert hall with symphonic suites and adaptations, and that there are nothing like the ballets of West Side Story in Sondheim’s work (with the exception of the “Cookie Chase” in Anyone Can Whistle, which seems, like of much that piece, rather self conscious). But these are more symptoms than causes. The real reasons that Sondheim’s works are inherently unclassical is also their primary strengths. I would characterize these strengths as a combination of specificity and inviolability.

The beauty of Sondheim’s music and lyrics are that they are Read the rest of this entry →

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Dec 2011

Glacial is the New Black: Satyagraha and Shen Wei

Stare at image for 2 hours. Intermission. Resume staring.

Somewhere imprinted in my brain is a sacred rule of story: take only as much time as you need to get an idea across. Get in, make your point, get out. Keep things moving and don’t lose your audience. But this week in New York two separate pieces, both non-narrative, reduced me to tears by combining a staggeringly slow pace with one or two immense gestures of inspired stagecraft that hit at just the right moment.

SPOILER ALERT – the unexpected nature of these gestures contributed much to their impact. If you plan on seeing either of the pieces discussed, reading this essay could well rob you of that discovery. Shen Wei often tours the country and you almost certainly have a great opportunity to see Satyagraha on screen in your local movie theater this Wednesday, Dec 7 via the Met’s Live in HD program. Perhaps go see the work and then come back and read this.

The Shen Wei Dance Company performed an evening of works adapted or created  for the mammoth Park Avenue Armory space. Read the rest of this entry →

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Dec 2011

Thoughts on Robert Ashley’s “That Morning Thing”

This is not the morning thing you're looking for...

Composer Robert Ashley’s “opera” (experimental performance piece is a more appropriate name, although if an opera is a multifaceted convolution of music, text, and motion, I suppose this is an opera) That Morning Thing, produced for the first time in 40 years at The Kitchen as part of the Performa 11 biennial, is among the most difficult pieces I’ve experienced. It’s dark. Dark in a way that I wasn’t expecting, dark in a visceral, what the heck just happened to me, I didn’t sign up for this kinda dark. This isn’t (necessarily) a bad thing. But it is a thing that is likely to stick with me for a while. What follows is less a review as it is an effort to come to terms with what I saw and how I responded to it.

Please note, a work like this is bound to be understood in a very subjective manner (if any attempt is made to understand it at all). I make no claims at all that my thoughts are in any way informed, intelligent, or even coherent. Whether my experience with the piece has anything to do with the composers intention is difficult to know, but recording my response may be helpful to myself, or anyone else wrestling with the piece.

The piece starts out innocuously enough. Read the rest of this entry →

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Nov 2011