Posts Tagged ‘ChamberMusic’

Let’s Get Ready To Rumble!

Time to put the game face on. It’s about to get real. I’m goin’ big or goin’ home. (Continue with the conspicuously out of place sports phrases at will.)

Very proud to announce that the string quartet I composed in Paris this past summer as part of the EAMA program “Do A Little Dance” was selected as one of sixteen pieces to compete in the String Quartet Smackdown presented by Golden Hornet Productions on November 3 in Austin, TX.

And what’s a String Quartet Smackdown, you ask? It’s kinda brilliant. Sixteen pieces, each four minutes long, are paired off. The first minute of each piece is performed (by the Tosca Quartet) and the audience votes with their mobile devices to determine which pieces they want to advance. The remaining eight pieces go to the next round, when TWO minutes of the piece are played. Then four pieces get THREE minutes played, and finally two pieces are played in their entirety. The winner gets a valuable cash prize and bragging rights (and hopefully some big ornate trophy thing or maybe even a giant belt).

Looking at the lineup of other pieces, I’m in some pretty formidable company. Ruben Naeff‘s piece was written for the JACK quartet, Simon Fink has done work with eighth blackbirdSteven Snowden will have the home advantage, hailing from Austin himself, but there’s a chance he’ll actually be in Portugal on his Fulbright to work on interactive motion capture systems for large installations, which would even the playing field a bit. But there’s no denying, this is the big leagues. And no matter the outcome, it’s an honor just to share the stage.

If you happen to be in Austin on November 3, please go and support our team. And by ‘our team’ I mean ‘independent new music’.



Oct 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.)


Feb 2012

Hey look! I’m a muse!

I first saw the name Ken Malucelli when I purchased the CASA christmas songbook in 1993 (all arranged by Ken and Deke Sharon). Years later Ken was one of the judges at the Harmony Sweepstakes competition when a subset of The Richter Scales performed a set of original songs I had written. (We closed with a song entitled “I Hate A Cappella” penned just for that event, which incidentally, consists entirely of a cappella groups. We didn’t win.)

I didn’t actually work with Ken until 2004 when I started singing with his holiday caroling outfit, The Merrie Olde Christmas Carolers. That led to a number of interesting side a cappella gigs, including a particularly disastrous Valentines Day serenade that formed the basis for my first solo show, Better Loving Through Chemistry in 2006. Since then we’ve traveled through the far reaches of the western United States together, primarily while presenting Oh Mr Sousahis musical biography of the March King. I get to play Sousa. (Which is a great excuse for some seriously goofy facial hair!)

Ken is something of an institution in the Bay Area music world, having worked with the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Opera, Chanticleer, the Lamplighters and dozens of other groups. So I was deeply honored when Ken wrote to me to tell me that my own composition recital in April inspired him to write some new work, a setting of W. S. Gilbert verse for small chamber ensemble. What’s more he dedicated these pieces to me, and composed them specifically with my voice in mind.

Saturday evening we’ll be premiering the first song at the National Association of Composers concert in San Francisco. It’s The Yarn of the Nancy Bell, a grisly sea shanty in the vein of Edward Gorey. It is, as is much of Ken’s work, an absolute hoot. We’ll be at the Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street in San Francisco. 8pm.


Nov 2011

String Quartet video is up

The last bit of video from the concert has been posted. Liana, Stephanie, Evan, and Lucas did a great job with the quartet and I’ll be forever grateful to Mark Casey for finding them last year.

The quartet got a great response at the concert and is consistently the piece that people have singled out in subsequent conversations. I’m quite happy with the way it’s turned out and I’m still hoping that it will have a life of its own. So far, though, contemporary chamber music doesn’t seem to be a “If you write it, they will come” sort of endeavor. Still, I’m more confident than ever that this piece does not suck.

Here are the links to the videos (and program notes) for each individual movement.

Movement 1 – On the Rails

Movement 2 – Tango a la Peachy

Movement 3 – Off the Rails



May 2011

Composer, emerge thyself!

Can I come out yet?

Now that the smoke has cleared after last weekend’s ginormous recital/premiere extravaganza, it’s time to pop out of the foxhole and see what the past five months of preparation has wrought.

It was a big project. Self produce an evening long concert of new music, all written by myself. It seemed like the entrepreneurial thing for a fledgling composer to do.

For those of you that don’t know, self-production is a lot of work. Assembling the artists, coordinating schedules, finding venues… not to mention marketing and publicity, with a few grant applications on the side (all skills that have very little to do with composition). And then there’s the nitty gritty bits like laying out a program, distributing flyers around town, and buying the right amount of crackers for the post concert reception. And, of course, there’s the small matter of getting the music to sound right.

So how did it go?

Read the rest of this entry →


May 2011

Tonight: Free chamber music at the DeYoung

Does this look like what Debussy sounds like?

The Cypress String Quartet is performing Debussy’s luminous String Quartet as well as a piece by Pulitzer Prize winning Jennifer Higdon at the DeYoung tonight at 7pm in the Koret Auditorium. The general idea is to capitalize on the connection between the impressionism exhibit on loan from the d’Orsay and the impressionist musical movement largely associated with Debussy. I’m wary of drawing connections between styles of visual arts  and music but like it or not, there’s an almost unshakeable association between the work of Ravel and Debussy and gauzy representations of lakes and ballerinas.

But who’s complaining? This is going to be great music performed by a top notch ensemble. And it’s free! (Although I think it costs extra to see the actual exhibit.) Come on out.


Jul 2010

Collect all three!

The string quartet is DONE! Actually, it was done a year ago, but now it’s been premiered, recorded, annotated, and released to the public.

The third movement Off the Rails is finally available for listening and downloading and reading about and whatnot.

So what happens now? Hmm. Good question. I’ve already submitted it to several competitions to little effect, but those are pretty much crapshoots (and the only recording at the time was a sub-optimal midi realization).

Well, what do composers really want? To create music and to have people hear the music they’ve created. So, in no particular order, here are things I can actively do to try to further these goals:

  • Network to get the piece introduced into an established quartet’s repertoire.
  • Keep entering competitions and festivals.
  • Give away the audio tracks to whoever wants to hear them.
  • Make some youtube video with potential for virality.
  • Advertise the piece using Google AdWords. (Paying to give something away for free!)

So, dear reader, if you have any other ideas to suggest, or a desire to help with any of the above mentioned action items, PLEASE feel free.

Movement two is released. Take a listen…

The second movement of my string quartet has been mixed and edited and the program notes have been written up.

And if you haven’t yet listened to the first movement, check it out here:

The third movement is mostly finished and will be released very soon.


Apr 2010

First movement now available for download

I’m happy to announce that the first movement of my string quartet is now available for free download. I’ve also written up extensive notes for that movement if you’d like to know more about the composition and where it came from. (Of course you’d like to know more. Why else would you be reading this blog?)

I hope you’ll take the time to listen and follow along with the program notes. I spend hundreds of hours composing this piece (not including the time writing up the essays for each movement) and I’m very proud of it. It’s all time wasted if no one gets to hear it. So I’m counting on you here.

The other two movements will be released in the weeks to follow (I’m editing as fast as I can), so be sure to check back.

Tonight: Respond to the call…

Cypress String Quartet celebrates the 11th year of  their Call and Response program tonight at the Herbst theater.  They’re one of a handful of San Francisco performing arts organizations that actually commissions new work. For this unique program they commission a composer to write a piece in response to their “call” (i.e. an existing piece in their repertoire.)  This is particularly fitting for a quartet that spends equal amounts of time with new music and established classics, possessing an ear for both.

This time around they break a bit from their established m.o. and add a level of indirection. They’ve commissioned a piece inspired by literature, similar to the way two pieces in their repertoire have been inspired by the written word.  Elena Ruehr‘s Bel Canto is a response to Ann Patchett’s best selling novel of the same name, and will share the program with Schubert’s Death and the Maiden (inspired by the lyrics to a song that Schubert wrote himself) and  (which apparently was inspired by the written word, but I haven’t yet figured out how).

The Cypress String Quartet’s latest album “How She Danced” consists of three of Elena Ruehr’s other works for string quartet and has been in heavy rotation since I purchased it last month.  (I was kinda hoping to have a more in depth review/analysis of it to post in time for the concert, but I’ve got a solo opera to prepare for this Sunday and my time has managed to slip away from me.)

Tickets are available at the City Box Office and are cheaper if you buy them in advance.


Feb 2010