Posts Tagged ‘music’

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

Melisma on the Radio

Last month, inspired by a post on Chloe Veltman’s blog Lies Like Truth, I wrote a response addressing the melismatic, overwrought style of singing that seems to have been in vogue since the 1990s. Chloe read my piece and invited me to collaborate on an episode of her radio show VoiceBox dedicated to this subject that will air tonight on KALW. (And available streaming from KALW’s website for the next seven days.)

Preparing for this show forced me to clarify my thinking about the technique. For one thing, I’ve decided that we don’t really have a good label for it. Read the rest of this entry →

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Jan 2011

Review: Jerry Springer – The Opera

Jerry Springer The Opera is the best piece of theater I’ve seen in San Francisco this year. Irreverent, blasphemous, profane, sure. That’s a given. What’s surprising is how effective this immensely challenging work is, how well suited this subject is to a full operatic treatment.

And there should be no doubt about it, this is a full opera. The score is sophisticated and varied, a kaleidoscopic blend of musical theater, baroque oratorio, pop, rock, and occasionally branching into it’s own dissonant vocabulary. And it is fiendishly difficult, not just for the soloists, but for the entire ensemble. Ray of Light has assembled an astonishing array of singers for this production, one that has renewed my faith in the depth of talent here in San Francisco.

The first act is simply a rendition of any episode of Jerry Springer, with the slight modification that everyone on stage (with some important exceptions), is singing. All the obligatory Springerisms are on display, Read the rest of this entry →


Sep 2010

Review: Eighth Blackbird and Jennifer Higdon at the Cabrillo Festival

Why don't the guys have their belly buttons showing too?

Just got back from the opening weekend of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, a two week celebration of orchestral music written by folks who are actually alive and (with the exception of 87 year old George Walker) present. You couldn’t cross the street in downtown Santa Cruz without falling under Music Director Marin Alsop’s gaze from from atop a signpost. Down by the teeming boardwalk, however, the banners still prominently featured advertisements for Circo Brazil and Flock of Seagulls. You know something’s going on when the music offered in the symphony hall is newer than the music being played on the free stage on the boardwalk.

This weekend’s headliner was composer Jennifer Higdon (continuing her Very Good Year) who presented two concertos composed for specific artists, one for percussionist Colin Currie and the other for chamber sextet Eighth Blackbird (who, in addition to their numerous prizes and awards and Grammys, also has the distinction of having Interlochen Arts Academy student class president Matthew Duvall as their percussionist.  I was vice president. Furrealz.) Also featured were three separate offerings from Mark-Antony Turnage and pieces by younger composers Michael Hersch and Anna Clyne.

The concerto may be the most inherently theatrical page out of the orchestral playbook. With your garden variety contemporary orchestral piece, about the only thing you can say about it with any certainty is that sounds will occur. But with a concerto, by necessity you have a solo voice (or voices) and an ensemble voice. The piece will be forced to deal with the interplay between a soloist and a larger ensemble. Sometimes the soloist will play, sometimes the orchestra will play, sometimes they will play together. Add the tightrope wire of virtuosic playing and you have pretty much all you need for some drama.

So audiences have a bit of a headstart with contemporary concertos. They’ve got something to grab onto, expectations that can be met. Concertos are crowd pleasing. And this was certainly true this weekend. Both of Higdon’s pieces were enthusiastically well received, for however “perplexing” (as one audience member was heard to lament at the Saturday evening talk back) some sounds may be to those unfamiliar with the past 80 years of contemporary music, a good ole fashioned display of virtuosity will cut through the most obscured tonal practices.

Friday’s concerto, On a Wire, commissioned by and composed for Eighth Blackbird, begins with a gesture both visually and aurally arresting. The six members of the ensemble all crowd around a single grand piano, extending their hands deep into the frame. It feels more like a medical consultation than the start of a piece, but soon a series of etherial pitches and rumbles emerge from the piano’s body. The entire ensemble is bowing the individual piano strings with what looks like dental floss (we later learned that they’re custom made from the same fibers used for bass bows). It’s a lovely sound and a striking gesture, capitalizing on the ensemble’s irreverent nature while still being an effective musical device.

Higdon did a fine job handling the concerto’s prime directive, namely the interplay between the soloist and the orchestra. In this case, since the soloist is actually itself an ensemble, there is an entire extra dimension of interplay that is available between the solo ensemble and the soloists within the ensemble. It’s, like, a meta-concerto! Or maybe a fractal concerto? The mind boggles at the possible soloist/solo ensemble/orchestral combinations. Fortunately, Higdon’s mind boggled just the right amount, and the combinations shown felt appropriately proportioned; each soloist had opportunities to shine while the group’s precision ensemble work was on prominent display during many flurries of rapid tuplets, particularly in the last minutes of the piece.

Saturday’s Concerto for Percussion is written for a single soloist, although with the battery of instruments strewn in front of the stage, that wasn’t at all apparent. Colin Currie played a marimba, a vibraphone, wood blocks, gongs, and a series of tom toms and cymbals. (Perhaps it’s just me, but I could have used more cowbell.) In something of a collective cadenza for percussion ensemble, Currie joined forces with the entire percussion section of the orchestra, first buzzing through dizzyingly fast tremolos on wood blocks (which Higdon referred to as “the woodpecker section”) and ultimately jamming out on an emphatically rock based rhythm. For a few minutes, the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium was the site of the most elaborate drum circle in the world.

These isolated moments were more than simple crowd pleasers. They were toeholds into the music, points of arrival and departure, gestures of clarity that were in short supply in the rest of the pieces performed. As much as I loathe to sound like a conservative fuddy duddy, the other pieces presented didn’t provide much that you could (or might want to) grab onto.

If I could identify a trend in the programming of the first two nights, it would be towards a sort of aural maximalism. Every orchestral sound was on display, no instrument remained silent for more than a minute before interjecting a few more notes. I must have imagined this, but I swear that each piece began with a dense crunching chord with full brass, accentuated by a clang from a brake drum. And did all of the pieces really feature a series of staccato dissonances puncturing more sustained, but equally dense sonorities? Is that really that common of a device?

Michael Hersch’s deeply (and I mean DEEPLY) felt Symphony 3 was relentlessly tragic with brass outbursts against painfully dissonant repeated chords in the high strings. Emotion was certainly on display, some sort of lamentation mixed with flashes of rage, but at over 30 minutes, there was little variation in timbre, no sense of arrival or destination, no sculpting of time. Mark-Antony Turnage’s works featured some fun Stravinskyan rhythms, particularly in his brisk Scherzoid (which was one of the rare moments in which the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra felt less than assured) and some expansive lines reminiscent of Berg but it was difficult to discern where the music was going or why. At times I felt like I was listening to the climax of Wozzeck stretched out to last 20 minutes. Anna Clyne’s dance (and John Adams) inspired piece <<<rewind<<< showed some charm and the introduction of prerecorded and altered orchestral sounds in the last seconds of the piece provided a welcome kicker.

If this is the state of the art in orchestral writing, I found myself scratching my head, perhaps not perplexed, but genuinely curious. When you take away functional harmony, when you remove melodic direction, when you have the entire palette of orchestral sounds to choose freely from, what do you do to create expectations? How do you prioritize time? How do you surprise the listener if you’ve already established that there are no rules? These are the challenges for the composer in the 21st century, a challenge that most of the pieces this weekend didn’t meet. Higdon’s work seems confident enough to draw more deeply from music’s traditions and is more effective for it.


Aug 2010

Inception: plot point or arcana?

This is kinda neat. One of the main musical gestures in the score of Inception is derived from an actual plot point in the film.

Neat! Cool! I love it!

But is it hearable? I mean, now that it’s been pointed out and delivered via the viral web you can hear it, and SOMEONE must have heard it to first point it out, but would anyone hear it on a first, third, or twentieth listen? And if it’s not hearable, does it even matter as a theatrical gesture?

That could be asked of a many musical ideas. While it might require some amount of indoctrination to follow musical relationships in Mozart or Beethoven, there’s no doubt that those relationships are observable and create some sort of meaning. Can any amount of training make the intricate and technical transformations and relationships of serial music hearable without following along in a heavily marked up score? What about the little games that composers would sometimes play, spelling out names with pitches? There’s no way anyone could hear that.

It seems that there are two flavors of transformation, the transformation that is purely part of the compositional process, part of the mental game the composer plays to create a satisfying piece. It may have meaning to the composer, but it requires some extra-musical information or very careful analysis to be observed. Then there is the transformation that is designed to be followed and tracked by the astute listener, to give meaning and structure to a piece.

In Zimmer’s case with Inception, there may be parts of the score that encourage the listener to hear this relationship between the doom gesture and the Piaf tune, all it would take is one passage that presents one the themes speeding up or slowing down into the other and all would become clear. But without that breadcrumb somewhere in the score, I suspect that under normal listening that relationship would remain unobserved and, therefore, meaningless.


Aug 2010

The other side of Guitar Hero

I wrote last week lamenting how Guitar Hero provides a quick fix that discourages people from actually learning how to play an instrument (although as several friends have pointed out, the new Rock Band 3 that is scheduled to ship this winter includes a real Fender guitar and pro mode that matches ALL the real notes!)

On the other hand, it certainly exposes a generation to music that they may never have paid attention to otherwise, and in such an interactive and engaging way that it actually becomes their music. I’m thrilled that my younger cousins have been exposed to the staples of my college experience Jane’s Addiction, Nirvana, and Nine Inch Nails, as well as the staples of my high school experience The Beatles, The Who, and The Rolling Stones.

But that’s only part of my youth.  What about the rest of my high school experience, The Stravinsky, The Bartok, and The Schoenberg?

While I don’t expect to see a Guitar Hero version of Bartok’s String Quartets or Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex any time soon, why not a Guitar Hero version of Reich’s Electric Counterpoint?

It turns out that the new music supergroup Bang On A Can felt similarly.  As covered on Amanda Ameer’s blog Life’s A Pitch, there are now three Rock Band tracks available so you can play along with the polyrhythmic minimalist supergroup and become a Modern Music Hero.

Yo Shakespere – Michael Gordon

Shadowbang – Evan Ziporyn

Pretty catch stuff,. If only it was notated so you could keep track of the downbeat it would be a lot easier to play. This scrolling note thing is just a pain in the butt.

The mechanism of Rock Band seems to lend itself well to minimalism. Serial work may not be quite as effective. You can only generate so much material out of five-tone rows…


Jul 2010

Is Guitar Hero good for music?

I really dig Guitar Hero. From the first time I picked up a four buttoned plastic guitar and jammed out to We Got The Beat at the 2007 SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference I was hooked. Having a reasonable amount of musical aptitude, I took to it pretty quickly.  I can usually sight read songs at the hard level without failing (on guitar at least, drums are a bit harder for me). I’m pretty sure I’d be able to get through expert, if only there was a display mode that showed real rhythmic notation (e.g. eighth notes and quarter notes) instead of the scrolling piano roll that makes it hard to keep track of the beat.

But is Guitar Hero good for music?

Growing up I was magnetically attracted to music. My dad was an athletic director for a high school and every autumn weekend I would go with him to the football games.  I never paid attention to the games, I just wanted to hear the marching band play. There’s a picture of me at the age of 3 sitting inside a sousaphone, trying to blow into a mouthpiece about half the size of my face.

As soon as I was old enough, I started learning how to actually participate in music.  First violin, then trumpet, and then (much later) piano.  I would spend countless hours practicing so I could play some role however small, in creating the ensemble sounds that I found so enrapturing. Sitting in a band or orchestra, playing the right notes at the right time, contributing my voice to something greater than the sum of it’s parts remains a deeply enriching experience.

But the funny thing is, these days, when I play Guitar Hero, I feel that same musical itch scratched to a surprising extent. It really FEELS like I’m playing that music, like I’m a great guitar player. I find myself wondering, if I could have had this semi-instant gratification, the illusion that I’m creating music when I was 10 or 11, would I have bothered spending those countless hours learning how to be at best a middling trumpet player? Or would I have spent those hours learning how to press the right buttons on the Guitar Hero controller at the right time, rewarded by the perfect strains of The Who or Led Zeppelin from my speakers.  To be sure Guitar Hero does require a real level of expertise, but with the possible exception of the coordination needed for the drum part, that skill doesn’t translate into anything involving the actual creation of music.

Perhaps Guitar Hero will end up being a kind of gateway, encouraging kids to eventually graduate from the plastic toggle switch to a real guitar. I’m not so sure. A friend of mine who is a pretty accomplished guitarist often says that the only way to become a great guitarist is to truly enjoy being a crappy guitarist for a long time. I wonder if folks will bother suffering through the crappy guitarist portion of their lives when the illusion of rock legend status is just a power button away.


Jul 2010

Cultural whiplash, aka Opera Sandwich, aka Free A Cappella TONIGHT!

One of the best things about singing in operas is that you rarely have performances (or rehearsals for that matter) two days in a row.  This is in stark contrast to plain ole musical theater where, for all intents and purposes, you might as well bring your toothbrush and sleeping bag, since you will be spending the bulk of your life in that theater for a couple of months.  There’s a reason Equity rules require a cot for each production (Section 58, C-8). Well, not a reason that makes much sense, but still it’s a reason.

Anyways, invariably those days between shows get filled up with other shows.  Like tonight. Fresh from performing in a contemporary opera about the cruelties of convention in puritanical early New England, I’ll be singing some a cappella ditties with my best friends, the Richter Scales. And then eighteen hours later, I’ll be back in the pre industrial age shunning my hapless daughter for sins she had no idea she committed.

Richter Scales – Puttin on the Ritz
7:30 pm
St Peter’s Church
178 Clinton Street
Redwood City, CA
Saturday, June 5, 2010

It’s fun.  And free. So if you’re in the bay area, come on by and say hi. I’ll be the guy with the ridiculous muttonchops waving his hands in the front.


Jun 2010

Owen Pallett rocks my world

Owen Pallett‘s new album Heartland is just fantastic. I was introduced to his work by Sequenza21 and after listening to a couple of tracks I made a special trip to Aquarius Records to pay full price for the CD (hooray for supporting artists and local record stores). It was that compelling.

A month later, the album is still gorgeous. Rhythmically complex, richly textured, an intriguing mix of electronica and acoustic instruments, affecting modal melodies. I’m so happy that this music is being made. Just listen to the opening track “Midnight Directives”

[audio:|titles=01 Midnight Directives]

The snare drum rhythm that kicks in around 0:53 bears more than a passing resemblance to Bjork’s Hunter. After a few listens I became very enamored of the complex pizzicato line at 1:15. Eventually I started searching YouTube to see if there was a video to go along with it. Here’s what I found.

OMG.  Ya see.  I hadn’t realized he was a loop artist. I mean, I remember seeing it mentioned, but hearing the album, the looping aspect of things just didn’t register. The material was too rich, too interesting to just be another looper. Sure, when he’s doing the solo performance bit, the textures aren’t as varied as the fully orchestrated album cuts, but still. He’s completely shattered my previous beliefs about what loop musicians can and can’t do.

I wonder how this piece was conceived. Was it a solo piece first? If that’s the case, than the tape delayed pizzicato line must have been one of the original elements, as opposed to the pretty textural addition that I believed it was after hearing the album track.

If you’re in San Francisco, Owen Pallett is playing at the Independent tomorrow, May 5. Tickets are only $16.  I’m going to try to make it, but I’ve got a rehearsal up in Petaluma that evening. Hopefully I’ll get out in time.

Here’s one more video from Owen Pallett. It feels a wee bit like an underbaked casserole of images and ideas, but it’s still a fun watch. Especially when Alison Pill shows up. Oh my god is she adorable.


May 2010