17 September, 2010

for the moment

So, clearly this blog has fallen on quiet times. It's not that I haven't been writing--well, it's a little bit that I haven't been writing--but more that I just haven't been posting here. Mostly, I've been writing over at Dilettante where I am still, for the next few months, the Digital Composer-in-Residence. So, check out some of my posts over there.

And keep an eye out on your RSS feed, 'cause I'll be back writing here again soon. Lots and lots to announce. In the meantime, here is a video about giving an opossum a pedicure, which is perhaps one of the strangest things I've ever seen.

20 April, 2010

from Vinkensport.

Tick, Tick, Tick, Tally-tick.

19 April, 2010

A Kickstart from Hell

I am about as far behind on my blog-reading as I am on my blog-writing, so this morning I thought I'd try to get caught up on at least the reading part, starting with the wonderfully-written and frequently updated Hell Mouth blog by John Adams. Part of my reason for starting there was also, to be honest, to kick my blog-writing back into action after too-long of a hiatus. (Every time I complain about being too tired to blog, I have a good friend who puts me in my place by reminding me that John Adams posts thoughtful and substantial posts every three-to-four days. And he's John Adams; a busy guy. I inevitably grumble but concede.)

The post that first caught my attention was this one, about one of my favorite places on earth--Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. I love old cemeteries, and for me, Père-Lachaise is second only to San Michelle's in Venice, which wins out simply because it's literally an island of the dead, and that's pretty creepy. And though San Michelle can boast Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Nono and Ezra Pound among its residents, Père-Lachaise certainly wins out in terms of composer VIPs: Bellini, Bizet, Chausson, Cherubini, Chopin, Dukas, Françaix, Poulenc, and more. And of course there's also Balzac, Proust, and The Lizard King. (Though it should be mentioned that Vienna's Zentralfriedhof, probably wins out in terms of the quality of its VIPs--Beethoven, Brahms, Ligeti, Mozart, Schoenberg, Schubert, and others. Still, it doesn't have the creepy, magical feeling of the other two, and so falls to third place.)

Adams's description of the cemetery is really wonderful, but the moment that really struck me was the following passage:

We don’t do the pilgrimage to Jim Morrison, but we note with some pleasure that of all the tens of thousands of graves, the one that it is by far and away the most adored, the most visited and the most heaped with flowers and demonstrations of affection is that of a composer, “Fred. Chopin” (as the inscription reads). For all the politicians and wealthy businessmen and puffed up egos that take up room in this seemingly endless cemetery, the ones people gravitate to are those of the artists, and of those, it’s the ones who gave us beauty and a singular awareness of our humanity that receive the most visits. Thus, on this unremarkable weekday afternoon in March with tourist season months away, there is nonethelss a clutch of people clustered around Chopin’s grave, and there is a fresh pile of flowers beneath it.

I first visited Père-Lachaise when I was 16 years old. I had just decided that I wanted to become a composer, though still had no idea what that really meant, or how I was going to do it. I remember that, in the moment when I first saw Chopin's grave, I was similarly moved. That there must be some deep truth that this man understood, and could share with people; " beauty and a singular awareness of our humanity," as Adams puts it. I think that somewhere in my subconscious this re-affirmed my uninformed teenage decision to be a composer, and that the resonance of this moment has kept me going through times of doubt, fear, writers-block, etc. in the years since.

16 March, 2010

Confessions of a Workaholic

The last few months have been a bit of a whirlwind, which explains why I haven't been able to post here as regularly as I would have liked. That said, I'm happy to report that everything has gone really well.

My opera Vinkensport was a success, I think, both as a piece and in terms of its reception. Newspeak's residency at Princeton went very well, and only a week later we went into the studio to record our first CD, which was hard work, but very fun, and what I've heard of the tracks sound really great (and heavy!) (Pictures here.) I just got back from Chicago where I had the privilege to perform Corey Dargel's 13 Near-Death Experiences with ICE. I haven't composed any music since January...(I have done some orchestrations)...but I did turn in my dissertation.

Now, I love what I do...well, I wouldn't say that I "loved" writing the dissertation...and have learned an amazing amount from the diversity of my opportunities, especially from performing the music of other composers. But having just weathered three months of pure craziness does raise the question of how one balances a life like this. Throughout this whole period, as I was constantly unable to attend friend's shows, or see family, or, you know, eat dinner, I kept finding myself softly chanting "koyaanisqatsi". I definitely felt a sense of imbalance.

So far my approach to dealing with periods like this has been: get as much done as you can when you can, never really take too long a break, and sacrifice things like sleep, health, family, etc. Clearly, this is stupid. It's a very undergraduate way of living, and I really can't do it anymore. In fact, I think when you're an adult, the word for this kind of approach is "workaholic," and most things that end in "-aholic" aren't especially tenable. This, then, is to be my goal moving forward: To continue to produce as much as possible, but not to over-commit or over-extend myself.

I'll be sure to let you know how all this goes. But for now, it's off to Baltimore for a run of performances with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and then to plan a donor appreciation event for Newspeak, and write a sax quartet. But then that's it for a while. Really. I promise. I can stop anytime I want. I swear.

20 February, 2010

First Digital Composer-in-Residence Interview

Over the next nine months or so, I will be conducting candid interviews with some very exciting creative people, including producer Beth Morrison, composers Ted Hearne, Darcy James Argue, Corey Dargel, Leo Chadburn (aka Simon Bookish), and more.

We kick things off with a group interview on the collaborative process with filmmaker Stephen Taylor, librettist Royce Vavrek, and composers Missy Mazzoli, who each have new operas being premiered at the end of the month at Bard Conservatory in New York. The conversation covers questions of influence, style, gender, narrative, technique, process and more.


Digital Composer-In-Residence Video Blog #1 from digitalcomposerinresidence on Vimeo.

27 January, 2010

Howard Zinn (1922-2010)

I am very sad to hear--amidst so much terrible news from Washington--of the passing of historian Howard Zinn.

Though Zinn is best known for his seminal A People's History of The United States, it is his 1970 book The Politics of History that has had the most profound effect on me. In this book he notes “Historical writings always have some effect on us. It may reinforce our passivity; it may activate us. In any case, the historian cannot choose to be neutral; he writes on a moving train.”

Zinn's work is one of the things that activated me, and led me to conclude that, as an artist, I too write on a moving train.

19 January, 2010

Vinkensport, or The Finch Opera

“So, you like challenges, right?” This is how a phone call from Dawn Upshaw began, approximately 4 months ago. She was looking to commission a short—20-30 minute—opera for the Graduate Vocal Arts program at the Bard Conservatory. I’d worked with these amazing singers last year as part of the Osvaldo Golijov/ Dawn Upshaw Professional Training Workshop, co-presented by Bard and Carnegie Hall, so I knew they were great, and was excited to have the chance to work with them again. And of course, when Dawn Upshaw is asking, there is pretty much only one right answer: yes.

So there I was, with four months to write an opera that would premiere in six months. Do I like challenges? Apparently, I do! 2009 ended—and 2010 began—in a sleep-deprived frenzy.

First, of course, I needed a libretto. So I contacted my trusted collaborator Royce Vavrek to see a) if he wanted to write one, and b) if he had any ideas for what it could be about. After much discussion and many possibilities being tossed around, he sent me a Wikipedia entry on the strange sport of finch sitting.

Finch sitting (or “vinkensport” in Flemish) is a sport that developed in the late 1500s in Flanders. Basically, the competitors sit in front of a caged bird and mark on a tally stick how many times said bird tweets a specific song—called a “susk-e-wiet”—during the course of an hour. Then they do it again—round two—and so on. It’s like golf, but with birds, and more boring.

But here’s the thing: people who play it get completely obsessed; or at least it would seem so based on the numerous reports of cheating. These incidents—including someone injecting testosterone into their bird so they'd sing more frequently—were what first drew Royce and me to the subject; made us ask, what is it about the need to win that would push people to such an extent? Especially since—hello—it’s finch sitting! It’s not like we’re talking about the Olympics here.

This is ultimately what Vinkensport, of The Finch Opera, is about: why people think they need to win. Some of the characters in the opera just like to win—because winning feels good—while others do it to fill void that they feel in their life. Starting off with these questions/this theme afforded us an opportunity to explore issues of dramatic character in a way he hadn’t been able to in previous collaborations—i.e. the in-progress Dog Days. We get into their lives and experience their joys and sorrows, delusions and all-too-stark realities. Still, at its core, Vinkensport is a comedy. We hope you will laugh.

Vinkensport, of The Finch Opera will be premiered on February 26th at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College alongside a new version of my dear friend Missy Mazzoli’s haunting Song From the Uproar, and L'enfant et les sortilèges by some guy named Maurice Ravel. James Bagwell will conduct all three operas, and Dan Rigazzi will direct the fully-staged productions...(which, as far as I know, will all involve puppets!)

22 December, 2009

Oi To The World

I just posted a file over at the Dilettante Blog; one of my favorite holiday songs: Tchaikovsky's Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, as performed by The Vandals.

Back in 1996, when I was still a high schooler, The Vandals released a Christmas record called "Oi To The World." I happened to randomly pick it up, and fell instantly in love with it. It's been a holiday tradition for me ever since.

This year, I'm in Australia for the holidays, and completely forgot to pack it! Lucky for me, the whole record seems to have been uploaded in gloriously poor quality to YouTube in one of those weird I'm-really-an-audio-file-in-disguise-since-there's-no-real-video-to-see-here files. Regardless I'm glad to have found it, and I thought I'd post a track or two here.

You might already know this song. No Doubt covered this track a number of years ago, skanking it up as they do, but I definitely prefer this original. And if you like this, the whole record seems to be up. My favorites: "Nothing's Going To Ruin My Holiday,""Thanx for Nothing," and "Hang Myself From The Tree," which totally has a Tuba solo! Their cover of "Here I Am, Lord" is also pretty amazing. (The easily offended might want to stay far away from C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S, and some others, which should be clear from the titles.)

But what sort of lefty curmudgeon would I be if I didn't post the delightful rant against commercialism, "I Don't Believe in Santa Claus"?

Happy Holidays All!

19 December, 2009

Amen, Part 2

Watched that video in Part 1? Good. So, moving on.

As a composer, the idea of intellectual property is a complex one. I am all for giving stuff away for free, but ultimately, I have to survive. Survival takes money, money takes work, and my work is writing music. But I also see the very real harm that can be done to culture when numbers start being crunched inside of office buildings, and when the people crunching these numbers—most of whom have no business dictating culture at all—start deciding what is culturally allowable. This is one of the things that I like about Creative Commons; it allows the artist to decide upfront how their work is to be used, and the number crunchers, theoretically, stay out of it. Controlling the means of (re)production, you might say.

Well, as you know from watching the video in the previous post, The Winstons would have benefited greatly from Creative Commons licensing. When “electronica” went mainstream and started making money, everyone wanted a cut of it. In the end, the artists got nothing, but some random music companies--who seem to have just stolen the samples (but had good lawyers I guess)--ended up making a bundle. Keep it classy, music industry. Ultimately, the question is: what was the cultural value of the Amen break (or any other samples) remaining free of charge, and, in the end did the good outweigh the damage?

I don't have a specific answer to this question, but it does bring us to our discussion of UbuWeb. Do you know about this amazing thing? UbuWeb is anti-corporate utopian Internet hub full of amazing avant-garde treats. It’s like the best college radio station you’ve ever heard, and it never goes off the air. On-demand pirate radio for the “aughties.” It was founded in 1996 by a bunch of crazies—(and who doesn’t love crazies?!)—and all materials up there are entirely free for your listening/reading/viewing pleasure. Also, they haven’t asked permission to post any of it.

As they say on the site: “Nothing is for sale on UbuWeb. It's all free. We know it's a hard idea to get used to, but there's no lush gift shop waiting for you at the end of this museum.” (Having visited many of the amazing museums in London when I was there for the DCR concert, I definitely appreciate this analogy.) But wait. Hold up. Say what? So—they upload this stuff, without asking permission, then give it away for free? How is that possible? Well I guess in a utopian sense, the question would be: why would it not be possible? But really, here’s the deal:

“If it's out of print, we feel it's fair game. Or if something is in print, yet absurdly priced or insanely hard to procure, we'll take a chance on it. But if it's in print and available to all, we won't touch it. The last thing we'd want to do is to take the meager amount of money out of the pockets of those releasing generally poorly-selling materials of the avant-garde. UbuWeb functions as a distribution center for hard-to-find, out-of-print and obscure materials, transferred digitally to the web. Our scanning, say, an historical concrete poem in no way detracts from the physical value of that object in the real world; in fact, it probably enhances it. Either way, we don't care: EBay is full of wonderful physical artifacts, most of them worth a lot of money.”

Legal speaking, they can say that they are for educational purposes, which is true. (I actually downloaded the copy of Cardew’s out-of-print Stockhausen Serves Imperialism for my dissertation research form Ubu…speaking of crazies.) But really, the bottom line is, as they say, if they had to "get permission from everyone on UbuWeb, there would be no UbuWeb.” And how terrible would that be?! (I’ll tell you. It would be awful. Life would be exponentially more boring.)

As UbuWeb co-founder Kenny Goldsmith says “As long as we stay within the margins of culture, we're pretty much safe. When we occasionally dip our toe into the more profitable or mainstream side of the avant-garde, do we get slapped around.” (Sound familiar? No one cared about the use of samples, until people realized they could get rich off of it!)

He continues: “Are we crazy? Yes. Are we exposing ourselves to great risk? Yes. Could we get screwed? Yes. What we're doing is clearly wrong, and we wouldn't have a foot to stand on in the court of law. But we think the good greatly outweighs any damage. ... UbuWeb can be construed as the Robin Hood of the avant-garde, but instead of taking from one and giving to the other, we feel that in the end, we're giving to all.”

The good outweighs any damage, indeed. I respect that they are taking a stand like this and saying: "you know what people? The world will be a better place if we upload this totally insane sound art piece, so we’re just going to do it.” If we need anything right now, it’s for the world to be a little bit better!

03 December, 2009

Amen, Part 1

Recently, the NYC percussionist and all-around-nice-guy Chris Thompson posted a really great video on Twitter. (Maybe on Facebook too, not sure.) It’s all about the “Amen break.” As the narrator Nate Harrison says, the Amen Beak is “a ubiquitous piece of the pop culture soundscape” In other words, even if you think you don't know it, you probably do.

The Amen, as he explains, was originally a drum break from a song called Amen, Brother, by The Winstons. This track was released as a B-side in 1969. The A-side, Color Him, Father won a Grammy. Amen, Brother, on the other hand, was pretty much forgotten. Until… well, you’ll see. Although it’s a little long (especially by YouTube and/or viral video standards), and can sometimes feel a bit like sitting in university lecture, it nonetheless provides an interesting history on the beat, played by the late drummer Gregory C. Coleman.

Almost more importantly, though, it offers an analysis of the legal and ethical issues behind the use of this break as a sample--and sampling in general—including a pretty direct attack on capitalism and its propensity for cultural co-optation. (Teh invisable hand iz steelin ur ideas; makin money off ov ur werk.) Following this, he makes a case for the use of Creative Commons licensing—which if you don’t know about you should totally check out here.

There is a part two to all this, but how 'bout watch the video first. Deal?

16 November, 2009

Tosca's Kiss

I'm starting to work on a new (short) opera (more on that soon) so have been trolling the internet for the past few days looking for good performances, inspiration, etc. Then tonight, composer Sean Griffin posted this this video to his Facebook page. I can't thank him enough. I've sort of fallen in love with it. I reminds me a little bit of my favorite scene in Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes.

The scene (as the description says): "Filmed by at the Casa Verdi, these old long-retired stars re-enact the scene of Tosca killing Scarpia. After that they do a bit from "Rigoletto" Act 2, scene 4. Then the soprano Sara Scuderi listens to her old record of "Vissi d'arte" from Puccini's "Tosca" and comments."

Just watch. Especially from 3:10 to the end. So good.

15 November, 2009

The Wild Beast Stirs

Anyone who's been out to Valencia, CA to experience The California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in person knows that it's a special place. There's a strict freedom of expression rule—there's a clothing-optional situation in effect, an unspoken look-the-other-way policy regarding certain substances, and little or no regulation of self-expression via graffiti. In a lot of ways, it's the Wild West, and that can be a very good thing for art-making.

Well, they've recently built a brand new concert hall. Inside sources tell me that it's not quite ready for the public yet—still working on some landscaping around the space—but that the building itself is pretty great. While few on the outside would have been shocked if they'd named it "The James Tenney Memorial Concert Hall"—or something like that—that's just not CalArts' style. Quite to the contrary, they've named it "The Wild Beast."

As this article mentioned, CalArts seems on the surface to just like naming its spaces after animals, cf. REDCAT. But as the CalArts site reports, it actually has very little to do with animals, at least not of the four-legged variety: "The new music pavilion has been named The Wild Beast by lead donor Abby Sher in honor of composer Morton Feldman's metaphor for mystery of sound and silence from which the vibrant of music emerges." According to illustrations, a sign outside the hall will display Feldman's words: "I am interested in how this wild beast lives in the jungle, not in the zoo." (My source suggests that this sign might not actually be erected, which would be a tragic shame. The sentiment stands all the same, I suppose.)

But what's the space like? How does it sound? From what I can tell (and have heard) it looks and sounds great, and is extremely versatile. But don't take my word for it! Watch this video for the proof:

12 November, 2009

...is the Digital Composer-in-Residence.

So, the votes are in, and I've be chosen (elected?) as the first Digital Composer-in-Residence on DilettanteMusic.com. As part of this new job, I'll be blogging a lot over there--(probably more than here!)--so why not head over and check it out? My first post went up this morning, and there will be more to follow soon!

17 October, 2009

Dilet­tante Music

So, some breaking news from across the pond: I have been chosen as one of three finalists in the Dilet­tante Music Dig­i­tal Composer-in-Residence com­pe­ti­tion. (The other two are Chiayu, a Taiwanese composer studying at Duke, and Aaron Gervais, a fellow composer/drummer from Canada.)

As part of the competition, the London Sinfonietta has recorded my submitted piece, 1986, and starting on October 20th, the polls will be open for the people (that's you!) to choose the 2010 Digital Composer-in-Residence. The polls will be closed and the winners announced on November 5th, culminating in a live performance of all of the works by the London Sin­foni­etta that night at Wilton’s Music Hall in London. Check out the event listing here, and keep an eye on the Dilet­tante blog for more information.

This morning, there was a feature on the competition on BBC3's Music Matters, which you can listen to here for the next seven days. It includes clips of all three finalist's works—all very different—as well as (earlier in the show) very interesting interviews with the Bang On A Can composers, Steve Martland, and a feature on In C.

Watch this space for more updates on interviews, podcasts, etc., as well as information on how you can vote!