Such Gentle Rapture and Getting Things Done

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything substantial here, and I intend for that to change in the coming weeks as I start to publish a new set of Composer’s Guide posts. So stay tuned.

Late last month, I took stock of the ways that I’ve been handling my time as a full-time freelancer, and I wasn’t as pleased with what I saw as I wanted to be. I brainstormed a bit as to how I could rework the ways that I manage my time, and I think I’ve come up with a fairly elegant solution. I took a little trip to Staples to buy a large wall calendar and a stack of different colored Post-Its, and sat down to plan out the next thirteen months of my life in terms of what I’d like to have written by what dates. (And trust me, the list of things I want to write extends FAR beyond what I’m capable of in 13 months. There’s a spreadsheet lurking in the cloud with an ever-growing list of pieces that I intend to write.)

Now I have a colorful production calendar hanging near my desk to remind me every day what my weekly task is:

calendar

I’ve created a three-week rotation of short chamber works (with a smattering of art song thrown in for extra fun), Composer’s Guide articles, and a long-term, non-musical project that I probably won’t otherwise mention again on this blog.

The chamber pieces are part of a project that I started last year, but which quickly got put on the back-burner. The first part of the project is to write thirteen short (5-7 minute) duos for piano and each of the major orchestral instruments (minus percussion, but including saxophone), and the second part will be unveiled and explained in mid-November – I’m very anxious to get to that point.

I already have the flute/piano duo written – a 5’30” piece titled “Silverpoint” after the drawing technique, which I was first introduced to by composer Marty Boykan’s wife, Susan Schwalb, who I met at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. And this week I’m at work on the clarinet/piano duo, “Such Gentle Rapture”. Each new project starts on a Tuesday (Monday is my dedicated web design/research day), and I managed two write about two minutes of the piece yesterday. If I can maintain this rate of composition (and I’m a fast composer!), I should have the piece sketched out by tomorrow evening and engraved by Friday afternoon. But if I really shackle myself to the piano (look at me procrastinate by blogging about composing instead of actually composing…), I can have the whole thing done by tomorrow night. The title for this piece, by the way, comes from Barry Eisler’s spy thriller Killing Rain. Not my usual source for titles, but I’ve also got a handful of William Gibson-inspired titles coming up in this series of pieces.

In addition to the goals of my production schedule, I’m also in the process of starting a small record label with one of my long-time collaborators, Marc Peloquin. The purpose of the label is to record art song by living composers, and we’ll be going into the studio for our first disc in mid-November: a recreation of the concert we put on this past February titled That Dare Not Speak.

shh6

After that, we have our next four releases scheduled to come out over the following four years, and I can’t even tell you how excited I am to start getting all this music in the can!

OK, less words, more notes. Back to the piano!


Rise, My Love

Later this month, the wonderful Cheah Chan Duo will be performing “John Anderson, My Jo” from And He’ll Be Mine, and I’m incredibly excited! Their program, titled “Rise, My Love”, is a celebration of LGBT composers and poets, and it sure to be a real treat. Their programming is always interesting, eclectic, and provocative, and this concert is sure to be no exception.

Read their press release here.


Untitled

In preparation for the upcoming NY premiere of Only Air this Sunday (learn more about the performance here, and buy tickets here), I thought that I’d post a few thoughts about the piece, inspired by the questions that Garrett Schumann sent me to help prepare his upcoming article on several socially-conscious works that will be published on the NewMusicBox. (I’ll provide that link when the article is posted.)

Only Air takes the form of an art song with orchestral accompaniment (or in Sunday’s case, chamber ensemble) with five brief instrumental interludes. When I first describe the piece to people, the interludes often cause a bit of confusion, especially given that their musical material is so different from the material of the song sections. So the question frequently arises as to what exactly their musical role is.

The interludes play several roles, although they’re primarily meditations on each of the five boys that I chose as the extramusical focus of the piece. The interludes contrast pretty strongly with the “song” sections – the interludes are traditionally tonal, while the vocal sections, which are still essentially tonal, are a bit more dissonant and disjunct, and often have a recitative-like quality. Early in the compositional process, I struggled to reconcile the stark differences between the vocal sections and the interludes until I came to think of the latter as being akin to the Sea Interludes in Peter Grimes – integral to the piece as a whole, but also sharing little to no musical material with the rest of the work. Each interlude is largely self-contained, yet some musical ideas get lightly woven into succeeding sections to allow for a more subtle sense of cohesion and musical inevitability.

Each interlude has a solo instrument or featured section (for the orchestral version, they are, in order: trumpet, the percussion section, clarinet, cello, and violin) which I used as a starting point for my meditations on the five boys that the piece is dedicated to. I felt that the choices of the cello and the violin were particularly important because Justin Aaberg and Zach Harrington were both cellists and Tyler Clementi was a violinist.

§

When I wrote the piece, LGBT suicide was a social issue that the concert music world had almost completely ignored. An amazing number of professional sports teams had made It Gets Better videos (years before any of the players had started to come out), as had countless major corporations. Yet no orchestra had made such an effort despite the fact that many members of the orchestral and concert music communities are also members of the LGBT community, and had undoubtedly undergone similar torment in their youths. Disaster relief concerts were commonplace, but this sort of social responsibility hadn’t quite made it into the concert hall. Fortunately, more ensembles are interested in bringing awareness of important issues to their audiences. David Del Tredici composed his piano quintet Bullycide after a conversation we had following the commission of Only Air, and it has started to take wings with performances in La Jolla and Montclair, and an upcoming performance by Chamber Music Northwest.

My hope is that if just one young person who might be contemplating suicide and is sitting in an orchestra or a chamber ensemble or even in the audience where the piece is being played can take away an ounce of strength from the piece and from knowing that this ensemble and all of the people around them are offering their support, then we’ll all have done a very good thing.

§

One of Garrett’s questions particularly surprised me – I’d never stopped to consider this one aspect of the work that seems rather obvious in hindsight: “How do you represent yourself in this piece, if at all? ”

Taking a step back from the piece, I can see myself in both of the main “characters” of the text – the young man in pain who is preparing to commit suicide, and the voice asking him to stop. During my teenage years, I had a very difficult time, in large part because of my sexuality, and I contemplated suicide more than once. So I identify with these boys. But having come through the other side stronger and wiser, I want to lend them some of my strength so that they can make it through their own dark times to find life and happiness.

§

Stay tuned for the link to Garrett’s NewMusicBox article, and I hope to see you this Sunday at the concert!


An Upcoming Concert: 2/18/14

That Dare Not Speak: Love Songs by Gay American Composers
The Duplex Cabaret Theatre
61 Christopher St ( @7th Ave ), NYC
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
7:00pm
Program is approx. 1 hr.

$12 + 2 drink minimum (sodas count)

Come join me and pianist Marc Peloquin for this post-Valentine’s Day concert of love songs by David Del Tredici, Chester Biscardi, Darien Shulman, Zachary Wadsworth, and yours truly!

Be sure to make your reservation here, as seating is limited! http://bit.ly/1iDYPhT

The Composers Now Festival celebrates living composers, the diversity of their voices and the significance of their musical contributions to our society. During the month of February, the Festival brings together dozens of performances presented by venues, ensembles, orchestras, opera companies, dance companies and many other innovative events throughout New York City. Experience the sounds and get to know the creators behind the music. From jazz to indie, from classical to electronic and beyond, join us on a sonic journey through the landscape of the arts of our time. Composers will be in attendance at all events and will be interacting with audiences. Composers Now is a project partner of The Fund for the City of New York. We gratefully acknowledge the support of the ASCAP Foundation, the Cheswatyr Foundation and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.


2013 in Review

Well, 2013 was most certainly an interesting year, and I’m still working to regain my footing from decisions made around this time last year, and enacted in April.

For those who are unaware, I left my day job at New York City Center on April 16 to pursue the life of a full-time freelance artist. As expected, it’s been a hectic time, and I still have lots of work to do to make the finances work out right. Fortunately, I’m positioned to make some significant strides in that direction in the next few months. True to form, I always have plans in motion, and yet more plans waiting in the wings should I need them.

Compositionally, 2013 was an unprecendentedly productive year. I finished the composition of Only Air on New Year’s Day, and orchestrated madly throughout January. In February, I wrote two new choral works, Voices (de la Mare) and They Lie at Rest (Rossetti) – the former written for the ISU Madrigal Singers, and the latter for the East Ridge High School Concert Choir in Claremont, FL and the Lake Minneola High School choirs. At the end of January, I was notified that I’d been commissioned to write a work for the inaugural concert of Providence Premieres, and from March 1 to March 10 composed the 12 minute, three song cycle Without a Philosophy on texts by my friend Elizabeth Seydel Morgan (who I met at the VCCA) for soprano, violin, and harp. Days after emailing off the finished score of the cycle, I flew down to Dallas for the ACDA national conference to do some networking, and when I wasn’t sitting in concerts, wandering the exhibits, or drinking with composers or choir directors, I created the parts of Only Air, and emailed them off shortly after returning to NYC. (My second day back from the conference was when I put in my notice at NYCC, though I’d made the decision in late December.) Spurred to action to write a women’s choir piece by a director I’d met at ACDA, I composed Sunset: St. Louis (Teasdale) in a little under 32 hours in late March on a visit to Darien’s parents’ house in Montauk.

April was a blur of travel, performances and finishing up my tenure as Accounts Payable at NYCC. Without a Philosophy was premiered the day after my birthday by soprano Blythe Walker, violinist Alexey Shabalin, and harpist Hyunjung Choi; They Lie at Rest was premiered on April 23; and Only Air was premiered on April 25 by the ISU Symphony Orchestra, conductor Glenn Block, and soprano Michelle Vought.

During the week of the Only Air premiere, I was in residence at ISU, where I taught a few composition lessons, gave a some talks on the piece itself and on “Making a Career in the Arts”, and had a wonderful chance to catch up with the faculty at my alma mater. The career talk was a ton of fun – an hour and a half spent addressing a packed classroom of students and faculty from all over the College of Fine Arts: composers, singers, instrumentalists, visual artists, actors, playwrights, scenic designers – every area of the College was represented, which felt damned good, I’ll tell you.

I visited family briefly after the premiere, and started work on a flute and piano duo – Silverpoint -, and finished it in late May. Over the Summer, I composed the bulk of a choral setting of Tennyson’s Now Sleeps the Silver Petal, and nearly finished another choral work on Longfellow’s It Is Not Always May, as well as made significant progress on two other chamber works – an oboe/piano duo that is still in search of a title, and a Prelude for violin and piano.

May also saw a round of fairly minor revisions to Only Air based on the rehearsals and premiere. As expected, I made a few little orchestrational boo-boos, but all were easily corrected. (Yes, a solo trumpet can be heard over strings, but maybe mark the strings at piano rather than mezzo forte when the trumpet is in its lower register…) And I’ve also created two additional versions of the piece for reduced forces. So, if you know an orchestra that’s into supporting the LGBT community… (BTW, did you know that there are zero orchestras that have made an It Gets Better video? Football and hockey teams are doing it, but arts organizations…not so much. The shame!)

May also saw some pesky health issues and a bit of oral surgery – I had all five of my wisdom teeth out. Yes, you read that right – I had FIVE wisdom teeth instead of the usual three! The recovery period wasn’t as long or horrible as I’d expected, but it definitely kept me inactive for a while!

Much of the remainder of the year has been spent doing web design work – currently my primary means of support. I redesigned Chester Biscardi’s website in the Fall, created a mobile version of Ricky Ian Gordon’s site, incorporated an elegant form of commerce into Drew Hemenger’s site, started work on sites for three new clients, and completely overhauled my own site. Shameless plug: if you’re in the market for a new website or a redesign to your existing one, I’m currently taking on new clients!

I have a few other projects that I’m nearly ready to announce, so stay tuned over the next month!


Redesign launched!

Well it finally launched – the newest version of DennisTobenski.com (what I think of as DT4.5)! Whee!

The redesign took a mere week of work – and by redesign, I mean rebuilding the entire site from the ground up, while keeping basic design elements such as fonts, color scheme, and the basic idea of the banner and navigation layout (and one or two minor pieces of markup here and there). Every page got a facelift, and the entire site is wider, bigger, and lighter. And the back end is super streamlined.

The launch got postponed nearly three weeks because I literally did not have the $27.86 I needed to move the site to a new hosting service. Such is the life of a newly-freelance composer/web designer! That, and the crippling debt. Well, near-crippling – it’s not all that bad. Yet.

I’ve moved a few things around: the Bio now contains a list of commissions and the rep I currently have under my belt as a vocalist, and the Gallery is now under Media full-time (for a while it lived in Media and on the main nav bar…sheer laziness). I’ve also added a new page under Extras – a list, with screencaps and links, of my web design clients. I’ll have about a half-dozen more sites to add to that page in the coming month or two, which I’m excited about. Check it out – especially if you’re in the market for a website or a redesign.

I’ve also moved my hosting, which has its up- and downsides. On the upside, I’m no longer with Yahoo! Hosting, which, when I started this site in 2005, was the best web host out there. Now, they’re barely in the game – lots of down time, out-of-date PHP & MySQL, and sloooooooooooooooow. Another upside is consolidating my hosting to one JustHost plan (I’m a big fan of this hosting service – they’ve been great to work with since I started the NewMusicShelf site 3½ years ago) – I’m saving $$, and I now have a reliable host with up-to-date tech! The primary downside is that EVERYTHING gets lost in the transfer. In terms of hosted files, that’s not awful since backing everything up is easy. It’s losing over 18,000 emails that blows, and backing up email through Yahoo isn’t an entirely pleasant experience. Plus, I spent about 12 hours without a working email address between when the transfer actually happened and when I noticed that it had happened. And the multiple backups made it difficult to track incoming emails for a few days. I know I missed a few important messages during the transition, and I’m just now noticing two of them… ::hides in embarrassment::

The biggest overall change to the site is on the Works pages. I used to have Store pages on the previous incarnation, but I did away with those in favor of incorporating commerce into the Works pages directly. So now, every piece that’s ready to be printed and sold has a cover image, sample pages, and links to buy either the print or digital copies of the score/parts. Excitement! I’ve also repriced everything based on a new pricing structure that I’m currently writing an essay about – so stay tuned for that!

So poke around, check it out, and enjoy!


Website changes ahead

In between working on sites for my web design clients, I’ve been hammering out some changes to my own site, one of which I launched recently – the new and improved Audio page, which I’m quite happy with. Probably the most substantial and important reworking I want to do is with my Works pages, where I plan to shift the focus of the page to…well, you’ll see.

But as I’ve been working on that page, I’ve been reacquainting myself with my old coding and database structures, and I find myself increasingly frustrated with my 2008 self. The website is quite a behemoth: ten major nevigational headings, a crazy amount of information on each piece, lots of media, and this blog on top of everything else! Of course, lots of sections were tacked on as time went on, so the website – from the back end – is starting to feel like one of those old houses where a room or a wing got added every time somebody got married or had a baby. After a while, you get a sense of sprawl and disconnectedness.

Consequently, the more I tweak certain parts of the site, the more I want to tweak other parts. Make this wider, that bigger, clean this up, get rid of that. And the more I want to tweak, the more fundamentally I realize I’m going to have to change the inner machinations of the site.

So this may be a longer and more time-consuming project than I originally planned. On the one hand, there’s a fair amount of drudgery in store for me. On the other, I get to clear out a bunch of old, unnecessary code, and possibly rework my database structure.

In the end, I’ll probably end up pulling a Wuorninen: A few years ago, I was hired to rework the back end of Charles Wuorinen’s site so that it functioned better and was infinitely easier to update, all without substantially changing the look or feel. It was an interesting project that forced me to reconsider some of my approaches to database design, if only because of the sheer volume of works that he’s written! This project will likely be akin to that – maintaining the basic look and feel of the site, albeit with some heavy tweaking in areas, while completely overhauling the back end.

I also expect that this series of back-end overhauls will pave the way for a complete redesign a few years down the road. This current iteration of the site is just shy of five years old, now, and I can see myself wanting a new look in the next two or three. So be prepared for a more updated look within the next few weeks!


Site Update: New Audio Page!

The past few months have brought a handful of new web design clients. And new web design clients always inspire new design ideas…some of which I can’t help but plunder for myself!

The first change I’m implementing on the site is a new Audio page, which I’ve felt has been badly in need of a new audio player for some time now. The old player was great when I first got this version of the site up and running (and this is the fourth incarnation of DennisTobenski.com, by the way), but it’s just been bothering me for the past few months. So now I’ve uploaded most of my tracks to SoundCloud, and I’ve embedded their pretty little player on the site! Check it out here.

I’ll be making a few more tweaks to the layout and functionality of the site in the coming weeks, so stay tuned!

And after a few months away, I’m firing up the Composer’s Guide again – I put up a new essay this past weekend, and there are a handful of posts in draft form ready to go up in the coming weeks. Back in the saddle again!


The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Growing Your Catalog

As a businessperson in the arts, the most important thing you can do is to continually expand your catalog of works. No amount of marketing or networking or promotion will help you in the long run if you don’t constantly work to build your catalog. (Conversely, you can build your catalog all you want, but it will be for naught if you don’t do sufficient networking etc.)

So for those composers who moan that all they want to do is write, they’re at least doing something right!

As with any other facet of running a business, there are several strategies for how you can expand your catalog, and you can pick the strategy that best suits you – or you can build your own strategy using elements of others.

Casting a Wide Net
One strategy for catalog building is to cast a wide net. In a nutshell: write pieces with a broad range of instrumentation: a piece for solo flute, a string quartet, some art songs, a piece for orchestra, a piano trio, some duos, etc.

While there are several advantages to this strategy, its greatest strength is that you’re not putting all of your eggs in one basket, in terms of performance possibilities. If you write solely for solo piano, there’s zero chance that a string quartet will program your works, and a much lesser chance that you’ll come up on the radar of non-pianists for commissions. By casting a wide net, you have a much broader base of potential performers and commissioners.

Also, writing a broad range of works can show versatility, if that’s a quality that you value (some juries and panels do). Again, if you only write for solo piano, some performers may question your ability to write for their instrument.

Casting a wide net also allows you to resist being pigeonholed. I know plenty of composers who resist labels as a “choral composer” or “song composer” or “band composer”. It can be difficult to avoid these labels out in the world (in certain circles I’m known as a “choral composer”, and in others I’m known as a “song composer”, and in others yet I’m known as a “cabaret singer”), but writing a broad range of works can help to ameliorate that, if you see it as being a potential problem.

There are, of course, drawbacks to this strategy: some composers will feel that it lacks focus. Writing for a wide range of ensembles for the sake of writing for a wide range of ensembles does lack focus if you don’t want to write for the ensembles that you’re writing for.

And if you keep up this wide net strategy for too long, or take it to mean that you can never write for the same group of instruments more than a few times, you can limit an ensemble’s choices of works in your catalog.

Targeting
Another option is to take a more targeted approach to the instruments or ensembles that you write for. There are any number of living composers I can think of who write a range of works, but also have certain areas of focus: John Mackey, David Rakowski, and Daron Hagen. John has a significant output for band, David for piano, and Daron for the operatic stage, although all three have much larger ranges.

To take David Rakowski as an example, he has a wildly impressive catalog of works for solo piano, including his books of Etudes, and the Preludes that he’s currently at work on. But he’s written a ton of music that’s not for solo piano. Following him on his various web presences, it’s clear that he manages this huge catalog by writing regularly.

This strategy is easiest to pursue when you have easy access to performers. For example, if you’re friends with an accomplished flautist, you have a unique opportunity to write extensively for the flute, either as a solo instrument or as part of an ensemble (especially if they’re already a part of one). And the more of an advocate that flautist is for your music, the greater the benefits to taking this course. That flautist can recommend your music to their friends, colleagues, and students, and when you make all of your flute music available and easy to find, you’re encouraging sales and performances, which can obviously lead to more performances and commissions. The flautist might also make mention of you on their various web presences. Or if they record with any sort of regularity, you may end up on one or more of their discs.

If you have a friend who is active in the World Harp Congress or the International Society of Bassists or any similar performer organization, and you write regularly for that friend, you are much more likely to have your works heard by an extremely wide range of performers. Or if not heard, at least spoken about.

Assuming that you show a real aptitude for writing for a particular instrument or group of instruments, you are more likely to gain a loyal following amongst that community. And that targeted ability can give focus to your catalog, and affords performers within that community more options to perform your music, as well as more entrees to your work.

Whereas casting a wide net may seem unfocused or limited, the targeted approach can more easily allow you to be pigeonholed, and you run the risk of limiting interest from performers outside of the area(s) that you’re targeting.

Hybrid
A hybrid of the above to strategies may be the more obvious path: giving special attention to one or two or three areas while also continuing to write for a broader range of ensembles.

Commissions often put us in a position where we end up focusing on one or two areas, so we may feel a need to cast a wider net when we’re not working on these pieces. For example, I’m frequently commissioned by my alma mater to write new choral works. It’s great because a) I get paid, b) I get to write music I like, c) I get to work with great performers and good friends, and d) I’m expanding my catalog. Unfortunately (as I often see it), it puts me in the position to be considered as primarily a “choral composer” if I don’t make sure to keep my catalog sufficiently diverse. I love writing for choirs of all types, but I can’t imagine writing primarily for choir. The same goes for art song: I love writing it, and I frequently get commissioned to write more, but I love writing for chamber ensembles and the orchestra too much to limit myself to just art song or just vocal music in general.

In this position, I find it smart to write between commissions whenever possible to build my catalog as much as possible, and in directions that I feel are important to me. For example, I’m between commissions right now, so I’m pursuing two different paths: one is a choral music project that I’m collaborating on with several other composers, and the other is a group of instrumental duos that I have long-term plans for. Sure, with the first project, I’m going down one of my well-worn paths, but the project as it’s working out is a solid business decision. But the second project broadens the area where I feel that I’m under-recognized, despite having a solid catalog.

And in addition to building my catalog, these projects are, in their own way, “practice”, but that’s a GIGANTIC post for another day.

I see the hybrid approach as being about balance – balance between focusing on one area and broadening your catalog. But without that flautist friend who advocates for your work at every conference and performance, how do you find it?

One option is to monitor your performances. If you find that one piece or a group of pieces in a specific instrumental area is getting more attention than the rest of your catalog, you can consider writing more in that area. These areas of interest are ripe for the targeted approach.

Or if you start to feel hemmed in in one area or another, you can consider making forays into other instrumental combinations.

Beyond Instrumentation
Having a catalog of substance extends beyond mere instrumentation, however. You’ve created a catalog that includes vocal works, small and large chamber pieces, works for band and orchestra, and maybe even some stage works, but there’s also the important element of timing. If your works mostly clock in between three and seven minutes, you’re probably not showing your range well. You’ve written a dozen or so short pieces for trombone and piano for this great trombonist who loves your music – maybe it’s time to consider writing a larger work for them/the instrument.

Or the reverse may be true – I have a friend who feels that the concert music community is suffering from severe ADD, as evidenced by the over-inundation of the scene by works shorter than eight minutes. Consequently, few of his works are shorter than twenty. He’s done himself no favors by primarily writing works that take up a quarter or a third of a standard program since performers can’t just try him out – they have to commit to a lot of rehearsal and devoting a significant portion of their concert to his one piece.

And although this is a minor consideration: is most of your music slow? fast? Do you usually start a piece like this or like that? Do a significant number of your works end on a quiet, contemplative note? Or maybe they all end with a bang? Think about it.

Why?
Beyond the strategies I’ve outlined here for expanding your catalog, and the reasons for each, it’s just flat-out important to continually add to your list of available works. The more works you have available, the more performance and commissioning opportunities you have, and the more stable of a career you’re able to build for yourself. Writing two dozen works, then trying to push those onto performers over and over will get you next to nowhere unless you’re incredibly lucky. But by having lots of works ready for performers, while you still need luck, you’re creating more of that luck for yourself.

I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, be a dear and click the donate button at the bottom of this post, will you? If you can’t afford to donate, please pass this chapter along to someone who you think might get some help from it.

And I really love to get feedback in the comments section, via email, and on Twitter – they really keep me going on this project.

Thanks!