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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.

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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.

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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.

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


What a Difference…

After a frankly hellish few months at the day job (everyone agrees), I was finally able to take a few days away from the office to, y’know, get some writing done.

With a whopping FOUR commissions on my plate, all of which need to be done by March 10, I was wildly behind on getting things done, and desperately needed some uninterrupted writing time. Or, at least, minimally interrupted. Ok. A few hours strung together here and there that didn’t take place after I’d been sitting behind a desk for eight hours, to which this weekend was both perfectly and horribly suited. Perfectly because it was already a long weekend, and appending two days to it would be ideal; horribly because I knew that Saturday would be devoted to preparation for a concert I performed on, and I had tickets to see Powder Her Face on Sunday – both of which would absolutely involve carousing afterward.

So, I took Friday and today off, and have spent a significant amount of time either at the piano or in front of the computer.

On Friday and Saturday, I did the latest round of revisions to Only Air so that it’s ready to show to the last in a short series of mentors who I want feedback from. So far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and blissfully constructive.

Here is a jpeg of page 1 of the score (yes, I know that there are a still a few engraving errors):

Yesterday afternoon I finished my choral setting of They Lie at Rest, from a longer poetic work by Christina Rossetti. As always, it was exciting to put a double bar on a new piece. When I sat down at the piano yesterday, I had the final two stanzas of the poem to set, and they flowed out with a minimum of fuss. I also learned that there’s no singing allowed at the memorial the choir had expected to perform it at, so they’ll just do it elsewhere on the same trip.

Here are the cover and first page:

And today I’ve sketched out all but 5 1/2 lines of Voices, the companion piece to When Music Sounds.

A snippet of sketches:

If only every day were like today!


Matter-of-Fact

“Matter-of-fact” may, in fact, be my favorite score indication. “Clangorous” being a close second.


(Only Air (2011-2013))


(“Permanently” from at least a moment (2009))

Similar markings work, too:


(“inevitable” from echoes (2008))


(“Kenneth’s Death” from echoes (2008))

It may be my reserved, Midwestern upbringing. Or it may be that I prefer to let the text and music carry themselves, without the singer “getting in the way”. I also tend not to choose texts that imply histrionics. Subtle emotion seems to be my thing, musically. Understatement.

There’s nothing particularly earth shattering about this idea. It’s something I’ve known about myself and my music for a long time, but thinking about Only Air brings up the idea again for me.

I almost felt you
shudder this morning
as I dreamed of death

I can’t imagine this line – or anything from the poem, save four of the last lines – being recited or sung in any manner other than completely straight-forward. There’s obvious, deep, gut-wrenching emotion behind the poem, but it carries itself so simply, so beautifully that any to attempt to “interpret” it or put any additional “feeling” into it would cripple the words.

Similarly, “Kenneth’s Death” from echoes can’t be anything other than unsentimental. It is, of course, an incredibly sentimental song, but if I ever heard a singer put anything more than a sort of sad humor behind the words “He’s dead,” I might barf. (Or at least roll my eyes so hard that I get a peek at my brain.)

Sometimes the most complex of emotions can only be expressed through utter simplicity.


Playing Catch-Up

Only Air
The orchestration to Only Air continues apace. I’m starting in on the third interlude this evening, which will be the most challenging one since it does require a bit of actual composition as well – my sketches, which are usually either detailed roadmaps or vague groupings of disembodied noteheads, are particularly vague here, bordering on impressionistic. “The clarinet soloist does these things in this order, and the orchestra kind of does…other…stuff…with these pitches. Maybe a few others.” Thanks, Dennis, for being so helpful!

My intention was originally to put together the piano/vocal score first, but I realized quickly that it’s just not going to happen like that. The orchestration wants to happen first so that I can reduce it. Even though I wrote the piece at the piano, and my sketches are vaguely pianistic, it just wants to be an orchestra piece first. And who am I to argue? In practical terms, this way allows me to work out durations and timings with sustaining instruments before I REALLY get the decay of the piano in my head.

They Lie at Rest
This weekend, I also started a new short piece for mixed choir, “They Lie at Rest”. Something about the text has clearly spoken to my composer brain since I sat down with it for the first time yesterday and composed the first third of the piece in one fell swoop. This seems to be a theme with me and choral music lately – “When Music Sounds” started the exact same way!

Recent Events
I recently had the pleasure of singing several roles in a reading of Roger Zahab’s new opera A Christmas Carol. I was originally slated to sing Young Scrooge, First Portly Gentleman, and Bob Cratchit, but also added Scrooge’s nephew Fred for the second performance due to a baritone emergency.

And let me tell you: this is my kind of performing. Both performances were unstaged readings – literally readings – by a small ensemble and a group of singers, many of whom had never met until the day of the first “performance”. Magically, in the first performance of the 2-hour work, we only had to stop and restart about three times! And I know that I wasn’t the only one who had only had time to look at the music for the first time the night before!

Afterward, I realized that this was the real-life version of that dream that we all have about showing up to a performance on the first night without ever having rehearsed or having been told you were even cast, yet blundering through anyway. But with pants. I was a little taken aback after I mentioned to a few of the other performers and they replied, “Aw man, I know! I hate that nightmare!” B…but who said anything about a nightmare…?

Coming Up
This February I’ll be in an ensemble performing several works by composer Karen Siegel, which I’m very much looking forward to! The concert, for anyone available, will be February 16 at the Tenri Cultural Center on W 13th St at 8:00pm.

Also, my piece “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” from Elegy will be sung at a paperless reading of choral music hosted by the Monmouth County chapter of the American Guild of Organists on February 10!

Looking Forward
Due to a number of factors, including an increased work load at the day job, 2012 was a slow year for some of my non-composing/non-singing endeavors.

Consequently, I put a temporary moratorium on adding new works and new composers to the NewMusicShelf, which I’m just now beginning to lift as I prepare for the day job to go back to normal in a few weeks. My sole priority with the site has been to monitor sales and make sure that everyone gets paid when they should (mission accomplished!). And after I sift through my backlog of emails, and process all of the new scores, I’ll start accepting new submissions again, as well as seeking out new composers to join the site’s roster.

The day job also severely impacted my ability to update the Composer’s Guide toward the end of the year. But rest assured: I have a half dozen articles in draft form, and will start posting them all soon, along with a ton more new content! I’m very much looking forward to finishing the competitions mini-series!

There are also a few more projects that I’ve got lined up for this year that I’ll announce as they come closer to fruition.


Double Bar!

After about a year and a half of on-again-off-again composing, I finally put a double bar on Only Air yesterday afternoon!

As with most of my works, the ending was informally finalized ages ago (that is, definitely decided upon but not written down), so it’s been a labor of filling in the blanks. While I’m very much a start-to-finish type of composer, I frequently skip over a transition or bit of text that’s giving me some sort of problem in favor of making progress, because I find that a) banging my head against the wall over a few seconds of music just isn’t healthy, and b) the solution usually presents itself down the road, when I can take a later bit of music and “introduce” the material in that skipped transition. Très élégant !

I’m definitely feeling the crunch now. The premiere is in April, and I’m finally ready to orchestrate and make the piano/vocal score.

I’m not terribly worried about the orchestration because I decided long ago that my goal is to orchestrate it in such a way that a mediocre orchestra will sound great – i.e., standard, come-to-Jesus style orchestration. Interlocking winds. Lots of strings. Standard doublings. I’d like the piece to have a long shelf life, and that becomes less and less possible as the orchestration becomes showier and more complicated. Plus, I like to think that I don’t have the Young Composer Chip on the Shoulder when it comes to trying to show off with Orchestral Color. I’m still pretty darned new to writing for orchestra, but I’ve had some solid praise in my orchestration of Growl, and for once in my life I want to walk before I attempt running.


No JFund this time

Well this was not how I wanted to start my week.

Because I’m impatient, and because I happened to see on Google+ last week that the JFund applications were being reviewed, I checked out the American Composers Forum website this afternoon to see if the grant winners had been announced. They had. Last Wednesday. Which is a pretty sure sign that I got nothing. And that’s exactly what I got.

I’m honestly incredibly depressed by the news. I hadn’t felt so optimistic and confident about an application I’d sent out, well…ever. So this was a significant blow to the ego, especially given the subject matter of the piece and my personal stake in it.

But life will go on. It goes on with temporarily undermined confidence and a brief bout of depression, but it goes on. I’ve still got the MAP Fund Letter of Inquiry out there.


More grant writing

I spent some time yesterday reworking the JFund materials for MAP. The changes will be more substantial than I first anticipated, but not overwhelming by any means. MAP provides a 7-point list of suggestions for writing the Letter of Inquiry, which I’m hewing to very closely, adapting my existing texts to the order and layout of the list. I’m feeling even more confident about this project description than I did about the JFund, which I think was still quite good.

Tonight I’ll spend some time at the library trying to finish the writing so that I can have a few people look at it tomorrow and over the weekend.

One of the challenges is to hit all of the points while maintaining a consistent flow. I find myself jumping around from section to section, adding a bit here, editing a bit there, moving things around to accommodate both the 7-point structure and the arc of the writing.


Back on track

Fundraising for Only Air stalled briefly, but is back in full-swing as of this afternoon. After the briefest of misunderstandings with The Field late yesterday afternoon, I’m set up on the MAP Fund’s site, and will be submitting my Letter of Inquiry materials for review at The Field in the next day or so. I’m glad I spent so much time preparing the JFund materials – for this round with MAP, I’m able to duplicate much of my work from the previous grant, which is a HUGE time-saver. I’ll still be spending some time reworking it over the next day or two.

Of course, all of this money talk seems a bit crass in the light of yet another suicide. Jamey Rodemeyer of Williamsville, NY committed suicide Sunday because he was bullied relentlessly at school for his sexuality. He was 14.

It’s because all of this is still happening that I’m writing Only Air.