Only Air: JFund Application

During my lunch break at the office yesterday, I called my friend Chet Biscardi to start picking his brain about some of the elements of the personal statement for the JFund application. I’ve decided that I want some outside insight, as it were, for the “development and direction of your work” portion. I think I have a fairly solid view of the direction of my work, but I feel the need to get other musicians’ input on how they perceive my development.

The big bullet point that I’ve come up with for the development of my work is that it’s gotten to use a greater economy of material – I definitely make more, and more effective, use of my musical material, and develop it much further.

Chet offered a little nugget that I hadn’t considered: since he’s known me, he’s noticed a trend toward larger forms and larger instrumentations – a trajectory toward writing for orchestra. He saw me as a composer of art song, choral works, and chamber pieces, but considers me having grown beyond that designation. Chet also noted that the Brush Creek scheduling disappointment wasn’t necessarily all bad – I might have an easier time there once I’ve already gotten most of the piece written so that I’m not facing a blank page the moment I arrive. (Of course, I already have some minor sketching done from months ago, but he’s right – I would essentially be confronted with a blank page.)

So, after work, I walked over to Therapy for their 2-for-1 happy hour (vodka cranberry, thank you) and to write up my latest draft of a personal statement. I’ve written several drafts before, toying with different tones, and I’m sure I’ll write at least a few more before I finally settle down to do the final version. I only glanced at what I’d written before, and launched into a new version. The previous draft took a more demonstrative tone – mentioning specific pieces and how I view their importance to my development so far: Elegy and Drinking Alone with the Moon were a dual pivot point – Elegy was the last piece of its kind: wandering, low on inter-movement musical repetition; and Drinking marked a new phase: tighter, leaner, more prone to develop musical material. Consequently, I consider Drinking to be my first “mature” work. But maybe that’s too much for a one-page statement? I mean, I’m not being asked to write a full breakdown of my oeuvre. But it demonstrates the point I’m attempting to make re my musical economy and developmental…, well, development. Growth – yeah, that’s better.

The newer draft is a bit more condensed, and concentrates on two main themes: Focus and Range. I spent the development and direction sections talking about how each is characterized by both of these ideas. With Development, I associated the economy of material with Focus, the expansion of form and scale with Range, and my move toward themes that are more intensely personal with Focus. And in Direction, I narrowed my points down to two rather than the traditional three (Focus?) and discussed a widening of my sources of inspiration such as Craigslist, sci-fi novels, and pop songs (Range); and my move toward being more aggressive in finding or creating opportunities for my music (Focus).

The latter is obviously a developmental thing, as well, considering as the Tobenski-Algera Concert Series (may it rest in peace) started five years ago. But considering as I’m making different sorts of efforts to find/create opportunities, I feel as though it’s more of a directional thing in this case.

At this point I’d finished my two drinks and decided that another two would be too much a) for a Monday, b) for my diet, and c) for my ability to continue writing, so I called it a night.


“The Gallant Weaver” for Choir

This evening I started a new arrangement of “The Gallant Weaver” for SATB choir and piano. The reason? There’s a choral composition competition (say that ten times fast) that I’d like to enter, and the deadline is Friday. I’ve been hemming and hawing over texts for ages, and this afternoon after a very busy day at the day job where I didn’t choose a text like I’d half-planned to do (“Look it up while you’re at work, instead of doing your work! Brought to you by the Internet Foundation.”), I decided to make life a little easier on myself and just arrange something from my existing catalog. “The Gallant Weaver” is ripe for the picking in this respect, and also happens to be one of my favorites of my own songs (don’t tell the others, though – we don’t want them getting jealous…).

So after a little walk in this beautiful warm weather, I dove into the arrangement and am already at the halfway mark. I should be able to finish the arrangement Wednesday evening, which makes me incredibly happy. It’s nice to add a new piece to my catalog, and to do it so quickly!

I’d have it done tomorrow, except that I’m meeting with Jeff Algera to make the final arrangements for the Tobenski-Algera Concert Series, which is effectively finished. However, part of our meeting is to deal with the funds leftover from our semi-season last year so that I can start a new series in the coming months very much like the T-A Concerts. The reason for the dissolution of the Series is that Jeff and his wife are moving to California next month, which will make continuing the Concerts in their current form very difficult. Obviously, Copland and Sessions managed to do it via post in the early ’30s while the latter lived in Paris, and it’s infinitely easier to communicate via Skype, but it’s time to change things up a bit, and Jeff’s life will certainly be taken up for quite a while with setting up his new life and web business on the West Coast.

I don’t normally write pieces specifically for competitions. In fact, I usually avoid those that require an unperformed, unpublished piece because I have so few of those. And as a self-published composer, I honestly can’t say that I have any unpublished pieces. As soon as I finish something, I slap the Tobenski Music Press logo on it, and throw it on my site and the NewMusicShelf. Everything I write is immediately considered to be published. But it’s not published by a “legacy publisher” (a nice term I came across to describe traditional publishers), which is certainly what is meant by the “no publication” rule. No danger of that ever happening – I don’t want a “legacy publisher”! (More on that some other time.) My other point of “meh”-ness is that the piece can’t be performed in the meantime, or submitted anywhere else. So, until August when the award winners are announced, this arrangement, which I’m so far very happy with, has to sit on my hard drive and twiddle its thumbs. But I guarantee that even though I can’t do anything with it in the meantime, it will be ready to go for the instant that the announcements are made. Of course, I’m certainly hoping that it has to sit on the shelf for another few months because it’s won the award and needs to be premiered by this organization!

Fingers crossed!


Tobenski-Algera Concerts: Jan. 27th concert run-down

I realize that I never properly gave a run-down of the January 27 concert.

I must say that I’m very pleased with how the concert turned out.  I think that Marc and I gave a very good performance of all of the works on the program; and the audience was sizable and enthusiastic.  Since I was the one performing, I can’t very well review the program, though I can say that I’m very, very happy with the turnout and the performance.

There are two things that I’m, unfortunately, not happy with.

1) The quality of the audio recording that we got isn’t very good.  Normally, we hire a friend, Robert Bullington, to record our concerts, and his recording philosophy for concert music is to make it sounds as if the listener were in the front row.  Hence, his recording company is called Front Row Seat Productions.  I’m consistently thrilled with the quality of Robert’s recordings.  He will absolutely be recording our next program.

This time, we decided to go with the in-house recording service in order to scale back on costs, which was a mistake.  The sound tech did a fantastic job of miking me and Marc for the room, but I think that she didn’t process the mix at all before burning it to CD.  Consequrently, the piano (which, it turns out was rather out of tune – something we didn’t notice at the time since we were in performance mode) sounds tinny, distant, and far too quiet; and I sound like I’m swallowing the microphone, which has absolutely no reverb, so every tiny flaw is made screamingly present.  Although I promised the recording to all of the composers on the program, I’m frankly too embarrassed to send it to them.  Instead, Marc and I will re-record the entire program in March.

2) Someone (or, rather, several someones) who sat near the video camera talked regularly throughout the concert.  Now, I don’t mind that people chit-chat while I perform – it’s a cabaret theatre, and there’s drinking going on.  But I should hope that the people sitting right in front of a big piece of recording equipment could manage to keep their voices low enough to avoid being overheard.  I got an email from the booking manager at The Duplex a few days after the concert letting me know what had happened with the video.  The video engineer has apparently taken bits of the audio recording and synched it up with the video.  I’m picking up the DVD this evening, when I’ll be able to judge the overall quality for myself.  But I’m not optimistic since the audio recording that I sincerely don’t like is being used for some – if not all – of the video.  My hope, after hearing the audio recording, was that we could pull the audio track from the DVD and use that as the recording, but no such luck.

Now I have to figure out where, when, and how to go about doing the re-recording next month.  Bah.

We still love the space – everyone raved about the atmosphere and how wonderful it was! – but we’ll probably avoid the in-house audio service next time.  It’s ideal for recordings of poppier things, but alas, not for recording what we do.  Live and learn!


Looking Back and Looking Forward

2009 turned out to be a particularly slow composing year for any number of reasons. Last year I finished the final quarter of “Permanently” from at least a moment; wrote one choral work and four short songs; and started – but didn’t finish – a short work for orchestra.

One reason for my lack of significant output turned out to be a little surprising – I didn’t have a teacher anymore! I’ve always been quite a self-starter, so I was a little surprised to realize that one reason why I wasn’t churning out music was that no one was looking over my shoulder, and I didn’t have to have a certain amount written each week for someone else to look at. I’ve temporarily changed that state of affairs – this past weekend, I started private study with Chester Biscardi, a web client and good friend (also the Director of the Music Program at Sarah Lawrence College). We’ve decided to use the orchestra piece I started in Ucross as a jumping-off point. I’m glad to be finishing the work finally, and to be working with Chet because he’s a fantastic composer – and by all reports a great teacher, as well!

While working on the orchestra piece (still as yet untitled!), I’ll also be working on a paraphrase of at least a moment for solo piano. Marc Peloquin and I have been putting together the next Tobenski-Algera Concert lately, and, while I didn’t plan on having one of my own works on the progrm for once, Marc insisted that I write a new piece for him to help balance the program. So, rather than wrack my brains for new material under such a tight deadline (the concert is March 9!), I’ve decided to rework the Koch cycle – shorten it considerably, and fold the vocal line into the piano. I consider it a “paraphrase” – a la DDT’s Acrostic Paraphrase, but I’m making the work shorter rather than three times the original length! I’ve made the bulk of the cuts already, so my next task is to start folding the vocal line into the piano part. I’ve been aching for a premiere of the cycle, so this performance will be a bit of a palliative.

In keeping with the arrangement kick…. Last year, I showed Chet the finished score of at least a moment – or, rather, emailed him the PDF of the score with MP3s of the MIDI playback from Sibelius. Since I loathe the voice sample used in Sibelius’s Kontakt Player, I always use flute instead. After listening to the MP3s and looking at the score, Chet made the comment that the vocal line stands so well on its own that I could easily pull out the text and use it as a flute piece. So, I shall! The only decision that remains to be made before I jump in with the Delete button is whether to transpose it or not. As it stands, the piece goes a minor third too low for a standard flute (the piece bottoms out at A3), though it’s ideal for an alto flute. So I have to decide whether to leave it as is and say it’s for alto flute, or bump it up a minor third. Or I could do a version of both!

Further on the compositional horizon – past the completion of several other works that have been in my compositional queue for far too long (completing the piccolo trumpet & string quartet piece for David Glukh; writing a duo for violin & piano for Roger Zahab) – I’ve been thinking quite a lot on a musical subject that I’ve frequently been told I should pursue: opera. Probably the main impetus for my starting to think seriously in this vein (I’ve frequently, and idly, thought about writing opera throughout the years, and have several ideas for larger-scale projects that I won’t tackle for a little while) is the fact that I’ve been lucky enough to go to the Met several times in the past few months: I saw Janacek’s From the House of the Dead (liked the music, hated the production) and Strauss’s Elektra (wonderful) and Ariadne auf Naxos (absolutely divine). I’ve started grabbing recordings of operas where I can find them and putting them on my iPod to listen to at work. (Recently heard Der Rosenkavalier for the first time and was absolutely transported!)

So I’ve been thinking about how I would go about writing an opera – what a good starting point would be. I may start with an existing short play, since that would probably be the simplest in terms of getting started and working on my own. I’ve definitely got my eyes peeled for a potential librettist, though. There are a few ideas bouncing around in my skull at the moment that have got me excited (not so much plot ideas, as structure and general concept), and I’d like to pitch them to a librettist. That is, if I can find one! I suspect that I could make one of my large-scale ideas happen fairly easily (and, frankly, I need to do it quickly if it’s going to happen!), but I’d like to have a chamber opera or two under my belt first. More details as things progress.

This sudden burst of compositional thought and action ties in closely with the second reason for my dearth of output last year. I spent all but a month and a half of 2009 unemployed (2009 didn’t manage to be the Year of Buying DVDs – instead it was the Year of Falling Behind on Rent!), which left me with a lot of free time. By all rights, I should have been churning out new works right and left! The problem, though, was that I had too much free time, and I fell into a horrible habit of intense procrastination. I would wake up late every day (between 10:30 and noon), putter around the apartment for a while, then settle in front of the computer for the rest of the day – frittering away the hours with blogs, silly internet videos, and watching movies and TV shows on Netflix. Needless to say, there was a bit of honest-to-goodness depression involved here, which also stemmed from the fact of my unemployment. I found that when I don’t have a draw on my time, my time tends to become somewhat valueless, and therefore meaningless. A day job – the eternal enemy – is actually a necessity at the moment. And for more than just paying the bills!

I recently started a new day job – some temp work, which allows me the flexibility to function as a musician – and the result is that I can now both pay the bills and feel as though I want to write again!

Now that I’ve discovered two creative danger zones for me, I can address the issues and fix them.

Hopefully 2010 will be a Year of Writing a Lot of Music. 2009 was a let-down in a lot of ways. Compositionally, I wrote far too little. Financially, I was always anxious and falling behind. Economically in general, things just sucked. And politically, the year was a little disappointing – although some good things were accomplished, those accomplishments went largely unnoticed amid the noise of Balloon Boy; the hyped-up, insane expectations of The First 100 Days; the utter absurdity of The Second 100 Days (as though we hadn’t head enough talking heads talking about other talking heads’ evaluations of etc); etc. But with the success of the first new T-A Concert, and the start of a new day job, I’m feeling energized and positive about this year.


New American Art Song – Next Week!

Rehearsals for next Wednesday’s concert continue apace, and about 90% of the concert is ready to go. Marc and I have scheduled 2 more rehearsals, Sunday and Monday, and you can be sure that I’ll be drilling certain passages in the meantime.

I’m really, really happy with the song selections that we’ve made, and I very much look forward to presenting them next week. A few extra weeks of rehearsal would be nice. Even one more week would go a long way. But I also think that the concert would be good if we performed tomorrow.

In the past year, I’ve picked up a hobby horse that I absolutely love to ride: supporting the vocal line in a song or aria. I’ve hounded certain composers whose work I’ve performed about giving the singer more guideposts along the way – it’s something that I aim for in my own work, and is very important to making the singer’s job a little less aggravating. I think we often write harder music than is absolutely necessary so that we look smart to other composers. (“My music hard, and that makes me smart.”) It was certainly drilled into my brain by a number of past teachers that I had to write music that was super-smart, which clearly meant “not attractive” and “difficult”. I was even told that certain pieces of mine, typically the more well-received of my works, were “too beautiful” – which means exactly what? (I think that it means absolutely nothing.) One trap that we song composers fall into when we lose our bearings and stumble off into SmartyPants Land is to make our vocal lines extremely difficult. I don’t mind super-hard vocal lines, myself, so long as they’re supported in the piano, or whatever instrument(s) I happen to be singing with. A well-placed note that gives me my starting pitches – or that shows me that I’m on the right track – can go a really long way toward making me comfortable. It always feels nice to know that I’m not completely on my own – I question myself a lot less.

Accuracy is clearly something that is desired by both composer and performer. But if, after weeks of rehearals and private drilling of parts, I still can’t find my pitches, I have little choice but to approximate in performance. It’s not ideal, obviously. And something I maybe shouldn’t really admit to. But I also believe in being honest with composers or performers I work with. I’ve told performers on a number of occasions to approximate certain passages because, honestly, who but me is going to know the difference? I’d rather that they sing the pitches that I’d spent hours/days/weeks working on, but if it comes down to the singer sounding timid and unsure of themselves, or sounding as though they know what they’re doing even if they don’t really, I choose the latter any day. I’ve also had to tell some composers that unless they gave me more support in the piano part, I’ll probably end up singing pitches that are quite inaccurate, but I’ll sing them as though they’re right.

I’ve mentioned that I strive to support my singers as much as possible, but I know that I sometimes fall short. I definitely do in two of the songs from echoes, which I’ll surely be revising a bit after this performance. My supportive sins aren’t major, but I’ve found myself floundering in the middle section of “conspiracy”, and in the opening of “people shouting”. A few well-placed supportive notes would go entirely unnoticed by listeners, but would have made the songs simpler to rehearse! How bizarre to be having problems singing my own songs! Fortunately, the unsupported sections are short, and the vast majority of the cycle feels great.

I do want to single out one cycle in particular from this concert for the composer’s excellent work in supporting the vocalist at every turn in a way that is comforting to the singer and very elegant. Zachary Wadsworth’s Three Lullabies is really well-written, and I’ve felt super comfortable with it in rehearsals. At first glance, it’s a little intimidating (some harmonic nebulousness that seems prohibitive, and some seeming rhythmic scariness in the second song). However, his songs have given me the least worries, and have felt really relaxed from the beginning. At every entrance, and during tricky phrases, Zach gives little nudges in the right direction. He never outright doubles the vocal line, but selects important pitches (and sometimes rhythms) throughout many of the phrases and echoes them in the piano part. Unsupported, X or Y pitch may be difficult to grab out of thin air, but he always finds an elegant way to make his singer feel at home, even with tricky, chromatic passages.

There are some moments in the program where I’d like a bit more support from the piano part, or a little clearer engraving (another hobby horse, one I’ll surely address here soon), but I like to think of myself as a smart singer – I can figure it out (I have figured it out, but we’re all prone to slip-ups). I feel as though all that remains to be done now is to pound about 5 or 6 entraces into my brain. Beyond that, the program is performance-ready!

So everybody make your reservations now!


Tobenski-Algera Concert Series: Art Song selections

This past weekend, Jeff Algera and I made the programming decisions for the first concert of the Tobensk-Algera re-launch. The program will consist of the following works:

Dennis Tobenski: echoes, six songs on poetry by Mark Statman (NY premiere)
Jeff Algera: “Twenty” and “Former Soldier”, on poems by Oscar Wilde (world premiere)

Ricky Ian Gordon: “As Planned”, “Adolescent’s Song”, “Proof of Gold”, and “A Contemporary”

Aaron Alon: “All Rights Reserved” (NY premiere)
Tim Kiah: “La Nuit”
George Lam: Fog Argument, two songs on poetry by Mark Doty (NY premiere)
Justin Merritt: “Dissonance” & “May Evening in Central Park”
Keane H. Southard: selections from Three Songs of Dylan Thomas (NY premiere)
Zachary Wadsworth: Three Lullabies (NYC premiere)

We had 25 scores to choose from, and all of the entries were of a very high caliber. Paring the submissions down to a 90-minute program was no easy task, but I look forward to preparing and performing all of the works that we’ve selected. And learning 90 minutes of music in 23 days will be no easy task!


Tobenski-Algera Concert Series Call for Scores responses

Greetings from the year 2010! Whether or not this is indeed the year that we make contact, it’s certainly already started off quite well.

Yesterday, the T-A Concerts’ call for scores for our Spring 2010 series closed, and the responses were uniformly amazing! We had 42 composers from around the world send in 76 scores – a far greater number of both composers and scores than we anticipated!

Tomorrow, Jeff Algera and I will start making our programming decisions for the art song program, New American Art Song. Our work is definitely cut out for us – every entry has been really great, and we’re going to be hard pressed to pare down the 25 submissions for the art song concert into a 90-minute concert!

Three works we know for certain already – I’ll be singing:

  • two new songs by Jeff Algera
  • my song cycle, echoes, on texts by Mark Statman
  • and four unpublished songs by Ricky Ian Gordon
  • I’ve got my work cut out for me – learning all new works for a 90-minute concert in less than a month!


    Tobenski-Algera Concert Series: Jan, 27, 2010: New American Art Song

    Reservations are now available for the inaugural concert of the Tobenski-Algera Concert Series’s Spring 2010 re-launch. The concert, at The Duplex’s cabaret theatre in NYC’s West Village, will take place at 9:30pm on Wednesday, January 27, 2010.

    The concert will feature new art songs by young and emerging composers, as well as four songs by Obie Award-winning composer Ricky Ian Gordon.

    $10 cover & two drink minimum with a reservation; $12 cover & two drink minimum at the door.

    Make your reservation now!