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:


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.


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!

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!

A litter of new works

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve had a HUGE spike in my musical output. I finally finished Only Air, then wrote three new choral works and a song cycle.

Part of the reason for the spike was the simple fact that four of the above-mentioned works were commissions and had fast-approaching deadlines. I’m a horrible procrastinator at times, so deadlines are happy things for me. And while I adore Douglas Adams, I try not to ascribe to his philosophy on finishing work: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

1) The double bar went on Only Air around the 1st of January. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was the 1st of January. Apparently New Year’s Day hangovers can’t stop me from finishing a piece! Over the next month or so, I sought out critiques from friends and mentors, and continued to make some revisions, but the piece was effectively done.

2)After Only Air was finished and engraved, I turned my attention to They Lie at Rest for SATB choir (text by Christina Rossetti), which was commissioned by two choirs in Florida: East Ridge High School Concert Choir in Clermont, FL, and the Lake Minneola High School Choirs. The commission was instigated by East Ridge’s Gretchen Kemp, who’s a former classmate of mine from my Illinois State days, and with whom I sang in various choirs for several years. They Lie at Rest will be premiered on April 24 in Washington, D.C.

One of the fun and interesting parts of writing the piece was walking the schools through the commissioning process. For a lot of musicians, commissioning is something that only ensembles with huge budgets do, and it seems arcane and wildly expensive. It was enlightening for me to see how people outside of the new music world view commissioning. And it was wildly fun explaining the concept of a commissioning consortium and of co-commissioning to a newbie commissioner! (Definitely a reminder that what seems obvious and simple to me can be anything but that to others.)

3)Once They Lie at Rest was emailed to the choirs, I started in on Voices – the companion piece to When Music Sounds, which was premiered in December by the Illinois State University Madrigal Singers. I think I wrote the piece in three sittings. But when I got it into Sibelius, I realized that I didn’t quite like the ending. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to fix it right away because I had another deadline racing nearer and nearer.

4)In late December, I submitted some works to be considered for a commission by Providence Premieres, a new concert series in Providence, RI, and somehow I was awarded one of the commissions for the inaugural concert in April! This is actually the first time I’ve gotten something – other than residencies at artist colonies – that I’ve applied for. The commission was for a 7-9 minute piece using some combination of soprano, violin, and harp. I, of course, chose to use all three instruments.

For my texts, I chose three short poems by Elizabeth Morgan, who I met in 2009 at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I was completely charmed by her reading one evening at the VCCA of her poem “Poetry Reading”, and ordered two of her books of poetry as soon as I got home, after whose arrival I fell in love with “Email from Odessa” from On Long Mountain. This cycle doesn’t use either text; instead it makes use of three contemplative poems that are, on the surface at least, about animals and insects: “Like Young Men”, “Gnat Facts on NPR”, and “Without a Philosophy”. The cycle, which takes its title from the last poem, clocks in around 10 minutes.

The crazy thing about the cycle (aside from my brief reference to The Orlons’ “Wah Watusi”) is that it was written and engraved, parts were extracted and formatted, and everything was sent off within 10 days of putting pencil to paper – while also holding down a full-time day job. (Yes, I sketch on paper first!) A few weeks later, and my head is still spinning from the frenzy of writing!

After finishing Without a Philosophy, I had a few days of relative down time before I packed my bags and ran off to Dallas for 5 days to be a little social butterfly at the American Choral Directors Association’s national conference. I’d never been to an ACDA conference before, so the whole experience was new and exciting. Aside from some travel difficulties getting to Dallas and the need for a better map of the area, it was a great time and I met some really great directors, as well as spent quality time with a few friends. I also learned quite a lot about some holes in the repertoire, as well as cemented some thoughts on a new business model I’ll be trying out with some other composers later this year.

After Dallas, I revisited Voices and finally got the ending right. And I banged out the parts to Only Air and sent them off so that rehearsals could start.

Blah blah blah, I quit my day job to go full-time freelance, blah blah, more on that later.

5)And this past weekend while staying with Darien and his parents at their house in Montauk, I composed a new 4 1/2 minute piece for SSA choir and piano – Sunset: St. Louis, text by Sara Teasdale. The intention was to send it off to a competition (with fantastic terms and no entry fee, mind you), but it turns out that when I printed out the guidelines, they hadn’t been updated for this year’s voicing, which was mixed choir – SSA was last year! Regardless, I now know that not only can I write a 10 minute song cycle in 10 days, but I can also write and fully engrave a 4 1/2 minute choral piece in just under 32 hours!

And since I can’t enter the piece into the competition, I’ve made it available on NewMusicShelf with a 40% discount through the 13th. So if you or a director you know with a women’s/treble choir are looking for some new material, send ’em over here and tell ’em to use the code STLOUIS.

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!

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.

When Music Sounds

While doing the recording of my as-yet-unreleased-and-generally-unannounced choral music EP back in May (MAY!!) with the Illinois State University Madrigal Singers, the director of the ensemble, Karyl Carlson, briefly brought up the subject of the next piece that the school would be commissioning from me for their winter concert this year. Because we were on a break in the middle of recording six works, we only spoke briefly, and vowed to bring it up again soon. Several months went by, and we finally started talking brass tacks. The commission negotiation process was lengthy but uncontentious, and some compromises were made on both sides, as will happen with friendly negotiators. What began as a proposed 10-12 minute work, was scaled back to 7-10 minutes, and further revised to two smaller pieces, one of which, due to time constraints and other looming deadlines, will be delivered post-concert and premiered in the Spring.

The first of the two pieces, titled When Music Sounds, was finished just this past weekend while Hurricane Sandy swept through – and swept away part of – town. Karyl had emailed me the poem “Music” by Walter de la Mare toward the end of the negotiation process, and I absolutely fell in love with it. In my first sitting, a full third of the piece just flowed out. Kismet!

One of the fun little things that I discovered while writing this piece is that I probably need never print out a text again so long as I have my handy-dandy little tablet nearby. Ok, so it’s not so little – it’s the 10.1″ Samsung Galaxy Tab – kind of a monster, and I love it!

And if I clip poetry I like to Evernote, I’ll never be without the texts I’m working with!

I’m really happy with the way this piece turned out, and I’m currently in the process of paper proofing the score, doing all the fiddly things that don’t always stand out on the computer screen.

I’m really looking forward to hearing the ISU Mads perform it in December – and I’m definitely looking forward to writing the companion piece, Voices!

Fanfare for the Little Green Man

Every so often, you run across an old piece that you’ve forgotten about, and that you really shouldn’t have. That happened today while I was home sick from the day job. I was clicking around on my desktop, and there, nestled in my folder marked “Chamber Works” was a long-forgotten (about two years) set of pieces that were supposed to be a slightly larger work. For several reasons, the full piece never came to fruition, although I’d still like it to. Since there are more pressing projects on my plate, it will have to stay on the back-burner for a while. In the meantime, I’m releasing the existing movements separately.

I spent about an hour cleaning up the second of the two movements, and am offering it up by itself: Fanfare for the Little Green Man for violin duo.

Here’s how my computer says it sounds:

And, of course, it’s available at the NewMusicShelf!

September performances

This month is a pretty good month for performance of my works!

Tomorrow (9/6), Marc Peloquin is performing Growl again at Barbes on a program that he’s sharing with my mentor David Del Tredici. I’m really looking forward to the performance – can’t wait to hear everything that they’re going to play!

On the 18th, I’ll be performing echoes with Marc on a concert sponsored by the American Opera Projects / Opera Grows in Brooklyn / Opera on Tap at the Galapagos Art Space. I first performed this cycle on the Tobenski-Algera Concert Series in January 2010, and I’m looking forward to performing it a second time! It’s been a lot of fun putting this performance together, and I hope to work with AOP / OGiB / OoT again! I’m also very excited to hear the other works on the program – I know a lot of the composers whose works are being performed, and it’ll be fun hearing their works performed.

My friend Chet Biscardi is having is song cycle Sailors & Dreamers premiered on Sept. 19 at Merkin Hall, which, although I’m not a part of, I’m really looking forward to hearing the premiere. He’s been working on the cycle for a while, and I had the pleasure of hearing some of the songs early in the process. Chet is a wonderful composer and amazing friend, and I strongly encourage all of you to go to the performance on the 19th. The cycle was commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation, which is just amazing!

Then on Sept. 25th, my friends Roger Zahab and Rob Frankenberry will be premiering my piece Duo for violin and piano at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA. Rob, who will be the pianist for this performance, has premiered several works of mine, and is a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, performer; and Roger is an amazing composer and violinist, who commissioned the Duo last year.