Aug 22, 2013

... I just remembered

This is a post script to the Remembering Memory post below. I forgot to mention the very short term impact of memory on local syntax. I am working with a melody that winds its way to a cadence on a Db. In the subsequent phrase, beginning in a way similar to the first phrase, that Db jumps in suddenly and, without the lead in, sounds out of place harmonically. But the memory of its recent, explained appearence gives it a sense, albeit peculiar sense, of intention. It has a comic effect, as if the reasonable answer to two questions in a row is the word roof but then roof is given as the answer to a third question or perhaps in the middle of the question where it is now a non-sequitor if taken out of the context of the previous two questions. Because we remember roof from the previous questions we can understand it as an odd fixation on the word roof. Perhaps we begin to wonder if the the first two questions which had roof as a reasonable answer were lucky questions. We thought the dog we were speaking with was very smart because we just happened to ask him what part of his house needed repair. It takes us a while to realize that he can only say the one word.

Anyway, had my Db not been prominent in the previous phrase it would simply be wrong – in a bad way – but since we remember it, it becomes wrong in a good way. Memory transforms it from a clinker into a blue note. (I have written about my fascination with wrong notes in Arcana 6 edited by John Zorn.) 

In this sense I suppose pedal tones are all dependent on memory as they become less concordant with the surroundings.


Aug 15, 2013

Remembering Memory

I have been writing a big orchestra piece (38 minutes for large orchestra). The commission contract calls it a Symphony which carries the connotation to me of a piece without extramusical program. My last few pieces have had governing metaphors built into the commission. For example, I recently finished a piece to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assasination of JFK, and a piece commissioned by an Aquarium to highlight the interconnection of marine and terrestrial life along the densely populated southern California coast. 

 In fulfilling a commission that comes with a task, the Kennedy piece is a good example, there is a target expressive character present when work begins. In my previous post "Nothing Funny About That," I wrote about the challenges of avoiding, against my nature, anything playful or light-hearted. On the positive side, a given text, program, or metaphor can provide a road map or at least some criteria for deciding which fork in the road to follow.

When beginning a new work of free, abstract composition there are no a priori guidelines regarding tone or mood and one has to invent reasons to pursue one fork over the other and construct a map as you go. 

I believe there is a quote by  famous author whose name escapes me along the lines of "I don't write to tell people what I think, I write to find out what I think." It is both exciting and frightening to work without a priori concept, just the invitation to find a few frequencies in a few temporal positions that have some personality and then extrapolate that personality into a long arc. 

 I began work on this piece by digging in the garden – allowing myself to freely discover material without regard to form or function. As I was gathering little treasures I couldn't resist the temptation to see how the unearthed fragments might connect and combine with one another – like trying to figure out what structure might be built from a few stray tinker tolys left on the floor. While trying to form continuities out of seemingly disparate parts I stumbled on a particularly interesting juxtaposition between two ideas. The ideas didn't flow easily, one to the other. The joint had an odd flavor and I couldn't immediately decide if I even liked it. My subjective perception of the moment was that the second idea sounded like a memory. I realize the crackpottery of such a statement but it did make sense that if the second idea were indeed a recalling of an event that happened earlier in the piece, I could have my cake and eat it too: I could explore the expressive effects of the subtle discontinuity in harmony and voice leading which made it difficult to understand the event as a natrual progression in the present moment by making it an event that we remember from the past - a memory. (Just to be clear, I am talking about the memory of a previous event in the present piece, not a memory of some other piece - a quotation). 

I was reminded of a dissertation on the album Relayer by the band "Yes" written by my former student Mike Early. He described a sequential progression of a phrase rising by step until it was a tritone away and then snapped back to the original transposition. The local discontinuity forced the listener to remember the original phrase in order to make sense of the bumpy landing from the tritone leap.

I was also reminded of my time as a teaching assistant at SUNY Stony Brook, teaching ear training and sight singing. I don't have perfect pitch but I have a good memory and it seemed helpful to my students and myself to combine memory - going back to a remembered pitch - with singing forward, interval by interval.

In composing this piece I started to consciously explore the territory between arriving at an event because it was the convincing next step in the present versus understanding something as a recollection of the past. The recapitulation in your average 18th and 19th century masterpiece represents the former extreme. The return is meticulously prepared. The jacket is tailored, brushed and held open by an experienced valet so that the recap can easily slip its arms in. The other extreme is te return of previous material which is unprepared anc creates a schism in the musical flow which asks the listener to understand the event as an interruption or a flashback and not part of the present. I am particularly interested in the middle ground where voice leading and memory share the load of making sense out of a continuity. The point is to create unusual expressive alchemies in the present by asking the memory to do part, but not all, of the work in understanding an event. If memory does all the work the harmonic interaction is overlooked, excused, made inert. The hope is not only that some interesting harmonic gaps can be bridged by memory.

In blending present and past experience I suppose the feeling of Deja Vu - experienceing a new event as if it had been experienced before - and its opposite - experiencing a past event as if for the first time, are relevant possible outcomes.

I am not claiming that this is a revolutionarily new way of thinking about music. It isn't even the first time that I have mined the potential of memory for poignant moments, but it is the farthest I have come in exploring the possible relationships between syntax and memory. 

Actually, in 1981 when I was in graduate school at Brandeis I wrote a piece called "Four Pieces in Three Movements". The idea was that, strewn across the three distinct movements separated by pauses, there was a fourth piece of music which began somewhere in the middle of the first movement and reappeared, continuing from where it left off in subsequent appearences. The concept was not executed particularly well for three reasons I think. First of all, the subesquent appearences of the fourth piece were too well integrated into the flow of the music so there was not enough contextual clues that the flow of time in the present was meant to be suspended. Secondly, the fourth piece was not striking enough in the context to stand out and be memorable and related to that, thirdly, by picking up the fourth piece from where it left off I was making unreasonable demands on the listeners memory by asking them to remember what they expected would happen next but hadn't actually happened.

 I don't think memory has been the focus of much music in the past 50-75 years. Minimalism lives primarily in the now moment as a process unfolding in the present. Modernism often eschews recongnizable repetition which puts memory on the back burner. 18th and 18th century music surely employed memory but those composers were not allowed the kind of syntactical license that we are in the post emancipation-of-the-dissonance era. You rarely find broken rules with the purpose of highlighting memory. One exception is the premature entry of the horn as we approach the recap of the first movement of the Beethoven's 3rd Symphony. 

The tonal freedom of the early 20th Century was an ideal context for using syntax to suggest various shades of belonging to the present or past, waking or dreaming, etc. and composers like Ives and Stravinsky made good use of memory.

I'm using the exploration of memory as an idea, something to refer to as I make the myriad decisions about where to go in the journey of creating a new piece. I anticipate that it will impact the piece in a couple ways: the hope is not only that some interesting harmonic gaps can be bridged by memory but the recollections and shifting sense of past and present will have some formal consequences which can hopefully be massaged into an intrinsically expressive shape.


Jun 22, 2012

Nothing Funny About That

I am currently working on a piece for the Brentano String Quartet which was jointly commissioned by Carnegie Hall, Yellow Barn and the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas for a premiere in 2013 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assasination of President John F. Kennedy. I very happily accepted the commission for several reasons. First of all I love the Brentano Quartet and while they have recorded a disc of my music for string quartet and have been inspiring collaborators for the past 15 years I have only written one short piece for them as one of a dozen composers in their Bach Art of the Fugue project. I am really looking forward to unleashing their musicianship and attention to detail on something that I write specifically for them.

I was also personally interested in commemorating the Kennedy assasination. I was 7 years old, home from school in bed with the flu in Marysville California watching TV when the first news broadcast broke in. I knew that my parents were staunch supporters of Kennedy and they had taken pains to explain to me how pleased they were with his handling of the Cuban Missle Crisis, so I knew that the fact that he was shot was not only bad news for the country but would be upsetting to my parents. I called my mother in from the kitchen, she probably thought I wanted some manner of pampering in my sickness, but before she reached me I heard our next door neighbor burst into the house shouting the news to my mother. They both began to sob.

Much has been said about the loss of innocence suffered on that day. Without claiming any causality, the decades following November 1963 – watergate, a couple dubious wars, inflamatory political rhetoric – made any subsequent notion of camelot in the White House preposterous. It seemed to be the brutal end to the last lustrous presidency in my lifetime. Without a doubt this remained the biggest news story in my life until 9/11/2001. For most of my life the question "Where were you when Kennedy was shot" was a cultural touchstone.

As I was starting the piece I wanted to refresh my memory and deepen my understanding of the events so I watched some news footage and read a couple of books. (One book I would recommend is "Four Days in November" by Vincent Bugliosi which gives a detailed minute by minute account of what everyone directly or tangentially invloved was doing November 22-25 1963.)

When I first thought of writing a piece to mark this anniversary I was focused on my recollections of my parents grief, the loss of a great leader and the tear in the fabric of American government. Revisiting these events as an adult brought a whole new perspective. For one thing, I got really pissed off at Lee Harvey Oswald.

More importantly, I gained deep empathy, admiration and compassion for Jackie. She showed great courage when she jumped out of her seat onto the back of a moving limo without regard for her own safety in order to retrieve part of her husbands skull. In the midst of the chaos and horror she was a still point of serenity expressing her love and selflessly offering comfort to her husband. How difficult it must have been in the aftermath to go forward as a widowed mother of two small children. My sympathy for her personal tragedy is magnified by the knowledge that she was on the fence as to whether to even go to Dallas since she was still mourning the death of her two-day old son Patrick Bouvier Kennedy on August 9, three and a half months earlier.

Focusing on Jackie's perspective has turned out to be an important source of inspiration. In fact my presumptive title for the piece is One Red Rose which connects to her presence. The title comes from a footnote in the Bugliosi book; Jackie had been give a bouquet of roses when she landed in Dallas. Immediately after the President and governor Connally were taken into the emergency room at Parkland Hospital a secret service agent examined the limosine for bullets or other possible clues but found only a solitary blood soaked red rose on the floor of the car.

My compassion for Jackie gave me a perspective on the events that was a better fit with my musical sensibilities than, focusing on Oswald's murder of the President. After watching the Zapruder video of the actual assasination I recoiled in horror and my work came to a complete stop. I suppose I didn't want to glorify the brutality of the murder. It took me a week or so to remind myself that my job was to commemorate this important historical event not to necessarily replicate its ugliness.

I did however think that my salute to President and Mrs. Kennedy would be more potent when set against some sense of the swirling chaos that deflected all of our destinies. I wanted to explore the extreme perceptions of time that were experienced that day. There was the pressure on Dallas law enforcement, the FBI and Secret Service to make every moment count in gathering evidence, identifying Oswald as a suspect and then chasing him down in a theater in the wake of the mayhem of his getaway following his murder of police officer Tippet. At the other end of the spectrum, this cacophony was set against moments of utter stillness as people stopped in their tracks to listen to the news, take a momens of private grief and of course the transcendent state of consciousness that Jackie must have inhabited.

This piece has been very challenging because my music often takes humorous and/or ironic turns and there is absolutely nothing funny about those days in late November 1963. I aspire to a wide range of expression and relish the occassions when a heretofore dark hued material is slightly mutated into something with light and quirky wit. My approach to writing music that is tied to an extra musical event or idea is to invent germinal material that has some clear connection to the event but then to develop the material according to my musical instincts, without an overt adherence to a narrative. (The situation is different in explicitly theatrical works of course where musicalizing a narrative is my job as a collaborator.) As cases in point, the other two pieces I've written to commemorate a death (for my father and mother respectively) had a place for my natural inclination toward humor because part of my intent was to memorialize their buoyant personalities.

There have been several times in the course of working on this piece where abstract manipulation of material – reharmonizing, juxtaposing this with that, superimposing that and the other – led to a music that I really liked and would have celebrated in another context but that had a tone that just seemed inapporpriatly playful for this piece.

The one bright element of that day that I needed to acknowledge was how the Kennedy's were cheered by the sunshine and the large enthusiastic crowds that lined the motorcade route that morning in Dallas. It was cause for optimism for the re-election campaign that Texas, a battleground state for the President's upcoming reelection bid, seemed so effusive in its appreciation for his visit. In comments earlier that morning, JFK humbly and humorously (and perhaps accurately) credited Jackie's charisma for the warm welcome.  Several times that morning, as they waved to the cheering crowds Jackie reportedly made comments to the effect of "See Jack, they love you in Texas." That is how it would have been remembered but for one arrogant nut job.


Dec 22, 2011

54th Grammy awards

Lonely Motel: Music From Slide, my new disc with eighth blackbird, Rinde Eckert and yours truly on guitar was nominated for 4 Grammy awards: Best Contemporary Composition, Best Small Ensemble Performance, Best Engineering (Tom Lazarus and Jim Maylone) and Producer of the Year (David Frost).

The great thing about being nominated for a Grammy is that everyone knows about this award so people come out of the wood work, high school friends, tennis partners, you name it, write to congratulate me. Maybe its the fact that the nominations are announced on TV and covered in most entertainment pages. Obviously the pop music categories drive the high profile but it is nice that most of the time the Classical categories ride in to the story on the coat tails of celebrities. It is perhaps the only time in my life that my professional life will intersect with Bon Iver not to mention Lady Ga Ga. 

P.S. I won a Grammy for Best Small Ensemble Performance!


Dec 7, 2011


I recently finished a piece called Tonic for the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia to be premiered on February 12. It focuses on chords which is very unusual for me as I'm usually focused on layers of activity, line and counterpoint. I'm always concerned with harmony in the broader sense of what notes are in play and levels of contrast from one moment to the next and I am always happy when  an interesting vertical sonority coalesces from the convergence of linear elements, but I rarely try to invent chords for chords' sake. 

My starting point was to question a basic assumption I had about chords. I was in the habit, as I think most of us are, of thinking of chords as a stack of more or less equal notes. I wondered what would happen if I combined a clear, relatively simple foreground two to three-note chord with a softer shadow. It makes sense that if I were to start thinking about chords they would be, like these chords, inherantly stratified – chords built from a frozen counterpoint between a simple foreground and more complex shadow. 

SInce I was not thinking of homogeneous chords but rather dealing with particular degrees of shadow and foreground it became important to know the color of each individual contribution to the chord – harmony became inseperable from orchestration.

As far as I can imagine and hear from MIDI playback, the effect appeals to me. I hear a sonic analog to porous, diffused light effects – gossamer and atmospheric, but they also can have a sustained, static, muscular tension. A mode of harmonic motion that is new to me is achieved by keeping the foreground the same and moving just the shadow and vica versa. Of course there are infinite coloristic possibilities with different foregrounds and shadows. 

With the revelation, as I mentioned above, that orchestration becomes inseperable from harmony, comes the realization that I am not the first to explore this idea. Maybe without even thinking about it consciously, the orchestration of chords in Stravinsky, and Andriessen do some of the same things. 

I am now trying to apply some of these ideas to a chamber piece (Violin, Clarinet, Cello and Piano, for SOLI in San Antonio). It is much easier in an orchestral context to create different spaces for foreground and shadow and with four instruments, one of whom has a quick decay, the results are much different – less gossamer ... still cool though I think. 


Sep 7, 2011

To Read Or Not To Read (reviews)

In my day job at Princeton University I have mentored many young composers as they receive their first published and public reviews. Good or bad these reviews usually ellicit a discussion/pep talk about critics and careers. 

It is tempting for composers to want to view critics as the enemy but, in addition to the karmic downside of adopting enemies, it is fundamentally wrong. Critics are an important part of the new music community and provide valuable services. Discussing new music in a public forum makes our esoteric little world just a little more lively and fans the flames of general interest. Even if you are not a darling of the critics, attention paid to contemporary music is to your benefit. Most importantly, critics, espescially good critics, provide conceptual handles and a larger cultural context to help listeners get into new music. Let's face it, there aren't that many people interested in new music so we need to embrace those who are.

Given my belief in the importance of critics it might be surprising that my advice to my younger colleagues is to abstain from reading reviews of their own work or, if that isn't possible, try to clear reviews out of your system as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

There are threes issues in the wake of a bad review that tend to get bundled together: how reviews effect your psyche, effect your work and effect your career. For most composers, bad reviews make you feel bad for a few minutes, hours, days or weeks depending on home thin your skin is. For that condition I offer truisms such as "it is only one person's opinion." I also ask composers to consider that critics become successful and influential because they are, first and foremost, good writers, not because they offer infallible musical insight or prophecy about the future of a work. That rhetorical skill  can feel unjust when turned against you the composer, but it is that very skill that engages a readership and keeps the critic employed. Critics are writing for their own audiences and bosses, not to or for the individual composer so composers should just stay away.

When I have abstained from reading reveiws people have said, "but you should read this one, it is really good." I have a particularly thin skin and no amount of tenure or being "established" changes that. To me, and many people I know, reviews are never good enough. One small grain of qualification turns into a boulder and I become the Princess and the Pea in that vulnerable state following a premiere. I remember waking up to a review that said "this is the best new composition written in the past five years." I was disappointed that it wasn't ten years ... why not twenty? I know that is silly but I also know that I am not the only composer who doesn't think straight when it comes to fresh critique of new work.

The point of course is to not let a bad review compromise your work. I take inspriation from the tai chi fable of the student who asks the master, "how is it that you never fall?" The master replies, "But I do fall, I just get up so quickly that you do not realize that I have fallen."

Good reviews can be equally distracting and the thought "they liked it when I did X, Y or Z" is a slippery slope toward witing to please the critics. More truisms aside, ("You can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself"), you are not the intended audience for reviewers and they should not be your intended audience.

Ultimately though, hurt feelings and work distractions are a lot easier to recover from when you fully realize that bad reviews will not ruin your career. There are more truisms for that: "music history is full of bad reviews for great pieces," and most importantly, "there is no such thing as bad publicity." I've been told that research shows that people think you are somebody important if they hear and read your name eight times. I once had a huge picture accompanying a nothing review in the New York Times and people congratulated me for weeks. Feeling and distractions aside, the bottom line is that a bad review will not torpedo a composer's chances at future performances, interesting collaborators, residencies, grants and other symptoms of success.

I had the revelation while teaching a seminar on composer for string quartet that the factor that keeps a piece for quartet alive in the repertoire is that people want to play it. That people want to hear it is secondary. I don't know a single string quartet who will not play a piece they like just because it got a bad review or two or three. Musicians like to champion music they believe in and a little resistance makes it all feel just that much more valuable and important. If you are not reviewed well there is always the chance that you are ahead of your time giving your performers a grand cause celeb.

After the premiere of an early work of mine for string quartet and electric guitar, twenty years ago now, the review was terrible. In a nutshell it said that mixing electric guitar and string quartet was a bad idea and I did it badly. The only positive thing to be drawn from hearing this performance, according to the critic, was the knowlege that nobody would ever have to hear this music again. Twenty years later, that same piece has been performed over 150 times by 30 different string quartets ranging from undergrad conservatory students to the Kronos, Arditti, Brentano and Borromeo String Quartets. I'll never know if a positive review would have led to more performances of the piece but I wouldn't want to take a chance on changing the way things worked out. There is even the chance that the intensity of the critic's opinion attracted more attention to me and the piece.

My point is not to disparage the critic by saying he was wrong. He had a valid point and he expressed it intelligently. For one thing, the disparity in the way sound emanates from a speaker versus the acoustic sound of a string quartet can be like oil and water. I think over the years I have learned how to play with string quartets and they with me in a way that turns the acoustic problems into features. Perhaps even more importantly, I think audiences have learned to hear the electric guitar in a concert context better over the years partly out of experience and partly because the ideology and preconceptions going into such a listening experience have changed. 

I think performers are more dependent on reviews. For one thing, being "ahead of one's time" and "misunderstood" by critics is a part of a positive mythology of composers more so than for performers. Then there is the fact that it is just harder to make an authoritative judgement about a brand new piece on one hearing than it is to judge a performer playing standard repertoire where there are well established paradigms that need to be accounted for with a convincing combination of mastery and innovation. Even if a performer is being reviewed for a new piece there are familiar and recurring aspects of playing like tone, intonation and charisma for which a critics judgement is more likely to be taken as truth. 

So remember that performers suffer the slings and arrows of critical fortune much more deeply than composers the next time you get a bad review for a piece that you feel was not heard due to a bad performance. It can also go the other way though too: One of the best reviews I have received was for a performance that I thought was so dreadful I couldn't bring myself to stand up afterwards. Again, I'm not trying to prove the critic wrong, apparently there was a frenetic energy coming from the ensemble which the critic found exciting but which I took as merely the panic of being ill prepared.

I wish I hadn't read that review at the time even though it was a rave. It was unsettling to think that something I thought was horrid was regarded as my strongest work. I'm not even saying I am right – maybe it was a great thing to listen to. I had enormous preconceptions and could only hear the ways in which the performance did not realize what I wrote. We heard two entirely different pieces.

You may be wondering if I practice the abstinence that I preach. Obviously not entirely or I wouldn't have these anecdotes to share. I did practice complete abstinence for a blissful decade, but about 6 or 7 years ago I started reading reviews again. I kind of blame my wife and the internet because it is hard to maintain a state of blissful ignorance knowing that she has surely googled and read whatever is out there. Or maybe it started when my eye accidentally caught a nice quote as I was trying to forward a review from a presenter to my publisher without peeking. I read on thinking one good review won't hurt ... and I've been off the wagon every since. It takes me a day or two to get a review, good or bad out of my head. I rationalize my regression as research to help me better advise my younger colleagues because practically speaking, nobody ever takes my advice about abstinence. However, I have every intention of returning to abstinence myself ... soon! 


Dec 11, 2010


Exciting news from December 2 – Steven Mackey: Dreamhouse is nominated for 4 Grammy awards including Best Classical Album! Gil Rose conducts BMOP, David Frost produced and David, Tom Lazarus and I edited and mixed. Before I received that news I had already drafted a blog about my current recording projects. This news nudged it along. 

Flashing back to December 1 ...

I am sitting on a plane returning from a few days in Limerick Ireland where I was recording Four Iconoclastic Episodes – a double concerto for electric guitar, violin and string orchestra – with Anthony Marwood and the Irish Chamber Orchestra. As I reflect on this recording it hits me that, a few short months ago, I was lamenting the fact that my last CD was released way back in 2006. Suddenly I am juggling 7 recording projects in the span of a year. I am so deep into recording projects that I'm brewing a little anxiety about not having time to compose. Of course that is a silly thing to complain about since I regard recording as the culmination of the creative process ... but still.

These 7 projects are quite different from one another and I thought a survey of them might be an interesting snap shot of a busy composer/performer, but one without an exclusive agreement with a record label to consolidate and fund recording projects.

1. The first project to be completed was Busted, Micro, Shorts, containing Busted for solo percussion, Micro Concerto for percussion and 5 players and Five Animated Shorts for cimbalom and 6 players. This recording grew out of a ten year working relationship between me and the British new music group Psappha and the friendship I developed with their percussionist and artistic director Tim Williams. Psappha did an Itunes only release this past summer on their own label. This is the premiere recording of FIve Animated Shorts which I wrote for TIm and Psappha but Micro Concerto and Busted had each been recorded before. I have revised Busted and Psappha and Tim had a fresh enough perspective on Micro Concerto that I am very glad it is available in two versions. All these pieces feature Tim and he is both amazing and unnervingly humble.

2. Steven Mackey: Dreamhouse, was released in late august, just under the deadline for Grammy eligibility, a decision which turned out not to be as delusional as it seemed at the time. This piece is close to an hour long for orchestra, 4 electric guitars, amplified vocal quartet, and tenor/actor/performance artist. Such a monstrous project had to be approached in phases. Gil Rose, the director of BMOP and executive producer of the BMOP sound label, and I partnered on raising money for each phase and by the end we had tapped at least a dozen different sources. It took four years from the recording session at Mechanics Hall to the release of the finished disc. In my mind the two heroes on this recording are David Frost and Tom Lazarus, producer and engineer respectively, who coordinated the recording of all the different elements and kept their eyes on the ball over a long stretch of time.

3. Last Spring eighth blackbird, Rinde Eckert and I hunkered down in CRC studios in Chicago to track SLIDE. We have been touring SLIDE as a music theater piece but we are recording it as a song cycle. The songs delineate a character and contextualize the expressive landscape but don't tell an explicit story. This is not that much of a stretch since the stage version suggests more than it nails down anyway. The blackbird's label Cedille is putting this out which is generous of them and I am pitching in by splitting the heavy lifting of editing with David Frost the producer. The old Dreamhouse team was back together as Tom Lazarus flew out to help us deal with all the issues of electro-acoustic versus acoustic and recording percussion. I better pick up my pace if we are going to be ready for a March release prior to the next live performances at Stanford and UT Austin.

4. Right around the Time Dreamhouse was released I went into the studio with my band Big Farm. This music ranges from fully notated compositions to collaborative/improvised constructions. We asked Lawson White to produce since he is equally at home in both worlds. He is the only guy I know that in a 15 minute span can call us out on a our lack of faith to the score and then tell us to play a groove as if we were "drunk on a Tuesday afternoon." We laid down the basic tracks in the historic Avatar studios in Manhattan and will go back in for overdubs over the next few months in hopes of a September release on New Amsterdam records. I'd like to get some friends involved like violinist Leila Josefowicz and flutist Alex Sopp but I have to compose something for them and that takes time! 

5. So that bring us to the present as I am leaving Limerick Ireland following the recording of  Four Iconoclastic Episodes, with Anthony Marwood (vln.), myself (e-gtr.) and the Irish Chamber Orchestra. This recording is under the auspices of the ICO so I have no idea what it will be paired with. Andrew Keener is producing which is a great pleasure because I very much admire his work with orchestras far and wide. He is an old school producer meaning that there are no isolation booths, multi tracking, big post production mixes, etc. We found a good live sound and hit record. Judy Sherman has recorded me like that to good effect in the past and my gear and technique have evolved to create the illusion that the electric guitar is a "normal" instrument. I use a spherical speaker to radiate the sound more like an acoustic instrument and I keep my effects simple, often have many patches for the same effect but with different dynamics so that I can enter with confidence that I will sit nicely in the mix rather than be a punch line for an electric guitar joke.

A curious aspect of this recording experience is that the four movements of Four Iconoclastic Episodes are arrangements of four songs I wrote for Big Farm. The songs are shortened a little in some cases and by half in the case of Salad Days. The vocal part is ornamented in the violin, the guitar part is nearly identical and I kept the drums and bass in mind when composing the string orchestra part. The musical effect and the approach to recording are completely different.

6. By this time I have unpacked from Ireland and repacked for Brattleboro Vermont to record It Is Time, my 40 minute percussion extravaganza for SO percussion. This time I'm traveling with the family which I think I can get away with since I don't actually have to play myself. Still I learned a lesson – never take a two-year old on a 6 hour train ride. Anyway, as I suspected, the best thing I can do here is keep my mouth shut and stay out of the way of SO playing the hell out of every note and producer Lawson White recording everything with such care that every sound has just the right resonance and character. It honestly sounds better than I could have imagined but I try to pretend that this was my vision all along. Like most of my recordings this one was made possible by a patchwork of funding from Argosy, Princeton University and private contributions. We are not sure of the label yet but Cantelope has worked a lot with SO in the past. My wife, Sarah Kirkland Snider who co-directs New Amsterdam records loved the way it sounds so much that shw expressed label envy for whoever releases it if it is not New AM ...very sweet of her.

7. Finally, next Spetember, Hsin-Yun Huang is recording Groundswell a chamber concerto for viola I wrote for her back in 2006. She will be joined by the American Modern Ensemble in a Bridge records release, which will also include viola piece written for her by David Horne and SHih-Hui Chen. 

These discs should all be out by the end of 2011 and then I anticipate another hiatus before the next batch.I do prefer waiting until there is a coherent package of music to present on a disc rather than to just put out pieces as they come down the pike. I hope that the next recording features concertos: I am just finishing a piano concerto for Orli Shaham co-commissioned by the St. Louis Symphony, the LA Phil, and the New Jersey Symphony. Down the road I hop that finds its way on a disc with Time Release, the percussion concerto I wrote for Colin Currie, and Beautiful Passing, the violin concerto I wrote for Leila Josefowicz.

You know I lied: I did have another release earlier this year. Measures of Turbulence, for 5 classical, 2 electric and 1 Bass guitar, performed by David Tannebaum leading the SF Conservatory Guitar Ensemble was released on Naxos. I forgot about it not because I'm not excited about it but because this recent-ish physical release was a year after the Itunes release which I did duly celebrate.


Nov 19, 2010


I mentioned in a tweet that we had a symposium here at Princeton University on the topic of collaboration in general and music theater collaboration in particular. The punch line of my tweet said, “Hit me how different the world's of music and theater are. Amazing we ever get together.” @musicvstheater tweeted back that he would like to hear more about what I was talking about. So here goes:

I was referring to the fact that composers, for better or worse are trained to think of their jobs as hearing the music and then capturing it in notation. Even still there is a certain macho professionalism claimed by some who appear to have imaginative powers so acute that they don’t even use an instrument to check their work when they compose. (I’m not one of these by the way). But at the very least, the composer is supposed to know what he/she has written and have it fully formed in their mind before subjecting performers to it. The economy of music reinforces this. A composer will only have a couple of hours at most with an orchestra so every T better be crossed and every sound carefully considered. The rehearsal process goes by in a flash.

Theater on the other hand, expects the directors and even the writers to come to the first rehearsal with a draft and be ready to adapt to the particulars of the situation. It is expected that the script will evolve significantly in the rehearsal process with input from all the players.

Related to this is the fact that, in school, composers are trained to write “pure” music and learn to write “theater” music later, out in the real world. That is there remains a certain expectation that not only should the music hit the prescribed theatrical marks – mood, atmosphere, place, expression, sub-conscious revelation etc. – those marks should also be expressions of some purely musical logic where the syntactical elements are symbolic if not absolute manifestations of the stage activity. This is really hard to do!

Composers feel like the director is trying to take the bottom piece out of their jenga structure and it will undoubtedly cause the whole thing to collapse. It probably won’t of course, because it isn’t just music, there is also a dramatic arc that is perfectly capable of bearing the centrifugal force of a suddenly turned corner. Nevertheless that psychological twitch, a feeling of grave jeopardy is there. Combine that twitch with the pressure to have your job done when you show up at the first rehearsal and there is a recipe for tension.

I have had a close collaborative relationship with writer/actor/singer/performance artist Rinde Eckert for fifteen years. We are now close friends and he was the best man at my wedding. I would say that 99% of the tensions I have had with Rinde fall out of this fundamental schism in process. From my point of view he is “not ready” in time. He hasn’t done his work. He hasn’t fully envisioned what should happen so that he can just tell people what to do. He is still working on the piece for goodness sake!

I’m on pins and needles because while he is “evolving” the piece what happens to my music that hit every previously agreed upon mark while spelling mother in 12 directions in the background structure. Am I going to have to revise my perfectly perfect music because he can’t make up his mind? I know I must but it still bugs me. Besides, now I have to re extract parts which I would not have had to do if he had followed the same code of professionalism as a composer.

From his point of view, I am inflexible and defensive of my work. He’s right, which only makes me feel worse! From his point of view, how can the work be finished until the specifics of the physical space are explored and attended to? A step in that direction as opposed to this direction makes palpable some irony that makes new demands on the music. A new line of text which ties his arc together and is ultimately more in the foreground that my music at that moment requires that I change the harmonic rhythm in order to accommodate 5 extra syllables.

in my day Meredith Monk stood out as the rare composer who has always built her pieces "on" her performers.  I do think a younger generation of composers are being raised with the idea that a piece can and should evolve as a collaboration with performers even without a theater component. I am a mentor in the American Composers Orchestra "Orchestra UNsafe" program in which there are many cooks  stirring the pot with ideas including all of the members of the orchestra. These commissions will be the result of several workshops over the better part of a year rather than the situation I described above where the composer are expected to show up with a finished product the first time they meet an orchestra.

It is a challenge to navigate along the continuum of arriving with ones ducks completely lined up or as an open draft. There are times when you want to prepare a meal, select the wine and present it all and there are times when you want everyone just to show up and pitch in. Both are hospitable and generous in different ways.


Nov 2, 2010



For years, going way back before blogs existed, I have been jotting down the occasional insight and telling myself it would come in handy when teaching a seminar on a related topic at some future time. Now, with my own blog, I can get those chestnuts of wisdom off my chest more quickly, and prevent them from languishing in a file next to “possible texts to set” and “concert programs – 1993-95.” However, since the pretense of stock piling technical insights for use in academic seminars is removed, and I am sending these salvos straight out into the non-academic world, chances are that I will branch out into the realms of anecdote, propaganda and, with the right set of circumstances, maybe even gossip and diatribe.

When I decided to incorporate a blog into my website I started jotting blog ideas on my IPhone note pad. To give you an idea of the topics that I imagined scratching, in my own cryptic short hand, here is that page on my IPhone note pad:

Blog ideas:

The purpose of fast music
Orchestration in string quartet
Composition as a daily activity
Changing of the guard
Living down Ind Inst
Ambition I find leads only to failure
Critics, mistakes, agenda, 
Things I want career wise
Vln and orchestra - Detail versus projection 
What I think the “real” influence from rock is for me.
Technical thoughts of arranging From Big Farm to 4 iconoclastic
Writing what you want to write versus writing what you want to hear
Inert harmony (Klang) versus syntactical harmony (progression)
Counterpoint versus stratification

I don’t expect to touch all of these topics in order, or at all for that matter but, since the purpose of this first blog is to introduce myself to my potential readers … both of them, it does seem appropriate to tick off the top item – Buscemi.

While teaching at Tanglewood a few years back, one of the composition fellows said, “Steve, you have the ideal career.” I asked why he would say that, why not John Adams or Steve Reich, composers who I know from my Boosey and Hawkes newsletter are performed more often, under prestigious auspices, and are, simply put, more famous? His response was that I had plenty of “in the box” opportunities – major orchestra commissions, first rate soloists, composer-in-residence gigs, etc. – but I also had the freedom to do “outside the box” things like improvise in some Brooklyn garage for a dozen people or write funky pieces for oddball instruments like electric guitars and cimbaloms. I pointed out that nobody was stopping Adams and Reich from doing those things; they are probably just not interested. Which, of course, is part of his point: very few mid-career composers who go out into the boonies of music one week are working with mainstream orchestra or string quartet the following week. Besides, while I can’t say for sure, it is quite possible that Adams and Reich do feel constrained wearing the mantle of Preeminent American Composers. 

Based on this career path, my friend, percussionist Colin Currie and I have been developing a construct in which I am the Steve Buscemi of contemporary music. Colin now refers to me as “Buscemi” and impersonates him on my voice mail. Buscemi is an actor, writer and director that anybody in the biz would know by name, but he is a quirky character actor rather than a leading man or box office draw. He has moments in the sun where his talents shine, like his current starring role in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, or his unforgettable role in Fargo. He is cast in these starring roles by directors who want the particular quality that he brings to a role, but it is all somewhat out of his control and there are probably times in which he is waiting by the phone anxiously to find out if he is selected or not. In between these starry moments, he is putting together his own pet projects and has his fingers in several pies all of which are off center.

That Tanglewood student comes to mind whenever some little green voice tries to whisper in my ear “the grass is greener on the other side.” He helped me to appreciate the beauty of being Buscemi. To me, success is finding a way to scratch all your artistic itches and ultimately to carpe-the-damn-diem by throwing yourself into life experience. I mean, Tom Cruise never got to do a voice over on the Simpson’s, and he isn’t a member of the experimental Wooster Group. 

Last Friday night my band Big Farm played at Joe’s Pub in New York City. It is an all-star band of Buscemi’s – really great, busy musicians who somehow make the time to rehearse for a week for one live gig. At the after party I talked to a loyal friend who comes to all my events in the city even though her own musical tastes run toward mainstream pop. She asked which is more exciting, an orchestra performance in Carnegie Hall or playing with Big Farm. I couldn’t say, I’m just glad I have both. 

However, going one step further, even those crux moments of excitement are trumped by the rewards and privilege of being engrossed in your daily activity. The following is one of those early jottings that I recalled above. It was written ten years ago and I feel the same way now. 

“It took me months to recover from the post-partum blues of coming down from playing at the 2000 American Mavericks Festival. The psychology goes something like this: There I was, soloist in a virtuoso electric guitar concerto, that I composed, conducted by one of the great conductors of our time, in my favorite city in the world. A full audience which included members of the international press and old friends from High school that I have not seen since "back in the day." I was prepared, the orchestra was enthusiastic, and the conductor knew the score inside and out. The performance went great – what had been a tremendous challenge a month before at the premiere was now just plain fun. This was clearly the pinnacle of my career! It is possible that I may have moments that come close to that but given the quirkiness of my music – its "maverickhood" – I know that I am not going to be embraced by the masses, tour Letterman and Leno, be honored by the classical music establishment with a lifetime achievement awards ceremony hosted by the President. The American mavericks festival had corralled most of the members of my demographic – iconoclastic musical omnivores – and filled Davies Hall with them. 

 Knowing that this was it, did I want to continue and risk that the rest of my life would merely be pale reiterations of those 33 minutes on stage? Or, perhaps, I should enter another field entirely. Luckily when the adrenaline levels sunk to their default levels I realized, an epiphany really, that I don’t live for those rarefied moments. It is the thrill of possibly discovering a tune and some chords that say something that has not been said before that really gets me out of bed in the morning.”

Next Blog will continue with the topic of composition as a daily activity, a process, a meaningful experience unto itself, not just a means to the end of producing a piece.