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.