A Quiet Saturday Afternoon

Quiet time.  Time to think, reflect – and blog.  That’s something that’s been missing for a while.

Things at the radio station are going very well.  Just like any new endeavor, it’s taken a bit of time to settle into a routine.  Not to mention, as I get more comfortable (and folks around the office get to know me better), my responsibilities are expanding.

It’s been nearly a year since I stepped into the mid-day hosting spot on WCNY.  I’m finally comfortable enough to really call it my own now.  I’ve made a few changes, including a weekly hour of music “Fresh From the Wrapper,” where I feature works from CDs that we’ve just received in the station.  These are the newest classical music releases, some of which aren’t available for sale just yet, and I get to share them with our listeners.

Putting together a 2-hour Concert Hall every other week has been fun as well.  Morning host Bruce Paulsen and I divvy up the Concert Hall duties, hosting on alternating weeks.  It’s a great chance to present music from various venues and organizations here in Central New York, and wow, do we have some incredible talent cross our threshold!

I’m adding another responsibility at the station as well – a new program, which we hope to make available for syndication, called Feminine Fusion.  It features music created, performed, and inspired by women throughout history and into the present day.  Look for the first episode to air on WCNY in September.  It’s titled, “From Parlor … to Prize Winners” and features music composed by Clara Schumann, Libby Larsen, and more.  I’ll be providing a weekly blog update with program notes for each episode, so be sure to listen in if something piques your interest!

If you’re worried that the composition side of my world is being neglected, have no fear!  I wrote a very short work at the request of the Society for New Music based on the photography of Carrie Mae Weems.  The piece is called “Woman A/Part,” and it was premiered at the benefit gala this Spring.  There will be a repeat performance this summer at the Cazenovia Counterpoint Festival as well, and I can’t wait to hear it live.

I’m also taking a vacation from the radio station next week to put the final touches on my trombone concerto for Haim Avitsur.  My good friend Ovidiu Marinescu will be conducting the work (in Moscow in January – brrr!), and the CD will be coming out mid-2017.  I’m very excited about the piece, and I can’t wait to share it with you!

And, in true “glutton for punishment” style, I’ve picked up two new instruments for the summer.  I’m taking banjo lessons from the talented Nick Piccininni (all while enduring an endless array of banjo jokes from my friend, Bill Knowlton).  I’ve also bought an instrument I’ve wanted for some time now – a contrabass flute!  This particular flute was handmade by Jelle Hogenhuis, and I am having an absolute blast with it!  It arrived just after the CNY Flute Choir season ended, and I’m excited for the fall rehearsals to start up again.  I’ve also started working on a new flute choir piece that (fingers crossed) we can premiere next Spring.  I’ll keep you posted on that as well.

If you’ve read this far, well, thanks!  Now that we’re caught up again, I promise you’ll be getting more regular updates.  And if you have ideas or requests for my regular programming or the new Feminine Fusion show on Classic FM, drop me a note and let me know!

2016 Already?!?

Wow!  That year just flew by!  I can’t believe I’m sitting here, minutes before midnight, looking back on the whirlwind that was 2015.

I must confess that most of my previous “whirlwind years” have been primarily due to hardships – illness, financial struggles, and so on.  But this past year has been verrrrry different!

This year’s whirlwind has been almost entirely musical.

I was incredibly excited to head to the SAMMY awards with our producer Bob Halligan to accept the SAMMY for Samba Laranja‘s latest CD, Pathways.  Having a work on that CD, and being in the studio throughout the recording process was an amazing experience.

This year also marked the release of Moto Continuo, the Trio Casals CD that was a nearly a year in the making.  Trio Casals (Ovidiu Marinescu, Sylvia Ahramjian, and Anna Kislitsyna) recorded my “Three Songs” last year, and the start of this year included proofing and approving recordings, liner notes, artwork, and more.  Then came May, and we traveled to West Chester, PA and then New York City for the premieres – just a few days apart.  It was a lot of driving, but well worth it to hear these two fantastic performances.

I also had a couple of new works premiered, “Dyad” for flute and cello, and “Elemental Suite” for flute, viola, and piano (premiered at the Vision of Sound performance in November.)  A snippet of “Porch Music” was included in the American Composers Forum 40th anniversary “Chained Melody” video, and I conducted the full work several times in the spring for the Central New York Flute Choir annual spring concert series.  Not to mention, “Three Songs” has been getting quite of bit of airplay across the U.S., and even made it to broadcast in Spain!

This year also marked the release of my newly designed Pet Dragon Music website.  (You can read all about that process here.)  I will admit, I’ve fallen a touch behind in my updates in the last couple of months, but I promise, it’s all for very good – and very musical! – reasons.

And what kept me the busiest in the last quarter of 2015?  A full-time job as the new mid-day host on WCNY-FM here in Syracuse.  Believe me, after so many years as a full-time composer, taking on a second full-time job was not a decision made easily or lightly.  But, having ensured that I will continue to have enough time to compose and perform, I jumped in with both feet!  It has been a big adjustment – no more staying up until all hours of the night composing – but as we head into the new year, I’m finally well-settled into my new routine, and I’m full of new ideas!

With all this going on, I also wanted to let you know the many different ways you can keep up with my activities:

  • “Like” me on Facebook (This is where you’ll find out just about everything – upcoming concerts and events, new pieces, website updates, new blog posts, and more.)
  • Follow me on Twitter (where I tweet a bit of musical trivia while I’m on the air!)
  • Watch my website for monthly updates, including uploads of new pieces.
  • Listen to me on WCNY-FM weekdays from 10am to 2pm (Eastern time).  You can live-stream from the website, or through the “Tune-In” mobile app.
  • Keep an eye right here on WordPress for various and sundry musical musings.

So now, as I finish this little essay on this snowy New Year’s Day, I want to wish you and your loved ones a safe and happy 2016, and may your year be filled with music and joy.

Writing About Music . . .

. . . is like dancing about architecture.  (Martin Mull)

This quote has been rattling around in my mind quite frequently as of late.  You see, amidst all the activity that is composition, and all the activity that surrounds that work (classroom visits, site maintenance, recording and mixing, etc., etc., etc.,) comes the search for the next project.

As a new composer fresh out of grad school, I had the chance to ask a fellow composer for his insight into this full-time, freelancing career.  He gave me some valuable advice, including the hard truth that I couldn’t depend on any sort of linear progress in my career.  As nice as it would be for one opportunity to lead to the next, and the next, and then the next, that isn’t how it works.  You have to cast a web, the wider the better, and explore every little tug that you feel.  Some things will pan out, others won’t, but it’s pretty much a given that there will be very few direct lines between events.

So when I’m not busily composing away, I’m usually looking for the next chance to compose.  Lately, there seems to have been a spate of potential commissions popping up.  And what they all have in common is something I’ve come to dread:  The Proposal.

On the one hand, I get it.  These organizations will likely be getting quite an influx of applications for these various commissions, and in order to ensure the awardee best fits their goals is to learn as much about them in as compact a package as possible.

But “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  Trying to describe in words what is, at least for me, an emotional and rather intangible process is difficult, almost bordering on impossible.  Not to mention the fact that the listener’s visceral response to my music may be quite different than my own intention.

One of my earliest works garnered a huge compliment from a friend, who described one section of the work that moved him to great joy.  Yet the section he found joyous was one that was quite dark in my view.  Although my intention in the composition process was different, I realized that he wasn’t wrong in his interpretation.  Because he experienced the work through his senses, colored by his life experiences, it led him down a different path than I had taken.

This was a real learning experience for me, and I realized that once I set my music loose, I could no longer control how it was presented and perceived.  As a result, I have learned to keep my program notes quite spare and sparse, giving only a loose framework so listeners are free to hear the music on their own terms.  When I find myself reading program notes that are very complex and technical, incredibly detailed in what the composer expects the listener to hear and feel, I often become frustrated.  Ultimately, if I don’t “hear” the work exactly as the composer describes, I find myself struggling to simply accept what I am hearing without critiquing the composer’s intention.

This is even more difficult when the composer seems to have generated their program notes with the help of this.  (Go to enough new music concerts, and you’ll see these are not so far-fetched.)  I am simultaneously amazed and disheartened when I read a program note that reads almost like a page from my brother’s doctoral thesis on aeronautical engineering.

The manner in which composers present themselves and represent their works is what a potential commissioner has available to make their judgment.  While it would be nice to think they will go to every single composer’s site and listen to most of their catalog of music, it’s not practically feasible, especially when the applicant pool is very large.  But while you are reading through your proposals, sifting through the descriptions that range from mind-numbingly technical to vague, generic “oooh, pick me” pleas, I encourage you to keep in mind a couple of things.  First, I express myself and my soul in music because that’s a better, truer view of me than anything I could say in words.  And second, the ability to construct or deconstruct a work of art in a scientific manner doesn’t make it inherently better, or more solid, or more groundbreaking.  It’s whether it touches your soul that matters.

Because “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

My New Reality Show

I’ve often thought of pitching a reality show that follows a composer around in their day-to-day activities.  I mean a real reality show, with the person in the career they had long before the reality show started.  Something you know they’ll still be doing long after it ends.

Then I realize what the show would really be.  A lot of this…image

interspersed with a bit of that…image

not to mention…image

Of course, you’d also see some of this…image

followed by…image

Yeah.  The day-to-day reality of composing is not all that exciting to watch.  Although, truth be told, day-to-day life for most of us is pretty low key.

Still, there are exciting moments.  And some very busy weeks!  Take these last two weeks, for example.  I’ve been working with the 8th grade keyboard classes at Ed Smith School almost every day as part of a composition residency there.  This is an opportunity for these kids to help create a new piece for premiere in May.  Add to that a performance for a local charity organization (that ultimately led to a severe case of laryngitis for me), one at a semi-annual flute showcase, nine rehearsals, and one more performance (two sets) at another local elementary school just this morning.

And in between, of course, more of this…image

There are definitely a few more weeks of that coming up.  And then another whirlwind of activity in May!

But even without the whirlwinds, I think this show could really sell!  Just look at this program.

 

On New Year’s Eve

Here we are at the end of yet another year.  It seems 2014 has flown by so quickly!  But it’s been a good year.  If I had to put my feelings at this moment into a single sentence, it would be this:  I had a ton of fun in 2014, and I am looking forward to a busy and very exciting 2015.

A number of years ago, I heard an interview with James Galway.  The interviewer was in a limo with Galway as he traveled to the Hollywood Bowl in preparation for his concert that evening.  What I remember vividly is the sheer joy and excitement in Galway’s voice as he exclaimed, “I still can’t believe I actually get paid to do what I love!”

That pretty much sums up this last year.  Make no mistake – I don’t command the kind of money that Galway gets (not yet!), but I do get paid to do what I love.  Some of the highlights include another residency with the band students at West Genessee Middle School, a collaboration with choreographer Cheryl Wilkins-Mitchell, and pieces on two different CDs, one with Samba Laranja and the other with Trio Casals.  And I’ve been been performing throughout the year as well.

It’s been busy, and it’s been a lot of work, but I have enjoyed every minute.  And it’s given me a running start to kick off 2015!

So, what is coming up in 2015, you ask?  Well, a re-designed website for one, with the ability to purchase either hard copies or downloads of my works.  Plus a couple of confirmed premieres, a residency in yet another school (my 5th one, if you’re counting), and you’ll even have the chance to watch me conduct one of my pieces.

One last bit of news – you’ll be hearing me over the airwaves again!  I have re-joined the team of professionals at WCNY-FM, and began dusting the cobwebs off my broadcasting skills just this week.  I’ll be on the air occasionally, doing fill-ins so those wonderful hosts have the opportunity to take a well-deserved break now and then.  I always enjoy spending time with the Classic FM listeners.

In case you want to keep up on the increasingly busy happenings around here, you’ve got a few options:

I’ll keep you updated with all the exciting things happening in 2015!

Before I go, let me give you my heart-felt wish for your new year to be filled with music and joy, as well as the chance to spend some time doing what you love.

Have a happy, healthy new year, everyone!

Embracing Human Limitations

Have you heard the one about the efficiency expert who went to a performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony?*

Funny?  Sure.  But nowadays, it’s not too far off the mark, I fear.

I read an article a few years ago (and for the life of me, I can’t remember where, or by whom, and I haven’t been able to track it down) about reaching the limits of efficiency.  Orchestras are the most dramatic example of late, but many live arts presenters are struggling to get the greatest possible return with the least possible investment.  Theaters are moving pit orchestras to separate rooms so they can sell more seats.  Concerts are programmed based on what music the organization owns so they spend minimal amounts on new repertoire.  Sets are becoming more “minimalist” – in part, because it is less expensive to paint flats than to build a full-blown set.

In the recording industry, artists and engineers are increasing their use of multi-track recording and digital manipulation to make a few musicians sound like a crowd.  And music distributors are moving farther and farther away from “hard products” like CDs in favor of digital downloads.  It’s just getting harder and harder to recoup your investment.  Everyone is looking for the shortcut.

Every arts organization I know of is tightening their belt, looking for ways to do more with less every single year, and still bring quality performances to their audiences.  But I fear they are approaching a limit that cannot be worked around, buried, or simply willed away.

The human factor.

What I’m about to say could apply to almost any artist, but for the sake of this blog entry, let’s talk specifically about musicians.  The first factor is practice.  No matter how efficient a musician may be in their individual practice sessions, there comes a point where the body and mind simply can’t absorb the information any faster.  Once that kind of efficiency is reached, there are no shortcuts to be taken.

Nor is there a shortcut for group rehearsals.  Even if every single musician in an orchestra has practiced Torke’s Jasper until it is memorized, they still can’t simply hop up on stage the night of the performance, and give a solid performance of a 12-minute work cold.  It takes rehearsal, at tempo or below, enough times to get it right.

And then, there is the performance itself.  There are no more shortcuts left, which is the real joy of live performance.  A 12-minute work takes 12 minutes to perform.  Audience and performers are swept up in the same musical currents for the duration of a piece, bringing a unity to all the participants that is unique to the live experience.

Meanwhile, arts organizations are cutting, cutting, cutting away as much as they can, to make the most of what they have.  And I fear they are reaching that limit, the human limit, that cannot be cut any further.  Yet we continue to ask individuals to do as much (or more) with less, because there are no more shortcuts available in other areas.  In other words, we ask the impossible.

Believe me, I wish I had a solution to achieving the highest performance standards with even lower costs.  Unfortunately, I don’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Just in case you haven’t heard it . . .

An efficiency consultant gave his critique of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony:

  1. For a considerable period, the oboe players had nothing to play. Their number should be reduced, and their work spread over the whole orchestra, thus avoiding peaks of inactivity.
  2. All 24 violins were playing identical notes. This seems unnecessary duplication, and the staff in this section should be drastically cut. If a large volume of sound is needed, this could be obtained by the use of an amplifier.
  3. Much effort was involved in playing the 16th notes. This seems an excessive refinement, and it is recommended that all notes should be rounded off to the nearest eighth note. If this were done, it would be possible to paraprofessionals instead of experienced musicians.
  4. No useful purpose is served by repeating with horns the passage that has already been played by the strings. If all such passages were eliminated, the concert could be reduced from two hours to 20 minutes.
  5. The symphony is in two movements. If Schubert did not achieve his musical goals by the end of the first movement, then he should have stopped there. The second movement is unnecessary and should be cut.
  6. In the light of the above, one can only conclude that if Schubert had paid attention to such matters, his symphony would probably have been finished by now.

 

When Things Come Together

It’s an exciting time!  Rehearsals for the 2014-15 concert season have started, the Brazilian ensemble has had two performances in the last week, with two more scheduled for this week.  The flute choir repertoire is set after our reading session last week, and rehearsals start in earnest next week.

And CDs!

Last night I got a copy of the (nearly) final master for the upcoming Samba Laranja CD, featuring my work, Travels.  I am so privileged to have been involved not only in the recording of Travels, but in both performing and giving artistic input on the rest of the CD as well.  The last CD won a SAMMY – and honestly, this one is sounding even better.

Which has raised my excitement level for the new Trio Casals CD as well!  I’m working closely with the sound engineers at PARMA right now, to get Three Songs sounding just perfect.  (Not a difficult job, really, given the incredible performances by Trio Casals!)  Now I realize what a difference it will make when I can hear it in context with the rest of the CD.  I’m even more excited to hear the full master!

It’s also exciting – and a bit nervewracking – to watch the Indiegogo funding campaign.  With just 18 days left, I haven’t quite hit the 20% funding mark.  So here it is, another request for you to check out the campaign and make your contribution.  Then share it with your friends and family, and ask them to support it as well.

Trio Casals: Sylvia Ahramjian, violin, Anna Kislitsyna, piano, & Ovidiu Marinescu, 'cello

Trio Casals: Sylvia Ahramjian, violin, Anna Kislitsyna, piano, & Ovidiu Marinescu, ‘cello

 

Still not sure if you want to support a new and untried work?  That’s understandable.  And so I encourage you to read this article from Minnesota Public Radio.