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.

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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.

 

Three Songs Re-launch

I love September.  In many ways, it feels like a re-birth to me.  Rehearsals start up again for Samba Laranja and the CNY Flute Choir.  The concert season begins in earnest for most music and arts organizations.  Days are breezy, nights are wonderfully cool, leaves are showing the first signs of turning.  It’s as though everyone and everything is pausing just enough to catch a deep breath.

Sure, August ended on a low note.  But I took my own deep breath last weekend, and now I feel re-energized and ready to push ahead once more.

That’s why I’ve launched another campaign to raise funds for my Three Songs, this time on Indiegogo.  Once again, I’m starting from scratch, but I am much more confident this time around.  I’ve learned a lot, and I expect I’ll be better able to spread the word to not only the folks who tried to back me the last time (and hopefully will renew that backing!), but to an even broader audience. 

I’ve said it before, and it’s not news – making new music available to a broad audience takes resources – monetary resources.  Recording, publishing, performers and performance spaces, publicity – all of this comes at a cost.  No matter how frugal I am, it won’t happen for free, especially considering this is much more than a simple CD release.  The enhanced CD includes extra digital content (scores, liner notes, interviews), and the whole process culminates in two live performances, one in New York and the other in Philadelphia.  Believe me, every single dollar is being stretched to its limit!

As for the actually fundraising, this time around I’m concentrating even more on sharing my music with you.  I’ve added several music videos to my Vimeo page for you.  And I’ve given you a little more insight into the inspiration behind the Three Songs in my Indiegogo video, in the hopes it will inspire you to fund these Three Songs

I’ll also be giving you more blog and Facebook entries, and I would love to hear from you with any questions or thoughts you may have.  The smallest funding level is just $1, which means our conversation can start with, “Thank you so much for your support!”

A Kickstarter Summary

It’s official.  My Kickstarter campaign did not get funded.

Needless to say, I’m disappointed.  And poorer in the end, of course, since I’ll be paying for it all myself now.  But what I really am is incredibly disheartened.

I realize I’ve never been a social guru.  I was never part of the “popular” crowd in school.  I don’t post my breakfast, lunch, dinner, random bathroom thoughts and such on social media every day.  Nevertheless, I saw myself as generally well-liked and relatively well-connected.  Apparently, though, my connections don’t translate effectively into crowdsourcing.

Before I go any further, I want to give a very big thank you to everyone who did back me.  Your support – and more importantly, your belief in my music – means a great deal to me.

And that’s what I am holding onto right now.  The knowledge that I have friends and family who really do believe in me, and are willing to support me as best they can.

But you know what’s really disheartening?

This.

Some guy jokingly asks for $10 to make potato salad, and winds up with over $55,000 in his pocket.  That’s more than I made in a year at my last full-time job.

Potato salad, for $*&#()@ sake!

I tried to raise just a tenth of that – to pay for recording, mastering, production, distribution, and TWO live performances – and couldn’t even break $1,500.

I won’t get into a discussion of what makes a crowdsourced project “funding-worthy,” because that’s the whole point of crowdsourcing, right?  The public picks and chooses what they want to support.  If they want to pay for someone’s potato salad, or pirate pancake skillet, or meat soap, more power to ‘em.  And statistically, only 44% of Kickstarter projects get funded, so it’s not as though I’m in the minority.

I think sometimes, though, folks lose perspective on what they’re being asked to fund.  You know, every project up on Kickstarter is required to produce something tangible, in my case, a CD and a live performance experience.  Backers aren’t buying my groceries or paying my rent, they are buying my music.  Whether it’s a digital download, or a CD purchase, it is a tangible, real product, with significant, quantifiable costs.  So maybe the folks who pledged $110 for potato salad could have knocked it down to $100, and backed my project for the other 10 bucks.  Then they could have listened to my piece while they snacked on their bite of potato salad.

In reality, though, the broader issue is even more complicated.  When my friend, Ovidiu, put out his Kickstarter to fund a recording of the complete Bach ‘cello Suites (with PARMA as well), he raised over $8,000, pretty handily.  My project included him as a performer, and PARMA as a partner – and tanked.  So what did his Bach CD have in common with potato salad?

People know what they’re getting.

People know what potato salad should taste like.  And people know what the Bach ‘cello suites should sound like.  And they already know whether they like these things or not.

But new classical music?  That requires . . . courage.  It requires the listener to be willing to take a chance that they will like what they hear.  Or maybe not.  And it’s that “maybe not” part that keeps people away.  That makes people decide that they “don’t like” new music, without even listening to it.  Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.

Well, maybe not better.  But certainly easier.

Which presents me with a challenge.  Tempting though it is to just sit around, disheartened and disappointed, it’s not going to be very helpful.  No, I need to rise to the challenge, I need to find creative ways to disseminate my music to a broader audience, and hopefully encourage people to open their ears and their hearts and – potentially – their wallets.

Because I would like to be able to truly say that I make a living as a full-time composer.  Maybe it’s a pipe dream in the current day and age, but I want to at least try.

Wish me luck.

Finding Stillness

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I am making a more dedicated effort toward listening.  I’m discovering (and re-discovering) a lot of works in my CD library, and in future postings I’ll be providing links to the various recordings I’ve enjoyed.

This week, though, I took some time to listen to the APM podcast of On Being, with Krista Tippett’s interview of acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton.  Recently, I’ve become very aware of just how pervasive and constant the assault of noise in my daily life has become.  It seemed appropriate that this interview came to my attention around the same time.

I’ve had some very interesting conversations with individuals who are keenly aware of just how much our man-made noises are encroaching on nature.  Composers Ed Ruchalski and Doug Quin spend a great deal of time recording the sounds of the world.  Ed uses ambient sound recordings for many of his compositions, and it has become more and more difficult to find areas without manmade and intrusive noises for his recordings.  There always seems to be a car or a plane passing at some point.  As for Doug, he has had the privilege of spending time in areas like Antarctica, where he truly can record (and experience) natural sonic events.  The sounds he catalogues are almost other-worldly at times, and I envy the stories he tells about his travels.

Some of the sound that surrounds me so pervasively is admittedly self-imposed.  We tend to leave the radio on overnight, and we are big movie watchers, so our evenings are spent with lots of sensory input.  But occasionally I am surprised by silence.  Like the time we turned off the window fan for the first time in several weeks, once the temperature dropped to a comfortable level.  I was sitting in the living room, fan off, radio off – and then the fridge shut off, and I realized just how perpetually noisy our home had become.

So there was quiet.  Real quiet.  And the insects were chirping outside, and the coyote pups started their group howls, trying to mimic their parents.  It was gorgeous.

Even in our rural setting, however, these quiet moments tend to be fleeting.  A couple of years ago, I was recording a film score in my home.  Just solo piano, but that meant recording in the living room (a grand piano is not readily portable).  As we have a road directly in front of the house, I waited until 1 am to start recording.  After more than two hours, I made the decision to make the best of what little I had, because I could not get one single uninterrupted take.  That late at night, not 5 minutes went by without a vehicle driving down our relatively rural road.

Now to get to the podcast.  I decided to listen to the extended and unedited recording, which runs about an hour and a half.  (If you would like to listen to the podcast, I’d suggest listening to the edited version – it is only 51 minutes, and includes recorded examples that were spliced in before airing.)  The podcast is not about music, but it is about finding those last few areas where you can find quiet.

Hempton tries very hard to make his case.  Sometimes successfully, sometimes not.  And occasionally, his line of reasoning seemed disjointed and rambling.  Then again, just to reiterate, I was listening to the unedited version.  The edited broadcast may be more concise and coherent.  In any case, it did succeed in making me consider even more carefully the invasive nature of noises in my daily life.

And so my hope is to be able to find more moments of quiet every day.  To take the time to shut down and listen carefully.  To separate the music from the noise, both inside and all around me.

 

 

Here are some links that might interest you:

On Being: Krista Tippett interviews acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton
http://www.onbeing.org/program/last-quiet-places/4557

Douglas Quin, composer, sound designer
http://newhouse.syr.edu/faculty-staff/douglas-quin

Edward Ruchalski, composer

 

Rethinking the “Woman Composer” Label

Early last year, I wrote about being a “woman composer,” and what that meant to me.  I recognize that part of my viewpoint stems from my upbringing.  I’m the only girl in a family of 5 kids, and the expectations for me were on a par with the expectations for my brothers.  It was the value of my work that mattered, not my gender.

This week, I’ve come across two blog entries that are making me revisit this idea.  Kristin Kuster brings us “Taking Off My Pants,” and Amy Beth Kirsten declares that “The ‘Woman Composer’ is Dead.”  I strongly suggest you read both of them, so you can get a clear understanding of the viewpoint of each of these authors.

I’ve tended to shy away from “women-only” or “women-oriented” events and competitions.  As Ms. Kirsten points out, music should be chosen for its excellence, not the gender of the composer (or performer).  I want to be evaluated on a level playing field, and choosing to segregate myself by my gender seems counter-intuitive.

Reading her article further, I applaud her list of composers who “killed” the “woman composer.”  It is an impressive list (and notice how often Jennifer Higdon’s name appears).  Then I looked at a list of Pulitzer-winning composers over the years, and realized that, to my eye at least, women are still quite underrepresented.

On the hand, as Ms. Kuster says in her article, “Any composer’s success — no matter how we each define it — is never, not ever, all about the music.”  So many variables factor into one’s success.  For one, this is a community built on who you know – and who knows you.  In my experience, there are still plenty of people around – men and women – who carry a real gender bias in their dealings with all composers.

I guess what I’m saying is, there is a difference between the utopian view of what should be, and the reality of the world in which we live.

Of course we should be judging, choosing, and programming music based on the quality of the music alone.  In reality, those doing the programming tend to go to a familiar composer’s works first.  It takes a significant investment of time and money – both of which tend to be in short supply – to gather a multitude of unfamiliar works from lesser known (or unknown) composers, then read through each and every one in the hopes of finding an undiscovered diamond.

Another obstacle – and one that is completely gender-neutral, by the way – is access.  Composers have more control over their works by self-publishing, but publicity and distribution of new works becomes more fragmented.  Performers and artistic directors have a lot more places to look for new works, assuming they have more time to search.  Not to mention the uneven quality of the scores and recordings that are available – if you can find them.  Like it or not, it’s still easier to call the big publishing houses and say “what’s new?” and relegate both quality and quality control to them.

Personally, I want my work to be valued on its own merits.  But if I can’t get it heard, you’ll never know if you like it.  What these two articles have made me acknowledge is that, participating in women-centric musical events can give me access to distribution and recordings that I might not otherwise have.  And I’m OK with that now.

We have most certainly made great strides in the last 40 years, as Ms. Kirsten points out.  Frankly, though, that’s very small in proportion to the centuries of Western music composition.  We’ve come a long way, but we also have a long way left to go.

What Does It Mean to “Know Your Music”?

This link came across my Facebook newsfeed the other day.  I made a quick mental note of it, with the idea I might decide to read it later.  I have great respect and admiration for Harry Connick, Jr., but when it comes to American Idol . . . well, let’s just say that, given the “take it or leave it” options, I definitely leave it.

Then a second friend linked to the same article, with an admission that he doesn’t watch Idol either, but he thought the blog was spot on.  So I read it.  I suggest you do, too.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.

 

There is a combination of technique and technology, which, to me at least, seems to conspire to suck the life out of most pop music today.  And I think Connick was on the right path when he took these contestants to task for not having a real understanding of what they were singing.  Technique only gets you so far.  Mimicking Etta James (or anyone else for that matter) doesn’t mean you know what you’re singing.

So why am I talking about pop music?  Because I think we sometimes run into the same issues in contemporary classical music.  I’ve been in rehearsals and masterclasses with composers who pick and pick and pick at the minute technical details of their composition.  Thirty-second note quintuplets with five different instruments playing each of the five notes in sequence, which must be precisely timed, and perfectly matched in dynamics and articulation, and we are going to rehearse these 5 notes repeatedly for the next half hour to get it exactly right.  Or demanding extended techniques so complex they are barely musical.

What a way to suck the life out of a piece!

I tend to be much more illustrative and theatrical when I’m in rehearsal for one of my works.  Not that the technique isn’t there.  In Endings and Beginnings there is a phrase (“so exciting”) where the emphasis is on the last syllable, rather than the second-to-last as one might expect.  In rehearsal before the premiere, the accompanist (who is also a good friend) asked if that is what I really meant to do – it is the only time in the piece where that happens.  The tenor was stumbling a bit over that section, due to that little shift.

Rather than drilling the precision of the notation with him, I talked about the “why” of it.  When you’re newly in love, the world is giddy and unbalanced.  It’s like everything you do is on the edge of control, and that particular phrase is the moment of teetering on the edge, catching your balance, catching your breath, catching your heart that has just skipped a beat.

He ran through it again, and captured what I wanted perfectly.

Now, was it metronomically precise and perfect?  I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care.  It was heart-felt, and communicated exactly what I wanted.  He got it.

Caged is another work with a lot of meaning behind the notes.  The program notes for the audience describe it as “a life story in six short movements.”  Halfway through rehearsal with the last ensemble who performed this, they asked for more detail about the story behind the work.  When I described to them the challenges of dealing with someone in the throes of drug addiction, and my own emotions over the years as the addiction worsened, the feel in the room began to change.  The next run through had an ebb and flow that had been missing previously.  The fifth movement, “Sleep of the Dead,” was transformed once they realized I was less concerned with precision than with emotion.  They listened and reacted to each other in a whole new way, and the piece went from a technical challenge to a living, breathing work.

Now, this doesn’t excuse the performer(s) from applying as much technical precision as possible to a work.  I wrote what I wanted to hear, so bumbling through because you didn’t bother to learn the notes isn’t acceptable – or considerate.  Or professional.  Learning the background of a work is the next step, not the only one.  (The “Think” system of learning music only works in The Music Man.)

So yes, I believe that the musician(s) should have as much understanding of the work as a whole as possible.  But is it critical for the listener to have that same depth of knowledge?

Personally, I don’t think so.  It doesn’t hurt, of course.  But when you go to a new play, you don’t have it memorized, do you?  And while it adds to the character of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique to realize the importance of his heartbreak over Harriet Smithson, you can appreciate and enjoy the work without that knowledge.

The performers, if they are doing their job well, will pick you up and carry you along with them.  And if they are doing their job well, it is because they have done their homework, and have a strong understanding of exactly what it is they are trying to convey.

And, hopefully, when the composer came to rehearsal, she brought her heart along with her metronome.