A Few Words On Generosity

Sometimes I think composers — or perhaps people in general — don't see the big picture, particularly when it comes to generosity. I can count on one hand the number of times composers have recommended other composers for my ensemble, the American Modern Ensemble. This even includes teachers recommending students and colleagues recommending other colleagues. It does happen occasionally, of course, but mostly by older, more established composers who probably (and rightly) think they have nothing to lose.

Why is this?

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Our Harmonic, Spectral Lives

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Whether or not we are aware of it, we all follow different developmental models over long spans of time. Many people gravitate toward certain organizational systems without realizing it—in effect, creating large-scale waves. Some people's lives are more like sine waves, others more saw tooth, and so on. Some people's lives begin one way and end in another, or are a combination of different waves piled on top of each other. An alarm clock going off at the same time every morning is a definite pulse, but the emails piling up in your inbox are probably not very pulsed at all.

Many parts of our lives seem to mimic waves; when heard or viewed or heard together, they could create a harmonic or spectral profile of who we are. We are all different chords, melodies or even a series of rhythmic patterns that could potentially come together to create a musical composition that represents each one of us.

If every major parameter of our lives was recorded, I think we could figure our which instrument we are, or chord, or at least whether we lead a life of dissonance, relative sine wave purity or more like the sonic spectrogram of a crash cymbal. I can think of a few people who, if I analyzed their lives, would definitely fit a crash cymbal's profile, like Sid Vicious from the Sex Pistols.

Here are illustrations of different types of sound waves:

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The amount of research it would take to decode major waves for any individual with a long lifespan would seem daunting, but if we can send people to the moon or decode the human genome, it is certainly possible. It would mean tracking certain major, interrelated details about someone for a long enough period to see if there are patterns, or more darkly, controlling someone's environment, Truman Show style, so we could analyze as many patterns as possible.

What could be tracked? How often someone becomes sick (perhaps a micro version of Google's Flu Tracker), sleep patterns, financial profiles, what you eat, your weight, disintegration (this could be represented either as a diminuendo or crescendo, or an accelerando or ritardando, depending on your point of view and whether you favor youth or antiquity), which routes you take to work, or even how often I update this blog. Various waves for different parts of our lives are influenced by our surroundings and seemingly random events, circadian rhythms, and perhaps, in a subtle way, the moon's gravitational pull. Interestingly, this experiment would probably work best with those that are not aware they are being tracked, or for those who have been tracked for so long that they become indifferent. (Note to self: tracking when someone becomes indifferent is part of the pattern, and the tracker tracking is a pattern as well.)

As an aside, I believe that the main reason so much research is flawed is because we don't compile enough details and co-mingle seemingly unrelated patterns with enough people, such as what has been demonstrated with the so-called butterfly effect (i.e., sensitive dependence on initial conditions in chaos theory—thanks Wikipedia). If someone is suffering from a disease, often times the root cause is something that is at first, seemingly unrelated, but when a huge sample of people are analyzed, with as much relative, recorded data as possible, the pattern becomes clear. With enough human patterns translated into waves, rhythmic patterns, articulations, melodies or harmonies, someone's musical "iComposition" becomes evident.

In an Elliot Carter String Quartet No. 2 sort of way, you could represent certain patterns in each instrument in an ensemble, and the evolving composition would literally be a musical representation of those patterns. For example, using rhythmic diminution, a whole movement could be based on the four members of a string quartet dining out in a particular month, or an entire year. Each dining excursion is an eighth note, every other day is an eighth rest. Each type of cuisine could be a different pitch (Thai could be B, Chinese, could be C, and so on). This could be coupled with representations of whether anyone became sick with food poisoning (perhaps octave shifts or arco playing rather than pizzicatos, or scratch tone—best done with an adventurous string quartet that eats exotic foods!). The level of dedication to tracking these details is definitely beyond what most people would be willing to undertake, but with social networking devices like Twitter, this becomes possible.

Of course, just as Messiaen's bird songs only approximate real birdsong, this is merely an abstract approximation of certain events. Truncated and normalized, it might be interesting, or even humorous. A lot of rough edges would be shaved off, and you can't really represent every detail, but that's where the art comes in: selective choosing—finding and combining interesting patterns.

"Don't tase me, bro!"

I am currently composer-in-residence with the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association, from 2009-12, through a Meet the Composer/League of American Orchestra Music Alive residency grant. One of the main components of the grant is that I work with the Vermont Youth Orchestra and associated ensembles and they perform my music and commission me for a new work—in this case, a twenty-minute work for orchestra and chorus—but I also travel around the state as a virtual ambassador for VYOA, and visit schools and other organizations in the process. One of the more interesting schools in Vermont is the Wheeler Integrated Arts Academy—a new, innovative grade school that uses the arts to teach traditional topics such as math and science. At least twice a  year, I visit a third and fifth grade class at this school and help teach them a little about how to compose music, and I also answer questions at the end of each class.

Sometimes the questions are a little odd, like the one student who asked me, if, as a composer, I have ever been tased. On the surface, this is somewhat funny (why would I be tased as a composer? For writing a truly bad piece? Did he think I was a conductor?), but when you dig deeper, why is a fifth grader even talking about tasing? Why does he even know what tasing is? Maybe I am more sensitive to these things now that I have a four-year-old child, but there definitely seems to be a loss of innocence with some of today's children. Certainly, in the age of the internet, it will be more difficult to shield children from topics they really should not be exposed to or thinking about, but I really do think it also falls on parents to keep an eye on their children—and their ears open—so if something like this comes up, they can explain what that is, and how bad it is, and that tasing is very serious—like guns—and is something you really should not joke about.

Perhaps what was a little more disconcerting was that I was asked, multiple times, how much money I make. Not just by these students at this school, but from a few high school students who interviewed me from a different school. Not that I am afraid to answer the question—I basically did, more or less, and gave them a range, from hundreds of dollars to many thousands, depending on the project—but why are they concerned with that, at such a young age? At the Wheeler Arts Academy, these are third and fifth graders. The high school students, I can understand, but even so—would this question have been asked fifty years ago?

I think it is sad that we live in a world where young children are thinking about money—or more accurately, concerned with making a lot of money—when what they should really be doing is having fun, learning, exploring and imaging what they can grow up to be, without serious regard to financial matters. Of course, I would expect this from high school students who are about to enter college or the real world, but not from  such young kids. Yes, even young children should learn how to value what they have, and learn the basics, that we use money to buy things and so on, that everything has value, but is making money really what is most important? Of course, when children hear their parents talk about money, they absorb that, and we are in a recession, so maybe that has something to do with it.

This issue really trickles up to adults.  Many people are too concerned with materials objects and making money—keeping up with the Joneses—and not concerned enough with happiness, giving, and being good citizens. I just think it is important, and our responsibility, to make sure kids grow up being kids, and are loved, as much as possible. Otherwise, many of these soon-to-be adults will just feel the urge to re-live their childhoods as adults, because they did not have true childhoods.

The job of raising children, not just our own, but all children, falls on all of us—parents, teachers and the community alike. It really does take a village.

Scarcity Versus Abundance

Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired magazine, wrote an interesting article entitled Tech Is Too Cheap to Meter: It's Time to Manage for Abundance, Not Scarcity. (He also came up with a provocative retailing concept called the Long Tail that I mentioned a while back.) This got me thinking about how this applies to the music industry, and also to being a composer and performing musician. The following quote from his article pretty much sums it up:

"This is the power of waste. When scarce resources become abundant, smart people treat them differently, exploiting them rather than conserving them. It feels wrong, but done right it can change the world."

In the music world, there are many examples of how something that used to be scarce is now abundant. Quite often we are still living by the old model (scarcity) when the new one (abundance) makes more sense. Two examples where everything has changed dramatically in the music world are with recordings and sheet music.

Recordings

When someone wants to hear a  piece  that is not available commercially (and that I don't have the right to post in full on my website), I either need to email an audio file, give them access to a private page or burn a CD. Ten years ago, I paid ca. $1.00 for a high-quality blank CD-R, but now I pay ca. 20¢. This means the cost of physical media is now negligible. Hard drive space has also become cheaper per gigabyte, and burn speeds, upload and download times are now much faster than they were even five years ago. Burning music to blank CDs is now not only cheap, but faster than ever. Emailing files is even more efficient—and virtually free.

So which is better? CDs or emailing files? As each year passes, the value of my time goes up. Sometimes even the five minutes it takes to burn a CD, email a file, write a note (which is often repeating what I wrote in an email message or on FaceBook) and send a package seems a little time-consuming, or at least shrouded in redundancy.

Bandwidth speeds have increased way beyond even what was available in the 1990s, and since almost everyone in the Western music world has access to a computer and high speed internet, it is more cost effective and time efficient to post audio files online. After all, many people are purchasing digital files rather than CDs, especially younger crowds. The main problem is that with live recordings, I often don't have the right to post these files online openly, so I have to post them on a private page and give permission to each person individually. Of course, this process slows everything own, and flies in the face of what computers are capable of.

One of the reasons people still like to send CDs is that they believe—perhaps rightly—that files on the burned CD will generally not end up being spread all over the internet. In reality, at least with classical music, this almost never happens. I attribute this to both the good nature of most classical listeners, but also to the relative scarcity of classical music and listeners in general, versus the massive listenership of pop music. It's really just statistics: there are simply more pop listeners, therefore more chances for someone to post something on a file sharing site.

Also, receiving a physical CD seems much warmer than just linking to audio files. Most people like holding physical objects, and knowing that someone took the time to make a CD for you seems like they went out of their way for you even more. I am so used to downloading files that I don't think this way anymore, but I know that there are those out there who do. Also, you don't have to wait to play a CD, unlike downloading or streaming an audio file: you just pop it in and play it, and can take it anywhere, including a car or laptop on a plane.

The main point is that whether you use CDs or audio files, both cost virtually nothing, so we should be exploiting this resource even more, rather than treating each CD or download as a precious gem. We often fail to see the big picture: exposure via recordings will often lead to even more opportunities that eclipse the recordings in value.

Sheet music

Are publishers a dying breed? Reproducing sheet music at a copy store or at home is now fairly cheap. It is really just an issue of supply versus demand, the value of a composer's time, their ability to tolerate duplicating their own materials, and so on. But it is also an issue of scarcity versus abundance. Fifty years ago, reproducing sheet music was not only very expensive–especially for large scores, think 11X17—but more time-consuming as well. Also, you couldn't easily reproduce materials at home.

Now, it is almost silly to not sell PDFs online instead of sheet music. Think about it: selling the PDFs is obviously easier, there are no shipping costs, and the purchaser now has you file to print over and over again. So, why don't we do this?

Composers and publishers are sometimes afraid that performers will just send their files around willy nilly, and won't pay for future performances of their piece. I counter with this: I think that at this point in time, it is less about the physical sheet music and more about the license. Each piece of music should be licensed. When you purchase a  piece of music for, say $30, that could give you the rights to print as many copies as you need for yourself (for page turns, in case  our music was lost or ruined in a rainstorm), but for each subsequent performance, you would have to pay an additional fee. Or, you could purchase a number of performances outright, say five, if you knew you were going to play the piece five times. This process seems to make more sense, but there are catches.

Print size is currently limited to standard sizes (8.5X11. 11X17 and 8X5X14) and 9X12 and 11x14 cut down from 11X17. 10X13 parts and scores larger than 11X17 are still relatively difficult to reproduce, and only major publishers or people patient enough to do the printing themselves are able to accomplish this. Copy stores are still not able to do this well.

Good publishers also often have better paper and binding machines. But do musicians really care? What is more important: receiving the music quickly and having a backup copy, or a beautifully-bound copy on nice paper? It is not that paper and beauty do not matter, but it is an issue of what is more valuable. Most musicians I work with are so used to awful paper and bad binding that they don't seem to care. But they really care if the music arrives too close to a performance, or if they lose it and need another copy, and will receive it too late.

Conventional wisdom dictates that really good publishers publish really good composers—they mostly weed out the riff-raff. Do I really believe this? Not really, but some performers will gravitate toward composers who are published by publishers such as Boosey & Hawkes and Schirmer, simply because you assume that in order for publishers to spend time promoting their roster of composers, they must have determined ahead of time that those composers are marketable, or at least good, whether now or in the future, and therefore, publishers save you time when looking for an engaging, performable piece of music. In practice, this seems to only be true some of the time. All musicians have played awful pieces published by well-respected publishers, and excellent pieces by un-published composers. Either way, many performers place trust in publishers, and publishers have staff to promote their composers, or at least that's what they are supposed to be doing.

Purchasing from publishers also saves time. When you purchase something online or from a brick and mortar music store (a dying breed, I am afraid), you don't have to worry about paper, binding, going to the copy store, etc. However, since most performers own printers at home, if the parts are on letter-size paper, printing parts is extremely easy. Of course, letter-size is definitely not an optimal size for sheet music, but many composers now use this as their default paper size anyway.

The problem is that technology has moved faster than our old business model. In most cases, the internet negates the need for hard copies of sheet music. This has, of course, led to performing from a computer monitor. As flat screen monitors catch on, printed music will be even less necessary. Monitors make a lot of sense: your markings are easily altered and saved for future performances, you won't lose your music, no need for physical storage, licensing becomes a lot easier, music will not degrade, etc. However, my prediction is that monitors will merely be an additional alternative and not a replacement, well into the future, at least for a long time to come. There is just too much old music that is still performed that will not be transferred anytime soon, and it will take a few generations before performers are comfortable reading music off a screen with any regularity.

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Ultimately, if the music world learns how to embrace technology even more, it will lead to greater freedom and more opportunities. Those that jump on fastest will benefit the most. The key to all this, as with the newspaper industry, is to figure out how to maneuver this new business model and still be able to make a living. Ironically, this may center around old ways of thinking that predate recordings and published music, such as focusing energy on live performances, or on ideas we have yet to imagine.

What I Will Remember

Sometimes I think about what I will remember most—or care about—when I am old. I am pretty certain I won't remember much about FaceBook. I know I won't think about email or text messages, or as much as I love gadgets, my mobile phone.

I won't care what operating system my computer is running, if we even use computers at that point, but I might care if I backed it up, although it probably will not matter unless I print everything. I know I certainly won't want to be holding a Kindle, or a laptop or have a Bluetooth headset on my ear.

I am also certain that I won't think about all the frozen dinners I have eaten, organic or not,  that Sienfeld re-run where they cut up candy bars with a knife and fork—although that was pretty funny—or that great deal I wrangled on a flat screen TV.

Here is what I am pretty sure I will think about.

I will think about my family, both immediate and extended, first and foremost, and wondering how they are, wherever they are, and I will want to be with them as much as possible.

I will think about Victoria and Dylan, and how much I love them, and how much of a gift it is to have them in my life. To see another human being that is genetically half you and half your wife look into your eyes and say I love you is truly euphoric.

I will remember that time my father threw me in the air when I was three to the music of Shostakovich, and I will think about my mother painting on the third floor of the house I grew up in, while I stood by her side finger painting. I will remember molding clay side my side with my father in his studio while he was making his sculptures. I will think about the rice crispy treats with little cinnamon candies my grandmother made me and my brother and sent in care packages while we were growing up.

I will also think about my work and how much I accomplished, the experiences I have had as a composer and performer—both good and bad—and what I am leaving behind. I will certainly hope that my music doesn't die with me. I want to think that by the end of my life, I will have contributed to the world in a positive way.

I will think about the walks I took in Central Park, the mountains I climbed in the Adarondacks and Colorado, homemade chocolate chip cookies and those times I stayed up all night with Dan, one of my best friends while growing up. I will think about friends, present and past. I will think about a few exquisite meals I had in a few fancy vegan restaurants, and my favorite pieces of music and visual art.

I will think about everything in my life that was intensely personal and full of love. I will also regret all that I wanted to do, but didn't.

It is interesting how some of what we do now will not matter that much when we look back, and how important it is to live each day as fully as possible, take chances, and be with the people we care about, in the flesh.

Vermont In August

This August, I will begin a three-year Music Alive Residency with the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association, made possible by a grant from Meet The Composer and the League of American Orchestras. I am really looking forward to working with everyone and exploring some of my old haunts in Burlington. The Vermont Youth Orchestra Association consists of one of the most accomplished youth orchestras in the North America, along with a few other excellent orchestras, chamber groups, choirs and an annual music festival in Burlington called the Reveille! Music Festival. They even just completed a tour of Quebec and France with their out-going Music Director Troy Peters. After a highly successful fourteen years with VYOA, Troy accepted a new position as Music Director of the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio. Although he is much-loved by everyone in VT, and brought the association to new and higher levels, this will be an exciting year as VYOA embarks on a search for a new director. I lived in Vermont long enough to know that although great people sometimes leave, they often come back, and fresh, new faces will also arrive.

Back in the mid-90s, Victoria and I lived in Burlington on the corner of Church and Main, right next to Nectar's, the bar and  restaurant where thousands of bands have played and Phish played some of its first gigs. We moved there right after we left undergraduate school at Eastman and the University of Rochester. I can still remember the smell of gravy fries wafting over from Nectar's, roasting coffee beans at Muddy Waters, and the freshly made pizza and bagels from across the street and down the block.

While we lived in Burlington, Victoria had a violin studio of ca. 20 students, and we gigged in just about every classical group in the state, including the Vermont Symphony OrchestraUVM Symphony Orchestra and with the Lyric Theater Company. We even played West Side Story at the Flynn in 1995, which is an amazing coincidence, since Victoria is now playing in West Side Story on Broadway. I played in Vermont Composers Consortium concerts and worked with interesting musicians like Michael Arnowitt and Gordon Stone. These are all great memories.

Before gigs and commissions started trickling in, I worked at Kinko's in Burlington, which I think still has the distinction of being the only Kinko's in Vermont. For a young musician trying to meet people, it was a great place to work: it seems like just about everyone in town made copies there. I would strike up conversations and try to get to know everyone in the music scene. Burlington is a major city, but cozy enough that you will probably eventually run into every classical musician in town—and even in the state—if you stick around for a while.

Anyway, I am very excited, both to work with the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association and interim conductor Andrew Massey, and to be in Vermont in August. As time goes on, I may either blog about my experiences with the orchestra here, contribute to the VYOA Blog or even create a new one, but either way, I hope you will continue to read about my experiences with this wonderful organization.

Reflections on Yaddo

Yaddo - Woodland Cabin I recently spent three weeks at Yaddo, an artist's colony in Saratoga Springs, NY. Located down the road from the Saratoga Racetrack, Yaddo is one of the most famous artist colonies in the world, and is the largest in the U.S. Tons of great people have worked there, including Aaron CoplandLeonard BernsteinDavid Del Tredici, Truman CapoteLangston HughesSylvia Plath and Philip Roth—the list goes on, seemingly forever. It was an honor to be there among so many talented people.

While there, I wrote over sixty-five pages of score for Invisible Child, the opera I have been working on with writer and librettist David Cote. I wrote more in three weeks than I have ever written in that period of time in my life. It was amazing to be able to work in solitude, and to think big thoughts, for long spans of time. In this crazy email-centric, cell phone-tethered world we live in, large, uninterrupted moments are becoming a rare commodity, and I think this is what makes the difference between the kind of work—and the amount of work—that is being created these days, compared to, say, a hundred years ago. Not necessarily better or worse, just different.

In some ways we have less to worry about—we have cleaner water, less disease, and more (but not necessarily higher-quality) food, at least in the U.S.—but we are also very distracted and seem to have shorter attention spans. Sitting through a Chopin Nocturne seems like eternity for some folks, and you can almost seem their fingers itching for the remote during a live performance. It does not help that we are over-saturated with content and media, and not all of it great, but it is really all about distraction. We are pulled in a many different directions at once, and we kid ourselves into thinking we can really multi-task to great effect. Mozart had almost none of the gadgets we have now, and look how much he created. That tells you something.

What is so great about artist colonies such as Yaddo is that you have time to really concentrate. It is amazing how much you can get done when you are left alone. Ironically, I had better cell phone reception at my little cabin in the woods than I get in Manhattan (it is near the highway, however distant and in the background), so it was a mental thing. The physical distance from NYC and separation from other people created a sense of calm that is really hard to find, and with birds—and not people—twittering in the background, it is much easier to turn off gadgets or conveniently leave them behind.

Don't get me wrong: artists love to party. Almost every evening consisted of sharing bottles of wine and great conversation, but during the day, at least during my stay, people were either working very hard, thinking very hard, or even just thinking about working very hard. Artist's minds are usually churning in the background, even when they look like they are paying attention to what you are saying. It's faint, a distant look in their eyes, but you will notice it if you look closely. You learn to not take it personally: they are just existing on multiple planets at once.

Some people do not work well at colonies, but others thrive. I loved my time away, although I missed Victoria and Dylan immensely. I work well at home, surrounded by my things, but there is nothing like working in a space so quiet that you can hear the blood rushing in the back of your neck, away from honking trucks and WiFi connections. It was truly a gift to be there.

Vegetarian Chinese Store in New York City

For years, I wondered where the vegan and vegetarian Chinese restaurants in NYC obtained their mock meats. Most of these restaurants use the same ingredients, and a few, like Home on 8th, do almost nothing other than place these analogues over a bed of steamed vegetables. Others, like Wild Ginger, excel at presentation and nice plating, but their main dish prices are in the $11-$14 range, and they are not located in my neighborhood. That got me thinking: I wonder if I could make these dishes myself? Then, I discovered the Holy Grail of Chinese faux meats in New York City: May-Wah Healthy Vegetarian Food, Inc.

Located at 213 Hester Street in Chinatown, they stock just about every veggie meat analog you can think of, almost all of them vegan, including mock chicken, fish, beef, steak, shrimp, ham, beef jerky, chicken nuggets, smoked sausage—this list goes on and on. Almost all of these offerings are different than what you find at Whole Foods or other natural food stores, although Westerly Market—our favorite natural food store in NYC—does stock a couple of these items. Our favorites are the Mock Chicken Nuggets (my wife's favorite), Coal Roasted Veggie Sausage (a hit all around), Citrus Spareribs (my favorite), and the Vegan Ham and Mock Chicken Legs (my son's favorite). Best of all, everything is relatively inexpensive. They even offer a discount to those who shop there  a few times a year.

If you like to cook Chinese cuisine and you are vegan or vegetarian, check this place out. You'll save some dough and discover a whole world of Chinese veggie possibilities, and be able to prepare exactly what some of these NYC restaurants serve.

Name That Tune

I recently had three premieres of On The Day The World Ends, a new piece commissioned by the San Francisco-based Volti choir. The texts consist of three poems: A Song On the End of the World by Czeslaw Milosz, Life's Tragedy by Paul Laurence Dunbar and Do not stand at my grave and weep by Mary Elizabeth Frye. The title came from the first line of the Milosz poem. I find coming up with titles one of the most difficult parts of the compositional process. Sometimes I give pieces abstract names, like Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano, or String Quartet No. 1, but more often than not, I try to come up with something creative, compelling, and less pretentious-sounding. However, I like coupling abstract titles with movement titles that are more evocative. To me, it's like opening a present wrapped in plain paper: you may not have a clue as to what is inside, but when you open it, you are pleasantly surprised—hopefully by the music, but also by the titles of the movements.

(That aside, I like to think that I will have an opportunity to write at least one more violin sonata, and hopefully a few more string quartets. Implying that there will be a Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano and String Quartet No. 2 may be a little presumptuous, but I am hopeful that I won't die too soon.)

Back to this piece: I borrowed the title On The Day The World Ends from the first line of the Milosz poem, but I was never happy with it. As my lovely wife Victoria puts it, it sounds like the title of a bad B movie—or, perhaps like The Day The Earth Stood Still—and it also really only reflects the first poem, not the other two. When I received a couple of mixed comments from audience members, including a gentleman named J'Carlin, that did it: I was convinced; I had to change it.

This isn't my first time trashing a title: a work I wrote called Symphony in Three Movements used to be called Chamber Symphony, until I decided that there's really nothing chamber about it, and it even uses spatially-placed trumpets. Since this technique is not that effective in a small space, and since the ensemble is really more a Mozart-sized orchestra than a chamber group, I changed the title.

The new title I finally settled on for On The Day The World Ends is Eternal Reflections. The word 'eternal' implies forever, which I like (birth and death being a continuous cycle), and each poem reflects a different take on finality. The Milosz poem supposes that the final day of the world will be like any other; the Dunbar poem describes how we judge what we have achieved by what we haven't achieved; the Frye poem is a meditation on how life springs eternal.

Finally, Eternal Reflections just sounds like a choral title. It's not Bang on a Canned (no offense meant, I admire all three of them)—there's nothing living, breathing lying, stealing, cheating, sweating or anything else with "ing" in the title—and it's definitely not hip, sexual, confessional or  world-music-y, but it makes me think of something grand—like a beautiful choir in a large, resonant space. This time around, that's all I wanted.

My composer friend Jonathan Newman wrote a blog entry about this subject. Here's a formula he came up with for how composers come up with titles:

some descriptive word or phrase +  a) "Music"  b) "Dance(s)"  c) some specific kind of music or dance (i.e., "Gavotte" or "March") 

I think composers use processes like this without even thinking about it. It's like a genetic defect, or maybe an unspoken marketing plan. "If I title it like he/she did, maybe people will like it." Some composers get around this by using funny symbols, dashes, no caps and so on, but I think we all run into the same problem: how to come up with a convincing title that means something, looks cool, sounds compelling, and doggone it, will make people like you.

Maybe all those dead composers who wrote blandly titled symphonies and sonatas had it right: it's the music that matters, not the title. As with any great piece, you should be able to appreciate it on it's own merits, stripped of program notes, venue, the level of performance, and, dare say it? Even a cool title.

My Choral Addiction

Volti Concert at City Hall It is common knowledge among composers that each musical genre is a distinct world unto itself, complete with societies, clubs, associations and groupies. Some of the most robust center around wind bands, educational music, sacred music, the orchestral world, chamber music, music for children, and finally, choral music. Lately, I have become addicted to writing music for choir.

Strangely, choral music gets a bad rap in some circles. Sometimes when I tell people I wrote a new choral work—which I am very excited about, let alone for Volti, a great choir—their eyes glaze over, or they remain speechless, staring at me with an almost condescending, downward glance. Yet the minute I say I am working on an opera, an orchestral work or even a piece for saxophone and marimba, people become excited, almost gushing. Personally, I find this very strange.

Writing for choir is one of the first and sometimes the only method of composing taught in basic theory classes. So if writing for our own voices is so fundamental, why is it so despised by some composers, and even some performers?

Perhaps some composers are put off by the inherent technical limitations you need to work with (or around) to write great choral music. Great voice-leading is paramount. Writing erratic, wide leaps imparts pain and anxiety, at least when composing for most choirs, and frankly, bad choral music with lots of difficult leaps and bad voice-leading just sounds, well... bad.

Plenty of great and/or well-known modern composers have written for choir, composers as diverse as György Ligeti, Aaron CoplandEinojuhani RautavaaraArvo Pärt and Morten Lauridsen, not to mention J.S. Bach and all the great, long dead composers. Not too many people would argue that at least a few on this list are great, so what's the problem?

Maybe it is because choirs are so common, and there is so much choral music—maybe too much, and a lot of it not very interesting, in my opinion—that it is looked down upon.

Or, maybe in our scientific, experimental world, one that is increasingly moving from the sacred toward the secular, at least in the United States, those who are non-religious, often science-minded academics are weary of embracing a genre that has been—and continues to be—steeped in religion, and specifically Christianity. If this is the case, it is truly ironic, as we would not have universities and science if not for religion.

For better or worse, probably worse in this case, the general population appreciates cool effects over subtly and finesse, and maybe choral music does not offer enough pyrotechnics—choirs are just not Monster Trucks. You cannot hide behind snap pizzicatos, multiphonics, muted passages or a percussion section, at least most of the time. Choral music is extremely transparent: if a piece is bad, you will notice very quickly. Opera on the other hand, is highly visually provocative, so perhaps that has something to do with it. In a visual age, choirs are not as visually stimulating as operas, or television, except if your friends, relatives or someone you think is hot is singing in the choir.

Finally, maybe it is that unfortunately, many choirs are not that advanced. Typical community choirs are often technically limited, and often do not have strong tenors, low enough basses, strong altos or modest sopranos. I am kidding a little here, but not really. The difference between The Norwegian Soloists' Choir, Volti, Chanticleer and Nordic Voices and many local choirs and vocal chamber groups is night and day. Listening to great choirs is a sublime, almost out-of-body experience. Listening to a bad choir—even in a church—is simply hell on earth.

Whatever the reason for some people's disdain, I can't be bothered with it. I love great choirs and choral music, and I also love when non-professional choirs program new music. I think there is nothing more beautiful than the human voice. Don't get me wrong: I absolutely love writing instrumental music, but to ignore the power and beauty of the human voice is to deny one of the greatest joys in the world: to hear ourselves sing.

The Importance of Singers Having an Online Presence

My librettist David Cote and I recently solicited materials from singers for an upcoming studio reading of two scenes from our opera-in-progress, Invisible Child. Many singers do not have a website, and are also not on FacebookMySpace or have clips on YouTube. If you are young and/or do not have management, you should at least be on one of the social networking sites (i.e., Facebook or MySpace), or have a website, or some sort of page with a bio, resume, sound clips and a headshot. It is impossible for us to figure out if you will be appropriate for a role, unless we have a lot of time, which we don't.

Granted, the world of professional opera is different: relationships between composers, librettists, directors, producers, management companies and individual singers over many years will reveal the right people for roles fairly quickly. Perhaps our case is unique, but still, it can only help to put yourself out there so even more people can easily discover you.

Admittedly, we are more swayed by vocalists who either take time to present themselves well, or have a manager to do it for them. However, many management sites are not comprehensive, and that's a shame: we didn't have time to call each manager and ask for materials. It is just much easier to listen to a few clips online, look at a headshot, and read a bio and/or resume.

Did it matter to us whether a singer had management or not? Not really. In fact, since managers are in business to make money both for their clients and themselves, and our project is small peanuts since it's not a major role with a major opera company, managers really just get in the way. The few managers we know and talked to really could not help that much, and that was expected. They cannot put us in touch with people on their roster who regularly work with major opera companies, only those who are not getting enough work—and you have to ask: why aren't they getting enough work? Maybe they are really good, but it did give us pause. Of course, often times, how would we know? There were no sound clips online.

Fortunately, the singers we are using are all excellent—we are very lucky. Almost all of them have something online somewhere, or we have heard and seen them live, so we know how good they are. Or, they are quick about getting us materials when asked. Others recommended a few singers we are working with, often more than once. This is why it is important to be friendly to your peers and keep reconnecting with your teachers: you never know when someone will talk you up to someone else, and heartfelt, warm words of praise from someone important count for a lot when you have little else to go by.

What was revealing about this process of looking for singers, is that with a few exceptions, they are pretty bad about promoting themselves. Sometimes we received recordings and head shots that were years old or materials weeks late (or not at all), or some of the sound clips were so low-quality that it made us not want to listen. If you are singer, why would you send a bad recording? The sound is what is most important: if you can't get that right, nothing else matters. It doesn't take much: just set up a hand-held recorder in your coach's apartment and record a few arias and songs.

It is surprising—although I guess it should not be—that many schools do not bother teaching students how to promote themselves. Perhaps singers (and schools) think they will eventually get management, so why bother? The truth is, a lot of great singers do not have management, and a lot of bad ones do, and as I mentioned before, many management sites are awful: few or no sound clips, outdated bios, maybe one small headshot, etc.

So if you are a singer, what would be useful to have online? After viewing over a hundred singer pages and sites, what follows is a list of what I think is useful.

Suggestions for Online Materials for Singers

1. Biography: at least have a medium-length one, but having three versions—long, medium and short—is optimal. You don't need to have a PDF or Word document. People generally know now how to copy, paste and reformat text from a website.

2. Headshot: a clear, recent 8 X 10 headshot, no more than three years old, preferably in color (graphic designers can easily change it to grayscale with the click of a button). Have two versions: one that is 72 dpi (for online use) and 300 dpi (for print). Note that the image you have of yourself on your home page (if you have a  site) does not need to be your headshot. You can also include images of you in different roles, which is also often highly revealing.

3. Sound Clips:  3-5 (or more) sound clips that best represent your singing, and that no more than one or maybe two years old. If you focus on opera, you should have opera clips. If you love new music, make sure to have a few clips of you singing modern works.

4. Resume: in my opinion, what is important here, at least for opera singers, is a list of roles you have performed, with the companies you have worked with, and when you worked with them. You can also include recordings you have made (if any), and if you are younger, teachers and coaches you have worked with.

5. Concert Schedule: this is important because if someone wants to hire you, they need to know if you are available. You can include this on a website if your management doesn't do this for you, or even do this for free on MySpace, which actually works quite well. This is by far the one detail that is most overlooked by singers, and wasted the most time. We found many singers we wanted to work with, but then found out later that there was a conflict, sometimes of only a day or so (they had to miss one rehearsal, but could have made the recording date).

6. Contact Info: at the very least, include an email address, but a phone number is also useful if you are comfortable putting it online. If you don't check email that frequently, make sure to include a phone number. Or, if you use Facebook or MySpace, that can suffice, as long as you make it clear on your site that you use one of those sites.

You don't need a hip flash site, a downloadable press kit or any other fancy gizmos. Just the basics, but done well. In fact, you don't even need a professional site. You can accomplish all of this for free on MySpace, and even Facebook.

What else could you include? If you have professionally released or self-released CDs, include some links to those pages on Amazon, iTunes or some other site so people can purchase your CDs. If there is something else about you that is pertinent or interesting—you have a social conscience and work for shelters, you are vegan and/or a gourmet cook, you have a blog, you also sing musicals or pop music, or maybe you also play an instrument—make sure to mention it. Sometimes those details can make a difference, or at least make you seem more interesting, After all, if are working with someone for days or weeks on end, eventually, you will want to talk about something other than music or opera.

I look forward to working with many of the wonderful singers I didn't have a chance to experience this time around, and for those I haven't yet discovered, I hope I will be able to find you online.

Dylan and the Snowman: Why Children are the Best New Music Audience

Dylan Building a Snowman with Victoria and Dennis

On Planet New Music (a strange planet perhaps, but the one I live on nevertheless), everyone usually focuses on entertaining adults. Playing music for children, or writing music that appeals to children, is usually considered a good deed at best, a chore at worst. It is certainly not what most "serious" musicians go to school for, unless they are planning on a career teaching children. This is unfortunate, because I think kids really are one of the best audiences for new music because they usually have the fewest preconceptions. I wrote and essay back in 2002 entitled Who is Our Most Important Audience?, in which I elaborate on this issue, but I want to tell a story about my three year old son Dylan that illustrates my point.

During the winter of 2007-08, I completed a work entitled Winter Songs, a twenty-minute, six-movement work for bass-baritone and chamber sextet. I wrote a lot of it in Vermont—the perfect place to write a piece about winter, I should add. While I was writing the fourth movement, a setting of Richard Wilbur's poem Boy at the Window, I looked out the window where I was composing, and unbelievably, without knowing what I was writing that day, Victoria and her father decided to take Dylan outside to build a snowman! You could not ask for better inspiration for setting a poem about a boy and a snowman than to look out the window and see your own son building one. Of course, the movement is dedicated to Dylan, but I meant to dedicate it to him all along.

At age 3, Dylan is beginning to understand what I do, that I write music for musicians to play. The other day he said he wanted to listen to my music. Of course, there is nothing more flattering than to have your three year old—or any family member—ask to listen to your music, so I decided to play him Boy at the Window. I described what I think it is about: a boy watching his snowman with fear in his eyes, scared that it would melt and die, and that in the second stanza, you see it from the snowman's perspective, looking inside at the boy. I told him that we should really be more afraid for the boy, and that all adults know children will eventually experience pain, and that the snowman sheds tears of rain. Dylan developed this whole, elaborate story: the singer, David Neal (who also commissioned the work), is the snowman, and he (Dylan) is the boy in the story. He then proceeded to ask me to play it fourteen times in a row. As a composer, how do you say no to that? Every night since then, he asks for "the snowman song", and has me play it at least once, usually twice, while he tells the story to me, and is now even beginning to sing along with the vocal line.

What is my point? Dylan does not know that this is "modern music" and that many people have pre-conceived notions that all new music is bad until proven otherwise. He just enjoys it as a piece of music. To my mind, this is how all people should approach new music: with an open mind, and with the innocence of a child.

Muses and the Curse of Memory

Euterpe by Battoni These days I am working on a new opera entitled Invisible Child. I love writing vocal music, but I find that the more tuneful my melodies are, the harder it is to let them go. They end up permeating my thoughts when I am awake, and even my dreams. This may sound delightful—how much better could it be than to dream your own music, right?—but imagine having the same soundtrack running through your brain over and over again. It is both a blessing and a curse.

Not only do the melodies themselves repeat ad nauseam, but the singers who will be performing the roles are the muses behind those lines. I will be recording a demo of two in a few days, and I haven't even heard the singers sing the lines yet, but I already hear their voices—perfectly of course, because it's all in my head.

Of course, sometimes I have someone else's music as my life soundtrack. This is great, particularly if it is something I like, such as Mahler's Fourth Symphony, Bach's Golderberg Variations before bedtime, or if I am feeling particularly badass, the soundtrack to the The Matrix, but what if I just came from an awful concert? Then it's hellish, but that's what iPods are for: you can reset by listening to a favorite piece of music, or in my case, more often than not, either works submitted by composers for AME, or a recent podcast.

I wonder if other composers have this problem. What is the background music for Milton Babbitt's dreams? Are they serialized? How about Helmut Lachenmann? Has he ever dreamt a melody? Is this phenomenon a thousand times worse for a composer like Stephen Schwartz, the composer who wrote Wicked? I would suspect that even for Schwartz, there are only so many times you could dream Defying Gravity before going a little batty. I can take comfort in never having had Philip Glass's music as my background, as that would be too repetitive for my taste (I wonder what the background music for his dreams is?), or Kenny G.

I guess that's when I will know I am in hell: when Kenny G becomes my permanent background soundtrack.

2009 Ultimate iPhone Wish List

iphone-3g7-j-109135-3

A while back I wrote a post called the Ultimate iPhone Wish List. Fortunately, many features I was hoping for are included in the iPhone 3G, the iPhone I finally purchased, but a few are still missing. Here is a breakdown of what I would most like to see added to future generations of the iPhone and iPhone OS.

To Do List and Notes Apple's To Do List and Notes synchronization is the pits. The best workaround I found—which works perfectly for me, by the way—is to use Appigo's Sync service for my To Do lists in iCal, coupled with Toodledo's Notebook for notes. This allows me to edit my notes from any computer, since Toodledo's website is accessible anywhere. I haven't yet figured how out how to sync To Do's with Toodledo, but since I usually view my To Do's in iCal, I have not found the need to sync To Do's with Toodledo, but it is possible.

So what is my wish here? I wish that Apple would get their act together and make all of this seamless, so I do not have to always resort to Third Party apps to fill in the gaps. I am happy to support the wonderful people who make them, but it is interesting how Apple will embark down a path in a half-baked way (with Notes in Apple Mail, for example) and not do a really good job. These ill-fated moves almost undermine the care that goes into creating devices like the iPhone in the first place.

Sharing Music: Update It is now possible to share music on your iPhone using SimplifyMedia. This is not a feature that I will use often, but there are times when I will want someone to have temporary access to some of my music. This is particulary important to me as a composer, but I know a lot of other people will find this useful.

Auto Feature Shut-Off I really want to be able to turn off all services—3G, WiFi, Bluetooth, etc.—with one simple click at the top of the screen, without using a hack such as BossPrefs. Sometimes I am using my iPhone and don't need connectivity, like when I am walking outside listening to music and don't want to take calls. It is really annoying that Apple doesn't make this easier.

Better Mail Handling As MacWorld wrote back in 2008:

There’s also still no way to mark multiple messages as read, force HTML messages to display as plain text, or adjust how much of a message is quoted in a reply. And Mail’s handling of pictures, both sending and receiving, remains limited: You still can’t move photos from Mail to the Photos app, or e-mail multiple pictures at once. Those of us with multiple e-mail accounts still bemoan the lack of a unified inbox that would allow us to skim messages in all of our accounts at once.

I agree, and I think the biggest problem here is integration between programs, particularly Apple's, but ranking right up there is the ability to delete en-masse and a unified inbox.

Personalized Ringtones Right on the iPhone As far as I know, it is still not possible to make customized ringtones right on the iPhone; you still must do it in iTunes or on your computer, using a program like Fission. If a ringtone is available through the iTunes store, you can download it, but that's it.  If someone knows something I don't, please give me a heads-up.

Replaceable, Swappable Battery: Update This still isn't possible, perhaps for good reason (the built-in battery probably saves a lot of space), but it would be very cool to be able to swap batteries. In the meantime, I'll vote for the Solio Solar Charger, a nifty device that takes your iPhone off the grid.

iPhone as Credit Card This still does not exist, as far as I know, so I will mention it again...

Imagine swiping your phone to pay for a purchase, instead of carrying around a whole wallet full of credit cards. Don’t laugh: this is already possible in Japan via RFID tags. Some normal plastic credit cards in the US even incorporate RFID tags so cards can be waved rather than swiped. However, I think biometrics will eventually replace cards altogether, but this is still a great idea.

iChat: Update Although I don't use this, the best option I found is BeeJive's software, which allows you to use any currently existing service you like.

Rotating Lens (or Lens on Both Sides) I mentioned this before, but it would be really useful if there was a camera lens on both sides of the iPhone. It would then turn the iPhone into a great video iChat device, which is the wave of the future, or at least one of the waves. According to AppleInsider, the next generation of iPhone will have a video camera, so this will hopefully be included.

Remote Control for TV and Kitchen Appliances You can use your iPhone to control iTunes and your Apple TV, if you have one, but what if you don't have an Apple TV? Alternatively, it would be great to be able to control my RCN Cable box remotely, or at least be able to program a recording with an iPhone app. Apple will supposedly include this capability in the 4G iPhone.

Someday, in my Wired kitchen, it would be great to interact with my kitchen via my iPhone, or even just a computer, to adjust my thermostat, lights and access the contents of my modern refrigerator via bar code scanning. It would be efficient and time saving to automatically find out if certain items in your refrigerator have gone bad based on expiration dates, and if you're missing a key ingredient for that risotto you want to make tonight.

There are other nifty details that will improve with the upcoming iPhone OS update, like cut and paste and hopefully un-hacked Flash support, faster speed, and so on, but I have a feeling many items on my wish list  won't make the cut.

What's on your wish list? Vote below for what you really want in the upcoming OS release, or in the next generation of iPhones.

[polldaddy poll=1467918]

The Death of Radio

broken_radio1 If you have any musical taste whatsoever, you probably do not rely on radio for your daily musical fix. Radio is useful for traveling, but it has always been limited, especially while driving across state lines, through forests and in back woods areas. Broadcasts cut out every few miles, but does this really matter? Most stations' programs are awful, particularly now that they are almost all controlled by Clear Channel.

It is important for our government to update our technological infrastructure, and I think it is time for traditional radio to be die or to be reinvented.

The death of traditional FM and AM radio will allow indie and new classical music to have a fighting chance. Updated technology will allow us to easily listen to a mix of podcasts and traditional radio shows side by side, even in cars.

Many people—myself included—are only listening online or on cell phones. Some of my favorite listening experiences are podcasts, and I almost never listen to radio anymore, but that is because I like listening to what I want when I want—and I don't drive much.

We think we are way ahead in the U.S., but are actually way behind Japan and many other developed countries. Our rural areas often lack cell sites, but most urbanites are indifferent until they have to take a drive in the country and their mobile phones cease to work. Once cell sites become more common in rural areas, most people will listen to radio shows via cell sites (even solar-powered cell sites), Satellites or through broadband connections at home.

If I do want to listen to radio, which might be useful for a live broadcast of a friend's premiere in a far-away city, I could use Pandora (for traditional radio stations) or eventually, Sirius satellite radio on my iPhone. This is the same reason that I almost never watch something on the television when it actually airs; I just record it with our RCN equivalent of Tivo. DJ's were useful in the past, but I think that Podcasts have taken over, and now I often find out about new releases through podcasts.

Some say it is not cost effective to put cell towers in rural areas, but I think part of the reason businesses do not locate to areas like Middlebury, VT is because of the lack of broadband and cell phone coverage. Small-scale farmers and other traditional businesses (candle makers, microbreweries, etc.) would also benefit from upgraded infrastructure. I have heard the argument that businesses should not be located in rural places, but you cannot grow maple sugar trees in Manhattan or ski in Florida.

If infrastructure in one area improves, there will be more incentives to upgrade other areas. With more cell towers and better broadband, more businesses will locate to less populated towns. High-speed rail systems will hopefully follow. This is all theoretical, or course, but I think there is some truth to it.

With cell sites and reliable broadband access, a maple syrup company will be able to effectively use the Internet to market their products to customers in California, but if they are limited to dial-up, which is crushingly slow, they will mostly sell locally through cooperatives or to larger companies, or by using snail mail lists, which is not always cost effective. Better technology will help small businesses.

All musicians—especially composers and classical musicians—need to push for upgraded infrastructure, especially where technology is concerned. Many of our biggest fans lie in out of the way places. It is in our best interest to push for traditional radio to die a quick death.