Wednesday, December 30, 2015

5 New Year’s Resolutions for Composers

2015 was awesome! I had premieres of several works, worked with wonderful musicians for the first time, and attended some fabulous performances of my music as well as of works by a wide range of composers. However, in reminiscing over my activities of the past year, I found that I didn’t devote as much time as I’d like to other aspects of my career.

I’ve created my 2016 New Year resolution list to augment my current activities, and offer it here in case these can help other composers as well: 

1. Think like an entrepreneur.

Whether we realize it or not, composers are business owners. We create our own unique product, which we then need to market to performers, music organizations, and supporters. The sooner we can consider ourselves as entrepreneurs, the sooner we can start running our careers as such. There are a number of resources (both online and in print) that help in developing the skill set of successful entrepreneurs. In particular, businessman/motivational speaker Brian Tracy has recorded several videos on his YouTube channel that address various aspects of thinking like an entrepreneur, including this great short clip on the daily habits of successful people.

Another angle is to stay informed on the latest advances in the music field. I’m a member of ASCAP; this performance royalties organization sends out a daily email with links to articles on the web that affect their artists. These emails cover a wide range of topics, from copyright issues and ongoing negotiations with digital streaming services to social media marketing strategies. It is worthwhile occasionally checking out Musical America Worldwide's website too; this organization’s front page covers news in the music world. Sign up for their email newsletters as well, as every few months or so, they put together special reports that go in-depth on particular topics. Editions in the past few years have been devoted to social and mobile marketing, copyright issues, developments in digital publishing formats, fundraising strategies, and 30 key influencers in the performing arts.

2. Go to LOTS of events.

There’s no better way to get musically inspired, as well as to check out what other living composers are writing, than to go to concerts. I’m lucky to be living in a major city with a thriving musical scene – Chicago is home to a host of soloists, chamber groups, choirs, orchestras, and opera companies, many of which perform new music on a regular basis. The city also has several concert presenters that bring guest artists to town. Most concert series and organizations offer student discounts, which is very advantageous for students studying in Chicago; for people out of school, it can be worthwhile to sign up for email alerts from various ensembles and performance venues for special discounts on tickets (I typically receive mailings from 25-30 organizations every month about upcoming concerts). In addition to concerts, I seek out a variety of events to attend. Dance, theater, even art exhibits – inspiration can come from anywhere.

3. Make a new connection each month.

Attending events is a fantastic way to expand anyone’s musical horizons, but making connections is equally important – meeting people who might be future collaborators, friends, and supporters of your career. A good challenge to give yourself is to make at least one new connection at every event you attend. Take this a step further than just handing out your business card (which people still do these days): set up a coffee meeting or lunch date. Having quality one-on-one time is where you can find out what interests you each have, and where you might find potential to collaborate on a new project together.

4. Brainstorm projects you wish to explore in the next few years.

It can get very easy to slip into a pattern of writing pieces for commissioners and ensembles that have their own requests and requirements for a new piece, ignoring your own desires of what you want to compose. While these commissions can be very fulfilling and help to pay the bills, it is important to dream up projects that you want to do. Otherwise, you inadvertently run the risk of having your career basically run by others. Every few months, take yourself to a coffee shop, turn off your phone, take out a pen and pad of paper, and brainstorm a list of possible projects you wish to explore. This list can be as general or specific as you like. At the very least, writing a list will help you realize pieces you want to write; at the most, you can get inspired to reach out to your connections and discuss how to bring your idea to life. Either way, when a group approaches you about a possible commission, you’re more apt to be able to propose something back to them that reflects some aspect of your dream list.

5. Make new commissions happen.

One of the main money-making avenues for composers continues to be commission fees. Ideally, a commission offers a composer enough financial support that you can pay your rent, purchase food, etc. without being otherwise employed while you compose the piece. A successful freelance composer is able string enough commissions together to make this lifestyle a viable way to paying their bills. It can take years (or even decades) for composers to reach a point in which he/she can make this a reality, but if you can keep this in mind as your goal, then you’ll be more motivated to seek out commissions.

Commissions can take all sorts of forms – you can apply to organizations like the Fromm and Koussevitzky Music Foundations; the Barlow Endowment and Chamber Music America also have commissioning programs. This route can be very financially rewarding, but typically only a handful of composers are annually awarded these commissions. You can also find individuals or concert presenters to commission a piece on behalf of an ensemble; however, this route is not all that common, and you need to cultivate a strong list of supporters. A more proactive route that you can do yourself is to try your hand at building a consortium commission in which you bring together multiple groups of the same instrumentation to take part in commissioning a particular project; this approach allows all groups to pay less to join the consortium, and you get more performances of your piece (which will ultimately earn you more money in performance royalties). There are some great examples of consortium projects on the web: Benjamin Taylor’s solo saxophone consortium; Roshanne Etezady’s consortium for saxophone and percussion; and wind ensemble consortiums for Daniel Werfelmann, Simon Hutchinson, and Alex Shapiro.

Final Resolutions

Every composer needs to find his/her own path to a fulfilling career. Take a few minutes before midnight on December 31st to write down a few of your own resolutions, and have a happy and productive 2016!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Creating Community Through an Oratorio

From the April 2015 rehearsals of Terra Nostra: Part II
Last weekend, my oratorio Terra Nostra was premiered in its entirety in San Francisco. It has been a long process that started in September 2011 when Robert Geary (the conductor of the San Francisco Choral Society) asked if I were to compose an oratorio, what would it be about? I have gone through many, many stages between that moment in 2011 and the premiere: writing a proposal; awaiting the approval of San Francisco Choral Society’s board to fund the commission; six months searching for texts followed by eight months trying to clear texts under copyright (and then searching for more texts where permission wasn’t granted); composing the musical themes that I’d use throughout the entire oratorio; finishing Parts I and II and hearing their individual premieres in November 2014 and April 2015 respectively, then making rewrites; finishing Part III; and finally hearing the rehearsals and world premiere this past week of the entire 74-minute oratorio.

With soloists Nikolas Nackley, Jennifer Paulino, Joseph
Meyers, Betany Coffland, and maestro Robert Geary
in November 2015 at the premiere of the entire oratorio
Since the San Francisco Choral Society premiered the piece in stages with several months in between each round, I made three separate trips out to San Francisco for rehearsals and performances. I experienced a growing sense of community with each trip. Together, we were bringing something completely new into existence – a project that could only be accomplished by each person playing his/her own particular role. Hillary Clinton famously said that it takes a village to raise a child; I posit that it takes a village to produce an oratorio! There is truly nothing more humbling than seeing 250+ choristers, soloists, and musicians onstage, preparing to rehearse your piece. We were all on this amazing journey together to bring Terra Nostra to life.

A page of "The Want of Peace" from Terra Nostra,
arranged by Chloris Floral 
Many people took part in the entire year-long adventure: maestro Robert Geary, three of the four soloists (soprano Jennifer Paulinomezzo-soprano Betany Coffland, and baritone Nikolas Nackley), and numerous performers from the San Francisco Choral Society, Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, and California Chamber Symphony. I drew much inspiration from this community as a whole, as well as from individuals. Several shared stories with me throughout the process during rehearsals and concerts; some contacted me via Facebook statuses and personal messages with their thoughts on various texts and musical movements. Many of the audience, too, joined us on part or all of our journey. Mezzo-soprano Betany Coffland, who owns Chloris Floral (a flower design studio that uses all locally grown flowers), took inspiration from Terra Nostra a few steps further: first, she framed floral arrangements with a few of the most poignant pages of my music; next, she held a daybreak photo shoot featuring a lovely bouquet of flowers, grasses, and pods held by a woman personifying Mother Earth, which she featured in a Chloris Floral blog post about her Terra Nostra experience.

Photo shoot of Mother Earth by Chloris Floral 
All of this community building and inspiring of each other is important for the arts in general, but in particular for Terra Nostra. The message of the oratorio is for us to realize that we are connected to our planet, and for us to reconsider how we live on its surface, tend to its gardens and forests, and parse out its natural resources. If this oratorio can galvanize audiences to start discussions in their own communities about how we can seek to live in better balance with our planet, then perhaps this can lead to meaningful and lasting change.

There are a few rare moments in a composer’s life when you realize you have created a work that, when performed, deeply touches the minds and hearts of performers and audiences. For me, the premiere of Terra Nostra was one of these beautiful moments, when a strong sense of community flooded the entire hall and gave me hope that perhaps humanity can come together after all and live more harmoniously with terra nostra, our earth.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Composer’s Reading List, Part I

Every now and then, I find it very refreshing to read how other composers go about their craft. What is their process like? How do they make decisions? Does anyone else still use pencil and paper, or have people moved to composing digitally from the start?

In this blog, I explore two fantastic books that I’ve found to be immensely helpful in gaining insights on the processes of other composers; in a later blog, I will explore two more. All four are compendiums of composers covering a wide gamut of styles and approaches, and they are also all relatively recent.

The Muse That Sings: Composers Speak about the Creative Process

Oxford University Press, 2003

Writer Ann McCutchan interviewed twenty-five composers for this book and presented them from oldest (born in 1930) to youngest (born in 1960). The composers she chose are accomplished and eclectic mix, including William Bolcom, John Corigliano, John Harbison, John Adams, Claude Baker, Dan Welcher, Shulamit Ran, Steven Stucky, Libby Larsen, John Zorn, James Mobberley, Richard Danielpour, David Lang, Sebastian Currier, and Aaron Kernis.

Her book stands out to me for two reasons. First, she writes each interview as if it were a monologue written by the composer him- or her-self. Gone is the Q&A format that I’ve read in other composer compendiums, which sometimes comes across as slightly tedious. Instead, it feels as though the composer is speaking directly to the reader, creating an unexpectedly intimate experience. McCutchan has done a remarkable job disappearing into the personality of each composer, leaving the reader to feel like a fly on the wall who is unobtrusively observing the composer at work.

Next, the composers go in-depth as they describe their compositional process. They talk about their organizational practices via note cards and colored file folders; they describe daily rituals and routines they go through to compose; they relate their innermost fears of failing to produce a well-written piece. Also intriguing are the details composers give on specific works they’ve written; for instance, John Corigliano’s description of how he devised ghost music for the opening scene of his opera The Ghosts of Versailles is wonderful food for thought on how to achieve a range of timbres. I’ve used this book in numerous classes for undergraduate composers, as it serves to quickly open their minds to a plethora of compositional methods that the students can explore. This book works particularly well when we follow up our in-class discussion of each composer by studying the works that the composers analyze in their chapters.

Composition in the Digital World: Conversations with 21st-Century American Composers

Oxford University Press, 2015

Raines interviewed twenty-eight composers, whom he divided into four groupings: well-established, up-and-coming, those who came to the U.S. from other countries, and radical innovators. These designations yield an intriguing mixture of composers covering a wide range of aesthetics and approaches. His interviewees include Martin Bresnick, Michael Torke, Jennifer Higdon, David T. Little, Kevin Puts, Mohammed Fairouz, John Anthony Lennon, Chen Yi, Daniel Wohl, Eve Beglarian, Pamela Z, and Eric Whitace. Additionally, he interviewed several of the same composers that McCutchan did, including Michael Daugherty, Steve Reich, Libby Larsen, Aaron Kernis, Joan Tower, Christopher Rouse, and Bright Sheng. As the books are separated by twelve years, the reader gains a deeper understanding of how these particular composers and their composing methods have evolved over the intervening years.

Raines has two main goals for his compendium: first, these are not “academic essays” but rather informal conversations. This allows the discussions to be far-ranging, based on each composer’s unique character. Raines is a composer, which bodes well for his interviewees as well as for the readers. His chapters read like loosely structured, casual conversations between the composers and himself. Topics span from their compositional processes and how they use technology to their views on the declining situation for record companies, as well as how a composer can continue to make a living in a world that is growing accustomed to accessing music for free.

Next, Raines frames the conversations on how the digital age has affected each composer. This covers a wide range of uses for technology from the smallest amount possible to all-encompassing, depending on the composer: only using a computer to send email; having their music on SoundCloud or YouTube; using composer software to notate acoustic pieces; utilizing computer programs to create electronic works; incorporating technology into performance art; creating an online presence; sending scores and recordings electronically to performers; creating MIDI files to help performers learn new works; and so on. As Raines points out, we have all been touched and changed by the advent of digital media. So, how are we, as composers, adapting to it?

Additional Resources

Both books offer additional resources for the reader to explore. McCutchan asked each composer to choose several pieces that they feel are seminal in their output; she lists these works by category (small ensemble, large ensemble, stage, etc.) at the end of each chapter, along with a list of selected recordings. Raines also asked each composer to supply a list of works, although he required each composer to cap their list at twelve pieces; this requirement helped the composers focus on what they each consider to be the most important works in their output. Raines took full advantage of the digital age and asked each composer to supply additional materials for a companion website; each composer has a dedicated chapter that corresponds with the chapter number in Raines’ book. The content of the website ranges from videos and audio files to scores and program notes.

Both books are tremendous resources for composers of any age. I’ve found myself referencing Ann McCutchan’s book many times over the past decade, gaining fresh insights from the composers and questioning my own compositional process by studying the processes of others. I suspect I’ll be doing the same with Robert Raines’ book for many years to come.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Getting Back to My Roots: Adventures in Writing Jewish Music for Chicago a cappella

This month, I am featuring two blog posts that I wrote back in 2006-2007, long before I began My second blog post dates from December 4, 2007; Jonathan Miller, the artistic director of Chicago a cappella, asked if I would write an entry for his column on the (now defunct) website. I had recently written two works for Chicago a cappella, and he wanted me to blog about the composing experience for the pieces. When re-reading the blog post below, I find it ironic that I had pictured the two commissioned pieces to be a set; in the years since their creation, they have not yet been sung together on the same concert, though they are individually enjoying their share of performances. Sometimes, the life of a work doesn’t quite turn out to be what a composer expects!

Cedille Records' CD containing
Chicago a cappella singing
Lo Yisa Goy
An Offer I Couldn’t Refuse. Last spring, Jonathan Miller asked me if I’d accept a commission to write two new religious-themed works for Chicago a cappella’s 2007-08 season. Busy as my composing schedule is these days, I have a distinct weakness for writing choral works and will find a way to squeeze more time out of a day to write them. And who can refuse an opportunity to work with the singers of Chicago a cappella?!

Roots Run Deep. I have only set the texts of Edna St. Vincent Millay for choir up until now, so these two works were a real departure for me (and frankly one that has been long overdue). But even deeper than my obsession with Millay’s sonnets are the roots laid down in my childhood. Raised in a Jewish household, I grew up singing in the synagogue as well as in school choirs. Both singing and Judaism have run in my veins for a long time, and even though I no longer practice Judaism nor sing anywhere except the shower, these are the pillars that have shaped my life. 

How to Spin an Old, Familiar Song (or Two). I had three priorities for writing these two works: 1. Choose songs that had been part of my Jewish past; 2. The two songs could work as a set for future performances (past their respective premieres); and 3. The works needed to show off the tremendous capabilities of Chicago a cappella’s singers. Jonathan and I batted around some text possibilities, and I chose the celebratory Hava Nagila (which gets danced to at weddings and bat/bar mitzvahs), as well as the more somber Lo Yisa Goy (which is a prayer for peace). 

Since both of these are traditional Jewish folksongs, melodies already exist for each. I decided that I’d employ portions of the traditional melodies and surround these with new material. I won’t go into too many details here, but suffice it to say that I was determined to put my own spin on both of these two works. I left the Hava Nagila more or less intact, but added new material at the beginning and middle of the piece. With Lo Yisa Goy, I set the text in both Hebrew and English; just about all of the Hebrew was set using three traditional melodies, while I wrote original music for all of the English. Ultimately, both works provide the audience member with a certain level of familiarity packaged within a new framework.

Chicago a cappella Records'
recording of Hava Nagila
Take it From the Top… There were particular singers I kept in mind while writing – Susan Schober's and Betsy Grizzell’s strong mezzo voices, Trevor Mitchell's and Harold (Hoss) Brock’s amazing upper tenor registers, and Jonathan’s solid low bass notes (I didn’t realize until later that Jonathan was stepping down from his performing role in the group, although I was thrilled to hear Benjamin Rivera’s deep bass voice join the group). So when I attended a rehearsal of each piece prior to their premieres and finally heard the choir singing my pieces out loud, I felt like shouting for joy. Hoss particularly stunned me the first time I heard him sing the opening tenor solo in Lo Yisa Goy – I could put that snippet on my iPod and play it for a week straight. These rehearsals are vital to me because I get to see how the piece fits the group, and where the problem spots are (spots where my choral writing doesn’t work as smoothly as I thought, creating some trouble for the choir). Chicago a cappella’s singers were certainly not shy about bringing up the problem spots in the Hava Nagila, which I greatly appreciate and prefer over a choir that struggles in silence, and we had a most productive session problem-solving these measures.

Surprise, Surprise! Premiere performances are usually emotional roller-coaster rides for me, and I’m betting for the performers as well. At this point, there’s NOTHING a composer can do to help her or his piece – it is all in the hands (or in this case, voices) of the performers. Sometimes, this can be a real nail-biting experience. Thankfully, Chicago a cappella knows their stuff, and I didn’t even need to think about being nervous on their behalf. It also helped that right before they sang the Hava Nagila on their first Days of Awe and Rejoicing concert, Hoss spotted me in the audience and winked, which I took to mean that they’re ready to have fun with it, and they proved so moments later. Nonetheless, you never know how the audience will respond to a new piece. At the beginning of the Hava Nagila, the men sing with a very nasal quality. I thought of this as an interesting tone color following in the footsteps of composers like Gyorgy Ligeti and Luciano Berio. The audience, however, heard this opening as humorous, and their laughter took me completely by surprise. I can see the piece from the audience’s point of view, and it is just as viable as my interpretation. 

With Chicago a cappella in December 2014 after a
performance of Lo Yisa Goy.
The End of the Journey (or is it???) Ultimately, Jonathan Miller and Chicago a cappella are directly responsible for bringing these two pieces into existence. Without Jonathan’s offer of a commission, I never would have thought to set these Jewish folksongs. Composing any piece is a chance to explore some aspect of my life – in this case, my past. This exploration turned out to be a wonderful experience that revived and renewed my old appreciation for the music of Judaism. While this may be the end of my journey in writing these two works, my Hava Nagila and Lo Yisa Goy are now embarking on their own, hopefully long lives through the voices of Chicago a cappella and eventually other choirs. Jonathan, thank you for everything.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Newbie in the Studio: Top 10 Observations of the Recording Process

This month, I am featuring two blog posts that I wrote back in 2006-2007, long before I began My very first blog post dates from Oct. 21, 2006; I was invited by Cedille Records president James Ginsburg to write an entry for his column on the (now defunct) website. I had just experienced my very first recording session. It was with the Biava Quartet; they were recording my second string quartet for Cedille Records. When re-reading the blog post below, I get a kick reading how exuberant I was to be in those recording sessions!  I remember feeling like a kid in a candy store. Honestly, I still feel get a bit of that feeling whenever I step into a recording session. I've added commentary on my earlier thoughts in brackets.

On October 9th and 10th, Jim Ginsburg invited the Biava Quartet and I out to the WFMT studio to record my String Quartet No. 2: Demons and Angels.  This piece is being included on an upcoming CD for Cedille Records. The CD, entitled Composers in the Loft, features five composers who have had works performed on Fredda Hyman’s Music in the Loft chamber series. I have previously had a few works recorded professionally, but I’ve never been able to be present in such a session. For the Biava too (comprised of violinists Austin Hartman and Hyunsu Ko, violist Mary Persin, and cellist Jacob Braun), this professional recording session was a first. Jim asked me to write a blog entry about the recording experience, which I decided to do as a top ten list of my observations. Here they are, in no particular order:

Cedille Records' CD, containing the
Biava Quartet's recording sessions for my
String Quartet No. 2: Demons and Angels
1. Time gobblers. The spots that ate up the most recording time all involved transparent or exposed textures in my music. Unisons, octaves, pizzicati (when two or more people had to perform them simultaneously) all gobbled up seconds. Which increased to minutes. Will this change how I compose in the future? Nope, but I’ll surely look at exposed spots with a new appreciation for the work performers have to pour into these places to make the music shine. [In retrospect, I can say that I did start composing differently after these recording sessions – I was a lot more careful about exposed unisons, octaves, and pizzicati.]

2. Two peas in a pod. Jim Ginsburg and Bill Maylone worked together like a well-oiled machine – easy to tell these two have been doing recording sessions for a long, long time (seeing such expertise at work makes any newbie feel like you’re in good hands). And they also gave my ears a real challenge. What do I mean by this? Read on…

3. Teaching your old ears new tricks, or at least how to listen like a CD producer/engineer. In a live performance, I’m concerned about hearing the big picture – long lines, overall shaping of phrases, etc. But in a recording session, the focus is on vertical listening. Did everyone’s downbeat line up? How’s the tuning in beat 2? Whose bow hit the music stand? Who is breathing loudly? And so on. Stuff I would never even pay attention to in a live performance, since the piece is unfolding linearly, suddenly became ultra-important. Which leads to…

4. The balancing act. The main issue with recording a piece is finding the balance between the work’s overall musical shape and the moment-by-moment accuracy. A process emerged: the Biava would record each movement in a single take. Then they’d join us in the recording booth, and everyone dissected the take while listening to the playback. These full takes helped give Jim and Bill a chance to hear how the Biava shaped the material (in addition, Jim had meticulously studied the entire score beforehand). Then the nitty-gritty work began – the Biava would record each movement in short blocks, sometimes 5-10 times each, before moving onto the next block.  I have to admit to feeling dazed by the end of the process, and I think the Biava shared a bit of the same feeling – we knew everything got recorded, but how will Jim and Bill sift through the assortment of the magical moments and perfect tunings to fit all the short blocks into a cohesive movement with the same mood as what you get in a single take? From what I experienced in the recording booth, as well as from the quality of Cedille’s catalog, Jim and Bill are experts solving this dilemma in a most artistic manner. They’ll find that balance. 
The Biava Quartet

5. The awe-inspiring endurance of 20-somethings. The Biava played each day for about 4 hours total, going over two and a half hours before a lunch break, and without a single request to sit down and rest. By the way, everyone but Jacob stood for the entire recording session – they’re more comfortable performing this way, and it certainly works well for their sound. I’d like to think I had this much energy when I was 25.

6. Who’s the pickiest of them all? No matter how much I thought I, or one of the recording team, was being picky about a pitch or passage, the Biava would step up their self-criticism when something wasn’t to their liking. Didn’t matter how many times they’ve already played a passage, or how tired they might be getting. Austin, Hyunsu, Mary, and Jacob were very, very demanding on themselves. Which definitely made them hungry for…

7. Lunch! Stopping to reload everyone’s energy in the WFMT cafeteria was a must, particularly when the cafeteria stocks tasty double chocolate chip cookies (true on the first day, but not the second).

8. Coffee! Not everyone drank the stuff, but Austin found a machine in the cafeteria which supplied something better than I thought should be coming out of a machine.

9. What a composer can do in the recording booth? At first, I felt a bit useless in the booth – the Biava was exerting tons of energy in the studio, Jim and Bill were busy with the recording machines and taking notes, and all I had to do was listen, score and notepad in hand. It didn’t take long to figure out that’s exactly the best way to be useful for all of us. It certainly helped when I developed some shorthand scribbles to take note of spots that worked well or needed to be touched up. Which leads me to my final item…

10.  Enjoying the moment. Every now and then, I’d take a mental step out of the session and appreciate what was going on – all these people are here because they believe in what I wrote. Pretty amazing. But better not to enjoy the moment for too long, else I’d not be doing the heavy duty listening to keep up with Jim, Bill, and the Biava!

Now that the session is over, Jim and Bill go to work on all those hours of tape. The Biava and I will eagerly await getting CDs in the mail for us all to proof, and which will be a testament to the amazing sessions we had in early October. My most heartfelt thanks go to Jim, Bill, Austin, Hyunsu, Mary, Jacob, for all of their work to bring the piece alive, and of course to Fredda Hyman, for without her series to bring us all together, we never would have all found each other.