Friday, April 24, 2015

4 Tips for New Composition Graduates

Students across the country are getting ready to walk across stages and receive their diplomas. Shortly after, they will enter the first stages of their professional lives. I have four tips to help make the transition from student to professional:

1. Create a web presence.

In our ever-increasing digital age, composers have to establish a web presence. Social media (i.e. Facebook and Twitter) should account for some of your online activities; you can use SoundCloud and YouTube to post audio and video of your pieces. More importantly, however, you must have your own website. People need to be able to navigate to a site where they can listen to your music, browse your list of works, read your biography, and contact you. You might feel like you don’t have too much to put on a website yet, but you can get creative with the content. For instance, have a blog in which you share your musical adventures, post pictures of events you’re attending or of landscapes you find interesting, or list any performing that you’re doing in addition to your composition activities. Stephanie Boyd, Jonathan Hannau, and Ed Frazier Davis are recent students of mine have put together some very nice websites (click on their names to view).

2. Join a performance rights organization.

Getting paid for performances of your music will eventually become an important revenue stream for you, so start registering your pieces now. Performance organizations like ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC collect performance royalties on behalf of composers and send you royalty checks. All three organizations allow you to join as both a composer and as your own publisher, which will earn you twice as much in royalties. As long as you self-publish your works, you will retain the publishing portion of all royalties. Check out all three organizations, learn what their similarities and differences are, and then apply to join the organization that suits you best.

3. Get to know New Music USA and the American Composers Forum.

New Music USA and the American Composers Forum are organizations whose mission is to help composers further their music and careers. Both offer numerous resources and opportunities that are useful for composers. For instance, New Music USA annually awards $1 million in grants for a wide range of projects, from funding concerts, commissioning works, and making CDs to basically anything project that you can imagine. New Music USA also publishes a digital magazine called NewMusicBox that features interviews with composers, articles on topics relevant to our field, and news within the music industry. The American Composers Forum maintains a fantastic list of opportunities that keeps composers up to date on various competitions, grants, and residencies. There is a fee to join the American Composers Forum, but it is worth the price of membership to gain access to their offerings.

4. Kick up your in-person networking.

Last, but certainly not least, in-person networking and building long-term relationships are vital to crafting and maintaining a career. Just as you’re creating a virtual presence, you need to have a live presence too. Challenge yourself to get out to a concert every week or two, and after each concert, shake hands with a few new people before you leave. If you find that you’re drawn to a particular performer or artist, follow up with them after the event, ask them out for coffee (social media is great for connecting with people!), and start brainstorming how you can collaborate together on a future project.

In the beginning stages of your career, no one will be better at selling your music than yourself. So be your own salesperson! The more you let people know who you are and what your music sounds like, the better your chances are at building a lifelong, fulfilling career as a composer.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

CD Editing Sessions: Where the Magic Happens

James Ginsburg, Cedille Records producer,
demonstrates editing techniques.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit in on an editing session with Cedille Records’ producer James Ginsburg and engineer Bill Maylone. The session was a demo being held for Bonnie McGrath and Bruce Oltman, who were the winning bidders of an auction item at Cedille’s benefit gala last fall. Ever since I’ve begun having my works professionally recorded, I have been very curious about the editing stage of the CD-making process. In a typical recording session, musicians will lay down track after track of a section of music, then move on to the next section and repeat this arduous process. Ideally, the musicians will cover every bit of music two or more times in order to provide some choices on which bit to select for the final recording. But sometimes the musicians will, for various reasons, record a segment four to six (or more) times. Which has made me wonder for years – how do producers choose which passages to use, and how do engineers patch it all together?

Jim invited me to attend the editing session since the piece they were demonstrating for Bonnie and Bruce was my String Quartet No. 4: Illuminations, which was recently recorded by the Avalon String Quartet for the record label. Jim and Bill explained the process that they go through with each piece that they record. Jim first listens through all of the recorded audio tracks while studying the score, and starts to make choices of which tracks to use for each passage of music. He aims to find the most effective tracks – which has the best beat alignment, or a particularly effective crescendo, or a beautiful tone, and so on. He marks these tracks onto the musical score, so Bill can see where to make the cuts. Sometimes Jim will tinker with splicing the audio tracks in various spots to see if he can find a pleasing mix; if he finds one, he marks the score to let Bill know the edit has been done.
A page of my String Quartet No. 4: Illuminations,
marked up for edits
Once Bill receives Jim’s score, he goes to work splicing the various audio tracks together. Bill makes these splices meld seamlessly from one into another by fading one track out while another fades in (the length of the fade can be adjusted – this can be very short or more gradual). Volume can also be altered to some degree as well, depending on the microphone placement that Bill has given the performers (for instance, in my piece, particular chords played by the entire quartet can get a little boost). Bill creates a seamless transition from one track to another; when he is happy with the results, he repeats this process with the next edit. Once Bill has finished this process for the entire piece, he and Jim adjust the amount of reverb (or echo) and make other final adjustments before they send the audio track onto the composer and performers for their feedback (at which point, they may have to revisit old tracks and repeat this process again, although hopefully to a much lesser extent).

What became apparent over the course of the editing session is that Jim and Bill are just as much artists as those that they record. The work that they do is so specialized, and they both have developed a very finely honed set of skills. These skills allow them to patch tracks together (sometimes consisting of just a second or two of music!) while retaining the musicians’ nuanced gestures and the overall character of the music. They know their software inside and out (ProTools for recording the tracks, SoundBlade for editing and splicing the tracks together) and can coax these programs to produce beautiful results, much like a violinist shaping a melody. They also have lots of patience and focus. This work is highly repetitive in nature and requires one’s listening skills to remain sharp. Jim and Bill exhibit the same care and patience in the editing process as I have seen them exhibit many times in recording sessions. I was particularly impressed with how well Jim and Bill work together – they are a well-established team that has been together from the very first CD they recorded twenty-five years ago for what would eventually become Cedille Records. Their symbiotic working relationship clearly shows in the quality of the music they produce.

As a composer, getting my works professionally recorded is vital, as this is a way to have a polished and permanent audio representation of my music. My appreciation and respect for what Jim, Bill, and all recording producers and engineers do have greatly deepened after experiencing how detailed, painstaking, and thorough their process is. When Jim and Bill work their magic, they bring out the best from the musicians and recorded tracks, and they make my music shine.

From left to right, Cedille donors Bruce Oltman and Bonnie McGrath,
producer James Ginsburg, and engineer Bill Maylone.