Elusive Dreams on Now Is the Time

SpratlanApolloDaphneIt’s all whispers and shadows on Now Is the Time, Saturday, February 28th at 9 pm. Deliciously riffing on Shakespeare takes us to where comedy, tears, and romance meet, in Daron Hagen’s Much Ado for orchestra. JG Thirlwell produces sweeping cinematic drama in his Brooklyn studio with 10 Ton Shadow, and the glorious sounds of Chanticleer revolve William Byrd around Walt Whitman’s “Whispers of Heavenly Death” in Whispers by Steven Stucky.

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project performs Lewis Spratlan’s Apollo and Daphne Variations, an extensive metamorphosis on the myth of change to escape predation. Carleton Macy closes the program with Elusive Dreams for saxophone quartet.

from JG Thirlwell: 10 Ton Shadow 

PROGRAM:
Daron Hagen: Much Ado
JG Thirlwell: 10 Ton Shadow
Steven Stucky: Whispers
Lewis Spratlan: Apollo and Daphne Variations
Carleton Macy: Elusive Dreams

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith hosts Now Is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI’s all-classical stream. Just go to wrti.org and click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. In the Philadelphia area with an HD radio? Dial us up at 90.1 FM-HD2, or find all the frequencies here, from the Jersey Shore to the Poconos to Harrisburg to Delaware. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

Preview Party, In This Blue Room

ComeFestively

Come Festively, by Laura Pritchard

What a great night at the preview party for In This Blue Room last night! Lyric Fest held it at the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) in Center City Philadelphia, and the co-directors performed: mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis sang four of the songs, accompanied by pianist Laura Ward.

A special treat for me was meeting two of the four poets for the first time. Julia Blumenreich and Donna Wolf-Palacio were there, and read their poems that Suzanne sang. I spoke some, Lisa Schaffer photographed, and John Thornton videographed.

Questions flew back and forth before and after the preview performance, and it was wonderful to see old friends and make new ones.

More rehearsals for now, and the premiere performances are Friday March 13th at 7:30 pm at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, and Sunday March 15th at 3 pm at AVA.

In This Blue Room is a song cycle commissioned by Lyric Fest, on poems by Julia Blumenreich, Susan Fleshman, Siobhan Lyons, and Donna Wolf-Palacio, which were based on the batik artwork of Laura Pritchard. The 17 songs were composed by Kile Smith in 2015 for mezzo-soprano, baritone, and piano. It premiered 13 and 15 March 2015 with Suzanne DuPlantis, Daniel Teadt, and Laura Ward.

Notes for In This Blue Room: Part 1 (Songs 1, 6, 11, 17)

56

56, by Laura Pritchard

Out of all the poems to be considered for this cycle, out of all the lines, out of all the words, “Watermelon eyes” by Siobhan Lyons jumped out at me first, and became the piece for me. I don’t really know what “watermelon eyes” means, I don’t really know what a lot of the words mean, and I suppose that’s the point. You get an impression from the poems, an impression from the paintings, and “watermelon eyes” impressed me.

I heard a woman’s low voice, like Sarah Vaughan’s, singing those words, kind of scooching and dragging into each note. I heard quarter-note triplets, lazy triplets, three notes in the time of two. It was swing rhythm that came in and took over, which is (more or less) triplets. And that’s when I decided that the whole cycle would come out of jazz, out of swing and blues. The color blue and similar colors are all over these poems because they’re so prominent in Laura’s artwork, and the character of the poems supported a jazz sound-world, I thought.

And the more I thought about it, the more fun it became, as all these songs from my childhood came rushing in as I read the poems over and over. I was raised on the jazz records my parents had; growing up, I kept switching between the top-40 rock everyone my age was listening to, and jazz. I didn’t get into classical music until much later, really until I was 17 or so, so I came to composition and “serious” or “concert” music relatively late, compared with other classical musicians.

I first thought of using the conceit of the promenade—exactly as Mussorgsky does in Pictures at an Exhibition—throughout the cycle, of having piano music be the promenade between songs. When I started composing “Watermelon eyes” I began it with these trodding bass notes, like someone walking through a gallery, looking at the paintings. I thought it would be the promenade, but it took on a life of its own as the beginning to this one song.

So I left it alone, and thought that I could use this one song a few times, and thought, since two poems were based on this one painting, 56, that I could combine them into one song. And so I wrote the duet first, which is now #11, “Like lost beads / Watermelon eyes,” with the idea that it could be a duet, and also broken into a mezzo solo and a baritone solo. Their parts, and the piano part, are exactly the same each time they come around. The trick was to have them not only fit together but also work separately, and, of course, interesting enough so that you could stand listening to them over and over.

The mezzo solo, therefore, is #1 and begins Part 1, the baritone solo is #6 and begins Part 2, and then the duet, which I composed first, begins Part 3 as song #11.

Diaries

Diaries, by Laura Pritchard

I didn’t intend to at first, but I ended up using this all a fourth time, as the finale, when I worked a third poem, “Diary 3,” into it. I knew I was going to finish with “Diary 3″ and that it was going to be a duet, but when I got to the end I thought about seeing if I could fit it in to the first duet, and if I could stand hearing the music a fourth time. So I tried it, and I liked it. Some of “Diary 3″ fits in at the beginning, during the “promenade” music, and then I extended the duet at the end with new music for the rest of it.

For the very last bars, I repeat part of the promenade music, but bumped into a different mode. The original is E dorian, a minor-sounding mode but with a major sixth. I just love dorian. It has such an open-mouthed, ah-ha expectation about it. (There’s a Kyrie I grew up with which always gave me a thrill at the singing of “for this holy house,” and “house” goes up to this unexpected but perfectly right note, and I didn’t realize until much later that it’s the dorian’s raised sixth.)

In these last measures I take the music up a third from E to G, but instead of a regular transposition I keep the accidentals exactly where they are, so that E dorian becomes G lydian: a major-sounding mode, but with the fourth raised. Lydian is a strange mode, peaceful but untamed. (The Psalm 113 from my Vespers, which is, from what they tell me, the favorite movement of a lot of people, is in lydian.) It’s just major, but with that wild tritone of the raised fourth that keeps you back on your heels. In G major, you just raise the C to a C-sharp, and toddle off. That seemed like a good way to end the cycle.

WatermelonEyesExcerpt

1. Watermelon eyes (Siobhan Lyons, based on 56 by Laura Pritchard). Mezzo-Soprano
Watermelon eyes
Point Point-planting pupil seeds
Gravity babies

6. Like lost beads (Donna Wolf-Palacio, 56). Baritone
Like lost beads
of a broken necklace,
images gather
in the corner
and unroll like film.
In this blue room
shadows swallow
woven light
in a storm of straw
and slant
as if retrieval
were still possible.

11. Like lost beads / Watermelon eyes. Duet

17. Diary 3 / Watermelon eyes / Like lost beads (“Diary 3,” Siobhan Lyons, Diaries, “Like lost beads,” Donna Wolf-Palacio, 56, “Watermelon eyes,” Siobhan Lyons, 56). Duet
Gather all the doodads from the junk drawer.
list your favorite tears,
the best laughs.

We’ll multiply everything by two
and flip faces for pairs.

Do memories mean
we’re a match?

You’re obsessed with flipping
the same hurtful square
You’re obsessed with flipping
the same hurtful square—

We want answers,
at least alignment.

In This Blue Room is a 45-minute song cycle commissioned by Lyric Fest, on poems by Julia Blumenreich, Susan Fleshman, Siobhan Lyons, and Donna Wolf-Palacio, which were based on the batik artwork of Laura Pritchard. The 17 songs were composed by Kile Smith in 2015 for mezzo-soprano, baritone, and piano. It premiered 13 and 15 March 2015 with Suzanne DuPlantis, Daniel Teadt, and Laura Ward.

Many Times on Now Is the Time

AnciaSaxQtet

Ancia Saxophone Quartet

Everything’s numbered on Now Is the Time, Saturday, February 21st at 9 pm. Rudy Davenport comes up with Seven Innocent Dances for harpsichord, and for piano are the Bagatelles of Paul Chihara, subtitled Twice Seven Haiku.

The Ancia Saxophone Quartet performs David Bixler’s Heptagon, and Joel Chadabe electronically modifies the playing of Esther Lamneck on the tarógató, the Hungarian single-reed instrument related to the saxophone, in Many Times Esther. Lucas Ligeti writes about three places he’s visited in Triangulation, for the electronic percussion instrument called marimba lumina.

from David Bixler: Heptagon 

PROGRAM:
Rudy Davenport: Seven Innocent Dances
Paul Chihara: Bagatelles (Twice Seven Haiku for Piano)
David Bixler: Heptagon
Joel Chadabe: Many Times Esther
Lucas Ligeti: Triangulation

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith hosts Now Is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI’s all-classical stream. Just go to wrti.org and click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. In the Philadelphia area with an HD radio? Dial us up at 90.1 FM-HD2, or find all the frequencies here, from the Jersey Shore to the Poconos to Harrisburg to Delaware. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

Donald Nally, The Crossing, Articulate on WHYY

Tonight’s episode of the new program by Jim Cotter, Articulate, airs 10:30 pm on WHYY-TV in Philadelphia, with an extensive interview with Donald Nally, conductor and co-founder of The Crossing, the amazing new-music choir. There are also segments on cellist Tessa Seymour and Stanford Thompson, who founded Play on Philly! and is its artistic director.

Jim pulled some thoughts from me in an interview about Donald and The Crossing, and you get to hear excerpts of exquisite music by Robert Maggio and others in the course of the show. This is a fascinating look at Donald Nally, a brilliant artist.

Tune in by TV or catch the show online here.

It will air on WHYY:

  • Thursday, 2/19 at 10:30 pm (Tonight!)
  • Sunday, 2/22 at 1 pm
  • Thursday, 4/16 at 10:30 pm
  • Sunday, 4/19 at 1 pm

How to Have a Composing Career in 10 Easy Steps

[First published in the Broad Street Review, 20 Jan 2014]

BeethovenIf you haven’t seen the article on how to write a symphony, you should check it out, because it’s filled with incisive advice like “Be inspired,” and “Eventually each theme will become a decently long movement.” This got me to thinking about something bigger than a symphony or even composing itself. How, you’ve probably already wondered, can you have a composing career?

Well, it turns out I’ve been asked that once or twice, and while my plan is to solve that in about 50 years, in the meantime I thought I’d let you in on what I’ve already discovered. I believe that if you follow these steps, you’ll no doubt—but I’m getting ahead of myself.

1. It’s All About You

Your vision as a composer is the most important thing for you to remember. Consequently, it’s the most important thing for everyone else to remember, so keep telling them. Your life as a composer, and the act of composing itself, is incredibly exciting. Be sure to talk about it whenever you can. Everyone will thank you for it, inwardly, because the lives of non-composers are by nature dull when compared to yours.

2. Have Opinions, Lots of Opinions

People admire strength, and there’s no better way to gain admiration than to have strong opinions. So take every chance you get not only to have an opinion, but—and this is the important point—to let it be known. It can be about anything, but politics and religion are good choices. It’s best to be outspoken about something you’re pretty sure they already agree with, though.

3. Wait for Your Chance

If only the big orchestras would commission you, you’d show them. Don’t waste your time writing for friends or small groups or amateurs. You’re meant for better things. Bide your time.

4. Know the Ranges of the Musicians You’re Writing For

Singers, especially, love it when you ask them what their highest note is and what their lowest is. Sure, they can sing lots of other notes in between, but anybody can write for those. Show them that you’re no average schmo.

5. Deadlines Are for Chumps

The piece will be ready when you say it’s ready. You can’t put genius on a clock.

6. The Basses Are Never Loud Enough

You know how your piece in real life is never as punchy in the bass register as it is on your computer software with headphones? I know, right? It’s the players’ fault. Listen, you’re the composer, and you’re in charge. So make it louder by adding fs; turn every forte (f) into a fortissimo (ff), and so on. You might want to put accents (>) over every note. If that doesn’t work, make them the accents that stand up like party hats (^). Those are good. Or add a line under the accent. Or a dot. Or a line and a dot, or even better, make up your own, which shows ingenuity, and as we all know, the root of ingenuity is genius, and the root of genius…is u. The main thing is to make it sound like what you hear at home, so don’t change your music, just keep adding fs or accents. If that doesn’t help, then. . .

7. If You Hear Something Wrong, Tell Them

In rehearsal, the players will turn to you at some point and ask you what you think. This is your chance to get their respect! Start by pointing out mistakes. Disregard bourgeois concepts of “technique.” A violinist who repeatedly can’t play your finely crafted septuplets is not to be coddled because didn’t Beethoven say that he didn’t care about somebody who couldn’t play something, once? So why should you? If you can’t model yourself after a great composer like Beethoven, you shouldn’t be in this business. If it sounds good, then remember your self-respect and say there are “balance” or “intonation” issues—if they ask where, just say “in general”—and remember…

8. Nice Guys Finish Last

Music history is filled with stories of great and grumpy composers like Beethoven. Brahms loved to insult people, it seemed, just to see how they would react. Bach had a sword fight with a bassoonist. David Diamond, having no sword or bassoonist handy, punched a conductor in the nose, or in the Russian Tea Room. So the thing to do, if you can’t yet aspire to their talent, is to imitate their bad habits.

9. You Wuz Robbed

To help you get in the right frame of mind, remember that there’s a conspiracy against you. You know that prize you didn’t win? You think they didn’t recognize your genius? No. Way. They owed the person who won, and they’re all friends anyway. A great sadness for Brahms was that he never could get that job as director of the orchestra in Hamburg, his hometown. There he was in Vienna, with everybody loving his lullabies and his decently long movements, but he was bitter at not being asked to conduct Hamburg. Be bitter like Brahms; you know the fix is in.

10. Trash-Talk Other Composers

If you’re not as high on the ladder as you’d like to be, the next best thing is to pull other composers down. They don’t deserve to be that high anyway. You’ll deserve it, when you get there, but they only got there because they went to the right school or knew the right people. It’s not because they worked hard for years, creating a long list of works that musicians like to, you know, play, and that audiences like to, you know, listen to.

So there you have it. If you’re a composer, or would like to become one, just follow these steps, and I’ll be content, knowing I’ve done my part to make life easier for at least one composer.

Music and Killing

[First published in the Broad Street Review, 10 Feb 2014]

GuitarHands“I don’t play guitar anymore. Too much killing.”

My rule for cab drivers and barbers is, if they don’t talk, I don’t, but if they do, I do. My cab driver was taking me to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, after a week of rehearsals and performances of Vespers at Northwestern University. The week before, my driver from the airport to Northwestern had come to Chicago from Ethiopia by way of Minnesota and was a carpenter, electrician, roofer, house-flipper, and Lutheran. The cabbie back to the airport was just as interesting, and talkative.

He asked me what I had been in town for. I told him about the concerts; he told me he played guitar. When I asked if he was in a band, that’s when he said that he had been, but he got out because of the killing. I thought he meant killing in general, like that the world was a hard place, so I said something about wondering if playing music makes any difference. But he corrected me.

I see too much, so I get out

“No, no. They shoot our bass player. Kill him. People get jealous, get mean, you know. Not just him. I see many shootings, hear gunfire.” “Where was this?” “Here, Chicago. Sout’ Side. Bad…mmm, lots of playing, but very bad, I see too much, so I get out.”

He had an accent I couldn’t place. “Are you from here?”

“I move here long time ago. Forty years.”

“You only look 40,” I said.

“Ha!” He laughed and looked at me in the rearview. “I know. People tell me. But I have a son, 39! Ha!”

“So you don’t play at all anymore?”

“Oh sure, but only for my wife, you know, maybe some friends. No more the bars, the clubs, where people get jealous, where the money is too…quick. You know. So you write music? I write songs, too. I have some with me.”

While he talked, he fumbled in the console next to his seat and pulled out a cassette tape. “You must play that for me,” I said. “Really? You’re just being nice. We’re almost at the airport, 10 minutes.”

“No. You have to. I want to hear the music you play for your wife.”

An angel in the sky

The radio had a cassette slot, so he put in the tape, forwarded, checked, forwarded again, and found what he wanted. “This I wrote when Whitney Houston died. So sad. I call this ‘Whitney.’” He shrugged and smiled at me. It was guitar, just guitar and him singing. “Whitney…oh, Whitney…you’re an angel in the sky….” He sang in the cab along with himself on the tape.

The guitar had a warm, deep blue sound, the sound that 55-gallon drums make when they jostle, empty, on a skid. Three or four low notes bumped and revolved around themselves. Rhythmic slaps, ga-chungah, fell into place; melodic fragments—not melody, but Amen commentaries to his voice—circled sweetly and nodded. It was a chocolate sound, the sound of bamboo. It was good. It was quite good. “Whitney, oh Whitney, yass, yass…,” he half-sang, half-prayed, and in the middle, another language. Before I could ask, he said, “I even sing in p’twah, you know, crihl.” Patois, creole. That was the accent. “Yah, crihl,” he smiled, “I mix it in, you know, that’s me.”

When I started my cello concerto, the Ferguson shooting and other tragedies were just then tumbling headlong after each other. The concerto premiered two weeks ago in Helena, Montana, but months ago when I began to compose it, the news, for days on end, was uproar. Anger and opinions flew, and there I was, wondering how to begin a cello concerto, wondering if I should have an opinion, wondering how a composer reacts, wondering how anyone reacts at such times.

The Beatitudes

Unbidden, “Blessed are the peacemakers” came to mind. Of all the things that came into my mind, this, I thought, was the best. I don’t know what I was looking for, but “Blessed are the peacemakers,” I thought, was good. I began to think about a piece of music that could be draped on the Beatitudes, the beginning of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, the start of which, in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, states, “And seeing the multitudes.” That would make a good title, I thought, for the cello concerto.

I’ve never seen a shooting. Outside of funerals, I’ve seen three dead people, all of whom—one young, one middle-aged, one old—died from natural causes. So I don’t know how one ought to react to a Ferguson shooting, and I try very hard—I’ve spent my life learning how—not to have opinions about things of which I’m ignorant. So: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…those who mourn…the meek…those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…the merciful…the pure in heart…the peacemakers…those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…,” I thought, was the best I could do.

I still write, after the killings, and after the killings my cab driver still plays the guitar. He gave it up but he still plays, and he still sings. We do the best we can do, my composing brother and I, and the money is not, you know, too quick, but maybe a cello can play a concerto in Montana and maybe Whitney is an angel in the sky.