Category Archives: Uncategorized

Fanfare for Three Voices

Fanfare for Three Voices.  Horn, Trombone, Tuba, 2′. For Carolyn Tillstrom’s Senior Recital, Rowan University, premiered 5 Mar 2017 by Martina Smith, horn, Hayden Adams, trombone, Carolyn Tillstrom, tuba.

This is a transcription of movement 6 from Annunciation and Magnificat, a 2016 work for brass quintet and narrator. Carolyn and Hayden are good friends of our daughter Martina. Carolyn asked me if I had anything for brass trio she could program on her senior tuba recital, and as I couldn’t recall that I had, I was able to work this movement into a kind of loudly lyrical fanfare.

Click on the page for the entire score; below is a MIDI recording until a live one is available:

FanfareThreeVoices p2.jpg

The Bremen Town Musicians Show Up in Spain

BremenStatueI’m delighted to relate that The Bremen Town Musicians had their Spanish premiere! Thanks to David Yang for spreading the word about this 10-minute children’s piece, which tells the old folk tale of animals giving some criminals their due.

On October 30th, 2015 the performance took place at the American School of Music in Lisbon. Helen Jenkins was the narrator, the violinist was Elena Rojas Crocker, and the cellist was Viana Moreira.

I hear that there was rapt attention from the kids, and as a class project, drawings of the story were projected during the performance. Thanks, everyone!

And from Dawn McKillop and her Elementary School Art Club there, this fantastic Power Point magic carpet ride through the story with their pictures!

The Bremen Town Musicians images

Melody and Myth

[First published in Broad Street Review, 27 Oct 2015.]


Feral rooster on Kauai (jaybergesen via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

The sound a rooster makes is the sound a basement door makes when it is earnestly trying to open, and the sound a car makes when it is vainly trying to stop, just before the crash. It is jackals at night. It is the soul abandoning all hope as it enters in, it is Goofy tobogganing recklessly down the Alps, it is Pentheus being rent limb from limb by the Bacchanals — it is all these and more, but since there is now a rooster living near us, I can tell you with precision that the one sound a rooster does not make is “Cock-a-doodle-doo.”

Another myth is that the rooster is the herald of the dawn. Oh, he announces 3am and calls our attention to 4am, and is pleased to let us know when it is 7:13am; he sends out alerts an hour before noon and 47 minutes after midnight and every blessèd time in between. He may even crow at dawn, truth be told, but as the cry is only one among a series of updates, dawn has long since been emptied of meaning: the message is not “Here is dawn,” but “Here is a rooster.”

We live under myths. I was taught in grade school that people feared Columbus would fall off the edge of the earth. I was taught in college that music has three parts: rhythm, melody, harmony. But no people ever believed that the world was flat (least of all people with boats and oceans; “flat-earthers” were a fiction invented in the 19th century), and music has only one part.

That part is melody. It is melody first, melody last, and only melody.

Yeah, but . . .

Some say that rhythm, the segmenting of time into smaller bits of time, is a part. But we always experience time as bits of time. Bits of time are not music. Some say that harmony is a part, but harmony is just two tunes, or tunes layered, or tunes echoed. Rhythm is a tune tapping its foot, and harmony is a tune stroking its chin.

Then there’s what some call melody, which is what I call the tune:

This is the opening of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. It is the top line, so is easily heard, and it is good and beautiful, so is easily recognized. Here it is, below, with another voice added (actually, the accompaniment boiled down to one voice):

The top line by itself is recognizable as the Barber, and the bottom line by itself probably isn’t, but it doesn’t change the fact that we experience and remember all of this — and more — as the Adagio.

Attention to detail

Tune, rhythm, and harmony are indeed parts of music, but they are not the parts. They also have sub-parts. The top line has its own rhythm; we could divide those black notes into groups of four, two, three, or a mix. The bottom line is an exquisite voyage of durations, just as much in rhythmic counterpoint with the top as it is in harmony (waiting for that third arrow to land is one of Barber’s genius moments). The best music has this attention to detail in bottom and middle lines just as much as in the tune.

But there are even more parts than tune, rhythm, harmony. There are high and low, loud and soft, and instrument choice, for example. Meter itself (the 4/2 at the beginning of the examples) is more than an instruction, it’s a silent beat that’s as much a part of the music as what we hear. Then there’s the psychic counterpoint of what we hear against what we remember having heard, against what we are expecting to hear. There are phrases, breaths, movements, time-outs.

All of these together, and more, are the Adagio, and all together they are more than parts. They become one overarchingmelody that drives the tune, the rhythm, the harmony, and everything else.

The ultimate source

The fact is, the deeper we hear, the more parts we find. The parts either drive the music forward (which is what good music does) or stop it (which is what bad music does). Whether it’s Barber or “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or Milton Babbitt, all the innumerable parts — including main tune (wherever it is), rhythms (micro- and macro-), sublimated or attenuated tunes (harmonies), textures, memories, colors, expectations — all flow from the grand melody.

All the parts are one melody. Composers construct them together as one melody and guide our attention by one melody. Our ears hear from top to bottom to arrow to middle to back again. That path is the melody beckoning and beguiling us and carrying all the parts as one. Music is the art of sound moving through time. Melody is what drives it.

River and flow

If it seems that I’m equating music with melody, I suppose you could say that, with only the difference that music is the thing and melody is the drive. There is no edge between melody and another part; melody is the only part. There is the river, and there is the flow. There is the ocean, in fact, and composers always knew that while they could bump into land and stop, they would never fall off the edge of the world, because there is no edge. “Here is a rooster,” says the rooster, and the rooster keeps no time, as I have found. Dawn or no, there is just the rooster.

The Last Theme You’d Expect for This Movie


Robert De Niro, The Deer Hunter

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk 26 Oct 2015.]

It’s an unlikely choice of music for this movie, but WRTI’s Kile Smith looks at how The Deer Hunter theme came into existence, and why it still haunts us almost 40 years later.

The violence in this Vietnam War film is noteworthy even among war films, and is controversial for a depiction of something no one has said they have ever witnessed: a scene where North Vietnamese soldiers force prisoners to play Russian roulette.

But traversing the worlds from a hard-scrabble Pennsylvania town and its surrounding mountains to the jungles and urban warrens of Southeast Asia, The Deer Hunter is, to many, one of the greatest movies ever made.

Its theme music, however, is about the last thing you’d expect.

English film composer Stanley Myers scored The Walking Stick in 1970, and guitarist John Williams convinced him to work up one bit of it for him. That tune, called Cavatina, became, in 1978, The Deer Hunter theme.

It is as piercing now as it was in the years following the war. Set against type, set against the struggle of brutality, incomprehension, loss, and inklings of love, it is a bittersweet plea of longing. It is also, somehow, comforting.

Stanley Myers wrote music for more than 70 films. His theme to The Deer Hunter is an astonishing moment of cinematic brilliance.





[First published in Broad Street Review, 15 Sep 2015.]


(Creative Commons/

We’re now in September, or as the Germans call it, Oktoberfest. No, they don’t, really, but Oktoberfest ends on the first Sunday of October and begins two weeks earlier, so most of the festival named for October resides in September. I’m sure there’s a good reason for that. Germans always have good reasons; they’re serious about dates; they’re serious about parties.

For instance, they never say “Happy Birthday” before the actual day, ever. They also don’t bring a birthday card. If you’re there, and they’re there, what’s the point of a card? I once asked a German friend if he gave a birthday card to his American wife. “Yes, yes,” he sighed, but leaning forward and raising his index finger he said, “but my heart is not in it.”

Being back from Germany last month reminds me of this and reminds me that there are three types of traveler, which, I’ve discovered, matches exactly three types of composer.

The first traveler doesn’t like anything anywhere else. You wonder why they travel, because whether it’s beds or restaurants, it’s just not right. Food is weird, service is slow, castles are smaller than the pictures, bathrooms are different.

Composers of the first type don’t like any other music but what is already comfortable. Other music is too intellectual or not intellectual enough. Exoticism is show, populism is vulgar, fast is lightweight, slow is morbid. Such composers write music of medium speed and medium volume. It doesn’t fall apart, and it doesn’t explode.

It’s better over there

The second kind of traveler doesn’t like anything here. Mountains, cathedrals, rivers, and roads are all better over there, so you wonder why they don’t just stay there. Foreigners solved problems Americans never figured out (like how to keep roads clean) and they’re more relaxed.

The second composer type is never happier but when discovering a musical technique no one else (or no one close by) has. It usually involves numbers or systems or a new way of performing, but it has to be faster or slower or wilder. It is usually unexplainable. Such composers then insist on explaining it.

I know these types because I have been both types. I’ve been trying for some time, however, to be the third type of composer, which is also the third type of traveler, which is None of the Above.

The meaning of potato salad

With traveling, look at it this way. Germany invented Oktoberfest and knows when to celebrate it, but America is festooned with Oktoberfests from Labor Day to November. Oktoberfest here means parades and events and dignitaries, every one of which is stuffed (the Oktoberfest, that is) with beer and sausages and sauerkraut and German potato salad.

German potato salad reveals the wisdom of None of the Above. You may not like German potato salad (but if there’s bacon in it, you really can’t be serious), but there’s a deeper truth, which is that Germans don’t like it, either. Well, Germans do like German potato salad, but only their German potato salad. They don’t like anyone else’s German potato salad. It’s the barbecue ribs of Germany: Everybody knows how to make it, and everybody else is wrong.

And the Autobahn

Then there’s the Autobahn. It’s not true that it has no speed limit. There are speed limits all over: 50 and 70 and 130 kmh and To Infinity and Beyond. It’s confusing, since the speeds are not mph, and also because of relentless signage such as Strasse Schämen, which means, as best as I can tell, “We are ashamed of the road you are about to see,” but it’s just as immaculate as every other square inch of road in Germany.

In any case I’ve worked out the kilometer math for you. Keep in mind that a kilometer is five-eighths of a mile. In no-speed-limit zones, you should go at least 150 kmh, so that means 100 times 5 = 500, and 50 times 5 = 250. That’s 750. Then subtract the 8, which makes it 742 miles per hour.

So, including the requisite stop for coffee and cake, Germans can get from the North Sea to Switzerland in about 23 minutes. Which is why Switzerland built a big wall called the Alps. So you see, the Autobahn is better but not better at the same time, because for one thing you can’t see the country at that speed, and for another, nobody likes crashing into the Alps. So it’s better just to let me drive.

And yoga

At home, at Oktoberfests at the Canstatter in Northeast Philly or the Vereinigung Erzgebirge in Warminster or the Steuben Day Parade in Fox Chase or New York, you’ll see women in Pauli-Girl dresses and 17- and 77-year-old men in little hats with feathers. Men in leather pants stomp and slap their feet and thighs and spin women around in the traditional Schuhplattler, which is German for “yoga.”

Here or abroad, at the Munich Hofbräuhaus or in Northeast Philadelphia, be None of the Above. You’ll sit at long tables and talk to people you never knew before, even if you see them all the time. You’ll meet a white-haired saxophonist with a thick German accent who learned to play jazz in Trenton in 1943 — yes (after a double-take) in 1943 — when he was a prisoner of war, playing for U.S.O. dances. You’ll learn a better way to make potato salad or a better way to plant potatoes; you’ll figure out, after five minutes with five Germans, the word for “groundhog”; you’ll meet someone who built the Walt Whitman Bridge. Somebody’s cousin turns out to be hilarious. You’ll do that yell they do during German yoga.

You’ll sing songs you never heard before.

And that, for composers, is the point. As a None of the Above, your eyes and ears are always open; both the different and the same will surprise you.

Four hours or four days later you’ll come home from a park or another country and say it was the best time you ever had.

Vespers at Northwestern

January 24, 2015, Millar Chapel, Northwestern University, Evanston (Institute for New Music)
January 25, 2015, St. James Cathedral, Chicago (Presented in collaboration with the Evelyn Dunbar Early Music Festival)
Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble and Piffaro, The Renaissance Band, Donald Nally conducting

'Twas the night before Christmas


Santa Claus, William Holbrook Beard, 1861

Narrating tonight, on stage with the fine and quite busy Delaware Valley Wind Symphony, The Night Before Christmas by Randol Alan Bass. I’m having way too much fun with this Clement Clarke Moore poem.

It’s at the Charles Boehm Middle School, 866 Big Oak Road in Yardley, Pa. Jerry Nowak conducts. If you’re in the area and have a free night, stir yourself over at 7 pm for visions of sugarplums!