Category Archives: essays & articles

Peter Stanley Martin interview

On 30 April 2009, my friend, conductor Peter Stanley Martin, recorded and transcribed an interview with me. A version of this interview was published in the Journal of the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles, Volume 16 – 2009, Dr. William Berz, editor.

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Peter Stanley Martin: So, let’s just start from the beginning, so you were born in 1972 where and was anyone in your family a musician?

Jonathan Newman: I was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, which is in northeastern Pennsylvania, and no, in my immediate family I was the only musician. There has been sort of an exhaustive search of all areas of both sides of the family to find the musicians. Ones that sort of came to like music and treated it as an important thing and a few have been found, but nothing…there’s no direct line of musicians. My mom played music and played the piano and we had a piano in the home but other than that, I am the one that demanded lessons. All the music activities that happened throughout schooling, my parents were very, very supportive, probably a little baffled, but I enjoyed it.

PSM: And how many siblings do you have?

JN: I have an older brother, that’s it.

PSM: In high school did you automatically have an interest in music and, if so, what instruments did you play?

JN: Yes! In high school I did everything: I sang in chorus, I played piano, and I was quite serious about playing trombone in orchestra, in the bands, and in jazz bands. I was very into jazz in high school. The first theory I learned was jazz theory. Music camps in the summer and even high school I started writing.

PSM: What type of music were you writing in high school?

JN: Well I don’t know what “type.” Juvenile I would say. I would write things for my band to play. I remember I wrote a trombone quartet that I was playing with my trombone friends to play at regional bands, that kind of thing. I would write things for my chorus to sing. The stuff that I was in, it wasn’t much. We’re talking about a handful of pieces that actually happened over the course of four years, and really only three because you know as a freshman you’re too busy with your head in a locker, but it was enough that I actually had a small portfolio when I applied to college. I was pretty focused pretty early on.

PSM: Well clearly. You have a nice segue here because you have your bachelor’s degree from Boston University where you studied with Richard Cornell and Charles Fussell.

JN: Oh right, you know Charlie Fussell!

PSM: Yes, I know Charlie! He’s a fantastic person and composer. What made you decide to go to Boston University? Were you going there to study with those people?

JN: I also studied with Bob Sirota who is now the President of Manhattan School of Music.

PSM: Okay.

JN: How did I choose BU? I wanted to be in a city and the music school there was one of the better options for that within the certain parameters that my parents had set. You know I couldn’t move to LA. So, I loved Boston. It was a good fit. If I remember correctly it was a choice between Oberlin and BU. I didn’t want to be in the middle of a field in Ohio.

PSM: And that is not slighting Oberlin’s music program, it’s just a personal choice right?

JN: No, Oberlin is great, but there is nothing to do in Oberlin, Ohio except study.

PSM: Do you remember the small portfolio that you had sent to Boston? Was it this trombone quartet and choir piece?

JN: Yeah. I’m sure I sent the trombone piece, which if I remember correctly, was about the tearing down of the Berlin Wall which dates me. I’m sure that I also sent the choral work that I had written for our graduation ceremony.

PSM: So now you did your time at Boston and you’re going to The Juilliard School for your masters where you get to study with David Del Tredici and John Corigliano. Was there a ‘big city’ influence that made you want to go from Boston to New York or was it reputation of Juilliard.

JN: It was things that I had done and people that I had met over the course of living in Boston. Juilliard started because of Aspen. The first time I went to the Aspen Music Festival was 1993 as a junior. I think I had just finished my junior year. And Aspen, as you know, is sort of like “Juilliard West.” The faculty is all Juilliard; the students basically move out there and play in the orchestra, and much of the staff. So I had started to meet the faculty and a lot of the other students who were Juilliard students, I liked them, I was rooming with them there and so then it sort of became an option when I was looking at schools and I was looking at people I wanted to study with. I would come into New York sometimes when I was in Boston for a day trip with some friends. By the end of my time in Boston I was pretty excited and focused that I wanted to go to grad school in New York. I even applied to CUNY as well. I didn’t get in.

PSM: But you got into Juilliard?

JN: Yeah. I didn’t get in to CUNY. I got my rejection letter – the first rejection letter. I got into MSM. The choice was between Juilliard and MSM. I also got rejected from Michigan. I didn’t even get in the door. I didn’t even get an interview.

PSM: Wow! You said you’ve been a composition student at the Aspen Music Festival, but weren’t you also at Tanglewood for at least one session?

JN: Yea, well not as a fellow, but as a kid.

PSM: As a kid?

JN: I went to Tanglewood in the summer of 1990. BU runs a summer program for high school-aged kids. I did that and was in the composition class with other high school kids. That composition class, by the way, has a lot of people, I think most of them are professional composers now.

PSM: In the ‘kid’ session?

JN: Yea, in that class in 1990 Roshanne Etezady was in that class. She is at Arizona State doing great. She just had a piece played at the recent CBDNA conference. A fantastic composer and a great person. Dalit Warshaw that I ended up going to Juilliard with and now she teaches at Boston Conservatory. Jonathan Leshnoff who teaches compositions at a school in Maryland. Everyone was pretty focused early on. Yea, I was at Tanglewood in 1990 and then I taught there for two other summers.

PSM: Really? You taught the high school program?

JN: I was teaching the class that I used to be in. Ear training, counterpoint, stuff like that.

PSM: So now steering this conversation in a different direction. I know that you compose primarily at the piano. Correct?

JN: Yeah, there’s a process, but let’s say yes.

PSM: Well, I was going to ask what your compositional approach is.

JN: Well, it depends on the piece, but it does involve some piano work. I’d say it depends. Well, if you’re working on a large ensemble work there is only so much you can do at the piano. But yes, most things start at the piano. Sometimes they don’t…

…No! They don’t start at the piano. I was a Corigliano student and his process is sort of fixed in my brain. No, the first thing you do is you sit down and you think for weeks, and months, and in some cases years just about the form of the piece. The architecture of the piece. The sound world of the piece. The kinds of sounds that you want to immerse yourself in. The harmonic language that you want to immerse yourself in and then there is a process of notes. I mean written paragraphs. Writing things out and pictures and graphs and then there is a period of research. Once I figure out what I’m kind of want to do I do a lot of listening and score study to try and, you know, steal things. If you want it to sound like “A,” then go look at “A.” Over the course of a piece I might have written down 18 different sound worlds that I’m interested in combining in some way. The research goes on for months, too. At a certain point in the research you get so immersed in that you have to sort of say “All right, that’s enough. Now it’s time to sit down and write.” Then you start getting some notes together. Notes are not the first thing that happen at all and the notes come from the piano. Harmonies, general harmonic language, and then step away from the piano, work some things out for a while and then it is a process of going back and forth between a piano and a table.

PSM: Now, the curve. Do you remember how you and I first met?

JN: Um, yea sure! It was at NYU’s only band concert!

PSM: Yes, it was. We met through John Corigliano and at the time John knew me from my work at Schirmer and how I was going to be going back to school to get my degree in conducting.

JN: You weren’t at Rutgers then.

PSM: No, I wasn’t, but John knew that I was going to go back and one of my previous conversations that I had with John at that time was about his “Circus Maximus.” Do happen to remember how he introduced us? This is something that has always stuck in my head.

JN: No I don’t, but I think he probably would’ve said something like “You guys should know each other” or something like that?

PSM: Yea, he did. He actually said “Band conductor meet band composer: Peter this is a former student of mine Jonathan Newman, a wonderfully talented band composer.”

JN: Yeah. That drives me crazy that he said that.

PSM: Now I know that John did not mean any sort of knock to either of us especially with how outspoken he has been in support of the wind ensemble movement.

JN: And sort of embarrassingly so…

PSM: How do you feel about that title “band composer?”

JN: How do I feel about it? I know what John meant, but as a term I think it is just awful. I actually sort of fall back a little bit when I hear that. I guess because part of me feels that maybe he’s right? Do you know what I mean? You always resist the things that sound too true to you that you don’t want to be true. I have written a lot of band pieces in the last eight years or so, and it is just because it is how it happened and that is where the jobs came. I don’t have more of an interest in wind ensemble music than I do in anything else. I do enjoy working with winds very much and I love the active professional life you can have writing music for them, but I do very much try to balance things. It doesn’t always work out, but I make an effort to do that mostly so that I never hear that phrase. But you know what? Labels happen whether you like it or not.

PSM: Now, when I was asking you about your studies and your applications to Boston University and Juilliard and Aspen, you were at The MacDowell Colony for two weeks and you’ve been awarded a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Were all of these accolades accomplished by composing “band” music?

JN: I guess there was no band music in those applications. I really didn’t know that was an option. BU had no band and Juilliard certainly has no band. I mean they do for one concert a year that they put together something and play Bill Schuman and be done with it while everyone complains that they are not playing in the orchestra for that concert. I might have sent something that was wind ensemble music with the MacDowell Colony application, maybe other things, too.

PSM: Whether we use the word “wind” or “band,” both four-letter words, but just for the sake of continuity, how did you first get introduced into composing for the wind medium?

JN: Eric Whitacre. That’s an easy answer.

PSM: And this was through your composition studio at Juilliard.

JN: This is at Juilliard. I met him my second year when he came in and he was studying with David Diamond and all the composers were friendly and very supportive and a nice group. I got friendly with Eric who at that time only had one band piece.

PSM: And that was “Ghost Train.”

JN: Right, that was “Ghost Train,” and he was a bit of a proselytizer. When we would get together he would say “Listen, these guys love new music. They have no literature and they are an entire musical culture based on new music and they have a ton of percussionists and they have some money. They have budgets.” I think I resisted for a while. You’re sort of trained in the very classical training that it is a third-rate ensemble. You don’t touch it. That probably had something to do with it. I would also say that I think some sort of fear of success had something to do with it.

PSM: You didn’t want to succeed as a “band composer” at that point in your life.

JN: I’m not sure I wanted to succeed as a composer at all. It’s very hard to be a composer. There are a lot of issues. You know this – your mid-twenties are a very difficult time. You’re trying to figure out who you are, what you want to do, and you’re on your own for really, essentially, the first time in your life. It was hard. I’m not sure I was ready. I thought “that could probably work” and that I’d probably do well. It wasn’t a fear of being a band composer, but it was that things would start to happen and I’d actually start to do this. And then I’d actually have to do it, I wouldn’t be able to just talk about it or be in school studying it and that is a very, very scary realization to come to. That you now have to follow through. That’s what it is, a fear of following through. You know, you’re waiting for somebody to expose you as a fraud.

PSM: Well I guess that just plays into all of our insecurities.

JN: Eventually I did though and through Eric I did a transcription of a piece I wrote in Aspen. A septet I wrote for the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble and blew it up for wind ensemble and Eric’s alma mater, UNLV, premiered it and brought me out and it was a great experience. That was the beginning of that.

PSM: And the name of the piece?

JN: That was “OK Feel Good.”

PSM: This is now the name of your publishing company.

JN: Yes, it is the name of my publishing company.

PSM: Get rid of “band composer” for a bit, but just how hard is it to be a full-time composer at this point? Your mentors in Richard Cornell, Charles Fussell, and John Corigliano all still have university positions and, quite frankly, not many composers these days are full-time composers – for whatever reason, family, benefits, etc. – but you choose to have your studio in New York City and work as a full-time composer. When did you make that decision and/or is eventually obtaining a university post of any interest to you?

JN: Well of course it’s of interest. I don’t have a DMA so I can’t get that job unless someday somebody calls and say we’ll give it to you – we want you. I can’t even apply; I can’t even get in the door. I would love it. I do enjoy teaching. I did teach at Juilliard theory, ear training and stuff, the usual for a composer, but when it came time to decide if I was going to do a DMA I decided I didn’t love teaching enough to spend the next four or five years getting a degree that I didn’t particularly feel I wanted and that would qualify me to apply for a job at “State University of Southern West Nebraska at Hoople” for the position of “Adjunct Whatever” and be competing with 600 other people more qualified than I am. I just didn’t want to do it. I did other things: I was a music copyist for about 10 years, I worked for a music publisher, and I worked at a concert hall for a while. I was a young buck, I was a kid. I did the copying a lot and then it was just copying and writing, and then when the writing got to a certain point then the copying got to the point that I was tired of it and I stopped. Let’s just say I have a very supportive family. My wife is very nice. She wanted me to stop copying before I did because I was miserable. How am I doing it? Some months are better than others, Peter.

PSM: Okay. Speaking of your publishing background, but not your experiences there, with the exception of two pieces you do self-publishing and rentals for everything else?

JN: Yea, it was a process of years figuring out the best way that would work for my catalog and it really did take a while to figure out what that would be. First I sold my stuff by myself, then I got most of it distributed through Hal Leonard and they sold it. One piece is commercially published. And then once I saw how few copies were selling I decided to take them back and rent them myself. It’s for lots of reasons. The ensembles that would actually play that music rent music. The ensembles that buy music don’t play that music. So, it took me years to figure it out, but now I’m happy about it – everyone seems happy about it. I’m happier because the stuff is being distributed and I’m getting performances in a home that suits the works more than they did when they were commercially available.

PSM: With your little composer consortium of BCM International…

JN: You make it sound so diminutive. “Your little consortium.”

PSM: It is only four people. It is yourself, Eric Whitacre, Steven Bryant, and Jim Bonney. According to my knowledge it would be two out of the four publish everything commercially through Hal Leonard and the other two, yourself included, do more rental than commercial publishing.

JN: Who’s the other, Steve?

PSM: Yes, you and Steve tend to do more rental and Eric and Jim do more sales with Hal Leonard.

JN: That probably highlights the difference that I was saying before where the music finds a performance home with ensembles that are more comfortable renting their works directly from the composer or something like that than a wider selection of educational groups that are more comfortable buying their music from a retailer.

PSM: Do you feel in any way that with the technology that we have today that you have gotten any sort of negative feedback that an ensemble or a conductor said “Well we really want to rent your works, but for some reason we can’t get a hold of you.”

JN: Yes, but not so much anymore. In the beginning when I was first doing the switch there was a transition period when I would get some flack for the rentals. People would say it’s difficult to do the rentals or it’s so expensive, but not so much anymore. I find if people want to do the piece they’ll rent it. The fact is that it is a little backwards because rentals traditionally are a higher fee for less. What you’re getting is one performance for a higher fee and then you send the material back, you don’t get to play it again, and if you want to play it again you have to rent it again. What that means is that you’re basically paying a premium for the privilege of playing something that not everybody can play. You’re playing something that is a special, or niche group. You’re a special group for being able to perform it, for being able to afford it, for being able to play it. Real music is less of a “one in a herd.” I think of it like that and the guilt goes away.

PSM: You know especially with your catalog now, like your new symphony, where you’re getting commissions by 20+ ensembles.

JN: Well that is also a necessity thing where everybody goes in on the fee. The number of ensembles goes up if everyone cannot afford a higher fee.

PSM: According to your website you currently have six orchestral works available. How often do those pieces get rented compared to your wind ensemble works? Also, you can choose to answer this or not, being very critical of yourself, do you feel that those works – the orchestral ones – are some of your better ones?

JN: One or two of them are some of my better works.

PSM: At this point we have said how were reluctant, at best, to come into this medium at times, but do you feel that you are more comfortable at this point writing for the wind medium?

JN: Well, I have a lot of practice at it, but no I’m not more comfortable. I do sort of feel that anytime I sit down to write something that I reinvent the compositional process. “Wait, how do I do this again?” “Wait, I’ve done this before, what do I do?” So I mean, it doesn’t matter what you’re writing for. I do feel like some of those [the orchestral pieces] are my better works, but the problem is in the last 8 or so years, or however long that I’ve had more work writing for wind ensembles, that my style has sort of focused a little more and I feel like I have honed in on the way I want to write. I mean, it sounds stupid, but the voice I feel I have become comfortable with wasn’t there in the earlier stages. So some of those pieces, the chamber music and orchestral music and the older works, was when I was still floundering around basically trying to figure out how I wanted to write. Some of them are very worthy pieces, I wouldn’t have put them up and available if I didn’t think they were, but if I were to write those pieces today they wouldn’t necessarily represent how I would write. The wind ensemble stuff, because it’s more recent, probably represents much more of how I want to write my music. I am actually quite excited to do more, now that I have sort of figured that out, to do more chamber music and orchestral music and especially vocal music, that is why I started the opera project. I hadn’t written vocal music in years and years. I was a completely different composer the last time I wrote vocal music. That was really interesting to me. Now that I write like I do now, or think I do now, how it would work with the vocal music. There are a couple pieces in the “orchestral section” of the website, as you say, or in the catalog, that are the more modern voice.

PSM: I know that you’re writing an opera called “Carnival of Souls.” As far as I know, you’re writing this without a commission and you’re clearly enjoying the experience and the process. Is it being scored for a typical opera pit orchestra or will this be the next Daron Hagen “Bandanna” where it is an opera scored for wind ensemble and staged singers?

JN: That is correct, but there is no orchestral score yet. I have no idea how it will be scored. It will be scored for whoever wants to do it and how we work out how it will be scored. Right now it is just a p-v [piano vocal score] and it will remain a p-v until we have some idea what production is going to happen and what forces that we will need.

PSM: So have I just tainted your thought process?

JN: No, no, no. I mean, if somebody said “We’ll do a production but it has to only be winds in the orchestra.” I would probably fight that only because I don’t think it would fit the piece very well. Not because I think that is a particularly bad idea, but because I don’t think it is that kind of a piece. I have sort have been thinking about how some things would be scored and the kind of sound world that I would have. It wouldn’t be a chamber orchestra – it is a bigger piece than that, but it doesn’t necessarily need a huge, lush string section either, so I don’t know. The only stuff I’m thinking about right now is getting notes down.

PSM: Okay. Are you at liberty to say what commissions you have on the horizon?

JN: Sure. I’m writing a commission for, it sounds odd, but for a euphonium and piano sonata.

PSM: That’s not too odd.

JN: You know euphonium players don’t have a lot of literature and I wanted to write more chamber music and I figured it would be something that would be fun to write, something smaller and something that might have a performance life after it is finished. There’s a percussion ensemble piece that we are still trying to put together the full funding for, but we have some excellent, excellent percussion ensembles on board. The euphonium piece and the percussion ensemble piece both got pushed off a bit because the symphony grew and got out of control so a couple projects got postponed. The percussion ensemble will be about a nine-player, 10-minute piece. There is the opera, of course, which I have another, maybe, 10-to-15 minutes more to do to get it to where I can do something with it. And there is a band commission for 2010. The Central Oklahoma Directors Association commissioned me to write a piece for their honor band.

PSM: I don’t mean to humble you, but you’re clearly regarded as one of the young, exciting composers of this medium.

JN: I would take the “clearly” out of there. It is nice to hear and you’re my friend so I don’t believe you.

PSM: Well, it is you as well as some of your close friends who are part of this highly regarded, young band movement of composition. I think I sort of know the answer, but are you trying to move this medium in a forward direction and where do you see it going?

JN: The short answer is yes. We are just trying to do our thing and we are just trying to write music that we like to hear and sort of using the wind ensemble as the boat to get us there. The result is that some interesting, exciting music is being written because for some reason no one decided to write interesting, exciting music for wind ensemble before? I’m not sure.

PSM: There was the educational movement during the 1950s and the 1960s and that is how you have “George Washington Bridge” by Schuman and different educational band pieces for high school band.

JN: Is “George Washington Bridge” considered an ‘educational piece’? See, I consider that a “piece.” Do you know what you mean?

PSM: I know exactly what you mean and I agree. It is a piece by a very serious composer that chose to write a piece that happened to not include strings and it stands on its own. The aesthetic value is there, but it was written for amateur instrumentalists and Schuman saw the band as a way to expose young American instrumentalists and audiences to contemporary music.

JN: Certainly the Persichetti “Symphony” is not an educational piece.

PSM: Well, high school bands are playing the Persichetti “Symphony” not the Hindemith “Symphony” so I would be prone to say that the Persichetti “Symphony” is an educational piece, not so much as “education” is involved, but more as a piece that would be played in an educational setting.

JN: Okay.

PSM: After the 1950s and 1960s educational push we don’t have a great deal of music that has stuck around for the wind medium. We don’t have repeat performances of things that were happening in the 1970s and the early 1980s, but now we have this influx again.

JN: There’s a lot of reasons for this I think, but I think we’ll need a little more distance from it before we really know.

PSM: Time is the ultimate judge.

JN: Yes. They include the fact that the theory of the serious concert music world has fewer and fewer opportunities for composers. Economic reasons. Cultural reasons. So composers have found, especially the young ones who don’t really have the baggage that the generation before us has, to do our thing, write in the style that we are comfortable in without any repercussions. Composers just want to write music. Of course they all want to write orchestral music, but if the door is locked then, you know, you’re going to find another door if this is what you want to do. I’m not saying the door is completely locked to orchestral music, there is a lot of stuff that is still happening, but for younger people it is the lucky few that can manage to get in and I have counted myself lucky on occasion. That has definitely been a part of it. I’m sure that the people that have been running the wind ensembles, the directors and the conductors, have been very amenable to this influx; they have been very excited about it. It is a musical culture that is unbelievably based on who is new, what is new, what is the next piece, who’s the hot thing? I mean, it’s a terrible thing to say, but that’s the exact opposite of concert music where you are a sycophant begging to have your work played and you turn around and there are wind ensembles that treat you like a professional and make you feel like a composer. It is sort of a win-win, I think it is a very symbiotic relationship and it is working out for everyone. Now we are seeing our teachers start to turn their heads and see what their students are doing and think “these guys are actually having performances around the country and around the world and the pieces have life? I’ll do that, too!”

PSM: And you have to look at somebody like John Corigliano who has “Circus Maximus” and not every ensemble in the world will be able to play that, ever, but he has become one of the greatest proponents of the wind ensemble medium. Now we have just had William Bolcom write his “First Symphony for Band” and we are having these luminaries of the “serious concert world” saying “you have to pay attention to this” and I think we’re certainly in this very exciting, but grey area of where things are going to go. It can change in the next five or ten years, but it is certainly propelling in a forward direction and I have to count you up there as part of this younger generation of composers that have not only accepted it, but are thriving in this medium and are not looking at it, as you said earlier, as a ‘third-rate ensemble.’

JN: Right and I appreciate that. Even in the time I have been paying attention it has gotten better. When I was first coming in, if a so-called ‘orchestral composer,’ which is just as bad as saying ‘band composer,’ or lets just say a ‘normally well-respected composer,’ did a band piece it was a transcription of one of their popular orchestral pieces which drove me bananas! Now at least I’m starting to see that people are kind of sick of that – which I’m surprised they weren’t to begin with – and they are actually writing for the ensemble. You get better music that way, you get an actual repertoire that way, and that is what is going to get composers on board, actually writing – not transcribing their catalog – for the ensemble. I hate to harp on it, but I don’t understand why that even happened, why wind ensemble conductors even wanted that to happen. It seems like they were doing themselves a disservice by even asking for that to happen. Anyway, we are seeing Bill Bolcom actually write the piece, and Del Tredici write the piece, and Corigliano write the piece. Maybe Adams will eventually.

PSM: Well the closest thing we have from Adams is his “Grand Pianola Music,” but you need two piano virtuosi to play that one.

JN: Right, but I also heard that somebody was working on some sort of commission. I don’t know what the deal is.

PSM: The only other pieces I know of are the Odom arrangement of “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” and “Scratchband,” which is for a chamber ensemble.

JN: Right, and “Short Ride” is a piece that is transcribed and it works well, but that is another example that it is still a transcription. Torke has been doing it, too [writing original works for winds], and I’m a fan, and I think he’s been writing some fine music. So that is the direction I see it going, even since I’ve been paying attention, and I like that direction.

Steal This Blog

The essay below was part of a roundtable on copyright issues
at The Comics Journal group blog, The Hooded Utilitarian. The entry is part of a roundtable discussion on issues surrounding copyright and free culture. The centerpiece of the week was an interview with animator, filmmaker, and free culture activist Nina Paley.

I refer to Paley’s work and the interview in my post, so for context, you might need to check out the full week’s postings. Start with this recent one by Caro on Paley’s film Sita Sings the Blues. Right before the Paley interview, Noah posted an essay on copyright, and a review of Paley’s film. And yesterday, Pallas posted a brief and snarky history of copyright.

You can find the whole roundtable here. My thanks to my friend Noah Berlatsky (who I’ve known since we were 2 or 3) for inviting me to write this:

I am a composer of what we (or at least other composers) tend to call “Concert Music”, that is, music for string quartets and orchestras and choruses and other things where you sit quietly in a darkened hall while shooting dirty looks at the old lady unwrapping a cough drop. I am expensively and elitistly-trained, and work (mostly) by commission. It is pretentious, it is fun, and I do it professionally.

Following the thread of posts this week, I’ve noticed more than a little talk about copyright essentially being created for and serving only the Publisher, and not the Creator. But what if that’s the same person? Save one or two works, I am a self-published composer; I run my own “publishing company” (it’s not, really, it’s just me and my Schedule C and a quirky company name), but while serving that function I do all the things a traditional publisher would do, including its main function: to exploit the copyrights it owns. Doing this myself pretty much avoids exactly what Nina Paley describes as the “gate-keepers”…those faceless corporate intellectual copyright owners who keep The Artist down. But I am the Artist (and the Publisher, the two are halves of each other in the case of copyright), and so even though “exploit” isn’t exactly a friendly word, it works fine, because there are in fact multiple ways to make a property (a piece of art) work for the both. Because for me, owning my works, and controlling their distribution through licensing, is how I’m able to survive as a working composer.

Most people don’t realize that when you make a work–and I’ll use music as an example for obvious reasons–your rights concerning the piece are numerous, and on several levels. I’m probably missing one or two, but once your new hypothetical work is completed (Congratulations, writing music is hard) you’re faced with what is actually a constellation of rights, all of which one, or his/her evil representative if s/he’s traditionally-published, can “exploit”:

  • The right to reproduce it (make photocopies, bound copies, whatever)
  • The right to publish and distribute it (these days you should think twice before signing that one away)
  • The right to sync it to motion-picture (this was the prickly one for Nina Paley)
  • The right to “grand” staging (use in a play or ballet or pretty much anything else with costumes)
  • The right to record it (the first time that is, and then anyone can do it as long as they pay the statutory mechanical rates. Thus, covers.)
  • The right to “prepare derivative works” from it (for music that usually means arrange it for other ensembles or instrumentations. For books and whatnot that usually means licensing the rights for the opera, or the movie)
  • The right to broadcast it (radio)
  • and the right to perform it (the biggie)

Now, which one of these would you like me to ignore because you have a yen to use my piece for your own art? My performing rights royalties alone (collected for me by my Performing Rights Agency Of Choice, ASCAP, which also collects any broadcast royalties that might happen) are actually a significant chunk of my income. Does Free Culture want to perform my piece without my collecting that? It might help to know that performing rights royalties are split 50/50 between writer and the publisher. As my own publisher, I receive 100% of them. (Another gate jumped.)

What about when someone likes my recent chorus piece, and wants to arrange it for their brass choir? I should have an open-source attitude, right? Forget the arranging license (and the fee that goes with it) and let it everyone have it, because it’s good for creativity and good for artists?

My point is that any one of these singly isn’t such a big deal, and I’m all for the big picture of helping the Cause of Creativity. But taken as a whole, managing the above list becomes this precious bundle of life-giving manna. If you’re interested in being a composer making a middle-class living that is. Which I am. I don’t teach professionally (only occasionally, usually as a guest artist at a university), so If I give any of these up, all of a sudden, composing music (ie. making Art) is my hobby, and I have to make my living outside of it. And I’ve found that the people most vocal about the benefits of free culture, or maybe most lax in shepherding the above rights, are those who choose to make their living some other way.

When asked in this Roundtable’s centerpiece interview the other day, Nina Paley replied to a question about Free Culture creating “a situation where you can’t have an artistic middle class.”:

What we have now is you can get paid for craft. You don’t get paid for art. You get paid for craft. Every animator that I know, or almost every animator that I know, works at a studio, working on shit. They know it’s shit. They do their best to not think about it, but it’s god-awful commercial shit.

Actually, I get paid for Art. I could have chosen to get paid for craft (being an orchestrator, or a commercial music writer) and decided I was actually better at making Art. And it’s a slog, let me tell you, selling Art. Because Art is, I’m sure you all noticed, incredibly subjective. Only a few out of many like my stuff, and even less love it (shocking, I know). If I expected many to like it, I’d be writing very different music, and would have a lot more wiggle room when it came to giving away my stuff for the sake of Art.

Paley also talked about art not being a profession:

No, I wanted to keep it pure, the love of the craft. When I was quitting Fluff, I said “make art not money, make art not money. Remember that.” And of course I forget periodically and get confused and think that I should be making money and not art. They’re not mutually exclusive, not at all; but you’ve got to remember: don’t do stuff that’s bad for your soul in order to make money.

I realize how mercenary this sounds, but how about making art AND money? Ultimately I’m unclear how copyleft (or free culture in general) can maintain my middle class income. As far as I can tell, the current copyright laws are what do that.

All that being said, I’m actually a fan of Free. I give away content like crazy on my website…mp3 downloads…score of the pieces as PDFs, etc. I give away CDs, even commercial ones, like candy. I give away many (expensive to produce) printed scores. Because I do believe that giving away significant content–not just useless crap, but stuff people can use–in many ways does help create that “fan base” one hears the astute bands and rock stars talk about … those fans that downloaded the album for free, but who later on shell out 300 bucks to go to the tour show and buy the $25 t-shirts. Which right there crystallizes the line for the Free argument. You don’t see “Pay what you want” Radiohead (I’m a fan) letting their devoted following into the show for free. (Or do you? I don’t really know.)

So among this noise, some content is always controlled by the owner. It’s not all free, it’s just a question of what content is deemed not free. For me, it’s the performance materials. That’s the paper (maybe someday it won’t be, I’m looking at you iPads) musicians rehearse and perform from. I rent it, I sell it, I control it. Nothing drives me more bat-shit crazy than seeing other composers give away their stuff. A website full of scores and parts… “Come play my music! I won’t charge! I just want you to play it to Get My Name Out There!” Well, a) I hope you have another job, b) you just made mine a lot harder, and c) the end user (who, sure, now knows your name) thinks your stuff isn’t even worth the paper it’s printed on.

Paley giving away her (beautiful) movie is great and all, but I can’t exactly sell “Jonathan Newman” t-shirts to make up the difference. If all the cool kids started wearing Sita pins and she turned into a pop culture icon, then it hardly matters whether anyone paid to show the film. As much as I’ve tried to make it one, that avenue is not really an option for me.

It’s true, 70 years after death is a silly amount. 50 did seem like enough–2 generations after death (“My Granddaddy made that! You can’t touch it!”)–does seem like enough time to for the family to come up with some more original content, but, as we all know, Disney had other ideas. Still, before these protections, composers did have to scramble. In 1945 Stravinsky famously changed all the half notes to quarter notes in Firebird (not really, but you get the idea) to make a newly copyrightable version for the U.S, so he could prevent the loss of income from performances there. Nothing new under the sun.

I feel Paley’s pain, dealing with copyright owners. Just ask any composer about getting text permission from a publisher for a poem he or she wants to set. Try figuring out who owns the poem in the first place. Or if it’s PD or not. I’ve actually been working on an opera for the last couple of years. The first year of it was just figuring out who actually owned the film my collaborator and I wanted to adapt. I see the problem as not necessarily the rules themselves, but the companies/businesses/corporations who collect the intellectual property and then seem to want to hoard it without licensing it, simply because it doesn’t seem worth it to expend the time/energy/resources/employees to deal. Their mistake is that it is very much worth it. Exploiting the copyright (issuing licenses and collecting the fees), is the entire point of owning the property, whether it’s small or not. When they do that, they are serving the Publisher function. It’s how or whether they’ll do it at all that’s causing problems.

And so, I’m finding the Free Culture argument suspect. If someone wanted to copy my bicycle so that there’s now “one for each of us”, my honest reaction would probably be ‘Fuck you. I spent 3 years making that bicycle. Make your own damn bicycle.’ Not exactly a constructive argument, granted, but let’s at least acknowledge that we’re not talking about a bicycle. Bicycles are not special. They are not (generally) art. Yeeesss, all art is derivative, it’s true. Art is synthesis, and some synthesis is better (brilliant, “original”) than others. But creativity can not be its own reward. We still live in, for better and often worse, a capitalist society, and in no other profession in that society is a lack of compensation expected, like it is with Art. People get paid for charity work, for goodness sakes. At some point, someone, has to charge someone else, something.

Lush Life

In my recent dive into everything American mid-century, I’ve become obsessed with Billy Strayhorn’s masterwork. After playing it myself pretty much daily for months, I’m convinced that Lush Life is not a song. It’s a through-composed composition disguised as a song. Strayhorn tries to fool you, but I’m not buying.

The sheet music itself is a good example of what I’m talking about. In my copy, m. 29 is marked as the “Chorus”. OK, but if that’s the case, where the heck is the “Verse”? And when exactly does the chorus end and the verse repeat? It doesn’t. There’s only about 4 measures that are repeated in any way, and the whole crux of any song form is ABA repetition. This free-form is deceptive, though – as somehow Strayhorn makes you believe you’re hearing nothing out of the ordinary.

Songs have chordal harmony, too, don’t they? I mean, sure, I guess you can call that an A-flat13, but isn’t it really just a stacked whole-tone pentachord? In fact the piece’s entire harmonic language is like that – thick with 5ths and parallel motion, as if Ravel wrote a torch-song.

Over the last 6 months or so I’ve collected 10 different recordings of the tune – Ella Fitzgerald and Nat Cole and Sarah Vaughan and the famous Coltrane version, of course. I even found some fascinating recordings of Strayhorn performing it himself (including one where he attempts to sing), which I think are way more interesting. All the standard versions are pretty great, and different from each other, but all give us pretty straightforward renditions of the tune, especially Cole’s from 1952, or Sarah Vaughan’s sad and sexy version, with its sultry Montovani-like arrangement [iTunes Store link].

The best of these standard options is, hands-down, Ella Fitzgerald’s 1957 recording, with the great Oscar Peterson accompanying [iTunes Store link]. It’s smart and understated, and shows Ella, as always, in complete control of what she’s singing. She clearly understands every lyric, which in this tune is an accomplishment. The only thing I don’t care for in her version is her slight change in the melody at the very end. It takes me right out of it when I don’t get that creepy chromatic crawl up…

But I tend to be more interested in the slightly odder versions I’ve found, like Nancy Wilson’s spunky rendering from 1967 [iTunes Store link] – with a totally awesome arrangement that I will someday rip off mercilessly. I also found a fairly recent recording from Andy Bey [iTunes Store link] – which stretches out the tune to a mythic 8-minutes, in part with jazz combo interludes and transitions, but mostly with Bey singing the tune at a dead crawl. It’s not exactly how I think this piece should go, but Bey has a marvelous voice, and it’s hard to stop the track once it gets going. And there’s a gorgeous recording of the always-fabulous Marion McPartland [iTunes Store link], from her radio show, of course. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but she dives right into those thick harmonies with smooth argeggios, and I swear, her piano always seems to sound like warm marshmallows. I don’t know how she does it.

The sax recording I picked up to contrast the Coltrane (which is, y’know, spectacular) [iTunes Store link] is Joe Henderson’s completely solo version from 1992 [iTunes Store link]. Henderson was a beautiful and soulful player, but stripping the tune down to the vocal line seems to me a complete misunderstanding of the piece. The vocal is about 1/10th of the tune – most of the point of the piece for me is the chunky and thick, and often surprising harmonies underneath, of which the vocal line is hardly ever an actual chord tone. Henderson noodles around the tune of course, but one still loses the sense of the Strayhorn harmonies. Still, it’s a marvelous piece of performance work, and if I was a tenor sax player, I’d probably have a Joe Henderson shrine in my closet.

One of the gems of my Lush Life playlist is a recording of Strayhorn himself playing the tune with a fantastic groovy-shag carpet of an arrangement of ooh/ahh-ing chorus and what sounds like a double bass plucking away [iTunes Store link]. It’s weird, and confusing, and I love it. But I think my overall #1 is a bootleg of sorts you can hear streaming on NPR, of Strayhorn singing and accompanying himself, live in a club in 1964. It’s rough–what with out-of-tune piano and cocktail glasses tinkling and people chatting in the background–and he was a perfectly awful singer (anyone ever hear Cole Porter sing?), but who cares. This is the piece in its purist form, and his unsentimental and cheeky performance is totally engaging.

Keep going with this exercise – you’ll find a zillion recordings, including Queen Latifah singing it at the Grammys and various other places (not bad!). Of course, my favorite way to enjoy Lush Life is still to play it myself, pretending the air is thick with smoke and sticky with gin as I croon away. And nope, there’s no iTunes link for that version.

[Addendum, added 10-12-07]

Aired Out

Recent activities in the past few weeks have centered around a kind of virtual inventory: the re-organizing of the Newman Catalog for promotional projects and such. And so in the midst of this housecleaning I’ve found myself coming face to face with several older works I’ve long avoided dealing with, each one teetering between full-blown promotion, and the ragged edge of destruction.

The self-absorbtion involved is staggering. And I’ve found that it’s turning out to be less of a slash-and-burn activity than I thought it would, or at least than what I thought I’d like. I’ve been much more middling and compromising about the whole thing than I probably should be. Pressed to make a decision on some of these pieces, I choose, in many cases, to not make a decision. These suckers are just too personal. I remember writing them, I remember the premieres, I remember thinking they were the best thing ever penned on paper. And yet I also remember the point when I would, say, delete one from my list of works, or not include it when building my website. It’s a tricky business.

The process so far has not exactly yielded any more nervous addition of juvenilia to the official catalog, but it did give one in particular the axe. Unstuck, a string trio I wrote in 1996 for a choreographer at Juilliard, was quietly taken off the website and removed from the List of Works a couple of weeks ago. No performances since the dance performances 10 years ago, no interest from those who might perform my music, and no longer any confidence in the music itself from the composer. That’s not to say that other works which haven’t been performed in an even longer period are going to receive the same treatment — there are just too many factors to weigh for each one.

In the Valley of the Elwy, for instance, is a work for baritone and orchestra I wrote around the same time as Unstuck, and though the work doesn’t represent me as a composer anymore, it does illuminate a direction of sorts, as well as show off a particular influence (tell me that doesn’t sound exactly like Barber), in what I consider now quite an adorable way. And so when I dredged the piece up during this process, I found it didn’t exactly win a spot in the official catalog, but it did get to be belatedly included up on the website. I don’t know why, it just seemed like that’s the way it should be.

Elwy may not represent me compositionally anymore, but then again, neither does Ohanashi, a chamber orchestra work which, only because of lack of aesthetic resemblance to absolutely everything else in my catalog, has been standing on the cliff ready to be pushed off for some time. But now there is recent interest in the piece — and I find that Ohanshi may not look like me, but others might like how it looks. This brings up a fascinating question which I suspect every composer at one time or another confronts: how does one approach these older works which may or may not represent current style and aesthetic? Very likely most don’t give a whit, and anything with usable performance materials is up for grabs and available to anyone who would care to perform them. I wonder, though. How would Britten feel about all his juvenilia exposed to the galaxy as it is, cataloged and published, and performed all over the place. (As a card-carrying Britten-head, I have heard some of what I just described, much of it simply awful). Or Mozart for that matter. Poor guy. Obviously, there are plenty more examples to go by, in both directions. On one hand, Brahms burned the stuff he felt wasn’t up to snuff. On the other, anyone can perform Old George Rochberg, or New George Rochberg. Just pick your style. So the question persists: Do I represent myself only with what I feel is Newman at his best, or do I present the world with Newman as a Continuum — the composer finding his voice, piece by piece.

Lullaby for Munch in Hell, once considered (by me) to be my best work, is another one of these bon-bons of juvenilia facing the terrific, yet terrifying prospect of new performances. I’ve held out on this one — it’s faced the box in the 5x5x5 locker on W. 29th St. (our storage space, where all-things-college live) more than once, and lived to tell the tale. What I’d love to do is write a new sax quartet, stare down the aging Lullaby, and retire her in favor of more mature compositional efforts. But I suspect that even if The World turns Perfect, and I get to write a new quartet, the Lullaby will remain. It may not be Me now, but Me then was a wide-eyed young composer ready to take on the entire repertoire, and I can’t see myself letting him down. Besides, for all I know, it’s still a great piece, and the thing holds up perfectly well against current work. I just can’t tell anymore with these pieces. And now from recent mumblings, it might even get two performances next season — so maybe this is a sign that I’m actually the only one losing hope in these delicate babies.

There’s yet another older chamber work for which I have a soft spot: Movement & Coda, a duo written in 1993 when I was 20 for the rather unwieldy combination of oboe and harp. It’s a good piece! Really, you’ll just have to trust me. I sometimes stumble on the score on the shelf and think, Damn, this kid was talented. What potential. But I see far too different (better?) a composer in those pages, and haven’t yet drummed up the courage to make up a web page for it, or include it in the (now currently under revisions) chamber music section of the catalog, nor am I ever likely to. I suspect that what I’m seeing in the work now is all potential, with not enough actual music to hold my interest.

Some pieces have had less of an impressive impact after reexamination. Exclamare, a short fanfare for brass quintet, was one of the first successful works I wrote. Tight as a drum, quite rhythmically exciting, and a healthy performance life for a number of years, one would think this piece would have been saved from extinction. After all, the career as it stands now points directly at what I would imagine would be a ton of brass quintets, who would probably like very much to play it. And so with that in mind, I picked up this piece again, thinking that surely this quintet was going to be reintegrated into the catalog and have a new life. But then I listened to it again, and thought … Eh. Maybe not so much. Perhaps what I thought was interesting in 1992 is not so very interesting to me now, and more importantly, I can’t imagine it being of very much interest to anyone else. And so, despite everything it has going for it on a practical level, an eventual No.

There are, of course, other works, even one or two I wouldn’t consider juvenilia, which have been hanging about on the chopping block, as well. They shall for the moment remain nameless. The fact is, it’s not necessarily a matter of strength in pulling the plug on some of these, it’s that I don’t think I even understand what some of these pieces are. Now with a bit of distance from some of them, I am sort of baffled as to what they mean in general, and how they might best fit into the world at large. I hold out for these pieces to either click into place (revisions! cut that movement!), or (more likely) for some benevolent fairy to descend and make these decisions for me. I’m guessing that by the end of this particular inventory project, and with the guidance of the mythical fairies, I will probably consign one or two more pieces to the hypothetical drawer. I would like to think that this works well for the musicologists of the future, who will drool over finding these works exactly there, in the darkness of W. 29th St., to dust off, catalog, publish, and show off to the world as missing gems. More than likely, though, that will be it for these castoffs. Their job was completed some time ago.

El Dorado

A Composer Discovers the World of Winds

Written for the National Band Association Journal, published Dec. 2004

El Do • ra • do
n : an imaginary place of great wealth and opportunity; sought in South America by 16th-century explorers
(Source: WordNet ® 1.6, © 1997 Princeton University)

Today’s composer, like Cortez and the Spaniards of hundreds of years ago, are in search of a fabled land — our own City of Gold, that music community where composers are respected and admired, sought after, and considered worth hiring. In our El Dorado the riches take the form of opportunity. Opportunity for performances of our music, opportunity for commissions, and opportunity to get our music disseminated to as many ears as possible. The rest is up to us and our skills. We composers, this intrepid ensemble of explorers, if I may extend the metaphor, have over the centuries found several routes to our mythical destination: court patronage (Haydn), performing (Liszt, or Mahler and Bernstein as conductors), and now, overwhelmingly, a career in academia (almost anyone now belongs in this last category, but for a typical example let’s use the great Vincent Persichetti). Some have been forced onto sidetracks like insurance (Ives) and cab-driving (famously, Philip Glass and Steve Reich). No matter what path, we all desire the riches of performance opportunity. Frankly, the “wealth” part would be nice too, but I’m pretty sure that most concert composers don’t pursue writing music for the wealth opportunities.

Somewhere along my particular conquest of the New World, I met a composer who pointed me in the general direction of the fabled City of Gold by introducing me to the community of winds and educational music. It was at The Juilliard School, where my fellow-student Eric Whitacre first suggested that a chamber piece of mine he had recently heard (OK Feel Good — written for the contemporary ensemble in residence at the Aspen Music Festival) would work great for winds. I was reticent at first—my particular educational background had not really prepared me for entrée into this community. Wind ensembles were not really active in Boston and New York, and except for the rare performance of “The Juilliard Wind Ensemble” (which exists, I believe, for one concert a year) I had had no exposure to large-scale wind groups since high school in my hometown in Northeastern PA, where I played trombone in the marching, concert, and jazz bands (and loved every minute of it). Directly following putting down my trombone for the last time I determined that I was going to be a “serious” composer, and went on to college, poring over Schönberg scores, experimenting with all the extended techniques thrown out onto the compositional table in the last 60 years, and generally being taught the merits of composing music written to be as difficult to play as possible.

Eric’s experience intrigued me however. Here was a composer who spoke in hushed tones of a community of conductors and ensembles who actually liked composers, sought out new music with vigorous fervor, and treated The Composer with respect and professionalism by paying for his or her music with actual green money. The dichotomy with the musical world in which I was immersed was fairly pointed: getting music played outside of school was a formidable challenge—orchestral conductors, who have the best musical intentions to play new music, find themselves inundated with scores, and with only limited programming slots for new music and even more limited funding, often end up playing the most established of today’s composers. Repeat performances of a work are almost unheard of. This situation often leads composers onto an academic path. At Juilliard, however, where professionalism was the order of the local society, the attitude was slightly different; my peers would refer to their colleagues not as “receiving a lot of performances” or “acclaim”, but rather would say, “s/he’s getting a lot of work”. It was that semantic difference which really brought home my sense of today’s musical marketplace, so I was already starting to think of myself as a “working” composer in search of performances and gigs, and less like a composer fated to nothing but teaching German augmented 6 chords to unhappy sophomores.

OK Feel Good for wind orchestra was a terrific experience for me (It’s so loud! I had 5 percussionists!) so I turned my attention to other possible wind projects. I found promise in sketches for an unfinished choral work, and started in—uncommissioned, and unsure of where or how I would get the results performed. Once again, Whitacre stepped in, offering to conduct whatever I finished at his next residency gig. And so Moon by Night for band and optional chorus enjoyed it’s first performance in Sterling, IL, in an outdoor band shell at sunset, and a whole lot of people who would never have heard my music before were starting to do just that.

Moon by Night has generated more interest than any other piece of mine, culminating in the honor of receiving the NBA/Merrill Jones Memorial Composition Award, and the subsequent publication of the work with Wingert-Jones. I’ve been very flattered with how well Moon has fared so far, and I feel like it’s less about my notes, and more about the music as a direct result of the beautiful psalm text on which it is based. In fact, so much of the form of the piece came from the structure of the text, I remember feeling while composing it like I was cheating. Moon uses the King James translation of Psalm 121, and the title is an image directly quoted from the psalm. The theme of the work is not sacred, however—it’s more like a hymn-like tone poem; a simple chorale with long unending lines, where the words serve only to create an evocative mood. While writing it, I found myself thinking of several other psalm settings, especially Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, the influence of which is probably made most manifest in the climax of the piece at rehearsal D, with the tritone-relationship in the cadence between B-flat and e minor. While basically rooted in a fairly straightforward tonality (E-flat major), I was also playing with what I consider very “french” harmonies, V7+9sus4 for instance, which I’ve always drooled over while playing Ravel on the piano, but never seriously incorporated into a piece of my own in a traditionally-tonal context.

As a composer with a complete lack of exposure to the commonly-played works on today’s wind ensemble programs, I never really learned how one is supposed to write for wind band (flutes and trumpets in octaves! saxes double horns!) — a situation which I actually consider an advantage. I sit down to write music, no matter what the ensemble, avoiding composing what is often called, for lack of a better description, “band music”. If I’m writing a wind ensemble piece, it should have just as much “music” (that is, creativity in harmony, rhythm, structure etc.) in it as if I’m writing a string quartet. From my limited experience over the last few years listening to the oft-formulaic works played on wind programs, that quality seems to be frequently missing from the band and educational music repertoire. Just because it’s educational music doesn’t mean it can’t be musical, or creative, or stretch the ears of the players and listeners. Admittedly, this tends to make music that’s often more challenging for the players and directors—harmonically, rhythmically, and balance-wise due to its sometimes irregular scoring, but I, and many directors with whom I’ve worked, consider the extra effort to be well worth it.

And I have colleagues who agree. Sharing my infatuation with the wind community are three other composers: Eric Whitacre (of course), Steven Bryant, and Jim Bonney. The four of us, all with various experience writing for winds, saw a need, and as the composer-consortium BCM International have sought to create a body of work for winds which defies categorization and avoids bland formulas. As BCM, we promote our music together—expanding awareness of our music, hopefully bringing exciting and interesting musical experiences to students, and ideally changing the status quo in the world of band ever so slightly. We believe a music community which does not evolve and stretch beyond its known-qualities is doomed to stagnation.

To that end, I’ve gone out of my way to make every piece I’ve written for wind ensemble both very different from each other, and very much in my own musical voice. The results are often not what bands are used to playing: OK Feel Good employs rhythmic gymnastics and challenging mixed meters with Stravinskian colors…Uncle Sid sets the folk dance Hava Nagila like it was drug party, complete with aleatoric noise and wrong notes…and most recently I’ve written a homage to 70′s funk called Chunk , a bi-tonal tone poem entitled As the scent of spring rain…, and an Anglican hymn fantasia called 1861, written for high-school level bands. The diversity of the above list pleases me.

This composer/explorer looks forward to continuing the quest for opportunity, from wherever in the music community I might find it. Maybe it’s me, but that glittering city twinkling in the distance looks a lot like a wind ensemble…

Titles

My peers and I spent our schooling attempting to get away from the academic exercise of “Symphony No. 2″-type titling — and with some success. Interesting and evocative titles are very common in the concert music world now. But only up to a point:

Sure, it can be interesting — but not TOO interesting. This drives me crazy. Crazy I tell you. In a way, the “absolute music” titling of the past (“Woodwind Quintet No. 2″) is a better deal, in that the music itself is never judged by the title. That’s a plus. Try not pre-judging what something called OK Feel Good will sound like…

(NOTE: my string quartet, Wapwallopen, was subtitled “String Quartet No. 1″ for this very reason. An interesting title only brings questions. Adding the absolute-music title on for good measure tempers it to normalcy…)

The result of this evocative-but-not-too-interesting-so-as-to-alienate-anybody titling is the predominance of “adjective-noun” titling, which to me is a frequently lazy way out, and often insulting to the audience. If your piece is called “Red Heat” you might as well name the thing “Orchestra Potboiler No. 2″. (for examples of this, see any title written by New York composers between 1990-1996…)

Mostly what I’m talking about here is a mostly a problem of the orchestra and chamber music world. Things are a little less tight-*** in the wind world…where Uncle Sid doesn’t really cause anyone to blink twice. But I got a refresher recently in the politics of titling with my orchestra piece, originally titled Hip+Now. After hearing quite a dramatic response against the irony of the title (despite the good response to the music itself), I eventually threw my hands up and renamed the piece to (the still cool, however much less interesting) Metropolitan.

What might be described as “Band-music titles” are a whole other category for me, and honestly, they’re just too easy a target. The ridiculousness of bastardizing a latin word or celebrating some suburban subdivision speaks for itself. And despite what the entire industry seems to believe, adding an exclamation point on the end does not make the title, or the piece, more exciting.

Another common cop-out titling system which drives me bananas (and yes I’ve been guilty of employing this one more than once):

some descriptive word or phrase +

a) “Music”

b) “Dance(s)”

c) some specific kind of music or dance (ie. “Gavotte” or “March”)

At its best, this yields titles like John Adams‘ NAIVE AND SENTIMENTAL MUSIC.

At its worst, one gets CHELSEA TANGO or WACKY WALTZ (not making those up).

Despite my railing against the ones I perceive as terrible, I wholeheartedly admit, titles are hard. They are personal and subjective. One (wo)man’s great title is another (wo)man’s self-indulgent claptrap. I’m sure people hate my titles just as much as I hate theirs. That being said, one of my favorite pastimes every year is going through the “new issues” section of the Midwest Clinic catalog and making fun of all of the titles. Exclamation-pointed titles get set aside for especially cruel derisive laughter.

So for me, a self-proclaimed snob of the highest order, bad titles are the norm. In music, in dance (by far the biggest instigator of the adjective-noun epidemic), and in the visual arts. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in an art gallery, looking at new works, and instantly and viscerally enjoyed a piece until I glanced at its title. Honestly, I just don’t look at the little cards to the left anymore.

I wish I could do the same on concert programs…

FinaleMusic

In an interview I threw out this term (it’s certainly nothing new, I’m sure I didn’t make it up). Most people immediately understand what I meant when I mentioned “finalemusic” (sic) in that interview, but merely for the purposes of clarification, allow me try to expound, and thereby explain myself slightly better.

First off, I am FOR whatever tools get people writing music. Period. Whether it’s working with computers, in notation programs (Finale, Sibelius) or sequencers (DP, Cakewalk, whatever), or the myriad of other tools available with which for the most part I am a complete and useless Luddite. And I don’t think that notated music, or the tools used to create notated music are any more valid than un-notated non-western music, nor do I wish to compare them in any way at all, nor do I declare any one way to write music as being ‘better’ than any other. In fact, the unparalleled quality of most un-notated musics (like African drumming for example) crystalizes my whole point–NOTATION ITSELF IS EVIL.

Well, ok, not notation per se, because a lot of terrific music is notated . . . but what my point is that the limits of notation are evil — that YES Finale (and let’s just use Finale to be a general term for all modern notation software) is a great tool for copying, for learning how to notate, for getting ideas into reality, and for hearing half-decent playback, and it is just one of the many and infinite ways all of you described above for writing, and learning how to write music. And it can also be a great tool for composition. Many many terrific pieces are written in it, and will be written with it, just as many terrific pieces are written in a sequencer, or sung into a tape recorder, or just plain not even written down. What I was attempting to define in that interview is not the practice of writing one’s music in Finale, but the practice of writing one’s music down to Finale. When I’m not writing music that I want to or can write, but when I am writing music that’s easy to write in Finale, showing no glimmer that this is something that could have been composed by writing on a piece of paper, or played on the piano, or sung out loud, or entered into a sequencer, or anything really, but that looks and sounds only like it was written into Finale and has no other properties: that’s ‘finalemusic’, to me. Finale works best when its music has meters, measures, barlines, set tempi, repeated phrases and form, and notes that fall into a 12-note scale. Now before everyone tackles me all at once — that’s not to say that the music you want to write shouldn’t neccesarily be easy to write into Finale or fall into the above categories. I’m just saying that it shouldn’t have to. Just like African drumming doesn’t have to, or the music of George Crumb doesn’t have to. For me, thinking creatively about notation–as an extension of composition–(and Crumb is just one example of thinking creatively about notation), is just as important as the notes. Try inputting Crumb into Finale. Crumb is not better, of course. It’s just different. What I hope I’m saying is–I’m glad that something different is out there…aren’t you? What if it wasn’t? What if that something different ultimately stopped being taught, or attempted, or tried by young composers, or ripped off, or just plain went away eventually?

In the same vein, I am equally critical about what I will call, for lack of a better term, “pianist-music.” That is, music that is written down to 10 fingers on a piano, and never breaks out of that box. The principle is exactly the same. I’ve known lots of composers who were unbelievable pianists — just monsters at the keyboard, and yet, this ability (in my opinion only!) actually hampered them in their composition…their music to me never sounded more than piano music, orchestrated or transcribed for something else.

For me, music composition is inherently Unlimited. Yes, of course, you are always limited, by your ensemble, by instrument range, by whatever. That’s the fun of the art, to work within those limitations. But when writing I try to think unlimited first, and then go from there. One of the great things about composing for me is you can just plain old sit back in an easy chair, close your eyes, and think about sounds…not just notes, but sounds, non-metered rhythms, and non-linear forms, and all the wonderful and interesting colors of the composing palette that the western composers of the last 80 years have left us, to say nothing of all of the hundreds and hundreds of years of ‘world music’ we now have much better access to in this digital age, or the generations of quality popular music. Then I go from there, and see how what I’m thinking of could be written and notated.

Despite how the above sounds I am not a crotchety old man with a quill pen and a candle, yearning for the good ol’ days of writing music (and reports as such have been greatly exaggerated.) I use Sibelius. I use DP. For many, MANY years I used Finale. Often, when writing, I will pour material into a sequencer, or into Sibelius, and see what I can do with it. I use it like my piano, as one of the many compositional tools available to me. I love my computer, I love using my computer to write. I used to be that 11-year old who sat at his Commodore 64 (I had a Vic-20, too) and program little songs and sequences using BASIC into the wee hours of the night. As far as I’m concerned, the music I wrote then was just as valid as Herr Composer writing Symph. No 10 with blood and scrap of sheepskin.

Now if reading this then you most likely know that I often write good old normal, notated, barred, metered music — music that is quite simply inputted into Finale, either while writing, or just copying, just like many many others who write Western music. But what is important to me is to think about the music first, and THEN think about how I’m going to notate it. Now, this whole topic and the silly term ‘finalemusic’ boils down to this, my main thesis: that writing into Finale, COULD (doesn’t have to! but could!) produce music where notating comes first, and the music comes second, thus producing what I (for lack of a better term) referred to as “finalemusic”. I accuse nobody in particular of this, nor have ever thought to. Just as I would I never “accuse” anybody of writing by any particular means, and say it’s worse than writing another way.

All that being said, my friends, I’ve taught lessons, I’ve taught classes, I’ve sat on competition panels and looked through scores . . . and I have seen something — call it a casual observation — I believe I’ve seen the music young composers are writing change slightly with the popularity of Finale. For lack of a better term, I’ve seen finalemusic. It’s not the end of civilization; Music with a capital M is not, as we speak, falling into a firey abyss of damnation…it’s just a silly made-up word I’m pretty sure I didn’t make up, to explain an observation I’ve been making to myself (and to others who will listen) for the last few years.

Honesty

It’s as good a term as any (“Truthfulness” works, too), and whatever we decide to call it, for me it is the most defining feature of a composer’s work. A piece can have as much craft as humanely possible (Greetings to you Mr. Diamond! How are you, Sir?) but if the composer doesn’t LOVE every note that he or she is writing down then it isn’t worth diddly. This is why Good and Honest are never in direct opposition with each other: because I can guarantee you that Milton Babbitt actually hears like that, and loves it, and that he writes completely Honest music and so therefore it is Good. You (collective You) may just not like it as much as he does. And if one loves it himself, he or she probably doesn’t care what people think about it. Obviously, you’d rather have people like it as well…but the most important person to please is the composer him/herself first.

I remember a lecture at Juilliard with Philip Glass — whose music, with a very few exceptional pieces, I really dislike. And this is after many years of force-feeding myself Glass — in Robert Wilson operas at The Met, at marathon concerts at Tanglewood, at every durned premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music — I was there. Trying. Couldn’t do it. I tried — I really did. It just sounded, well, not Truthful to me — not honest, pandering, like he was writing what he thought we wanted to hear from him. So then there was this lecture — and I watched him listening to his own music — and his whole body language exposed a man who absolutely loved this stuff. I mean he was banging his head, he was singing along, he was tapping his feet, banging out rhythms. I thought, “$&*!, this guy actually likes to listen to this crap — that’s fantastic.” Completely turned my opinion around. Now I will defend his music as viable — I won’t necessarily go out of my way to listen to it, because I personally don’t care for it, but I will defend it as honest, and real, and therefore, in some very viable way, Good.

The symbiotic relationship between Good and Honest is probably most easily shown by looking back to the issues composers dealt with in the 60′s in American conservatories…where composers were taught that it didn’t matter how they felt about writing or whether it was honest or not as long as it fit into a certain confined (now pretty much defunct, yet still kicking somewhat) American serialist style — and that anything outside of that wasn’t even Music, let alone Good or not. I wasn’t there for this of course, as the “revolution”, led by David Del Tredici, the minimalists, and many others uncelebrated for their efforts (Bob Beaser!), happened well before I got into it. But I have heard from composers who did go through it that we really have no idea how bad it was, and that we are actually very lucky that we can even have this discussion at all…

Now, of course, we are much better off — conservatories really do encourage one to write what you want to write, and they just stick to teaching you the craft. Teachers can and should certainly press students to stretch themselves in directions they maybe didn’t even know existed, but it’s up to the student to decide how to write, after learning about the entire, and I mean the entire, palette of expressive possibilities.

So what of The Audience? Does/Can The Audience comprehend when music is Honest, and so then by logical extension (as far as my argument goes, at least) judge an Honest work to be Good, even if it does not neccesarily conform to personal taste? In a word, Yes, but it’s obviously much more complicated than a simple affirmative. I say “Yes” because I think having that kind of faith in your listeners is essential to a satisfying musical experience for everyone, and that once you start even thinking “No” to the above question (even if the answer is in reality “No”), you start down a very slippery slope of a “well, what does the audience consider good, then” kind of thinking, which I maintain is purpose-defeating and leads to writing inherently Dishonest music. The process of attempting to “guess, or, to give slightly more intellectual credit, understand what an audience would think is Good not only does everyone involved a disservice but also is practically impossible: it’s just silly to know what any group of people (of disparate backgrounds, educations, social structures) would be wanting from a music experience, let alone collectively think, and so what ends up happening is that the composer him/herself’s own personal concept Good gets imposed onto the audience anyway, and so now you’ve got music that is no closer to “Absolute” Good, and yet is now also, by virtue of this roundabout logic, “Dishonest.”

And so now we find ourselves contextually only a digressively short jaunt away from the aforementioned Mr. Babbitt’s infamous and grossly mis-titled “Who Cares If You Listen” article from 1958. Contrary to popular belief, Mr. Babbitt never did propose that composers should not be concerned with what other people think, rather, as the composer’s original, unedited title (The Composer As Specialist) implies, the article itself is about his incredulousness that one would complain about having trouble understanding his music — he knows perfectly well, that unless they have many years of training and background that they wouldn’t. His point was: if no one otherwise reasonably-educated person expects to understand a science paper written by a nuclear physicist — why should they expect to understand advanced music written by the music equivalent, a “music expert”? And why do we resist the notion that Music may have evolved to that point? To justify my digression from the original topic, let me point to the evidence that we’re still not so very far away:

The preliminary differentiation of musical categories by means of this reasonable and usable criterion of “degree of determinacy” offends those who take it to be a definition of qualitative categories, which-of course-it need not always be. Curiously, their demurrers usually take the familiar form of some such “democratic” counterdefinition as: “There is no such thing as ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ music.” There is only ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music.” As a public service, let me offer those who still patiently await the revelation of the criteria of Absolute Good an alternative criterion which possesses, at least, the virtue of immediate and irrefutable applicability: “There is no such thing as ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ music. There is only music whose title begins with the letter ‘X,’ and music whose title does not.”

So let’s say I have the hubris to pluck the Maestro’s thesis from an otherwise whole (and I think, thoroughly entertaining) article, and run with it. I might say that the “criteria of Absolute Good” may very well be forever unrevealed, but indeed it’s that very Mystery, in the form of the search for each composer’s own honest expression of Good, which has fostered Music’s evolution to the point as Mr. Babbitt sees it as reaching “…a stage long since attained by other forms of activity…” More loftily: Through the absence of Knowledge We have created Beauty, all of which is Beautiful because it strives toward the unattainable Good.

Is that what we are feeling when we hear something that moves us? Is it because it’s Good, or is it because our own personal Truth happens to happily intersect with The Composer’s? In all fairness, to mangle another quote into a metaphor, some Truths are (probably) more equal than others. That is, Beethoven’s Honest exploration of Joy in his 9th Symphony does seem to jibe with almost everyone else’s concepts and perceptions on that matter. Conversely, maybe Roger Sessions’s Truthful expressions of brilliance aren’t always shared or understood by a whole heck of a lot of people. I mean, they are, to be fair, representative of the kind of American Serialism eschewed by the academic musical revolution of the 70′s I mentioned above. But they are unequivocally Honest. I can only continue to believe that audiences hear that honesty along with me, and declare it Good.