Sunday, September 1, 2013

Waiting online

Three years ago when this blog was in its infancy — and growing much faster than it's growing now, but without anywhere near as much hair — I posted about composer faux pas ...

... wait, what's the plural of faux pas? Because, like, you see, in French faux is already plural, even though it describes something singular, and, and ...

... about composer fauxs paux as they relate to physical applications for jobs. Some of the points are also germane to applications for things like the Barlow grant or commission, the Rome Prize, some artist colonies, etc. In sum, it's a list of simple things to do to avoid making the people evaluating you cranky.

There is currently a transition happening in the field toward online applications. Which changes things.

First, all scores and score samples will have to be digital now. Usually that means PDFs (which are easy to make in the standard notation programs); which, if your hit tunes are all hand copied, it's time to buy an autofeed scanner to make those gorgeous and very, very large multipage PDFs.

I just counted: including the one that currently doesn't work, Beff and I have five autofeed scanners. We rule, but only in a world with very strange rules. It's probably good news that the fifth one we got does more but was forty percent of the cost of the second one, and sixty-six percent of the cost of the first one.

Wait, why do we have five? Sigh, here's why. 1) an early autofeed scanner/color inkjet printer for online class handouts. Ahead of the technology curve, and it was one of the first ones available. 2) wi-fi networked laser printer as well as copier and scanner 3) wi-fi networked laser printer/scanner/copier for the house in Maine 4) large format tabloid (or "ledger") size scanner/copier, the least expensive of all of them 5) scanner/copier for the summer place for all users of the place.

One cool thing about the tabloid scanner is that I can now scan all my old sketches, being as I do my writing on my Mikey Paper. So called because it originated with hand-drawn 11x17 score paper made by Mike Gandolfi in 1980. So I have posted a bunch of sketches right here on this bloggy thing.

Thus. If there is ever a competition involving sketches and submissions that is online only, I am covered. I won't have to go back to them and rewrite them on letter-size paper, or reduce them on a copier, or cover them with sand and do a little dance.

But now there's lots and lots of online submitting of materials. I haven't had to do much submitting yet, (I've been busy sighing that I'm too busy sighing that I'm too busy sighing — wait, gotta reset the feedback loop — I've been busy sighing that work keeps me away from doing much cool stuff you can apply for) but I have certainly been on the other end — the guy who is charged with the evaluating via online applications, and who hates stuff that makes him cranky.

The advantage to online submissions and judging is that nobody has to call a meeting and figure out, by trial and error, when all the evaluating people are available. The evaluating people get to do it at their leisure, in their jammies or jodhpurs, spread across how ever much time it takes, with domestic animals in their laps, even. Also said evaluating people probably don't know who the other evaluating people are, so there aren't impasses when, say, there is no more popcorn. On the other hand, there is also no horse trading. That's an expression.

So. Then. As a sequel to that much earlier post, I write this to add a few little bits of advice to composers compelled to make online applications for stuff. Some online applications ask you to upload everything to their server, while others ask you to provide URLs where your stuff can be found, i.e. your website or a cloud service. Thus, some of the advice is more apropos to the latter type.

  • Scores that look sucky when printed look exactly as sucky as PDFs. Fix notation, don't let notes and accidentals collide with barlines, don't let the scores get crowded. Make the score beautiful. The good scores stick out (because there are so few of them), and make evaluating people smile just a little.
  • Check your mp3 before you upload it (or put it in your own space where the evaluating people are going to access it). Don't presume evaluating people are so busy they're not going to listen to all of your six-minute movement and cut it off before the movement is done. That's amateur hour stuff.
  • If you give a link to your score, make it a direct link to the score. How cranky do you think evaluating people get when your link is to your website and they have to fish through your oh so artsy interface to find what they are supposed to evaluate? Answer: infinity. The same applies to mp3s on your website. Also, if your score is on a download-for-money website, don't give that link and advise evaluating people to "click on Preview".
  • If you use a cloud storage service, learn what the interface looks like to evaluating people. I have encountered lots of Dropbox, box and google drive files as well as other services that I didn't recognize. I prefer box above all the others because there are preview options both for PDFs and mp3s. With dropbox and google drive, the evaluating people are compelled either to download your files before you can view/listen, and then later must muck around the hard drive in order to delete them — don't presume that evaluating people are going to be so in love with your work that they'll want to keep it for all time.
  • For sound files, SoundCloud is the bomb. Simple interface, no downloading, and there's a pretty picture to look at for evaluating people who like to do it stoned.
  • Remember when you've referenced a file in an application with a link in a cloud service. Don't delete those files from your dropbox, box, Copy, google drive, etc. before the stated deadline for notification. Because maximum crankiness ensues when the link to your score or sound file yields THE FILE IS NOT FOUND. Evaluating people are quick to hit DELETE in this case. That thing where evaluating people are concerned about you as an artist and about your forgetfulness and they don't mind emailing you to let you know it's missing and they have the time to wait days for you to put it back and email back about it — that only happens in old movies. And in imaginary old movies, at that (I watch a lot of those).

Now, see I get cranky just writing about getting cranky. Le feedback loop, c'est moi.

Update: it turns out we have six autofeed scanners. I got one of the first HP printers that let you print directly from an iPhone or iPad, and it's a color inkjet that just happens to include autofeed scanner. Not that the autofeed wasn't important. It was our Vermont printer for two years before we converted to laser. Currently it is in the guest room, and when you turn it on it screams my ink is really old!

Update 2: This post from classical music is boring brings up yet another issue in online applications.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

How can we stop him? His glamour increases!

I have just been doing a familiar yearly task, except responsibly.

But lemme splain. Two steps forward, three steps back. Then, seven steps forward, six steps sideways, you put your left foot in, three steps back. Yahtzee!

I have been playing the part of Glamour Boy. How glamourous is it? Why, it's the continental spelling, with the extra "u", of glamour! And it's because I have a composer in residence title. Or maybe it's Composer In Residence, or Composer-In-Residence. They all function the same, except in spell checkers and Yahtzee.

As they say, I am the Composer in Residence for the smallest orchestra in the United States that has such a thing. Or, uh, such a person. Now there's a distinction. And boy, does it come with glamour, a word I promise to use a lot less.

Starting now.

First and foremost, it's a title once held by Andy Vores, Mike Gandolfi, and Peter Child, among others. That means something already. Hey, one of those guys has two names that are five letters each. I'll never have that distinction, except maybe some evenings when I've had too much to drink, and a taco.

And the pay? Less than one mortgage payment. Even our new shrunken mortgage payment since the refi. But there is the, you know, g-word. I have a title.

The coolest thing about the job is that I can write a piece a year for the orchestra, they will perform it, and I will get a very good recording. Since they've played several of my pieces already, I know they are very good, and I know where the strengths are. And since it is a community orchestra, I get to write stuff that maybe other orchestras will play. I haven't written a nested tuplet in many, many years — this is not where I'd start doing that again.

And indeed, I chose to write a piece with the working title Dance Episodes for next season. It's programmed for May 3, 2014. And not a note of it exists yet.

There will be thrown bows. That's an expression.

Why Dance Episodes? One of these days I'd like to write a full-length ballet. With intermission, and everything (I presume popcorn sales will fund the commission). This will be an opportunity to get fifteen minutes of my feet wet for such an endeavour. Note the continental extra "u", and the really awkward mixing of metaphors there.

Better yet. Whenever I write for the orchestra, I get remunerated to the tune of two mortgage payments, with a little leftover for popcorn. Even at movie theater prices.

That's in addition to my usual stipend. And what do I do for that stipend? I use the title, and I do the prestigious call for scores.

Yes, that's another very cool thing about the orchestra. They have a yearly call for scores, and one of the submissions is chosen to be on a regular program the following season. It's a very, very nice opportunity, and the performances are always very good. The winning composer gets a nice line on the resumé, an orchestral royalty, and a free bag of popcorn.

I made that last part up. I'm going with themes, you see.

An excellent opportunity like this call for scores looks, to young composers, like one in a long list of many opportunities. Yes, there's a ton of opportunities for composers, and all of said composers are advised two things: take advantage of as many of them as possible, and steel yourself for rejection. It's one of very few instances where it's proper to use steel as a verb. The homonym used there would sillify the sentence greatly.

Having done these opportunities myself, back when I shaved regularly, I know how much work it is to put the entries into these opportunities together. And now that I shave less regularly, I give a lot of advice over e-mail to students, former students, and former former students on what to include in such a packet, and what kind of presentation to make. Surprisingly, every answer is different. Because, duh, every student and former student has written different pieces. It's my job to know those pieces. But secretly.

Is the past tense of steel stool? As in, I stool myself for rejection? But I kid.

Or do I?

Being on the entrant end of such things carries with it all kinds of anxiety, into which going will not be done by me here. Any composer reading this will know that of which speaking is done by me. Plus, it's pretty expensive.

Being on the other side of the process, though. I've served on plenty of panels, and it's a responsibility I take very seriously. I don't play favorites, I recuse myself from conflicts of interest when possible, and I always let everybody have popcorn before I take any. And most of these panels have been administered by an entity far greater than I, who can afford an administrative layer that can deal with the complexities of a call for scores (or a prize, or a commission, or a bag of really expensive popcorn).

To wit, one of the opportunities on whose panels I served had a whole layer of administration, from paid staff to multiple interns to do the grunt work. Submissions arrived and were logged and classified, materials were numerically organized, interns did the playback during the judging, and after the decisions were made, all the materials magically disappeared, as if by fairy dust. And the judges went out for an expensive meal.

And given that that opportunity has such vast outreach, not to mention reputation, the ratio of applicants to winners is very, very high. That's a lot of rejection letters to produce.

I didn't care. I was at the expensive meal, and boarding a plane the next day. I really liked the way they mixed the salad dressing right in front of you. Later, I got a reimbursement check for my incidentals, such as parking at the airport, etc.

And there is the call for scores that Composer In Residence guy (moi) does once a year. All those layers of administrative help? Not to be found. Free meals? Nope. A high altitude hike? Nope, stuck at 330 feet above sea level here.

And here's how it really went.


Oh wait. First an interruption. There's been a lot of unremitting text here. So here's a cat in a laundry hamper.

First, soon after it was announced that the orchestra had me as the CIR (I'm abbreviating now, rather a long word for such a thing), I got an e-mail from a former student asking if he/she should apply for the opportunity. I said, using nothing but truth, I don't play favorites for these things, and you wouldn't get any special preference. You'd be on a level playing field with the entire applicant pool. That said, if yours really was the best submission and was declared the winner, how much of those first two sentences would anyone else in the world believe? I did not see an entry from this composer. Relief.

And then there is the actual doing of stuff. Yes, that's what composition is about. Doing stuff. And so is a call for scores. Stuff that must be done by me when there's no administrative layers or interns.

The submissions went to a PO Box and were collected by the orchestra's manager. He has a full-time job at BU in addition to this managing gig, so he brought them all to his office. He logged in maybe half the submissions and removed the entry fee checks, but given that he has a full-time gig ...

And how did I get the submissions? Did they magically appear on my doorstep? Yes! Except that they were never on my doorstep, and I had to drive to BU (and back, duh) to pick them up — that's 55 minutes each way, much of it spent sandwiched around and between Boston drivers, who are notoriously the worst. The applications filled the trunk of my car. It was three trips to bring them from my car into my living room. And this may be a coincidence, but it was while I was doing this whole task that I aggravated an existing hernia, culminating in surgery just about ten days ago.

I'll go with the coincidence.

I spent two full days with the submissions. Two full days. During my April vacation. When I could have been writing music. When I should have been writing music. Also, I had to pull out the entry fee checks from a little more than half the applications and file them, to make sure that eventually someone would get them.

Did all the entry fees add up to a figure that would pay my CIR stipend? Nope. It turns out that this isn't an opportunity funded by the entry fee.

And while I'm at it, I always advise against entering anything with an entry fee. Especially this one. Because next year that would be less work for me.

And also. This year's application pool was 1.7 times as large as last year's. Just sayin'.

So I did my usual oohing and aahing over two days about how few kinds of beginnings that composers writing for orchestra think of, at the professionality of so many of them, at the quality of many of the recordings, and all. At the end of my part of the process, I had four that I liked the best.

In a perfect world, a world with unlimited interns, all the scores and packets would have magically disappeared right around then. Somehow, they didn't. Instead, the nonwinners were all packed up and stuck ... in our side porch. The only place we have with space for them where they wouldn't get moldy. My wife has commented many, many times on how nice it would be to have them out of there.

Then the glamour increased some more. I took just the scores and recordings of the four finalists out of the packages, being sure to keep the documentation with contact information. And what did I do with them? I packaged them in a mailing bag that I myself had bought, walked it to the post office, and mailed it to the conductor using money that just happened to be resident in my wallet at that moment. Several days later he and I had a long phone conversation about those four pieces, and it was clear he knew them all encyclopedically. And we decided on a winner.

Still, the packets did not magically disappear.


I know, dear reader, that you'd like something else to break up the text. So here's some rosemary chicken just as I started to grill it.

The rosemary came from my own garden. I rule.

Finally, after school finished, I had that operation, etc., and it came time for the time of notification to those who did not win (I could have said those who lost, but there are no losers here. You can't win if you don't play. Then again, you don't lose if you don't play. Etc.).

Davy the Intern is what I became. And notification involved three kinds of things: applicants who sent mailing bags and postage for return of materials (the dreaded SASE); applicants who sent e-mail addresses; and applicants who sent only postal addresses. So already, three kinds of ways of responding.

First, I asked the orchestra manager to set up an e-mail account for my official capacity as CIR. Which he did. So I have yet another gmail account. And this one is notification only. Or at least I say it is. Because, you know, not one hundred percent of nonwinners are gracious nonwinners. Some will dislike me intensely but generically, and some will want to know specifically why they didn't win, what they did wrong. The correct and truthful answer I don't remember your application usually would not suffice.

And I spent an entire morning generating gracious but terse letters — using the name of the applicant and of the applicant's piece — and packaging materials into the SASEs. But that was only part of it. Because then there was the trip to the post office. It's not straightforward, you see.

The first time I was ever involved in a call for scores was the early 90s when I taught at Columbia and was living in rural Massachusetts, and the Griffin Music Ensemble had such a thing. When it was over, I did that packaging of stuff into the SASEs and brought it to the local rural post office to be sent out. Which prompted the postmaster of said post office to invite me into his office to give me a gentle but stern talking to about how these things should have been packaged, how this stuff is supposed to go in a perfect postal world, just so I would know that next time. There's not going to be a next time didn't seem to faze said postmaster. The lecture continued while I waited for the iPod to be invented.

So I was going to the post office with a pile of what a bunch of different composers thought the standards were for SASEs, and, true to form, of all the counter help at the local post office, I got Attitude Guy. Attitude Guy don't take no guff, because he doesn't know what guff is. He's been waiting for guff, man.


Here are my cats enjoying the blanket under which I recovered for the first week after the operation.

My opening gambit, given my experience with such things, was to identify these as packages done by others, but in more words than that. His response: Excuse me?

So ... package by package, he went through, guffless. When he said This should be stamped MEDIA MAIL I said I don't care. To which he said I can just give these all back to you right now and I won't send any of them out. Apparently I don't care qualifies as guff. Man.

So I stood there silently as he went through package by package, stamping MEDIA MAIL on some of them. The last one was 25 cents short on postage. I paid that 25 cents out of the goodness of my own heart.

Oh, by the way, composers. When you send an SASE, it'd be nice if you'd include at least as much postage on the package as is required. You don't want to see me wasting my time on silly comebackers like Show them no quarter, do you?

So then there were the rest of the applications. Of which there were a lot. Using a mixture of e-mails and letters stuffed into envelopes -- did I mention I copied the orchestra's logo off the webpage and used it, cleverly so, to create an official envelope? I rule. -- I spent another entire morning printing letters, printing envelopes, and sending e-mails. Then, another trip to the post office, a book of stamps bought on my own dime (it was more than that), and four international postage stamps.

Glamour, I tell you. Remind me not to pursue a career as an intern.

But then again, I am writing ballet music.

Meanwhile, all those applications. Still on the porch.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A three-headed clarinet dog

In 2000-01, I was part of a faculty seminar called Consilience, in which 12 or 15 Brandeis faculty met weekly, along with students from the faculty's departments. We read E.O. Wilson's Consilience — on how the sciences are coming together into one meta-field, and the arts together with the sciences, and all (he didn't know really much about art except for what he read, but boy did he know about the sciences), and one part of the seminar involved each faculty member talking at length about his or her work, for two hours.

Also, there was a lot of reading. Thankfully, we all got one course relief; the relieved courses were taught by the students who also attended the seminar. For music, it was Steve Weigt.

I prepared a one-hour lecture (perhaps to appear here at some future point) and some handouts for the others to study the week before my lecture. Then there was an hour of questions, speculations, ideas about definitions of beauty, etc., and of all things, a question about whether it was Britney or Christina who really had it goin' on. That last part is a paraphrase.

One thing I prepared to give the others a taste of how composers think (or at least how they write about how they think) was the following handout about my triple clarinet concerto Cerberus (the link there is to the Spotify album on which it appears) — a live performance is here. For the record, the piece is also copyright © by CF Peters.

The handout refers to a second handout, a detailed PDF. That is here.

With further adieu, the handout.

————————————————————

Rakowski: Cerberus. Notes on the composition.

Cerberus is a concerto for clarinet and a chamber orchestra of 13 players. I had made a pie-in-the-sky application to the NEA for funding to write a clarinet concerto for my wife Beth, and it was, alas, approved. So now I actually had to write one. A premiere in Berkeley and Davis, California was promised by the Empyrean Ensemble for May, 1992, providing I finished the piece on time.

When starting to writing a concerto, a composer thinks long and hard about two things above all else: the relationship of the concerto soloist to the ensemble, and how the soloist will make its first entrance. Since Beth tends to be asthmatic with the spring and fall changes of weather (remember the premiere was in May), I knew I would have a hard time writing very long phrases for the soloist, as Beth would be often out of breath; so I decided to put a clarinet and a bass clarinet into the chamber orchestra that would act as “extensions” of the soloist, “reflections,” “amplifications,” “partners,” etc., or as metaphorical doppelgangers. This way clarinet lines could possibly (and magically) appear to defy wind player logic and go on nearly forever, without the need for breath — a three-headed clarinet — Cerberus. These über-lines would then pass from the soloist into the ensemble and back, etc., giving the soloist a complicated relationship to the ensemble: part of it while also superior to it, as it would be sitting in front of and apart from the ensemble in performance.

As to the entrance of the soloist, I decided, instead of making a big dramatic gesture, to “hide” the soloist inside the sound of the clarinets in the ensemble, and to let it assert itself only gradually, emerging as the real soloist only towards the end of the first movement. To accomplish this, I could make all three clarinets play together most of the time, each with musical lines that were not very different from those of the others; this way the listener should not be able to tell which part belonged to the soloist and which parts belonged in the ensemble. To make the point quite clear at the outset, I knew I would begin on a unison (all the clarinets playing the same note). I further decided to have only the clarinets play for the first two minutes, with the ensemble joining in only gradually, one instrument at a time. If I were a continental European composer, I would add here that “this was the first time this was ever done in music” whether or not it was true.

But which unison note to begin on? By the time I got around to starting the piece, I was at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center in Italy. Every afternoon at 3:00, a couple of church bells just down the hill would peal loudly for about five minutes. Those bells were pitched on G and D, and I heard them every day, so why not start with G and D? This way if my piece were ever performed in Bellagio on a 3:00 concert, it would blend in nicely. As is usually the case with pairs of bells, each pealed at a different rate so that the two of them went in and out of phase with a certain regularity, and that created interesting rhythmic and melodic patterns. My piece, then, could begin with each of the three clarinets playing lines that were out of phase (the beginnings and endings of each player’s lines would not coincide) and that very loosely imitated those of the others. Which led to the question: how do you organize something like this? How does the composer give the listener a sense of progression or of hierarchy? Would this music necessarily be without melody? (these questions are not answered below)

The decision followed to have each phrase played by each clarinet start on G, followed by notes that were lower; thus, even with phrases that were out of phase, the three clarinets would have something audibly in common. Further, the phrases would overlap in a way such that G was always sounding—at least one of the clarinetists was playing G at all times. In effect, this would make for a very, very long G, possibly giving the illusion that a fourth, unseen clarinetist was playing it. And this clarinetist apparently didn’t have to breathe like mortal clarinetists. Magic! From here, it’s not a big step of logic to decide that the imaginary fourth clarinetist might as well play not only G, but a melody in very long notes — it could play G for a while, move to another note, move to another note, and so on. The idea of a melody in rather long notes accompanied by more quickly moving notes is not novel in music: the Notre Dame composers of the 13th century did it famously, Bach’s chorale preludes do it as a central premise. Historically, that melody in long notes came from an external source, a pre-existing melody, often a liturgical one — which was called a cantus firmus (fixed melody). In other words, I now knew I was going to compose with a cantus firmus — but not a pre-existing one (unless the bells count) — whose first two notes may as well be G and D (I was in Bellagio…the bells…remember?).


Then I composed a melody of 19 notes (starting on G and D) to function as a “cantus firmus” for the whole concerto. While on the surface the music would get faster and slower, there would always be the same 19-note cantus firmus moving at a slower speed. In the finished piece, the cantus firmus takes as long as three minutes to unfold, or as little as 20 seconds. Sometimes the cantus firmus is obvious, and at other times is only in the background.

But now back to the opening of the piece, wherein we hear only three clarinets, and a phantom fourth clarinet playing the cantus firmus. The following may be heard and observed:

1)            The three clarinets play individual lines that are similar in character, similar in speed, are undifferentiated hierarchically with respect to each other, and which loosely imitate the others.
2)            The melodic shape Down, Down, Up describes the first phrase of all three soloists, and each phrase also begins with at least two Downward moves.
3)            The first four notes (or very long phrase) of the cantus firmus  unfold with  the shape Down, Down, Up.
4)            The “musical space” very slowly and gradually expands, very slowly upwards with the cantus firmus, and very slowly downwards, with the bass clarinet introducing ever lower notes in each successive phrase.
5)            The first two notes heard are G and D. The first two notes of the cantus firmus are G and D. The first three notes heard (G, D, Aflat) make the same kind of chord (theorists call it a 016 trichord, if they can be awakened) as the first three notes of the cantus firmus (G, D, Dflat).
6)            It’s kinda purty.

Some musicians, when told of 3) and 5) above (something happening on the surface is closely related to something happening much more slowly in the middleground), say, “so it’s like fractals.” Which just goes to show you how little musicians know about fractals. If this were truly a fractal piece, it would still be going on. It’s really just a very simple example of how one composer thought about using stuctural levels in one piece (the “grand structures growing out of small details” of the indented quote on p. 239 of Consilience.).

The graph of the first 12 measures of Cerberus (here)

The first twelve measures of the piece may be seen twice, with dynamics omitted to reduce clutter. In I. Phrase shape, one may see the melodic shape of each clarinetist’s phrase simply, in terms the notes moving up or down. The phrases are generally notated under a slur (an arc shape), and the players must breathe between them. One can see very generally the loose imitations in phrase shape and the overlapping of the phrases. In a few instances, the composer’s notion of where a phrase begins and ends contradicts the slur markings.

In II. By Cantus Firmus Tone one can see in boxes when a player is playing a cantus firmus tone, and see the overlapping that gives the illusion of long, continuous tones. Above the music, connected by arrows, are the names of the pitches of the cantus firmus as it unfolds.

The music shown on the graph represents the first 1:20 of the recorded excerpt.  The first non-clarinet to play is the cello at 2:13, joined thereafter by viola, violin 2, and then the rest of the ensemble more quickly. The second iteration of the cantus firmus begins at 3:10 when the texture reduces to one note. The solo clarinet is heard unequivocally as the soloist for the first time beginning at 5:39, only to be sucked back into the cerberus, and to re-emerge at 6:36 in counterpoint with a wind melody.


Here is an excerpt from the Sacramento Bee’s review of the premiere, which is pertinent to the texts of the Consilience Seminar: “The interplay, prior to the emergence of the real soloist, the immensely talented Beth Wiemann, gave listeners a Heissenbergian (sic) sense of indeterminacy, one which governed the remaining movements.”

Sunday, December 30, 2012

European artist residencies 1: Bogliasco

Earlier I mega-posted about artist residencies, most specifically the five (5!(five!)) I did the first year I ever did them. Since that year, I've had occasion to do some more residencies — lots more, actually. Twenty-four since that year, by any conservative count (or conservative duchess, for that matter). Of the residencies I wrote about in that post, I've been to MacDowell ten times now, to Yaddo seven times, and to VCCA six times in all. I reapplied to the Djerassi Foundation in 1996 or 1997 and was turned down — and I haven't reapplied to Bellagio, which, by the way, makes you wait at least ten years between residencies.

Pansoti — pasta in a nut cream sauce
But I have really, really, really loved the European residencies I have had the opportunity to take. For one, it's Europe, which means strange-looking money that's not all the same color and same size; it also means better and fresher food, some mysterious food, and the opportunity to use names for food that formerly lived only in language textbooks. And it means timidity out there in the real world as you slowly rehearse what you're going to say when you get to the register, and practice your "huh?" look as you're spoken to at a clip that wasn't on the language tapes.


When the street level passage is closed, use the underpass
The cohort at these residencies is far more international than at MacDowell, Yaddo, and VCCA. And at them you can try out your silly multilingual jokes on the cohort, if you have any (I always do). Italians found my use of the word acciugamano to be riproaringly funny. Mostly because it's not an actual word, and it's a pun on the Italian word for towel: asciugamano, which is a compound word meaning "dry hand". Acciugamano means "anchovy hand". Though some of the weirder jokes needed explaining, which kind of deflates them — such as noting that Night of the Iguana is from around the same time as its doppelganger Iguana Hold Your Hand.

Rim shot.

It is forbidden to cross the tracks
Incidentally. After a year at the American Academy in Rome, I forgot the English words for grapefruit and eggplant. That's how many of them I had.

So around the early part of this millennium, Marilyn Nonken up and decided I would be writing her a concerto. The way she expressed that was something like, "Davy, I'd like you to write me a concerto." She played in her own group ensemble 21 at the time, which had earlier gotten me a Koussevitzky commission to write for them, and naturally I thought she was referring to a chamber concerto, with, say, nine instruments at most in the band. I started thinking of three strings, three winds, percussion licks to go with a solo piano (I work fast when I'm alone), and luckily, and soon, Marilyn clarified: no, a concerto with orchestra. In fact, she took responsibility of pounding the pavement to get an orchestra to sign up.

And there I was, in the Casablanca restaurant in Harvard Square with Marilyn and Gil Rose — it was my first time in the restaurant, but there would be plenty more meetings happening there because Gil always decided the location — having the phat cheeseburger, and this is where Marilyn talked Gil into agreeing to program a Davyconcerto with BMOP, and where Gil decided that BMOP would apply to the Koussevitzky Foundation to commission it. Plus, he said it go on the 2007-8 season.

Bogliasco composer studio
Excellent, so Marilyn's nefarious plan was working. Whether or not the commission came through, I was going to write the piece (I mean, duh. Piano concerto. Orchestra. Marilyn), and I also recall having to supply scores and recordings for the application at the very last minute, after I had actually started the piece.

So I went to my old standby. I took the spring 2006 semester off from Brandeis in order to write the concerto in time for the 2007-8 season, meanwhile also saying yes for some other pieces .... Thus did I slave away in fall 2005 at multiple applications for artist residencies: VCCA (Dec 2005-January 2006), MacDowell (March-April 2006), Bogliasco (April-May 2006) and Yaddo (July-Aug 2006). Yeah, that was a lot of traveling and being away from my cats, but I was worth it. I'm always worth it.

Watson studio at MacDowell
At VCCA I had to write some incidental music for a Brandeis play and a hand drum piece for Michael Lipsey (finally I wrote something away from the piano!). With only a few days left to my residency, I then wrote études 69 and 70. I had six weeks at MacDowell, which I began by writing a silly titles article, plus études 71 and 72 for Don Berman, and then it was time to get down, get down, to brass tacks. I'd been thinking about the concerto for some time now, and there I wrote the first three movements. Woo hoo! says I.

I only had a little less than a week after MacDowell to prepare for the Bogliasco experience, so I used it wisely. I walked through the Assabet Wildlife Refuge, and played around with buzz magnets, which I had discovered at a store near MacDowell, and used as part of the closing gesture of the third movement (if you like banjo playing, don't click on the buzz magnets link).

Bogliasco is the name of the town that borders Genoa to the east, on the Mediterranean coast of Italy, and it's definitely a tourist-type seaside town. The place run by the Bogliasco Foundation is called the Liguria Study Center, and it is open for eight fellows at a time during the usual academic semesters, three five-week residency periods each semester. So I was catching the tail end of the spring semester, and at a great time in mid-spring when it's warming up and everything is blossoming. That's a big woo hoo, too, pardner. The residency is without cost, but you have to get there — you fly into Genoa airport, which is a relatively small one. The Foundation sends someone to the airport to bring you to the grounds, and brings you back when your stay is done.

Since there aren't any direct flights to Genoa from Boston, I changed planes in DeGaulle Airport, and that was fairly stress-free. Indeed, there was a long security line to get to where my gate was, but I found another security line downstairs that was deserted. This seems to be how things happen in Europe. I made my plane easily.

Shorefront Bogliasco foundation buildings
It was cool flying over some Alps on the way to Genoa, then going over some of the Appenines so close to the sea. The plane had to overshoot Genoa by a fair piece, and then gradually spiral down to land on the airport's one runway, built on landfill extended out over the sea, and parallel to the coast. And of course Bogliasco had sent Mr. Gregarious — all the residencies seem to have one of these — to pick me up. It was a  40-minute ride to the foundation through a lot of tunnels and tight curves — hey, did I mention the Appenines rise up pretty quickly from the coast? — and Mr. Gregarious engaged me in a simple conversation, in Italian, about the area and other stuff. Of course, the terrain was quite hilly at the Foundation, and the driveway in very narrow with tight curves. He carried my suitcase into my — gorgeous! — room, and when it dropped on the floor it started ticking.

My metronome. I am reasonably glad that didn't go off in the airport or when being handled by baggage people.

View from my veranda towards downtown Bogliasco
And, wow. The views were spectacular. I had a private room with a bath, a study, and my own veranda with a view south toward the Mediterranean. I immediately e-mailed Beff to try and get her to come for how ever many days she could carve out of her academic schedule, even if she could only stay two days, that's how crazy beautiful it was. I even sent her this movie of my digs. Of course, Beff couldn't by any stretch of the imagination do it. But maybe one of these years.

So the Foundation has several building carved out of the town of Bogliasco, including a large mansion on the sea, a large building for administration and groundskeeping, a grotto underneath the mansion, various lovely paths out over the sea, and ... further up into the Appenines, two sizable villas, gardens, a tennis court, and, just above the tennis court, the composer's studio. Also, on the way to the composer's studio, the two-level artist's studio. In between them — flowers. It was April.

"Davy cleans up real good"
The structure of the residency was thus: breakfast items would be left out in the morning in the villa where the composer and artist stayed; there was a Saeco coffee maker there that got the job done with no fuss. Lunch was at two locations: the four artists in the villas up the hill gathered in my villa, and the writers staying in the mansion had a parallel lunch there. For dinner, we were compelled to dress nicely, those of us coming in from up the hill saw this when we entered the grounds, and we all gathered at a glass table and were served dinner, dessert, and wine, followed by aperitifs. There was a drinks cupboard that was always open so we could gather beforehand and look sophisticated by having a drink in our hand. So on the first night I met the rest of the cohort: living in the mansion were an historian from Duke University and her writer husband (yes, Bogliasco lets you bring your spouse); a translator from Russia working on an Italian-Russian dictionary; an historian from Vanderbilt University; and a columnist for the Times of India. Living up there in artistville were, in my villa, me and a sculptor from northern Italy; and in the other villa, a filmmaker from Ireland and a curator from Milan. Some of the other fellows had brief visits by their spouses. Otherwise, there was plenty of working and walking around time.

Bogliasco town beach and train tracks and the Appenines
I got to work pretty quickly and had early days — in fact, the sculptor noted to others how I was in my studio working by 8 every morning — that's normal for me at residencies. And since it was spring, around 9 every morning there was an explosion of bird calls near the big window of my studio. In fact, I started noticing a lot of the individual bird calls and how different they were from the American bird sounds I knew so well.

The outer movements of this concerto were planned to be big ones, and both with slow introductions to fast movements. Because each was based on an étude from the Marilyn chronicles (first movement was repeated notes and the last scales) — the plan was for both slow introductions to have the same harmonic plan and voice-leading, from which in I. the repeated notes are extracted and developed, and in IV. the scales are extracted and developed. Woo hoo! I already knew the first note, and as a challenge I was going to try to imitate, in a way that gives tribute, the opening of Gusty Thomas's Ceremonial — a solo clarinet line that splits apart into counterpoint, eventually birthing a bunch of crunchy chords. I had tried to do that in II., but I got distracted. This time I got it to work. I marked in Con Gusty. In a few days I had written the slow intro, gotten it to speed up, and readied the allegro. I saw that it was ... well, at least it wasn't stupid.

On one of those hikes in the hills
Confident that the work was going well, and with the weather getting progressively warmer, I started taking frequent walks. The walk into town was only five minutes, so I did that pretty quickly. The hills around our villas were steep, and the area had been inhabited for so long that stairs and trails and the like had been built into almost all of the hills, so that we could take lots of hikes that would be different each time. The curator and the filmmaker and I took a good number of them just after we would lunch, or in the middle of the afternoon.

On one fine warm day, we got ambitious and kept going higher and higher to see if the built-up part — trails and stairs — ever ran out. And yes, it did, and we were still maybe a quarter mile short of the peak of the hill. Then we looked behind us and saw that we were truly pretty high up there. And we took pictures. And movies.

Meanwhile, the concerto movement was going as well as could be expected. Writing really fast stuff destined for Marilyn — shooting fish in a barrel. I recall how proud I was of the octave cadence on E after the first big round of scales. Patted myself on the back, I did. The string parts, though — fiendishly hard. As Gil would note repeatedly in rehearsals.

And it turns out string sections doing repeated notes — don't at all recall piano repeated notes, as in the first movement. That's both good and bad, and sometimes it's both, but it's never cranky.

A week into the residency, we were taken by Alessandra, the Associate Director, on a tour of Genoa; this involved riding buses, being shown what might have been Christopher Columbus's house, now surrounded by a sea of vespas, various museums, a walk on the street of palaces that Goethe had called the most beautiful in the world (obviously Goethe didn't get out much, and now most of the palaces are stores or businesses), a few visits to incredibly gorgeous churches, and a special insider's tour of an old monastery not ordinarily open to the public. Now there's a woo hoo for you.

As the weather got nicer, post-dinner became walks into town or walks away from town to a bar that turned out to be at the head of the Passaggietta del Mare. Whoa, a long wide path directly on the sea more than a mile long and businesses, and views, and oh my. This changed everything. My daily exercise now included walking the Passaggietta or hiking the hills, or walking into town, or all of them. Nice.

The cohort became familiar enough that we could talk about anything, and even share multilingual jokes. One of us taught the Italian curator her first English multilingual joke, which was really funny in an Italian accent: why do the French have only one egg at breakfast? Because in France, one egg is un oeuf. It's much less funny in Italian. Perchè i francesi mangiano solamente un uovo per la prima colazione? Nella Francia, un uovo è basta! You could make an aria out of that. But you wouldn't want to.

And sometimes at lunch we were silly enough to make movies like this one.

the view from my room at night was nice, too
So then I had to write some apeshit music for while the piano was silent, so that it could feel like something was breaking and the piano could rescue it. So I did that. Then I wrote a brief tantrum for the piano, and started dissolving so the toy piano could have its solo. When the piano and toy piano play together, I used the marking va scimmiamerda, or "go apeshit".

And right around then I got an e-mail from Michael Kirkendoll, a graduate student in piano at the University of Kansas, asking for a piece for flute and two pianos, and we'll go inside the piano, anything! I said okay, and that was just another thing on my plate for when I got to ... Yaddo! Woo hoo! So of course I started putting imagined licks for that weird ensemble in the back of my mind. That's just what happens.

Then I finished with the toy piano stuff and got to a great place to put a cadenza. A cadenza! My first piano cadenza! Not a credenza, mind you, which would just be silly. This was fun. Marilyn was thinking she might want to write her own cadenza, and I said, sure, okay (I said it in the score, too), so I didn't know if whatever I would write would even be played. And I recall knocking my head against the walls for three days while writing the cadenza and trying to get in all the materials from the rest of the piece. My head was fine. The cadenza turned out to be fantastic. It brought the orchestra back in so cool and nicely that I wrote the ending music — some of it recapped from earlier with that hard string writing — in about an hour. And then, and then ...

So I'd finished what I came there to do with four or five days left to my residency. What was I going to do? Ah, an idea! I'll start the piano quintet that I promised the Stony Brook Contemporary Players. I worked on that for a day, and at the end of the day it turned out to suck really, really big ones. So I discarded it. I tried another idea for piano quintet. It sucked slightly smaller ones, but they were still reasonably big.

Then I remembered the birds. And the birdsongs. Which were denser still every morning at 9. If I'm going to write a piece with a flute, and maybe a piccolo, too, to go along with (eww) two pianos, I could maybe make it about birds. Yeah, that's the ticket. So after lunch I took a chair and a piece of music paper to various parts of the grounds and started transcribing the local birdsongs, to the best of my ability. All with the idea of using them as the materials for that piece. And so that I did. (This movie has a lot of Bogliasco bird sounds in it, and my favorite was the one you hear just as the second big door is being opened) In July and August, when I was at Yaddo, I took out the transcribed birdsongs and used about four or five of them as various materials, and I called the piece Gli Uccelli di Bogliasco. Wow. And here's what it sounded like when it was played in November 2006. At 3:40, those are the birds outside my studio.




I recall Mike actually had more than half a head, but I may be wrong. And I thought it might have been the lower half that he had.

The time of the residency was coming to an end, and we all said our goodbyes and went out to the pub some more — where we also used an Italian delicacy called ketchup for our fries — and our end was marked by a gorgeous full moon over the Mediterranean, easy to capture from the window in my bedroom.

But then I realized that the concerto was not actually finished.

There was dreamed music in the concerto — what I had dreamed a boombox was playing to keep distant lions from charging — and that music had had a life in the first two movements, and was even referenced in the cadenza. My ending was pretty safe, as they say on Project Runway.

But in the front of the mansion were these two really tired lions. I had come there to work on a piece that had lion music in it, and here I encountered these tired lions. I had to acknowledge that in the piece somehow, even if it meant ending with a non sequitur. So I tacked the lion chords onto the ending, docile this time.

The end.

And people either love that ending, or hate it to pieces. Excellent, Mozart. You're coming along.

I was given a ride to the airport by Mr. Gregarious, and we had a different elementary Italian conversation. This time the change of flights at DeGaulle was very stressful, but I made it back. And I now had a finished 35-minute piano concerto. What did I write next? For the next two months, nothing. And boy did that feel good. And then, at Yaddo, I wrote not one, but two fifteen minute pieces plus a piano étude in five weeks. For you see, artist colony time is not the same as human time.

Later, the Koussevitzky commission came through, so I was actually paid to write the piece. Woo hoo!

Here's a Spotify link to the Bogliasco movement of the piano concerto, and here is a link to a scan of the sketch. Now behave.