Saturday, November 15, 2014

The earthlink site is dead. Or frozen. Or something.

I'm no longer updating my old, old website (begun in 2002), so the big red links from that site's opening page now point to this blog, and to other things related to this blog. The pages are still there, but not referenced from the opening page, because, you know, stuff. And a lot of the pages are now here, referenced from the list on the right.

Also, I like pickles.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Hyla lick maneuvers


I don't want to have to write this.


My dear friend Lee Hyla passed …


My dear friend Lee Hyla passed away at the beginning of June. Besides being a very dear friend, he was also one of the most intriguing and original composers out there, a composer imitated (usually badly) by many — and a great guy to hang out with.

Shit. Fuck.

When I heard, I was at Yaddo, at work in the Stone Tower. Beff called. The studio is deep in the woods at a place where cell phone signals go to die. To hear Beff, I had to go outside onto the bridge connecting the Tower to the hillside.

"It's all over Facebook. Lee Hyla … died." At this moment, it was like I was watching myself get that news, not getting that news. This is such a cartoon thing. No way it could be true. No way it should be true. Crap, he's so young, he's my friend, I knew he had been ill and had pneumonia, but…

I was on Facebook early that morning, and not a word.

Fuck. God damn fucking fuck.

It really didn't sink in until I hung up, took a walk through the Yaddo woods to clear my head, and got back into the studio. It was a bit much to bear. I checked e-mail in this cellular hell, and several emails were there about Lee. It was true.

The best — and only — way to forge ahead was to bury myself in work, which I did, immediately. I was writing a song cycle, and was at a verse break. Right there — exactly where I was in the music — is where I applied a synthetic Lee Hyla texture to the piano part. I.M.L.H. means what you think it means. It's not as good as Lee Hyla, but it doesn't have to be.

Tributes (not so much different from this one, but mostly shorter) started to appear pretty quickly, on blogs from his students and friends, and a bunch of astonishingly cogent, intelligent, and serious obituaries appeared in Boston, New York, Chicago, and online.

I don't intend here to try and splain the hell out of Lee's music, nor duplicate the kinds of stuff already said elegantly and in great quantity in many places. Though I don't mind saying that Pre-Pulse is one hell of a great piece, the string quartets are masterful, Howl is a scarily good piece, the Piano Concerto No. 2 is killer; even the smaller pieces like We Speak Etruscan, Mythic Birds of Saugerties, and Wilson's Ivory Bill are pieces I've returned to often. Beff played Mythic Birds, so I heard her practicing it a lot. The house tended to shake when she played the repeated low notes after the squawky punk lick that is a signature of the piece.

Yes, Lee brought vernacular into the serious music world. He wasn't the first, but he opened doors that no one knew existed. Yes, he brought eclectic collections of licks together into the same piece. What no one has talked about (and I don't intend to, much) was the brilliant, micro-timed way he sculpted fractured continuities. His pieces turned on a dime, and even when the fracturing had been happening a while, each new one was surprising and fresh. Proportion, phrase length, breathing, microtiming — Lee was a master at working out the nuts and bolts that made everything sound so natural and inevitable. Long whole-tone or octatonic swatches of stasis, in-your-face loud stuff that had a few things seemingly wrong with it, sleight-of-hand climaxes — trademarked Lee effects, but that's just description. The stuff composers care about and are uncomfortable talking about because it doesn't make for good dissertations — Lee did all that stuff, worked hard on it, and made it sound easy. And didn't talk about it.

In fact — several times I have had graduate composers in lessons whose work I would read through, pause, and simply say, "if you're trying to do the Hyla thing, let me give you some actual Hyla to listen to." As it turns out, stealing from Lee Hyla was pretty easy to notice (it never stopped me, however). But if you're going to appropriate, let's see how it's really done. Otherwise, you get bad Hyla, or really good fake Hyla. Which is better. I also would try to give advice to how to work out timings and breathing. Yes, breathing. As an exercise, go listen to any Lee Hyla piece and listen to how it breathes. Now listen to the timing of events laid over it. Pretty cool, huh?

Oh yeah. And Wilson's Ivory Bill? The antsy, angry dialogue between the live piano and the field recording of a squackety bird is one of the funniest, most serious, most amazing and inventive things I've ever heard. If I had thought of that, I'd be giving CDs of it to everybody. And there would be a link to the sound file in this blog post.

And the Polish Folk Songs. If they went on all day, I would be happy.

But I want to talk about Lee Hyla, my friend.

I had known of Lee, but was innocent of his music, for quite a long time. In the late 70s, Ezra Sims had told me that Lee was one of the most interesting young composers to watch, and that he was doing things that reminded him of Varèse. I liked Varèse. Fractured continuity and all, bigass scowly music.  Never cracked a smile. Ever. Lee was doing the New York thang, and lots of people mentioned how cool he and his music were. As far as we knew, he cracked a smile.

I remember exactly when I first met him. I taught at Stanford in 1988-89 (this is how I remember the year), and was informed I was a finalist for the Rome Prize that March. My interview with the jury was scheduled in New York about a week after the phone call came (and it was the day before I was interviewing for a job at UC Berkeley — the story of doing a job interview after two redeyes is for another post, and hopefully one I never write). That year they had two composer fellowships and four finalists, who all interviewed. They had tried to set it up cleverly such that there were two waiting areas, and so none of the finalists would come into contact with the other finalists, thus keeping that information secret. Gossip spreads like wildfire in the community of Composers Who Think They Shoulda Got It Instead. Well, they apparently got backed up, so there were Lee and me, in the same waiting area, both waiting for our interviews. Lee started the conversation, and it was a normal, pleasant, easy conversation. No gossiping, no shop talk. Just how nice it was to meet me, he'd heard some of my music and liked it, we talked about mutual friends, and we wished each other luck.

That year, Lee and I were the two losers.

Lee's music was getting out on recordings, and I heard Pre-Pulse Suspended live, and was completely bowled over by it. Lee got the Rome Prize the next year. I was a finalist again in 1994 and did not win. And I was a finalist in 1995 and Lee was on the panel. I won.

We were both interviewed for a job at NEC in the early 90s, shortly after he got back from Rome. We conversed about it through intermediaries. Thus did the Boston phase of his life start. Mine started not so long after.

I really got to know Lee when we got some serious hang time at the MacDowell Colony in the summer of 1998 — we overlapped for about three and a half weeks. He was great to talk to at dinner, and was very good with questions at presentations (I'm more the keep it quiet and be thought a fool type). Several times he asked to borrow my car, and now that I think of it, he's the only person besides me and Beff to have driven that old 1991 Dodge Spirit. I was in Omicron, Lee was in New Jersey.

Quite frequently when I was around Colony Hall in the mid-afternoon, returning my lunch basket (they're strict about that), Lee could be spied with an intense expression, holding binoculars and a book, saying nothing, and spiriting into the forest in every which way. Yes, he was a serious birdwatcher, but he kept it to himself unless pressed. I asked one night which birds he had seen, and the three he listed were ones I'd never heard of.

Lee's star turn, and one of his most memorable moments for me, happened on July 4. The colonists had decided to make it a short work day and hold a sort of barbecue-county fair thing in the afternoon, including croquet, a sack race, a three-legged race, and a tug-of-war. The teams were composers, writers, visual artists, and of course the composers won the tug-of-war because Carter Pann was there.

Nicholas Dawidoff, representing the writer team, decided to kick off the festivities with a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner on his saxophone. It started out simply enough until at the first repeat, Lee started coaching him, loudly and ostentatiously. "That's right, babe, bring it home!" "This next phrase, give it your all!" "Yes! That's how to do it." "Now pull back one last time" "build, build, build.." "show us whatcha got, show us, Nicky!" … and then from on his knees, Al Jolson style, he coached the last phrase with stereotypical Hollywood director fervor. "Bring it home! Bring it home! That's it, that's it!" I think the SSB took longer than normal because of Nicky's laugh breaks.

The Colony asked Lee, me, and Anna Weesner if we would mind doing a little outreach to the Walden School — a fantastic summer composer program for younger composers just a little west of the colony — and we did so. Lee played We Speak Etruscan among a few other things, and one of the Walden composers, smiling brightly, asked Lee if the piece was supposed to be funny. Lee gave a very complete answer: essentially yes, there was humor in his music, sometimes it was intended, and if you the listener think it's funny, then follow through with that in listening to the piece. He then deferred to me and said that I wrote funny pieces, too. I probably said aw shucks.

I also remember that after David Del Tredici's presentation, he remarked that it was uncanny all the different ways he had to sustain tension. Now that was a smart comment.

When I first got to Brandeis, I was asked to do a public panel with Lee, Peter Child, and Randy Woolf, having to do with something about something, and on a Saturday morning. Before it started, Lee said, "you'll do a lot of these here, and the questions are always the same. It doesn't actually matter what you say." Yes, we got a question about humor in serious music. And so on.

Lee and I and Beff and Kate — Kate! — started doing things socially after this point. Kate Desjardins is a painter who also taught at NEC, and she is a whole lot of fun, too. They got a lovely place at the top of an extraordinarily narrow staircase in the North End, with a great sun porch thing in the back, and we often did dinners with them at restaurants in the North End. Lee had an encyclopedic knowledge of them, which was evident when he presented our choices for the evening. He really liked octopus and squid.

I believe Beff stayed in their place one night when she was on her way somewheres and we hadn't moved to the area yet.

Meanwhile, the four of us on the comp faculty of Brandeis were asked to write celebratory pieces for the Lydian String Quartet for Brandeis's 50th anniversary, in 1998. I had been hearing Beff practice Mythic Birds of Saugerties a lot — our principal residence was still Maine — so I had those licks in my mind, as well as those in Pre-Pulse, when I started the first movement of my piece. There was a budget to bring in a fifth performer, and since I wasn't getting paid to write my piece, I added Beff, thus keeping the available fundage in the family.

Thus did I start with some antsy licks that I thought were Hylaesque™ (if nobody has trademarked that word, I hereby do so now). The piece ended up being in three movements, and I seriously considered calling the first movement Hyla Lick Maneuvers. It wouldn't have been my worst title. Listen above.

Lee had, of course, written several brilliant quartets for the Lydian Quartet, and it astonished me that he came to the performance of my piece (Take Jazz Chords, Make Strange). The Quartet had told him I wrote them a really hard piece (I didn't tell him anything), and he said he wouldn't ever miss a Rakowski premiere if he was able to go. It turns out Rakowski is me.

Also, right around this time, he started calling me Davidy. Every e-mail began "Dear Davidy," …. Also, he noted that the Polish pronunciation of his name was Hee-wah.

Once we had finally moved to the area, we had a standing invitation to the legendary yearly New Years Day party every year. It lasted just about all day, Lee wore a bathrobe, and spent nearly all of it at the stove, making pierogis and soup and other such things (this picture to the left is at one of the Chicago parties. Gusty Thomas sent it) It was of course a wide mix of artists, and it was at one such party that I discovered my favorite pickle! Kate made an hors d'oeuvre plate that included Smak pickles. I immediately grilled her on what they were and where she got them, and it turned out to be a small Polish market in South Boston close to a red line station. You better believe I went there, and quick, and bought all the Smak pickles they had. I'm like that.

Beff made sure to take a picture, with her 2004 phone, of me buying the pickles.

We also remember nice conversations with people we didn't know, and being lobbied very, very hard by a composer of cabaret songs to give up names of performers who would be interested in the songs.

We also started getting invited to shows where Kate was exhibiting artwork. Our first show was in the South End, walkable from Copley, and since we're not visual artists and not familiar with the lingo, we actually started practicing generic things to say when we saw it. "Kate, your work has a certain QUIETness" was a big hit. It turned out to be marvelous work, actually, at the time somewhere between painting and drawing, so it was pretty easy to say nice things about it. I suppose it had a certain QUIETness about it, too.

We thought one of the characters looked kind of like Amy Briggs. We loved it. She gave it to us. I think. This picture was taken at an exhibit with a 2004 phone, unsurprisingly in 2004.

Kate eventually had a large work at the deCordova Museum, not so far from us, as part of a big themed exhibit entitled Pretty Sweet. Kate's large painting was right behind the ticket taking. We decided to make an evening of it: Lee would take the commuter rail to Lincoln, we would pick him up, we'd all see the work privately before the museum closed, and then we'd have seafood in Maynard at the Quarterdeck. But I screwed up. The Lincoln station is actually two stations, one for eastbound, one for westbound, and I was too dumb to have figured that out. Waiting on the eastbound side, we wondered why Lee wasn't on any of the trains. Well, he was about 300 feet away, wondering where the heck we were. Lee called Kate from a pay phone, Kate left a message on our answering machine, Geoff Burleson was in the house and heard it, and he called my cell to say Lee was waiting at the station. Now that's a hell of a relay network.

Now I know about the other Lincoln station. We found Lee, hightailed it to the museum, but the lights were out and it had closed. We found Kate, though — who remarked that now there was sufficient evidence for them to get cellphones — and we drove to the Quarterdeck, in the dark, and in the dense fog. We almost hit a deer that sprang across the road suddenly (Beff wants to make sure I mention that we all had kind of a freak-out), but we got there, had great food, and the evening was a success. Also, no shop talk.

Since Lee hadn't seen the exhibit in person, and had no wheels to get out there, it was up to me to go when the museum was open and document it with my lovely Nikon Coolpix. You can see all the pictures of the exhibit on this Photoset on flickr.

Lee loved teaching at NEC, but they didn't give him paid time off to write — no sabbaticals like at a research university. So he schemed various ways to get something like a sabbatical. He got an offer for a full-time job from a university, and his reward for not taking the job was some paid time off. Woo hoo! Thus in 2004-5 there was the need to find replacements to teach Lee's students, and I was such a replacement. Yes, I was a surrogate Lee Hyla. Twice! More on that later. So I taught two very good students on Monday afternoons that academic year (while I was Chair), at what might be called a discount rate I only offer to alma maters. I enjoyed being on the faculty of my alma mater, and I especially enjoyed the not going to meetings part.

Lee at Kate's opening

In 2006, both Lee and I got offers from Northwestern and for a time we imagined how cool it would be to be teaching in the same program. I didn't go, but Lee did (duh). His remark was "three-quarters of the work for one and a half times the pay. A no brainer." Thus did Northwestern become the top of my you-should-apply-to list. Meanwhile, though, NEC started offering sabbaticals, and Lee took one in the year before he started at Northwestern, in 2007-8. Thus was I again a surrogate Hyla, and thus was I able to recruit Travis Alford to Brandeis. For you see, Travis had gone to NEC to study with Lee, but he ended up in his second year with me. Pretty disappointing, huh? Also, Mike Gandolfi managed to get them to pay a non-alma mater rate.

Of course I was at the farewell concert that NEC gave for Lee, and it was a very classy one, with some great performances. There was a well-catered reception preceding it, and I got a little bit plastered before the concert started. When I say a little bit, I mean something else. So I had the whole concert up which to sober (I was driving home), and I gave Wilson's Ivory Bill a one-person standing ovation. It was well-deserved. Also, I was a little plastered.

Lee's exit to Chicago coincided with Beff's desire to get a four-wheel drive vehicle — a Subaru, specifically — for her weekly drives to and from Maine. Thus we were getting rid of our Camry, which had 226,000 miles on it. When we ditched our Dodge Spirit years earlier, Lee mentioned that he would be pleased to accept a car we were getting rid of, even though he hadn't owned a car in many years, and they used Zipcar when they needed one. So we gave him the Camry, and I made up a bill of sale that overstated the price he paid for it by a dollar (it said he paid a dollar, and I presumed he'd pay Massachusetts sales tax on that amount). Then Lee needed sage advice on what car ownership in Massachusetts means, and it turned out to be complicated: he had to get it insured before he could register it, and then he had to pay sales tax when he registered it, at the RMV. It was very complicated, especially when in the midst of moving, and especially since they charged sales tax on the Blue Book value of the car and not on what he actually paid. Sales tax was about 300 bucks, as I recall.

Then, new title, registration, new plates, and insurance document in hand, Lee and Kate came over for another delicious lunch, and a complicated handoff. Kate wanted to make sure that before she drove it to Chicago it was in tiptop shape. So first I explained to them, in the driveway, how to use the cruise control, and I handed over all the maintenance documents we had. We drove in two cars to Acton Toyota, and Kate asked for "the once over". While that was happening, we drove in the available car to the Quarterdeck for lunch (it was great), and back. They said the car was in excellent shape, but one light had to be replaced, for $112. Kate looked at me accusingly, and I told her I'd give them double their money back if they didn't want the car. Then I pointed left out of the Acton Toyota driveway, said "Route 2 is a mile in that direction and go three quarters of the way around the rotary to go towards Boston", and off they went. Since I rode in that same car in Chicago three years later, apparently they made it safely. Kate had reported that she drove it to Chicago solo, with all their plants.

And every e-mail from Lee after this time had a brief report about "the Rakmobile". Dear Davidy, the Rakmobile is doing fine and serving us well.

And right around 2004, we started writing recommendation letters for each other — Lee was itching to spend a semester of his leave at the Camargo Foundation, which asked for letters. It's tedious for middle-aged guys to find even older people to recommend them for artist colonies (or worse, their students) and other residencies, and they all want letters. But hey, I wrote maybe a dozen letters for Lee, and he maybe two dozen for me. I applied to more residencies, apparently. "Hey, look, this guy got a Hyla letter!" "Who the fuck is this guy writing for Hyla?"

In 2005 I was a Master Artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and when it was time to leave, Jim Frost asked me for recommendations for future Master Artists — specifically composers who were very different from me when possible. I gave them a substantial list topped off by the two composers with the shortest names: Lee Hyla and Kyle Gann. Damned if both of them weren't Master Artists the very next year. After Lee's session was over, he e-mailed me to say he had a great time, and thanks for the recommendation. I had not told him I recommended him.

In 2010, Lee was asked to curate a concert of the Chicago Chamber Musicians on the Saturday of Super Bowl weekend. This turned into a fun and busy trip, as I stayed at Lee and Kate's new place — a loft carved out of an old factory — and got to be a passenger in the back seat of the car I had driven to Maine and back so many times. It's a lovely place with very high ceilings and a few rooms carved out for sleeping and studios. So I had the couch, which was comfortable. I remember Kate driving us to a seafood place they liked, and it was quite good. They wouldn't let me pay. And I remember the concert itself. Lee was charged with introducing the concert, which had Lee's flute and piano piece, Voice of the Whale, my Hyperblue, and something else. Lee simply said, "these are pieces that blew me away the first time I heard them and changed my thinking about music." High praise indeed.

Lee had secured a colloquium at Northwestern for me on the Monday after the Super Bowl, which left us with Super Bowl Sunday to do stuff. So we did a Super Bowl party at Gusty Thomas and Bernard Rands's place! Adam Marks, Stacy Garrop, Amy Briggs, and Joe Francavilla were there, too, as evidenced by the cheesecake shot (also Kate, who must have taken the picture). I didn't care who won. Lee apparently did.

Overnight it snowed 10 inches, but I was able to get to the colloquium, and in a cab to the motel near the airport I'd stay in before my early flight. Yes, what I remember about this trip is seafood, a great compliment, Super Bowl, and snow. Lots of snow.

Lee and Kate were in town in June 2011, apparently having finally sold their place in the North End (I could be wrong), so we went out for tapas on Newbury Street. I brought my brand new iPad to show them my Camargo pictures, and I took this picture to show them how I had an app to Monet it, to van Gogh it, etc. Little did I know this would be the last time I would see him.

Last fall I was asked to judge some scores for the Red Note Music Festival, and Lee's name was dropped in the e-mail asking me. He was to be the composer in residence for the festival, and he was also judging scores. My student Emily went to that festival, and when she got back, I asked her how Lee was. She said he looked old and frail, he walked very slowly and fell down once. She thought he was in his 70s (he was 62). She also said she'd heard he'd had pneumonia. I was hopeful that he would be on the mend. Lee did write a letter for me in the fall, and uncharacteristically quickly. "Dear Davidy. Consider it done."

Toward the end of May I was at Yaddo, retrieving e-mails from the baby internet they have in the library there, and there was a missive from Kate, sent to a list. Lee has pneumonia again, but is up and conscious and thinks he has to get to a concert. They are micromanaging his blood pressure. When he is better we hope to get him on a list for a liver transplant.


I asked Kate to keep me informed about everything, no matter how small.

Then the news from Beff.


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 ten or 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.”