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.”