So You Want To Host A Composition Competition

 

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Picture it: you are at the precipice of your arts organization and hosting a competition for composers. Before you pat yourself on the back for not going with a “feats of strength” model, let’s consider this journey you’re embarking on with a generous helping of a composer’s perspective.

NewMusicBox.org has published a piece I wrote based on my experiences submitting my own works to composition competitions: Linked for your convenience

 

 

 

On High Art, Shabby Shoes, And Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony

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The other day I attended a semi-professional orchestral concert that a few of my friends were performing in. The centerpiece of the program was Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, which I happen to love to death even though it does go by a bit too quick. It’s probably the only piece by the master I wish had a few more repeat signs in it as it sometimes feels like a reckless car ride through a meadow, sending people frolicking for their lives, rather than one of the master’s epic nature strolls.

We had just hit intermission when I felt a tap on my shoulder – an older woman seated behind me noticed I was sitting alone and we made some casual chit chat. During our conversation, she mentioned that her brother was an important artistic figure the orchestra collaborates with. She also asked me how tall I am (A surprisingly frequent topic), asked me if I played basketball (I don’t), and eventually we came to this inspired conclusion:

“Are some of your friends on stage?” she asked.

“Yeah – a friend of mine plays viola and another plays bass” I replied.

“Oh – I thought so. You don’t look like someone who would come to this sort of concert without knowing someone on stage”.

Now, I was dressed pretty casually and had noticeably less grey hair than many others in attendance so I probably stuck out a bit. Also, the tall part. She must have decided that I didn’t look like I was a typical attendee so I must not be someone who goes to these sorts of concerts very often. This arguably innocent comment stuck with me for two reasons:

First – and this is the funny one – I love this music. I spend a lot of time writing it, playing it, writing about it, wondering about it, and basically cramming it into every available orifice. I’m not trying to say I’m a big shot and everybody should lay out a red carpet for me, but I have spent significant hours “digging into the dots”, so to speak. So it should be pretty intuitive that if someone were to come along and say to me something along the lines of, “Ooooh – I bet you didn’t know that violins have four strings”  we can go straight to having a really good time laughing at their expense.

Second, and this is where it gets a little more serious, because classical music has a reputation as an art form for the rich, her comment had an undercurrent of elitism. I can’t really know what she thought about me but when I think back on the situation it really felt like she thought I was a young person of limited economic means – I mean, there are a lot of us, and I have worked in the service industry before, so it’s not like her guess was completely out-to-lunch.

This is such weird concept for me because, on an instinctual level, I don’t really see classical music as “music for rich people”. To me, it’s everybody’s music in that it’s just there for everybody to discover it.

I got into classical music as a teen because I could get Beethoven box sets for 20 cents a record at my local record shop. If I were a teen today, I would probably build a listening library using Youtube. I didn’t see it associated with any sort of inflated expense. Also, tickets to classical music concerts are far and away cheaper than tickets for a hockey game. Spend sixty dollars on a Canucks ticket and you get a terrible seat in the rafters whereas sixty dollars spent on a Symphony concert will get you just about the best available.

But on a more thoughtful level, I do recognize that there are real barriers that prevent people from getting into the music and some of that DOES have to do with your economic class. Music lessons at an early age are a strong indicator that you might become a butt in a seat at a classical music concert and the privilege of early music lessons are strongly tied to whether or not your family could afford them while you were growing up. It’s a significant investment in time and money that many families can’t meet in the face of other pressures.

I bring this up because this is an obstacle to those of us who want to grow and nurture an audience for our art form. People will be disinclined to attend a concert by being made to feel unwelcome and we have enormous power in our ability to make people feel like they don’t belong with what we only see as benign.

Take, as another example, the knowing murmur that ripples around the room when somebody commits the cardinal sin of clapping between movements of a larger piece. Someone had the nerve to have a happy feeling in public, expressed it, and now we’re all rolling our eyes at them. All this does is reinforce our own sense of superiority and alienate someone who might be inclined (Or would have been inclined) to come to more of our concerts. What if we instead owned our art’s bizarre customs and shared them with new concert goers with a sense of pride and excitement?

I know a conductor who , before the performance of every large work, addresses the urge to applaud between movements in order to get his horse before the cart. I think he recognized that there was some value worth preserving in holding the applause until the end of the work but he also had enough awareness to know that people won’t suddenly go against a lifetime of being socialized to applaud. This conductor would even go so far as to encourage people to just sit quietly at the works’ conclusion if they’re moved to do so. In doing so, the frame around the event changes to be more open and nurturing. New attendees will see the event as less of an encounter with music weirdos and more of an invitation to be part of a very rich musical tradition. It’s not actually that hard to do!

As for the woman at the concert who thinks I’m tall – I didn’t say any of this to her as at the time as I was a little bit surprised and it would have been a bit of a mouthful to fit this response into some awkward coughing and rummaging of a concert program. If I could go back and relive the moment, I would probably have the sense to gently correct her – and that likely would have been the right thing to do. At face value, it was certainly an innocuous comment – but that’s with me as the recipient. I’m able to laugh it off because I have a pretty privileged background. Someone who has faced any kind of systemic exclusion/discrimination based on economic class, race, sexuality, or gender would probably have felt it completely differently. I feel like the chance to correct these sorts of assumptions when the stakes are so light is valuable to our social evolution. The small nudges in our conversation that can happen outside of a crisis – where emotions are inflamed and our ears are shut – have staying power. They may not have the visibility of marching in the streets but I can’t imagine how we get farther without them.

On The Marriage Of Figaro, Dead Man Walking, And Tanya Tagaq At The Vancouver Opera Festival

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Today is the last day of the Vancouver Opera Festival’s inaugural run and I am happy to say that I was succesfully woo’d by a whole bunch of great music. Mission accomplished my friends! In a mean fit of musical acrobatics, I somehow managed to give the star production of the festival, Verdi’s Otello, a wide berth and focus on some of the other gems surrounding it. It was partly a matter of convenience, but mostly a matter of personal taste – more on that another time.

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Mozart’s The Marriage Of Figaro is usually hailed by opera buffs as one of the best – if not THE best – and while I disagree with them on almost every point about their art (I can’t stand Wagner, can hardly tolerate Verdi, and don’t have the stamina for eight curtain calls) I actually agree with them on this one. From the last dozen or so bars of the overture to the ensemble number in the finale I’m a gurgling mess of tears and blubbering.

It could be something to do with the pacing and hookiness of it, which is probably on the right track to my heart, but it also might just be that Mozart’s writing makes opera singers sound their best. How it does this, I have only my own rambling conjecture but I find myself really getting into the voice when I listen to Mozart. That is to say, I start thinking about the subtle colours of the opera voice, which ones I like, and which ones I don’t and think this is because the composer is presenting them in an uncluttered way. Part of it could be that Mozart’s orchestra was quite a bit smaller than what came later – a bigger orchestra will pump out more sound; even just sitting there, noisily turning pages, swapping out mutes, and mumbling incoherently – so the singers have a greater dynamic range to work in.

He also lives less in the extreme registers of the human voice which means things just ‘fit’ better: a singer is more restricted in how they do things when they’re singing a really high or low note. His mission might be his love for the voice and his success would be how well he shares it with people who don’t “get it” right away – which could be the ultimate lesson for composers everywhere.

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It pains me to say that I was less impressed by Dead Man Walking – which puts me at odds with just about everybody who saw it. The subject matter has huge depth and relevance – not to mention some gorgeous staging and an exquisite ensemble number in the first act. But it suffers from a common contemporary opera malady: at no point does anybody on stage ever sing something resembling a song. Instead, the voices live in a state of recitative which feels like vocal purgatory to me. Because of this, the score is pregnant and waiting to burst but never really gets the opportunity to. This is a phenomenon that others have remarked on (Most notably, John Corigliano when discussing his approach for his own opera, Ghosts Of Versailles) so it’s not like this score owns the problem completely. I feel like contemporary music, in it’s haste to be outside the box, has rejected this fundamental building block of music, the song, without realizing how that’s like making an apple pie and leaving out the crust.

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Tanya Tagaq is a true treasure and I will never forget her performance at The Vogue Theater – definitely one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. Her vocal practice, based on Inuk throat singing, has an extremely wide palette of colour. At her most guttural, she is deep and eldritch but she also soars high, pristine, and clean like a folk singer. Backed by Jesse Zubot on violin, Jean Martin on percussion, and a fabulous pick-up choir they took us on a dark ride that touched on environmental destruction and Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women (The latter culminating in a haunting cover of Nirvana’s Rape Me that chills to the bone).

The set was largely improvised and really brought home for me how good improvised music can be when it’s at it’s best. Improvisers whom I love and respect have talked about improvisation as a journey with a goal of bringing an audience along for the ride. Tanya addressed this at the beginning of the show by asking us to leave our phones alone. She half joked that she was of a generation that did things to do them rather than show the internet that you did them; the point sort of being that instagramming a live performance is as useful as filming a painting. Everything you want to capture (ie. being there) is lost because disengaging from the performance to play with your phone effectively removes you from the audience (Where did you go?).

I’m really happy I got to attend the few shows that I did and look forward to more next year!

All About A New Piece – Fierce Green

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My newest creation is a commission for the Vancouver Peace Choir, my choral alma mater. Writing for the Peace Choir was both my first writing opportunity and singing gig outside a university environment. It was a pretty big deal for me. When you leave school, the first thing that greets you is an immense gaping maw of, “WHAT DO I DO NOW?!”. Having the opportunity to write for a willing group was immeasurably valuable for my craft and creative momentum. For that, I owe them a great debt of gratitude so when they ask me to jump, I hold my breath and launch myself into orbit.

With this piece, I really wanted to honour the choir’s legacy of championing social justice causes while also making something the group would enjoy singing (Easy, right?). Past concerts have highlighted a litany of causes such as the plight of First Nations people, the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and the “It Gets Better” campaign.

Fierce Green is a sort of desperate response to human caused climate change. While I’m mostly buoyed by the incremental steps many of us take to reduce our ecological footprints I’m also incredibly frustrated, and sometimes embittered, by resistance to the most innocuous positive developments and jaw-dropping denial of a massive body of scientific evidence. I was especially hit hard by the recent American election; here we have one of the world’s largest industrial power houses now talking about bringing back coal, dismantling the EPA, and rolling back limits on vehicle emissions. It’s painful to watch.

Setting the scene is a poem by a relatively obscure Victorian poet (The place – not the time period!) named Denise Cammiade called, Vegetative Seasons:

Plants chisel skyward
lean shoots weave through soil, grasp air
Vein this new drug, sun.

Corn dreams tall. Orchard
scents baste the leafy noon.
Grass shears marimba.

Asters sprawl mauvely.
The cabbage crouch like broody
hens. Rain staples down.

Brittle stalks rehearse
a subtle sky. Whistle tunes
sieve the sucked year.

While I don’t necessarily think Denise had climate change in mind when she wrote this poem, there’s a two-faced quality to it that’s somehow embedded with echoes of it. It’s as lush and pastoral as a Beethoven pastoral scene, but it’s also parched and desperate in a way that makes the piece feel more part of my era than the old master’s.

Come listen!

Friday, May 26th – 8pm @ Peace Mennonite Church, Richmond

Saturday, May 27th – 8pm @ St James Anglican Church, Vancouver

On Doo-Wop, The Scourge Of Robots and Beyonce, and The Anacrusis

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Doo-wop is a fascinating little inlet of American Music that was sort of absorbed and overcome by the popularity of guitar driven music. When Doo-wop was at its populist peak the most popular instrument wasn’t the guitar, it was the saxophone. If you go back to old recordings you’ll find that guitar solos are quite rare – the saxophone is usually the one stealing the limelight. But it didn’t take long for guitar to become the center of North American music and it’s only recently that it’s finally being displaced by robots and Beyonce.

The anacrusis is a forty dollar word for, “the pickup” which is a sixteen cent word for a note that precedes and leads into the first downbeat of a phrase (It’s the and of, “….and go!”). They’re everywhere. In big band music, the drummer plays a very important anacrusis in setting up big shots with a sharp crack (a rimshot) on their snare drum; the iconic “Da-da-da-DUMMMMM!” from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has THREE NOTES in its anacrusis; and the gasp of the audience before their roar when an event flies off the rails is also an anacrusis of sorts.

In Doo-wop, you’ll somtimes hear a voluminous, “Yeah” from the bass singer that sounds like a herd of cattle passing a bicycle. This is Doo-wop’s own special anacrusis, and the inspiration for this blog post. In the example below – a famous and filthy song – you can hear a prolific example at 0:45

At 2:12 in this famous recording by the Monotones we have a unique take on the phenomenon that sounds more like a llama hurtling itself through an open window:

I’d love to have an explanation for where this phenomenon comes from but it seems to be one of those unexplained little quirks of the genre. The art form clearly has a cappella origins; perhaps with the addition of instruments, the bass singer’s duties were becoming more and more overtaken by their instrumental counterparts and the, “YEAH” was a vocal uprising in the unseen battle of the basses. In rehearsals leading up to the BIG SHOW, the singer would be quietly stewing, planning his attack, only to unleash a hellish fury in performance that left the audience and performers indifferent in the face of a looming saxophone solo.

 

 

 

Why Write When You Can Dance?

imagen_principal“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” is a deft phrase meant to evoke the futility in writing about music but more often retaliate against a critic who doesn’t like the sounds we make. The implication being, of course, that conveying the essence of music through words is as futile as conveying the essence of architecture through dance. For instance, what does Justin Timberlake really mean when he declares his intent to, “bring sexy back”? Could the song really be about where his sexy has gone and how we might form a committee to help bring it back? I argue that, much like a forty pound sword, the pen is only as mighty as the skill of the wielder allows.

Elvis Costello once said, “Writing about music… is a really stupid thing to want to do”. Opinions vary, but somewhere between some and many musicians view music journalism in a negative light. Frank Zappa once opined that rock (music) journalism was, “People who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read“. It’s likely due to an unavoidable adversarial relationship between the press and whatever they’re writing about as they aren’t bound to only write praise. In fact, they will often write noxiously critical things which leaves a crack under the door for resentment creep.

There also exists an exaltation of music that is somehow threatened by daring to try and capture it with words. For many of us, music is vapour; it is by its very nature, effusive. Writing about it somehow either misses the whole point or robs it of what makes it special. First of all, music doesn’t get robbed; musicians do. Second of all, most human beings are capable of having a very intense emotional connection to what they listen to. It’s inevitable that, sooner or later, someone from among us would have something profound to say about it.

Someone with a pen and a love of music, is a worthwhile ally to music creators. In fact, I would encourage all my fellow music creators to become their own best allies, come out with their pen swinging, and tell us about WHAT they do, WHY the do it, and WHEN it’s happening. It’s a lesson I’ve slowly been learning about my own creativity – YOU NEED TO TELL PEOPLE ABOUT WHAT YOU DO AND WHY YOU DO IT. Otherwise, how will they know?

In Defense All Things Swing

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When I was about half of whatever my current age is, I spent a lot of time listening to some very loud music. I liked my power chords chunky, my singers screamy, and my drummers bleeding from the forehead. Not much has changed; the exception being I now attend a larger variety of concerts compared to my younger self. I don’t think this is unique to me. My peers and I all grew up with their own music and are perpetually hungry for new experience. As we grow, so do our tastes. We are now regular attendees at a variety of venues because we find something memorable at each of them that can’t easily be encapsulated by only one experience.

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If you were to conjecture that I’ve become slightly more crotchety since I’ve reached the age of whatever my current age is, you’d be partially right. Though I do enjoy going to loud music concerts once in a while, I’ve come to despise the ritual of shouting, “WHAT?!”, “HEY!!”, or “WHAT DO YOU HAVE ON TAP?!” in nearly every attempt at conversation in these venues. It’s not necessarily that the music is TOO LOUD; the music is exactly as LOUD as it’s supposed to be. Part of the aesthetic of LOUD music is that it is supposed to be LOUD enough to close off all other aural avenues and offer only one path towards the stage and hopefully a memorable experience. This is a good thing. We, the audience, demand a LOUD presence on our stage and in our earbuds because it shuts down distraction and allows us to appreciate the full girth of the audio spectrum plumbing our listening orifices. This is wonderful – yet I can’t help but wish there was a space for a conversation to be had.

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This desire for LOUD extends to all styles of western music. This desire is present everywhere from the types of instruments musicians play to how we process our music for consumption. It began with stringed instruments switched from gut strings to wound metal. Eventually, we started plugging them into amplifiers as loud as a jet engine. Contemporary recording practices in all styles of music also began employing tricks to be MORE LOUD. If you load a recently recorded waveform for pretty much any piece of music of any style into some kind of audio software and look at the LOUDEST point in the music you will find a nearly perfect box where someone chopped off the audio peaks. By removing the few errant peaks at this loud passage, that are essentially a millisecond in duration, you’re able to uniformly bring the whole recording up in volume.

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Classical music has many baffling concert rituals. Notably among them is the one wherein the audience has a tacit agreement to not make any noise while the music is playing so as to better appreciate it for what it is. And, like with LOUD music, that’s a good thing! The point is not to shut down communication but to offer a unique space to give music the full breadth of our attention – just for a few hours – before we shuffle back to a world of diverse and constant stimuli. I am very hot and cold when it comes to the classical music listening experience. On one hand, I love that we have a space to allow music to be the main focus but I despise that this comes at the cost of behaving like human beings. It doesn’t feel natural to hold back my praise for the performance until the end of four movements. I sometimes yearn to have the courage to be more like the scientist who was famously ejected from a concert hall for trying to crowd surf through Handel’s Messiah.

I love that at a jazz concert, if someone plays something you like, you can whoop and clap your approval. It feels natural. It feels organic. It feels human. However, serious jazz listening also goes the way of classical music in that the ritual begins to take over the human experience: you play the head, you solo, clapping only happens after solos, and then you play the head again. This is a bit disappointing to me when it seems so obvious that the music is so obviously at its best when it’s adventurous, wild, and dangerous. But again, I realize that for what we sacrifice in our experience we also gain a lot. I am thankful that I have a space to go to that is so listening focused yet I somehow crave compromise.

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I started listening to jazz when I was in music school but I started getting into swing music in a big way about four or five years ago through the local swing dance scene. Swing dancing hooked me big time. This was a way of appreciating the concert experience in a way that I had not experienced before. I had always sort of danced but this style of dance was offering a unique framework for the improvisation to be a communal improvisatory project between two people instead of the solitary one I’d experienced up to this point. This mirrors the philosophy of the playing as well. Improvisation exists in all styles of music all around the world but relatively few have a paradigm of an improvising collective. In Jazz, you aren’t just playing a solo to be the star – you’re listening to everybody else in the band and trying to go somewhere together. In the dance, instead of being the star of your own dance epic, you’re also interacting with another human being with a personality, preferences, and flailing limbs.

I brought with me to these swing dances my concert hall listening experiences. I found that when I had danced myself to exhaustion I could be reinvigorated by taking a break and simply listening to what somebody was playing; having a hall of people swinging the daylights out of each other is very motivating for an improviser and you can hear it in their playing. I’ve picked out some surprisingly touching moments coming from the horns on those stages. I also found that if I wanted to I could have a conversation with my peers without having to shout over the bedlam in the hall. The music is LOUD enough for what it needs to be. This resulted in me still having the use of my vocal chords the next day and will probably save my hearing for my forthcoming old age. At these concerts I am free to dance madly, shout obscenely, listen intently, or ignore completely. I still go to the symphony and the opera. And my heart still belongs to the halls I flailed around in when I had a mohawk and wore spikes on my jacket. But I am thankful to have also discovered a space that meets my needs with such elegant simplicity. Swing it!

This Is Not Supposed To Be A Political Blog

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Last night, the United States elected to its highest office a xenophobic climate change denier who wants to roll back LGBTQ rights to marriage licenses and women’s rights to body autonomy.

I live on the west coast of North America which is one of the continent’s longest running belts of left leaning electorates. Election results like these are often a reality check for me. In my west coast bubble it is very easy to forget that there are millions of people out there who vehemently disagree with me on things that seem like a no-brainer (ie. What I mentioned above). And this is a problem I share with a lot of lefties – we are insulated. Especially with the help of social media. I’m especially guilty of this as most of what I read is non-conservative and I don’t have any family members to get into ugly political discussions with over thanksgiving dinner.

That isn’t to say I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about these issues – because I do. But I feel a sense of foreboding exhaustion at knowing that we are facing four more years of HARD push back against progress that may have been taken for granted.

And there’s still a part of me that wants to believe that this election result was just an angry outburst against the establishment rather than a rejection of the progress we’ve made. Or possibly even an ignorance of what progress we’ve made and how it could be undone and that people really aren’t as bad as this election makes them seem.But whatever I choose to believe, there is now potential for that damage to be done, making the argument moot.

It isn’t a happy go lucky day today. But I promise I’ll write something soothing to lighten the mood in here.

Assembling A Wind Quintet Is Like Binding Planks Of Sand

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I had recently written a string quartet and was gasping at how easy the process of getting it played was when a wind playing colleague rolled her eyes and let me in on a little secret: getting a group of winds to play together is not easy.

There are actual articulate reasons why it’s easier to put together a string quartet rather than a wind quintet but not all are equal. After all, the paroxysm that oboists are assholes is only true in some mumbledy-mum of mumbledy-mum cases.

Flute players are the best when you sit right next them. They are only second to clarinet players who practice and bassoons who exist. Speaking of which, they are nigh impossible to find. You’d have better luck finding a percussionist with lung capacity and training them from the ground up. The only downside to that approach is that as soon as they strike that sweet golden vein of competence they are whisked away to second chair in someone’s orchestra and are never heard from again.

French Horn is like a unicorn of unicorns. You know they exist because they leave little puddles of moisture everywhere but to actually see one – let alone harpoon one and get it to sit next to you – is about as easy as dividing seventeen by Thursday.

It feels good to be informed!