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Kronos/Reich WTC cover art

The controversial cover art for Kronos' recording of Reich's WTC 9/11

The cover art for Kronos Quartet’s much anticipated recording of Steve Reich’s “WTC 9/11″ was certainly a bold move.  Many are asking if it is over the line.

I can’t say that I had a strong reaction to the cover. I’m not saying that to stay out of the controversy; it’s simply the truth.  The cover doesn’t cause me to want to take a stand as much as it causes me to want to ask questions.

1. In my book, using WTC imagery for art is OK but using it for marketing is not.  Are album covers art or marketing?  Are they both? Does this create a gray area?

2. Using this imagery to sell more recordings would be despicable. But does this imagery really sell more recordings? It seems like it would hurt sells more than help. Apparently Reich had input on the cover. Does this make the cover part of the work? Or at least part of exhibiting the work?

3. Might a person’s feelings about this cover be different if it were for a Toby Keith album? How about a Rage Against the Machine comeback album? The contents of the album would certainly affect how I feel about the image’s use, but is that rational?

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I saw the Philadelphia Orchestra play a couple of Brahms Symphonies a couple of weekends ago. The concert was excellent and at the end, as expected, the audience jumped to their feet and applauded with much zeal. My wife (a performer) leaned over and asked me (a composer) whether I thought the audience was applauding the orchestra or applauding Brahms.

I said they were applauding themselves for sitting still for the whole thing and behaving.

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I love public art.  I like the spirit of sharing, sense of community, and general expansiveness and simplicity of most public art.  As a composer, I want to participate in that sort of open-air aesthetic.

A great opportunity to explore this came up in Lancaster, PA this Summer.  Music For Everyone,  a non-profit group that advocates for music in schools, had artists decorate business-sponsored pianos that were scattered throughout the city.  Ryan Mast of Meteor Tower Films and David Moultan of Lancast approached me about writing a round for the pianos.  I wrote the round, then we got 20 of our friends to play the round on the 20 different pianos.  Back at the studio, the round was realized.

This project was really, really fun.

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As students back in the late twentieth century, my artistic colleagues and I would sit around drinking beer and making the usual complaint that symphony orchestras weren’t finding our doors and beating them down to beg for a new piece.  No matter though, chamber music is the future, we’d say.  Composition in the next century is to be lean, mean, efficient and economical.  But admittedly, the idea of writing for large forces is appealing.

Then someone would say, “yeah, too bad band music is so cheesy.”

Everyone would nod in agreement and several quintessential band composers would be harshly critiqued for the trite commercial schlock they’ve provided the world.

Then someone else would add–very thoughtfully–that band needn’t be cheesy at all.  In fact, wind ensembles should be a better vehicle for modern composers.  The variety of timbres, general inclination towards rhythmic precision, and availability of band programs in nearly every school, make the symphonic wind ensemble full of potential for the living composer.

Everyone would look off into the distance, nod, and take another sip.

Then someone would add, “Yeah, a lot of wasted potential.”  Slaps to the back would accompany peals of laughter.

Since then, a lot of new music has been written for winds and percussion and much of it quite good.  It’s entirely possible that we might look back on the Wind Ensemble as the most important large-forces vehicle for composers alive in the early 21st century.  Directors are certainly hungry for new rep and not particularly snobbish to styles.  Tonal?  Fine.  Atonal?  Great.  Controlled Aleatory?  Happens all the time.

Last year, I decided to write a piece for wind ensemble if I could find at least four directors who would commit to programming it.  Four directors did commit and I wrote “Cahaba” for wind ensemble.  James Saker at University of Nebraska-Omaha gave the work its premiere in March 2010.  It will be performed at the University of Montevallo under the baton of Joe Ardovino on October, 21, and Dan Heslink conducts it at Millersville University, December 1st.

Since posting an excerpt of the UNO recording on Facebook, four other conductors have asked asked about performing “Cahaba.”  I am also writing another work for UNO’s symphonic band.

There has even been an increase of interest from orchestra conductors because of this recording.  Commissioning a work for orchestra is a risky proposition, and having samples that show you can organize large forces does a lot to gain a conductor’s confidence.

Do you write for band?  Are you a band director who performs new works?  Who are some composers writing interesting stuff for winds and percussion right now?

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While rubbing his forehead, contemplating solutions for the mess-of-a-student-work I had handed him, my composition teacher helpfully explained:

“Visual artists have a great advantage over us. They can see the whole canvas before they start. As they work, they know exactly where the latest stroke falls in the overall composition.”

His point was one typically made to young composers; get a plan.

Since then, I’ve also thought about what this might mean for the listeners. Sitting there, listening to our work for the first time, how is the audience to measure the weight of a specific event they have just heard. Were that event in the middle of the piece it might mean something different than if it had occurred in the first tenth of the piece. In older music, there are auditory signals such as pedal tones in Bach or Beethoven. In a chamber work, pedals often signal the end of a movement. What devices to we use?

This got me to thinking about the scroll bars for iTunes, YouTube, Quicktime, and other ways we most typically listen to recordings these days. The scroll bar lets me know where we are in the track, greatly influencing how I perceive an event I’ve just heard. In fact, I now find the lack of scroll bars at live concerts makes me a bit anxious (just a bit however, I still enjoy live music much more than recorded).

This raises some questions:

1. Have scroll bars affected your perception of musical form? How?

2. Is that change in how we perceive music a negative? A positive? Just different?

3. If there is a new-found dependence of scroll bars, should live presenters address this need?

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In one of my theory classes as an undergrad, my comp teacher noted that the prevalent interval classes had, for the most part, evolved along the path of the overtone series: chant (octaves), organum (fifths), common practice (thirds) early 20th century (seconds) later 20th century (microtones). So what was next, he asked with a smile.

I thought unison would be a dreadfully boring place to go, but then, Reich and Andriessen were doing things with imitation at the unison that was pretty exciting. There was also the idea of heterophony. While very common in non-western music, and even some western folk traditions, heterophony is only touched on occasionally by modern composers, and more as a decorative orchestration technique than a substantive idea in a piece.

One of my first successes with a more formal approach to heterophony is a movement from Taxonomy for flute and clarinet. The movement, Elaphe, evokes the genus of snakes it is named for by presenting patterns then blurring them (the main, if pitiful, defense ratsnakes have against predators). A pattern is presented in the clarinet, and the flute grabs on to certain notes, making it seem that the clarinet has left ghosts, or echoes, or is anticipated. While a bit more complex than doubling the melody with some ornamentation, it has a similar “thickening” effect that heterophony does in the music of Ireland or Thailand. One difference, however, is that in traditional heterophony the rhythmic edges are softened, whereas in this style they become more angular.

You can see the score and listen to the effect.

Betsy Bobenhouse, Flute; Christy Banks, clarinet.

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Here’s a test mix for my latest commission; a tuba, electronics and boomboxes piece called 2ba4. The work starts much more sparsely with little sounds moving around the audience. By the end, it builds to this little jam.

The work was commissioned by tubist Matt Brown, who is a total mofo on the iron bass. It premieres April 5, 2009 as part of the Millersville University Tuba/Euphonium Symposium.

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Occasionally, Sequenza21 contributors have a discussion about what constitutes a “professional” composer. I always chuckle. Saying you are a “composer” is like a janitor calling himself a “mopper”:

“My mopping talents aren’t as appreciated as they should be, so I sweep and deodorize on the side.”

This week I’ll research extended tuba techniques for a commission I’m
working on, discuss libretti with a couple of sopranos, coordinate
outreach for a residency I’m doing in Wyoming, remix one of my
installation works for stereo/live performance, jury some pop music
recordings, teach a few guitar lessons, gather programs for royalties,
and try to hustle even more work of this nature. None of these distract from the others.

They all feed each other.

Most composers aren’t composers. They’re”¦


Or am I the only one?

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I just completed “All the One-Eyed Boys in Town.” I was asked by Mark Sheridan-Rabideau to write a work for the Continental Trombone Quartet with John Kenny as a soloist. The work makes use of Wyoming poet, Harvey Hix. I’m not that fond of works with narration, and I didn’t want to add a vocalist, so I had John (who is also a Shakespearian actor) record his readings of fragments of the poems and email them to me. These will be used in boomboxes that the players synchronize with. In the second movement the players play the same part, synchronized with their own boombox, each started about a half note apart.

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Can you write a minute of music in an hour? I mean really good, keepable material. Probably. Can you write eight minutes of music in eight hours? Could you write an average of ten minutes of music every other day? If not, why?

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