Recently there was a great thread about calling oneself a “composer.” It started with Randy Nordschow’s thread on NewMusicBox, with its inflammatory assertion that “¦ “it’s time to face the fact that, yes, maybe we really aren’t composers.” He also states that if you aren’t making the bulk of your income from composing, you are really a “hobbyist.” This was cause for some great discussion as well as soul searching for many readers of NewMusicBox and Sequenza21. One term in Randy’s post that some readers really balked at was “hobbyist.”

Whenever there is an attempt to label me, or what I do, I usually shrug. Any word would only label a part of who I am, and many times the word can only be a useful description in limited circumstances. I’m on record as saying I call myself “musician,” a term I find more flexible, than composer, performer, or teacher. While I didn’t become as enraged as some over the word “hobbyist” (I’ve certainly been called worse!) I did notice that something didn’t feel right about it. While a good argument could be made for the term, it just didn’t feel accurate. While I never could gather words that concisely explain why, I did manage to come up with an analogy that is perhaps useful.

If someone doesn’t make their living in Buddhism, can they really be a Buddhist, or is Buddhism merely their hobby?

Hats off to Randy, for a great conversation starter!

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I just returned from a workshop for young guitarists at the Omaha Conservatory of Music. Guitarist Peter Vonk recently started the program, and invited me to come back to Nebraska and teach the workshops. It was a great experience, due in part to many of those participating being former students of mine. Most of the students were technically solid and some well beyond. It’s great to be able to work with kids on musicality. It’s really fun to give the ideas and the technical tools for expression, but even more fun to let them try their own ideas.

While in the airport, on standby (I was emailed the wrong departing time by the conservatory), I caught some CNN with the sound off. I saw a cheerleader being carted off a basketball court strapped to an ambulance bed. Her arms were still frantically doing some sort of hand jive that I assume was a cheer. Now, I imagine that this was a news story about how she was injured by falling from a human pyramid, or wiped out by an out-of-bounds player but still had the courage to keep cheering. But with the sound off, I couldn’t help but wonder if a cheerleader droid hadn’t short-circuited, prompting its removal from the premises. Her movements were so convulsive– more animtron-like than courageous. I was reminded of the toys in the Nutcracker, being carried off while still fulfilling a set of directives already set in motion. It was disturbing.

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Micro-tonal Madman, Monroe Golden (Pell City, AL) wrote me today to share a playlist from a San Fran radio show featuring my performance of his guitar “quartet”, Vegan Permaculture. I wrote back with some tongue-in-cheek heckling for Googling himself (very tongue-in-cheek, considering I Google myself, like, every ten minutes or so).

Also on the playlist…

Heavens!

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What is good film music like?

Usually, it is simple and evocative. Most good film music is pretty lame by itself, because it exists to strengthen a mostly visual expression. So couldn’t the emphasis be shifted the other way? What if a film is used to “underscore” a composition? Actually, this practice is common, even if this terminology is not.

Remember the first time you heard a “tape” piece presented at a concert?

It didn’t work did it? I mean, maybe the piece works, but what about the presentation? There are several pieces for recorded media alone that I love, but I don’t ever want to hear them in a darkened room full of bored composers again. I’d rather hear these works at home, on headphones.

What about live performers?

I love to watch ensembles, large and small, perform with passion, IF it guides my listening. There can be a lot going on in a symphonic work, and catching something out of the corner of my eye can bring to my attention something I might have missed. Stravinsky ridiculed the “eye-closers.” Sure, sometimes, solo performers just ham it up a bit too much. In those cases I close my eyes, and often find that the performance is as sonically empty as their motions are distracting.

But what about projections, sculpture, staging etc?

If a composer concentrates more on the visual aspects of a work than the music, the work may suffer, but the same can be said for orchestration, notation, unorthodox instruments, piece titles, and program notes. Either these things enhance or they don’t.

The New Music Agency always presents a concert close to New Year’s Eve that is reflective in nature. We then play “In C” as a sort of after-concert thing where people listen, meditate, walk around, dance, roll their eyes, whatever. We do the “real” version that is AT LEAST 45 minutes. Last time, we projected the score behind us. People loved that. For one thing, it’s sort of “dare-devil” to let people in on what you are trying to accomplish, but it also begged people to ask themselves, “well, what chunk is THAT guy supposed to be playing?” I think this would be a great idea for any Berio Sequenza as well. Again, those who wanted to meditate to the piece closed both eyes, to make their eyes single

Simple but elegant staging”¦

For a performance we did at the Lied Center (Lincoln, Nebraska’s premiere performing arts center) I presented one of my works in a mega-hip, visually beautiful way, simply for practical reasons. My piece used three performers, hi-fi playback, and boom boxes spread throughout the room. The space made it impractical to surround the audience as I usually do, so I worked with the stage hands to suspend the boomboxes above the performers. The problem was that the performers had to push play on the boomboxes. We worked out a pulley system, where the performers would start their boomboxes and hoist them to the desired height, and clip a carabiner to a bar. This was in front of an entirely mirrored wall. The audience was hooked. If only we could have rappelled into the space!

With bemused resignation”¦

Once, when the New Music Agency presented Varese’s Poem Electronique as part of a “coherent narrative,” our artistic director handed out a map of The Hundred Acre Wood, but with the place names replaced with music descriptors that would guide the listeners through the piece. Now, anyone who knows me knows this is WAY too warm and fuzzy for my dark, brooding, post modern point of view. Whatever. Did the average audience member experience the full depth of the Varese in this experience? Of course not. No one does, in the first listen, in any circumstance. Did they experience the work on a deeper level than they would have in a darkened room? Definitely. For us snobs that won’t be pandered to, we can throw the paper on the floor and shut our eyes. I, for one, just might take a peek.

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According to Salon.com, American Idol trounced the Olympics in ratings. How can we analyze this? Perhaps the U.S. will finally value music more than sports? For some reason, I’m not that optimistic.

And personally, I think the Olympics and American Idol blow. And they’re both probably rigged.

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Oh, that’s close to Philly, right?

In Nebraska, if you pick the right direction, you can drive for hours and still be in the same place. It’s opener there, in the wide open air. So when my wife scored a sweet gig at Millersville University in Millersville, PA, I was very excited to be a mere hour or two out of Philadelphia, and hour of so from Baltimore, and three hours from New York or D.C. That’s not to mention having a bit more financial freedom to pursue the composition side of my career more than the teaching side.

So when does a perception become a real thing?

When we first got here, I quickly noticed how people in the Lancaster area didn’t really perceive Philly as all that close. I chuckled to myself. “Imagine what they’d think of the Midwest,” I mused to myself. After getting settled in a bit, I went to a Network for New Music concert in West Philadelphia. It was an amazingly well-performed concert that I thoroughly enjoyed. One thing I found odd, however, was how “outreachy” it was. One performer actually took time to explain what an English horn was. Now, this isn’t even west of Philadelphia, it is in the western part of Philadelphia. Whoa. Not a small world at all, it seems. A week later, I found out I’m not even in the jurisdiction of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Composers Forum. I’m actually in the same jurisdiction as I was in Nebraska– at large. (To be fair, I should point out that I was assured any project that would take place in the jurisdiction, across my county line, would be eligible for affiliate programs). Turns out I’m not a Philadelphia area composer after all. So I decided to find a bit of work in Philadelphia, to connect me to some people, and help pay for some of the networking I would be doing there. I enjoy teaching guitar, so I sent letters and resumes to a few places. One place wrote back saying I should reapply if I ever move close enough. Whoa.

Anything but local: A road warrior is born.

A nice thing about moving away from some place is that people want you to come back. Since moving to Pennsylvania, I’ve gotten to do several cool things in Nebraska. Also, being from Alabama, I’ll be returning there quite a bit. I like to joke that if I could move six or seven more times, I could tour most of the year. It doesn’t seem like so much of a joke now. And really, what does one need to do a concert in an area? I say about 25 friends, who will each bring one of their friends to your concert. Guess I better get out to Philly and make myself 25 friends”¦

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