Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Composer's Diary

Following up on these two previous posts, I've had a chance to talk with three of the people who told me they found my music very moving - a cousin who is practically a brother, a nephew-in-law, and a close friend from college days (50 years ago!). They all listen to a lot of music, but as a rule, not a lot of "classical" music.

Two used the word "accessible" in describing my music, and that's about the highest compliment I can get, as that's probably the number one thing I'm going for when writing music. In music therapy step one is engaging the client. If you don't get that done, nothing else you do matters. So in composing I want the music to be something the audience can immediately enjoy and be interested in, which is just another way of saying "accessible".

They all mentioned the fact that their knowing me had a big effect. One said he thought that knowing I was the one who wrote the music got him to listen more closely than he might have. Another said it was the fact that he knew someone who could compose music like that was what moved him even more than the music itself.

Other feedback which is interesting is that the second movement of one piece is a total standout of all I've written. It was written for a friend who witnessed the firebombing of Dresden as a small child, and is one of the few things I've written that was meant to convey a particular feeling, in this case that of a lament or requiem. What's interesting is that while she feels it does that wonderfully well, my cousin, who has bird dogs that move with incredible fluidity and grace, said in reference to that movement, "I had visions of my beloved dogs coursing gracefully across the Montana prairie, with your music as the backdrop."

So to sum up - even though I wrote the music, and performed a lot of it, and then talked to people I'm close to about how it affected them - I'm still baffled as to how and why it creates the reactions it does.

I know that when I hear a piece of my music played for other people the first time, I have the sensation of being in a waking dream and wondering if others sense just how revealing it is of my inner self. Then over time, I can't believe I wrote it and it seems to have a life of its own apart from me.

The best I can come up with for what's going in is that I rely nearly completely on my intuition when composing, and that when things work well, the music triggers intuitive reactions in the listeners, and that those reactions can have little to do with my intentions and/or the reactions of others.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Music Room Christmas

This past Thursday evening we had a small gathering at the Music Room to run through some Christmas tunes from a book I've put together containing 31 songs in four part harmony with the guitar chords as well. Each instrument's book has all four parts transposed into its range. The soprano recorder would rarely play the tenor line, for instance, but it's there in case there are lots of instruments and it could double it one time through for variety. The guitar chords allow for higher pitched instruments to softly play the tonic (or third or fifth) while a lower sounding instrument has the lead. The guitar chords also allow for improv pros to add their jazz magic to the tunes.

One aim of the Music Room is to foster community socially as well as musically, so our hostess Karla provided lots of refreshments for when we weren't playing and were getting to know each other better.

We invited the Kenwood Players, the Kenwood Fun Band, and the Rapidan Pops, as well as friends and family of mine who have supported me musically down through the years. In the event well over a dozen people couldn't make it, but we had a quorum and had a good time.

The Music Room isn't really ready yet. All the dry wall still needs to be done for the new handicap access bathrooms, and until that dust has settled we don't want to bring in the carpets and drapes needed to dampen the sound. The people sitting out front said the sound was OK, but for the musicians it was sort of like those barbershop mirrors with infinite reflections bouncing off all those bare surfaces - keeping the beat unified was a challenge, but we did it.

We'd like to think this will be an annual Music Room event - and that by next year we'll have improved the acoustics and that we'll be able to be open to the public.

Many thanks to cousin-in-law Ed who took these pictures - and whose expertise in non-profits due to his work with The Art Center in Orange and the Virginians for the Arts has proved invaluable.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Roger Sessions on Gesture

Around the time I wrote this post on some audience members telling me they were deeply moved by music I've written, I came across this post of Elaine Fine's over on her blog Musical Assumptions In Sessions' book The Musical Experience of Composer, Performer, Listener he writes:

I believe that music "expresses" something very definite, and that it expresses it in the most precise way. In embodying movement, in the most subtle and most delicate manner possible, it communicates the attitudes inherent in, and implied by, that movement; its speed, its energy, its élan or impulse, its tenseness or relaxation, its agitation or its tranquility, its decisiveness or its hesitation. It communicates in a marvelously vivid and exact way the dynamics and the abstract qualities of emotion, but any specific emotional content the composer wishes to give to it must be furnished, as it were, from without, by means of an associative program. Music not only "expresses" movement, but embodies, defines, and qualifies it. Each musical phrase is a unique gesture and through the cumulative effect of such gestures we gain a clear sense of a quality of feeling behind them. But unless the composer directs our associations along definite lines, as composers of all times, to be sure, have frequently done, it will be the individual imagination of the listener, and not the music itself, which defines the emotion. What the music does is to animate the emotion; the music, in other words, develops and moves on a level that is essentially below the level of conscious emotion. Its realm is that of emotional energy rather than that of emotion in the specific sense.

I've always thought that one way music "touches" us is that it is in part physical gesture made audible. Sessions' point elaborates this in a way I hadn't really thought of. The way I take it is that a successful musical gesture is a sort of mini-archetype of an emotion that allows the listener to re-experience and/or to more fully experience an emotion in the moment the music is made, and in such a way that the feeling lingers. 

This goes a good way towards explaining how others feel emotions in my music I didn't consciously put there. If the music is well made, the gestures in it will elicit emotions in audience members that are specific to each person; and the better made the gestures are, the stronger the emotions.

One way of thinking about it is that a piece of music is like the script to a play, and each audience member casts and directs his/her own production of that play in their imagination, and no two of those productions will be exactly alike. In Swafford's new biography of Beethoven he mentions that Beethoven often had a plot line of his own for pieces of his music, but he never shared them with others, so that they could imagine/feel their own.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Restful Time

This video is the best matching of slow music and visuals I've ever come across. For full screen go here and click at the bottom right.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Composer's Diary

Here lately I've had the great good fortune of having some of the music I've composed over the years performed for audiences larger than the usual handful of musical friends and family members. What has most surprised me about the audience reactions has been the number of people telling me how emotionally moving they found the music. In writing music, trying to evoke feelings in the audience is not something I'm consciously trying to do. My main concern is with coherence, that the music flows with some sort of organic unity, all the while maintaining the audience's interest.

What these audience comments about the emotional nature of the music makes me realize is that I must make the decisions as to where the music goes based on how it feels to me, not just what makes structural sense. The thing is, though, the main thing I'm feeling when writing music is what effort it takes to keep at it through numerous false turns and detours before something I'm happy with emerges. The audience, on the other hand, is blissfully unaware of all that, and gets to flow along with the music and have various emotions evoked by all the little choices I made along the way which ended up working.

One other reaction to my music that absolutely made my heart sing was from Charles, who plays oboe in Rapidan, conducts the Orange Community Band, is a fine composer himself, and who instantly nailed the Darius Milhaud influence on Timepiece when I gave him the link years ago to the Fringe Festival performance. At a rehearsal leading up to our playing the orchestral arrangement of Timepiece he came up to me and said he was really enjoying it because it was "fun to play." For a music therapist, it doesn't get much better than that.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Timepiece Orchestration

The original Timepiece is a woodwind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon) written for a friend back in 1996. The title comes from my having loved Dave Brubeck's Time Out album in my early teenage years. Its most famous track is Take Five with five beats per measure, but there's also Blue Rondo á la Turk with nine beats a measure, with some measures in a 1,2; 1,2; 1,2; 1,2,3 rhythm. The idea of mixed rhythms stuck with me and when I started composing music thirty years later, they were fun to work with, and let me write music that has a fresh sound without being abstrusely avant garde.

The first movement is in measures of 1,2,3; 1,2; 1,2, which is cleanly stated by the bassoon in the opening measures. The second movement is in plain old triple time - measures of 1,2,3. The third movement is in measures of 1,2,3; 1,2,3; 1,2,3,4 with the clarinet laying out the rhythm in the opening measures.

Two summers ago I was able to commission Tal Benatar, a former Rapidan conductor, to orchestrate the piece and these fall concerts are the first performances of that orchestration.

(This post is a first go at writing something for the program. For audio of the original quintet, more history, and early performance notes, go here.)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Performance Diary

Here are two pics of the Kenwood Players at the annual Fall Festival in Gordonsville, which supports the local volunteer firemen. It's always the first Saturday in October and we've been doing it for years.

After we did two sets, the Rapidan Pops came and used the same sound system, which is why there are so many mics.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Performance & Composer's Diary

On 9/16/17 we had an afternoon of music I've composed and arranged. Jeff Poole of the Orange County Review, and a great photographer, was there in a private capacity and took these pics so unobtrusively I never noticed he was taking them. (Thanks, Jeff!)

Here's the music room with the 1923 Steinway where it all happened.
While people were gathering and getting their drinks, I played some of the piano pieces I wrote back in the late 80's and early 90's

Here's Karla, our hostess with the mostess, welcoming her guests.
The first number was Mosaic, dating from around '93 or '94, with Dr. Andy playing the lead on cello.
Then with Heather joining us on clarinet we did "Encumbrances of Angels", a poem by Dr. Andy's wife Janet I set to music sometime in the late 90's.
Here's Janet reading "My Tale", a poem of hers I set to music last year.

This pic shows Karla singing "My Tale" with Benjamin joining us on violin. 

I doubled Karla's vocal an octave down in the alto flute.

Lama Tashi was here from Arunachal Pradesh and we did the Mandala Offering and the Om Mani Peme Hung chant from Mantra Mountain, with Stephen joining us on cello.

From this pic it looks like I neglected to give Benjamin the music and he's having to look over on to Dr. Andy's music

Here's one section of the audience with top row from left to right my sister-in-law Carolyn, cousin John, his wife Kate, cousin Ada and cousin Wallace.

In this pic Heather, Andy and I are playing "explorations", a trio I wrote three or four years ago.

Here are Sage, Patrick and Benjamin playing Karlalied, which was written two years ago.

These three are all students at James Madison University and really fine players and here you can see them playing with a wonderful ensemble feel . . . 

. . .  and with marvelous expression

That feeling when you hear your music being played by others and you can just sit back and listen and hear them take it places you hadn't realized it could go.

Taking a well deserved bow

The last piece on the program was Mosaic again, but this time with Heather playing the lead and Dr. Andy playing an accompanying line I added just a few months ago

Monday, July 31, 2017

KarlaLied 1st movement

Here's an attempt at doing a video with the score and then putting on YouTube and then embedding. Been so long since the last, and there have been changes in the how to. This is the first recording of the first movement of KarlaLied.

(After posting) Well . . . seems to work OK.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Fun Factor

In the same conversation mentioned in this post, the importance of having fun with music came up. The music educator talked about how most, if not all, high level students and performers go into music in the first place because it's fun, but somehow along the way that can get lost. That really resonated with me because:

1) - I started the Fun Band because so much of the therapeutic value of music making can come from simply having fun doing it, especially with others. Working with easier material and exploiting what technique is already there can yield out sized therapeutic results.

2) - One problem I always had with community band was we never completely "owned" a piece - it was always "mostly" getting something and then moving on to something else and rarely, if ever, coming back and polishing it up. That's a great way to proceed if your aim is improving technique and nothing else, but I always felt interpretation and self-expression got short shrift because all of the grappling with technique left no room for that side of music making.

3) - Part of the problem brought on by recorded music is that before it came along, people could have fun making music and could only compare themselves to others making live music. Now there are always numerous examples of every piece of music recorded "to perfection", making home made music sound rough around the edges in comparison. If you're making the music yourself, though, and having fun doing so, it matters less in the moment how close it comes to error free recordings.

4) - Lack of fun can have a negative effect on the impact of very high level music making on the listener. My cello friend Dr. Andy loves the joke of someone coming up after a performance and telling the player, "I never knew how hard that piece was." Sometimes it sounds as though high level players get so caught up in the technique of it all it seems they forget there's more being a good musician than simply having killer technique.

5) If the Music Room succeeds, both players and audiences need to be first of all having fun, which can then lead to other benefits. The first step of music therapy is engaging the client, and keeping things fun has a lot to do with that.

ADDED 7/25/17 - One thing I meant to mention and forgot is that over the years I've been caught off guard several times by very high level players being the ones the most enthusiastic about my easy, but fun to play part books. I'd assumed that being able to play at a high level was something of it's own reward, and surely it is (though there are people who burn out). My guess is that playing music not full of technical challenges lets high level players fully unleash the interpretive and expressive sides of themselves that grappling with technique issues can push to the background.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Performance Diary

     Here are some pics of the Kenwood Players last month at the Art Center In Orange's 20th anniversary. We did one set of standard Dixieland and one set of big band tunes I've arranged for our small combo. The pics are especially good because 1) they were taken by Jeff Poole, who is a great photographer as well as putting out the local paper and 2) the lighting and the decorations had us feeling we were in a fishbowl, because at the first meeting to start the Art Center 20 years ago, all the donations were put into a fishbowl. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Instrument Petting Zoo and Beyond

There is in the works a non-profit aimed at nurturing music making here in my hometown of Orange, Va - and once the details are more settled, there will be posts on what it is and how it will work. For now there'll be a few posts like this one thinking through various aspects of such an undertaking, and the tag for these posts will be "The Music Room".

I'd seen on the FaceBook page of the Charlottesville Municipal Band that they often have an instrument petting zoo before concerts, where members of the band let all comers, mostly children judging from the photos, try out various instruments for themselves. 

Then, in conversation with a high level music educator, he suggested something similar to that at The Music Room as a way to draw in people to the possibility of making music themselves instead of just being a listener. Hearing the idea in that context reminded me of something I often noticed back in my private practice days, that people with zero experience in making music are very often drawn to a very particular instrument and if you can work with them on that instrument, their progress and joy in music making seems amplified.

There's also the idea I came across back when researching a music program for Montpelier - that back in James Madison's day, taverns very often kept instruments on hand for patrons to use extemporaneously. 

Then that led to the idea that if there were instruments on hand, maybe some of the many people who played in high school band, and then gave it up, could play along with easy Fun Band tunes arranged as they are for beginners.