Monday, July 31, 2006

Two Decisions that Every Young Composer Must Make

In my multitudinous years of teaching experience, I have noticed that, when it comes to two simple career-decisions, virtually none of my students make the right choices. The purpose of this blog entry is to educate my future students in advance.

Decision #1: Graduate School

Young people, the choice is simple. No creative artist has made worthwhile art without at least one doctorate. Before you rush out with your bachelor’s degree and start expressing yourself, think about how much you don’t know about what kind of music you should write. Chances are you haven’t quite found your voice yet. Writing a couple of theses will help you tame those impulsive needs to churn out compositional drivel. You’ll learn to develop the intellectual distance needed to express your feelings formally and structurally.

You may be too young and virulent to understand this reasoning, but think about this: if you get accepted to graduate school, you will get HEALTH INSURANCE.

Decision #2: Commercial- or Self-Publish

Some of you young people believe you can wiggle and squiggle your way into the establishment by generating your scores on dot matrix printers. Well I’ve got news for you: You can’t make a squiggle with some stupid internet composition program. Just ask Morton Subotnick.

You may have a computer that can generate scores, but that doesn’t mean your music is accurately represented (especially if you're not using a TANDY computer). In the past, the purpose of a publisher was to promote and publicize your music. Even though publishers no longer function as publicists, they do keep half of your royalties for you. They invest those royalties in the publishing industry. If you keep all of your royalties to yourself, the big publishers will go bankrupt, and then there will be no establishment left, and no one to hold on to those royalties for you.

Again, the choice is simple.

I’ll have more BlogLessons for potential students in the near future. Meanwhile, you can visit this site for some lessons to keep you busy until school starts.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Composerly Soldiers

Tanglewood is known as a place where young people can be exposed to exciting former trends in contemporary music. This was made evident by a performance featuring the most enlightened of living composers – John Harbison, Elliott Carter, and Milton Babbitt.
Here are three mentors who have been challenging the younger generations to write more like them for decades (except for Mr. Babbitt who evidently accepts all kinds of music, from ISCM to Broadway). At long last, the three have capitulated to the demands of their longtime patron Maestro James Levine and performed a shits-and-giggles rendition of Stravinsky’s jazzy and inconsequential work, A Soldier’s Tale.

Now, this is the kind of multi-media music that interests me. It is not necessary to be an actor to perform those speaking roles. Nor is it necessary to be experienced in theatrical performance to coach the actors as Maestro Levine does. In the current climate of “interdisciplinary art,” it is refreshing to see Stravinsky’s music highlighted by the armchair performances of three towering musical figures. Such a rendition affirms that, even when other “disciplines” are involved in a performance, the music must be the driving force behind the work.

I have suggested that some of my young students, with their addictions to YouTubes and PlayStations, attend more performances like this one – performances in which the acting, the staging, the lighting, and the choreography are incidental. As composers and musicians, we must not allow ourselves to be trivialized and marginalized by other so-called disciplines. After all, we often have concerts without dancing and acting, but let’s see them have a dance or a play without music!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Prof. McJeebie's Wedding Music

The young composer Colin Holter maintains a blog at New Music Box about his experiences as a student at one of the Universities of Illinois. I should hope that he does not receive class credit for airing his dirty laundry without the approval of his professors.

In his latest post, “Prenuptial Agreement,” student Holter wonders what kind of music might be played at a composer’s wedding. There have been several responses to his query, but I thought I would publish my response on Classical Pontifications so as to not unjustly enrich the content of my competitor’s publication.

In the fall of 1968, I had just been named Temporary Professor of Composition and Arrangement at the Hotel Cadillac, and I decided it was time to settle down with the woman whom I had been teaching for almost twelve years. Her name was Piccola Sempré, and she was an avid arranger of my compositions. I’m sad to report that our marriage did not last very long. We were divorced after she deliberately spilled espresso on my TANDY Mainframe700 computer.

At any rate, for our wedding ceremony we hired the Hotel Cadillac’s contemporary music ensemble, Ictus Fictus, to play the music of my late mentor, the romantic modernist composer Dr. Prof. Held Projansky. We commissioned a new work from Dr. Prof. Projansky with the stipulation that it be incorporated into a medley of his earlier works. The medley included excerpts from his epic symphonic opus Abstractions in the Key of E Minor, his prankish yet disciplined etude Variations on an Earlier Theme of Dr. Prof. Held Projanksy, the overture from his oratorio Projansky Dreams: From the Concert Hall to the Opera House, and the newly commissioned work The Transfiguration: Sempré to McJeebie.

Dr. Prof. Projanksy’s wedding score was very modernist and abstract, and many of our guests remarked at how inaccessible and grumpy he was during the ceremony, but this grumpiness was primarily to do with indigestion from the champagne. It turned out that Dr. Prof. Projanksy was very happy with the performance, and it was a wonderful experience for me and my bride to have a medley of modern compositions performed throughout the ceremony.

The concert/ceremony made me proud to have studied with Dr. Prof. Projansky, but it did more than that: Dr. Prof. Projanksy’s music was truly educational for my bride. You see, Piccola had only arranged music. She knew virtually nothing about composition. Dr. Projansky inspired her to appreciate the effort and skill required to be a modern composer. His medley emphasized the importance of composition over arrangement.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Review: RPO with Jon Nakamatsu

This Sunday, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra will present its annual New Music Concert featuring the contemporary works of George Gershwin as performed by the living pianist Jon Nakamatsu. The following is my pre-emptive review of that concert:

On Sunday, July 23, the RPO’s audience members rushed into the air-conditioned concert hall in anticipation of one of the most controversial music programs of the twentieth century – an all-Gershwin concert. Allegedly, the Executive, Administrative, Artistic, and Development Directors had all referred to this concert in board meetings as “the improvisational concert.” Now, everyone wanted to know the answer to one simple question: What will happen if the orchestra improvises?

Leave it to the renowned pianist Jon Nakamatsu to steer clear of the answer to that question. He delivered one of the finest interpretations of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue ever realized by a classical pianist. Nakamatsu was recently quoted in the Democrat & Chronicle saying “I've heard pianists try to [make Gershwin sound like jazz] with the Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F, and it distorts what the music is about... Gershwin wasn't a jazz musician.”

Here, here! It’s about time people stopped trying to improvise their way around very technically demanding notes and rhythms. Gershwin was a believer in discipline, not free-for-all. His lectures to graduate students at the Canonical Conservatory of Martha’s Vineyard emphasized the ability of classical music to restore order and civility to drunkenness, to inspire an alarmingly gluttonous zeal for moderation.

Nakamatsu played the Rhapsody with calculating exactitude and mathematical rigor. He meticulously stroked his instrument in a way that inspired the kind of transcendence this Professor has previously experienced only in front of a TANDY computer. Nakamatsu is like a MIDI machine. His performances are even more pristine than Mel Bay's notated corrections of famous improvisations.

It turns out that this concert was a preview of an RPO/Nakamatsu disc to be released on the Harmonia Mundi recording label. That disc, entitled A Good Degree of Gershwin, will be released as soon as it is recorded, mixed, mastered, and packaged. Meanwhile, let’s hope Nakamatsu returns for next year’s New Music Concert, An Evening of Jazz Etudes.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Review: Randy Nordschow at The Stone

As per my professorial review policy, I now present a pre-emptive review of Randy Nordschow’s concert at New York City’s most disorganized downtown venue, The Stone, Thursday night, July 20th, at 8pm, at Avenue C and 2nd Street. No subways stop anywhere near this dangerous part of town.

You can be sure that Nordschow’s music will appeal to the heroin addicts and male prostitutes of Alphabet City. In the past, he was secretive about his musical background, and his need to refer to himself not as a composer but as a “composer/sound artist” indicated a certain lack of formal training. But now, according to the Curriculum Vitae shamelessly posted on his website instead of his publisher's website, Nordschow studied with Pauline Oliveros at Mills College. As we all know, Mills College is a women’s school, so unless Mr. Nordschow used to be a woman, it is not possible for him to have studied there. And even if he did, Pauline Oliveros doesn’t teach in person any longer; she teaches via iChat. She may have her fancy webcams and digital streaming devices, but she can’t possibly know whether or not her students are taking adequate notes in class. Then again, Ms. Oliveros has never really cared about notes, has she?

At any rate, Nordschow also claims to have studied with Alvin Curran, the most famous composer of synthesizer music for exercise videos from the 1980s. Curran’s most famous piece, Music on a Long Thin Wire, was commissioned by Richard Simmons before MIDI was invented. Everyone knows that you don’t really study with Alvin Curran so much as argue with him. The man has such a hot temper that he dismisses any student who has ever used the Windows Operating System. Curran has been known to spend an entire semester of lessons arguing with his students about how Windows has corrupted their creative spirits.

Well, let’s say that Nordschow did in fact semi-participate in the virtual lessons with Oliveros and survive the diatribes of Curran. The music that he writes is not even really music. Rather, it’s “multi-media” music. Apparently young people are no longer satisfied with one medium. They must have their theatrics and DJs and psychedelic videos. Nordschow, never one to question young people, gives them what they want with his piece Guaranteed Answered Prayers, mocking the rituals of devout religious Americans by drowning the audience in “miracle spring water.” In addition, air guitarist Marco Cappelli converts one of Nordschow’s “multi-media” pieces into actual music; and pianist Jenny Lin performs the composer’s realizations of one of Beethoven’s unfinished moonlight sonatas.

The evening promises to entertain on many different levels at once, at least for the first one or two minutes of each piece. But don’t blame me if I walk out the door and turn to heroin and prostitution before the concert’s over.

At 10pm, you can catch the "composer" Judy Dunaway performing music on her drug balloons (see photo).

Monday, July 17, 2006

Interviews with Young People #1: NICO MUHLY

Often times, younger composers attempt to create a movement of change in classical music, a field where everything is just fine the way it is. In my inaugural installment of Interviews with Young People, I spoke with composer Nico Muhly about his debut full-length CD album Speaks Volumes which comes out this month on the Bedroom Community label. According to the press release,

Speaks Volumes doesn’t sound like most classical records. It is not an idealized version of live musical performance or a substitute for the authentic live experience. It is not intended to conform to the nineteenth-century experience of classical music. Speaks Volumes was approached from a different direction. Sigurdsson’s recording and production doesn’t sit back and let the music sweep the listener away emotionally; it leans forward in exacting scrutiny and urges the listener to pay attention.

Naturally, I was skeptical and/or dismissive of these claims, but I thought it might be a good idea to give this young composer an opportunity to appear on my blog, so that the huge demographic of certain very specific types of people who follow my Pontifications might have an opportunity to decide for itself.

Prof. Heebie McJeebie: Your new album is titled Speaks Volumes. Who is responsible for this title?

Nico Muhly: I am responsible.

Prof. McJeebie: But there are no words in any of the pieces. Why on earth would you make the title so misleading?

Nico: While there are no words, most of the pieces are about words or, at least, they take their cues from my thinking about language and the way language works. I have a love affair with the English language.

Prof. McJeebie: A love affair?! Well, don't you think it would be better for you to be in love with a musical language? [coughs]

Nico: These pieces (like Honest Music) are about ways of speaking and ways of communicating.

Prof. McJeebie: There are parts of Honest Music that sound as though the performers are stopping-and-starting and making mistakes! That doesn't seem very "honest" to me. Why did you allow the performers to get away with those mistakes?

Nico: Because I wanted to see what shame they would bring to their families with their shoddy intonation.

[The professor has a coughing fit for a few minutes before continuing.]

Prof. McJeebie: Valgeir Sigurðsson is credited as the producer, mixer, and co-programmer of (I assume) TANDY electronics, on the album. How do you pronounce his name?

Nico: His first name is pronounced like [Vahl-keer] with a rolled “R.” His last name is Sigurthson. The ð is a [th] and its name is eth. There are intricacies to the Icelandic language that elude me. I have had a two-week torrid affair with the language, but certainly not a love affair.

Prof. McJeebie: What would you need from a language in order to make a commitment?

Nico: An understanding of its subjunctive.

[brief laughter]

Prof. McJeebie: It seems to me that Valgeir, having worked with some popular music stars in the past, might want to dumb down your music so he can sell it in popular music record stores like Sam Goody. How did the two of you get along?

Nico: I'm not sure that Valgeir has any interest in whether or not my album sells in Sam Goody; they don't have that [expletive deleted] on the volcano. Certainly no project he's ever worked on before has been designed for commercial success. Did you hear Medúlla?

Prof. McJeebie: No, I’m not a big fan of Meredith Monk albums.

Nico: [brief laughter, then prolonged silence]

Prof. McJeebie: The final piece on Speaks Volumes, “Keep in Touch,” is performed by the cross-dressing singer Antony. How did you get in touch with your feminine side while working on this piece?

Nico: Actually, Antony was dressed as a man when he recorded it. I was thinking about Nadia Sirota, the violist, while I wrote "Keep in Touch."

Prof. McJeebie: I see. Which lady composers most influenced you?

Nico: To my knowledge I have never been influenced by a lady composer. I have been influenced by people having been once upon a time influenced by Hildegard, of Bingen, but that's one degree removed.

Prof. McJeebie: You know, upon listening to the first two minutes of each track on the album, it occurs to me that you are influenced by cold and empty styles like minimalism and renaissance music, but also by more emotional music like that of Pulitzer Prize-winning composers such as Paul Moravec and John Corigliano. How do you justify writing music that is both empty and emotional?

Nico: I studied with Corigliano, and he thought minimalism was cold and empty, too. I think it's generational. For me, the most emotional music I've heard written since 1950 is the first few minutes of Music in Twelve Parts, followed by Shaker Loops and then The Cave. So go know.

Prof. McJeebie: Do you enjoy being emotional?

Nico: No, it's really messy (i.e. “subjunctive”).

Read more about Speaks Volumes and listen to excerpts.

Read more about Nico Muhly.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Guggenheim Professors

Because I have been very busy with my academic schedule, I did not find out about the Guggenheim Fellows (and two Lasses) until yesterday. I am very pleased that the list of 2006 Guggenheim Award-winning composers includes six Professors:

Kathryn Alexander, Associate Professor of Music Composition, Yale University
Cristian Amigo, Adjunct Professor, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, New York University
Donald Crockett, Professor of Composition and Chair, Composition Department, Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California
Anthony Davis, Professor of Music, University of California, San Diego
Jeff Talman, Assistant Professor of Visual and Media Arts, Emerson College
Daniel Trueman, Assistant Professor of Music, Princeton University

Unfortunately, the Guggenheim committee chose to also award the following composers who do not have academic positions as far as I am aware:

Paul Dresher, Haight-Ashbury hippie
Scott Johnson, Christian Scientist
Stewart Wallace, musical theater fag
Janis Mattox, not a music composer, so much as a “multi-media” composer

Let us hope that the Guggenheim Fellowships (and Lassieships) are more wisely handed out in the future.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Local Eatery

The young pianist and composer Adam Baratz has been an admirer of my work for some time. He has his own blog which occasionally contains some respectable musical ideas, though he does tend to dismiss the importance of dynamic markings. At any rate, he has often followed me around due to my status as a professor to be emulated, and he astutely observes that I can often be found at a particular restaurant very near the Hotel Cadillac.
Though I do prefer the Garbage Plate at Texas Hots (see sidebar), when I need to spend a few hours punching the cards for my TANDY Dynomighticon, I have been known to order a few slices of the pie that's named after me: The Heebie McJeebie (a white pie with hamburger, mango chutney, and blue cheese dressing).

If you are a famous composer, I invite you to post a comment below and let us know what your favorite food is.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

NYC Music Snobs

I'm getting sick and tired of reading about new music only in New York City. Just because NYC has more people per square foot and more concerts per evening than any other place in the USA doesn't mean it should be written about any more often than, say, Branson, MO.

My friend and colleague, Professor Floozy McBoozy (a beautiful and talented lady composer), teaches composition and music theory at the University of Our Sacred Virgin in Wichita Falls, TX. She and her students are always putting on concerts for the other students to see. Why can't the New York Times' Music section be about Wichita Falls for a change? Why won't the Times music critic Anthony Tommasini come out to Rochester for one of my weekly Faculty Recitals at the Hotel Cadillac?

It's time to put a stop to NYC Music Snobbery! NYC may be the most populous city in the country, but massive amounts of people does not a New Music Centre make. Just ask composer Robert Moran whose piece For The People of New York City, originally scored for 100,000 musicians and citizens, had to be re-orchestrated for MIDI playback due to budget limitations. NYC may be the most culturally diverse city in the USA, but cultural diversity and classical music don't always mix. Just ask Mikel Rouse whose recent album, Music For Minorities, ironically sold more copies in Portland than anywhere else in the country.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Pedophile Composers

Before I received tenure I had to work hard for a living. One of my side jobs was working as a decoy for the organization Union Musicians Against Pedophile Composers. It was my job to pose as a 14-year-old boy in the new-music chat rooms and lure boy-loving composers to my Rochester apartment where Dateline NBC had installed hidden cameras for their special series, "To Catch a Predator."

I was surprised to discover that the composers you'd most expect to practice pedophilia - those who have written Alice in Wonderland Symphonies, for example - were the most considerate and responsible composers of the bunch. The true predators were those who hid behind the facade of mediocrity, those who were afraid to write extreme and emotional music. It's almost as if they were looking for the life-drama that they couldn't evoke in their compositions. Without naming any names, I'd advise all parents to talk to their kids about new music. If you don't, someone else will.

I'd also like to strongly suggest that organizations like ASCAP and BMI stop publicizing the names of their Young Composers Award winners. Since the vast majority of these young composers are adolescent boys, the list of names and contact information is just an open invitation for pedophile composers to inappropriately "mentor" the awardees.

And for those pedophile composers out there: If you're looking for someone young and innocent to educate in counterpoint and harmony, contact me at my AIM screen name DecoyBoy1991 for some help.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Unpolished Melodies and Muddy Counterpoints

Some of my younger pupils have brought to my attention that it has become quite the trend for popular music composers to release collections of Outtakes as entire albums. Such rock stars as Bjork, Sufjan Stevens, Jon Bon Jovi, and The Loosey Gooseys have provided their listeners with examples of their failures as popular music stars.

Sadly, lovers of Serious Music do not often get to hear the discarded melodies and substandard orchestrations of our composerly heroes. Well, that is all about to change with the release of Outtakes collections by two of our most esteemed masters - John Corigliano's UNPOLISHED MELODIES and Steve Reich's MUDDY COUNTERPOINTS.

The Corigliano collection is comprised of melodies he imagines Bob Dylan might have written but never used. In order to maintain the purity of his ego, Corigliano has not actually listened to any of Bob Dylan's music. Instead, he has imagined the rock-and-roll circumstances of Dylan's life and written dramatic, unnerving melodies to illustrate Dylan's erratic behavior.

MUDDY COUNTERPOINTS is an album of failed attempts at Reich's "counterpoint" pieces (solo pieces for live performer and multiple pre-recorded tracks of the same performer, same instrument). According to the liner notes, there are some instruments for which Reich's "counterpoint" style was ill-suited. There are four pieces, or fragments of pieces, on the album - DIDJERIDU COUNTERPOINT, FRENCH HORN COUNTERPOINT, TABLE SAW COUNTERPOINT, and AUTOHARP COUNTERPOINT.

Let's hope other composers follow this new trend!

Friday, July 07, 2006

Review of Grendel

In keeping with my reputation as a Revolutionary yet Professorial Academic, it will be my policy to publish only pre-emptive reviews on this blog - that is, reviews of music that are not tainted by the experience of having already heard it.

Elliot Goldenthal's opera, GRENDEL, will be performed at the Lincoln Center Festival next week, directed by his longtime copulator/collaborator Julie Taymor, former director of Walt Disney films such as Herbie the Love Bug.
GRENDEL is based on the ancient Greek myth of Beowulf which was recently adapted into a more obscure story by the modernist writer and sometimes conductor John Eliot Gardner. The new version is told from the point of view of the monster.

Musically, the opera ventures into territory previously off limits to even the most schizophrenic composers. There are shrill flute passages and seizure-inducing rumblings of timpani and basso profundis. Ordinary composers would have the common sense to avoid mixing such extremes of register, but Goldenthal (who has worked with bearded women and castrati in Europe) does not shy away from psychotic orchestrations.

In the end, Goldenthal's orchestrations are what prevent GRENDEL from becoming the masterpiece it should be. If only he had considered the calming timbres of TANDY computers, he may have tugged at our heartstrings a bit more. As it stands now, GRENDEL is a tour de force of ugliness and gore, and it comes across like a grainy film shot on the floor of a slaughterhouse.
While Julie "Circle of Life" Taymor's staging does provide some relief - at one point in the opera, GRENDEL quite literally releases a dove into the audience, punctuated with harp glissandi and Chinese gongs that suggest a rather pranksterish, benevolent monster - her lioness touch is not enough to save the nearly seven-hour-long opera from its own misery. With nothing beautiful to hold onto, the audience is left to fight the crowds in a state of blank emptiness. I'd suggest leaving about five minutes before the opera finishes in order to beat the crowds.

By Way of Introduction

Hello readers. My name is Heebie McJeebie, and I am the TANDY Professor of Electronic Music at the Hotel Cadillac in Rochester, NY.

In addition to being a composer and professor (not necessarily in that order), I am also the host of the podcast COMPOSERS AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM.
Sadly I have been on hiatus from that project for many months now... unable to write, produce, and record new episodes due to insufficient funding. It seems potential funders have objected primarily to my hourly wage for uploading podcasts via my TANDY dial-up connection. As those of you with dial-up connections know, if you don't jiggle the phone chord just right, you risk the possibility of bandwidth corruption. So you really do need to sit and wait when uploading a large file. But the money-holders with their fancy-schmancy broadbands look down on the unsavory dial-uppers and refuse to pay us an hourly wage.

At any rate, I hope to continue with my podcast before too long. In fact, I am speaking with TANDY representatives at the local Radio Shack about upgrading their operating system to allow for dial-up webcam video so that my audio podcast can become a video podcast.
And we'll see how quickly those funders come a-knockin' once I've got video footage of composers notating their music in real time!

Here we will discuss the trajectory of Contemporary Canonic Classical music (serious music) and occassionally trifle with the less-grounded trends of younger, vagabond composers.
I pledge to you that on this blog, there is a place for all composers and musicians, even the twelve nameless composers whom my esteemed colleague Bernard Holland recently didn't write about in the New York Times.