My uncle once surprised me by telling me that farmers don’t grow crops. “Farmers grow soil,” he explained. “Soil grows crops.”

I’m three generations away from my own family’s subsistence farming, and so the idea was news to me. But I began to see in my uncle’s point of view the important theme of contributing.

Read the rest on my Celebrating Wendell Berry in Music project blog.

Investing in Karma

I’m sure there are small-minded, selfish, nasty composers in the world. I’m probably one of them more often than I realize! But lately I’ve benefitted from encounters with a number of composers whose considerable talents and accomplishments seem to be matched only by their warmth, kindness, and generosity. Naming names feels inappropriate, but here are a few snapshots:

  • The Chair of Composition at a major west-coast university, who made time to listen to my music and review my scores. He treated a stranger like a friend, provided constructive criticism, and was a terrific sounding board. Why? Just because I asked.
  • A retired distinguished professor of choral studies, who has spent several hours meticulously examining my recent choral pieces. He’s careful to ask questions that cause me to learn and intuit my own path forward, candid and straightforward, and deeply kind. I asked if I could pay him for lessons. “Pay it forward,” he said.
  • A busy, happening, young (i.e., my age!) L.A. composer who has made time on several occasions to provide advice and encouragement. He seems to assume that there’s enough opportunity in the world for everyone and is quick to offer connections and open doors. Why? Because he was grateful for breaks extended to him along the way.
  • A distinguished British composer who, at a recent convention, introduced me as a peer and made efforts to connect me to many of his colleagues and to his publisher. Why? Because he feels it’s part of his job as a composer to nurture others.

Perhaps being a little glib, I’ve printed the following notice in several of my album projects: “Unauthorized duplication, while convenient, isn’t very neighborly. Invest in art.”

Neighborliness cuts to the center of it, doesn’t it? In encounters large and small, I’ve met acquaintances who have treated me like friends, and now we’ve become “neighbors” in a creative community. I think that implies a certain kind of mutual necessity and a willingness to come to one another’s aid.

Investing in art—maybe that means “investing in karma” by paying forward small kindnesses when opportunities arise, and seeing a world that only grows bigger when we open doors for others.

I’m not sure artists can produce art in the long run without these boosts along the way.

Raveling, Unraveling

I’m working on an orchestral piece, an overture. When I first committed to the project, I was awash with excitement and ideas. But next I felt overwhelmed by the blank canvas. It wasn’t writer’s block. Instead, I was like a mosquito at a nudist camp: seeing opportunity everywhere but having no idea where to start.

I realized that I was trying to solve too many problems at once and had too few constraints. Duration, structure, harmonic language, orchestration, vibe, etc. Everything was up for grabs, which meant I actually had too much freedom. I remembered something that Igor Stravinsky wrote in Poetics of Music.

The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self… the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.

I returned to my blank canvas. Which constraints would I impose? For no special reason, I thought of the Ravel string quartet in F major. That’s a piece I’ve loved since I was a teenager. (Last year, my wife and I invited a string quartet to perform the piece in our house. I sat about four feet from the violist. I had never appreciated all of the internal lines and motivic ingenuity of the piece before hearing it so intimately.)

Simply because of my love for Ravel’s work, I decided to pattern my orchestral piece after the Quartet’s fourth movement. (Not to mention “vif et agité” sounds like me most days.) I like his method of developing melodic cells, making something big out of something little. I like the way he sculpts the energy of the movement. I like hearing rich chromaticism as an embellishment of tall harmonies. So, I analyzed the movement, made notes about the aspects I wanted to emulate, and all of the sudden a path forward opened up.

Initially, I felt a little sheepish for deriving so much information and inspiration from Ravel. But yesterday morning, I was listening to the Sequentia recording of Hildegarde von Bingen’s “Ave Maria, O Auctrix Vite” while editing a choral score and it hit me: hey, wait!, that’s the central melody of Christopher Theofanidis’ “Rainbow Body.” (Of course, he discloses as much in his program notes, which I read today.) So, maybe there’s nothing totally new in music, anyway.

Raveling? Unraveling? One way or the other, here we go!

Hooray for a clear idea

I’m a learner. It’s what I do for fun, and sometimes I think I’m good at it. This morning I’m studying A Geometry of Music by Dmitri Tymoczko. (Reading one section per morning with a five-day learning week should get me to the end in about 24 weeks…) 

Dmitri just gave me a clearer way of formally understanding something that has made sense to my ears for a long time. The idea is that inversionally related chords sound similar, and visually they share a reflective relationship. 

This is useful to me because I keep hunting for ways to stretch my grasp of harmony and extent myself into the extended common practice, away from strict functionality where I think I know the ropes better. 

Now, time to review (relearn?) orchestral percussion in my Adler. 

Very Sketchy

I’m starting a new orchestral piece, a 4-7-minute concert opener. I guess you’d call it an overture. My dictionary just told me “overture” means “an introduction to something more substantial.” I have no idea what of more substance this overture should lead to (that feels more existential than it probably should), but perhaps I’ll find out by writing.

And—as an aside—I should confess that writing for orchestra is one of the most thrilling, most exciting thought experiments for me. Nothing makes me smile more than trying to wrap my head around sounds like this.

My new habit is to begin each project with a meditation on what I want to learn from doing it. So far, I know I’d like to work on orchestrating long diminuendo and crescendo passages with deliberate expansion and contraction of pitch ranges.

I’d like to broaden my vocabulary with orchestrating accents via adding/subtracting instruments, register shifts, and color changes.

I’d like to create a thrilling rhythmic ride for the listener, which results from a full but playable use of the percussion (and good choreography).

I’d like to write an explosive orchestral swell. (I have an example from Christopher Rouse’s flute concerto fresh in my ears.)

And … I’d like to play with hocketing. For fun.

Is all of this too much to ask? I guess I’ll find out.

Incidental Music

For the last few days, in between other things, I’ve been writing some incidental music for a new play, written and to be directed by a friend of mine. He requested several short cues, each with a different mood. I’m trying to channel Vince Guaraldi and I’m looking forward to a recording session with a great drummer.

Usually I write slowly and obsess about each successive simultaneity of what I write, but this time I’m going for speed and flow. And fun. Fun matters more than I usually remember!

I’m also trying to work away from a piano keyboard as much as possible so as to change the mental balance of powers. Since the music needs to be idiomatic (dare I say “groovy”) on the piano too, I’ll end up at the piano—but not until after I have some solid conceptual, structural, and rhythmic sketches.

The most important ideas

I met composer Francis Pott at the ACDA national convention a few years ago. He’s a kind soul and now a good friend. I keep rereading a recent interview of his, especially the response I’ve shared below.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Francis: “Too complex to address in any detail. In summary: patience, optimism, commitment and determination; gratitude for opportunities and kindnesses; consideration for others; willingness to learn from perceived setbacks and turn them to good account for the future; thoroughness and self-discipline; modesty, backed by quiet confidence that your best compositional efforts can ‘do their own talking’ and do not need obnoxious blowing of one’s own trumpet; willingness to be charitable to colleagues in the profession (this may involve intuiting when they themselves feel insecure or uncertain of their ground); a core belief in the importance of communicating what one has been given to feel and perceive; a polished ability to speak in public and, if it arises, onstage; the willingness to be an ambassador for the profession and a good human advertisement for it.”

Words to live by. Read the rest here:

And learn more about Francis and his music here:

Paying Attention

I’m working on a choral setting of “Why I Wake Early” by Mary Oliver. This piece will be performed by the Mayfield Singers in Spring 2017. I don’t yet know what the piece will sound like or whether I’ll write for instruments, but I can tell you about my process for discovering what the piece will sound like:

  • I’m starting, as I always do with text settings, by memorizing the text. I love the shape of this poem, the repetitions, the way Oliver dances just on the edge of simply saying things and producing poetry that sounds like poetry. Every word is easy to say. Nearly every word seems singable (“crotchety” will be fun). I found the poem very easy to memorize because its meaning flows so coherently from line to line.
  • I’m reading each word and phrase, listening for beautiful sounds and tasty vowels. (“Dear star” … I can get some mileage out of that!) I’m looking for internal rhymes that have musical potential since there are no end rhymes.
  • I’m looking for noisy stuff and hazards (lots of people saying “touching” could accidentally be “touch-ch-ch-ch-ching.” Of course, that could be a cool effect, but I’d want to commit to it purposefully). Also looking for words that could be clumsy or inelegant when sung—”happiness” might be one.
  • Since there isn’t much implied structure (like even line lengths with an obvious rhyme scheme or uniform stanzas, etc.), I’m thinking a lot about architecture. I’m thinking about making the piece resemble, more or less, a sunrise in its arc.
  • I’m wondering what the poem says about itself and its own music, and looking for words that may require particular rhythms to be intelligible to the listener. I see my role here as delivering the poem to the listener, and I want to make sure I do my job well and do no harm to the text.