Sunday, February 27, 2011

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

EarShot in the news

It's been great hearing what our EarShot composers had to say about the Buffalo readings. Frank Oteri offers a fascinating look at EarShot in the current issue of Symphony.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Buffalo Readings Postscript (by Carl Schimmel)

It's been a little over a week since the EarShot Readings in Buffalo, and I'm still thinking about the ways in which EarShot is and could be the link between "emerging" composers and audiences around the country.

First, kudos to Maestro Kraemer and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra for the fantastic readings they gave, and for all their hard work -- thank you so much. It's always thrilling to hear a new work, but this is particularly the case when the piece is for full orchestra. And, thanks too to the staff and administration of both EarShot and the BPO, whose efforts made the event possible.

There are many obstacles to composers who are seeking to reach audiences with their orchestral works: they need an ability to write well for large ensembles, they need music directors who can and will take the time to look over new repertoire, they need orchestra administrations who support progressive music directors (but can still pay the bills), etc. Without any of these components, an orchestral composer is probably sunk. But at least as important as any of these is the need for a willing audience.

Who wants to listen to my music? I mean that seriously -- will you listen to my music, please? That is the implied question proposed by any composer when he or she presents a new work for performance. The unspoken answer is often NO. There are many reasons why someone might justifiably not want to listen to my music -- no free time, the weather is bad, the concert hall is uncomfortable -- but the reasons which pertain specifically to me and my music, while justifiable, usually can be traced to a lack of familiarity.

The research I conducted for my doctoral degree focused on the statistical modeling of the effects of repertoire decisions on orchestra ticket sales. Not surprisingly, the programming of works that are most familiar to audiences resulted in higher single-ticket sales. So for example, Carl Orff's Carmina Burana would typically result in higher sales than Beethoven's Symphony No. 1, even though Beethoven is a far more famous composer and few non-classical-music-lovers have ever heard of Carl Orff.

So what does this mean for contemporary composers? It doesn't sound like good news -- contemporary music is almost universally unfamiliar to audiences, except for film scores. To my surprise, contemporary music did not fare poorly in my study -- in fact, it did rather well, compared to works by composers such as Schubert or Weber or Franck. I can partly explain this unexpected result by the fact that contemporary composers are alive -- we are able to comment on the world in which our audiences live, and more importantly we are able to interact with our listeners. The right piece, by the right person, can draw audiences sometimes even if the musical language is relatively unfamiliar.

For better or worse, careers in many (perhaps all) disciplines are forged largely on interpersonal relationships. In Buffalo, Steve Stucky shared with us a story from his own life which perfectly demonstrated this phenomenon, and several of us discussed afterwards how tirelessly entrepreneurial the great composers were. Perhaps there were many other incredible composers in Beethoven's time whose music is forgotten today because they failed to connect with the right people. To a large extent the networking effect plays itself out between composers and the performers of their works. However, in our democratic society, I am certain that the most successful among us rely heavily on a solid relationship with our audiences as well. Composers like Philip Glass and Frank Zappa come to mind -- these are strong personalities who intrigue potential listeners as people.

What do orchestral audiences know about me? Almost nothing at all, except perhaps what is written on page 19 of the program, under the "Bios" section. If they knew that I grew up in Rhode Island, would they be more interested to listen to my music? Probably, if they live in Rhode Island. How about if they knew that I am sometimes inspired by grunge music from the 1990's? I suppose this would interest quite a few twenty- and thirty-somethings. What if they heard that I like to write music which uses dog chew toys and turkey gobbles? (I do.) According audiences the opportunity to meet and communicate with composers will give them a reason to listen.

Our ability to breathe and move around and sometimes even to talk gives us a leg up on folks like Beethoven and Orff. Even amateurs have this significant advantage over the geniuses who were composing by candlelight while the short French man sent armies into Russia. Fortunately for American audiences, there are hundreds of brilliant orchestral composers among us, deserving of a chance to be heard by a potential public. They simply need to be given a way of networking with both orchestras and concert audiences -- and that is where EarShot comes in. The key, I think, to making EarShot a permanent and vital institution lies in its ability to connect composers with audiences -- not solely to connect composers' music with audiences (although this alone would be a great service) -- and not just to connect composers with music directors -- but to connect the people who compose with potential listeners. I am convinced that this can happen, and I think it will be exciting to watch EarShot reach its full potential.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Programming women composers

Last week the New York Philharmonic announced their 2011-12 season. There were some surprises -- Stockhausen's Gruppen -- was one of them, but as the New Music Box's Alexandra Gardner pointed out, not one women composer was to be found. Same was true of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's offerings for the upcoming season. A healthy debate is in progress and you can follow it on Twitter (the hashtag is #DWG) and also share your thoughts here. What do you think?

…and a thought about works by women... a composer speaks

When Mozart and Beethoven wrote symphonies, most orchestras played premieres; the idea that an orchestra would play mostly the music of dead composers was an oddity. If one considers the amazing amount of great works commissioned and premiered by American orchestras in the first half of the 20th century and then consider how these same orchestras program now, one wonders if the next "Beethoven"would ever be performed. It's doubtful. The ACO has made a point of looking for these extraordinary voices and the Playing It UnSafe series takes this a step further, by challenging us to write music that pushes our boundaries musically and conceptually.

ACO asked me to offer some thoughts about the ongoing "webversation." Indeed there is a problem with the failure of orchestras to program works by women. The ACO has done an exemplary job of programming the music of women. On this upcoming Playing It UnSafe concert (March 4, 2011), two of the four composers represented are women (myself and Joan La Barbara.) When Miller Theater commissioned me in 2007 for a "Pocket Concerto", I was one of twelve composers commissioned--two of us were women. I remember having a discussion with a fellow composer over a decade ago, in which I found myself listing a very large group of very fine women composers. Today that list is so long it's hard to start..but to name some Shulamit Ran, Tania Leon, Victoria Bond, Augusta Read Thomas, Tamar Diesendruck, Chen Yi, Unsuk Chin, Stacy Garrop, the list goes on and on. Each of these composers, and nearly 100 more I could name, are exceptional in their own ways. It's a matter of having the music directors know--and I mean really listen to--their work. That takes time and effort. It also takes commitment to find great new voices, and not program for the wrong reasons--i.e. who's hot now, who will sell tickets etc. I do think that the considerations that go into programming do not always come from the best artistic concerns. As an artistic director myself (of the UW Contemporary Chamber Ensemble), it's not difficult for me to find really GOOD music by living composers and women. I make it a point never to program more than one DWG on each of my programs and often I program more than half the concert with works by women because I know these works, they are included in my regular listening.

I think that's what makes ACO's programming exemplary. A phenomenal advisory board and artistic director, each one a composer and musician with vision and artistic curiosity--leading them to really listen to the music--which inevitably brings them to program music by a more diverse set of composers.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

2/11/11 – The Debrief (Austin Jaquith)

On Thursday morning, the scheduled event was a debriefing from the mentor composers where they addressed significant aesthetic issues that each work brought up. In other words, we got to hear what they really thought of our pieces! I found this to be extremely helpful. None of us came to this event to get a patronizing proverbial pat on the back, and we were not disappointed. Each piece brought up issues well worth engaging. Most of the pieces elicited comments regarding form, pacing and aesthetic identity. These are of course some of the most difficult problems to sort out as a composer, and none of us created a piece that was above reproach. I suspect that time and experience will help sort out many of these issues, but we are clearly still a work in progress in that respect.
In conclusion, I can only express praise and gratitude for this event. The opportunity to experience an orchestral reading and performance has been a real inspiration to continue exploring orchestral music. Thanks to the BPO, the ACO, and all the individuals that made this event such a success!

2/10/11 – The Performance (Austin Jaquith)

As we had anticipated, the performance tonight was a significant improvement over the readings. Many of the difficult passages were smoother, and executed with greater confidence. Although it was not surprising, it was striking. The audience seemed appreciative, and the composers were all happy with the performance. I can’t speak for the other composers, but I was exhausted afterwards. Listening to a performance of your own work is very draining, even though you are not participating in an active way. It is one of the oddities of being a composer! Despite being a bit worn down, the experience was inspiring, and very satisfying

2/9/11- Fantastissimo (Austin Jaquith)

After much hand wringing and more than a little nervous energy expended, we finally got a chance to hear our pieces last night. Highly impressive from all fronts! The musicians played exceedingly well. They navigated easily through some fairly tricky passages and were able to give each piece more than a fair rendering. The conductor, Matthew Kraemer, clearly had studied the pieces extensively, and ran the rehearsal with considerable expertise. The work of the composers was impressive. Although the influences found in the pieces came from across the aesthetic spectrum, each one had a clear artistic presence. We began with Michael Foumai’s piece, “The Light-Bringer” which began with bold unisons alternating with expressive dyads. As the piece traversed its duration, we saw a number of textures, from exciting contrapuntal exchanges to dramatic tutti downbeats. The piece held together well, and ended with a beautiful orchestral diminuendo. Carl Schimmel’s composition, “Rite. Apotheosis.” included both subtle, evanescent textures as well bold, dramatic gestures. It was quite compelling. Nathan Kelly’s “The Legend of Pecos Bill” had a charming western character to it. It had a great sense of musical direction and clarity. Hats off to my fellow composers! My own composition, “Blaze of Autumn,” a rhythmically active and texturally dense composition came across with surprising accuracy for an initial reading.
After the readings we had a rare opportunity to sit down with representatives from every section of the orchestra. Because of the natural distance, both figuratively and literally, between performers and composers in the usual orchestral performance situation, it was fascinating and enlightening to see how the music came across to the performers, and what their experience of the piece was. Some of the topics that arose included how much information to include in the parts – especially with percussion, balancing visual clarity with rhythmic nuance, and appropriate uses of virtuosity in the orchestral setting.
In addition to discussing the pieces with the players, we also had a chance to hear some feedback from the mentor composers. The comments were limited to “nuts and bolts” considerations, which helped us as made minor revisions to the piece that night that will be included in tonight’s performance.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

EarShot Day One

Day one of the EarShot readings is in the books. Composers Michael-Thomas Foumai, Austin Jaquith, Nathan Kelly, and Carl Schimmel have received valuable feedback from BPO associate conductor Matthew Kraemer, BPO members, and mentor composers David Felder, Steven Stucky, and Robert Beaser. As the composers prepare for day two and the free public reading session, let's take a look at the first day.
Matthew Kraemer chats with Michael-Thomas Foumai as Austin Jaquith looks on
Nathan Kelly, Austin Jaquith and Carl Schimmel
Mentor composers Robert Beaser, David Felder and Steven Stucky
BPO members offer feedback
Felder, Kraemer and Beaser assess our composers' works
Day one done. Be sure to visit us for reports on days two and three.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

good luck!

It's striking to have an impressive body of musicians and composers all assembled in a room and to also have them comment on your work and then walk thru a door and hear an orchestra play it! what an orchestration lesson! everyone is saying "good luck" but actually, the composers get off fairly relaxed before the performance! nothing we can change now (though i have been plotting....) i heard a story of a conductor tell an orchestra in before a recording session with 5 mins before a break, now everyone take your part down a half step! tempting... tempting... :) -nathan

photo caption:
nathan kelly reviews his score during the first day's reading.
photo credit Enid Bloch

A.K.J - On the Way

As I sit here anticipating my plane’s departure from Dayton, I am looking forward to the next three days immensely. I’m looking forward to meeting the other composers, participants and mentors, the conductor, and musicians from the BPO. I’m looking forward to hearing some great music. Most of all, I am looking forward to an opportunity that was a pleasant surprise, and promises to provide some valuable and difficult to acquire experience. I am reminded of an orchestration course I took in which the professor remarked early on that he wasn’t entirely sure what the point of the course was, since it was likely that none of us would ever have an opportunity work with a professional orchestra. This was a good dose of realism for sure, although none of us took the hint and dropped the class! In any case, I am happy to be beating the odds this week.

photo caption:
Austin Jaquith during the first orchestra reading with the Buffalo Philharmonic
photo credit Enid Bloch

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Prelude to the readings

 We are all excited about the upcoming EarShot Buffalo Philharmonic readings  and look forward to what participants have to say about this ground-breaking project. Be sure to check in this week for their observations leading up to the readings, and next week for their first-hand accounts of what's going on at Kleinhans Music Hall. The readings take place February 8-10, read more about EarShot and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.