Monday, October 24, 2016

Contempo-Scary Music: Q&A with soprano Nancy Allen Lundy

Soprano Nancy Allen Lundy has enjoyed a varied career with an emphasis on contemporary music. Last season, she and pianist, Stephen Gosling, celebrated David Del Tredici’s birthday at Barge Music after her earlier performance of Dracula at Merkin Hall with American Modern Ensemble. A favorite of Tan Dun, she has originated and performed his leading ladies around the world, including Vancouver Opera, Netherlands Opera, NHK (Tokyo), BAM, and Royal Symphony Stockholm. This season she reprises the role of Zina in Raskatov’s A Dog’s Heart directed by Simon McBurney with Netherlands Opera, a role she earlier premiered in Amsterdam with subsequent performances at ENO (London), La Scala (Milan), and Opera de Lyon.

Nancy was kind enough to answer a few questions about her role in the upcoming performance of David Del Tredici's Dracula — a 20-minute setting of Alfred Corn's poem, “My Neighbor, the Distinguished Count,” which retells the famous gothic tale from the point of view of a woman living next door to the Count — at ACO’s 40th Season Opener, “Contempo-Scary Music,” on October 28, 2016 at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. The New York Times has called the piece a “gloriously giddy melodrama.”

Soprano Lundy performed Del Tredici's Dracula
with the American Modern Ensemble in 2014

American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about your character in David Del Tredici’s Dracula?

Nancy Allen Lundy: I am the neighbor lady of Dracula and have been friends with his parents. Over the years, I imagine we shared dinners, watching as the young boy grew to adulthood. I find myself strangely attracted to this young man whose physical traits are somehow altered from what I remember. He seems to be quite fond of me as well. He pays me “visits”, sending me gifts in the interims. As the narrative progresses, I question why he seems no longer interested in me. Realizing I am indeed hooked, I find my whole life’s meaning is tied to the whims of this odd creature with “an electric tic active at the corner of the mouth”.

ACO: The piece asks for an uncommonly theatrical performance from an orchestra-accompanied soprano. Can you talk about the moments in your role that might surprise (or scare?) an unsuspecting audience member?

NAL: I doubt that anything will be frightening, even for young people. I believe the effect is more comical; an indulgent, hyper-dramatic reading of a person losing her grasp and falling victim to an unusual addiction; the addiction to human blood by which the average, run-of-the-mill vampire is afflicted. And I wouldn’t want to give anything away, now, would I…. [insert scary laugh] ??!!

ACO: In his program note, David says “Nervous giggles and startled gasps would not be unwelcome here,” but he also explains the works deeper meaning: “the listener confronts the more ominous world of addiction, betrayal, and obsession. And inevitably, there comes the ultimate degradation—a Faustian bargain with a devilish price: devolution into the living dead.” Can you talk about the ways in which you try to convey these themes?

NAL: It isn’t in my best interest to try to convey themes or morals. I read the lines and play the scenes and let the audience take what it gleans from it. I feel the ache in my eye teeth as they start to lengthen, I feel the thirst, the hunger for Dracula’s visits, the crushing devastation of a jilted lover. I feel the madness of obsession, the grotesque, itching convulsing as life is leaving and the undead is being born within my flesh.

ACO: You have performed Dracula before with the American Modern Ensemble and last March you celebrated David’s birthday with a recital of his music at Barge Music with pianist Stephen Gosling. Can you talk about your relationship with Del Tredici’s music?

NAL: I have been an admirer of the work of David Del Tredici since I was a music student at college in Northern Minnesota, the same school where Phyllis Bryn-Julson went. Her recording of Alice was there in the library, and I familiarized myself with it in equal measure to Beethoven, Mozart, and all the rest which was unknown to me. It was the greatest treat to meet him finally in his NYC apartment to sing through Dracula. His music mirrors his own thoughtful humanity, flare for the dramatic, aching poignancy and youthful wonder. If I were more of a music theorist, I would say that his music is logically constructed and balanced in symmetry. But my main interest in his music is that it moves me to sing about all that he sees is human, dramatic, poignant and wondrous. And funny, too!

Watch Nancy Allen Lundy's performance of 
Dracula with the American Modern Ensemble:

Hear soprano Nancy Allen Lundy in David Del Tredici's Dracula at Contempo-Scary Music, ACO's 40th Season Opener on October 28, 2016 at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Contempo-Scary Music: Composer Spotlight - Paul Moravec

Paul Moravec, recipient of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Music, is a composer of numerous orchestral, chamber, choral, operatic, and lyric pieces. His music has earned many distinctions, including the Rome Prize Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, three awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation. Paul’s The Overlook Hotel Suite is a brand new orchestral suite that takes musical material from his highly praised opera The Shining, which is based on the well-known Stephen King novel and premiered in a sold-out run by Minnesota Opera this past May. Musical America called the opera a “chilling artistic triumph,” reporting, “This operatic treatment of Stephen King’s breakthrough horror-thriller (1977) manages not only to distill the narrative intensity of the original but—its most significant achievement—transforms The Shining into valid operatic terms that transcend the thriller trappings.” 

Commissioned by ACO, Paul has created a piece that uses the instruments of the orchestra to provide a musical depiction of the Overlook—the infamous hotel at the center of the story’s gory plot. The Overlook Hotel Suite will be premiered at ACO’s 40th Season Opener on October 28, 2016 at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. Paul was kind enough to answer a few questions about the piece and his compositional process for SoundAdvice.

Composer Paul Moravec

American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about the sections or themes in your opera The Shining that The Overlook Hotel Suite draws from, and your process for choosing this musical material?

Paul Moravec: The Overlook Hotel Suite is more than a medley from the opera: it’s an independent composition re-imagining and re-arranging the opera’s musical material involving the character of the hotel and its ghosts from every part of the show, without regard to dramatic sequence. It’s a kind of time-less fantasy on leitmotifs associated with the never-ending masked ball, ghosts such as Delbert Grady and his two daughters, and Mark Torrance, Jack’s abusive father.

ACO: MPR News writes that your music in The Shining is “a rich, multi-layered soundscape that breathes life into the Overlook Hotel, which is both the setting and the villain of the piece.” In The Overlook Hotel Suite, you are using the instruments of the orchestra to provide a musical depiction of the infamous hotel. Can you give a few examples of what the instruments are depicting? Given that the Overlook might be considered the opera’s “villain,” are you depicting more than just physical setting?

PM: I definitely consider the Overlook Hotel a leading persona in the opera, and so its character and physical attributes are indissolubly one.  For instance, to convey the evil power of the hotel in its most concentrated form, one has to feel the infamous room 217 — where little Danny is attacked by the dead lady in the bathtub — as a real, malicious presence, more than just a physical setting. I use a lot of spooky special effects in the orchestration — such as tremolo ponticello strings and nasty, muted brass — but sometimes the most disquieting effects can be created by a counterintuitively normal-sounding orchestra playing totally creepy music. Sometimes less really is more.

ACO: You have talked about how Stephen King’s 1977 novel The Shining possesses three themes that are essential for creating a compelling opera: love, death and power. Are these themes also present in The Overlook Hotel Suite?

PM: Among other things, King’s novel is a deeply emotional story about love in the Torrance family: between husband and wife and between parents and child. So love itself is not so much a factor in this suite, since it focuses on the ghosts, not the Torrances. As for power, that is reflected principally in the evil force-field surrounding the hotel itself. And as in so many ghost stories, death especially violent death — plays a crucial role in this suite. Regarding the masked gala in the grand ballroom, this suite is more about after-death than death per se.

ACO: Can you talk about the differences in your approach to writing opera compared to orchestral music?

PM: Composing an opera is more complex than writing an orchestra piece, in part because the opera composer must also be the principal dramatist, for all the contributions of the librettist and director and everyone else involved. Opera, of course, is music drama. The challenge is that as an art-form, drama naturally follows its own logic while music follows its own peculiar logic and somehow these two willful, independent thoroughbreds have to be made at all times to move in the exact same direction, in precise synchrony. The composer must combine the music, words, character, plot, et al. into a seemingly effortless and compelling narrative much greater than the sum of its parts. And beyond all that, the composer must overcome the inherent artifice of this irrational art-form so that the audience will be so absorbed as to forget that they are watching an opera.

Hear the world premiere of Paul Moravec’s The Overlook Hotel Suite at Contempo-Scary Music, ACO's 40th Season Opener on October 28, 2016 at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Contempo-Scary Music: Composer Spotlight - Judith Shatin

Judith Shatin’s Black Moon was developed through ACO’s coLABoratory program, which allows for the research and development of new works and techniques. Black Moon incorporates conductor-controlled electronics—specific conductor gestures directly trigger and move sounds in space by means of a Kinect controller. Last spring, ACO presented Judith's work-in-progress at coLABoratory, a sketch using the Kinect technology titled Red Moon. The video below shows a clip from Red Moon performed by conductor George Manahan and musicians from the ACO.

ACO premieres Shatin's finished work, Black Moon, at its 40th Season Opener on October 28, 2016 at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall in a program titled Contempo-Scary Music, celebrating the Halloween weekend with music inspired by all things sinister and suspenseful. Judith was kind enough to followup on her previous Q&A about the project.

Composer Judith Shatin

American Composers Orchestra: Your piece explores cycles—such as the cycle suggested by four appearances of the moon when only three are expected, giving rise to the ‘black moon.’ How is this manifested in your composition?

Judith Shatin: The underlying structure of the piece is built around the idea of four events when only three are expected. So, for instance, there are three subtly altered repetitions of extended electronic sounds that announce three of the sections, with another that stands out in both its timbres and rhythms. This idea can be found in different aspects of the piece. 

ACO: Can you talk about the roles of the orchestra and conductor-controlled electronics to create these cycles?

JS: The orchestration relates directly to these cycles, with certain instrumental combinations featured in each. Meanwhile the electronics, controlled by the conductor, also change in palpable ways for each cycle.

ACO: All of the electronics in Black Moon, controlled during the performance by conductor George Manahan, are digitally transformed recordings of acoustic instruments. What did you record and how did you alter the recordings? 

JS: I recorded representative string, wind, brass and percussion instruments and then dramatically transformed them using a variety of digital techniques. On the one hand, I wanted to create an organic link between the instruments and electronics, but on the other I also wanted to create a new sonic world that complements that of the orchestra. 

ACO: In a conventional orchestra piece without electronics or any kind of aleatoric writing, the composer would hope the piece would sound pretty much the same from performance to performance. Is this the case in Black Moon, or does inclusion of conductor-controlled electronics mean that the world premiere could sound noticeably different than any other subsequent performance? 

JS: The orchestral part uses a few, limited aleatoric elements, inspired by the shifting, chaotic, elements in nature. However, most of the piece is set, and the electronics will be the same each time. There will be some small changes in their flow when the conductor moves the sound around. However, since I wanted the elements to blend in a certain way, I did not feature random elements. 

ACO: How have things progressed since the coLABoratory workshop last March? 

JS: The coLABoratory was very useful. An orchestra conductor literally has his/her hands full. I realized that having the left arm trigger sounds was too constraining. So, we changed that trigger to a foot switch. The left arm is still used to sweep the sound around, and that is a gesture that is quite natural for a conductor. 

ACO: In our last Q&A we asked if Black Moon would contain thematic elements from Red Moon, the musical sketch you composed to demonstrate your work-to-date. You didn’t know the answer then, but how about now? 

JS: There are very few elements that have remained from the earlier musical sketch. I composed most of Black Moon after the coLABoratory, responding both to that experience and to the evolution of my ideas about the piece.

Learn more about Judith at

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

David Raksin Remembers his Colleagues: Bernard Herrmann

The late/beloved Hollywood composer David Raksin wrote a series of essays about his many esteemed colleagues. In this essay he remembers his friend and colleague Bernard Herrmann.

George Manahan leads the American Composers Orchestra in Bernard Herrmann's iconic Psycho Suite at Contempo-Scary, opening our 40th Anniversary season at Carnigie Hall's Zankel Hall on October 28.

David Raskin, left; Bernard Herrmann, right

David Raksin Remembers his Colleagues: Bernard Herrmann

Of all the composers who have written music for films, perhaps the most remarkable personality was my friend and colleague Bernard Herrmann. He was born in New York City on June 29, 1911 into a middle-class Jewish family. His father, Abraham, had emigrated from Russia; his mother, Ida, was born here. Benny (that's how we all knew him) studied violin when he was in grammar school; by the time he entered high school he had already won a prize-for composing a song. At DeWitt Clinton High, he met another young musician who would also make a name for himself as a composer, Jerome Moross. Herrmann and Moross used to spend time after school at the Half-Price MusicShop on 57th Street, where one day they found some music by a composer previously unknown to them, Charles Ives, who became, as a matter of fact, famous for having been unknown in those days.

The two boys found the Concord Sonata and the 114 Songs and became fascinated by the power and originality of the music. The address of the composer was appended to the printed copies, so Benny wrote him a note in appreciation of his work and, in due time, received an invitation to call upon Ives. Thus began a long friendship in the course of which Herrmann became one of the earliest exponents of Ives's music.

After high school, Herrmann went on to New York University. One of his teachers there was Philip James, a composer and conductor of some renown. Next he won a fellowship at the Juilliard Graduate School of Music, where he studied composition with Bernard Wagenaar and conducting with Albert Stoessel. To support himself during this period he played all kinds of odd jobs, including a stint at the celebrated Yiddish Theatre on Second Avenue.

He also had the good fortune to encounter the Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger. This brilliant and unconventional musician had an artist's eyes and ears: he could recognize beauty where lesser men saw and heard only everyday commonplaces. So open-minded and perceptive was this gifted man that he saw nothing unfitting about composing, for example, a piece which he called Railroad Station Platform Humlet, and which was intended to divert the weary traveler. I cite this because it seems to me that the influence of such men as Ives and Grainger upon Herrmann is very clear: all through his long career Benny would exhibit the same devotion to his art, the same catholicity of taste which he admired in these two older composers.

In 1930 he founded the New Chamber Orchestra, with which he conducted concerts featuring avant-garde music. He scrounged up the money to finance this ambitious venture from friends, among them Robert Russell Bennett, the noted American composer and orchestrator, and Hans Spialek, also an orchestrator of Broadway shows who sometimes composed for other media. A typical program given at the New School for Social Research includes music by Percy Grainger, Philip James, Henry Cowell, Vladimir Dukelsky (better known as Vernon Duke: 'April in Paris' and 'Autumn in New York' are two of his famous songs), Russell Bennett, Jerry Moross; also Charles Ives, whose Fugue from his Symphony #4 was performed, and Herrmann-his own Prelude to Anathema.

In 1934 Herrmann went to work at the Columbia Broadcasting System's New York radio station, where he composed music for various programs and conducted for the American School of the Air. Within a year he became a member of the conducting staff, and in 1940 he was appointed chief conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra, where he acquired his reputation as a champion of rarely performed music. On programs such as Invitation to Music, he presented new works and neglected masterpieces of the past. At a time when the music of Charles Ives had achieved very few performances, Herrmann gave six weeks of radio concerts of his pieces.

While at CBS, Herrmann also composed music for an astonishing number of dramatic programs. He worked with Norman Corwin on the Columbia Workshop and for Orson Welles and John Houseman's Mercury Theatre of the Air. One of our mutual friends--Benny's and mine-the film director Richard Wilson, was a junior member of the Mercury Theatre radio group, and he told me a story which in its madness is typical of the crazy way in which we worked.

Welles was directing a radio dramatization of Agatha Christie's mystery novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The actors and orchestra were together in the studio, while Welles directed from the control room. Dress rehearsals being what they are, this one ended with only minutes to spare before air time and minutes too long, leaving no time for adjusting scripts or cutting music cues. The intrepid Orson advised everyone not to worry, that he would make the necessary cuts while they were on the air! So, while directing the live broadcast, he would from time to time remove pages from his script and drop them on the floor. Dick Wilson would grab them and race out to tell the actors which scenes had been cut-in pantomime because the mikes were live. Then he would pluck pages from Herrmann's script, which left Benny wondering which music cues had been eliminated, and how he would tell the orchestra.

At one point, Wilson picked up a newly discarded page, looked intently at it, and whispered, "Orson!" Welles waved him off, but Dick persisted-with the same result; again Welles waved him off and pointed to the studio. So, having no other choice, Wilson removed the page from all actors' scripts and that of Benny Herrmann. Which made for a most unusual mystery story, because what Dick had been trying to say was that Welles had thrown out the scene in which Ackroyd was murdered. To the radio audience the mystery must have been: what happened to poor Roger.

For all that, Herrmann occupied a position of importance in the Mercury Theatre and in the esteem of Welles and Houseman, so that when they went to Hollywood to film Citizen Kane they invited him to compose and conduct the music. The result was a classic score in which images and music are bonded together in an extraordinary way. When the picture was released, the screenplay by Herman Mankiewicz and Welles, with an assist by Houseman, was thought to be scandalously close to the career of famed publisher, William Randolph Hearst. However, Benny used to say that parts of it were closer to the story of the industrialist Harold McCormick, who financed the construction of the Chicago Opera for the sake of a soprano named Ganna Walska. He also liked to point out that there was a lot of Welles himself in the flamboyant Mr. Kane. What interested me was something else: a prominent figure in the film is Mr. Bernstein, Kane's longtime friend and advisor. To begin with, Welles bestowed upon is character the name of his own guardian, a physician who supervised his care after the untimely death of his father. And as Everett Sloane played him, Mr. Bernstein was a compendium of the mannerisms of-Bernard Herrmann: he looks like Benny, acts like him, and even talks like him-although he is somewhat less raucous than Benny could be when aroused. (When you view CITIZEN KANE, keep an eye on Mr. Bernstein, and you will be seeing the shade of Bernard Herrmann.)

The Aria from Salaambo, an operatic sequence that Herrmann composed for the unhappy debut of Kane's protégé, Susan Alexander, had to expose her as the rank amateur she was unequal to so grand a challenge. So he put the Aria in a key that would force the singer to strain for the high notes. Herrmann said he wanted to convey the impression of "a terrified girl floundering in the quicksand of a powerful orchestra." (The eloquent phrase is Benny's own.) In the film soundtrack, soprano Jean Forward sang the vocal part for Dorothy Comingore. The score that Herrmann composed for Citizen Kane, together with the prestige that the picture achieved in professional Hollywood, established him as an important new voice in film music.

His next score was All That Money Can Buy, the cinema version of Stephen Vincent Benet's book, The Devil and Daniel Webster. The director was William Dieterle. In this mordant and witty fable, the devil, who is called Mr. Scratch (and played, in an inspired bit of casting, by Walter Huston) seems to have been turned loose to terrorize a New England village. An unusual task for the composer was to devise a sound appropriate for the soul of one of Mr. Scratch's victims, who is imprisoned in a matchbox -exactly the kind of challenge that drives film composers to drink (although, in our nearly four decades of friendship I never saw Benny intoxicated.) In any event, he was more than equal to the task, and he won an Academy Award for this score.

Throughout his career Bernard Herrmann continued to voice his resolute, unyielding opinions about music-and just about everything else. I used to describe him as a virtuoso of unspecific anger, which he bestowed so impartially upon friend or enemy that I often wondered whether he knew the difference. He was, it is sad to say, a flawed man, and he paid a greater penalty for his own shortcomings than those who experienced the pain of his rages. Remarkable composer that he was, he was that despite a rudimentary sense of melody, which he sought to remedy by repeating short phrases in sequences—meaning that he would state a brief musical phrase and then repeat it, and repeat it again and again in other positions. One of my students asked me after viewing VERTIGO whether I could identify a fragment played on an organ as Kim Novak walks through a church. I answered that I could not, but that I knew the name of the church: Our Lady of Perpetual Sequences.

Is that a proper remark from a friend and colleague? More important, is it true? I believe it is, but I would not find it possible to issue such an appraisal if I were less aware of his wonderful qualities as a composer of film scores. Think of the values he gave to the movies he enriched with his music. Think what they would have been without Benny's contribution. Think of Citizen Kane, Jane Eyre, All That Money Can Buy, Hangover Square, North By Northwest, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Vertigo; try to imagine Psycho without Herrmann's music for the shower scene, or his evocation of Hell on earth in Taxi Driver, or the beauty and pathos with which he infused The Ghost And Mrs. Muir (my own favorite). Such music does not come from a man whose soul is a litany of harsh cadences. And in fact, this implausible, sometimes even impossible man could also be a loving friend, a sentimental innocent, an endearing companion. In the end it was the humanity of this extraordinary person that spoke in his music, his art, for which he is justly celebrated.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

EarShot ICO Readings & Competition: Composer Spotlight - Reinaldo Moya

Composer Reinaldo Moya’s music has been performed in Germany, Colombia, Brazil, Australia, Argentina, Venezuela and throughout the US by performers such as the New Jersey Symphony, the Juilliard Orchestra, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, the Da Capo Chamber Players, the Attacca Quartet, Zeitgeist, The St. Olaf Orchestra, as well as musicians from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and Alarm Will Sound, among others. He is the recipient of the 2015 McKnight Composers Fellowship, the Van Lier Fellowship from Meet the Composer, and the Aaron Copland Award from the Copland House.

Reinaldo has been commissioned by the Minnesota Opera to write a new opera as part of Minnesota Opera’s initiative Project Opera. An adaptation of Will Weaver’s book Memory Boy, the opera has a libretto by Mark Campbell and was premiered in the spring of 2016. Excerpts from his opera Generalissimo have been performed at Symphony Space, and Weill Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall. He graduated from The Juilliard School with both Master’s and Doctorate degrees, under the tutelage of Samuel Adler and Robert Beaser. Reinaldo is Assistant Professor of Composition at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, and has served on the faculty at St. Olaf, and Macalester colleges in Minnesota.

Reinaldo was selected for the 2016 EarShot Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra Readings & Competition for his piece Passacaglia for Orchestra. He answered these questions for SoundAdvice. 

Composer Reinaldo Moya

The readings are free and open to the public on Friday, September 23, 7PM at the Howard L. Schrott Center for the Arts.

American Composers Orchestra: You are an accomplished composer of opera, with a commission from Minnesota Opera that was premiered last spring and many performances of excerpts from your opera Generalissimo in New York City. Without the ability to directly communicate text or story in an instrumental work for orchestra, what artistic force do you find is lost or gained as a composer?

Reinaldo Moya: I don't necessarily think of it as a loss. I think different kinds of composing offer different possibilities for expression. While I do enjoy having the directness of the word, the sheer power of the orchestra to evoke emotions and paint aural pictures is perhaps unequaled in music. I'm just glad to have the opportunity to do both and go back and forth. I find that this process is beneficial to both my vocal music and my orchestral music. My music with text gets richer after I've worked on something orchestral, and my orchestra music grows as well after I've spent some time setting words to music. It's a wonderful and invigorating process.

ACO: Your Passacaglia for Orchestra uses a bass-ostinato with continuing variations above it. Can you talk about this bass line and the compositional process that brought you to it?

RM: The Passacaglia idea has intrigued me for a long time. It seems so simple, you take something that on its own might not be that remarkable (in the case of my piece a descent from the tonic to the dominant) and layer things on top of it, or around it. Then you see what comes out. It turned out to be harder than I thought but I really enjoyed the challenge.

In the case of this piece, my friend William Harvey, the founder and director of Cultures and Harmony (and a native of Indianapolis), had asked me to write this piece to celebrate 10 years of his organization going around the world and making music together. The idea of viewing the repeating bass line as a metaphor for our common humanity across cultural barriers really spoke to me. Despite all of our differences on the surface, underneath it all, we're all people with a deep desire to get along and lead fulfilling lives. I wish I'd come up with this metaphor myself, because I think it's fantastic, but once I heard it, it really inspired a lot of the piece.

ACO: What was your reaction to finding our your piece had been selected for the 2016 Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra Readings and Competition?

RM: I was actually overseas in Venezuela visiting family when I received the call. So, after I came back to the US and checked my phone, I had all of these voicemails, and when I listened to the one where it said I'd been selected, I had to pinch myself. It seemed kind of surreal. Once I called Greg Evans at ACO back, he confirmed it for me and then I was super thrilled.

ACO: What are you most looking forward to about the readings?

RM: Writing an orchestral work is a labor of love. It takes many hours of solitary work. After all of that, many of our pieces go unheard. The reasons are diverse, but it usually boils down to resources. Hearing a new orchestral piece live requires a lot of highly skilled people, and those wonderful performers do not come cheap. For me, the biggest reward that I will have this week is getting to share my music with an audience. It will now live outside of my head and be brought into existence by these wonderful musicians. The countless hours of lonely work will hopefully lead to an opportunity to have a shared moment, and I consider myself so lucky to have that opportunity.

Besides that, I'm very excited to get to make some new friends, hear wonderful new pieces, get some ideas, learn about the orchestra and get to work with the mentor composers. I'm so glad that these days here in Indianapolis will bring together so many talented, and generous people in the pursuit of musical beauty, and excellence.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

EarShot ICO Readings & Competition: Composer Spotlight - David A. Jones

Composer and horn player David A. Jones, from Olympia, Washington, is inspired by the music of Stravinsky, Debussy, Hindemith, Holst, and many others. David’s works include music for orchestra, wind band, string quartet, brass quintet, percussion ensemble, choir, and a variety of other ensembles.

David is a recent recipient of the 2015 Barlow Student Composition Award at BYU, won second prize in the 2016 Vera Hinckley Mayhew Composition Contest, and was one of fifteen winners selected in Vox Novus’s “Fifteen Minutes of Fame: Nautilus Brass Quintet” call for scores in 2014. He has had works premiered by the BYU Chamber Orchestra, the Nautilus Brass Quintet, the BYU-Idaho Symphony Band, and the RixStix Percussion Ensemble. He is currently studying for his Master’s in composition at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where he lives with his wife and child. David graduated with a Bachelor of Musical Arts in Composition at Brigham Young University – Idaho in July 2015, where he studied with Darrell Brown.

David was selected for the 2016 EarShot Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra Readings & Competition for his piece Aspen. He answered these questions for SoundAdvice. 

The readings are free and open to the public on Friday, September 23, 7PM at the Howard L. Schrott Center for the Arts.

Composer David A. Jones

American Composers Orchestra: What was your reaction to finding our your piece had been selected for the 2016 Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra Readings and Competition?

David A. Jones: Honestly, I was quite surprised and amazed that my piece had won a contest of this caliber. I've learned in recent years that a composer really shouldn't enter contests like this expecting to actually win; the sheer number of applicants and the rigorous and subjective selection process involved makes one's chances of winning somewhat akin to winning the lottery. But that knowledge made me all the more thrilled and honored when I was informed that my piece had been selected for the ICO readings. I feel especially humbled after reading the profiles and listening to the music of the other winners; it's an honor to be in the company of such talented and well-established composers.

ACO: You write that your piece seeks to capture the unique quality of aspen trees, which do not grow as individual trees but rather grow as colonies, all connected by their roots. Can you talk about your compositional process and how you went about conveying this idea through music?

DAJ: Aspen began with a few motivic ideas and gestures, or "seeds," which are presented towards the beginning of the piece and which grow and develop and take new shapes throughout the piece. Some of these ideas are developed intentionally and concretely through the written music, but in many instances I've left it up to the performers to develop the gestures freely by means of unmetered, aleatoric sections. By tending carefully to the growth and development of these ideas, I sought to create a piece that is unified in its melodic and harmonic content, but which is allowed to expand and evolve organically.

ACO: What have you done to prepare for the readings since you found out your piece was selected?

DAJ: After I was informed that my piece was selected, I was instructed to send the score and a few of the parts to Bill Holab, a professional engraver, to look over and give suggestions on. His recommendations required a major overhaul of the format of the score and parts to bring them up to professional standards, and the changes took almost an entire week to complete. To my chagrin, even after making all of those changes, I still found a few obnoxious engraving errors in the score and parts after they had all been printed.

ACO: What are you most looking forward to about the readings?

DAJ: What I'm most looking forward to about the readings is the opportunity to meet and interact with professional performers and composers.  I think this is a wonderful opportunity to form relationships with other musicians and share ideas with them, and to continue to improve my own abilities and develop my career as a composer. I'm grateful for the chance to hear my music realized by a professional ensemble, but as a student composer, I'm especially grateful for the opportunity for my music to break out of the university environment and to be heard in the professional realm.

Learn more about David at

EarShot ICO Readings & Competition: Composer Spotlight - Jessica Rudman

Connecticut-based composer Jessica Rudman has had her music performed across the US and abroad by groups such as the International Contemporary Ensemble, the Cadillac Moon Ensemble, Mivos Quartet, the Omaha Symphony Chamber Orchestra, and the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. She has received awards from Boston Metro Opera, SCI/ASCAP, the College Music Society, the International Alliance for Women in Music, and others. Her recent commissions include works for the Riot Ensemble, the Blue Box Ensemble, bassist Gahlord Dewald, and the Hartford Independent Chamber Orchestra. Jessica has taught at The Hartt School, Central Connecticut State University, and Baruch College. She is currently the Director of the Young Composers Project and the Chair of the Creative Studies Department at The Hartt School Community Division. Jessica is also an active music theorist and arts advocate, serving on the board of the Women Composers Festival of Hartford. She holds degrees from the CUNY Graduate Center, The Hartt School, and the University of Virginia.

Jessica was selected for the 2016 EarShot Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra Readings & Competition for her piece Still I Rise! She answered these questions for SoundAdvice. 

The readings are free and open to the public on Friday, September 23, 7PM at the Howard L. Schrott Center for the Arts.

Composer Jessica Rudman

American Composers Orchestra: What was your reaction to finding our your piece had been selected for the 2016 Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra Readings and Competition?

Jessica Rudman: When I first found out, I was completely surprised! I had just finished a day of teaching at a summer composition workshop for pre-college students when I got the news and had to hold myself back from yelling or jumping up and down in excitement outside the building. I enjoyed the happy energy for about a night and then channeled it into getting the piece ready for the readings. Now that the score and parts have been sent off, I can’t wait to come out to Indianapolis to work with the orchestra and the mentors! 

ACO: Your piece is named after Maya Angelou’s eponymous poem Still I Rise! What drew you to this poem and the subject of perseverance against adversity as the inspiration for your piece?

JR: I love poetry and am often inspired by text, even in purely instrumental works. I began Still I Rise! when I was at the Atlantic Center for the Arts (a wonderful place for creativity and productivity!) and sketched out a large chunk of the music very quickly. After that initial burst, I had a general idea of the shape and emotional content for the piece but wanted a more concrete direction, so I started searching for some additional inspiration. When I read Angelou’s poem, it immediately resonated with the music I had written so far. I was drawn not only to the vivid language but also to the poem’s irrepressible spirit and message. I think most people can relate to the idea of overcoming adversity whether it be social or other, and I wanted to explore that universal theme in my composition.    

ACO: Aside from being an accomplished composer, you are an active arts advocate, serving on the board of the Women Composers Festival of Hartford. Can you talk about the ways you are currently celebrating the music of women composers, and the ways you hope to in the future?

JR: I’ve been involved with the Women Composers Festival of Hartford in various roles since 2005. As part of the board, I help produce an annual Festival featuring concerts, talks, workshops, and reading sessions. We present music by historical and living composers from across the U.S. and abroad, and commission new works as well. We are planning to continue offering the festival but are also hoping to extend our outreach and advocacy activities throughout the year.  

In addition to my work with the WCFH, I also try to encourage young women to compose. I teach composition through the Hartt Community Division, and am working to build the program in a way that shows all students have the potential to write their own music. For the most part, this is done through subtle means – making sure that publicity materials reflect a diverse study body, exposing students to the music of women composers in listening assignments, etc. – but also through informal mentoring.   

Lastly, participating in concerts and various service or outreach-related activities gives me an opportunity to meet students and community members, many of whom may not be familiar with contemporary concert music.  They see that there are living composers, including women, who are working today. I strongly believe the personal connection can help to change people’s perception of what a composer should be and to show that composition is a possible career path or creative outlet for music lovers regardless of external factors like gender.    

ACO: What are you most looking forward to about the readings?

JR: I am very excited to hear not only my piece but those of my fellow participants brought to life by the ICO. Working with such high-caliber musicians, mentors, and colleagues is an amazing opportunity, and I am looking forward to absorbing all of the feedback and applying it in my future work as a composer and teacher!

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EarShot ICO Readings & Competition: Composer Spotlight - Aaron Severini

Composer Aaron Severini has written works for concert, dance, film, television, and new media. Aaron earned his Bachelor of Music degree at The Juilliard School, studying composition with Christopher Rouse. After a successful career dancing professionally with New York City Ballet, he is now pursuing his Master of Music degree in composition at Juilliard where he is studying with John Corigliano. Aaron’s unique background and talents have drawn special attention – most recently Hilary Hahn and Cory Smythe premiered Aaron’s Catch as an encore during their recital at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, CA. The San Francisco Examiner called it, “a lively bundle of manic energy that could not have made for a better encore.” Previous awards and honors include the 2015 Juilliard Orchestra Competition for Sleet, the ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer Award, and multiple ASCAP Plus awards. A native of Greenfield, Massachusetts, Aaron lives in New York City.

Aaron was selected for the 2016 EarShot Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra Readings & Competition for his piece Sleet. He answered these questions for SoundAdvice. 

The readings are free and open to the public on Friday, September 23, 7PM at the Howard L. Schrott Center for the Arts.

Composer Aaron Severini 

American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about the ways dance and your career as a ballet dancer influence your music?

Aaron Severini: That’s a great question. My knowledge about music originated early on from my training as a dancer. Certainly, moving to music and learning about timing, phrasing, and syncopation as a dancer all impact the music I write today. As well, the adrenalin rush and energy I felt later in my career as a performer often finds its way into many of my compositions. When I first joined New York City Ballet (NYCB) I became obsessed with Stravinsky ballets and would often go to their orchestra rehearsals in the David H. Koch Theater to listen and watch from the edge of the stage. Those experiences were very influential for me as I began to compose more music. Additionally, while at NYCB, I would find time to study various scores and play or imitate them at the piano, including Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements and Concerto in D (The Cage), Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 2, Adam’s Fearful Symmetries, Gottschalk’s Tarantella, Gould’s Interplay, Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Op. 19, Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales (La Valse), and many Hershy Kay orchestral arrangements. For me, it was an invaluable learning experience to have been immersed in NYCB’s repertoire for so many years.

ACO: You write that Sleet is influenced by your experiences as a dancer with New York City Ballet and studying composition at Juilliard – the “power, nerve, excitement, anticipation, fear, femininity, masculinity, and childlike exuberance.” What are the major similarities between your experiences as a dancer and a composer? What are the major differences?

AS: There are definitely numerous similarities I have found between my experience as a professional dancer and as a composer. Both require a similar intensity in discipline and focus. They both draw on one’s musicality and creativity. As well, the feeling of mental exhaustion after composing without pause for a long period of time likens itself to the way the body feels after performing a difficult ballet or a program of several demanding ballets. One main difference between the two art forms, and a quite obvious one, is physical activity. There can be hours of physical stagnation when composing a piece and it is important to find a healthy balance. I realized this after experiencing lower back problems about two years ago. Funny enough, I ended up seeing the same physical therapist that I had gone to while dancing with NYCB. Of course, it was humorous this time around because it was due to a lack of physical activity rather than over exertion. An additional difference is that composers tend to work in isolated environments during their creative process. By contrast, dancers work in a much more social environment. They collaborate in the moment with their fellow colleagues and create new works directly with the choreographer or learn previous works from a répétiteur.

ACO: Your piece Sleet won the 2015 Juilliard Orchestra Competition, so it's safe to say the work already holds tremendous merit. What about it do you hope to improve upon at the ICO Readings?

AS: It was an amazing experience to have Sleet performed by the Juilliard Orchestra under the direction of Jeffrey Milarsky in 2015. To have the piece played again by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Matthew Kraemer this year is a tremendous honor. In preparation for the readings, I adapted Sleet to accommodate ICO’s instrumentation requirements. The composition originally included a larger wind, brass, percussion, and string section. Therefore, I reworked musical material and revised dynamics and various markings throughout the piece. During the ICO Readings, I hope to improve upon technical and musical elements within the revised score as well as apply what I have learned to the original orchestration of Sleet.

ACO: What are you most looking forward to about the readings?

AS: Being a part of the ICO Readings is an extraordinary and unique opportunity. I am most looking forward to hearing all the new works and learning as much as I can from my fellow participants as well as from Music Director Matthew Kraemer, principal ICO musicians, and mentor composers Melinda Wagner, Michael Schelle, and ACO’s Artistic Director Laureate Robert Beaser.

Learn more about Aaron at

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

EarShot ICO Readings & Competition: Composer Spotlight - Karena Ingram

Karena Ingram is an emerging contemporary composer based in Baltimore, Maryland. Karena composes for contemporary chamber ensembles, large symphonic works, video games, and interactive media. Her chamber ensemble works have been performed regularly throughout the Baltimore area, most notably as a part of the Livewire New Music Festival. Karena’s music is known for its imaginative use of color and textural exploration. Beginning her musical career at the age of nine, with self-teaching in violin and music theory, she is a recent graduate of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, receiving her Bachelor of Arts in music composition.

Karena was selected for the 2016 EarShot Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra Readings & Competition for her piece Animals of the Soltice; Calm of the Equinox. She answered these questions for SoundAdvice. 

The readings are free and open to the public on Friday, September 23, 7PM at the Howard L. Schrott Center for the Arts.

Composer Karena Ingram

American Composers Orchestra: What was your reaction to finding our your piece had been selected for the 2016 Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra Readings and Competition?

Karena Ingram: I was extremely enthusiastic when I first learned that my piece had been selected! I was so shocked, I could barely speak coherently on the phone! I knew that the competition was wildly competitive, so to know that my art was enjoyed enough by ACO that they wanted to include it in the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra readings, I was blown away! Overwhelming, but exciting!

ACO: Can you talk about your compositional process? Your piece “creates a narrative of a lively and bombastic progression animals from the summer solstice to the calm and tranquil autumn equinox.” Did you start with this idea, or did it naturally form as you started to put music on the page?

KI: For my composition process, I begin with a small concept and match it with a small musical idea. As I dive deeper into the concept, the music unravels and comes to life. For this piece, specifically, I began with just the idea of the summer solstice and autumn equinox; I focused on what made the two distinct from each other, and from that created a simple form for the entire piece. The music really took shape and character once I explored concepts of the zodiac constellations that are seen during these periods. I like to start work from a small cell, and as my imagination grows, the music grows into something alive and dynamic. 

ACO: What have you done to prepare for the readings since you found out your piece was selected?

KI: Of course, a lot of proper preparation of scores and parts and other materials has been done since finding out my piece was chosen, but the biggest preparation so far has been my confidence. I've always dealt with bouts of Imposter’s Syndrome, and faced with such an amazing opportunity, I ran across some self-doubt and disbelief. I've done a lot to realize myself as a composer and an artist, found the great amount of worth in my work, and now I am more than ready to participate in the readings with great optimism! 

ACO: What are you most looking forward to about the readings?

KI: I'm really excited to hear such great musicians bring this musical narrative to life! It'll be such a great learning experience to work with a professional ensemble so intimately. I am also really excited to hear the works of the other winning composers!

Learn more about Karena at

Buffalo Philharmonic JCOI: Composer Spotlight - Gene Knific

Pianist, composer and arranger Gene Knific has performed worldwide at major festivals in the United States, Russia, Denmark, Italy, and Mozambique, appearing with Joe Lovano, the Western Jazz Quartet, Kevin Mahogany, Roseanne Vitro, Kate Reid, Bobby Shew, and The Tom Knific Quartet. Gene also leads The Gene Knific Trio in original works and unique explorations of classical and modern genres. An active composer in both jazz and chamber music settings, Gene has written for the Stamps Foundation Distinguished Ensembles featuring guitarist/singer Steve Miller among other works. He received a grant from the Knight Foundation for the production of a self-produced feature film and is also the recipient of 7 Down Beat Music Awards for his performances and compositions in jazz and contemporary categories. Gene studied with Shelly Berg, Martin Bejerano, Lansing McLoskey, and Terence Blanchard at University of Miami Frost School of Music where he earned degrees in jazz performance and composition.

Gene participated in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute (JCOI) Summer Intensive last year and answered these questions for SoundAdvice. His piece Relapse will be workshopped and read at the Buffalo Philharmonic JCOI Readings, Wednesday, September 21, 2016 at Kleinhans Music Hall.

Composer and pianist Gene Knific

American Composers Orchestra: You are an accomplished performer as well as composer and arranger, with your own trio and appearances with some of the world's top jazz musicians. Can you talk about your experience when you are solely the composer, off stage and a spectator? What aspects of this role do you enjoy, not enjoy?

Gene Knific: I really do enjoy hearing my music from off stage. It can feel very relieving to have finished a work and to not have to worry about presenting it on top of all of the work that went into writing it. This is especially the case when I write to others’ performing strengths that are not my own. However, I do feel like I am presenting my music most honestly when I am on the stage. I am continuously striving to blend both my performing and composing careers. 

ACO: You are an active composer in both jazz and chamber music settings. In your opinion, where does classical and jazz music overlap? Where does it vary?

GK: It’s very hard to talk about music in terms of “classical” and “jazz” in the 21st century. Since the early 20th century and first sightings of jazz we’ve seen composers with classical training directly emulate aspects of jazz, and jazz musicians trained in classical repertoire. If working with ACO taught me anything, the walls have been coming down for a long, long time. In addition, when we say the term “jazz” we are referring to an extremely large range of styles of playing and repertoire, many with contradicting aesthetics - the same goes for “classical” music. 

I think it’s much more accurate to speak of these musics in terms of the people involved. Duke Ellington, a master composer who drew from both “jazz” and “classical” creative wells, wrote the names of the musicians in his orchestra directly on his scores, instead of “trumpet I, trumpet II, etc.” Different facets of music overlap when talented, open-minded musicians take on music that they may not be initially comfortable with. Musicians with more exclusively a chamber background can explore improvisation in new works of music. Musicians with more of a jazz background can explore “classical” playing styles and articulations. This is happening with more and more frequency. A growing number of musicians are training themselves in both “jazz” and “classical” historical practices equally. I find this very exciting, and a lot of amazing music is being written and performed with deep historical context and a genuinely open mind.

If you are speaking of Beethoven vs. Ellington, of course you can nit pick the musical elements that overlap and vary. However, in present times, the music varies when we ourselves decide to put up barriers.

ACO: Your write that your piece Relapse “reflects struggles with addiction, the various psychological effects of using, and the public association of drugs with jazz with reference to various interviews, biographies, and articles on the subject.” Can you talk about any specific musical elements that convey these aspects? How do you reference these interviews, biographies, and articles through music?

GK: First, I’d like to elaborate a little bit on the concept. Being a white kid born in 1992 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, it can be easy to feel pretty distant from the genius musicians and composers of the 1940’s bebop scene of New York, both musically and culturally. Many of the musicians who collaborated during that period have passed away. Even my own teachers in jazz (incredible as they are) have been at least few generations removed. For me, it is striking when I have the chance to hear an older master musician say the phrase “when I played with Charlie Parker…” because for me, that period of time is drenched in a sort of nostalgia similarly reserved for the likes of turn-of-the-20th Century Paris. One heavily romanticized aspect of jazz from the mid-20th Century I consistently come across is drug use. 

I find it interesting that, after their music, the second thing I learned about jazz icons such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans, is their drug use. I’m sure it is similar for many who learn about these musicians in a historical context. It should be noted that there have always been attempts to disparage Black art music in America, and that I would be surprised if the inflation of this image of jazz musicians and drug use wasn’t related. Conversely, in many situations I have heard very young jazz musicians comment on how heroin abuse may have helped the legends play better. A notable heroin resurgence occurred in New York in the 90’s within jazz circles - some quoting this romanticized aspect as a cause. 

Alright, now to address your question. I thought Berlioz’ iconic 19th century orchestral work, Symphonie Fantastique, a programatic piece about an artist overdosing on opiates, would be a great bridge conceptually bringing in my inspiration for the piece to the orchestra. The piece takes on the concept “the visions of an artist on opiates” but rather from the perspective of a jazz musician at a gig vaguely in the late 40’s-60’s. First we hear a solo piano intro quasi-a la Oscar Peterson that quotes Berlioz’ main theme. The orchestra begins to layer in and we eventually have begun the “tune” - which is a variation of a blues form. Various aspects of a typical jazz performance are heard - “solos” emerge, although not improvised, different small group and big band textures are emulated, and a “rhythm section” is established in the orchestra. We then begin to feel the effects of the jazz musician’s drug use - from nodding off into a blissfully serene daze to the feeling of reality being stripped away. I employ textures derived from composers such as Béla Bartók and György Ligeti to achieve some of these effects.

ACO: Can you talk about your experience at the JCOI Intensive? What aspects of your piece were influenced by techniques you learned or ideas you encountered during the program?

GK: The JCOI Intensive was incredible enlightening. I had always had a deep interest in the histories of jazz and classical music and how they have interacted. The lectures at the intensive taught me that these histories have been intermingling for longer and more intimately that I could ever had imagined. It really helped me feel validated in my intuitions as a young composer, but also I found that I had a lot more to learn. Perhaps the best part for me was meeting so many great other composers with similar intuitions, but incredibly distinct and exciting voices. I have never become a fan of so many new artists all at once! 

Less than techniques, the JCOI Intensive made me want to dig deeper into the histories of the music. It also made me want to take more risks and chances in my writing, while feeling comfortable in my own shoes, so to speak. 

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the Buffalo Philharmonic JCOI Readings?

GK: Everything. First of all, it is such an amazing honor to be able to interact with such a high level orchestra. I still kind of can’t believe it’s happening. I’m also looking forward to valuable constructive feedback I will receive, both positive and negative. As a composer if I’m doing something wrong, it’s incredible hard to know if I’m doing something wrong - especially in the context of an orchestra, since writing/reading opportunities like these are so rare. Similarly, I will find out if I’m doing something right when I get to hear the piece!

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Buffalo Philharmonic JCOI: Composer Spotlight - Emilio Solla

Emilio Solla made his start in Buenos Aires and has since led a vibrant career as a pianist, composer, arranger, bandleader, and educator. He has performed all around Europe, Japan, the US and Latin America to rave reviews in many of the most important Jazz houses and Festivals. As a composer, Solla’s music has been performed at the Palau de la Musica during the Barcelona Jazz Festival, Chicago Symphony Hall, and Rutgers University. Emilio has recorded CDs as band leader on Fresh Sound Records and produced, composed for, arranged for more than forty other albums. His band La Inestable de Brooklyn’s first CD, Second Half, was nominated for a 2015 Grammy Award as Best Latin Jazz Album. Emilio is currently a Faculty Member at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music and has given clinics in Jazz Composition at Emory University, Bates College, Gotemburg Music School (Sweden), Jazz & Pop Conservatory (Helsinki, Finland) along with past teaching positions in Argentina and Spain. Emilio Solla got his degree in Classical Piano at the National Conservatory of Music in Buenos Aires and his MA in Jazz Composition at Queens College in New York.

Emilio participated in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute (JCOI) Summer Intensive last year and answered these questions for SoundAdvice. His piece Ñandú will be workshopped and read at the Buffalo Philharmonic JCOI Readings, Wednesday, September 21, 2016 at Kleinhans Music Hall.

Pianist and composer Emilio Solla

American Composers Orchestra: You have been a successful band leader throughout your career, with a Grammy nomination for your band La Inestable de Brooklyn‘s first CD, Second Half. Can you talk about how your experience in front of a band, leading the music in real time, translates to communicating with an orchestra on the page?

Emilio Solla: I think that what you learn the most out of that experience is the importance of writing out everything into the parts, with verse and chapter, every small gesture, articulations, dynamics, everything you can give the musicians to make it sound already in the ballpark of how you need the music to sound at the first reading. My music is strongly based on the Folk and Tango languages from Argentina, so many times I still make the mistake of thinking musicians from all over the world will understand what for me is obvious, for example, about how to phrase or play a certain rhythm. I keep making the same mistake: big band, orchestra, any large ensemble need everything you can give them in the parts. The other important thing is, if you know the people you are writing for, try to write FOR them, use your writing tools to accommodate as much as possible to the ensemble, as opposed to sit in a “composer throne” and expect people to play your music no matter what.

ACO: Theme One of your piece Ñandú is based on an Argentinean folk dance known as Malambo, which uses the superposition of the time signatures 3/4 and 6/8 as its rhythmic core. In what ways is this rhythm well-suited for an orchestral setting? In what ways do you think you are pushing the orchestra out of its comfort zone?

ES: Well, in fact, it is not! (LOL) It is much easier to play this music with less musicians, and ones that know those rhythms well! So this aspect, Rhythm, is, I believe, where they will feel less comfortable. The accents and phrasing are not your obvious ones if you want to play this right, and also the string players might find some unusual bow markings. 

ACO: Can you talk about your experience at the JCOI Intensive? What aspects of your piece were influenced by techniques you learned or ideas you encountered during the program?

ES: The workshop was awesome, so much good music in just a few days, ideas, writing contemporary techniques... I am not sure I can identify specific tools I am using from that experience itself, but I am sure some of them are there. That is the way I normally learn, I absorb and let things decant, later on I usually surprise myself by identifying things that show up in the new music and I can sometimes relate them to things I have been listening or investigating.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the Buffalo Philharmonic JCOI Readings?

ES: Experience, learning, and finding how much of what I hear in my head has been properly translated for this huge instrument, the orchestra. I hate MIDI, so I only use the piano and the color palette is in my head all the time. I want to see that painting now, as I am sure I will go back to my brushes and adjust a good bunch of things!

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Buffalo Philharmonic JCOI: Composer Spotlight - Hitomi Oba

Saxophonist and composer Hitomi Oba was raised in Berkeley, California and studied at the University of California Los Angeles in Music Composition where she received a BA in Ethnomusicology/Jazz Studies and completed her MA. Recent projects include her small ensembles, sixteen‐piece jazz orchestra, Jazz Nexus, electro‐acoustic pop duo, Nova, and the jazz opera, STRANGE FELLOWE.  Her second jazz album, Negai, released under Japanese label M&I and distributor Pony Canyon, received a prestigious Swing Journal 42nd Annual Jazz Disc Award. Hitomi's commissions include works for the Los Angeles Asian American Jazz Festival, Kenny Burrell’s Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Unlimited, and the Indian classical/jazz collaborative Aditya Prakash Ensemble. Hitomi is one of the co-founders of the new music collective, LA Signal Lab, comprised of fellow composer-performers with backgrounds in both jazz and classical traditions. Hitomi currently teaches music theory at UCLA, integrating Western classical, jazz, American popular music, and various world musical genres.

Hitomi participated in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute (JCOI) Summer Intensive last year and answered these questions for SoundAdvice. Her piece September Coming will be workshopped and read at the Buffalo Philharmonic JCOI Readings, Wednesday, September 21, 2016 at Kleinhans Music Hall.

Saxophonist and composer Hitomi Oba

American Composers Orchestra: You are an accomplished performer as a saxophonist as well as a composer. Can you talk about in what ways playing the saxophone has influenced your compositional style? Do you write music on the saxophone?

Hitomi Oba: My compositional process usually does not involve actual saxophone playing. That said, as an improviser of a melodic wind instrument, I often find myself very specifically shaping melodic phrasings that reflect the way I conceive them on the saxophone. The pitches themselves are not necessarily reflective of my saxophone improvisations, but the way in which a melody is played is often based in my how I might play it myself. Melodic phrasing is an area I have been exploring with great interest on the saxophone, and I believe it has made me very particular about it as a composer.  

ACO: Your musical endeavors also include “American popular music” - music that most of us would consider mainstream pop and far away from the worlds of classical and jazz music. Can you talk about your efforts to connect them, through music and otherwise?

HO: I don’t consider many kinds of “American popular music” to be very far away from the worlds of classical and jazz music, especially given the vast variety of music within all three genres. Their similarities, compared to, for instance, many non-Western-affiliated musical practices in the world, result in many “cross-overs”, or “in-betweens.” With the easy access and exposure to all kinds of music today, it seems like many artists are naturally integrating their mixed musical backgrounds into their own works, yielding exciting and unique music. In my experience, novelty additions generally do fall flat. My own approach has been to organically compose a work that comes from my personal language, which, then, has to have been heavily influenced already by the genres present. Outside of composition, I have been teaching a theory course that integrates Western classical, jazz, other American popular, and various world musical genres. Simultaneously exploring the diversity and similarities in concepts and applications of various musical practices has been enriching to myself as a musician.

ACO: You write that the most intriguing idea you took away from the JCOI intensive program last summer was to use your own musical voice as an improviser to guide your composing. Can you talk about how you were able to do this in September Coming?

HO: As mentioned above, my melodic language as an improvising saxophonist has had an enormous influence on my composing, but I had never actually utilized the saxophone in my compositional process. After the JCOI intensive program, I sought to actively incorporate my saxophone improvisations, a closely personal aspect of my musical self. In particular, I have spent much care, as an improviser, on exploring organic phrases, with emphasis on gestures, textures, and momentum. While improvising, I am able to control the ebb and flow of time to be precisely musically right in the moment. When composing from my head, the subtleties of such timing, especially with disregard to meter, are often hard to pin down and translate on to paper.  In order to take down such timings, I took the completely new approach of transcribing some solo saxophone improvisations, and using the transcriptions to base my material off of for this piece. This allowed me to preserve the arcs of phrases free from metric confines, as well as notate the implicit musical nuances. Based on this material, I composed and orchestrated to further enhance the spirit of the improvised material.

ACO: Can you talk about your experience at the JCOI Intensive? What aspects of your piece were influenced by techniques you learned or ideas you encountered during the program?

HO: The JCOI Intensive was an extremely inspirational and stimulating program that challenged and encouraged us participants as musicians. Being able to delve into what is often a solitary process, with brilliant, like-minded but diverse musicians was one of the most enriching experiences for me as a composer. The faculty not only were sharing their tools and knowledge, but their personal insights, philosophies, and passion. Being in a community of inspiring peers provided a unique, enriching environment I am grateful to have experienced.  

The compositional process for this piece was heavily directed by the ideas I took away from the program. The emphasis on the composer’s personal improvisatory voice, and how to bring that out in an orchestral (and notated) setting were central for me. Discussions on how to relay the nuances of one’s language, being uninhibited to phrase across bar lines and other notational confines, and compositional processes were taken into consideration for this piece.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the Buffalo Philharmonic JCOI Readings?

HO: I can’t wait to hear the pieces by the other JCOI composers; I imagine we will have a very diverse array of music.  I’m really looking forward to the process of working with the Buffalo Philharmonic and what I anticipate will be intensive and stimulating discussions with the faculty mentors and peers. And, of course, I’m quite anxious to hear my piece, September Coming, come to life.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Buffalo Philharmonic JCOI: Composer Spotlight - Amina Figarova

Amina Figarova is a New York-based, Azerbaijan-born pianist and composer who is fast developing a reputation on the international scene. Amina has studied as a classical concert pianist at the Baku Conservatory as well as Jazz Performance at the Rotterdam Conservatory, Netherlands and Berklee College of Music; she has also attended the Thelonious Monk Institute’s summer jazz colony in Aspen. Amina has composed a musical, Diana, as well as several other projects, including Tehora for Israeli singer Shlomit Butbul. Amina’s recorded releases include 13 albums of her original compositions earning her the Downbeat Rising Star Composer in the Critics Poll of 2014 and 2015.

Amina participated in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute (JCOI) Summer Intensive last year and answered these questions for SoundAdvice. Her piece The Journey will be workshopped and read at the Buffalo Philharmonic JCOI Readings, Wednesday, September 21, 2016 at Kleinhans Music Hall.

Pianist and composer Amina Figarova. Photo by Paola Tazzini Cha
American Composers Orchestra: You are an accomplished performer as well as composer, with appearances at Newport Jazz Festival, Chicago festival, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Capetown Jazz festival, North Sea Jazz Festival, and more. Can you talk about your experience when you are solely the composer, off stage and a spectator? What aspects of this role do you enjoy, not enjoy?

Amina Figarova: Indeed, it’s a very different experience, nerve-racking but also very exiting.

My first big experience was when I wrote a piece for cello and piano for one of my favorite teachers Vladimir Anshelevich. Although I played it with him, it was a very first time when I understood a real power of interpretation, the way he played it, he actually led the way, although it was my music. It was a true magical moment.

Later on I wrote often for bands and for vocalists, and it was always fun to hear another people interpret your music, but when I wrote musical Diana – a one woman musical with a small combo – I was simply too scared to hand it over to another pianist, so I remained in the band as long as I could. Passing it over to another pianist who had to lead the band was the not easy. I was at the show and my heart stopped probably tens times, but it was a tremendous learning experience. The beauty of the individual sound and interpretation is so incredible – your music gets a life of its own, and it felt so good.

A whole different experience was arranging a few of the songs from that musical for the Rotterdam Philharmonic in The Netherlands. I will never forget, I was sitting in the ring, just above the orchestra and I was petrified! I love performing, stage is a home to me, and I am not a nervous person, but that day, that moment, with the orchestra in place and the conductor walking on stage, I was a wreck. I felt so helpless – here I am with all the ideas in my head not knowing how it will go.

But today, after having a great experience at the JCOI intensive, I feel confident and I am looking forward very much to hearing The Journey played by the fantastic Buffalo Philharmonic!

ACO: You have trained as both a concert pianist and as a jazz pianist, and writing a jazz work for orchestra prompts a certain intersection of classical and jazz. In your opinion, where does classical and jazz music overlap? Where does it vary?

AF: I don’t see the borders and I don’t like the borders. To me it’s all music. Music can express the feelings words can’t, and whether it's swing, or not, folk music, improvisation or written out melody - it’s all Music.

When writing The Journey I was not thinking in styles, I was trying to create a vision through the art of Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series, the crowded trains with masses of people traveling in hope for better future.

ACO: You write that your piece The Journey is "full of hope and blues." Can you talk about the techniques used to create these two contrasting emotions?

AF: Contrasting emotions can be expressed in many different ways, from soft, quiet melodies to extremely busy and strong passages. Different rhythms, tempos, orchestrations have no boundaries, there are so many ways, so many techniques.

In The Journey, I was focusing more on the harmonic and rhythmic expression, using underlying or “hidden” melodies. The most important for me was to capture the “human” aspect, evoking individual people, crowds, and of course the motion of the train. 

ACO: Can you talk about your experience at the JCOI Intensive? What aspects of your piece were influenced by techniques you learned or ideas you encountered during the program? 
AF: It was a very special week. The incredible faculty was sharing experiences in a such generous way, and the interactions between the faculty and the students was very exiting. The amount of the information we got was overwhelming and I need more time to absorb it all, but the most important message I got out is stay true to yourself. When writing for the symphony it is very tempting to go places: classical, contemporary, or stay in your comfort zone and simply arrange for the orchestra. I was looking for a new place, somewhere that was very “mine,” but very “new mine.” It’s like moving to another country and finding your own spot. It was very exiting to look for this place, I don’t know if I've found it yet, but I am surely on the new path, and I would love to explore it in the future.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Buffalo Philharmonic JCOI: Composer Spotlight - Anthony Tidd

Anthony Tidd,  a Philly transplant from London, is a well-known name on the jazz scene and veteran touring bass player, with appearances alongside many staple names including, Steve Coleman, The Roots, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Wayne Krantz, Meshell Ndegeocello, Common, and Jill Scott, to name a few. Anthony has also made a name for himself in the music production world, producing records for well-known artists such as, The Roots, Macy Grey, Zap Mama, The Black Eyed Peas, Jill Scott, and Ursula Rucker, as well as composing scores for major film and television projects over the years. As Director of his Creative Music Program and curator of his popular concert series Sittin’ In, both hosted at the prestigious Kimmel Center, Anthony now divides his time between all of the above, as well saving some to educate the next generation of musical talent.

Anthony participated in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute (JCOI) Summer Intensive last year and answered these questions for SoundAdvice. His piece The Beginning of the End was selected for the Buffalo Philharmonic JCOI Readings, Wednesday, September 21, 2016 at Kleinhans Music Hall.

Composer, producer and performer Anthony Tidd.
Photo by Dimitri Louis

American Composers Orchestra: You are an accomplished performer on the bass as well as a composer, sharing the stage with Steve Coleman, The Roots, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Wayne Krantz, Meshell Ndegeocello, Common, and Jill Scott, among other staple names. Can you talk about your experience as solely the composer, off stage and a spectator? What aspects of this role do you enjoy, not enjoy?

Anthony Tidd: I actually started playing musical instruments solely because of my desire to make records. This was way before sequencers and computers, so there was no other way.

One of the first stories my parents tell of my early childhood is about a visit to my uncle's house. My family is Trinidadian, and so any visit to a relative's house would inevitably become a party and of course involve music and dancing. At the time I was just three years old, so naturally my parents would keep a close eye on me. I was very prone to getting into mischief. Anyway, at some point in the night my parents became worried because they can't find me. They search everywhere and eventually find me standing staring at the record going round and around on my uncle's record player while everybody else is dancing. Apparently, they didn't want to disturb me because I was quiet, so they left me there, where I stood for two hours, until it was time to go home.

I can remember being deeply fascinated with the records and how such a beautiful sound could come from a plastic disc, as though all the people making the music were somehow inside of it. From that moment on I became interested in music, the recording of music and then inevitably musical instruments and composition.

I made my first recordings at six, using an old two track reel to reel that my father gave me. It was the type that allowed you to lay one track and then another, playing along to oneself. Naturally in order to make my own records I needed to both learn about instruments and composition. I started by teaching myself how to play the guitar, and eventually I also learned bass, drums, percussion, piano, keyboards, violin, and a little saxophone, solely because I thought the recordings needed these sounds.

By the time I was sixteen I had my own sixteen track studio in my bedroom, played at least five instruments, and I had made around 15 "albums" documenting my progress in music production, engineering, musicianship and of course composition. Today I own my own professional studio.

ACO: You are also accomplished in the world of music production, producing records for The Roots, Macy Grey, Zap Mama, The Black Eyed Peas, Jill Scott, and Ursula Rucker. Can you talk about any parallels between producing a record and composing a work for orchestra? Do they require a similar need to step back and understand the work as a whole?

AT: Well, as I said above, any production of music means that you need to learn something about composition, or you should. Really, it's all about composition and the manipulation of sound. I don't see a separation. I am just as interested in my mic collection and vintage mic pres as I am in composition and improvisation.

Though I did receive some formal training on violin and piano at the Newham Academy of Music in London, it was very rudimentary. I left the academy by age 15, and so the majority of what I learned about musicianship, theory, composition and improvisation came from trial and error (mostly error) done on my own. Music for me has always existed off the page.

I became more interested in the theoretical side of musical composition at around 13. I began to make up my own theories based on what little I had already learned by that age. I wrote most of these down in a book. My older friends would eventually enlighten me to the fact that I did not invent Symmetry, Polarism, or Modes, etc. Thankfully I also sought out theory books, and perhaps more importantly people, who could teach me what I needed to know.

I had a few great mentors along the way; Eugene Skeef, a South African percussionist/composer in London, who would later introduce me to Bhekki Mseleku, an amazing multi-instrumentalist, improvisor and composer, also from South Africa. I learned a lot from both men.

At 16 I was introduced to the music of Steve Coleman by Steve Williamson who, at the time, was pretty much the most famous jazz musician in London, so I also learned a lot from him. I eventually met Steve Coleman at 18. Along with Rich Nichols, (the Roots' manager and major contributor to their music production and sound), Steve brought me out to the US for the first time the following year.

Rich Nichols gave me my first opportunities to produce for major U.S artists, provided me with a place to live, bought me my first recording equipment in the U.S, and also financed (my band) Quite Sane's first commercial release. Steve taught me most of what I now know about improvisation, the "jazz" lineage, computer programming, education, music theory, arranging, and much more.

So my approach to composition is now a combination of traditional techniques, improvisation, and my own approaches, which I think came from my fascination with recording, music production and sound.

ACO: Can you talk about your experience at the JCOI Intensive? What aspects of your piece were influenced by techniques you learned or ideas you encountered during the program?

AT: Well, the program was incredible! Too much to put into words! Perhaps the greatest influence for me was meeting other great black composers, such as James Newton, Nicole Mitchell, and in particular Anthony Davis, who came from a "jazz" background, managed to to compose pieces for orchestra and even operas, and most importantly, had them played!

I have been fascinated with large ensemble composition for some time. I wrote a few pieces for orchestra, which only ever made it to "general midi". Actually I had one small 4 minute piece played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra while I was in South Africa. I was around 20 at the time, and it was a disaster......

I've spent the last six years regularly composing for a music program, which I created and now direct at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, called the Creative Music Program. A huge part of the curriculum revolves around the tutors composing original works for their ensembles, which are mostly big bands. In fact, I initially hired my staff based on their composition and arranging abilities. One of these ensembles, The Magenta Ensemble produced a number great profession level young musicians, so I was able to write for them as though they were already at university (college level). This gave me lots of opportunities to try out new ideas, whilst teaching about more established principles.

I also had a good deal of experience with string arranging from the recording and record production world, and a number of large scale productions and shows with the Roots, but my experience with orchestras, like most black composers, was limited to mostly "General Midi".

So, the greatest thing about JCOI is access.


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Learn about his programs at the Kimmel Center: