Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Where do I belong?

For a long time I've been trying to figure out where I (I meaning my music) fit within today's cultural society? I'm not even talking about some broad topic, like where does classical music fit into our society or something like that - I'm talking about MY music. Where do I fit?

The normal course that composers take (for the most part) is, they get a doctorate in music composition, and then they go teach music composition in a university somewhere in utter obscurity, keeping the academic tradition alive. The university, for us has become our new patron. In the past, it might have been the church, or the King, or some rich Duke - but now, it's the university that allows composers to keep writing this kind of music and still be able to earn a living.

I have to say that it's a pretty dismal time to be a young composer in the United States right now - especially if you're like me - 32 years old (young, but not young enough) - white (boooring) - male (too many of us in the field) - and pretty much after 2003, the worst possible thing I could be according to the rest of the world - AMERICAN. Not that I don't understand, it's just a shame that my reputation as an artist should be hurt by these assholes in Washington. And I'm not trying to say that I feel I'm getting the shaft because I'm white - that's ridiculous. However, I'm just not what people want at this point in time.

Generally speaking though, it's rough for everyone - especially in the United States. We're being pushed away from all sides - even from within. I've talked briefly about the performer situation in a past blog. I would say that probably 90% of all the performers in this school can't name a single living composer. This is perpetuated by their teachers - the attitude that it's not important to play something new. To use piano again as an example - importance is put on playing mostly 19th century rep. This being Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Beethoven, etc. However, during these composers lives, all they played was new music. If any of them had had the same attitude, we wouldn't have any of that music - they would have all been playing Bach and Handel and Telemann and Domenico Scarlatti.

Speaking of outside the classical music world, we're not even being pushed away anymore - that's already happened - we no longer exist in the minds of the public. When the general populace thinks "composer", they usually think "film composer", or maybe some new age artist. Some of this is our fault, some of it isn't. We can look to composers of the mid 20th century - especially to the famous statement attributed to Milton Babbit "Who Cares If You Listen?". This was the prevailing sentiment of many of the top academic composers of last century, and because they had a safe income from the university, they were in fact free to compose whatever the hell they wanted, and didn't have to worry if anyone liked it or not. As an artist, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, in theory, it's great that they were able to pursue art outside of capatalist concerns - for arts sake. On the other hand, in practice, this served to alienate the general populace from concert music. This air of superiority seperated the general public even further - to the point where Babbit's statement can now be taken from the other side, the public, but changed to "Who the Fuck Cares?".

Also, classical music is hardly something for this day and age - being presented in the traditional fasion. I was thinking this at the last symphony concert I attended. I was sitting in this absolutely cavernous hall, with an orchestra on a distant, massive stage. The sound of the unamplified instruments dissipating in the vast space of the oversized hall. The sound itself was, to our 21st century ears, pale and distant. This was music presented as in a museum - not something new and exciting, but stale and old - something worth preserving, but not worthy of the resources (or effort in marketing or presentation) given to modern pop music. Even classical recording, save for film scores, are usually done as cheaply as possible, with maybe a few room mics to pick up the whole of the sound. To truly record an orchestra with the sonic depth given to any rock band would be a major financial undertaking, and would probably require a team of expert audio engineers - not to mention pay for the orchestra musicians and studio time in a large enough studio to accomodate such forces. I think the recording companies were well aware of this problem from the beginning - which is one reason (I think) this kind of music is never presented or marketed in any way to the public. It's just not music of our time.

I'm not trying to make some kind of profound statement here (yet). I'm mostly just typing down my thoughts on the issue. It's all very tough to deal with, because this is where my heart and soul is - this music - the music that I write, and it all definitely comes from this tradition. I don't want to become just another academic sitting in my office in my university writing pieces for the university orchestra or the university band. Maybe some of you would tell me that I should be happy with that, and I could lie and tell you that I am very happy to have that opportunity. I have big ideas in my head, but it's difficult to make them happen when there's no resources. It's difficult to write, for example, orchestra music when you feel that your music is not wanted, especially by the orchestras themselves.

This brings me to Schoenberg. How the hell does that bring me to Schoenberg? He really represents two sides of these issues. For those that don't know, when you study music, you are evetually innundated with Schoenberg, and for the most part, composers in academic settings usually hold him in high regard. A long time ago, I said to myself "You know, I'm tired of pretending I like Schoenberg". It's true that, while I can appreciate Schoenberg's music and the true genius that's behind it, I don't like it. But, I have come to appreciate Schoenberg in a very different way as of late. Basically, Schoenberg's uncompromising vision for his music and his art is almost unparalleled in the entire history of art. The guy took more shit from more people than anyone else - not just over his music, but sometimes for just being a jew, and never once strayed from his artistic vision. In this school for example, I contantly see composers writing things, then being criticized either by their peers, or by their teachers, and instantly running back into their holes to try to rectify the situation - retreating at the first negative comment. Given the historical circumstances in which Schoenberg lived in, musical as well as political and racial, it is absolutely INCREDIBLE that he wrote the music that he did, and achieved the position that he did. To have this strength of will and this absolute confidence in artistic vision should be the goal of every artist, and every artist should look to Schoenberg as one of the greatest examples of this in history.

But, can this uncompromising attitude fly in this century?

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


I just got back from the Guitar Foundation of America International Guitar Competition, where I saw Duo 46 perform my piece Sonata 46 in concert. Of course, they ripped the hell out of it, like they always do. It got a huge reaction from the audience like it always does - thunderous applause, hooting and hollering, shouts of "Bravo!". However, the response after the concert was not quite what I had hoped it would be. I was approached by a few people (one was David Tanenbaum - that was pretty cool), but not a whole lot - and no one asked me if I had any music for sale, or had a CD, or web site, or anything - kind of dissapointing.

The concerts I saw however, were not.

I got in to Oberlin, Ohio after 8PM on Sunday night, so I was only able to catch the last half of David Tanenbaum's concert. I wish I would have left Bloomington an hour earlier, because this concert was awesome. David's thing is playing new music by living composers (I even got to thank him the next day for representing composers - I've wanted to thank him for that for a long time). I saw him play a very interesting piece by Lou Harrison written for a kind of steel string guitar with a steel body that was invented in the 1920's for jazz guitarists in the pre-electric guitar era. Very cool sound - I wasn't so hot on the piece itself, but it was a cool sound and a cool idea. The highlight of the evening was definitely Aaron Jay Kernis's 100 Greatest Dance Hits, for guitar and string quartet. He played the piece with the top student quartet from Oberlin (they were unbelievable players) and they all played the shit out of it - very exciting.

The next day (Monday) was the Duo 46 concert which they shared with guitarist Randall Avers (who played the second half). I've already commented on my piece above. The other highlights were Seastone by Brian Hulse, and Mountain Songs by Robert Beaser. The Mountain Songs are already established classics - great pieces - but the Hulse is new. I don't know anything about him, but I've heard Seastone twice now, and it's a really great piece. Duo 46 rocks man - I'm so glad and feel so lucky to be writing for them.

After Duo 46, Randall Avers came onto the stage to play his recital. At first, I was feeling a little lackluster about his program - Giuliani, Mertz, Mompou - but there was Brouwer - that made me feel better. However, the concert that he preceded to play was probably the most incredible guitar recital I've seen. I didn't know the Giuliani piece, but I had heard the Mertz (Elegie) and the Brouwer (Sonata) many times before. I've never heard them played like this - ever. The depth of understanding - the musicianship - the sensitivity to every nuance was at a level I've never seen from a guitarist. I was totally blown away by him. I got to meet him and have lunch with him the next day, and he was a super nice guy and humble - same age as me and we have many mutual friends. I gave him some of my music and a CD - hoping that I can work with him someday - would be awesome. It's basically every composer's dream to work with a performer of Randall's caliber.

That night, the feature concert was Paul Galbraith. He has been one of my favorite guitarists in the world since the release of his Bach recordings. He plays a custom 8-string classical guitar (one extra high string, one extra low string) and holds it like a cello - vertically with the headstock slung over his left shoulder. He has a large, wooden end-pin (just where the cello end-pin would be) that sits on top of a large resonator box - this amplifies his whole guitar even more. Even though he's one of the most incredible guitarists on the planet right now, and I was in complete awe of his playing and his sound and his technique - his choice of repertoire was less than ideal for me. For me it was just - boring. He played some "baroque" keyboard suite that Mozart had written for his wife - boring as hell and definitely NOT one of Mozart's finest moments. Then, the Quatre Pieces Breves of Frank Martin - ehh. Then the French Suite no. 2 of J.S. Bach - this was cool, but again a bit boring for guitar. I was dead tired, so I skipped the second half to go sleep.

On Tuesday, I watched my two good friends Jon Kulp and Matthew Hinsley present Jon's song cycle Five Poems of Emily Dickinson. The presentation was very interesting, and Matt performed several of Jon's songs, including the entire Dickinson cycle. Matthew has developed a very unique niche for himself. He performs song repertoire, usually performed by a guitarist and singer, or pianist and singer. He sings and plays - an amazing feat - especially if you see it happen right in front of you. His performance of Jon's songs was so moving, there were several times I had to consciously keep tears from streaming down my face. They are such great pieces, and were performed so well and with great understanding and sensitivity of how to meld music with poetic meaning. I really think they will be part of the standard song repertoire in the future.

It was an awesome time, and I hope I get to go back again sometime. Guitar rules.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Hommage a Mandy Morris

I'm sitting here, in the middle of working on my newest Hommage for Piano, the "Hommage a Mandy Morris". I started the piece 2 days ago, and I'll likely finish it tonight, or tomorrow. It's coming very quickly, but it's also a struggle at the same time. I'm using a fragment of one of Mandy's pop songs as the genesis and basis for the piece. I've been sitting here for 3 days now listening to a recording of her singing and playing piano - hearing her voice over and over again. Then, I listen back to what I have written, and I hear Mandy again. The music is like Mandy's song run through some kind of Tony Lanman plug-in. It's my music - and it's her music - somehow fused into one. It's clearly me, but it's also clearly her. It's difficult to think in a clear, compositional way, because it's extremely difficult when my eyes well up every time I listen back to what I've done.

I guess it represents something - the only possible union between us. I'm creating that union out of some part of her that she left behind. That's a power that I think only music has - it's an incredible thought - I only hope she can hear it when it's done...

Monday, September 26, 2005

Stranger's Blog

I've been a little stressed lately because of school and the recital, but I found something today that picked me up a little. I happened upon a strangers blog (from doing a search of my name on Clusty.Com), and this is what I found:

Five songs that mean a lot to me: Maaya Sakamoto's "Getsuyou no Asa", Ueno Kouji's "Beaufort no Kodomo-tachi" (shows you how much I'm obsessed with Fantastic Children, doesn't it? Pathetic), Anthony Joseph Lanman's "Il dolce stile nuovo", Frou Frou's "Must Be Dreaming", Peter Pan's "Di Belakangku"

I have no clue who these other artists are, but just knowing that my music is truly getting out to people, and that this girl posted in her blog that one of my pieces was of the the five that really means something to her - I can't explain the feeling - just an awesome, awesome feeling. Also, knowing that this is not someone in the concert music world - not someone in the academic world - this is who I'm trying to reach, and it's really happening. I feel good :)

Friday, September 23, 2005


I've been in the initial stages of finding performers for my Nov. 15th DM recital, and I have to say it has not been going well. First, the pianist that recorded the Hommages for Piano - the same one that promised to do them on my recital, has backed out. Also, a few days ago, Carmen Tellez, the director of the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble here at IU, allowed me to come in at the beginning of thier rehearsal to speak about my piece (Colors in Silence), and to try to recruit some of them to sing in it. I got NO interest - NONE - not a single name. No one cares...

Sometimes it's very frustrating and disheartening to be a composer.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Letter to a conductor

I've just started contacting performers and conductors for my DM recital here at Indiana University, scheduled (now officially) for Tuesday, November 15th @ 5PM in Auer Hall. In doing so, the most difficult piece to put together for the recital (by far) will be my "Colors in Silence", for 13 solo singers (2 sopranos, 3 mezzo-sopranos, 2 altos, 2 tenors, 2 baritones, 2 basses), flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, piano and harp.

Since the piece is very new in many ways, I feel it will require more rehearsal than normally given. I've been thinking about this issue for a while now, especially regarding large ensembles doing new music, and why a lot of the time, new music is not recieved well by audiences. My goal is to not pass any kind of blame on anyone for anything, just to point out a symptom of an existing problem. I just wrote this email to my conductor for the piece, and it all came pouring out. I hope she takes it in the right way!

I have some thoughts on the piece regarding rehearsal.

This piece (as you will remember when you get the score) is very different and in some ways new in its musical conception, writing and execution. For these reasons, I want to start rehearsals a month before the performance. Before you freak out :) - let me explain why.

The piece is somewhat demanding as far as notes, etc for the singers and players, and of course getting it together as an emsemble will be challenging, but that's not the main difficulty. What I am seeing more and more (and for many pieces this is totally fine, but not for all), is a sort of crash course approach to learning new pieces without enough time for the performers to really understand the piece as a piece of music. More often than not, the performers are simply reading notes and rhythms onstage, with absolutely no concept of what the piece is supposed to sound like, or how it works as a coherent piece of music. I mean, if the ensemble has no clue how the piece is supposed to work or sound as an ensemble, let alone as an individual, how is the piece supposed to make any kind of sense to an audience? Our performers today are so technically good, that it's true they can learn things extremely quickly, but as you know, performing music is more than playing the right notes and rhythms, regardless of how flawlessly they are executed. A great performance also brings in something more - maybe something you can't really explain, but some kind of musical synergy that can only be felt. This simply takes a little time to live with the piece and let it swim around in your head for a while. Normally I wouldn't make a big deal about it, but I really believe that the special nature of this piece requires a longer exposure to really "get" it. I don't just want a glorified reading - I want a real performance. Maybe in the current musical climate this will be seen as too demanding, but I pour my heart and soul into every piece I write, and I don't think it's too much to strive for. I'm sorry if I sound like I'm lecturing you, I don't mean to, I'm just trying to explain how I feel about it.

In any case, we should talk about it. Maybe if we just did a few rehearsals a week for four weeks - that would be incredible, and I think allow for a real chance at something special. I will work my ass off to find perfromers that will really commit to the project. If I haven't scared you away (hehe) then I'll see you soon and we can discuss it more - thanks again!
My point is clear I think: no audience can understand a piece of music if the performers themselves don't understand it. This point also has nothing to do with style or genre. This could apply to the most tonal piece of music (such as something by Arvo Pärt for example) to something like Anton Webern. Music comes down to passion, and commitment, and if those two elements don't exist in the performance, it's not a performance.

Sunday, September 04, 2005


Here is a transcript of an interview I did on the Kalvos & Damian New Music Bazaar last year.


You can also hear the interview here.

Monday, August 15, 2005

"Is John Adams still alive?"

Dude - was the last time I really updated this blog May 17th? Jesus man - what's up with you?!

Well, the summer has been a sort of fruitful one - I guess I could have been a little less of a slacker, but that wouldn't have been true to form now would it? Personal stuff aside (hey - this is supposed to be a music blog - still not sure if I still want to post all of my stupid personal BS online - I mean who cares?), I have thought a lot about music this summer.

One of the biggest things I've been thinking about is the fact that, as much as I really want to bring people's interest and passion back to concert music, I think it's even more important (or, more pressing) that we (composers) win back our performers first.

I recently met quite a few performers here at IU, most of them being pianists, and I made it a point to ask every single one of them the same, simple question. "Have you ever played any new music?"

Most just said no, but occasionally, one would say, "Yeah, I LOVE new music!". "Great!" I'd say, "What have you played?". "Well, I played Bernstein, and Bartok, and Copland!".

*bangs head against wall*

Is something that's 50 years old new? Is something that was written by someone who DIED 30-60 years ago of OLD AGE new?!? "How does this make sense to people?", I ask.

I asked one guy if he even knew of any living composers - now keep in mind this is a classical pianist - this is supposed to be someone that would actually play a composers music - his answer: "Is John Adams still alive?"

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation about this very issue with my good friend and newstyle colleague, Mutsuhito Ogino. Mu had recently returned from Paris, France where he studied at the summer program at L'Ecole Normale. During the festival, his Clarinet Suite was performed, but according to him, not extremely well. He was dumbfounded as to why the pianist had such trouble with the piece, as technically it's not difficult, and she had also performed such technically and musically demanding work as Dutilleux.

I think there are many reasons that living composers have to suffer often not-so-great premiers and performances. One reason is that the piece doesn't exist in the real world yet, only in the mind of the composer. There is nothing for the performer to refer to, except the score - no one in the history of humanity has played or interpreted this piece - in a sense it doesn't even really exist yet. An analogy can be drawn to our observation of a person. We can say that a piece like Beethoven's 5th Symphony is like an old man. We can look at him, smell him, talk to him, examine his long life in detail, get to know his personality - he exists in the world and has existed for a long time - it's not hard to see him and get to know him. On the other hand, Mu's piece is like an unborn fetus. What is this person like? What do they smell like? How do they interact with others? Etc etc - it is impossible to tell because the person exists only in the womb of its mother. The only real way to observe the person in this state is through an ultrasound picture, which is merely a fuzzy, abstract representation on the actual person, which needs to be explained to the parents (or anyone else) by the doctor - the ultrasound being analogous to a musical score.

A piece of music is no different. I have found repeatedly over the years that people are much more likely to want to perform a piece of music that has already been recorded well. This is simply because it already exists in the world - it can be understood simply by observing it. You don't have to be a doctor and actually give birth to the thing, which can be a long and sometimes painful ordeal.

One misconception that I think many performers have (and unfortunately their teachers as well) is that they fully expect a brand new piece to be as instantly understandable as a Beethoven Sonata. If they don't "get it" right away, then it's no good, or sub-standard, or something's wrong with it. What they don't realize is that when Beethoven wrote his sonatas, no one understood them at first, and that's well documented (just read Slominsky's "Lexicon of Musical Invective" sometime).

I've been saying for a while now that I want to "win back" our performers - that I think it's important, but what am I really doing about it? I think I'm going to email every instrumental studio/professor and ask them if I can speak in that studios weekly master class about this issue. Today's performers do not take new music seriously, and don't even consider it important to play. This is SCARY. We need to change this. I'm currently formulating how I'm going to approach talking about this issue without making it an attack on the performers, or thier teachers. More on this later - and more updates - I promise!

Artist Review Numero Uno

I just recently purchased this PBS DVD called "Art 21", which documents several living artists currently creating new and exciting work in the 21st century. I find this extremely fascinating, because for one, I absolutely love art, especially painting, and I feel very intimately linked to it through color and sound. One big reason for this is that I experience synaesthesia when I hear sound - something that I've always experienced but never really talked about for personal reasons, although I'm starting to talk about it a little bit now. So, when I look at paintings (especially abstract ones such as Jackson Pollock for instance), I can "see" sound, just like I can "hear" color. As I'm not really in the art world, I don't know who most of these people are or what kind of work they are doing, but I found it so fascinating that I thought I would sort of talk about each artist that I learn about, starting with three.

Richard Serra

Serra is a groundbreaker in the world of sculpture, and is doing some very exciting new things with the medium. He creates these absolutely massive, architectural and monolithic sculptures that somehow still contain movement. You can actually walk into these massive sculptures, which kind of ecapsulate the space inside, making the air within sort of part of the sculpture. I get the feeling that these things are something to be experienced as much as seen. I was actually surprised at how fascinated I was with his work, since sculpture and installation don't usually resonate with me as much as painting does.

Sally Mann

Again, I wasn't expecting to be as taken with this as I was given that her medium is photography, and black and white photography at that, but I was wrong again - heh. Sally Mann is interested in capturing the everyday and the mundane, but catching it somewhat flawed, or just "off". Her method of working is really interesting. She uses and old 19th century camera, and take the photographs onto chemically treated glass plates (a 19th century technique) which produces - man, just incredible looking images of seemingly ordinary things. It forces you to re-examine the ordinary in these things and wonder if there's more to it that you're missing. Some of the photos turn out ghostly, or ambiguous or obscured in some way. Others are so clear and confront you in such a personal way that they are almost uncomfortable to look at. Great stuff.

Margaret Kilgallen & Barry McGee

This husband and wife (in thier 20's at the time of the Art 21 documentary - or at least right around 30) work in a really wide variety of mediums and settings. It really wasn't made clear in the documentary that they were even together, and I just now found out (when I was looking for a link) that Margaret recently died of breast cancer at age 33, which really made me sad. Both of them had a strong connection to underground street art, especially graffiti (which they would do on public walls, fences, trains, whatever - and incredibly great stuff too - these two are truly talented), but also work in the gallery world selling thier work to collectors. It was interesting the dilemma that they found themselves in. On the one hand they enjoyed living as artists and making a living from selling their art, but on the other hand were careful not to lose touch with the world outside of the very closed and elite gallery and auction house world. They were actually more concerned with reaching "regular" people in the real world, than impressing a bunch of art buyers at art auctions, which I thought was extremely cool (something I'm really trying to keep in mind with my music). I was particularly taken with Barry McGee's work, which was definitely not pretentious and really aimed at a more underground and real art scene, but at the same time the dude has serious chops - really talented.

OK, more to come....

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Recent Composition

Recently I've been hard at work on my piece for Fireworks called "Hyper Lassus" that's going to be premiered at the Oregon Bach Festival on July 2nd. I have to have the entire thing finished, including score and parts by May 31st (and I started it on May 10th), and even though I have a love/hate relationship with tight deadlines, the piece is actually coming very nicely. I've listened to as much of the group's recordings as I could, and they definitely have a direction towards lighter, more entertaining pieces, which is cool because I'm in the mood to do just that sort of thing. Nothing too "serious", but at the same time I don't want to write a piece of fluff (which I feel I could never let myself do anyway). The piece is essentially for rock band, and I'm writing a rock "piece". It's definitely treading a fine line, and at many moments in the piece it's really hard to say exactly what it is - is it concert music - is it rock - pop - metal - jazz? I think if just one person thinks this to themselves, I've succeeded with this piece on a certain level.

I'm actually taking some of that desire from the guest composer-in-residence that I'll be working closely with, Osvaldo Golijov. His "Pasión Segun San Marcos" does just that - it's really an impossibility to classify the piece into one specific genre, and I absolutely love music like that - I hope to achieve this with mine. I know that the first time I heard the piece, I was saying "What IS this???" the entire time - I want someone to say that about "Hyper Lassus" - hehe. Writing this piece produces a special feeling in me. I came into music school, in 1996 as a rock musician, and now, in my last year of school ten years later, I'm writing for rock band again, but this time with a world of experience and knowledge that I didn't have before.

I've also decided to do my doctoral composition recital in October, which leaves me with a lot of music to write this summer. In addition to "Hyper Lassus", I'm writing a new song cycle for guitarist Daniel Bolshoy and mezzo-soprano Julie Nesrallah, of which I have already completed one and a half songs (but had to stop to work on the rock band piece), and then I WILL complete this cimbalom and theorbo duet for John Astaire and Kevin Kishimoto that's been swimming around in my head for at least a year. After those are complete, I plan to write one more piano hommage - an Hommage to Mandy Morris. So, the projected program should look like this:

-Hommages for Piano
-Soliloquy for Fallen Leaves
-Unrequited Pop Songs
-Colors In Silence
-Hyper Lassus

That's about an hour of music, which is plenty. Hopefully the next few weeks will go as smoothly for "Hyper Lassus" as it's been going. I'm excited about it - FINALLY I get to rock out again!

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

My Top Ten, All Time Desert Island CD's as of 05/10/2005

I was inspired by my recent viewing of one of my favorite movies to make out my top ten CD's of music that I would bring with me if I were stranded on a desert island. This list applies only to the time I post it, and will surely change soon after, at least partially. Also, these are in no particular order of rank.

  1. J.S. Bach - Lute Suites & Violin Sonatas and Partitas. What can I say, Bach is my favorite composer of all time, and these pieces are some of my favorites. It includes the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro, BWV 998 - one of the most under-appreciated and obscure works of Bach that, unfortunately only guitarists know because it was a work for lute. It has one of Bach's most incredible fugues that he ever wrote (in my opinion). I particularly love these recordings by guitarist Paul Galbraith, played on 8-string classical guitar. His transcriptions for guitar are thoughtful, historically informed, and musical.
  2. Louis Andriessen - De Staat. I HATED this piece the first time I heard it. For some reason, it was just something so different that my mind violently rejected it on the first hearing. I didn't hear it again for several years, but something made me go back and check it out again. During that second hearing, I cound't believe that I had rejected it so quickly, and I was quite disturbed by the fact that I did. I simply adore this piece with a passion. It contains the coolest writing for brass intruments I've ever heard, and I always wonder how many rehearsals it took to get it right - it must have been about a million.
  3. Dmitri Shostakovich - String Quartet No. 8. Another piece I can't live without. I discovered it through some samples on a metal album when I was still a teenager, and it's never gotten tiresome for me. It certainly appeals to my hardcore metal sensibilities, but also to my dark and delicate side. Shostakovich himself descibed its affect on him in this way: "The psuedo-tragedy of this quartet is such that, while I was composing it, the tears just kept streaming down like urine after a half-dozen beers." Wow.
  4. John Dowland - Lachrimae. Dowland is my second favorite composer after J.S. Bach. His Lachrimae pavans for viol consort are, in my opinion, one of the first and earliest examples of what would later evolve into the string quartet. The pieces themselves are reflections of Dowland - dark and sublime - ahead of his time. He was truly a romantic 250 years before the romantics.
  5. John Dowland - Works for Solo Lute. I can't live on the island without Dowland's works for lute. His fantasias and fancys show plucked string techniques that would not again be realized until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Again, way ahead of his time and brilliant.
  6. Dr. Dre - The Chronic. A brilliant and landmark album, and completely American. This album is uncompromising, and completely real, depicting a side and a culture of America that most Americans would rather not like to think about. It also pretty much invented theWest Coast style and spawned a new genre of rap. The slow, low and laid-back beats with the contrasting poly-rhythmic vocal fascinates me every time, and makes me proud that I come from the same musical culture that produced it.
  7. Meshuggah - Nothing. No one in the realm of popular music is doing more interesting or complex things, rhythmically speaking than Meshuggah. Starting within a death-metal framework, they push their music way out of the confines of that genre and into a world of its own. They are constantly evolving and pushing themselves to new heights, never getting complacent - just like any great artist is compelled to do.
  8. John Mayer - Room for Squares. John Mayer is one of the most talented song writers of our time. His lyrics are relevant, and always hit you right where it hurts - no matter who you are. His songs are also brilliantly written and always subtly changing right under your nose, always following the affect of the words. I think "Room for Squares" is one of the greatest pop albums ever written - yes I said it!
  9. Stevie Wonder - Songs in the Key of Life. Dude - if you don't know this album, you should be ashamed. Awesome songs, innovative and original. The arrangements themselves are on par with anything Duke Ellington ever did. Even though it's from 1976, it still sounds fresh today, and just about every R&B singer out there today owes their vocal style to Stevie.
  10. Perotin - Sacred Vocal Works. I was blown away when I heard this for the first time. It just sounded like nothing I had ever heard before, and this performance by the Hilliard Ensemble is absolutely incredible - it moves my soul. Perotin's works have also had a profound effect on my own music. Amazing, and transcendent work.

Monday, May 09, 2005

My Musical History - Part 1

I thought I would start this blog with a short look into my own musical history - what led me to music, and to where I am today.


I wish I could say that I started playing the piano or something when I was 3 years old, and mastered my first Mozart Sonata at age 5, but my life in music didn't start until much later. Since I was born into a non-musical family, I never really had the early opportunities that most people who become composers have. My family was more the typical, blue collar American middle-class family, and making me into a composer was, I'm sure, the furthest thing from my parents minds. Even though I didn't start music early, I do have a vivid memory of hearing part of a symphony (I was four or five, around 1978), but not the ending. I remember walking around our apartment in Houston, Texas, and creating endings for the piece in my head. I remember feeling frustrated, because to me, it seemed like there were an infinite number of possible endings, and I just kept going, never quite settling on one, definitive version. Unfortunately, my musical mind had to lay dormant for many years to come.

I never even considered playing an instrument until I was in fifth grade. Towards the end of the school year, the middle school band (from the school I would be attending the next year), played a concert at my school, and I was really captivated and excited by the music, and by the prospect of actually getting to PLAY music! I'd never even considered the possibility before, and I was overflowing with excitement at the possibilities. I immediately decided that I wanted to play the saxophone - I even remember telling my friend after school that I was going to play the "electric" saxophone - whatever that is.

The next year, I signed up for band and went with my Mom to the orientation session, where we would choose our instruments, etc. Well, we found out that we had to rent a saxophone from a local music company at our own expense, and since my parents were on a tight budget at the time, I was left with the instruments that the school would provide - essentially the instruments that were too expensive to rent. Since I also liked trombone at the time, the director told me I should play euphonium since it had the same range as the trombone. It wasn't as exciting as saxophone, but I didn't care - I was going to play in the band. My greatest memory from playing in band, was the very first day that we all played together as a band. He had us play a major chord, and I just couldn't believe how it sounded, and felt when we all played it. The feeling was just indescribable. But, the euphonium was not the most versatile of instruments, and the realities of puberty (trying to be cool) were starting to set in, so I decided that guitar would be a much better (and cooler) choice of instruments. I'd still like to go back in time and thank myself for the switch (no offense to euphonium players).


So, pretty much when I started High School, I was devoted to guitar and to rock music. When I was a Sophomore, I met another guitarist in my grade, and we started a garage band, and played all of the music we loved. This included Metallica, Megadeth, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, Rush, King Crimson, etc. You'll notice - NO CLASSICAL MUSIC yet. Anyway, I played rock music throughout High School, and when I graduated, I started a "real" band with my friend Scott, and our drummer friend Mike. I started writing rock songs - I was 17 years old, and this was the first "composing" I had ever done in my life. I even have an example of a song I wrote during this time (1991) called Voyage of the Beagle - the songs lyrics were based on Charles Darwin's book of the same title - yeah - WAY too intellectual for rock music.

So anyway, we started playing gigs in Houston in 1991, and continued to play through 1994. We had a few personell changes along the way. In 1992, Mike left us, and we met a violinist named Heath who joined the band. Mike was replaced by Clark on drums, and we started to play cities outside of Houston. During this time, I was attending the University of Houston, majoring in television and film, but taking as many music classes as I could.

My first semester I took a music history class (more like an appreciation class) for non-music majors. At the time, this was all I could handle, since I had no familiarity with the music, nor could I read any music. The first piece we listened to was the fourth movement of Bartok's "Music for Percussion, Strings and Celesta". It simply blew my mind - I had just never heard anything like this before. Every single thing we listened to that semester I will never forget, and just fascinated me. Mendelsohn's "Overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream", Berlioz's "Fantastic Symphony", Vivaldi's "Variations on La Folia", Purcell's "Lament from Dido and Aeneas", J.S. Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto No. 5", Brahms' "String Sextet No. 1".

Also that same year, I had bought the new album of Faith No More called "Angel Dust". There was a track on that album called "Malpractice" that featured a sample from Shostakovich's 8th String Quartet. I had no idea what it was, but I read the liner notes and found out. I bought the Kronos Quartet recording of the piece, and I was more blown away by it than any piece I heard in my class. I was also starting to write little "concert music" pieces for piano and string quartet and mixed ensembles - none of which I could get performed, but at this point it was more of a hobby because I had no clue what I was doing, and was teaching myself how to read and write music as I went along. This continued into 1994, when I decided that I had had it and wanted to go to music school so I could actually learn this music, and be immersed in it, all the time.

To be continued in Part 2...

My Musical History - Part 2


In the fall of 1994, I was in my fifth semester as a television/film major at the University of Houston. During the Summer, I quit my rock band because I wanted to do things musically that I simply couldn't do with my old high school buddies. As the fall semester progressed, I was getting more tired of all the classes I was taking and I didn't care about them in the least. I wanted to be a music major. Why, you may ask, did I just not be a music major in the first place?

Let me provide some perspective on my situation at the time. First off, as I said before, no one in my immediate, or extended family was a musician of any kind, nor did they have any experience or contact with anything in the arts. My family (including myself) just had no clue how a musician was supposed to make a living. Also at the time, the only person alive that knew about my potential was me. As far as anyone else knew, they had seen me play my guitar in my rock band a few times - nothing earth shattering there. So the notion of going to music school was going to be a hard sell to my parents - if not an impossible one. I was about to venture into completely uncharted and scary waters, completely alone.

But halfway through that fifth semester at UH, I simply couldn't take it anymore. One day, completely impulsively, I walked over to the main building after my class, and dropped all of my classes. I then walked over to the School of Music, and went into the office. I told the receptionist that I wanted to be a music major. She was nice, but needed to ask me some obliggatory questions. Question One - what do you want to major in - that was easy - composition. Question Two - What instrument do you play? "Guitar", I answered. "Oh I'm sorry, you can't go here", she answered. *silence* - "Uh....why?" - "Because we don't have a guitar program, and you have to study your instrument." "Holy shit."

I was pretty dismayed at first, but I was not beaten. I was way too determined at this point. So, I can't go to UH - I'll go someplace else. So, I go home that night, tell my Mom to sit down, and proceed to tell her what I did that day, and my intention to go to music school to become a composer. She took it....well....I mean, she cried, but she took it pretty well. So, now I had to figure out where I could go. My parents, not being rich, couldn't really afford to send me anywhere out of state, so I was stuck with two choices - the University of Texas in Austin, or North Texas University in Denton. Austin sounded way better to me, so I contacted them and asked what I needed to do to be admitted. They transferred me to the guitar prof. there, and he told me that I had to audition on classical guitar, and that he only accepted about 3 students a year out of maybe 30 applicants. Holy shit again. At this point, I had never touched a classical guitar, nor had I ever read any guitar music. But, I decided to go for it.

I began private classical guitar lessons with a teacher in Houston named Marc Garvin. I had met Marc a few years earlier when he was on a Houston Access television show that myself and some friends used to do called "The Only Funny Show On Access". It was kind of a late night talk show type format, and we had Marc on as a musical guest on our first show. This was now around March or April of 1995. I was also not in school, and working full time as an assistant manager at the now non-existent Blockbuster Music (a Hell I would wish upon no one). I studied with Marc until I would audition at the University of Texas in February - I had about 9 months to not only learn to read music and play classical guitar, but to work up the proper repertoire to audition with.

In July of 1995, I took a trip to Austin to meet with one of the composition professors there. I made an appointment to meet with Donald Grantham. I took in all I had done over the past few years, and he very nicely looked at all of it, and talked with me a great deal about what I wanted to do, etc. I told him my situation, and he seemed like he really wanted me to go there, so he said he would talk to the guitar prof. on my behalf. So - excellent meeting - I went back to Houston to practice.

In February of 1996, I went to Austin to audition for the guitar professor there, Adam Holzman. I was very nervous - I mean, this was my one shot. I had put everything into this one audition - I had no auditions anywhere else, and no kind of back-up plans to speak of. I remember the morning of the audition, I was driving my parents car (because it was more reliable than mine was), and on my way to campus, the front passenger side tire blew on the middle of a bridge. So, I go to the trunk to get the spare - no spare. So, I had to walk back a few miles to my cousin's place (which I was staying at) in my suit and carrying my guitar. I got back, borrowed her car (I just left my parents car on the bridge - didn't have time to do anything about it), and made it just in time for my audition. For some unknown reason, I wasn't nervous at all, and probably played the best I had ever played up to that point. I auditioned with some Sor studies, some Carcassi etudes and the Bouree from one of Bach's lute suites.

So now, I wait. It took a few months before I heard anything, but one day while I was working at Blockbuster Music, I got a call from my Mom. She said that an envelope had arrived from UT, and she wanted to know if she should open it and read it to me. I just stood there, in the backroom of the store, looked around at this environment that I was in and thought how much I hated my life at that moment, and then I told her to open the envelope and read it to me. She did, and when she said "You got in!", I can't describe the feeling I had - it was like I was just released from prison. Where there was a dead-end before, everything now opened up to endless possibility. It was one of the greatest moments of my life.

Welcome to my Music Blog!

Welcome one and all to my music blog! I have created this blog with the intention of sharing my thoughts, commentary, and opinions on music. This means, music in general, music in society, music in history, my own musical activities, the musical activities of my NewStyle colleagues, composers living and dead, etc. Many things I post about will be my own personal thoughts on music - if you disagree with anything I say then tell me so - don't be so quiet! I hope this blog will give the interested some insight into my musical thought, and perhaps more insight into my own music. Thanks for reading...