Concerto

I’ve been doing a fair amount of pondering these last few weeks about THE CONCERTO. Not my concerto necessarily but the general idea of THE CONCERTO. Currently, I’m sitting at coffee shop in Raleigh, scrunched between (count ‘em) two different Bible study groups (how did I ever get so lucky). With me is my copy of the full score to the five Beethoven Piano Concertos and my pencil which, when I get the necessary arm space, vigorously scribbles down a few of my findings. All of this is in preparation to begin work on my own piano concerto slated to be premiered in the spring of 2019. 

Now I’m not one to sit and think a great deal about the “philosophy” of a piece. Meaning, I don’t take a lot of time asking myself questions a la David Lang like “why is an audience at a concert” or “what is silence” etc.. Lang does ask these types of questions and comes out the other end with very fine pieces that seem to question the very structures of classical institutions. But the practice just isn’t quite for me. However, it’s different for me when it comes to this concerto. The concerto, more than almost any other classical genre (if that’s even the word), carries the most philosophical baggage, historically speaking. In almost every era of classical music, composers have had a unique take on what the role is of an instrumental soloist in relation to an orchestra. In the late Baroque and early classical era, the soloist jumped through musical hoops with dazzling virtuosity while the orchestra’s role was to lay out the themes in which the soloist would elaborate. With Mozart and especially Beethoven, the soloist almost takes on the role of an individual in musical dialogue with a large ensemble. After the First World War and onward, the concerto took on a much darker, political tone with the individual (soloist) attempting to stand up to the masses (the orchestra) with the masses eventually violently taking over the soloist. And now in the twenty-first century, like a lot of things, everything is musically up for grabs. This leads to a composer (yours truly) musically drifting out in open waters. So what is one to do with THE CONCERTO?

This past summer, I traveled to New Jersey where my boyfriend lives and in preparation for what I knew would be a fair amount of commuting in and out of the city, I picked up a book from a local bookstore before leaving Indiana. I bought a copy of Matthew Desmond’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted. The book follows eight families through their experience of desperately trying to pay rent and eventually dealing with chronic homelessness in Milwaukee during the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. In Milwaukee, families whose last move was involuntary (due mostly to evictions) are 25 percent more likely to experience long term housing problems. Eviction is to poor, mostly black woman and children what prison is to black men; a constantly revolving door which is difficult to leave once one has been trapped. As Desmond puts it “Black men are locked up, black women are locked out”. Contrary to popular republican belief, evictions and homelessness in the United States are not entirely due to a lack of work ethic or “bootstraps”. Most Americans are one car accident, medical emergency, or paycheck away from having to choose between paying rent or paying a life saving expense. This is due to extractive markets. When a landlord sets up shop in a less than desirable neighborhood, the landlord, by taking individuals in with bad credit or prior evictions, can set their rents at a higher price than necessary to financially balance out taking in high risk individuals. So in mid sized cities where evictions are rampant, a poorly maintained house that’s not up to code in a crappy neighborhood can cost as much as a nice apartment in downtown. This is how families who are evicted are kept in the revolving door. 

As I read Evicted, I would be on a train passing through Trenton or North Philly or Newark…these were the environments I was reading about...literally right outside window. Living in the midwest for the past year, I had forgotten that these places still exist. It’s amazing how that can happen…

So what does this have to do with THE CONCERTO? Once I had finished Evicted, I started to think, for whatever reason, about sonata form. Simplified, a composer introduces a musical idea and drills the motive or melody into the listener's ears (sounds painful but the goal is to get the tune implanted). This material is referred to as A. Then the material has a life of its own, as it were, and changes and is put into different contexts and moods and develops. This playing around with the tune is referred to as B. Finally, to bring a sense of closure, the A material comes back in its original, tried and true form. The ABA form is not merely a musical device as much as a dramatic one. It's the form of almost every story we know. Dorothy is in Kansas (A), Dorthy does some crazy stuff in OZ (B), Dorothy is back in Kansas (A). It’s the idea of home and back again. This turned out to be my lightbulb moment. 

The A material in sonata form is often referred to as home. Tonic, in music, is also often referred to as home. Home, musically speaking, is meant to be familiar and comfortable which is why it is related to the first thing a listener hears in a piece of music. With Evicted on my mind, I made a literal and metaphorical connection with the idea of home. What if, for this piano concerto, I restricted the opening A material for the end. Even though I have a lot of writing left to do for this concerto, I want the soloist to be searching for this material throughout the piece…getting closer and closer as the piece progresses. Needless to say, I’m working backwards. Currently, I’m writing the ending and will subliminally place the “motive” throughout the rest of the piece. 

It is difficult to write music about something when there is no text. The only device I have to convey a concept is a collection of pitches and rhythms. Chords can't depict homelessness. A motive can't depict homelessness. But what I think I can do is write an emotional piece that is inspired by something I care about and incorporate concepts that bridge the gap between music and Matthew Desmond's book, in this case the form of the piece.   

My piano concerto, Shelter, is being premiered spring of 2019 at the Boston Conservatory. The wonderful Kevin Madison is both the commissioner and soloist. More to come…

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Neck of the Woods

Early this morning, I ventured out of the Bloomington bubble to Columbus (Indiana not Ohio; population est. 40,000). This small city is unique due to the absolutely insane amount of midcentury modern architecture that seems to be about everywhere. In the mid-1940's, J. Irwin Miller, the CEO of Cummins Inc. (a large local diesel engine manufacturer), instituted a program in which the Cummins Foundation would pay the architect fees if a local client selected an architect from a list compiled by the foundation. This is practical and community based modernism at its best; designing local churches, public schools, newspaper offices, etc. instead of exclusively serving wealthy clients. So, I took some neat pictures...

 First Christian Church (designed by Eliel Saarinen)

First Christian Church (designed by Eliel Saarinen

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North Christian Church (designed by Eero Saarinen)

 Fire Station No. 4 (designed by Robert Venturi

Fire Station No. 4 (designed by Robert Venturi)

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The (former) Republic Newspaper Building (designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

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Robert N. Stewart Bridge (designed by J. Muller International)

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The Inn at Irwin Gardens (built by Joseph I. Irwin in 1864)

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The said Gardens of The Inn at Irwin Garden

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Summer Projects

Even with the absence of a music festival in my schedule this summer, it has none the less been a pretty busy summer. I understand it's technically midsummer but nothing is about to let up anytime soon. Most of my time has been taken up writing and thinking about how to go about writing two big pieces; a new piano concerto for Kevin Madison and a new piece for high school wind ensemble. The first work (the piano concerto currently entitled Shelter) is slated to be the longest piece of music I've written, 18 minutes. There is also the added psychological barrier of dealing with the tried and true question...how does a concerto work? What is the role of the soloist? What is the role of a soloist that is also kind of a mini orchestra itself? The piece is inspired by an amazing book I read over the summer by Matthew Desmond entitled Evicted. I want the role of the three percussionist to function as a sort of Greek chorus that violently rejects the questions asked by the piano. In the end, I don't want the piece to have a #message, but rather clearly has a strong emotional pull. I really want to give Kevin a piece that allows him to show every angle of his multilayered musical talents. More to come about this piece...

The second piece, a new work for high school wind ensemble, is commissioned by Greg Jenner and the Garner High School Wind Ensemble in North Carolina. Very little is known about this piece right now (yikes...I have time) but Greg Jenner and I have decided to open up this commission up to create a consortium of bands that can participate in the creation of the piece. There is an entire page dedicated to the consortium...so if you are interested...click here

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More Snare Drum

If you are looking to satisfy a burning desire for more snare drum music from yours truly, the wait is over. First, McKayla Phillips will be performing my solo snare piece Abu Ghraib at the National Student Composers Conference in September at, of all places, Indiana University. There is a great video of McKayla performing the piece last year on YouTube. Second, in October, the Indiana University Concert Band will be performing the world premiere of Reveilles which features count 'em TWO marching snare drums on either side of the ensemble attempting to tear the ensemble apart. 

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Olde Notes

A recent performance of B'rit (written in 2013 for the University of North Carolina - Greensboro) by the SUNY Fredonia Concert Band. 

 
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"The Orchestra"

A few days ago, I wrapped up my time in Fort Wayne, Indiana working with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic as part of the Earshot Orchestra Readings. This program has been on my "Maybe Someday When I'm Good Enough I Could..." list for a long time so actually participating was very surreal. Why the hell would anyone want an interview about my orchestra piece I wrote my senior year of college? My interview is on the American Composers Orchestra website?! That kind of surreal stuff was both really kinda neat but also very humbling. Always feeling (and looking to some degree) the perpetual whippersnapper at these kinds of events, I constantly have this undercurrent of anxiety that my youth and inexperience will shine through in everything I do and prove to the members of the orchestra that this guy has no idea what he is doing. Was my introduction to the orchestra good enough? Is my string writing good enough? But alas, there wasn't a veteran oboist that stood up and yelled "Fraud!" in my direction. On the contrary, the members of the orchestra, the music director, the mentor composers, and the board were all incredibly kind and helpful during the whole process. 

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But as it usually happens after a program like this or a music festival, there comes a time shortly afterwards when I look back at the experience with a sense of melancholy. This experience was different. I didn't "miss" the program per say like a summer festival which, when you think of it, is a musical utopia complete with endless performances, practice time, etc. The Earshot experience, in a way, does the opposite. It pulls the curtain back to reveal the dreaded place graduate students hear all about...the "real" world. It is no longer about whether or not my piece is any good or if it works, it is now about why should someone invest in me as a composer? In a more broad sense, why should a regional orchestra invest in a young living composer? This harsh but necessary reality check put a mirror up to my face and made me think about what does my music actually "say"? My piece, Nijinsky Dancesis meant to essentially replace Stravinsky's Fireworks on a concert as the obligatory five minute concert opener to a Stravinsky ballet. But the question is why would someone replace Fireworks? Does my piece...I dare not say...add anything to the conversation or the concert experience that isn't already present in Fireworks? This question, in a way, isn't mine to answer especially given that Nijinsky Dances is written and finished. But this is a question to keep in mind next time I write, even though the question of what am I adding to the classical music conversation is a paralyzing thought.  

Looking back on it all, I think the American Composers Orchestra has really done a fantastic job exposing a young composer (yours truly) to a real world orchestra with real world issues and plucking me out of the luxury of music festivals to reveal how a composer really functions in an orchestra. It has left me thinking a lot about myself and how I function in the orchestra world. I seem to be lying on my back, ripping petals off a daisy, asking "I like the orchestra world, I like it not; I like the orchestra world, I like it not?" Like everything, there are the pros and the cons with the orchestra. However, this experience with Earshot introduced me to the orchestral experience by letting me jump into the deep end with much needed water wings so that, maybe at some point, I might be able to jump into the orchestra world for real.

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