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.Read More
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.
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 Dances, is 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.
A bunch of things are ramping up here in Bloomington with a bunch of new pieces and upcoming performances peeking over the horizon. First and foremost, in "Pleased To Announce™" news, I've been selected for an American Composers Orchestra Earshot Reading with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. The orchestra and their music director Andrew Constantine will perform my short and snappy concert opener Nijinsky Dances on February 7th. This has given me the opportunity to look back over this piece and fix some odds and ends that didn't quite work when I initially wrote the piece (i.e. Rob, you don't need timpani, and low tom-toms, AND bass drum. We get it. It is a bass drop). This also allows me to explore more of the midwest and break off my east coast horse blinders. More info can be found at the Fort Wayne Philharmonic website.
Secondly, I just finished a big ole' flute sonata, Drifts and Currents, for Noah Cline which is getting premiered on April 14th (happy birthday to me). Rarely do I feel stable in how a piece comes out. Usually it takes me a month or two (if ever) to really come round and "enjoy" the piece, if that is the right word. I need some sort of distance...let the piece go out into the world on its own and report back. However, this piece is something I'm actually really looking forward to. I think it does some things musically I've been trying to do for awhile now and I'm crossing my fingers all these ideas work out.
As it stands now, my desk is flooded with sketches of a new work for the Indiana University Concert Band (getting premiered in Fall of this year). I'm throwing a zillion ideas at the wall and nothing is sticking and somehow, this is making the idea of the piece as a whole blurrier and blurrier. Gonna go on a walk in the snow to clear my mind of all these subpar ideas. I'll leave it here on a ranting note.
60 Minutes is by far my favorite thing to watch on television. I rarely miss an episode and a few of my pieces were triggered by reports I first saw on 60 Minutes. Below is the history of their "cover"/logo/theme song of sorts. 2 things...
1) Did it take CBS a minute to figure out the whole quarter note = 60 thing? (re: first tick tick tick)
2) That metric relation between the first and second ticks is amazing. Someone do some Elliott Carter metric math on that.
As I walked out of the opera house tonight, I couldn't help but notice that I left with somewhat of a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe it was the two guys next to me that had, noting several of my senses, had smoked a heaping helping of weed right before the opera began. But that wasn’t it. Something about the production, perhaps? The singing was spectacular. I had known the Indiana University opera program was top notch but I was quite literally blown away by the sheer sound and maturity of all the voices. The orchestra as well was at the top of their game playing, of all things, Mozart, the composer that casts a spotlight on ever single individual player to perform at their best or take down the entire orchestra with them. But as I walked back to my apartment around 10pm on a particularly dark path, I noticed a blue light from one of those campus emergency poles. And all of a sudden it seemed to click for me. This odd feeling I had walking out of Mozart’s Don Giovanni had to do with the fact that I had seen a production that, in my subconiosius mind, was firmly planted in antiquity. How could a production of Giovanni on a Big Ten college campus of all places be so unaware that we live in the age of Brock Turner, Donald Trump, and Betsy DeVos who is currently putting an end to Obama’s policy on campus sexual assault investigations? How can we still portray the Don as merely a suave player when the very opening of the opera depicts a rape? In 2017, sexual assault, rape, and consent is a major topic on college campuses and even though I don’t believe the point of a production is to preach or shine a light on a hot topic, I do believe this complex issue was in the minds of both Mozart and Da Ponte at the time of the operas conception.
Mozart has long been one of my favorite composers. After hearing the overture to Cosi Fan Tutte in high school, I was immediately hooked on the sense of cleanliness in the music. Every time I look at a Mozart score, I am always amazed how something so simple like two instruments descending in parallel 3rds is just the best thing ever. He was, and this doesn’t seem like a wildly controversial statement, at his very best when writing opera and especially the three Da Ponte operas; Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte. All three of these hold a special place in my heart. Musically speaking, they are, on the surface layer, simple and beautifully lyrical. I have always compared Mozart to a great burger or sandwich that has just the right amount of everything but never too much. There is never any bacon, no triple patties, no queso or some other outrageous Guy Fieri bastardization slammed between two buns. This Mozart burger is clean and simple and satisfies beyond measure. Maybe equally as important is the political drive in all three of these operas. Each deals masterfully with sexual and social politics in unique, terrifying, comical, and ingenious ways. However, none of the three has more black comedy in it like Don Giovanni.
Let’s get one thing out of the way to start off, Don Giovanni is a serial rapist. I feel as though throughout at least the 20th century, Giovanni was always been shown in the light of a ladies man. Any LP cover always shows this handsome ladies man with eyebrow raised with the clear intention to win you over. And it’s charming. Most productions run with this Pepé Le Pew characterization in order to a) get maximum laughs from the audience and b) not really tackle how dark the humor truly is. Don’t get me wrong, the libretto is hilarious. However, it should sting a bit. Like in all black comedy, the shock and aw that one feels when laughing at something that is clearly terrible is, in most cases, the best part and the point. De Ponte and Mozart are working at a very deep comedic level. The Catalog Aria, for example, is Leoporello bragging about the number of women Giovanni as “seduced” with heavy scare quotes. By observing the opera so far, the “seducing” we have observed is far more along the lines of sexual assault than winning some woman over. The music in this aria is comical; it imitates fanfares after exclaiming how faithful the Don is, the music parodies Catholic sacred music when discussing the women of Spain, and the sound of hunting horn calls lets the listener know that all of this seducing is like hunting for Don Giovanni. It is a brilliant glimpse into the character. This aria, which tallies up thousands of women that the Don has interacted with should be shocking and, in turn, laughable. But the laughs should not come easy to the audience the same way you laugh while watching a man struggling to put his friend into a wood chipper at the end of Fargo. One can be sure that both Da Ponte and Mozart new the works of the great satirists like Jonathan Swift and knew how to set up a laugh and twist the knife at the same time.
This is all to say that I found this lacking in this production and many productions. A director does not need to necessarily update the action. That’s not always the answer (the Peter Sellars’ production is great though). I feel that a directors choice on how to depict Don Giovanni’s “seducing” should push the boundaries and the comfort zone of the audience just as the original creators did with the opera itself.
Rant Over.Read More