"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. 


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.



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.


Tick Tick Tick

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. 


The Don

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 fair amount of marijuana 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 every 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 when walking out of Mozart’s Don Giovanni had to do with the fact that I had seen a production that 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 ladies man when the very opening of the opera depicts a rape and eventually a murder? In 2018, sexual assault, rape, and consent are major topics 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 mind of both Mozart and his librettist 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 amazed how something so simple like two instruments descending in parallel 3rds turns out to be the best musical idea. I at times compare 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. 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. 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 have more black comedy in it than 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 in 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 has “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 horns 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 it’s difficult to 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 knew 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 in 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 director’s 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. 

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It’s getting ever increasingly cold up here and the closer to autumn the better. Talk to me later when I encounter my first Indiana winter, but the colder weather is a relief after a summer jam packed with North Carolina humidity. The best things come with autumn, in my humble opinion; sweaters, smell of stuff burning (leaves), the start of concert season, long hikes, (this seems to be morphing into an e-harmony profile), and most importantly, the food. I compiled a list this summer of everything I wanted to make come fall so the very second the weather changed to something resembling fall, I busted out my dutch oven with haste and began making soups. Summer does have it’s pros in terms of what to cook especially meals that can be made outside with friends, but now tis the season to slow cooking, hot food, and laboring over day long cooking experiments. Autumn food, in some cases, does the thing I love most which is working on long term food projects like making sourdough bread or, my goal this year, making real corned beef. My life as a graduate student is mostly spent mulling over a piece I’m writing at a desk so any reason to get up and stir something for a few minutes is with worth celebrating. Cooking is also a great time to get some much need listening attended to. Every so often, I will jot down a piece someone mentions and try my damnedest to get around to listening to it but never do. Cooking in the evenings or throughout the day is a great excuse to throw on, as it was last night, the Britten Holy Sonnets of John Donne. 

So on this, the first brisk weekend of the school year, I made a big ole pot of Caldo verde, a popular Portuguese soup containing sausage, collard greens (they use kale but I’m doing my part to stop the kale trend), and potatoes. Poor man’s recipes usually turn out to be some of the best food once people start recognizing it as legitimate. We will all hold our breath for the day microwavable taquitos are on the Eleven Madison Park menu. The soup turned out great and there is plenty for the week. 

Some music news: October 4th at 8 o’clock, McKayla Phillips will be killing it on the first new music concert of the year playing my new piece for solo snare Abu Ghraib. 

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Coffee Run

I’ve been living in Bloomington for roughly three weeks now which means I am drawing closer and closer to that 21 day habit myth. We shall see if things magically fall into their neat spaces in a week or so. On the plus side, the important things have been taken care of; the bookshelf is up and stocked, I’ve made a few good meals (still trying to cook something that is distinctly “Indiana Summer Food”), and I’ve found a place that sells great coffee beans (a must; shoutout to Hopscotch Coffee). Doing the unscientific field research of where the best coffee is has to be one of my most favorite things about moving to a new place. This basically entails myself drinking copious amounts of coffee and get to work as a sort of consumer reporter. I would be lying if I said it's wasn't hard to say farewell to my longtime 'dealer' Counter Culture due to the fact that we went through a lot together. But, there is a season turn turn turn. The other great thing about settling in is learning the local NPR station schedule by heart and boy is it hard with, count ‘em, TWO WFIU’s in Bloomington. It’s almost a benefit of riches; on one station this weekend, they were playing John Corigliano’s brilliant The Ghosts of Versailles, and on the other, this week’s episode of The Splendid Table. Too much to handle. Since I spend a good deal of time in my apartment, I like having the radio playing throughout the day to function as both entertainment and white noise when need be. 


I’m working on a solo snare drum piece (!!!) for my friend McKayla Phillips (fellow Greensboro → Indiana pilgrim). There is a long list of things I don’t want to do with this piece primarily not making it some Nick Cannon braggadociuos snare off. The work will of course be virtuosic but I want it to be dramatic and function more as a monologue than a dog and pony show. I can’t help but write a piece about the military when using a solo snare. I’ll let it work as a “I know, I know” and move on from there. I’m also in the midst of writing a big ole’ flute sonata for Noah Cline which deals with the natural world and how water specifically can be the cause of both great beauty and great terror. This choice was made a week or two before this flood in Texas and now seems to hold greater significance for me. More to come about both of these.