Burning Ambulance 3

The third issue of Burning Ambulance, a journal founded and edited by Phil Freeman, and dedicated to long-form journalism about a wide variety of popular and non-popular topics, is now available.

For the new issue Phil asked me to write an article about what it's like to write concert music, because the magazine's core audience has a good feel for what it's like to put together a rock or jazz song, but may not be familiar with how the long-hairs do it. "Facing a Blank" is the result of his request.

Burning Ambulance is available in print-on-demand form ($10) and as a downloadable file with color art ($5).


Carter 102

Today is Elliott Carter's 102nd birthday. Readers of this blog are acquainted with my abiding interest in this composer and his music. On the occasion of his 100th birthday I posted a series of short notes on the pieces that have meant the most to me over the years, beginning here. Other posts on Carter, including links to CD reviews, can be found here.

For today, I leave it to Carter himself with a performance of Tintinnabulation (2009), for percussion ensemble, performed here by the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble, under the direction of Peter Jarvis:



Ann Powers commemorates the availability of The Beatles on iTunes by listing her 15 favorite tracks by the Liverpudlians. Alex Ross responds with his own list, and thus a meme is born. Here are my 15 favorite Beatles tracks, as least as of right now:

15. "Back in the USSR" (The Beatles). Beach Boys-influenced rock 'n' roll, with clever and darkly ironic lyrics.

14. "All You Need is Love" (Magical Mystery Tour). With its quotations and trippy, layered texture, this prescriptive anthem is almost a pop Hymnen.

13. "Getting Better" (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). The texture thins for most of the last verse of this plea for undertanding from a guy who's trying to change. After a list of transgressions, the band (led by Paul McCartney's driving bass) storms back in, arguing for redemption.

12. "For No One" (Revolver). Intense emotion and rigorous technique. Sounds like art to me.

11.. "I'm Down" (Past Masters, Vol, 1). Old school rock 'n' roll screamer, which McCartney does almost as well as John Lennon in

10. "Rock and Roll Music" (Beatles for Sale).

9. "Yes It Is" (Past Masters, Vol, 1). Gorgeous vocal harmonies in a song about the inability to move on.

8. "Julia" (The Beatles). Simple, direct, haunting.

7. "A Hard Day's Night" (A Hard Day's Night). As Alex said, there's that chord. Not only that, but an energetic song about being out of energy.

6. "Let It Be" (Let It Be). This entire project has been criticized for overproduction, but I really dig the prominent roles given to three very dixtinct keyboards. Make sure hear this version, because in some versions the fine guitar solos are buried in the mix.

5. "Help!" (Help!). Rounding out the trio of movie themes with Lennon's call for assistance.

4. "Something" (Abbey Road). It's always seemed to me that neither Lennon nor McCartney were half the songwriter alone as they were together. On the other hand, George Harrison.

3. "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party" (Beatles for Sale). I've always loved this song; can't give a rational defense. Note, however, the wonderful vocal harmonies.

2. "She Loves You" (Past Masters, Vol, 1). An ebullient expression of pure joy. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!

1. "Ticket to Ride" (Help!). The percussionist in a musical organization is often the best musician therein. Ringo Starr makes his case herein. Note the different fills in front of the last two occurances of the tagline ("And she don't care") as well as how he recomposes the groove behind different verses. Also, again, the vocal harmonies.

Feel free to post your own lists in the comments (or links, if you have already posted somewhere else). Better still, some commentary on why The Beatles don't deserve the attentio would be very interesting.


The Jazz Hands of Love

What is now the Florida State University College of Music was founded 100 years age, in 1910. At that time the University was called the Florida State College for Women.

These two facts are the basis for the conception behind this weekend's production of Gaetano Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore ("The Elixir of Love") by the College's Florida State Opera. This production is the Opera's first in the newly renovated Ruby Diamond Auditorium. I'll have more to say about the Auditorium on another occasion, but for it's enough to say that the renovation is beautiful and the sound so improved that it is really an entirely new hall.

The production (by FSU professor Matthew Lata) replaced the military regiment of the original with the University of Florida football team and set the action in familiar FSU locations. Mr. Lata's productions always give you something to look at during arias, without distracting from the music. This production featured dances loosely modeled on dances of the period--very loosely, and the program notes begged pardon for the various historical inaccuracies. The resulting frisson between the music and the dancing heightened the playful atmosphere of this enchanting production. FSU Director of Opera Activities Douglas Fisher led the cast and the newly-enlarged (the pit is much bigger now) Opera Orchestra in a well-paced, lively performance.

In all the talk about the future of classical music, I've not seen much discussion of localizing the music, stressing place, etc. A production like this, with it use of school colors in the sets and costumes and the biggest rival's quarterback as the antagonist, would not travel, but the idea certainly would. Critics of concert music culture often talk about the music not having a direct relation to peoples' everyday lives (I'm not sure that's always a bad thing, but that's for another post), but this production celebrates an institution that is a part of the everyday life of most of the people in its audience, and it does so without compromising the work itself.

Very well done.



It was a long time ago, and I remember very few of the details.

When I was an undergrad, I attended a recital by coloratura soprano Joan Sutherland. Among the details I don't remember is the repertoire, though if memory serves, it consisted of chansons and French arias. She was astonishing--the sound of her voice and what she was able to do with it was overwelming. She held a lsrge audience in the palm of her hand for the length of the evening. The spell wasn't broken (at least for me) until long after the performance had ended.

Ms Sutherland passed away on Sunday at 83.



I've updated the Works page to include a piece I finished this weekend, an elegy for my Dad (who passed away this summer after a lengthy illness) called What stays with me IV: for W. E. Hicken. It's scored for bass clarinet, bass trombone, cello, and timpani. I like to think that he would have liked it, and I know he would have been amused that I tried to make an ensemble as deep as his voice.



Lisa Hirsch kindly points out that Blogger has added a feature that allows the publication of permanent pages (henceforth known as "përmapages") as part of blogs. These përmapages can contain unchanging or infrequently changing material which would, if they were as regular blog posts eventually disappear down the page into the webby mist. Lisa has posted a page recapitulating her recent series on publicity basics--something many of us will be referring to more than once.

Links to any përmapages I post will be listed in tabs across the top of the home page under the header. The first is a sinple list of my compositions. If you are interested in obtaining scores of any of these pieces, please contact me to make arrangements.

I'll post more pages as I think of appropriate material.


Mirrors and Lamps

A. C. Douglas says composers should post this quote from Schoenberg above their desks:
There is still plenty of good music to be written in C Major.
ACD includes this admonition in a post whose central point (read it for yourself, of course) that composers should be more concerned with writing the most substantial music they can, and not be concerned about being (or finding) the Next Big Thing. His point isn't, I don't think, that composers should write tonal music, but that they should be open to everything that is of musical value.

Most composers I know and that I know of aren't looking for (or to be) the Next Big Thing. Many are looking for a Next Big Idea, but I can't see anything wrong with that,) What most composers are looking for is a way to find their voice, to find a way to say in music what they want to say. A more relevant Schoenberg quote may be this:
Once, in the army, I was asked if I was really the composer Arnold Schoenberg. 'Somebody had to be,' I said, 'and nobody else wanted to, so I took it on, myself.
My personal response to Schoenberg's  C Major comment is this: no shit. Really, if anybody despairs of hearing new tonal music they aren't looking very hard, or they expect it to be delivered to them automatically. The vast majority of composers, in and out of the academy, write tonal music of some kind or another. They always have and they always will. It's easy to find, even if it doesn't get the most publicity, even though it usually does. You can't demand that the public face of the music world to offer a reflection of your tastes or that the music press feature music that isn't pursuing new ideas. It doesn't work that way in music, or in any other field of human endeavor.

Art is a lamp that sheds light on our lives; it is not a mirror offering us a flattering reflection.
Here endeth the lesson.


Prize Possession

I’ve read Greg Sandow’s recent series1 of posts on the Pulitzer Prize in Music with a great deal of interest and no small incredulity2, and I am in complete agreement with Greg about one thing: the Prize process as it exists undoubtedly privileges concert music over other kinds of American music. Maybe you don’t care about the Prize at all but maybe you do kind of care about what the bias in the Prize process is and what it means.3

Greg points out how the language in the Prize guidelines reflects how composers and others involved in concert music think, to the exclusion of how people involved in other manifestations of music think about their artifacts. Specifically, the guidelines refer to “performances” and release dates of recordings. Submission of a score in support of a nomination is optional.

I think Greg overstates how the guidelines are biased towards concert music—you could change a word here and there and there would be no bias. I think his larger point, that the structure of the Pulitzer Prize is biased towards concert music, is manifest more in its administration than in its guidelines, in who does the judging. (I think Greg’s nomination of Greil Marcus as a judge would, if it came to pass, make his idea of a ban on Prizes to concert music unnecessary.)

All of this led me to ask my son, who has a couple of degrees in American Studies, what he though of all of this. He answered, without hesitation, that “popular music and classical4 music should be treated as entirely different artforms”. I don’t know that I would completely agree with that, but the more I think about it the more it makes sense. On the issue under immediate discussion, it would be easy to administer separate Pulitzer Prizes in popular music and non-popular music. The guidelines could refer to release dates vs. premiere dates, remove instrumentation and length requirements for popular music, etc.

But what about the bigger issue? Are popular and non-popular/concert music different artforms? They share an aesthetic medium (sound/silence, like fiction and poetry share words) so there’s no brick wall between them. But, as Greg points out, there are significant differences in how they are made and in how they are distributed.

What are some of the implications of thinking of them as different artforms? Can these differences be exploited to the benefit of everybody? I think it's worth talking about.

1. The link is to the last of the series, which includes links to the first two posts.
2. How is making concert music ineligible for the Prize supposed to help it? Maybe we should be even more helpful and ban the performance of concert music for a similar period.
3. I’m pretty sure I don’t care about the Prize beyond noting who wins every year. As to the bias, read on.
4. Hey, it’s concert music, son; read my damn blog!



Tim Mangan of the Orange County Register lists ten recordings of works that serve as a newby's introduction to musical Modernism. It's a fine list, and I won't spoil it for you by reprinting it here.

In a his comment on a piece that interpolates sketches from a 19th century composer's music with the 20th century composer's original music, Mr. Mangan describes the original music as "atonal but exquisitely so". This is really picky, I know, but I wish he had not phrased it that way, unless of course he generally finds atonality less than exquisite. (The rest of the article doesn't read that way.)

I would rather have seen "exquisitely atonal" or "atonal, and exquisitely so". Again, I'm being picky, but I think it's better if we don't use negatively charged language in our attempts to promote our music.

[Edited on 8 Mar 14 to fix a typo.]


What Mahler Tells Me

Today is Gustav Mahler’s 150th birthday.

My first encounter with Mahler was playing the bass trombone part in a performance of the First Symphony in North Carolina in the mid-1970s. The Symphony, with its themes of the newness of life, discovery, and triumph, was a perfect introduction for me at about 20 and at the very beginning of finding my way as a musician, composer, and human being.

To learn this piece from the inside, as it were, embedded in me just how entwined composing and performing are. It was the first time I had ever played in such a big, complex piece. So much of what I learned from it has been with me since then that it’s hard to say specifically what happened. But something did—something clicked.

I’ve probably heard the Second Symphony (“Resurrection”) performed more than any other piece of music (with Cage’s 4’33” a close second), and it’s always very moving, even when the performance doesn’t quite make it. The striving of an ensemble playing and singing near or even a little beyond its limits embodies part of Mahler’s poetic vision for this piece.

My favorite Mahler symphony is the Sixth, with its clear, rigorous form and content that strains at that form. Mahler’s was at his height as an orchestrator in the Sixth, and every page yields a revelation of orchestration and/or counterpoint. Many of the Symphony’s most effective passages are a result of the composer’s deft, imaginative orchestration of simple counterpoint, sometimes with as few as two voices. That such dark expression can come from such simple, clear means has always struck me as one of the mysteries of art.

“The symphony is the world; it must contain everything.” Mahler’s famous dictum* applies to his entire output even more than it does to individual works. Without drawing too fine a point on it, his symphonies and songs sketch out an artistic biography moving from the impetuosity of youth in the early pieces, through a thoughtfully fervent maturity, finally to the resignation and acceptance embodied in the last works, Das Lied von der Erde (“Song of the Earth”) and the Ninth Symphony.

The orchestras are as big in these last works as they were in the earlier symphonies, but here Mahler has reduced his art to its essential elements. The effects and climaxes are as stunning and as moving as ever, but the means are smaller, the brushstrokes finer. The emotions are raw, but expressed without histrionics. What we get from Mahler at the end, something he never had in his tumultuous life, is peace.

* A word on dicta. When an artist makes a statement like Mahler’s, he’s really just speaking for himself. He may want you to think he is prescribing an approach for everybody, but he isn’t; he’s describing his own, and hoping you’ll take it seriously. If you take these dicta too seriously, you end up with a headache, and a bad case of style wars.


On the Outside

I’ve been grazing through last year’s A New Literary History of America (Belknap/Harvard, 1095 p., edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors). This fascinating, informative, and sometimes moving book is a history of the United States told in essays about the cultural artifacts produced by Americans and, in a few cases, about America or Americans.

This broad definition of the “literary” is fleshed out in an Introduction:

Thus this broadly cultural history—a history of America in which literary means not only what is written but also what is voiced, what is expressed, what is invented, in whatever form. (p. xxiv)
“[I]n whatever form”? Strong words. Did Messers Marcus and Sollars write a rhetorical check their editing asses can’t cash?

The focus is on the whole range of all those things that have been created in America, or for it, or because of it: poems, novels, plays, and essays, but also maps, histories, and travel diaries, sermons and religious tracts, public speeches and private letters, political polemics, addresses, and debates, Supreme Court decisions, literary histories and criticism, folk songs, magazines, dramatic performances, the blues, philosophy, paintings and monuments, jazz, war memorials, museums, book clubs, photographs, comic strips and comic books, country music, films, radio, rock and roll, cartoons, musicals, and hip-hop: “Made in America.” (p. xxiv)

This list is pretty comprehensive—the essay on porn star Linda Lovelace can be included under “film”, for example, so let’s see if there are any form of literary artifacts “that have been created in America, or for it, or because of it” that are left out. (Hold on, I’m reading.) OK, no concert music or concert dance (ballet or modern), either. A reading of the Index shows only fleeting references to composers like John Cage, Charles Ives, and La Monte Young. And no choreographers, or at least none whose names I recognized.

There was no explanation of the omissions. Was it an oversight? I really don’t know. They could have covered both with a discussion of Appalachian Spring or with the work of Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan or with the epic Cage/Cunningham collaboration. This not to mention what could have been contributed on either concert music or dance alone. I don’t know why they were not included.

Greg Sandow wrote this weekend about people who claim that classical music is inherently superior to other musics. Sandow need not worry about such claims, except to the extent that they are horrible marketing devices. It’s clear from this book as well as countless other cultural conversations taking place on and off the web, that concert music and its equally-unloved artistic sibling may be the least-important artforms going.

If concert music is on the outside looking in, and there’s plenty of evidence that it is, the ongoing conversation about the issue is extremely important. What I haven’t seen is a great deal of thought about what it means to be on the outside; to be, as Alex Ross has correctly put it, counter-cultural. Are there advantages to being on the outside? The disadvantages are clear, but aren’t there good things about it, too? Can part of our art be inside and part out? These are questions that should be asked, and suggestions tossed around. And now’s a good time to do it, since nobody’s paying attention.


If Only

In an essay discussing his experiences on a cruise ship ("A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again") David Foster Wallace talks about the "prettiness" of the Caribbean. Then this footnote (#73, on page 306 of the collection of which this is the title essay):
It is not "beautiful"; it is "pretty". There's a difference.
Imagine how much clearer, how much more telling our art criticism would be if we kept this crucial idea in mind.


Double Bar

I finished the first draft of my Percussion Concerto today. I'll let it stew for a couple of weeks or so, then run through it once or twice to touch things up. I anticipate delivering it to John Parks in early April, in anticipation of a fall premiere.

More regular blogging and reveiewing should resume soon.