There's a shaker in the piece, but not this kind.

I completed a piece for solo percussion today. It's called When Your Time Is Orange, and I wrote it for my nephew, Gordon Hicken, who will premiere it in the spring.

My works list at the top of the page has been updated.


anton webern

Webern in repose
A recent article in the Guardian features brief statements from a variety of musicians about their favorite piece of 20th century concert music. Characteristically, Alex Ross, whose The Rest is Noise inspired the festival that prompted the article, names Anton Webern's Six Pieces for Large Orchestra, Op.6 (1909). Ross cites "the first great sonic maelstrom in musical history" at the end of the fourth piece. Read the whole thing.

And while you're thinking of Webern, read Phil Freeman's post on Webern in commemoration of the composer's birthday. One of Burning Ambulance's central concerns is with jazz, and Phil relates some comments a jazz musician made to him about Webern's influence. Again, please read the whole thing.


elliott carter, 1908-2012

Leonard Bernstein (l) and Elliott Carter at a rehearsal for the premiere of Carter's Concerto for Orchestra (1970)
As I'm sure most of you know, composer Elliott Carter passed away this past Monday at a very young 103. I've written more about Carter over the years than about any other subject, I can't begin to express what his music and his example have meant to me over the years, but I'm going to continue to try.

In the meantime, Phil Freeman has posted a lengthy excerpt from an article of mine that appeared in Burning Ambulance. Please give it and the rest of the site a read.


more on tso i

Ruby Diamond Concert Hall at Florida State University; home of the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra

  • The transition to a new Music Director takes up the musical energy of an Orchestra the size of the TSO for three seasons: the last season of the old MD; the search season; and the first season of the new MD. I'm not saying that it's necessarily bad, just that it is.
  • I heard something in the Glass Concerto I had never heard before--the timpani being doubled by the orchestra on a clear melodic line. Very cool, with fancy footwork on the part of the timpanists.
  • I've heard the Copland Fanfare dozens of times, as player, conductor, and as audience member. It really is a great, stirring little piece.
  • I was too close (fifth row) to see the whole orchestra, but with Ruby Diamond's remodel, I felt like I could hear everything.
  • I know I focus on repertoire more than many listeners do, but I imagine some others are as curious as I am about the programming philosophies of the MD candidates. My understanding is that each of the five candidates submitted three programs for their audition, and the Orchestra administration or search committee selected one for performance. (By the way, the names of the members of the Committee were printed in the program. Accountability.) I wonder if the Orchestra might me convinced to release the submitted programs so we can get a larger picture of what these guys (all guys this time, unfortunately) want to play.
  • I don't like titled programs. Sorry.
  • But I do like programs where the pieces played together seem to be there for a reason. Just don't beat me over the head with a title, which usually doesn't really get at the connections in the music anyway.
  • I'm not sure what I think of things like numbers projected on the back wall to point you to a program note about the passage being played at the moment the number is being projected. If it was apparently random numbers or words pulled from nowhere, like "233" or "pie", I might be more enthusiastic.
  • I'm also not sure how I feel about live video projections of the conductor conducting. But they were easier to ignore than I thought they would be.


tallahassee symphony orchestra i

Igor Stravinsky in 1910
The Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra began its new season this past Saturday evening. Your humble blogger was there.

More comments on the concert and the Symphony's music director search as the week progresses.

The Orchestra is soliciting comments from audience members here


what stays with me: john cage

John Cage entered into silence twenty years ago today. Allan Kozinn of The New York Times has a fine appreciation here. My own take on 4'33" is here.

The picture above is from this excellent Cage resource.


from the desk . . .

The works list (linked above) is a little heavier today. I've added two new pieces: Intertwining Geometries, the premiere of which went off brilliantly, with Carla Rees and Sarah Watts making as good a case for a piece as a composer could want, and Anaphoric Geometries, a very short fanfare for 12-part brass choir.

I hope to be posting the recording of IG soon.


across the pond

My new piece for alto flute and bass clarinet, Intertwining Geometries, is getting its first performance this Friday evening, 20 July 2012. I wrote it for Carla Rees and Sarah Watts, who will be playing it on Friday, in London. Details here.


Xenakis 90

Phil Freeman asked me to write something for Burning Ambulance to commemorate the 90th birthday of composer Iannis Xenakis. I was more than happy to accommodate him. Phil added a video of an interview with Xenakis and a recording of Pithoprakta.

Bonus track: Akrata


calling all bassoonists

I've just completed a short piece for bassoon solo called Episodes and Incidents. Please contact me if you have any interest in seeing the score, and I'll be glad to get it to you. More on the loosely conceived project that Episodes and Incidents is a part of later, maybe.

In other composing news, I finished a set of variations for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano called Macomb Variations. I wrote it for my friends Molly Paccione and Mois├Ęs Molina, of Western Illinois University. Again, the score is available to anyone who would like to see it.


allow me this one indulgence

A comment on a post by Ann Midgette of the Washington Post got me thinking about the frequent use of certain words in cultural criticism (both professional and amateur), what they mean, what they are meant to mean, and what it means when they are used.[1]
Commenter franklinmjohnson allows as how

. . . most of [contemporary music], with a few notable exceptions, is self-indulgent, pretentious, and atonal to an unlistenable degree.[2]

Again, I’m not here to comment on franklinmjohnson’s comment, but rather to note some of the terminology he[3] uses, because it shows up a lot in writing about culture.[4]

self-indulgence: excessive or unrestrained gratification of one's own appetites, desires, or whims

 What does it mean when we think of an artist as “self-indulgent”? I’m honestly confused here. Are we supposed to be offended/annoyed by the fact that the artist created the art they wanted to create? “Who is this [name of composer] thinking that we are interested in what [s]he thinks music is?” I genuinely don’t get it.

 I remember a number of critics and moviegoers using “self-indulgent” as a club with which to pummel Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002). Particular attention was paid to the vibrant color-fields that appeared off-and-on throughout the film. These are an instance of Anderson’s self-indulgence, in large part because they don’t advance the story.[5]

 What these critics and moviegoers seems to want is for the artists to keep anything out of the artwork that the audience member doesn’t think belongs there. That the art work should conform to exactly what the audience member think should be there; that the work of art conform to the audience member’s appetites, desires, and whims. 
pretentious: 1 making usually unjustified or excessive claims (as of value or standing); expressive of affected, unwarranted, or exaggerated importance, worth, or stature

I think the charge of pretentious in arts criticism is closely related to that of self-indulgence, but they aren’t quite the same. I’m not sure what franklinmjohnson means here, but I suspect it has to do with the idea that composers of “atonal” music are making “unjustified or excessive claims” about the value of their music. I don’t know for sure, but at the same time how do you know what claims the composer is making for the music? Offending the sensibility by being played on the same concert as Beethoven?

Most frequently now, and especially in writing about film, “pretentious” seems be used interchangeably with “difficult”, “ambitious”, or even “serious”. It’s not always used as a negative—I read a positive review of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life that said the film was, at times “overly-pretentious”. This made absolutely no sense to me until I was looking up the definitions for this post:

2: making demands on one's skill, ability, or means

OK; Malick certainly does make these demands, as do many artists in all media, and from all periods. But I wonder if the writer (and others who use the word) knows about that second definition. If he did, hats off to him. But the word still has negative connotations, even with that meaning. In any case, I like it when artists make demands on my skill, ability, and means.

[Special Pre-Publication Update:  BREAKING! In an article published today in Slate, David Haglund notes some interesting and substantial similarities between Mr. Malick and novelist Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping [1980], one of the most hauntingly beautiful novels I have ever read). Mr. Haglund quotes Ms Robinson’s observation (from a recent essay) that the “locus of the human mystery is perception of this world”, and notes that it “would have made an apt, if somewhat pretentious, tagline”.

Sigh. Why is a phrase that is a finely-stated observation about what it means to be human apposite in an essay and pretentious when part of the supporting apparatus of a serious film? Is it a genre or medium thing? Beats me.]

[1] I don’t have the answers to these questions, by the way. I’m just putting them out there, for now.
[2] If franklinmjohnson would prefer this quote not be used, I will be happy to remove it.
[3] Sorry if this assumption is wrong.
[4] I want to deal with the assertion that “most of [contemporary music] . . . is . . . atonal to an unlistenable degree”. The cold, hard, unchallengeable fact is that the vast majority of concert music written in the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries was, is, and will always be, tonal in one sense or another. In the academy or outside of it. I would be very interested to know, however, what amount of atonality it takes to make music unlistenable.
[5] Note to self: Write about “gratuitous” some time.


st. john turned...

I've written before about the music of my good friend Paul Paccione. The first piece of his I ever heard was a piece for chorus called St. John Turned to See the Sound. I was immediately struck by the qualities that have informed his music ever since, regardless of questions of manner and materials. Paul has posted a video that a performance of St. John. Here it is:


American Song

Phil Freeman has generously posted a recording of John Mindeman's heroic performance of my American Song (trombone, 2008) from last year's New Music Festival at Western Illinois University.

While you are at Burning Ambulance I hope you'll read Phil's other postings on a wide range of cultural subjects.