not queen, not duke, not prince

Some follow-up to the previous post, on what I would try to do were I Music Director of an orchestra in Utopia:

--in line with more concerts and an economy of abundance would be lower tickets prices

--the atmosphere at concert music concerts is daunting to some people, mostly people new to the experience, and I really don't know what the answer is. I like to dress up to go to concerts and, especially, the opera, but I have absolutely no problem with people who don't

--the applause issue is complicated beyond my poor powers to resolve it. Applauding after a solo in jazz is expected, and the rhythm section can vamp until the applause subsides, but there is no such vamping in concert music. And the shushing of clapping after movement is as distracting as the applause itself might be. Plus, there are many pieces with movements that seem to call for applause at their conclusions, so, as I said, I don't know the answer to that one

--other audience sound, such as talking, and other distraction, texting, etc. Concert music typically has a wider range of volume levels than do other kinds of music, and the "average" volume level of concert music in undoubtedly lower than most others, and if the audience is talking one may miss some music; common courtesy towards one's fellow concert-goers would seem to be in order

--the balance between being welcoming to new and inexperienced audiences and respecting the ability of others to experience the music in a focused way is not an easy thing to achieve

--theme concerts are, or can be, a very good thing. They can also be achingly precious, so tread lightly

--composer birthday concerts are too easy and too common, unless it's mine, and you take me out to dinner afterwards


if i were king of the forest!

Keith Chaffee, proprietor of the fine LA culture (non-pop and pop) blog In Which Our Hero, has asked, in another forum, what you would do if you were Music Director of the Utopia Symphony. Here's my answer:

--shorter concerts and more concerts (the concert music world operates economies of scarcity when they should operate economies of abundance)
--no big name soloists unless they play unusual (and by that I almost always mean "new") repertoire
--frequent premieres; even more frequent second performances
--local composers, especially if they are unaffiliated
--talk about the music from the stage, with examples
--as a general rule, talk about unusual pieces as if they are familiar (I can almost guarantee that they all have effects that everyone has heard before) and the familiar repertoire as if it were fucked up (because it is)
--I would have the occasional concert or semi-staged version of certain operas; it can make you hear them differently, which is always good (NOTE: Keith had said he would not have these, as the are being produced by the Utopia Opera Company)
--give the strings a rest every now and then; the wind/percussion repertoire is rich and expanding
--I'm not sure what you (NOTE: a different poster had called for such explorations) mean by exploring the boundaries between concert and folk music, so I won't comment
--no film music unless the film is being projected behind the orchestra
--no fucking pops; I mean it

EDIT: The indispensable Lisa Hirsch programs the Utopia Opera Company here. 


Composers Circle

Every day, Composers Circle showcases a different composer. Today (30 Sep 2013), I am the showcased composer. I appreciate the opportunity provided by this site.

But the real reason I'm drawing this attention to the site is to let you know that you can hear a piece by a different composer every day. What a great way to cover part of the waterfront of today's composers. In addition to the composer of the day, all of the pages are archived.


rite now

Today (29 May 2013) is the 100th anniversary of the first of performance of Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring, music by Igor Stravinsky, choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, and scenic designs and costumes by Nicholas Roerich). The Rite has been a touchstone for artists (of all kinds) and audiences (both pro and con) ever since.

So much has been written and said about the Rite that to say anything at all about it is to risk cliché and truism. I'll jump in anyway, to say that every page of this score contains miracles and wonders of invention in every aspect of the art and craft of composition. In instrumentation (the instruments used) and orchestration (how they are used) this piece (and others, to be sure) sent the 20th century on its colorful way. The beginning of the score is an illustration of Stravinsky's imagination in this area--the high C with which the bassoon opens would not have the same yearning quality if played on an instrument (the clarinet, for instance) in whose range the note more comfortably lies.[1]

Rhythm in the Rite gets discussed, analyzed, marveled at, and imitated. And deservedly so. Related to rhythm is form/structure. If rhythm is the interaction of sound with time on the local, micro level, form/structure is the interaction of sound with time, on a global or macro level. The Rite is a ballet that tells a story, so the form of the music must reflect that to a certain extent. Stravinsky builds his scenes through the repetition, in different instrumental guises, of short, immediately recognizable melodic fragments, over layered accompaniments. These usually build and build in intensity until they break off and the next section begins. Throughout his career, regardless of the surface style of his music, Stravinsky used this cinematic technique, like cross-cutting between stories.[2]

There are a few pieces, movies, books, etc., which I almost wish I could go back and experience for the first time again. This is one of them.

[1] It's worth noting here a practical value of Stravinsky's innovation, and innovation in general. That high C was thought to be virtually impossible for the bassoon to play the way Stravinsky asked that it be played; today, any reasonably good high school bassoon player can sound it with ease.
[2] See the Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920) for a more thorough-going use of this technique in a piece that is, on the surface, radically different from the Rite.


orange crushed

Here's an iPhone video of my nephew, Gordon Hicken, premiering my When Your Time is Orange earlier this month. Gordon, who gives a very fine performance here, assures me that a higher quality video is on its way.


darcy james argue

My review of Darcy James Argue's Secret Society's new disc, Brooklyn Babylon, is up at Burning Ambulance. (Photo above by James Matthew Daniel, from stereophile.com)

While we're on the subject of Burning Ambulance, a new issue is out, with a wealth of fine writing on jazz and metal. Please check it out.


solo bang

Tomorrow evening, at 7:30 at the Recital Hall of the School of Music of the University of South Carolina (Columbia), my nephew, Gordon Hicken, will be giving the premiere performance of When Your Time is Orange, which I wrote for this occasion. The recital also includes music by JS Bach, Becker, Carter, Masson, Stevens, and Thomas.

If you're in the neighborhood, please drop in.


hear the bang

Phil Freeman has posted the recording of the first performance of my Percussion Concerto at Burning Ambulance. Thanks, also and again to Omar Carmenates (pictures), Leslie Hicken, and the Furman University Wind Ensemble for their fine performance.


southern expressive

Carlisle Floyd
Some thoughts on the Florida State Opera production of Carlisle Floyd's Cold Sassy Tree (2000) I attended this weekend:

  • As is almost always the case, the production and performance were of as high a quality as one could hope for from a university opera company. These productions are mounted for academic credit and are given a fraction of the support given to many other activities that are, frankly speaking, not strictly related to a university's mission.
  • The renovated Ruby Diamond Concert Hall continues to amaze me with its sound, its appearance (more on that in a bit), and its comfort. Well done.
  • The warm colors of Lighting and Scenic Designer Peter Dean Beck's sets and lighting, along with Julia Bradley's costumes, fit so well with Diamond's wood trim and sky-painted walls it was as if the hall itself was an extension of the opera's setting.
  • The Opera Orchestra (conducted by Director of Opera Activities Douglas Fisher) sounded great, as did the singers, soloists and choristers alike.
  • Florida State Opera productions typically provide a visually dynamic theatrical experience. This is due, in large part, to Stage Director Matthew Lata's skill in handling movement on the stage, particularly the movements of groups of people--no "park and bark" here. Cold Sassy Tree did not provide opportunities for elaborate effects or stunning coups de theatre, but Lata's staging was compelling and eye-rewarding. Particularly expressive were a "declaration of love" scene at the end of Act Two and a robbery at the beginning of Act Three.
  • Floyd's music is melodic and sumptuous, though he (wisely, to my ear) eschews big song-like tunes in favor of expressively shaped lines that serve the dramatic shapes of the libretto. The score never resorts to Southern Eccentric cliche, and is beautifully and imaginatively orchestrated.
  • I was struck particularly, even awe-struck, if truth be told, by Floyd's storytelling mastery in this opera. I have not read Olive Ann Burns' 1984 novel, but I am given to understand that Floyd's scenario prunes away a good number of sub-plots and characters. What remains is a shapely story, which Floyd, setting his own libretto, paces with a sure hand. I recommend the study of this opera and libretto to anyone foolish enough who wishes to write an opera.
  • Finally, it was very moving to see the composer come on stage to the rapturous applause that greeted the end of the performance. It was a fine cap to a great evening in the theater.


his life on the plains

Lee Hyla
My review of Lee Hyla's new disc of music for small ensemble, My Life on the Plains, is up at Burning Ambulance.

An interview I did with Mr. Hyla a few years ago can be found here.

More later.


facing a blank

A terrifying sight!
Phil Freeman has graciously posted an article, "Facing a Blank", that originally appeared in Burning Ambulance #3. The article chronicles the composition of my Percussion Concerto, which premiered last week. I'll be revisiting this article in light of the changes made in the piece in the run-up to the performance, and I imagine that I'll be giving myself a thorough fisking in the days ahead.

Thanks again to Phil Freeman for his attention and support. Please give the entire site a good look.


after bang

Omar Carmenates playing the first movement of my Percussion Concerto, 22 Feb 2013.
Some thoughts on the premiere:

  • It was freakin' amazing!
  • Omar Carmenates is a beast. He took a very difficult solo part and made it look and sound easy. 
  • My brother, Furman Director of Bands Leslie Hicken, is a fine conductor and an even better teacher. He took a score that is way outside the Furman Wind Ensemble's normal stylistic milieu, and with a few simple words and by working over just the right passages, he got them to play with expression and power. I'm very proud of him.
  • And now the work starts again: making some adjustments in the score and parts and arranging further  performances.


bang 3: on-site

"Grids and Motors", mm 25-37

It's funny how things work out sometimes. (Original observation, I know.)

After arriving in Greenville, I was discussing the progress of rehearsals with my brother Les, who is conducting the premiere of the Percussion Concerto on Friday evening. He said that they had to cut the second movement, "Time's Arrow" for several logistical reasons. This development made me realize something I think I had known but had not articulated, even to myself: that "Time's Arrow", which was originally the last section of the finale ("Grids and Motors") needed to be excised from the Concerto altogether and given a different place, which place I'll be working on later.

So the Concerto is back to a two-movement work, which was the original conception. I'm looking forward to hearing it for the first time this afternoon.


recording: intertwining geometries

Intertwining Geometries, m 115

Phil Freeman has posted (over at Burning Ambulance) a recording of the premiere performance of Intertwining Geometries (alto flute and bass clarinet, 2012), played last summer in London by Carla Rees (a fl) and Sarah Watts (b cl). My thanks to Phil for posting it and renewed thanks to Carla and Sarah for their committed and expressive performance of the piece.


bang 2

"Time's Arrow", mm. 158-163 (upper winds)
My Percussion Concerto started out with three movements in the first draft. (Before the first draft, there were as many as 11 short, episodic sections.) When I finished the first draft, there were two movements. The current version, being premiered next Friday, 22 February in Greenville, South Carolina, by Omar Carmenates with the Furman University Wind Ensemble, Leslie Hicken, conducting, is in three movements:

I. Fields and Waves
II. Time's Arrow
III. Grids and Motors

I'm often struck, when working on a big piece (especially), how the piece changes during the composition process, and just as often, how the original conception remains in the work's DNA. The Percussion Concerto is about time, or rather about some of the various ways time (and its eternal companion, space) has been viewed from Einstein ("Time exists to keep everything from happening at once.") on: fields, waves, arrows  grids, and motors.

When I say a piece is "about" something, the scare quotes are honest. It's hard to say sometimes whether the metaphors or the music come first, or whether they generate each other.



from "Fields and Waves",  m. 124-126
My Percussion Concerto is being premiered next Friday, 22 February by Omar Carmenates, with the Furman University Wind Ensemble, conducted by my brother, Leslie Hicken. The program also includes music by Michael Gandalfi, Roger Nixon, and H. Owen Reed.

I'll be blogging about this between now and then, including posts from Greenville next week. If there are any readers in the area I would love to see you there.