The Second Draft

Happy 1st Anniversary to The Glass!

I cannot believe I’ve been doing this for a year now already! This has been such a great journey for me, and after speaking with so many great artists in the new music world and even a few great local rock bands in my first year, I have learned a great deal more about music, musicians, art, artistic ideas, composing, and how it all relates to me in the last year or so. There’s still more to come.

It feels like things have been looking up for me. Whether this carries over to my personal life remains to be seen, but I’m so happy that I have garnered almost 15,000 views now since this day a year ago. I can say this with great honesty: I do hope to expand The Glass to possibly something in the guise of a podcast, and eventually perhaps something bigger than that. You’ll have to stand by for news on any of this. I’ll know when you do.

In the meantime, I have some more profiles coming up. Stay tuned!

And BTW, Happy Birthday to Mozart (The blog changes dates at 7PM, so technically it’s still 1/27)!

Minor Setback

Folks, just wanted to inform you that my laptop died on Christmas Eve. 😦 It was a Dell and it was a hand-me-down, so, perhaps it was time anyway, but not sure if this is a permanently-dead computer yet. The thing had been alerting me for a while that it had a corrupt disc, so after a whole bunch of disk checks, security checks, cleanups and deletions the thing was still acting up. It ceased to function in a proper manner in the early morning hours of Christmas Day, so, I just wanted to inform you guys, the readers, that the content will probably not be everyday, but it wasn’t everyday anyway. I still hope to continue to publish some new material on here on the site, so, please just know I am not going anywhere. But in any event, I hope everybody has a wonderful holiday and I will be on again soon. Happy New Year to you all!

Composers: Leah Kardos

Australian-born composer Leah Kardos is in the process of taking her place in the already sizeable club of composer/performers, and is another harbinger of the days now where the worlds of new classical and indie music are barely separated by a blurred-over line. Initially a founder of the band Helzuki, she currently has 2 other indie acts: My Lithium & Me and Spider & I. Along with these activities, she also has been writing film scores and occasionally assists other bands with orchestral, choral or chamber arrangements on their songs. Recently the composer decided to make a self-recorded CD of short compositions threaded together as a thematic statement on her life and relationship with her first love, the piano, and this was what became Feather Hammer. Having had Leah as a great acquaintance on Twitter, I realized that I needed to do an interview with her soon before she hired a publicist. 😉 Continue reading

CD Reviews: Keeril Makan: Target

The thing that I notice more than anything else hearing the pieces on Keeril Makan’s second CD Target is that they almost all seemingly have a similar structure of a setup, a climax, and an unraveling of sorts.
While the opening piece for violin and percussion titled 2 has the biggest unraveling you’ll ever hear at the end (Tam Tam and scratch-tones that are made to sound as if a metallic building is collapsing on top of a den of lions inside The Grand Canyon if Arizona was The Sistine Chapel), its layout is much more sectional and varied like a Liszt or Schubert sonata. The piece overall is played with such brilliance by Jennifer Choi and David Shively, and I particularly enjoy the shrill, faster section.

The solo cello piece Zones d’accord (performed by Alex Waterman) starts with a distorted drone (One that makes one reminiscent of some great moments in guitar feedback) that descends into furious passages and piercing phrases that fall back into a more silent drone.

The title piece Target, written in collaboration with poet Jena Osman as a commentary on US military intervention tactics (with actual military leaflets sampled in Osman’s texts), is a 5-song cycle performed by contemporary chamber ensemble California E.A.R. and mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin. In a slow-rising chord progression on “Twister I” (By contrast, you hear the reverse of the progression on the final section “Twister II”), Rubin, doubling on the melody with the flute (and backed by strings), sings at the top of her range once the piece is fully-engaged. Rubin does this with such fearless abandon, and she is equally compelling when she sings a few phrases in a dry, vulnerable half-spoken a capella.

Resonance Alloy is an epic all-percussion piece performed by David Shively. Scored for 3 cymbals and a gong, the piece gradually moves you through various degrees of vibration and volume using only simplistic gestures on the metallic objects, and as they each take a solo as in a jazz combo performance, the piece is eventually brought back to the opening theme.

After receiving great press from the NY Times and a blessing of an endorsement by David Lang on the CD’s liner notes, I can safely declare that Keeril Makan is definitely a composer that is destined for greatness, and this recording is proof of that. Just when you start to think “It’s all been done”, he proves that it quite possibly hasn’t been.

Target
Link for purchase on Amazon

KeerilMakan.com
Official website for composer Keeril Makan

Nat Evans: The Sun Also Sets

Nat Evans, a composer from Seattle, WA that specializes in electro-acoustic works and music for mixed chamber ensembles, has another great music event that continues the concept that began with the premiere of last year’s September 18, 2010. While that was a work designated for sunrise, this year’s Assemblage is meant for the sunset (Specifically, for this week anyway, 7:45 PM on Sunday, August 21, 2011). Having been premiered in 6 cities (Starting in DC, then Seattle, Chicago, Indianapolis, New York–this week’s concert–and finishing in Long Beach, CA), this outdoor event is like a concert meets a reverse flash-mob of sorts.
First of all, you need an iPod (Or any MP3 player if not that one) and you download the work from Nat’s website (or this page) onto the player. You arrive at the venue (For the NYC one this week, it’s Brooklyn Bridge Park) at a given time, then Mr. Evans is there to cue you to hit ‘play’ 10 minutes before the sunset is scheduled to happen, and you listen to this piece (Sounds of the day mixed with minimal instrumentation) unfold as the sky changes color.

“The Sunset event is the musical kin to the site/time specific work Sunrise, September 18th that I created last year,” explains Evans. “The basic concept behind these events arose out of a series of influences coming together: Zen meditation, Indian classical music, and a desire to push New Music into non-traditional performance venues and to people who would not normally listen to or experience New/experimental music. Specifically in regards to Zen, coming back to sit each week I casually observed the light having changed, and changing over the course of a meditation period. In Indian classical music many of the ragas are written for specific times of day or even seasons. So, these streams of thought coming together pushed me towards the concept for these pieces.”

And how was he able to know exactly what time the sun would set and the sky would change? “I did some observations of sunrise and then sunset and sort of determined that the 15 or so minutes before and after the moment of sunset (or sunrise) is when there is a very particular and dramatic light change and series of color changes that are consistent – yet consistently different every day of course, and this sense of openness is what the piece aims to embrace. And, though there are charts that tell us what time the sun sets on specific days in different places, it’s still only an estimate based on an algorithm…but, you know, it’s ‘close enough for jazz’!”

“As for the music itself, despite being tailored specifically to complement the changing of the light, it’s actually a fairly typical electro-acoustic piece for me–Utilizing equal parts electronics, live instrumentation, and a handful of field recordings.
My hope is that people will engage with their surroundings and with the moment more directly or at least differently than they would otherwise while listening – embracing the possibility for everyday sound and visual events to interact with the music and their experience – to listen more fully to all sounds happening around us all the time. And, though site-specific works are not the bulk of what I do as a composer, I do feel as though this is connected to the larger, rich lineage of experimental music out here on the west coast that has often included site specific pieces — things like Robert Moran’s 39 minutes for 39 autos or Stuart Dempster’s Cistern Chapel.”

If you happen to be in the NYC area (or near it) on Sunday, Aug 21st, head over to Brooklyn Bridge Park (The site is Granite Prospect at Pier 1); Be there by 7:30 PM. Nat will be there to give the cue for everyone to hit play on their players at 7:35, and you will experience the sunset midway through the piece. BTW, the piece itself is quite enthralling listening even if you’re not playing it at sunset.

Assemblage
Download this piece to your MP3 player
NatEvansMusic.com
Nat’s official website

Heirlooms

Heirlooms, an indie-folk band that hails from Hartford, CT have been making some considerable waves. Headed by singer-songwriter Jesse Stanford, the band, at least onstage, invokes sort of a hybrid of Springsteen’s E-Street Band and The Low Anthem. A very massive and dynamic sound that is almost too big for places like Rudy’s in New Haven where the 6-piece band had to perform one night back in July of 2011 on a small stage. They’ve been getting great local press, and even made it onto hipster webpage Brooklyn Vegan when they appeared at B.O.M.B Fest this year.

“The group got together in the summer of 2009 kind of in pieces”, Stanford remembers. “Myself and Neal began working on some new songs of mine together that summer and we soon got Thom and Justin involved. Shortly after, Ciara joined us and we started recording our first EP.”

On the influences of the band, Stanford explains, “My personal influences are all over the place musically. I grew up on my parents vinyl records–so the Beatles, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, John Prine, Dylan, Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt, Buffy Saint Marie, Paul Simon …
all that stuff got into my head at very early age and when I started fooling around with my mom’s acoustic guitar, it was “Rocky Raccoon”, “Graceland”, and “Blowin’ in the Wind” that I was playing before anything else. I’ll always have a foot in that kind of folk singer/songwriter stuff when I approach writing music. However, there is a lot of current music that is more experimental and probably even more influential on what I’m doing in Heirlooms. Bon Iver is probably the biggest; Also Kurt Vile, Joanna Newsom, Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Deerhunter, the list goes on and on. Thom Servidone (our guitarist) has also turned me on to a lot of 80’s music I had sort of ignored until now–The Cure, The Smiths…I think he brings a lot of those influences to what we do.”

Empire State (Live at The Space, CT 10/26/10)

After recording a well-received 1st EP, Heirlooms cut a second one titled Heirlooms Live, Vol. 1 (Both are available for download on the band’s Bandcamp page) that sounds far more indicative of the live sound of the band.
Jesse explains, “As much as we all love and attribute much of our early success to our first EP, we began to realize how much we had grown as band in the year that followed its release. The first EP began and ended before we even considered ourselves a band, before we had begun truly writing songs together, before we stepped on a stage. In the months that followed its release, we moved out of ‘studio’ mode and put our collective energy into becoming a strong live band. And naturally we began writing new material together”.

Heirlooms Live Vol. 1 is essentially a snapshot of the band in new clothes. We wanted to capture the energy and the dynamics and the orchestration of what we were doing on stage. We also wanted to present this new batch of songs that we had written together, and that have become staples in our live sets…By recording these songs live–in our practice space, with no overdubs and no real studio magic–in a weekend, we had a new EP we were really proud of and that was a solid representation of where we are now as a band. We set up a bunch of microphones, got Pro-Tools up and running, turned on our amps, and basically played a typical Heirlooms set. We got some amazing engineering and mixing help from our good friends Alex Cohen (Ciara’s husband) and Marc Andrew Gillig. They are both in a really great rock band Superart and were both a huge help in the making of the Live EP”.

Bloodstar (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT 12/11/10)

Ciara Cohen is a welcome and refreshing part of this mostly male lineup using a classical violinist’s sensibility in a rock setting. “Ciara is amazing–classically trained, has an amazing ear, and she just shreds on that violin. She’s kind of the den mother–keeps all us boys in line and on task. She has this really sweet exterior, but she’ll kick some serious ass if and when she needs to. She’s our secret weapon.”

The band even has plans to release their first full-length album as well. “We have begun serious work on a new full length album. It seems like the pendulum has now begun to swing back towards the studio. We had a hard time pulling ourselves from playing live (especially in the summer with big shows like B.O.M.B. Fest and opening slots at the Iron Horse), but we have come to terms with the fact that we have to put playing shows on hold for a bit if we really want to make the kind of album we have in mind. This will certainly not be Live volume two. We have a new studio space in downtown Hartford and we plan to hole up this fall and winter and go back to the approach we took on the first EP; Lots of textures and layers and instruments and experimentation–really use the studio as an instrument itself. We might grab a few songs from the live EP for the album, but we also have a bunch of new songs we are really excited about. We’ll be underground for a bit, but I think we’ll have something really special on our hands once we come back up.”

From Hank To Hendrix (Crown & Hammer, Collinsville, CT Sept. 2010; Neil Young cover!)

Heirlooms Official website
Heirlooms Live, Vol. 1 Bandcamp page
Heirlooms EP Bandcamp page

Composers: Daniel Felsenfeld

Daniel Felsenfeld, another one of our most celebrated new music composers, born in D.C., raised in California and living in Brooklyn, has consented to speaking with moi of all people, even with his busy activities writing music and doubling as a journalist (Besides his column in the NY Times, he has even authored books about the dead white guys! Bach, Tchaikovsky and Connecticut’s own Charles Ives, among others).
I have to apologize in advance for the lack of available clips either in audio or video form (save for a few) as I really wanted to do my typical form of saturation, but I was unable to imbed any of the audio that Daniel sent me. If you go to Daniel’s website DanielFelsenfeld.com, there is an audio page (Click on Sounds, and it gives you a list of his audio pieces).

CM: Before you had your training in composition, was there a time that you heard certain pieces that you weren’t ready for as a listener? I had this experience when I heard Del Tredici’s ‘Final Alice’ on the radio in the 70’s (It’s not quite as intimidating now).

DF: This is, by the way, an excellent question.
I got kind of a late(ish) start in music, especially that was not rooted in obvious tonality. So when I got to college I was ill-prepared for the 20th century. But some of the warhorse pieces—like the Rite of Spring or Quartet for the End of Time immediately turned me on. But the masterpiece I really had to come to on my own terms was Pierrot Lunaire. Now I have to say, I first heard all three of these pieces in the same few days, sitting in the listening library following scores, so perhaps by the time I got to Pierrot, I was already seriously misfiring with a lot of new information. But I listened hard—I tried it with score, without score, with the lights out, slightly drunk, wide awake, and it just never really spoke to me. Now, years later, having heard it live several times (and admittedly knowing a bit more than I did then) Pierrot and I have come to a kind of understanding. I love Pierre Boulez’ recording with Yvonne Minton, probably because she breaks the rules and “sings” more than a lot of people would deem stylistic. And its inherent resplendent creepiness holds a perverse appeal.

Funny you should mention Final Alice, because in that same week, my teacher, who made me rush to the library and hide the shame of not knowing these seminal pieces, included that piece in this list of great-and-imposing masterworks. So in my memory, Final Alice is up there with the Sacre and Quartet for the End of Time as necessary 20th century music listening.

CM: When you are writing, do you already have the title in mind to fuel the process?

DF: This depends. I am what one might call a “titler” in that I like evocative monikers for pieces. So often as much as I keep a running tally of musical ideas I also keep one for titles. Earlier on, I was more inclined to use “edgier” titles (in grad school I wrote pieces called “Smoking My Diploma”, “Cultivating Cool”, “New Forms of Control”, “Bad Coffee Serenade”, “O I LIKE the LIFE that I’m LEADING”, that kind of thing) while now, as a (slightly!) older person I am more inclined to write more emotionally solid music warranting titles to match (my new pieces are called “To Committee”, “Things Like That Never Happen to Me”, “A Genuine Willingness to Help”, “The Curse of Sophistication”). I do confess my love of a good title.

I don’t think I will ever write my Second String Quartet or my First Piano Sonata because musically I just don’t think that way. I don’t, though, have a problem with this kind of thing—many of my favorite composers, from John Corigliano to Lee Hyla, use these sorts of titles for their works—I just always get caught up in something at least cloyingly extramusical. But who knows. I’m not by any means averse.

Titles, though, are kind of the first line of defense for composers (or anyone who makes creative work), so they are as important as anything. We expect different things out of a piece called “From the Dawning of the Misbegotten Earth” than we do out of a piece called “Cracker Jacks” (and I am just making these titles up out of the air), and so when I hear something called “Quintet for Piano and Strings No. 97” I just have different things in mind than I think my music is good for.

All Tomorrow’s Parties (Robin Cox Ensemble, 10/20/09; Based on The Velvet Underground’s song)

CM: Is classical instrumentation (orchestra, strings, brass, chamber, operatic voice, etc.) a format, if you will, that you are most compatible with? I really like the use of the harpsichord on ‘Every Composer Is a Murderer’, but has anyone ever said to you “We’d like to hear you use electronics on a piece”? Would you consider that or is that best left to the Fausto Romitellis of the field?

DF: I think this is a two part question. The first is about being married to the conventional “classical” instruments, which I think is an interesting point of discussion. The answer is both yes and no, because there’s been so much use of certain “non-classical” instruments (and I put the scare quotes for a reason I’ll get into in a moment) in my field that I’m not sure what the conventional instruments are any more. Going to a concert of new “classical” music one might hear pieces for electric guitars, saxophones, synthesizers, non-operatic voices, drum kits, laptops, and a whole host of “world” instruments that the definitions of conventional have changed. Nobody should be surprised to see a concerto for balalika or throat singer or a hybrid electro-acoustic instrument. Nor should anyone be surprised to see a string quartet that simply plays music for string quartet. We live in an amazing age for music because literally everything goes.

Which leads to the second part of the question re: electronics. This kind of thing seems to be the specious “tonal vs. atonal” or “extended techniques vs. conventional techniques” false schism of our own disunified age. What I mean is, I think the use of elctronics in and of itself is nothing noteworthy (nor is it anything new; this has been going on for decades in some form or another) and yet I keep hearing about it as if the mere fact of doing it is a remarkable—or, perish the thought, rebellious—thing to do. There are composers who never use anything save for the acoustic instruments who I think are totally brilliant and there are those who I think are less so; same goes for the use of electronics. It has to be more than just done, it has to be done persuasively. And I think we’ve all heard it used in a less than artful way by someone who thinks they are on the vanguard, and to me, as a listener who is taking the music qua music, that is just not that interesting. On the other hand, I think, say, Mason Bates, Anna Clyne, Judd Greenstein, Paola Prestini, Missy Mazzoli, and Nico Muhly (to name a few) are good composers whose sound palate quite naturally uses different kinds of electronic sounds (and they do so differently because they are all singular composers) because that is how they are hearing things, rather than it being done to buck a (prebucked) system.

This is the long way of saying that, like anything, I am not averse to using electronics but I’ve never heard things that way—the old music I devoutly adore tends not to make use of these sounds and so neither do I. And I think one of the challenges a composer faces is to find the most appropriate bottles for their exact wine, and outlets for the work they believe in. If I just started writing electronic or electro-acoustic music because I felt that was what was expected of me I would certainly likely fall into the category of people using the medium in a less-than-artful way because the sonics of it all don’t necessarily gel effectively with the way I hear my own music.

We can live in a world that is both multivalent and not drawn by bunker mentalities—no “us” and “them” in art—because the divisions are never simple, and more often than not the “groups” of artists are more for the convenience of critics than anything the artists themselves want to be involved in. But ultimately, these differences come down to little aside from timbre. We associate a string quartet with “classical” music regardless of what they are playing (or at least often people do this with an eye to a sectionalized market) just like a saxophone means “jazz” and an electric guitar “rock,” but of course the realities are much more complex. And while the idea that people might finally start to accept “classical” music as not being a single line out from Gregorian Chant to whatever they feel like is the “next” step and start seeing the music world—or any world in which artists offer their wares—as a place impossible to pin down in any way, where there are listeners and thinkers who like one thing and other listeners and thinkers who like something that might be quite different.

I guess what it all boils down to is that I’d love to use electronics if; 1) I had a project in which it seemed appropriate and 2) I could do it without the “political” associations. It really is just another palate with which to play, which delights many talented composers and enthusiastic listeners, and what can be bad about that?

CM: Have you ever gotten any commissions that were bizarre or that you’ve had to pass on?

DF: If by this do you mean have I been asked to write a piece for bassoon octet or kazoo chorus and just found I couldn’t do it? No, not exactly—though there’s always that weird “talk” of commissions (meaning someone says “you should write a piece for…” and inserts the most absurd thing here) that never, for some unthinkable reason, make it past the idea stage—or even out of the bar.


There have been offers to write for too little, though. And by too little I mean too little of anything. Money, sure, but also exposure, prestige, a great reading, a handy piece in one’s work list, these are all good reasons to write a piece. But I’ve had bizarre propositions to do a huge amount of work in an absurd amount of time (meaning too little) for no money and a single performance in a far-off city by a mediocre pick-up group. These I pass on, without rancor though because I think it is important to take seriously anyone who wants to perform one’s music. We’ve all been the victim of too little at some point or other, and these can be valuable to a composer even if not the best and most immediate experience because honestly anytime you’re working with people who are trying their best—and I don’t believe that there’s a soul out there who plays music and decides to do so poorly and in public—to get down to the psychology of players, to figure out how to talk to a wide range of people in a slew of settings. But then there are those projects that feel like the return will be disproportionate, which are the ones I tend to (politely) decline.

CM: Is there a story behind the solo piano piece “Toscanini’s Glasses”? 🙂

DF: There is. An alarmingly long one, for such a short piece (!) I wanted to challenge myself with a kind of compositional etude: I wanted to make a piece that worked (by my estimation) out of something I totally loathed rather than something to which I wanted to pay homage. So many pieces that are variations start with the premise of greatness—Brahms on Handel or Haydn, Chopin on Mozart-—Or with the premise of a kind of national pride-—Anyone, from Beethoven to Bartok to Copland to Britten et al. who ever made a piece from a folk song. I wanted to do something from the point of an EarWorm, a piece of music I felt was just too out there and not remotely good. So I chose “Play That Funky Music” by Wild Cherry. But what gave me the idea for the piece really was reading the book The Fortress of Solitude by my friend Jonathan Lethem (who is the dedictatee of my piece), especially the scene where one of the characters simply says the words “lay down and boogie and play that funky music ‘til you die.” I’d never really thought about that with any seriousness, playing music until you die. It conjured up all kinds of images of a certain kind of madness crossed with a certain kind of nostalgia—-Or perhaps nostalgia for madness? Either way, I took the title from another of Jonathan’s short stories. In a way, all homages (like the work or, in this case, hate the work to which you are paying heed) are a kind of refraction, seeing the thing, the object, through your own lens. Ergo my piece “Toscanini’s Glasses”.
I should mention I wrote it for pianist Andrew Russo, who recorded it, and it has also been taken up by Blair McMillen. Both of whom play it so absolutely brilliantly and in such different ways. I’m hoping it has a bright future!

(EDITOR’S NOTE: A clip of Toscanini’s Glasses could not be located, so a similar piece “A Dirty Little Secret” is presented here) A Dirty Little Secret (Blair McMillen, piano; Greenwich House, NY, 5/21/09)

CM: What was the main idea behind writing new music for the lyrics of David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’? Were/are you a huge fan of Bowie’s (I am, and I love ‘Ziggy’ in particular), and would you say your re-imagining of the story is like a folk song (or rather the story in a folk song) being re-sung or rewritten with a different melody?

DF: The idea of this project was to take David Bowie’s words and just pitch the music out altogether, re-setting them to my own music. And yes, I am a fan of Bowie, for so many reasons. But leaving aside his brilliance as a performer and songwriter, what the cycle is about is a pretty prototypical story of a confused teenager: me, riding around my ghostly suburb listening to the record and dreaming of escape, of bigger, epoch making things to happen, of places so distant (like, say, New York City, where I now live) as to seem like other planets. Everyone who’s even slightly weird can really get behind the fantasy that they are a landed alien sent across light years to observe. Add youthful frustrations viz. love and sex, glamour and obscurity, going forth as a comet or as a snail, and you have the appeal of the whole fiction of Ziggy Stardust.

In a way, what I wanted to do was have written that record. So this the closest I can get. I’ve already irked more than one die-hard fan with this one (the why of it all takes some explaining, and to a certain extent the real deep fans, especially those who had the same reaction and attachment to the record that I do, will be the least supportive of the project), but to them I say: do it too! Write your own take. Charles Ives taught me that the only reaction to a piece of music was another piece of music, and so this will be mine to Ziggy, a love letter to a great piece of art as well as a prior version of myself.

CM: Can you tell us anything about the upcoming commissioned piece for cello/piano duo TwoSense?

DF: One of the reasons I wanted to write for Two Sense (aside from the what-ought-to-be-obvious fact that they are not only astonishing players but also distinct and wonderfully forward musical people) was a conversation I had with Ashley Bathgate in which we both communed over what we liked in music, and what she wanted a new piece for her to be. One thing we agreed upon: It ought to be long. Not minimalist slow-developing long, but Beethoven-or-Brahms-sonata long. More than just the usual seven minutes. This sounded challenging in the best way: how, in this day and age, can you keep engaged and keep listening interesting with only two instruments in a long(ish) form.
Pictured Left: Lisa Moore and Ashley Bathgate are TwoSense

And I had read Georgio Agamben’s book Nudities, and while I’m still working out how the piece will relate to the ten separate chapters of the book, what struck me is the overarching theme, which could be summed up in the question: what is nudity? For a composer, the answer is obvious: chamber music. What’s more naked than two instruments playing, sans gimmick, for twenty minutes? And rather than gussy up the idea, why not embrace? My favorite composers—Britten, Brahms, Mozart, Bach, Chopin, etc.—were all unafraid to “expose themselves” in this way. To me, it is the essence of excellent art, that kind of exposure.

CM: You collaborated with singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding on ‘Charles Jessup Considered as a Murderer’, and on a future occasion we’ll talk about that project as well, but I might as well ask you about this clip of you performing with Harding along with several other folk-rock performers like Josh Ritter, David Wax Museum, Tift Merritt and Andrew Bird: How did that happen and what was your take on it?

DF: I met Wes (Wesley Stace, aka John Wesley Harding) twice: once at a party for our mutual friend Jonathan Lethem (who had just turned in his novel) and another time at ASCAP–we were both judges for the Deems Taylor Award (given out as a prize all to do with writing ABOUT MUSIC). He was, at the time, working on his book Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, which is all about a (fictional) composer and a grisly crime he commits. He wanted me to read it to just see about the trajectory of his title character (not for help with his prose or development–he needs little help from someone like me on that!). At that same time, he was commencing his series the Cabinet of Wonders, a thrice-seasonal concert over which Wes presides. He has writers, comedians and musicians perform, and I’m fortunate enough to be his “court composer”. So it means, not only does a piece of mine get played once a season–especially the two collaborations Wes and I did: a set of madrigals called Music Doesn’t Want Me and the song cycle Every Composer is a Murderer, both with words by Wes–but I also play piano (the theme music Wes and I co-wrote), sometimes (thrillingly) with the group. I’ve met some amazing people there (including these people) and it serves as an excellent counterlife to that of a quote-unquote serious composer. Plus it is always a good time. And I’ve made friends, met heroes, and had an absolute blast playing music as opposed to just writing it.

Cabinet of Wonders (Featuring John Wesley Harding, Josh Ritter, Tift Merritt, Andrew Bird, David Wax Museum, Paul Muldoon, and in the back, Daniel Felsenfeld; City Winery, NY 3/11/11; Rock on dude!)

DanielFelsenfeld.com Official website
Felsenmusick Daniel’s blog
Opinionator Daniel’s column on the New York Times

Composers: Jennifer Jolley

Photo courtesy of Liz Remizowski

Just putting it out there that I’ve now interviewed 2 female composers in a row named Jennifer. What are the odds?

This Jennifer, Jennifer Jolley, hails from Long Beach, CA. Originally having a specific interest in scoring films (Which explains both her love of film soundbites in some of her sound collages and her interest in writing opera), Jennifer later focused more on straight composing after her graduation from U.S.C. and further studies at Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in Ohio, where she now lives with her librettist and her 2 cats Lindsay Lohan and Coco Chanel. Having been commissioned by many contemporary ensembles and having one of her works presented at MATA’s 2011 Make Music Winter Workshop (“Press Play”), Jennifer writes a blog about her career (Titled “Why Compose When You Can Blog”) and even has time to write several other blogs (Building a Better Opera, MusicX Musings; She also contributes to the official blog for Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music: Center For Computer Music), and she’s also an instructor at University of Cincinnati. I’m just glad there was time for her to take a break and talk to me.

CM: You seem to have different sides to your music; Some of it is minimalist or modern orchestral, and some of it is electronics, tapes or sound collage. Is this a way of saying that you would rather explore and flesh out these styles simultaneously than focus on just one way of composition?

JJ: Maybe I’m accidentally fleshing out my styles simultaneously! Ultimately I want to work with a style that conveys my concept the best. If I need to write minimalist music to get my point across, then I’m going to use it. If I need to use a vocoder, so be it. Over the past two years I’ve changed my approach in my pre-compositional process—I merely thought about harmonies, melodies, and timbre before working on a piece, and now I think about what I’m trying to say with my music and which style would work best. After I figure out my concept, I think about harmonies, melodies, and timbre. Right now I’m working on an opera that’s a retelling of both the Narcissus and Pygmalion myths, and holy cow, I might be writing a neo-classical opera. I’ve already completed a da capo aria, and it looks like I might include secco recitative. Honestly I’ve been a little self-conscious about the style so far (because it may be a little conservative), but I feel that the style fits the story and concept.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Our discussion of Jennifer’s new opera is coming up shortly. ;))

CM: “Paint My Chopper Pink” is one of the tape pieces, and I really like the direction it takes toward the middle (It gets into a tinny-sounding section that is quite soothing to my ears, just so you know). Can you talk about the subject of this piece and about how this was recorded?

JJ: I wanted to write a motorcycle motet for four voices! Since I loved listening to motets and motorcycles, I wanted to combine the two. So, I found four different sound clips of motorcycles starting online (yes, this is probably cheating) and processed them in a Max/MSP external called PerColate. I was also obsessed with the convolve patch which combines any two sounds you like, and I wanted to combine the agressive sound of motorcycles with gentle bell sounds. On a side note, an art professor suggested I create an acoustic version of this piece, and I might do it! I think it would be great to have a live motorcycle motet. Of course, I don’t know what to do about the exhaust, and I don’t have access to four timbrally-different motorcycles…

Paint My Chopper Pink

CM: “Get Your Ass To Mars” and “More Human Than Human” are collages that feature dialogue from “Total Recall” and “Blade Runner” respectively. Were these pieces meant to direct a different point of view on the films’ stories, or were you just making a whole new statement with each one?

JJ: I was creating a Philip K. Dick triptych of tape pieces that would indeed create a whole new statement with each one. I had to go this route because the films are recent—those who are familiar with the films will instantly visualize scenes from the film, and I didn’t want to fall into the trap of retelling the movie. I mean, I instantly visual Arnold Schwarzenegger every time he speaks!

CM: “All Grief Empty, The Clear Night Passes” is one of your orchestral pieces, and it has a powerful cadenza for percussion (It almost sounds like a brief concerto)

JJ: This piece did not have a master structural plan when I started. I had a general idea that I wanted to start with high pitches then meander to lower ones. Then when I finished the first section, I decided to pick up the tempo a bit and then climax to a big percussion section. That cadenza section was fun to write, although I don’t know if the other sections tempered the fiery percussion duet. That’s okay though—I wrote this piece in 2008, and I’ll have more of a master plan when I write my next orchestra piece.


All Grief Empty, the Clear Night Passes

CM: “Laments By The Sea (III: A Farewell)” is so minimalist and current-sounding to me, yet it has a classical beauty towards the middle (EDITOR’S NOTE: Jennifer has 2 other movements of this she hasn’t posted on Soundcloud yet).

JJ: This piece grew from a song for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble that I wrote in 2001. 2001! And then my conductor friend Nathan Madsen asked me if I would be willing to expand the piece in 2007. The biggest challenge for me was linking the two bookend movements with the original one (“The Three Fishers”), and I thought the best way to do this was to have the text dictate the music. With the third movement, I thought it would be appropriate to compose calm and placid music since the narrator is dying and uttering his last words.

CM: Would you program this piece on the same night as “Paint My Chopper Pink”?

JJ: Absolutely not! The concepts of the pieces are completely different and would not curate well on the same concert. Now, if I wrote an electronic piece that had to do with the sea or death, I would reconsider.

Laments by The Sea (III: A Farewell)

CM: The audience participation piece “Press Play” is basically the Ricercar from Bach’s late work The Musical Offering. The first recording of it sounds like you transcribed the original (And THAT sounds so beautiful to begin with!) for various instruments on tape, but when it came time to do what you set out to do with the recording devices at the concert premiere, it took on a whole different feel altogether as some parts were slightly off kilter and there was what sounded almost like a more jarring orchestration of it. Was this exactly what you were looking for, or is this a randomness that works in your favor?

JJ: Thankfully this randomness worked in my favor. I wanted the audience to experience their childhood again by performing and interacting with a childhood tape recorder (I specifically searched for tape recorders from the 1980s) and listening to a piece of music that was performed on toy instruments. (Granted, the only two toy instruments on this piece were the toy piano and glockenspiel, but most pitched children’s instruments are diatonic, and Bach’s fugal line is chromatic.)

So, what tonal piece would survive a toy orchestration and irregular playback from thirty-year old tape recorders? The Bach Ricercar. I figured it survived a Webern orchestration, so surely it must survive vintage tape playback.

The playback was a little more “off” than I expected, but I loved the results. My main fear was that people would think that this was a pure orchestration of the Bach piece, but instead the different tape speeds produced a new piece. Of course, I wouldn’t mind having the original orchestration performed live.

Press Play (Recorded live at the Sonic Explorations concert, Cincinnati, OH 4/19/11)

CM: Your blog “Why Compose When You Can Blog?” (Great title, btw) is such a great read and looks like it can be insightful for budding composers. In it, there are entries you call “Composer Fail” where you talk about your rejections. I love that you can talk about these things that probably make other people embarrassed and shy away from discussing them. Did you always set out to talk about the failures?

JJ: Well, not specifically. My composer FAIL posts began as a catharsis for my turning thirty. As a twenty-nine-year-old composer, you worry that you won’t be successful because thirty is the cutoff year for entering huge young composer competitions. When I was twenty-nine, I had this urge to enter every single “young composer” competition while I could, and I was still receiving rejection letters. So I thought, why not share and talk about my failures? It is my way of dealing with rejection at this point. And now I’m glad I’ve continued this series on my blog because not only does it help me deal with rejection, but I think it also shows other composers that failing is a part of success. Composers (and anyone else, actually) will be rejected more times than they are accepted, but that is part of the process. I’ve learned that competitions aren’t working for me, so I’ve focused more time on establishing my connections and having my music performed. So, I hope to defang composition competition rejection letters and show young composers that you don’t have to rate your success based on your winning a competition.

CM: Okay, about your upcoming opera project–Supposedly it’s about a futuristic society where they practice cosmetic cloning. Can you say anything more about it at this point? Any other opera concepts you have in mind?

JJ: Yes! The opera I mentioned on my blog takes place in the near future, where a woman decides to clone her husband for an upgrade, only to be dismayed when the original starts to fall in love with the copy. Building a Better Joshua, the name of the opera, is a comic retelling of the Narcissus myth, as a vain couple sees their world spiral into chaos.

My librettist and I are also thinking about creating a sitcom opera about Ronald and Nancy Reagan. We’ll see what happens.

CM: What fantasy project/musician would you like to work/commission with? Personally, I would love to hear how you would write concertos of any kind!

JJ: I’m going to cheat here and say that I’d love to work with LA Opera. I was not a fan of opera growing up, but once I saw Billy Budd at the LA Opera, I wanted to write one. If LA Opera ever produced an opera of mine, I would be absolutely thrilled. (I just realized I would have to figure out what director I’d like to work with, but I haven’t done much research on opera directors.)

[As for soloists] I would love to work with Vicki Ray; she’s such a dynamic and skillful pianist. When I was in high school I went to the Piano Spheres concerts in Los Angeles and heard her perform a piece that required her to read Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis while playing the piano. (I wish I remembered the name of the piece.) She made it seem so effortless! Now, what would I write for her? A piano concerto with percussionists? An installment in my Sounds from the Gray Goo Series? Something for toy piano?
Sounds from the Gray Goo 2.01 (Rebecca Danard, bassoon with pre-recorded clarinet; Northside Tavern, July 2011)

Please do check out Jennifer’s webpage, her YouTube and Soundcloud as she has even more music on those pages that I didn’t feature here.
I highly recommend the blog as well.

JenniferJolley.com Official website
Why Compose When You Can Blog? Jennifer’s blog
Jennifer’s YouTube channel
Jennifer’s Soundcloud page

Mark Mandeville and Raianne Richards

Mark Mandeville (vocals/guitar/banjo/harmonica) and Raianne Richards (vocals/clarinet/guitar/ukelele/piccolo) are a folk duo from Massachusetts that are both incredible musicians and wonderful folks in the truest sense of the word. I had known them since they were part of a slightly bigger act: The indie-folk trio The Accident That Led Me To The World (where they were with bassist Zack Ciras). Since their continuation as a duo, they have put out solo CDs (Mark’s is No Big Plans and Raianne’s is Simple In This Place; I highly recommend both of them) and started doing the “Walking Tour” where they’d been playing songs from both releases, and some older favorites in a paired-down fashion. Now, with an upcoming CD titled Old Constitution, Mark and Raianne (After displaying an even straighter folk sound as a duo than TATLMTTW) delve a bit further into the sound of country, and have added some more musicians that they have also been bringing with them on the road. (EDITOR’S NOTE: As of this writing, the music is still under wraps, but I am allowed to say the still-unreleased tracks that I actually heard sound beautiful, and this could very well be one of the most anticipated indie releases of the year). They’ve taken a break from walking to stop and chat.

CM: When you guys had your musical upbringing, was it mostly folk music that was your inspiration or were there other things?

Mark: Chris, until the time that I first began playing guitar, I hadn’t really been exposed to much folk music. Learning how to play guitar, unconventionally strumming chords and singing along, tuned my ear to songs which had this sort of structure – people like Dylan, Baez, Croce and Kristofferson had my full attention. Before I learned to play guitar, I’d been more into angst filled singers like Kurt Cobain, Axl Rose and Steven Tyler – divas really.

CM: This is the second year in a row for The Walking Tour. Is there going to be a Walking Tour each year?

Mark: Of course. It’s going to become a statewide institution, especially if the people keep being as encouraging and supportive as they have been. Walking into towns and playing music for people is the basic foundation of what Raianne and I have been up to all along.

CM: Probably a tired question by now, but why the “Walking Tour”? Is this more out of necessity, or do you guys feel you’re making a much stronger statement by walking as opposed to driving or riding in some other form of vehicle?

Raianne: The emphasis of walking draws attention to slowing down to take in each moment or surrounding. This premise, I think, also encourages people to look a little deeper into our music as well. We do the Walking Tour for the small towns who don’t get music very often to remind them why they enjoy it and to take the pressure off the few people who strive to bring art into the community. We get them involved too, but we don’t ask them to do much. Just attend a free concert in their town.

CM: Would you say these particular outings are more rewarding than any of the ones that The Accident ever had, or just about the same with some differences?

Raianne: Every show we ever played has something rewarding about it. We look at the Walking Tour as more of a way to give back to our community as we spend as much time as we can touring to other places in the country.

Wrong Side of That Line (Live at The Space, CT 9/16/10; I was there! ;))

CM: The new CD Old Constitution is going to be decidedly much closer in style to country than anything else you’ve done. What was the inspiration for this?

Mark: The inspiration for my songs, I think, has always come from both a conscious and unconscious attempt at explaining how things appear to be. In this case, Old Constitution holds two meanings. One, I haven’t worked with a live band with a drummer since before The Accident That Led Me To The World, hence, an old way of doing things aside from ensembles and duets. Two, lyrically I try to convey that there is a “right” based on a history of human understanding. Things have been written down, a “right” has been more than established by countless generations. I think songs like “Underneath The Cost” and “House of Stone” touch that sense of doing things not only for personal gain and immediate satisfaction, but rather for a greater sense of purpose, taking into consideration both the past and the future…That one’s actions set precedents and we, most of all, make choices which ultimately come down to one side or the other.

As for a country style, those responsible are the musicians on the album. Pete Hart (dobro, pedal steel) and Doug Williamson (piano, upright bass) are mainly responsible for the authentic, recognizable character. And Raianne and I might be vocally twang-i-er than usual, but the tunes seem to call for that.

CM: One of the songs that I’ve actually managed to hear is called “Land of Plenty”, and from what I understand, it sounds like you are addressing current events.

Mark: I guess so. I mean, not in a topical sense. “Land of Plenty” appears to mention the topic of foreclosure, which harkens maybe economic woes but it’s more a song of faith that people can do good amidst a sea of poor decisions. “Their hearts ain’t empty, but their moves are slow…”

Live at Table Coffee Shop, PA 4/17/2011 (Songs: ‘Best Advice’, ‘I Ain’t Goin’ Out There’, ‘No Secrets’)

CM: Can you talk about the new guys, Zach Peckham and Dylan S. Clark and how they have been to work with on this recording?

Mark: Raianne and I have been blessed to work with musicians we have admired for years. Zach Peckham plays in a post fusion rock duo called Motel Mattress and having him join was partly out of recruiting the most unlikely lead guitarist one could place in a country/folk outfit. I remember watching Dylan Clark perform with the indie band Tiger Saw and thinking that he was the most heartfelt drummer I’d ever seen – I was consciously ignoring the whole of what was going on as he rose and fell from his throne onto the rest of his set. As for ever’one else, I only wish I could put them all on a bus and really show the world what we have. There will be certain shows where we all will be on stage together, but the fall tour will be mostly the four of us.

CM: [to Raianne] Very happy to hear you are bringing back the clarinet, it was greatly missed (EDITOR’S NOTE: Raianne had left it behind on last year’s WT, but she does play it on “Calm Down” from Simple In This Place). Remember that time I asked you about its use on the TATLMTTW songs, if you were playing it like a blues instrument similar to the way it’s used on Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue”, and your response was, “No, I just like the sound”! Do you still feel that way or do you think maybe there’s some aspects of the instrument that do relate to that style since blues and folk (at least from what I understand) have a shared history?

Raianne: I have played clarinet since I was a little girl. It has been part of my life for so long that I just hear a calling for it on a song sometimes. I think it can obviously be used as a folk instrument, but in my experience this is unusual. It is much more common in blues than folk.

House of Stone (Live on WSCA, NH 5/20/11)

CM: Thus far, I have loved everything you guys have done, and it has been all acoustic (And I wouldn’t change a thing). Do you ever think about going electric for just one record (or even just a song) or is this 100% unthinkable?

Mark: Aw shucks. I think the major difference to date is that Raianne and I now have a live band, where throughout our past solo recordings, we’ve taken a more ”studio” stance, recording multiple instruments ourselves on record, then performing as a duo. Not to mention that TATLMTTW was strictly acoustic and never strayed. As for the question of ee-lec-tris-i-tee, we’ve both had electric guitar and bass on our previous records, but the Old Constitution will certainly be more amped than people are used to. However, I still think of songwriters like Jim Croce and Kate Wolf, or Melanie…in that they presented folk music with accompaniment like electric bass, or electric guitar and even drums. The challenge is making the distinct categories of music fans out there understand that we’re still songwriters, certainly sensitive of the “listening room” nature/volume of our music/presentation, and just because we have a drummer does not mean we’ve taken the path of some 12+ dB basement band. Music fans, especially the folk crowd, are finicky people – they want to understand only “solo human with an acoustic guitar,” but we’ve been that, and now we are growing up.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I believe this is another new song of theirs: Ted Kaczynski Blues (Live on WSCA, NH 5/20/11)

MarkMandeville.com
Mark’s official site
Raianne.com
Raianne’s official site

Composers: Jennifer Higdon

Jennifer Higdon, one of the top living composers of our time, has let me interview her for The Glass. Someone pinch me.

Anyway, Jennifer Higdon, born in Brooklyn, NY and eventually settling in TN, had her beginnings in high school band. A self-taught student of the flute, she had further study and experience at Bowling Green State University, where she met and worked with conductor Robert Spano for the first time, and then The Curtis Institute of Music in Philly, and it was here that she studied with composer David Loeb and earned her Artist’s Diploma. She came back to Curtis a while later to teach 20th-Century Music History and Theory (She even had a particular student in this course that we’ll discuss later).
A winner of many awards (Including The Pulitzer Prize for the Violin Concerto, and a 2010 Grammy for the Percussion Concerto), Higdon has since become one of the most favored American contemporary composers among orchestras both in the US and abroad.

CM: Okay, so, you taught yourself the flute, which, by itself is an incredible achievement, then your flute teacher Judy Bentley wants you to write an original piece for the flute. How did this impact your artistic abilities, and then how did things progress from there?

JH: I think having a chance to actually organize sound onto the page completely opened my musical world. Once I had written that first piece and heard it played, I became entranced with the idea of doing it more and more. I also must have had an innate interest in it, because I recently found some sketches that I had made (very primitive) when I was in high school, attempting to write music. But I have to admit, everything in my musical world changed profoundly with the first composition. It has been a steady road since them, filled with lots of dips, backslides, forward jumps and hefty climbs….actually about 30 years worth! But worth every frustration and joy.

CM: Before you started, we’ve learned that you grew up with virtually no classical music around you, and later on when you learned the flute, it led to composition. Was the sound of classical music something you needed to acquire a taste for around this time, or was that more or less simultaneous with where you were headed?

JH: I don’t know that I needed to acquire much taste in it…since it hadn’t been part of my world, I found it kind of interesting to listen to when I first encountered it. I probably have had to develop a taste for older classical (the Romantic and Classical periods). I really had my first experiences through 20th century music, which I loved. So some of the music felt natural, and some of it, I still really have to try to sit through calmly (meaning it’s more of an effort). But the developing interest in it was quite simultaneous (I’m still learning the standard rep).

Higdon: running the edgE (Mary Matthews, Melissa Werthheimer, flutes; Justin Bird, piano; Peabody Conservatory, MD 2010)

CM: After an extensive array of solo and chamber pieces were created by you, then came the orchestral music, and among these pieces is the astonishing “blue cathedral”, written as a tribute to your brother Andrew Blue Higdon. This must have been the greatest way of showing everyone how you felt about him, and this piece is definitely evident of that. Can you talk about him, the work’s narration of him and your thoughts about its reception when it premiered and its continued performance today?

JH: I was happy to be able to write a piece that serves as a tribute. I’m very glad that the piece worked (the night before the first reading of the work, I was thinking that it didn’t work at all). Andrew was always a generous, kind individual who loved being the Bohemian artist. My Dad gave him the middle name of “Blue” so that if he ever decided to become an artist, he could go by that name. He had a very natural gift for creating wonderful visual arts, even as a young child. And he loved music, usually rock & blues. Most of ‘blue cathedral’ is me trying to come to grips with his passing, and the idea of whether life would (for me) be about living or about death. I kind of wrestled with that throughout the writing of the work, and by the time I reached the end of the work, I had decided that Andrew would want me to focus on living.
I have to say that it’s profoundly moving how many people are affected by the piece. Even when program notes haven’t been published about the work, it seems to make a real impression. And I couldn’t be more pleased by the number of orchestras that have done the piece…something like 300 or so. I frequently meet musicians who come up to me and tell me they’ve played the work and that they enjoyed it. What a great thing for a composer.


Higdon: blue cathedral (Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; Robert Spano, conductor)

CM: So along comes an ex-student of yours named Hilary Hahn, and she commissioned you to write a violin concerto. She was your student at Curtis when you taught 20-century music history and theory. The dynamic of the movements (Especially when I hear the way the pensive 2nd movement sets up the forceful finale) really does seem to lend itself to the possibility that it could be the story of her journey in that course because she reportedly was not yet a fan of contemporary music when she started it. Can you talk about how that course relates at all to the narrative of the concerto?

JH: I loved teaching that 20th Century class. We covered something like 40 composers during the year, and it ran the historical gamut of Debussy forward to music written yesterday. I covered commissioning and the history of each piece in terms of the commissioners, which seemed to be a revelation for many of the students. We also spent a lot of time talking about the development of the musical language and most importantly, their responsibility to be a part of their own time through performing and commissioning. I think that class may have been the first where Hilary heard so much music…active listening in class and debating were key to the design of it. And I think it was probably one of her earliest experiences composing and performing her own works (a requirement in the class). The whole idea was to open new vistas in their minds and expand the way they define and think about music. She’s a great sign that it worked. And boy, am I glad! Talk about reaping the benefits of what you’ve sowed.
The narrative of the concerto is primarily an exploration of Hilary’s performing gifts and talents.

CM: The concerto was, for me, the most anticipated new work I’ve ever wanted to hear largely because of Hilary, but it was great to hear (EDITOR’S NOTE: At least partially, I was late; LONG story) during one of its premieres in 2009 a whole year before the CD was released (And I was very pleased to hear it start to finish when I got the recording). Did you ever anticipate during any of that time that it could be the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize?

JH: I never imagined that the Pulitzer Prize would be connected. I have a feeling if you asked other Pulitzer winners, they’d say the same thing. It’s pretty surreal.

Higdon: Violin Concerto (III: Fly Forward: Hilary Hahn, violin; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Vasily Petrenko, conductor)

CM: It’s evident that when you compose pieces for players you are familiarized with their previous work. For Hilary, it was her Schoenberg, but when you had written “On a Wire” for eighth blackbird (Which I just heard, and love), how much of their stuff had you heard when you wrote it for them? The piece, by the way, sounds very much like a concerto for chamber ensemble and orchestra.

JH: I always make it my job to really know the performers for whom I’m writing. With 8th Blackbird, I was probably more familiar than with any other artists. “On A Wire” was the 3rd work I had written for them (“Zaka” and “Zango Bandango” were the other 2). We had been friends since 1999, and I had heard them perform about 4 dozen different works. I had also hung out with them enough at festivals and concerts to get to know their personalities. So for me, the real challenge was to get orchestras to go along with the types of things I wanted to do in the piece (like prepared piano and piano bowing…a real first in the orchestral experience). I also knew we wouldn’t have a lot of rehearsal time, and so to get the colors and techniques in the orchestra to blend with the soloists’ very unusual techniques, was a real balancing act. Add to that, the serious job of mapping out the choreography of who would play what pitches, move their bowing lines at particular times, pick up guitar picks and mallets, play inside the piano, and then play their own respective instruments…well, it was a lot of extra work, but so worth it. The audience is always stunned by this piece…it’s amazing to watch. And you’re right, it is a concerto for chamber ensemble and orchestra.

Higdon: On a Wire (rehearsal excerpt; eighth blackbird and the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra; Marin Alsop, conductor; Aug, 2010)

CM: Would you say that concertos have become your specialty as a composer? There’s the “Violin Concerto”, a second Violin Concerto with chorus titled “The Singing Rooms” for Jennifer Koh, “Concerto for Orchestra”, “Concerto 4-3”, the “Percussion Concerto” that just won a Grammy, and you even have a “Piano Concerto” that we’re still waiting for.

JH: It does seem like it has become a specialty, now that you mention it. I also have an Oboe Concerto and Soprano Sax Concerto. Oddly enough, it just happens that there seemed to be a lot of performers asking for concertos. They were all pretty tricky to write, as balancing a soloist with orchestra is challenging. And for “Concerto 4-3”, combining bluegrass and straight classical was hard. But I’ve been pretty pleased with how they turned out. The Piano Concerto had a gap of 4 years between the writing and the premiere, so I had to go back and learn that piece when it came to the premiere (it seemed like another composer had written it). Yuja Wang did an amazing job premiering it….and we’re working on getting that recorded now. These things sometimes take a seriously long time. I’m definitely more comfortable now with the art form than I was when I started, but maybe that’s because of all of the practice.

Higdon: Percussion Concerto (Lisa Pegher, drums and percussion; Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra; Kirk Gustufson, director, Jan 2010)

CM: Just out of curiosity, do you write pieces simultaneously?

JH: I’ve tried this, but find it difficult to pull off. My pieces change language and intensity and design quite a bit, so it’s hard for me to keep them separated, so I only do one at a time. That allows me to live in the world of that piece and really work it over in my head.

CM: Have you ever thought about composing operas?

JH: Yes! August 10th will reveal just that, a new opera project. I always try to challenge myself, and this is definitely going to be a major learning experience.

CM: I also wanted to know if I could ask you about the piece that Hilary wants you to write for her upcoming ’27 pieces’ project (If it’s completed and has a title and everything)

JH: My contribution to this project is a piece called “Echo Dash”. I believe I heard that it’s supposed to be premiered October 23rd in Chicago. But I’m not sure that’s even accurate. I am looking forward to hearing all of the works involved in this project. Hilary has really taken to heart the idea of an artist’s responsibility to be a part of the creation of new works. I always tell folks, you won’t be remembered in history for your performance of Beethoven, but you can make history by commissioning and performing new works. That’s the most profound way to make a mark!

EDITOR’S NOTE: A special nugget I found:Higdon: Trumpet Songs (Stanford Thompson, trumpet; Elana Jiveava, piano; 2009)

JenniferHigdon.com
Official website