Feb 2015Back to the Future: D.C.

I still remember the Beltway traffic that seemed hell-bent on keeping us from Gershwin.  This was a decade before California pulled me westward, and several years before New York pulled me north – the beginning of the end of my Virginia childhood.  Clinton was president.  CDs were the medium.  I had something of a Southern accent.  And Peter Nero was performing at the Kennedy Center.

Since I’d been hammering away on the Gershwin Piano Études for way too long, my mom got us tickets to check out a real master.  Unfortunately, between the two of us there is exactly zero directional ability, so we were late and lost.  But somehow my mom managed to claw us out of the defense contractors and CIA agents commuting home, and we made it just in time.  It may not be the hippest memory of my teenage years, but it sure stuck with me.

The Kennedy Center still looms large in my formative education, so it is especially poignant to be named its first composer-in-residence.  Over the next three years, my work there will be animated by a singular mission: to help audiences experience new art in fun, challenging, adventurous, and even social ways.  Think of a new-music series that inhabits different lounges that explore the history of ambient music; or a digital program book that appears on the walls of the concert hall during set changes; or jazz musicians colliding with a DJ during a dance festival.  In a place with so many artforms – and so many sleek public spaces – the possibilities are myriad.

This position shares some surface similarities with my five-year residency at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  After all, it grew out of it: Deborah Rutter, who led the CSO for ten years, invited me into the Kennedy Center family soon after her appointment as president.  In Chicago, she has watched me and Anna Clyne move the MusicNOW series into a more eclectic and immersive realm, with music from minimalist to maximalist enhanced by imaginative stagecraft.  So there will be a brand-new series focusing on new music at the Kennedy Center, something that D.C. could use. And of course, there will be newly created works, from me and others.

But many aspects of the residency are new.  The big difference is that this position extends across the entire Kennedy Center, which houses everything from symphony to opera to ballet to jazz and beyond.  A composer is one of the few life-forms capable of first-hand encounters with all of those fields, so making connections between the constituents will be a top priority.  And the Kennedy Center has some really creative presenters to work with: I think of Alicia Adams, who mounts extraordinary international festivals across artforms; or Garth Ross, who curates the daily performances at the Millennium Stage (that’s right, 365 performances a year); or Francesca Zambello at the Washington National Opera, which presents new operas a year under its American Opera Initiative project.  And a healthy commissioning fund means that new works appear each year at the National Symphony and on the Fortas Chamber Music series.  Advocating for more new work, and helping coordinate the various iterations of it across the Center, will be important an important focus.

Also new for me, in many ways, will be the D.C. cultural community.  Having grown up nearby, I am familiar with many of the crazy idiosyncrasies of the nation’s capital.  But I need an update on the communities around it and their sprawling cultural scenes.  The Kennedy Center has a gravitational pull throughout the region, drawing people from Maryland, D.C., and Virginia to experience a vast range of performing arts at the highest quality.  Countless kids encounter “big art” for the first time there, just like I did eons ago.  I’ve had a blast throwing myself into Chicago’s concert halls, clubs, and warehouses, getting to know the community and the key players, and I look forward to looking at D.C. with fresh eyes.

Perhaps most inspiring of all is the Kennedy Center’s national responsibility.  As America’s largest arts center, and one of the few empowered by federal funding, it helps lead the national conversation about art’s place in society.  And in the Kennedy Center’s vision, art occupies a central and visible place, approachable by many angles.  Stumble around the vast campus, and you will see a steady stream of people coming and going at all times – there’s always something cooking.  In my opinion, a key component in navigating these rich offerings will be information.  In Chicago, one of my big passions has been “ambient information” – ie, projected program notes, a 21st Century update to the program book.  Anna and I continue to develop this concept, which has been a crucial reason our crowds have swelled over the years.  Educating audiences with projections, video, flatscreens, and even mobile devices lowers the intimidation factor for everyone.  I’d like to see more institutions rethink the way they get information to their audiences.  It takes time, resources, an eye for imagery and a knack for a well-timed surprise to get it right.  But it’s well worth it, and the Kennedy Center is well-positioned to lead the way.

So, all I need is to reacquaint myself with a map, maybe get some pointers on traffic patterns, and with any chance I’ll make it into the building next Fall.  Stay tuned.

Jan 2015Full Circle

Last month, a very special kind of homecoming happened.  The stunning cellist Joshua Roman walked onto the stage of Benaroya Hall and premiered my cello concerto with the Seattle Symphony, the orchestra which he famously joined at age 21 to become principal cello.  It was a homecoming primarily for him, but also for me: my wife comes from Seattle, and it’s been a second home for a decade and a half.  Between Josh’s array of fans and my family, we sure had a lot of plants in the audience.

It’s a rare and wonderful opportunity to premiere a piece before so many friends and family, but the event was especially poignant because it was a moment when Josh and I came full circle.  Here’s how it happened.

Years ago, we were thrown together in a shotgun wedding, courtesy of the YouTube Symphony.  This crazy-beautiful project assembled an entire symphony online and brought everyone together for an over-the-top show at Carnegie Hall.  That quick-fire collaborative process extended to me and Josh.  Asked if we wanted to perform an electro-acoustic improv at Le Poisson Rouge, we threw caution to the wind and came up with our material in a hotel room the day before.  (Note of prudence: if YouTube is sponsoring something, count on it being highly visible online for ever.)  It was a rough-around-the-edges little performance, but it proved to be a fantastic way of getting to know each other.

For one thing, I saw Josh’s unusual gifts up close.  He can play just about anything with perfect technique, dead-on intonation, and the most natural yet surprising phrasing.  The other advantage of starting our collaboration in a club was that we both saw each other with our hair down.  Simply put, Josh can rock.  Perhaps this element of his personality came from his time in Seattle, kingdom of indie rock, or maybe it extends to his Mid-American roots in Oklahoma.  In any case, that breadth of ability always interests me, and it appeared in the concerto in the form of a guitar pick (more on that later).

But Seattle figures into this story in another way.  Our second collaboration occurred on Josh’s Town Hall series, a hugely well-attended event that Josh has turned into an eclectic platform for his wide-ranging curating.  I wrote him a fiendishly difficult solo piece that was delivered only a few months before the premiere.  Not only did he nail it in front of a packed house, but he had the courage to walk out in front of 800 people and play it from memory.  The piece is full of shifting meters and similar-but-different chromatic phrases.  I still am put into a quiet amazement when I think about how he memorized it.

So, as this circle came to completion last month, we had two very different kinds of collaborations behind us.   It was the perfect setup for a concerto.

This concerto is unusual in my output because it carries no narrative.  In works ranging from Liquid Interface to Alternative Energy, I’ve enjoyed resurrecting the 19th Century programmatic approach, infusing it with wildly new sounds, and taking way further than it ever went.  Even in my Violin Concerto (recently released by the amazing Anne Akiko Meyers), vivid imagery lies beneath the surface with titles such as “Archaeopteryx” (the first dinosaur/bird hybrid).  That well served the Violin Concerto, which vividly conjures the Upper Jurassic with a big symphonic sound.  But for Josh, I wanted a different approach, not only to differentiate the two works but also to keep the cello well heard.

After all, a huge symphonic sound would make it especially difficult to balance the cello, which is even more challenging to keep in the foreground than the violin.  So the piece unfolds almost like a solo meditation from Josh with imaginative, transparent orchestral sounds hovering behind him.  That’s where the kalimba came in.

You probably have played a kalimba, also known as thumb piano, at some point in your childhood.  I am not aware of any occurrence in the symphonic repertoire, but the sound became ingrained in me after I got interested in West African music.  So in the concerto, I ask two percussionists to play hocketing kalimbas, laying down a quietly rhythmic bed that sounds exactly like what it is : plucked metal.  Josh enters over this, singing a wide-ranging melody that is answered by the orchestral in a haunting manner.

Plectrum – or, plucked sound – also figures heavily in the third movement.  That’s where the guitar pick comes in.  I’d once called for a guitar pick in a string quartet years ago, and I loved the “twang pizzicato” sound it produced.  With Josh’s rock influences in mind, I designed an entire section of the finale around this technique.  At one point he is instructed to lay down a punk-like bassline of blazing eighth-notes.

Extended techniques even appear in the ambient middle movement.  Josh is asked to play a kind of “ping-pong richochet,” which sounds something like a ball bouncing on the cello strings.  It is a subtle but effective technique, and it came to mind as I heard Josh doodling on his instrument once on Skype.

This month the concerto goes to the Columbus Symphony and then on to the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra next season.  Already it feels like a mature performance due to the amount of time Josh has spent with the work.  This one has been a long time coming.  It’s great to come full circle.

Dec 2014Let There Be Light

These words are being typed by a foie gras-based life form.  At this time of year in Lyon, where I just spent a week with Leonard Slatkin and his phenomenal orchestra, you simply cannot escape the delicacy.  Maybe you go with quibbles about the fattiness or dodgy production methods offoie gras, but once there, your resistance collapses.  It’s a nice collapse, deep into the world of duck, and not necessarily as expensive as elsewhere because the Lyonnais present even the finest food quite casually.  (Also, Leonard paid.)  But while the capital of French cuisine certainly is the place for eating, I was even more impressed by its stunning cultural fabric – and most of all, its orchestra.

The Orchestra National de Lyon, which was famously once led by Hector Berlioz,  did a stunning job with The B-Sides, Mothership, and Digital Loom.  The concerts were a composer’s fantasy, combining superb playing, outstanding production and sound design, and houses packed with young audiences night after night.  They are a model of what provocative programming and vibrant production can do for the symphonic experience.

The musicians shred.  For example, the tricky opening of The B-Sides, with its ticking of a “future clock” in the electronics and a mischievous chimney-sweep rhythm in the percussion, has never sounded so tight on a first run-through.  For Mothership, the orchestra put out a call for young improvisers, and the four we chose all brought something new to the piece.  And for Digital Loom, a piece for organ and electronics, they lowered the back wall to reveal the stunning assemblage of pipes (below) that were once played by Saint-Saëns.  This time they were played by Mathias Lecomte, an unbelievably gifted organist who brought both color and precision to this showpiece.

And the lighting.  Oh yeah, the lighting.  This week Lyon celebrates the Fête des Lumières, when buildings all over the city are illuminated by hugely elaborate lighting effects and magical projections.  Facades ripple with the brushstrokes of Monet, a giant Ferris wheel made to look like an antique clock, beams of light wash across the sky. The orchestra wanted to bring some of that into the hall, so the concert was enhanced with immersive and responsive visual design.  With the Chicago Symphony’s MusicNOW concerts and my Mercury Soul club shows, I have come to really appreciate dramatic and tasteful production – and Yves Caizergues knew how to do it.

This highly meticulous lighting designer carefully programmed the lights to run in sync with each piece : from a dreamy blue for the “Broom of the System” that opens The B-Sides to a pulsing rave during its finale “Warehouse Medicine.”  Mothership was illuminated as spectacularly as it was at its premiere at the Sydney Opera House, but this time I was actually given a MIDI controller by the lighting designer so I could trigger lighting effects while playing.  I’m pretty sure heaven’s special room for control freaks will have a MIDI lighting controller.  (The only thing that ever topped that was once being given a haze-machine button at a Mercury Soul club show – yes, I overused it.)Great audiences in Lyon too.  I will admit to some advance anxiety about how the French would react to my music.  It can be hard for to connect with a different culture, and let’s face it, the Continental new music scene still worships at the alter of post-serialism.  But I knew I had a fighting chance with a town that loves Berlioz, a composer whose unusual sounds and imaginative forms I greatly admire.The crowd was pretty explosive, clapping between movements (I have zero problem with that) and at one point doing the let’s-all-clap-in-rhy-thm ­thing during “Warehouse Medicine.”  That turned into an fun little challenge for us onstage, with the audience’s rhythm inevitably phasing out Reich-like and everyone onstage having to stay intensely focused end.  This gracious audience response could have been as much a response to my music as a Southern thing : the Lyonnais are warmer than the Parisians.

Could this happen in the US – imaginative programming, creative production, and hip audiences?  It does happen – I think of the CSO Beyond the Score series, or some of the Mavericks concerts at the SF Symphony.  But it would be cool for more regular subscription concerts to have a higher quotient of new and unusual music.  Lighting and production is not cheap, so starting subtle is a good plan.  Get rid of the “house half-lit” vibe and make things dark; add rich lighting that enhances but does not interfere; and don’t promote it – let it be an added-value surprise that is put on the right night of the week.

What Leonard has built in Lyon is as impressive and audacious as what he’s done with the Detroit Symphony, which has the market cornered on symphonic webcasting – which includes a great deal of new and recent music.  He is not only a stunning maestro, but a uniquely gifted communicator who knows how to present provocative ideas in fresh ways.

And, yes, he fattens me up.  Quack.

Oct 2014Meyers, Slatkin, & the London Symphony

One of the biggest events in my musical life happened yesterday.  Having been performed around the country by many stellar orchestras, my Violin Concerto finally emerged in a format that anyone can hear anywhere: a CD.  That’s right, the amazing Anne Akiko Meyers has just released The American Masters, a beautiful disc that travels through three generations of American composers, with exceptional performances by the London Symphony under the direction of Leonard Slatkin.

If I could breakdance on this flight from Chicago to San Francisco without being ejected from the plane, I’d be busting a headspin.

It’s an amazing CD (which you can find here.  Anne wows audiences wherever she goes, with a stunning discography that has attracted a diverse following.  This disc will further endear her to all who listen.  For one thing, the album is a beautiful concept, a passing-off of music-making from teacher to student.  Samuel Barber, whose concerto opens the disc, taught John Corigliano, my own teacher at Juilliard whose own Lullaby is premiered on the CD.  In the music world, I’ve sometimes heard instrumentalists poignantly discuss the “lineage of knowledge” that they trace far back into music history, a passing of the baton from one teacher to another over decades.  This is how performance practice is preserved and developed, and this exists too for composers.

Beyond the concept, there’s just superb playing.  Anne has always possessed a unique combination of fiery intensity and sweet lyricism, and her playing receives stellar support from the London Symphony Orchestra.  I knew the LSO from our recording of Mothership a few years ago.  Many stellar musicians make up this fine orchestra – they can play just about anything on a first run-through – and with Leonard Slatkin on the podium, it becomes a dream team.  Leonard is an American treasure, a dear friend and collaborator who has conducted many of my works over the years.  Sitting in the control booth during the recording session, I marveled at how efficiently he conjured up this complex work.

The piece inhabits two identities: one primal and rhythmic, the other elegiac and lyrical. This hybrid musical creature is, in fact, based on a real one. The Archaeopteryx, an animal of the Upper Jurassic famously known as the first dinosaur/bird hybrid, can be heard in the sometimes frenetic, sometimes sweetly singing solo part. The searching melody that underlies the entire work, not heard in full until we are well into the first movement, has in fact been peering at us from behind the orchestral fauna all along.

Unfolding continuously out of the explosive first movement, the middle movement explores this melody dreamily, conjuring the lakebed in southern Germany where the archaeopteryx fossil was discovered. Eerie, hazy sonorities give way to a kind of underwater epiphany, pushing us airborne into the finale. In this last movement, the soloist stays aloft on a jetstream of notes, inspired equally by Bach inventions and sparkling electronica. The work’s final measures transform the soloist fully from dinosaur into bird, with the melody floating high above an orchestra of fluttering textures.

That transformation has also happened to this piece, which after many performances has taken flight.  It’s a joy that work is now available for all to hear — so please check it out!

Sep 2014The Year Ahead: 2014-15 Season

I’ve been doing the musical equivalent of cave-painting this summer: writing music in blissful California isolation while my symphonic travels take their summer respite.  But that ends next week, when the 2014-15 season kicks off at the SF Symphony – and things stay in high gear until early June when Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony premiere a new work.  In the middle are many visits to the Pittsburgh Symphony, several new CDs, and various curating & DJ events related to Mercury Soul.  Here’s the skinny:

SFS Beethoven & Bates Festival (info). The coolest-sounding festival I’ll ever be associated with continues this month!  My three biggest pieces are being performed and recorded by Michael Tilson Thomas and the SF Symphony.  With last season’s performances of Liquid Interface and The B-Sides ‘in the can,’ we now look to Alternative Energy Sept 10-13.


With SF Principle Percussion Jacob Nissly foraging for car parts for Alternative Energy

Next to Beethoven, my ‘energy symphony,’ ‘water symphony,’ and surreal symphonic suite will create both harmony and friction.  On one level, the large-scale and dramatic nature of my music fits with Beethoven, who invented the narrative form with the 9th Symphony.  When a chorus appeared in the finale, suddenly the symphonic form included text — and this grafting of content onto an abstract medium opened it to the later developments of Wagner, Liszt, and Berlioz.  My music often brings unusual narrative forms to life, but with an electro-acoustic palette and a completely different stylistic sensibility than the 19thCentury symphonists.  It’s a provocative programming choice from the most gifted and offbeat mindfreak the world knows, Michael Tilson Thomas.

Chicago Symphony & Muti premiere (info).  My biggest premiere this season will happen in June, when Riccardo Muti conducts the premiere of Anthology of Fantastic Zoology.  Bases on the compendium by Jorge Luis Borges, the piece is a kind of psychedelic Carnival of the Animals that evokes imaginary creatures familiar (sprites) and unfamiliar (the A Bao a Qu, a palindromic animal whose music is too).


Cover of Borges’ “Anthology of Fantastic Zoology”

Having worked closely with the maestro and the orchestra over the last four years of my CSO residency, I am writing a work carefully tailored to everyone’s special gifts.  The “ballet score” form of this piece is very much inspired by Muti’s unique abilities as a musical dramatist, and many of the animals are conjured by specific instruments in a kind of “concerto for orchestra” manner.

Pittsburgh Symphony.  Returning as the PSO’s Composer of the Year is a cherished honor for me.  It’s one of the finest orchestras in the country, both in its superb musicianship and in its devotion to living composers.  Our relationship extends many years, and by the end of this year they will have played almost all of my symphonic music.  This year includes Rusty Air in Carolinamy electro-acoustic tone poem to the South, as well as White Lies for LomaxThe Rise of Exotic Computingand Alternative Energy

New recordings.  The aforementioned SFS CD will be my debut full-length symphonic release, a long wait due to the complex nature of this medium.  Another important release happens much sooner: the amazing Anne Akiko Meyers will be releasing my Violin Concerto with the London Symphony under the baton of Leonard Slatkin.  This extraordinary violinist has put together a beautiful CD that extends from teacher to student – from Samuel Barber to John Corigliano to me – so let’s wish her luck in snagging the Grammy she deserves!

Curating. Check out my new curating page! One of my biggest focuses these days is on bringing new music to new ears in new ways – whether it be on the Chicago Symphony’s MusicNOW series, Mercury Soul, or elsewhere.  If you’re new to the site, please sign up for my once-in-a-blue-moon newsletter.  I only peer out of my cave every so often!

Aug 2014Strange Creatures

I’ve got Joshua Bell surrounded — by a devil and a spaceship.

Next weekend at the marvelous Sun Valley Symphony, I’ll happily be the peanut on the bill of a concert that features the reigning prince of the fiddle performing the Bruch concerto.  The concert resembles a three-course meal: the appetizer is the world premiere of Devil’s Radio, for large orchestra; the main course (of course) is Josh; and I return with a dessert of Mothership, my electro-acoustic opener that is colonizing a new corner of a concert program (the end).

Two things pushed me into this commission: music director Alasdair Neale, the stellar maestro well known in San Francisco and beyond; and a mammoth orchestra.  How big?  Quadruple winds, extended brass, huge percussion: yup, this one goes to eleven.  In the past, I’ve declined to write for such large forces, favoring the more standard double- and triple-winds to offset my usual addition of electronics.  But this work is acoustic, and orchestras do need short works for this instrumentation – and hey, I needed a hell of a band to conjure a devil.

Devil’s Radio, an darkly exuberant fanfare, takes its title from a colorful Southern phrase: “Rumor is the devil’s radio.”  I’ve always wanted to summon that strange radio, filled with errant grooves and vainglorious fanfares.  When Alasdair alluded to the sprawling forces available, my ears perked up.  It certainly sweetened the deal that many of the Sun Valley Symphony musicians are familiar to me from the San Francisco Symphony and elsewhere.  And adding Mothership to the concert, Alasadair managed to do what no other orchestra has done: prompt me to bring my family.  (My five-year old is pretty sure I peaked at Mothership.)

In addition to gearing up for that premiere, I’ve also been tweaking the electronics for Alternative Energy in advance of the SF Symphony performances September 10-13.  Bringing this ‘energy symphony’ to life with Michael Tilson Thomas marks the final week of the Beethoven & Bates festival, which let’s face it is the coolest-sounding festival I’ll ever be associated with.  While the piece has been performed often since its premiere two years ago, these performances will be recorded for a forthcoming CD release, so I’m tinkering with the electronics and making sure every spin of the particle accelerator is in the sweet spot.

But more than anything else this summer, I’ve been hard at work on Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, a new work for Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony.  This 25-minute (unplugged) work stretches my music harmonically and texturally more than any other piece.  That was certainly the point of the form: in choosing a trippy Borges book about mythical creatures, I wanted to push my music into an explicitly surreal and imaginative direction.  The idea is to take the highly colorful ballet form – lots of short character pieces – and hit them each with a little drop of LCD.  At the moment, I’m facing off with all seven creatures in the insane finale – when the first twenty minutes collapse into five.  (Currently, the animals are winning.)

Summertime is nice, but I’ll admit I’m itching to get back to Chicago and out of my head a little bit.  Not one to wish away the present, however, I’ll happily cling to my flip-flops a bit longer.

Jul 2014Classical Music’s Hidden Story

Sshh.  There’s a hidden story quietly exploding in classical music.  It’s the surprising evolution and adventurousness of American orchestras.

You wouldn’t read this story in the pages of the leading newspapers and magazines, most of which are in New York and apparently believe every composer lives in Brooklyn, premieres each piece at Le Poisson Rouge, and tweets after composing each measure.

You’d only see this from running the numbers on living composers.  A proper accounting of composers being performed by American orchestras could only come from ASCAP and BMI, the performing rights organizations who track performances every day.  In the top handful, you’d find several surprising things: the emergence of new faces, the rise of the self-published composer, and the field’s embrace of electronic sounds.

This is important for many reasons, not least of which is that any field should have an accurate understanding of itself.  Beyond that, American orchestras, particularly regional ones, should get more credit for being more dynamic and courageous than the critical establishment realizes.  And young composers should know that no, you don’t have to play by the rules.

In a way, you can’t fault the NYC publications for one simple reason: new music in New York City is not really about orchestras.  Whether it’s uptown, downtown, or Brooklyn, the action is mostly in chamber music, from Columbia University to Bang on a Can to Alarm Will Sound.  But with the dissolution of so many local newspapers, the remaining few like to think of themselves as the publications of record.  There’s a tension between the locality of their masthead and their efforts to position themselves as national papers.  While it’d be nice if the “big dogs” turned their attention west of the Hudson more often, the responsibility also falls on us in the field to look elsewhere.  Other outlets around the country – such as ArtsJournal, the San Francisco Classical Voice, The View From Here, I Care If You Listen, New Music Box – have been more powerfully impacting the conversation with every passing month.  The more we read them, the more they’ll grow – and a more balanced view will emerge.

That balanced perspective would encompass the huge variety of orchestras, especially the unsung regional ones, where the heart of classical music beats.  It’s not just about sound; it’s about listening.  The symphonic space demands a uniquely focused listening perspective that we rarely experience anywhere else in the 21st Century.  Not every piece needs to be a magnum opus – an opener, whether John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine or my own Mothership, is light by definition – but the works must withstand the internal attention of an orchestra and the external attention of a couple thousand active listeners.  And when you get to longer, symphony-length works, you can really travel to trippy places.

To be clear, I love chamber music.  It definitely deserves to be written about, and its lean forces encourage experimentation.  For example, the chamber music of Anna ClyneAnthony Cheung, and Marcos Balter is wonderfully rich and provocative in unique ways.  But an outsized amount of attention is focused on the “Brooklyn house style” of post-minimalist indie-rock.  The latter mindset is best illuminated by some head-scratching comments by Nico Muhly: “I’ve always found the best thing to do is to make work that doesn’t have to happen in a huge space. I think it would be fine if major orchestras closed.”

Now, I think the world of my old classmate – he walks on water, changes water to wine, then walks on the wine – but in this case, he’s misunderstanding one of the best things about our field.  Symphonic music is about large spaces, it’s about deep listening, and yes, it’s about the grassroots network of wonderful orchestras around the country.  Each one has unique qualities.  It’s not fine if a single one of them closes.  To be fair, the Rev Dr Muhly posted a lengthy clarification on his site – which you should read – and I sympathize with someone who feels their words have been de-contextualized.

But his opinion is a common one, especially among non-symphonic composers.  It’s totally fine if a composer wants to churn out a million notes a year, or if a rock artist wants to riff over some drones or whatever.  Those pieces might have nice premieres, but ephemera does not survive very long on the symphonic circuit.  The top handful of symphonic composers – those getting above, say, forty or fifty symphonic performances a year – spend forever on each score.  John Adams just entirely rewrote his concerto for string quartet, for example; on the other side of the Bay, I feel like I’m perpetually in labor with each piece.  John is especially relevant in this discussion because he got into trouble for disparaging today’s “music lite.”  It startled me a bit to hear this from the composer of Grand Pianola Music (though not City Noir), and someone of his stature should probably be magnanimous just about all the time.  But coming from a stylistic shape-shifter, his opinion is highly informed on this topic (maybe a better term is the manufacturing phrase commodity hell: indistinguishable mass-produced items, such as disposable razors – or oscillating minor thirds).

In the past, the League of American Orchestras has admirably released a list of most-performed living composers.  But the list’s persistent inaccuracy stems from its reliance on self-reporting from orchestras in the League, which doesn’t include many smaller groups who are playing tons of new works (for example, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project: their numbers alone would alter the list).  We must all call on ASCAP and BMI to post their numbers.

What would the numbers tell us?  They’d certainly demonstrate a move away from publishers.  Jennifer Higdon, like me, most likely would have signed with a major publisher early on.  But as she became so heavily performed, she probably realized that no publisher was worth half her copyright.  That’s a lot of ownership to give up (for me, it means not having to get a real job).  Kevin Puts, who won the Pulitzer and is becoming one of America’s busiest opera composers, has remained independent.  Chris Theofanidis is another stellar composer busy with orchestras and opera companies.  We’ve each had to creatively design our own model.

Publishers argue that, in exchange for owning half your newborn child, they promote your works to conductors and orchestras and manage your career.  The latter task – negotiating contracts and appearances, providing valuable counsel – can certainly be handled by an agent.  I would argue that you absolutely need an agent if you do not have a publisher.  Composers never used to have them, but these days there are quite a few at various agencies.  I started with Monica Felkel at Young Concert Artists and moved on to Mary Pat Buerkle at Opus 3.  The latter has become such a key part of my life, I almost sent her my homemade eggnog this year (it would’ve involved FedEx’s live animal rates, due to the temperature issue, so I gave up).  The nitty-gritty of negotiating rentals and handling sheet-music sales can be handled by an independent distributor such as Bill Holab, who does a fine job for me without owning any copyright.  Some composers do it all themselves – cf John Mackey, who’s currently unloading a big-rig full of band music into the back of the building – a hugely successful non-symphonic composer, but one dealing with large forces nonetheless.  I would argue that the less time you spend on spreadsheets, the more time you have for music – so, get a distributor.

But that other role of traditional publishers – promotion of your catalogue – is indeed hard to replace.  It can therefore make sense to sign with a publisher if you’re young and do not have much exposure; they can help you break through.  Once you reach critical mass, however, you may want to rethink your relationship.  I’m not certain that publishers have the time or budgets to promote the huge amount of composers in their stables.  For me, reaching critical mass came the old fashioned way: the conductors who helped me early on, from Robert Moody to Riccardo Muti, from Edwin Outwater to Marin Alsop, from John Adams to Michael Tilson Thomas and, most of all, Leonard Slatkin.

What else would the numbers show?  That orchestras are open to new sounds and technology.  Admittedly, I’m talking about my own catalogue here, but it’s one example of how orchestras can evolve.  I don’t just mean the big ones either: when Sioux City performs The B-Sides, it’s a reminder that regional orchestras and audiences aren’t afraid to take chances (or use electricity).  There wasn’t any widely-performed electro-acoustic symphonic music as a precedent, so I’ve spent many years observing orchestras and learning the logistics, the unions, and yes the big-space acoustics of integrating electronics into the symphonic space.  Yes, you can break the rules – as long as you know what they are (except, um, union rules).

So, who will write this story?  With the right numbers from ASCAP and BMI, any number of fierce new-music advocates could do it: Allan Kozinn, John von Rhein, Joshua Kosman, Anne Midgette, Kyle Gann, Norman Lebrecht, Andrew Patner, Frank Oteri, Greg Sandow, you name it : all could provide a fresh perspective.

This isn’t a New York story.  It’s a national story.  And it deserves to be told.

New Violin Concerto CD! or Amazon

Joshua Roman performs Mason's Cello Concerto

Joshua Roman performs the world premiere of Mason's Cello Concerto with the Seattle Symphony. The next performance of the Concerto takes place Jan 30-31 w/ the Columbus Symphony.

Join the Mason Bates Mailing List