from Saturday, October13th of the year2012.

I’ve spent the last week in Cincinnati doing a combination of concerts and educational things, if that’s what they’re called. One of the scariest things in the world, I think, is talking to other composers, and I just did it four times, twice at a high school, once at Northern Kentucky university (which is functionally in Cincinnati) and then again at Cincinnati College of Music, at the University. This came directly on the heels of doing it twice at Brown University, in Providence. The general procedure is that you turn up, play, perhaps, a piece of your own music, and then look at music the students have written, and make vaguely helpful &/or encouraging comments. The stressful thing for me is being “on” for that long — the first half, when talking about my own work is okay, I guess, but then to make what are essentially observed comments about somebody else’s music is a tricky business. I remember those moments in my own education where a visiting composer came and said something we all remembered for ages for better or for worse. I remember George Crumb being so awesome and Southern and endearing and I remember Charles Wuorinen being the opposite of those things. It’s a hard note to strike, and doing it four times in two days is intense. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more exhausted. The fear is saying something inadvertently mean, but also not just giving compliments, because otherwise what’s the point? Also in a few of these cases I’m only a few years older than the people presenting, so it seems somewhat perverse for me to be in a position to give anything other than collegial advice.

You guys! Northern Kentucky Univeristy is no joke. It’s a beautiful brutalist series of structures with very little ornamentation: a little grass here, a little potted plant there. It’s very very satsfying, especially at dusk, and they have all this random Donald Judd kicking around including Box and I was so happy.

I visited an incredible public school: the School for Creative and Performing Arts. They have an outrageously nice new facility with three theaters and a composition studio that should be the envy of any institution: rows upon rows of iMacs with MIDI keyboards and everything networked to be able to see things on a giant screen. And this is a public K-12 school!

Does everybody remember this genius article about Richard Stallman’s tour rider? I saw it before and was like, that dude’s crazy, but I realize that he and I share one essential requirement which is:

“I do not eat breakfast. Please do not ask me any questions about what I will do for breakfast. Please just do not bring it up.”

I couldn’t agree more. I find that one of the main reasons to avoid staying in people’s homes is this moment surrounding breakfast; it’s particularly vexing in my own parents’ homes because obviously I stay there and not in some hotel, and they are people with overstocked fridges. I think breakfast is a time when I need to reëstablish autonomy over the day, which usually, in my case, is a litany of stressful things over which I enjoy little control: mean emails, needy emails, staring in your face emails, shoes be talking emails, dry skin, iCloud synchronization issues, people late for appointments in their own hometown, loud noises, spatial chaos and generalized anxiety. If I can start the day on my own terms — which usually just means being able to make my own cup of coffee and sit quietly and read the newspaper – it makes a huge difference in being able to face down the rest of the day which is lived on the needy-ass terms of others. Anyway, there you go. Please just do not bring it up. He might well have added, “please do not bring up not bringing it up as I will then turn into an homicidal beast and lurch across the breakfast nook,” but I like his wording for now. And it’s less, I suppose, about the actual eating of the breakfast — there is nothing better than a spicy bowl of noodles just after arising! — than it is about starting the day feeling the indolent caprice of choosing one thing over another in whatever order one chooses.

I went, when I was in Providence with my parents, to visit The John Stevens shop, which is apparently one of the oldest continuously-run businesses in America (although I would love for there to be a Great Culling of all the superlatives; I feel like I’ve had a beer in four Oldests Pubs in Britain), which is a stone-carving shop in Newport, RI. It was a fabulous thing: a level of obsessive and specific detail unique to a particular craft, but with resonances with what musicians do, too. Look at this beautiful carving reading “Proportion is Difficult” (true story):

So satisfying. They shewed me an example of carved letters versus sandblasted (which is the cheaper and I imagine much faster option) and wow. Carving a letter is extraordinarily more beautiful. Check out this documentary my dad made about them in the distant past and a slightly more recent New Yorker article.

Total aside: I’m flying today on Alaska Airlines and it was one of those situations at the airport where one has to get a bag tag in location A and then “leave” the bag at location B down the way, and there was a lot of confusion with some giant family with way too many bags and a shouty dad and a mortified daughter and it ended with a helpful airport employee explaining that the bag drop for “Alaxka” airlines was actually at location C, anyway, I had never heard that particular s-cluster metathesis done in that way inside a word so elegantly with the exception of perhaps “excalator” but this is, in a way, more delicious, as it seems quite complicated to say; try it out…I suppose it might be better rendered Alakska.

Have y’all ever stayed in an hotel in which there was a convention? It is really really weird; a few years ago I was in LA and the convention there was Christian children’s book illustrators! At the (historic!) Hilton in Cincinnati, I shared the space with a rubber convention, whatever that means. Has anybody done an anthropological study about these guys who see one another only once a year, and the linguistic registers they access? It’s an artificial, drunken familiarity, with various nuances — the snapping while trying to remember somebody’s wife’s name (“…Right, Karen! How is Karen?); the man who vaguely disgraced himself last year and is drinking only seltzer but trying, perhaps too hard, to have not only a good time but a boisterously good time; the various tactics to dispel conversational silence including nodding so vigorously it looks like davening; the various ways in which a final drink is acceded to, and the stagey grimaces of the final standing-up, as if to imply an indulgence greater than having had three glasses of chardonnay in a hotel lobby in Ohio.

I want to recommend that everybody read A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven. Readers of this space will know that I have a serious love for her writing, which is always disturbing and urgent and just on the edge of pressing the knife uncomfortably close. This new novel does all that, but with a wickedly funny grin; it’s a winning, if exhausting, combination. Go get involved!

Does anybody else ever have that romantic tingle when you see where you can fly to from places that aren’t where you live? The idea that there is a direct flight from Alaska to Hawai’i is unspeakably touching to me.

Various Configurations

from Monday, September24th of the year2012.

Okay, ça fait longtime since I’ve blogged, and I feel kind of okay about it. I’ve been in a monthlong recovery and catch-up mode since this summer’s adventures; I knew, instinctively, that I wasn’t going to be able to write as much as I wanted while dealing with Gait in Birmingham, and when I finally arrived home to New York on August 6, I found myself with a fistful of sketches for pieces without any actual pieces, and several looming deadlines. I entered a sort of manic period of writing a series of pieces for chamber ensembles & solo instruments. I put the final touches on a piece for my hometown, Randolph, VT, and wrote a piece for Jeffrey Kahane & Daniel Hope to play at the Library of Congress, of all places. I wrote a song cycle for the lovely and wonderful Jennifer Zetlan, and finished a piano explosion for Simone Dinnerstein, and organized a few more drone moments, and finished a long-standing project, this new ballet, Moving Parts, for Benjamin Millepied’s new company in Los Angeles.

And now I am exhausted. I’ve just spent the last week in Los Angeles with Benjamin putting together Moving Parts at Disney Hall. The program was great: a piece of William Forsythe from the 90’s called Quintett, a Cunningham piece from the 60’s with an antagonistically bleak drone from LaMonte Young, and then our new work. The Forsythe piece was astonishing. I’d seen his work before, but never up close, and never this particular work, which uses most of Gavin Bryars’ delicious Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet as its music. The piece is simultaneously melancholy and playful, with some gasp-inducing coups wherein a dancer’s body will somehow curl around another like a tentacle, and whip outwards: cartoonish, science-fiction stuff, but with a sense of ritual and mystery.

The new piece I wrote for Benjamin required me to play the magnificent and large-fries-looking pipe organ in Disney Hall, which was so fun. It’s been years since I’ve properly played the organ; I am spoiled by my friend Jamie McVinnie, who is a proper and great organist. In his absence, I took it upon myself to register this thing, figuring out the nuances of the room and of the instrument itself, to try to make the piece sing. One forgets that the organ is essentially the first synthesizer; the process of figuring out which stops to use when is rather like the process of orchestrating a piece. The thrill, of course, is changing tack in the middle of the show. There was one moment that called for a full effect, and on opening night I second-guessed myself and chose a politely loud stop. The second day, I was more confident, and basically took the thing to eleven. I wish there were a way to reorchestrate pieces on the fly! Add back the trombones “good taste” said might be a bit de trop here; add glock to this line because the room feels like it could take it…

I had a flare-up of a terrible thing which is stress-induced dry skin on the hands; I haven’t had it in years, actually, but this week it came back. Having to play anything — or conduct, for that matter — for dance is always scary. The normal tempering devices of adrenaline and nerves have to be extra in check, because any slight deviation in tempo means that the forces of gravity will fuck up the dancers. Once, years ago, I conducted a dance piece way, way too fast and I felt so awful afterwards when a very handsome, and very sweaty ballet gentleman was near tears from having had to rush through a whole sequence; since then I’ve been trying to learn how to keep steady and resist that performance excitement. Anyway, stressful. I feel like it would have been fine if there were a way to close down all my inboxes for a fortnight before any such performances, but that seems a little precious, and also, aren’t I a big girl who can play two concerts without the skin sloughing off the sides of my fingers and palms!? Anyway, the piece is coming, in various configurations, to a town near you this year and next!

More soon, I hope. I’m excited to get back to writing words, too!

Small Ensembles

from Sunday, August5th of the year2012.

I’ve just spent two weeks working with the National Youth Orchestra. This is probably the most prolonged amount of time I’ve spent with people between the ages of 15 and 18 since I was myself that age, and it’s been, in a word, intense. The basic setup of this orchestra is that it’s 165 people, so we’re dealing with 7 or 8 of each woodwind, 10 horns, 8 trumpets, that sort of thing. Eleven (!) percussionists. The whole summer course is structured around a fortnight spent in barrack-like dorms at the University of Birmingham, in a sort of suburban utopian landscape just south of the city. There is an element of summer camp about it, but with twelve hours a day of music making, and that isn’t really an exaggeration. Every minute of these musicians’ days is scheduled rigorously, which I think is partially designed to keep them out of trouble and off the pole, presumably. I occupied a strange sort of space: I was not really faculty, or support team, or a student, so I kind of floated in and out of rehearsals and attempted to participate socially and musically as much as was appropriate. The first few days were a little bit awkward — they’d gone over the piece without the harps, who are kind of the motor behind the entire first section, and I think it rather terrified everybody that they had, in fact, commissioned some pointillistic and awful piece of abstract silence punctuated by an occasional pizzicato or clarinet gurgle.

There’s also a thing with English musicians of every age such that they cannot, under any circumstances, tell you that they like a piece of music you’ve written until you’ve had a drink together. I learned this a few years ago when I worked with an orchestra for a week and nobody said anything at all; one bass player muttered to me in the men’s room “it’s not bad, that piece,” which was as close as I got to a compliment or even an acknowledgement that I was present. Until the pub! Then it was a lovefest: mentions of favourite bars of music, actual conversations about the Koussevitsky concerto, promises to exchange scores and mp3’s. This time was no different; three of the musicians adorably and somewhat sheepishly invited me to their pub night, which is essentially ninety minutes of sanctioned drinking for the 18 year-olds. Girl. They were ordering shot upon shot (like, trays) of alarmingly sweet concoctions: triple sec and diet Red Bull, tequila suspended in what tasted of tanning lotion, and something else that I think must have been light rum and Jheri curl juice. The same musicians who had been brilliantly parsing Messiaen were straight up crunk. It was brilliant and wonderful, and I was particularly pleased because they felt empowered (?) to talk to me about the piece I’d written, and about other issues in music, and just life in general: it turns out that the age-old social lubricant always applies. To my horror, a bunch of them took pictures of me in which I look like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed the day they got him out of that hole.

There was also, I was pleased to see, a lovely resistance to my memories of how high school was organised: everybody was uniformly nice to one another and there didn’t seem to be any strange hierarchies of attractiveness or perceived ability. Dealing with young people always has, for me, a distant melancholic drone. Once I went to university and got busy, the years between 22 and, like, last week are kind of a blur of travel, intense work, exhaustion, sweating. The older members of this orchestra are about to jump into school, and this is their last moment, in a sense, to be this devoted to music. This is their last time to be beautiful with one another, to have the skin not ravaged by sun, claret, and jetlag, to have the sort of timelapse romances only possible at camp. I was heartened and bittersweetened to see a more flexible homosocial level of interaction almost in constant play: a hand on the shoulder, shared glances of genuine support and pride at a gesture well-played in rehearsal that would have been, I think, impossible when I was 18 without it being accompanied by a series of insinuations and counterreactions. At Snape, in the two lambent hours before the concert, the musicians roamed through the rushes in groups of two, three, four, ambling along the boardwalks and, by necessity, standing close enough together that the effect, viewed from the comfortable distance of the hill, was of elderly couples walking out together in some Italian piazza, a recollection from the distant past, the modern clothes and conversations obscured by the angle of the light and the susurration of the reeds. These small ensembles were heartbreaking: a harpist and a trumpet player, a group of three small boys who play the oboe, a solitary tubist, a cellist and a violist. It gave me a flash of the sort of piece I could have written: an amble, an aleatoric series of duets and trios walking in a comfortable, almost hand-holding unison.

It reminded me, in a poignant way, how solitary and strange the business of being a composer is. There’s one of me, and 165 of them. If you write for orchestra, you are dependent both physically and emotionally on the whims and abilities of strangers. I tried to learn everybody’s name but it’s impossible; there’s always a sense that the composer is never quite part of the team — there’s a structural opposition built-in to the relationship. I’d love to find ways to dismantle this; my strategies now are to always try, when possible, to sit in the orchestra and try to get a sense of how it feels to play the piece. This, however, is not always looked upon kindly by conductors, and some irritating halls have a setup such that there is an impermeability between the front of house and the stage. I’ve also found that I enjoy physically humbling myself before the players — sitting on the floor at their feet rather than trying to be an angry schoolmistress has, at times, defused awkward situations. I felt, in a sense, between worlds with the NYO kids: I’m old enough to be able to impart, however obliquely, sensible advice, and I can help them strategise playing music not only by me but by others. But the sort of teacherly mode is tempered by my own constant and obsessive desire to be liked by everybody, particularly musicians, and to register as a sort of desirable and sympathetic friend and colleague.

The really heartening thing for me was the NYO’s rehearsal discipline. They did a somewhat cultish thing wherein they obeyed two minutes of absolute silence before the conductor arrived on the podium. At first I thought that I had signed up for some kind of teen version of The Wicker Man and that I was going to be burned in some enormous effigy of a viola, but actually, what it did was insist that music arises out of silence, which is something so important to remember. There was very little talking during the crucial moment when the conductor has pulled over the piece to try to adjust things, and this is something I’m just going to say: a lot of professional orchestras are terrible at this, and it’s usually just a few individuals. With new music that’s not had the benefit of hundreds of years of performance practice to air out the closets of its notation, every second of rehearsal time is precious. I had a piece with a orchestra earlier this summer, and there was this completely irritating violinist who, immediately at the end of every rehearsal take, would grab the crossword puzzle and start talking to his stand partners, soliciting their opinion on the weather, etc., even when the conductor was addressing his section! It was horrible, and vexing, and distracting, and kind of soured me against the piece I’d written; if you can’t keep the attention of the people playing it, how can it possibly land on the ears of an audience? In my vision of paradise, that man would be frog-marched through town and made to listen to his own inane banter amplified on public loudspeakers. I love the idea that the people who are in the NYO are going to be the orchestral musicians of the future, who understand the importance not just of playing well but listening well, and supporting one another. I was moved by somebody who came up and said he liked the trombone solo — not a trombonist! It means that the ears are open, and working alongside the mouth and the hands and the feet, and it means that musicianship, and not just technique, is accumulating.

Anyway, there it is. This also marks the end of what has been almost constant travel for four months. I’m in the US of loosely A for over two months now, and I can’t wait to get back into the rhythms of New York. I’ve learned to exist comfortably on the road, but not in the way I can when surrounded by the dog, my man, my linens, and my own sense of the footprint of the day being the dominant one. The NYO were absolutely heaven to work with, and I’m so glad I carved out enough time to really be part of the construction of the piece. There’s a version of the trip where I could just swan in and make strange analogies accompanied by severe hand gestures and leave, but I am so happy for the extra time. I hope the musicians will all stay in touch — it is a gorgeous thing to have friends & allies scattered around the world’s orchestras.

Plane Drone

from Friday, July27th of the year2012.

The process of idling at the airport, taxiing, and taking off (to say nothing of the flight itself) is a series of changing drones. Idling, for instance, is a constant c#, with an ever-changing top note: f#, e#, or e. All of this is slightly flatter than a=440. The ventilation system insists on a kind of extra-flat g#, but the whole thing is gorgeously rooted on the everpresent c#. When the plane levels out, though, a g# in the bass reframes the whole thing, so you end up with a chord in a strange position: confident, but with a changing root. I feel like I would be very happy listening to even a transcription of this music.

I’ve been in Iceland for the last week working and trying, in some way, to relax a bit before the chaos of Gait and the UK during the olympics happens tomorrow. I am rooting for England: I want the country to not fuck up the transit and prove to everybody that they can, in fact, get it together. I’m trying not to participate in the media frenzy of obsessing over the inevitable chaos, although I was secretly pleased to read the accounts of the first athletes’ busses getting lost despite the basically straight line TFL has carved out for them from Heathrow to the Olympic Village. And we’re all in agreement that all that nonsense about who can and cannot say “olympic” is stupid, right? and the french fries??

I went with my man to the Westfjords of Iceland for a few days last week, and instead of going to the (relatively) bustling main city, Ísafjörður, we headed south to Patreksfjörður, a very sleepy fishing town. It was exactly what I needed — a quiet village just for a minute. It was restorative in the sense that it was completely free of any possible obligations or distractions, and it was lightly raining the whole time, which meant that I could just read about North Korean inflation in the 60’s and watch BBC’s Wild China for hours at a time. I’ve found that thinking about music is much easier if I’ve spent about 36 hours thinking about anything but. Did you know that it’s bats in China that eat fish?!? And they eat the shit while hanging upside-down? I am shocked. The series is great and totally worth watching for the footage alone. They’ve chosen a kind of generic pentatonic orchestral music with a touch of erhu score that must have cost a fortune: strings everywhere, big thematic gestures. Not my favorite thing in the world but there’s a kind of magical theme that is decidedly not racist that I’ve been humming — it reminds me of some Elgar, maybe, with a big descending interval of the sort that makes English people well up. I cannot talk to you about the Chinese giant salamander or these baby alligators.

I don’t know why this is, but whenever I deal with young people — like, from 13 to say 20 — I always get a cramp of “first day of school” style anxiety, of the sort I haven’t really needed to feel for ten years. I remember being that age myself: a wild combination of insecure, judgemental, strident, shy, curious, and mean. At my high school we had, each year, a batch of ambitious younger teachers, some grad students from Brown, and we were awful: squinting at their ambitiously ironed clearly new first-day-of-school khaki pants (it was the 90’s), or questioning the cut of their jeans in a painfully obvious sotto voce. There was one woman in particular about whom I still feel a degree of guilt: she turned up on her first day teaching high school history or English wearing an outfit one would wear to homeschool evangelical Christian children in the midwest. We are talking a white turtleneck under a denim floor-length dress with socks and sandals, the denim dressing being already smudged with chalk dust and dri-erase ink by noon. We were merciless. It took a few weeks before we could ignore these perceived sartorial infractions and start focusing on the content of the teaching. Anyway, maybe these days everybody is mean enough to each other online (which was a register to which we did not enjoy access) that everything is pleasant in real life.

Everybody at the NYO is outrageously nice. Think Greenwood rather than Tanglewood, if you’re coming from the American system of summer zones with youth. I’m staying in what is essentially a dormroom whose simplicity is actually soothing. There are plugs everywhere, and the internet is fast. The +44 is obsessed with fire doors, which essentially means that they have a series of closed doors in a damp, northern European place, causing mildew and a generally pervasive sense of damp. The first thing I do when entering English dwellings is create an outrageous cross-breeze, which has been very effective in fighting the Damp.

China G8

from Friday, July13th of the year2012.

Does everybody know the John Adams piece China Gates? I love me some China Gates. I want it to be in the same category of piano pieces that all piano students have to learn, like the Schumann Revérie:

Here is a funny performance with a sassy performance… explication?

So when I was finishing up this piece Gait for the NYO, I wanted there to be a flash of this Adams piece at the very end, a sort of ecstatic vision of the piano piece radically exploded into this enormous orchestra. So, that’s happened. The explosion was so severe that the copyist(s!) had to scheme to make different Sibelius files to fit all the notes on the pages.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what is and what isn’t standard rep. One of the ways composers are taught to write is through constant score study. So, for instance, you hear something you like in a Brahms symphony and you get the score out of the library and figure out how he did it. There is a list of, probably, the better part of a thousand pieces of music whose scores are, I think, assumed to be “known” by composers of orchestral music. With musicians, there are a whole bunch of different itineraries. Obviously each instrument has its own specific catalogue of music that only real die-hards know (the Ney Rosauro marimba music comes to mind), and then there are players who find themselves, for whatever reason, in very specific ensembles (like, it’s a Debussy trio for flute, viola and harp, and such ensembles usually end up needing to commission many companion pieces, and therefore, there is an entire rep of music for that ensemble that is regrettably unknown).

I’m very much of the opinion that any amount of study of really anything will make you a better musician. Three years of Dari in Afghanistan, great, four years of jazz vibraphone, great, great, everything’s great. Learning how to cook Chinese food, that’s great. I’m also a huge fan of canonical learning — it’s nice to meet a musician from China, or Israel, and know that you have a sort of common ground of references. In the last few months, I’ve noticed something, though. I’ve been working mainly with orchestras in New York & London, and while the canonical understanding is firm, there are some funny non-overlapping areas. I’d love to think that all orchestra players would have, at some point, made their way through Harmonielehre, the massive Adams score from the 80’s. I’d also like to think that all string players (with the exception of the basses), would have played Different Trains a few times. (The basses, I’d like to think, would have spent a few wayward evenings learning how to play the viola da gamba, but now I’m getting greedy). Of course, this is a fantasy world, but I wonder if the languages between musicians and composers aren’t drifting slightly.

One of the best ways, I’ve found, to connect with players is to know their rep. Pieces that we, as composers, might find musically dubious are, in some cases, bread and butter for violists, or clarinettists. A perfect example of this, I think, is the Hindemith sonatas for solo instruments. I really don’t like listening to this music. But I know that it’s useful because it makes up a big piece of the viola mental pie. I’m always looking out for the pieces that players keep alive: weird clarinet sonatas, obscure cello trios.

The goal, of course, is for some sense of fluency both in writing and playing. Some rhythms, in the hands of Orchestra A, are like breathing. The same rhythms, in the hands of Orchestra B, are like breathing water. It’s not a comment on the quality of the band, but rather, the musicians’ access to the music that has informed the composer’s world. Similarly, the way we, as composers, learn to write music is through study and by making mistakes. I think this includes studying the music you love, as well as the music musicians love, and orchestras (inasmuch as orchestras are sentient) love to play. If you have a friend in an orchestra, sitting in the back of the seconds, ask her what her favorite music is. Chances are it’s not going to be the same thing as your favorite music, and it might be shocking music, but you are inevitably going to learn something very useful from whatever Ibert concerto she mentions.

I’m in London about to open this ballet Machina, which is part of an outrageously ambitious commission of three ballets based on the Titian Diana paintings. What’s doubly outrageous about it is that it’s a piece for two choreographers; when they first told me about it (two choreographers plus an artist making sets for the first time plus orchestra plus whee), I was like, this is the most facacta thing. But actually it’s great. Conrad Shawcross, has made this gorgeous and elegant robot that sits in the back of the stage like a giant spider, observing and menacing the dancers. It’s gorgeous. Everybody come. Then Iceland for a week then NYO Gait Mania!

Hindi Classical

from Thursday, June21st of the year2012.

This blog post is a result of many months of casual thought and casual conversations, boiled down into a perhaps more casual than usual blog post. Maura Lafferty graciously agreed to sort of have an organized discussion between our two blogs, so I would encourage you to read her post before you read mine.

My online life is wide-ranging but a little bit curated. I try really hard to stay actively involved with my friends on Facebook — and by friends, I mean people I know outside the context of that social network. I follow a few hundred people on twitter, and I actively follow a few dozen blogs about music, linguistics, computers, art. I follow them in a slightly old-fashioned way: they’re all tabbed, rather that RSSed, so I have to manually see if anybody has updated. I sort of prefer it this way, and sometimes I get far behind, so I like to check back in on things that are not technically “new” but which I might have missed over the course of travels or inattention. I removed the google alert I had on myself, and I had never taken out any others, so I can safely avoid anybody with my name in their mouth coming out of random air, as well as my friends’ names. The press thing is tricky, because sometimes a press outlet’s social media staff will @ me in a link to a review, so I become kind of aware of things in the periphery, but for the most part, I’ve been pretty successful in avoiding both preview and review press, and during the operas, the opera blog-o-sphere.

One thing that hasn’t been expurgated from my feed is a relentless and sort of obsessive focus on genre that people constantly throw around. I did a show in London that I thought was pretty great, and then online it was all indie-classical this and indie-classical that and I was like, do you know? Forget that. Nothing is gained by that description, even if it makes the PR people’s jobs easier. It attracts haters and lumps people together in a way that belies how actual communities of musicians function. Bedroom Community is a great example of how this can work well — there isn’t a Bedroom Community sound, there isn’t a manifesto of stylistic concerns. We like one another’s music, and we like one another’s processes as collaborators, and that is so much more important than trying to think of a name that could possibly encompass, like, that genius thing Ben Frost and Daníel Bjarnason made together and Puzzle Muteson’s album.

I realize that this comes from, in part, the printed (or formal?) press as well as the blogosphere. Reviewers and previewers get an enormous pass if they can describe a composer’s work as being part of some sort of Genre: post-minimalist, new complexity, Darmstadt School, chamber pop, whatever, or this new hellery, Indie-Classical. The other day, Maura Lafferty, who is a new music marketing person, tweeted a link to this article. I’m gonna address all those things specifically but let’s go through this carefully.

There are, I think, two global problems with genre obsession: one on “their” side and one on “ours.” On “their” side (and by they, I mean people who write about music either professionally or casually), it’s a shorthand for actually talking about how the notes and the rhythms work. On “our” side, it can become, for composers, both a social and musical crutch, where one ends up writing to one’s press-generated biography, rather than from a musical core.

Part of my objection to terminology is personal. I’ve been writing basically the same music since I’m 14. It’s gotten better, and it’s taken strange turns, but the thing is the same. What people call it has, obviously, changed with the ages, but the idea that anybody gets to define what I’m up to, for some reason, seems even more grotesque than misunderstanding it. I suppose part of this comes from a background of (admittedly East Coast American) hybridity: I’m a half-jewish homosexual who grew up in Providence with roots in Vermont. Even that sentence seems strange; I don’t think I would have coffee with somebody who self-described like that on the internet, and that’s the point: we are how we do. It’s an active life, it’s not these terrible sentences and hyphenations.

Another source of vexation is the counter-argument I see sometimes which is that musicians should be able to describe their music. I agree! Sort of. I can tell you what all of my influences are, and will do that with great pleasure. But I am not going to write a press-release for myself. And here is where we get to the “our side” problem. Once one has been been described a certain way in the press, there is a temptation to continue writing that way despite one’s better instincts. If somebody writes about your music — even as a compliment — as, like, “a natural and enormously successful fusion of the music of India and the classical techniques of the West, Hindi-Classical!” the temptation is to start writing as if that were the starting-point, rather than just some journalistic shorthand. It’s horrifying because it has nothing to do with anything. Also, how hard is it to just write about how the music sounds without invoking anybody else’s name or slapping a name on it? An exercise: talk about Beethoven Op. 111 without talking about any other composer. Talk about Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody without talking about any other composer. You can even talk about Nixon in China without talking about Satyagraha or Akhnaten; it’s respectful to John Adams to be able to do so. You can talk about Bach without invoking the Baroque; you can (and should) talk about Mozart without invoking the Classical — which is not something Mozart would have had to deal with in his day. He might have had to have dealt with some provincial horseshit about the current musical fads in Vienna or Salzburg or whatever, but we can all (with the possible exception of whatever his name is who writes even more disparaging things about Brooklyn than I do, Snuggles, in LA), in hindsight, realize how dumb that is.

(An comedic aside. I used to live in Deepeste Darkeste Chinatown, and moved, a few years ago, about four blocks north. Now, the zip code is still the same, but for real-estate purposes this neighborhood is distinct enough to have its own series of mortifying hyphenations: NoChiTo, for North of Chinatown, or, my favorite, Little Chittaly.)

All of this is in reaction to a series of tweets I got, and a link to this article. The article itself is worth reading and contains some good advice and some, in my opinion, shocking advice; the page itself I cannot speak about; a lot of the advice is really sound and practical, but her website is insanely frustrating, you can only sort by keyword, and am I wrong or does it look like the website you end up with if you make a typo in a url? Like; look at them side by side? Am I wrong? Or like Canadian Pharmacy. The comments on the article are amazing, too, because they advise people to use QR codes — I urge you to click around on the videos if you want to gain further insight into this particular genre of thought and its attendant design.

One of the big arguments on this page (which you’ve all read, right?) is that our Authoress, let’s call her A, was standing at the Mercury Lounge between shows and somehow ended up talking to somebody who poƒƒeƒƒ’t a show flyer. Already it’s problematic because who stands around at the bar at the Mercury Lounge with show flyers?! A comments that the artist “lost [her] forever” because:

Because not one sentence was included about what genre of music this artist played much less what his music sounded like, who he was compared to (sound alike). In other words what I could expect by coming out to his show. In short I had no idea what this artist sounded like.

Ooh, girl, did it ever occur to you that perhaps he was dead 2 u because he gave you a flyer at the bar at the mercury lounge? He could have spoken to you, struck up a conversation. If you took the flyer, it means you have more room in your apartment than I do. I will confess, I don’t think I have so much as beheld a show flyer since maybe 2001, and I think that turned out to be a 9/11 truth manifesto zine.

Now, the part of this post that I really liked, actually, was the next one, which I will quote here in full:

Me: What do you sound like?
Artist: I sound like absolutely nothing you’ve ever heard before.
Me: (annoyed and now understanding why he’s not where he wants to be as an artist) Really? So you have invented a new genre of music, and you don’t sound like anyone else in the history of music?
Artist: Yes
Me: Can you at least tell me what type of music you play?
Artist: It’s old school Hip-Hop
OK finally we were getting somewhere and, I totally understood his point, but here’s the problem with having an approach like his:
People are constantly looking for a context to put things into. And if you don’t provide them with one, they will move on to the next thing that their little pea brains actually can grasp.
The critical that was missing in both scenarios was: The Pitch

Yes gawd! She’s right, in a sense. It’s true that artists who are terrible about talking about what they do are doomed. (I would posit that artists who follow all of her advice will sound, in conversation, like people who are trying entirely too hard in a gross, off-putting way— we’ve all met those people where an interaction is so buzz-word coded and business card and godforbid a QR code gets involved. You get the sense that they’ve written a bio and are writing the music after the fact.) But it’s also true that artists should be able to describe the universe in which their music exists quicker than they should be able to describe what it is specifically that they write. I have had so much better luck by describing what I’m reading, what I’ve been listening to, what I like, what I am like, than describing my music. I’ve lured strangers to shows by having conversations with them about a book, somebody else’s music, that genius Diaghilev biography. That starts to create the game universe of my music, rather than just being like, “I am a pretty princess for the following reasons.” Context does not mean genre, which is something that lazy journalists do, as I said, to avoid talking about notes and rhythms.

When people ask me specifically, “what do you sound like,” I usually deflect, and try to talk about the music I love. Even in a crowded bar (not the Mercury Lounge specifically), I’ve gotten away with, “Well, the music I love the most is the music of the English Renaissance, so, old choral things, but also kind of American Minimalism from the 60’s and 70’s, so it’s electrified and sacred and fast and slow at the same time! You should come to the show!” Which is not to say that anybody should call it Electrified and Sacred.

I always think about this genre conversation in the same way. Anybody who tells you what “kind” of food they cook is running some kind of scam. The restaurant group Momofuku has been so successful by constantly resisting those definitions: it’s Korean, American, French… you could hyphenate it and identity politics it until your hyphen key falls off, and you still won’t get close to describing what it means to pan-fry dduk, make a sausage “bolognese,” after a fashion, add the numbing szechuan peppers-corn, and choy sum in a single dish. Can’t we talk about how insanely delicious it is (or insanely whatever: not delicious, too spicy, too obvious, not enough sear on each side of the tteok, and yes I did just transliter8 the Korean in two different ways suck it) instead of the hyphenation parade? And if they did have a single word for what it was, wouldn’t you be suspicious, as if they had hired somebody to come up with the same word?

If you asked somebody what kind of restaurant they ran, and they gave you some hyphenated shit, would you go? Wouldn’t you be more intrigued and charmed by them if they told you a very quick story about a Persian mom and an Italian dad but how even that doesn’t matter? And how you should come and meet Kevin, the bartender, and how there’s this thing they’ve been doing with polenta fries? You’ve all heard this conversation in college, right, where a white person meets a person of color and asks a question similar to, “Wait, so, if you’re from India, and you eat Indian food at home, do you call it Indian Food or do you call it, like, just Food?” The big point here is that genre is a performance, and the name of the thing is the last last last thing that should ever matter. People who are cooking in states of various translation (French woman living in Cambodia with a Spanish husband, Greenlandic woman living in Spain) don’t hyphenate what they call their dinner, it’s just Dinner. In music, the active performance of genre seems to exist after one’s press-bio, rather than before. My argument has always been that genre is a constant process, and you, the author, have no say in it. You can impose decorations on it, manipulate it through education, through the Hague, through Christ, through G-D, through England, through Tanglewood, through all sorts of fabulous and edifying things. But the Thing is the Thing.

So that’s my little sqreed about that. I’d like to open it back up to Maura, though (and of course to Ariel!), and of course to all of you, in the comments thread, and ask a few more questions. I’m wondering if I’m missing some enormous point about how I should just lean back and embrace this name that gives me a dark itch. Or it could also be that artists should never, ever, worry about how they’re described by PR, as it’s not our job, and instead we should be writing music. Another question I have is about the very word “Indie,” and specifically how that can ever really mesh with classical music, which relies, oftentimes, on enormous institutions shuffling around large amounts of money. Our heroes from the 60’s, who stopped taking money from the academy because they weren’t going to get none, are very recognized by major presenting organizations around the world; it’s still socially groups of friends, the Glass and Reich ensembles, and even the Bang-on-a-Can universe, but they’re not having, like, a bake sale on Prince Street to fund an album. I wonder when an “indie” filmmaker stops being one? Does Indie Rock stop being Indie when a band sells out the O2 arena three nights in a row? Okay bye.

Australia Under the Influence

from Friday, June1st of the year2012.

A point of order: this post was written both before, during, and on the way home from a trip to Australia, so if it’s more disjointed than usual, that’s why.

I write this from a plane en route from New York to Sydney, Australia. My neighbour (does one say row-mate?), who is finally sleeping after a rather anxious taxi process, is an Italian immigrant to Australia from Calabria. After a spatially awkward few minutes, (his wife and dóttir are seated behind us) he and I started speaking in Italian, and despite my thick Roman accent tempered by an affected Siennese faggotry, we managed to establish a basic communicatory structure in English and Italian during which I established that people who learned English in Australia totally have Australian accents in English. I don’t know why this is so shocking to me, but Calabrian Dude speaking essentially cracked, but not broken, English with an Australian accent is insane to my ears, and gorgeous. Some idioms roll off his tongue with an antipodean joy, whereas others remain rooted in an ESL word-to-word translation. He is just back from a fortnight’s vacation in New York City, and we spoke about his experiences dining in Little Italy; his immigration experience in 1952 from Calabria to Italy is rather different from the experiences of the children of immigrants he met in New York; all of this is wildly fascinating. We talked about the impossible regional Italian snobbery, in which people south of [x] place are basically African, and what that means for children growing up in the age of globalisation. I was also fascinated to learn that this dude has taken several cruise-ship tours of Italy, and occasionally, he’s been the only Italian speaker on the boat.

I travel a lot, and I try to work on planes. I usually manage to squeeze in a movie or two, but I have a nasty confession: I have watched the movie J. Edgar in like, nine installments over the last three months while simultaneously reading a sort of tabloidy biography of J. Edgar and (who is presumed to be) his man Clyde Tolson on my eReader iPad eBook situation. The movie is beautifully lit, and mannered, and just a li’l bit gay, whereas the book contains such phrases as, “they were raped by two big mandingos,” which is an entirely different set of information. (One also wonders about the correct plural of “Mandingo.”) The book has a lot to say about J. Edgar & Clyde Tolson’s escapades in Latin America, which I presume to be simultaneously outrageous and unverifiable. Also: j’adore Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover. I solves the problem of “people who look like a boston terrier” portraying “people who look like an English Bulldog” in one gesture.

I’m excited about being in Australia; I have a few days to myself during which I’m hoping to finish the major combat on Gait, the piece I’m writing for the wonderful National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. I think I became a musician in the presence of people who played in youth orchestras, so I know how important (or irrelevant) a new piece can be for these young musicians. I’m trying to write something that’s simultaneously challenging and awesome, which is sort of a change from the normal process of writing orchestra music. Even if you write for a professional orchestra, you get about six hours of rehearsal, which is not the same thing as the two weeks, give or take, that I’ll get with the NYO. I can afford to write music that requires internal chamber music, which is my favorite orchestral trick, but one that I daren’t employ in the usual schedule of orchestral seasons and their rehearsals. I’ve been heartened by the online presence of the musicians on Facebook and twitter, and I’m going to write them something tricky, crabwise, and, I hope, excellent for them, which, for me, is kind of the point. If the piece makes them look like the genius young musicians that they are, I have done my job right. It shouldn’t have anything to do with me; this is sort of the argument for the Byrd-Gibbons model of composers…

Australia! My thoughts, as somebody who has not been, are complicated. I have a zillion friends from there, but surely expats are not the people who can teach you about a place? My few Australian friends live in Iceland. evincing a desire to move as far from their natal zone as physically possible. Occasionally, they rant about Australian racism or provincialism or whatever else, but still, they make it back there once a year. Obviously it had been an English prison colony; it’s conwicts all over the place, or at least they ancestors. But it seems to be a place of roti canai, haemul pajun, and other délices d’asie. It feels like an immigrant community not that unlike America. I am wildly excited. I took out a sort of open call for food recommendations and have received hundreds of pieces of advice: it seems as if I am going into a form of culinary paradise!

Okay, so now I’m writing this bit having just been in Australia. The part of downtown we were staying in is basically not unlike that bit of San Francisco by the Embarcadero, is that what that’s called? Like, touristy but ultimately sympathetic. We had an Singaporean friend in who grew up in Sydney, and she curated a series of excellent meals. We were invited to dinner by one of the owners of the restaurant Quay for a fabulous meal: a sort of modern Australian freshy fresh carefully composed plates affair, featuring an outrageously good raw fish course that avoided the sort of Pacific Rim yuzu-squirt dressing normally attendant to such a dish. Love a yuzu-squirt, but one can take only so much. Sydney felt, after a week, like a strange combination of known elements and unknown ones. The strangeness of the placenames is, I imagine, analogous to the ones in New England, where we gloss over words like Woonasquatucket, Chachapacassett, and Moshassuck without blinking. The presence of an aboriginal culture seems unknowably complex and layered; a semi-naked didgeridoo player had to stop playing along to the trance music he was playing because the iphone making the same music received a call. A store with almost exclusively Chinese signage seemed to specialize in “Native Remedies,” including something alarmingly labelled “Essence of Kangaroo.” There was a lot to do with placenta-based hair treatments aimed at Chinese tourists, as well as industrial-sized tubs of royal jelly and petrified koala dung.

We had the luxury of performing this new piece Planetarium three times in a row in the same space: what a pleasant feeling! By the third show, I felt, at least, a sort of comfortable ownership of the stage, which is not something you can really get if you turn up, sound check, and perform and pack up and go. I liked coming back to my little water bottles in the same places, the bits of reflective tape indicating which button to smack on the synthesizer. This must be what it feels like to be an actor in a long-running show, where you establish a relationship with a stage enough to really play there.

I want to talk for half a second about influence. I think I’ve done this before, but it feels urgent again. I’m writing a piece for string quartet and percussion. In my normal way, I’m making a sort of “non-musical” schematic about how the piece is going to be laid out: each section just with verbal descriptions of the goings on, with a map of the sort of emotional scheme of the whole structure. I found myself writing the words, “percussion solo on resonant metals with strings doing tehillim spacings.” Tehillim, for those of you who don’t know, is an amazing piece of music by Steve Reich; in this piece, vocalists perform stylized variations on Hebrew cantillation while several percussionists play tuned drums & strings and winds reinforce harmonics structures and double the voices. For me, “Tehillim Spacings” are something I steal every day. From the minute I heard that music, I was like, “these are chords with serious emotional implications and I am gonna steal them until I can do something better.” And still, I can’t do anything better. It’s highly unlikely that I will ever do better; I’m sure I can do some variations and embellishments, but I’m not going to kid myself. So I still steal them. It’s not necessarily about the chords themselves, but the way they interface with the voices and percussion, and the ingenious use of the bass when it comes in in the special register, and the whole thing is just the best. And until I figure out a way to do it better, I’ma steal Steve’s formula.

I feel like something has gone wrong with the way influence is talked about, to use the undesirable passive voice, publicly and privately. I was once accused of “Reich-aping,” and I was like, yes, that’s literally what I was doing, but I’m randomly human? And I’m addicted to Steve Reich? And the trick he did, I can’t do better. There’s a sense, I think, that journalists “call out” influence as if it were some secret, unspeakable sexual perversion. I’m trying, in my work and public (read: online) life to undo this nonsense. We are all wearing the cloaks of influence all the time, and we should all, as composers, proudly announce the labels on these vestments. When I map out the emotional structure of a piece on a single piece of paper, I think of John Corigliano. When I put a sforzando accent on the and of 4 if in 4/4 time, I pour one out for Christopher Rouse. When I use certain chord structures, I know I’m taking them from Stravinsky. When I do a crazy multi-instrumental smudge of harmonies and their aggressors, I wish Boulez would come over my house. When I use certain harmonic modulations and motoric gestures, I thank, and sometimes email in advance homage, John Adams. I like the idea of being fully transparent about influence, if not even confessorial. I’m so bored with the idea of composers being sui generis romantic geniuses; I am obsessed with the idea of us all being inheritors, mimics, state employees, fonctionnaires, craftspeople. I had a revelation a few years ago: the pieces of music that move me most were written by people in the direct employ of the state or the church. Bach, Gibbons, Byrd, Weelkes, Taverner. With the exception of Britten and Adams, I’ve never been as fucked up by any music by a citizen composer than I have by these employees who didn’t have the time to go into the woods and commune with nature etc. Their asses had deadlines, and the responsibilities of the ecclesiastical calendar, and the choir turning up and whatever o’clock, and the music still hits me in the solar plexus.

In other news, I challenged a sort of consta-presence on twitter, who has argued for the usefulness of the term “Indie-Classical,” to a little blog challenge. She posits that it’s useful in some way, and I posit that it is offensive and a pain in everybody’s ass. So, look for that in the next few days.

Dancing out of the office, and more on Gait

from Tuesday, May15th of the year2012.

So I wrote a piece for a ballet this year, which premiered a few days ago at New York City Ballet. I am obsessed with NYCB. The shit was founded by George Balanchine, who is basically my hero; he commissioned so much gorgeous music by Igor Stravinsky, and did a thing where he simultaneously managed a huge organization, navigated The Past, whatever that is, and aimed for The Future, whatever that might be. Balanchine’s choreography is very Simultaneous: you feel like you’re participating in a tradition, as well as witnessing something forward-looking. The company has some of the greatest, greatest dancers, and the hall feels like it was built for dance, and they do much (if not all?) of their rep with live music, and have a resident orchestra — a large one! — and are generally just a great organization.

Here’s a picture of me and Benjamin at a rehearsal:

Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

The world of ballet is kind of unknowable for me; even though I’ve written four or five of the things, I still never quite know how to navigate the intense etiquette in that community. For instance, on first night, everybody’s meant to take a bow — lighting designers, costumers, composers, everybody. So you end up with all these gorgeous bodies onstage and then a bunch of us lumps, trying to figure out how not to fall into the orchestra pit. Meanwhile all the dancers are wearing Kabuki/Tammy Faye makeup and we’re sitting there with puff pastry on our lapel. It’s odd.

The City Ballet orchestra is funny to me: they’re kind of the Most Entrenched orchestra in terms of unionization in New York, I’d say. They are also a sort of national treasure: New York is, and always should be, I think, a place that does dance with live orchestral music because it is fabulous. There is not a thing better, in fact, than going to see that Nutcracker. I remember a few years ago I supported, as a member of the musicians’ union, their contract renegotiation, which argued, I had thought, that they should be allowed to miss a rehearsal for something like Nutcracker, which they’ve played ninety million times before, as long as they hired a substitute for themselves, and came back and played the show. This is, fundamentally fair; while the dancers need to relearn the piece afresh each year on their bodies, the music for that piece hasn’t changed around in a century or two. I’m not sure if this approach is quite right for a new piece, though; the practical reality of the situation is that every time I looked into the pit it was Totally Different Human Beings playing major roles. The concertmaster and many of the strings remained the same, and we sort of built up a rapport, and those who stayed around got really comfortable with the piece, which is the fun (and perhaps the point?) of rehearsal. Between the the first rehearsal and the first show, we had like three different English horn players? The principal second violin — a big part in this piece! – shuffled around, the harpist (also important) was different. It’s a strange universe, orchestral musicians; I’m not sure I’d like to play a show for which I hadn’t been at a rehearsal. I do like the idea, in a weird, abstract sense, of writing music in which any one participant can hand over her part to another person, like a relay race…although that isn’t quite what I had intended in this piece! City Ballet employed a very good trick which is that they have one arts administrator who is so lovely and friendly one feels terrible cussing him out about Nancy Drew and the Case of That’s Totally Not The Same English Horn, and then somebody else who’s actually more in charge who is a Person Invisible, as in, secret doorways and smoke, and hallways of mirrors, with whom one never quite gets a proper audience. If I write another ballet for them, which I really hope I will, I’ll make the orchestral parts deliberately modular, or maybe even change them each day, so there’s a sense of always being somebody else’s substitute. It’s like that dream where you turn up expected to give a talk about something you don’t fully grasp; sometime there arises a gorgeous spontaneity, perhaps even more gorgeous than what would have resulted through months of preparation. All of this having been said, the orchestra sounded great on opening night and I am excited to see how things develop over the run. I suppose the reason I bring it up at all is just because it’s so foreign to how I normally make music, which is by making things for specific people rather more like a choreographer would.

By the way, google this stuff about the strike in 1999; it’s really really interesting and complicated.

All of this has gotten me thinking about these giant systems that run large arts organizations, and, in turn, about the people who steer those giant ships. I’ve had, in the last few weeks, a real frustration with Out-Of-Office messages. I feel like it’s a form of modern rudeness and laziness combined and, actually, lying that messes with the arts. In my experience, a lot of thought, work, and important corrections happen in the arts between, let’s say, noon on Friday and 11:30 AM on Monday. In a lot of places (*cough* London), those are Drinkin’ Hours, and it is Simply Not Possible to get anybody in a large arts organization on the horn between those times. Maybe you can reach somebody’s very private cellphone, whose number you took down in a fit of drunken gregariousness, but nothing else. The thing that kills me, though, and the thing that happened last week (but also a bunch over the last few years) that drove me basically to the point of feces-smearing insanity was this:

Monday’s a holiday.
Friday’s therefore, an “unofficial half day”
People finish their work twelve seconds before leaving, rushing and misspelling everything.
People post the work on their way out of the door with they coat on.
People turn on an autoresponder being like “call me Tuesday, I’ll be checking email sporadically.”
Their work is nine kinds of fucked up with typos from here to there.

Right? Do you all know this trick? And then you’re like okay. It’s a couple of problems, incompetence in spelling being only one of them. What is “sporadic email checking?” There are very few places in the world where you can’t be actually checking your email. And none of them is a weekend trip from London away. (Actually, there are strangely some corners of London and New York where my internet on my phone doesn’t go, for instance, 110th and Broadway, a block in Dumbo…) Plus, you have like four blackberries; I’ve seen you rudely checking them at inappropriate times. I had a sick mother incident involving hospitals and such a year ago, and believe me when I say that after a few hours of that, the way I can reconnect with the world of the living is to check the shit out of my emails on my iPhone in the waiting room! Yes god. Those were some GOOD emails, if I recall correctly. Also the argument, “What, people don’t get to relax?” My argument: “Not if they’ve misspelled something.” I’ve taken, like, two vacations ever in my life where I didn’t bring work, and even then, somebody sends a Facebook message talmbout “why is there a staccato note tied to another staccato note” and I, at that time, found the internet in Cambodia and logged up onto the server and find the file and answered the question.

The other thing is that it’s not Vacation we’re talking about here. I understand Vacation. I’d prefer an out-of-office thing to say, “My ass? Is going to Phuket surfing for ten days, and I won’t be checking my email. I will contact you upon return.” And do you know what? Truth-telling people who send those kind of auto-responders tend to be so awesome at their job that if something is relevant, they will fix it from Thailand anyway. It goes without saying that those truth-tellers have seriously advanced in the backstages and upstairses of the world’s great concert halls and opera houses, and are going to be running the things by the time we’re all middle-aged. I like feeling that people who run the arts are colleagues — and I mean that from stage managers to set-builders to administrative assistants to box office all the way down and around. (Making operas has really brought this together for me). If we’re all colleagues, we all have to be as committed as possible to getting the best work on that stage, and for me, that involves a little bit of artistic fugueing of the obligations of a 9-5, what a way to make a living, etc. Plus also people who put out these autoresponders are never the speediest emailers anyway; it’s not like one expects them to be instant messaging one all day. Guh. Don’t be those people! Let’s all own this thing together and put in as many extra hours as we can!

Okay /rant.

Gait, this piece I’m writing for the National Youth Orchestra is slowly taking shape. As I’ve written about before, it’s a piece that deals with the way animals move. I started thinking about horses, and have moved on now to insects and humans. Do you know that there are scientists who study the way spiders run? It sounds like a bunch of harps in my universe, by the way, which seems just about right. We’ve entered now the slithering undulating gaits of millipedes (clarinets) and stick insects (bassoons, I think?). I’m going to write out some kind of embarrassing Peter and the Wolf style material and then highly stylize it so it doesn’t end up sounding like a bestiary audio-tour; this stuff is pre-compositional, not compositional, if that makes sense. It means that you invent music that gets thrown out later, as an exercise, in order to teach it to yourself, and then you really compose with it.

I’ve gone down an internet wormhole about human gaits: autistic gaits, Parkinsonian gaits. The son of a friend of mine took his first baby steps the other day, my block was renamed after a friend of a friend who walked with two canes. All of these gaits are going to find their way into the piece in hidden, subtle ways.

As luck has it, I will be writing much of this piece in Australia, where I’m told that every insect and creature that walks is going to attempt to kill me. Wombat gait:

And! Bedroom Community have released a new album of mine: Drones & Piano. It features the wonderful pianist Bruce Brubaker and my constant collaborator Nadia Sirota making the drones. This is one in a series of drone-based pieces I’ve been writing for the last few years. There exists a drone piece, now, for violin, viola, piano, soon one with cello, soon one with marimba. They’re exciting for me, because as a kid I used to sort of obsessively hum over a vacuum cleaner, or industrial noise (fluorescent lights), ambient noise (the throb of a subway station or elevator) and these are stylized, emotional versions of the same. We’ll be releasing them over the course of the next year or so, so keep watching Bedroom Community and this space for more!

Lots of Things

from Sunday, April15th of the year2012.

So I have been out of New York for a few weeks now, on a multi-purpose trip. First, to Cincinnati, for the MusicNOW! festival, which Bryce Dessner curated, at which several of my works were played by other people (including a premiere with eighth blackbird, hurray), and Sufjan, Bryce & I presented a sort of workshop performance of our new giant piece Planetarium on the closing night. I’ve been to CIncinnati a few times now; I like these abandoned midwestern downtowns like Detroit — part of me feels an acute desire to pack up all my things and buy a huge space there and start again with the luxury of room and more money not spent on rent.

Then, off to Eindhoven to put together the proper premiere of Planetarium. The physical structure of the piece is this. At the front of the stage is Sufjan, center, with two keyboards, a drum machine, four thousand pedals, and some vocal microphones. To his left is Bryce, with some guitars, five thousand pedals. Then I’m on the other side with a piano, a celeste, two keyboards, and no pedals aside from those attached to the instruments. Then, behind Sufjan, a drummer, James (whom everybody told me was raw vegan just to mess with my head) playing a standard kit augmented with MIDI-controlled pads. To his right, a string quartet, and on the other side, seven trombones. Hovering over the drums is a sixteen-foot inflatable orb covered in a sort of skin onto which various images are projected. There are also what look like prison lights surrounding the musicians. If you want to see videos of this, they’re all over YouTube; the ones I’ve seen are, I think, the handiwork of Sufjan Superfjans and therefore tend to be very close-up footage of his eyeball but you can hear relatively well.

One of the challenges we faced putting this together was imposing the “vision” for the piece onto pre-existing ensembles. Ensembles who are used to playing with one another are their own ecosystems: delicate, specific, and temperamental. To have three strangers, essentially, come in with a giant puzzle always feels, at first, abstract, and the whole piece doesn’t really ever gel until the adrenaline of performance emulsifies all the issues into submission. In that regard, we almost had too much rehearsal time! The Navarra String Quartet & the New Trombone Collective were great. One wonders what happened to the Old Trombone Collective; I had a mystic vision on stage of the Old Collective dragging their natural horns and shawms and sackbutts, serpents and bombards through a rainy Dutch town, on their way to terrify some children as part of a Flemish Mystery Play while these seven young handsome men adjusted the levels of the drum machine in their ears onstage at the Barbican.

I don’t know if anybody else has had this experience with musicians. Do any string quartets play from memory? I have this weird sense that music — especially standard rep — should be either sight-read or memorized. Like, if I were to play Bach in public I feel like I should either have it so internalized and have the interpretation be sort of the performance, or, I’d rather practice just some technical things and then have the performance be a public reading, in a sense, to see how quickly the brain reacts under pressure. Sometimes those decisions are the best ones. There is some music that I only want to hear memorized — a Beethoven piano sonata, for instance — but then other music where I feel the real thrill is hearing it navigated. Much choral music is this way, especially when done in its proper liturgical context. You have a few short hours to rehearse the week’s music, and during festive or solemn seasons, this can be a lot of music. I don’t think one ever hears, for instance, over-rehearsed music in Holy Week; on the contrary, the thrill of passiontide is heightened by a vertiginous Allegri, to say nothing of a Crux Fidelis that could fall apart at any second. In that kind of music making, one combines the skills of “knowing” a piece through what essentially is cultural context and sight-reading, bringing to bear all of one’s experience and education in a very quick, almost athletic event. It’s a quick run over sharp stones, and it’s heaven to watch.

I was chatting with a dancer friend (Australian, but living in the Netherlands) about what he thinks is a specifically Dutch rehearsal technique in which there is a lot of discussion about what everybody is doing. The gestures are planned in advance and there is the luxury, I think, of the time for everybody to chime in and have some subtle variation on the plan. I’ve found this to be very true; I put together a project with Teitur and the Holland Baroque Society a few years ago, and I sat in on them rehearsing a piece of renaissance music and it was maybe 50/50 talking/playing. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if they had to just go right out on stage and play immediately after maybe twenty minutes’ rehearsal; with musicians as good as they are, it would probably be really fun and interesting! ?

Anyway, that’s just a strange musicianship aside. I have the pleasure of having as much time — within reason — as I want to have an internal dialogue (or a collaborative one) about how a piece is going to go, but then when it comes time to write it, the writing itself is very fast. Then the editing takes forever. So I don’t know what I’m talking about, really.

On travel. One of the great pleasures about traveling with Bryce — who tours and flies about maybe twelve times as much as I do — is seeing him navigate the sometimes-at-cross-purposes itineraries of group travel and personal soothing. It’s a trick involving immediate location of the gym/sauna, and barring that, taking a wholesome trot around the town no matter how doomed. For instance, it never occurred to me that taking a run in Eindhoven in the rain would be a good call, but it was, indeed, the best call. I love watching expert travelers. Airports are, for me, still charged with a romance and melancholy that is hard to pinpoint. I love the fact that some people are there as business commuters and other people are in the middle of long, life-changing decisions. I love looking at all the places you can fly nearly simultaneously: Agadir, Taipei, Durham, Ashgabat. For some people, the airport is an extension of the office and for other people, it’s the gateway to an entirely new chapter in their lives; transferring planes in Minneapolis last month, I saw a group of four bubbling, excited girls who were about to go do missionary work in West Africa for three years, and there I was, popping back from a quick trip to Winnipeg.

B & S and I were totally those people in the airport with nine extra bags, all of which weighed as much as bodies, too many carry-ons, instruments, etc. I’ve been saying this for years, but the airport (and really most nodes of transit) need to have a “bullshit” line and a “not bullshit” line. We have all been in both situations. Sometimes when I fly to London I’m flying to London for five days and I have printed my ticket out and I did everything right and I have no bags to check and I just wanna go. Other times? I’m going there for four months, I have essentially a steamer trunk filled with suspicious-on-xray electronics, two computers, a one-way business class ticket requiring miles to upgrade, a boston terrier, a box of 150 cd’s, a series of medicines suspended in liquid, and an arabic dictionary. That’s the definition of a bullshit line. And when I’m that lady, nothing makes me more anxious than the hateful glares of the people behind me in line as they check their watches and sigh exasperatedly and mutter about my clothing in German. To maintain the dignity of everybody involved, it would be nice to have a somewhat private place in which to be a mess.

This morning I saw something extraordinary in the train station. It’s three little mini supermarkets in the Amsterdam Centraal station. The entire structure of the thing is basically grab-and-go: a sandwich, a little dish of hummus, sparkling water, coffee, the newspaper. This woman, this morning? I think decided that she was going to take this opportunity to do her grocery shopping for the week, the opportunity being morning rush hour in the busiest railway station in the Netherlands. When I say that she bought ten cucumbers, I am not exaggerating. She bought what must have been the equivalent of a half-kilo of gouda, but she attained this amount by buying twenty-five small plastic-wrapped packages of pre-sliced cheese. Numerous large-format sparkling waters, several loaves of bread. I was actually so transfixed by her decision that I stuck around and drank my coffee and watched how she was going to make this happen. Obviously, she wanted to pay in coins, and obviously, she didn’t have quite enough (and were those Swiss francs I saw in there?), and naturally, her debit card magnetic stripe wasn’t quite happening — she made a strange gesture indicating that perhaps the checkout woman should wipe the stripe with the bottom of her hijab! — and the whole procedure was the sort of epitome of ordering against the menu of a specific place and situation. Did I mention that she then tried to pack all of these things right there on the floor into her rolling luggage which required the displacement of some of her ointments and shampoos onto the floor? And that she was on the phone during this entire transaction, which, in total, took the better part of a quarter of an hour?

[An aside: in a silent train car, what must one’s psychological makeup be to think that it would be totally fine to noisily eat two entire apples? I mean I suppose it is fine; the train is still going to get there, but like…?]

This year, I’ve been amping up, as sort of an experiment, my media intake and restrictions simultaneously. I’m reading a lot more newspapers, but I’m reading less and less about the arts. A few years ago, after a particularly nasty round of press in the UK, I decided that I would be a happier person if I didn’t ever read reviews or, for that matter, previews, of my own work. And believe it or not, I’ve stuck to it. I insist on having all press archived on this site — especially the bad press! — so that in, like, 10 years, I can print it out and Jamie and I can sit around the table at the St John and laugh about everything. The thing is that if you get a great preview, the review ends up being a review of the preview, do you see what I mean? (I imagine that the other side of things is that if you get no preview, then they call you underrated and under-the-radar until you become so on the radar that the first cycle can work; being nice is really just a pre-rinse cycle). So if you roll up into London and they’re like “oh yay, Nico, he’s great!” then the review would be like, “This fat faggot from America think he allllll that and we are going to show him what time it is right here in ink!” And this can happen in the pages of the same newspaper, and will very rarely have anything to do with “were the notes and rhythms good” and will instead be like “we don’t like being told what to like.” Which is understandable. So, if we can all acknowledge that the entire arts section is essentially a review of its own self, and, to a certain extent, of the PR people/strategies at various arts organizations, why do any of us read it? How much time do we spend agonizing over (or railing against) this perpetual motion machine? This year, I made a little experiment to just not even read it at all, about art, music, dance, or really anything I care about. I haven’t given up restaurant reviews but I did try, along with various other solemnities, for Lent. And I have found that I am happier, healthier, and much more eager to be writing music and listening to music by others. I highly recommend this trick. Don’t read the good ones because they become fuel for the bad ones which you shouldn’t read either. Not reading your friends’ reviews will save you the chore of feeling like you have to write a letter to the editor, or…that tiny, tiny feeling of relief that it is not towards your own ass that such ill-will is being printed.

That having been said, I am having a harder time weaning myself off of music blogging. I am weirdly, actually, judging a music blogging contest right now!? But Lord, have mercy. I always forget about how crazy everybody is. We should all be ashamed of ourselves for participating in any of these online comments threads. I’m ashamed of myself for reading them and even more ashamed that I’m blogging about it. I remember I lost my mind a few years ago when Sequenza21 had an entire Uptown-Downtown argument in the comments thread (if you don’t know what that is, count your blessings; it’s essentially #shitoldpeoplesay). I lost my mind a few months ago when that Justin Davidsdóttir wrote some dumb thing about Philip Glass and then all of a sudden everybody and their mom (in one case, literally) got on Facebook and mouthed off, circularly and ad infinitum. Why did I read that!? I may never know, but it’s hours of my life I will never get back. I want to invoice somebody. I could have written several bagatelles in that time! And now there is this new hellery, and its attendant comments insanity. Who wins in a situation like this? Nobody. Even people who are not involved end up implicated in battles they never wanted to fight. Then you get the comments akin to those left on Toni Tony Toné Tomassini’s like, desert-island hit-generating non-contest: “Astonishing in their absence from this discussion– and evidently banished from any reckoned aesthetic importance in so-called 21st century music” — see! It’s astonishing! Banishment! Astonishment! Importance! Banishment! Astonishing! Je sues é, tone, NAY, girl. I can’t even. We all need to humble ourselves before each other and listen to the Tallis Scholars and prepare for Whitsuntide and read more about North Korea and the Navajo Nation and the history of Singapore and Saint Ambrose and pickling techniques and call our grandfathers and write thank-you notes and buy stamps for the same notes and compliment our friends’ babies and go to Evensong. Composers! Next time you find yourself tempted to get involved in some online tautological wormhole, grab some manuscript paper, and quickly set the following text for SATB voices, and send it to me. Let’s release a disc.

Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place?
He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.
He shall receive the blessing from the LORD, and righteousness from the God of his salvation. -Psalm 24, 3-5, KJV version, obvz

It’ll be the Back 2 Tha Tabernacle: Online Displacement Psalm Setting Double CD Set. And we’ll donate all the money to something awesome and have a campari about it.

[One final thing, though, and I hope that some people will join me in this; can we stop saying Indie-Classical? At least about me, for starters? The next person who says that has to come over and sight-sing through my complete unrecorded liturgical music from high school which consists of multiple Te Deums and Jubies-late, sets of responses, to say nothing of a fifty minute long Reproaches and then we’re going to solfège Ockeghem together, transposed with clefs, followed by luncheon, and then at the end of all that we can talk about “Indie.”]

Very Briefly

from Monday, April2nd of the year2012.

I haven’t had a second to write here in the last month or so, but it’s for all good reasons. I’ve been putting the finishing touches on this song cycle/instrumental cycle thing I’m co-writing with Bryce Dessner and Sufjan Stevens. It’s played out into basically nine songs with vocals in them, and two instrumental pieces (maybe three?) for the three of us, string quartet, and seven (!) trombones. We did a little workshop of it last week in Cincinnati as part of Bryce’s MusicNOW festival and are now in Eindhoven getting ready to do the actual premiere this friday.

Getting real during the workshop:

Is this ur photo? If if is, email me and I’ll credit you!

I went to London for the premiere of my cello concerto, alongside Owen Pallett’s wonderfully detuned violin concerto, with Olly Coates, Pekka Kuusisto, and the Britten Sinfonia. Nadia and Sam and Thomas came along and we did a kind of abridged version of an 802 Tour set, which concluded with Owen, Pekka, Tom Gould (for whom I wrote Seeing is Believing), and Olly joining us for a few songs, which is a sort of string playing dream team.

Owen’s piece is one of these things wherein a third or so of each section of the strings is detuned a bit, so it has the effect of creating a blurred, melting sonority. The trick is to deal in the sorts of harmonies that melt slightly into one another; I imagined, while listening to it at its first rehearsal, the kind of first steps of defrosting something in a microwave, where the edges begin to assume a different color. It’s always weird to hear Owen’s violin writing played by other people, but Pekka is so batshit genius insane that it completely worked.

We had an extraordinary series of meals in preparation for the london concerts at St John Bread & Wine:

That is the divine conductor André De Ridder in front of a huge pie. It’s got pheasant and pigs’ trotter up in. I love the feeling of bringing a million people together to share large dishes; it’s a hugely satisfying social moment. This particular moment was, perhaps, slightly blurred by the presence of somebody’s random parsimonious vegetarian colleague; I myself try to know only the most opulent vegetarians and the most omnivorous thrifty folk — the other combination is socially untenable. However! The St John is so divine that we all, loosely, made it out alive, Parsimonious V included. Surely the definition of thrift is respecting the animal enough to eat its feet!

Nadia, Thomas, Sam and I went to Minnesota where we played at the Walker, crowd-sourced good eats on Twitter, and made friends with the mayor & his wife, who are divine. Is one called the First Lady of a city, or is there another, more obscure, term?

Today, in Eindhoven, I had the pleasure of reacquainting myself with this restaurant Usine, which is in the ground floor of what I think used to be the Philips lightbulb zone. We took our pre-production meeting there, and here is Sufjan and James, our drummer, with some snails and a specialty tong:

I love a specialty tong or forcep. When my grandmother died a few years ago, it was revealed that she had a sort of obscene collection of specialized kitchen things, tart pans of every imaginable circumference, copper faits-tout meant for what one can only imagine to be extinct fish, and innumerable salt cellars and mini pepper grinders. I have inherited a set of six mint julep cups with straws featuring built-in roughage strainers; I 4c a Moment in the summer on the roof in Chinatown! Everybody come over.