i hope everyone is well and had (still having?) a great summer!
i just arrived back in valencia for my last year at calarts. i had a busy summer of musicing and meeting new people, but am glad to be back and excited for several new projects coming up this year! here's a brief rundown of stuff that's been going on/will be going on.
first and foremost, last semester i finished recording my first full length CD. it is a collection of 5 string quartets written last spring (all graphic scores and with corresponding poems), each of which is about 12 minutes long. altogether, the CD will run around 60-70 minutes. all of the works were worked on and performed by the same wonderful quartet: Jonathan Tang and Yvette Holzwarth on violin, Joy Yi on viola, and Thea Mesirow on cello. i could not have asked for better people to work with on this, not to mention they are absolutely killer players... they put a lot of time and effort into this project (out of the kindness of their hearts), and i'm very happy with how it turned out. i'll be finishing up some of the detail work in the studio this fall and will be looking to put it out on hard copy CD's before christmas. hopefully, there will also be some performances of the works around thanksgiving as well. this will be my first 'real' CD i release, so it is a very exciting time!
in addition, i am taking on the usual onslaught of projects and pieces, as well as beginning work on a large scale thesis piece to cap off my time at calarts. there will be several collaborations with dancers coming up too (one of my favorite things to do) - namely, with Manuel Meza, Jake Harkey, and Maddie Kurtz.
during this past summer, i had the great opportunity to help stage manage the Ojai Music Festival in California (check it out if you haven't heard of it!). it was a wild festival of contemporary music with some of the top players around the country and world. pretty humbling to be hanging around backstage with them. after that, i went to the Atlantic Music Festival in Maine to compose and workshop for a month. i met a lot of awesome people and musicians at that festival and had three performances: a chamber piece, "ruptures" (https://www.facebook.com/experienceamf/photos/a.1122217524459487.1073741828.134547439893172/1135799943101245/?&fref=nf); an orchestra piece, "wisps"; and a solo violin piece, "there are cracks in this fog." recordings will be coming in the fall of these works!
i think that is all for now. talk again soon!
It has been a bit! Sorry for the delay in getting stuff out and saying hello.
Lots been going on, I'll do my best to give a quick roundup of some recent projects here, as well as those on the horizon.
I wrote a piece for cellist Thea Mesirow, titled "quiet thoughts in a wide expanse," in January, which was performed at my recital in February. Thea is a senior cellist here at CalArts, headed to graduate school next year for contemporary cello performance, and was a pleasure to work with. Before writing the piece, we met and discussed concepts surrounding its composition, as well as certain strengths and/or performance tasks in which she was particularly interested. With those things in mind, I went to composing the piece. I wanted to create a work in which there were dim glimmerings of sound that floated out of an undefined, void-like space. These 'soundings' were to occupy the unstable, and maybe impossible, purgatory-land between sound and silence - or organized sound and incidental/environmental sound. To do this, I had Thea bow half-harmonics, with pauses in between, for the entirety of the piece. Half-harmonics create a very complicated and unstable sound with blended inflections of white noise, pitch, and harmonics. In addition, I had her hum specific notes in relation to the harmonic produced. These hums, for me, bring in the fragility/vulnerability of the human voice, while also blending with the cello sound in a way where it is hard to tell where the sound is coming from (this is also supported by the fact you don't have to open your mouth to hum). Everything is, of course, done very very quietly and delicately - slipping between sound and silence. One of the most interesting and gratifying things that Thea said about performing the piece was that it took an immense amount of effort and courage to produce each sounding, especially the first; in other words, to encroach in on the continuum of sounds constantly occurring.
You can listen to the studio recording here (it's quiet, so volume up a bit):
I wrote a piece for another cellist, David Mason, who is an MFA cellist here at CalArts. Another really talented player, David and I went through a similar process. With David's piece, titled "bouncebackinandaround" (there's a mouthful for ya), I played with the idea of relinquishing control of the composer (to a point) in the piece. There are fragments that alternate, more or less, in the score, between pre-composed material and the direction "make any noise, very quietly." David and I spent a lot of time talking about the concept of the work as opposed to strict rehearsing of the material - which I think was appropriate for this one. We focused in on just how complicated a single, quiet sound can be; that in one drag of the cello bow, there is an infinite amount of tiny sounds being created one after another, as each bow hair and undulation of each bow hair makes contact with the string, and vice versa. There is so much that is hidden or overlooked within a single and seemingly simple sound, often made into a melody, that it feels difficult to write more than one sometimes! On another level of this piece, there are distinct moments (or a distinct moment) in which a boundary of the world created by this piece is pushed to breaking point. This became more clear to me as the piece progressed, and was evident after recording it. These are some of the most interesting moments in art for me - where, usually intuitively, the listener or viewer is pushed in a way where they question the validity of what is happening. In many ways, this is where the 'art' happens, for me (whatever that means). It is also where the piece can very easily fall apart and become unsuccessful. Whether actually successful or not, this particular moment in David's piece opened up new - related - conceptual directions. Specifically, looking at this moment of boundary pushing as a kind of single pebble tossed in the dark, a lone murmur, or maybe a yell, into the continuum...
Studio recording here (as with Thea's, it's quiet, so turn volume up a bit):
Third big recent work was written for bassoonist Chris Foss, one of the few bassoonists around who frequently brings electronics into his solo bassoon playing (on top of being a killer player). For this one, I also performed, using a MaxMSP patch that somewhat altered Chris' live sound, but more clearly created all kinds of new other sounds, especially introducing the voice and speaking into the sound world. When we met, we traded concepts and came up with a project concerning moments, particularly in relationships, where you said nothing and did nothing, something you regret in retrospect. It evolved further from that, becoming a meditation on the act of (not) speaking, memory, vulnerability, and instability. After spending time developing concept, we began experimenting intensely with what sounds to use. And there is a whole lot when you throw electronics, bassoon, and Chris' seemingly bottomless bag of effects pedals into the mix (did I mention his bassoon has an electronic pickup? like if a Strat and bassoon had a kid...). Overall, this piece was a lot of fun to work on and both Chris and I feel pleased with the result (two performances so far). Studio recording can be found here (much louder here, but headphones still definitely needed):
A fourth big piece I wrote in January for my recital was a solo trumpet piece for Sarah Belle Reid, a MFA trumpet player at CalArts. Among many other strengths Sarah has, she is a talented performance artist and singer (with and without the trumpet) - things I wanted to capitalize on with this piece. Because the piece is very quiet, movement based, and Sarah interacts with the audience, we will be filming and recording in a controlled setting in April. I'll wait till then to give a more comprehesive description of how Sarah and I went about creating this piece, but suffice to say, her performance of it in February was pretty incredible... Sure is nice to have such talented performers making my work look and sound a lot better than I could have imagined.
In other news, Alex Hamberger, Manuel Meza, and I have completed Movements I and II of our electronics, dance, and electric bass piece, and are working on Movements III and IV this spring/summer. We're hoping to have a concert length performance of all four movements in sequence in fall of next year.
I'm working on the sound design and composing the music for an animation short, by Yonatan Tal (https://vimeo.com/yonatantal), an animator at CalArts. It's been a lot of fun to work with him and a new compositional challenge for me. Looking forward to the finished product, which is coming in April.
I've also been writing a lot of poetry and taking the Grad Poetry Workshop at CalArts. With each new musical piece, I write a corresponding poem that becomes part of the score - this has become something of a staple for me, and is one of the biggest artistic developments I've had since being here. Some of this has turned into writing Reader's Chorus pieces - a new genre (to me) I'm exploring where a choir reads instead of sings. I've written one piece (performed in April) so far, and more to come. Watching a reader's chorus perform can be a very powerful experience, I've found. I've also been writing text and poetry for various other composers around school, which is a lot of fun.
Right now, I'm beginning a project of graphic scores for string quartet (hopefully 5 pieces) and I've been re-reading some old Beckett texts, as well as making my way through his entire collection of short prose. The idea with this, other than that I miss reading his stuff, is to compose a series of pieces based on passages from his works, integrating his text in the pieces. I've written one so far, using a passage from Watt about Erskine's circle with(out) a center (performed earlier this month).
In other other news, I was recently accepted to the Atlantic Music Festival, at Colby - of all places! - this summer (month of July). It is a summer program where I will study composition with various composers and write for the AMF Contemporary Ensemble. Going to be an intense program - and, coincidentally, the bassoonist I mentioned above, Chris Foss, was also accepted to the performance and Future Music Lab program...so we will both be headed up to Maine this summer!
Okay, I think that's enough for now. Hope everyone on the other end of this is doing well!
Until next time,
And Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, New Years! I missed last month's newsletter because of all those things ^, so this one will have to be extra good.
[CHECK OUT NEW MUSIC: Especially, "glimpses through clouded glass" - a meditative collection of six pieces (an EP) recorded at CalArts before break in collaboration with the wonderfully talented Drew Corey (voice). If you listen, I would suggest wearing headphones and turning up your volume a bit. A description can be found on the SoundCloud playlist description. And if you'd like to see the scores, I'd be happy to email them to you.
New Collection of Works (available for download):
glimpses through clouded glass
New string quartet:
impressions of a four-handed clock
Alright! First off, I am back from the East Coast and am getting settled back in Valencia. It was a great break of seeing family, friends, traveling to Boston, Maine, reading, playing some guitar, and, most importantly, not doing too much work. Before I get into what's up for the spring, however, I'm going to take a little (ok, maybe bigger) detour.
And it starts with this:
Music is made to be listened to.
...And then there's the other side:
"Who cares if you listen?"
The second one is in quotes because it is the title of a (in)famous article written by Milton Babbitt, a real titan of the 20th century academic avant-garde musical scene. There is a lot more to the Babbitt quote, and many articles in support, arguing against, and clarifying what he meant by that bold statement - and all of it is too much to go into here. BUT, it is interesting because it provides a dilemma that I face with each piece I write: am I making something that people can listen to? How much of the "listenability" am I sacrificing by staying true to my original concept of the piece? Do those two things have to be in conflict or should listenability and concept be in harmony (pun intended, ha ha)? And to quickly clarify: I very much align with the first statement - music is made to be listened to. And then to quickly complicate that: what is "listenability"? I guess it is easy to say what it is not: take the Psycho theme and repeat it for 5 minutes - that's not very listenable.... Well, to complicate thatfurther, there was just an article from NPR showing that Pygmies did not find the Psycho theme stressful or scary at all (http://www.npr.org/blogs/goatsandsoda/2015/01/09/375418410/why-pygmies-arent-scared-by-the-psycho-theme). Okay. So taking for granted we are talking about the Western ideal of listenability, it is still impossible to define it: it is subjective. You like Mozart, I like Billie Holiday, she likes Tupac, he likes T-Swift. On and on. But there is something to be said for this: more people like the four artists above than, say, Stockhausen. Because, well, Stockhausen is not the most listenable composer in the world. So, although the word listenable is a slippery one, it does havesome traction.
It seems, for me at least, that when an abstract concept or a systematic method for composing takes over, it comes in conflict with the music's accessibility and listenability. And, more often than not, I begin my pieces with concepts or systems. Equally as often, I get tired of the system, or feel confined by it, or unhappy with its aural results, and I break it down. I think it is because I feel I need something to hold onto when I'm starting (rules), but then after following them, all I want to do is get rid of them and see what happens.
And that, I think, vaguely illustrates the hard-to-define divide between avant-garde music and experimental music. One is more concerned with the structure and a systematic approach to composition (how it is made - and often, the complexity of how it is made) and the other with setting sounds in motion and allowing them to develop naturally (the natural, non-judged result). Experimental is about de-packing the sounds and avant-garde is about packaging them and walking the listener through the structure on a pre-determined path. Experimental wants to expose the sounds as they are in their natural complexity, allowing unseen relationships to develop, and avant-garde wants to integrate the sounds and create balanced, pre-determined relationships. Neither, of course, is overly concerned with sounding accessible (read: something I'd listen to after a long day, when driving in the car, etc.). A good story to demonstrate the experimental side of things is a conversation Cage had with composer Morton Feldman: after looking over the score of one of Feldman's early string quartets, Cage asked, "How did you make this?" To which Feldman quietly replied: "...John, I don't know how I made it." Instead of being disappointed or critical, Cage was ecstatic. If Feldman had said that to one of the avant-garde, say Boulez, the score would likely have been deemed garbage.
So, should music be concerned with how it is made? Or how it allows something surprising and unique to develop? Or how it explores new sounds, textures, timbres, relationships, the audience, the performer even? And should music be concerned with listenability, with accessibility? What is listenable enough? And where the hell does my stuff fit in. Luckily, it is still very much evolving. Right now, I guess I float between the need for the 'how it's made' complexity of the avant-garde and the perhaps stronger desire to blow all of that up and see what happens. I find myself between wanting to ignore whether or not my music sounds accessible and listenable, while very much wanting it to be listened to and enjoyed.
Yet maybe there is something past that kind of age-old dichotomy of rules vs. breaking the rules. Maybe the listenability question should be re-framed to ask whether or not the music has 'experience-ability' - or in other words, music should be experienced and have the potential to elicit a profound effect on the experiencer. Maybe, call it, "fuzzy listening." Cage predicted the 'mainstream' river of music was splitting into many small rivers, and that soon, it would flow into a massive delta beyond the concept of 'rivers' (imagine a picture of a lot of small rivers spreading out and unfocus your eyes... becomes a fuzzy looking delta right?).
And maybe, in that delta is where the listenability and accessibility will come. Because, at the end of the day, music is made to be listened to.
Welcome to Newsletter numbah 3.
I've been thinking recently about the process of composing music and - due to some class discussions - what 'meaning' music is supposed to or not supposed to have, especially when talking about the more 'out there' or 'abstract' types of music. Yeah, whew... So, I thought it might help me to compare it all to a tennis match. Eh?
In a tennis match, like in composition, you are given a task: play the match, or in comp, write a piece. In tennis, you can have a different opponent, court, and environment each time - along with your changing mental states/health and physical states/health. Sometimes you step on court with a game-plan specific to your opponent and situation, and other times, you just head on out there and adapt as you go -- each time, though, you have your tools: tennis racquets, shoes, bag, water, food, towel. At a younger age, I often had a 'basic' game-plan that I built on and changed depending on the match: for ex., focus on breaking down his backhand or, against others, serve and volley most of the time, etc. As people get older and better, though, clear weaknesses start to disappear: backhands are as consistent as forehands, serves are more powerful, volleys more crisp. And quickly, the more 'comfortable' ways in which to approach a match are not enough to win anymore. Strategy becomes less clear and demands a more multifaceted, complex approach - now I have to hit 10 to his backhand for every 3 to his forehand, serve and volley on only every third point, drop shot him every seventh point to keep him honest, and start mixing in risky backhand winners down the line because he's too fast for the cross-court ones. Each decision becomes way more important to building the point and there are a whole lot more decisions to be made. Mix into all of this the mental side of the game and you have what seems like an impossible thing ahead: not only does every physical decision matter with even more intensity, but also your conceptual understanding of your evolving strategy and your emotional reactions to the results of each point all matter.
In music comp, I step on another type of court, with another type of game-plan (hopefully) in mind. What am I going to explore with this piece? How do I approach this in a way that I can capitalize on my strengths? I have my compositional tools and my go-to phrases (drop volleys in tennis!) ready to roll - and then the piece, or match, begins. If in tennis I stick to the shots I am comfortable with, and win easily, then the piece/match is not a challenge. But, if the opponent gets back my winners, puts me on the defensive, and forces me to find new ways to attack his game - then we have a real match. Each decision I make affects the next. If I have the cello player tap her instrument with her fingernail, what do I have the guitar player do? What happens after that? How does all of it work together? On and on. For tennis, I could begin by forcing him out wide to his forehand again and again; then that opens up the backhand side for more easy winners, which then tires him out more quickly because it 'widens' the court, giving me the productive option of hitting a drop shot to make him sprint even more. Then lob. You get the idea.
So then... what is the point of playing a competitive tennis match? What's the meaning? Is it to win? Well, ya. Some of it, anyway. We want to win - to prove that we are a good player and better than our opponent. In music, maybe 'winning' is like giving a convincing performance to an audience that conveys some elements of your intent as a composer. But winning isn't everything! Right? Most of the time (all of the time?), there are a huge number of interpretations and conclusions reached by an audience, and a bunch way way far away from your 'intent.' (side note...hearing all of these interpretations is one of the best parts of a composition, for me). But what's the rest then...? That can't be it.
Alright, let's look at tennis again. So you go, you play your match, you leave. But what about the stuff you leave ON the court? There's so much more. The sweat. Emotions. Skid marks from worn shoes. If you play a 'meaningful' match, you will have left your guts on that court. You should be beat up, weak, finished, but complete. That's the meaning: the intangible things you leave on the court after a grueling battle. And that's how it is with composition. The meaning of a piece is, yeah, partially in how you convey your intent and how it is received by an audience. But it is more so in what you put into the piece and what you leave behind with it. Nobody else can know what this meaning is because it is YOUR meaning - something impossible for others to experience as you did. They can come close, but it will not feel the same. Nobody knows how it felt the moment you dove sideways at net to reach a passing shot and drop it back over for a winner. Nobody will ever exactly understand that. But, if it is done right, people will intuitively feel it. They'll cringe as you fall hard on the court, and they'll go nuts when the ball dribbles back over. In music, it's those moments you can't immediately explain as a listener when you come close to grasping meaning in music. And meaning doesn't need to be clear or earth-shattering - it rarely is; but it is there, in everything and nothing at once.
Ok, there's my thing on tennis and music. In other news, I have a concert coming up this Saturday at 2pm in the R.O.D. at CalArts - of 2 works, 35 min piece called "In Search of Murmurings" (Emi Tamura (pno), Jonathan Tang (vln), Logan Hone (alto sax), and Joe Thel conducting) and "Undoing, Moving; I'll Go On" (co-composed with Alex Hamberger (solo e. bass) and we're joined by Manuel Meza (dancer) and a manikin!). Then I have an octet - "Gentle Loosening" - being performed on Monday at 8pm by the chamber ensemble here. New choir work is being rehearsed for a concert in December. Also applying for a big grant with the very talented Danny Clarke (composer) and beginning work on a number of new pieces, including solo trumpet for Sarah Reid, solo cello (in progress) for David Mason, trio for flute (Jen I.), guitar (Sean H.), and cello (Thea M.), dance piece (continuing) with Jake Harkey, and a series of graphic score string quartets. Working on a series of electronic pieces with Max/MSP (one to be played at a concert on Nov 16th, using tracks Kendrick Lamar's Section.80 and GKMC) - and working on continuing to develop more of my own patches. Many other things brewing. Including coffee at all times.
Till next time,
PS. new sound on my soundcloud (short solo cello work)!! And many more to come.
The Stuff You Do Outside of Class
Hey all, welcome to the 2nd newsletter! Lots to fill you in on.
So, I’m slowly starting to figure this out: life at CalArts, and being ‘successful’ here, does not have much to do with classes, homework, or academia. All of that is, of course, provided and stimulating, but there is not a huge focus on homework, assignments, studying, etc. – instead, it is all about the stuff you do outside of class: the people you meet, the projects started, concerts to put on, big ideas to think of. Maybe that is more of a preparation for life after CalArts – for life as a composer/artist – than doing endless essays and tests. I suppose the answer to that is that it takes a balance. And right now, this environment is what I need to balance out all the (equally interesting and helpful) academic stuff I’d been focused on in undergrad. That being said, it sure is different.
In this odd world of minimal academic pressure and maximal (maximum?) creative pressure, I have been spurred on to create, participate in, and take on project after project, staying as busy and on as crazy a sleep/work schedule as I’ve been used to (I’ve also somehow ended up with two part-time jobs, one as a T.A. for Tonal Skills, and another as a tutor at the Writing Center here. Lucky to have them – but WHEW). We’ll see if I can handle it all (ha ha). Here’s what I’ve gotten started this month:
1. I’m putting on a concert of two new pieces on Nov. 8th (Saturday) at 2PM, at CalArts. (If you’re in L.A. area, come!). Being played, for the first time, will be the piece I wrote for my honors thesis in music at Colby – In Search of Murmurings, for piano, violin, and alto saxophone (with conductor). This is a 35min piece that explores involuntary memory in relation to music (and inspired by Proust’s novel Swann’s Way). It will likely be performed and conducted by CalArts undergrad and graduate students, all unbelievable musicians. The second piece, being composed now, is for a solo electric bass player and live electronics (me). As long as I don’t screw stuff up too much, I think this piece is going to be really cool. It will run 25-30mins. The concert is being recorded and broadcast live as well. More info to come regarding those details next month.
2. The New Century Players Ensemble at CalArts will be performing a new Octet I wrote/am writing, called Gentle Loosening. It is for flute, clarinet, horn, electric guitar, cello, and double bass – and two people hammering nails into a block of wood. Oh, and the conductor sits center stage and flips through a newspaper upside down for the duration of the piece. ...sound interesting?
3. Movements in Unknown Space, for solo cello – a short piece I just recently composed and have had performed and recorded. I am really happy with how this one turned out. I’m just waiting for the recording to be sent to me...... When it is, I’ll let you all know so you all can listen.
4. Limping on Mirrors, for 16 voice SATB choir – a new choir piece I wrote, rehearsals for this (8-10min) piece begin next Thursday with the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble here at CalArts. I used the text from one of my (very Beckett inspired) poems and all kinds of weird/cool vocal techniques with this one. I believe this will be performed and recorded at some point this semester.
5. While Painting the Deck, for string quartet – this is the tarp/paint piece I composed over the summer...but now a string quartet will interpret and perform my funky graphic score! Really excited to hear this one. Rehearsals for this start next week.
6. Weekly coding/programming pieces using ChucK have been happening. These kind of stink, but then again I have no idea how to code... Learning slowly. (Side note: there are lots of computer whizzes in the music tech program here. Very scary(cool?), especially when they’re in my class.)
7. Weekly 1-2min dance collaborations: these are great, and part of one of my workshop classes. I’ll put some links at the bottom to my soundcloud, which has these snippet-like pieces.
8. I edited/remixed a Nine Inch Nails song clip for a choreographer to use in his upcoming dance piece, which will be performed at the end of the semester. SoundCloud won't take it because of, erm, copyright issues, but I promise it sounds cool.
9. Also, very exciting, collaborating with another composer on a 3 movement large ensemble piece that involves the audience painting a 20x40ft plywood score, some crazy electronics, film editing....... More to come on that front later. Concert tentatively planned for the spring.
So: lots of balls in the air. Now time to focus on hitting them one at a time. In other news, California continues to be great – and hot. 100 degrees today. Yup, in October.
Thanks for reading, and feel free to pass this on to others, or suggest people to add to the newsletter list.
Until next time,
Going to California...
Whew - it's been a crazy last couple weeks. But I am happy to be sending out my first newsletter to friends and family alike! Nina and I have moved in to our new home for the year and are quickly filling it up with all kinds of cool yard sale stuff - even grilled out some burgers and steaks last night with a few musicians from CalArts (and I managed not to light anything on fire, except the grill...always a danger with me in charge). Suffice to say it has been an exciting time of change as I shift into the real (?) world.
And to the reason I came all the way out here... CALARTS! What a place. I've been introduced to the campus, facilities, and people this past week (whirlwind of 'orientations') and everyone - faculty as well/especially - has been welcoming, nice, and man oh man talented. We'll see what I've got myself into real soon. The faculty put on a concert of ...odd?contemporary?avant-garde-y?awesome. original compositions, all performed by faculty - and that was incredible. One dude bowed the wood of his violin for a bit (along with all kinds of other cool techniques). Another had a computer algorithm that took his violin glissandos (sliding up and down the strings) and expanded them into 8 lines of contrapuntal noise that interacted with his performance. Most of all I think I have been struck by people's - students' and faculty's - fearlessness. We'll see if I can follow along. As long as you have reasoning behind what you are doing, anything goes. At least that's what I'm getting so far. In any case, classes start on Monday: I'm taking everything from how to write for strings to the history of composing sound art. Can't wait.
In other interesting/exciting news, I've been put in touch with Italian pianist Francesco Attesti who has expressed an interest in performing my Clarinet and Piano duet at one of his concerts (either in the US or Europe)! Way cool. You can see him at his website www.attesti.com.
For now, though, the focus is on school and writing as much as I can. Should be a wild ride.
Until next time,