Friday, December 4, 2009

The Real (?) Me program

Here is the program from a concert I presented in Brooklyn. I am very excited about all the performances and I am looking forward to putting on the whole concert again on March 19th at Roulette. Click on the names of the pieces to watch complete performances or click here to watch the concert in its entirety.

November 15, 3pm Douglass Street Music Collective

“Be devoted to the unification of the diverse aspects of yourself.”
-Tom Waits


by Tom Swafford
Tom Swafford, violin
members of the audience

by Tom Swafford
to Suzanne Fiol
by Tom Swafford
String Power
violins:Anna Brathwaite, Mark Chung, Liz Hanley, Tom Swafford, Helen Yee, Jeff Young
violas:Megan Berson, Leanne Darling, Nicole Federici
cellos:Loren Dempster, Brian Sanders
bass:Peter Maness

Times Square Shuffle
by Tom Swafford
The Swizzy Winds
Erica Von Kleist, flute; Sally Wall, oboe; Mike McGinnis, clarinet;
Rachel Drehmann, horn; Sara Shoenbeck, bassoon

18 Germs
by Tom Swafford
1. Fanfare
2. Shitty Fugue
3. Shiny Turds
4. 70’s Car Chase
5. “Pass the God Damn Butter”
6. Crappy Canon
7. Groovy
8. Fuckin’ Fast
9. Doubles
10. Free, baby!
11. Austere, baby!
12. Gently, Delicately
14. Crappy Canon #2
(Proust in his first book
wrote about, wrote about)
15. Pass the God Damn Butter Pt.II (Pass the God Damn Peanut Butter)
16. A Simple Device
17. Awkward
John McDonald, piano

This is the Real Me
by Tom Swafford (with Gelsey Bell)
Gelsey Bell, voice

by The Ensemble
Tom Swafford, violin; John McDonald, piano; Loren Dempster, cello
Mike McGinnis, clarinet; Sara Schoenbeck, bassoon

Your (so called) 'Music'
by Tom Swafford
Lee Todd Lacks, voice
String Power

Interstate 81
by Lee Todd Lacks
Lee Todd Lacks, voice
Pete Maness, bass
Jeff Gretz, drums

Cracker Jim Crow
by Tom Swafford
lyrics by Andy Mullen
Andy Mullen, banjo and voice
String Power

Much of the text in Hecklepiece comes from comments made to me in various performing or composing situations. I am interested in the psychology of musical taste; what criteria people have for judging the value of a particular piece or genre of music. I am very aware of this while playing in the subway and looking at the expression in people’s faces as I play, for example, a fiddle tune vs. something classical. I’m especially intrigued by the rare instances when a person seems morally offended by my musical choice. The text in this piece also represents my own inner critic. I have recently come to the conclusion that I need to listen less to both inner and outer critics.

I formed String Power in May 2007, soon after arriving at New York. Inspired by my roommate Krista’s extensive CD collection, I first set out to write a set of music in various styles (funk, jazz, old time, thrash metal) and then realized I might learn something by transcribing the actual music. My goal was to showcase the many excellent NY string players and to demonstrate the often overlooked capacity strings have for textures besides pretty, lush backgrounds. Leanne Darling and I do the arranging and I also program my own compositions. Expectorant and Lozenge are influenced by the music we’ve played in String Power. I am dedicating this afternoon’s performance of Lozenge to Suzanne Fiol, the founder of Issue Project Room, who passed away last month.

I wrote Times Square Shuffle soon after arriving in NY and (not surprisingly) it represents my impressions of the atmosphere of midtown Manhattan. The honking of horns and yelling of angry drivers transforms into a original shuffle feel blues tune that becomes less and less hidden. I also quote a bit of Fugue 4 from book two of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. I think that the fugue texture works well to depict hectic pedestrian and vehicular traffic situations.

18 Germs was written in January 2009 for my composition teacher from Tufts and the guy who inspired me to do what I am doing, John McDonald; much of the piece is influenced by John’s playing and compositional style. The pieces can work as is or as jumping off points for compositions or improvisations. I had not written my own music in a while and I felt the need to re-establish my own compositional voice by forcing the music out as fast I could without worrying about quality. This is one reason for the irreverent titles. I am also in the process of working out my aesthetic and, at least for the moment, I am more concerned with broad, spontaneous gestures than carefully worked out music. This comes partly from my experience in free improvisation.

This is the Real Me is like no other piece I have written. It could be about many things and there is a lot of room for interpretation for both performer and audience. For me it is about figuring out who I am as an artist and as a person. The end of the piece is influenced by my experience playing with the folk-punk band Meisce. While I would not call myself punk, I like the joyful and at the same time aggressive energy of the punk culture.

It is this piece that inspired me to put on this concert and the process of working on it has opened up a new direction in my artistic thinking. I now feel like am starting to figure out what I want to say with music. Words cannot describe how grateful I am to Gelsey for working on this piece with me. It would not exist if not for her. It is not the kind of piece that can be simply notated and handed to a performer. Her input and her enthusiasm for performing this piece have been invaluable.

John McDonald introduced me to free improvisation when I joined the Tufts University New Music Ensemble in 1991. Loren Dempster and I played in the Roosevelt High School Chamber Orchestra together from 1989-91 and from 1997-2001 we played together in the Bay Area in the free improvisation ensemble ø24c. I met Sara in Seattle several years ago and I met Mike last year in New York. All four of these people are some of my favorites. To me, free improvisation is more meaningful when you have a history with the people you are playing with. TOJOLO MISA is just my not so clever way of indicating the order I want people to enter and the groupings for the beginning of the piece.

Your (so called) 'Music' is a musical setting of an actual piece of hate mail I received after the last big concert I put on in Seattle in 2006. That concert featured the three improvisation groups I worked with: Doublends Vert, Cipher and The Golden Crackers as well as music inspired by my work with those ensembles. I was both proud and ashamed to receive such a vitriolic response. It does lend itself well to outlandish musical expression. I am very happy to have my good friend Lee Todd Lacks (who I met in 1993 when he joined the Tufts University New Music Ensemble) joining us on this piece, playing the part of the angry letter writer, Brad.

Lee Todd Lacks writes:
Interstate 81 is the title number from a performance piece that recounts my family’s experience of traveling from Cohasset, Massachusetts to New Orleans, Louisiana. This particular piece deals with a late night driving dilemma that occurred towards the end of our first day on the road. As I was writing what some might refer to as a rant, I was inspired by the unique vocal style of the B-52's lead singer, Fred Schneider, whose delivery freely alternates between speaking and singing.”

Cracker Jim Crow is written in the Old Time style. I was introduced to Old Time music while busking in Seattle. Soon after I joined his group Potbelly Gumbo, Andy Mullen turned me on to some great old time fiddlers like Bruce Molsky and I became very intrigued with all the rhythmic subtleties, particularly with the bow hand. I also started to believe there is something more healthy in old time players approach. In a memorable scene from the short film “My Old Fiddle,” legendary fiddler Tommy Jarrell is given a Stradivarius to try. He doesn’t like it. It is not the same as his own, beat-up fiddle that he has had all of is life.

I am finally realizing what most of us already know: I can write whatever I want! I can make my own aesthetic decisions without adhering to any one else’s concept of what is good or bad. What I am asking myself most lately is: What makes music meaningful to me? Why do I write music? What am I trying to communicate? It is not any one particular thing but more of an attitude towards music making that can be applied to any style. For me music is as much about sound as it is about all of the experiences I associate with making music and the people who I make music with.


Gelsey Bell is a vocalist who regularly performs with new music ensemble thingNY and moonlights around with various other music, theatre, and dance groups in the city. She is also a singer-songwriter (and will be releasing her second album In Place of Arms sometime this spring), a PhD Candidate in Performance Studies at NYU, and the Managing Editor of TDR: TheDrama Review. She wants to thank Tom for the opportunity to work on developing this piece with him: it's been a joy!

Hatched from a 1967 Dodge Dart, Lee Todd Lacks came into this world at a time when music was changing forever. During his formative years, Lee Todd spent many hours riding in the back seat of the Dodge listening to his mother’s favorite tunes on the radio. Recognizing her divine obligation to foster the genius of her first-born offspring, Mama Lacks exposed him to only the most aesthetically-stimulating repertoire of The Guess Who, Three Dog Night, Rose Royce, and The Bee Gees. When he reached the age of first awareness, Grandma Alice and Grandpa Dick showed Lee Todd the Way of the Coupe Deville. Under grandma and grandpa’s loving tutelage, Lee Todd flourished, and many years later, he was admitted to Tufts University with the intention of pursuing a masters in ethnomusicology. However, while at Tufts, he fell under the influence of some rather extraordinary characters, who subsequently encouraged his penchant for self talk and clarinet squawk. As a member of the New Music Ensemble at Tufts, Lee Todd began to develop a modest reputation as a performance artist and has since performed at venues in Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, and now, Brooklyn! He currently resides in South Portland, Maine, with his wife, Heather, and their two dogs, Henry and Eliot. After a long hiatus from the stage, Lee Todd is eager to resume his peculiar practice of speak and music. Lee Todd’s retrospective album, Reassembled, will be released later this fall.

John McDonald was recently promoted to Professor of Music at Tufts University, where he is Director of Graduate Music Studies. He is a composer who tries to play the piano and a pianist who tries to compose. McDonald was named the 2007 MTNA—Shepherd Distinguished Composer of the Year by the Music Teachers National Association, and received the 2009 Lillian and Joseph Leibner Award for Distinguished Teaching and Advising from Tufts University. His recordings appear on the Albany, Archetype, Boston, Bridge, Capstone, Neuma, New Ariel, and New World labels, and he has concertized widely as composer and pianist. New releases include pianist Andrew Rangell’s performance of McDonald’s Meditation Before A Sonata: Dew Cloth, Dream Drapery, on Bridge Records. Recent performances at the Goethe Institut of Boston and at Tufts have been highly acclaimed. McDonald is a member of The Mockingbird Trio, directs the Tufts Composers Concert Series, and serves on the boards of several performance organizations in New England.

Tom Swafford performs with Emanuel and the Fear and Potbelly Gumbo, freelances with artists in a wide variety of styles and busks in the NYC subways. Current composition projects include Anthropomorphic: The Musical with book and lyrics by Timmy Young presented by The Puppetry Arts Theatre (December 12, 13 at Court Street Regal Cinemas). Tom grew up in Seattle where his musical parents encouraged him to start violin and piano at an early age. He played in orchestras, jazz and rock bands in middle and high school. He attended Tufts University where he majored in music and clinical psychology and studied composition with John McDonald. He received a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley where his principal teacher was Olly Wilson. He then studied in Amsterdam for a year with Louis Andriessen. He returned to Seattle in 2002 where he soon joined up with Seattle’s vibrant experimental music community. He also began busking at Pike Place Market and joined the Irish punk band Meisce. He moved to New York in March 2007. Tom received a Charles Ives Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001 and an Eisner Prize (1998) and Hertz Traveling Fellowship (2001) from the University of California Berkeley. He has received grants and awards from 4Culture, Jack Straw Foundation and CityArtist. This is about the 8th full length composition concert Tom has presented since his first at Tufts University (with the encouragement of John McDonald) in 1993.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Real (?) Me

Today in the subway as I was packing up a guy gave me a $20 and wanted change. As I was fumbling around trying to give him a big wad of ones he asked me what everyone always asks me "where do you study?" I suppose to most people I look like a young music school student. Then I explained that I attended Tufts University and the University of California at Berkeley. I don't usually go into too much detail about the fact that I studied composition and not violin performance or the fact that I am actually way older than I look or that I have had a wide range of musical experiences outside of the school setting. Lately I have felt a bit adrift playing and writing in such a vast and often contradictory set of genres- country, rock, musical theater, experimental, classical, etc. Many of us wear these multiple musical hats. But I have been feeling the need to narrow it down and decide which musics (because it could be more than one) are my true voice. So I am presenting a concert of my own music called The Real (?) Me. See my myspace site for a slideshow of the very talented Gelsey Bell rehearsing the centerpiece of the show: This is the Real Me. I like the fact that this slide show appears in the "About Tom Swafford" section. The reality is I'm not sure how much the piece is about me, or if it is about Gelsey, if it is about everybody or if it's about nothing. It will mean different things to different people. I did a workshop performance of it in August and in that situation it was definitely about me. As I looked at the pictures of Gelsey I thought "Do I actually do any of these gestures?" I think there may be a few that I do. The piece consists of musical material (various styles of singing, extended techniques like grunting, etc.) and mime, gestures, facial expressions and audience participation. All of these are indicated in the score, although I have made it less and less specific realizing that it works far better to give the performer a general indication and have her run with it.

We all form opinions of people based on what we see. And everyone has different sides of them that they show in different situations. In every musical situation I'm in - playing pop string arrangements, playing in a bluegrass band, playing in a rowdy Irish punk band, busking, playing at a wedding, writing a musical, playing free improv- part of me wants to show the sides that people aren't seeing. This concert will provide me with the opportunity to show the sides of my musical self that I most want to show. It will be what is, at least for now, closest to my true musical/artistic soul.

Go to for more information about the concert, including links to some of the other performers.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

letter received by Tom in February 2006

Here is a marvelous letter I received in February 2006 in response to a concert I presented in Seattle. The concert featured three improvisation ensembles I had worked with over the previous 3 years: Doublends Vert, Cipher and The Golden Crackers; and two compositions inspired by my work with these groups. I hope you enjoy...

Below the letter are some thoughts about the things this letter brings up.


At first, after listening to your (so called) ‘music’ on the 19th at Consolidated Works I was upset that I’d wasted the time and the $15.00. But then I realized the value of hearing the worst example of composing (so called) (or improv or whatever) that I could imagine, because at least it makes me better appreciate actual/real composing. It was embarrassing to sit through it though and see people think they were actually listening to something and applauding. And it was also painful to see otherwise probably very good musicians being gullible enough to waste their time and respect (or dignity etc.) playing it.

Other than sitting through a Junior High Concert once, that was the Absolute Worst music (so called)experience of my LIFE.

Do yourself and other people a favor and do something else with your time.

Otherwise all you are doing is degrading people’s music sensibility.


I had gone to the concert there on the 12th with Karen Pollick (& Sokolov) and thought I’d discovered a sort of Gold Mine to hear (great!) music, but now I somewhat doubt I’ll ever go there again. The guy on the phone who gave me your address asked me if I’d heard the part with the drums and violin. I left before that. (I just couldn’t stand it anymore).

But so what if that drums and violin part was good.

It was probably nothing compared to the dullest part of the previous week’s concert,

and no matter how it was, it would not have compensated for the previous hour of drudgery and ridiculousness.
What was especially aggravating was the droning on and on of notes – such as that 1st thing with the accordion, flute, violin, bassoon and/or oboe etc. I was thinking

“OK, so this first piece of ____ is a drag, I’m sure things will get more interesting.”
But then the next ‘piece’ is the same droning and droning (and also a lot of the clarinet and piano at the start of the 2nd half when I finally just left).

Actually I think that’s sort of an arrogant thing to do to an audience – as if you’re some sort of Buddah (sic.) forcing everyone to endure this boring droning – as if it is somehow ‘meaningful’-
I don’t care how much of an audience might be duped into thinking it is. But even the fast stuff was not that interesting, at least not for me.

(This letter is not about your own personal violin playing. For all I know
you might be a very good violin player when playing actual/real music. And I
didn’t stay to hear the drum/violin ‘piece’)


This letter brings up a lot of issues that a lot of us in the contemporary music world consider from time to time.

At the moment I'm particularly interest in Brad's comment: " if it is somehow ‘meaningful’- AND IT IS NOT." I am thinking a lot about what makes music meaningful.

Brad is not lying. This drone music that we were playing I'm sure had no meaning for him because he had nothing to relate it to. Without some way in to this kind of music (or any art really) it will not have meaning for people. For Brad to assume that because it meant nothing to him it was devoid of meaning from an objective point of view is of course very arrogant and ignorant on his part.

One thing I learned in my undergraduate intro to Ethnomusicology class is that music is not a universal language. A friend of mine at Berkeley told me that her father enjoyed Chinese Opera but hated Puccini.

One of my goals as a music educator is to give people a reference point so that all music can become meaningful.

The "droning" music on this concert was in fact, in my humble and subjective opinion, very beautiful. The trio Doublends Vert (myself with Annie Lewandowski, accordion and Adam Diller, clarinet) had been working together for three years and release two CD's. A self titled CD on Present Sounds records and one on Line called Cistern which was recorded in the empty 2 million gallon reservoir with 43 second reverberation at Ft. Worden. We had developed a way of blending our timbres and creating very slowly developing and subtle music. I had never thought that deeply and carefully about sound until playing with that group.

I hate to admit it but I think that Brad's letter was part of the reason that, when I moved to NY a year after this concert, I decided to form a group to play pop, jazz and folk music arrangements and I decided also to try my hand at writing Broadway style musicals. I wanted to create some music that people didn't hate.

I am proud of Brad's letter, however. I feel honored to have provoked this strong of a reaction. I had a feeling that Brad had been introduced to contemporary music the week before in what was probably a slightly more conventional concert with notated music and probably no drones.

Another interesting thing about Brad's response is, although the concert was rather drone heavy (in addition to Doublends Vert, the Lake Washington Woodwind Quintet performed my arrangement of a recorded Doublends Vert improv) the other improv group, Cipher (me with Tari Nelson-Zagar, violin and Greg Sinibaldi and Jesse Canterbury, clarinets) played some very active non-drone music. And Beth Fleenor, clarinet, and Tiffany Lin, piano, played my composition Dubious Diversions which is very driving rhythmically although, OK I admit, the end was slow.

And Matt Crane (drums) and I of course played no drones but Brad missed that part.

In addition to educating people so that they can gain meaning from contemporary music I am interested in composing music that will have meaning even for people outside the contemporary music community. I believe that every sound is potentially full of significance for any listener. I am not interested in pure sound but in sounds that have associations. They may suggest other music or extra-musical sounds. I like the idea of composing with this in mind.

Of course all music has meaning for the person creating it or what would be the point of creating it? I think about that too though. I want to really write music that is full of meaning for me personally. It's easy to just think of an instrument and start to write a bunch of notes for it. I am understanding more now why my professors had me listen to (for example) every oboe piece I could before I wrote an oboe piece. Every time you write for an instrument you are in some way relating to every sound that instrument has ever made.

I like to write with specific people in mind too. This helps me a great deal to know something about the personality of the person I am writing for.

I remember in my lessons with Andriessen he said he is more interested in ideas than in talking about notes. I would just plop down my scores in front of him and wait for him to start talking. Only now am I beginning to understand the concept of writing music about ideas.

I think as I start to discover my own musical identity I will write more and more pieces with a certain idea I am trying to convey. It might be an image, an experience, a processing of some life event, etc.

I wrote a little piece based on this letter. It's a silly piece but found it very therapeutic both to write and perform. And I think it (like the letter) brings up some issues that are worth considering for composers, performers and audience.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


Here is a blog I wrote a few months ago but never published. Who writes drafts of their blogs? Well I do. I don't know who the heck is ever going to read this. But anyway here's what I was thinking back in February:

Last October I took part in a festival at Tufts University (my alma mater) honoring composer T. J. Anderson. Anderson was on the faculty for many years and retired just before I studied there. I performed Anderson’s trio Ivesiana with fellow alum Jason Coleman on cello and my composition teacher from Tufts, John McDonald on piano. The parts are independent so we each had a lot of freedom- it was a piece I could really sink my teeth into. The whole weekend was inspiring. There was a seminar on African American composers during which my main teacher from Berkeley, Olly Wilson, spoke as well as many others. I especially liked what Wilson had to say about his experiences as a composer. Someone asked about racism and Wilson said he and all the other African-American composers (including Anderson) working in the 50’s and 60’s had a “fire in their eyes.” They had to prove that they were just as valid as white composers in an environment considerably more racist than today’s. The act of composing music had an added meaning for them at that time. And of course it wasn’t only in composing but in everything that they did. And, as Trevor Weston (one of my fellow Berkeley graduate students) mentioned, this is something that continues to be an issue.

Wilson mentioned something that resonated with me. He said that the reason he writes music is to express his life experiences through sound. He uses music to communicate something about his life. I have been thinking a lot about how I can write more personal music; music that is true to me. Not every composer considers music so personally. Every composer’s music reflects something about the composer’s personality; but not every composer views music as a form of personal communication. For some composers music is more about ideas, or the structuring of sound.

I am always asking myself: “Why do I write music?” What is the point? What am I trying to accomplish by creating music? I believe my goals are the same as Wilson’s- to communicate something about my life. I have heard that the average person needs to say a certain number of words every day. If they don’t, they can feel blocked up and they may have trouble sleeping at night. I would like to say much more than I say, in an average day. I am fairly quiet most of the time. So I think that music is a way for me to get out what I can’t seem to get out in normal every day conversation. But I have realized that creating music is not the same as speaking and, no matter how much music I have made in a particular day, if I haven’t gotten words out I may still feel unsatisfied.

But creating music does fulfill a need, even if it is independent of the need to speak a certain number of words in a day.

I have written a lot of music that is not really me. I’ve written a tango, quite a few pop string arrangements and I’m working on a musical. I like all of that music but I don’t think it reflects who I really am. Many composers have their public and private musical styles. At some point, all composers have to write for someone else, whether it is a school assignment, a film score or a commission. The trick is to fulfill the obligation while at the same time being true to your self. How do you really know if you are writing what you truly want or writing what someone else wants? Maybe a sign of a mature composer is that he or she is really writing only for him or herself. I used to think you have to consider your audience but maybe I’ll only feel like a real composer when I forget completely about who I am writing for (musicians or audience) and follow only my own musical path. But I hate the idea of alienating an audience. If my goal is to communicate something about my life I want the thing that I am communicating to be clear.

But instrumental music is always abstract. It is difficult to communicate specific ideas through sound. It is of course easy to communicate feelings. It sounds to trite to say that I want to write music about my feelings. Music expresses_________? You can write music about music. you can write music about world events, you can write music about politics, you can write music about ideas, music can be a cultural expression. Music is always a cultural expression- but whose culture? Is it your culture? it a culture that you have appropriated? Is it really you? Is your music really you or are you acting? Are you just playing the role of the composer? What do YOU want? I ask myself that all the time- what is it that I want to write? What kinds of sounds do I want to make?

I got a little write-up in one the Seattle papers that said “Tom Swafford, avant-violinist.” And that’s the majority of what I did in Seattle- play avant violin. But is it who I am? I play a bit of fiddle, a bit of this, a bit of that- but I haven’t delved in to anything deeply enough to call myself a bluegrass fiddler. I can play in the style and sound fairly authentic- although to discerning ears it still will sound like a classical violinist playing fiddle. I have to work to avoid sounding like a classical violinist.
I remember when ø24c (the improvisation group that I played in when I went to Berkeley) performed at Mills College one of the Mills students described our music as “EGO MUSIC.” That was collective improv- but we did all have our own voices and we showed off- it was extroverted at times. There were solos.

I write EGO music.

Boulez says: “Too great a knowledge of things inspires respect in us and prohibits spontaneous usage” So do I have enough knowledge of these styles of music to appropriate them? Or maybe I have too much respect now and my usage of them will not be spontaneous…

While busking- angry lady says “play something else!” I say “what?” “stop playing these silly little songs and play something else!” I was playing Ashokan Farewell. Before that I think I was playing some bluegrassy type of thing.

What she doesn’t understand is that real composers appreciate the simple- in folk music, in popular music- they don’t look down on other forms of music as inferior. What causes this distorted, delusional thinking in people? This disgusting, repulsive flaw in logic that would cause such a ridiculous, absurd reaction to a piece of music? That someone would actually be offended by a piece of music. That any piece of music could actual anger someone is beyond me. But even more so is this idea of taking offense- who is this woman to be offended by “silly little songs”? It’s a form of prejudice- admittedly not as serious as racism but still in the same category. One example maybe the association of something that sounds like fiddle music with hillbillies- backward country bumpkins who are inferior to other people…. something like that….

At Tufts freshman year in discussions with my friend Ulysses I realized that there is no such thing as good, bad, better or best- no such thing. we’re all the same. No one is superior or inferior. But then I went back to Ayn Rand- my dad wrote “trash but provocative” on a collection of her writings… she says there are indeed good and bad quality people. So are there objective criteria for good and bad music? That’s the big question, isn’t it… I say no, it’s all subjective.

LIVING it--- I call playing with Meisce (the folk/punk band I played with in Seattle) and even these other rock bands and all this other music—that’s living it, being in it, being part of it, being an active participant in the culture, in the fabric, even playing on the subway, much better than sitting in a room studying – maybe it comes into the music

I wouldn’t write a piece and say it’s based on Gangsta rap – or some other music that isn’t part of me

that concept I like a lot- taking the essence, one gesture, one element of one gesture, one nuance- what is it about this music that identifies it as this particular genre? what is meaningful? what are people connecting to most- a certain bend of the note makes it country music- something like that- I think about that all the time

also I like DECAY- slowly, naturally, organically, something changes, disappears- but the patterns that this makes, pieces missing, changing, being changed
I like the subway posters that people have defaced too
and I’ve always liked ruins, and what’s called urban decay too
and mold,

part of this natural process- does this make it authentic?

also intuition- letting it out, letting it be what it is

like my friend artist Guido van der Werve’s talk today- the chess players who just look at the pieces, and intuit what to do- based on the visual experience, and based on their feeling- something beyond thought-

and also I liked what Guido said about being direct- simple- simple ideas. without making them complicated and therefore art can become obscure

his ideas, like walking in front of the ice breaker, or his film “the day I didn’t turn with the world” where he stood at the north pole for 24 hours and turned exactly opposite to the way the earth was turning on it’s axis. very powerful- someone could write a lot about the power of this gesture- this act. but it’s the act itself (and it’s documentation) that guido is concerned with.

My friend studied Kurtag as a musicologist. She asked him for permission to write about his music and he said “do whatever you want. I won’t read it. I despise academics.” and so she quit musicology and became a singer instead.

authentic – how can you be authentic- what is real? what is really you?

any time any situation when are you acting and when are you being your true self? or do you have a lot of selves? we all wear a lot of masks- different personas we take on.

but what about music- when is music real?

Some composers are criticized for writing “film music.” What is film music? What makes music film music? These critics are not talking literally about music written for films- they are referring to a style.

Is it impersonal? Written for some other purpose besides expression?

Other composers are praised for pushing the envelope of what music can be-

guess what? I am not interested in that either.

at the same time I am- but it is not what is most important.

I want to distill this authentic music. this bluegrass. this old time. this country. even Manu Chau’s Cladestino (a song I like a lot that I learned at a jam session)

it goes back to a personal expression. emotional. real. authentic.

I am expressing both my own experience and the experience of others in my culture- but what is MY culture? I’m not a member of any culture particularly, especially being a white male. Which is why I want to go to my family reunion in Tennessee. I was disappointed to see that a Swafford was on the committee to discredit Obama’s presidency b/c he submitted a photocopy of his birth certificate- making it doubtful he was even born in the USA and therefore ineligible to become president. But he is president now.

who am i? what group am I part of? what music is really mine? what music do I have a right to appropriate? how can I make authentic music? how can I reflect the multiple musical experiences I have and continue to have in my music? Will it come naturally if I just let it? Is it something that I really need to think about?

and can I write about these things without seeming like an egotistical asshole?

every composer believes they have the potential to write the greatest music ever- they might not have written it yet- but at least the potential. so do I- what I’m trying to do is write music that I like. That I really really like- better than anything I’ve ever heard- because it’s a distillation of all the elements of all the music I’ve ever heard- combined- taking all the elements of all the music I like. But reducing it- not taking a particular motive, or rhythm, or timbre- but reducing it further to the nuance. to the very specific, microscopic thing that makes it what it is. and that thing- that thing is what moves me as a listener.

I’m writing for me. I want to write music that, even if I didn’t’ write it, I would think- gosh I love that. It’s my tastes.

I don’t want to write or play music that I wouldn’t want to listen to.

It is an unattainable goal. Just like Guido’s movie about unattainable goals, like playing every possible chess game. or counting every star, or tuning a piano perfectly (these are the three sections of a movie) and somehow tuning a piano is supposed to relate to building a house on a fault line – darn I should have thought of asking that at the talk- then I would have seemed really smart.

Friday, September 26, 2008

What I am trying to do

Lately I've been playing some fiddle music with a great singer/songwriter Andy Mullen. The band is bass, drums, banjo, guitar and myself. Andy plays Old Time music and gave me a couple of how-to videos by Brad Leftwich. It's a completely different philosophy of and approach to music. I found the tune Boll Weevil on the videos. Leftwich includes sheet music but this doesn't communicate the subtleties of the style- you really need the video for that. This kind of music really requires aural transmission. He talks a lot about Tommy Jarrell- who is kind of folk hero of Old Time fiddle. He died in 1985. There are a couple of movies made about his life, Sprout Wings and Fly and My Old Fiddle- both by Les Blank. According to Leftwich, Boll Weevil is one of Jarrell's signature tunes. On My Old Fiddle Jarrell plays and sings Boll Weevil., which is told from a cotton farmer's perspective, after the boll weevil has destroyed his cotton crop.

I wanted to write a piece using these gestures from fiddle music. The same gestures are in blues music- and Boll Weevil is an especially bluesy song. According to one website it is originally a blues song. So you have both black and white tradition. I think when people think of fiddlers, Old Time and bluegrass music they may not realize how much influence African-American people had on this music- and there are many African American fiddlers.

My original intent was to write a piece that just used these gestures, which I use a lot when I improvise. But it was much more meaningful to take an actual tune, with all of the history behind it- of white and black people, of the cotton industry etc. I think that by playing this particular tune I am connecting to my own Southern roots (my dad's side of the family is from Tennessee and my mom's side is from Ohio). By tuning my violin in this tuning and taking these few notes and particular articulations I am attempting to channel the past. Right now there isn't much to it- my "assignment" (given to me by my former teacher at Tufts, John McDonald for an upcoming festival) was to write a two minute violin solo. It's an idea I want to explore more. It's nothing new at all. Composers have always used folk music. What might be different is the use of the fiddle timbre and these articulations which I believe I can do fairly authentically. I want to incorporate not just the notes but the way that I play into the composition. And I want to be able to translate these things for other players.

I tried a version of Boll Weevil with my good friends ( and great musicians) fretless guitarist Tom Baker, bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck and clarinetist Jesse Canterbury for a performance last week at the Fretless Guitar festival. It went very well. My next step is to integrate these things into a more fleshed out, notated composition.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Why Slayer?

I put together my group String Power last May. I was inspired by my housemate’s extensive CD collection. Originally I intended to compose music in these various styles. But after listening I thought I could learn more by arranging the music. My ultimate goal is to absorb elements of this music into my own compositional style. It’s been a real treat putting on shows with these folks because they are superb musicians- they can basically sight-read anything I put in front of them and play with the right feel. Plus they are very enthusiastic. It’s not often that string players get to play music outside of classical music. And we enjoy playing with each other. It’s amazing to write something one week, then a week later walk one block to the rehearsal space and hear it played by the full ensemble, and two days later, put on my fancy orange bellbottoms (courtesy of Stuart Dempster) and perform it at a club on the lower east side. So far our hit seems to be Slayer’s Raining Blood- which I arranged last year. I doubt this arrangement will help me get a college teaching position (my ultimate goal) but it’s been fun. Here is a video of it. What follows is a long and rambling explanation of why I chose Slayer.

Why Slayer? My arrangement is ok- it still needs work though. And certainly the players are excellent- they can really pull it off. I could not have asked for more. But it still sounds like classical musicians playing Slayer because that's what it is. Many of us play other styles but there’s no getting around the fact that we are classical musicians at heart. And there is nothing wrong with that. I thought that if I transcribed Raining Blood for string orchestra it would sound a bit like Bartok. When you take any music out of its context you lose a lot of the original intension. Obviously, without Dave Lombardo’s drums and Tom Araya’s vocals a lot is lost. And I haven’t precisely recreated what guitarists Hanneman and King played either. What I want to do is tap into that energy.

Slayer means something to me. I’m not a big Slayer fan. I hadn’t owned any Slayers albums and I bought the CD in order to transcribe the tune. But I have had different peripheral associations with Slayer through people I’ve known. The Irish punk band I played in, Meisce, are part of Seattle’s punk and metal scene. Several of the members play in metal bands and we were always on the bill with those bands. So, as a fiddler in the band I was associated with that world though certainly not really part of it. I wouldn’t have attended those shows if I wasn’t in Meisce but I did pick up something from being there. It is more than just the sound. Like any community, the members of the punk scene share a similar outlook on life. It was never me, exactly, but there are aspects of that world that resonate with me.

These days there are a lot of musicians working in many different and contrasting styles. Being one of these musical chameleons enables me to gain some insight into how other people live. At 35 years old I still have not completely settled on an identity of my own. But I am determined to live life on my own terms and stay in touch with what is important to me.

Yes I want to be famous. Yes I want to be respected in my field. But I want to do it in my own terms. I want to create the music that I really feel most represents me. In order to do that I am trying out everything. And from that I can incorporate aspects of any musical genre that resonate with me into my own musical identity and personal style. I want to be open to everything. I want to be able to access any style of music and any lifestyle and consider it carefully with a completely open mind.

I visited some antique shops last week and it occurred to me that being a composer is not unlike being an antiques dealer. I thought about where these objects came from; probably from thrift stores, garage sales and flea markets. The antiques store owner purchases these items, no doubt very cheaply, and then sells them at a much higher cost. They take items out of one context and put them into another. Of course, even at a thrift store the item is out of its original context.

I think of Aaron Copland and Rodeo. He came across the fiddle tune Bonaparte’s Retreat. He dusted it off, shined it up and placed it in a ballet. Now Rodeo is more often heard as an orchestral work without the corresponding dance and people pay $100 a ticket to hear Bonaparte’s Retreat at Carnegie Hall. Copland removed it from its original context, played perhaps on someone’s porch and handed down from generation to generation and moved it into the concert hall. An antiques owner might find an old wooden toy at a flea market, recognize its potential value, clean it up and sell it for one hundred times the original price. The object has the same inherent value no matter what context it is in. The composer (or antiques dealer) makes an object appear to have heightened value because of the context it is in. Bonaparte’s Retreat has the same value whether it is played on someone’s back porch or in Carnegie Hall although it’s been moved from a “lowbrow” to “highbrow” context. The same is true for a wooden toy. Upper class people might not feel comfortable at flea markets and they won’t want to take the time to sort through lots of junk to find a gem. I like flea markets, back porches and rock clubs. I like the whole process of being at least peripherally involved in the original contexts where the music exists. I don’t consider any of it junk although I’ll admit I don’t like everything I hear.

I often think of the quote “Good composers steal, bad composers borrow”. It’s been attributed to Stravinsky and many others. I understand what it means to steal a musical idea- it’s a fairly straightforward concept. But what about borrowing? What does it mean to borrow a pre-existing piece of music? I mean, once you take it and incorporate it into your own music you can’t give it back. You took someone else’s music.

Appropriation has been going throughout the history of music. Mozart incorporated Turkish Janisarry (military) music (cf. Rondo Alla Turca); Debussy took gamelan music, Ravel took blues, Brahms took Hungarian gypsy music. Not to mention the countless variations on popular and folk themes that have been written.

So what does it mean to borrow music? I interpret that as taking pre-existing music without really incorporating it into your own style- to quote a piece of music as a joke, for example, in a piece of music in a different genre. So how does a composer incorporate music into their own personal style? Bartok was Hungarian. He spent the greater part of his life traveling around Hungary and elsewhere transcribing folk music. He considered himself as much, or more, an ethnomusicologist as a composer. So can we say that Bartok stole rather than borrowed from his folk sources? Stravinsky appropriated Russian folk themes in the Rite of Spring (as well as the Firebird and Petrushka). But he was Russian- this music formed part of his identity. What about the Ebony Concerto or L’Histoire Du Soldat- two pieces where he incorporated elements of ragtime and jazz? Did Stravinsky know enough about jazz to use it in his music and call it stealing rather than borrowing?

So stealing is ok but borrowing is wrong.

I think many of us can hear it when a composer has attempted to incorporate music of another style and achieved an awkward result. One dangerous move is to ask classical musicians to swing. Some can, some cannot. This feel is something I don’t think I have ever been quite able to acquire- as a jazz pianist or violinist. It is one reason that I decided not to be a jazz musician.

I never felt truly immersed in that musical culture. I had a few jazz records which I enjoyed. But nothing like my pianist friend from middle school. We went to different high schools. And our two school jazz bands had a bit of a rivalry. He was a true jazz fan and had every album by Ramsey Lewis and George Shearing and knew all the other great pianist. I liked Monk (but only had one or two albums) and I listed to a bit of Bill Evans and of course loved Herbie Hancock. I have to admit, my favorite of his music was Chameleon. I certainly did not have an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and therefore felt like a bit of an imposter playing jazz. And this feeling persists today though I am considerably more knowledgable about jazz now then I was then.

And I do feel like an imposter playing Slayer. I am of course not a true metal fan. Although I do like Black Sabbath- and ACDC. I have never wholeheartedly embraced any one genre of music and learned everything there is to know about it. I listen to a little bit of everything and I know something about a lot of different types of music. I am a generalist.

If had to name one music as my true musical heritage it would be classical music. Because that is how I grew up. My parents were classical musicians who played chamber music every week. My dad would always play the piano after work- Mozart, Schumann and Chopin mostly, as well as his own compositions. My mom played in an orchestra (and still does) and many different chamber groups. I took violin and piano lessons. Music was the closest thing to a religion I had growing up. It provided (and still provides) a sense of community and camaraderie that I don’t get from any other activity in my life. And, while (I imagine) not having the level of spiritual connection that people who belong to a church feel, the act of playing music with other people is richly fulfilling for me.

But I strayed from the flock. Very early on I ventured outside of classical music into jazz and rock. And, when my grandpa gave me his mandolin, I tried out a little bit of bluegrass as well. But I’ve never settled on one musical style.

I am a jack of all trades and a master of none. I can fake folk music and jazz and rock- and what of those is really me? I can play classical music- and I love it. But I still wouldn’t call myself a dedicated classical musician. I don’t know every piece of classical music ever written. I only know the few pieces in my life that have really resonated with me. Many of those were pieces I’ve played- and some, like the Firebird (which I did play, actually, in a simplified version for children’s orchestra)- appealed to me viscerally. I remember dancing around to the Firebird when I was 10. I also remember, finding a record of Shostakovich’s 10th symphony. The album cover was appealing- black and red, some sort of abstract art. I think just the cover itself made me a Shostokovich fan. And then I performed the 8th Quartet- with the Nazi’s knocking at the door. And I heard the piano trio and the piano quintet. I was sold on Shostakovich.

Then I went to Berkeley and I found out the Shostakovich was passé. I had already written a lot of pieces that sound like watered down Shostakovich. I shouldn’t belittle my own music like that- I think my college pieces were very good- I still like them, even if they do sound like Shostakovich and Bartok.

Even at Berkeley I felt like an imposter. At Tufts I was one of very few student composers. So, even if some of the other Tufts composers knew and loved Feldman etc. I never felt too guilty for not fully immersing myself in his music or any other music (other than Shostakovich and Bartok- in fact I’d say I did not immerse myself even in their music).

But at Berkeley of course all the composers (and the musicologists specializing in modern music) all seemed to have encyclopedic knowledge of every 20th century composer and every piece ever written. I was so behind. And most importantly, they seemed to have a genuine love of this music. I didn’t. I didn’t love anything- especially after finding out that Shostakovich was passé.

Why does any of this matter?

To be a composer means you create music. It doesn’t matter how much you know or how much music you have studied. It does not matter even if you know how to read music. It’s about you- your personal voice. But if you want to steal music- I mean really steal and not borrow- you had better immerse yourself completely in that music and that music must become part of your identity. It has to be part of your soul before you can use it.

My (white) friend once said that white people should not play jazz. I wouldn’t go that far. There are as many white jazz musicians as there are black jazz musicians—but which race can take more credit for jazz? Black people, of course.

But I understand the sentiment. The result of taking music that is not really part of you- “borrowing” it- is just unsatisfying music. I don’t consider it a moral issue. There are way too many real atrocities being committed in the world to attach moral significance to someone writing bad music

What is bad music anyway? It’s completely subjective. Of course that is a giant can of worms to open up- and thousands of highly intelligent people spend their lives trying to figure out what is good and what is bad and explain it in a highly sophisticated way.

All I am saying is that the result of someone appropriating music that is not part of their own culture is often an awkward, possibly ineffective piece of music.

After our last show, I received very enthusiastic feedback from one audience member who asked me if I was influenced by Bartok. He was referring, I assume, to the Slayer tune. Interestingly, one of the cellists in the ensemble is a real thrash metal fan and he said the Slayer tune is his least favorite. Anyone with real familiarity with Slayer’s music- anyone for whom Slayer has played a significant part in the forming of their musical and personal identity- would regard our Slayer cover as a very tepid, highly inauthentic and unsatisfying rendition. Real Bartok aficionados expecting to hear something like Bartok would probably be unimpressed by our take on Slayer as well. Yet it seems to be the most popular tune. Probably because of it’s kitsch quality- it really is a bit of a joke but done with respect to Slayer, and all that the genre represents. The joke is that, as classical musicians, we have not had the right background to be playing Thrash Metal (with the exception, perhaps, of our cellist). Yet, we do understand the intensity, the vitality and perhaps the anger in the music. And of course, the screaming at the end is always a big hit.

I put String Power together to demonstrate that string players, classical musicians in general, and classical composers- can express the same intensity and drive as musicians in other genres. Though we are not part of that culture, as human beings we do experience the same emotions and we have the same desire to express them.

I am still trying to figure it out. Yes I want to be famous. Yes I want to be respected in my field. Yes ultimately I want a job being a professor at a small liberal arts college; but most important for me right now is finding the music that I am most comfortable in. My plan is to take something from all of the music I am playing and writing and incorporate into my own style. And I don’t just mean the music itself- I mean the people who play it- I mean the attitudes towards life. I’m not talking about our string group since we are all classical musicians. I’m talking about musicians who play other types of music. Yes I will steal music. I will consume it- I will digest it- I will make it my own. I don’t want to borrow it. I don’t’ want to discover a Slayer CD, transcribe it and just paste it artificially into my music. I don’t want whatever I take from Slayer to be superficial. If I do end up using anything from Slayer- I want it to be organic. I want it to be part of my musical identity. I think of the arrangements I have done with String Power as ways of digesting these styles. It’s still superficial because I have not immersed myself in any of them. Some of them, like funk, disco and jazz, I have assimilated somewhat because my brothers listened to that music when I was growing up.

As I said, I have never felt I have had exactly the right feel for jazz and, since my knowledge of jazz is not encyclopedic, my jazz CD collection is paltry at best, I can never consider myself a true jazz musician. I will never be let into that club and my jazz feel will never be right. That is because I don’t love it. Although I have to say Lester Young, Miles Davis, Billy Holiday, Duke Ellington, Mingus, Basie- when I put the CDs on I am moved. Yet at the same time I can’t name off every album ever recorded- and who played what on what, and what date and where the recording occurred. And I don’t listen repeatedly. I’m moved. Then I move on to something else. And months or years later I might come back to a CD and be moved again.

I want to live my life on my terms. I want to do what I truly want to do. I do not want to compromise. Of course, I probably will have to compromise in order to eat. I will again have to take a job I don’t want. But, ultimately, I want to truly know what kind of life I want to live and I want to truly know what my musical voice is.

In reality, I will probably always write in many styles. Many composers have done that. But still- I am hoping in the next few months I will settle on something. I will be able to say “this is me”. Then I can be more aggressive, make some professional quality recordings and really push my music.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The first 11 months

I intended to start blogging soon after I moved here from Seattle in March. So this first blog is going to be a long one, to sum up the first 11 months here. I moved here, like countless others, to enrich myself and be an active participant in New York's artistic community. It's not one community of course but hundreds. And often communities intersect in surprising ways and sometimes they clash. I play a wide variety of music; one night I might play with a punk rock band, the next night a string quartet, and then maybe experimental music for Butoh dance. I had been hearing about the trend in NYC of musicians spanning diverse musical worlds. This is becoming more and more normal and, I admit, I was a bit dismayed to find out just how un-unique I am. But I do think that being versatile and open minded is a healthy approach to music and to life and that there is room in the world for more than one jazz/rock/classical/country/experimental violinist/pianist/composer.

I stayed first with my friends Matt and Adam who live in South Park Slope. Matt and I went to a club about block from their apartment called Lola's. At about one in the morning they have a Latin band playing there that is absolutely amazing. All the members are in Salsa bands and have well paying gigs every Saturday. They come to Lola's afterhours to really play. It was the some of the most powerful music I have ever heard. There were three trombonists, one looked like he was a student of one of the others, all of the traditional percussion instruments and rhythm section. And they played with vitality and intensity. Part of it came, I believe, from the fact that these guys really wanted to be there. This was for themselves and their friends at the bar. This was not a wedding or club gig. Matt and I were the only white people and definitely outsiders. We really did not belong but they tolerated us. I did not feel uncomfortable although I got a few questioning looks. But the music was so great it obliterated any discomfort I might have felt.

In April I played my first gig in New York at the Beacon Theatre with Guster. I arranged some string parts for my cellist friend Jody and I to play. It was sold out- about 3,000 people each night. Needless to say it's all downhill from there. I doubt I will be playing to that many people again unless I play another show with Guster! I went to college with the guys in that band and played on their first record. They've spent the last 15 years touring across the country so they have really worked to build the following that they have.

I found a great apartment on Craigslist with a backyard and a cool roomate with a terrific CD collection; she used to work for a big record label. I spent a lot of May listening to her CD's and transcribing and arranging the music for string orchestra. Everything from Earth, Wind and Fire to Charles Mingus to The Carter Family to Slayer (that CD I actually bought myself).

I also spent May busking with Matt on congas. We played all over the city. It is so satisfying to get appreciative feedback from people on the street walking by on their way to work and not expecting musicians to be there. You really know that you are affecting people because you can see the looks on their faces. Often they thank you. There is do doubt, when this happens, that you are doing something positive.

I spent June to August in Connecticut as head of music at Buck's Rock Performing and Creative Arts Camp. This is a place where kids can be in a musical, make ceramic bowls, paint, blow glass or just hang out on the lawn. The most rewarding part of that job, for me, was working with the orchestra. These were kids who really wanted to be there doing exactly what we were doing. We worked on the Bach Double and Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusic every day. Not very adventurous programming on my part. But really working on those pieces every day for a few weeks solidified the music. And it never got boring. I worked with some really great kids there who were totally dedicated and genuinely loved what they were doing. And they actually took advantage of everything the camp had to offer- they were just as motivated to work in the batik or painting shop. I will never forget one day we were rehearsing pit band for the musical. The band was mostly music staff who by this point in the summer were completely sick of playing in the pit band. But we had a couple of very motivated campers. One day our violinist, Halley, had gotten a nasty bug bite on her eye and she still showed up to rehearsal. She had an ice pack for her eye and she had to lean her head back to keep the ice on her eye and look at the music with her other eye. Now that is dedication!

In the fall I got the string group together and we performed my arrangements at the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn. It was difficult to get all 11 people in the same place for a rehearsal. But all things considered it went very well. The day after that I started working for a music contractor playing violin and piano for upscale weddings in Manhattan and Long Island on the weekends. This is a Union job so I joined Local 802. All of the new union members sign a giant book in the office. I felt very much a part of history putting my name in the same book as all of those famous musicians who have played in New York. I wanted to flip through the pages and see if I could see any famous names. Of course, they're probably in a different book.

Playing these wedding gigs, called "club dates," is a very interesting experience. It is quite old fashioned having live musicians playing showtunes and other popular melodies as background music for the cocktail hour. It's encouraging that at least there are a few instances where live musicians haven't been replaced by a DJ. Everything must be memorized. We usually have two violins (myself and the leader of the group), saxophone, and piano. It is an interesting intersection of musical communities. Sandra is usually the leader when I play and she is an excellent Juilliard trained violinist who has years of experience as a concert violinist as well as a club date musician. She prefers we stick to the music as it was originally written whereas the jazz musicians we play with take much more liberties with the tune itself and then take solos. This conflict of approaches is as old as jazz itself. Many jazz musicians made their living playing shows where they had to stick to the chart and then afterhours were free to play their own music. Given a chance, for example playing background music at a cocktail party, any jazz musician would take the opportunity to make up their own notes as opposed to playing someone elses. But most people at a cocktail party, if they are listening to the music at all, would probably prefer hearing a recognizable tune. It's not only the tunes themselves but the style they are played in- there is a specific performance tradition for these older standards and showtunes, and Sandra is interested in preserving that by playing this music as it was originally intended to be heard.

The most memorable gig for me was not a wedding but a 70th Anniversary Party on Long Island. It was so moving seeing this couple in their 90's who were so full of energy and all of their kids (in their 70's), grandkids, great and great-great grandkids all celebrating this amazing couple. I played in the band this time. A traditional big band line up with two violins added. It used to be quite common to have a string section with a band. It was especially meaningful to play this kind of music for these people because this is the music they were listening to at the time they were married. Although the husband said for their wedding they hired a local violin teacher who played Flight of the Bumblebee! He said that was a little hard to dance to.

I have attended several great new music concerts. One was a group called Anti-Social music playing the music of composer Pat Muchmore. That was exactly the kind of vibe I like for a new music concert. It was downstairs at a Ukrainian restaurant. The music was varied, challenging and full of vitality. The musicians were excellent- I'll never forget the intense look on the violinist's face- she was fully in the music. And the vibe was very laid back yet the audience was listening intently and absorbing the music.
I saw Elliott Carter's opera What Next? He is celebrating his 100th birthday this year. Much of his music is dramatic and the instruments take on roles like characters in a play, so it made a lot of sense for him to finally compose an opera. Each character had a specific style that they sang in. I am intrigued by this approach- although it's not new, Mozart did the same thing. I like the idea of taking that even further by writing roles for singers from completely different traditions- Broadway, rock, opera, folk, for example. Carter's music, though atonal, is singable and memorable. I even heard someone humming one of the motives on their way out of the theater- although this may have been an orchestra member. I also attended a concert of George Crumb's music. It was practically sold out. He was there and they had an informal interview with him. He is a very personable guy and also one of the most influential composers of the last 40 years. He said that most of the music he hears live these days is other pieces on concerts of his music. I guess he attends a lot of concerts of his own music. Other than that he said he listens to the classical radio station. I thought that was interesting that he isn't out there absorbing new music every second. I go through different phases of listening myself. Sometimes I really get into something and other times I will barely listen to any music for months at a time. One of his pieces was an arrangement of folk songs where the singer sang the songs in a very traditional style and the ensemble's accompaniment was more like Crumb's other music. So that the composition really happened around the melodies. I thought maybe the singer was actually a folk singer, but reading her bio I saw that she is a highly accomplished singer who teaches at the Manhattan School and specializes in contemporary music.

I am taking this time to try out new things in music. I have scored a couple of short student films. And I am writing music for two musicals. All of these opportunites I got through Craigslist. There is always someone who needs a composer so it is not hard to find work, although ot all of it pays well, or at all. I have met some very talented interesting people in the process. The experience of actually writing a musical, even if the style is not really my own, is an unbeatable way to learn how to write for theatre. And I am willing to write in any style. Ultimately I want to find my own voice as a composer. In some ways anything I write is going to be my style since it's me writing it, but I have yet to really hit on music that I feel is 100% me. I am also playing all kinds of music. Some of it at churches, some at museums, some in subways, some at tiny clubs in the lower east side- some of it improvised, some of it notated and much of it somewhere in between.