Composer of the Week

Proof That There Are Great Composers Living Among Us

“You know what really grinds my gears?!” — Musical self-deprecation!

November 8, 2010 by · 1 Comment · Chamber Music, Composers, General Information, Orchestra, Wind Band

While conducting research for my next set of blog posts on American composer Joseph Schwantner, I found myself at one of my usual watering-holes of online musical knowledge. It is one of those places created as a sort one-stop shop for program notes and composer information that is otherwise an excellent source of most things pertaining to the wind band repertory. That not withstanding, I was utterly shocked when I read through the information compiled on on the site only to find out there was not one word mentioned about any of Schwantner’s works for wind band! Let that sink in for a minute—here we are, sitting at an epicenter for wind band knowledge, and in reading about one of the formative writers for the modern wind band, it neglects completely his works for that ensemble! This speaks to the title of this post and an on-going theme amongst many in certain corners of the band world, self-deprecation.

It is not enough to say that we are supporters of the wind band or purveyors of new works commissioned exclusively for the the ensemble. Perhaps the best exemplars of good practices with regards to proper exposure and promotion of wind bands is the throng of college band directors who regularly not only self-promote for the existence of their programs, but do so in an effort to remind the greater, orchestral-minded population of the relevance of a unique and outstanding treasury of instrumental music.

As I recall the purpose of this next series of posts, I feel this is something worthy of discussion. I tend to believe this was not a malicious act on the part of my watering-hole’s proprietor, but at such a crossroads of musical worlds, I also believe that even an innocent oversight can be the difference between the longevity of a medium and its falling into oblivion.

And we’re back!

November 2, 2010 by · No Comments · Composers

After a two-year hiatus, Composer of the Week will hopefully be returning to regular posting and updates within the next few weeks.

I will continue with the subject of my last post, “Legitimacy in Music: Works for Consorts of Wind Instruments”, with the ultimate understanding to be there is a need for major orchestras to look to music for winds for parity in the concert hall. We have parity in the auditoriums for certain: choir, band, orchestra…all find their home in these large rooms of 500-800 seats. Concert halls remain sacred ground for the patriarchal ensemble and it is the composers of music primarily for the orchestra I will be featuring here as composers of music for wind band.

Legitimacy in Music – Works for Consorts of Wind Instruments

July 15, 2008 by · No Comments · Chamber Music, Composers, General Information, Orchestra, Wind Band

Ah, high noon approaches on the east coast and I find myself ready to face a worthy adversary:  the concert hall.  It is a truly strange place, the concert hall.  For all its glory and the millions of patrons whose musical palettes have been satisfactorily expanded, it is a discriminating structure when it comes to what comes out of it:  Strauss and Stravinsky, Mozart and Mahler.  Great composers?  Undoubtedly some of the best.

In addition to their astronomically large output of symphonic music, and with the exception of Mahler, each of the aforementioned composers wrote music for smaller consorts of instruments, whether be they strings or winds.  It is with great satisfaction I tell you that much of their consort music exists for winds.  Yes!  Flutes, clarinets, bassoons, oboes (and all the variations thereof, including English horn, oboe d’amore, basset horn, etc.).  Chamber music we call it, but by definition, these works were written for musical consorts of wind instruments.  Here is a list of three works you may know:

  • Mozart – Serenade in Bb “Gran Partita”, for 13 Wind Instruments (1781/2)
  • Strauss – Serenade in Eb, for 13 Wind Instruments (1881/2)
  • Stravinsky – Octet for Winds (1923)

Other notable works for winds by orchestral composers:

  • Holst – First Suite in Eb for Military Band (1909)
  • Vaughan Williams – English Folk Song Suite (1923)
  • Respighi – Huntingtower Ballad (1932)
  • Grainger – Lincolnshire Posy (1937)
  • Persichetti – Symphony No. 6 (1956)
  • Copland – Emblems (1964)
  • Schwantner – …and the mountains rising nowhere (1977)

There are of course others, and far too many to list here.  Each of the above works is coveted in the concert hall, and on the rare occasion when a major orchestra programs one of them, it is likely that it will either sell out or receive a standing ovation.  Music for consorts of winds…bands of wind instruments.  Not too shabby.

My battle with the concert hall has become this:  if music for winds was being written in 1781, and it is still being written today, why is it we don’t hear any of today’s wind music performed in the concert hall?  Answers:

  • “Band music isn’t serious music.”
  • “Music without strings is not music.”
  • “There are no professional concert bands.”
  • “It is not academic.”
  • “There are no serious or well-known composers for band.”
  • “I don’t write for band because you cannot achieve the same sounds and colors.”
  • “People won’t come to listen to band music.”

Remarkably, I feel comfortable enough in my own skin to rufute each one of these heinous excuses.  However, to sum it all up in one short answer, THEY ARE ALL WRONG AND UNFOUNDED!!

Band, Concert Band, Wind Ensemble, Chamber Winds, Wind Symphony, Symphonic Winds, Symphonic Band, Wind Orchestra, Symphonic Wind Orchestra–many guises, yes.  But all are equally as important, established, and legitimate as any Orchestra, Symphony, Philharmonic, or Chamber Orchestra.

For the next few weeks, I plan to feature composers that have successfully and willingly composed for both the orchestra and the concert band.  Some such composers include Robert Washburn, Cindy McTee, Joseph Schwantner, John Corigliano, Bruce Yurko, Steve Bryant, Jennifer Higdon, John Mackey, and Ron Nelson.  My aim is to feature some of these composers in an effort to not forget about music written for the concert band.  The cat is out of the bag:  Yes, I am a band advocate, but my love of the orchestra and the experience of hearing that music in the concert hall leaves me yearning for an explanation of the phenomenon.

I hope you enjoy the next series of posts.  Great music awaits, and some of it just happens to be for large consorts of wind instruments!

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Final Thoughts on Steve Reich

July 14, 2008 by · No Comments · Composers, General Information, Music Theory

I regret my trip to New York did not yield a new post.  Mostly due to exhaustion between the city trip and roof work the following day, I decided to ponder this week’s composer and also the impact of Steve Reich’s music on society.

Regarding Reich, I think it is safe to say that the accessibility of Reich’s ideas is what makes him so popular among so many diverse groups of music listeners.  The Who’s Baba O’Riley for example opens with a synthesizer motive that is reminiscent of some of the phasing found in Reich’s music.  Other contemporary artists have been known to use his ideas, and it seems that music students and music patrons the world over are constantly amazed by his music–or the process of his music.  For all its simplicity, performances of Reich’s music requires great skill, concentration, and musicianship.

Try writing a piece using some of the concepts defined earlier in the blog or styled after Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain. I did this about a year and a half ago, the resulting Noon a portion of a presentation on Avante Garde Music.  The title, palindromic in nature, is for piano and marimba and explores minimalist components in a palindromic form.  I found the composition process exciting, but difficult at times.  Credit was immediately dished over to Reich and other composers who have made careers in such areas of composition.  Perhaps it is the simple act of doing that helps us appreciate the complexity of the process.  And to his credit, Reich has made the process a simple act of listening.

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The Source

July 11, 2008 by · No Comments · General Information

Tomorrow morning I will travel to the source of many of the great developments in art and music since the early 1900′s:  New York City. I am planning my day around the Metropolitan Museum of Art, taking in everything I missed upon my last visit some 5 years ago (which is likely about 80% since it keeps changing!). I have a great interest in seeing the Musical Instruments exhibit as it was closed last time, and seeing if I can recognize anything from the art class I took a few years ago.

I hope to have one more post about Mr. Reich, though I haven’t determined of what nature. Perhaps a day in the city will bring uncover one last topic for the native New Yorker in the blog.


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Understanding the Process – Music and Minimalism

July 9, 2008 by · No Comments · Composers, Music Theory

Throughout history, music has typically been defined by the art and architecture of the era in which it is written. Baroque, classical, romantic, impressionist, expressionist, minimalist, modernist — these are all categorizations of art, music, dance, architecture, and style.

To take this into consideration, we should look at what might broadly define minimalism.

  1. Precise. Jackson Pollack, while using minimal design, lacks precision and definition in his work.
  2. Geometric. This could be symmetrical, though more to the point clearly defined by clean shapes.
  3. Mathematical. Arrays and planned numbers of events often define minimalist work.
  4. Subjective. The belief that the emotion of the viewer superseded that of the artist led to seemingly stoic works non-reflective of the feelings of the artist.
  5. Process. This is perhaps most important. The work is devoid of erroneous processes, allowing the viewer or listener to experience the work and the process simultaneously. They are one in the same.

The example here is by Allan McCollum, from his installation, Plaster Surrogates (1982/4).

Plaster Surrogates

When referring to this movement in music, these same principles apply. While the depth of what constitutes minimalist music is great, I will only align the musical concerns with those of the general definition above.

  1. Precise. The manner in which transformations occur and harmonies change is particular.
  2. Geometric. Steady pulse is usually present and gives a sense of linear direction.
  3. Mathematical. Transformations are calculated and phasing may occur at specific time intervals or travel to specific spatial points.
  4. Subjective. There are no grand crescendos or moments of impact, no luscious or succulent melodic lines.
  5. Process. As a piece grows, it avails itself to the listener.  The additive process is tangible, not obscured by compositional techniques.

To gain some insight into how this applies to the music of Steve Reich, I highly recommend you read his 1968 manifesto, Music As a Gradual Process. It clearly articulates the why and what in much of his music, and is a very enlightening read. You can view it here at the website of Columbia University.

Today’s listening:  An Interview with Steve Reich (from the American Mavericks Listening Room)

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Steve Reich and Phasing

July 8, 2008 by · No Comments · Chamber Music, Composers, Electronic Music

Reich’s writing often incorporates the use of canon, a compositional technique familiar to most.  What he refers to as phasing came from an experiment he conducted attempting to get two tape recorders to play back as identically as possible.  Sure enough, they played back almost in unison, prompting him to consider the chances of the occurrence and how long it might take for it to begin to pull apart.

This idea of phasing is simple with electronics, as it is fairly straight-forward to calibrate technology to produce a desired result.  However, Reich was at one point convinced this could not exist with acoustic instruments played by humans.  As another experiment, he decided to act as a “second tape recorder” and after recording a pattern that would eventually become Piano Phase he started in unison with the recording and slowly tried to get ahead of it.  The experiment ultimately worked, the outcome being the realization of the ability of humans to phase rhythmically, an initially unnatural instinct for most of us.

Ultimately, phasing takes on a similar life as the most basic canon.  In its most basic form, a canon consists of a musical idea followed by a second version of itself offset by a chosen number of beats.  Likewise, the phasing in Reich’s music, or in any music where this technique is employed, begins with a basic musical idea and is followed with a second version of itself gradually progressing towards a desired product (i.e., a pattern offset by a sixteenth-note, eighth-note, etc.).  The difference lies in the method by which each is achieved:  canon in two-measure phrases is inherent in the composition, and phasing is achieved through changes in tempo gradually over a period of time.

The video below illustrates the concept of phasing both musically and visually.  This choreography set to Reich’s Piano Phase is outstanding and as you watch and listen, you begin to understand the idea of time being a construct.  Within that construct things are set in motion, and given proper life within the construct, will fall in and out of perfect relationships with each other (i.e., phasing).

Some Reading On the Topic

An excellent article by Paul Epstein appeared in The Musical Quarterly in 1986.  Entitled, “Pattern Structure and Process in Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase,” it not only dissects the formal process of creating the phases, but also explains the phenomenon of phasing in terms comprehensible by most with any sort of musical training.  It is available online through JSTOR (you must have access through a university or other scholarly organization), and the citation follows below.

Epstein, Paul.  “Pattern Structure and Process in Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase.”  The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 72, No. 4. (1986): 494-50.

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Steve Reich

July 7, 2008 by · No Comments · Chamber Music, Composers, Electronic Music, Opera, Orchestra, Percussion, Vocal

To many, Steve Reich is known as one of a few notable minimalist composers of the twentieth century. He is often referenced in conversation with Philip Glass, Terry Riley, or John Adams, yet there is an unmistakable aspect of Reich’s music that continually heightens a listener’s sense of musical color and motion, imposing a sort of curiosity as to the music’s simplicity or complexity. That aspect? A certain, je ne sais quoi, to be exact.

Steve Reich, born in New York in 1936, redefined musical composition in the latter years of the twentieth century. Having studied with such notable composers as Vincent Persichetti, Luciano Berio, and Darius Milhaud, Reich is well-versed in both serial and tonal techniques. This eclectic background led him to consider other elements for composition aside from the usual melody with harmony. While these elements exist in his music, Reich has focused some of his works entirely on rhythm (Clapping Music, 1972), phasing and timbre (Piano Phase, 1967), and specific harmonic and register considerations (Music for 18 Musicians, 1976). According to Reich,

What I’m interested in is a compositional process and a sounding music that are one in the same thing.

His studies in philosophy and music, coupled with studies in African drumming, Gamelan music, and Hebrew cantillation have awarded him countless times. In addition to Reich and his formed ensemble of Musicians selling out Carnegie Hall, he has won two Grammy Awards, been selected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts, and awarded membership to the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest.

Reich’s works have been performed by the world’s top orchestras and ensembles. In Tokyo in 2007, he was awarded the prestigious Preamium Imperial Award in Music, an international award given in areas of the arts not covered by the Nobel Prize.

As for the certain je ne sais quoi, it is a testament to Reich’s ability to seamlessly blend the process, with the music.

Clapping Music, by Steve Reich

Other Notable Works:

Edmund Niemann, Nurit Tilles & Steve Reich - Early Works - Piano Phase (1967) Piano Phase (1967), for two pianos

Steve Reich and Musicians, Live 1977 - Music for Pieces of Wood Music for Pieces of Wood (1973), for pitched claves

I. America-Before the War Different Trains (1988), for string quartet and tape

Brad Lubman, Steve Reich Ensemble & Synergy Vocals - Three Tales Three Tales (2001), a three-act digital video opera, recalling three events of the twentieth century: the Hindenburg disaster (1937); Bikini Atoll atomic testing (1946-54); Cloning of Dolly the Sheep (1997)

Ned Rorem

July 7, 2008 by · No Comments · Chamber Music, Composers, General Information, Opera, Orchestra, Vocal

A master of both music and the written word, Ned Rorem has become one of America’s most honored composers.

Known primarily for his art songs (which number over 500), he has been the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for his Air Music for orchestra, as well both a Fulbright (1951) and Guggenhiem (1957) Fellowship. He is a three-time recipient of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award, was named Composer of the Year in 1998 by Musical America, and in 2003 was the recipient of ASCAP’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Rorem spent two years at Northwestern University before attending The Curtis Institute on scholarship. He later studied with Bernard Wagenaar at Juilliard, earning his B.A. in 1946 and his M.A. in 1948.
Stylistically, Rorem has rarely strayed far from diatonicism, though several of his works do employ other techniques, including altered chords, polytonality, and modified forms of serialism. His works have been commissioned by the Ford Foundation, the Lincoln Center Foundation, the Koussevitsky Foundation, the Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Chicago Symphonies, and the New York Philharmonic. Artists for whom these works were commissioned include Jeffery Khaner (principal flute, Philadelphia Orchestra), David Geringas (solo cellist), and Dame Evelyn Glennie (solo percussionist).

In 2003, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, the international music community joined in celebrating Rorem’s music with various festivals and performances. Highlighting this celebration was “Roremania,” sponsored by The Curtis Institute, which featured many different genres of the composer’s work.
Having enjoyed a career of more than 60 years as a composer, Rorem continues to write and compose, with his most recent diary Facing the Night having hit shelves in 2005 and the world premiere of his opera Our Town in 2006. Currently, Mr. Rorem resides in New York.

Look Down, Fair Moon, by Ned Rorem

Other Notable Works:

Evidence of Things Not Seen Evidence of Things Not Seen (1997), for four solo voices and piano, commissioned by the New York Festival of Song

Our Town (2006), an opera in two acts, commissioned by the Indiana University Opera Theater, and five co-commissioners

String Symphony (1985), for string orchestra, commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony

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Reformatting the blog

July 7, 2008 by · No Comments · General Information

After much thought, I have decided to make the blog more of a true blog than an impetus for getting my newsletter out.  I will still write the newsletter, but will post its contents here as a regular entry, not a PDF link.  Hopefully this will keep things flowing smoothly and make the site a bit easier to navigate.