Why I listen to music at the gym

Listening to music I like is, for all practical purposes, a religious experience.

Going to the gym is decidedly not.

My wife and I recently joined one, and this week I’ve finally carved out the time to make a somewhat regular practice of going.

It has reminded me why I allowed myself to lapse.  It’s not pleasant.

The first few times, I didn’t bring my iPod.  It’s funny — the older I’ve gotten, the less able I’ve been to listen to music as a background to something else I’m doing.  Music demands more and more of my attention these days.  The net effect of this is that, rather than spending discrete times of day listening to music and focusing on it, sadly, I’ve just been listening to less music.  I know other composers who have said similar things, so even if I’ve wished I could spend more time listening, I haven’t felt too strange about the way things are.

It looks like going to the gym is going to help me change that.

There are all kinds of reasons one might put on earphones when one exercises — not the least of which are to block out the din of the lousy ambient music one often hears at gyms, or to help pass the time otherwise spent mindlessly lifting heavy things and putting them down.

For me, the best reason is that listening to music reminds me of what’s important in life, and why the heck I’m going to the gym in the first place.  I want to be around for years to come to share music with my family, friends, colleagues, students, mentors, and anyone else I might meet.  Moreover, it turns out that while spending hours every day composing in front of a piano or computer is spiritually rewarding, it is not particularly salubrious.  Making music requires, above all, time.  If I want the most time in which to make music, I must first take care of my body and make sure I’m living a healthy life.

So, lately, as I grind through my workout, I listen, and I remember.  I do it with the conviction that, while working out is unpleasant, being out of shape, getting sick, and/or dying before one’s time are all much more unpleasant.  Listening regularly while working out is helping me keep faith in what I’m doing.  In that sense, heck, maybe going to the gym really is a religious experience after all.

Pie-in-the-Skype

Today I had what must be one of the top ten coolest musical experiences in my 30ish years of life: From my home in Pennsylvania, by videoconferencing on Skype, I joined a rehearsal of the Western Michigan University Chorale (Dr. Kimberly Dunn Adams, conductor) in Kalamazoo, MI.  They were rehearsing my piece Love, thricewise for a concert coming up on Sunday.

From the comfort of my desk chair, in my bare feet and with the sun streaming through my windows on a gorgeous spring day, I participated in a rehearsal of my music that was taking place over 600 miles away.

I’ve used Skype a zillion times in the past; what was new for me today was using it to help me shape the creation of art with fellow artists.  I was able to listen into a choral rehearsal, give feedback and suggestions, and see them implemented right away.  And I was also able to field a couple of questions from the singers about me and the piece’s genesis.  It worked incredibly well, even given my laptop’s lackluster sound card and sound quality.

All of the foregoing awesomeness wasn’t even the best part of the whole scenario, though.  The best part was that the WMU Chorale absolutely hit my piece out of the park.  I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the ensemble and to Kim Adams for bringing my music to life so beautifully.

While hearing the rehearsal live and in person would obviously have been my pie-in-the-sky, I was perfectly happy to settle for pie-in-the-Skype.  But if anyone reading this happens to be in or near Kalamazoo on Sunday, April 15, go (in person, of course) to the First Presbyterian Church at 5:00 P.M. and prepare to have your socks knocked off.   The WMU Chorale nearly brought me to tears over Skype; I can’t imagine how good hearing them live must be.

Ensemble Companio: Why I started a new choir

I’ve been an absolutely horrible blogger lately. There have been a lot of things going on, though, and blogging finds itself continually pushed down the “must-do” list until it reaches the “boy-I’d-sure-like-to-do” list.

Just for a moment, I’m bumping it back up, though, because I want to write regarding an exciting and deeply fulfilling new musical endeavor I’m involved in.

While I have continued to keep busy composing (I am composer-in-residence this season for New-York-City ensemble Choral Chameleon) and teaching music theory to non-majors as an adjunct at Temple, as well as being a husband and father, another pursuit has elbowed its way into my schedule: I have started my own choir, a 21-voice group I’ve named Ensemble Companio.

To make it even more logistically challenging, I did it using singers who live all over the eastern seaboard. We have members from Washington D.C., Cape Cod, upstate New York, and many places in between. We travel and convene one weekend a month in various locales in the northeast to rehearse. For a time our only financial resources came from dues collected by the membership; the group is still functioning on a shoestring budget, as I imagine most new ensembles do in their first year of existence.

I don’t wish to bore you with matters of logistics and finance, though–what I really want to talk about is why I started Ensemble Companio.

In early 2009, I attended a national conference of the American Choral Directors’ Association. Such conferences always feature performances of choirs from all over the nation and all over the world. Two of the choirs on the international concert session that year–a women’s choir from Venezuela, the Cantoría Alberto Grau; and a mixed group from South Korea, the Incheon City Chorale–absolutely blew me away.

The Venezuelans brought me to tears. Please realize–I hear a *lot* of choirs–and this reaction is very unusual for me. Ultimately, I realized this performance was different because 1) the singers performed with such joy and pleasure in what they were doing that it was impossible not to be moved; 2) they opened their hearts and made themselves completely vulnerable while performing, and 3) even if they weren’t consciously thinking about it, they were clearly taking great pride in communicating something about what it means to be Venezuelan through their repertoire, which they thoroughly and authentically owned and communicated in performance.

My reaction to the Koreans wasn’t much different. They had some of the most well-trained and mature voices I’ve ever heard in a choir, and where the Venezuelans had an easygoing, infectiously joyful feel on stage, the Koreans displayed a discipline that could rival a team of Navy Seals. It’s not that they didn’t have fun–they did–but you could tell they had practiced so much and so consistently that performing was second-nature to them. They, too, took great pleasure in singing repertoire from their home country, and did so with pride and joy. They sounded and looked like a million bucks.

I left that concert deeply touched, wanting to go back to Venezuela and South Korea, both places I’d been lucky enough to travel in college. Somehow, these choirs had built an interpersonal and intercultural bridge with me, and I left feeling that the world was slightly smaller that day.

Moreover, I left the whole conference a day later wondering why the #$%^ I’d almost never seen an American choir pull off anything similar. Sure, we had choirs with loads of technical polish, and we had some very disciplined choirs too, but where was the *soul?* Where was that completely authentic and true connection with the listener that unlocks the heart like the Venezuelans and Koreans did? Why had I rarely been so moved by an American choir? (Gospel groups were one notable exception — they get me every time.) And even if there were an American choir capable of such direct and heartfelt communication, of what could they have sung back then with pride? (Remember, at that time, America’s image abroad was still nearly completely in tatters, and the economy was in the tank.) It made me sad, and almost angry–as though we as Americans were culturally poorer for not having a choir that could routinely speak authentically with the voice of its people and history.

Eventually I came to realize that it might be part of my calling to make such a choir happen. I would like to make Ensemble Companio be that choir. I want us to be not just musically spectacular and completely disciplined, but also able to get up there and somehow authentically speak to people, American or not. I will strive to make Ensemble Companio be ambassadors and advocates of choral singing and choral music, of music in general and the good it can do for people, and for the arts overall. Someday, perhaps we will be lucky enough to travel internationally, and if so, we will need to be ambassadors of the good things about the USA and its history and culture, connect to those somehow, and figure out how to authentically tap into them and communicate them without cheap flag-waving and blind patriotism (which do not interest me in the slightest). Even for audiences here in the US, I think this is an important thing to consider as we plan future concerts. There’s a lot of confusion about just what America does/should stand for these days, and what is good about us as a country is becoming (in my view) increasingly obscured. I think that, like the Venezuelan and Korean choirs I saw, we could someday tap into the purest and best things about our country and its culture(s), and communicate those.

We had our debut concert back in March in New Canaan, CT, with music from across the centuries and around the world on the theme of greetings and farewells. It was a wonderful success, in all ways: we raised more than enough money to cover our expenses, we performed very well, and the audience responded immediately with a standing ovation after our last number. We will be repeating this program on Sunday, May 6 at 4:30 P.M. in Bayonne, NJ at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church. If you happen to be in the area then, we would welcome you to come hear us sing.

The key-of-F bugaboo

I thought I’d make an entry out of a response I wrote to a question I recently saw posted on ChoralNet.  The question (from fellow composer Paul Carey) concerned what he calls the “key-of-F bugaboo” — that is, the fact that when most choirs sing in the key of F major, they almost always have difficulty tuning and tend to veer off-key.  Paul asked if anyone could explain this phenomenon.  While I make the enormous caveat that I am not a musicologist or music historian, I have a theory that might help explain it.  I welcome corrections, suggestions, and comments.

My general understanding is that, over the last several centuries, pitch has risen.  I recall learning, both in college and in grad school, that the pitch standard actually varied quite a bit not only over history, but even from place to place.  However, my impression is that the preponderance of physical evidence (surviving instruments, tuning implements, etc.) shows that pitch was roughly a half-step lower in older times.

Here is where I swerve into the thicket of speculation: My theory is that that pitch standard of yore came about precisely because of what was comfortable in the voice.  We must never forget that the voice dominated music long before the rise of instruments.  If we could travel back in time and hear performances of music written in F major by Lasso, Bach, or Mozart (I acknowledge or course that Lasso would have been thinking in terms of modes, not major/minor tonality; I just use the term “F major” for convenience), AND if pitch were roughly a half-step lower in their times, such performances would strike our modern ears as actually sounding like E major.  Their performances of C major music would sound like B major to us.  The performances of G major music would sound like F# major to us.

Fast-forward a few centuries to the present day.  The pitch standard has risen to A440.  Instruments, by and large, kept their design over the years while keeping up with the rise in the pitch standard; playing in F major, C major, and G major is no problem for them.  They are terrible keys for today’s voices, though.  The voice has not changed over the centuries along with pitch standards.  It is stuck loving the keys that now get called E major, B major, and F# major, despite the fact that they are rotten keys for instruments!

I know loads of fellow conductors who have also found that their choirs do much better in E major, B major, and F# major than they do in F, C, and G.

This is obviously NOT to say that there’s no choir out there today that can hold pitch in [today's] F, C, and G.  Likewise, this is not to say that any choir is magically going to hold pitch in [today's] E, B, and F# (or in other voice-friendly keys, for that matter–for example, I’ve heard a recording of Poulenc’s Vinea Mea Electa [written and sung in C# major, which to old ears, would sound like D major--a "friendly" key] conducted by Robert Shaw, which flatted about a quarter tone over the course of the piece).

If I’m right, my theory explains why 1) the set of good keys for the voice contrasts so starkly with the set of good keys for instruments/visually pleasing keys, why 2) these keys are half-steps apart (B=good for voices, C=good for instruments and good to read; E=good for voices; F=good for instruments and good to read; etc.), and why 3) you rarely see old vocal music written in forbidding keys.

I would parenthetically add Bb major to the list of keys today’s choirs find rotten to sing in but that are decent for instruments.  Again, I know lots of conductors who drop Bb music to A or take it up to B; 99% of the time, it holds much better in those keys.

Paul also asked about extending the problem to minor keys–i.e., does F minor, the parallel key, pose a problem too?  Or is D minor, the relative minor, problematic?  My experience suggests that it is the *relative* relationship, not the parallel relationship, that holds sway, since relative minor keys are drawn from the exact same set of pitches as their relative major keys.  Thus, I find voices tend to do very well in E major/C# minor, B major/G# minor, and F#-Gb major/D#-Eb minor (what was the last time you saw a piece written in D# minor? ;) .  I find D minor, A minor, and E minor tough for the voice because they draw from the same pitches as F major, C major, and G major respectively.  Bb minor, though, seems to sit well, as it is the relative minor of Db major, a very voice-friendly key (which again, in old times, would have been produced by music written in D major).

I know that much of what I’ve written here rests on conjecture.  But it’s the best and most unified explanation I’ve been able to come up with over the years of observing the key-of-F-bugaboo, as Paul calls it.

You can follow the thread on ChoralNet in which I responded to Paul’s question here.

Moving in.

I’m moving my blog here from my old site at Blogger.  I’ve brought all my old posts with me, and duplicated them here.  It makes me look like I’ve had an incredibly productive day or two of blogging, but sadly that’s not the case.

Out of the mouths of babes

(Originally published 12/21/2011)

Long time away!  Been incredibly busy; too busy with composing, teaching, and conducting to blog.  In a nutshell: 2011 saw my traveling with the Cornell University Glee Club in California as they performed my Sudden Light during their concert tour, the completion of a 20-minute woodwind quintet, attendance for all of July at the summer program of EAMA in Paris, a choral commission from Whitman College, a publication and presentation at a national conference, a residency with a choir in New York City resulting in two new pieces, the founding of a fantastic new choir that I conduct, and two semesters’ worth of teaching at Temple University.  In addition, and I thank my stars for this, there were numerous performances of my music, both in the US and abroad.

All of this while trying to be a decent husband and father.

2012 promises to be no less busy.  But I’m getting a jump on one of my new year’s resolutions, which is to blog a little more, even if only in small chunks.  I got mentally held up this past year on a huge post I was writing about counterpoint in composition, and because I didn’t have time to finish it, I stopped blogging altogether.  It’s still simmering on the back burner of my mind.
***

Yesterday, during a rainy drive home with my daughter in the back seat, I turned on the winshield wipers.  “Wipers!” she exclaimed.  “Yes, that’s right,” I said.  “What do the windshield wipers do?” I asked her.
As she is a fastidious little girl who likes when things have tidy explanations, I was expecting her to say, “Clean the water,” or something like that, thinking she’d latch onto the fact that the wipers clean the windshield.  I figured she’d say something to explain the purpose of the system.

What she said, though, was “Swish, swish, swish!”

I had to laugh.  Any parent will of course recognize this as the authoritative definition of the wipers’ function as laid down in the immortal (zombie?) tune, “The Wheels on the Bus.”  It’s one of my daughter’s longtime favorites.

It was a colossal “duh” moment for me.  How could I have thought that she’d see past her own experience, memory, and emotional reaction, through to the left-brained, scientific answer I was expecting?

The exchange somehow got me thinking about writing music, and the relationship between composers and listeners.  Composers–young ones, especially–too often put the left-brained cart before the right-brained horse, and, even if subconsciously, expect listeners to apprehend first whatever concepts, systems, or structures composers build into their pieces.  Composers too frequently forget the huge truth that the experience of music is foremost a visceral, emotional one that listeners reckon instinctively against the backdrop of their own memories and feelings.  New music that generally results from such forgetfulness is dry, aesthetically unappealing stuff that evaporates after its first performance.

Why might composers have this problem?  One reason might be that composers, early in their careers, are too often wrongfully laden with the burden of writing music that is, above all, interesting to analyze.  Most young composers’ classes in school train them to examine the underlying construction of music, and implicitly or explicitly place value on compositions that are analytically complex.  These same classes say little or nothing about the specific emotional effects music has on listeners or about the causes of those emotional effects.  Indeed, in the twentieth century, which most composition students spend a lot of time studying, much art music composition focused on underlying constructs to the nearly complete neglect of what emotional reaction that music might elicit.

I don’t mean to say here that composers only ought to write what they think listeners want to hear.  That’s a business model.  Nor do I advocate a purely intuitive, willy-nilly approach to composing that doesn’t at all concern itself with technique.  That’s self-indulgent.  The best solution I’ve found to this dilemma is to try and take the tack that Mozart wrote that he was taking with his piano concerti: go straight down the middle and write music with a high level of craft that has facets appealing both to amateur and expert listeners.  And if I do my job right, my music creates a rewarding emotional response inside listeners that keeps them coming back for more, or that might even make them want to look under the hood and see what makes the music work.

Most importantly, I try never to forget that listeners’ first reactions to music are emotional and instinctual.  The emotions come first.  Matters of analysis, underlying construction, and theoretical understanding are important too, but they come second.

After I finished laughing, I said to my daughter, “Yes, dear, that’s right.  They go swish, swish, swish.”  She nodded, and after a brief silence, said, “Why?”

Andrea Bocelli

(Originally published 1/20/2011)

I can’t stand Andrea Bocelli’s voice. When I’m out shopping and I hear it fouling the air inside a store I’m about to enter, I stop in my tracks as though I’ve caught a whiff of poisonous gas, and then wrack my brains for things I might have left in the car, or for other stores where I might run the errand in question. If I’m already trapped inside a store when it assails me, I become possessed with visions of grabbing my merchandise and bolting for the door like a shoplifter, or, if the door’s too far away, diving through a window. I don’t give a second thought to the legal consequences, or to what my wife might think when I call her to come get me out of jail. I’d be free, gloriously free of the wooden bleating so many people seem to worship.

Please know that, most often, despite the name of my blog, I’m an extremely optimistic person who sees the best in people and what they have to offer. (I don’t hesitate to call out problems I see around me, though, which isn’t really complaining in the bitching-and-moaning sense of the word; rather it’s an effort to raise awareness of matters that I think need attention.) But while I’m sure that Bocelli is a very nice man, and while I do find it inspiring that he defied the odds stacked against him by his blindness to become a singer, his success drives me absolutely insane. Why? Not because I hate opera (I love it, actually) or because I secretly wish I’d been born a tenor so that I could sing all the pop songs that I, as a bass-baritone, am forever unable to render without singing them in a Leonard Cohen-esque range or an absurd falsetto (this one is true, by the way); it’s because he’s musically and vocally not very good. Though he repulsed me from the first, the more I hear of him, the more forced, constrained, and bereft of breath energy his voice sounds. Any singer (and many non-singers) will correctly tell you that these are not positive attributes in a vocalist of any sort, except perhaps Bob Dylan, and even he barely gets away with it—mostly because his lyrics and tunes are so good.

That Bocelli has infected record stores and sales charts for so many years says to me more than just that record executives and business owners have at best bad taste and at worst extremely low standards: it says that consumers are way too gullible and that they don’t get enough exposure to real operatic tenors of quality. We could chalk this fact up to the poor state of public music education and appreciation in the United States, the increasing difficulty classical music seems to face in these trying economic times, or any number of other troubling causes.  Whatever the reason, when I consider that there are quite a few excellent tenors out there today, it irks me that broadcasters cheat listeners and that listeners cheat themselves by wasting time with Bocelli.  Why on earth would anyone bother with a Snickers bar, say, when there are flourless double chocolate ganache cakes on hand? One gives you easy calories and a quick fix; the other replenishes your soul, provides a much more meaningful experience, and makes you savor every bite. One makes you want to jump out a window; the other makes you wish you never had to leave.