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.

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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.

An epiphany

(Originally published 1/6/2011)

No, this isn’t the entry about counterpoint and ethics I’ve been promising…but it still might piss some people off.

My wife and I convened a meeting of the household joint chiefs of Santa before Christmas, and decided to buy ourselves an elliptical a couple weeks before the 25th.  We put it in the basement, right in front of the boob tube.  One benefit of this, aside from allowing me to feel like I’m doing something to work off all the Christmas cookies I ate, is being able to watch movies while I work out.

I watched the director’s cut of Amadeus, Peter Shaffer’s/Milos Forman’s commentaries, and a featurette on the making of the movie over some recent workout sessions.  As an aside: there are some very interesting additions to the movie in this cut, such as a scene where Salieri propositions Constanze quid pro quo for helping get Mozart a royal pupil, a scene where Constanze returns one night to Salieri to accept his proposition, and a scene where Mozart tells off and insults another prospective noble employer.

Anyway, Mozart’s music has been more present in my mind than usual, and that’s saying something, considering that Mozart has been a musical idol of mine for almost as long as I can remember.

As I was walking through JFK airport today, I found myself humming bits of the famous scene in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni in which the statue of the Commendatore slain by Don Giovanni arrives for dinner and vengeance.  In particular, I was humming the Commendatore’s line “Altre cure più gravi di queste / Altra brama quaggiù mi guidò” — which features lots of repeated pitches in the vocal line and repeated scalar patterns in the orchestral accompaniment.  Go to approximately 1:35 of this video to hear the section I’m talking about.  (Watch the whole thing, too–Kurt Moll is awesome.)

And I had an epiphany: one thing that’s missing from almost all contemporary classical compositions these days is meaningful repetition.

Forget minimalism and its spin-off genres; most of that is meaningless repetition.  Very few minimalist composers have achieved anything of artistic significance by repeating musical ideas over and over and varying them slightly over the course of the work.  It’s easy to cut and paste in notation programs and have the illusion that, through repetition, one is creating something of artistic merit, and a host of John Adams wannabes do just that.  Poorly.  Even John Adams himself isn’t always all that good at writing like John Adams.

No, rather, I’m talking about thoughtful musical construction both on the small scale and on the large scale, which hooks the listener into the music (and, where there is one, a text) by a given phrase or longer section of music that sparks an expectation of what might come next or later on in the piece, and of how the composer might repeat or transform bits of what was already heard.  For those who want to get into the nitty gritty, on the small scale, I find contemporary music woefully bereft, for instance, of sequences; on the large scale, forms like sonatas and rondos, which traditionally featured the return and recycling of big chunks of musical material, are all but extinct.  And listeners are poorer for it.

Repetition matters because music sinks or swims based on the way a composer fulfills, thwarts, or plays with a listener’s expectations.  And without some kind of repetition in a piece, all a listener comes to expect is a barrage of new ideas or sounds that s/he can’t relate to each other or mentally organize.  Sure, after an onslaught of unconnected musical ideas the composer might make a perfunctory return at the end to the first idea of the piece, but that’s about as convincing a stab at wrapping things up nicely as Dave Barry makes at wrapping his Christmas presents.  The brain usually just gives up on such pieces; I call them watch-checkers, for obvious reasons.  They make me wish I weren’t there…or, at least, that I could be on the elliptical while I listen to them.

Westward again.

(Originally published 1/5/2011)

I’m sitting here, utterly unprepared for the trip I’m about to take, lamenting how much I will miss my family while I’m gone…and yet, it seems the right time to make a blog entry.

Don’t ask why.  I don’t know.

I’m headed back to California for the first part of the Cornell University Glee Club’s concert tour of the Golden State.  The theme of their tour is “Cornell-California Connections;” Since I sang with CUGC in my undergrad years and went on to live in the Bay Area for six years not long afterwards, they’re featuring a composition of mine in their tour concerts.  That composition is Sudden Light, an a cappellamen’s choral piece I wrote for my wife that I had premiered at our wedding.

Also on the program will be works by David Conte, Byron Adams and David Lefkowitz, all Cornellians too.

I’m excited to return to California; I’m looking forward not just to the music, but also to the chance to see lots of friends that I miss.

While en route, perhaps I’ll get to spend some time dealing with the blog entry I promised last time I posted a few months ago.  Boy, am I feeling sheepish about that.  It’s one that I’ve been thinking about a lot, though, and it has to do with counterpoint and the ethics of music composition.  It will probably piss some people off.  C’est la vie.

I’ll try to post updates from the road.  I know better than to promise these days!

If you’re in CA, and want to try and catch a concert, click the link above.  The concert at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music is probably sold out by now, but I think the others are all still open.

Bigger entry cooking…

(Originally published 10/29/2010)

I’ve been remiss in blogging lately.  However, I have a bigger entry cooking concerning counterpoint, its place in a composer’s training, and what I think might be a new way of looking at it altogether.  Hope to have it up in a few days.

I’ve been working hard on composing, though–I finished a new piece for SSAA children’s choir a couple of weeks ago, and that came in the middle of another project: a three-movement wind quintet of which one and a quarter movements are completed.

And I was lucky enough to go hear the Philadelphia Orchestra play Haydn 100 and Mahler 5 last night.  It was a fantastic show; I feel incredibly lucky to have such a wonderful ensemble practically in my backyard.  It’s clear that they have a wonderful relationship with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the next director of the ensemble.  He drew a fantastic performance from the players, and was called back three times after his first bow.  It was nice to see how copiously he acknowledged the players; the audience responded enthusiastically with prolonged applause.

On the road…concert update.

(Originally published 9/23/2010)

I’m presently traveling to Cape Cod for the weekend (via western Massachusetts and Boston); as it will be difficult to get any composing done on the road, I figure I may as well write a bit about what I’ve been up to lately and what’s on the horizon.  This post, which looks to be part diary entry and part written-out datebook, contains information that can mostly be found on my website (www.josephgregoriomusic.com).  I wish I had enough brain power to put together something more substantial…for now, I don’t, but I think that’ll change in the coming weeks.

So let’s see…in July, I helped organize a benefit concert for the East Oakland School of the Arts.  My dear friends, conductor Arianne Abela and mezzo-soprano Debi Wong, have made it their mission to hold one benefit concert every year to promote arts education.  Last year’s concert was in Massachusetts; this year, they decided to do it in the Bay Area, and so they asked me to help out.  A volunteer professional choir and orchestra drawn from ensembles all over the Bay Area performed Ernst Krenek’s In Paradisum, a beautiful motet for women’s voices; a lush new piece by Colin Britt called The House of Clouds for choir and orchestra, which sets the eponymous poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning; and Vivaldi’s Gloria.  Also on the program were my own Five Whitman Songs, beautifully interpreted by Debi and pianist Elizabeth Ingber.  The concert wound up raising over $2,000 for EOSA.  Next year, Debi and Arianne will take the project on the road again and hold a concert in Vancouver.

Cellist Miranda Henne held a recital in Gettysburg, PA in early September that featured my solo cello piece, Talisman.  Miranda drove from Gettysburg to West Chester for a coaching, which I thoroughly enjoyed–Miranda was eager to work with me on crafting her interpretation, and brought many terrific ideas of her own to the process.  A few days later, I drove to Gettysburg from West Chester to hear the performance, which was outstanding.  Talisman will also be performed in early 2011 in San Francisco by my friend Emil Miland, a superb cellist of the San Francisco Opera orchestra.

On the choral front, A Christmas Diptych will be performed on December 5 by the Whitman College Chamber Singers, under the direction of Jeremy Mims.  And I recently learned that the Cornell University Glee Club (Scott Tucker, conductor) will be performing Sudden Light on their January 2011 tour of California.  Sudden Light was premiered at my wedding as a gift for my wife and subsequently performed during the 2007-2008 season by the CUGC; they are bringing the piece back for their upcoming tour.  You can read about the tour here and see a complete itinerary here.  They’ve got a very exciting tour planned, including performances at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, UCLA, and a masterclass with Chanticleer.

Finally, way down the road, the Yale Glee Club will perform my 24-part (SATB x 6) canon, Exsultate Deo, during their 2011-2012 season. Exsultate Deo was the winner of the 2010 Yale Glee Club Emerging Composers Competition.