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 (  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.


(Originally published 9/22/2010)

Just got done moving to the east coast–to West Chester, PA, specifically, birthplace of none other than a compositional hero of mine: Samuel Barber.  I’m happy to be here.  While I certainly miss my colleagues, students, and teachers in California, I have a lot of family in Pennsylvania, and so it makes sense for me to land here.  The family is able to help out with my one-year-old daughter; as a result, I finally find myself with the time and level of concentration necessary to compose once again.  It feels great.

I’m now working on a woodwind quintet–a medium I have not yet essayed.  In the process, I’ve been exposed to Barber’s Summer Music, an absolute gem of a quintet.  I’ve also become aware of works for wind quintet by Hindemith, Lars-Erik Larsson, Schoenberg, Walter Piston, and Janáček.

In addition, I’ve been studying as a non-matriculating student at Temple University, getting credit (that I could, say, apply toward a doctoral degree if I ever enroll at Temple) for taking private composition lessons.  I’m working with Richard Brodhead, a faculty composer at Temple and a fellow counterpoint buff.  So far our lessons have been great, and he’s given me some good guidance on my nascent quintet.  Moreover, I’ve very much enjoyed becoming acquainted with the circle of composition students at Temple–all very friendly folks.  I’m looking forward to getting to know more of their music.

As for what’s been going on with my other music, I will happily report on recent and upcoming performances in my next entry.  I hope to get back into blogging more frequently now that things are settling down a bit.  Then again, perhaps I ought to just spend that time composing.

A rant about Auto-Tune.

(Originally published 5/14/2010)

Auto-Tune is a plug-in for sound editing software that can automatically tune a note to the precise pitch in a given key to which it’s closest.  Time says it’s “like Photoshop for the human voice.”  Ever wish there had been a way for Danny & The Juniors to tweak those pesky notes in songs like “At the Hop?”  Auto-Tune would have worked wonders for them.

I first remember it hitting the airwaves in a noticeable way as a sonic effect in Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe.”  It’s also used for artistic reasons in Kanye West’s “Say You Will” on 808’s & Heartbreak.  Kanye’s voice is downright haunting as a result of Auto-Tune; this jives nicely with the overall mood of the song.

Today, Auto-Tune is also frequently used as an aural airbrush to clean up the odd incidence of spotty intonation–frequently enough that you have probably heard it used without realizing it.  Some producers spin this as a matter of practicality: why spend all that extra time and money calling an artist back into the studio just to re-take one or two notes when you can simply tweak them with a plug-in?

I hear it overused quite often, though.  Listen to the soundtrack of the show Glee.  Ever wonder why the background vocals and soloists all sound slightly digital, sustain pitches perfectly, and change pitches with nearly robotic accuracy?  Each of those parts has been Auto-Tuned like crazy.  Here’s an example (and it’s best if you can listen with headphones on)–Auto-Tune is particularly easy to hear in this clip in the background vocals at the start of the song and in the melismas of the lead vocals around 3:19.

The chances are very good that it’s the producers of Glee who choose to overuse Auto-Tune; the singers probably are good enough to cut it on their own.  I wager that the producers are after a manicured, buzzed, almost electric sound.  Either this, or they’ve figured, “Well, this is a show about choirs…the music had better be tuned absolutely perfectly.”

I’m all for good intonation, but I object to this use of Auto-Tune.   It kills the essence of the music underneath it; I (and many others, I discover, after searching on a whim for “Glee Auto-Tune” on Google) can’t get past the cloying, airbrushed sound that results.  It’s like looking at a woman wearing a lurid amount of makeup.

I also object to its use as a sonic set of training wheels–a means to make people who can’t sing sound like they can.  Real singers don’t and never did need Auto-Tune.  They have good enough voices and a good enough sense of tonality that they can sing in tune and negotiate changes of pitch, ornamentation, and melismas all by themselves.  It shouldn’t be a means for those who can’t sing to cheat.  Glee is enabling this phenomenon, too: their iPhone application, a program that allows you to record yourself singing lead vocals karaoke-style on songs from the Glee soundtrack, has an option that lets you “add magic” to your track to make you sound “better.”

“Magic.”  “Better.”  Sure.  Try “Auto-Tune” to make you “sound like you can sing.”

To read a little more about Auto-Tune, check out the article in Timementioned above and some articles in The New Yorker and on MSNBC.

Catholic liturgical music…blech.

(Originally published 3/19/2010)

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to witness a Catholic service for the first time in a long while.  I didn’t really take part in the ceremony; though I was born into a family that was Catholic at the time of my birth, and though I went through sixth grade attending Catholic church, receiving communion and doing confessions, and was active in a Presbyterian church through high school, these days I am no longer religious.

That day, I left the church shaking my head in bewilderment at the appalling quality of the liturgical music.  I can remember feeling even as a boy that the music I heard on Sundays at church was boring and uninteresting; hearing it again–the aimless melodies, the tired and rudderless harmonic language, the flaccid rhythms–after all these years and after my training in music, confirmed for me the validity of my boyhood opinion.  All I kept thinking for the rest of the day was, “They got rid of Gregorian chant for that?”  How did the church go from chant, which casts a spell and inspires wonder when performed well, and the great choral Masses by composers like Josquin, Lasso, and Mozart, to the banal droning of organ, cantor, priest, and (occasionally) congregation so often heard in Catholic services today?

As I understand it, part of the reason the church ditched Latin and Gregorian Chant was to promote greater and fuller participation by the congregation.  That’s certainly a laudable and noble goal. Musicam Sacram, a (long) document that was issued as part of Vatican II, indeed has a lot of wonderful and true things to say about the importance of engaging worshipers through music.

Yet, in the majority of Catholic churches I’ve attended in my time, it has not gotten the job done.  Few in the congregation sing.  In my view, a large portion of the blame for this falls on the lackluster liturgical music.  Who wants to sing along, after all, with lousy music?  The sung responsories and litanies are utterly forgettable and inspire only impatience and fatigue.  The musical interjections that punctuate readings and communion, no matter how well sung and played by cantor and organist, are more a cue to break out the Blackberry than to enter into meditation.  Though I haven’t got a laboratory church to test it on, my theory is that if the quality of the music were raised, the congregation would have a much more rewarding and spiritually fulfilling experience.

Consider the music of certain other traditions besides Catholicism.  You want to see and hear some real spirituality?  Go listen to a gospel choir sing.  You haven’t lived until you’ve seen and heard a gospel choir.  You will never be the same.  There are some wonderful churches that perform Bach cantatas every week.  What a terrific way to worship that must be!  Talk about a reason to keep coming back.  At a Bar Mitzvah I attended, the reading from the Torah was chanted.  Chanted!  I speak perhaps three words of Hebrew, but regardless, the text came to life; I was engaged in the moment, and I wanted to know what the boy was chanting about.  Speaking of chant, on a tour to Japan that I took in college with a performing group, a friend and I were wandering around Tokyo when we happened upon a temple in which a group of monks were chanting in unison in one of the most hypnotizing sounds I’ve ever heard.  I speak less Japanese than I do Hebrew.  And yet, my friend and I stayed until the end of the ceremony, mesmerized and transported by the rootedness and power of the chant.

In none of these cases is the music the point of the ceremony.  Rather, the music points those in attendance toward something higher, be it outward fervor and enthusiasm or inward contemplation and reflection.

While there are a few Catholic churches here and there that have thriving music programs and that offer good music for their congregations, I fear that they are in the minority.  And alas, I’ve heard too many heartbreaking stories of stone-hearted priests pruning their church’s music budgets to the bare minimum.  This is even more of a shame when I think of how little of the abundant and terrific music written for the Catholic church in the last millennium is ever heard as it was meant to be heard: during worship, for the purpose of elevating congregations’ consciousness and inspiring devotion.

I have attended some Catholic services in which the music played a spiritually central role; for example, I heard a Vespers service in Florence that was chanted.  Though owing to my choral training I understand far more Latin than I do Hebrew or Japanese, I didn’t catch all of the texts.  Nonetheless, there was something absolutely mystical about sitting in that darkened sanctuary listening to ten voices chanting in unison for the best part of an hour that made me feel religious–far more so than any of the drivel heard in most American churches today ever has.

As more parishes are forced to shut their doors because of dwindling attendance and diminishing funds, I can’t help but wonder whether the church is in an “If you build it, they will come” situation: if the church made a serious effort to improve the quality of its music and of congregational singing, would attendance and offerings increase?  Maybe, maybe not.  But doing so would certainly enrich the weekly experience of those who do attend, and perhaps at least entice occasional non-religious visitors like me to come back more often and maybe even look a little more deeply at the faith.