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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Tone Poem

In 2002 I completed a rather large work for orchestra titled Tone Poem. Despite my best efforts, it has never been performed.

Frankly this predicament is all too common for composers who write contemporary works for symphony orchestra. It took about a year and a half to compose - approximately 3000 hours of hard but focused labor. That does not include the time for generating individual orchestral parts either, so there is still a work-intensive task to be done if the work is ever get a public hearing. I haven't made parts as of yet.

Recently while cleaning out old files and folders on my PC, I came across some quotes that I had obtained from a number of prominent composer friends. I had sent them scores and solicited supporting comments to send out along with my music to a wide array of prospective orchestras (including the good, the bad, and the ugly). I had hoped that their kind words would serve as an “advance review” for my piece, and perhaps stimulate just enough interest in my work to warrant serious consideration from the powers that be.

Here are some of their inspiring quotes…
“Tone Poem confirms that you are a long line composer in the Sessions tradition, have superfine ears for harmony and harmonic progression, pay attention to voice leading, and are good at dramatic structures...” - David Rakowski, Composer, Brandeis University

"James is a composer with a fertile imagination. His work 'Tone Poem' exhibits a mastery of form, orchestration, and harmonic movement. The final Epilogue is a heart-wrenching remembrance of 9/11. The variety of texture, orchestration, and dynamics excite the ear throughout. The piece should receive the excellent performance it deserves." - Robert Ceely, Composer, New England Conservatory

"Vienna lives. I was continually made to think of Sezession, the Wiener Werkstaette, and the more elaborately patterned paintings of Gustav Klimt. I'd love to hear a live performance. Good luck with it: it deserves it." - Ezra Sims, Composer, Cambridge MA

“You are, in my estimation, an extremely talented and sensitive composer. Your orchestral work is incredibly detailed, imaginative and beautiful.” - Peter Lieberson, Composer, Santa Fe NM

“Tone Poem is a very impressive accomplishment. An extremely complex orchestral texture, filled with choice details, is placed in the service of a large-scale musical statement that in the end is quite moving. It deserves a performance.”- Martin Boykan, Composer, Brandeis University

“I agree with my colleagues that your ‘Tone Poem’ is a remarkable work, and I already had decided to nominate it for an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters…” - Milton Babbitt, Composer, The Juilliard School & Princeton University (Emeritus)

"A remarkably beautiful work -- elegantly crafted and strikingly orchestrated" - Donald Martino, Composer, Harvard University (Emeritus)

Just a footnote about the quote from the late Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Don Martino. As with much communication today, a lot transpires through email. I had asked my former teacher for a letter of reference for an orchestral competition by the American Composer’s Orchestra (ACO). I brought my new score to his house, and we listened to it together in his basement studio while following my large score. He liked it, and commented positively about the "rock" influence in one section of my piece. Listening to my 16-minute work, he would often nod in approval and point to sections in the score he particularly liked. I'm sure he had his reservations about certain things in Tone Poem too, but he seemed pleased with my accomplishment.

Martino agreed to write a recommendation on my behalf to the ACO. In his later years he tended to be very selective and judicious in regard to who he would write recommends for. A few days later, he sent me the following email…

November 22, 2002
Dear Jim, The letter went out [to the American Composers Orchestra] on Monday afternoon. I've listened a few more times. I think the piece is splendid. Don

Here is the text of another email from Martino which he sent after I had asked him for a general purpose quote about my Tone Poem. He was in very poor health at the time, and thought that another composer (not disclosed in this blog post) would have more clout than him. However, he came up with a concise sentence that I used in my promotional material, and I’m very honored to have received his kind words of support.

March 12, 2003
Dear Jim, A quote from [composer X] will do you more good than mine. I'd advise you to disclaim any association with me. I think I am poison. But if you want a quote here goes: "A remarkably beautiful work -- elegantly crafted and strikingly orchestrated” [Don]