Anonymous yet personal, this Blog chronicles
the daily events and musings of Jim.
It provides an easy way for his friends and family to check in on him,
and serves as a online repository for his random
thoughts, kaleidoscopic flashbacks, and writings on an array of diverse topics.
“Deconstructing Jim” is simply here to
entertain you, but not intended for college credit.

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Sunday, January 31, 2010

52nd Annual Grammy Awards


Live from LA, Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto edged out George Crumb's The Winds Of Destiny, Avro Pärt's In Principio, Roberto Sierra's Missa Latina 'Pro Pace' and Boston-based composer Yehudi Wyner's fantastic Piano Concerto "Chiavi In Mano" for the 52nd Annual Grammy Award in the BEST Classical Contemporary Composition category.

Lady Gaga (left)

Other notable classical music winners included David Lang's The Little Match Girl Passion, The Emerson String Quartet, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra's recording of Ravel's Daphnis Et Chloé (James Levine conducting). That work was on the BSO program this week.

I was disappointed that Ursula Oppens' recording of Elliott Carter's piano music did not win in the category of Best Instrumental Soloist Performance. It's a great CD. Check out my review of Oppens, concert of these works at Boston Conservatory...

Kudos to Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Pink, who all performed their hit songs with vast amounts of cleavage. Wardrobe malfunctions were miraculously avoided. Singing in tune was optional, especially if autotune software was enabled.

The Grammy is an industry award granted by the Recording Academy. Voting is granted to about 18 thousand dues paying members who are "professionals with creative or technical credits on six commercially released tracks (or their equivalent). These may include vocalists, conductors, arrangers, and other fields directly related to the creative or technical process of producing recordings."

Congratulations to all of the winners and nominees!



How to burn $100,000.00

Imagine a pile of a thousand $100 bills sitting on a table in front of you.Now imagine crumpling them up, and setting fire to the entire stack.

In a nutshell, that's what it's like to be a composer.

Let me explain....

Since 1985 I have "invested" several thousand dollars per year in support of my side-career as a composer. Because none of it would have been tax-deductible, I have not kept detailed records of my expenses, but I know roughly what I've spent.

The annual sound of money being sucked out of my wallet has varied. Some years have hemorrhaged the bank account more than others. But I estimate that over the past quarter century my annual expense is has averaged around $4,000 per year. And that's a rather conservative estimate.

Where did that $100,000.00 go?

The most costly outlay has been related to self-publishing my printed music and postage fees for mailing it. It's been my habit every time I finish a new work to bring it to the copy shop and order bound scores for distribution. While there have been other expenses along the line related to actually paying musicians, paying the associated costs of a vanity concerts or recording sessions, demo CDs, or other career-related expenses (such as application fees for competitions, grants, and awards) - printing and postage have been the primary budget killer.

Generally, a score will cost around $20 to photocopy and professionally bind. Some scores cost more, some cost less. I usually order between 50 and a 100 copies of a score at a time.

Just as expensive as copy costs are the associated postal fees when I mail out a package of music en masse to prospective music ensembles and assorted musicians. These postal fees vary, but rates have risen dramatically over the past years, and rates for international mail have spiked the most.

Together, the self-publishing and postage fees easily average $4 thousand dollars per year. Over a period of 25 years, that amounts to $100,000.00.

I know what your going to ask next... What are the dividends? Where's the return on my investment?

Warren Buffett I am not. I don't need to be reminded that had I wisely invested that $100K over the past two and a half decades, the value of my investment would have grown significantly. Potentially, it could have resulted in a financial nest egg that would have come in handy for retirement, or even paying college tuition for my son. But tell that to an "emerging composer" eager for a performance.

Where did all of that music end up?

That's a good question, and it's still a somewhat of a mystery to me. I suspect that most of my scores ended up in the circular file cabinet, also known as the proverbial recycling bin. That's the same place a lot of my resumes end up too.

Perhaps web-based score distribution is the way to go. I'm publishing all of my music in PDF format and FTP-ing it up to the Cloud.

But since I like the feel and smell of paper scores, I will probably continue to mail out a few printed scores to highly select musicians and conductors, and hope for the best. But in the end, when you look at the numbers, scattering hard-copy printed music out to the winds pays fewer dividends than investing in lottery tickets.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

National Penguin Awareness Day

January 20th

Happy National Penguin Awareness Day!

Good luck to all of the Penguins out there.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Happy Birthday: Robert Ceely

January 17th, 2010

Boston-based composer Robert Ceely was born 80 years ago today.

Happy Birthday Bob!!

Mr. Ceely reports by telephone today that he just finished a trio for brass instruments, and hopes to have it performed in NYC in June.

He is looking forward to enjoying the cake his wife Jonatha bakes for him twice a year: today on his birthday and on the 4th of July.

For more information about the composer, and to listen to excerpts of his music, visit...


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Happy Birthday: Ezra Sims

January 16th, 2010.

Boston-based composer Ezra Sims was born 82 years ago today.

Happy Birthday Ezra!!

Staff from the Computer-Repair division of Deconstructing-Jim, Inc. will be spending a good part of Sunday with Mr. Sims, attempting to rebuild his Lenovo IBM ThinkPad computer system. We are hopeful that his data and applications can be recovered, but prayers and well wishes for a successful restore are most welcome.

You can learn more about the composer from his website...



Concert Review: Sonic Voyages I

On January 14th, the Arlington High School Department of Performing Arts presented Sonic Voyages I.

It was a multi-media show with electronic music newly composed by students from Mr. John DiTomaso's popular Music Technology class at the high school.

The program was divided into sections:

Suite I: Music of the Spheres

Suite II: Martin Luther King and Malcom X Tributes

Suite III: Remixes and Diatonic Projects

Grove Laboratory X1
(photo below)

Featuring about 70 student composer-musicians, the music was diverse and original. Some works were more abstract than others (e.g. exploiting the overtone series and/or non-pulsed rhythmic structures). Some pieces were more pop-oriented, had a driving beat, and were realized quite professionally.

AHS Director of Arts provided short introductory remarks, explaining that the world of professional music has shifted toward electronically-generated and digitally manipulated sounds. Technology allows musicians to work directly with their chosen sounds, without having to struggle through all of the traditional intermediary steps of music making: score preparation, parts copying, rehearsals, and live performance.

Music today is clearly not your grandfather's music. These young musician-composers take to computers, software, and audio technology like fish to water. It's remarkable how some of the former obstacles of music creation (e.g. years of formal music training) can be circumvented with the aid of user-friendly technology. Today, just about everyone can be a composer. It's no longer an obscure discipline requiring a life-time of toil to acquire the necessary skills.

Throughout the program, two large projection screens displayed images related to the music, and a digital video image mixer enhanced the audience's experience. It felt like the early 70s all over again.

Congrats to all of the young composers (including my son Joseph) featured in the Sonic Voyages I concert!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Report from NY: The Metropolitan

On Wednesday January 13th, I spent the entire day at the cavernous Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY. It's a big museum and pretty overwhelming, but at least I walked through the entire space of the building.

Here a just three images of works (out of thousands) that I viewed. For some reason, they caught my eye...

The Organ Rehearsal by Henry Lerolle (1848-1929). Lerolle was the brother-in-law of composer Ernest Chausson (1855-1899). The oil painting is enormous, and kind of shows what it's like to be a musician sitting up in the choir loft. Apparently, Lerolle was not all that prolific, but lived quite comfortably on his wealth.

Red Sunset on the Dnieper is by the Russian-Ukrainian painter Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi (1842-1910). This landscape, which was painted between 1905 and 1908, really catches the viewers attention.

The walking stick show above was made by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). It features a carved female body and a hidden compartment.

Report from NY: Juilliard ChamberFest 2010

In a recession, free concerts are always welcome.

With not much going on Tuesday evening January 12th, I decided to check out ChamberFest 2010. After a hearty meal at Ollies's Noodle Shope & Grille at 1991 Broadway (#32, the Singapore Mai Fun for just $8.50), I found my way around the corner to Juilliard.

Juilliard's new building is behind the renovated Alice Tully Hall. Not having been to Juilliard since the 1970s, I can say that the lobby looks a little different today. First, you enter through a tall glass facade and entrance. Before you are an entire story of stairs/seats that could (and probably do) double as a public performance space. Once up the stairs you come to a ultra-modern lobby...

A crack-team of security guards protect the entrance to the college itself, and I noticed that every student or faculty member that passes through the turnstyle triggers the computerized security system to pop their photo up on the screen. It's all very hi-tech. No full-body scans yet, or dogs to sniff my underware, but I felt pretty safe.

After explaining that I was here for the concert at 8 PM in Paul Hall, the guards let me through to the lobby. Juilliard is the Hard Rock Cafe of classical music. I think I walked past pianist Richard Goode chatting with students near the guards' post.

ChamberFest 2010
is a week-long event featuring a variety chamber music works performed by Juilliard students. In my day, Juilliard did not emphasise chamber music very much. The place was more of a factory for singers, soloists, and orchestral musicians. But to quote from the program notes, "The ChamberFest experience is unique for the devoted chamber musician at Juilliard, and it supports the broad and reflective education necessary for the 21st century artist-citizen."

It's a good mission statement. I agree with it completely, speaking as an 21st artist-citizen myself.

The week-long ChamberFest concert series included a few modern works too. Besides the Ives Trio, concerts featured Messiaen's Quatuor for la fin du temps and the Schoenberg String Trio, Op. 45. Exciting music. The students are all coached by Juilliard's superstar faculty, including new music advocates Curtis Macomber (violin) and Fred Sherry (cello).

The concert I attended had three chamber works: The Chopin Piano Trio in G minor, Op.8; Deux Rhapsodies for oboe, viola, and piano; and Mendelssohn's String Quartet in F minor, Op. 80. It was all basically new music to me, and I was glad to hear it. The Chopin was performed by Robyn Quinnett (violin), Lila Yang (cello), and Melody Quah (piano). The Loeffler was performed by Max Blair (oboe), Adrienne Hochman (viola), and Yuri Bakker (piano). All of the musicians were well-prepared, and executed the musical score professionally and with confidence.

The standout piece (and performance) of the evening was the Mendelssohn performed by the Azur Quartet (Sharon Park and Francesca Anderegg violins; Molly Carr, viola; and Matt Zalkind, cello). Mendelssohn was a composer at the top of his game when he composed this piece, and these young musicians played it with precision and energy. Cellist Matt Zalkind is only 23 years old.

Although the Juilliard building is completely new, I kept suppressing feelings of dé·jà vu. Paul Hall looked awfully familiar - just like it did in the 1970s. But the Paul Hall of 1972 was in a building across the street. Yet the new Paul Hall had the same light fixtures, arched rows of chairs, reddish upholstery, dark wood paneling, pipe organ, and excessively-dry acoustics. It felt a bit like being on the holodeck of the Starship Enterprise of Star Trek fame. How on earth did they move an entire concert hall to a new building? Not only that, why would anyone want to do that?

Anyway, the music was good, the concert was well attended, and I've stopped asking questions that begin with the word "why."


Report from NY: The Phil takes on Berg Op 6

Alban Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra Opus 6 (1923) was on the schedule for the NY Philharmonic's open public rehearsal on Thursday morning January 14th.

I didn't want to miss it, since the Berg piece is not often heard in public, and seeing a complex score put together by an able and skilled conductor working with a world-class orchestra was sure to be a sensation - if not a learning experience.

After paying my $16 and waiting my turn in line to be frisked by NY City policemen, I made my way up into the 70s decorum, cavernous-but-cozy, Avery Fisher Hall. I sat myself down amongst the swarm of grey haired seniors (a cohort of which I proudly consider myself a full-fledged member), and pulled a 35 year-old xeroxed copy of the Berg study score from my overflowing backpack - trying my best not to expose dirty underwear in the process.

As I had expected, the Berg was the first item on the morning's 9:45 AM rehearsal schedule - although the actual concerts would feature this piece last. It is scored for a large orchestra, and it is probably standard protocol and common courtesy not to force all of the musicians to wait around. The other works on the program were for smaller forces, and I was less interested in hearing them anyway. Everyone in the orchestra had to be back on stage dressed in formal concert attire later tonight (which will be the 14,937th concert in the history of the NY Philharmonic).

Berg's piece is not all that long, but it has a ton of notes. Some would say that it is "over-orchestrated" and I'd agree with that assessment. The late Michael Steinberg once described it as “Mahler’s Eleventh” Symphony.

Although I've known the piece from various recordings over the years, this particular piece by Berg has always seemed to me as a bit "messy." It's very hard to hear what's going on inside, since there are so many layers of sound.

How would the new NY Philharmonic music director shape it, bring it to life, and rehearse all of those notes in short order? I'd soon find out.

Maestro Alan Gilbert came out on stage, and got down to business right away. He played through all three movements without stopping or making a comment (although comments were hard to heard from the back of the hall).

After plowing through the piece, which was not 100% ready for prime time, he went back to individual movements and worked on a selection of difficult spots.
Out of the sonic totality, I remember a very distinctive sounding clarinet solo, and I later learned that the NY Phil has been quietly trying out a selection of guest clarinets. The retirement of Stanley Drucker last year created a vacancy that has not yet been filled.

The brass section too has a difficult part, particularly at rehearsal number 150 of the third movement. When Gilbert wanted to rehearse just that section, the brass players asked for a running start. Brass players are like that.

Gilbert is very professional. He conducts with a clear beat. At times he would sing a line back to the musicians to exemplify what he was looking for. What else can you ask for?

In the end I was favorably impressed with the performance, but my initial impression about the over-orchestration of Berg's Opus 6 remains. It my be my aging ears, but the work lacks color. It has great textures, but all of those rich sounds cancel each other out. You can hardly hear some of the secondary lines, and much of the music recedes into the background. Berg revised his piece in 1929, probably with orchestration in mind.

A few minutes into the rehearsal of the Berg, an elderly gentleman sitting close to me began to snore with a vengeance. He was out like a light, and his companions had difficulty getting him to wake. Most others around me seemed ambivalent about the Berg too. Some young international tourists were busy snapping photos on their cameras and checking messages on their iPhones.

After the NY performances (1/14, 1/15 and 1/16), Gilbert and his band will take the Berg on tour to nine cities in Europe. They will give 13 performances over 15 days "hitting" Barcelona, Zaragoza, Madrid, Zurich, Frankfurt, Cologne, Dortmund, London, and Paris along the way. By the end of the tour, the Berg should be fully rehearsed.

Also going long on the European road show will be the piece "EXPO" by the NY Philharmonic Composer-in-Residence: Magnus Lindberg. "EXPO" was premiered in September by the orchestra for their grand opening night. I saw it on a nationally-televised broadcast on PBS, and was favorably impressed with the piece.

After hearing the Berg, I had taken in enough. My ears were full. I didn't stay to hear the Haydn or Schubert, or even John Adams' "The Wound-Dresser."

Besides, I had a bus to catch.


Report from NY: Continuum performs Mamlok

Composer Ursula Mamlok will be celebrating her 87th birthday on February 1st, 2010.

On Wednesday evening January 13th, the New York-based new music ensemble Continuum got an early start in what I hope will be a slew of birthday celebrations for the composer. Continuum's celebratory concert of Mamlok's music was held at the Merkin Concert Hall on 67th street in New York. (By the way, this long-standing NY-based new music group named Continuum should not to be confused with the Amsterdam-based new music group going by the name).

The eleven works selected for the concert were drawn from a body of some sixty works to the composers' name. The pieces were written during a time-span of about a half century, although the concert featured three world premieres.

I was thrilled to learn that Contiuum would be presenting a concert dedicated to Mamlok's work while I was visiting New York. I'm glad to report that the concert lived up to - and even exceeded - my already high expectations.

Mamlok has an interesting bio. She was born in Berlin in 1923, and escaped with her family from Nazi Germany at the last moment in 1939, ending up in Ecuador. Looking to further her studies in composition, she eventually obtained a visa to the United States, and in 1940 traveled alone to NYC to study with Maestro George Szell at the Mannes School of Music on scholarship. Her NY years were fruitful, full of musical stimulus and artistic influence. Aside from her work with Szell, she studied with the many of the prominent NY-based composers of the period, including Sessions, Giannini, Wolpe, and Shapey.

Mamlok's String Quartet No. 1 caught the attention of Edgard Varèse, who dialed her up on the telephone after the premiere and praised her work enthusiastically. (Mamlok's elegant String Quartet No. 2 from 1998 was performed on the Continuum concert). Later, Mamlok would mention to her friends that the strong support from Varèse early on in her career gave her a boost in confidence. Varèse, of course, was very prominent and well-respected composer.

Mamlok's works selected for the concert ranged in creation date from her Arabesque for Solo Flute (1960) to Aphorisms II for Clarinet Duo (2009). Aphorisms II is "hot off the press" and I heard anecdotally that the final edits and changes were communicated to the performers just a week or two prior to the premiere. Although we can perceive a stylistic evolution over the decades in her work - ranging from hard-edged pointillism to a more assessable, direct, and warm style - there is also a steadfast and un-compromising persistence omnipresent in the composer's life-long musical expression that binds it all together into a logical, continuous and flowing unity.

What strikes me after hearing all of the eleven works presented on the program is the sensitivity of Mamlok's ear. Every note has its' place, and the domain of musical pitch is one of the creative gardens that she revels to play in. (The subject of gardening is a theme that has nourished her music over the years).

Another interesting trait in Mamlok's work is her utilization of pedal point. Apparent even in the early flute pieces from 1960-61 when she was under the tutelage of Stefan Wolpe, Mamlok learned that all notes are not created equal. By emphasizing certain pitches in certain registers, the composer is able to carve out tonal plateaus for the listener to hang on to and refer to as important reference points.

The pedal-point technique was particularly evident in From My Garden (viola version, 1983). The performer is provided with a stage to dance around the pitch D above middle C, which acts as a tonal center without ever implying a specific tonality or mode. The idea of the piece is to exploit the viola in various ingenious ways to get at and combine the pitch D in the context of a shifting and on-going musical dialogue. In this instance, the composers' game is both skillful and a pleasure to listen to. In the program notes, the composer is quoted as saying, "The slow unfolding of pitches, frequently returning to the initial pitch, may remind the listener of tonality, an effect arrived at by serial procedures."

Mamlok was a reluctant serialist. Like many post-war composers, she was intrigued by the music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Living in NY in the later 20th century, 12-tone/serial music was the big thing. Yet, she adopted it to her own needs and apparently uses precompositional charts as road maps for her work.

With our current perspective of 20-20 hindsight from the 21st century, we can see that Mamlock's somewhat more intuitive compositional method has stood the test of time. She is at heart a conservative pragmatist, and allows the impulse of her work itself to guide the results. Regarding her own working-methods, she writes, "While I often use the principle of continuous variation as a compositional method, in my longer works I allow some sections to return, preferring rounded forms with large formal divisions to the through-composed forms."

For me, the most impressive work on the program was Confluences dating from 2001. The work was originally commissioned by Continuum and premeired by them at the Sonic Boom Festival at the Knitting Factory in NY. There is interesting dialogue between the instruments, and great contrast and energy within the work and between the movements. The final movement, "Still (as if suspended)" is sparse and Zen-like. It creates a meditative calm that focuses the musician's thoughts and energy on every note. Confluences breaks with tradition by ending with a quiet, slow, and soft movement, but everyone in the audience could hear that the musical idea was just right, and close to perfect.

As a former New Yorker who grew up in the early 1970s very attuned to what was happening in the vibrant Manhattan new music scene, I was aware of Mamlok's work from hearing her pieces performed during that period. I also remember her presence at concerts of that period. She was a fixture of the NY new music scene. However, after moving to Boston in 1973, I did not have the fortune of hearing much of her work other than one recording on the CRI record label.

It is fair to say that Mamlok, who as of late has obtained much deserved attention and recognition, worked quietly and in relative obscurity for much of her career. She has moved back to her native Berlin, where she reportedly is extremely active composing, and lecturing. The music publisher Boosey & Hawkes recognising an opportunity, has recently signed her on. Performances (such as this Mamlok retrospective in NYC) are on the increase. To put it another way... on the cusp of her 87th birthday, composer Ursula Mamlok is a hot ticket. It's great to see a composer finally gain wider recognition, even if it is in his or her late 80's (or '90s or '00s).

Just after the intermission, Cheryl Seltzer - pianist and Continuum co-Director - led a short panel discussion (without an actual physical panel) featuring six friends, musicians, and colleagues of the composer. Mamlok could not attend the concert herself, since Berlin is covered in snow, and international air travel for people in their late 80's traveling alone is, long, uncomfortable, rather cumbersome, and somewhat difficult.

I was glad to see my friend and teacher Marty Boykan as one of the members of the panel. He told a story about how he first became acquainted with Mamlok's music in the mid-1980s when he was a member of the jury for a composer grant committee. The score and recording of Mamlok's submitted piece made a lasting impression on him. Later he wrote her a note, complimenting her for her work while apologizing for the short-sightedness of the committee which (despite his recommendation) had in the end selected other composers for the award. Years later, when Boykan and Mamlok finally met face-to-face, Mary was very surprised by her comment, "I remember your mother." As it turned out, when Boykan was a 12-year old youngster, his mom would take him to the Mannes College of Music to have lessons in 16th century counterpoint with George Szell. While he had his lesson, Ursula Mamlok and Marty's mother would chat outside the door. Mamlok's lesson was just after Marty's. Even though Marty didn't realize it until many decades later, they had shared this early connection.

The performers were superb. Continuum featured Charles Neidich and Ayako Oshima (clarinets), Ulla Suokko (flute), Moran Katz (clarinet), Renée Jolles and Airi Yoshioka (violins), Stephanie Griffin (viola), and Joanne Lin (cello).

As it so happened, seated next to me during the concert was a very close friend of Ursula Mamlok - a woman by the name of Ursula Eastman. Eastman and Mamlok go way back, and she had been in contact by telephone just days before the concert. Eastman brought me up to speed on what Mamlok is up to, since I had not even known that the composer had left New York. Ursula Eastman had worked for the music publisher Schirmer as a publicist.

The Directors of Continuum are Cheryl Seltzer (piano) and Joel Sachs (piano and conductor). 2009/10 is Continuum's 44th season, and I fondly remember their assorted composer retrospective concerts from the early 1970s in NY (such as the one for John Cage). Continuum is one of the long-standing and most distinguished, landmark new music groups. They have a number of CDs out in circulation, and there are plans to record a CD of Mamlok's music. The group is among the oldest of the new music avant-gardists (if that is not a contradiction of terms).

When Continuum came to Boston in 1978, they gave the New England premiere of Milton Babbitt's A Solo Requiem with soprano Bethany Beardslee at NEC's Jordan Hall. As it turned out, I was asked by composer and concert organizer Malcolm Peyton to be Ms. Seltzer's page turner. I still have anxiety attacks about that job, since to my eyes Babbitt's Xeroxed score looked like a swarm of ants at a picnic. The tiny dots on the page were difficult to follow as the complex music whirled by. My job would have been a tad easier if Ms. Saltzer had been less animated. Given the highly-active body language of her performing, her page-turn head nods turned out to be completely indiscernible from all the other involuntary actions and random contortions that Babbitt's music seemed to invoke in her.

More than 30 year later I can report that Ms. Seltzer is still a very animated performer - although not with the same amount of violent display or dance-like expression of the 70s. It's actually a great pleasure to watch her perform live, since she physically embodies the music and seems to thrive on it.

In particular, her facial expressions while performing in the various works of Mamlok caught my eye and attention. For example, it was telling that both she and I would smile at the same spots in Mamlok's music - sections that would coincide with a particularly witty figure or catchy musical idea. You can tell if music is well-performed if it evokes a physical response, either from the audience or the performer.

After the concert, everyone was invited up to the second floor of Merkin for a generous reception - complete with a dry chardonnay and a spread of assorted cheese, fruit, and crackers. I feasted along with the impressive crowd of NY new music intelligentsia. I got to speak with Marty and Susan Boykan, composer Elliott Schwartz (who like me and the Boykans, were visiting NYC from New England). I also met musicians from Continuum, and its' esteemed and inspiring Music Directors Cheryl Seltzer and Joel Sachs.

From afar, I spied a familiar face amongst the crowd at the busy reception. It turned out to be the charismatic violinist-extraordinaire Miranda Cuckson, whom I've blogged about in Deconstructing-Jim previously ( ). While I had never met Miranda in person, I introduced myself and we had a chance to chat. It turns out that she had once premiered a work for violin and clarinet written for her by Ursula Mamlok shortly after the composers' return to Berlin. We shared thoughts about the inspiring concert.

It was good to hear from Joel Sachs that Continuum will be performing on February 19th and 20th at Harvard. It's for the annual Fromm Music Foundation festival, and this year the concerts will feature an array of broadly-international works by Conlon Nancarrow, Oleg Felzer, Betty Olivero, Guo Wenjing, Pablo Ortiz, Chinary Ung, Roberto Sierra, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Benjamin Yusupov, Du Yun, Tony Prabowo, Tania Leon, and Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky. I certainly plan to attend.

Celebrating Ursula Mamlok
Wednesday, January 13th, 2010
Merkin Concert Hall at the Kaufman Center
129 West 67th Street
New York, NY



Report from NY: Ann Street

Ann Street, one of lower-Manhattan's oldest byways, first appeared on a map of the city dating back to 1728.

Singers, musicians, and music connoisseurs know Ann Street an early 20th century song by Charles Ives. Ives based his short but catchy piece on lyrics by poet Maurice Morris dating from 1921:


Quaint name Ann street.
Width of same, ten feet.
Barnum's mob Ann street,
Far from ob-solete.
Narrow, yes Ann street,
But business, Both feet.
Nassau crosses Ann Street!
Sun just hits Ann street,
Then it quits Some greet!

Rather short, Ann Street

The poem's mention of circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum relates to Barnum's "American Museum" which once stood at the corner of Ann Street and Broadway

Perhaps Ives is making light of societies' misguided obsessions. After all, in 1842 Barnum had gotten rich by exhibiting the midget "General Tom Thumb" and other side-show oddities. In the world of show business, how is a composer to stand out when "mob" mentality prevails?

Or maybe Ives is commenting on the circus-like atmosphere of the music business itself, and how short and narrow the streets can be.

Ives was a man of integrity.

Today, people still walk up and down Ann Street mostly oblivious to its' history and what it means.



Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Report from NY: Art imitating Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY is abuzz with aspiring artists hard at work forging replicas of oil paintings by the great masters.

Portraits by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) seem to be their subject matter of choice.

Oddly enough, the public seems to marvel in the work of these young artists. Tourists and art connoisseurs alike hover around them in droves - watching their every brush-stroke in sheer amazement. It makes for great performance art.

Not only do the artists imitate art by emulating these great works, but the public (myself included) is inspired to capture the moment with their digital cameras.

The photo on the right is my rendering of a tourist photographing an artist who is making a copy of a painting by Rembrandt.

No flash allowed.

Art imitating Art imitating Art.

The conga line of inspiration and eternal creativity.

Where will it end?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Avant-garde composer elected President

Yesterday Dr. Ivo Josipović was elected President of Croatia. He is the 3rd President of Croatia - elected with over 60% of the votes.

He is also an avant-garde composer.

Dr. Josipović graduated with a degree in music composition in 1983 from the Zagreb Music Academy in Croatia where his teacher was Stanko Horvat. To date, he has composed some 50 works for orchestra, voice, soloists, and chamber ensembles. The 53-year old President-elect has been awarded prizes for his musical works in Croatia and at international competitions. Dr. Josipović has served as the head of the Zagreb Music Biennale and has recorded a dozen CDs.

According to his bio on Wikipedia...
"In 1985, he received a first prize from the European Broadcasting Union for his composition "Samba da Camera". In 1999, he was awarded the Porin award for the same composition, followed by the Porin award in 2000 for "Tisuću lotosa" (A Thousand Lotuses). His most successful pieces also include "Igra staklenih perli" (Glass Bead Play) and "Tuba Ludens". These pieces are performed by numerous musicians in Croatia and abroad."

photo of Josipović (on right) with composer Krzysztof Penderecki (b.1933)

Congratulations to Ivo Josipović!



Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Going Digital - Redux

One explanation for the precipitous decline in public participation in the arts (such the number of people who attend concerts) is the introduction of new media - such as the Internet.

Indeed, it may be true that pod-casts, digital downloads, streaming media, and Facebook have all replaced traditional venues of musical and interaction. It's been a while since the typical American family leisurely sat around and listened to Grandma play her favourites on the piano.

As a composer, it seems a little strange to know that there actually are people out there listening to my music (or at least downloading it). I can't see them. They're invisible, and I have only the most vague idea of who they are.

For instance, the report generator for my website indicates a steady increase in traffic over the past two calendar years. Here is a chart of the "number of requests" per month (over 24 months) from January 2008 to December 2009.

Over the past two years the monthly average for pages sent was 300. The average requests handled were 2,302. That's small by most commercial web-standards, but the rate of increase is what interests me. Monthly requests have grown to over 6,000 per month.

Closer analysis indicates that most of the hits are for free downloads of MP3 audio files and musical scores in Adobe PDF format. Of those, most requests originate from outside of the United States.

My music seems to be most popular in China, Germany, England, France, Italy, Greece, and the Netherlands.

It's stunning to see the number of times particular works of mine have been downloaded. It's often a number large enough to fill a sizable concert hall.

I'm not letting any of this get to my head, since I don't necessarily equate "number of requests" with flesh-and-blood people who actually listen. Web-based statistics can be very misleading.

Yet, the numbers indicate that something is going on. I'm just not convinced that it is real, otherwise the phone would be ringing.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Yasha Bunchuk and his Cossack Choir

I heard an interesting vocal work the other night on Cable TV (Classic Arts Showcase). The piece was for men's choir.

It was an excerpt from a film made in 1937 with Yasha Bunchuk and his Cossack Choir from Moscow.

Bunchuk (1896-1944) was born in Kharkov. He composed his piece based entirely on (of all things) the word "Massachusetts." It was pretty ingenious.

Additional information about Bunchuk and his choir is hard to come by. I was hoping that YouTube would have this video, but it does not.

There is a short film with Bunchuk from 1936 by Fred Waller titled "Moscow Moods" listed on IMDb (The Internet Movies Database). It was nominated for an Academy Award. Other than that, I can find little information is online about this talented artist.


Friday, January 1, 2010

The First, First-Night in Boston

Bostonians just rang in the New Year with their annual celebration known as First Night. It's been a persistent tradition for 34 years, regardless of the ups and down in the economy, post-9/11 concerns about public safety, fears about Y2K, and a host of variable weather conditions.

The First Night concept began here in Boston in 1976. It was the brainchild of a small group of alternative artists and musicians who envisioned that the public would enjoy doing something other than getting inebriated while viewing a million-plus drunk New Yorker's on television as they celebrated the holiday to the beat of bandleader Guy Lombardo. There had to be more to it than the dropping of an illuminated ball in Time’s Square, or a drunken party with silly paper hats.

The new celebration in Boston would embrace the current Zeitgeist and blur the line between performers and the public. It would be avant garde, edgy, and experimental. "People would be encouraged to come in costumes and masks, so that there would be little difference between the observer and the observed." It would also be an opportunity to showcase the work of contemporary artists and musicians working in and around the Boston-metro area. The activities and performances would occur both outside in the open air and be staged within Boston’s churches and public buildings. I even recall store-fronts on Newbury Street being used for performance art.

I wasn't present at the meeting, but it is said that Clara Wainwright - a local artist and community organizer - was the instigator of the event organizing committee. It must have been an electrifying meeting, with a myriad of ideas bouncing off the wall in chaotic fashion. Someone apparently wanted to call the happening the “Boston Common Garden Variety Show.” Ultimately, the title "First Night" emerged as events' central mantra.

I assume that the original cohort of First Night visionaries included Paul and Zeren Earls of Cambridge. They were definitely involved with First Night from the very beginning. In fact, in 1980 Zeren Earls assumed the chief leadership role of the not-for-profit First Night organization. Under her direction for many years, she brought the annual First Night Celebration to new levels of accomplishment and gained national and international recognition in the process. The annual celebration of community and creativity soon attracted a up to a million participates. For an arts organization - that is huge! It became a model of success and was adopted by other cities - large and small (except of course NYC). First Night was exported internationally by Zeren Earls, but today she lives in the Berkshires and freelances as a travel writer.

Her husband, Paul Earls (1934-1998), was known to me. Paul was an electronic music composer who I'd often see amongst the small circle of experimental music enthusiasts and artists I'd hang out with. Paul Earls liked to integrate his music with lasers and experimental visual effects (working closely with Otto Piene). He had a cool gig with the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT and was on the faculty of the Mass. College of Art (where composer Walter Piston had once studied). I'd often walk past his office, a grey non-discript structure on Mass Ave. I'd wonder about what went on in that building. It was an unusual place for a new music composer to hang out. But, the 1970s were interesting times, and multi-media was the up-and-coming artistic playground.

I recall that Paul Earls came to an open house at the Boston School of Electronic Music (BSEM) on Dartmouth Street (founded and headed by Jim Michmerhuizen). It was in 1973. A member of the BSEM faculty, composer/pianist John Duesenberry, would later perform a work for piano and electronics by Paul Earls. I remember Paul as quiet man. He didn't seem to engage in small-talk or smooching. He had a lot of creative ideas running around in his head.

Paul Earls started off as a rather traditional composer. His early orchestral work "And on the seventh day..." was recorded in 1958 by his teacher Howard Hanson with the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra. I believe that this work, which is under seven minutes, is currently the only commercially available recording of Paul Earls. Earls had obtained advanced degrees from the University of Rochester, and in 1970 won a Guggenheim award.

But in the 1970s, Earls was writing for soloists, organ, chamber ensembles, vocalists, children's choir, and utilizing video projections, analog-synthesized music, inflatable sculpture, and laser projections. A decade later someone would write that Earl's work "recalled the multimedia meanderings of the 1960's, realized with a quintessentially 80's professionalism." He enjoyed collaborative interaction, working with dancers and actors (such as choreographer Beth Soll). His catalogue of work includes five operas.

In 1975 I was fortunate enough to have a piece on a concert program with Paul Earls. It's wasn't a traditional kind of concert. A Boston-based new music ensemble known as the Annex Players presented a 70s happening titled...

Music Interacts:
an afternoon of Musical/Theatrical Games,
Exhibits, and Environments

It was held on April 27th, 1975 throughout the building at the Mass. College of Art (where Paul Earls taught a class). The audience was handed a large yellow floor diagram of the building floor plan upon their entrance and payment of their modest admission fee ($2.50 general, $2.00 for students). The diagram/schedule indicated which pieces would be performed in which room and at what times. The audience was invited to make their own agenda and experience the works at 15-minute intervals in whatever order they preferred. It was a concept and structure that is not unlike what occurs at First Night, albeit on a much larger scale.

The Annex Players group was run by Lyle Davidson, Lawrence Scripp, and Chris Yavelow. (The group would later be renamed Dinosaur Annex, and assume different management). Davidson was (and still is) a professor at New England Conservatory (I once audited a class in 16th century counterpoint with him). Scripp is a clarinetist and a professor at Harvard's School of Education working with the famed Howard Gardner. Yavelow is an active composer and web-based multimedia designer now living in the Baltimore-Washington D.C. area. He returned to American soil after a significant career as a composer in Europe that spanned for decades.

On the "program" at the Mass. College of Art, Earls had two works: Light Beacon for electronic instruments and audience participation, and The Swan (with harpist Martha Moore and cellist Deborah Thompson). The program also included some mainstream contemporary works by Berio and Penderecki.

My piece, DodeKagon (1975), was performed by clarinetist Larry Scripp (shown in the photo above). It was constructed as a 3-dimensional score in the shape of a 12-sided dodecahedron. The performer gently kicks the music around the floor, and which ever side comes up is the side that gets played. It was hybrid of 12-tone and Aleatoric music, with the formal-structure being determined more or less randomly. Of course, it has a theatrical element as well.

DodeKagon has been performed several times since then. It was my first (and probably last) work as an installation-artist. The 70s have passed. Been there, done that. But it was fun.

I mention this only in passing because the spirit of First Night - at least in its original incarnation - was very similar to this event. You might say the the Annex Players Interactive Multimedia program was a demo, a dry-run, a test kitchen so to speak, or (to use a more contemporary term) an "incubator" for what would later become the much larger city-wide celebration just over seven months later. It's no accident that performance art and new music were the main dish at the very first, First Night festivity on the evening of December 31st, 1975.

Of course Paul Earls became a prominent player in the annual First Night events. I believe I heard Richard Pittman's Boston Musica Viva perform a work of Earl's at the old Hynes Convention Center in the first First Night celebration of 1976. It incorporated green-colored lasers. Later on I know that Paul Earls received a First Night commission to compose a work for "all of the carillons in Boston" titled "Jubilee Ring." It was performed at the Y2K version of First Night.

I've heard that his son is (or was) a bell-ringer (such as myself), and this may have inspired the composer to choose this unusual medium.

I didn't keep in contact with Paul Earls over the years. However, the last big work of his that I heard was his opera about a Colonial Indian uprising entitled "The Death of King Phillip." It's a 50-minute stage work based on the legend of Icarus. It was performed in March of 1976 by the New England Chamber Opera Group (NECOG). [His opera was combined on a double-bill program along with a chamber opera titled "Chocorua" by Robert Selig (1939-1984). "Chocorua" is also based on a Native-American Indian story. Selig was a very talented composer who taught music theory at New England Conservatory. He died at the age of 45, and to my knowledge his music is no longer performed]. That same year Earls' piece "Doppelgänger: Music for Oboes and Laser" was performed by oboist and new music specialist extraordinaire Nora Post.

Paul Earls died suddenly in 1998 at the age of 64 from heart failure at MIT. It seems as if his music is rarely performed today. It's a sad state of affairs for a composer, but pretty representative of what's most likely to occur postmortem - even for those who were once famous.

Today in 2010, looking back at it all now with hindsight, the artistic vision of experimental media artists (and composers) in 1976 was primitive, but in time would ultimately be realized. Technology has clearly become a dominant force of artistic expression of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The laser displays of Paul Earls' experimental works are now part of mainstream special effects that we see every at a planetarium show or rock concert. Jeez, I just got an inexpensive pen-sized laser that runs on triple-A batteries to use as pointer for my classroom teaching. What a toy. And today the sound of electronic music is ubiquitous - even the norm.

But I can't help by feel that commercial interests have co-opted Boston's big New Year's show. In a odd way, First Night is not as interesting as it was in its initial iteration of 1976. It's become much larger and mainstream in its selection of talent. The current activities seem to be selected with populist sentiments in mind. The blurred line between audience and performer is no longer a guiding principal. Today, people purchase their buttons for $18 a pop, and come to be entertained expecting value for their investment. First Night may be a victim of its' own extraordinary success.

Perhaps the truly experimental artists and musicians have gone back underground. I think they may be out there, but lurking somewhere on the Internet just waiting to make their next big move. The forthcoming artistic revolution is incubating.

On an high note, let me leave you with a video clip from Icarus - a Sky Opera by Paul Earls and Otto Piene performed in 1982. Notice the high-tech disco ball and giant inflatable dinosaur.


2009 Composer Death Toll

Scanning the Boston Globe this first morning of 2010, I perused the front page article "Recalling the Many We Lost: A lasting impact on history and culture" by Joseph P. Kahn. While sipping my coffee I looked at the small-print list of "other notable deaths" of 2009 on page A12 - which is broken out by category.

After checking to see if my name was on the list, I then studied the 34 names under the music category. To my surprise, not a single "concert music" composer was on the list. Good news, I guess, if you are a composer.

As it turned out, under closer scrutiny the main body of the article did mention the passing of a "quartet of versatile and prolific composers" in 2009. Namely George Perle, Leon Kirchner, Lukas Foss, and George Russell.

For the record, I've blogged about all four of them in Deconstructing-Jim over the past year.

I'd like to add to the official composer death toll list a few additional names of people who left the planet during the past calender year. French film composer Maurice-Alexis Jarre, Russian film composer Isaac (or Isaak) Schwartz, Boston's own Joe Maneri, Nicholas Maw, and Svatopluk Havelka. (I blogged about Joe Maneri).

Other notable deaths I'd like to add to the list include pop-oriented composers Vic Mizzy (composer of the famous Addams Family TV show theme) and Angela Morley. Morley - whose birth name was Wally Stott - was born in England but moved to and lived in Arizona in her later years. She was music director for the "Goon Show" and wrote scores for TV dramas such as "Dallas." Later she made numerous arrangements for the Boston Pops.

May they all R.I.P.