WHAT’S HAPPENING Reviewing 2018

img_0701Death. And gratitude. Two states you don’t necessarily pair together. (Also, got your attention, didn’t I?)

This particularly eventful past year reminds me that similar years in my life seem to contain a significant amount of death, and yet a lot of achievement.

The last such year was 2003 where there were three in a row, each one successively more personal and more devastating. Last year there were six, and while I was not connected to any of them even remotely as closely as the 2003 departed, the result has still been emotionally impactful.

Interestingly, both years saw major creative advancement for me. The earthquakes of 2003 forced me to face my status and aspirations as a not full-time musician, and address them. Fifteen years later, I find myself amazingly in me a place to consider some real personal achievements, made all the more precious when juxtaposed with loss.

yvww5gkb_400x400Perhaps the most resounding death last year both directly and generally was that of Matt Marks, a wonderously spirited young composer based in Brooklyn. Matt tragically passed unexpectedly in mid-May, less than a week before the start of the 2018 New Music Gathering, of which he was one of the five founders. His death had the same impact for the overall event as it did personally for me: to relish and be grateful for the extraordinary camaraderie of new music practitioners who’ve connected and communed and supported and inspired and encouraged each other, both this year and in the past. To seize the day, chase the long-shot opportunity, embrace the far-fetched idea.

And as I look back on 2018, with its unusual share of turbulence, this gratitude encapsulates the last decade for me. The community of dedicated, generous, supportive artists I’ve connected and worked with in both the new concert music and theatrical worlds has been one of the great gifts of my recent life. That several of these folks were among this year’s departed makes my appreciation for this community all the greater. I’m particularly indebted to the New Music Gathering and Musochat worlds, who’ve done so much to connect me to the outside world, and without whose encouragement and stimulation my most recent creative achievements might not exist.

Amongst which, there’s the minor feat of the jazz-era HMS Pinafore (see previous post), one of the great thrills of my life.

Act 2 Finale, H.M.S. Pinafore
Photography courtesy of Nanc Price.

The trip to Edmonton for the Pinafore premiere allowed me to complete my Ruminations for solo piano, a rhapsody that I’ve been noodling with for over ten years. Sometimes, you just have to wait and let the material gestate until you’re at the right level of progression to formalize it.

Post-premiere picture of the composer and the Gaudete Brass Quintet

This fall I had the delight of having Peal Off , inspired by the Gaudete Brass Quintet, officially commissioned and then premiered by them in Chicago amidst the festivities of the 2018 Midwest Clinic, as well as finalizing commissions for a viola duo for new music super-advocate Michael Hall and a choral setting of W.S. Graham’s “Listen. Put On Morning” for a group soon to be announced.

fullsizerenderUnder discussion are a medley arrangement for large symphonic concert band of a certain popular Broadway musical (no hints = no jinxes), and a piece for bass oboe and piano.

Capping it all off was the extreme honor of having my setting of A.E. Stallings‘ “Blackbird Etude” from my Opus 22 set of songs chosen by luminous mezzo-soprano and equal new music superadvocate Megan Ihnen for inclusion in the mezzo volume of the first anthology of new art song published by New Music Shelf (the distributors of my vocal and chamber music). The selection of the song by the this gorgeous, vibrant, spell binding singer and her subsequent performance of it with pianist Marianne Parker at the volume’s inauguration concert are another of this year’s capstones.


No less an achievement last year was my decision to depart the corporate world I’ve relied on for decades to provide me with the financial stability that is vital to my creative output. The time had come to fully take charge of my own destiny and start my own business as a virtual manager / coordinator / assistant / problem solver. I’ll have more to say about this in my next post in the context of being a 5-to-9 artist, but the first six months have seen a major improvement in my life overall.

Fifteen years ago it was a struggle not to buckle under the losses in my life. Today, I am inexpressibly grateful for the stratosphere of amazing people – too many to list here – that I’ve become connected to and what they’ve helped me achieve.

Photograph courtesy of Alex Shapiro

LOVE IN: Reflections on my first New Music Gathering

425421825I’ve just returned from attending my first New Music Gathering, which in only its third year has become arguably the premier annual congress of the American new music community. Based on my experience there, that doesn’t surprise me: this was one of the most fantastic events I’ve participated in. Such an amazing assemblage of warm, enthusiastic people from around the country: composers, performers, administrators, multiple-hat-wearers, spending three days getting to know one another, exchanging ideas, savoring contemporary concert music in a spirit of support, conviviality, camaraderie and inclusion that I haven’t experienced since I was at conservatory.

After an inception year in San Francisco, and last year in Baltimore, the Gathering was invited to occur at Bowling Green University in Ohio, which put a wealth of resources and personnel behind the event. In hindsight, I’m glad this slightly remote location was my first. Word is that attendance was a little lower this year compared to last, which helped one feel not overwhelmed. Plus it was good to get out of my East Coast bubble and meet so many people I might not have otherwise.

Some thoughts in no particular order:

  1. Go. If your budget and schedule and logistics permit it, make this event a priority.
  2. Take lots of business cards. If you don’t have any, get some, they’re easily and economically acquired: moo.com or vista.com are both very reasonable. And on this subject, check out the invaluable Portfolio Composer’s very sound guidelines on this subject.
  3. I arrived with a bit of an “acquisition” mindset: commissions, performances, financial or portfolio expansion. I quickly lost that and am really glad. Attend for the camaraderie, the sharing and experiencing of new ideas, the sheer joy of being immersed in an event and community devoted to the creation, support and promulgation of new music of all varieties.
  4. Don’t worry about whether your style fits into what you think or have heard is the primary aesthetic at NMG. All styles, genres, and levels are embraced.
  5. I wish I’d reached out a little more to people on the sidelines. For some people, events like these can be intimidating: who will I talk to, eat with, rely on. Many of us were probably at some time that person clinging to the wall in the corner, struggling to interact. Reach out to those people, who knows where it may lead.
  6. On this theme: have at least one meal a day with a person or group you don’t know, either well or at all. Take advantage of this unique opportunity to expand your horizons and circles. I inadvertently found myself with the same group much of the time, and while I reveled in their company and wouldn’t have missed that for anything, still I wish I’d had just a little wider interaction. Ask to join a group for a meal who you don’t know. If you’re the group being asked, say yes.
  7. If you’re a performer or composer, participate in Speed Dating (see below). Don’t just watch or audit: plunge in. It’s a little nerve wracking but so empowering and satisfying.
  8. Attend things you might be skeptical of. The concert offerings are almost overwhelming in their wealth, many of which I didn’t get to and wish I had. Best example of this: A performance of Variations 3 by John Cage, a composer whose theories I’ve admired more than enjoyed the actual experience. This performance blew my mind and left me on a heart-stopping, teary high I won’t soon forget: mesmerizing, ethereal, breathtaking, goose bumping, a reaction I suspect was universally shared by all those in attendance. All hail Tim Feeney, Lou Bunk and the army of participants they gathered for making this happen: it was magical.
  9. Don’t be afraid to take a break, even if it means missing something you want or feel you ought to catch. Each day is an intense slate of back to back, conflicting temptations and it’s easy to get burned out. By day 3 I  was glad that I’d taken the time to recharge for a bit in the afternoon or evening – even if it meant missing something – and finding myself in better shape for the later activities.
  10. Last, but most important: GO.

I’m fairly confident I speak for all those who attended in not being able to adequately express thanks to BGSU, Kurt Doles and his amazing team, the indefatigable Larry and Arlene Dunn who put everyone else to shame with their energy and enthusiasm, and most importantly the Gathering’s tireless, generous founders: Lainie Fefferman, Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Matt Marks and Jascha Narveson. I can’t wait for the next one.

speedddateSo what is Speed Dating?

NMG Speed Dating was founded by Brooks Frederickson, who gives a soignee precis of the idea. But if, as I was, you’re  looking for more detail prior to this undertaking:

  • Speed Dating connects performers and composers for short bursts across a one hour span to  learn about each other and see if there is potential for collaboration.
  • Two circles of chairs are set up, one set facing the other. Composers sit in the outer circle, performers on their inner circle.
  • Every four minutes, an alarm is sounded and the performers all move one chair to their left, the composers remaining stationary. Meaning that theoretically across a  60 minute span you should meet 15 different people. In reality I met 10, which is 10 more than I’d ordinarily meet in a 60 hour period, much less 60 minutes.
  • Both sides are encouraged to have brief audio samples of their work available. The onus is on the composers, but I was delighted so many of the performers brought theirs: I’m still catching up on those.
  • Materials: Some sort of portable audio playing device with headphones and your selections easily accessible, and optionally a method of displaying your scores. On the headphones: I recommend proper large scale headphones rather than earbuds, which depending on the brand can take some figuring out, and time is precious. Some people brought physical scores, most of us used devices (laptops, tablets, etc) to display our scores digitally. I don’t think having scores was a major issue: I’d say half of the performers concentrated on listening to the samples and didn’t worry about the scores. Still, it doesn’t hurt. If you’re not on issuu.com, this is a fantastic free resource used by many composers, and increasingly the major publishers, for displaying perusal scores.
  • Have your business cards (see above) easily on hand. Make sure you have a secure, reliable receptacle (an envelope, box, pocket) to stash the ones you get.
  • Bring paper:  take notes on you who met, who they were and what if any connection there was.
  • What should your conversation be? With no background to guide me, I opted for the approach of  “Oh, you’re a [insert type of performer here], let me play you this which I think will be up your alley and which you will hopefully perform or be interested in creating something new of the same kind.” In hindsight I’m rethinking that: the sagacious Garrett Hope opted to spend those four minutes more talking with each performer to get to know them and their aesthetic and mutual sympathies, and was less interested in pushing this or that piece on them. Choose for yourself.
  • Assemble and test your sound clips ahead of time (soundcloud is great for this). Curate them carefully. Remember you’ve only got about four minutes per exchange. If you’re like me and write broad structured music where it can take a while to get into a piece and grasp its diversity, you might want to create 30-second clips to offer variety, rather than hoping to get through one minute or so of the opening of a piece which may not reflect its variety and breadth within that limit.

It might sound a little gimmicky and perhaps a little contrary to making deeper connections. But as with all things at NMG, you never know, and in those four minutes you might dazzle a new collaborator. Despite the intensity of the session and the strain that the noise level puts on the throat, I wish it had gone on at least another 30 minutes, if not an hour. At the very least you’ll walk out with no less than you came in with, and you might walk out with people wanting to follow up and work together. By all means, go for it.