Ivory Duo at Regent Hall in London, August 24

Ivory DuoThe London-based Ivory Duo will perform two movements from my From the Faraway Nearby, a suite of six pieces inspired by paintings by the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe, on Friday, August 24, at Regent Hall in London. This lunchtime concert is sponsored by Trinity College of Music. The concert begins at 1 and admission is free.

A performance of the entire suite is planned for the future.

Set fire on Bowed Radio

My string quartet, Set fire to have light, will be one of four pieces featured on this week’s podcast episode of Bowed Radio, a great weekly program put together by Mark Allender. Devoted to music for stringed instruments, every episode spans several genres, from bluegrass to metal to contemporary classical, with brief introductions by Mark between each. You can subscribe via iTunes at the Bowed Radio website. It’s one of the programs I listen to regularly from Latvia.

Quattro Differente to perform Panta Rei in three Latvian Cities

The Rīga-based clarinet quartet Quattro Differente (Guntars Gedroics, Kristaps Kitners, Marina Vidmonte & Ceslavs Grods) will include my (recently revised version of) Panta Rei on their concerts in Liepāja, Madona, and Valmiera in Latvia in July and August. Panta Rei, originally an 8-minute work for saxophone quartet, was premiered by the Amherst Saxophone Quartet in Buffalo, New York. Quattro Differente premiered an earlier version of the piece in Ogre, Latvia, last year.

Also on these programs will be works by Nick Gotham (Up From Under/Uzniršana), Jēkabs Nīmanis (Episodes), Santa Ratniece (Septiņi Pakāpieni), Jānis Dūda (Intermezzo), Edgars Raginskis (Asteriona nams), Austra Savicka (About Time), and Imants Mežaraups (Sfinksa).

The performances will take place:
July 1, 4PM
The Gallery Theater of the Latvian Society House

August 2, Evening concert
Latvian Music Festival

August 9, 7PM
Vidzeme Summer Music Festival
Sēļu Manor House

Sapphire Ensemble @ The Knitting Factory, June 28 @ 7PM

Sapphire Ensemble @
The Knitting Factory – Tap Room
74 Leonard Street – New York

7PM door, 7:30 PM show
Thursday, June 28
Adv. $8/DOS $10

Sapphire Ensemble (Elaine Kwon – piano; Demetrius Spaneas – winds; and other guest performers) is a NYC-based music group with flexible instrumentation that specializes in crossing genres by presenting new classical chamber music influenced by jazz, rock, film, theater, world music, and other forms of improvisation.

This concert will present new works by Nickos Harizanos, Elaine Kwon, Demetrius Spaneas, William Susman, and others, along with my Jazz Suite for Clarinet and Piano.

Actually, my piece may be the oldest in the batch. I wrote it for two of my best friends while I was still a student at Queens College. It’s one of the few pieces from that time (circa 1991?) that was spared from the trash-bin. It’s been performed with some regularity ever since I wrote it. It’s been performed in several U.S. venues, but also in Canada, Mexico, Italy, and most recently here in Latvia. Please check it out.

I met Demetrius virtually at first, via Classical Lounge, but I happened to be in New York at the time, and so we met in person then and again during another visit. He’s a great guy and a great performer. And! He will soon be coming to my part of the world. He’s moving to Russia this coming Autumn, making this a temporary (?) farewell concert to the big apple. Go to the concert and give him a great send-off if you can.

Directions to the Knitting Factory:
You can take the 1 or 9 train to Franklin Street, walk one block south to Leonard, turn left and walk a block & a half to the club.

You can take the A, C or E train to Canal Street, walk 4 blocks south and turn left on Leonard. You could also take the N or R train to Canal Street, walk down Broadway 4 blocks to Leonard, turn right, and see the club at the far end of the block.

Manhattan Choral Ensemble at Columbia University, June 8 at 8PM

Here’s the Manhattan Choral Ensemble’s press release. I wish I could be there in person, but I can’t…we’re performing two more concerts (in Liepāja and Rīga) on the 17th and 18th respectively. If anyone out there can go, I’d be be happy to hear your reactions. There were a few things I tried in this piece that I haven’t tried before, so I would love to know if you think it hangs together or not. They will be premiering my setting for soprano and tenor solo, off-stage solo quartet and choir of the Carl Sandburg anti-war poem Jaws, as part of their New Music for New York commissioning project.

Manhattan Choral Ensemble, Tom Cunningham, Director.

New Music and Old Favorites

Friday, June 8th, 2007 at 8:00pm

Earl Hall, Columbia University
117th and Broadway, New York City

Admission: $15, $12 (students and seniors)

Please join us for our third annual installment of our New Music for New York commissioning project, featuring four newly commissioned works by New York-area composers, including a new work for choir and cello by Patrick Castillo, composer of A Piece of Coffee as premiered by the Manhattan Choral Ensemble in June 2006. Other composers featured include Charles Griffin, Karen Siegel, and Davide Zannoni.

The performance will end with madrigals of Monteverdi and familiar settings of favorite folksongs.

Please join us for a wine and cheese reception after the concert. We hope to see you there!

Directions: The Earl Hall Center is located on the Columbia University Morningside campus. The campus covers a six-block area between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue from 114th Street to 120th Street. The main entrances of the campus are located at 116th and Broadway and 116th and Amsterdam. These entrances are open 24 hours a day. The Earl Hall entrance is located at 117th and Amsterdam and is only open during normal business hours.

By subway, take the #1 IRT Broadway Local to 116th Street. The Earl Hall Center is located at 117th and Broadway.

Ana Cervantes plays Murmuring in Comala in Veracruz, MX, June 7

Rumor de ParamoPianist Ana Cervantes commissioned 18 composers to write short piano pieces to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Pedro Paramo, an important proto-magical-realist novel by Mexican author Juan Rulfo. My Murmuring in Comalawas written for this project. 12 of the pieces, including mine, were recorded on compact disc and presented at the 34th Festival Internacional Cervantino in Guanajuato, Mexico on October 17, 2006. I wrote about the Cervantino Festival some months ago in my memorial entry for the Mexican composer Ramón Montes de Oca Téllez (1953-2006), who died shortly after this last festival.

After the premiere in Guanajuato, Ana has given subsequent performances throughout Mexico: at Irapuato, San Miguel Allende, Abasolo, and San Francisco Del Rincón. She will perform it again tonight at 7:30 PM in the auditorium of the Centro Veracruzano de las Artes (CEVART), Independencia 929, esq Emparan, Centro Histórico in Veracruz, Mexico. Commissioned works by other composers on this concert, from the U.S., U.K., Spain, and Mexico, include Jack Fortner, Anne LeBaron, Tomás Marco, Arturo Marquez, Stephen McNeff, Hilda Paredes and Eugenio Toussaint.

My program note for the piece:
Rulfo’s striking sonic palette (groaning wheels, rattling windows, falling rain and murmuring ghosts), echoes the complex narrative unfolding, where we rarely know whose voice we are hearing initially. Just as sounds imply someone making them, we recognize the voices peripherally, like registering a ghost image. We discover whose voice it was rather than whose voice it is. We must resist the temptation to steamroll through these difficult passages because these veiled voices are so crucial to our understanding. Equally striking is the novel’s non-linear conception of time. It flowers slowly in multiple directions. This is a lovely analog to music, which is surprisingly multidirectional: we listen ahead and backward simultaneously, constantly reinterpreting each new musical gesture by placing it in its previous context and anticipating its direction.

Griffin Ensemble in Durbe, Liepāja and Cēsis, Part III

After the concert in Liepāja, we were all fired up to perform in Cēsis. Latvijas Koncerti arranged for a small bus to chauffeur us there, and the trip took a bit over five and a half hours, Cēsis being over an hour on the other side of Rīga. I’m becoming accustomed to these Baltic summers, where the sun just hangs there, beating down for hours and hours. But it accumulates on bus rides, like we’re bugs under a magnifying glass, and it seems to be a distinctly un-Latvian thing to roll the windows all the way down and let the wind whip on through. So, the trip felt long.

Now, there had been some weirdness about the scheduling of this concert. Our contact in Cēsis insisted on changing the date from the originally scheduled one, claiming she thought she couldn’t get an audience for reasons that weren’t entirely clear, but seemed to have something to do with people having too much to do on the weekends now that summer was coming. We agreed to move the date to this one, which coincided with the city’s anniversary, and indeed there were easily over a thousand people milling around, browsing the offering of local vendors, watching some formal dancers, listening to drummers, a flamenco(ish) guitarist (amplified) and a performance that may or may not have been sanctioned but looked like a cross between some circusy acrobatics and a bunch of hippies playing hackey-sack.

The Gallery space where we were to perform was just next to all this. The space was lovely, actually. Here’s a photo of the piano trio warming up before the performance.

But, as you can imagine, the noise coming from outside was constant and distracting. And there was a video in the room on a constant loop, that we didn’t think to ask to have turned off, of a man’s face emerging from a tub of milk or something that included him smiling creepily then gasping a little bit once every five minutes or so. But that part wasn’t the bad part. The bad part was that, as far as we could tell, the only promotion for the concert, in the end, was a single poster placed outside the building. (We later learned, for example, that the nearby music school never learned of the performance.) And this meant that the audience was very small, and very quiet.

Generally speaking, Latvians have described themselves to me as shy and reserved (I remember many years ago seeing a segment on 60 Minutes or CBS Sunday Morning (Man! I miss CBS Sunday Morning!) about how painfully shy Finnish people are, and how many of them remain single because they’re too afraid of the rejection, for example. Anyway, the lack of energy in the room was truly disconcerting.

There was a growing sort of inside joke in the ensemble. A few posts ago, I talked about trying to lighten the mood of the ensemble, ease the nervous tension, be a cheerleader. One of the things that spontaneously happened during the final rehearsal before the performance in Durbe, was that during the final piece where we all play together, this sort of fiddle-tune Irish folk medley where I play the bodhrán, in order to get them energized, I cried out a couple of loud, wild hillbilly hoots. Now, they only smiled in reaction, but secretly, they loved it. When we performed in Liepāja, a couple of them gave me the big eye, waiting for me to give a big shout during the finale. Now it was time for me to be shy, and I whimped out, and they gave me hell for it. So here we were in Cēsis, and I gave a big howl, stomped my feet a couple of times, and I saw one person in the audience give a big smile. That was the only noticeable change in the room. That was a hard concert.

At the same time, there was a silver lining after all. We were invited to give the concert in Rīga, on June 18th, at the Jaunais Rīgas Teātris. Cēsis, by the way, is the home of one of the national beers, and it’s not a bad beer. Before getting back on the bus, we loaded up on pizza (not as good as the beer, and I miss NY pizza even more than I miss CBS Sunday Morning) and good, cold, dark beer, which is no small consolation either.

Next up is a second, slightly truncated version of the concert back here in Liepāja that we will give on June 17th. Here’s what one of the flyers looks like.

Set fire to have light – The Griffin Ensemble in Durbe, Liepāja and Cēsis, Part II

I just uploaded to YouTube a second video from the Liepāja concert, this time of the string quartet playing Set fire to have light. Click on the link for a PDF of the score if you’d like to follow along. The title is taken from a poem by Rumi, and the piece employs Arabic rhythmic (iqa’at) and scalar (maqamat) modes. I wasn’t trying to write an overtly Arabic piece, but rather to see what I could derive from an exploration of these specific materials. The quartet members are: Baiba Lasmane, Ginta Alžāne, Tatjana Borovika and Dina Puķite.

The Griffin Ensemble in Durbe, Liepāja and Cēsis, Part I

Here is the poster that was displayed in Liepāja and Cēsis advertising our concerts.

This past week, between Sunday and Saturday, we gave three performances, one each in Durbe, Liepāja and Cēsis. As one might expect, the week brought both problems and successes.

The performance in Durbe was sort of a trial run, a very necessary one, as it shone a spotlight on things I hadn’t thought enough about. It wasn’t a bad concert, but it was nervous, rushed, and bumpy in many senses. I had to emcee, stage-manage, turn pages for one piece and perform too. Speaking in Latvian is not my strong suit, and I wrongly figured I would stage-manage and introduce each piece simultaneously. This meant once or twice giving my back to the audience as I spoke and moved chairs and music stands at the same time. Nothing that seemed deliberately rude, but just trying to hurry, hurry, hurry, as if apologizing for taking people’s time, something that I afterwards remedied.

In fact, the whole week was illuminating on several fronts: about my own writing, the musicians’ experience of my music and their own attitudes about performing (with sub-differences related to gender and/or culture), the details of which I may go into at a later time.

But suffice it to say that over-preparation, under-preparation, nervous energy or self-esteem issues almost invariably led to faster tempos taken in the first concert. (And the concomitant problems of faster tempi, namely that the musical ideas don’t really get a chance to breathe or be properly heard).

So, I wasn’t the only one trying to hurry, hurry, hurry, as if apologizing for taking people’s time. In fact it was only the clarinetist, Uldis, who seemed completely immune to any problem. In between the first and second concert, I wound up talking to the string quartet musicians about body language and tempo and expressivity and such, and generally playing the good cop, as their problem was that they were essentially over-prepared (and also, I think, a little intimidated by Uldis’ confidence and reputation when they played the quintet with him). Alternately, with the pianists, I wound up sort of playing the bad cop, as one of them was less prepared and they so rarely agreed with each other about interpretation and tone.

The concert in Liepāja was GREAT. I was calm, and so were the musicians. The hall was nearly full, we all played well, and the audience was enthusiastic enough to demand an encore. There was good energy all around. As a bonus, one representative from each of the two funding bodies that supported these concerts attended, and both were happy. One of the winners at that performance was Dina Puķite, the cellist. She is a lovely, mild-mannered woman. And my duet for cello and clarinet requires a certain rock-inflected attitude, which I had to several times coax from her though it was clearly there. Many of her colleagues in the Liepāja Symphony were in the audience, and went nuts for her performance. You can see it here:
To be continued…

Back to our regularly scheduled program…

Wow, it’s been a month since my last post. But I’ve got good reasons, being on the road for most of the time since Christmas. I welcomed in the New Year in Switzerland. We were there for an expensive week of bears, fondue, mountains, markets, churches and art. We went to Lucerne, Bern, Interlaken and Zurich. Beautiful country. Efficient rail system. Friendly people. Did I mention expensive? So expensive, getting the check is like a twice-daily ice-water bath. Brr.

After a two day stop in Riga, I headed for New York for two weeks, where I enjoyed a performance of a song cycle of mine for high voice, clarinet and piano called The Far Field, attended the Chamber Music America Conference in Manhattan, went to a good friend’s wedding, and also managed to squeeze in some business and shopping errands between visits to friends and family.

The Far Field performance was special for me, as it’s one of those pieces of mine that I have always felt especially close to, yet it isn’t performed much. Sort of like that awkward kid with a heart of gold that sits off to the left somewhere in third grade and you know can grow up to be somebody if people just give her a chance. It’s a big piece, about 22 minutes long, a setting of a difficult poem by Theodore Roethke that basically looks death in the face and comes to accept it as a beautiful and necessary thing. You can read the poem here. Soprano Melissa Fogarty, did a really great job with it. The whole occasion was doubly special because Melissa and I were also friends in high school together. We had a mini high school reunion of five after the performance at a local lounge together with the other musicians, Chris Cullen and Laura Barger.

Anyway, one of the errands I ran while in New York will allow me to segue back to my narrative about Latvia. Actually, I’m just going to do the reverse: jump back to Latvia and then tie it back to New York.

One of the friends I’ve made in Liepaja is Oleksiy Demchenko, the third trumpet player in the Liepaja Symphony. Helping our friendship along is the fact that he studied in Holland and thus speaks English fluently. And since he is originally from Kiev, we also share something of the outsider status.

If Oleksiy kind of has ADD. He has a million ideas and lots of energy but little mind for details or organization or follow-through. He manages occasionally to get things done in spite of himself in a place like Liepaja because 1.) Latvians don’t typically take initiative but hey, want to be entertained as much as the next guy, and 2.) They are too shy to tell him to go to hell when they find themselves suddenly doing more work than they anticipated.

Back in July, Oleksiy managed to get a little money for him and three other musicians to form a quartet called Četri Vēji (Four Winds, in this case trumpet, clarinet, saxophone and bassoon), and to pay me a little something to write them a new piece. It was for a festival of music and art with a theme of water, so I wrote an 8 minute piece inspired by the Stevie Smith poem Not Waving But Drowning. I wasn’t there for the performance, but the musicians raved about the piece.

A week or so later, I got a call from Oleksiy. A freighter ship had destroyed the 100 year-old swing bridge that connects Karosta with the rest of the City of Liepaja. BridgeKarosta (Navy harbour) is a northern neighborhood occupying one third of Liepaja city, and by way of analogy sort of plays the same role to Liepaja that Brooklyn plays to New York. And for the residents of Karosta, it was as if the Brooklyn Bridge had just been destroyed. Well, maybe not. The Karosta Channel Bridge was not beautiful and was in awful disrepair, but its destruction cut off one of only two connections to the rest of the city, now forcing every commuter to a newer, longer route. It was big news, and many people were affected by it.

Karosta was the western-most military base of the USSR during the Soviet occupation. Many streets and houses of Karosta are now empty, as the population dropped from roughly 25 -30,000 in 1994, to approximately 7,000 living there today. Its architecture reflects an interaction between tsarist Russian elegance, epitomized by a gorgeous orthodox cathedral visible at a fair distance, and soviet militarism, epitomized by the graceless rows of abandoned concrete housing blocks.

It is a Russian tradition that a memorial service is performed 40 days after a death. And Oleksiy had the idea that he wanted to organize a sort of public art multimedia Requiem for this bridge. Which meant my composing the music, and I’m still not sure why I agreed to it, but I did. I guess it appealed to my occasional campy side. I’m going to tell my campy side to shut up next time. A videographer gathered footage, while I wrote a 13-minute piece for 11 musicians from the Liepaja Symphony to go with it.

Did I mention the A.D.D.? I had a little more than 2 weeks to do it, as not all the musicians were secured right away. I compensated by cannibalizing Monteverdi, as the brass were to be placed originally on the other side of the bridge, and I wanted to get something equivalent to his polychoral stuff while cutting down on the actual amount of music I needed to write. The deadline loomed large and fast, and I suggested putting off the performance, but Oleksiy was determined to pull it off. I told him that he needed to buckle down and get all his organizational ducks in a row, especially given all that work I was doing out of friendship. And he did.

All except get a conductor, which at the last minute fell to me. That shouldn’t be a problem, but it is. Conducting frightens me. I’ve done it a few times anyway, conducting a handful of choral premieres in New York from time to time. But I’ve never felt comfortable with it, partly from lack of experience, but also because the two times I ever studied conducting were lackluster experiences at best.

When I was an undergraduate at Queens College in the late eighties, the professor who taught conducting that semester was, frankly, half blind. Maybe more than half. Seriously. I’m not trying to be disrespectful. He simply had an ailment that was getting past him and he should have retired by then but hadn’t yet. He had enlarged copies of the music and couldn’t see three feet away, best I could tell. Glass lenses as thick as a sponge. I was probably nineteen or twenty years old and didn’t care that I wasn’t learning much. I happily skated through with a completely undeserved A-. I have no idea how he determined my grade.

Fast forward to graduate school in Minnesota. My roommate was also a composer in the program, and he got the idea that we should put together an independent study witht the orchestra conductor called “Conducting for Composers”. Knowing that it was time to take my medicine, I signed up too. There were at least seven of us. Now this guy wasn’t blind. But he did become invisible. Meaning, we all met twice, as far as I can remember. The first session he talked about how he had to practice conducting underwater as a student, how that helped with gesture. Cool. The second session he showed us a picture of himself with Aaron Copland. Cool. Then I think he went out of town and I can’t for the life of me remember another session.

Fast forward again back to Liepaja. Maybe now you understand my trepidation, standing in front of this group of professional musicians. I’m not claiming total stupidity. I’ve been watching conductors for years and can tell a good one when I see one, and have picked up a few things by observing them. I stole my mother’s car when I was 15 and drove it perfectly, never having taken a lesson, never having been behind the wheel. I learned what I needed to know just by watching her drive. I made it through the rehearsals (two) and performance without (I think) coming off as a complete hack, and for one small minute, I’d felt like I’d understood something I hadn’t understood before. There was one passage, where I got a rush, that sense of driving the orchestra, of playing it rather than following it, and I realized something viscerally in that instant why conductors are attracted to the profession.

About 100 or more local residents and a television crew showed up by car, on foot or bicycle for the outdoor, nighttime screening and performance. Conducting

There are many reasons why I came to Liepaja, and one of them was to have a place where I could do a personal and creative reassessment of myself, as a person, a composer and as a musician. A few months ago I surfed to the website of the European American Musical Alliance, which offers amongst its programs a month-long summer conducting workshop in Paris. One of the errands I ran while in New York a few weeks ago was to put in my application for this program. Wish me luck.