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.

A qualified success. Putni and my three-in-one premiere.


In December 2005 I learned that the Riga-based women’s vocal ensemble, Putni (Birds), was coming to Liepaja to give a performance at the local theater. I had recently written a new a cappella piece for eight women’s voices, a setting of Ihara Saikaku’s (1642-93) haiku:

I have gazed at it now
For two years too long
The moon of the floating world.

I contacted Antra Drege, the director of Putni, via email, prior to their performance, and she agreed to meet me afterwards and to receive my score. They gave a very good performance of works by several living Latvian composers, most of which were written expressly for Putni. Like any good vocal ensemble, they often create thematic programs, and this one, just prior to Christmas (Ziemassvetki), was holiday-tinted in a distinctly Pagan way. Historically, the ancient tribes of Latvia held a set of religious beliefs that were decidedly earth-centered. These nature-worshippers resisted Christianity to such a degree that the Pope sent Germanic crusaders to found the capitol city of Riga in the early 1200’s and to begin the process of conversion in earnest. However, this pagan strand persists to this day, with many holding (what strikes me as superstitious) beliefs in things like rivers capable of healing diseases and forests with magical energies, etc. I know many Latvians who flock to the countryside at every opportunity, and I was once showed a place in the forest that was considered an ancient cathedral. The argument for it being a place suitable for worship was compelling, actually.

Perhaps this pagan strand is what made the text I’d chosen attractive to Antra. In any case, a few months later, she contacted me and said that she wanted to premiere the piece in Riga on May 1, 2006 at Rigas Jaunais Teatris (New Theater of Riga). A few weeks prior to the premiere I traveled to Riga for a rehearsal. There were several problems.

The first problem was with their English diction, something I was taking for granted up ‘til then. Not all composers feel this way, but I always approach a text as if I am in service of it, not the other way around. The text determines everything I do in a setting. Rhythm. Mood. Gesture. Climax. Also, I have sung in choirs on and off for fifteen years, and I became quite a stickler about diction, maybe even finicky about it. Luckily, that choral experience left me with a few strategies for solving diction problems. Now, I didn’t blame them, as some of these sounds simply don’t exist in Latvian, and are therefore difficult for them to perceive or create. I appreciate that difficulty. I mean, just try making one of those African clicks like Miriam Makeba or the Russian word for ‘you’, and you’ll appreciate it too. Latvian does not have the ‘th’ sound of ‘the’, nor does the letter ‘w’ even exist in their alphabet. I remembered my college choral director making us put a little ‘h’ in front of words like ‘world’, as a southerner might pronounce it, to make the start of the word clear, and that helped. I kept pushing them to elide terminal consonants with beginning vowels between words and also helped them pronounce ‘the’ as best as I could. They seemed a little crestfallen after that, probably because they’d felt proud of their English pronunciation before I’d arrived.

They were also having some difficulty with the rhythms in certain passages, which actually leads me back to a discussion of language. It’s no surprise that a nation’s language, its stresses, rhythms and scansion have a profound impact on the music of that nation’s composers, and consequently, on that nation’s musicians. Latvian, almost without exception, is a language that places syllabic stress on the first syllable of a word, no matter how many syllables are present. It’s all trochees and dactyls. And if there’s any weakness I’ve encountered among Latvian musicians, it’s a discomfort with syncopation and complex rhythms. (It was to address these issues that I was later hired by the Emil Melngailis Music Academy and also by Putni to lead them through rhythm and coordination workshops. I have been working on and off on a musicianship textbook that aims to incorporate world music and eurhythmics into to the aural skills / ear-training curriculum for university level music majors, but this is a topic for a later post.)

Now, on to the problems with the piece that were entirely my fault: First, the first soprano had notes to sing for long stretches of time right on her break (for any non-musicians reading this, the break is the small part of your vocal range where your voice transitions from one register to another, as in from chest voice to head voice, and spending long periods singing right in that spot can get very fatiguing). Second, the climax just wasn’t working for me. There were two or three weeks remaining before the premiere, so I figured I’d just sit it out and see if the remaining time would enable them to make something big and climactic out of those passages. I also figured that while it was fatiguing for the first soprano in rehearsal, the piece was still only about five minutes long, and she would be able to deal with it in performance.

The day of the premiere, I traveled once more from Liepaja to Riga, and showed up at the theater for the dress rehearsal a few hours before the concert. Antra had gotten a call from one of her sopranos earlier that day, saying that she was too sick to perform. While it wouldn’t affect all the pieces on the program, all of which were premieres, it did affect mine, as my setting was for divisi into eight parts, and now there were seven singers. We had a vibraphonist play the missing vocalist’s part. I was chagrined to learn that this would also be recorded for Latvian radio. Antra was apologetic, but so was I; I could only imagine how stressful it must have been for her, and I’ve learned to roll with these kinds of punches.

Now I’m getting to the part where I notice a difference between New York and Latvia, one that reflects well on Latvia. By the end of the performance, missing soprano notwithstanding, I had already decided that I was unhappy with the piece. That passage with the climax just wasn’t working, and that fatigued first soprano was causing the whole thing to flatten over time, an issue that all choirs struggle with anyway, but my setting certainly wasn’t helping. So, Antra left resolved to make good on the performance sans soprano, and I left resolved to make changes to the piece.

I dropped the piece down a step and rewrote that passage. Putni performed it a second time, and because of my edits, Antra, with a somewhat playful flair, called it a premiere in the program. The problem with the soprano’s break was solved. But I was still unhappy with that passage, and beginning to feel embarrassed by my inability to make it happen. Antra let me have still another go at it. She eventually called this version ‘the golden version’. Latvians often translate positive descriptions using terms involving light. She ‘premiered’ the piece yet a third time, and indeed this was the golden version.

At the time, I was pleasantly surprised that Antra stuck with me. Not that I’m taking it for granted, but I have also come to see this as a facet of Latvian character. My experience in New York has been that competition forces musicians to have certain characteristics: exemplary sight-reading skills, for example, or the ability to play well with previously unknown colleagues, or to prepare extraordinarily difficult pieces in a short period of time. The downside to this is that they can do it so often that it’s almost thoughtless. Once they have done a piece, they are DONE with it, never to look back. On to the next gig. Maybe an apt comparison is the fable of the tortoise and the hare. My experience with Putni was that they still are willing to take on difficult work. They just manage it slowly and methodically. They had difficulty with rhythm, so they hired me to address the problem. And perhaps the reason they had patience with my multiple attempts at that climax passage is because they don’t expect instant perfection from themselves. They commit to the process as much as to the goal of performance.

Since its three premieres, Putni has performed my piece at least once or twice more in Latvia. They are now coming to do a brief tour of America, and are including my piece on their tour.

Please do support these fine, hardworking musicians if you can.

BOSTON – Sunday, 29. October 13:00
Trimdas Congregation Hall
58 Irving Street, Brookline, MA
(617) 524-2210

WASHINGTON – Saturday, 4. November 19:30
Washington Ev.-Lut. Church Congregation Hall
400 Hurley Avenue, Rockville, MD
(301) 869-3127

CLEVELAND – Friday, 10. November 19:00
United Congregation Hall
1385 Andrews Avenue, Lakewood, OH
(216) 521-1435

MINNEAPOLIS – Sunday, 12. November 16:00
Minneapolis-St.Paul Latvian Ev.-Lut. Congregation Hall
3152 17th Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN
(651) 646-1980

STILLWATER – Monday, 13. November 19:00
625 5th Street North, Stillwater, MN
(651) 275-0550

EAU CLAIRE – Tuesday, 14. November 19:00
Davies Center – Davies Theater 
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Eau Claire, WI
(715) 834-1874, 836-4735, 836-4318

MANHATTAN – Friday, 17. November 20:00
St. Joseph’s Church Yorkville
404 E. 87th Street, New York, NY
(212) 289-6030, (914) 234-3339

From the Faraway Nearby

FTFNFrom the Faraway Nearby. That’s how Georgia O’Keeffe sometimes signed her correspondence. It’s also the title of one of her paintings. I took that title for one of my own compositions, a suite of pieces for two guitars that are inspired by her paintings. Now I’m taking it for the title of my blog.

I’m an American composer, born and raised in New York, but I’m in the middle of what is turning out to be a two (or more?) year stint living and working in Eastern Europe, in Liepaja, a small industrial city in the western region of Latvia, right on the Baltic Sea. Liepaja was a sealed Navy port town during the Soviet Occupation, and was closed off from visitors until Independence was regained in 1991. It’s also the only city outside of Riga to maintain a symphony orchestra.

There are many cultural and historical circumstances that make this an interesting time to be here. Not just as a composer, but as an American composer, someone that doesn’t carry the same kind of cultural, historical, or emotional baggage that they do. Of course we Americans have our own baggage. It’s just different. I’d like to use this blog to explore the differences between my experiences in New York and my experiences here.

LiepajaI was first invited to Latvia in 2004 by the Latvian-American composer Dace Aperans to give some lectures and to have some of my music performed at a biennial festival that takes place in Ogre, a small city just outside the capitol. Normunds and Antra Viksne, a husband and wife piano duo, gave a thunderous performance of a piece I’d written back in 1993 as a memorial for my mother. They’re one of the best duos I’ve ever heard, and they are two of the busiest pianists in Latvia, together and separately.

I have heard more Russian music in the past year in Liepaja than I heard in the past decade living and working in New York. Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and to a lesser extent Rachmaninoff comprise the canon here. They play quite a lot of music by Latvian composers too, understandably so, and a peppering of music by composers from nearby countries. Occasionally, there’s a premiere, but that doesn’t seem too important to them, nor does that affect the way they advertise a particular concert. Of the common practice repertoire, I’ve heard a bit of Mozart, some Mendelssohn.

Interestingly, I haven’t heard a single piece by one of the three B’s all year. Nothing by Bach. Not a single Beethoven or Brahms symphony or concerto. The Second Viennese School is entirely ignored. And the only American work played by the Liepaja Symphony last year was by me.

Let me make a distinction here, though. Riga has more things happening, with more large ensembles, several chamber ensembles and its own opera. There are generally more premieres there, mostly by Latvian composers. Indeed, all the Latvian composers I know of are based in or near Riga. There was an Americana program there at one point, featuring Gershwin and Copland and I forget who else. I know there was a chamber ensemble that played Crumb while I was out of town. If Riga is the Latvian analogue to New York, Liepaja is equivalent to Chicago.

In any event, this is a very different milieu from the American scene. Perhaps the best explanation for this is a sort of 50-year blind spot created by the imposition of the Iron Curtain at the end of World War II. One of the issues that plagues music education in Latvia and other post-Soviet countries is that they find themselves looking back on 50 years of contemporary music history all at once. That’s not to say that nothing filtered through. But in the main, what did filter through came with a time lag, and what didn’t come through has little to no context for them when discovered now. Even the most talented Latvian music theorists or historians are overwhelmed by the scope of what passed them by. They don’t really know how to begin to sift through the stunning changes of the past 50 years.

Compounding the problem is that these countries are poor. When I was a graduate student in Minneapolis, for example, I could on occasion go to the record store and splurge on CDs. I could take $200 and buy recordings of my senior contemporaries: Bolcom, Schoenfield, Kernis, Torke, Adams, etc., just so I could familiarize myself with their work. That’s a month’s rent for a Latvian. And they don’t have that simple an outlet anyway. Most Latvians have debit cards, few have credit cards, and cheques are unheard of here.

The Liepaja Symphony Orchestra is state-funded and non-union. And it’s a mixed bag. Some of the musicians are excellent, but not all. Some can afford to be divas because they know they can’t be easily replaced in this relative backwater. Alcoholism runs rampant through the culture, and does not spare any profession. The second conductor has problems with alcohol and disappears from time to time, and some of the players do that too. The majority of them are average professionals, however. They learn their music, show up on time, do what they’re told and complain about the conductors during breaks.

There are also a couple of longstanding annual festivals. One is devoted to national and international organists, as two of the oldest continuously functioning organs in Europe happen to be in this little city, and the other is devoted to national and international pianists.

There is little chamber music in Liepaja outside of the local Music Academy. Sometimes a chamber ensemble will form for some immediate need, but then disband, never having been named. A holdover from the Soviet era, the concept of entrepreneurship is largely absent, and concomitantly, is the idea of working for long-term gain. When muscling your way to the front of the queue for the bus or the breadline means you get what you want or need while others are denied, so be it, and you can see how an unapologetic sense of immediacy can overtake a people. It’s simple pragmatism. I’m not criticizing their work ethic. Quite the opposite. They are willing to work, and hard.

So, I find myself a composer in a city that can support an orchestra where the musicians have never heard of John Corigliano or Bang on a Can. I have gone from being a little fish in maybe the biggest pond there is to being the only fish in the lake. There are talented musicians that are willing to work hard and have some free time on their hands. This is an interesting mix for a foreign composer. In my next entry, I will talk about some of the projects I have already worked on there, projects that led to the formation of my own ensemble.

Fall, Leaves, Fall (SATB divisi a cappella)

SATB divisi, a cappella (1996) ca. 3’
Emily Brontë, Text.
Premiered by San Francisco Choral Artists, Magen Solomon, director.

Listen to a performance by the Freeport High School Select Chorale, Stephen Pagano, Director


Purchase a PDF of the score for $1 per copy via PayPal:

Click on the picture to open a PDF sample:
Fall Leaves Fall Page 1 Click to open a PDF

Fall, leaves, fall; die flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me,
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.

Program Note:

In my setting of Brontë’s poem, I tried to musically linger on the image of a falling leaf through the use of suspensions and lazy, chromatic, interweaving vocal lines. As with leaves, the motion is primarily one of descent, but an occasional updraft lifts the vocal lines too. In most cases, by the time the suspended line resolves, the chord around it has changed, forcing the line to continue.