Generative Music – Part I – Tiction

One of the reasons you’ve been seeing posts from me lately about the graphic arts software programs Inkscape and Processing is because I’m in the planning stages of a multi-movement, electroacoustic, multi-media work that I will write for a flute quartet based in Rīga (and possibly a second group in Göteborg). In any case, I chose as my inspirational starting point the subject of Emergence, the study of how complexity arises in various kinds of systems.

I’ve gotten a hold of various books on subtopics of the subject, such as Steven Johnson’s Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life, Scientific American’s collection of articles, Understanding Artificial Intelligence, James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, which I first heard about when listening to the podcast of one of my favorite radio programs, the one for WNYC’s Radiolab.

One of the movements I’m planning will involve projection of an animated, graphic ‘score’ that will be realized/performed by the audience in real-time, accompanied by electronics and the flute quartet. I’ve put myself on the learning curves of both Inkscape and Processing in order to prepare those scores. I’ll talk about my plans for that in another post.

Along the lines of artificial intelligence, I thought I’d try to survey what’s happening with computer assisted (or generated) composition currently, whether algorithmic or not. If I could define the kind of activity going on in this regard right now, I’d break it down into two categories, each with sub-categories: those that require knowing or learning code (such as LISP, see for example, Peter Siebel’s Practical Common LISP, also available at Amazon) and those that are principally driven through a GUI (Graphical User Interface). The subcategories for each of those are FLOSS or FOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software) vs. Commercial.

I want to talk about my experiences, early impressions, difficulties, or whatever else comes up:
1.) because it will help me process my own thoughts;
2.) if I overcome some technical hurdle (and boy, do they seem to have a way of persistently appearing) I might as well share my solution to save the next poor soul some time, and;
3.) to the extent that it’s offered, receive the wisdom and/or expertise of anyone who comes upon what I’m writing and wants to share.

tiction_topSo that brings me to Tiction, a quite beautiful, freeware “nodal music sequencer,” created by Hans Kuder with Processing. I downloaded the program, and followed the brief instructions at the website. Tiction doesn’t generate sound on its own, so needs to be connected to an external MIDI keyboard or an internal software synth.

There are basically three menus in Tiction:
1.) The Help menu, which is basically a list of keyboard shortcuts for setting up the nodal network, N to create a node, C to connect it to the next one, etc. It’s very straightforward.
2.) The Options menu, which allows you to choose 16 specific pitches according to their corresponding MIDI note number, with a default setting of a C major scale/diatonic collection, the MIDI In/Out connections, sync parameters, the ‘bar brightness’ and ‘do physical actions on trigger’
3.) The Edit menu (reached by selecting a node and typing E, which allows you to select specific parameters for the highlighted node, including MIDI channel, physical actions (such as jiggle, attract, repel), and velocity, among other things.

I first connected it to my external MIDI keyboard via my typical Core Audio MIDI Setup in Mac OS X, selecting it from the Options menu. I created several nodes, connected them, and fired it up. Right away, Tiction made some interesting music, with compelling visuals to go with it. The default behavior dictates that the network of nodes you’ve created drift around the screen, and depending where the network is drifting along the X/Y axis, it will affect the register that is sounded as well as affect the velocity. What that means is that the default mode is really rather musical. Set certain nodes to attract or repel, and the activity on the screen and the music generated become more agitated. Change the pitch collection and its potential broadens again.

I was so excited, I began thinking that it would be great to look into Screencasting software so that I could make a video of Tiction doing its thing and project it for the audience. I would record MIDI into say, three or four MIDI channels in Logic, add, edit, or modify material as I saw fit, and voilá! One movement done! Since there will be a choreographer and some dancers as part of the project, I thought this would make a perfect accompaniment.

Picture 1 I then wanted to try running Tiction through Apple’s Logic, and here I wound up hitting several hurdles, some that were solvable and some that I haven’t been able to yet. First, running Tiction into Logic requires using the IAC (Inter-Application Communication) Bus that comes by default with Audio MIDI Setup in OS X. At first it didn’t work. I tried it with Midipipe. Still no. Since Tiction was made with Processing and since Processing requires conversion into Java, AND since, evidently, there is some lack of support from Apple with Java, I thought the problem may reside within the Java extensions folder. Looking through the (not particularly current) message board at the Tiction website, I decided to buy Mandolane MIDI SPI, thinking it was a long-shot, but since it was cheap, well, okay, and it was. A long shot, that is. Still no. But on the right track. Turns out the only extension necessary is: mmj (because since OS X 10.4.8 Apple no longer supports some java MIDI packages). Download mmj and copy both mmj.jar and libmmj.jnilib into /Library/Java/Extensions.

Finally! I get Logic and Tiction talking to each other. But another head (or 3) grew on the hydra:

1.) I can’t set the nodes to play on different MIDI channels. Whenever I hit “E” and edit the MIDI channel number, no matter what number I enter, it always resets itself to channel 1 as soon as I hit “E” again to exit the editor.
2.) I’m having the same “note off” issues that others reported in earlier versions of the software.
3.) I can record MIDI data into Logic from Tiction, but I can’t get their metronomes to sync up. If I select anything other than “Use Internal Clock” in Tiction, it refuses to play for me.

So, it’s not yet necessarily at the deal-breaker stage for me. Though it would be some work, I could still realign the MIDI data to proper bars and beats to deal with the sync issue. (I don’t know if there’s some clock drift over time or not that might make that more complicated than I think). I could re-orchestrate the MIDI data to whatever channels I want after the fact, though that would be time-consuming, and probably less organic than being able to do it directly from the original. I suppose I could make the MIDI ‘note off’ problem a feature rather than a problem, especially if I choose to involve the flute quartet in some interesting, crunchy way against the held tones. (I could also manually shorten other groups of notes that didn’t turn off.

I posted this issue on the Tiction website. If I get an answer that solves it, I’ll report back. Otherwise, anybody out there already run into and solve this problem?
September 21, update: Problem #1 is solved, with help from Hans Kuder. When changing the MIDI channel in the individual node’s Edit menu, you must use the ENTER key for the change to take effect. The other half of the issue, on the Logic side, is that it is necessary to go to File>Project Settings>Recording and check “Auto Demix by Channel if Multitrack Recording.”
Note Off and Sync issues remain.
February 15, 2010, update: I’ve been meaning to say for a while, that Tiction’s website was down for a while, but now it’s back up. But anyway, Tiction broke under Snow Leopard. Hans Kuder is a ware of the problem and is looking into it. Check his website periodically for an update. I noticed that another, simpler program called MIDI Game of Life, which is also Java-based broke under Snow Leopard too.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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World Music and Musicianship.

I spent much of February preparing and giving 4 workshops in Rīga on rhythmic organization in music outside the European tradition. Antra Dreģe, the director of the women’s vocal ensemble Putni (whom I wrote about in this blog previously), applied for a grant to bring me to Rīga, ostensibly to help the ensemble cohere better when tackling complex rhythmic passages by introducing them to approaches to rhythm from other parts of the world.

I’ve thought about this a lot, actually, the way that musicianship is taught. And the way that World Music is taught, too.

Back in grad school, I took a grad-level Introduction to World Music course. I think it was pretty typical of such courses. The textbook material spanned the continents, focusing on the music of Africa, India, Asia, Native America and South America. There were a couple of cassettes that came with it. Each music was handled with two ranges of vision, namely a broad description of the music culture and then a focus on some individuals’ stories within the culture. It was ultimately all very biographic-socio-anthropological. And while my appreciation for that music was genuine, it also seemed somehow insubstantial. Okay, it was an introduction. But what I mean is that there was nothing hands on about it, nothing the equivalent of a laboratory experiment to get that music somehow in my nervous system. I guess my point is that the experience was very passive.

I taught Sightsinging and Ear-Training at Hofstra University in New York for 6 years as an adjunct. Frankly, I think the title of such a course is a misnomer. It should be called Musicianship for Musicians, or something like that. It combines singing individually and in parts, clapping, keyboard skills, dictation and analysis.

At some point in the middle of my ‘tenure’ (ha!) there, I had something of a revelation regarding my class that led me to try some experiments with my classes. It requires that I tie together a few divergent strands, so bear with me, please.

My first serious musical experiences were as a drummer, though I put it aside for voice and composition by the time I got to college. Nevertheless, it’s always been a critical part of my musical and compositional thinking, and I’ve never abandoned it completely. Apropos of my comments above, over the years I’ve dabbled with West African drumming, Japanese Taiko, and the Irish Bodhran. Even here in Liepāja I’ve played drumset at a local pub with some local musicians on a few ocassions. Anyway, I never neglected rhythm in my classes.

Vernacular Music
I am one of the now quite numerous and therefore no longer quite so unclean great unwashed. Most of the guys I went to school with would not shudder with disbelief at say, a serious examination as opera of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, or fail to appreciate just how cool it is that The Police’s quirky and twisted Mother from Synchronicity is a 7/8 12-bar blues, for example. Many of us played in bands, and most of us take this music seriously. While I’m talking about Sting – he is an excellent musician. Just think about the complexity of singing Spirits in the Material World while playing that funky bass line. I know for damned sure that most of my students at Hofstra would have broken down and cried if I’d given them an assignment that complex.

World Music (and Folk Music too) – A rose by any other name.
I hereby join the chorus of those who bemoan the term World Music to describe anything that is basically outside the mainstream of the European concert music heritage, Jazz, or one of the many bastard stepchildren of American rock music. Be that as it may, the term isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And if we can live with the duality of the term Classical Music both as a style and an era, we can live with this one too.

I’ve noticed something about some of the musicians in this category. I saw the great salsa drummer Bobby Sanabria at a percussion conference, and he played the cinquillo (the 5-note clave pattern) with his right foot (with a bass drum pedal against a mounted cowbell), while playing congas with his hands, all the while telling a story in a completely natural fashion. I saw a salsa band at the South Street Seaport one Cinco de Mayo, and the lead singer was also the conga player. The polyrhythmic complexities he performed between the vocal and rhythmic lines were staggeringly sophisticated, yet he made them seem effortless. At another percussion conference, I saw an Arabic doumbek player accomplish much the same thing. Actually, at the same conference, I also saw Vinx, a djembe-playing pop singer who’d opened for Sting in the 90’s. (How’s that for tying things together? Maybe I’m the new Kevin Bacon. Or Sting is.)

The music field as a whole recognizes the sophistication of Indian classical music or West African drumming (we do, don’t we?), but nobody has yet surveyed that literature in a systematic way with an eye toward making it at experientially available to all music majors. There are several gamelan ensembles throughout the country, many African (and some Latin) drumming ensembles, and a handful of programs that offer Arabic or Indian music ensembles. Several universities have umbrella World Music Ensembles, and most have Introduction to World Music classes. I began thinking about the pedagogical value of this music, though, and to wonder why, despite all I mentioned above, it is only available on the margins and not integrated into the curriculum in a meaningful way.

Here’s a very broad statement about the development of music (from a composer’s point of view): it is a constantly evolving conception of how to carve up musical pitch space and musical time. The 20th century saw a grand speciation, continuing the evolution metaphor, yet even in the 21st century our universities barely engage students with this music. Add to this mixture the myriad ways that musical space and time are treated outside the concert music tradition, and maybe we start to see an error in our calculus. Maybe the effort spent creating young Schenkerian listeners is the equivalent of clothing them in an aural straightjacket. (Schenkerian analysis is extraordinarily effective, but only for a narrow slice of the repertoire.)

Our discipline has become so fractured by specialization, not to mention frustratingly turf-protective, that this idea is actually more radical than it should be. Hell, when I suggested we offer an Introduction to World Music course at Hofstra, one of the tenured professors suggested it better belonged in the Anthropology Department, which struck me as elitist at best, or racist at worst. I had a job interview last year at a sizable Midwestern university (I didn’t get the job), but one of the questions I was asked during the interview process was: why do we do melodic dictation? I answered that melodic dictation was part of a gradual process of moving from the relatively simple to the complex by isolating a single element. But he said, no, why do we do melodic dictation at all? He then elaborated, saying that it was pointless to separate melodies from their harmonic framework, and what should really be instituted was a gradual process from melodies together with simple harmonies to more complex melodic and harmonic structures. An interesting point, actually. But one that also highlights the scope of his musical concerns (approximately 300 years of the Western European common practice period) while failing to recognize the existence of so much music that is primarily melodic in nature or devoid of functional harmony. I really, really love Bach. But there is so much more music to love.

I think this situation can be summed up by a scene in the Simpsons, from an episode called “Homer the Heretic:”

Ned: Homer, God didn’t set your house on fire.
Rev. Lovejoy: No, but He was working in the hearts of your friends and neighbors when they came to your aid, be they [points to Ned] Christian, [Krusty] Jew, or [Apu] … other.
Apu: Hindu! There are 700 million of us.
Rev. Lovejoy: Aw, that’s super.

There’s nothing new under the sun. It’s called Eurhythmics.
Clapping, stepping, playing or conducting while singing or vocalizing simultaneously is what is broadly known as eurhythmics. The Swiss composer Emile Jaques-Dalcroze developed a eurhythmic, or whole-body approach to teaching musicianship nearly a century ago. A sizable sub-culture has arisen in music education circles devoted to this approach. The Dalcroze method currently places a heavy emphasis on teaching children and is thus invaluable to music education majors, but it has yet to be integrated into a broader music curriculum geared toward non-children.

Wouldn’t some of this World Music stuff qualify as eurhythmic? Absolutely. For example, I have my students clap a clavé and sing a salsa melody. Or they sing an Arab melody while clapping an Iqat (a rhythmic mode that accompanies it). I also use Glen Velez’s Handance Method, where we play frame drums, step in a pattern and vocalize rhythms in patterns, all while cueing off each other (which by the way, is also a great framework in which to introduce some simple improvisation).

By way of analogy, consider the possibilities in a weight room. You can use the nautilus machines or you can use free weights. Which is better? The free weights, of course, because you have to stabilize the weight yourself through the entire range of motion, thus using more muscles at once. What’s even better than free weights? Free weights on a physio-ball, because you have to stabilize the weights through the whole range of motion while using other muscles to counterbalance that motion (you are after all, on a ball). Any trainer knows that you get more from exercise if you concentrate on what you’re doing. Your whole nervous system is involved in that activity. Now that’s focus.

It’s the same with eurhythmics. If you are stepping, clapping and singing at the same time, your whole body is awake to the activity. I’m sure that those of us who are educators have had the experience of watching students make mistakes and (outwardly, at least) not even notice that they’d made a mistake. Once I started incorporating this way of thinking into my classroom, when students made rhythmic mistakes, they knew it, and it helped them with pitch too, mostly because they could not possibly sleepwalk through any activity.

It’s a classroom, stupid.
One of the things I found frustrating about teaching Musicianship is the need to individualize the experience while at the same time having the reality of 15 students in the room and 50 minutes to work with. An attractive element of some World and Folk Music is the communal aspect of their music making, and in effect, by including things like sung drones or call and response, I can create a small musical community of the classroom. An added benefit of this is that I can assess an individual student’s performance of a homework assignment, not with 14 other kids sitting silently, but with them involved too. It makes it more interesting for them and creates a supportive environment.

The workshops.
So, back to Rīga. Over the course of a week, I gave four workshops. I devised performance exercises, created broad summaries, found good illustrative listening examples. Here’s what the schedule looked like:
February 20th – Flamenco. Clapping technique, palmas and contrapalmas. Melodic/harmonic organization in Flamenco.
February 22nd – African rhythm and song. Introduction to rhythmic organization in West African music. Some simple folk songs that include singing, clapping and stepping all together.
February 23rd – Gamelan and Ketjak from Bali and Indonesia. Emphasis is placed on interlocking rhythms within larger rhythmic cycles. We will sing some Gamelan-like examples and chant Ketjak.
February 27th – Indian music. Solkattu, bols and tala. Introduction to solkattu and bols, which are vocal syllables used to reflect the sounds made by playing the tabla and mridangam drums. Tala is the way that time is organized in Indian music. We will try to speak these syllables while ‘keeping tala”.

There were between 10 and 20+ people at each workshop, mostly the singers in Putni, but also some students, pedagogues and amateurs. They all seemed to have fun, and the experience was rewarding for me, too.

Ultimately, I have absolutely no desire to supplant the canon. I love it, too. But it’s not only part of a continuum, it’s part of a world. My revelation at Hofstra was that what I wanted to do most for my students was to equip them to solve whatever kind of musical problems they might encounter, and if possible, to make the encountering and the grappling with problems fun. Many composers speak of having ‘a tool box’, a set of skills that they can bring to bear when dealing with the sometimes puzzle that is composition. The more tools, the better. My goal with these workshops was to try to bring the participants as close as I could to hearing and feeling this music the same way that the musicians who create it hear it and feel it. And maybe walk away with a new tool or two.

World Music and Musicianship. Read More »

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.

Back to our regularly scheduled program… Read More »

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

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

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.

From the Faraway Nearby Read More »