Fist Through Traffic released on Albany Records

shiftingcellsShifting Cells
TROY1375 – $16.99

New works for percussion ensemble written between 1993 and 2009 are performed by the Columbus State University Percussion Ensemble on this recording. Offering a unique listening experience, two of the works are for saxophone solo with percussion ensemble and one is for organ and percussion ensemble. The recording and two of the works came as a result of a residency program that commissions a new work for the CSU Percussion Ensemble each year. Directed by Paul Vaillancourt, the CSU Percussion Ensemble performs and records music from the traditional percussion ensemble as well as commissioning and premiering works by internationally known and emerging composers. Saxophonist Amy Griffiths is on the faculty at Columbus State University and has made countless appearances as a soloist, chamber musician, and recitalist.

Charles Griffin, composer
Fist Through Traffic
Amy Griffiths, saxophone, Columbus State University Percussion Ensemble

James M. David, composer
Shifting Cells
Columbus State University Percussion Ensemble

Nico Muhly, composer
I Shudder To Think
Columbus State University Percussion Ensemble

Brian Cherney, composer
In Gottes Gärten schweigen die Engel
Columbus State University Percussion Ensemble, Matthew Price, conductor

Robert Rumbelow, composer
Soundscape for organ & percussion ensemble
Jonathan Ryan, organ, Columbus State University Percussion Ensemble, Robert Rumbelow, conductor

James M. David, composer
The Locomotive Geryon
Amy Griffiths, saxophone, Columbus State University Percussion Ensemble

“Clearly Georgia’s Columbus State University has a percussion program of which to be proud. This is a release that any fancier of percussion music will want to explore.” (Fanfare)

Fist Through Traffic released on Albany Records Read More »

Emergence at the Orlando White House with CF2, April 29

A lot of work is coming to fruition at the Orlando White House on April 29. The Central Florida Composers Forum, now nearly a year old, is getting its land legs. In late January, CF2 member works were included in UCF’s percussion-focused Collide Festival with great success, and the momentum from that concert has lead to a well-publicized and much anticipated multi-media event at the Timucua White House at 7PM on April 29. See the Orlando Weekly write-up here.

Two new works will premiere on this concert: local arts luminary and musical director of La Nouba (Cirque du Soleil) Benoit Glazer‘s Suite Circassienne #6 for brass quintet and percussion quintet and Full Sail University’s Rebekah Todia‘s The Solitary for soprano and piano.

Also on the concert will be Rollins College professor of composition Daniel Crozier‘s Winter Aubade, for piano solo and my Emergence, for flute quartet, prerecorded audio and video projection.

The composers will all be present and are joined by an impressive body of performers: Benoit Glazer & Mike Avila, trumpets; Kathy Thomas, horn; Jeff Thomas, trombone; Bob Carpenter, tuba; Jeff Moore, Matt Roberts, Wesley Strasser, Thad Anderson & Garth Steger, percussion; Julie Batman, Soprano; Heidi Louise Williams & Rebekah Todia, piano; and Elsa Kate Nichols, Nicholas Buonanni, Adriane Hill, Anielka Silva, flutes.

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Heart! We Will Forget Him anthologized by Inside View Press

Sing Into Your Sixties… And Beyond!

Soprano Sangeetha Rayapati has included my setting of Emily Dickinson’s Heart! We will forget him! for soprano and piano as part of her vocal pedagogy textbook recently made available by Inside View Press.

Here is the description of the textbook from their web site:

A manual and anthology for group and individual voice instruction

Original Edition (ISBN: 978-0-9755307-7-1) 220 pages

Sangeetha Rayapati, DMA


Sing Into Your Sixties… And Beyond breaks new ground in the pedagogic literature for singing. While information about the aging voice is plentiful in the disciplines of speech language pathology and audiology, few resources have been available that focus on voice training for mature singers—despite the fact that a major demographic shift is about to occur in our nation! Dr. Rayapati’s background in anatomy, physiology, and psychology, ranging from nurse’s training to her graduate specialization in voice pedagogy, makes her the perfect person to fill this void. In addition to her experience with aging singers as a conductor and chorister, she has provided voice instruction in group and one-on-one settings to people of all ages. These experiences helped her create this ideal new user’s manual for senior-singers: Sing Into Your Sixties… And Beyond!

Equally well-suited to singers and singing teachers, the volume is divided into three main sections. It begins with a manual for singers, Fundamental Vocal Principles: Anatomy, Physiology, and Vocal Techniques, which provides clear and concise descriptions of the challenges often faced by older singers, along with specific exercises to help maintain the best possible singing voice. It concludes with a teacher’s guide, designed to help both teacher and student come to a deeper understanding of the aging process and its impact on the voice. Between these pillars comes an extensive anthology of songs. Nearly 50 musical selections, custom picked with the interests and abilities of senior singers in mind, provide exceptional motivation to keep singing!

Folk and Traditional Songs without Accompaniment
Aamulla varhain (Finnish)
Ajde Jano (Serbian)
Alouette, gentil Alouette (French)
Iskat me, mamo (Bulgarian)
Nuz my sdais krzescijani (Polish)
Sikon (Greek)
Tin Tin Tini Mini Hanm (Turkish)
This Land was made for You and Me (American, by Woodie Guthrie)
This Little Light of Mine (American)
Folk and Traditional Songs with Piano Accompaniment
Auld Lang Syne (Old Scotch Air)
The Blue Alsatian Mountains (Stephen Adams)
The Last Rose of Summer (Thomas Moore)
The Loreley (F. Silcher)
Oh dear! What can the matter be? (Traditional)
Oh, Shenandoah (David Horace Davies)
Sing Ivy (Traditional, arr. Holst)
Slumber my Darling (Stephen Foster)
The Storm (John Hullah)
There’s Music in the Air (George F. Root)
From the Great American Songbook
Ain’t Misbehavin (Thomas “Fats” Waller)
Cry Me a River (Arthur Hamilton)
Don’t Get Around Much Anymore (Duke Ellington)
My Funny Valentine (Richard Rogers)
Sacred Solos
Ah, Holy Jesus (Richard Walters)
I Wonder as I Wander (David Horace Davies)
The Lord is my Shepherd (Robert Leaf)
O Holy Night (Adolphe Adam)
Pie Jesu (Gabriel Fauré)
Simple Gifts (David Horace Davies)
Sacred Duets & Trios
Befiehl dem Herrn deine Wege! (Max Reger)
Commit Thy Ways to the Lord (Max Reger)
Jesus Lover of my Soul (David Horace Davies)
Laudate Dominum (Lorenzo Perosi)
Magnificat (Peter Benoit)
Out of Your Sleep Arise and Wake (R. Mather)
Puer Natus in Bethlehem (Josef Rheinberger)
Secular Solos
An die Musik (Franz Schubert)
Finding Home (Ricky Ian Gordon)
Three Emily Dickinson Songs (Charles B. Griffin)
Waiting (William Campbell)
What can we poor Females do (Henry Purcell)
Secular Duets & Trios
Erano I capei d’oro (Alessandro Kirschner)
Mägdlein auf die Weise gingen (Anton Rubsenstein)
My Dearest, My Fairest (Henry Purcell)
Wanderers Nachtlied (Anton Rubenstein)

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Presentation at ATMI Conference in Richmond, VA on October 20

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I gave an hour-long presentation at the 2011 National Conference of the Association for Technology in Music Instruction (ATMI) yesterday in Richmond, Virginia. The title of my presentation was Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Interaction and Teaching Music Online. I spoke of ways to maximize the ways we use software tools such as Sibelius, Logic, Quicktime, iChat, Adobe Acrobat Pro and Screenflow to both assess student performance and provide instructor feedback. I spoke about Web 2.0 fatigue on both sides of the pedagogical equation and criteria I adopted to make decisions about which tools to choose for my own teaching.

I then spoke about the Web 2.0 tools I use specifically (Diigo, Soundcloud, Spotify, Issuu) and how I integrate them both visually and practically into assignments and tests. One particularly interesting way to take advantage of the portability (via widgets and embed codes) of these various tools is to use them in tests created using Google Forms.

It is possible to to tie these tools together by accessing the source code of a test you create using Google Forms and bringing that into an HTML editor. Once there you can insert embedded videos, images, PDFs, or any other media you like, and have the questions you ask in your test refer to the embedded items. Finally, I spoke about the importance of keeping in mind the visual impact of the way we deliver content online and how critical it is to student focus to keep that information clear and organized.

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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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Paris, 2 choral commissions, and the Griffin Ensemble soon to debut

A few things to report as I surface to breathe. First, as an update to my entry of a few months back, I was accepted into the European American Musical Alliance summer program in Paris. I will go there for the month of July to study conducting with Mark Shapiro (from Mannes in New York). Should be great fun, and from what I understand, a fairly intensive experience. And an expensive one too, as I discovered after sifting through the available apartments for the month of July via craigslist.

Second, on a whim, I threw my hat in the ring to be considered for a commission from the Manhattan Choral Ensemble, directed by Tom Cunningham. They run a small commissioning program that echoes the Dale Warland Singers’ model. They commission three or four composers to write short works, give them a performance, and then select one of those composers to receive a larger commission for the next season. To my happy surprise, I was chosen, along with composers Patrick Castillo, Karen Siegel, and Davide Zannoni. Six degrees of separation / Small world spoiler alert: I’ve known Davide for years. The only hitch was I had less than a month to write the thing.

No matter. I had it in the back of my mind to set some of Carl Sandburg’s poetry. A former composition student back in New York kept bringing in these amazing Sandburg poems, and I resolved to get around to setting Sandburg at some point, and this seemed a good a time as any. I dug through a batch, and settled on the anti-war poem Jaws:

SEVEN nations stood with their hands on the jaws of death.
It was the first week in August, Nineteen Hundred Fourteen.
I was listening, you were listening, the whole world was listening,
And all of us heard a Voice murmuring:
“I am the way and the light,
He that believeth in me
Shall not perish
But shall have everlasting life.”
Seven nations listening heard the Voice and answered:
“O Hell!”
The jaws of death began clicking and they go on clicking.
“O Hell!”

For obvious reasons, one usually just uses the title of the poem as the title of the piece, but in this case, for equally obvious reasons, I’m not calling it Jaws, but rather The Whole World was Listening. I set it for soprano solo, tenor solo, off-stage quartet and divisi choir, and for the first time, included some aleatoric elements as well as specific movements the choir must make. They will perform it on June 8 in New York. The concert is not announced on their web site yet, but I trust it will be soon enough.

In the meantime, I interrupted a piece I was working on for Putni, a setting of a Federico Garcia Lorca poem, called El Paso de la Seguiriya:

Entre mariposas negras,

va una muchacha morena 
a una blanca serpiente
 de niebla.

Tierra de luz,

cielo de tierra

Va encadenada al temblor

de un ritmo que nunca llega;

tiene el corazón de plata

y un puñal en la diestra.

¿A dónde vas, siguiriya

con un ritmo sin cabeza?

¿Qué luna recogerá

tu dolor de cal y adelfa?

Tierra de luz,

cielo de tierra.

I was attracted to the possibilities inherent in the lines, Tierra de luz, cielo de tierra (Earth of light, Sky of Earth). Spring-boarding off the Flamenco workshop I gave them in February, I’m trying to engage with (yet not limit myself to) Flamenco rhythms and harmonies, and this piece also includes palmas and contrapalmas parts for the singers to clap. I hope to finish it soon.

Also in the meantime, preparations for my All Griffin concert are proceeding as we make our mad dash for the finish line. We’ve got about 75 minutes of my music in rehearsals, which have been going essentially smoothly. I gave an interview for the city’s main daily, Kurzemes Vards, yesterday, and the posters are coming tomorrow. We will give four or five performances over the next six weeks in Liepāja (2), Durbe, Cesis, and possibly Rīga. I did arrange for a recording engineer, and will enlist the daughter of one of the pianists to video record it. So, I’ll post some stuff on YouTube and/or make a podcast of it for anyone who wants to hear it.

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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 »

The Griffin Ensemble – The Ultimate in DIY?

After I’d been here in Liepāja for about a year, this sort of strange but organic thing happened, that would never have happened (for me anyway) in New York. Quite a few pieces of mine have been performed here since I moved here, many of which I have blogged about:

• the orchestra piece performed by the Liepāja Symphony (now called Pick it up and run with it);
• the piece that Putni took on tour (The Moon of the Floating World);
• a piano duo (Do Not Go Gentle);
• a duet for alto saxophone and viola (for the straight way was lost);
• a clarinet quartet (Panta Rei);
• a choral piece (Aija Žužu).
• a piano trio (three musicians from the LSO (Cambiando Paisajes));
• and the two pieces I wrote for my friend Olexij: the quartet for trumpet, clarinet, saxophone and bassoon, (Not Waving but Drowning) and the piece for the chamber orchestra at the site of the destroyed bridge (Elegy).

On top of those pieces, I’d also given a few scores away over the course of the year. The cool and organic thing that began to happen is that several musicians took it upon themselves to organize small chamber groups to start working on my music. Dina Puķite and Ginta Alzane, the cellist and violinist who’d played my trio, without my even knowing it at first (happy surprise!), roped in two more colleagues from the LSO and began working on a fairly challenging string quartet of mine, one that uses Arabis scalar and rhythmic modes (Set fire to have light). And a local pianist, Ludmila Irina started working on a duet of mine with her clarinetist husband (Jazz Suite).

It suddenly started to seem like enough local musicians were all concurrently working on enough of my music to perhaps justify a concert, and they all were not only ammenable to the idea but excited by the prospect. I was encouraged to begin thinking about a program. And in a relatively short time it came together. Perhaps an odd combination but a relatively portable one, and one for which I already had or could rearrange a few pieces: clarinet, string quartet, piano four hands and percussion.

The Griffin Ensemble was born. And I say that with uncessary but very real sheepishness. Two of the best known composers of our time started their own ensembles when they were beginning. But there’s a part of me that feels immodest in doing so. Whatever. I’ll get over it.

The next step was to figure out how I could get the musicians, though they all across the board offered to play a concert for nothing. In the end we applied for a grant, in a process that resembles nothing exactly that I’ve experienced or heard of in America. But all the same, we got funding for one performance (hooray!) and are awaiting word for another two. The performance(s) will take place here in May.

I haven’t finished getting the music ready yet, and I am going to compose something new as a finale to the concert, something fun for the entire ensemble to play, either an arrangement of some Irish trad music or something original but inspired by it, so I can give my new bodhrán a spin (so to speak) in public.

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