After 26 years, in early June, the American Composers Forum will be shutting down its novel composer-in-residency program called Faith Partners.I was a participant in that program, having shared a residency with composer Gerald Cohen in three powerhouse institutions of worship in New York City: St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Bartholomew’s, and Temple Emanu-El.
The Berkeley Women’s Community Chorus, directed by Debra Golata will perform my El Paso de la Siguiriya, a flamenco-inflected setting for women’s voices of the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. Flamenco dancer Holly Shaw will be featured in this performance. The concert will take place Sunday, April 15 at 4pm at Montclair Presbyterian Church in Oakland, California.
BACKGROUND OF THE WOMEN’S CHORUS: In response to the overwhelming interest in Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra, which has a full membership, a new women’s chorus was developed, directed by Debra Golata. We hold to the high standards of BCCO–singing in 2 to 4 part harmony, in a variety of languages with development of vocal and musical skills.
DIRECTOR DEBRA GOLATA received a bachelor’s degree in music education from Michigan State University and a master’s degree in choral conducting from San Jose State University. She has studied modern and flamenco dance, acting, and classical voice in San Francisco, New York City and Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Her vocal performance experience includes solo recitals, opera, musicals, and professional choral singing. She sang with the acclaimed Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra Chorale for 15 years, and she has concertized throughout the United States and Mexico with classical guitarist Jon Harris. For Oakland’s Rockridge Chorale she performed as vocal soloist in India and England and has served as accompanist, assistant conductor and vocal coach for the San Francisco Lyric Chorus. She is organist and music director at Northbrae Community Church in Berkeley and teaches private voice and piano lessons, as well as general music classes for schools in the Bay Area.
On Saturday, April 7, 8pm, at the Bob Carr Theater (401 W Livingston Street, Orlando), the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra will premiere my Frontispiece on J.S. Bach’s Prelude in G major, a 4+-minute work that features as part of it J.S. Bach’s solo cello Prelude in G major. Music director Eric Jacobsen will play the featured cello part himself. The piece presents the prelude in its entirety at the center of it and is fully orchestrated, with countermelodies, and an introduction and closing based on the main Bach motive. The orchestra is the exact same instrumentation as Brahms’s Symphony #1: double winds, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings, with the added solo cello. The Bach Prelude exhibits that special magic that he’s so famous for amongst composers, particularly the outlining of chord structures and polyphonic lines within the solo cello part. He also, once G major is established, takes a kaleidoscopic detour away from the home key before returning to the spectacularly sunny opening motive. I tried to capture the various tonal worlds and motives that Bach crafts in the original and amplify them with my orchestration.
Between January 19 and February 19, I will give five different thirty minute invited lectures as part of the 2018 Epcot International Festival of the Arts. The lectures were great fun to prepare and to give to an enthusiastic audience of park-goers at the Odyssey Festival Showcase. The lectures are:
• The Evolution of Flow in Hip Hop. Here, I trace the growth in lyrical and rhythmic complexity in Hip Hop from the late 1970s onward, with a special emphasis on the musical, Hamilton.
• Maverick Composers. American music history from its very beginnings before the Revolution to the present has its strain of independent thinkers that changed how we all see things. Composers included here are William Billings, Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, John Cage and George Crumb.
• A brief history of Jazz. I trace the several musical threads that lead to the birth of Jazz, with a close look at New Orleans itself, because understanding its specific culture helps us better appreciate jazz. We end with a quick tour of the trail blazed by the giants of this uniquely American genre.
• The music of John Williams. We put John Williams’s music in context both in film music history and classical music history, with a special emphasis on how Williams so successfully navigates the special demands placed on composers for film.
• Women Composers. From a small handful of historically recognized women composers prior to World War II, women have fought and powerfully earned a central place on the world stage of the concert music tradition. We’ll survey this history, with special emphasis on the amazing and varied voices that women composers represent today. Composers featured in this lecture include Hildegard von Bingen, Joan Tower, Jennifer Higdon, Wendy Mae Chambers, Julia Wolfe, and Sarah Kirkland Snider.
The Missouri State University Percussion Ensemble will perform my The Persistence of Past Chemistries on Friday, December 1, 2017 at 7:30 PM CST
at Wehr Band Hall on the MSU campus.
The program also includes:
Nordic Peace- Tobias Broström
Africa Hocket- Lane Harder
Hemispheres- Kevin Bobo
The Piano Duo Gastesi-Bezerra will be performing a selection from my suite of pieces for piano four-hands From the Faraway Nearby, inspired by paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach on Sunday, November 19 at 3:00 p.m. This and other works will be performed as part of Climate Keys, a worldwide series of concerts in which pianists play music and scientists lead discussions about climate change.
The Berkeley Women’s Community Chorus, directed by Debra Golata will perform my El Paso de la Siguiriya, a flamenco-inflected setting for women’s voices of the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. Antoinette Catalla will be the soloist. The concert will take place at Northbrae Community Church in Berkeley, California on Sunday, November 19 at 4pm. Other works on the concert include Jubilant Song by Norman Dello Joio, Dixit Dominus by Baldassare Galuppi, Oiseaux Si Tous by Mozart, Wir eilen by JS Bach, and Tundra by Ola Gjeilo.
Composers of contemporary classical music gravitate toward musicians that are receptive to new repertory. Often, the musicians most receptive to newly composed works are those who play instruments that don’t themselves have big catalogues of canonic pieces dating back hundreds of years. For example, one of the most beautifully intimate and expansive sounds that Western European culture generated is that of the string quartet. But living composers looking to shop around their recent compositions for string quartet have to ask for wiggle room amongst a long list of formidable masterworks that string quartet ensembles have rightfully adopted as standard repertory.
Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all extensively explored the string quartet’s expressive possibilities. The Romantics, Nationalists and Impressionists that followed in the 19th century found new sonic riches there. In the 20th century, the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok and the Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich each built their own catalogues of demanding, ground-breaking works that expanded the boundaries of performance techniques and pushed for a reconsideration of what the musical conversation between the players themselves and between the music and listener could be like.
Other instruments do not have the same depth of historical repertory, either because they didn’t attract the attention of big name composers or because those instruments are simply newer. The saxophone was invented in 1840. Percussion instruments, generally speaking, have been in existence pre-historically, but when considering the percussion family as a potentially virtuosic participant in the classical tradition, it’s a 20th century phenomenon. Similarly, precursors to the classical guitar emerged roughly 5,000 years ago, but the modern classical guitar didn’t emerge into broad popularity until the 19th century, during which masterworks for the instrument emerged, but at nowhere near the rate or scope of traditional ensembles like the string quartet.
That is good news for composers. Musicians of these instruments are hungry for serious repertory, and some of them go out of their way to midwife new repertory into being by actively commissioning living composers to write for them. They get the added thrill of having input into the creative process and being able to provide feedback.
Robert Phillips is one such musician. A guitarist based in Lakeland, he is an instructor at the Harrison School for the Arts and on the faculty of Southeastern University. He grew up on Long Island, and earned his Bachelor’s degree not far from home, at Hofstra University. He got his first real taste of contemporary music studying with David Starobin while earning his Master’s degree at Brooklyn College. Starobin owns Bridge Records, a label that specializes in contemporary classical music, and Starobin himself has been the catalyst for a multitude of commissions from a who’s who list of late 20th century composers from George Crumb to Elliot Carter to Gunther Schuller.
According to Phillips, “If you’re not playing new music, you’re just allowing the art to die out. A Beethoven string quartet has passed the test of time, which new music can’t. When Beethoven wrote a string quartet, it was a new piece at that time. If you don’t take a chance on new music, we won’t have new masterpieces. And it’s gotten easier as a performer to program new music, because new music has gotten more audience-friendly compared to twenty five or thirty years ago. We’re now in a period where composers are really re-engaging their audience and really saying something that listeners can identify with and understand.”
After graduating with his Master’s degree in guitar performance, Phillips worked the freelancer’s grind in New York for many years, giving guitar lessons and performing. But by the late 1980s and early 1990s, Long Island’s economy suffered several blows, including Grumman Aerospace corporation laying off 9,000 workers at once, adding them to a pool of unemployed professionals now totalling 90,000 people. As so often happens, music becomes an understandably unaffordable luxury when a family’s choices come down to guitar lessons versus dinner, or a business must choose between having live music or paying their waitstaff. Phillips threw in the towel and headed to Tampa before relocating to Lakeland shortly thereafter. He eventually made the decision to get his doctorate in classical guitar performance from the University of Miami, which entailed commuting weekly for a few years between Lakeland and Miami.
The genesis of Phillips’ commissioning project grew from an inability to choose just one of his favorite local composers to write a new piece for him when he got itchy for one. He’d worked with Troy Gifford before. Gifford is a talented guitarist and composer and is the Chair of the Music Department at Valencia College. Rex Willis, another guitarist and composer at the State College of Florida in Sarasota, was another potential candidate. As guitarist-composers, both Gifford and Willis have accessible compositional styles that are heavily influenced by Spanish dance music. The legendary Argentinian guitarist and composer Jorge Morel, whose performing and recording career exploded in New York in the 1960s, is now based in Orlando.
It dawned on Phillips that he didn’t need to choose just one composer — he could think big and commission a whole concert’s worth, a whole CD’s worth of pieces at once, from multiple composers. He cast a wider net by being open to the idea of working with non-guitarist composers. Phillips began a search for composers with some criteria in mind: they had to have an accessible musical voice; they had to be open to composing a piece based on dance rhythms; and they had to be local enough to make collaboration simple. He found his composers and set tentative agreements. He launched a kickstarter campaign to help fund the process that garnered support from over 60 people.
Rex Willis composed Rondo Diabolico, a 5-minute fun and quirky rondo (a recurring theme followed by episodic digressions) with a tango feel to it. Howard Buss of Lakeland wrote Dances and Interludes, an 8-minute journey through dances forms where a Cuban songo, a bossa nova, and a flamenco rumba are connected by interstitial musical material. Orlando’s Benoit Glazer composed TanVal, a light, sophisticated Jazz-inflected conversation between a tango and a waltz, but in 5/4 time. Troy Gifford contributed a neo-romantic waltz called Valsera. Jorge Morel wrote Preludio y Danzas. That work starts with a short prelude that leads to a fast Latin American dance, then a brisk interlude followed by a sesquialtera rhythm (where a duple and triple feel get overlaid simultaneously), and finally finishes with a flourish. My own contribution, Samba Variations, takes a standard Brazilian samba and treats it like fashion show where we get to see the same samba riff in many different costumes. Phillips plans to compose his own contribution to the set, which he has come to think of as Orange Blossom Dances.
The first performances will take place in Madrid this summer in multiple venues, including the Ateneo Científico, Literario y Artístico de Madrid, the National Archeological Museum, the American Museum, the Nicolás Salmerón Cultural Center, and the Villa de Barajas Cultural Center. American performances are anticipated to occur in Sarasota, Oklahoma City, Orlando and Lakeland. Phillips plans to record it and release it on MS Records, an independent label that specializes in classical music that has a fairly extensive catalogue of contemporary works.
The Queens-based ensemble, Percussia will present Hammers & Keys: music for piano & percussion, on Thursday, June 15, 2017 at 7:30 PM.
This program will feature several works by composers with Queens connections, including my Latin-influenced Cambiando Paisajes, (Shifting Landscapes) for piano and two percussionists, as well as the hauntingly shimmering Not the Light, But the Fire That Burns by Gilbert Galindo. Rounding out the program are the post-minimalist groove Tight Sweater by Mark Mellits, the ritualistic Invocations to Vahakn by the Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness, and Prisoners of the Image Factory, a trio for keyboard percussion and piano by Bob Becker.
50 Ascan Ave.
Queens, NY 11375
“Be true to your own act, and congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant, and broken the monotony of a decorous age. It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a young person, ‘Always do what you are afraid to do.’” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’m an atheist. I’m an atheist who grew up half-heartedly Catholic, and during CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) classes, around age eleven or twelve, I worked drawings and commentary about my hamster into our assigned journals on Jesus and God’s presence in our lives at every opportunity. The fantastic stories in Greek and Roman mythology I was learning around the same time did not seem too different in tone or likelihood from Bible stories. The only difference, as far as I could tell, was that I was being told only some were true. I chose Thomas as my confirmation name because it was the closest I could get to expressing my doubts at that age.
Yet, I went on to become a paid church singer during and after college for seven years at a Catholic church in Queens and an Episcopalian church on Long Island. This gave me long and regular exposure to Bible readings, sermons, and sacred music. I developed a love for the pageantry and drama surrounding the narrative arc of Jesus’ story, and a fondness for the sense of community that a church can provide. As a composer, I have written many choral pieces for church and synagogue use, and don’t feel hypocritical about it, because I map my personal beliefs about my place in the universe and the beauty I find in science and nature onto the monotheistic beliefs of the faithful.
I am raising two amazing sons without religion. They are good, loving, respectful, flexible, curious, and every other favorable thing I could possibly imagine. And they have very little knowledge of Bible stories. So it made for a fascinating conversation one day about a year ago, as we drove past the Holy Land Experience, off I-4, with its elaborate mural. We’d passed this building many times, but my older son noticed it for the first time and asked about it. As a ten-year-old, his special curiosity about the image of the boat and the animals was unsurprising.
I proceeded to tell my sons the story of Noah and the Ark as neutrally as I could. Their questions were as much revelatory to me about their own sense of right and wrong as they were about the disturbing questions the Bible doesn’t address directly. God was unhappy with everyone? Everyone? Even the kids? Why did the animals have to die?
I began to think a lot about that story. What happened during those 40 days of rain? How did people react to it? Did anybody run for higher ground? What about babies born after the rain started? Did anybody get on or build boats of their own? How would I feel and what would I do if I knew that the world was truly ending? What would I tell my sons then? These thoughts led to alternately humorous and deeply dark places.
I began telling people about my conversation with my sons and my subsequent musings and imaginings, and one of them made the comment that it “would make a great show for the Fringe Festival.” As I’ve written about it in recent months, improv comedy is something that has become important to me, but I’d not considered the possibility of creating a show of my own. I looked into it and learned that the Orlando Fringe has a lottery process for its shows. That’s it. A lottery and nothing else. No curation. You sink or swim if you get in.
I recalled the year I’d ran my first marathon in New York City. I’d caught a flu that knocked me out of commission for a few weeks. I had been training in jiu-jitsu at the time, and when I went back into the dojo and it came time for grappling, I felt like I got tossed around like a rag doll by guys I was tossing around myself a few weeks earlier. I was distraught about it and decided to add one- to three-mile runs into my weekly routine to recover and improve my conditioning. Ludicrously, at some point I decided I would enter the lottery process for getting into the marathon. I had never run much before, and had been at it for only about a month or so. I got in. I took it as a sign to train for it, with the internal understanding that I could stop running and drop out at any time. But as the race drew nearer, I knew I had to go for it. I don’t regret it. Running a marathon (I ran twice in New York City and once in Chicago) was a powerful, memorable experience, and the first one especially felt like a trauma and a triumph at the same time. Much like going to church, there is pageantry and drama, and a strong sense of community amongst marathoners.
What drove me to enter the lottery for the NYC Marathon was the thought that I would benefit from being in over my head. I didn’t know if I could do it, but wanted to prove to myself that I could. Entering the Fringe lottery felt the same way and had the same result. I got in. I took it as a sign. I’m preparing for it. I’m stretching in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I’m writing sketches. I’m writing lyrics. I found other performers whom I have to direct.
The cast includes Joe Llorens, one of my trusted buddies with whom I went through some of Sak Comedy Lab’s improv and stand-up classes; Lynde Schmidt, a great young actor that I met in Art Sake Studio’s Film I/Meisner acting class; and Christie Johnson, an acting and dancing talent I discovered through Fringe’s Unified audition process.
Two months ago in this column, I wrote about one of improv’s time-honored principles, namely the concept of “yes, and.” “Yes, and” demands that an improviser treat whatever their scene partner does or says as an offering that must be accepted as part of the reality of the scene. The improviser then builds upon the offer with their own contribution, and so on. Biblical Fan Fiction is essentially an extended “yes, and” to selected Bible stories. What that means is that we accept selected stories as true, namely Elisha and the Bears, John the Baptist, and Noah and the Ark. Using sketch comedy, improv, video, children’s art, and music, we tell the stories, embrace anachronisms, fill in some blanks along the way, and answer some questions the Bible doesn’t, like: Is God bald? Where do babies come from? How good does a dance have to be to get someone’s head chopped off? Was Noah the only guy with a boat? Why are there no unicorns?
When it’s done well, improv doesn’t always necessarily result in laughter. Sometimes a scene unfolds from a “yes, and” and leads to an unexpected place. While imagining an interview between Noah and an animal candidate for admission to the Ark will naturally lend itself to humor, imagining a parent building a boat to save his children from certain death might lead to something more profound. The lyrics for a song I’m working on for the show try to grapple with some of these questions I would certainly be dealing with as a father
Our world is ending soon my child.
For all my sins and heresy,
All the years that I ran wild,
The ground is giving way beneath us.
The cost is far too high, my son,
And I can’t let you pay it
When I’m the guilty one.
The tides are rising all around us.
Hush my little angel, don’t you cry.
I know what you are thinking,
but this doesn’t mean goodbye.
I’ll do anything for you,
Anything, for you.
My very last breath,
I’d give that to you too.
I’ll build you a boat
Watch as you float
Away, away, away.
Imagine all this falling rain
Isn’t the flood it seems to be;
But a love so overwhelming
That it rocks the world and swells the seas.
My love is stronger than this pain.
Please go on and thrive for me.
Grow up and be a good man.
Live in love and harmony.
Long, long after I’ve left this place,
Even the memory of me
will remember your face.
That’s how much I love you.
That’s how much I love you.
That’s how much I love you.
One of the primary differences between producing Biblical Fan Fiction and running a marathon is that I absolutely could not be doing this alone. I’m grateful to my cast and the people who have encouraged me along the way. I love being a part of the arts community in Orlando, and I hope you’ll come out like non-runners do for a race to encourage us and cheer us on. Give us the equivalent of orange slices or banana halves. I’m still scared, but facing the fear is part of improv, part of performing. Richard Bach said, “When you have come to the edge of all the light you have, and step into the darkness of the unknown, believe that one of two will happen to you: either you’ll find something solid to stand on or you’ll be taught how to fly!”
Performances of Biblical Fan Fiction at the Orlando Fringe Festival will take place in the Purple Venue on Wednesday, May 17 at 6:15pm; Saturday, May 20 at 1:30pm; Monday, May 22 at 8:45pm; Friday, May 26 at 7:00pm; and Saturday, May 27 at 11:15am. Tickets are $10.