Jumping Right In

Getting a fresh start on the blog again, in the hopes of being more consistent in posting. There are a lot of ongoing projects right now!!

IUSA International Harp Competition Piece

Yesterday I meet with a harpist (a fabulously talented undergraduate, Aubrey Shumway) to finalize a piece I've been working on for the IUSA International Harp Composition Competition; the prizes for this competition are truly extraordinary - multiple public performances by some of the top harpists in the world, immediate publication of your work, international performances on the Harp competition winner's Golden Tour, and the possibility of having your work recorded by the competition winner on their album (oh, and a cash prize too). It's such an incredible opportunity to really have your work respected by a large group of performers, so I've been working really hard on this project. 

The best thing I've done for this piece is meeting with several different harpists (all told, I think I've met with about five in the last two months) -- so much of the notation is still struggling to be standardized, so meeting with real harpists is imperative to making sure you understand the possible interpretations of your work.  Even as a former harpist, it's been so long since I've played that getting a fresh perspective from the performers who are in the thick of things has been incredibly insightful. Also, harpists are just some of the nicest, most hard-working, passionate, and open-minded people I've had the pleasure of working with. Writing harp music can be extremely difficult (I started this piece over a year ago), but the experience has taught me that the time is well spent and much appreciated. 

Big-Ass Moth Gets More Movements!

Obviously my skills in
visual arts are a bit wanting,
but you have to admit - that is one
fat-ass robin.
With the harp piece almost finished, I can refocus on some of my other ongoing projects. Recently I was able to work with flutist (and Tumblr star) Robin Meiksins and clarinetist Emily Mehigh on re-vamping one of my more popular works, Big-Ass Moth!, and we've decided to collaborate on two additional movements! Right now we're working on will be the first movement, Fat-Ass Robin! The irony of the title isn't lost on Robin, especially given how petite her frame actually is!

Sometimes concept art is actually very useful for me when trying to generate and organize musical material, so I've been spending quite a bit of time looking at photos and videos of robins (of many sizes), and trying to sketch out a few ideas from there. 

The process has been really interesting, in that these movements are probably among the most programmatic music I've ever written. It has been a totally different type of process than any other work - thinking so intensely about the movement of a fat bird and how to translate the movement into a musical gesture; these are the types of questions a lot of animation-oriented composers and (many, though probably not all) ballet composers probably think about every day when they're composing. The stretch isn't too difficult for me yet, given that I tend to think about contour and rhythm moreso than other elements, but I love projects that introduce a new composition method to me, so this has been a really fulfilling project in that regard. 
A fat robin trying to fly, and a composer trying to notate it.

I was able to meet with Robin and Emily this week, and have them play through a few sketches I've started; hearing them play through them was such a clarifying experience - their feedback really helped to give me direction in where this piece needs to go and how it should be organized. They both have a deep understanding of their instruments, and have a lot of useful insight on what their personal limitations are compared to standard players. 

I've always found that working with performers from this stage really enhances their connection to your music, and only increases your own understanding of the work and your relationship with the performers. If possible, I hope to always work this way.

Electro-Acoustic Scottish-Inspired Incidental Music

I've actually been using a lot of trash sounds for samples.
Robin came into the studio to help me record a few weeks ago,
 and this was the aftermath for the sample named:
"Box o' Trash - Dump."
I was graced with an offer to compose some incidential and ambient music for the Indiana University Department of Theatre, Dance, and Drama's production of Macbeth for their official 2015-2016 season! The director, David Koté, directed my opera (Thump) last semester, so it was wonderful to have the opportunity to work with him again. 

This is my first time writing music for this type of performance. They've asked for a combination of pre-recorded samples and electronic sounds, so it's a great opportunity for me to work on sound design and production. I get to work with their sound designer, and I found out we can have up to sixteen channels to work with, so I've been really excited to get going on this project. This week I've been going through the play trying to figure out what moods need to be set between scenes, guess at which scenes might need sounds and figure out the best way to start making some samples for our final design meeting next week. 

The first design meetings were really interesting for me - I've been involved with theatre pretty intimately before as a stage tech, pit performer, actress, and eventually as an opera composer, but it has been eye-opening to attend these meetings. You really don't understand the extent to which every part of the production needs to be in conversation with one another - the extent of how collaborative live theatre really is. With so many moving parts, it's nothing short of a miracle how well these productions end up coming together.

Guest Composer Visit - Bernard Rands

Bernard Rands visited IU this week (for what he told me was probably the seventh or eighth time!) to give lectures, lessons, and have a few of his works performed by the New Music Ensemble. His lecture to the composition studio on Monday night was rather inspiring - he shared quite a bit of his own music, and also spoke on some larger issues for composers today. One of his observations that really struck a chord with me (no pun intended) was regarding the centrality of timbre in 20th century music. He said something to the effect of "It doesn't matter if you play Mozart on a piano or on a violin - it's going to sound like Mozart," but that "this is not the case with music in the twentieth-century" because timbre, orchestration, color, are all "essential, defining characteristics of this music." It was something I had long observed, but had never been able to quite put into words before. It certainly gave me pause this week as I went back to my composing - I kept asking myself What about this music is innately me? Would this sound as much like me if these instruments were different? How strong are my ideas without timbre? Does it matter?

While I didn't personally have a lesson with him, as one of the electronics assistants to the New Music Ensemble, I was able to observe how he functioned in rehearsals as the group prepared his music. If anything, I think watching an older composer in a rehearsal is probably one of the most telling environments for a composer's personality and musical values -- how does the composer treat the musicians? If time is limited, what essential points does this composer choose to make? Does the composer approach the conductor or address the ensemble as a whole? How does the composer's reactions as he listens differ from the feedback they give to the group?

It seems a bit silly, but I really felt like Bernard Rands is what the actor, Michael Cane, would portray as a composer. I found Rands to be a very amicable rehearsalist - while sometimes he'd quickly flip back in the score and look a bit disconcerted, any comments he made to the ensemble were respectful, succinct, and specific. When working with the solo pianist, he didn't hesitate to walk up to the performer and speak intimately about the music; he praised the pianist's artistry in the same breath he asked for a technical adjustment, and the performer responded very well to these statements. Rands seemed very comfortable and affirming towards the performers in both rehearsal and reception settings, even though his personality is a bit more reserved in general.
Composing ProTip #7: Composing
by a window gives the illusion
of being connected to the outside
world, while never having
to actually deal with it.

I was able to speak with Rands briefly at a reception following the concert; before I even really spoke with him, he turned to me and said "...and thank you for all of your hard work with your moving crew! I really appreciated that." Not many composers (or performers, really) would actually remember who was moving equipment around, let alone take the time to thank them for doing so; it spoke a lot to his character that he did so. We chatted about IU and he was especially complimentary of the opera production IU did for him a few years ago; he is a thankful person, and I'm convinced that this thankfulness is a big key to his success.


A lot of projects and studying to catch up on this weekend - sometimes when I have this much to do I give myself a "hermit weekend" and turn my phone and internet off for big blocks of time so I can really focus in on everything I have to do. It's incredible what one can accomplish in such conditions - you don't look at your phone or check any messages, because you know that you'll get to it when the time comes. Hopefully I'll still have time to get out and enjoy some of this beautiful fall weather!!