Wednesday, November 7, 2007


Carnegie. Remember the first time you played there?

"Yeah. It was the last."

Do you remember the last time you played Elizabeth Hall?

"Yeah. It was the first."

Some rooms are cozy. Some chilly, drafty, open, or poorly lit

Rarely nicely lit

But when you come right down to wit

They're all just rooms.

Some rooms have views,

views to the future, even.

Some do not..

You have to see the future,


Have your own view of it

make rooms for it,

or just a room,

cozy, well-lit, or not…

Purview, or Pay-Per-View -

But make a room.

And make up my room while you're at it!

Friday, October 26, 2007

living the dream

Many years ago I performed a piece of music, written by a good friend of mine, called "Satie Dream".

I remember liking the piece, but finding it hard to understand and learn to do. It was a very strange piece, hard to assimilate. But something about it has stayed with me.

Today I remembered something Satie said, quoted in a book of his letters. He said "It's odd. You find people in every bar willing to offer you a drink. No one ever dreams of presenting you with a sandwich."

In my Satie Dream, I present you with a sandwich.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007


It goes without saying that every composer wants name recognition. So there, I said it anyway, and I'll say it again. Every composer wants name recognition. It's good for your career. In fact, without at least some name recognition, you don't actually have a career. Not as a composer anyway.

Like some composers, some animals have name recognition too. But it's a little different. The idea for composers is to have other people recognize their names.

"Oh, John Adams. Yes, I've heard of him. He's the only composer in Alaska."

"No, that's the other John Adams. John Luther Adams. He lives in Alaska. I was referring to the real John Adams."

Both composers have a certain amount of name recognition, but one of them has a whole lot more than the other. The same could be said for John Lennon. No, not the first dead Beatle. John Anthony Lennon, new music composer.

The idea with animals is that they recognize their own names. Your cat Fluffums has never heard of either John Adams. But Fluffums recognizes his own name when you talk to him. Maybe not when someone else does, but any dog or cat owner (I don't know about snakes or goldfish) will assure you that their pet recognizes its name. But if you have more than one dog or cat, you also know that you speak to each one a little differently. It's not just their name they recognize, but how you say it. This is kind of a musical thing. The pitch and inflection and other nuances are part of what the animals recognize. In fact, maybe that's all they really do recognize. I don't know for sure.

Sometimes animals get named after composers. I don't know why that is; I don't think names of famous composers (i.e. those with a lot of name recognition) make good names for pets. But there is a movie about a dog named Beethoven. And I recently met a dog named Sibelius. Not good pet names. But if pets can have famous composer names, why shouldn't famous composers have "pet names"?

So, let's play a game shall we? We'll call it "Name the Composer".

Here are the names of six contemporary American composers with a significant quantity of name recognition (for contemporary composers, that is; they're not exactly household words):

Philip Glass

Joan Tower

Aaron Jay Kernis

Augusta Read Thomas

John Harbison

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

And here are six popular names for pets :







All you have to do to play is match each pet name to a composer. Use each name only once. Once you've matched up the names, say each one out loud, and find that special musical nuance, that cute voice, that particular inflection that goes with each name, just as if each composer were one of your pets.

That's all there is to it. Now, whenever you hear that composer's name, think of them as you would your pet, and say their "secret name", out loud, or to yourself.

Of course these names are just suggestions to get you started. You can make your own lists, and make as many composer/pet name combinations as you like.

If this idea catches on, maybe we can start up some composer rescue programs and composer shelters. Jack Vees has suggested a composers petting zoo. I like that idea.


I haven't done much electronic music, and what I have done is not anything I could say I am known for, if I am known for anything at all.

My introduction to electronic music was during my freshman year in college. I took a class that included the Moog modular synthesizer – the kind used by Wendy Carlos, when she was still Walter, on the album Switched On Bach - with a very nice gentleman by the name of Leslie Kleen.

One day I got very excited when I accidentally stumbled onto the fact that you could pretty much haphazardly connect a bunch of patch cords into the various voltage controlled modules, and the Moog would take over and do these long, crazy loops. I had a real nice one going, very hypnotic and seductive – and something I could not have foreseen or deliberately come up with on my own – so I immediately started the Revox and got a full reel of it on tape.

Not long after that Dr. Kleen gave us an assignment for our final exam. I don't recall all the parameters or requirements, but we had to produce some kind of studio piece using things we had learned and worked with in class.

I thought "Hah, I've already got my piece finished. No sweat". Then Kleen went on to say "But you can't just plug a bunch of patch cords into the Moog and let it loop. Everyone stumbles onto that right away".


So I had to come up with something from scratch. I think mine was a musique concrete tape piece, with reverb used to the extreme, almost as an instrument in itself, not an enhancement. I recall getting a good grade, with Dr. Kleen remarking on the effective use of reverb.

That was my last foray into the realm of electronic music for probably the next twenty years or so, other than building a few ring modulators and other effects to use with instruments in performance. I didn't do studio pieces – and still don't. But I digress…

Anyway, I heard a lot of electronic music when I was in grad school, most of it done live on Serge modular synths. The thing about the Serges was that everyones' was different. Some guys were way into pulse generators, whereas someone else might need a larger filter bank. In effect, everybody using a Serge built their own instrument. But to be hip, to be in the club and have any respect, you couldn't label anything. You were supposed to know what everything was, and if you had to label any module you were a total loser. But my real point is, the music was loud.

Okay, not Butthole Surfers loud. I heard the Buttholes twice, and standing in the back of the hall with ear plugs it still felt like getting punched in the chest every time the drummer played the kick. It was LOUD. I also heard Cage's Lecture On the Weather, accompanied by Marianne Amache's recording of a thunder storm. Just setting up and sound checking she blew out two or three sets of JBLs. She wanted it REAL LOUD, and it was hard to find gear that would stand up to her demands. But once they worked it out, it was like being in the middle of that storm, awesome. Then there was the time I heard Zorn at Harvard, with Bill Frisell and some other guitarist. They were all playing through Twins, turned up to 11. That's the loudest thing I ever heard, so loud there was no music discernable to my ear. I haven't heard anything by Zorn that I much care for, but I couldn't say for sure whether I might have liked that set or not. It was so loud I couldn't hear it. It was, in my assessment, deliberately confrontationally loud, a way to see how quickly he could clear the room. People were leaving in droves, if only to save their hearing (some of us would like to be able to listen to music for the rest of our natural lives). I'd say that was too loud, beyond what any music requires. My point is I've heard some real loud music. But I digress…

What I'm getting at is that a lot of the electronic music I heard in grad school I quite liked, and most of it was pretty damn loud. It sounded good loud, and I liked it that way. It was like, hey, the stuff is amplified and coming out of loudspeakers, maybe it's meant to be a bit louder than what you can do with only instruments, even a whole orchestra.

So anyway, several years ago I was performing on a concert of (mostly) live electronic music. And it was all so polite. So gentle, so peaceful. And so quiet. And so not interesting. Not only was it not loud, it wasn't noisy either. Electronic music is mostly done with computers now, and it seems to me that the Holy Grail of these laptop composers is to create the cleanest noise possible. Sorry guys, I like REAL noise. Give me a Big Muff anytime. Hell, just plug it in and you've got some real noise without even putting a signal in it. Now THAT'S noise. What's this obsession with clean noise anyway? And quiet besides.

So, a while later I happened to cross paths with Barry Schrader, composer of electronic and electro-acoustic music. I said "Barry, didn't electronic music used to be loud? It's all so quiet now."

Barry said "We got smarter".

Sorry, Barry. I liked electronic music better when it was loud. If you want quiet, write for recorder.
And you can keep your clean noise, too. I like mine dirty.


Okay, so once I was playing with a well-known contemporary music ensemble at a major festival in the United States. One of my pieces was on the program. We had a false start because a keyboard wasn't turned on, but once we got that straightened out the performance went very well indeed, and I thought the piece was well received.

So sometime later some friends of mine who are in another very good contemporary music ensemble were having a party. One of the guests in attendance was a woman who had been the Executive Director of the aforementioned Major Festival the year we perfomed my piece. The exact words were never reported to me, but apparently this woman was dissing me in no uncertain terms. She really did not seem to like me.

One of my friends asked her "What's your problem with Mr. Composer Head? I think he's a real nice guy, and a fine composer".

Former Major Festival Executive Director Lady replied "Mr. Composer Head cost me my job. Because of his piece, I was fired".

I'm not sure how that's possible, but that's what she claimed, or so I was told.

So, when was the last time your music cost someone else their job?


A couple of years ago my mom turned 80. (Come to think of it, her 83rd is coming up soon. ) She has, by the way, NEVER taken a prescription drug. She will live to see me buried, I am sure of this. But that's another matter…

Anyway, we had a big party at my brother's place, and many relatives were present. I don't actually know most of my relatives. My dad always insisted that we were a very close family, but I had to question that when I figured out I had uncles that I had never seen face to face, and have cousins my own age that I haven't seen or communicated with since I was five.

But here's what I'm getting at.

My wife is not a very "spiritual" person. She is a Unitarian. That means you don't really committ to any particular belief, although you could if you wanted to. I think she believes in some sort of god though, and her sense of ethics is way beyond reproach. Sometimes it pisses me off. When we travel, she takes all our trash back home so she can recycle it. That's just too righteous for my taste, sorry. Just leave the Pellegrino bottles in the trash please. THEY can recylce them if they are so inclined.

But I digress…

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Actually I am probably the more "spiritual" one of us, in a strange way. I was raised by an Evangelical minister, whose idea of a summer vacation for the family was to drag us all to Bible camp. Can you even begin to imagine just how much that sucks? It truly and surely reeks. It bites. It blows. You never want to go to Bible camp, even if you are a Christian. But I'm getting off topic again.

My point is that my wife has a creedless faith, and I have none, but I know a lot more about faith and creeds and spiritual pathways than she ever will. My "Damascus Road" experience, however, was not what my dad would have liked me to have. I remember the weight, the burden, the onus that suddenly left my weary shoulders and flew away the day I was first able to look at myself in the mirror and say out loud "I am not a Christian". If felt so good, I said it over and over again. "I am not a Christian, I am not a Christian, I am not a Christian".

Then I went a step farther. I realized, fully and truly, that I don' t have to believe in anything. I can if I want to, but I think that real freedom is knowing that you don't owe it to God, your dad, or yourself to commit to a belief of any sort. Frankly, I actually don't care if there is a god or not. It's just not a question that I need answered. If God exists, I would prefer he just leave me alone.

But here's what I'm leading to.

At this party, my wife was playing some music with my niece. My niece is a competent pianist, and my wife is a very fine cellist. My wife brought a bunch of music that she selected because she genuinely respects and honors my mother's Christian faith, and wanted to give her a gift of music that my mom would know and appreciate. And face it kids, there's nothing wrong with the musical quality of traditional "Negro spirituals" even if they don't resonate your own personal faith.

So the cello and piano duo start up Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. One of my brothers, who does believe, just jumped up and went over by my wife and started singing. He was just moved by the spirit to burst out in song. I was so moved by how moved he was that I went and stood next to him, singing in full voice. Then my oldest brother came and joined us. Three brothers, not much faith among them, singing as one, a song that means a lot to one of them, maybe a bit more to the oldest, and very very precious little to me.

But it was the first and only time I have ever raised my voice in song with my two brothers. And you can't buy that kind of experience. Music that just happens, in a moment unplanned, for no real reason except I am not going to miss the chance to sing with my brothers! Hell, we didn't even harmonize. We just sang in unison. And we didn't really know the words, so we just recycled the first verse.

Then we sang Amazing Grace. I hate that song, and I hate what it means. But God, please give me one more chance to sing like that with my brothers. I still won't believe, but I will give thanks.

That was a blessing, and my mom was filled with joy. Not such a bad thing for music to do to a person, or family.


I've never been one for background music, although I like Satie, and even Brian Eno well enough. Although Satie's Furniture Music doesn't really work. At least it didn't at the premiere, where he had to tell people to stop listening and talk and visit. And a lot of Eno is installation, music that you really can walk in and out of, listen as long as you like, or not. It works, because it's made that way on purpose. Most music is not.

Some people can't seem to live without background music, and many are prone to using it in what I consider inappropriate situations. My wife once put on Ives string quartets during a small dinner party. I asked "Honey, what are you thinking?". She said "Everyone here likes this". I like Ives too, a lot - but…

Anyway, I woke up this one morning with a song going through my head, not one of my most favorites, but one I like a lot. So, it wasn't driving me crazy, but it was persistent. I had some work to do, and – uncharacteristically for me – I figured what the hell, if the song wants to be heard that badly I'll put on the record. So I dragged out the vinyl LP and put on Side One, the side with THE SONG on it. Then I went about my work.

Well, what I was doing took me back and forth, back and forth, between the house and the garage. The garage is just off the kitchen, so I could still hear the record, sort of. But I always closed the garage door behind me so as to keep the kitten out of there, so I couldn't "really" hear the music. So the music kept cutting in and out on me, and it was my fault. It was driving me crazy. Just when a great guitar solo would start, I would need a tool.

So, I figured I either had to turn off the record and get back to work, or sit down and listen until the side was over.

The music won out. I listened.