Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Your composing correspondent has been preoccupied in a backbreaking position, engraving by hand the final portion of his saxophone quartet. Previously fond of a text-interface, open source engraver, he found proportional notation and 50-year-old special symbols to be insurmountable obstacles in the program and fell back on a steady hand and fine pencil.

I've been taken in by a 1968 Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, American premiere recording of Penderecki's Capriccio for Violin and Orchestra. Soloist Paul Zukopsky projects a sublime sound full of that unconventional tension, an energetic signature of the composer. I haven't quite found another to match it but will seek new recordings with open ear.

Saturday, December 25, 2010


There's little more important to my art than expression valued. Thank you for showing your appreciation by contributing.

Having completed a procession, young men cooperate to set down a great Balinese funeral tower for cremation. Photo Credit: Robert Kevess

Friday, December 10, 2010

in which there are No Women

American Composers Forum just hosted a master class this afternoon at International House on UPenn campus. Vincent Royer gave an astonishing lecture and demo of spectral viola music and Alex Waterman followed with his take on exploring extended technique by controlling "risky" sounds like harmonics with changing partials, wolf tones (inaccurate, but check out the similarity between mute and eliminator), and flutter fingering*. Not only was it inspiring and educational, a wealth for my ears, but I will never hear and touch my violin the same way again. Five stars on content, four on presentation.

Ready for the two-star part?

As the title indicates, all the organizers, participants, and guests were men. Most were white; the three student composers whose works were read were white and Japanese. I'm glad they were there, but it doesn't temper my disappointment that a socially progressive-branded organization like ACF failed to attract a more diverse audience. The timing was problematic and likely a function of when the guests were available before a show tonight: early Friday afternoon during finals. If it were my event, I would have explicitly invited women and composers of color at least to find out why they couldn't participate.

Another administrative discomfiture for me started the moment I walked in the master class and worsened as the program progressed. No one clued me in on what was going on when the program didn't start until 15 mins after the advertised time; participants trickled in silently and eventually, after I wandered out and in again, James introduced himself to check me off the guest list. There were no more than ten participants but there was no attempt to invite conversation or even to introduce the student composers. Maybe I'm spoiled from my time at piano master classes and Rob Kyr's composer symposium, but at a master class I expect copies of scores for the audience to follow along. This was a prime opportunity for young composers to support one another, and it could have used more facilitation.

It's unfair to compare my story to the experience of women in male-dominated fields and a sexist world. I'm sharing it simply to emphasize the perilous state in which I find arts participation. What is at stake when we create environments over and over wherein a female** participant looks around and sees only men? In middle school, I had a passion for engineering: building model boats and carbon dioxide canister race cars, power tools, lots of moving and clicking parts. My two male teachers were ecstatic about my progress and encouraged me to join the technology club. I loved it until, insecure as I had become about fitting in, I looked around the club and suddenly realized there were only boys. I never went back, and to this day, I don't know how to wire a light switch. How powerful that fear of stigma must have been to turn me away from an instinctive creative practice!

* I forget the foreign term he used for this method of producing a flutter of artificial harmonics.
** Or any oppressed group

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Henryk Gorecki, in memory

Polish composer Henryk Gorecki, whose composition Symphony of Sorrowful Songs brought him to international attention, passed away last month of a chronic lung infection. He would have turned 77 yesterday. He is buried in Slaskie Voivodeship, Poland.

The Symphony, whose 1992 recording by Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta first exposed the composer to fame outside his home country, is heartbreaking. It is a must-listen; the simplicity of the musical style, effective selection of texts, and elegant congruity consume me on every hearing.

Gorecki composed primarily for voice but few of his works have passed into popular circulation as Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. It is among the masterpieces of the 20th century, and I commemorate this master.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Music pedagogy and institutional oppression

When I recently picked up my violin for the first time in 11 years, I didn't expect it would trigger memories of being lost and isolated in high school orchestra. I was a composer, I didn't care what others might think of sounds of my exploration, and my college musical training had given me the ears I needed to find pitches and tune strings. But today I was struck by how persistent I must have been and how deeply music moved me at a time when I had so little support, indeed, so much silencing in artistic development.

Like most middle- and upper-class children of Chinese immigrants, I was sent to weekly piano lessons from an early age. My parents were on the lower end of middle back then, so I was ten before I had my first lesson. My mother chose Chinese teachers, as is the custom among other families she knew. Mine were strict, emotionally withdrawn, and sometimes a parent would sit and watch the lesson to offer criticism afterward. I'm staying away from the topic of misguidance among Chinese parents in starting their kids (1) at the piano (2) with traumatized members of the post-Cultural Revolution deposed bourgeoisie. While I learned to push buttons and roughly read music in two clefs, I retained almost nothing of theory and never witnessed improvisation or composition/arrangement.

At the same time, I took bare bones violin lessons in grade school with rented instruments that allowed me to perform with the orchestras in middle and high schools. I took practicing seriously, though it seemed clear there were talented, well-trained young musicians in the orchestra and I was not one of them. Often the parts were beyond my training and I even took to asking for the second violin part, which I could at least reach. Beyond that pathetic accommodation the conductor paid me no heed.

I should have learned then that the norm for classical or art music leaders is a cold, impersonal authority figure who doesn't care to nurture or figure out what a child has to offer the art; rather, he judges how she might fit into the institution. That's how musicians get emotionally and physically injured: we love the art so far beyond support in our training that we put our real lives and bodies at stake. To protect myself, I should have quit music altogether, but I didn't know a self worth protecting; by instinct, it was my only outlet during a tough time.

In spring of my senior year in high school, I was crippled with pain in my hands and arms so I curled up and wept on days that I practiced. I had quit the orchestra and banished myself, in teen angst, to the solitude of the piano. Medical specialists diagnosed me with overuse tendonitis and put me in PT. They made me stop playing for four months, then with time limits and brutally painful icing before and after. Still, I could barely turn a key in a lock. The field of medicine also produces authorities who impose their will without attempting to understand reality.

The revelation that music can be a healing art came when I started college and an attentive and informed pianist sent me to Susan Nowicki. After my first lesson with her, I never had pain again. Of course I studied with her through college. Not only did she help me unlearn and relearn technique so I worked with human physiology instead of fantasy, she demonstrated a caring and judicious approach to teaching that opened to me a world of health and musical expression. (I have to stop when it hurts? I can change how I move so it never hurts again? I can access the sounds I want by controlling touch?) I have little doubt that without this training I would not have studied music and ultimately come to compose. Indeed, practice in facilitating a healthy relationship between my body and what I do helped me to survive gender transition in an essentialist society.

I don't think I can assault the norm of authoritarian music teacher much more in one post, but to add one more twist to the handle: I detest race and gender lines in music teaching. That a teacher who nurtures, encourages, and coaxes students doesn't get far among Chinese parents because she's seen as lazy or incapable; that men have to assert authority in their subject and mustn't waver in their professional demeanor to be helpful to a struggling student; that although many master artists in every discipline were openly gay, teachers rarely appropriately discuss it with today's generation of queer and questioning young artists -- these are counterproductive agents in our art culture that perpetuate oppression in America.

We all harbor these prejudices as graduates and participants of this culture. We need to identify the problem openly so we can change our unhealthy practices. What do we need to start sharing and learning from these experiences?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Balinese gamelan concert Sunday

To tell you the truth, I walked out of my first gamelan concert but gradually fell irrevocably in love with it. Not to worry -- we'll demonstrate how it's put together and afterwards you can ask me about how Indonesian music showed me the way to my own Chinese heritage. Spend a few moments trying out the instruments after the show!

Philadelphia area listeners: Come and be dazzled by vibrant, refined dances and glittering bronze music rich in rhythms and fluctuating energy. This semester we are premiering a new version of our teacher's Prayer for Peace and performing some of our favorite traditional pieces.

Swarthmore College Lang Concert Hall
3pm December 5
Families welcome
Free and open to the public

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

gamelan and taiko

Fantastic news: my workshop on different Asian and Asian American voices, funded by the Leeway Foundation, will be presented at the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia on Saturday, March 26.

Taiko artist Joe Small and I will play a new work-in-progress for gamelan and taiko. We'll also present samples of our independent work. The workshop focuses on our stories of discovery and cultural exchange in pursuing our arts in Asia and America as outsiders and its impact on our values and identities. It will culminate in a loud, hands-on demo.

Mark your calendars and keep an eye out for a complete announcement.

Monday, November 22, 2010

NNM Trade Winds from Tibet concert review

Yesterday I demonstrated the simultaneous colander-like aspect of my memory and ability to delight in new music. It's a good life when I can rehearse in gamelan, start learning a new piece, get an hour ahead of schedule, and still make it to a pre-concert talk. I paid attention, too, until after the concert I was rather speechless for words. I'll explain.

Network for New Music, one of my favorite chamber groups in the world, commissioned several pieces from white composers* using field recordings of sacred and folk Tibetan songs as a prompt. Last night's concert was the first in a series of Asian-focused new music from NNM this season. In the pre-concert talk, composer Andrea Clearfield, whose field recordings sparked the commission, and anthropologist Katie Blumenthal gave a brief introduction to their work in Lo Monthang, and NNM artistic director and pianist Linda Reichert facilitated. Composer Eric Moe added his perspective in creating one of the commissioned works.

As you may remember from my last post, my trigger point in Western presentations of culture from the East and global South is in the simultaneous elevation of the subject to the sublime and the demotion of its human constituents to the inaccessibly different. Too often I hear from self-proclaimed [insert your Asian or Middle Eastern]-philes signs of Orientalism, not in direct dismissal of a people's ability to construct their own narrative, but in generalizing, patronizing terms they would never apply to a Western people. And just as oppressive is the practice of "natives" -- immigrants like myself included -- in adopting this dominant stereotype of who and why we are. So of course I had to ask about these women's experience of Otherness both as rare white visitors and how their own perspectives toward Asians changed as they learned more and built relationships on numerous journeys. I was at once relieved and disappointed to hear a language of mixed results, doubt, and uncertainty -- that's also my reality -- and deliberate efforts at collaboration, power sharing, and invitation. You can read about their documentation project on Ms Blumenthal's blog.

The venue was the Ethical Society's hall at Rittenhouse Square. It was a central location and the intimate space was perfect for the nuances of the chamber program. The show appeared sold out to a predominantly older white audience and handful of poc and student types.

Tony Solitro's short piece Passages for alto flute, violin, and cello evoked a woody feel with strong rhythmic presentation. By woody I mean strenuous but simple strokes in rhythmic unison interspersed by short, lyrical passages alternating with the percussive texture. I wasn't sure about form but enjoyed the rhythmic world.

Eric Moe's Spirit Mountain delighted me with great accents, pairing combinations of flute, oboe/EH, bassoon, piano, and single percussion. A memorable pairing was onset-accents of oboe phrases by off-pitch flute notes, which sounded cool over percussion hand-drumming.

The audience loved Clearfield's Kawa Ma Gyur and Lung-Ta, both for tape and chamber ensemble. I wrote the composer an email with detailed feedback about my hearing, but in short, they were powerful pieces, complex, organically undulating in mood, and rhythmically compelling. Disclaimer: rhythmic syncopation is my fix. [Edit: apparently my notes were disorganized. In addition to Western ensemble the first piece called for a pair of dung chen, long bronze horns of indefinite or varying pitch, whose tones appeared also early on in the tape, in alternation with the chamber group.] Most memorable about the first is the way it fades out: more and more of the ensemble switch from ordinary playing techniques to clapping, the cellist first rapping the side of the instrument's body with the knuckles, then whispering rhythmically, always syncopated in patterns reminiscent of interlocking, decrescendo into nothing.

The second of her works featured last night was most complex, a through-composed interpretation of a Tibetan prayer for peace. It's scored for flute/alto, oboe/EH, clarinet, bassoon/cbsn, violin, viola, cello, and percussion. I especially appreciated the way upward-bending approaches to overlapping sustained notes among the chamber instruments were like many dung chen sounding. Later, soft homophonic strings and reeds made an accordion-like texture. My notes are disorganized, so I'll have to confirm when I can steal a peek at the score, but I believe there were two notable loud sections, one in thunderous agitation involving a conch-like instrument, a siren-like horn, and four bead drum toys played by the front row at a signal; another folksy, rambunctious, and with heavy drumming as the ensemble accelerated into chaos.

I found her use of tape especially effective, enriching the chamber ensemble's sound world but not weirding it out. With extended techniques, the composition transitioned fluently in and out of them so they fit, and when the group quieted, the tape showed through gently, now men chanting prayers, now the swells of distant dung chen in its context of drums and gongs.

After this wealth of music I was yet left yearning for more, encores even, yes, with scores to follow along. The concert lasted two hours with extra time for setup before the larger pieces, but I was eager for more music. Unfortunately an encore was not to be had, and I attempted to switch into social mode to congratulate the players and composers and remark to strangers and acquaintances how delightful it had been in a comprehensible manner. Next time I had better recognize the impossibility of this feat and go home forthwith.

A younger member of the audience asked in Q&A how off-pitches are treated in a theory of Tibetan music, whether they are systematized approaches to main pitches (as in Indian raga) or ornaments, or part of a microtonal scale. Ms Blumenthal pointed out no such formal theory exists to her knowledge. My question would be, what is the significance of that? It's not our job as Western musicians to simulate a theory or encourage these musicians to make one up to suit our intellectual habit. Then what do we need to understand about the function and history of this music to advance our awareness of the cultural practice?

*I've been promised music from Asian and Asian American composers in upcoming programs, though my response to it cannot be similarly predicted.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The weekend of the Muse

This weekend has been full of music. I've been taking advantage of resources (practice rooms, music library, better speakers than at home) at my alma mater since coming back to the Philadelphia area a year ago. Indeed, it's been one year since my return to the familiar but ugly coast. Okay, maybe it's not the definition of ugly, but to name the West Coast beautiful, there must be a relative term.

I got to campus yesterday morning to catch the Chester Children's Chorus rehearsals. Check out the website -- this is an admirable project worth all the money you can fork over. It's always wonderful to watch John Alston rehearse, whether it's the college choir or jazz band or choir orchestra. But with this giant mix of loud, hyper kids from 3rd grade to high school another world emerges: to the untrained eye (I have no experience with children) John seems a ceaseless blur of motion, direction, humorous and severe admonition, metaphor, age-appropriate discipline, all fleeting but omnipresent. And the children responded; despite their distractable, raucous default they read, retained, sang their hearts into harmonious, living sound. Their hard work and purpose touched me deeply.

Last night, the Alumni Council hosted its first Student and Alumni Composers Concert. An alum and student gave Microtures for viola and piano its second performance. Not so covetous of a repeat performance, I let go much control and let these young but seasoned performers have at it. No regrets: I liked it again. That is, I had felt some embarassment for its rough sloppiness, thinking some of its material and energy good for a "real" piece, but found confidence and fresh pleasure on this hearing. I was reluctant to mention in my address to the audience my plan to develop Microtures into a new piece for fear of drawing bad luck with attention. It slipped -- opposite from my performers, I'm a wreck onstage -- and now I have to do it.

Listing, never mind reviewing, all the pieces on this program would make your eyes skip over this post. At least half the concert was contemporary composition from a classical background, and there were many other genres and film media included. A decent size audience included current students and youth with their families. Four pieces called for string quartet (SQ), commentworthy not only because of the favorite instrumentation. These seniors learned a respectable amount of repertoire and premiered it with remarkable sound and poise.

Gabriel Riccio used extended techniques for SQ to add bite to a fun movement called Interruptions. Grinding cello bowing and clever rhythmic syncopations bought me on this one. Tasty.

James Matheson, who followed up the concert with a master class for current student composers this morning, wrote a raucous and restrained piano 6-hand, On Spaces. I'm sure I've heard this piece before; it is framed in a memorable series of irregular, deafening unison six-hand chords. Its use of unison and sudden rests that cut off rock-out runs makes for fun listening and playing. The master class reinforced my faith in the feedback circle. Composers have a lot to say to one another, and for some of us, the way a feedback circle illuminates listener responses lets us help each other better than in a master-student dynamic. A power dynamic that isn't explicitly negotiated can be silencing for everyone.

A country style song by Lisa Wildman caught everyone's attention. It's a little piece of satire from her band entitled "God Bless America, Cold Beer to Go." Go listen to them.

I was impressed by Dan Kurz's SQ No. 2 in two movements. The composition moves between delicate moments with sensitivity. The fast-moving counterpoint was a bit too deliberate. I want the score for this one.

After, I wondered where Swarthmore's classical style women and genderqueer composers are. Change needs to happen here, loud enough to crack barriers. Sure, the masters are men, for example the teacher here. What are other barriers? I reject the suggestion that women composers turned into men; if they did, they also turned away from composing. And, hello, people of color? Not that I mind being surrounded by male peers, many of whom openly identify as gay or queer. I just won't consent silently in a system that appropriates people of less privilege to performer roles or excludes them entirely.

Silence means...

Meaningful silence was a concept Tan Dun attempted to capture in his Circle with Four Trios, Conductor and Audience, the feature work of Orchestra 2001's Chinese Visions concert today. Musically it was a captivating enough piece, but I don't think he used silence as effectively as some artists before him. It just wasn't enough for me today to watch a conductor beating the air. I'll comb through past programs when I get back to CT for examples. Maybe I just missed all the concepts because I didn't research the composer. (Bad scholar. No diploma for me.)

His Concerto for SQ and Pipa on the same program was much cooler. These days, I get so nervous at the suggestion of mixing Western and non-Western, but particularly Asian music and culture, that my stomach clenches*, even when we're talking about a Chinese native composer working in European genres. Today, though, I enjoyed the way Tan Dun mixed Western contemporary style with Chinese traditional pipa music, especially molding the SQ sound with pipa techniques and gestures like the flat-handed slap to stop all the strings against the fingerboard. The Adagio movement opens smoothly from a pipa ornament with a quote from a Bach prelude, astonishing in tonal contrast yet with a soft, broad-brushed mood. I found passages of metric and temporal non-synchronicity between parts especially effective. A common danger in using adventurous style or instrumentation is to be shocked by the logistics out of musical expression; the piece would have been pure delight but for a moment in a fast repetitive part that fell rather flat on my ears, like the players were working hard rather than playing. I was impressed by the din of five players and conductor shouting -- din occupies a social need in Asian and Middle Eastern cultures missing from mainstream American culture. All these languages include words for din indicative of its function: in Mandarin it's warmth-agitate. In Indonesian, lonely and quiet are the same word.

I've always found my music education a quite lonely, uphill battle. Walking through the Crum Woods midst all this creativity, I heard the sections of an orchestra in tangible textures. For the first time, the timbres felt real within my grasp. My gratitude to the Muse.

* I'm guilty. Contemporary composers can't help it; indeed, it's beautiful to have non-Western influences in one's ear. It's not mixed style music itself. I'm concerned about Orientalism. Misunderstanding deeply troubles me, so I must stress that finding lack of awareness of cultural contexts and of racial stereotype (positive and negative) in art and among artists and their admirers sickens me. My sense of guilt as a participant hurts me with the very anticipation of encountering it in others. I hope that sharing my struggle with awareness helps others confront their own assumptions. Please comment here or by email.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Ear to the Earth: environment and electronic music

Yesterday I visited an ongoing exhibit near New York Chinatown, A Soundmap of the Housatonic River by Annea Lockwood. It was commissioned by the Housatonic River Museum in Massachusetts and included in a water-focused festival jointly produced by Electronic Music Foundation and Ear to the Earth. The festival treats water as a natural resource rather than artistic content. The exhibit especially affected me because of my passion for environmental conservation and background in analysis of proposed utility projects (think high-voltage transmission lines).

While waiting for someone to meet me there, I sat and listened to about 30 mins of the hour-long piece. There were four speakers set at the corners of a square in a tiny white gallery space with three chairs facing the same direction in the middle. A shaded relief map of the river with locations keyed to landmarks, dates, and times was installed on the facing wall. A digital time display served as counter so the observer could track the recording.

All the sound I heard was from field recordings, faded and arranged digitally. For the first 15 mins or so, the sound was all "natural" -- although the river undoubtedly attracted civilization and industry, a random sample, which is all a visitor can be expected to stay for, would most likely be gurgling and birdsong, no human noise.

The portrayal of "nature" as romantic, pure, and pristine troubles me because it alienates people. This image insists we are no part of the environment. I believe we are necessarily part of it, interdependent. Sure, there's charm and mystery in the world around us. But to make real, considered choices, we must emphasize and value our impacts on and interaction with this environment. To portray a river in civilization as gurgling and birdsong would be stifling, boring, ineffective.

So I was delighted suddenly to hear the violent, repeated roar of automobiles over the covered bridge at West Cornwall, then a more gentle motorcycle shifting again and again, replaced quickly by the solitary, irregular drilling of a woodpecker quite like a conventional wood block, all over the nuanced, running water. Yes, Lockwood focused on the non-human sounds along the river, taking samples at remote locations and early hours of the day; but she treated human sounds with care, preparing the ear and then recovering with taste and space for afterthought. Mine was: what a perfect motorcycle crossing, still invasive, alone, like the bird, amoral, inevitable. A moving transition.

My rendezvous never showed, but it was a lovely meditation for me. If you have a chance to stop by 153-1/2 Stanton St in NYC by next Thursday, please take a moment's shelter from the uninterpreted urban environment.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


The National Park Service hosts artist residencies at quite a few parks. While only half are open to composers, and none provide much more than a space and access to a stream of enthusiastic visitors, the idea of being mostly alone in a cabin all winter surrounded by the grand canyon excites me. I plan to spend most of the warm months gardening next year, but surely by September I'll be free to get back into wilderness.

How has your environment, natural or academic or urban, driven your work?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

When is it done?

A few days ago I visited this artist to preview his Open Studio exhibit in San Francisco (I would be traveling during the opening).

I noticed his works referred more to the human figure than a couple years before as a result of a figures class he took. He explained figure drawing can be challenging for many because of the body and identity issues it accesses on top of the silencing imposed on art in childhood. The flip side is the visual power of figure.

While showing me one work, he pulled out the "studies" or sketches that had led to it and indicated parts of the "study" that were left out of this work but that he may reuse in a new one. We went on to discuss how we know intuitively when a piece is (un)finished and whether we care how viewers experience it, e.g. in a gallery, displayed over a mantle or stairs or sealed in a box in the attic.

Friday's concert invoked this topic again when I heard an uncomfortably long, slow solo piano piece by Jason Hoopes that finally exploded into vivid range contrasts in that minimalist way; when asked, he laughed that he didn't care how listeners audited it, e.g. in part, as background noise, or in concert as collective captives.

As I explore these questions of triggers, completion, and presentation in my works in progress, I realize my perspective changes as dramatically as that of the meaning of past experiences, where I am in my life, and what I seek from people around me. Maybe it's a sign that rather than hiding in art, I've made it interchangeable with my life and self, but it sure makes it hard to finish a work in progress.

Monday, October 11, 2010

a fine premiere

I just experienced one of the most sublime features of being a composer.

The rehearsal and premiere of Night No. 2 at Berkeley Espresso was such a treat. I wrote it in relatively conventional fashion, for precise execution in a controlled sound environment (a concert hall) by trained musicians. What I heard confirms this is the first piece I've written without a mentor's input that I still like. The recording is on its way.

Other pieces in the concert included a beautiful violin and piano duet by Dan Becker and a fall-down-laughing two piano four hands by Ian Dicke, a kind of jazz meets minimalism in virtuosi.

On the way home from San Francisco I detoured to the Ch'an Meditation Center in Queens, where I enjoyed a talk on the four phenomena of self, lunch, and a long service on the Great Compassion Repentance. There is a remarkable section in the middle of this slowly sung service featuring a long mantra repeated at great speed and without pause 14 times. Its rhythm is shaped with nonsensical syllables somewhat like onomatopoeia in distinctly irregular lines; the repetitions draw it out to incomprehensible length. It was beautiful, though jeweled flowers didn't fall from the heavens as the coda indicates.

I was hardly expecting minimalist choral music flawlessly performed in the middle of service.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Letting go of control in a busy life

A week will be a short visit to my old home, the SF Bay. In addition to a concert (the first to include my music on the west coast) I have arranged meetings with potential performers for my longest and yet unread piece, seasons. Wish me luck!

I've also touched base with an independent New York City-based composer group that sounds a potential match for experimentation and feedback sharing. I realize I'm spending a lot of time traveling and trying out new groups and venues while the taiko-gamelan piece is backlogged, but I'm realizing my major illnesses in the past two years arose from high-stress lifestyles where I not only tried to do too much but mentally punished myself. Instead of stressing myself out, I am experimenting with letting go of certain elements of control.

I have my friend Gregory Holt to thank for thinking through this concept. In school, we learned to make pieces by controlling every sound or gesture, but while he's gone on to compose concepts, I've wrestled with the presence of the space and audience -- factors that traditionally aren't considered part of the piece. The last time I let go of an arduous task and let the moment occupy me, the solution gradually approached and walked onto my lap. I left Emerald Earth Sanctuary after a week with the plan I needed and a minimum of struggle!

The contemporary pianist group New Keys will premiere my song Night #2 at Berkeley Espresso, a musical setting of a blog entry made at a cafe. I look forward to sharing a bit of oblique comedy for open ears. Please spread the word!

Details follow.

Friday, Oct 8 2010 8:00 PM

San Francisco Conservatory of Music
50 Oak Street, San Francisco

New Keys; newfangled music for the piano, now in its 7th season, showcases compositions by upcoming composers from across the country. Next concert date is Friday, October 8, 2010 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (50 Oak Street, SF), in the Recital Hall. This concert will feature works by: Dan Becker, Ian Dicke, Jason Hoopes, Qian Li, Maggi Payne, Anthony Porter and Nicholas White.

There is a suggested donation of $15 but no one is turned away for lack of funds!

Visit the New Keys website for more info: www.newkeysconcert.org.
Cost : $15, no one turned away for lack of funds

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Improvisation and ownership

I had a long discussion with a choreographer friend about caveats of the spectrum of composer vs. performer musical contribution to a piece. Dance is typically unwritten and requires choreographer coaching from start to finish; music in the classical tradition is typically scored so the composer's presence is superfluous until the final stages of rehearsal, and is never required. But even a through-composed piece requires the performer to put herself into the piece; one that requires greater degrees of improvisation is only asking a certain kind of performer, i.e. one prepared to improvise, to put more of himself into the piece.

So what determines whether a piece is the composer's, and how do individual performers define and enforce their thresholds for their original contribution? These answers inform how I instruct performers to improvise.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Art or Science?

The Exploratorium's approach to learning and teaching made me wonder if that's the way I want to take my music. I want to share the excitement of discovering how things work musically in a way that leaves one questioning if it's art or science, though while one is excited in the act of exploring, that's the last question one is interested in.

For example, I've learned that there's no sound in a vacuum because molecules aren't there to bump into one another. The Exploratorium has a vacuum chamber with a bell inside; there's also a fan pointed at a tiny flag. You press a button to ring the bell (no sound) and the fan is running but the flag is still. You hold another button to pump air into the chamber slowly, and as the flag flutters more and more the clanging gets louder!

It's deeply appealing to a common human instinct to manipulate our surroundings and find patterns. This is teaching at its best. Then why not bring each other to apply curiosity to art?