Rant Redux

Several versions of this have appeared on my website over the years. It’s now migrating over to the blog for anyone interested in how I view my musical journey and my thoughts on what keeps composers going in these challenging times. Some of these themes are also addressed on this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPRs4e8LavM&list=PL26AFCF90E51B8838

Many aesthetic currents have passed through America during my lifetime, which places me among the first wave of Baby Boomers. It’s been my goal to make some sense of all this and synthesize a response based on first-hand immersion in these currents — above all, those pertaining to classical, rock and jazz.

Jazz has had a profound influence on me but its contribution to my music is primarily subliminal. Over the decades, the improvisation at the core of America’s most original art form has proved nontransferable to static disciplines that make their points through canny use of written materials. In my view, classical and rock are a more logical match for cross-pollination, each having tight structures, certain harmonic and rhythmic commonalities, and similar expository uses of the voice.

Having developed outside of the usual channels, I’ve come face to face with the numerous challenges facing independent composers who seek exposure for their music. The Delos label’s 2012 release of my song cycle “The Dream Gallery” marked the first time I was able to deploy the full resources of an acoustic orchestra in a recording project. The new live-in-the-studio CD “Terrain of the Heart” is a similarly exciting event for me. Prior to the Delos releases, I was able to realize my compositions only with digital sampling technology working alongside the superb singers I’ve been fortunate enough to attract along the way.

The economics of what is left of the “serious music” business seem to work against free-lance composers – especially those drawn to orchestral writing. Commissions are few and far between, and usually confined to a small circle of “name” composers or academic figures. A piece may be performed, but there’s no guarantee it will be recorded or even heard again. Yet there are thousands of excellent musicians and many fine ensembles in the land – adding up to a classic mismatch of the resources available to keep America’s musical world not only alive but vital.

More than a decade into the 21st century, it seems obvious to me that classical music’s future – if it is to have one — lies in boldly expanding and redefining the repertoire. It makes little sense for contemporary composers to draw inspiration solely from the easily identified branches that stem from the textbook classical “tree.” The exclusionary approach has resulted in an alarming shrinkage of audiences and places composers content to work from the cozy bunkers of academia in a position that can charitably be called “out of touch.”

My response to this long-festering crisis has been to develop a personal idiom that admits the usage and integration of popular elements while remaining within an overall framework forged from the classical aesthetic.

The music draws on just about everything I’ve ever heard, “from Abba to Zemlinsky,” as I wrote a few years ago. It’s difficult at this stage for me to tease out any specific references as they appear in my work; elsewhere on this site I’ve mentioned some of the figures who were most influential – philosophically as well as musically. My decision to not suppress rock flavors but instead incorporate them no doubt confuses some listeners. But I feel I would be inauthentic for me to do otherwise.

My style of vocal writing is an unabashed cross-breed of the genres that have meant the most to me over the decades — classical art song (think Schumann, Duparc, Debussy, Strauss) and the heady, short-lived pop/folk/rock gestalt that sprang forth in the early and mid 1960s and reached its zenith of sophistication in the work of such figures as Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Brian Wilson, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, John Phillips, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, and Burt Bacharach. What these artists had in common was the ability to couple sincerity with an aim for the transcendent.

I love a number of operas – “Salome,” “Elektra,” “Wozzeck,” “Lulu,” the Janacek Big Five, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and “Bluebeard’s Castle” among them. But I believe that much operatic singing overemphasizes the technical aspects of tone production at the expense of clarity and basic communication. Consequently, I usually work with singers whose forte is the far more intimate realm of art song.

I prefer that a work’s harmonic, melodic and rhythmic elements appear in as straightforward a manner as possible, and that scripted methods of compositional architecture be avoided. I recall a quote about Manuel de Falla that went something like: “He was content to present his ideas, and to not develop them.” Falla succeeded admirably in such dissimilar pieces as “El Amor Brujo,” “El Retablo de Maese Pedro” and “Pour Le Tombeau de Paul Dukas.” The same could be said of key works by Stravinsky, Janacek, Bartok, Szymanowski and other giants.

Falla once said: “Music does not exist to be understood, but to be felt.” … I would add: “Music exists to be listened to.” If you can’t communicate something to a listener, no amount of pointing at the interior marvels of the score is going to change that.

My lyric writing is a relatively recent development. It too encompasses more influences than I could possibly identify. Beyond exposure to poetry, literature, the work of countless songwriters and sheer life experience, my 21-year involvement with journalism no doubt plays a key role. The reporting, writing and editing process necessarily concentrates the mind but has little use for imagistic or poetic content. I certainly benefited from learning the discipline of concision. But I missed the color and emotion words can provide and apparently am making up for it in the group of works I’ve produced since 2005.

 

L.A. Composer Salon Appearance

I was invited to make a presentation about my work at the 45th L.A. Composer Salon, held in Venice, Ca., this past Sunday, July 22. I spoke primarily about my musical journey in general, and about The Dream Gallery (playing a few recorded excerpts from it). I also took questions from the all-composer audience, a hallmark of this unique quarterly event.

The highlight of the hourlong segment was a live performance of two of my voice/piano songs – “La Sonnambula” (from the recent cycle Rainbow Songs) and “I Live My Life in Growing Orbits” (from Five Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke). The soloist was the fine young soprano Ariel Pisturino, an up-and-comer on the Los Angeles opera and art song scene, and the pianist was Jeremy Borum, the co-producer of The Dream Gallery CD. They were both superb!

“The Dream Gallery” Soloists: An Appreciation

Fans of my CD “The Dream Gallery” invariably comment on the high quality of the work’s seven soloists, and the disarming and persuasive manner in which they took on the musical identities of their characters. In a recent interview, I described these singers as “an impressive bunch who sing the hell out of these pieces.” I think I’ll stick with that. But I’d like to add a few words about each one of them individually.

Soprano Mary Jaeb is a wonderfully expressive singer well suited to the wide emotional terrain “Helen” encompasses. Her ability to delve into layers of meaning in a lyric through a palette of highly musical vocal techniques makes her a superb interpreter of art songs. Mary is one of the most thoughtful singers I’ve ever encountered, and she can be counted upon in recording situations to offer a wide variety of creative interpretations from which to choose. This is not often the case, I and many other composers can attest.

Baritone David Marshman gives a powerful and nuanced performance of “Todd” that matches the piece’s stark subject matter — the bleak oil lands surrounding the small city of Taft. The vocal part calls for the expression of stoicism, anger and, at times, disgust. But a wistful tenderness is also part of the mix, as David shows in the suspended, floating section beginning with “Shadows of late afternoon … .” And he does not fail to convey that Taft, despite a long run of ill luck, will always be close to his character’s heart.

Mezzo soprano Janelle DeStefano is blessed with a voice of great depth and richness, which has made her a sought-after soloist in the Southern California concert world. Oddly enough, the “formalist” qualities of the sound she produces are ideal for the satirical depiction of “Naomi,” who views herself as being on a higher, more perfect rung of the evolutionary ladder. Janelle was asked to sound supremely confident and on the cool side, clearly removed from the nasty realities of “the flatlands” lying below the Berkeley hills. She did just that!

Young mezzo Delaney Gibson has spent much of her career in the pop/rock arena, which calls for its own distinct brand of extroversion. I wanted to tap that energy to bring to life the loathsome “Carol,” who would never for a minute tolerate classical music. Delaney instinctively understood this and turned in an utterly convincing performance that fully captures the character’s swagger and arrogance. She possesses fine technique and is a marvel of efficiency in the recording realm. “Carol” is not an easy piece, but it posed no problems for her.

Bass Carver Cossey’s heartfelt rendition of “Lonnie” reaches deeply into the complexities of personality and social milieu, spanning emotions that range from despair and world-weariness to warmth and the inextinguishability of hope. Carver has sung just about every type of music – with great feeling and finesse. While opportunities for extended solos with orchestra are all too rare, he embraced the dramatic arc and historical underpinnings of “Lonnie” and infused the character with all the humanity I could have asked for.

Alto Martha Jane Weaver has amassed years of experience and acclaim singing solo symphonic, choral repertoire, opera, gospel – even Gilbert and Sullivan. Her mission in “Luz” was somewhat off the beaten track, singing in a manner that sometimes borders on “rough,” in keeping with her character’s peasant roots. Martha Jane not only succeeded but contributed majestic moments that trace the long road traveled and endured. I had never written for an alto before, but will happily do so again after working with her.

Tenor Tom Zohar is a singer of great energy and high aspirations, making him a fine match for the propulsive role of “Adam.” The piece has numerous (and sometimes abrupt) shifts in focus that depict moments of rebellion, resolve, indecision, regret and elation. Tom managed to convey all of these while keeping a long-unfolding narrative on track. “Adam” also poses some stiff technical challenges that Tom proved himself equal to; a very impressive first recorded performance.