Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Interview with Atlanta Music Critic (transcription)

A Conversation with ASN by William Ford (aka Atlanta Music Critic), October 2014

This conversation has been posted on William's YouTube page for some time, but I took it upon myself to transcribe it and make it available in text form. It can be more convenient than listening for half an hour. William had edited out some of his own questions in the video, which leads to some slightly awkward transitions. I've added a possible question that was asked in those instances (in [brackets], like my other edits). I've edited my speech to clean up filler words and clarify some statements. I hope whoever stumbles upon this finds it interesting and useful.


I co-founded [Terminus] two years ago with Brent Milam and Sarah Hersh, two other [Atlanta] composers. Our mission is to promote music by local composers. We're starting our fourth season next week. We'll be playing pieces by Laurence Sherr, who teaches at Kennesaw State; Nick Demos, who teaches at Georgia State; Connor Way, who just graduated from Georgia State; Jason Freeman from Georgia Tech; a piece by Nicole Chamberlain, who is also our flute player; a piece by me; and a piece by Zack Browning, who is originally from Georgia and now lives in Illinois.

Some of these pieces we've played before. We decided that we want to be a group that plays pieces the composers have heard before. So we're not necessarily looking for premieres. We're not opposed to premieres, but we're trying to help get more music out there. So that's why we're focusing on local composers.

We recently did a call for scores for composers from the surrounding states of Georgia, so we're going to have a more regional focus soon.

Our next concert's going to be October 17 [2014] at the Florence Kopleff Recital Hall at Georgia State. It's a fee concert and it starts at 8 o'clock.


The concert is free, because we want to encourage as many people to come out as possible. We are trying to grow interest in contemporary music in general, but also [in] the art of people in Atlanta.

We have not settled on a date for our spring concert yet, but it will probably be sometime in April. We've sort of settled on a late October/November and late April/early May timeframe for our concerts.


It's gone back and forth. We've had around 50 sometimes and more like 15 or 20 sometimes, depending. There was one performance where it was storming and Obama was in town, so that one was really lightly attended. We're trying to get better about advertising and posting in more places so more people know about it. We have found people say "I didn't even know it was happening." As much as you do, it's never quite enough to let everyone know.


So far we have solicited pieces from people we knew. We liked their music and we wanted to see what would fit with our instrumentation. Often times the actual selections from whatever they gave us came down to practical reasons -- [for example] one player could only commit to doing a certain number of pieces, so we said "ok, let's do this trio, this duo, and this quartet."

For our next concert, we have [selections from] our call for scores for regional composers. Every composer was allowed to submit 2 pieces. So we had 56 composers, most of whom submitted 2. So almost 100 pieces there.

Brent, Sarah, and I sat down at Brent's house 3 weeks in a row and listened to a lot of music, [then] said "yes, let's pass this on to the next round" or not. Now we're each listening individually, a little more thoroughly, to the 30 we whittled it down to, to figure out what are the pieces we're going to program, and what are some we might save for another day.

We asked them to send a score and a recording, if available. Even MIDI was ok. Obviously no one prefers to listen to MIDI mockups, but if that's all they had, then that's ok. We wanted to see what was out there, because we found a lot great composers we had not heard of. I know a lot of people in the region, but [we kept saying] "that piece was great! where does she live?"

We specified in the call for scores that we will select a few pieces and play them in the spring. We may reserve some for future performances. We would love it if they could come, but we're a shoestring operation. We'll put on a concert, and if they can come down from Charlotte or Birmingham or wherever, that's great.


As a composer, I'm sending music out to these kinds of calls all the time. You send your best piece and hope they like it. I'm sure every group was inundated like we were. We even narrowed it down to a few states. Some people have national or international calls, and it can get overwhelming. It was a lot for us to sit down and -- we had to be ruthless, frankly -- and say "nope, didn't grab me. Let's look a little further. Yeah, looks about the same. Next!"

We generally started with looking at the score. Not looking for style at all, just looking for "does this look competent?" And if we saw some really egregious mistakes, we would immediately be skeptical. But we would still listen to a little bit of everything. And sometimes, some of those pieces [we'd say] "well, it actually sounded pretty cool" [and] we would pass it on to the next round. But it usually went hand-in-hand that if the score looked really professional, then the piece was really good.


Well, that's so we can spread the duties, for one. Part of the history of it: Brent and I did our Master's together at Georgia State, and we had wanted to work on some kind of project for years. But I lived in Ireland, and New York, and when I moved down to Florida I thought, well, I'm 5 hours away, it's close enough that we can do something. At least if it's only twice a year, like we've been doing.

I met Sarah -- she had just finished her Master's at Florida, but she hung around my first year because her husband was finishing his law degree. He got a job up here, and she got a job up here, and we were kind of talking and I said "I want to get you hooked into the new music scene." And through all three of our conversations, we said "maybe we should start a new ensemble that does local music -- that hasn't really been done." And I had a lot of other performer friends -- many from Georgia State or we knew each other through other people. We found the standard "Pierrot Ensemble" instrumentation. And everyone was interested in playing, so we started planning things.


I am originally from Atlanta -- one of the proud, few natives. I went to Georgia State University, did my Bachelor's in music technology, then I went back and did a Master's in music composition. Following that I did a Master's in Sonic Arts at Queen's University Belfast in Northern Ireland. Then I had 2 years of being a starving artist in New York City before I began my PhD at the University of Florida, which I just finished this spring. My PhD was in music composition, and I did a cognate area in media studies.


A course in composition is usually private lessons with a "senior" composer. So generally today, you'll bring in your music and the composer will comment on what could be improved, what music you should listen to that your music resembles (that might help you figure out how to [improve] things). Composition courses are sometimes more of a seminar, where there might be a topic on a certain aspect of history. I took one on postmodernism, for example -- thinking about the idea of pastiche in music and doing some pieces using existing material -- which is not something I usually do. So sometimes there are actual courses [intended] to stretch you a little bit.


Well, one piece I did for that course used sampling. I think I used about 30 different pieces -- some were classical, some were pop, some were jazz. I was trying to make it as eclectic as possible, but I also looked at what keys the pieces were in and tried to structure it in sort of a sonata form. So it starts in D minor, then moves to A and some other areas, before moving back to D Major.


At Georgia State I primarily studied with Robert Scott Thompson, but I also worked a little bit with Nick Demos. On the side I studied a little bit with John Anthony Lennon, who teaches at Emory. At Queen's University Belfast, my advisor was Pedro Rebelo, and at the University of Florida I worked with all three faculty [members]. James Paul Sain was my advisor, Paul Koonce was also on my dissertation committee, and I also studied with Paul Richards.


My dissertation was partially a theoretical document and partially a composition. The composition was a piece called "Keys" for piano, percussion, and electronics. Both players also doubled on other instruments, like toy piano and typewriter. So everything I could think of that used keys went into that piece.

The theoretical document is called "Buy, Build Break: Composers and Objects." This is looking specifically at practices in experimental music that are centered around a particular object. So, the idea that you want to write a piece about toy piano. Or maybe you want to write a piece where you need to build an instrument first, before you can make that piece. The "breaking" part is the idea of modifying an existing instrument. For instance, I'm interested in "circuit bending," in which you take an existing electronic toy and short-circuit it on purpose to make interesting glitches, change the pitch, and things like that. So I'm trying to see how object influence how we make music.


One of these circuit-bent instruments is a "Speak & Read" -- this came from the Speak & Spell line by Texas Instruments in the 1980s. These have great electronic voice synthesis. Older toys like those have a lot of exposed circuits inside. Newer toys are all based  on microcomputers, so there's not as much you can do. But these older toys from the 80s, you have a lot of points you can put together that will do something unexpected. There's been a lot of documentation; these are very popular toys to use. So you know that you can put these points together and add a resistor and drop the pitch, for example. They give you a lot more flexibility to perform with. I do a lot of free improvisation and it's a lot of fun to play with a toy like that. I have some other toys that I've jimmied that maybe I can make do two different things. So they might be fun if I have 10 different toys around, but they're not as effective as instruments in themselves.


I often think about the instruments I'm going to use. This goes along the lines of my dissertation research, actually. I'm very interested in showing the inner life of an object. An object could be a particular ensemble, or it could be a particular instrument. So I think about what those instruments do well, what interesting techniques they might do, and I usually try to pick two or three of those to focus on. It might be the harmonic series, or whatever its lowest note is, or a certain way of producing harmonics, or something like that. And I try to center the piece around that. And then it kind of grows organically. Sometimes I will think of a structure ahead of time, I'll use random number generators to figure out when things will happen, and then hone it from there. Each piece sort of works differently. I put them together differently, anyway.


I am actually, right now, working on my first-ever orchestra piece. So yes, I do that sometimes. And while I have talked about these weird electronic instruments, on the next Terminus concert we're doing a quintet -- which is flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano -- that I just finished this summer. So yes, I do write for traditional instruments as well.


I do use chance to figure out things while I'm making a piece. And I have written some very "free" pieces at some points. But it's hard to say. I think there's a continuum of chance. You might do something like me, where you use it a little bit to get [yourself] started or sometimes you might use it to make a whole piece. I'm interested in both. But I'm usually on that end of the scale -- use it some but not exclusively.

Every piece has some indeterminacy in it. Cage wrote about that in Silence. He said "even Art of Fugue by Bach doesn't specify any instrument or dynamics, so there's actually a lot of indeterminacy in it." I think that's beautiful. And that's why I leave a lot [open] for performers to interpret. I like to have a little dialogue with them as we rehearse a piece to see if, maybe, it would be better this way than what I originally thought. A lot of times it is.

Yes, this piece is scored in the traditional way. They'll play the same pitches each time, but the tempo and dynamics and all that might vary a bit -- and I think that's interesting because it gives [the piece] a little more life.


I played piano for a long time. I feel very rusty right now, but I'm actually playing [Andriessen's] "Workers Union" with Chamber Cartel at the end of the month -- playing keyboards. I play a lot of "found objects" and these toys we talked about. I used to play trombone, also. Maybe I [gravitated] to these weird instruments because no one knows what it's like to be an expert on those, so I can become an "expert," with different criteria than playing piano. [A sensibility stolen from Mark Applebaum]

[I think the question was more along the lines of "where do you see yourself headed?]

I like teaching also, very much. I like having the freedom to do experimental music. I don't really want to go into commercial music; working for Turner or something might be fun, but I don't think it's really "me." I would like to [continue the academic] route, but I'm also interested in Arts Administration, such as what I'm doing with Terminus. So that's another avenue I might be exploring as well.


I was just never that interested in film scoring. A lot of people are, and it's great if you want to do that. I just know I'm more of an experimentalist-scholar type. So academia seems a better fit for me. But like I mentioned, Arts Administration is also attractive, because I'm running this ensemble, [and] I'm also Production Manager for the Charlotte New Music Festival in North Carolina.


The Charlotte New Music Festival is a 2-week festival up in Charlotte, NC. It takes place the 2nd half of June every year. It's a chance for student composers (mainly) to come together, share their work with each other, and have lessons and seminars with guest composers, and get a piece played by a professional ensemble.

Last year we brought down Iktus Percussion and loadbang from New York City. This year we're bringing in Great Noise Ensemble from Washington DC, as well as Freya String Quartet from Pittsburgh [Freya disbanded and Beo, also with first violin Jason Neukom, came instead]. And loadbang is coming back again. So every student composer will be commissioned to write a piece for one of those ensembles, rehearse it with the ensemble and hear it at the festival, as well as getting some lessons and seminars.


Minimalism is something I was into, then didn't listen to much of for awhile, and now I've come back to it. I would consider my music somewhat minimalist, but in a different way from "the big 4" -- it's not really based on pulses [neither is LaMonte Young's work, but you catch my drift]. I'm more  interested in keeping static harmonies, but maybe not having the regular pulsation. More of the idea of "not much happens." More of what visual minimal art is like -- "this piece is about a thing" instead of "this piece is about a cell that slowly changes to something else."


A lot of people do find "emotion" in his music. [Perhaps more so with] John Adams, since he's gone the more neo-Romantic route. A lot of the early minimalism is very strict and abstract -- and since some of it is four hours long, I can understand why some people might say "I gotta sit through that? I don't get it after the first minute, therefore it's unemotional!" People have these reactions and need to label it as something. So it's cold or intellectual or something -- that's their label for it now.

I like what you were saying, with minimalism, how you can drift away from it and come back, and then you might notice "oh that is a little different than it was before." I try to do that with my music, too. I want to create an environment where you can sit there and ponder these ideas with me, but if you're not following note-to-note, then that can be ok.

I'm influenced by ambient music, like Brian Eno, as well. The whole idea behind [ambient music] is it can be in the background, or you can listen to it intently, and either way is fine. It should be "as ignorable as it is interesting" is what [Eno] said.

He wants to make it interesting if you do want to pay attention to it. It should also be interesting. So it's not just one drone playing the whole time. There are repeated patterns and things like that, too. It just might take a longer time to develop than, [say], a piece of dance music.

I listen to that kind of thing a lot when I'm working. Even sometimes when I'm composing, just because I want to have something happening in the background. Not when I'm trying to figure out ideas. But when I'm copying over passages and I need to do that for 2 hours, I like to put on some kind of ambient recording.


Recently I've been really interested in Taylor Deupree, who runs this label called 12K. His music, it can be a little noisier [than Eno] sometimes. So he has some very "pretty" elements but also some static and drone type things. There's an associated label called LINE, which is run by Richard Chartier, and he does very minimal [music]. There will be long stretches of silence and these little pops will come in. I like that too.

I wouldn't want to make a steady diet of any particular kind of music. But if I want to have an intellectual challenge and really be "in the music," I would listen to something modernist. But for times when I'm working, I might want to have some ambient music, so I can listen to it a little bit, [then] come back to what I'm doing.


Oh, my take is very much "it's there by association." We are conditioned through film and [other media] that certain sounds [represent] "terror" or "love" or whatever. I write very abstract music, and if people think it sounds sad, I'm ok with that, but I didn't go into it thinking "I'm going to write a sad piece."

Suspensions, for example. They always sound a little wistful or sad -- we did find at some point that [suspensions were] effective for making people feel that. So maybe there's something inherent there. But it seems like now, at the stage we're in, we know how to capture those [emotions] by doing these particular effects. So it seems to come back to that association idea. You want to write a sad piece? Put it in a minor key and add a lot of suspensions!

I think about more modal music, like eastern European music or Jewish music -- a lot of it is sort of "minor key" but it's played at parties and it can sound happy.  So I think untrained people would think "it was a peppy song, so it must be Major." Well, technically, no. There are so many elements besides pitches: tempo, texture, timbre... All of that feeds into [our perception]. If you have an acoustic guitar arpeggiating slowly, that can sound fairly plaintive, no matter the key. And if you have a heavily distorted guitar, that's probably angry to most people.

One example I like to play for my students is My Bloody Valentine. It's an early '90s band and they had very distorted guitars, but it ends up sounding kind of beautiful because it's these big washes of sound. I always feel like it's a nice blanket of sound, even though it's heavily distorted. So again, it's all in the association, culturally, and within the music itself. So you can have these slow-tempo, Major-key things and it might sound somber. Or fast minor-key things might sound happy and peppy.

I've actually thought about it a lot, because I think a lot of my music will probably come off as "sad," and maybe that's in the back of my mind. But I really am trying to focus on the instruments. And what can be more concrete (and abstract) than "this piece is about horn and vibraphone." I will give titles to [provide] some kind of metaphor to think about that might allude to something [emotional]. Like, the piece I just mentioned, for horn and vibraphone, is called "Tearmunn," which is a Gaelic word that means "sanctuary." So someone might hear that and think "oh, this is a peaceful, meditative type of piece." Yeah, I did go for that "vibe" but I'm not trying to make you feel solemn.


My personal feeling on music -- emotions are associative. I don't see why we can't associate emotions with new music. I think a lot of contemporary composers are probably still thinking in that kind of Romantic "I want to convey an emotion" way. I might not be, myself. So I think it just comes down to unfamiliarity with techniques.

You really have to take each piece on its own terms. People aren't used to that. They like that Mozart's so predictable. They like that -- even if they're not literally counting -- they can feel the beats until a cadence happens or until a section ends. Contemporary music subverts that almost all the time. And maybe since it's so weird that means it's "cerebral" and "unemotional" to people. Because you have to think about it. But you can also let some of it wash over you and intuitively feel it.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Matrix Retooled (my fan edit)

I do hope to get back to The Listening List soon. . . been busy. Here's what I did last week instead :o

I watched The Matrix for the first time in a few years last week, and watched Reloaded and Revolution with DVD commentary by critics Todd McCarthy, John Powers, and David Thomson. I had listened to the commentaries before and found them interesting and insightful -- these critics were chosen because they did NOT like the Matrix sequels.

I have really enjoyed some "fan edits" like the Phantom Edit of Star Wars: Episode I. I read that there was a "DeZionized" version of the Matrix, but feeling that you couldn't have a completely coherent story without Zion, I began to make my own version. Putting the latter two movies of the trilogy together has been done a lot already (see, but I looked at this as an exercise in editing and understanding narrative as well as making a version I would prefer to watch.

I really liked my results. I spent the better part of a week on it. Halfway through, I watched my initial cut, which was still 3 hours. I made some additional cuts, tons of audio crossfades, and rewatched a new 2 hour, 35 minute version. Aside from three minor glitches to fix, this felt like a pretty solid, exciting sci-fi epic.

Notes on my changes:

I put together both movies as one, obviously. Tried to pace it in three larger acts:

  I. Find the keymaker, get Neo to the Architect.
  II. The plan failed; rescue Neo and make a plan for getting back to Zion.
  III. Zion attacked, Neo defeats Smith and saves Zion.

I didn't leave out Zion, but I severely reduced it. I mainly kept in scenes focusing on Commander Locke, as those keep us up to date on Zion's predicament.

One big motivation was to reduce redundancy and tedium. A lot of the dialogue is repetitive. A lot of the action scenes are repetitive. I think the Wachowski's wanted an epic feel but padded the movies too much. This version retains the story arcs, but compresses the time for a better sense of urgency.

Notes on the cuts:

Act I.

Neo's dream of Trinity is gone. We start in the Matrix with the ship's meeting, led by Niobe. "The machines are digging" is the first line you hear.

Cut out Neo "doing his Superman thing" besides the take off. Cut from the Two Smiths right to entering Zion.

Zion: drastic cuts here, naturally. Obviously, the infamous rave scene is deleted. The Nebuchadnezzar's drawn-out entrance to Zion is cut in half. The Kid is gone. Zee gets one scene here -- when Link leaves. Still intact: the scene of Locke, Morpheus, and the Counselor; the scene of Neo meeting his followers (I don't love it, but it helps with his "questioning destiny" arc); the scene of Neo and the Counselor (I did make 2 cuts to speed it along); Ballard telling Neo the Oracle summoned him; once more with Locke and the Counselor. I think all of this was enough to give a sense of Zion and a sense that the Nebuchadnezzar's crew went back for a night (Neo wakes up from a dream(?) of Smith taking over Bane). We are out of there in 10 minutes of screen time.

Seraph and Oracle -- mostly intact, a few redundant lines deleted for flow.

Burly Brawl -- totally gone. Some may miss this; I don't. Smith's intro in the "back doors" scene is enough.

Council and Locke -- 2 ships dispatched (Soren & Niobe). Mostly intact, but I cut out Bane/Smith telling his captain to volunteer.

Merovingian/Persephone -- mostly intact, small cuts to speed us along

Merovingian goon fight -- there was a pause in the middle, so I just cut to the end. Anticlimactic but kind of the point -- these guys are no challenge to Neo.

Freeway chase -- lots and lots of small cuts. Took out most of the slowmo cars, some character reactions that take us out of the chase, etc. About 5 minutes are gone, and hardly noticable.

Get Neo to the source scene. I think this was very well edited to begin with -- maybe some minor pacing changes. Smiths appear here, and it's surprising and exciting.

Architect scene. A couple lines here and there are gone, to speed it up. I think it actually makes more sense now, because it's more focused. Also cut out a little of Trinity's fight with the Agents. I wanted to cut Neo's saving of Trinity (by beating her heart with his hand), but due to the music and everything, it needed to stay.

Neo stops sentinels, Hammer arrives -- intact.

Act II

Hammer scenes -- cut out the stupid Bane DUN DUN DUN music, just kept these scenes quiet and unassuming. Reshuffled the order a little so we go back and forth between the bridge and sickbay. Inserted Neo's scene with Sati here, because I felt like we needed to wait longer before Seraph calls Morpheus.

Scenes of the Oracle with Morpheus & Trinity and Neo with Rama-kandra -- a few cuts in each, for pacing and reducing redundancy/confusion.

Trainman vs. Morpheus et al -- intact. Morpheus et al & zero-G Merovingian goons -- gone. Seraph does a quick beatdown in the parking garage, then they're in the club.

Merovingian scene -- cut down the mini fight started by Trinity.

Neo & Oracle -- cut out a little for pacing

Seraph & Sati vs Smith -- gone. Oracle asks Smith what he did with them and that's enough. Oracle & Smith ends right when she's assimilated. No over-the-top Smith laugh.

Finding/fixing the Logos -- small cuts for pacing.


Bane vs. Neo/Trinity -- mostly intact except some drawn out "drop the gun" false tension and Bane's cheesy "you're going to pay for that" line. Tried to cut more, but music and dialogue prevented it from flowing.

The half-hour scene of fighting in Zion is cut down ruthlessly. Focuses on Locke and Mifune, with more time on the (much more dramatic) chase with the Hammer. You get the point that Zion is overwhelmed and the Hammer barely makes it in about 5 minutes of screentime. It's actually exciting now.

Trinity's death scene -- a small cut to speed things up. She's one of the main characters, but her death scene is over 3 minutes long.

Neo vs. Smith climax -- very long and repetitive. Now they collide once, fly in the air a bit, Smith forces them down, then does his "this is where it ends" monologue. Removes the indoor fight, the cheesy "why do you persist?" part of the monologue. My cut isn't perfect but it gets the job done.

Zion ending -- no Kid, no Link "whoo!", no crowds. Focuses on Locke, Niobe, and most importantly, Morpheus.

Matrix ending -- kept the same. Considered doing a montage of Zion over the Neo "Dies Irae" sequence, but it didn't make sense in the end.

Replaced the "epic" choral music with Rage Against the Machine.

What else I would like to change -- besides crummy dialogue and wooden acting:

Either cut out the Bane subplot or put the Smith-infecting-Bane scene later, so the audience will remember that it happened. Give Bane more character development ahead of time. Maybe if he replaced Ghost (Niobe's second-in-command) it would resonate more (i.e. good guy taken over by bad).

Make the Hammer into the Logos and cut out Roland and his crew. It would help us focus more on Niobe.

Make the second Merovingian scene matter a little more. Maybe instead of needing him to get Neo out, Neo needs him to stop Smith. Maybe he has captured the Oracle finally...something. I looove the Merovingian but his second appearance is squandered.

If  Gloria Foster hadn't died and been replaced with Mary Alice as the Oracle, much of the middle could be dispensed with. But we do need scenes explaining why she looks different. I found a lot of little things like this necessitated earlier scenes. If only one movie was planned, I could see going from the Architect scene basically straight to Neo's Oracle scene. I presume that's what "DeZionized" does and just doesn't worry about the actress change.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Listening List: 6. Rodrigo Bussad

Rod's website:

I met Rod at the excellent soundSCAPE festival in Italy in summer 2012. He recently finished his master's at the University of Miami, and is just an all-around cool guy. I'm going to (finally) check out his orchestral work Depois da Chuva (after the rain), for which he got second place in the American Prize for Orchestral music, as well as his chamber piece Loin, which won the chamber division of the same. He submitted Loin to our Terminus call for scores, and I really liked it. But it's tough! I hope we can get around to it sometime.

Depois da Chuva

This piece is over 17 minutes, so there is a lot to take in. Foremost, however, is that Rod has a great ear for orchestration. There is a lot of ear candy, and it's all well-balanced and thought out. I hear a lot of Asian influence (Takemitsu, maybe Tan Dun, etc.), which seems appropriate to the theme of rain/water, so prominent with some of those composers. I'm also getting some Stravinsky and Morricone vibes. Those who know my work know that I'm partial (committed?) to slow music, so I enjoyed the outer movements most. I wasn't sold on the repeated triplet motive at the end of the first movement, though. The ametric textures, with little effects popping in here and there, sounded great to me and I would have been fine with a movement of just that. The middle movement is much darker and more intense, but with a lot of variety and drive that kept me "in it." Ironically, perhaps, I really liked the repetitive woodblock/timpani groove.


On listening again, I think this piece is pretty frickin' great. The texture and mood is somewhat "static" throughout, though the surface is anything but. Rod makes a great combination of sustained tones, extended techniques (especially multiphonics and harmonics), and vocal sounds. It's continually shifting. Each time I've listened to it, I've stayed intrigued and engaged. But for many people, this is going to be a tough listen. It reminds me of what I was saying to Georgia State students a few months ago -- ask yourself if you're a melody person, rhythm person, timbre person, etc., then focus on that. As a timbre/texture person, I find a great deal to appreciate here. Others might be lost, but that's their loss (see what I did there?).

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Listening List: 5. Connor Elias Way

Connor Elias Way's website:

Connor recently finished his BM at Georgia State. We've worked together a few times on projects with Terminus Ensemble and Chamber Cartel. I decided to listen to a new-to-me piece and a piece I've heard a few times.

Panoramic - Chamber Orchestra

According to Connor's program note, the idea behind this piece is to musically portray a vista at varying distances. I really like that concept, and feel it works pretty well for the piece. The first three movements (first half) are beautiful, particularly this recurring harmonic crescendo effect. I wanted a little more timbral contrast from the melody (instead of just oboe, maybe some occasional doubling and highlighting with the other winds). The last two movements were less convincing to me. I liked the asynchronous texture created in the woodwinds but felt the brass rips were too jarring for the context. I would have liked a little more foreshadowing of the wind texture. While I liked the piece quite a bit, I feel it could be reconfigured, not necessarily in five separate movements, but in shorter instances where the viewer/listener focuses in on a faint texture, zooms out, then focuses on something else...

Harlequin - Pierrot ensemble

Harlequin was written for my ensemble Terminus, so I have heard it before. I'm glad I took the time to engage with it again, with score. This piece is one that definitely benefits from program notes. Connor was inspired by a 1923 Picasso painting [], which features color only on the Harlequin's head, and a pencil sketch of his body. The concept for the work is to exploit the noisier timbres of each instrument until the B section, in which they finally play sustained tones (the B section is the "color" section...though many might find the A section more colorful!). I like both sections, and the contrast works very well. The pointillism of the main section gets a little long in the tooth; it's nicely off-kilter so it doesn't get monotonous, just a little too much of a good thing, I guess.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Listening List: 4. Cody Brookshire

The Listening List is a blog series in which I listen and critique two pieces by my composer friends. I was inspired by Rob McClure's similar series, "Music With Friends." For most pieces, I plan to listen twice, with scores where available, and jot down some initial thoughts. My intention is to force myself to engage more with my friends' music, not just to offer unsolicited feedback. After my first entry, I found that this blog will probably demonstrate me wrestling with my own thoughts and biases about music as much as it will review the work of contemporary composers.

Cody Brookshire's site:

Cody is a DMA student at the University of Georgia. I met him at a concert there, where he was performing some software that remixes MIDI data and sending it to a Disklavier. Neat stuff.

thy angels watch me... - prepared harp

I first heard this piece at UGA last spring (we didn't meet until fall). I had a good impression of it then and am happy to hear it again. In his program notes, Cody speaks of the contrast between comfort and unsettling feelings of being watched by angels. I think the mood of the piece captures that sentiment well. The harp is prepared with beads, which jangle sympathetically, mostly in the low register. It's fairly subtle, which is good. I like the pitch world, which emphasizes and juxtaposes minor triads and augmented triads. I think it could be spiced up rhytmically, as some sections settle into straight 16ths when they seem to beg for more push and pull.

Irreconcilable Differences - String Quartet

With this piece also, Cody is dealing with contrast. There are two clearly articulated ideas: what I would call the "folk song chorale" and the "pulses." They intersect and transform each other as the piece progresses. I like the concept and process but I felt that the piece meandered a bit too much, especially toward the end. Maybe some trimming here and there to cut out two minutes or so would make it feel more cohesive. I also felt that the voice spacing in the chorale could take some TLC; e.g. the viola and cello would sometimes be close together with a wide space below the violins. Definitely some potential here.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Listening List: 3. Courtney Brown

The Listening List is a blog series in which I listen and critique two pieces by my composer friends. I was inspired by Rob McClure's similar series, "Music With Friends." For most pieces, I plan to listen twice, with scores where available, and jot down some initial thoughts. My intention is to force myself to engage more with my friends' music, not just to offer unsolicited feedback. After my first entry, I found that this blog will probably demonstrate me wrestling with my own thoughts and biases about music as much as it will review the work of contemporary composers.

Courtney Brown's website

6 years ago or so, Courtney and I met up with Justin Woo and did some electronic jams with the idea of starting an electroacoustic band of some sort. Life got in the way so nothing came of it. She's currently in Buenos Aires on a Fulbright scholarship and working toward her doctorate at Arizona State. Most of her recent work has been in installation and sound art, both of which I'm very into.

Rwar! A Study in Sonic Skulls (2011-2013)
with Sharif Razzaque (engineer)

Rawr! A Study in Sonic Skulls from Courtney Brown on Vimeo.

This video documents the construction of an instrument based on a dinosaur skull. It's an interesting idea to research, I think. Sound can really conjure the daily life of these ancient extinct creatures. I was also intrigued by the clip of a piece in which the skull player duets with a tubist and both make "mating calls." They are working on a second prototype of the skull now, and I'm looking forward to hearing it in action.


Rwar! A Study in Sonic Skulls @ 7 ate 9 from Courtney Brown on Vimeo.

This video shows the hadrosaur dinosaur instrument in practice. It seems mostly improvised, with computer playing back loops. The recording quality is not great, but you can still tell that the instrument has a primal, haunting quality. Would definitely like to hear a "studio" version sometime.

Telephone Tango (2011-12)

Telephone Tango - Laptop Orchestra of Arizona State - Nov. 19, 2012 from Courtney Brown on Vimeo.

This is a piece for laptop orchestra, a genre I've written and thought about quite a bit. Courtney doesn't use the laptops for sound processing; instead, the performers play percussive found objects, and the laptops are used to display dynamic scores and a visual metronome.

From what I gather, the leader plays an initial tango-derived rhythm, and variations are sent to each successive player. I appreciate the concept/process and have been continually intrigued by the possibilities of dynamic/generative scores. But I'm not sure I find this all that successful, mainly because the performance isn't that tight. I wonder how a percussion ensemble would fare. Variations seemed mostly additive or subtractive, and I wondered if there could be more augmentation, diminution, tempo changes, etc.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Listening List: 2. Michael Sterling Smith

The Listening List is a blog series in which I listen and critique two pieces by my composer friends. I was inspired by Rob McClure's similar series, "Music With Friends." For most pieces, I plan to listen twice, with scores where available, and jot down some initial thoughts. My intention is to force myself to engage more with my friends' music, not just to offer unsolicited feedback. After my first entry, I found that this blog will probably demonstrate me wrestling with my own thoughts and biases about music as much as it will review the work of contemporary composers.

Michael Sterling Smith -

Mike is one of my good friends from the University of Florida. He's currently working on his DMA at North Texas. I'm probably more familiar with his work than most of the people on this list. I'll give two recent pieces an extra listen.

Hyperflexion - String Quartet

Mimesis - Saxophone Quartet

These pieces complement each other rather well, so my assessment will include a lot of comparisons. Since saxophone quartet is often compared to string quartet in terms of range and timbral homogeneity, and since the pieces were written in succession, it seems only natural that there be some crossover of ideas.

This most striking similarity is Mike's use of scales. In both pieces, these are non-tonal scales, kind of combining modes (I did not deeply analyze them). Much of Hyperflexion is descending, while much of Mimesis is ascending. I really like in Hyperflexion (strings) how Mike pulls the idea of descending scales out of the ricochet bowing gesture at the beginning. Since the notes decrease in volume/physical energy, the parallel of descending pitch seems very natural. In fact, the only part of Hyperflexion I didn't find that successful was the contrasting section of ascending scales! I realize this is a transition to the higher register tremolos (after descending all the way to the cello's lowest note), but I wonder if that section was truly necessary.

In Mimesis, the ascending scales (and accompanying crescendi) make for a nice wash of sound in the busier sections. I also really liked Mike's judicious use of slap tongue in this piece. Particularly in the hall this was recorded, the slap tongues sound positiviely brutal and shocking. He never overuses them, saving them for key structural moments and the climax.