On Top of the Wheat Silos by Austin Kleon
On Top of the Wheat Silos (poem by Austin Kleon), my latest piece for soprano, mezzo-soprano, baritone voices, and piano has gone through many changes since the last post. This project had challenges in maintaining a personal voice and vision with balancing intuitive vocal writing. While addressing the idiomatic vocal writing in the individual parts as well as creating a rich ensemble sound, I decided to write…in a key signature? Yes, this piece is tonal, but not functional tonality as it modulates quite a bit. I have not written a tonal piece of art music in many years. Coming back to tonal writing after studying counterpoint and through writing atonal music allowed me to think and explore individual lines to make each part interesting.
On Top of the Wheat Silos combines spectral techniques to achieve an extended tonal sound, while keeping the vocal lines tonal. Extended tonality usually means the use of microtones or other non-equal tempered notes used to extend the note range of a piece. In this case, the piano acts to extend the tonality of the vocal lines by swiftly modulating from and back to the tonal center of the voices. This is not a random modulation, but derived from the spectral analysis of a bell.
The fundamental of the bell is C#4. Tones from the C# that make up the immediate sound are a chromatic scale up to A4. The harmonics, overtones, and undertones are what I used in this piece to establish and also extend the tonality. First, the undertones of the bell make up a G harmonic minor scale, therefore, the voices are generally in G minor. Accidentals, such as Ab, are used in the main melody, which refers to C minor, but sounds modal. Second, the harmonics and overtones were “tuned” to the closed equal tempered notes and are used in the piano to punctuate and color the piece. The piano will play with the pedal down for most of the piece to allow all of the waves to interact and shift, as they do in bells. Finally, the modulations are constructed around various harmonics of the C#, creating various major/minor shifts to give the piece momentum and emotional weight.
Providing this analysis is meant to give interested parties a glimpse into the compositional process. Aesthetically, the listener does not need the above explanation to enjoy the piece (hopefully!). I feel this piece is accessible to professional musicians and everyday music enthusiasts alike, which is appropriate as Accessible Contemporary Music is premiering it.
Well, are you? How do you know? David Smooke’s most recent article for New Music Box has me thinking about this question. One thing I find commonly when reading about new music performances is the amount of extra “bonuses.” These “bonuses” are usually gimmicks that add so much fluff to a performance it resembles more of a carnival or circus act than a concert. Unfortunately, these acts grab the media’s attention, fools judging panels, and gives our over-stimulated society MORE stimulation. All of this resulting in high profile media coverage, grant/competition money, and a false sense of originality overall.
What David emphasizes in his other posts on New Music Box is true originality. True originality comes from fearlessly exploring all things that interest an artist, rather than camping out in a particular style. Style does not define a composer, the composer defines style. David is a great example of this from his gorgeous microtonal works to his toy piano improvisations, the entire gamut is David Smooke. He is a professor at Peabody and this is David. He is an example of originality because he knows himself and draws inspiration from every aspect of his life. Shouldn’t that be the ultimate goal of any artist? It seems with the new generation of composers one of the many things missing to create an honest, authentic statement is life experience. To paraphrase David, he says that if musicians do not live outside of music, what can they bring to music?
On both sides of new music whether it is traditional sounding orchestral music or complex chamber music, originality does not shine through the music. In the case of the traditional orchestral music, the majority of it sounds lazily thrown together for a crowd pleasing aesthetic. The polar opposite, the complex music, grabs at lengthy explanations and concepts that is not communicated through music. Neither case is more desirable as the music suffers no matter the aesthetic. The focus should be making one’s own way in the music industry through writing music with the goal of an artistic statement, rather than money, as the end result.
Originality is not easy. We have to balance what we learned from our teachers with our own vision and somehow sound like us. The constant flux between technique and aesthetic is a long road filled with strife, anxiety, and fear. Simultaneously, the journey is also filled with vast reward. The rewards may be few when compared to failures, but as long as we can draw from these personal and very real experiences, originality will take care of itself, and someone out there (performer, critic, fiscal sponsor) will seek you because of you.
Echoes of Light is the title for my new solo vibraphone with percussion piece, commissioned by Melanie Sehman. The name comes from a phenomenon witnessed in 2002 in which star V838 Monocerotis became a red supergiant and flashed light at over 4,000 times its previous brightness. Once the flashing stopped, the emitted light continued to travel and illuminate various gas and dust particles around the constellation, earning the name “light echo.” The Hubble telescope has captured many breathtaking images at various stages of light illumination over the course of 4 years.
Relating to my piece in a physical and metaphorical sense, the music does represent the process of V838 becoming a supergiant, but rather focuses on the actual light echo’s path in illuminating the gas and dust that surrounds it. Physically, the sound wave interaction between the percussion instruments will produce tones on the vibraphone without the player striking the vibraphone. Other physical interactions include the vibraphone waves producing the illusion of tuning the non-pitched instruments, such as the tam-tam and Tibetan cymbals.
Metaphorically, the piece is quite sparse, meaning to symbolize the vastness which contain such isolated phenomena. Another striking aspect about this image is the clear structure the illuminated gas and dust maintain. I tried to maintain a clear and logical structure to the piece in the context of its sparseness to allude to my own interpretation and impressions of the photographs.
In the context of the infinite, such events appear chaotic and formless, but when studied, reveal that nothing can escape the laws, or more loosely, ordered chaos of the universe.
With all of the budget cuts to the arts and music scenes throughout the world, what better time to find opportunity and innovation? In any sort of crisis lies opportunity and the music field is no different. Often the established institutions and government fail to provide any real assistance apart from throwing funds to a sinking ship only to prolong a life that will inevitably end. Such is the case now and has been since the financial crisis with the various orchestras worldwide.
This situation came up in a conversation I had with film composer, Matt Bukaty. It was discussed and agreed upon that we as composers (all musicians really) need to stop relying on these established contests for funds that ultimately create an overly competitive microcosm. What we need to do is create our own way by making real connections and establishing a community that supports each other’s work. The hows are easy to come by these days and this post is not a how-to. For that I suggest David Cutler’s The Savvy Musician. This post is hopefully an insight to the required mindset to be successful not only in the music business, but in all endeavors in life.
In my personal experience, what holds me back from accomplishing goals leading to success is, like everyone, myself. But what is at the heart of making excuses or not “feeling” up to the challenge? When taken down to its most basic form, it is not laziness that holds us back, but fear. Fear is the base that opens the floodgates for other negative attributes such as laziness. Fear doesn’t necessarily mean to be so scared of everything that you never leave your house, but fear of change for the better or worse. For example, how many times as composers, regardless of age, have we not written or completely reworked an original idea because we were worried or conditioned to our teachers’ response. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but for me it stifled a personal voice because I was concerned with writing what I thought my teachers wanted me to write. This is true throughout music history with style wars, i.e. Uptown vs. Downtown, etc. The truth is everyone struggles with fear of failing or fear of excelling, and once we are aware of it, the easier it is to overcome.
Although I have only lived in NYC for about a year and a half, this Spring my work will be premiered and programmed nationwide. Once I understood the importance of devoting myself completely and without fear to a project (and all aspects of life), that endeavor was met with success. NYC is teaching me to enjoy the process of a career in music with no expectation to an end result.
Budget cuts and financial crises should not cause us to waver in our art because in this small world of classical music, whether it is standard repertoire or new music, there is room for everyone to enjoy success. Once we realize that we all are capable and have everything we need right now to create our own visions of a fulfilling career in music, inspired innovation will (and already has begun to) transform the existing, somewhat stagnant scene.
Upon hearing the concept for this commission by violinist Robert McDuffie, it sounded like a gimmick and a publicity stunt. The concept behind The American Four Seasons is a modern re-working of the Vivaldi piece, The Four Seasons. This piece finds Glass at a new juncture in his voice. There are many aspects to the work that is signature Glass, but the overall orchestral writing recalls a true classical approach masterfully interwoven with his sound. It may be a tribute to Vivaldi in capturing this sound, but it is also a logical progression from Symphony 8 onward in Glass’s orchestral exploration.
Of course McDuffie adds his own voice to the solo violin lines creating lyricism along with precise rhythmic playing. Although there is a definite angle to The American Four Seasons, it is good music and will bring many to the concert halls on its national tour.
The American Four Seasons is streaming from its website, so you can hear the entire thing and make a guess to which season the movements correspond.
Victoire’s music (composed by Missy Mazzoli) is hard to label. Most would label it as “classical” music because of the core instrumentation, but Cathedral City goes beyond classical music. This is a music that shares the mass appeal with indie music, but is masterfully composed, using classical techniques, yet is subtle in delivery. When music is as subtle and as deep as the music on this album, that is where artistic mastery shines. Mazzoli blends these two approaches seamlessly creating a work that is as hard hitting as the best indie release and as nuanced and intelligent as any art music. Cathedral City also contains special appearances by William Brittelle, Melissa Hughes, and Bryce Dessner of The National. “A Song for Mick Kelly,” on which Dessner appears, embodies the shifts in duality that the album demonstrates. On one side, the music is quite memorable and catchy, but on the other, it is tempered with intelligent, idiomatic instrumental writing. Cathedral City is a rewarding listen because of these two extremes, but also for the middle-ground some songs or pieces occupy.
Upon finishing the solo percussion piece for Melanie S.T. Sehman and due to increasing my yoga practice with such fantastic teachers as Shanda Woods and Tara Stiles, I started thinking about endings in life. Completing this piece made me think about everything I’ve learned since moving to New York a little over a year ago.
When things end in our lives, more often the momentum gained from completing that phase in life or piece of art opens beginnings. Related to composition, this means the end of writing a piece is actually the beginning of that piece’s life. That piece will go through revisions and different interpretations by performers that sometimes exceed our expectations as composers or fail. These revisions and interpretations are the piece’s breath, and through the the changes, both good and bad, it breathes and survives. If we are lucky as composers, our pieces do more than survive, they enter the repertory canon and thrive.
Just as we hope and do our best for the best outcome for each piece we create, we should approach life with the same positivity and hopefulness. I am finding the more that I stay positive, the more energy I have to work hard to create beginnings in each perceived ending, and this results in opportunities arising of which I’ve never dreamed. This is true for everyone. We all have everything we need right now to experience success, however large or small.
Since I’ve moved to New York, I have enjoyed success, endured failure, but most importantly have changed. It took and still takes everything I have to survive here and only now do I feel that I’m starting to thrive. But like pieces of music, all of these things make up who I am and what I will eventually become and all that I can do in the mean time is breathe. In fact, that is all any of us can do between endings and beginnings–breathe.