Archive for the ‘News’ Category

Another year, another blog entry

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

It’s been a while since the last one, for many reasons.  First, as I tell everyone, a new change in command at TUSAB.  It seems like a lame excuse, but new command means new workflow, and it’s an adjustment, no matter who the new guy is.  For some reason, this year was much busier than usual, and no hope for better this year.  This year, its an inaugural, next year it will be Pageant of Peace.  Left, right, left.

The other reason is that I didn’t feel like I had much to say, particularly about music.  I didn’t write much of anything last year.  No commissions, which was fine for a change because I had lots of other work to keep me busy, as well as my day job.  This year, as of this writing, I have 2 pieces to write, 3 if you include the Symphony I’m working on.  What the heck, I’ll write more about that later, once my panic attack subsides…

Actually, I do have a lot to say about music, but it’s more than can be easily written (typed) in one sitting.  I also had one of those self-censoring moments where I wondered if anyone actually read my blog, or if I even had anything to say, about music or anything else.  The problem with a blog is that it’s tempting to write what you’re actually thinking.  If I did that, it would be mostly complaints and lists of things I find ridiculous about the human species.  That just makes you sound like an asshole, and I’m not an asshole!  At least I hope I’m not one.  BUT that seems to be what people want to read.

2012 did have some ups and downs.  The Mayan Apocalypse apparently came and went!  I had one of the tougher bits of copy-work come across my desk on the Kennedy Center Honors (blasted Prokofiev!).  I went hiking, went on a few more wine tours, spent some more time with my camera & sweet lenses, got to see my family at Xmas for the first time in about 12 years.  All in all, a good year.

I do have some exciting gear upgrades in the works.  I’m going to get a copy of the new-fangled Band in a Box, with the real tracks and everything.  Also looking forward to trying the EZDrummer series of products.  Looks promising.

I would also like to do a review of some ZOOM products.  I like my ZOOM stuff.  More to come.


Saturday, April 9th, 2011

When a commissioning body makes the decision to grant you a sum of money to write a piece of music, they take quite a risk. I don’t care who the composer is, it’s a risk. It’s an even greater leap of faith to do it with very little guideline or specifics, beyond instrumentation, given to the composer.

Such was the case with my latest commission from Bishop Ireton High School. The only specifics in the contract were regarding duration, instrumentation, some non-specific language about being challenging for the kids, and words that I translated to mean “artsy but not too weird”.

When writing a piece for commission, the biggest temptation is to produce something that’s bleeding with notes, scales, “flash”, etc. because, by-gum, you’re going to earn that money, one note at a time! There’s also the temptation to make it sound “band-y”; I’m not sure how best to describe that, but go listen to a couple of hours of band music and I think you’ll catch my drift. I’ve come to abhor the “vanilla” sound that band music can have, so I try to avoid that. Not having strings isn’t a problem, it’s an opportunity. Hindemith and Schoenberg found things to do with the band, so what would be my excuse for not doing the same?

In preparation, Randall Eyles, the wind ensemble director, graciously sent me a pile of CD’s to listen to, so I set aside an “immersion day” to get their ensemble sound in my ears, as well as the band sound. I abandoned that after about 15 minutes of listening, however, because I found that I could think more creatively with no outside influences.

When I have a pre-determined amount of time to write something, I try to set aside a proportional amount of it to think, then write; for example, if I have 4 months to write something, I take 3 to 3 1/2 to think about it, then 2 weeks to write. If it’s only a day, a day of writing it is! I had roughly 6 months with this piece, so I thought for 5, wrote for 1. My initial plan was to write a folk suite using some very engaging ancient tunes from the Ukraine. I had it pretty well thought out – 3 contrasting movements, kind of like the various English folk song suites. It was going to practically write itself. Another classic!

Approaching the deadline, writing was going well, ahead of schedule, but something didn’t feel right. I was working on the middle movement, based on a heart-wrenching tune titled “Suffering Mother Stood by the Cross”, and something clicked. I started thinking about my grandmother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and my recent visit to her nursing home before Thanksgiving. It was an oddly traumatic experience. I’d lost 3 of my grandparents in my early teens, but it had never really made much of an emotional impact on me; being a dopey teen, I had other things on my mind. My experiences with death throughout my life have always been odd; I’m very uncomfortable with death. I’ve never really been able to face it, and here it was, staring me in the face in the form of a person who didn’t even know who I was, despite the fact that she watched me grow from a little baby to a man in his mid-30’s. It was traumatic and disturbing on a profound level that I couldn’t fathom, much less articulate.

Pondering this, the tune of “Suffering Mother…” took a poignant twist. It became a depiction of that moment in time. I made the decision to scrap (save for later) what I had written up to that point, and make the entire piece a large one-movement work on this tune, but that didn’t sit entirely right either.

The trouble with working on existing material (other than the fact that it isn’t yours) is that you are confined to work within its boundaries, whatever they might be, for better or worse. I kept most of what I’d written, re-tooled around a melody I’d scribbled out based loosely on the original melody with some added wiggle-room. I added a motif of open 5ths in the marimba to begin the piece, which became a pivotal part of it in the end. The marimba is such a unique sound; here it was an odd combination of the incessant drum-beat of time, cold and uncaring, the tone empty and childlike at the same time.

I honestly don’t put a whole lot of my heart into most of my music, at least consciously, as I find composition to be a largely cold, intellectual exercise. In this case, however, it was very emotionally trying to finish the piece. I equate it to an emotional blood-letting. I remember remarking to my wife early on in the re-write, “writing this piece is taking me to a dark place”. I’d come downstairs for lunch and end up breaking into tears, the memory of the previous few measures of writing, or the narrative I was depicting, still fresh in my head.

Painful as it was, it needed to be done this way. It’s easy for me to put notes on the page, but digging deep into the dark, uncomfortable depths of my soul was something I hadn’t done, and it needed to be done to tell the story.

Q & A

Friday, April 1st, 2011

I’ve been working recently with the Wind Ensemble at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, VA. They will be performing a work they commissioned from me titled “Somnambulant”, with yours truly at the podium on April 16th at 7:30pm. I’ll write more about the piece itself later, but yesterday we had a brief question and answer session before rehearsal, which I thought I’d summarize here:


1. What’s the piece (Somnambulant) about?

Short answer – my grandmother, who is in the mid-to-late stages of Alzheimer’s. See program notes for specifics.

2. When writing a piece how do you come up with your material?

I start with a melody, or melodic fragment, harmony or rhythm and build from there as it grows organically. Sometimes it starts as one or the other, sometimes it’s a combination.

3. Is this the first school band you’ve written for?

The first high school band, yes. The 2nd school overall; the 1st was Oklahoma State University.

4. When did you know you wanted to be a musician for a living?

Somewhere between my senior year in high school and part way through my undergraduate degree. In high school, I was excited about the possibility of being able to do nothing but study music all day, every day, but I was unsure of whether or not it was possible to make a living at it. Eventually I came to the realization that as long as I worked hard and built good relationships, money would take care of itself.

5. What ensemble to you like to write for most?

Probably orchestra, otherwise I have no preference. I started out writing for trombone ensembles, because it was my instrument, which I still like to write for.

6. Of the pieces you’ve written, which is your favourite?

It’s a toss-up between “Eviler Elves”, for concert band, and “Symphonic Fantasy”, a 3-movement piece for orchestra.

7. How old were you when you wrote your first piece?

When I was about 6 or 7, I briefly (and unsuccessfully) studied piano, and one assignment was to write a piano piece called “the Circus”, although it was kind of silly, and wouldn’t really count as a “composition”, at least not to me. After that, probably about 16 or 17, I wrote a piece for trombone choir.

8. How do you deal with writer’s block?

I take a break, then come back to it later. I think of myself like a re-chargeable battery: once I’m spent, I need to take some time and let things re-charge. It works the same with writing words or music, at least for me.

9. Are there things you like to do besides music?

Yes. I like video games (like Fallout), leatherworking, HAM radio, things computer-related, plus many others (cooking, gardening, coffee, tea, archery). I like to be well-rounded.

10. What’s your ideal location for writing music?

In my home, in my office, or at my piano in my living room. There are times when I don’t get to choose my location, but when I can, I prefer to write at home.

11. Do you get ideas when you’re doing random things (like driving)? If so what do you do?

Yes, all the time. I try to keep the idea going (as much as safety allows), and trust that if it’s catchy enough and sticks with me, I’ll remember it long enough to be able to write it down.

12. Who are musicians you admire?

Too many to mention. Off the top of my head, Top 5 – Dmitri Shostakovich, Eugene Corporon, Joseph Alessi, Thom Yorke, Bernard Herrmann. (I think I said Lady Gaga, but I was just trying to be cute)

The Road, the Gear

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

(originally written Sep. 22nd)

Hey Superfans. I’m blogging somewhat from “The Road”, which for some reason has lost a smidgen of its former allure for me. I don’t know, I guess having a steady job, being on my own schedule, sleeping in my own bed and eating my own food for a number of years has cured me of it. Still, I get to see new places, eat new foods, drink local brews. Plus, it gives me some stuff to write about! (I’ll talk about opening beer bottles without a bottle-opener later on)

First, some bits of gear review. If I’m going to be out for at least 5 days, and/or have charts in the queue, I’ll almost always bring a computer with me, unless I know for certain that there will be a music lab where I’m going. Example, I went to the Lawrence University in Appleton, WI in 2006, and I was able to use their more-than-adequate computing facility in their College of Fine Arts, and got lots of work done. As is the usually the case anywhere else I’d go, I have to schlepp my own gear. Here’s what I brought this time:

1) LAPTOP (make/model unimportant) – since we’re fully into the 21st century, or as I like to call it “the monumental disappointment”, every-freaking body has a laptop, and why shouldn’t they? They’re so handy. Mine is govt.-issued, so its bigger, outdated, and free (but not technically “mine”); it also has all of the pertinent files for this “mission”. You can get a PC cheaper, but the Mac’s have neat bells n’ whistles, so take your pick. Hotels and various venues seem to be going the wireless internet route, so that capability is kind of a must.

2) MOUSE – seems like a superfluous thing, but personally, I absolutely have to have a mouse, and it has to be a full-sized mouse. Doing Finale work with a trackpad is like scrubbing a gymnasium floor with a toothbrush.

3) MIDI CONTROLLER – this trip is the maiden voyage for my newly acquired KORG NANOKey, an ultra-portable midi controller. KORG makes a few other NANO- components, for what I can only assume must be location-driven DJ-types, or DSP composers, which I don’t do. This one is OK; keys can be a little stiff, but it’s better that pecking keys using *cringe* Simple Entry. The best thing about this keyboard by far is that it’s super-slim, and packs very easily into a backpack, which I like especially for plane rides, where space is a premium (I prefer to pack light). It is, however, no match for my stationary 61-key at home.

4) Various cables, USB “flash” drives, Ethernet crossover cable. You never know when you’ll need them, or if they’d come in handy. I was able to print from the hotel printer only because I had a flash drive.

If I were doing a “remote” gig that required a small keyboard, where I could get there by car, I’d go with the Oxygen 8 that has served me so well these many years. Now if only they’d come up with a 64-bit driver… (grumble) I’d also bring an standard USB qwerty keyboard that has a 10-key number pad. I might invest in a USB 10-key pad someday.

Piano music… for trombones.

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

I made a pledge to myself once: “I will never transcribe or arrange anything for trombones, ever again”.

Ok, hang on… let me explain. Trombone players are a desperate lot, and I’m a trombone player, so trust me, I’m not just saying that to be a jerk. We beg, borrow and steal from everyone. Bassoons, Cellists, Horn players, Flute players, clarinet players, oboe players… piano players.

Ugh… So what’s an instrument family to do? The only sane & safe answer seems to be to write original music for trombone. It’s not as bad as one would think; a good professional trombonist can cover about 4 solid octaves and all dynamic levels, and can create lots of tone colors. And thank the maker, trombone players are a very open-minded and receptive lot (especially if you happen to write good music). BUT, occasionally you have a request for something crazy, and who are you to turn it down? Besides, if anyone asked me how I felt about doing a chart on , I’d be immediately ecstatic, no matter what it was (God, please let it require kazoos). Oh, the exotic life of an arranger.

So, anyway… I’m working on a chart currently that is a transcription of a famous piano piece for, arguably, 4 of the best trombone players in the world. If it were for anyone else, it might be annoying, but I’m ecstatic. If it were any other piece, it would be a bit less of a pain, but I like a challenge, always and everywhere. So on to business!

It’s tricky figuring out how to approach something like this. Lucky for me, I played trombone professionally for a number of years before becoming a chairborne-qualified Finale Ranger, so I know some tricks. Note to Junior orchestrators: KNOW THY INSTRUMENTS. The most well written music can still sound like garbage if poorly orchestrated.

Back to it… The way I see it, there are 2 ways I could go about skinning this cat:

1) Go literal
2) Go liberal

Some pieces seem like they were written to be played by everything and everybody. Bach chorales, hymn tunes. Easy! Virtuoso piano music? Not so much. It may not always be possible, or practical to represent every single pitch of every single octave. In fact, if it’s a piano piece for any winds, unless you’ve got a full orchestra at your disposal, it just ain’t gonna happen. Most ensembles have enough instruments to cover a pretty good span of octaves, but wind instruments in particular have limits as to where things stop sounding normal.

So it’s time to “go liberal”. It’s the point in my chart-writing where I say “f#@! this, it’s my chart now!” I don’t want to suggest that re-writing is the 1st answer, or that radically changing a piece is the only way to go, or that it really makes it “my piece”. There are instances, however, where an orchestration or arrangement is nearly re-writing the piece; examples that come to mind are: the orchestration of Satie’s “Gymnopedies” by Debussy, Stokowski’s Bach “Prelude & Fugue in D-minor”. With others, it’s either a necessity or an open ivitation to be a little free with the interpretation, Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” for example. Other pieces seem to say “this is exactly how you’re going to orchestrate it, like pretty much any piano piece by Debussy.

What about trombones and kazoos…

Up With People… with guns.

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

You know that it’s time to re-examine your life when the description of the thing-you’re-currently-doing includes “It’s like Up With People… only *fill in blank*”. Seriously, what could possibly go in that that would make it a good thing?

Right after high school, I was in a touring group called “the Kids From Wisconsin”, which (if you aren’t from Wisconsin) is a show troupe of singers & dancers and a small 13-piece band that performed broadway numbers, assorted vaudeville, and top 40’s tunes. It was a tiny bit cornball, very flashy, but very well run, and one of the formative experiences in my life, both as a person and musician. I learned most of the music battlefield lessons in that group, which serve me well to this day. Anyway, I’d heard people describe the show as “well… it’s kinda like Up With People”. Both groups have clips on YouTube, oddly enough, so anyone can check it out. Having never heard them before, I saw a clip of them and I had to grimacingly agree. Sure, it’s the same, maybe if it was run by the USO, which the “Kids” director and creator had actually done in the 50’s. Up until my YouTub-ing I hadn’t heard a performance or otherwise from Up With People, and I’d venture a guess that most people haven’t either, but for some odd Kafka-esque (or Orwellian, take your pick) reason, everyone seems to immediately know, without any further explanation, what “It’s like Up With People…” means.

Anyway, I’m currently on/off the road with the Army’s touring pageant-outreach show, Spirit of America. It is comprised of the various elite Army ceremonial units of the Washington DC area I may have mentioned in a previous post. Fifes and drums, the Army Drill team (my personal favourite) and of course, the US Army Band, “Pershing’s Own”. It’s a 2-act show with a historical drama/musical which gives the TUSAB arrangers a chance to play film composer for a bit, before the “cool stuff” in the 2nd act, performances by the above mentioned ceremonial groups. I overheard a colleague describe it to someone they knew as “Up With People, only with guns.”

Let’s see… singing, check. Positive messages or imagery… mm.., sure, check. Guns? Oh yeah. Lotsa guns. Simulated gunfire of all types in the battle “recreations”, and then the vertigo-inducing drill team gun-juggling. All that cool GI Joe stuff.

Up with People… with guns. Indeed.

Assorted News

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Hey Bloggies,

Alright, it’s been, what, months, weeks? Since my last post? Yeah, sounds about right. Too much to say, not enough time to say it. I always feel that I should be doing my duty as a composer by keeping a daily journal so that musicologists can pore over them and jump to all the wrong conclusions, but who has the time? I tried once; too much other stuff to do. I’ll get better about it…

Stuff I’ll write about later: New piece for Joe Alessi – organ & Tbn., new stuff for Hal Leonard, SOA is kicking into gear at TUSAB – which means I get to kind of play “Film Composer” for a few months anyway, the new Flute Sonata (will probably be the title) still in progress.

The only ‘blog news I have to report, at the time being, is that I’ve disabled comments on this ‘blog. I’ve been on the “internets” for several months, and only 1 actual comment! LOTS of spam. So, if you want to send me fanmail, or whatever, send it to my “info@…” etc. address.

I’m also going to update my sound files, eventually, and put up some photos. I’ve got literally too much stuff to put up there. Plus I don’t like the look of the flash player I chose, so that might change. Soon as I get a minute…

So, onto other news. The trumpet feature I wrote for the Army trumpets, “Fanfare & Cappriccio”, or “I’ve Just Given Up On Creative Titles”, seems to have been generally well accepted. I didn’t hear any bad comments, not that I’m expecting any. It’s always weird with musicians; if you really bomb, you’ll get mostly uncomfortable non-confrontational silences. No one wants to waste the time giving you constructive criticism. That’s practically like giving a free lesson!

The only things I’d really change is the length of the 2nd part; maybe I will. It just seems too short, somehow. That’s been my big problem since day 1: DEVELOPMENT. I can crank out short chunks of music all day long, no problem; developing takes all the effort. I don’t know how other composers do their thing, but that’s my cross to bear.

Anyway, the Army Ceremonial Band + trumpets is playing it this week, part of the Washington-Lee Summer Concert Series. If you’re in DC/Arlington, check it out. It’s most likely free (check first). Thurs 7:30pm at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, VA.

Concert Overture – Done

Monday, April 26th, 2010

Whew! It’s been several weeks since my last post, in which I was writing my Concert Overture for orchestra.

I suppose it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that writing a weblog about writing music, WHILE you’re writing the music, isn’t as easy as it sounds. First, you’re busy writing the music. Second, you’re usually editing it as you write the music, unless you’re some kind of freak of nature. I have a much easier time talking about it after the fact anyway.

When writing for this particular orchestra (or any, I suppose), the first consideration is always instrumentation, because it’s always different, based on whatever else is being performed on that concert. I usually shoot for whatever is biggest on the program, which in this case was Gustav Mahler’s 1st Symphony. I actually like working this way, because it gives me a strike zone to aim for. Sometimes it boxes me in, but in this case, there was a pretty good amount of flexibility, because Mahler scored the symphony for a fairly large orchestra, even for today: winds in 4’s, and 7 horns, lots of percussion, etc., so winds in 3’s and standard brass wouldn’t be at all excessive. GREAT! I typically keep my scoring pretty generic; it’s more challenging, plus it increases the likelihood of a repeat performance.

Conceptually, I was going back and forth between 2 ideas. 1, as I mentioned in the last post, had a distinctly “Mendelssohn” vibe to it. I had the perfect motif and harmony, even the orchestration, but I didn’t like the thought of it preceding (or following) Mahler or Britten on a concert, so I scribbled it down and put it in my “save for later use” file.

Then I decided it might be fun to try a Rimsky-Korsakov style of overture, at least that was my “concept”. Sometimes the concept and the product bear no resemblance whatsoever, but I started out with a few ideas. The first was a bell-toney kind of texture, muted trumpets and glock on the strong beats, and chimes on the after beat. Under that I put a melody in the tubas and horns, followed by a neat set of “fourthy/fifthy” punctuations. I went back and forth about whether or not to double it in the reeds, giving it that sort of “Russian Easter” kind of sound. Eventually I decided to save the reedy sound for the bell-tones of a 2nd statement while I added the tutti strings for the first time, then a big swell to a glorious statement with a nice big cadence. Then I had one of those composer moments of terror that can only be described as a mild case of “writer’s block”. More like “Ok, nice; I’ve got the first 30 seconds. (long pause) Now what?”  Develop, develop, develop…

I mulled over it for a day or two, but after a few days of anxiety, I got over the hurdles. On the last day, I was like a man possessed; I went into “get it done” mode. Years of doing overnight copywork in the Kennedy Center dungeon, being in that situation where you absolutely have to get it done, because rehearsal is in 5 hours, but the librarians need it in 3. I ended up “writing” about 2 1/2 to 3 minutes of music in about 4 hours, fully orchestrated & notated.

I’m not sure it’s going to split any atoms, but it’s done, and I’m happy with it so far. We go “live” in a few weeks.  Stay tuned for details!

Eviler Elves Tonite @ UNT

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

Just a reminder to catch the University of North Texas performing “Eviler Elves”, 7:30pm CST (5:30 PST, 8:30 EST).  I have no doubt that the performance will be spectacular.  Here’s the link for the live web-cast:

I’m told it’s 3rd on the program.  Enjoy!

Eviler Elves at UNT, April 8th

Friday, March 12th, 2010

I just received word from Robert Schwartz at the University of North Texas that the Wind Symphony, under the direction of Eugene Migliaro Corporon, will be performing “Eviler Elves”, my concert band rendition of the similarly named trombone ensemble composition “Evil Elves”.

It will be web/pod-cast live.

Or if you’re in the vicinity, it will probably be in Winspear at 7:30pm CST; verify it locally.

Check it out if you can!