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Composer Devin Burke

Composer Devin Burke

Today’s interviewee is composer and musicologist Devin Burke, who has a particular interest in how music relates to the deaf community, and has composed music targeted at the deaf (which sounds almost too easy, but is actually a fascinating concept.) He’s also co-host of the online radio show Music Declassified.

Devin, can you tell me a little bit about yourself – where you’re from and why you decided to pursue music?

I’m technically from the great American Southwest (New Mexico), but I’ve lived all over the US, and my family moved to Sweden for two years when I was old enough for it to be a wonderfully eye-opening experience. As for music, my mother is a musician and my father is an engineer, so I think one reason why I became a composer is because I followed in both their footsteps; from my mother I learned about the live and social aspects of making music, and from my father I inherited the curiosity about how music “works,” how to put it together myself.

How would you describe your style – what characterizes your music?

It changes from piece to piece quite a bit. Often I get inspired by text in some way, or some extra-musical idea, which may or may not be explicitly stated in the music but which shapes the way I write. Every style or technique is fair game if it fits the moment, but I do not set out specifically to write “collage music.”

What was the last piece you wrote? What should listeners expect if they hear it?

The last piece I wrote was a cantata for tenor, soprano, choir, strings, and piano called “With Stars and Shells, Rest in Peace.” You can download the sheet music here. I wrote it because I was feeling disconnected to the wars in the Middle East and unable to do anything about it. Writing the piece was a way for me to reengage with what was happening, and I read soldiers’ blogs, writings by families of soldiers as well as literary texts about war. The texts in the piece took bring together all of these perspectives. A listener would hear many different kinds of music, from a large twelve-tone mensuration canon to more quasi-aleatoric moments to a minimalist movement to a tonal double fugue on “Requiescat in Pace/Et in Terra Pax/Dona Nobis Pacem.” The contrasts reflect the different perspectives of each text on the war.

What are you currently working on?

Music that incorporates alternative ways of hearing and specifically music that is inspired by the Deaf community. In 2003, I wrote a piece for saxophone quartet and American Sign Language performer/interpreter. The commission asked for voice and sax quartet, but through an unexpected series of events, I got the idea to reinterpret voice as sign language. I ended up working on it for six months with a wonderful woman who taught me a lot about sign language and the Deaf community, and each time she performed the piece, we had members of the Deaf community in attendance. The whole experience changed my life, and made me rethink what is musical, what is expressive, and what is communicative. It also made me think about how people use music to bring people together, but also sometimes to shut people out. So, long story short, I am working on some new music that follows up where that first piece, which was called Movements, left off. Since writing that piece, I have also been doing a great deal of research on the dialectical relationship between the history of music and the history of deafness, beginning especially around the end of the 18th century (Beethoven being only one well-known example of this history). I just finished a document on this subject, and my work in this area will definitely inform the music that I write. The new piece will be scored for percussion ensemble and will be premiered at Case Western Reserve University in spring 2011 under the direction of Paul Cox.

What do you enjoy most about composing?

Collaboration. When I was just starting, composing was a pretty solitary experience. One summer, when I was twelve, I got bit by the composition bug and made a conscious decision to spend hours regularly improvising at the piano and cello, just to see what would come out. As I got better, and began to give my compositions to other people to play, the fun of it became the collaborative aspect. Now what I enjoy most is the interaction of the whole network that surrounds a musical performance: the composer, the performers, the audience, and the venue. Call me old-fashioned, but I love the sense of community that can evolve out of that.

What do you find most difficult about composing?

Finding a balance between virtuosity and simplicity. I try to pare my music down as I revise it to make it more clear for the listener and musicians. I have found, though, that sometimes the more clear you make your music, some people will confuse virtuosity and opaqueness for substance and will not take the music as seriously. One cure for this: writing for youth ensembles! Writing for a high school string orchestra was probably the hardest piece I have ever had to write, because you can’t assume anything and have to make your intentions absolutely clear and simple.

What ‘hidden gem’ of a piece would you recommend to people?

Here’s the first thing that comes to mind: I love Frank Martin’s music and hope that he continues to receive more recognition. I would recommend two pieces; the moderately thorny but hauntingly moving Polyptyque for violin and two small string orchestras, and a more accessible but aggressively innovative powerhouse of a piece, the Piano Trio on Irish Folk Songs [Klaviertrio Über Irländische Volkslieder].

For the Polyptyque, there are a number of good recordings out there, including one by Yehudi Menuhin, who commissioned the piece (and said “When I play the “Polyptyque” by Frank Martin I feel the same responsibility, the same exaltation as when I play Bach’s ‘Chaconne.’”) For the Trio, by far the best recording I have come across is by Trio Artemis. No one comes close to the energy that they put into their performance.

Great suggestion – I love Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir, which I sang when I was in college. Are there any upcoming composers that you particularly admire? Anyone we should keep an eye on?

Scott Perry and Mei-Fang Lin have always impressed me. Scott is extremely talented, and does everything; his myspace page is http://www.myspace.com/saccobakunin. He is working on his PhD at UC Davis, while Mei-Fang is teaching at Texas Tech. She is ridiculously good, and it has always astounded me how fast her music makes its way into the hands of performers, like it has a mind of its own. You can listen to some of Mei-Fang’s music here.

Do you have any sound clips of your compositions that you can share with us today?

Yes. This first piece is called Mein Vater, mein Vater, a fantasy on Franz Schubert’s Der Erlkönig for solo clarinet, performed by David Hein, clarinet.

Devin Burke – Mein Vater, mein Vater

What I love the most about the clarinet is the amazing palette of colors and characters available within its range. When I was asked to write a solo piece, I thought of Schubert’s setting of Der Erlkönig because in that lied, he asks one singer to sing three very different voices. The drama of Schubert’s setting hinges upon the way one singer creates the impression that these voices interact, and especially in the way the voice of the Elf-king eventually overwhelms the range and style of the father and son, who repeatedly calls to his father “Mein Vater, mein Vater!”. I wanted to do something similar with the clarinet, to explore the different voices in the instrument while freely borrowing motives and ideas from the Schubert lied. Since the clarinet can do many things that a singer cannot, I also wanted to extend some of Schubert’s ideas in various ways. One doesn’t necessarily need to know the Schubert setting inside and out for the piece to work I think, but in the past it has made a nice program to perform the Schubert back-to-back with the fantasy. You can download the sheet music for Mein Vater, mein Vater here.

On a personal note, I very much enjoyed collaborating with Jordan Webster, for whom I wrote the piece.

This second recording is from my String Trio, Mvt. II (Largo cantabile), performed by Courtney Hanna-McNamara, Hillary Nordwell, and Steven Girard.

Devin Burke – String Trio, mvt II

This is an earlier piece of mine, written in 2000, but I thought I’d share it because I think it has aged well (so far!) In the context of the complete String Trio, this Largo cantabile is surrounded by two perpetual-motion movements that are nothing like it. This second movement represents a quiet eye-of-the-storm, and can function as a stand-alone piece for this reason. The harmonic vocabulary of the movement uses non-functional harmony: stacked fifths function as a kind of authentic cadence, and stacked fourths function as a kind of half cadence throughout the piece. These intervals tie the movement to sounds of the distant past, especially the cadential fifths of medieval and renaissance vocal music. Like early music singers, the string players are asked to play with very little vibrato. Overall, the feeling of this movement might be described as a quiet, almost confined kind of expression that continually tries to break through.

Some additional sound clips are available on the web at http://devinburke.wordpress.com/.

Do you have a website that people can visit?

I have some of my music up at http://devinburke.wordpress.com/ and I also have an online radio show that I co-host via Skype with a friend in Chicago, Andrew Cashner. The show is called Music Declassified, and you can catch it on our website http://www.musicdeclassified.com or on Live365. I also have a third site that I am starting to put together as a resource especially for younger composers at http://composersrehearsing.tumblr.com/ It’s meant to be forum for composers about how to rehearse their works and will have lots of video footage of composers rehearsing. It’s the kind of thing that I would have loved to have known about as an undergrad composer.

Thank you to composer Devin Burke for taking part in this interview today, and for sharing your music with us.

Composer Alexandra Bryant

Composer Alexandra T Bryant

In today’s interview we talk to Alexandra T Bryant, a composer who has received commissions from the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra and William Preucil (concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra), and winner of the 2010 Avalon Composition Competition.

1. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself – where you’re from and why you decided to pursue music?
I was born and raised in Western Washington and grew-up in a very musical family.  My mom is a violin teacher, teaches orchestra at a high school near by, conducts plays in the Tacoma Symphony, conducts a local youth orchestra, and plays gigs around the area, and my dad plays classical guitar, so I was influenced very early on by both my parents.  I started violin at a very young age, taking private lessons, and was involved in two youth orchestras, my high school choir, and was teaching violin to young children all before I graduated high school.
Being a very craft oriented individual, I’ve always been drawn to creating things, whether it’s sewing something for a friend as a gift, making up new recipes (I LOVE baking!!!! and cooking as well!), finding out how something is constructed and reconstructing it myself, I’ve always been a very hands-on kind of person.
I began writing music in high school as a way to express my creative output, but also because I would hear a work and come to a section that I was not completely satisfied with.  I would want to change and manipulate the written parts; I wanted to feel a complete sense of satisfaction once the piece had ended.  I have this favorite story of one of my teachers during a lesson.  It was while I was playing Bach that she stopped me and asked if I could play the rhythms that Bach had written and not my own, with which I replied, “Well, I guess I see what Bach wrote as… guidelines.”  She retorted back, “Lexi, you see ALL composer’s works a guidelines!”
When I was auditioning and applying for schools in my senior year, I intended to be a performance major.  Performing has always been a passion of mine (practicing, however… has not!).  During my first few semesters, I became more and more drawn to writing my own music.  During the summer of my freshman and sophomore years, I attended the Mark O’Connor Fiddle Camp in San Diego, where my eyes were opened to so many different facets of music that I was aware of, but had never really immersed myself into.  It was then that I decided I wanted to transfer to a conservatory and actually focus on writing music.
2. How would you describe your style – what characterizes your music?
My music is very tonally rooted, which is difficult for me to say, because I feel a number of composers say similar things, yet I never feel it as strongly in their music.  I’m more than happy and certainly not ashamed to have a series of perfect fifths – to allow the listener a melody, or to sit “in a key” for a while before shifting to another “tonal center.”  I guess you could say that I believe there are fundamentals of music that should never be left behind.  Finding “new” ways to stretch that sense of a “key” and push the listener just beyond that point of comfort, is a way that I’m working on expanding my vocabulary.  I think it’s so important to allow the listener a place to relax and to give them a feeling of ease, but allowing their ears to bend and stretch in a way they may not have before.
3. What was the last piece you wrote? What should listeners expect if they hear it?
The piece I just completed, Circuits, was a work for the Aspen Music Festival and is written for percussion ensemble.  It calls for three percussionists to play one marimba simultaneously.  This piece is based off a lot of “grooves” and repetitions (which is where the title evolved from).  It begins with a slower section and progressively grows into this very rhythmically driven finale.  It’s just a “fun” piece, not something as serious as a lot of my other works tend to me.
4. What are you currently working on? Any exciting projects in the works?
Phew!  Well, I’m starting to think about all of my DMA applications and have talked to my current teacher about I need to make my portfolio as strong and diverse as possible.  I just started a brass quintet of miniatures, which is in total contrast to pretty much everything else I love to write!  My music is generally string heavy and very broad and expansive.  This piece is meant to be as much of a contrast as possible, and it’s pushing me to look and my music differently, which is great!
I’m also working on a commission for a duo in Houston called Duo Scordatura for violin and viola, which I’m very excited about.  String writing is where I feel my strength lies.  It’s so natural for me – it never feels forced.
In addition, I’m also very slowly working on a massive work for choir and orchestra, but we’ll leave that as is for a little surprise in the future!  (It’ll probably be a few years in the making…)
5. What do enjoy most about composing?
Expressing myself and just being who I am!
6. What do you find most challenging about composing?
It’s hard sometimes to move on from one piece to the next, because you’ve been so immersed in a certain sound, texture, color, and style that all your thoughts have been focused so intensely on one work.  It’s especially difficult when you’re very pleased with the work or have witnessed some success with it.  It can cause you to feel as though, “well, since that was well received, I guess I should write all my music in the idiom.”
7. What music do you most enjoy listening to? Who do you most admire?
I love listening to classical, most obviously, but really enjoy getting my mind off of that and listening to mindless music like pop.  It’s something where you don’t really have to pay attention, which every one needs every once in a while.  I also love and have a soft spot in my heart from classic rock… :)  My dad got me hooked early on in my life.
8. What ‘hidden gem’ of a piece would you recommend to people (old or new)?
I have a strong love for Ernest Bloch.  He’s not necessarily your common household name in the music world, but he has written some terrific works.  His Evocations, in three movements, is an excellent orchestra piece in my opinion.  I’ve listened to it many, many times and never seems to get tired of it!
9. Are there any upcoming composers that you particularly admire? Anyone we should keep an eye on?
[I'm going to skip this question...  If I think of anything soon, I'll e-mail you and let you know]
10. Do you have any sound clips or (even better) sheet music of your compositions that you can share with us today?
[Hmmm... I'm not on my computer right now... I can send you something tonight... PESTER me and write me back and I'll be like, "okay, okay!!!  I'll do it right now!!!]
11. Do you have a website that people can visit? Any other comments?
[We're working on my website right now...  AHHHHHH!!!!  We just need to ACTUALLY do it and buy a domain and everything... blah!!  Hopefully by the end of August when we're both back in Austin we can get it all finished up and posted... When do you think this article will be published?]

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself – where you’re from and why you decided to pursue music?

I was born and raised in western Washington and grew-up in a very musical family.  My mom is a violin teacher, teaches orchestra at a high school near by, conducts plays in the Tacoma Symphony, conducts a local youth orchestra, and plays gigs around the area, and my dad plays classical guitar, so I was influenced very early on by both my parents.  I started violin at a very young age, taking private lessons, and was involved in two youth orchestras, my high school choir, and was teaching violin to young children all before I graduated high school.

Being a very craft oriented individual, I’ve always been drawn to creating things, whether it’s sewing something for a friend as a gift, making up new recipes (I LOVE baking!!!! and cooking as well!), finding out how something is constructed and reconstructing it myself, I’ve always been a very hands-on kind of person.

I began writing music in high school as a way to express my creative output, but also because I would hear a work and come to a section that I was not completely satisfied with.  I would want to change and manipulate the written parts; I wanted to feel a complete sense of satisfaction once the piece had ended.  I have this favorite story of one of my teachers during a lesson.  It was while I was playing Bach that she stopped me and asked if I could play the rhythms that Bach had written and not my own, with which I replied, “Well, I guess I see what Bach wrote as… guidelines.”  She retorted back, “Lexi, you see ALL composer’s works a guidelines!”

When I was auditioning and applying for schools in my senior year, I intended to be a performance major.  Performing has always been a passion of mine (practicing, however… has not!).  During my first few semesters, I became more and more drawn to writing my own music.  During the summer of my freshman and sophomore years, I attended the Mark O’Connor Fiddle Camp in San Diego, where my eyes were opened to so many different facets of music that I was aware of, but had never really immersed myself into.  It was then that I decided I wanted to transfer to a conservatory and actually focus on writing music.

How would you describe your style – what characterizes your music?

My music is very tonally rooted, which is difficult for me to say, because I feel a number of composers say similar things, yet I never feel it as strongly in their music.  I’m more than happy and certainly not ashamed to have a series of perfect fifths – to allow the listener a melody, or to sit “in a key” for a while before shifting to another “tonal center.”  I guess you could say that I believe there are fundamentals of music that should never be left behind.  Finding “new” ways to stretch that sense of a “key” and push the listener just beyond that point of comfort, is a way that I’m working on expanding my vocabulary.  I think it’s so important to allow the listener a place to relax and to give them a feeling of ease, but allowing their ears to bend and stretch in a way they may not have before.

What was the last piece you wrote? What should listeners expect if they hear it?

The piece I just completed, Circuits, was a work for the Aspen Music Festival and is written for percussion ensemble.  It calls for three percussionists to play one marimba simultaneously.  This piece is based off a lot of “grooves” and repetitions (which is where the title evolved from).  It begins with a slower section and progressively grows into this very rhythmically driven finale.  It’s just a “fun” piece, not something as serious as a lot of my other works tend to me.

What are you currently working on? Any exciting projects in the works?

Phew!  Well, I’m starting to think about all of my DMA applications and have talked to my current teacher about how I need to make my portfolio as strong and diverse as possible.  I just started a brass quintet of miniatures, which is in total contrast to pretty much everything else I love to write!  My music is generally string heavy and very broad and expansive.  This piece is meant to be as much of a contrast as possible, and it’s pushing me to look and my music differently, which is great!

I’m also working on a commission for a duo in Houston called Duo Scordatura for violin and viola, which I’m very excited about.  String writing is where I feel my strength lies.  It’s so natural for me – it never feels forced.

In addition, I’m also very slowly working on a massive work for choir and orchestra, but we’ll leave that as is for a little surprise in the future!  (It’ll probably be a few years in the making…)

What do enjoy most about composing?

Expressing myself and just being who I am!

What do you find most challenging about composing?

It’s hard sometimes to move on from one piece to the next, because you’ve been so immersed in a certain sound, texture, color, and style that all your thoughts have been focused so intensely on one work.  It’s especially difficult when you’re very pleased with the work or have witnessed some success with it.  It can cause you to feel as though, “well, since that was well received, I guess I should write all my music in the idiom.”

What music do you most enjoy listening to? Who do you most admire?

I love listening to classical, most obviously, but really enjoy getting my mind off of that and listening to mindless music like pop.  It’s something where you don’t really have to pay attention, which every one needs every once in a while.  I also love and have a soft spot in my heart from classic rock… :)  My dad got me hooked early on in my life.

What ‘hidden gem’ of a piece would you recommend to people (old or new)?

I have a strong love for Ernest Bloch.  He’s not necessarily your common household name in the music world, but he has written some terrific works.  His Evocations, in three movements, is an excellent orchestra piece in my opinion.  I’ve listened to it many, many times and never seems to get tired of it!

You can find Ernest Bloch sheet music at MyLiszt.com, including sheet music for Evocations. Thank you Alexandra T Bryant for taking the time to give this interview.

Recordings

I’m delighted to say that Alexandra has been kind enough to provide recordings of two of her compositions, which you can hear below.

This first recording is the fourth movement of the string quartet The Still Point, which was inspired by TS Eliot’s Burnt Norton. This movement’s title is IV. Time Present. The performers are The Aeolus Quartet (who will feature here in a future interview).

I asked Alexandra to talk a little bit about this string quartet, and in particular the fourth movement Time Present. Here’s what she had to say.

“What a perplexing mystery time is. One is constantly caught between then and now and how to separate what has been from what is and what will be. In nothingness lies a sense of stillness that is so utterly persistent, yet longing to move forward into something more than a constant stasis, that it resultantly manifests itself into something more; a continuous, unbroken reality of what once was. It Moves Perpetually in its Stillness.”

“I see time here as a progression from nothingness to uncertainty. Moves Perpetually in its Stillness lends itself to being of Time Past, and the awkwardness of what is now continually becoming what was. Between what was and is ultimately must therefore be Between Un-Being & Being and inevitably must become what is, Time Present, and because of the uncertainty of what will be there is the Transient Beauty to that mystery, but soon after the Time Future, it is that feeling of expectation that still lingers off far, far into the distance that can sustain us, that White Light Still & Moving.”

Time Present is constantly driven, relentless, and agitated… The here and now flies by, and one is constantly running from one activity to the next. It feels as though there is never down to, or only the slightest moment of repose. This is Time Present.”

Hit play below to hear the recording.

The Still Point – iv. Time Present

The second recording is a piece of electronic music called Static. I asked Alexandra to tell us a little more about this piece.

“Static was my first attempt at electronic music. It experiments with different sounds by incorporating man-made, material sounds with real recorded human voices. The work focuses on a sound-world almost entirely taken from patches I made on a Jupiter-8 we had in the lab. How I loved that keyboard!! (I secretly wish I could take it home with me… as well as my favorite patch which I created and used in great abundance in this work). I not only work with the different sounds in this piece (most evidently ’static’), but also took advantage of the voices and used them as a foundation for color and texture as well. By cutting out a specific consonant or syllable from one person’s recording and repeating it in a rhythm, I could create a layer of sound or a certain ‘beat’ or ‘groove’.”

“While working on this piece, I have to admit that I madly searched the halls of CIM for my friends to drag them into the recording studio and get them to sit in front of a microphone and say ’silly words and phrases’ for me. It’s special and sentimental, because almost every one of my closest friend’s at that time is included in the track.”

Static

We hope you’ve enjoyed today’s interview. Thank you again to Alexandra T Bryant for taking the time to answer our questions and generously providing recordings of her work. If you’re interested in performing one of her pieces, or commissioning a new work, you can contact her at alexandratbryant@gmail.com. If you want to hear more of her work, please check out the following links.

Alexandra T Bryant – Apostrophe – Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra

Alexandra T Bryant – The Open – William Preucil, Arthur Rowe

David Cutler has a splendid blog and website over at the Savvy Musician, plus an email newsletter and a book. I highly recommend that you read what he has to say – as he’s got a lot of great things to say about marketing for musicians.

One recent newsletter and blog post caught my eye in particular. David ran into a musician busking on Santa Monica pier, and conducted an interview with him. In the interview, the musician (Terry Prince) mentioned that he had sold 15,000 copies of his CD while busking, which is truly astonishing. Terry plays at the pier for 3 hours each day, 5 days a week, for 2 weeks each month. At $10/CD that adds up to $150K in 18 months, for 540 hours of work (30 hours/month). To look at it another way, he sells 30 CDs/hour, or one every two minutes while playing (earning $300/hour), which seems almost unbelievable, but I guess is possible, if a handful of people buy a CD after each song he plays.

Here’s the full interview.

What can we learn from this?

  • People will pay for physical goods. We see this over-and-over again: people will happily pay for newspapers, but aren’t willing to pay to read that same content online.
  • If marketing is the process of getting yourself noticed by a lot of people, then busking in a busy location must be one of the best forms of marketing. Total cost: $40/year for a license from the City of Santa Monica.
  • Being noticed by lots of people isn’t much good (financially) unless you have  a product to sell them. Terry Prince says that he makes far more money selling CDs than he does from people giving him tips. The same is also true on the internet – 5000 visitors a month to your website is worth just a trickle of advertising income, but if you have an appropriate $40 product to sell them, then you can probably make around $2000/month.

One surprising trend in music is the rise in popularity of video game music, such as this set of results for Aerith’s theme sheet music that you can find on MyLiszt.com.

Video games have pretty much always had accompanying music, but the poor quality of early computer sound cards and speakers resulted in video game music which was annoying rather than popular. However over time this has changed, in particular in Japan, where it is fairly common for a video game soundtrack to be released as an album, much like movie soundtracks are released elsewhere.

One of the top video game composers is Nobuo Uematsu, who worked on the later games in the Final Fantasy series, producing a number of popular pieces of music. Listen to this Youtube clip of Aerith’s theme played on piano – an undeniably beautiful piece.

Until recently, if you wanted to play this for yourself, you would have been unlikely to find Aerith’s theme sheet music in your local music store, so video game music was something of a quirky pastime for talented musicians who were able to listen to a piece and then play it by ear. One of the pioneers in this field is pianist Martin Leung, a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music, a highly respected classical conservatory, who shot to fame with his series of Youtube videos, where he styled himself “The Video Game Pianist”. There’s a whole bunch of clips on Youtube – some virtuoso (see 4:45+ in the video) and some sublime. The clip below is taken from the Video Games Live conference – as you listen you can hear how the audience appreciates their favorite themes.

Of course, not everyone is as talented as Martin Leung, but if you’re interested in having a go at learning some of your favorite video game repertoire, then you can find several versions of Aerith’s theme sheet music and Tifa’s theme sheet music (both by Nobuo Uematsu) at our sheet music search engine. Enjoy!