I love eBay—the great thrift store in the sky—and have been pretty active on the site as both a buyer and seller since I was in grad school. Recently David Coggins, one of my favorite writers on “men’s issues” such as what clothes to wear, asked me to write about my eBay watch list for his new website, The Contender. For those unfamiliar, the watch list is a kind of purgatory for auctions you’ve got your eye on but either can’t rationalize or can’t afford. It’s a real window to the soul, in other words.
Continuing the summer’s flurry of albums, Chris Thompson’s new LP Everything Imaginable Comes True is out. I was happy to design the incredibly fancy and labor-intensive packaging for it. The entire sleeve is letterpress-printed and suitable for framing (you can also order a standalone print of the cover art). Not to mention that it’s an excellent and surprising album featuring many of your favorite new music eminences. If you only know Chris as the virtuosic yet self-effacing percussionist in Alarm Will Sound—then you need to hear his music.
Art & design by me; printed by Middle Press in Brooklyn
Chris Cerrone has a fantastic new album of vocal music out today called The Pieces That Fall To Earth. I was very happy to write the liner notes for it, which you can read at Chris’s website. I’ll also be playing with Theo Bleckmann and Rachel Lee Priday at the NYC album release party on August 2.
And speaking of new albums: ASH is coming out September 27th. This is a collaborative work by Sleeping Giant for cellist Ashley Bathgate, including my own piece Small Wonder. In the meantime, you can watch the video for Jacob Cooper’s hypnotic Ley Line.
I was surprised by the extent to which the arrival of the Work Songs CDs this week made the album feel “real” to me. I don’t often listen to CDs anymore, but I like having a physical representation of something that I’ve worked hard on, but has only ever existed “in the aether.” It also feels much more generous and celebratory to send a CD to people (don’t worry, it comes with a download code). Head on over to the Albums page to get your own copy.
I frequently talk with composition students about the difficulty and necessity of gaining multiple perspectives on one’s own music. When immersed in the minutiae of writing the thing, it’s nearly impossible to understand how a piece will feel to an actual audience. What’s more, you’re unlikely to ever be surprised by hearing yourself, to have your own expectations either foiled or confirmed, when you know what’s around every bend.
I’ve been thinking quite seriously that the best way around this quandary would be for a composer to write so much music that remembering all of it would gradually become impossible. The details of each piece would blur together, such that after enough time had elapsed—say 15 or 20 years—the composer could then listen to a performance of their own work with true objectivity and without preconceptions.
There have been occasions when I’ve felt vertiginous hints of this unlearning process, not yet for entire pieces, but in short bursts. Listening recently to a live recording of It takes a long time to become a good composer, I remembered the major facts of the piece, but found myself surprised by the way certain transitions unfolded, or how many times a figure repeated. It struck me as being one of my strangest pieces, not disagreeably so, but in the tenuous ways the chunks of music related to each other, like floating objects in a surrealist painting. It takes a long time is nearly a decade old, but it’s not a piece I’ve heard performed frequently or recorded, which is perhaps why it makes a good case study. I’m excited to neglect it for another decade, writing another 50-something pieces in the meantime, and revisit this experiment in 2029.
A short bulletin to let you know that today is the wide release of Work Songs. You can (finally!) listen to the album on the platform of your choice—I suggest Bandcamp—and you can also order a physical, tangible CD, which will ship next month. I’m pleased as punch to have this long-gestating, short-playing work out in the wide world. For much more about it, read this post.
Here’s the “single,” to a poem by Andrea Cohen:
performers Becca Stevens, voice & guitar; Gabriel Kahane, voice & guitar; Ted Hearne, voice; Nathan Koci, accordion; Taylor Levine, guitar; Timo Andres, piano & keyboard
After the past week’s flurry of premières, I’m turning back into a pianist in preparation for a solo recital at Caramoor on June 20. It’s the same program west-coasters might’ve heard in San Francisco, interlacing selections from Janáçek’s On An Overgrown Path with recent works by Caroline Shaw, Eric Shanfield, and Christopher Cerrone. Here’s a “curatorial statement” in answer to your questions: “what and why?”
There’s a good reason for all the evocative titles on this program, which is that all the works are based on visual images, either real or imagined. What I liked was that all the pieces have to do with different mediums, or chains of mediums, like a game of inspirational telephone. Caroline’s Gustave le Gray is named after a pioneer in photography, and is half an analogue to his images, and half an imagined portrait of the photographer himself. Chris was inspired by an artist friend’s rendering of a beautiful brutalist bridge in southern Italy—the two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional form, translated into a musical form. Eric’s Utopia Parkway is an homage to the sculptor Joseph Cornell—musical “objects” move against each other in shifting positions, like the objects in one of Cornell’s shadow boxes.
And it’s not known exactly what inspired the titles of Janáçek’s On An Overgrown Path, though I believe they were given only just before being published—it seems likely they were images or phrases out of his own head. But they are amazingly evocative in a way that is pictorial but nonetheless abstract.
I suppose what I’m trying to “say”, if one can speak through one’s programming, is that the way an artist sees art and the world is not usually confined to a single form or discipline. The qualities that move me in music are the same that move me about a building, a photograph, or a piece of choreography. They’re all related in cryptic ways.
Caramoor is a short Metro-North trip from Grand Central and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s beautiful and the architecture is slightly outrageous. I even composed the bell chimes which summon you To Concert, so the entire evening promises to be something of a Gesamtkunstwerk.
If “classical music” is a niche market, and “new music” a niche within it, then those of us who care deeply about recent developments in notation software must be a small fraction of the population indeed; for us, the advent of Dorico, the first new industrial-strength notation program in decades, has been nothing less than thrilling. By now the circumstances surrounding its birth have been well-told. The progress of the software has also been painstakingly documented. But two and a half years after its initial release, I haven’t seen much written from the perspective of composers about the experience of working in Dorico long-term. I’ve been using it since the first version came out in October of 2016—at first gingerly, on small side projects. At that point I’d spent half my life using Sibelius.
As artists, and especially as composers, our tools matter. We’re using them to make musical scores, which are essentially tools for other people. Anything we can do to make our work more readable, standardized, error-free, and beautiful is something we should feel compelled to do. But our tools have to be well-made and streamlined enough for us to want to use them, too (otherwise we’d all be writing in SCORE). I can’t overstate how nice Dorico is as a daily tool. The interface is clean, crisp, and non-distracting; fonts and icons are sharp and tasteful; palettes and dialogues have efficient and sensible workflows. All the small design choices add up to a coherent whole, just like the details in a well-engraved musical score.
The process of composing is different for everyone, of course. I like to write straight into the computer, sitting at either a piano or a MIDI keyboard. And the actual day-to-day indecision of composing is fluid and graceful in Dorico—jotting down ideas quickly and then wrestling with them over long periods, transforming, cutting, splicing, and rearranging them every which way. You can edit without fear of triggering a cascade of errors and messes elsewhere in the score. The program will never protest about a tuplet; extramusical lines and indications move in lockstep with notes; extraneous rests are cleaned up for you; beams are re-beamed correctly. Its handling of rhythms is so good that it surpasses mere convenience and becomes an actual creative tool. All of these things initially felt, and continue to feel, like small miracles.
The New York Times ran a nice feature today surveying a handful of artists on their favorite five minutes of piano music. (They’ve been doing more pieces like this lately, and fewer reviews—which I suppose is good—they are useful for a broader audience). It’s an impossible question for me to answer, so I decided to narrow it down: what are the most piano‑y five minutes of piano music? What takes advantage of the particular qualities of the piano in such a way that it would be unimaginable to play on any other instrument?
The piano is unique in that it contains its own acoustics, as well as the tools to modulate them. A violin or oboe needs a proper concert hall to sound its best, but all a piano needs is its own case. Inside, 200 or so criss-crossed strings vibrate sympathetically, producing ringing stacks of harmonic feedback—a kind of built-in reverb module. A sensitive pianist can control all of this using minute gradations of the sustain pedal.
I ended up choosing Debussy’s enigmatic prélude La terrasse des audiences du claire de lune (or “the other Clair de Lune”), mostly because I’ve had Debussy on the mind lately, having just finished Stephen Walsh’s excellent new biography (thanks to the thoughtful people at Knopf for sending it to me). Otherwise I think my “alternate” would’ve been the Nocturne Op. 62 No. 1 by Chopin, a piece similarly dense with astonishing twists and details.
In other nocturne news: cellist Caitlin Sullivan has released her début album, which is full of new music from friends & colleagues. It includes a recording we made of my 2008 piece Fast Flows the River for cello and Hammond B3 organ. I’m quite pleased with how the recording turned out; producer Dan Bora created exactly the “warm bath” enveloping the cello that I had in mind. You can listen on Bandcamp or the streaming service of your preference.