Monday, April 27, 2009

Selecting New Music

It's that time of year when I take a look at what I've written and decide what to send to my publishers. This year, I've overproduced a bit, so I have a few options on what to send. They usually only choose two or three from the eight pieces I submit, so I like to give them a wide variety of styles and ability levels to choose from. They can't all be dark, minor-key pieces or light scherzos and they can't all be intermediate-level pieces. This year I've selected two beginner-level pieces, two advanced pieces, three intermediate-level pieces, and one that sort of crosses in between. Of those, two are "Gauntlet-esque" (minor key, fast tempo), one is a fast major-key selection, two are lighter fare in various keys, and two are what I'd call "novelty" pieces.

I'm still making final adjustments but, more urgently, two of the eight pieces are still untitled. I've put it off for way too long, hoping that the perfect titles would come to me, but now I really need to make some hard decisions - and quick. My goal is to ship off a packet next week.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

New Recordings!

I'm working on the rest of my Classical Top 10, but it will have to wait, because I got my recordings from Alfred Publishing yesterday!

As much as hearing what music they've accepted for their next catalog and actually getting the finished, printed score in my hands, hearing recordings of a professional group playing something I wrote is a magical experience. They did a great job this year. Porcupine Pantomime turned out well - sometimes the pizzicato parts tend to be too quiet, but they achieved a good balance. Quicksilver was done at a good, even tempo with an appropriately rhythmic style. The best, though, is A Hero's Welcome. I got chills when I first heard it and I wrote the thing. The musicians really dug deep to give it emotional heft, leaning into every suspension and bringing out every dynamic change. I'm very impressed.

My only problem with Alfred's recordings is that they're done by a chamber group of about 10 musicians. This works fine for A Hero's Welcome and Porcupine Pantomime, but some pieces, like Quicksilver, would sound better if played by a larger group.

The recordings should be available in a few weeks at www.alfred-music.com - just do a search for "Spata" to find all my recordings.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Doug Spata's Classical Playlist (Part 2)

Here's the second half of my top ten:

6. 'Cello Suite #1 by J.S. Bach. Now, I'm not a huge Bach fan. I find most of his music too pedantic - it's like listening to someone solve a math problem - and when it comes to the Baroque era, I gravitate toward the Italians. If given my choice of Bachs, I will side, without hesitation, with C.P.E. That said, the first 'Cello Suite is something I can really get behind, because there's a real playfulness and room for expression among all the mechanical gears and levers of the piece. My favorite parts are the remarkable Prelude, with its propulsive push and pull, and the set of minuets in the middle, which I have nicknamed "Betty" and "Veronica" (the first is bright and happy, the second is dark and sultry). The thing that impresses me the most, though, is how perfectly executed the piece is. Every note that Bach chose is perfect in its placement, making the unaccompanied 'cello line simultaneously melodic and harmonic. Then it transcends both and achieves a deliciously expressive musicality. The interpretation options are infinite.

7. Short Ride on a Fast Machine by John Adams. Way back in the 1700's the stuff we call "classical" music was synonymous with "popular" music. Over time, though, a distinction has developed and the "classical" tradition has become associated with elitism while "popular" music is for everyday folks to enjoy. The rift reached its zenith in the 1950's when blues-based music became the dominant popular form and Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone composition technique became the favored style for classical composers. This dissonant style is hard to listen to and largely alienated audiences, making "classical" music more unpopular than ever. There were attempts to reconcile the two worlds, but to no avail. Then came John Adams and his "Short Ride on a Fast Machine:" tonal, consonant, uplifting, and fun. Written for the concert hall, but sounding like a film score. Minimalist music had been around a while, but Adams gave us something that was new and cutting-edge and still understandable to the untrained ear. My sincerest hope is that modern composers continue to create approachable works and draw larger audiences to concert halls and I feel that in time, history will credit "Short Ride" as a turning point in the re-popularization of classical music.

8. Symphony No. 7, "Leningrad" by Dmitri Shostakovich. This symphony was the soundtrack to my Junior year in college. It opens with broad chords, like a sunrise over St. Petersburg. Then the trouble starts. A funny little march tune in the flutes. It grows slowly, getting closer and closer and as it approaches, it gets more worriesome. Before you know it, the troops are upon us with terrifying force. That harmless little tune has become, brutal, unforgiving, and destructive. Air raid sirens howl in the violins, bombs explode all around, and machine guns rattle away in the percussion section. When it's all over, the city is a crumbling ruin and death is all around. Shostakovich had originally intended to depict the siege of Leningrad in one movement, but later decided to expand it into a four-movement work. These later movements expound on his ideas and offer hope for the rebuilding of the city. The best part, in my mind, is the subversive nature of the piece. Shostakovich told Russian censors that he was depicting the Nazi invasion of the city, but secretly felt that it was the communists who had destroyed St. Petersburg from the inside, long before Hitler's army showed up.

9. The Planets by Gustav Holst. Such a great tone poem - each movement expresses the character of a mythological god or titan for which a planet is named. The style of each movement is pitch-perfect and the vibrant and colorful orchestrations are really exciting. My favorite parts are (in order) Mercury, Mars, and Jupiter. Mercury whizzes by in a flash of colors and crazy polytonality, the lopsided, relentless march of Mars is truly scary (and often copied - it's a touchstone for tons of movie music) and Jupiter, "the bringer of jolity," is full of joy and is tempered with just a touch of wistful sadness. The other movements are pretty great too, from the broad solo horn that opens Venus to the clamoring chimes of Uranus to the spooky chorus in Neptune. The whole work is so consistently excellent that it never fails to impress. It's also really fun to play.

10. Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun by Claude Debussy. The piece that defines the entire "impressionist" movement, this luminous one-movement work is like a snow globe - a miniature, self-contained fantasy world. The simple augmented scale that opens the piece leads to incandescent harp runs, glowing horns, and wistful, lazy melodies that waft throughout on a cool breeze of violin harmonics. The orchestration is an integral element in the piece, everything in soft edges that just don't translate in a reduction. Also, this prelude is unmistakably Debussy - no one else could have created it and it remains a singular musical achievement.

So that's my top ten. I should note that I limited myself to one piece per composer - otherwise you'd see The Firebird, Mozart's Piano Concerto #20, La Mer, and many others. Hope you enjoyed!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Doug Spata's Classical Playlist (Part 1)

A few weeks ago I wrote out a playlist of some of my favorite pop songs and actually got a response from a commenter, so I thought I'd do it again. As I wrote in that earlier post, I use my iPod when biking in the park, so I prefer to fill it with up-tempo pop songs to keep my momentum going. For this list, I thought I'd share some of my favorite classical (that is, orchestral) works:

1. The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. This is it. Numero uno. Possibly the greatest artistic influence of my life. A touchstone to all the music I've created - you can hear it in Gauntlet, Gargoyles, Avatar, Agincourt... the list goes on. I first heard The Rite in high school and it blew my mind so much that I'm still picking up the pieces. I could go on for days about the rawness and immediacy of the style, how in one instant the world of music irrevocably changed forever. How this one piece was a turning point in history and decisively marked the beginning of a new era. I've been a die-hard Stravinsky fan ever since and have discovered many other masterpieces through The Rite, but this, in my opinion, is the single greatest piece of music ever written.

2. Overture to The Marriage of Figaro by W.A. Mozart. The whole opera is great, but I have a special place in my heart for the overture, which, thanks to Mozart's limitless prolificity, doesn't contain any melodies from the rest of the opera. In short, it's the sound of pure, unfettered elation. It builds slowly with the 'cellos and bassoons, bubbles up, and then explodes into a confetti of happiness. Then, as if to say "okay... keep it cool," it quiets down again, but just can't contain itself for long, so it bursts out again and winds and swirls through a colorful array of melodies - happy, wistful, romantic - before finally collapsing breathless into a satisfying ending. This little roller-coaster ride is the perfect start to the perfect evening.

3. Requiem by Gabriel Fuare. The composer himself described this piece as a "lullabye of death." It's not somber like Verdi's Requiem and it's not angry like much of Mozart's. Instead, Fuare's is gentle, warm, and comforting. The part that really gets me is the Agnus Dei - the most beautiful piece of music I've ever heard. It's so simple - just arpeggios and scales in the violins - but it's filled with such deep longing, such consoling sadness. It does exactly what you'd want from a Requiem. It says "I understand your grief and I feel it too." And it assures us that everything will be okay. Breaks my heart every time.

4. Symphony No. 6 in F Major by Ludwig Van Beethoven. Ask around about which is the best Beethoven symphony, and you'll hear many different answers. Number 5 is by far the most famous - who doesn't know those first four notes? Some will say that No. 3 is the best because it's a turning point in symphonic style. Some will say No. 9 for its expansion of the orchestra and groundbreaking use of choir. Some will say No. 1 and those people are just wrong. I say the best one is No. 6. Here, Beethoven takes a break from heavy thoughts and dense orchestrations and takes a trip out to the country. He has a reputation as a serious, dour thinker, but the "Pastoral" symphony shows that he had a lighter side. The joyous first movement sounds to me like towering clouds majestically floating by in a bright blue sky. The final - fifth! - movement brings on a thunderstorm, followed by a glorious sunset, and in between we get playful bird calls, a lively country dance, and a lazy afternoon in a boat, just floating around. Beethoven is an icon of music and has been elevated to impunable status, but I think that this piece, more than any other, shows off his humanity.

5. Sonata for Clarinet and Piano by Leonard Bernstein. This was the first piece of music Lenny ever had published and it does a great job of illustrating where he came from and where he was going. It only has two movements and lasts about ten minutes, but it rivals larger works and deserves a better reputation among the chamber repertoire. The first movement is all lazy curlicues and sharp angles and you can tell that he was heavily influenced by the works of Paul Hindemith. It's dense style owes a lot to Hindemith's own clarinet sonata and reminds me in some places of Wiemar-era cabaret jazz. In that first movement, Bernstein is leaning over a precipice, holding on to Hindemith's hand for support and looking backwards for assurance. In the second movement, he lets go and soars. This is pure Bernstein, with broad, lyrical passages, swing-style jazz, odd meters, and everything that makes Lenny Lenny. It's evident that after this, he was ready to go out and write West Side Story.

That's just the first five. In order to keep the posts relatively short, I'll think of some more later.