Wednesday, July 28, 2010

New Music Selected: [Untitled]

Yes, my third piece this year is untitled as of yet.  The title I originally submitted was "Workshop Song," and it's supposed to evoke happy elves making toys in Santa's workshop with fun percussive sound effects, but my editor asked me to make it more overtly holiday-themed while keeping "workshop" in the title.  I'm happy to comply and have come up with a few alternatives:

Elves in the Workshop

North Pole Workshop

I realize that directors are expected to play Christmas carols at winter concerts, but when programming concerts, I try to focus on neutral "winter" themed songs rather than "Christmas" songs.  I feel weird asking students of non-Christian faiths to play religious Christmas songs.  Growing up, I went to a school with a large Jewish population and during the December concert, the uneasiness was palpable when we sang songs like "Silent Night" and "Away In a Manger."  I had a student once whose religious beliefs prevented him from even playing winter-themed songs like "Frosty The Snowman" and I felt awful that he had to sit out while the rest of the orchestra played.

On the other hand, there is a high demand for good holiday music and I'm excited to see how this new one sells.  It's a charming little polka and, rather than using familiar tunes, it's an original.  As I mentioned, it uses percussive sound effects to imitate the clatter of Santa's workshop.  I may even make some last-minute changes and provide fun alternatives to the triangle and woodblock (I'm thinking of rachet, power drill, and brake drum).

Until then, there's the title to sort out.  Any ideas, interwebs?

Monday, July 26, 2010

New Music Selected: Shadows of Venice

As you might remember from a previous post, I enjoy Baroque music, but prefer the simplicity of the Italians to the ostentatious flourishes of the Germans.  I have a special place in my heart for Vivaldi.  Maybe it's the simplicity of the music, the austere joy he conveyed, or the fact that, like me, he wrote for school-age musicians, providing them with quality material.  When I visited Venice many years ago, I came across the church where he worked and had one of my very first full conversations in Italian.  It went something like this:

[I arrive at the church, right on the Grand Canal and see a woman at the box office window]

Me: Buena sera!  Questo é la chiesa di Vivaldi, si?
Her: [nods]
Me: La sua tomba non é qui?
Her: [shakes her head "no"]
Me: Ma che un concerto da qui questa sera.
Her: [nods]
Me: Hmm. Grazie. [exit]

I thought I did pretty well for a beginner, even if she seemed kind of annoyed with me. 

So anyway, I enjoy Vivaldi and wanted to write a piece in his style.  I'm really not a good mimic of style - everything I write sounds like me - but wanted to use some of Vivaldi's techniques, like his sequences, articulation style and rhythms (I think of Vivaldi's rhythms being very "square." They're angular and require very precise, even playing).  The form that is most frequently associated with Il Prete Roso is the concerto, so I felt this would be a great opportunity for school orchestras.

Written in ritornello form, my piece Shadows Of Venice starts off with the whole orchestra playing a dark main theme.  Then, students get a chance to play solos.  Students from each section get solos and it's very easy to break the solos up into smaller parts, giving more students a chance to stand out.  In fact, there could be as few as five soloists and as many as 24, depending on how the solo parts are broken up.  The MENC guidelines warrant that students should have the opportunity to play solos, and this is the perfect opportunity for them.

Shadows Of Venice is written for late-beginner students (probably the end of their first year) and negotiates three key changes without requiring anything but the first finger pattern and only uses three strings on each instrument.  I'm rather proud of that.  I'm also happy with the title.  The "shadows" can refer to the dark, minor-key style of the piece and could describe a nighttime chase through the city, over the bridges and through tight alleyways. The title could also refer to my modern take on Vivaldi's style: The piece isn't a direct copy, but uses elements of his style, hence "Shadows Of Venice."

You can read the blog post I wrote shortly after finishing the piece.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

New Music Selected: Maharaja

Guess what, Interwebs?  Alfred Publishing selected three of my submissions for their 2011 String Orchestra catalog!  (I'm sure this news will be met with great elation by the approximately zero people who read this blog.)  Never the less, I'm excited about it and I feel compelled to describe each forthcoming piece. I want to give them their own space, so each one will get its own blog post, starting with Maharaja:

The MENC has dictated in its National Standards that young musicians should be exposed to music of international origin, in order to foster an understanding of foreign cultures through their art.  This has not been difficult, because folksong arrangements from Japan, Latin America, Australia, and all over Europe are readily available and quite popular.  The exception: India.  There are no "Indian" songs available to string orchestras.  Traditional Indian music defies simplification and arrangement because it:

1. is a mostly improvisational musical genre.
2. doesn't really have "melodies" in the Western sense
3. utilizes sounds that are nearly impossible to replicate with Western instruments.

It's a challenge, to say the least, but one I was up for.  I decided that the key was not to approach Indian music from a "classical" perspective with all its confusing ragas and improvised noodlings, but instead, to approach it from a pop music perspective.  The "Bollywood" style uses Western tonality, forms, and  instrumentation but with a distinctive South-Asian flair and often the addition of tabla drums and sitars.  It's a fascinating blend of Indian and Western pop styles.  And that would be my starting point.

When writing my new, forthcoming piece, Maharaja, I started as I always do: with meticulous research.  I listened to countless songs and watched videos on YouTube to get an understanding of Bollywood style - its conventions, typical rhythms, melodic style, forms, and use of instrumentation.  The piece is based it on the "Asian" scale with flat third and sixth degrees and sharp fourth degrees.  I made sure to use idiomatic flourishes and syncopations, octave interjections in the violins, and even approximated the sound of tabla drums with slurred pizzicato in the 'cellos and basses.  Bollywood music is typically very rhythmic and, in lieu of using a drum kit, I opted for finger snaps.

Honestly, I submitted Maharaja with little hope of it being selected for publication but, once again, the selection committee surprised me.  I'm very glad they did, not only because I poured a lot of time and love into its creation, but because Indian music has a close plase in my heart.  As a small child my family lived in Sri Lanka, just off the coast of India and my parents lived in India before that. The two countries have somewhat similar cultures and musical traditions. I grew up surrounded by wicker, brass, Sri Lankan and Indian artifacts, and stories of the Para Hara.  My childhood nickname was that of a bell-shaped Buddhist shrine.  Long story short: I've always had an affinity for South Asian culture and I'm thrilled that I can share that interest with orchestra students of the world.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

New Performances: International Edition

The vast majority of my published music is sold in the US, but a small percentage of my total sales comes from international buyers. Not all countries have American-style school music programs, so the demand for student-level string orchestra music is much lower.  Occasionally, though, I hear about performances of my music outside the US.  Here are two I stumbled across recently.

First up, we journey to the mysterious land of kangaroos and Vegemite: Australia.  Here's the Sydney Youth Orchestra performing Lemon Twist:

Wasn't that great?  You can really tell how much those young musicians really enjoyed playing it.  Watching the Violin II's and Violas bopping along to the rhythm makes my heart swell.  That's what it's all about

Up next is the Orquesta de Cuerdas de Grado in Córdoba. That's Córdoba SPAIN, y'all.  I've heard of performances in Australia and Canada, but this is the first time I've heard of a performance of my music in Europe.  I'm a little awed.  They do a great job with Gargoyles:

Professor D. Gabriel A. leads a fantastic orchestra and it looks like he has a well-balanced program there at the Córdoba Professional Conservatory of Music.  Good tempo, great sense of style.

At this point I should remind readers that I'm available as guest conductor, so if anyone in Europe wants to fly me out and pay my expenses to visit their program, please drop me a line.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Too Difficult?

Here's a quandry I thought I'd express to you, interwebs: when it comes to music for student orchestras, how difficult is too difficult?

In the past I've written music with rhythms that makes students' eyes cross.  Despite taking it slow, counting it out, teaching by rote, and being very methodical, I find that these rhythms are completely un-performable. And yet, the same students have no problem singing the exact same rhythms when they appear in pop songs.  It must be something about the written music. Needless to say that I'll either simplify it before submitting it to my publisher or just abandon it altogether.

On the other hand, when I write a purposely challenging piece (like Agincourt in 7/8 time) I hear kids say "Pffft.  That's totally easy.  We could play that in sixth grade."  (Though how well remains to be seen.)

Shifting is challenging, part independence can be challenging, and so can triplets against duplets, fast technical passages, key changes, and good old-fashioned expressive musicianship.  I've thrown all of those things into various pieces and kids blow it off like it's nothing and my publisher rates the difficulty 2.5 out of 4. These are all things that students should be able to do at some point as they advance at their instrument.

Question #1: Where's the line?  Does it depend on the individual player or group? Or am I being lied to when it comes to how challenging to make a piece of music?

Question #2: Are students being pushed too far too soon? Are teachers pushing advanced music and techniques too soon at the expense of fundamentals and basic technique? 

This also brings up the controversy of "teaching to the music," to which I am opposed.  My philosophy is to use music to reinforce the lessons, but many teachers choose the music first and then teach students the techniques they need in order to play it.  In my mind, when you teach to the music it sets up a very specific context for the technique and students find it harder to apply that technique to another piece of music.  Teaching the lesson first and then applying it to a piece ensures that students understand the fundamentals first - the whys and hows - before trying it out.

The reason I ask is because I'm working on a challenging piece that I intend for high school groups.  I'm including all the challenging techniques listed above and if I've done my job right, the orchestra, director, and audience should be completely exhausted by the end of the piece.  But is is too hard?  Am I writing myself out of an audience?  What say you, interwebs?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

New Recordings Available!

Recordings of my three newly-published pieces are now available online!  Just go to and do a search for my name and you can get recordings of any (or all) of my published music for just $.99 per song.

Click on these links for online samples:

Yes, it's the year of the "S's."  I totally didn't plan it, the selection committee just happened to select three pieces whose titles start with "S."  People would kid me years ago because three of my first four published pieces started with "G."  As I'm sure you know from exhaustively reading all the posts on this blog and committing them to memory, titles are tough for me.  If I were smart, all my titles would only start with letters A through M, so they always appear in the first half of alphabetically-organized lists of titles.

But I digress.

I'm really happy with how the recordings turned out. Some of my pieces are really designed for larger forces than the nine or ten studio musicians assembled to record the Alfred catalog, but the musicianship is of such high quality that I can't complain.

Consider this when listening to Star of Valor: I had a lot of trouble with counterpoint in college. All the rules just confounded me and I'd freeze up when asked to write out a simple chorale. My fugues were musical atrocities.  And here I am years later, juggling simultaneous melodies and lyrical accompaniment parts like it's nothing.  In fact, it was a lot of work to get it right and the studio musicians make it sound easy and natural.

Anyway, follow those links, enjoy the new music, and please buy it if you like it.  Thanks!