I’m happy to announce that I have just signed on as a Staff Arranger with an organization called Arranger for Hire. It’s a collective of composer-arrangers run by my good friend, Jon Burr. They provide a wide variety of musical services, such as transcriptions, orchestrations, backing tracks, special arrangements for weddings; you name it, they can get it done for you.
10 October 2015
I saw a performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Metropolitan Opera House two nights ago, and I’m still exhausted!
I have to marvel at the energy and stamina of everyone involved, onstage, backstage, and in the orchestra pit; what a feat to stay focused and deliver at the highest level for over three hours, closer to four. Heldentenor Johan Botha, who sang the punishing title role, sounded as fresh in Act III as he did in Act I.
It was a novelty to see such an old-fashioned production. Otto Schenk’s production dates from 1977, and hasn’t been seen at the Met since 2004. Who knows when — or if — it will be seen again?
I find it refreshing to see a production which simply presents the opera itself, and not some director’s revisionist take on it. This production looked the way the music sounded.
Tannhäuser has some glorious music in it. It’s relatively early Wagner, and he’s still emulating the influences of Weber and Meyerbeer, and even early Bel Canto styles.
The story and characters are firmly rooted in 19th-Century attitudes, and these can prove troublesome to a modern audience. Our protagonist is the 13th-Century troubador (Minnesinger) Tannhäuser, although nobody ever calls him Tannhäuser; they all address him as Heinrich. Call him what you will, our hero doesn’t know what the heck he wants out of life. Wherever he is, he wants to be somewhere else. If he’s in the Venusburg, he longs for sunlight and trees and grass and a life of purity and virtue. If he’s back in the real world, rubbing shoulders with his pious friends and colleagues, he longs for the excitement and sensuous pleasure to be found in the embrace of Venus, the goddess of love and lust.
Tannhäuser is loved by Elisabeth, the chaste daughter of the Landgraf of Thuringia. She has fallen for his sweet voice, and she pines for him even after he’s walked out on her to hunt for thrills. When he comes back, disgraces himself by singing of carnal love in the Song Contest and disses her in the process, she falls for him even harder. Eventually she wastes away and dies, and her death ostensibly redeems Tannhäuser, who hardly deserves such a redemption. Why would she forfeit her own life, happiness, and fulfilment? Why doesn’t she give herself to someone who will appreciate her properly, love her and honor her? Where’s her sense of self-respect? Wolfram adores her, he too has a lovely voice, and he’s a gentleman to boot. But, alas, baritones rarely if ever get the girl.
This whole story rings false, and displays a rigid world view, even as it professes to be revolutionary. Women are either saints or sluts.
With all this in mind, should we cast Tannhäuser aside as hopelessly outmoded? Hell, no! It’s important that we see such things and recognize them for what they are. Seeing operas like this are a history lesson, and I think opera houses should show them the way museums show masterpieces of the past; unchanged, unvarnished, and unedited. Let the audience make the connection between the past and the present.
2 July 2015
What is the source of inspiration? Do we find inspiration, or does inspiration find us?
For me, inspiration can come from a compelling message from a text, a fascination with a particular instrument or group of instruments, or — best of all — a commission.
Recently, however, inspiration came to me from a most unlikely source: a wisecrack.
On June 26, 2015, The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, a 5-4 vote in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. This was big news, and it created quite a stir on Facebook and all over social media. I got into the spirit, and posted a status update that said, “In honor of today’s Supreme Court decision, my next piece will be in 5/4 time.”
That remark went over very well. It got over 110 “likes” in about a day.
A day later I was out taking a bike ride. I get some of my best, and craziest ideas on bike rides. Most of my thoughts on this ride centered around “Why not write a short, festive piece in 5/4 time to celebrate this landmark decision?” I remembered a tune I concocted while still a teenager, and that was indeed in 5/4 time — no doubt heavily influenced by Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” and Lalo Schifrin’s theme music for “Mission Impossible,” both very popular back in the day — and it was energetic and cheeky, exactly the right tone for this occasion, some forty years later.
My first idea for a title was “Uneven Steven,” but I soon rejected that for two reasons.
1) I didn’t want the title to be about me, and
2) a quick search on Google showed that “Uneven Steven” had already been used by a blues band and a DJ/rapper, among others.
I thought of the colorful phraseology used by Justice Antonin Scalia in his recent dissents, and the term “Jiggery Pokery” had a nice rhythm to it. Of course, Justice Scalia used “Jiggery Pokery” in his dissent on the Affordable Care Act (Burwell v. King), not the same-sex marriange decision. It also seemed a little perverse to celebrate a milestone of social equality by writing in an uneven meter, but in both of these considerations my heart won out over my head; sometimes an idea can be right without being logical.
So, Jiggery Pokery it would be, in 5/4 time. As I hummed the tune and timed it, to arrive at a metronome marking, I discovered that the tempo was quarter-note = 180. [British musicians use the term “crotchet” for what we Americans call a quarter-note, and I think you’ll agree that Justice Scalia was being very crotchety in his dissents] I like the fact that the tempo was 180. 180 is 10 x “chai” (the Hebrew word for “life,” and the numerical value of its letters add up to 18), and 180º is a complete about-face. The country had just made a complete 180 (there are still some stragglers resisting this change, but I have faith that they’ll catch up with the rest of us eventually) so 180 was a very appropriate tempo. I pushed this even further by adding the phrase “Tempo giusto” to the marking; “giusto” is the Italian word for “just.” Usually you use this word to indicate that you want the music played in strict time, no speeding up or slowing down, but “giusto” shares its Latin root with “Justice,” which indicates what’s fair and right as well as the person appointed to wear a robe and interpret our laws.
I knew I wanted the piece’s duration to be somewhere between three and four minutes. After all, “brevity is the soul of wit.” Using my (limited) skills in math, I determined that I’d need to write no fewer than 108 measures (3 minutes) and no more than 144 (4 minutes). When the piece was finished (in about 3 days, which is very fast for me) it comprised 128 measures, with a running time of 3:33. (3+3+3 = 9, as in 9 Supreme Court Justices!)
I am hoping that Jiggery Pokery gets heard soon, played by live humans on real instruments. When that happens, I’ll post a link to a recording, assuming I’m lucky enough to get one. In the meantime, here’s the MIDI version:
UPDATE: 29 October 2016 - Jiggery Pokery has indeed been played by live humans on real instruments. The humans in question are the Madison String Quartet, and I’ve just added a recording of their performance on the page for Jiggery Pokery. Check it out!
16 April 2015
Donald Francis Tovey, in his magnificent Essays in Musical Analysis, cites a riddle he often posed to his students: (I’m paraphrasing here)
Q: What is it that we wish to learn from the Great Masters, but cannot?
A: How to get out of a hole, because they never get into one.
With all due respect, Mr. Tovey’s answer seems to be deceptive and incomplete. It’s not that the Great Masters never got into holes, but we never get to see them in holes, as we only get to see their completed work with all problems solved. I have no doubt that the Great Masters struggled plenty, and that their finished pieces, which seem so effortless and inevitable, are products of hard work, rigorous attention to detail, trial and error, doubt, angst, and despair. They’ve left us very little evidence of their struggles, but that does not mean their struggles did not occur.
I confess that I often struggle with my writing, and that my inspiration often flags. I’ve recently completed two new pieces, my Saxophone Quartet No. 3 and a choral setting of Avinu Shebashamayim (Prayer for the State of Israel). Both pieces gave me trouble. Or, to put it more accurately, I gave myself trouble on both of those pieces. Recognizing that distiction is the first step to overcoming the trouble.
I remember my teacher, Giampaolo Bracali, of blessed memory, comparing composing to driving a car. When you’re lost, or at a dead end, he said, it’s probably because you made a wrong turn somewhere earlier. If you go back and retrace your route, you may get a clue as to where you went wrong, and where, perhaps, you should have gone instead.
I continue to follow Giampaolo’s excellent advice, and I find his technique useful, not only for undoing a faux pas, but also for figuring out where to go next.
It’s very rare for me to work out the entire structure of a piece in advance. Usually I make it up as I go along. One idea leads to another, and I let these ideas run free as long as possible. At a certain point — or, should I say, an uncertain point — this stops being effective, and then it’s time to take stock of what I’ve done. I’ll analyze what I have so far, and write an outline of it. Doing this can be very helpful, in many different ways. It could be that I have too much material, and that I could make a more coherent presentation doing more with less. It could be that there are aspects of how the various motives relate to each other that I have not explored. Seeing how ideas are presented the first time may give me ideas about how to develop them later on.
That’s good advice for a journey that’s already started, but what about the times when you can’t even get the engine to turn over?
When you find you can’t even begin, there’s certainly an emotional component holding you back, and that’s coming from you, not from your material.
I find that I’m highly susceptible to an affliction called “Importantitis.” I feel that if I’m working in a form others have worked in before, I’m in competition with them, and I must outdo them, or else I have failed. That’s crazy, of course, and holding onto such thoughts leads to severe self-consciousness and doubt, utter paralysis. I cannot proceed until I’ve talked myself out of the irrational fears that hamper my progress.
One way to bypass all this mishegoss is to forget about all the great masters of the past, forget about posterity, and just focus on the right now. It’s not necessary, I tell myself, that your piece lives for the ages, but it is necessary that your piece lives for the five or ten minutes of its running time. The people who create are always the people least qualified to judge the work, as they’re way too close to the work to have any perspective. So don’t judge, just create! Let all the others judge. Casablanca (1942) is a great movie, one of my favorites, and a classic if ever there was one, but no one who worked on it knew or even believed it was going to be great; they were all on board because they were under contract. Greatness is an accident as often as not. Make yourself accident-prone.
6 December 2014
I wrote my first Saxophone Quartet in 1980, when I was 26. At the time, I just called it Saxophone Quartet, but when I wrote another one, many years later, it became known as my Saxophone Quartet No. 1. I had been out of college (Manhattan School of Music) for four years, but I was still studying privately with Giampaolo Bracali of the MSM composition faculty. I had written some chamber music, a song cycle, and a Symphony, and I was starting to get active writing for the theater, having been admitted into the BMI Musical Theater Workshop in 1978 (This august institution was not yet named for Lehman Engel, as he was still alive and kicking and running the Workshop). I had also taken a summer course in Jazz Arranging at the Eastman School of Music in 1978, and techniques and voicings I learned there made their way into my “serious” music. Consequently, this was perhaps the first of my pieces to show the influences of jazz and theater sensibilities as well as my conservatory training. For one thing, it was remarkably terse compared to the rest of my chamber pieces, only 12 minutes long. The last movement was in swing, and it swung. It was premiered in the Spring of 1980 at an MSM Alumni Concert. It was well received, and it started to become popular almost immediately.
Theater writing, both as composer and orchestrator, kept me occupied throughout the 1980s. Starting around 1985, I was beginning to make sketches for what would become my Saxophone Quartet No. 2, but I was not able to finish it until 1998, when I was 44. I’m not sure what prompted me to make the second quartet be in four movements instead of three, but it seems to have been a good decision. This piece has also met with wide acceptance, and has garnered many performances and an excellent recording, (by the New Hudson Saxophone Quartet on their CD “The American Muse”) which I believe is still available.
Eighteen years separate my Sax Quartets Nos. 1 and 2, and - at this writing - Sax Quartet No. 2 was sixteen years ago. I held off writing a third quartet for quite a long time, but I feel ready now to work on Sax Quartet No. 3.
I have the two inner movements (of four) finished, and I’m currently working on the two outer movements. One advantage of writing two movements at once is that if one movement gives you trouble, you can pick up the other one and make progress on it. I often feel as if I’m trying to do a jigsaw puzzle, but I don’t have the picture of what the puzzle’s supposed to look like to guide me. It also seems as if some of the pieces I’m trying to make fit might belong to some other puzzle. All I can do is generate material, and try to determine if it belongs, where it goes, and where it takes me.
Saxophone Quartet No. 3 is finished. Baruch HaShem! Check back here for news of its premiere.
15 October 2014
The concert season has started, and New Yorkers have had, or will have, opportunities to attend the following:
Bach’s “Saint Matthew Passion,” staged by Peter Sellars.
Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” staged by puppeteer Basil Twist.
Schubert’s “Winterreise,” staged by artist and director William Kentridge.
I see this as a trend, and I’m trying to decide what I think about it.
On the one hand, this represents full employment for artists of all sorts, in addition to musicians, and that should be considered a good thing.
On the other hand, I’m disturbed by the implication that audiences today don’t listen so well anymore, and actually need all this visual window dressing in order to appreciate music.
Actually, let’s take “The Rite of Spring” out of the discussion; That piece started out as a ballet, so it was meant to coexist with décor, costumes, and dancing.
That leaves us with the Bach and the Schubert. Both pieces use music and text to tell stories. Neither piece was intended for the theater stage. Both pieces are extremely dramatic on their own; they don’t need no stinkin’ scenery or costumes. Any good performance of these works should evoke vivid imagery in the mind of the listener, assuming the listener has an imagination and the power to use it.
I remember many years ago I took my young son to a children’s concert, and the program included Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.” There was a small orchestra, a narrator, and a mime troupe, acting out the story. The use of the mime troupe goes against the composer’s wishes. Here’s what Prokofiev himself had to say:
Before the start of the performance, the instruments were shown to the children, and the themes were played on them; during the performance the children heard the themes repeatedly, and learned to differentiate the timbres of the instruments — herein lay the educational purpose of the piece. … what was important to me was not to tell a story, but to have the children listen to the music, for which the story was merely a pretext.
— taken from the Foreward to Four Orchestral Works by Sergei Prokofiev, Dover Edition
If we give our children visual crutches like this, instead of letting them develop their innate abilities to listen attentively and use their imaginations, they will continue to expect such crutches when they become adults.
What a world, what a world…
1 October 2014
I’ve been writing music for the Jewish Synagogue since 1997. After the warm reception for my setting of Mi Chamocha (2008), it seemed like a good idea to set the rest of the Shabbat Evening Liturgy, and so I tackled Yism’chu, Kiddush, Shalom Aleichem, and others.
For all of these, I kept to writing for SATB choir a cappella, including a solo part for a cantor, when appropriate.
At one point, I was planning to gather all of these pieces together as a complete Shabbat Evening Service. Lately, I’ve more-or-less abandoned the idea of a complete service, although I still intend to set as many texts from the Liturgy as I can. Complete services seem to be less in favor now than in the past, when composers like Max Helfman and Isadore Freed were writing them. Nowadays, cantors assemble very eclectic mixes for their music menus, drawing on music from the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st Centuries. Maybe that’s good, maybe that’s bad, but that’s the way it is. All I can do is write as well as I can, keep practical considerations in mind, and hope for the best. I’ve been very fortunate so far.
It occurred to me that I don’t always need to write for an a cappella group, and it might be a good idea if I brought in a keyboard instrument when it’s warranted. I decided to write a setting of Yih’yu L’ratzon for soprano solo, mixed (SATB) choir, and keyboard. (could be organ, piano, electric piano, whatever)
The text for Yih’yu L’ratzon comes from Psalm 19, Verse 14. It says, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You, O, God, my Rock and my Redeemer.” In the Shabbat service, this text (or Oseh Shalom) is read after a silent meditation just before the Torah scroll is taken out of the Ark, and read.
When I set a liturgical text, I usually begin by analyzing the phrases, seeing which words get emphasized, and which syllables within the words get stressed. It seems to me that music should illuminate the text, so it’s crucial to get the stresses right, and not put the em-PHA-sis on the wrong syl-LA-ble. Here’s how I marked up a copy of the text in preparation to set it to music.
Now that I can see where the proper stresses are, I read the text and see if any rhythms suggest themselves. Sure enough, they do.
I see I’ve set the entire text in only 8 measures. This suggests to me that I can do it at least twice. I can consider each iteration of the text to be an A section. It occurs to me that I can, and should have the first A end on the dominant (the V) so we can go back and sing it again, and the second A should end on the tonic (the I). So let’s add some pitches to those rhythms.
Having done two A sections, we need to hear something else now, a B section. What should I use as a text for a B section? How about the same text again, but this time sung in English rather than Hebrew? Sounds good to me!
And then we should go back for one more A section, but we should have at least one new element in place so the listeners don’t get bored by an exact repetition of what they’ve already heard. And we need an ending this time.
Musical structure isn’t just formulas out of theory books. The musical forces for which you’re writing can also inform, and sometimes even dictate how you’ll assemble and present your ideas. I’ll show you the form just as bare bones, and then show you what happens when consideration of the personnel available is taken into account.
Intro - Keyboard only
A - Solo Voice (text in Hebrew)
A - Solo Voice. with a choral background.
B - Choir takes over, sings text in English.
A - Choir sings the Hebrew text, descant part for Solo Voice.
I was lucky in that the choral background I wrote for the 2nd A section had an Alto line that answered the solo part. That gave me the basis for the descant for the Solo Voice in the 3rd A; just take the Alto line up an octave. The tune sat low enough that I could assign it to Altos and Baritones, with harmony parts for Sopranos and Tenor, giving us a rich color we had not yet heard, and a fuller texture as befits the culmination of the piece.
To end, I had the melody cadence on the tonic, but I harmonized it to move away from the tonic chord, making it imperative that we repeat the last phrase and really get to the harmonic home base, this time ending high with a held note for the Solo Voice to hold while the choir sings one more cadence, built on material from the keyboard introduction.
At this time, (Monday, 6 October 2014) there has not been a live performance yet of this new setting of Yih’yu L’ratzon. I am hoping that changes soon, and I will post an update when and if that happens. Until then, I only have an mp3 of the MIDI playback to share with you. It’s correct and accurate, but soulless. Nevertheless, enjoy!
UPDATE: Yih’yu L’ratzon WILL be performed, Friday, 12 December 2014, at Temple Emanu-El in New York City. This is one of four of my choral settings in the music menu for the Shabbat evening service. Emanu-El records its services to stream over the internet. I’ll post recordings here soon.
24 July 2014
A while ago, my friends at the Guild of Temple Musicians (GTM) asked me to share my thoughts on copyright compliance. I was happy to oblige them. I’m posting a link to the article below. Please follow it, and read. While you’re there, please check out the rest of the GTM’s website. They are talented and dedicated people whose contributions make a huge difference for the better.
23 February 2014
As I write this, on Sunday morning, 23 February 2014, the sun is shining and the temperature is 47º F, but there is still a lot of snow and ice everywhere. This winter has been a brutal one, but there are encouraging signs that winter is on its way out and spring is on its way in.
After the hustle and bustle of “holiday season” in December, it seems that cultural life in New York City goes into partial hibernation in January and February, and starts to get its groove back in March. I had fairly few local performances these past two months, and perhaps that’s all for the best; it’s more than likely those events might have been poorly attended or even canceled altogether due to the weather.
I have three local performances coming up in March, about which I am very pleased and excited. Details are as follows:
13 March 2014, Thursday @ 7:30 PM, my Sonata for Soprano Saxophone and Piano will be performed by Javier Oviedo and Helene Jeanney at the DiMenna Center in New York City. The concert is part of the series The Classical Saxophone Project. I’m particularly pleased to have my work on the same program with such masterpieces as the “Hot Sonate” by Erwin Schulhoff and “La Création du Monde” by Darius Milhaud. Please click HERE for details.
23 March 2014, Sunday @ 3 PM, Bachanalia’s “Jewish Voices” Concert at Congregation Ansche Chesed will include three of my psalm settings, (Shiru Ladonai Shir Chadash, Esa Einei, and L’chu N’ran’nah) which I’ve arranged for voice(s) and string orchestra, sung by Hazzan Natasha Hirschhorn and the Shirei Chesed Community Chorus. The program also includes J. S. Bach’s Double Concerto in D minor (BWV 1043), Dmitri Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony in C minor, Op. 110a, and the Gershwin/Frolov “Porgy and Bess” Fantasy. Please click HERE for details.
30 March 2014, Sunday @ 3 PM, my setting of Adonai Malach (Psalm 97) will be performed at Carnegie Hall by HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir. I’d be thrilled to have this group perform my music anywhere; having them perform it at Carnegie Hall is a dream-come-true. Click HERE for details.
10 July 2013
I learned a lot in music school, but it often seems that my real education began as soon as I graduated and started working. Perhaps things are different nowadays, but back when I was an undergrad, conservatories were preparing students for careers they were unlikely ever to have. Instrumentalists were studying to be soloists, singers were training to be opera stars, and so on. And here we all are now - those of us who didn’t die or give up music altogether - playing in pit orchestras, singing backup, teaching, copying, proofreading, etc. And we’re grateful!
One of the useful skills I did not learn in college was how to collaborate. And what an important skill that is. If you write a piece and are lucky enough to get someone to rehearse and perform it, you will be collaborating with them. If you garner a commission, you’ll be collaborating with your patron as well as the performers. If you write vocal music or a theater piece, you’ll either collaborate with another creative person, or limit yourself to setting texts by dead poets whose work is out of copyright. And if your theater piece gets produced, you’ll be collaborating with producers, directors, choreographers, designers, actors, dancers, and musicians.
I’m slowly learning that talent and ability only account for maybe 25% of a successful professional career. The other 75% is your political and diplomatic skills. The ratio may even be more like 80/20 or 90/10. A prominent contractor for Broadway shows told me that if he had the choice of hiring a great player with an attitude or a slightly-less-great player who was pleasant and cooperative, he’d hire the supposedly lesser player every time.
The key to collaboration is compromise. Compromise means no one gets everything he or she wants. Compromise sometimes means sacrificing your ideals. But if you want your work to be seen and heard, it’s very necessary to team up with people who can do things you cannot do, and it’s best if they feel they are working with you, not working for you.
I’ve worked on a bunch of musical theater projects, and the word “team” gets used a lot. Like any team, there are people with different skills and areas of expertise, and, ideally, they are pulling in the same direction towards a common goal. A team that has trust, communication and esprit de corps is much more likely to reach their goal than a team where there’s tension, and the members are in competition with each other. At any time, someone on the team will be carrying the ball, so to speak, and it’s up to the other team members to stay out of the way, as well as clear a path. Every now and then, the ball will be thrown to you, and then it’s up to you to run with it, shoot, and score.
Have you ever played on a team where one player considers himself to be “the star”? I have, and it’s not fun or rewarding. If you can possibly help it, don’t be that player.
3 March 2013
Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal, has always held a strange fascination for me. The music represents Wagner at the height of his power, but the libretto is a baffling hodgepodge of themes and symbols from Christianity, Arthurian legend, Buddhism, the writings of Schopenhauer, and Wagner’s own philosophy and ego. I’ve found that for me, the best way to appreciate this opera is to ignore the words and let the music tell the entire story.
I recently attended a Live in HD transmission of Parsifal, in a new Metropolitan Opera production directed by Canadian director François Girard, who is most famous for such films as “The Red Violin” and “Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.”
Girard had the cast costumed in modern-day clothing, presumably to help his audience find a relevance they might be unable to see if the cast wore costumes more in keeping with the Middle Ages, where the story is set. For me, this only succeeded in making me see everything and everyone as very Jewish.
During the Prelude, a mirrored show curtain in which the audience sees themselves dissolves to show the chorus. The men of the chorus remove their coats and ties and assemble to sit in a small, tight prayer circle. To me, they did not look like the knights of the holy monastery of Montsalvat; they looked like a Chevrah Minyan on the Upper West Side of New York City, especially when they’d rock and sway while praying; they looked like they were davening.
Gurnemanz knows everything, and tells us everything he knows at great length. He’s certainly knowledgeable enough to be the congregation’s shammes, (synagogue sexton) but he’s also opinionated and bossy enough to be the Temple President. True to form, before he does anything, he performs a ritual washing of hands in a stream that runs down the center of the stage. This stream also serves as a mechitzah (a divider separating the men’s and women’s sections of the synagogue) which the women of the chorus, dressed conservatively in black dresses, never cross; they observe the men praying but they never join or participate.
The main order of business in Act I is getting Amfortas, son of Titurel, to and from the mikveh for a ritual bath in the vain hopes of healing his unhealable wound. (I have to wonder if this wound would be considered a pre-existing condition, and if so, whether or not it would be covered under Obamacare, but I digress) Kundry arrives with a vial of balsam from Arabia, but the younger knights are immediately suspicious; Where did the balsam come from? Who brought it? Is it Kosher?
Gurnemanz fills us in on the villain of the piece, Klingsor, who operates out of a magic castle guarded by a bevy of Flower Maidens, who exist to seduce and enthrall wayward knights. To hear Gurnemanz describe these lovely sirens is to hear the same rationale of the ultra-Orthodox men of today who will throw rocks at women they consider immodest.
We are told about the Holy Grail, and when it is finally revealed, what is it but a giant Kiddush cup? Amfortas even goes so far as to dip his fingers into the cup; in his delirium he must think it’s Passover and time to recite the Ten Plagues.
In Act II, we are transported to Klingsor’s castle, and in this production there is blood everywhere, gallons of it. Everything in Klingsor’s realm is treyf (unclean), especially the aforementioned Flower Maidens. The Flower Maidens all wear flimsy white nightgowns, and because they’re standing in a pool of blood up to their ankles, the hems of those nightgowns are soon soaked in the blood. They look like they’re having really messy periods, all of them at once. (How apt it would be for Parsifal to enter singing “A Wand’ring Menstrual. I, a thing of shreds and patches,” but, again I digress) Kundry attempts to seduce Parsifal on a king-size bed, but she succeeds only in getting blood all over the sheets. Parsifal somehow resists temptation, but it’s not really that difficult when the temptation is so disgusting. Parsifal catches one of Klingsor’s magic spears in mid-air and makes the whole place, and everyone in it vanish.
Parsifal returns to shul in Act III, and Gurnemanz, who does not recognize Parsifal after such a long absence, greets him with “Greetings, guest! Have you lost your way, and may I direct you?” Just what a temple usher would say, except during the High Holy Days, when it would be “Where are your tickets?”
Parsifal has brought with him the spear he wrested away from Klingsor, and this spear has the power to heal Amfortas’s unhealable wound. By the virtue of this, and the fact that Titurel has just died, Gurnemanz appoints Parsifal the new spiritual leader and dresses Parsifal in a white garment very like the Kitel a bridegroom would wear at his wedding.
A funeral for Titurel is held, and during the ceremony, Amfortas jumps into his father’s open grave, on top of his dead father. What might Freud say about that? I’m surprised no one had the presence of mind to say “Get out of there, you’re making a fool of yourself!”
The opera ends with the return of the Holy Grail, and Parsifal, for reasons best known to himself, dips the point of the spear into the cup. To me it looked like the end of a Havdallah service.
I doubt François Girard had my interpretation in mind, but this is just the sort of thing you invite when you attempt to update a classic.
21 February 2013
Early in my career, I would write fan letters to composers and arrangers whose work I admired, and ask them to look at my work, critique it, and offer advice. The overwhelming majority of those I contacted responded most graciously in the affirmative. They were incredibly generous with their time and attention, and gave me valuable insights into their methods, as well as some terrific war stories. Some of them even gave my name out to others, or called me to assist them on projects.
I seem to have reached a state in my career where younger, or less established composers are now asking me to look at their work and give them advice on how to get it heard. It is, of course, flattering to be thought of as successful, and I take the responsibility of their trust very seriously. I owe a great deal to the writers who helped me, and since I can never really repay them for their kindness, I “pay it forward” by showing these other writers the same courtesy I was once shown.
Someone recently asked me what he could do to get his music performed more often. The music he showed me was very well crafted, intelligent, interesting and musical; there was nothing “wrong” with it that would put it in the reject pile. But still it languished, gathering dust. Why?
I had to think about this one, and that’s the beauty of being put in the role of a teacher; you’re often forced to examine and analyze things you may do purely by instinct, in order to explain them to someone else. “By your pupils, you’ll be taught.” as Mrs. Anna would sing to us.
What I came up with, and what I’ll share with you now, is this: Pieces I wrote to satisfy my own desires almost never get heard. Pieces I wrote to satisfy someone else’s desires almost always get heard, and usually more than just once. So, instead of writing a piece and then find an opportunity for it to be heard, why not find the opportunity first, and then write the piece to go with it?
If you want your music performed, it’s essential to get the performers in on your process, as early as possible.
Approach performers you admire, find out their interests and preferences, find out if they feel there are any holes in their repertoire that need filling, and then write the piece that will address all of the above. Check with them about ranges, techniques, as if you’re a tailor custom-fitting them for a suit of clothes. Make them part of the process, and of course they’ll perform your piece when it’s finished, because they collaborated on it with you, and, because of that, they have a vested interest in its success.
30 January 2013
I see I have not blogged here in almost a year. Shame on me! My only excuse is a lame one; I got busy and couldn’t/wouldn’t make the time to blog. Busy times are when you have news to report, so my New Year’s Resolution for 2013 is to be a much more faithful journalist. I’ll keep the entries coming, and I won’t censor myself. I’ll let you, Dear Reader, be the one to decide if what I have to report is worth your time and attention.
I’ll also add that I was shamed into blogging more by the example of my friend, Cantor Jack Mendelson, who has just launched a new website. Jack has already blogged more in one month than I did all of last year. Well, Chazz’n, anything you can do, I can do… almost as much and almost as well.
Last week, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I had the great pleasure of attending an open rehearsal for HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir. HaZamir is preparing for their 20th annual Festival, which will culminate in two concert performances in the Frederick P. Rose Auditorium in the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex in New York City. (Last year, they had one concert, which sold out instantly, hence the two back-to-back performances this year) The program includes a world premiere of a new piece by yours truly, “Netzach Yisrael” (The Eternity of Israel), commissioned by the Zamir Choral Foundation in honor of HaZamir’s 20th anniversary, through the Jeanne R. Mandell Fund for New Music. This is the second such commission for me; the first was “L’ma-an Tziyon” (For the Sake of Zion) for HaZamir’s 2011-2012 season.
The open rehearsal was part of a Winter Intervisitation, a rigorous rehearsal retreat, attended by some but not all of HaZamir’s 22 chapters, roughly 175 teen singers. I was very impressed with how much progress the kids had made with my piece, which they had only had for maybe two weeks prior. That speaks well of the tremendous skill and dedication, not only of the kids, but also of the conductors and pianists who lead and coach each HaZamir chapter.
I have every confidence that the concerts, with all 300+ voices, will be thrilling, inspiring, not-to-be-missed events. Details are below:
HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir
Sunday, March 17, 2013, at 3:00 PM and 6:30 PM
Frederick P. Rose Hall (Jazz at Lincoln Center)
Broadway at West 60th Street - New York, NY
1 March 2012
I’m in the enviable position of having eight performances of my music this month, including three world premieres, two of which are commissions. I’m immensely grateful for such an embarassment of riches.
Here’s the schedule, along with some comments on the pieces:
Fri Mar 2 5:30pm – 6:30pm
Kiddush (WORLD PREMIERE) - Temple Emanu-El, Fifth Avenue & East 65th Street, New York, NY
— I wrote this in 2011, upon hearing of the death of composer, musicologist and raconteur Jack Gottlieb. The piece is dedicated to Jack’s memory. Jack was adept at finding novel approaches to setting traditional texts, and I set out to emulate his example. So, rather than a slow, stately setting of the Shabbat Evening Kiddush text, such as Louis Lewandowski and Kurt Weill had written, I wrote a merry, sprightly setting. The cantor intones a blessing over the wine, but the choir sounds as if they’ve already had some.
Sun Mar 4 3:00pm – 5:00pm
L’chu N’ran’nah (Psalm 95) (WORLD PREMIERE) Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple - New Brunswick, NJ
— A 2011 commission from Makhelat HaMercaz (The Jewish Choir of Central NJ), a community choir co-led by Hazzan Sheldon Levin and Cantor Anna West Ott. The piece is scored for SATB Choir, Piano, and Clarinet obbligato.
Sat Mar 10 8:00pm – 10:00pm
Y’did Nefesh - Temple Beth Elohim - Wellesley, MA
— I wrote this setting, for soprano, tenor, and piano, in 2007. This performance will be with the “original cast,” Natasha Hirschhorn, Ramón Tasat, and myself, under the auspices of the Shalshelet Foundation for New Jewish Liturgical Music as part of the Boston Jewish Music Festival.
Sun Mar 18 6:00pm – 8:00pm
L’ma-an Tziyon (WORLD PREMIERE) - Frederick P. Rose Hall (Jazz at Lincoln Center)
— Commissioned in 2011 by the Zamir Choral Foundation, this piece will be premiered by HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir. The texts are from Isaiah and Zechariah, and are a strong and energetic statement of Zionism. NB: This event is now SOLD OUT, but the piece will be repeated on 20 May 2012 in honor of Yom Y’rushalayim.
Sun Mar 25 3:00pm – 7:00pm
Sha-alu Sh’lom Y’rushalayim - Beth El Synagogue - 50 Maple Stream Road, East Windsor, NJ
— Performed by Sharim v’Sharot as part of the Mercer County Jewish Choral Festival.
Tue Mar 27 7:30pm – 9:30pm
Soprano Sax Sonata - DiMenna Center For Classical Music 450 W. 37th St., New York, NY, 10018
— Performed by Javier Oviedo (saxophone) and Helene Jeanney (piano).
[CORRECTION: I was misinformed; my Soprano Sax Sonata is NOT on this program. 3/4/12]
Wed Mar 28 7:30pm
“Jewish Voices” Concert - Anshe Chesed Synagogue, 251 West 100th Street New York, NY 10025
— A concert by Bachanalia in memory of Omus Hirschbein. Works by J.S. Bach, Arnold Schoenberg, Ernst Bloch, Natasha Hirschhorn and Dmitri Shostakovich (From Jewish Folk Poetry, Op. 79, transcribed for string orchestra by Steve Cohen)
Fri Mar 30 7:30pm – 9:30pm
Saxophone Quartet No. 1 - Church of the Redeemer, 36 South Street, Morristown, NJ 07960
— Performed by the Metropolitan Saxophone Quartet.
I’ll close here by expressing my deep admiration to all the musicians mentioned above who breathe life into all the dots and squiggles I put down on paper and transform it into music. Please support and encourage them.
5 February 2012
Last night, Saturday, February 4, 2012, a Quintet for Alto Saxophone and Strings I wrote in 1978 received its world premiere performance at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. You might be curious to know why this piece had to wait 34 years to be heard.
In 1978, I had been out of college for 2 years. I had a Bachelors degree from Manhattan School of Music (MSM), but I wasn’t keen on going for a Masters degree. I wanted to work and learn in the “real world.” Still, I felt it would be useful to continue taking composition lessons, not only for the knowledge I’d gain, but also for the spur of weekly deadlines the lesson appointments would afford. I studied privately with Giampaolo Bracali (z”l), who had joined the MSM composition faculty in 1972, the same year I started as a freshman. I studied with Giampaolo from 1977 to 1980, and I think that it was during this time when I truly found my voice as a composer. The pieces I wrote during this time include the Sextet for Piano and Winds, the Suite for Flute and Harp, the Symphony in One Movement, which I dedicated to Giampaolo Bracali, and the Quintet for Alto Saxophone and Strings.
A friendship with saxophonist Paul Cohen (no relation), whom I met at MSM during my undergrad years, alerted me to the largely untapped possibilities of his instrument, and I was eager to write something for the saxophone. Sax plus string quartet seemed like a good idea. I devised a three-movement structure wherein each movement would explore one particular facet of the saxophone’s personality. Movement 1 would feature tense, angular lines, Movement 2 would be soulful and ariose, and Movement 3 would be playful and sardonic.
[I’ll mention in passing that a young composer’s work is often a catalog of his influences, and this piece was no exception. One could hear lots of Bartok and Shostakovich in Movement 1. Movement 2 was modeled after a Bach aria with a walking pizzicato bass line, and this owes a particular debt to the lovely “Cranes Duet” from Kurt Weill’s MAHAGONNY. Movement 3 owes much to the scherzo from Schubert’s Cello Quintet in C, and in the trio section I do a cheeky, but affectionate parody of a Mahler ländler.]
When the piece was finished, I learned a very tough lesson: it was going to be really difficult to get string players to commit to performing, or even reading my piece. Apart from new-music specialists, for whom my style would be too conservative to consider, I found that established string quartets had such busy schedules playing their standard repertoire, they had little time or interest in new music. After a few months of frustration I gave up on trying to get the Sax+Strings Quintet heard, and went on to other projects.
Ironically, my next chamber piece would be my first Saxophone Quartet (1980), and that was premiered instantly, almost before the ink was dry. While the string quartet has a huge, rich repertoire, going back to Haydn, sax quartets only went back maybe a scant century or less. You write a piece for saxophone, and sax players go berserk with excitement as soon as they hear of it. You write a piece for strings, and your piece gets put at the bottom of a pile of pieces to be read maybe sometime. (Except in some very rare instances…) Is it any wonder that I’ve written so much music for saxophones?
Last night’s premiere came about when Andrew Steinberg, an undergrad sax student at Rutgers University, asked his teacher, Paul Cohen, for advice on repertoire for his junior recital. Paul remembered the Quintet, got Andrew in touch with me, and I was able to locate the score and parts, all done in beautiful, archaic pen-and-ink.
It was very strange to hear this music I’d written so long ago. My style has changed a lot over the years, and my music has gotten simpler and more direct. Back then I felt compelled to make a compromise between the music I heard in my head and the more rigorously intellectual music all my classmates were writing. If I had a beautiful simple tune, I needed to add some “wrong notes,” complicate the rhythm, or add some fussy details to make it sound “modern.” I no longer feel the need to do that, but people still tell me how difficult and challenging my music is, both for the performer and the listener.
I cringed at some of the excesses of my younger self, especially in the string writing, but I was gratified to see that the piece really worked in performance. Here was a piece that was shunned for 34 years, and now college students in their late teens and early twenties were telling me what a cool piece it was. I doubt that whatever satisfaction I might have gotten from having the piece performed when it was new could compare to the sense of vindication I felt last night, when the piece was finally heard.
14 January 2012
How does one cure Writer’s Block? For me, one sure cure is to stop writing. Step away from your desk, computer, piano, whatever you use to compose, and go outside. Take a walk in the countryside, as if you were Beethoven. Run, jog, bike, skate, go to the gym and take a class or lift weights or something, anything. I find I get my best ideas when I’m not thinking. How’s that for a paradox? I spent most of yesterday trying to get a new piece to take shape, and nothing came that was at all compelling. I packed up to go home, and during the 1-mile walk from my office to Grand Central Station a phrase came to me, and I found that very compelling. I jotted it down and I’ve been working with it ever since. The piece hasn’t taken flight yet, but at least it’s now taxiing along the runway and picking up speed.
It’s important to bear in mind that, as writers, we don’t necessarily create ideas. Ideas come to us, and we work with them, but I think the ideas come only when we’re receptive. It could be that when we’re distracted or otherwise engaged, that is when we are most receptive. Who knows?
11 January 2012
People have these romantic notions about composers, and how they get inspired. In some way, it’s probably in my best interest to foster such notions, but in reality pieces of music rarely come in a blinding flash of inspiration. The real process, usually, is slow and painstaking. Watching paint dry is more exciting to watch.
I’ve had a few instances where whole pieces, or movements, were written in a matter of hours rather than days or months or years. My setting of “Esa Einei” (Psalm 121) was written in one sitting a few days after my mother died in 2002. The middle movement of my Soprano Sax Sonata, Blues, came quickly after news of the death of composer/arranger Ralph Burns, whom I did not know personally but nevertheless admired a great deal.
It’s no good waiting for friends and loved ones to kick the bucket so I can get inspired, so it’s important to have other resources to get the creativity flowing.
Nothing motivates me more than knowing - or at least believing - that what I’m about to write will fill a need of some sort. When I’m lucky enough to garner a commission, I’m told the personnel, the duration, the technical limits, sometimes what text to use, what mood to set, what statement to make, and then all I have to do is fill the order like any bespoke tailor. Sometimes the clients want a piece just like something I’ve already written, in which case I try to balance giving them what they want with some new twist to keep myself engaged.
A commission for money is a fine thing, but I’m also amenable to a “you write it, we’ll perform it” commission. As long as the interest and the desire is there, that’s (mostly) all that matters. If there’s a piece I thought of that I want to write, I’ll sometimes commission myself.
An important thing to keep in mind is how long and how hard one must craft and revise music to make it sound natural and spontaneous. I find it’s a good method to write first and edit later. Let those ideas flow, and don’t worry if they’re any good. They can be mediocre, they can even be terrible; just get them down on paper - or computer - and know that it’s raw material which you’ll process and refine later on. The important thing is to be as un-self-conscious as possible in the early stages of composition, and generate ideas freely and happily.
6 January 2012
December is the time when movies for grownups are released, and I attend more movies that month than any other time of the year. In the last two weeks I’ve seen four movies, “Young Adult,” “The Descendants,” “The Artist,” and “A Dangerous Method.” I enjoyed them all to varying degrees.
I can’t even remember anything about the music scores for “Young Adult” or “The Descendants,” but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; sometimes all a film score needs to do is add a mood and a pulse to the film footage and mask the silences where appropriate. Nothing impressed me, but nothing bothered me either.
“A Dangerous Method” is about Carl Jung and his stormy relationship with Sigmund Freud. Many discussions in the dialog center around Richard Wagner and his operas, and I guess composer Howard Shore took this as his cue to utilize a lot of Wagner in the score. Most of the time I felt the choices were apt. It was weird to hear this music played on solo piano, or in small chamber ensembles. Wagner’s music sounds so strange when stripped of it’s orchestral colors and textures, but it could be that this was just the effect Howard Shore and director David Cronenberg were going for.
Music is practically the star of “The Artist,” a black-and-white silent film about a silent film star in the late 1920s and his trouble adapting to the introduction to talking pictures. I was blown away by the score by Ludovic Bource from the opening notes. And then, halfway through the film, I recognized the unmistakeable sound of Bernard Herrmann. They used “Scene d’Amour” from VERTIGO, and all I could think was “Why?” This music took me out of “The Artist” and made me start thinking about James Stewart, Kim Novak, bell towers and strong currents under the Golden Gate Bridge. By me, it was not a good choice, much as I adore Herrmann’s music.
This might be a case of the director getting so used to his temp track that he feels it must stay in the picture. Sometimes this works well. Stanley Kubrick discarded a commissioned score by Alex North for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in favor of excerpts from Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss, Aram Khachaturian, Gyorgi Ligeti and others, and I can’t say those choices were not effective.
5 January 2012
If you’re reading this, my website has gone live! Thanks to James Donegan of James Did It!