Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sax World

In addition to meeting some cool people this month, and having the orchestra performances, I had the pleasure of hosting the Erie Saxophone Quartet at Carnegie-Mellon. The group from SUNY Fredonia played two concerts, a select performance for music majors, and then an evening concert for the public. Both concerts went swimmingly well! The earlier performance included a premiere of one of my pieces which I wrote specifically for that concert: a saxophone octet! (We're all pictured here on stage.) We also had a composer visit from Norway, the delightful and attractive Peter Edwards, who also wrote a piece for Erie Sax Quartet. It was his first time in the States, and I'm amazed that he found his way to Pittsburgh from Manhattan, on a bus, and was waiting patiently for the quartet in the lounge of the music building!

I've decided that saxophones are my jam: I think the sax and I have a lot in common. We both felt a little left out in our skewed interests about classical music (we're both newbies to the classical world, all things considered) and we both like lots of different things. I like dance music and chocolate-covered pretzels, and the sax likes Miles Davis and Milhaud. We both hate Kenny G. He says potahto and I say mash 'em up with butter...okay, maybe we don't really have that much in common, but I love the sound of the saxophone and I want to keep writing for it! Its sound can be smoky or bright, sexy or stoic, crazy funky or mysterious. And how great is the contrabass sax, or the tubax, which I will probably never see in my life. Though for some reason our high school band had a bass saxophone, which I hear is not all that common either.

Photo courtesy of Peter Edwards, who managed to get all of us without red eyes. Though the magic of stage perspective makes me look less tall here.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Open Chest

A man came to deliver boxes of paper to the office a while back. Good-natured fellow, no complaints. He even helped me lift the heavy boxes of paper off the cart and onto the stairs, where I take them down into the basement. But then he told me he technically shouldn't help...and then he pulled up his shirt, revealing some serious scars. I don't know how you could still be alive with scars that looked like that, because they look ready to burst open at any moment. He exclaimed,
"I've been cut open! Hope you're not squeamish. Doctors told me I shouldn't lift anything, but hey, it hasn't killed me yet!!"

Monday, March 17, 2008

Symphony reading a success

It's over! The Pittsburgh Symphony has now read my orchestra piece, which was a success! The highlights of the performance included some weird power dynamic between the immature bass section and the conductor and the composer in residence, in which the basses (of which there were only 4 out of 9 players present) were asked to raise their dynamic level one tiny notch, and then instead of just very quiet, they played as loud as they could. The harpist was also waving her arms frantically trying to get my attention because her page was taped in backwards. Other than that!... the performance went well, and I'm really glad that the sounds in my brain translated to the music. I was most worried about the climax of the piece, that it wouldn't be long enough, but it was just right! The harp/piano/celesta trio also sounded really lovely and music-box-like, and the soprano sax was just the right haunting touch. Much to my surprise, the brass sections also sounded amazing (no offense to you good brass players); I wasn't sure if their parts would overpower the orchestra, but they didn't!

Though the entire reading session and its luncheon/Q&A were pretty shoddily put together, it was nonetheless a great experience, and I learned a lot about the preparation needed for a big piece. The other three students' works also had really good moments, and I liked most all of them, except for maybe some redundancy in one longer piece. John Corigliano, the composer in residence this year, mentioned that once a composer writes a piece, and hands it over to an orchestra, his job is basically done, aside from very small changes. It seems so obvious, but perhaps it's a good reminder to prepare as much as possible for anything that I could foresee being questioned, and have it clearly marked on the page. The contrabassoonist also made a good point that my piece being sort of slow and ethereal, that performers may have to put extra effort into shaping the sounds of slow notes and textural music, rather than zipping by quick passages, so that it actually makes a simpler piece more difficult to perform.
There will be one "real" concert performance of the piece, by the CMU Philharmonic on the 25th. Rehearsals for that concert begin tomorrow. But after the Pittsburgh Symphony stress, having to talk to the whole symphony on the podium (don't sound like an idiot! don't waste time! don't sweat through your shirt!), speaking to an orchestra of people my own age will seem less daunting.

(To the right, in no particular order: poorly planned photo opportunity with section leaders, student composers, I'm the one guy wearing a tie, conductor Larry Loh, and composer in residence, contrabassoonist).

Friday, March 14, 2008

Pittsburgh Symphony reading tomorrow

Tomorrow morning the Pittsburgh Symphony reads my orchestra piece! Along with three other students from universities in the city, we'll (hopefully) get good feedback on our work, along with a sound from one of the worlds top orchestras, that I'm sure will blow my mind, even if they are just sight-reading. I'm very excited, but very nervous. What if I get torn to pieces because my cues are ugly? Or if I forgot a senza sordino marking? Or what if the third trombone gets annoyed for sitting there too long and gets up in a huff and walks out? Luckily I don't think that will happen, but I'm still nervous. My family is also coming into town to hear the piece, as well as some friends, colleagues, and faculty. All things considered, though, I'm sure it will be a learning experience, and I have confidence that what I wrote is a good first piece for orchestra(!), including soprano sax, piano, and celeste, and some hot crotale action. I'm particularly excited to hear the climactic moment where everyone's really loud (and hopefully appropriately balanced) and the weird solo xylophone at the end, like one last little duck wandering around an Icelandic lake in springtime.
Wish me luck!
(Seen right: Heinz Hall at night, home of the PSO.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Lose some, win some

The other night I went out to a bar expecting it to be hopping with activity- little did I realize that the gays as a whole are far less adventurous than my friends and I on a cold, snowy night. So I missed out on macking it with anyone (probably not a bad thing, really) but then there was a raffle for a CD that I would have liked to own, and my friend Mark gave me his ticket, which was called! So the end result was -1 makeout, +1 new Goldfrapp album, which I'm really enjoying.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Special Guests

It has been an exciting couple of weeks for this composer, and the end of March is even more filled with fun, with the Pittsburgh Symphony reading my piece, Carnegie-Mellon performing it, and then a student chamber recital the very next day. But for now, I've had the pleasure of seeing and meeting some really great musicians that I've admired, which for some reason I felt I never had the same experience at my undergrad. We certainly had our share of special guests there, but perhaps Pittsburgh's pull for celebrities is stronger, or I've been less shy to go up to someone and shake hands. A while ago I got to meet the composer in residence of the Symphony this year, John Corigliano. He chose my piece for the symphony reading, and he flies in from NYC from time to time for premiers and performances. He turned 70 this year, but doesn't look it. Sally and I got a picture with him, and we're all wearing our thick-rimmed glasses. Bummer that mine aren't red, or we'd be triplets.

Then, I got to see Evelyn Glennie up close and personal, at the autograph signing after her performance at the symphony (John Corigliano wrote a percussion concerto for her which she premiered in Pittsburgh.) I should have known that we weren't going to have a conversation, as she is deaf. And a superstar. The line for autographs was really long. Still, she signed a CD I had of her playing the Macmillan 'Veni, Veni Emmanuel' and she is completely glamorous, and every move she makes is fluid and graceful. Her performance was unbelievable- she improvised cadenzas that I wished would go on and on, using everything from pieces of wood to marimba, timpani, gongs, and drums.

Two nights ago, I got to meet and chat with the composer Ricky Ian Gordon! First I started off as the doorman, but luckily I got to join the party after all the guests arrived. We chatted briefly about a song I used to listen to while I was an undergrad and it really moved me- it was one of those songs you stumble upon at the end of a CD (actually, the AIDS Quilt Songbook), which I was listening to as it also featured a Vassar professor. Ricky's song was last and I copied the music so I could play it myself. I've played that song for years, and he seemed very appreciative to hear that. We also compared striped suit jackets and devoured some delicious petit fours together. The evening was made complete by seeing admired faculty members relax for once and enjoy a glass (or three) of wine, and then everyone gave hugs goodbye. If only we drank wine and then hugged at the end of every harmonic analysis. Hugs would make a Schenkerian "Zug" so much sweeter. Hugs for Zugs!!

There are still more musical guests to come!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Ostrich legs

Did you know that ostrich legs bend backwards?
Well, they do. They don't have this many joints, but I bet bending down from the other direction feels like this, and probably sounds like a squeezed accordion.