A Good Problem to Have

(photo by Steve Charles for Wabash College)

Last Friday, Feb. 21, I had the enviable problem of needing to miss the performance of my newest work, 3 Phantasies for Cello and Piano, here in New York City in order to attend a performance of the same work on the same evening in Indiana. Both performances went splendidly–a beautiful performance in NYC by Kate Dillingham (Cello) and Wei-Chieh Lin (Piano), and a deeply touching and personal performance by my dear teacher Diane Norton  (Piano) and her colleague Kristen Strandberg (Cello) at a symposium on music and the liberal arts at Wabash College.

I was offered the opportunity to speak at the symposium as well as to have my new work performed. A portion of my comments follows:

Let’s begin with my process as a composer—and then I’ll ask Kristen and Diane to comment on how they came at the music I set before them. I always begin composing by asking 2 simple questions:

Wabash Professor Kristen Strandberg performs my “3 Phantasies” (photo by Kim Johnson for Wabash College)

ONE: “What is it that my collaborators want in a composition? (what do they like to play? what excites them about a new composition?) and TWO: “What is the story I want to tell?” By “story”, I don’t mean what narrative I want to write or what series of events I want to depict musically like some soundtrack to a movie. Definitely not a musical program. What I mean is why—and how—do I want to address the audience? What do I want them to hear and to know?

Sometimes, contemporary audiences ask composers “Why is your music so strange to my ear? Why is the music so different from what I hear from composers of other eras? Or from other styles of music?” My answer is always that living composers write music that tells a story of what it is like to live today—right now—in the 21st century, a time of great change and chaos; a time of upheaval and mixing and clashing into and around and through; a time of new possibilities and incomplete answers to confusing questions; and maybe, …even…, a time of hope and understanding, too. Contemporary composers want their music to tell—and their audiences to hear—those stories of living …right now.

Shortly after I arrived on the Wabash College campus in 1983, Diane’s first husband, beloved professor of music here at Wabash, and gifted composer, Frederic Enenbach died from an illness. I never got to take a lesson from professor Enenbach, but I met and spoke with him, and his love of music and of Wabash was contagious. Later, I began taking piano lessons from Diane. As I began to consider what the story of the second movement of my work should be about, I decided that I wanted to look back on the connections I had with Wabash and how Diane (and her late husband, too, through Diane) had influenced me as a composer.

Diane Norton plucks piano strings during the performance.
(photo by Steve Charles for Wabash College)

I asked Diane if there was a section or a motive from a piece of music written by Fred that I might use as the centerpiece of my new work’s 2nd movement. Diane sent me a vinyl album of a collection of Fred’s works. She told me to explore a particular piece of Fred’s called “Origins” where Fred had used an old American folk song called “Pretty Saro” as his centerpiece. I don’t even own a turntable anymore, so I took the album to a nearby sound engineer and had him make digital copies. I then sat and listened to Fred’s piece. It was beautiful. He used that old folksong without changing it at all. He simply had a female voice sing the original tune while he composed new and interesting sounds around it. The story of his piece seemed to me to be one of solitude and yearning for connection.

Piano teacher from my college days, Diane Norton. (photo by Kim Johnson for Wabash College)

This would be my piece’s story, too. This second movement is, on some level, about how Diane’s voice still calls me as a composer, how her words as a teacher, and her instruction as a fellow musician have remained with me even though I live in New York City and communicate with Diane only via email.

The lyrics to this old folk tune have solitude and connection at their core. And, part of my remarks have been about how a lone composer confronts a blank page and how musicians find their own way to a connection with other people—to composers, other performers, and to audiences.

Contrary to the image often portrayed in popular culture that artists only make art in the midst of challenges and painful circumstance—from tumultuous experiences—I think, rather, that most art comes from a different place. It comes from that moment of solitude and hope for connection, too–just like the lyrics of that folktune. Facing a blank page or an empty practice room, I think, brings a musician to his or her own story in ways that are unexpected and challenging—or even painful, sometimes. Because sitting there, alone–working and thinking about the story of your artwork–you get tossed back on yourself—your own story starts to speak from the shadow of your artwork and then starts to form a dialogue with it.

Your experiences and your thoughts—what you know and what you feel right at that moment—might be covered over by the act of doing and making your art, but you can never fully run away from yourself. You can’t run away from your memories and experiences—and you certainly can’t run from the material you’re working on, if you want to finish it or be ready to perform it in front of others! Deciding to write a piece of music or to practice and then perform a piece of music is a decision to tell your story along with the story of the music. It is a decision to be alone and to run into your own weaknesses (for me, my own laziness, my own lack of resolve to keep practicing until I’ve got the notes perfect or until I’ve written the melody just right). It’s a decision to confront those sides of your professional self that have never quite been as good as you hoped or imagined they would be.

Allen hugs his dear teacher, Diane Norton, after her performance. (photo by Steve Charles for Wabash College)

But then, you remember your whole story—how it also includes writing or playing that final chord and how it connected you with the players and the audience. My own story reminds me that music is a way through that solitary space. I work from that separate space so that I can share a new story with other artists—Diane and Kristen, tonight—who, I hope will add their story to mine and will leave their practice room to meet you, our audience. And now, maybe, your story will have a bit of our story, too.
Video of my remarks, the performance, and the question and answer period.

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Wabash College Faculty-Alumni Symposium: Back Home Again in Indiana

Wally Tunes Graphic (2)This February 21st, 2014, I’ll be back home again in Indiana as a guest of my alma mater, Wabash College. Wabash will be presenting a Symposium on Music in the Liberal Arts, and they asked me to speak about my work as a composer. I countered with the offer to write a piece for performance, instead of boring people by blathering on about my music. They agreed, and I contacted my old piano teacher and friend, Diane Norton, to see if she would be interested in playing a new work. She suggested I write for piano and cello so that she could play with a colleague. I loved the idea. So, my talk will include a performance of my new work, entitled 3 Phantasies, along with a discussion of how composers work alone and in collaboration with the performers of their works. I hope it will be an interesting talk. And, I’m hoping that the audience will ask lots of questions of the 2 performers, Kristen Strandberg and Diane Norton. (More info about the Symposium)

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Thanks to Parthenia and Random Access Music

Parthenia-ASCAP

L to R: ASCAP member rep Michael Spudic;, composer Frances White; Parthenia members Ros Morley, Beverly Au, Larry Lipnick, and Lisa Terry; and Allen Schulz.

 

My work Aspects Of A Singlularity for Viol Consort was premiered last weekend, Nov. 8/9 here in NYC. The performing ensemble was the nationally-acclaimed Parthenia Viol Consort. It was a great treat to work with these amazing musicians and to hear them play my work. I hope I get the chance to write for them again. Soon!

The concert included works by some of my fellow Random Access Music composers, Jonathan Pieslak, David Fetherolf, and Gilbert Galindo. Also included on the concert was a work by Frances White. The music critic, Jean Ballard Terepka reviewed the concert, and praised my work by saying, it”transcended …into the realm of self-contained loveliness.”

Thank you, again, to the wonderful musicians of Parthenia for a wonderful and rewarding experience.

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Parthenia performs my new work “Aspects Of A Singularity”

 

 

 

 

 

 

I first met Bev, Lisa, Larry, and Ros of the Parthenia viol consort when they performed at the very first Queens New Music Festival, which RAM–the composers’ collective that I founded–produces. RAM and Parthenia will be collaborating on a concert this November that will include my newest work, Aspects of A Singularity. Since RAM began collaborating with Parthenia, we’ve all met as a group and individually with the 4 Parthenia performers to work on understanding and writing for these beautiful instruments that were first used during the Renaissance.

I hope you’ll join us for one of two concerts.

Friday, November 8, 2013 @ 8pm

DiMenna Center for Classical Music, Benzaquen Hall
450 W. 37th Street
New York, NY 10018
(Tickets: $20, purchased at the door or online)

and

Saturday, November 9, 2013 @ 8pm
Waltz-Astoria
23-14 Ditmars Blvd.
Astoria, NY 11105
($15 table charge–per person, admission is free; Waltz-Astoria serves wine, beverages, and light snacks)

The concert will present 5 world premieres by David Fetherolf, Gilbert Galindo, Jonathan Pieslak, and B. Allen Schulz. Also included in the concert will by a world premiere by RAM’s guest composer Frances WhiteFrom A Fairy Tale. The 5 works have a diverse range, merging the ancient with the modern, electronics with acoustic instruments, spoken word with music, and Hindu chant with western traditions.

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The Astoria Symphony, Diane Wittry, and the International Conductor’s Institute Workshop

Allen and maestro Huff chatting with the audience before the concert.

Last week, I had the good fortune of having my latest work for orchestra (Walamboltz) performed by the Astoria Symphony, under the baton of maestro Silas Huff. The symphony did a great job, and I was pleased with the performance. I’ll be uploading a soundclip to my works list page as soon as they can get me the recording. Thank you Silas and all the great players of the Astoria Symphony!

As nice as it was to have a piece premiered by an orchestra here in NYC,  that was not the whole experience. In the week preceding the concert, my work was used as part of a workshop for conductors. Along with Walamboltz, the conductors studied and worked on conducting problems in the Tchaikovsky Symphony #5 and the Mozart Violin Concerto #3. The workshop consisted of master classes led by the talented and generous Diane Wittry (conductor of the Allentown Symphony, composer, and author of the best-selling book Beyond The Baton). One of the classes was a close discussion between Diane and me, as we worked through some of the issues in my piece. Diane’s study of my score was intense and thorough. It was a real treat to have my music given such care and concern–while personally being put in the hot seat and made to answer for a few errors and mistakes in my score! They were picayune errors (a missing dynamic mark in one line that was present in the others), but, still, having to work out problems and discuss errors in front of the conducting workshop participants was quite an experience.

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The composer’s score in the workshop.

The workshop attendees worked with the Astoria Symphony in both rehearsal exercises and conducting exercises. Sometimes, my work was used as a teaching and learning device. It was a strange experience to take part in, because I knew that the focus in those sessions would not be on rehearsing my music, itself, but in the problems conductors would face in rehearsing my piece.

Diane and Silas made the experience very fruitful for me. Both of them were gentle and supportive, questioning and free with advice, hard-working and generous. I hope I get the chance to do this again some time.

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Fall, 2013

I’ve got lots on my plate for this upcoming concert season. First up, on October 6, the Astoria Symphony Orchestra will premiere my new work Walamboltz. This work was commissioned by maestro Silas Huff and the ASO. The commission includes use of the work at a conductor’s workshop taking place here in NYC in the week preceding the premiere performance. The concert will take place at 8pm at

St. Joseph’s Catholic Church
43-19 30th Avenue
Astoria, NY 11103

Tickets may be purchased at the Astoria Symphony’s website, linked above.

I’ll also be writing a new work for the Parthenia Viol Consort, to be performed on Nov. 8/9, 2013. I’ll be announcing more details soon!

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A Dance of Shadows

My newest work, A Dance of Shadows for ‘Cello and Piano, will be premiered by the amazing cellist Kate Dillingham on May 18, 2013 @ 8pm at the Secret Theatre as part of the 2013 Queens New Music Festival. The work will be performed again, the following Friday night, May 24, at the Dimenna Center.

The work was written as a virtuosic challenge for the cellist Kate Dillingham, but the choreographer Suzanne Slade plans to use the work as part of a ballet she is developing. More news on that to come!

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Brass Quintet

My newest work, Indefinite Bellows and Certain Murmurs will be premiered on January 17, and then performed again the 1/18, 2013. The performances will be part of the regular season’s concerts produced by my composers’ collective (Random Access Music). The performing ensemble will be the young and emerging Obsidian Brass Quintet. Along with my new work, the quintet will premiere 3 other works along with the winning composition of RAM’s 2012 call for scores.

Along the Midnight Edge

Thursday, January 17, 2013 @ 8pm
Waltz-Astoria
23-14 Ditmars Blvd.
Astoria, Qns., NY 11105
(Admission is FREE, but there will be a $10 minimum table fee. Waltz-Astoria serves light snacks, beer, wine, coffee, and other drinks.)

Friday, January 18, 2013 @ 8pm
Greenwich House Music School
46 Barrow Street
The Village, Manhattan, NY 10014
Tickets: $20 [purchase online]

My quintet is in a bit different vein than most of my recent work. While many of my pieces are preoccupied with dance rhythms and simple melodic motives, this work is rich in harmony, but somewhat traditional in rhythmic and formal structures. Honestly, this piece has me bit more insecure than usual, because I’m striking out on a path that I haven’t travelled in some time. I hope to see you at one of the performances!

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Toast and Jam off the presses

I’m happy to report that my work for Fl., Vn., Vc., and Vibes, Toast and Jam, has been released by my publisher and is available for purchase.  Only $30! Get ‘em while they’re hot.

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Quintet of the Americas

I’m beginning to think that my idea to produce the Queens New Music Festival was  totally self-motivated. My original idea for the festival was that I wanted to promote Queens in the new music world by having lots of groups come out to Queens to play some of their tunes. That happened (and will happen again in May 2013!). Secondary to that goal was the chance to meet some new performers and to network a bit with and among them.

It turns out that many of the other festival performers were listening to each other’s performances–including a performance of my Toast and Jam. Shortly after the festival, the director of the Quintet of the Americas told me that she’d really enjoyed my work and asked if I had any works for woodwind quintet. Unfortunately, I don’t. But, last week, she called me up and asked if I’d be willing to write a new work for them for the 2014 season. I’m pleased to accept a commission from this very established and high-quality ensemble. So, keep a look out for a new woodwind quintet in the spring of 2014.

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