Actively Composing, Teaching, and Magic: No Retreat!

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Receiving my diploma from George Benson at Berklee College of Music, 1990

I desire two things with equal fervor.

First, to compose as much music as possible.  I love music so much. I love listening to all kinds of music, composing, and having something I can give that will hopefully be appreciated.

The other is to continue to teach music to undergrads, but full-time, not as an adjunct.  Including my teaching fellowship, I’ve had  seven-plus years experience teaching music theory, composition, musicianship, and class keyboard both at the  University of Oregon and at Umass Lowell.

There’s a notion, often subtly communicated,  that understanding how music works strips it of its magic. Bull. There may be some minimal truth to the bliss of ignorance if a person has zero personal investment in music. But who is that person?  The first time a kid asks why something sounds a certain way—happy, sad, wrong, ugly, beautiful, scary, foreign, cool, etc.—ignorance is no longer bliss, and should no longer be an option.

When I teach, I don’t contain my emotional ecstasy in response to certain music, and it’s always in the service of analyzing and understanding that music. I love the a-ha! moments that I get to impart.  A dominant-seventh chord enharmonically reinterpreted as an augmented-sixth chord? Holy crap, that is truly awesome!

I began adjunct teaching in 2010, having earned my PhD in 2009. Because I don’t drive, I can only work for one school, and this causes some financial difficulties. The answer is, of course,  full-time teaching with job security, and like many adjuncts, I’ve been hunting for it all along, all over the country and internationally.

It seems that people who get the full-time teaching jobs are those with active careers in their field rather than those who are just good teachers. Because of stress related to finances and other constraints, I’ve had less time to compose than I would like. My compositional output since 2009 has been rather meager. (Oh, I’ve composed quite a few little pieces here and there, but these are for pedagogical purposes in the classroom.) But a resurgence last summer with “To Finish the Moment” for chamber orchestra and now two trios has put me back on track.

To that end, there’s the upcoming residency at the Banff Centre (see entry below), which is ten weeks composing a trio. What I want potential backers to understand is that this is no retreat.  For every one of my seventy days at Banff, I will be at it dawn to dusk composing, copying, conferring, consulting, and collaborating. The result should be a significant piece (or two) of music  that will likely receive repeated future performances and provide me a good deal of momentum for my composing and teaching careers.

The Banff residency is a crucial springboard. It is a financial risk whether or not I meet my Kickstarter goal, but in my view, a risk  worth taking because of its potential yields. On the composing side, these include more commissions, and so more compositions and more exposure.  On the teaching side, I will be recognized as not just a good teacher, but as an active composer.  I am thus more likely to be hired.

To bring it full-circle, I see myself in the near future balancing full-time college teaching (with benefits and job security) with a successful and prolific composition career. It’s my observation that those teachers most secure in their positions seem also to find the time and energy to dedicate to their personal careers. In fact, their employers most often demand their professional development, and frequently provide the means for such.

Composing and teaching: When one career nourishes the other, I’ve seen that the result can allow the best of both to shine. This is what I want for myself—to give back shiningly to my listeners and to my students.

 

 

Posted in news by admin on December 25th, 2013 No Comments »

I have launched my Kickstarter campaign!

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Click on image to open my Kickstarter project in a new window.

 

Dear friends and family,

I am attempting to finance the balance of my Banff residency with Kickstarter. I will be there from Jan. 5 through March 15 composing a trio. Any contribution is greatly appreciated, and I have nice rewards for those who back me! Thanks.

The countdown begins….

 

 

Posted in news by admin on December 9th, 2013 No Comments »

In memoriam: Conrad Susa (1935–2013)

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Me with Conrad Susa, probably 2002. This was at a party thrown for my friend Bernard’s 50th birthday.

 

I read on Facebook about the death of my composition teacher, Conrad Susa. This press release from the San Francisco Conservatory provides a very nice bio with some wonderful quotes from Conrad.

I’d like to recount a few personal memories of Conrad from the time I studied with him, from 2001-2003 as a composition student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

I took private composition lessons from Conrad during those two years, but I also studied counterpoint and orchestration with him,  and was a student in his seminar “Wagner’s Celtic Operas,” which was a great seminar and lots of fun, to boot.

Paraphrasing one of Conrad’s observations of a Mahler work we studied in orchestration: “Is it long? Yes. Is it very long? Yes. Is it excruciatingly long? Yes. Could it be any shorter? No!” Whenever I listen to lengthy works, I recall this comment. I think about how the piece sits in my memory, and how it felt to experience the entirety of it. With a busy schedule, it can sometimes seem almost impossible to give my full attention to very lengthy work. But if it’s incredible, then the music—the whole of it—inhabits the psyche like a gorgeous, profound, living saga. And when that happens, I always ask myself, “Could it be any shorter?” “No!”

During one composition lesson, Conrad was informing me about a piece I should hear—something that was akin to whatever I was writing at the time—and in relating it to me began humming it, gently conducting. In short time, his eyes were closed and he was completely mentally immersed in the world of this piece. This went on for what seemed like forever, but was probably somewhere around a minute and a half. He was smiling, waving his hands fluidly, eyes closed, head swaying. Whatever tune he was humming faded in and out, as if he were actually in another world and I was hearing him from afar.  I became a bit uncomfortable, but he did eventually return to Earth.

In another composition lesson, Conrad was scanning the score of my piano quartet at the piano—not playing, just scanning with his eyes, turning page after page in complete silence. Toward the end, he began to make a few marks with his pencil in my score, changing a note here and there. When he played through it afterward, it was so much better. I was at a loss as to what led to this, so with some nervousness (I was a bit intimidated by the man), I blurted, “Can I ask you a question?” “Of course!,” he responded. “Can you tell me what you were thinking when you made those changes?” “I was only doing more of what you did.” He explained the details, and I was amazed. It was simple and profound. That was such a learning moment for me, one which I obviously never forgot.

Conrad held welcome parties for the new composition students in his San Francisco home on Eureka Street, a quirky and lovely house that was every bit as unique as he was. His generosity also extended to gifts. I received from Conrad a score for Stravinsky’s “Orpheus” and a great recording of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

Conrad seemed to me a complex person, and it’s difficult to pinpoint any one overriding quality.  His reverence was palpable for the  music he most admired. He was an engaged teacher, able to work with students’ myriad styles without imposing himself. He was brilliant, though in an understated way. He had a great, dry sense of humor. His character ran very deep, and getting to know him over a couple of years was like peeling back only the outer few layers of an onion. Still, he sits in my consciousness like one of those musical sagas.

I haven’t listened to much of my earlier music for a long time, but am now listening again, remembering and appreciating more than ever what Conrad Susa did for me. In this music I hear a more guiltless voice that I have perhaps somewhat abandoned since those days. I plan to recapture that to some extent in my future works. Thank you again, Conrad.

Posted in news by admin on November 23rd, 2013 No Comments »

“To Finish the Moment” and now two trios (…..!!!)

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

My composition for chamber orchestra, “To Finish the Moment” was performed by the Freisinger Chamber Orchestra on September 21. A professional video of the performance was made by Simon Yue, and I extracted the audio and have placed it on “Compositions” page (see tab above).

I am pleased with the results. Here are a few words from the online publication “The Boston Musical Intelligencer.”

Time to push on. Teaching responsibilities are precluding composing more than I’d like right now. I’m applying for a couple of grants for Banff, but financial anxiety is keeping me awake nights. This kind of pressure can actually be good for composing. If only I had more time….

 

 

Posted in news by admin on October 19th, 2013 No Comments »

Musicians in Residence at The Banff Centre

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

January 5 – March 15, 2014, I’ll be composing a piano-violin-cello trio as an artist-in-residence at the Banff Centre’s winter Musicians-in-Residence program. Banff is a town within Banff National Park (the Canadian Rockies) in Alberta, Canada. I’ll be  collaborating and socializing with lots of other resident musicians as well as an impressive roster of visiting faculty.

This is really my first “art colony” sort of experience, and I’m extremely excited. A generous scholarship from The Banff Centre has made this possible (they get good funding for the arts in Canada, unlike some places), though I still must raise lots of money. I am quickly devising a Kickstarter plan that rewards donors. Stay tuned.

I have ten weeks to devote exclusively to music. This is professional development at its most intense, and  I want to prepare as rigorously as possible so that when there, I can “go with it.”  If I’m sometimes socially awkward, this would be the time to cut it out. There is no structured program in place for me, with classes and so forth, though I believe there will performances galore.  It’s about being proactive.  I believe there are  opportunities to speak with visiting faculty. Among them are  Uri Caine - pianist/composer; the  Afiara String Quartet; Royal Wood - Singer-songwriter; Barney Bentall - Singer-songwriter; Lucy Shelton - Soprano; Ransom Wilson - Flute;  Ronan O’Hora - Piano; Yehonatan Berick - Violin.

It would be an understatement to call this a risk. It precludes me from teaching during the spring semester, and I have no guarantee of returning to my position after I return. But then again, I’ve never really had a guarantee as an adjunct. I’m also generally concerned about finances post-Banff. But the up-side is that I get to give my career a push by composing a substantial piece of music and by networking with lots of great musicians. It’s my goal to develop into the “active composer” that I envision, not only as an end in itself, but as a gateway to a more secure, non-adjunct teaching position, whether it be where I currently teach or elsewhere.

Only one life.  Make the most of it.

 

Posted in news by admin on October 4th, 2013 No Comments »

Freisinger

Saturday, September 21, 2013, 2-4 p.m.
Old South Church, Sanctuary
645 Boylston St., Boston, MA

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 29 in A, K. 201

I. Allegro
II. Andante
III. Menuetto: Allegretto
IV. Allegro con spirito

Aaron Rosenberg: To Finish the Moment
world premiere, composed summer 2013

Ambroise Thomas: “O vin, dissipe la tristesse” from Hamlet
Gaetano Donizetti: “Bella siccome un angelo” from Don Pasquale
Ruggero Leoncavallo: “Si può?” Prologue from I Pagliacci 

Philip Lima, Baritone
Peter Freisinger, Piano

Ludwig von Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2 in Bb, op. 19

I. Allegro con brio
II. Adagio
III. Rondo: molto Allegro

Artem Belogurov, piano

Peter Freisinger, Music Director and Conductor
Sofia Ynes Gonzalez Pikul, Assistant Conductor


Suggested admission: $13 adults, $8 students
Free to UMass Lowell Students and Faculty

Posted in news by admin on September 5th, 2013 No Comments »

Summer of Music and Possibility!

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It’s been a busy summer. I like being busy with musical projects.

I am working on a piece for chamber orchestra—”To Finish the Moment”—commissioned by my friend Peter Freisinger, to be premiered on September 21st at Old South Church in Boston. Herr Freisinger’s concerts are always well-attended and well-conceived. He is a conductor and pianist of great aplomb. Plus, he speaks about seven thousand different languages. The concert is 2-4 and also features a Mozart symphony, a Beethoven piano concerto with pianist Artem Belogurov, and some operatic arias with baritone Phlip Lima and Mr. Freisinger at the piano.

I am applying to the Banff Musicians in Residence winter session. The maximum stay is Jan. 6 – March 14, 2014 and that’s what I’m hoping for. I’ve heard wonderful things about this state-of-the-art artist’s colony in the Canadian Rockies, and really hope I am accepted.  In any case, I have been commissioned to compose a trio for piano, cello, and contrabass by my Darmstadt friend, cellist Michael Veit, who was the first person to tell me about his Banff experience. In the summer of 2011, Michael and his wife Wiltrud  hosted me while I was in Darmstadt. My piano quintet “Crowd Scene” was performed by ensemble Soli fan tutti at the Staatstheater, and I had a great time visiting Darnstadt, Munich, and Berlin.

Regardless of whether or not I compose the piece at Banff, it will be premiered on June 28, 2014 at the  Darmstädter Lange Nacht der Neuen Musik (at the Staatstheater Darmstadt, of course). I hope to be able to visit again and enjoy the company of Michael and Wiltrud as well as their friends. Italy as a side-trip would be pretty cool….

July 14-20, I’ll be teaching Intro to Piano and Music Theory to the high-school kids at the Mary Jo Leahey Symphonic Band Camp at UMass Lowell. I’m looking forward to this very much, as last summer was a great experience with these spirited kids.

Tom Malone is a colleague at UMass. Together we co-taught Musicianship & Analysis 2 last semester. After using a song from Schubert’s cycle “Die schöne Müllerin” to demonstrate something or other in class, we talked about our love of Schubert and the possibility of performing the whole cycle. So that’s what we’ve been working on this summer, and it’s been a truly fantastic experience. Dr. Malone who is a German speaker and also incredibly knowledgeable about this particular music (not to mention  many other things) has been the driving force in leading our rehearsals, and I defer with gratitude. For my part, it’s terrific just getting my fingers dirty again playing piano.

Posted in news by admin on June 23rd, 2013 No Comments »

Starting to compose…again

The voices! The voices!

I finished composing my dissertation in September, 2009. Since then, my output has included a few beginners’ piano pieces for my students and nothing else. I have many practical excuses, which bore and frustrate me. Since graduation, my few attempts to compose something meaningful have simply lost steam in the process.

But, I have been fortunate to teach music at UMass Lowell for the last two years, as well as to pick up several private piano students. It’s all rewarding work, and I love it. I would also love to switch from adjunct work to a full-time, salaried faculty position. This seems to require that one be active in the field. Apparently, teaching music is not a field in itself. Being active means composing new works and having them performed. Really, this is what I’ve always wanted anyway. It was just easier in the nurturing environs of academia.

Recently I’ve been able to compose in privacy at a decent Steinway grand at UML. I’m a “piano composer”—I like to physicalize sound at the piano, and the better the instrument, the more inspired I am. The difference between this and past attempts at composition is that now I’m trying to observe the process from the perspective of an impartial witness. That’s hard to do when I’m me, but I think I may be on to something, at least for this composition. It entails taking time later to reflect dispassionately upon the events.

1) An idea:
“…see, it’s about never arriving! It’s functional tonality, with every indication of harmonic progressions that move to C, but you never play a C, not in a IV chord (just F and A will work), not in a vi (just A and E) not even at the end, and that’s the piece! Frustrate! Create a wretch of a character—yeah! let’s call it “Wretch” (how cool is that?), or maybe some modification on Riley’s “In C”—and let it spin toward C for the entire piece. Maybe some altered predominants, maybe leading-tone augmented sixth (oohh, sounds cool!), maybe other modal borrowing, I don’t know, but C—pitch-class zero—will never, ever show up, and the listener will be frustrated and sad at the end, and that will be good! Yeah! Thank you. Thank you.”

2) Sketching:
At the keyboard, jotting notes that fit the conception, maybe sketching a formal diagram. It begins with just a melodic line, and it snakes about and then spins around B & D, then the F-B tritone, and quivers and shakes nervously a bit…and then this, right, okay, and then this, but not G yet, I don’t think. That’s frustrating, right? That sure keeps you wanting C. How clever! What an idea! But should they want C from the very beginning, or maybe just increasingly throughout…? Anyway, and then!….

3) Sputtering out (a few days later):
This thing isn’t going anywhere. I don’t like listening to it. It’s flashy and absolutely flat. *Sigh* – Here we go again.

On the other hand, I can sit at the keyboard and improvise nice sonorities. Let them repeat however many times, let them change when they’re damn good and ready, no sooner. Vanquish worries and relax, and at some point start putting notes on paper, and only when the timing is right. I don’t need to worry about voice-leading, about spelling, about line. That’s all there in the intellect, anyway. Or at least it should be.

This yielded music that I like, at least so far. What’s tricky is deciding at what point during this process “pulling it all together” becomes helpful, if it’s helpful at all. Do I heed the voice in my head that insists, “Put in a double-barline already!” There are also other voices: “But what’s the harmonic scheme?” “This part is apropos of nothing!” “Simply everybody is writing slow music these days.” “It’s a bit amorphous, hmm? I mean, if that’s what you’re after.” “I think this is the best thing you’ve ever done!” Those voices can be useful at times, but it will also be necessary to squelch them.

Most confounding is that this rather organic approach, with which I’m now having some success, might not be an absolute. It may be inapplicable for other compositions. The next one might require a completely different approach. If that’s the case, what lesson do I take? “Develop the flexibility to wholeheartedly delve into a composition from any and all necessary angles, and also, sometimes, get out of your own way.” Or something like that.

Posted in news by admin on July 28th, 2012 No Comments »

I got to teach “Intro to Piano” at band camp!

Me, around fifteen

Over five days, I was to introduce thirty-three fourteen-to-seventeen-year-old band-camp kids to piano, and it was to be fun. They had signed up for this elective—“Intro to Piano”—and I taught two sections a day, each one hour.

The kids were any combination of punchy, giddy, brash, timid, engaged, bored, upset, determined, and confused. Responding to one girl’s question, she shot back at me, “Are you looking at me? I can’t tell if you’re looking at me! I like eye contact when people talk to me, and I can’t tell!” I didn’t bother explaining my strabismus. She seemed so happy to be assertive, I didn’t want to ruin it for her. A couple of days later, she publicly complimented me on my Levis, and the next day my khakis.  On the last day, she wanted her photo with me.  So…there.

I decided against headphones, despite the pandemonium.  Why isolate when fun was the goal? We learned the letter-names of the piano keys, some scales, triads in their three positions, a little theory, and finally some music. I arranged two versions each of “Silent Night” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (I played for them a recording of the late Jeff Buckley, my favorite performer of that song).

It seems that a triad doesn’t just fall into place. I knew that, having worked with beginning seven-year-olds, but these kids were older, and they already played other instruments.  Why were their hands so cramped? All you have to do is…like this, don’t hurt yourself, use the full length of the keys, turn your wrist a little, keep it lower, arms out more, be comfortable. That’s it!  Now fingers fixed and wrist loose, jump up to a four triad with your thumb here – Good!

By the end of the week, it was useless trying to speak over them. They were too hyped up. The best I could do was to lead ensemble performances of “Hallelujah.” Through the clangor, I could definitely discern some music, and could see some truly intense effort.   I then attended to each student privately for a repeat performance, in whatever fashion. A few were not able at all, one girl could play just the melody with both hands, and many ponderously played the chords in the left hand with the melody in the right.  Success!

I was glad to hear, even second-hand, that one girl was now considering private piano lessons. Despite what seemed like utter chaos, many of these kids learned something.  Over the course of the week, it was somewhat frustrating  gradually relinquishing the control that I typically wield with my undergrads. But during the process, I began to have some fun myself.

I only vaguely remember what it’s like to be that young. There’s a picture of me above, being that young. I wish it could talk.

Posted in news by admin on July 22nd, 2012 No Comments »

I get to teach “Intro to Piano” at band camp!

I’m very excited about this. I’m currently teaching summer classes in Theory and Aural Skills at UMass Lowell. While photocopying, I bumped into Deb Huber, the tireless director of the Symphonic Band Camp, in the main office in Durgin Hall. Apparently she’s seen or heard me pound at the piano when I was teaching, and she asked me if I’d be interested in teaching the Band Camp’s elective “Intro to Piano” course. Another teacher had backed out. The camp runs one week starting July 16. Having lost one of my second-session summer courses (Theory 3) due to under-enrollment, and desperate for some new experience (and the cash), I was more than happy to step up. I get to work with two sections of around twelve kids (grades 8-12) who are already musicians, but don’t know piano. We’re going to learn to play a pop/rock song in a low-pressure, high-fun zone. This is a new age group for me to be working with, and I’m happy for the opportunity! The website is here.

Posted in news by admin on June 29th, 2012 No Comments »