Life in Alto Clef Blog

New Music Monday – Stacy Garrop

This week’s New Music Monday features music by Chicago-based composer, Stacy Garrop!

The piece I have selected is her “Frammenti,” which is a set of five movements where each movement elaborates one or more musical fragments. I am particularly fond of the second movement for it’s compelling use of silences in the opening coupled with the outward pitch expansion from a tutti unison. (I also have a completely biased fondness for viola features, which this movement has!) The entire set is excellent, and Fifth House Ensemble performs it very well in the recording below.

Stacy Garrop additionally maintains a blog, Inklings, which is a treasure trove of advice and suggestions for professional development as composers.

More of Stacy Garrop:
Inklings Blog

New Music Monday – Emily Cooley

This week’s New Music Monday features music by Philadelphia-based composer, Emily Cooley!

Her String Quartet No. 1, “Etched” was premiered by the JACK Quartet in 2011, and was also selected for the 2012 PARMA Recordings Anthology of music and as the winner for the 2012 Tribeca New Music Young Composers Competition. It is a cool piece that makes effective use of many of the colors of the string quartet. I have a particular fondness for string harmonics, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that I find the use of artificial harmonics appealing.

In addition to being a composer, Emily is the co-founder of the New York City-based presenting organization Kettle Corn New Music, which is definitely worth checking out.

More of Emily Cooley:
Kettle Corn New Music

New Music Monday – Quinn Dizon

I apologize for the short hiatus from New Music Monday! Throwing together an orchestra, being a grad student, and teaching were all vying for my time this month, and something had to give. But enough excuses! Let’s hear some music!

Today’s piece is “Concertante” by D.C.-area-based composer Quinn Dizon. In addition to being a composer, Quinn is also a conductor, having earned masters degrees in Composition and Orchestral Conducting from the University of Louisville before continuing onto the University of Maryland for his doctorate. This piece was composed for the UMD University Orchestra to be performed on a concert featuring Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Enjoy!


More of Quinn Dizon:

New Music Monday – Jabez Co

Welcome to the Halloween edition of New Music Monday! In honor of the day, I present a piece that I feel fits the Halloween spirit: the Jabberwock by Jabez Co.

The piece sets the poem “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll, which comes from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Although the poem is often viewed as non-sense, a very dramatic story can be unpacked from the invented language. Co’s setting of the text maintains some of the whimsy often associated with the poem (Hello–flute, viola, harp, bass, and mezzo-soprano? That’s at least kind of odd. But wait until you hear the ‘trumpet sounds’ from the flute too!), but he also infuses it with a sense of drama that helps make more sense out of the gibberish.

Streaming audio of the whole piece is below, as are links to social media, etc.

More of Jabez Co:

New Music Monday – Jennifer Jolley

For the second iteration of New Music Monday, I present Spielzeug Straßenbahn by Jennifer Jolley! With Baroque music being close to my heart, it is not all that surprising that a piece that re-imagines Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 stood out to me. There’s also something about the fusion of Baroque and Post-Minimalist idioms that just works. (Also, have I mentioned I love harpsichord?)

In addition to composing, Jolley maintains a blog where she shares her adventures in composing, including her successes and failures. I particularly appreciate the humor and honesty with which she shares the many “Composer Fails” it takes any artist before the next “Composer Win.”

Streaming audio of the whole piece is below, are are links to social media, Jolley’s website, and her blog.

More of Jennifer Jolley:
Why Compose When You Can Blog?

New Music Monday – Ash Stemke

After figuring out some technical difficulties with my website hosting, I am back in business and now I can finally get back to making blog posts with greater frequency! Today I am staring a series that I hope to continue on a weekly basis, which I am calling “New Music Monday.” (#NMM?) What I hope to do with this series is highlight a piece by a living composer that I find interesting.

To kick off this series, I present Emergent for string quartet by Ash Stemke. Ash is a first year doctoral composition student at Florida State, and Emergent was recently performed on a recital at FSU along with other new graduate student composers. As a string player and as a composer particularly interested in formal structure, this piece in particular stood out to me from the concert. I especially enjoyed his use of artificial harmonics to create an “otherworldly chorale” affect. Check out the piece below, and feel free to follow him on social media. Links are also below!

More of Ash Stemke:

Be Kind

Happy Leap Day! I apologize for my long hiatus from blogging! Between school and struggling with my website’s server, this blog fell by the wayside. But no longer, thanks to a bout of insomnia!

Last night while (unsuccessfully) attempting to fall asleep, I found myself thinking about graduate school audition season. This past Friday, prospective graduate students in Composition and Music Theory arrived at FSU for their interviews, which included lunch and dinner with current graduate students. So you could say the subject was fresh on my mind.

I began reflecting upon my own experience interviewing for graduate programs–both last year, and in 2013 for masters programs. And of course, I found myself fixating on some of the negative aspects of my previous interviews. For example, the instance when my interview and another composition applicant’s interview were scheduled at the exact same time, causing my interview to be delayed and creating a conflict with the only time I could do skills assessment for the teaching assistantship interview. I remember feeling incredibly disappointed with how I performed as a result of being flustered. I remembered interviews where the questions posed by faculty were not meant to get to know me better as an applicant or to assess my experience, but were themselves negative judgements framed as (rhetorical) questions. And then I started to remember guest composer lessons and masterclasses with a similar twinge of schadenfreude. Like the masterclass where the only feedback provided to a peer was a 10-minute lecture that it was her fault that student performers did not perform the written dynamics. Or the lesson where I was told I shouldn’t be in a graduate program simply for not being fond of Messiaen’s music.

The latter feedback was particularly frustrating because it was neither kind nor constructive. In my insomnia, I latched onto that particular frustration and started to realize a lack of kindness was a problem that bothered me not just in my own small circle of personal experience, but in society at large as well. The Trump campaign for example with its Islamophobic and anti-immigrant platform condones unjustifiable violence against human beings without showing the compassion to recognize them as humans.  I think we forget too often that other people are people too and that they have feelings too. It’s not a reason to give false compliments or pander, but it is a reason to show more compassion. Which brought me to remembering a Plato quote: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

While I don’t expect everyone in the world to suddenly hold hands in a circle and sing “Kumbaya,” I can attest that the best teachers (even those that aren’t teachers by occupation) I have encountered exhibit compassion and kindness without pandering for the sake of seeming nice. I do, however, find myself even more resolved to continue to lead by example, and I hope that it makes a difference.

Music for the Future – Part 2

Back in Decemeber, I completed Sparkling Spring for Mrs. Nancy Petrucelli and the Auten Road Intermediate School Advanced Orchestra. This piece was a chance for me to give back to the program that started me off on violin and to thank the first teacher who first encouraged me to compose. Writing a piece that was both age appropriate (Grade 2) and musically effective was one of the most challenging tasks I have taken on as a composer to this point. On top of writing something technically appropriate, I charged myself with the task of providing these young musicians with opportunities to grow in areas that more common literature may not cover–things like giving the violas the melody (!) or harmonic language based on suspensions and quartal/quintal chords. Writing this piece was truly a great opportunity for growth, but the experience of working with the kids was so much more worthwhile than just writing a piece.

When I showed up at the intermediate school for the ensemble’s last rehearsal before the concert, Mrs. Petrucelli offered me a school viola and asked me to jump into the orchestra. When she pointed to me between pieces and asked the students if they knew who I was, they were super excited and Mrs. Petrucelli opened the floor for questions. It was incredible to see young students excited about new music, but also about composing themselves. There were several students that asked questions about composing, including one who asked what my advice would be for a beginning composer. Writing a piece for the Hillsborough Strings Program was a wonderful and a fun experience, and I would recommend that every composer try his or her hand at educational music at least once.

Thank you again, Mrs. Petrucelli! Without your encouragement eleven years ago, I would not be where I am today as a composer or musician; for that, I am incredibly grateful!

The Artist’s Statement

The artist’s statement is a fairly daunting document; how can one expect to full express the breadth, depth, and meaning of one’s art in less than one page? And at the same time, on the surface it seems like such a useless document because art (music) should speak for itself, right? Well, the artist’s statement is not  quite as simple as that.

Two specific events in my own experience made me realize how important it is to write my own artist’s statement. The first was my very first graduate school interview in January. I tend to be an outwardly shy person, which comes across poorly in such “interrogation by faculty panel” affairs. When asked questions about my music and my background, my timidness came across as insecurity. But the kiss of death came from trying to explain my art without having previously taken the time to deeply think about and describe my influences, my aims, or my aspirations. Needless to say, that interview did not go well, and the rejection letter came within the week.

The second experience actually happened today: it was a masterclass with a guest composer at the University of Louisville’s New Music Festival. The lesson began with the same type of questions that came in my interview, and once again I found myself floundering in trying to answer. (I also made the mistake of showing older works with higher performance quality, but more conservative tonality and orchestration that didn’t best show myself off to a composer whose music is significantly more avant-garde than my own.) My lesson quickly turned into a lecture, which included a statement of confusion as to how I am in a graduate composition program–ouch! After drowning my sorrows in Chai Tea, I took a breath and thought about why the lesson went so poorly. And I realized it was because I was not able to give a clear, confident explanation of my work.

The artist’s statement gives the composer a chance to explain his or her music, but it also forces us to really think about our art in a focused way, and then to organize those thoughts. My former composition professor, Dr. Jennifer Jolley, wanted me to write an artist’s statement as a sort of final project for my undergraduate program, but with the myriad of projects in my last semester, I ended up not doing it. I know it took me a while to realize how beneficial the artist’s statement could be, but not everyone has to make that realization the way I did: by proverbially face-planting.  So, I encourage all artists to start working on their artist’s statements; I know I am going to!

Writing Music for the Future

Okay, so I firstly have to admit that the title of this blog post is slightly misleading. Nonetheless, I think it truly sets the stage in the correct way (which will be evident, I hope).

“Why is new music so hard?” This was a questioned posed by Drew Williams at the 2013 fresh inc festival. A lot of the answer, though, lies in pedagogy – especially for strings players. Exposure to music written after 1900 is minimal in the early stages of study, and many of the techniques – off-beats, for example – are not strongly reinforced in most string players’ early education. The result is that the aesthetic of and the techniques implemented in many new works are not as comfortably learned by string players as those idioms of music by Beethoven, Bach, or Mendelssohn. So, how can this “problem” (it’s certainly a difficulty for us composers, who keep writing this “hard” music) be addressed?

Beyond his role as violinist for Fifth House Ensemble, Drew is an active educator, using the Suzuki method to teach violin to young students. The music presented in the Suzuki method books does an excellent job establishing many of the basics of strings playing, but there are many techniques and idioms that are not presented in the Suzuki method that abound in contemporary music. And beyond that, the aesthetic presented through the Suzuki method relies heavily upon the common practice period (c. 1600–1900). These fallbacks, however, were something that Drew decided to tackle by engaging with living composers in order to create a collection of supplemental pedagogical literature that fills the gaps in the Suzuki method. How brilliant is that? (Let me add that I am incredibly excited to participate in this project.)

It just reminds me of the adage I’ve heard from so many of my colleagues and peers involved in education:

“Do you want to change the world? Teach.”

Especially for composers, it is vitally important to output educational works. And I’m not talking about doing it just for the sake of expanding the literature; it is the scope of the literature that needs expansion by presenting contemporary techniques and aesthetics to young musicians in the early, formative stages. Not only is this a time when people are more receptive to different musical ideas, but it gives firmer foundation for these musicians in techniques that might not otherwise be addressed until much later. It is just as important to compose for the benefit of future musicians as it is to “compose for the ages.”