Life in Alto Clef 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.”

Why So Tonal?

This is a question I feel as though I must have been asked at least a hundred times about my music. It could really only have been a handful of times, but it’s a very unnerving question to hear – hence the hyperbole. From some of the music of my peers and my mentors, there seemed to be an overwhelming push for me to be writing “atonally,” or at the very least without such “tonal language.” However, it’s taken a while to see past those influences.

While at Accent12, Claude Baker gave me some incredibly important advice. Firstly, he told me not apologize for my musical language. But he also said that the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms – although temporally far behind us – is still important baggage and we shouldn’t forget or completely divorce ourselves from the rich history of classical music.

I also had the fortune to have a conversation with Stephen Paulus after the premiere of Of Songs and Singing with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. While chatting, he had talked about how he shifted to a more tonal musical language – one that was more comfortable for him. I suppose it just took a while for him to not care so much what everyone else thought.

What I’m getting at is that musical language is very personal. While it is always important to keep listening to and absorbing other music, it is just as important to embrace our own language. In ten years I might be writing in a completely different aesthetic, but right now I know my aesthetic and it is decidedly tonal – and there is nothing wrong with that.

PS: Happy Bastille Day, France!

From the fresh inc festival…


While attending the fresh inc festival, I have had the amazing opportunity to work with the talented participants, the members of Fifth House Ensemble, and the festival composition faculty – Stacy Garrop and Dan Visconti. But something that has made this festival so innovative and unique is the attention paid to addressing both entrepreneurship and successfully sustaining music as a career.

It is so rare that a music professor or studio teacher wants to talk about how they “made it” or how music even works as an occupation in today’s world. Whether it is a desire to maintain the illusion that “hard practice alone will generate a career,” fear, or something else is anyone’s guess.  At fresh inc however, we’ve been talking about how music as a profession needs to be approached like a business – something that is typically not taught in the standard music curriculum. From workshops to activities, we have been challenged to figure out how to operate a business and create financial security for ourselves as musicians while still doing what we love. This doesn’t seem like it should be a revolutionary concept, but some how … it is!

So I pose this challenge to musicians in their early careers – especially students: if schools don’t offer training in making a business out of and making a living off of music, start to learn about it on your own. Find out what the different types of for-profit organizations are and how they are different from a non-profit organization. Find out what professional expenses are tax-deductible. Find out how to make what you’ve studied so hard – what you love – into something that also pays the bills. We just need to start learning before leaving the safety of school because music as a career is entirely possible, I assure you!