Payday Loans Online Payday Loans

The Summer King ascends

Posted by joshnewton16 on 9th May 2014 in Art Music, Composition

I feel like I have been sworn to some holy vow of secrecy over the last several years.  I have been privileged to work with Dan Sonenberg on various aspects of his monumental opus, The Summer King, through the process of getting the work from score to stage.  Last night, the culmination of years of effort came to fruition for him as the premier was held at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium.  From one of those special few who had heard pieces of the work in fragments, watching it come together on stage was mind-blowing.  It was a brilliant performance.  Helen wasn’t just some imaginary figure on a page, there she was in angelic blue.  Sam’s anguished aria wasn’t just musically beautiful; he clutched at Josh and it was real.  Josh’s descent into madness wasn’t just musical parlor trick… I watched it happen in front of me, time warping around him, and, as informed observer, me, in a maniacal kaleidoscope.

In the lobby afterwards, we barons and baronesses of the court of Maine Composers sipped champagne, waiting for the newly crowned king to address the huddled masses from the balcony.  I thought back to those days spent huddling over Finale, listening to snippets of the work, trying to figure out how you would even go about conceiving of something like “The Summer King”.  My own attempt at an opera gave me enough insight to know that I didn’t have it in me then, and probably still don’t.  The running joke was “Alright, who’s next?”  Not I, my friends, not I.  I know when to hold’em and when to fold’em.

These events can sometimes feel, as USM School of Music Director Alan Kaschub put it, like alumni gatherings.  It was great to see so many friends and colleagues come out to support this effort, and beforehand people were asking me if I could posit what was going through Dan’s head as the crowd milled about the theater, waiting for the lights to drop and the notes to sound.  Being a composer apparently gave me some perceived authority here.  The only thing that I could compare it to was the feeling that I got before my recitals, particularly my undergrad, when weeks and months of stress and rehearsals and everything else were came to a single finite point in time and space.  I related that at those two moments, I felt total relief.  My work was done, there was nothing left to do except to sit back and trust in my performers.

As the lights in the theater shifted and the speakers extended their thanks, my mind dreamt, for a moment, that this was my work about to be presented.  In this little thought experiment, only one emotion came over me: sheer, abject terror.  How would the crowd, including the self-styled “fans of less modern music” behind me, accept my life’s work if it were on display?  How many variables in a 3 hour production had the opportunity to go wrong?  What if, what if, what if… a million what ifs.

I couldn’t even imagine.


Blind Dates and Barber

Posted by joshnewton16 on 30th March 2014 in Art Music, Composition

My friend, Tim Burns, dropped me a message on Facebook the other day.  “How do you write good music fast?”  It’s a question that I have never really thought about.  I grew to accept it about my approach to composing, but never really thought about the whys and hows.  I am sure I have said this before, and to my composer friends this is no surprise.  I compose in furied stints punctuated by remarkable periods of stagnation.  That stagnation can be somewhat frustrating, but it is part of the process I have come to accept.  But how do I put all that into words?  So after buying myself some time with a witty comeback about panic and coffee, I thought about how I really do it, and thought that I would share those thoughts here.

The first thing that I said was not to put down anything notewise until you know the direction of the piece that you are going to write.  You have to know what it is you are going to write, even if you don’t know the specifics*.  I think in retrospect, I would refine that answer and say that in my process I don’t write anything down until I know the character of the piece.  I know what the piece is; I know how it will breathe, how it will live, how the instruments will interact with the piece.  But I don’t always know the direction.  The piece that I wrote recently, which may have lead several of you here **, had virtually no direction until I sat down and wrote it.  The 12-tone fugue in the development was a total surprise to me, even in retrospect after I wrote it.  Weird, huh?

For vocal music, I think this is easiest because there is text, and the music must emerge from the text, be shaped and owned by it.  For my mileage, the text has to resonate on some level for me, even one that isn’t distinctly musical.  The Modern Composer’s Toolbox© gives us the leeway to address issues like that in a plethora of ways, so an “unsungable” text *** is no longer a critical obstacle. I have always found that a text with no soul can never be overcome, even with exemplary music, so that must be where it starts.  How can you write a compelling vocal piece, if the words aren’t compelling?  I have no idea, I can’t do it.  I have loads of saved favorites of texts that I desperately want to set to music ****.  I have bought books because of one passage, or one poem that spoke to me.  Most of them remain on a bookshelf, dog-eared or with bits of paper or note card stuck between pages.

For instrumental music, the question is more difficult.  I grant that it’s much harder to understand what a piece is going to feel like without also knowing what it is going to sound like.  But this is what I am doing during those long stretches when I am “not composing”.  I have been tossing around a piece for violin and piano lately, and all I can keep thinking about is the first movement of the Barber Concerto.  Not even the whole thing, but there is a moment after that most sublime recapitulation of the main theme of the movement:  The violin and the orchestra keep fluctuating between recapitulating and developing, and the violin winds up on this stratospheric note, until the oboes come in with the secondary theme of the movement +.  That’s the single moment in time that I am basing an entire piece on.  Not notewise, not orchestrationally, not even tonally… that one snapshot in time from a great piece.  That’s what I want my piece for violin and piano to sound like.

So while on face value, there is not yet a composition here, I am spending time getting to know a new piece on a much more intimate level than I would if I were just writing down the notes.  I am reminded of a novel by one of my favorite sci fi / fantasy authors, Jeffrey Ford, called The Painting of Mrs. Charbuque.  The plot is awesome: A wealthy woman hires a painter for a portrait, but the painter isn’t allowed to look at her; he can only ask her questions, whatever he wants, which she will answer honestly.  The painting is about her, not of her.  That’s what I am trying to do when I write.  It’s why, by the time I get to sit down and write out the notes, that I have to move so quickly… how do you capture a shadow as the sun is going down?

– – – – – –

*             Those unimportant details like tonality, tempo, and form…

**           “Twenty-three Skiddoo” for clarinet, viola and piano recently won the 2014 Portland Chamber Music Festival composer’s contest.

***          “Wasteland”, by TS Eliot, anyone?

****       It was from this pile that I pulled pieces like the Anna Akmatova setting of Requiem, and the settings of the Paul Celan poems.

+            The moment I am talking about is at rehearsal 17, for those following with score at home.

Seeking my (compositional) self

Posted by joshnewton16 on 16th May 2013 in Art Music, Composition

Ninety-Five percent of the pieces that I have written, going back to when I first started dabbling in composition in high school, all fit within the same stylistic box.  I am, at heart, someone who has been greatly influenced by the Romantics and the Post-Romantics far more than more modern composers in terms of overall form and shape to the music that speaks through me.  That isn’t to say that more modern composers haven’t altered what it is that I do, but that there was much of the last half of 20th Century, and the 13% of the 21st Century gone by, which did not factor prominently in my sound.

I wrote for traditional ensembles (or at least traditional instruments) in traditional ways, even if the result was colored by contemporary sound.  There was a piece that had images projected on a wall (Scenes from Lovis Corinth), and another piece that had accompanying video (How, Then, Shall I Live?) but in my mind neither piece was crucially connected to it’s visual component.  There was “Lakehurst”, a piece for quintet and piano that used the famous radio news broadcast from the Hindenburg disaster which was more closely tied to the extra-musical aspects.

But these pieces were exceptions.  I don’t want to make it sound like I have a problem with this, because I don’t.  The pieces that I was writing were exactly what I felt like I should write at the time, and these exceptions to that norm felt very refreshing to produce.  It was akin to when I first wrote The Fire Sermon, my real first aleatoric piece; I so enjoyed the freedom it gave me that I wrote several more.  And every piece after it on some level responded to it, either by being very strictly controlled, having some elements of chance, or also aleatoric.   Well, Duh, you say.  But really – I was always aware of The Fire Sermon as I wrote pieces that came after it.

That has changed lately, or at least shifted.  I find that I have been exploring sounds which combine electronic accompaniment with live players more and more.  Three Electronic Poems surely fit that mold on a couple of levels, but I am writing a piece now for tape (OK, mp3) and violin, plus looking at other ways that I can make this sort of connection manifest.  Building these soundscapes, in front of which will be music taken more from my traditional roots, is very gratifying… dare, I say, fun.  I have been playing Minecraft a lot lately, and one of the first things that I did was create a MASSIVE room with 200 or so Note Blocks in it so that I could write a piece which would solely exist in that world.  Pieces which have no defined beginning or end, or pieces which have clear defined beginnings and endings, but are completely randomized in the middle.

It’s an interesting time, because I think that my music is growing in a way that it just never has before.  Have I finally pushed my traditionalist voice as far as I can after nearly 20 years of composing?  Have I said all that I can in that particular way, if not forever then at least for right now?  Do I think that I am changing as a composer?   Does any of that really matter, or define me as a composer?  Do I need to be a “Traditionalist” or “Post-Romantic” or “Modernist” or “Electro-Acoustic”?   Those words have less meaning… no, less importance to me than I think they did pretty recently.  This does feel like more than just a “phase” though, there is something real here that is allowing me to integrate my music with other facets of my life.  I am not sure where this will come out, but this experience will shape my works going forward, not just because of the expanded palette I have discovered, but by how I respond to it in every piece going forward.


On the list of things I am doing “now”

Posted by joshnewton16 on 7th April 2013 in Art Music, Composition, Musicology, Research

By an order of magnitude, the question that I have been asked most since completing my Master’s Degree has been what am I am going to do now?  I tried to be coy for a couple of weeks.  Naps, I said for a few days afterwards.  Since then I have resorted to the more cynical, yet no less true, retort that now it’s time for me to start making, you know, money with this thing.  While that gets the chuckles that I hope for, I do realize that at some point I really do have to start formulating a serious plan about what, exactly, I am going to do with myself now that greater academia is no longer the order of the day.  So over the last three or so weeks, I have started putting together a list of things that I would like to do with my burgeoning musical career.

  • Shop compositions out to everyone on the face of the planet who has ever once asked anyone ever for new music to play.  This is going to be made somewhat more difficult with the realization over the last few days that seems to at least be having, what we term in the biz, “issues”.  Hopefully, this is not a long term issue, where they are closing up shop, because it was an invaluable resource for composers looking to get pieces performed, worldwide, and was free.  Two things which factor heavily in the plan to make money going forward.  But to the larger point, one of my goals is to have the storefront part of my website up and done by the end of the year.
  • Compose more music that people want to hear.  I know, this sounds somewhat arbitrary, but hear me out.  “Three Electronic Poems” has to be considered a “hit”.  I mean that.  This coming Saturday at the Portland Conservatory’s Back Cove Music Festival, I am going to be performing it for the third time in a month.  There is potential for another FOUR (yes, FOUR!) performances of it over the course of the summer in places as far away as Colorado and Toronto.  So maybe it’s this quirky, somewhat avant garde side of my writing that most people engage with?  Who knows, but the next piece that I am working on (a Story-based Trombone Quartet) is structurally, in my mind anyway, similar.
  • Write and study more than I have been lately.  Yeah, so I am a total academic nerd; I get and warmly accept that.  Truth be told I LOVED spending hours in the library at USM, reading through JSTOR articles on the cutting edge of musicology.  I really did!  This morning, in fact, I have been sitting at my computer pouring over what I consider just a mountain of stuff that I have wanted to read.  Sort of in the triage stage at this point, getting rid of some stuff that I saved for some reason that I have forgotten or am just not interested in any more.  Truth be told, the real burning analytical desire on my plate is to formalize the research that I did on the Concerto for Orchestra form.  It’s a strange nut to crack, I think, but I also think that I may have been close.  And I have all these scores and recordings, they should be poured over in more detail.

Related to the last point above, I have spent all morning listening to the library of great music that I have accumulated over the last several years while reading articles, and taking a break from that to write to you precious few readers.  The Barber Violin Concerto, a piece that I haven’t listened to in some time was first up.  Instead of listening to my recording, an unimportant version with Slatkin and St. Louis truth be told, I decided to listen to one on YouTube with Gil Shaham and the BBC.  Great stuff, really.

Then I listened to Agon, after Dan Sonenberg correctly pointed out that Stravinsky died 42 years yesterday on Facebook.  It’s not a piece that I know well… and I am not sure that there was anything driving me to, it just wasn’t my cuppa.  Moving on.

After that, I dusted off my recordings of the Shostakovich Piano Concerti.  The first is easily one of my favorite pieces ever, and I am sure that belies a little about the inner dialogue struggles that I am having with embracing my inner avant garde.  At my core I am a post-Romantic.  That is what I have ALWAYS felt, that is always where I have felt most comfortable as a composer, and where I felt that I was crafting my best material.  And yeah, Shostakovich was modernist, but it’s clear that is where his roots are.  Moments like you find in the second movement, right before trumpet comes in with the theme in the recapitulation – it’s something that could have come right out of Mahler.

The Second Concerto is probably a much better work, but there is some magic to the early works I think.  There is SUCH  a difference between the first (op. 35) and the second (op. 102).  They just seem to frame Shostakovich for me.  Op. 35, published in 1933, only a few years after Lady MacBeth, and about five years before the Fifth Symphony.  It’s a work that actually shocked me the first time that I heard it.  I mean shocked, as in “how can he even call that a Concerto, what is going on here!?!?”, but I came to love it over time.  And then Op. 102, 1957, the same year as the Eleventh Symphony.  Before the Cello Concerto.  Before the late Quartets.  And this piece is just so tremendously… happy?  I mean it isn’t sarcastic, it’s legitimately cheerful.  I wonder if there are any two pieces of the same basic structure by the same composer that are any more different.  Maybe this is a topic for another paper, I wonder what has been written about these pieces, if anything?  I suspect that the first has been written about a lot, but the second is somewhat overlooked… but then again when the Eleventh Symphony is your next piece, it’s not surprising that no one remembers what you wrote before it.

So that’s what on the list, musically, right now.  There are probably things that I am forgetting, but as I am reminded often by my dear wife, apparently graduating is not the end of the world.  There are, it seems, other worlds out there where I can still get my music performed!  Who would have thought it?

The inevitable postmortem

Posted by joshnewton16 on 26th March 2013 in Art Music, Composition, Uncategorized, Weather

Three months of stress, hard work and masters-level scheduling have culminated in what I would call an EXCEPTIONALLY successful recital.  I wanted to say a little something here about how it went and the preparation and things that I learned by the process, but I am not sure that my brain is yet able to explain exactly how all of this shook out.

Suffice to say, it was effing awesome.


Every performance was great, the audience was fantastic, my stage crew was amazing.  Everything came together just as I hoped it would.  So much so that I am really not in any shape to dwell on it, to be frank.  I mean what can you say about it?  I am sure there will be something, somewhere in time.   Probably here.  In my defense, though, I haven’t heard the recording, so I am not really sure what to say about it.  The performers all need to be thanked, thanked, and thanked again mille fois.

For me, given my particular predilection to composing wantonly in fevered states, the passing of my recital actually means that I can end my self-imposed musical-fast, and allow myself to compose again.  It’s not that easy, though.  I find that while I want to, am driven to, compose, getting anything decent to come out is more difficult than I banked on.  It has been a raucous few months.  Three masterclasses – Lynn Vartan and Bridget Convey, Ethel and then most recently the Da Capo Chamber Players – in six months means that I had cranked out three seriously crafted pieces.  And I know that it sounds horribly egotistical to say that I worked my ass off to write really well, and lo and behold it happened.  But really, that’s what happened.  I think that there was this sense of… well, I think that the other composers that wrote for these events would agree that we all wanted to knock their friggin socks off.  And if the esteemable Dan Sonenberg is to be beleived, and his take on the matter is convincing, they were successfully sock-free in each case.  There were bare feet.  Bare, I tell you, and that is nothing to sneeze at in Maine during Winter.

So, while I am feeling the drive to compose, I am finding it difficult to craft anything.  I mean for crying out loud, the last piece that I wrote was Three Electronic Poems.  The piece before that, the Chamber Suite (the recital finale, and piece which Da Capo played through).  The piece before that was Shadow Puppets.  The piece before that, Exequy.  I have no idea what was before that, but those three pieces DOMINATED my recital both in terms of scale, or preparation, of time writing, in terms of emotional outpouring… of everything.  So yeah, I am feeling the drive to compose, but maybe, just maybe, I have to give myself a break.  So that brings me back to square one.

I feel that I should be giving my recital more time to live, on some level.  Like, I should not just be looking forward to a second, and now third, performance of Three Electronic Poems but should dwell, even if ‘ere so slightly, on the first, magical one in the hallowed hall at the top of the hill, where so many of my songs have been sung before.  But no, instead it’s three days prior to another performance at the local, monthly new music shindig, and there is a third performance at the Back Cove Festival on the books in the months to come.  Plus, I have already sent off applications to two Electro-Acoustic conference jobbies, hoping they agree with my thought that this piece would be just a super addition.  Egads, I think, this is more playing than I have had to do in quite some time.  I should go get my euphonium out of the car, it’s been there over a week as it is (shh, don’t tell anyone you guys!).

“But you must write!”, my brain says, and so here I am, staring at a list of open score calls, my copy of David Lehman’s Oxford Book of American Poetry, searching through some fifteen thousand (it sure feels like) poems trying to find one that I could use in a piece for soprano and a small consortium of musicians that can only last 60 seconds.  Sixty Seconds?  Eek, what the hell am I going to do with that.  It basically gives you two choices – pack it so full and tight that music is just bursting at the seams, and the poor ensemble is forced to barrel through it until the bubble just POPS and the music is done.  Or, do I go the path of the yawning minimalist… sustained, and sustained.  Klangfarben.   Tone Color.  Shifting and sustaining, sustaining and shifting.  The text is what would pull me in one direction or another, so that is the first objective.  Page 447 (works of Hart Crane).  Only another two thousand pages to go or something.  Nothing, nothing, nothing so far… and why did all these poets have tuberculosis?

To quote Tom Lehrer from “Lobachevsky”, “Vat… am I going… to do?”

Then I realize.

While I have been periodically disappearing into this haze, into this fog of artistic outpouring, the world has continued to spin around me.  My son is almost through fifth grade.  My wife has been working furiously at the trendy burrito shop down the road; she’s asleep upstairs.  The dog is snuggling under blankets searching in vain for heat, or truffles, or something, cursing a groundhog in Pennsylvania that he thinks would make a wonderful teriyaki.  It’s almost time to till the garden.  Seriously, already.  There isn’t that much snow left.  I guess that means I should get my seeds, and start planning what I am going to do with it all.  I have to trim the underbrush from my roses, and order gravel for my moat… err driveway.   I remember that my summers – my fleeting, lofty, warm summers – are the time when the business of the year takes a holiday, and be it shown through the brown grass that will soon be tall and green, or the flat now but soon to be bounding soccer balls (or hopefully no-longer-idle footballs) that will be played with in short order, or the cold, damp picnic table with its hints of early evening cocktails that my wife and I will share in the back yard under a yawning maple with chances to catch a deer poking around the blackberries or the wild strawberries, Summer, Oh Summer, is slowly starting to blossum through that which is known as Spring.

I will write music again, and soon and furiously, but you know what?  It’s been a really busy year… I am going to take some time and just breathe for a while.

T minus 36 hours and counting

Posted by joshnewton16 on 16th March 2013 in Composition

If you are doing the math, that will tell you it’s 5:30 Saturday morning. I am in bed dictating this post to my phone, wide awake to greet the morning. I normally get up around this hour anyway even when I try to sleep in.  Today, though, the problem is that I have already been up long enough to stew on and conceive the shape for this blog post.  It’s funny, at the dress rehearsals the other night, I was joking with another USM grad student about the number of complete breakdowns she had leading up to her recital*.  So far my number is one.

She said that it wasn’t that she had moments of breakdown, but that it was a slow, roiling anxiety for her. And that she would wake up in the middle of the night, run her program, and go back to bed.  That had never occurred to me, and I thanked her for planting that suggestion.  It’s different, she correctly observed.  The level of involvement and investment is different for a vocalist than a composer.  For me, these are not just pieces.  They are like my children, they are prized possessions.  Jewels.  My life’s work.  I worry about how the new kids will be received.  I wonder if the old timers will fare as well critically as they have previously.  Will I remember what I want to say?  Should I bring note cards?   I need to remember to go get Thank You cards tomorrow, oh and I need to make sure I have what I need for the reception snacks… what am I making again?

Ultimately, I come to the conclusion that if I am worrying about thank-you cards and my reception, I am good with the concert itself.  If the dress rehearsal was any indication, the music will go just fine. 36 hours from now, the second piece will be almost over.  Things set in motion will continue to their ultimate conclusion, and, barring other forces, will do so uninterrupted.  Some other Newton** said something like that once.


* None other than the incomparable Luette Saul

** I think it was this guy.  That wouldn’t be an unusual mistake to make, though.


Inching ever so closer (Recital, part 3)

Posted by joshnewton16 on 9th March 2013 in Art Music, Composition, Weather

Last weekend, I badly needed to take time off.  So many things had been swirling around, and I had been pouring every spare moment into preparations.  Making sure that this piece was formatted correctly, or that piece had lines that played nicely, or the text in the programs was centered or Left Justified correctly *, or the order of the pieces flowed together nicely, or that I had made arrangements for practice space, yadda yadda yadda.  Things that I am convinced that other people just know instinctively and handle with grace and flair.  Me?  HA!   I just needed to sit on the couch in a pair of sweatpants and play Skyrim.

So I did.

My sloth had a cost, though.  Not working last weekend meant that this weekend I needed to check off all things that I had decided not to do last weekend PLUS anything I had parsed out for this weekend.  But that’s OK too because by the time this morning rolled around, I was ready to start working on them.  Luckliy, the dominoes just keep clicking into place, so there wasn’t too much that I needed to dedicate serious time to this weekend.  Posters are done, and I started hanging them up.  Programs have been sent off and should be ready for me well before next Sunday.  I am going shopping tomorrow to get some new threads.  Rehearsals have started in earnest, and wrap up this coming week (everything sounds marvelous!).  I just finished the last of the Three Electronic Poems, and have to schedule some practice time so that I can be sure that I can play it **.  Things are cruising towards their inevitable conclusion, and I can think of only one colossal mental breakdown suffered on my part.  This is a positive step.

One of the last tasks that I had set for myself for this weekend was to do the featured texts handouts.  I find that it’s a good preparatory step for my program notes that I am expected to give, live and in living color, from the stage at my recital.  Each piece will have its own little blurb, and inevitably a joke or two.  EXEQUY, I can explain the mystery of the programmatic title.  For THREE ELECTRIC POEMS, I will have plenty to talk about because of the rig I am using.  The Paul Celan poems, I can talk about the abstract language and challenges that poses to the writing of the music and the performance ***.  The Anna Akhmatova poems, I can talk about being honest to the subject matter of the text in the music ****.  The Chamber Suite… well, I dunno.  I’ll thank people for coming, and let them know there is cake.  I mean, that piece is pretty straight forward… what am I going to say about it!?!?  I will figure something out.

Reading through the texts, though, reminded me just how much I enjoy working with language in my music.  I keep vacillating back and forth, to be honest, and I am sure that by this time next year I will be talking about how much I love writing absolute, instrumental music.  For now though, putting together the notes reminds me that I have quite  a bit vocal music in my catalogue.  Songs, songs and more songs.  Lots of songs.  Quite a few pieces for chorus, too, but a lot of songs.  And then there are other pieces, my instrumental pieces that take their name, their form, or even just their inspiration from the written word.  Maybe that has to do with how much I wrote when I was younger, and how much I continue to enjoy writing now.  But I have always found that poetry, in particular, is very soothing and inspiring.  For a while there, I would collect any book that had Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” in it.  I still have probably close to 100 books of poetry or verse ^, undoubtedly with multiple copies of the same poems in them.  I keep several just on the floor next to the bed to paw through every once in a while.

But for now there is no more music to be written until after my recital (sanity willing ^*).  Today is one of those really nice late winter/early spring days that those of us up in Maine look forward to.  You can almost hear the snow melting.  The sun was up and bright at 6:30 this morning.  It almost (almost!) makes me want to go out to get the seeds that I am going plant in the garden this year.


* I keep going back and forth on this.  I think finally settled on Left Justified.

** I had started down a path of avant garde poetry, but settled on Louise Bogan’s The Dragonfly.

*** The exceptionally talented Luette Saul will be singing these for the third time now.

**** “Requiem” is such a ridiculously sad poem.  Really.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  This seems to me one of the least hopeful pieces I have ever written.  It starts sad, gets angry, and just kind of stays in that headspace.  It’s a trip.

^ If I were to guess, Jen and I probably have close to 1,000 books in the house.  I think that partially explains my Book Hording in Skyrim.

^*  This, you see, is not always completely in my control…

On the process, part 2

Posted by joshnewton16 on 24th February 2013 in Composition

As I start to write this entry, my recital begins in three weeks, 9 hours.

The second piece in the set of three for THREE ELECTRONIC POEMS for electric euphonium and audio is completed. The poem, as I mentioned before, is Robert Lowell’s The Public Garden. It takes its name from the Public Garden in Boston, which has a number of connections to me personally. More than I realized when I decided on using this poem. My family is originally from the Boston area, sure, but the Garden has also been the setting for two books close to me. “The Trumpet and the Swan” is one of my wife’s favorite books from childhood, and “Make Way for Ducklings” is one of mine *

But here I face a quandary. While both the Milosz and the Lowell are fantastic, and the settings are pretty neat, they are both very similar in tone.  Neither one is really any better a first-of-a-series than the other, so by default, I am starting with the Milosz because I wrote it and settled on it first.  But I don’t have one to end with.  I just don’t think that the Bogan will be enough, although maybe I could write a setting for that one to START the series and make it FOUR ELECTRONIC POEMS; time will dictate that.  That only exacerbates my problem, what I need is an ending.

I should say here that I have, for as long as I can remember, been a fan of the avant garde.  My music has pushed in that direction at times, like I mentioned in my last post, but this piece is already taking another, new step towards it.  That being said, it isn’t something that I have ever really had any more than an academic interest in.  I am not known to sit down, throw on in a Mingus record, and groove out.  But knowing that I need something really far out to end this piece, I go back to my research, and start exactly down that path.  I need to find something really striking.  There are certainly more off-the-wall effects in the unit I am using ** to accompany such a work, but finding a poem to fit is proving harder than you would think ***.  If I am looking for media, then the Creative Commons search is generally where I start.  Today I am going right to the mouth of beast: a podcast produced/compiled by UbuWeb solely about avant garde music and art.

There, I find a poem by the Lower East Side’s Todd Colby about his love of cake.  What draws me here, beyond the subject matter is that there have been a huge number of, for lack of a better term, remixes.  By the time I reach the Sexy Lounge version, I peer back from the abyss of the avant garde momentarily.  It is a pause long enough to reel back, laugh at myself slightly and get something to drink, after which I turn back and continue to pour over the recordings.  The version which the readers voice in quadraphonic sound.   The version for sprechstimme and spoons.  The free jazz version.  Versions, I should say.  The Death Metal version.  Versions.  The twelve versions made by the same person.  The version that took those twelve versions and combined them into an apostolic chorus.  The fully scored operatic version.  The version of “You can call me Al” with new lyrics.

In the middle of that great stretch of bizarrity that I get a message from a friend, who is wondering if I do commissions.  A friends of hers is looking to do a staged setting of a short story, so she is looking to connect us, hoping that I can write something “fairly basic and tonal.”  I laugh to myself, given what I have just committed my morning to.

There are 208 of these resettings, and I listen to about half of them ****.  And they are mostly all great… but ultimately, two hours later, I have decided that they just aren’t going to quite work.  That’s the tough part of this piece, finding the exactly right poem/sonic work to use.  I find Bob Cobbing, “Variations On A Theme Of  Tan”, which seems perfect, if too long at seven minutes, for this piece.  Saved, for its own piece later.  And then – ah ha! – a poem called “15 Flower World Variations” based on a Yaqui Deer Dance… but alas, no recording.  Beth Anderson.  Hugo Ball.  Louis Aragon.  Karel Apple.  I find that the line between sound poetry and anti-music is too close to be able to discern easily.  I know that I am am looking for work with decidedly non-musical speech content, and yet the more I listen the less I know what any of that really means.  The rabbit hole, it seems, has risen up around me while I wasn’t paying attention.

I decide to circle back around.  Instead of going to the master database, and listening to small snippets trying to find the right one, I go back to Google, and start searching for Sound Poetry.  The Electronic Poetry Center at the University of Buffalo as an extensive list, including more by Cobbing, including “Ga (il s)o (ng)”  which might just work.  Almost at the same time, I hear back from a composer I reached out to on Twitter about using his entry ^ in the “Cake” remixes (a pun that only now I realize).  It’s lunch time, so I warm up the oven, and then in almost completely calamitous fashion, knock my euphonium over… snatching it just before it crashes into the concrete floor.  It wasn’t falling very fast, oddly, but where it would have fallen would have been disastrous.  Ugh.

Three weeks, 2 hours and 43 minutes.


* Although, to be fair, I am sure that I am hardly alone in that regard. But I have such fond memories of my early childhood on the South Shore, reading that book with my younger brother.

** While most of the guitar-centric distortions just make me sound like I can’t play well, things like the Ring Modulator setting give the tone a very distinct, mechanical color.

*** Apparently you can’t just Google “Avant Garde Poetry Recordings” and get a plethora to swim through.



On the process of conception

Posted by joshnewton16 on 23rd February 2013 in Composition

There are three weeks, and two days to go until my graduate recital.  Naturally, that means in the last 24 hours, I have decided on a program change.  And not merely a program change, but a program change that means writing a brand new piece that I just thought of.  It’s a piece that I will be playing using my old bass guitar effects unit *and recordings of a handful of poets reading their own poetry.

Even though this program already has EXEQUY, an aleatoric piece for piano and percussion on the program, this piece will also by necessity most likely be somewhat in the same vein.  It’s a style that I really enjoy writing in, feeling like the shape gives me the best of both worlds – ultimate control for the composer where the sequence of events can be wholly within my purview and ultimate freedom as the performer to get from point A to point B however they, I, choose.  THREE ELECTRONIC POEMS will be the fourth ** piece that I have written in this way, but one of the few pieces that I have written for my native instrument ***

Enough preamble, I have decided to detail my process in this post as I embark on it.  It seems fitting since it’s going to be on my recital.

The process actually started yesterday, testing the electronics to make sure that I could actually get them to work the way that I wanted them to.  Once that was established, I started scoping out the parameters of the piece itself.  Probably three movements, that is always a nice round number.  At first, I considered using silent, surrealist film.  Plenty available on the internet ****.  Ultimately, I settle on poetry, and started searching for recordings of poems.  The American Academy of Poets publishes audio files from up to fifty years ago or more of public readings.  I contacted them earlier today to find out if they had any particular attribution requests, but since their archive is publicly available, derivative works are most likely, legally, not a problem.

The first poem I found was from a favorite poet of mine, Czeslaw Milosz ^, called “And the City Stood in its Brightness”.   The second, and one that my wife liked more than the Milosz, was Robert Lowell’s “The Public Garden”.  I do love me the Confessionist poets, they have always spoken to me.  For the third, I scoured and scoured, and for now I have settled on “The Dragonfly” by Louise Bogan.  I have yet to really think about the order that I want to put them in, or the particulars of what they are going to sound like.  First, I need to listen to the readings, and think of the poems.  What are the words saying to me, and what do I wish to say back to them in the shape of music?  I have my very trendy, Swedish-made, notebook next to me, and a blue pen that looks like the cap was bitten by the dog.   I will need to find where the recording gives me space to spread the reading out a little bit, to introduce musical bits, and what the poem reminds me of.  I have some fairly interesting effects available to me ^*

I listen to the Milosz first, because I both know that I want to use it, and I am unsure of what I want to do with it explicitly.  I pull the audio into my editing program, stripping off the applause at the end, and Milosz’s reading of the title of the poem at the beginning.  But that title serves as a recurring motive in the poem, so the music should follow that model.  There are three stanzas, each beginning with the title, and the poem ends with it.  I make the decision to put some silence after the iteration at the start of the first stanza, before the rest of the poem continues.  It’s around this point that I decide this will probably be the first of the poems in the set, and so I put some silence at the beginning of the sound file also.  15 seconds of silence between each stanza, and before the last statement of the motive.  A small gap here: “And the city stood in its brightness… when years later I returned”

Other notes:  The poem is about the poet returning home to be buried in his homeland, if it is to be taken literally.  He looks upon his city favorably, if slightly forlornly. All that he knew of it is no longer there in flesh, but only in skeletal form.  The three stanzas take a narrative shape: He first sees what the city is now in his absence after time, he sees what was his life in a museum with other curiosities, and he sees that everything he remembers, and all who remember him, is gone.  Milosz does not sing through the poem like Lowell does, there are no melodic bits to his cadence for me to analyze and play off of.  Every time he repeats the title, it is subtlety different so I should use that in the music. The audio file comes to 2:20, twice plus its recited length, which is exactly in the area that I hoped for.

To Finale, then, to plot out melodic bits.  That is where I will start in the morning, I say to myself, but I bring my pad of music paper upstairs.  It’s a lie I like to tell myself that I do all of my composing at the computer.  Really, it’s close to 98%, but there are those two-percent times when I need to think of things, or just prefer working in the comfort of my bed where there are blankets, Netflix, and snuggly animals trying to pry me from writing.  But I woke up this morning to a page of melodic snippets, and notes on what I want to do.  Motivic theme, characters of Acknowledgement, Remembrance, Acceptance.  “Can the theme transform?  Can the theme grow with the poem?  Does theme add to, not take away?” I ask myself.  There are doodles and squiggles, as if I was dreaming of shape not notes.  And this: “+8vb”.  Yes, I think, octave doubling will give the music the gravity I am looking for.  6am came, I wake just as light is coming up, and I set to the process of writing after spending some time with my wife before retreating into the personal cave I set about myself when I compose.

Three weeks and one day, now.

*  a robust and well-loved ZOOM BFX-708

** Apart from EXEQUY, the others are THE FIRE SERMON and SEVEN SCENES FOR DARKENED STAGE, which was featured on my undergrad recital.

*** If you don’t know, it’s euphonium.

**** Here was one I was considering, I would have had to mute it.  Here is another.

^ A song cycle I had started writing at one point used his poem “Farewell”.

^* A few too many variations on “distortion” for my taste, but flanges and echoes and harmonization abound nonetheless.

Shadow Puppets and Shadow Boxing

Posted by joshnewton16 on 14th February 2013 in Art Music, Composition

It has been a while since I have written a legit blog entry, but things have just gone crazy pants up in here lately.  My last barn-burner about key relationships is a tough act to follow, but I am going to give it a shot.  I know that I originally meant for this blog to be about theory and analysis, but it has evolved to be more about me as a composer and theorist.  It was unexpected, but apparently I needed somewhere to put this stiff.  And that still gives me the excuse that if I need to fill material between rambling posts, like this one, I can post one of the dozens of theoretical papers I have written in abridged form spread over multiple posts.  Oh, you lucky, lucky people.  Amazing my RSS stats aren’t just through the roof.

Annoyingly, also, it is time to replace my computer keyboard.  Things aren’t working right.  Undoubtedly, one too many beers spilled into it.

The final chapter of my Masters Degree is winding down.  My graduate recital is scheduled for March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, and that is the final requirement of my degree.  As long as that program is accepted by the composition faculty, I will be officially Mastered and on my way to greater academia.  Or not.  Who knows?  But the larger point is that my official interactions with the USM School of Music as a student are nearing an abrupt halt.  Sure, sure, I will undoubtedly pop up there from time to time to see the occasional concert, the twice annual Composer’s Ensemble Concert for example, but it will be different.  Alumni.  TWO TIME ALUMNI *, at that.  I will be expected to start contributing to the musical world as a whole, which I hope to do, proudly sporting the USM banner, which I will always do.

It is the last few interactions that  leave me both happy that the school I have been involved with for fifteen years ** is really starting to move forward in a direction that I had been hoping for and asking for, but also a little sad that I am going to miss out on what seems to be an ever increasing series of great opportunities.  This semester features a larger than usual number of specifically new music/composition events.  I hope this isn’t isolated, and that the School of Music continues to build on this.  In a three month span, there are two or three graduate composition recitals, plus there was one at the end of Fall Semester.  Two concert readings/recordings focusing on new music.  The Composers Ensemble concert, the Back Cove Festival.  Winter-Spring is new music time in Maine, and I am lucky to sip gluttonously from its chalice, even if but for a fleeting while.

The first residency was a concert reading session by ETHEL, the often electric and always amazing, string quartet based in NYC ***.  My progression as a writer for strings has been very gradual.  In fact, if memory serves, all the real pieces I have written for strings are less than five years old, give or take, except for a few scraps of a REQUIEM setting that I started in high school before I could really grasp what a Requiem was for.  There are still only a handful of pieces.  Sure, the G Minor Concerto for Piano and the Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion have no orchestral winds at all, but they are far from the norm.  There’s the very recent Chamber Concerto for small orchestra and newly finished Chamber Suite for Pierrot Ensemble.  Isolated bits of string music pepper my early catalog, but for the most part they are not very good, nor are they good string writing.  Bad music and bad part writing?  No thanks, they can stay sheltered away on my hard drive until I look back at them and try to figure out if they can be edited successfully.

The string quartet that I wrote grew out of a sketch that I started about 7 years ago, give or take.  I was stuck in the Atlanta airport for about 8 hours on a layover, and they had an exhibit on ancient Egyptian Shadow Puppets.  I was completely captivated by the concept of a two-dimensional art form, and wanted to see if there was some way to capture that musically.  What if I wrote a piece for an ensemble that was meant to be backlight, with their shadows portrayed on a screen?  Two dimensional concert music!  The reason that I chose a string quartet was the available range of motion of the performers.  And what was born was probably the most dissonant, completely atonal 8 measures of music I had ever written, and possible have ever written.  I could never figure out a way to make it a complete piece, but I loved the overall idea of the music I had written.  When I was asked to write for this event, I took those eight measures, worked and cut and chopped the material and finally figured out what to do with it.  Two additional movements, and I had a piece.

So, here I was: I knew enough that the first movement was fiendishly difficult.  Awkward double stops in the interior voices, no real sense of cohesion, peppered strange articulations that weren’t  apparently, what I really wanted sonically after all ****.  I was nervous… because I wondered if the music was not just hard, but hard and bad.  What was this… this thing going to sound like, even in the extremely capable hands of the quartet after one reading?  I feared less for the second and third movements, but I was really, really nervous about what the first was going to sound like.  That, dear friends, should have been the first sign.

To their credit, and in a manner assuaging my considerable compositional anxiety, ETHEL looked at the music and let me know that the double stops are hard and awkward.  To that, I nodded in tacit agreement as if to say “Yes, yes I know… but would it be too much trouble for you to play it anyway?”  And they played the first eight measures, but the music didn’t quite line up.  Sheepishly, with the eyes of 75 people bearing down on the back of my head, I waved them off, and just let them know that the first measures weren’t quite right.  They talked about it for a second, I let them in on the secret ^, and then they played it NAILS.  I mean just like Finale playing back a sound file with the crispness of computerized time.  And then the sensitive section, and they played it tenderly, and then the recap and just impeccable again.


I had nothing to say.  I mean, in thirty seconds they had pieced together, and brought music out of, something I questioned was even actually musical.  I was in shock, and I said so… I mean here is a group with phenomenal reviews from the world over, and all I can say is “I can’t believe you actually were able to put that together” ^*?  After that, the second and third movements went just about exactly as I figured they would.  Some minor things here and there that I asked them to tweak, and they agreed and played it again just like I asked.  They even commented when they saw the third movement that it would practically play itself.

But I have heard it played… so what to do now with it?  Well, I think that first thing I realized is that I have two thirds of a great piece on my hands, but that the opening movement just needs something ^**.  And I will get to it, I just have too much other stuff floating around right now, so it’s on the list of things that I need to edit, and then try to shop around to quartets that might be interested.   But I think that I have a nice little stable of marketable pieces that I might actually be able to get some performances.  I will have some really good recordings of them which is going to be key, and hopefully the drive to do something with it all, rather than let it languish on my hard drive in digital form.

Because here’s the rub.  Soon will come the next chapter, or book, or whatever analogy is appropriate.  In the next couple of months, I have to spread my wings and see what I can do to make my name in the private music world.  It’s scary as crap, I ain’t gonna lie, that I have to say goodbye to what has been a very, very big part of my life.  But it’s coming whether I want it to or not.  The final curtain call.  The last hurrah.  Send in the clowns.


*             I did my BA there, too.

**           Sure, there was a two year hiatus but that never stopped me from showing up, or being in contact with faculty there I am closest to.

***        There is also a strange connection between me and the viola player.  He is from my old stomping grounds, and I knew his father.

****     Wait.  Was that a quote from “Purple Haze”?  What is THAT doing there?  Ugh.

^             “Yeah, that 9/8?  It’s four, with a long three… and the 7/8 is three with a long 2.”

^*           Real classy, Newton.  Way to go, you jerk.