Author: Sean Shepherd

On Big Questions of Creativity and Intention

or: How I learned to stop worrying and love Zuckerberg’s machine.

As with other areas in the many realms of public discourse these days, there are times when, for me, taking a gander at the old quotidian chit-chat stream on Facebook has just become unbearable.  It’s OutrageBook in these trying times, or LookAtMeWinningBook, which it’s now been for years, with a cast of players who are more or less successful in navigating the subtle side of the #winning game that varies depending on your own feed.  Once in a while, still, it’s DesperationBook, with an alarming call for help nestled in there after LookAtWhatBabyFedPuppyBook posts (that might just be my very helpful personal algorithms at work, knowing what I will definitely click on), but we’re in an era of savvy self-marketers who are constantly improving our posts Content™ and protecting our online fake persona Brand™.  Facebook is not for musings on self-harm (or even, yes, suicide, back in the day) anymore. Now we know better, somehow: that’s just not what our friends? Audience™ wants to see.

Too cynical?  Sure it is.  Also it isn’t really the point of this missive.  We each have our own way with each of these soc med platforms. Twitter has turned into Land Of Dark Thoughts Quickly Typed in recent months, for example, although I don’t deny the geniuses in our midst. But it has seemed that for the entire 2010s thus far, Facebook has been a place for composers and co. (whether to chat, laugh, share work, share opportunities, discuss musical issues, discuss politics, fight like hell) to come together.  The same is true for actors, string players, academics, doctors, and bankers, to some extent, I’m assuming.  But for composers, or for the several hundred spread over six continents whom I’m FBfriends with, at any rate, it has functioned as one of the relevant gathering places for those of us who couldn’t make it to the show last night. Our lot, as a rule, doesn’t congregate.  The quartet or troupe or surgery team needs to be in the room, together.  We work best alone, no matter what TV comedy writers have to say about the creative process, and we know that from years of trying to write with a hangover.  We don’t, en masse, otherwise come together.  Maybe this place is our water cooler.

For composers, Facebook has functioned as one of the relevant gathering places for those of us who couldn’t make it to the show last night.

For me personally, I can safely * though not proudly * say that a day going by without me checking FB has been a rarity in the last five years.  I’m a freelancer who works from home, and so in that time, my days of not leaving the house or speaking to another person (esp. while in deadline/work-trance mode) have outnumbered my no-social-media days by the dozens or hundreds.  I say, without too much embarrassment, that most of my hours are spent in solitude, never more so than in the past few years since I’ve moved to a new city.  I go on Facebook and the like to dial in.  I very much suspect that I’m not the only professional scribbler to do so.   Even so, this recent sour mood at the virtual party felt like just too much, so several weeks ago and a bit on a whim, I quit, cold-turkey style, for a full seven days.  Apps off phone, bookmarks flicked away.  I realized what an incredible habit I’d acquired, but also that after three days, I felt just fine about what I didn’t know about everyone else.  I missed #metoo and #notallmen entirely.

A lower case f (the Facebook logo) surrounded by a collection of pills and tablets.

But what to do when it was time to log back in?  I headed straight for one of my old personal standbys, SnarkBook, announcing that I was back and did you miss me and that I was so happy not to have missed anything!  Since then, I’ve not reloaded apps or pages so as to make them easy to get to, and have remained pleased with my Newly Distant Daddy involvement.  But on day two, without really giving it too much thought, I went to an old trope in terms of my posts:

A screenshot of a Facebook Post by Sean Shepherd from October 25, 2017 at 5:25pm. The full text of the post is printed directly below in the body of the article.

Here’s a composer question for composers:

Looking back on all of your work, and trying to be objective about it*, do you feel that the pieces that had some special emotional significance to you while you were writing them resulted in (objectively*) better music?

Are the ones we want to be the best really the best?

*understood as probably not possible

I find that the “composer question for composers” post pops up every few days, somewhere on my feed, although sometimes in statement form.  Generally, it’s coming from a fairly personal place for the author, although some like to rouse the rabble and say something #controversial once in a while. Although as I say, I read a lot of outrage from people who appear to agree with each other these days, so the “Beethoven(/Brahms/Mahler/Boulez) sucks” comments, being too hot to touch (even if they are about dead people who really can’t hear them) have been on the dwindle.  Instead, they range from shoptalk to the downright philosophical in terms of content (the threads that veer into style can turn into 500-comment monsoons and are just downright poisonous. Sad!).  My occasional forays into the genre seem no different.  Whether off the top of the noggin (“Just heard Copland Dickinson Songs – still genius! I’d forgotten. Had you?” or a musi-business bone-to-pick thing), or a strongly worded, fiercely grandstanding COMPOSED POST about gender and programming, I realize: Okay, yes I do want to talk about this stuff sometimes.   And whenever that seems apparent, from anyone, it seems like the group is eager to jump in.

I found the response to my composer question for composers, after a week away from AngryBook, to be unexpectedly delightful.  In addition to the many composers, those who could relate—writers, performers, and others—also joined in, almost immediately.  I asked and ran—never really offering my own thoughts—and returned after some time only find a whole world of perspective.  Over the next 24 hours, there were more than 50 comments, from the casual “Nope” to the poetic, with sprinkles of the typical self-congratulation and snark we can surely expect from any bunch of composers so gathered.  Yet, it has also dawned on me: never have I been in a seminar or lecture room where so many would speak so freely.

Never have I been in a seminar or lecture room where so many would speak so freely.

This was especially interesting to me in this case, given my hasty choice and inclusion of several words that I know very well will shut a room full of composers right up.  Words like “objective,” “best,” and “emotional” are hot, hot words amongst us, a group that would disagree as to their meaning before even getting into their usage.  Had I really formulated a Serious Question for Serious Thought And Conversation, I would have likely afforded myself the time to, well, basically dodge the question.   Aye!—there’s the rub.  Facebook isn’t the place for formal questions and stilted answers, both designed to impress our colleagues (and besides, I’m well out of grad school. * taps mic *  Is this thing on?). These words were about me—me, a composer.  Hey, you, a composer, what are your thoughts?  And hi, it’s your old pal Sean. Use all the dangerous words you want; it’s only Facebook.  Let’s communicate, right here in public.

A tasseled graduation cap atop a blue box containing a white lower case f (the Facebook logo).

“Best” in music is a danger word.  My conservatory education, which at times consisted of preposterously idiotic nuggets—such as “Brahms is the best and also Tchaikovsky is not the best”—presented as some kind of acceptable canonic knowledge, is a constant reminder for me of danger words like best.  Six minutes after my post, John Glover, who I’ve known since he was 18 and I not too much older, was on to me.  “Asking to make the ‘best’ is usually a recipe for disaster. The only thing I find consistently helpful is maintaining a feeling of softness and curiosity.”  Andrew McManus soon sought further clarification: “Do you really mean ‘the best’ piece, or ‘the most successful at accomplishing the goals of that particular work’?”

It occurred to me: yes, “best” is a dangerous word, and I don’t often use it when talking about other’s work.  (Is Daphnis Ravel’s best work? Yes. Is Gaspard Ravel’s best work? Yes. Useless, even to throw opinions around with.) But also: yes, I most definitely mean “best” when I’m talking about my own.  I have a best piece (perhaps, but not necessarily, my most significant piece), and that is how I choose to think about it.  I’m thoroughly aware that within my own body of work, I can point to “good” and “bad” moments as I choose to see them, and for the sake of my work, I most certainly apply scrutiny and criticism to everything I make.   I do let it bog me down, I do wish I could be better at the job, and I most certainly wish my best was better—I’m an optimist in the hope that my best does in fact get better.  It’s an important part of my daily working process—making “good” work to feel good about the work I make.  But I’m also old enough to see that we eventually just become more aware of our own limitations.  And yet I hear John’s message and Andrew’s context loud and clear—a little softness and curiosity could go well with all that awareness.

Predictably, though, throughout the discussion, the hotter, deeper buzzword-topic—that big one—was emotion.  Again, my minds drifts back toward my education—music and emotion; emotion and music—this could get out of hand so very quickly!  I also think of the 15 years that I sat in seminar rooms with mostly straight white men and all of my years of weekly lessons with teachers who were nearly all straight white men, and how comfortable I felt in discussing my emotional world and its connections to my attempted artmaking.  Which is to say: I was not.  Usually they, also, were not.  But I was lucky with those men. Once in while we were able to open up, and I could talk about what I was really talking about. Thank god for that.  But much more often there were other things that were easier to discuss—for Xenakis, design, for Messiaen, harmony, etc. Talking about the Greek War of Independence or a deeply held Catholicism could get messy and speculative and VERY not-objective.  Let’s look at the notes!

For a performer, dealing with emotion is an intrinsic part of one’s education. On stage, emotion will not be denied.  We each have seen all manner of trajectory in front of our eyes—from good to great to sublime, from bad to worse, general lethargy, general mania—guided simply by responding to a performer’s emotional state in live performance.  Their training in channeling the energy for the better begins as soon as they pick up a bow.  But as a general topic of interest to composers, it’s one of the (many) uncomfortable subjects we, in general, choose to leave off the syllabus.  As a result, when a composer says they are not emotionally connected to the work they make, I tend to believe them.  Emotion is for others. We’ve just been diligently putting notes on a page, by ourselves, for months. Please, anyone else, emote away!  With passion, please!

Emotion is one of the (many) uncomfortable subjects composers, in general, choose to leave off the syllabus.

On the question of a personal emotional connection to the music during composition, there were great guns in the conversation threads throughout, first from Dalit Warshaw: “I find that one’s perspective toward one’s music is constantly in flux, and that—when revisited after a respite of (even) years—new wisdoms, about one’s self, the nature of one’s writing, continually emerge… Re your question: I’ve wondered the same thing, and do tend to think it may be the case, perhaps because, when deeply in touch with one’s emotions, one is perhaps also more in touch with one’s creative intuition and inner freedom. The trick, I think, is to be like a Method actor in finding the emotional sincerity in every work one writes.”  Alan Fletcher agrees with the idea of flux over time, writing “very often the pieces I doubted most in composition reveal themselves to me as better than I thought—not always, though. And pieces I am enthusiastic about during composition come to seem too obvious, or something…. I’m not talking about the motivation for the work, just the impression I have of how well it’s going. But I do find a correlation with works written from a deep emotional impulse and works that end up satisfying me in the end.”

Reynold Tharp is acutely aware of this turbulent connection.  “My best pieces are the ones in which I had some kind of strong emotional engagement with the compositional process and the desired affective or expressive character,” he says.  “Also often they’re the pieces during which I oscillate the most between thinking they’re great and thinking they’re awful as I’m working on them. If I don’t have an emotional connection with the idea of the piece or what I feel I can do within the limits of the project or medium, it will almost always end up being a weaker piece. Of course, even the more strongly felt pieces all have their flaws too…”  John Mackey has found his balance by looking outward, writing, “I think my best two pieces are the two that I wrote about loss—but not my own. Putting myself into an empathetic place about somebody else’s loss gave me just enough distance to still approach the pieces with craft first, rather than simply emoting on the page.”

For Clare Glackin, the process is not easy to pinpoint, saying, “I think it comes down to what I call “essence”—kind of hard to define but I use this word to describe the soul of a piece—the specific mood or aura or thing that the piece is expressing that’s hard to put into words. The things I’ve written that have been most emotionally significant to me have stronger essences. And to me a stronger essence almost always equals a better piece, as long as the composer has the skill to realize their intention. Without a specific essence, the music might be decent but it is more generic and boring than it would be otherwise.”

I do believe the stakes change with the task/piece at/in hand, and Matthew Peterson’s comment resonated for me and brought the conversation back to earth a little: “I always have to like and be enthralled in some way by what I create, but it’s hard to write a funky, weird baritone sax solo ‘from the heart’ or some sort of inner investment.”  It reminded me that we can’t always be sure what we are or aren’t saying or how from the heart we really are.  I recently heard a piece for the first time in years, one I finished in 2011 in the wake of a mutually devastating breakup with a longtime boyfriend.  In no way connected in my mind at the time, the first thing that occurred to me upon hearing it again: “Whoa Nelly, that is some real Breakup Music™!”  Jefferson Friedman hit that nail on the head:  “Not to be reductive, but honestly all the best ones were about a girl.”

Are the pieces we want to be the best really the best?

And what of the answers to my million-dollar question?  Are the pieces we want to be the best really the best?  A sea of noes flooded the comments early on.  Marcos Balter went further: “Actually, my best ones are almost always the ones I composed the fastest, without thinking much of them.”  But the yeses began to balance the scales; Felipe Lara wrote that, for him, “my favorite ones of mine are the ones I work on the hardest—sort of opposite of Marcos.”  Felipe and I also share the same attending secondary fear.  If the answer is yes, that the pieces we are the most ambitious about, or attached to, confused/rattled by, are in fact for us, the (non-objective) best—is it only because we want them to be?

A group of seven rectangular box-shaped crayon sticks in different colors (from left to right: red, orange, yellow, light green, sky blue, dark blue, and purple); a white lower case f (the Facebook logo) appears on the front of the penultimate one (the one in dark blue).

Like others in ComposerBook land, I wrote the post simply because I was confronting the question myself.  I was going through something (part of a bigger story for me as I’ve struggled with blocks and with finishing “special” pieces for special occasions for several years now).  I reached out into the ether and found more perspective and commiseration (including from those I’ve barely met in person, or haven’t seen in many years) than I should have reasonably expected.  Social media, as it’s slowly morphed and grown up and changed, has guided our online behaviors as well.  This was a normal day online in 2017, yet wouldn’t have been possible even in the FB of 2009, when it was five years old.  For all the aggravation Facebook can cause, and I’m not stepping anywhere near the global/political issues that are coming into focus here, I can see that my relationship to this community of my colleagues is partially facilitated by the daily feed.  If I were pressed about it, I’d say: yes, I’m glad it’s around.

For all the aggravation Facebook can cause, I’m glad it’s around.

In the end, did I find an answer for myself?  No.  I don’t know if the pieces I truly want to be good really are good simply because that’s what I want.  However, I know that for me it’s not about what others like or don’t about it.  I definitely am okay with holding the outsider opinion on a piece of my own (and yes, many of us certainly have), whether it’s thumbs up or thumbs down.  I like the Mies van der Rohe line, “I don’t want to be interesting, I want to be good.” It fits my temperament and ideas about why I should do this and not some other thing with all the remaining solitary-ish days of my life.  Best, though, is yet another category.  If we really only have one best piece, or moment, or gesture, or note in our whole lives, then the likelihood of us writing it today is low.   How relaxing—what a relief!  I’ll do as well as I can today and try (and fail) not to obsess too much about it. Then I’ll just click right here and see what’s new on Netflix…


Sean Shepherd, an occasional contributor to New Music Box since 2006, is currently in deadline/work-trance mode on a piece for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

On the Good and the Great—Wrapping up the NY Phil Biennial

New York Philharmonic 2014 Biennial

Christopher Rouse takes a bow after the premiere of his Fourth Symphony.
Photo by Chris Lee.

Since three nights late last week of hugely ambitious programming and concerts—the big finish of the first NY Phil Biennial—I’ve waited to let things settle for a few days in my ears and memories before trying to sum up this heady, busy, and at times even giddy festival.  As I mentioned in earlier posts on the goings-on all over New York City, I was excited by what I heard and saw: some dazzling performances of new repertoire and the galvanized atmosphere of a happening.  Professionals from as far as London and Los Angeles popped their heads in and seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as anyone else.  Holders of the Biennial Pass (a golden key to every event) began to recognize each other and band together at intermissions and at après-concert events for conversation.  Composers both young and not-so were out and about: in droves at the large concerts in Avery Fisher Hall; in trickles for other events.  And the musicians of the Philharmonic, thoroughly exhausted by a punishing schedule, still found energy to honor and even serenade their colleagues at the annual Musicians Retirement Concert and dinner last Thursday.  It’s always heartening to see great musicians speak so fondly and eloquently of each other, and with legends like principal second violin Marc Ginsberg, principal trumpet Philip Smith, and concertmaster Glenn Dicterow all saying their goodbyes to the Philharmonic this season, I was further reminded of the riches of continuity of this and other great orchestras.  A 30-plus year orchestral career is not built merely upon one’s own talent, but upon stamina, trust, and flexibility, and in truly valuing one’s colleagues.  In some way, last week’s enormous back-to-back programs of Rouse, Eötvös, Carter, Pintscher, and added Earshot (“Composer Idol”) winners Julia Adolphe, Max Grafe, and Andrew McManus, as impressive as they were, were just another challenging (and hopefully to more than a few, gratifying) week of work at the New York Philharmonic.

(From left) Christopher Rouse, Julia Adolphe, Matthias Pintscher, Peter Eötvös, Alan Gilbert, Steven Mackey, Bruce Adolphe. Photo by Chris Lee.

(From left) Christopher Rouse, Julia Adolphe, Matthias Pintscher, Peter Eötvös, Alan Gilbert, Steven Mackey, Bruce Adolphe.
Photo by Chris Lee.

Still, as exciting as it was this year, the most significant element of the biennial may be already stored away in the attics, waiting for 2016 (or ’18, or ’26) to be fully unpacked.  Its potential as a driver and supplier of new projects and new music was (understandably) only just lightly tapped this year, with most pieces being US/NYC premieres as opposed to commissions.  And yet, last week amounted to a floodgate of new music being opened: from a few new subscription-series pieces per season from major figures and some encouragement to young talent by way of CONTACT! commissions, the Philharmonic and partners performed well over 60 pieces from composers of all stages and many walks of life.  Absolutely laudable say some, foolhardy say others.  I couldn’t possibly say I enjoyed every piece.  One left me angered in concert, and a few others had me in various states of nervous discomfort.  Nothing new for me—I assume never to like or despise anything until I’ve heard it (and then maybe heard it again, and again…) but liking every piece is, for me, not the point. (I also have a strict personal policy against picking favorites in a concert, and I must say it’s improved my complexion, demeanor, and probably lengthened my life—no two composers are trying to make the same piece; judging them against each other simply makes no sense.)

Andrew McManus took a bow after the New York Philharmonic gave the World Premiere of his piece Strobe. Photo by Chris Lee.

Andrew McManus took a bow after the New York Philharmonic gave the World Premiere of his piece Strobe.
Photo by Chris Lee.

But a subtle tension begins to build when one of the world’s great orchestras and a committed presenter of “Great” music (when have you heard the perfectly good music of Louis Spohr or Eugène Bozza at Avery Fisher Hall?) says, “We’ve got it here; you be the judge of what’s good and what’s great.”  (I also hear the voices singing of the problematic aesthetics of words like great and good!—Don’t worry; I hear them!)  There are those composers and listeners, taking a generally unpopular position, who say that part of the honor of being performed by the Philharmonic was that one had to earn the privilege, or that this is the not the place to be tried in the fire.  (As someone who was tried in this fire, with one of my first major commissions from the New York Philharmonic at age 29 after a thorough vetting, I can recognize and regard the whole process as one of those defining moments of one’s musical life, although I took the responsibility of those twenty minutes of stage time as seriously as I could.  I did my absolute best to rise to the specific challenges and opportunities presented by that particular commission, and beyond that can’t assess myself in terms of great or good or bad.  For those not interested in that kind of internal and external pressure, I can’t recommend it.)  Selectivity is important, as is perspective, but I believe this floodgate can be managed to great benefit.  I know composers who rise to the challenge of a major commission each and every time, and I know many more who are still waiting for the invitation.  In the future, when the biennial provides opportunities to hear their kind, and all kinds, of vital, compelling music, I will be cheering in the aisles.

Composer Péter Eötvös and soloist Midori acknowledge the crowd after a performance of <em>DoReMi </em> for violin and orchestra.

Composer Péter Eötvös and soloist Midori acknowledge the crowd after a performance of DoReMi for violin and orchestra.
Photo by Chris Lee

If hearing three major statements (the premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Fourth Symphony, DoReMi for violin and orchestra by Péter Eötvös, and Matthias Pintscher’s cello concerto, Reflections on Narcissus, with soloists Midori and Alisa Weilerstein, respectively) was a highlight of the week for this listener, it was powerfully counterbalanced by a special event from the opening weekend—that of the Very Young Composers of the New York Philharmonic in a free a.m. concert titled The Continuum.  A mentoring program, part of the Philharmonic’s vast education conspiracy and developed by composer and former Philharmonic associate principal bassist Jon Deak, the VYC emphasizes guidance and directed enthusiasm over style-based composer training, and kids start in third grade.  The concert, a presentation of the whole range of the program, with pieces from young students through to senior teaching artists (all noted composers themselves) Richard Carrick, Daniel Felsenfeld, and David Wallace, was bound to put a smile on my dial.  When 12-and-unders Samantha Darris, Graydon Hanson, Jake O’Brien, and Elli Choi joined members of the orchestra on stage to hear their pieces, each an individual jewel, and took their triumphant bows, my mother hen’s heart leapt!  The VYC Jazz Improvisation Group (Eric Poretsky, Ethan Cohn, Jack Gulielmetti, and Nick Chomowicz, with mentor Will Healy) followed with a cool, original fill-in for the stage change, with larger statements by more young composers to keep an eye on: teens Milo Poniewozic, Julian Galesi, and recent graduate Farah Taslima, now a young mentor in the VYC program.  Lovingly shepherded by vice president of education Ted Wiprud, Deak, and his dedicated army of teaching artists, the morning program was an Instagram of this exciting moment (for each composer, and for the VYC program, to a packed house at the NY Phil Biennial) which felt more like a Polaroid, reminding me of my own excitement for music at that age.  Including these voices, and those on the Face The Music program the next day, on the biennial was one of the masterstrokes of the festival, as striking as any statement that could be made about the future.

And to the future the NY Phil Biennial will ride, after the number crunching and soul searching, and fine-tuning and finagling.  My stated goal in the first post was to hear lots of live music, which I managed to achieve in spades, and which was every bit as rejuvenating and electrifying as I’d hoped it would be.  I’m eager to know what shape the biennial will take in two years, but for now, I’ve got something more pressing on the horizon: the premiere of my own new work for Alan Gilbert and the orchestra.   Songs is paired with (actually sandwiched between) some of that Great music—Beethoven’s Second and Third Piano Concerti—this coming week in Avery Fisher Hall.  It will be time to put my music where my mouth is, but one thing has been a relief, as I have been able to content myself, so far, with working to make (not easy!) something good.  With Alan, Yefim Bronfman (the humblest man in the world), the Philharmonic and Herr B (perhaps the least humble man in history) on the program, we’ve got the great covered just plenty.

NY Phil Biennial: Scads, Oodles, and Heaps of Composers

New York Philharmonic Biennial

Photo by Chris Lee

As the NY Phil Biennial continues, with events every day through this Saturday, I’ve begun to realize how many new pieces and how many composers I’ve heard over the last week or so. My rough count comes to 56 people, with only one name appearing on more than one program: that of French composer Bruno Mantovani (whose two delicious yet totally different pieces, Spirit of Alberti and Turbulences, separated by more than fifteen years and adding much to both the “Beyond Recall” and “Circles of Influence: Boulez” programs, was a fascinating contrast in itself). While certain works—the operas Gloria – A Pig Tale and The Raven and other major statements—have made biennial marquis names out of a small number of composers such as HK Gruber, Toshio Hosokawa, Christopher Rouse, Steven Mackey, and Peter Eötvös, the majority of pieces I’ve heard are for modest forces and are of modest length: nearly always less than fifteen minutes long. Of course, if what the planners seek is variety, then such a design makes sense. To paraphrase Alan Gilbert during his conversations with leaders in the visual arts on Monday evening, time space is to music what wall space is to art. Both are precious, but the more Richard Serra one exhibits, the less space there is for everything else. A combination of grand monuments and humble still lifes can fill a gallery—differences of scale are powerful in giving us context for what see and hear, and also how we come (perhaps over several pieces and several visits) to know an artist or composer.

Ruminating on the delicate art of programming these recent days, I’ve been struck by that old simple math: finding the right pieces and putting them in the right order can provide for some seriously satisfying musical experiences. If the scope of the festival might be called broad, then several of the biennial programs have approached the questions of what music to put and where to put it from a place of (sometimes to my ears, very sharp) focus: surveys of the British and French scenes by way of Pierre Boulez and George Benjamin; solo works from young Americans. Europe seemed to figure in more heavily over the weekend, whereas on Tuesday alone, I heard 12 very new pieces from Americans of roughly my generation—all less than 10 years older or younger. (Ed. note: Sean will be 35 next month!) In the case of the two “Circles of Influence” concerts presented by Pablo Heras-Casado and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in Rose Hall, the pieces had an uncanny way of talking to each other. Boulez’s former students of various generations—Mantovani, Marc-André Dalbavie, and Philippe Manoury—each provided a new prism of commentary and illumination of Boulez’s slightest works, Mémoriale (…explosante-fixe… Orginel) for flute and small ensemble and Une page d’éphéméride for piano. His contemporary and colleague Heinz Holliger’s Ostinato funèbre was a real outlier, a kind of dirge of found and novel sounds, which gave the whole program a different weight altogether. Similarly, Sunday’s program—essentially Brits of two generations—presented a kind of dialogue across the ages. Although not as tightly wrapped as the French version (those sharing the program with Benjamin each could be said to have closer personal history with another British lion, Oliver Knussen, who wasn’t on the program), these composers complemented each other in natural and surprising ways. The pieces of the thirty-somethings, Helen Grime and Ryan Wigglesworth, each balanced, melancholy and impeccably elegant, contrasted with Colin Matthews’s hugely frenetic and impassioned Suns Dance, cool-to-the-touch Night Rides, and Benjamin’s virtuosic, noble Octet and gravely poetic Upon Silence.

Matthias Pintscher conducting members of the New York Philharmonic in Contact! At the Biennial: Beyond Recall at Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Chris Lee

Matthias Pintscher conducting members of the New York Philharmonic in Contact! At the Biennial: Beyond Recall at Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Chris Lee

A cousin of these programs could be the “Beyond Recall” concerts, presented at MoMA as part of the Philharmonic’s CONTACT! series, with Matthias Pintscher conducting Philharmonic musicians in nine pieces, each less than one year old, each in response to a work of public art in the city of Salzburg. Rather than a meditation on recent history, however, this concert served as a snapshot of the present on the Continent. As such, a different atmosphere—that of anticipation, with an almost tingling sense of event—seemed to permeate the lobby of MoMA at 10 p.m. on a school night. Major voices in Europe like Michael Jarrell, Olga Neuwirth, Dai Fujikura, Johannes Staud, Mark Andre, and Mantovani shared the program with emerging voices like Slovenians Nina Senk and Vito Zuraj, while American composer Jay Schwartz, who at age 25 left the US for Germany to study nearly 25 years ago, enjoyed his US concert debut, presented by the New York Philharmonic, in a moment whose significance was not lost on him.

Matthias Pintscher conducting members of the New York Philharmonic in Contact! At the Biennial: Beyond Recall at Museum of Moder Art, 5/29/14. Photo by Chris Lee

Photo by Chris Lee

The program—often dense, often jubilant, and veering fast among all things between—would have been unheard of as a New York Philharmonic presentation when I arrived in New York more than a decade ago, but the growth of CONTACT! has contributed to a new institutional norm: the new music band. The subset of Philharmonic musicians, always changing, who tackle this repertoire, have, I dare say, grown into the job over the years. It’s a very different one than sitting on the Avery Fisher Hall stage with Brahms and Mahler and the weight of history on your shoulders, and in years of seeing CONTACT! after my own premiere on the opening season, I’ve enjoyed the blossoming of these die-hard chamber virtuosos in magnificent performances of major contemporary rep, like Boulez’s …explosante-fixe… a few seasons back. I also dare say that whether or not the biennial (which has put a lot of difficult new music in the hands of Philharmonic musicians this week) is a natural outgrowth of CONTACT!, it has been enhanced immeasurably, both in performance and as an experience, by this and other journeys into the new world of brave new music. This orchestra is ready for this exhibition.

New York Philharmonic's Biennial Contact! Young American Composers at Subculture. Photo by Chris Lee

New York Philharmonic’s Biennial Contact! Young American Composers at Subculture. Photo by Chris Lee

Tuesday’s American fare, a night of solo works at SubCulture on Bleeker Street, co-presented with the 92nd Street Y and the EarShot reading sessions in a closed session by the Philharmonic, seemed yet a different way of shining a light on what’s happening this very minute. Six composers for six soloists (Paola Prestini, Eric Nathan, Oscar Bettison, Ryan Brown, Michael Hersch, and Chris Kapica, respectively, with Sumire Kudo, cello; Joseph Alessi, trombone; Rebecca Young, viola; Eric Huebner, piano; Yulia Ziskel, violin; and Pascual Martínez Forteza, clarinet) provided what was has probably been the loosest night of the biennial—all pieces, save Ryan Brown’s charmingly dappled Four Pieces for Solo Piano, were commissioned premieres, with huge variations in result. From the spare gravity of Michael Hersch’s seven elegies lasting nearly 20 minutes, to Eric Nathan’s clever take using a partially dismantled instrument, to Chris Kapica’s party-on-the-stage Fandanglish, with sweet and sensuous turns for strings from Prestini and Bettison, what was compelling in concert was actually the sense that each new piece would be approaching the problem of the instrumental soliloquy from a new perspective.

New York Philharmonic's Biennial Contact! Young American Composers at Subculture, 6/3/14. Photo by Chris Lee

Photo by Chris Lee

The orchestra readings offered a similar view from six in their late twenties and early thirties—it’s musical variety that we Americans expect, especially from each other. As with many an early orchestra piece, I heard a lot of others composer’s music in the six pieces chosen on Tuesday morning. I’ve spoken before about getting one’s flight hours in with the orchestra, and with so much to be aware of, developing one’s personal orchestral voice is no slick and simple process. These pieces each approached the challenge of these forces with intelligence, and this weekend we hear the pieces selected for performances (by Julia Adolphe, Andrew McManus, and Max Grafe) get the fair Philharmonic treatment, not just those 20 or so minutes of the reading, which can frustratingly pose more questions than answers. I’m curious to revisit them.

The notion of a musical program is so simple: several pieces, often split by a break, before we head off to drinks. The orchestral norm—overture, concerto followed by symphony—has been so satisfying that it’s worked for centuries. But it seems that the element of surprise can bring so much perspective, and can help us to absorb things afresh. Alan Gilbert is well known for his talent in this realm (“…best we’ve had since Bernstein,” as a former member of the orchestra told me this week), and I’ve seen it here—he and Edward Yim, the Philharmonic’s vice president for artistic planning, and the NY Phil partners understand that there are myriads way to present a piece or a composer. Last night, pianist Marino Formenti, in what has been among the most rich of all such endeavors, presented a stunningly shaped program of Liszt (“the first of the moderns,” as he said from the stage) and works since the 1960s, in which there were many unclear moments—which century were we in? Now there was a surprise, as satisfying as they come.

Pavillons en l’air—Bell’s Up on the NYPhil Biennial

For the inaugural NY Phil Biennial, a large initiative devoted to the newest of the new, the Philharmonic borrowed a concept that is generally associated with the visual arts: the exhibition.  When I first learned of it, at last year’s season announcement press conference along with everyone else, what resonated was the idea of the biennial, the every-two-years event that could efficiently attract a specific gravity of attention to itself and the work presented.  But as I’ve seen and heard since Thursday evening, the curators of the NY Phil Biennial have taken the concept of the exhibition into the concert hall on a more structural level.  Taking from Venice (the original contemporary art exhibition as we know it, which goes back to 1895) the organizing principal of the pavilion—a separate space with its own curator, purpose, and point of view—and applying that to this collection of events, the Philharmonic seems to have made something both looser and freer than I was probably expecting.  I tend to think of a festival as being an opportunity to focus on one or two things in particular (the 2008 Tanglewood Contemporary Music Festival, devoted entirely to Carter at 100, comes quickly to mind), but in practice, and in New York City on a spring weekend, who’s to say that variety isn’t the spice of life?  The pavilions were helpful to keep in mind as I dashed across town over the last several days; from Pig Tales to Ravens to Pennsylvania miners, and from central Europe, France, the UK, and Japan, to America and back again.

Pablo Heras Casado conducts the Orchestra of St. Luke's in Circle of Influence: Pierre Boulez at Rose Theater. Photo by Chris Lee

Pablo Heras Casado conducts the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in “Circle of Influence: Pierre Boulez” at Rose Theater. Photo by Chris Lee

The pavilions concept can be terribly convincing when each curator and each artist is working within their wheelhouse.  Whether or not the chicken-and-egg question of “which came first: the repertoire or the artist?” is interesting, the result looks deliberate: New Yorkers doing what they do best.  Who better than Doug Fitch and Edouard Getaz to stage HK Gruber’s joyful, zany, and satiric cabaret opera Gloria – A Pig Tale?  (with nods to Animal Farm, Kurt Weill, and others who mastered the fine art of allegory). Who better than Pablo Heras-Casado, the music director of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and perhaps the world’s most charismatic young disciple of Pierre Boulez, to perform the music of the elder’s close circle with the former’s local band?  Bang on a Can performing Julia Wolfe; Matthias Pintscher (now living in NYC for years) conducting very recent works from Europe’s master set: these feel like obvious choices.  To me, for good reason: if this is an exhibition, why not give every piece and every note the golden, experienced care and treatment they each deserve?  Performances have been truly stellar and, in some cases, illuminating and transcendent.  This is proving to be no marathon, where participants and spectators alike must drag themselves across a finish line to the earthly comforts of burgers and booze, only to say, “I was there for it all.”  Each pavilion is an event worth seeing, and after seeing seven in the last four days, I still would recommend each one (with more detail in my next posts).

Gotham Chamber Opera in collaboration with the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College presented The Raven as part of the NY Phil Biennial. Directed by Luca Veggetti. Conducted by Neal Goren. Featuring Fredrika Brillembourg and Alessandra Ferri. Photo by Richard Termine

Gotham Chamber Opera in collaboration with the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College presented The Raven as part of the NY Phil Biennial. Directed by Luca Veggetti.
Conducted by Neal Goren. Featuring Fredrika Brillembourg and Alessandra Ferri.
Photo by Richard Termine

My friends know me as being a pretty ambivalent New Yorker (I long for the mountains and sun and the possibility of running with a dog off-leash), but a real surprise of the biennial so far was to be reminded of the cultural capital and the sheer vastness of musical resource in this city.  What a clichéd revelation to arrive at!  But concertgoers come to start asking ourselves, especially in busy months: “Am I going to this or that performance tonight?”  A designed festival schedule that allows for the possibility of going to see this and then that performance has a way of putting the variety within reach.  Saturday was my first trip to the Gerald W. Lynch Theater (all of a ten-minute walk from Avery Fisher Hall) and my first time attending the Gotham Chamber Opera, to see Toshio Hosokawa’s dreamy static/dynamic vision of Poe’s The Raven.  The intimate staging for a cast of two (one singer, one dancer) was far removed from a night at the Phil, but fit very sharply into the biennial.  It seems the trust the Philharmonic extended to its artistic partners could have reciprocal benefits: perhaps future biennial festivals will have wider cooperation, and perhaps audiences (myself included, with Gotham Chamber Opera) will find their way back across the new bridges that are built this week.

The idea of taking a dip in what goes on all over the city of New York is hugely audacious for any one organization.  Even the Met’s objective—one opera a night for most nights of the year—seems to pale in light of such a challenge.  But perhaps that will be the future of this biennial: the loose netting of an exhibition as the guiding factor in a collection of new music from groups, artists, thinkers and fans from all over the city.  Tonight, I will hear Alan Gilbert speak about his ideas with leaders from Venice, the Whitney, and the Public Theater.  For today and this year, the question remains:  “What’s the NY Phil Biennial?”  It may be premature, but perhaps we can predict its future cousin: “What’s on the NY Phil Biennial?”

What’s In a Festival? NY Phil Biennial Pre-Game

nyphil-biennial
This week marks the start of something big, busy, and possibly brilliant in New York: the first edition of the NY Phil Biennial.  It’s so big, in fact, that beyond the tag lines—11 days of new (really actually new!) music, in 9 venues, in partnership with many others—it’s not too easy to describe succinctly.  The New York Times gave it a team effort in their preview, and the New Yorker’s Going’s On About Town excitedly devotes a page to parsing it all out, while in later pages eulogizes another large new music festival upstart, Spring for Music, which presented its final concerts at Carnegie Hall earlier this month.  Beyond what look like some exciting programs, I’m waiting to make any grand assessments on something so damn grand.

Parsing it all out is also what I’m trying to do for now and, this week and next, I’ll be going to nearly every event and will be reporting here on what I’m hearing and seeing—and what it all might mean for composers, and even for music, at a juncture such as this.  Whereas my previous posts and series on NewMusicBox (starting in 2006 at the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute, and in various instances since) were written from a participant’s perspective, I’m primarily (beyond speaking in a discussion on masterpieces in the 21st century: “Bueller? Bueller? Anyone?”) a listener this time around.  But, as the Philharmonic’s Kravis Emerging Composer, I have a kind of insider’s view, for both better and worse.  I was involved in some programming discussions for a small part of the festival, I know many of the artists involved, and I know a little about the reasons and drive for this organization, the busiest orchestra in the world, to start an entirely new (and doubtlessly expensive) initiative, although I’d like to know more.  But in the end, I’m savoring the chance to hear a lot of music, something I just don’t get to do these days.

Since the festival was first announced, people have approached me—in casual conversation, via email, even on my Facebook wall—about what they don’t see enough of on these concerts.  Some see it is as too international, some see it as needing more female voices, some see it as being too general, with no unifying thematic drive.  They make fair points.  These are the kinds of questions that every curator of any major event must contend with, and I don’t think it should surprise anyone to say that these conversations go on at the Philharmonic, because they go on nearly everywhere.  Inspired programs come from inspired conversations, where people come in prepared to talk about what really excites them.  When someone speaks eloquently about what they are moved by, the enthusiasm is infectious.  Then the process usually becomes about what must be cut (Oww! Oww! Ouch!  It really does hurt); it’s the rare moment of misery. The best things I’ve experienced in a concert hall have a way of looking strange on paper, and so I also think about that when I see these 13 different concerts.  I know I’ll think differently once I hear them.

I personally see the international components of this program as a particular strength and find any argument that we in New York should be hearing less music from around the world to be absurd.  I’m pleased to see two of the sharpest younger voices in the UK, Helen Grime and Ryan Wigglesworth, getting US premieres of their work, and I’m very curious to hear music from the brightest young lights from Slovenia (didn’t you know?), Nina Senk and Vito Suraj.  And I wouldn’t, not for a hot minute, miss the Very Young Composers of the Philharmonic along with the Jovenes Compositores de Venezuela, whose presence on this festival is no mere accident. There’s also opera (Gotham Chamber Opera’s presentation of Hosokawa’s The Raven, and H. K. Gruber’s Gloria – A pig tale with Alan Gilbert in another Philharmonic production with Doug Fitch’s Giants are Small team), solo music (the powerhouse Italian pianist Marino Formenti gives a recital and Philharmonic musicians premiere new pieces for solo instruments), young composer readings (by the American Composers Orchestra as well as the Philharmonic), and some big, vital pieces (Steve Mackey’s Dreamhouse, Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields, and Christopher Rouse’s new Fourth Symphony). The Philharmonic has stretched their fingers in ways only an organization of this magnitude can, and few actually do. The results may very well be stupendous.  I count 67 pictures of composers young and old (and nearly all living, save Liszt and a few others) featured on the site of the festival.  To me, that is already stupendous.

Most conductors, musicians, and administrators I’ve met have their Big Ticket Item, their Pie In The Sky programming idea—if money and time were no object, they would have done it long ago. So while I head uptown to some concerts this week, I’ll leave you with the question:  What’s in your festival?

The Ties that Bind, Part II

Family Concert

Shepherd speaking at a Reno Philharmonic Family Concert – Photo by Stuart Murtland

In my last NMBx post, I explored what I believe to be some big issues surrounding notions of community on the part of arts organizations in the U.S., and titled the essay with a “Part I.” At long last comes “Part II,” which was always intended as a reflection on what my experiences with “the hazy nebulae of education and outreach” in my residencies with orchestras have taught me. I said that I was in for lots of surprises. Very true. But since July 11, I made another trip to Reno (continuing my tenure as the Reno Philharmonic’s first composer-in-residence), and I now have even more thoughts to share. We (Reno Phil President Tim Young, Music Director Laura Jackson, Education staff Amy Heald and Grace Hutchinson, and myself) spent time and effort taking those surprises and doing our best to capitalize on them: moving from a general introduction—“Hey everyone, here’s a composer!”—in my first season, to something deeper—“Maybe composing is interesting?”—and finally, working toward a definite goal—“Let’s compose.”

Out of all of the possible responsibilities discussed in my early conversations with Tim and Laura, education made me the most nervous. I had my reasons. My family still points out that I wasn’t really ever a kid even when I really looked like one, and I’ve barely spent any time amongst them since. How do I talk to them (a genuine concern!) and how could my work be interesting to them? And really, how would I frame a class or activity to find the right balance: I wanted to walk out knowing that they had learned something, but I really wanted to replicate my own outreach memories; I wanted to connect.

Every residency is different, and it became clear, due to a strong, long-forged partnership between the orchestra and the local school district, that a large focus of my time in Reno would be devoted to facing my fears. As we began shaping our plans, I began researching. I talked to Derek Bermel and Andrew Norman, composers who’ve had experience with composing and kids. I re-read Belinda Reynolds’s posts on NMBx about working with and composing for kids, and I talked to lots of people with lots of experience, like Ralph Jackson and Steven Stucky, about presentation. How much is it about my story, and how much about them? (About 10%/90%, it turns out.)

We cast a wide net at first. Last season I spent time with students at the University of Nevada, speaking in composition classes and to the entire music department, visited and chatted with the Philharmonic Youth Orchestras (of which I was once a member), and worked in classrooms with students from varied backgrounds at the high school, seventh/eighth grade, and third grade levels. I also worked closely and observed an elementary after-school program of the Philharmonic’s, which puts string instruments in the hands of kids as young as five years old. My conversations and approaches were different for each group, and overall I was surprised at how responsive the kids were, although there were some frustrations on my part. I felt openly disrespected at one point, and made it clear to organizers afterward that I did not intend to return. And nope!—the attitude didn’t come from a bunch of rowdy 13-year-olds as I might have guessed; in this case, the offending parties were paying by the credit-hour to be there. It certainly made me aware of my expectations for different audiences, and it’s possible that the 13-year-olds would have gotten more of a pass in my mind. At every turn, I was reminded that I did possess a skill set, and I thoroughly depended on my classroom teaching experience in graduate school; reading the room, setting the pace, when to dig in, when take the reigns, when to relax, when to interject, when to stop talking.

Everyone told me, “The third graders will be the best. They’ll be your favorite!” I couldn’t believe them, but oh, how right they were. Brimming with positivity and curiosity, able to focus and happy to work together, they are shrewd and sweet at the same time. An early moment, as I was coming around to speak with them in small groups, with three girls, sitting upright, cross-legged on the floor:

Me: “So, ladies, are you ready to share your ideas for your group piece with the whole class?”

Them, completely ignoring my question, and staring intently: “How old are you, Sean?” (They leapt at the chance I’d offered not to call me by Mr., of course.)

(aback) “Well, you three are all 8 or 9 right? I actually left Reno before you three were born. I’m pretty old.”

“Yeah, probably over thirty, but *you* look young enough to pass for 26 or 27.”

Oh, how I loved these kids: wide eyes, a hand shooting in the air, fleeting moments of self-satisfaction and disappointment throughout the class, and when it came time to listen to music, a hush and a focus. Their insights about what they heard were amazing to me; their intuition led them toward the conclusions I’d expect much more quickly than the twelfth graders, who second-guessed themselves.

Treasured correspondence. Image courtesy Sean Shepherd.

Treasured correspondence: Thanks for the memories. Image courtesy Sean Shepherd.
This fall, we took a look at areas where my longer stay and some specific planning would prove to be most useful. I wanted to work with 9-year-olds again, and we developed a larger project, with homework and group work, bridging vocabulary and sound and, in the end, encouraging the students to think abstractly about a concept and responding creatively to it. We were composing. A pet project of mine—seeking out and mentoring young composers, who, like myself years ago, were excited about stretching their wings—also came to fruition on this year’s annual Philharmonic family concert (theme: Composers!). A piece by a 13-year old named Paul was programmed and performed by the orchestra: the culmination of months of his composition work, email attachments, phone conversations (involving transposing instruments, part formatting, percussion writing, Finale fixes, the frustrations of Kinko’s, etc., etc.), a reading by the youth orchestra, a rehearsal by the Philharmonic, an on-stage interview, and lots of edits and changes. I felt privileged to be witness to so many firsts and “A-ha!” moments for a composer, and distinctly remember a similar feeling while escorting him back into the hall after his piece was performed. The first time hearing an orchestra play his music, his first applause: it was an out-of-body experience for him, and he seemed to have momentarily lost his sense of direction. He just needed a little help finding his way back to his seat.

Shepherd working with young composer Paul Novak at an RPYO rehearsal.

Shepherd working with young composer Paul Novak at an RPYO rehearsal.

That family concert provided another special moment: the culmination of another composing project; this time with students in the advanced group of Celebrate Strings (the Title I School after-school strings program spearheaded and funded by the Philharmonic), who arrived dressed to the nines for their first time in the concert hall. We had spent two weeks working on a variations project, taking a tune out of the Suzuki book that everyone knew, and composing variations (all by ear and from memory) using devices like mode mixture and changes of textures/techniques. The two most advanced students, fifth graders Julien and Javier, composed a few solo variations of their own, branching out harmonically while the rest of us devised an appropriate accompaniment. This was the boys’ second appearance with us onstage; Julien, already the professional, wondered aloud if and when they would be getting paid. This group of musicians played for a captivated audience full of their peers (children of all ages were welcome to bring their families along, and if you’d assume that a concert hall full of 2-11 year-olds isn’t a discerning and attentive audience, I’d stand to correct), and behind them sat the beaming faces of the members of the Reno Philharmonic. I also had a piece performed on that concert, and never did I pay so little attention.

Earlier that morning, I had spoken with Laura at an impressive triennial conference on art and environment at the spectacular new home of the Nevada Museum of Art, giving a talk about the importance of place in my work to a room full of fellow serious artists from around the world. And during those weeks, I had donor lunches and drinks with the musicians of the orchestra. I hosted a pre-concert social gathering for young professionals in Reno and thanked them for their continued curiosity and interest in the arts, and attended several beautiful events in my honor at extremely beautiful homes and thanked the hosts for their support of the arts. I spoke to the board about my work and my plans and gave lots of pre-concert lectures and onstage teasers. On the phone, via email, on camera, in the classroom, in the studio: I gave a lot of interviews. I wrote two pieces.

But if you ask me now what being a composer-in-residence has shown me so far? In seeing kids from ages 5-18 respond to music and to sound (often of my making), I’m gleefully reminded that what I do can have a visceral and immediate impact on those who are curious. I remember that sometimes the thing you fear is thrust at you right when it will do you some big favors. And I learned, all over again, that in art, it’s 10% me/90% you; a pretty good equation to remember.

The Ties That Bind, Part I

Like nearly all arts organizations, the mission of many orchestras (in the U.S. and abroad) has grown to incorporate the hazy nebulae of “Education and Outreach.” Of course, it’s the obvious thing to do. But, for me, it’s another symptom of the precarious position of art in our culture. Over the last 50 years, one could point to a shakedown and oversimplified sorting-out of art and entertainment. [Having seen and enjoyed my fellow NMBx contributor Ratzo B. Harris’s recent posts on this very topic after writing my piece, I’m glad to see either a) great minds think alike; and/or b) it’s in the water.] Art is always highbrow, entertainment is always lowbrow. Further, and much more problematic, is the notion many hold, that art need (or should!) not entertain, and vice-versa.

While certainly in existence as long as Messrs. BetterThanYou and WhoDoYouThinkYouAre could lob accusations about who was ruining what, this dichotomy has been historically murkier, as in Anthony Tommasini’s discussion this week regarding genre in opera and musical theatre. The conventions/venue/genre of creative work need not, in themselves, reveal the aspirations of said work. But in our society, they truly seem to. Consider a cultural truism: If it’s on HBO or from Pixar, it’s good. I like that; if universal messages and compelling drama combined with high technical and creative standards and cutting-edge production still generate acclaim (and make lots of $, but let’s try the ridiculous exercise of forcing ourselves to try looking at it without finances being involved), then something is right. Long live Zauberflöte! Alan Ball is a great screenwriter; his decade-long association with HBO gives me hope for the idea of long associations. John Lasseter spends some of Pixar’s gobs of money on ways of making his employee’s jobs and lives more enjoyable—the saints walk among us.

But the received wisdom of What We All Think quickly starts getting problematic: if it’s Lollapalooza or South by Southwest, it’s fun (and timely and relevant: You’re an American!). If it’s Carnegie or the Met (either one), it’s work (enrich thyself, soldier, so we can relax afterward). And if We agree that Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, and Norman Rockwell are classic, what becomes of the toughies, the likes of Cy Twombly and Edgard Varèse, two probing minds who were viscerally interested in communication? The crowd’s verdict? Castor Oil. Respectable punishment, if we remember them at all. Tough-minded and entertaining, long associated with both the loftiest and most basic notions of human existence and civilization…well, that marriage seems annulled for the time being. But separating the two in the work of Hitchcock, a creative mind whose work was part of the public consciousness for decades, seems truly impossible.

It wasn’t that long ago. It wasn’t that long ago that Dick Cavett had a late-night talk show on a major network where he often interviewed but one guest with spiky questions for an entire 90 minutes. And it wasn’t that long before that that David Sarnoff, before becoming the first quintessential TV executive, decided that NBC needed its own symphony orchestra, and needed Toscanini of all people to lead it. It’s utterly mind-boggling to me that Gian Carlo Menotti and Benjamin Britten actually wrote operas for the specific purpose of a primetime television broadcast. But then imagine: Beverly Sills, an opera singer, was on The Tonight Show. A lot. As a guest host.

O.K. Well, this was a very long way of saying: if our cultural climate had a wider purview of what’s possible to enjoy in our free time, words like “education” and “outreach” wouldn’t feel so damn condescending. Clearly, the work done by many symphony orchestras today is done for the right reasons: lack of access, cuts by schools, building future audiences—get ’em while they’re young. With very little access to either live music or the classical canon, my first experiences were school visits by Reno Philharmonic ensembles and Young People’s Concerts, some 25 years ago. There is truly no other way I would have been exposed at that age—my life as a composer is absolutely a result of those kinds of programs. I wholeheartedly vouch. But, I was never the type to prefer a stadium to a concert hall. Drunken crowds make me agitated; something’s always wrong with the mics. I was an easy sell.

Turn another direction. It’s easy to blame school districts/local government/state government/Arne Duncan. The arts need more attention, and the attention they get varies to a nearly unfathomable degree from place to place. With paints, with clay, in school plays, in third grade tambourine band, we explored basic notions of form, of expression, of precision and preparedness. If we were lucky. And that’s as far as many went. As adults, we recognize good writing when we see it; we diagrammed sentences. We try to catch our accountant’s and barista’s mistakes; we can still do long division if absolutely necessary. But with TV, movies, music—culture in general—we rely on intuition in our tastes. While I get frustrated with my non-musician friends, who describe their favorite new band by discussing the poetry of the songs, I’m absolutely aware of my dilettantism. I’m a fan of the work of Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas, two (st)architects whose work has entered a broader cultural plane, and never have I met a young trained architect who found either to live up to the hype. If I knew more (thank you, graduate-school anxieties, for rearing your ugly head), I might agree. What can I say?—I like what I’m told!

How many ways would nearly every style and genre of music benefit if there were a raised standard of musical literacy in this country? Raised arts literacy for all: it’s a utopian vision (or just continental Europe?), which brings up lots of other questions. If we can all read, why don’t we read more? Would we definitely be better connoisseurs if we knew more about art? Would that make the art somehow better? If we had done the “work” in school, would that mean we would certainly find a trip to the museum less work and more play? But educators have enough to worry about: I don’t see it coming from the schools into the museums, galleries, and concert halls. And in the chicken and egg game we’ve got, policy makers respond to the voices of their constituents, who simply don’t experience enough art in their own lives to view it as a priority for their children. It will have to come from us. We must demonstrate our relevance, and work to encourage curiosity. But I truly think that we could use some help (not charity) in making our case. Art and entertainment are not enemies, and we could all find use in both. Keeping up with the Kardashians and David Lynch together on the menu—that’s a packed palette, and with the right pairings, a flavor explosion.

Perhaps most importantly, I can also think of ways in which it’s much easier to satiate one’s curiosity than ever before. Down from the heavens came Netflix, whose huge inventory of films means access to all the Fellini, Kurosawa, and Bergman I could take. Even better: I will never, ever have to settle to see another Bay/Bruckheimer blockbuster again. I might never have known the wonder that is The Larry Sanders Show. Self-reflective and cynical, with wit, heart, and ahead of its time, the smartest, dumbest show about a show there ever was. Talk about satisfying.

If orchestras do outreach, then composers-in-residence surely do outreach. In my first residency in Reno, this spring, I stretched my fingers out with lots of different groups. Of course I was nervous. I was in for some major surprises, starting first and foremost with the third graders. Stay tuned.

Native Son

Reno is not the place you think it is.

Although I like saying this to other people, I mostly end up saying it to myself, especially after being there this season with the Reno Philharmonic. I grew up there, my whole family comes from Nevada, and I left for college with fanfare and lots of kinds of revulsion for the place. Typical, clichéd complaints: too small for a big fish like me who was going to make something of himself, too little regard for what I thought was important. Fourteen years later, my take is also typical: the things I didn’t ever even think about then are what make me love it now. All that divorcing! Slot machines in the airport, at the grocery store! Many, many things never close, there is never a time when you can’t buy or consume alcohol, and the sun is never, ever, not shining.

Reno is weird, let it be sung. Since it’s far away and over the mountains from most other places, it’s a center and amazingly diverse. There are tons of awful sports bars, there’s an Apple store, there are hummers with upsetting bumper stickers, and there are hipsters who can don a pirate costume on the sidewalk just as well as they would in Williamsburg or Silverlake. But it’s not Vegas, and like most second-largest towns in western states (San Francisco to Tucson to Colorado Springs to Fairbanks) it basically defines itself as something that the other one, that putrid, wretched borg that holds the cards in state politics, could never be. It’s also a serious local matter, because, like San Francisco, it was once the largest and only city in the state. It’s actually that history that deeply infuses the culture of these places, and why they are unique in a frontier culture; Las Vegas has no need for history, just ask them. Or go on YouTube and watch them blow up buildings to make room for bigger buildings. Reno has a university and a serious art museum, and has history (the Donner Party of all things!), and in my lifetime has struggled with it: the environment, preservation, modernization. With my mind on Rome or Berlin or Cairo, I applaud with condescending tone: good for them (or should I say, us?).

On the frontier, easy answers are easy to come by. Need big money? Dig in the ground for precious metals. Get people to bet against themselves in various games. Sell the water in the ground, because it almost never falls out of the sky. In my harsh opinion, a state like Nevada is still in the early adolescent phase of dealing with the complexities of society. There are now about 20 times as many people living here compared with when my mother was born, and things like education and safety nets and even basic infrastructure like roads are starved for attention. Nevadans are a generous and friendly lot (buckets of physical space in every direction helps), but every rugged individualist pulls himself up by his bootstraps and pans for silver. Conversations, not about raising but introducing a state income tax to pay some of the bills, need not happen on the frontier. People play cards and buy gold, and they always have for the past 100 years. Forever, really.

Where, oh where, does art fit in? I ask myself this now, and, since I grew up here, I basically always have. I struggle mightily with why I write music and I always will. I’ve faced that bewildered look in all of my grandparents’ eyes, sometimes over a meal including food they’ve grown or raised, and remember that my daily worries are a matter of luxury to most. While I like to tell myself that this proven need to create naturally drives me to make things with an innate vitality and honesty that might not otherwise exist, I more often fear that innate qualities like vitality and honesty are elusive, if not invisible, to their maker. What is a great story but the gift of a great storyteller? My experiences as a Reno native will certainly inform my time there, but whether I will be more relevant as a resident composer than anyone else is a different question.

My Reno residency grew over several conversations with the music director, Laura Jackson, and executive director, Tim Young, after I got an email out of the blue from Laura asking to see my music (correct order of operations, in my experience). Laura, in Reno since 2009, has already made a serious and positive impact on the organization, partially by turning the programming on its head. I was already a fan from afar, having seen Carnival Overture and Carmina Burana appear nowhere on the brochure in her first season. When they approached me about a specific project: a new piece for the orchestra, in conjunction with the Nevada Museum of Art for their “Art and Environment” conference, I agreed on the spot. As I began thinking about home, family, and windy deserts, our conversations grew toward thinking about a deeper collaboration, with a piece about environment (however I might define it) as the centerpiece of a longer residency. We’ve just begun our journey: I spent ten days with the orchestra and community this past March. In rehearsals, meetings, classrooms, and casinos, I’ve absorbed an amazing amount already.

I haven’t written a note of it yet, but this piece, in approaching environment, has gotten me thinking about home. About leaving, coming back; about whether or not it’s significant, whether it needs to be. About growing up, if that’s what I’ve done. And the physical environment of Northern Nevada is difficult to overstate in terms of importance on my imagination. For so long, all I knew. Now, extremely exotic. Its presence flows through my consciousness; there is no way for me to avoid it, so I must interact.

In returning, one big surprise was the very warm welcome I received from those I knew who I haven’t seen since, from members of the orchestra to high school friends to my first-grade teacher who saw my name in the paper. It’s also highlighted the incremental changes of life that one rarely takes stock of. Most of my immediate family now lives elsewhere, and I like the irony that now that I’m “in residence,” I stay in a hotel. It’s colored my attitude toward my fellow transplant neighbors in Brooklyn: we’re all from somewhere.

There’s no place like home, Toto, and certainly no place like Reno. Who knew?—I feel remarkably lucky to get to go back.

Moving In with the Orchestra

Composer-in-Residence: It’s one of those amazing vocational descriptors, like Executive Producer or Legal Consultant, that’s both too many words (serious research via Wikipedia reveals that composers, producers, and attorneys still exist) and appropriately vague, and often even a misnomer. People who know what it is tend to know exactly what it is. The rest of us have no clue and feel stretched to take interest in knowing the gritty minutiae of someone else’s job (there are obvious exceptions: Special Advisor to the President, Best Boy Grip. I’m intrigued—please, do regale). In the UK, a position with similar responsibilities often goes by the term Associate Composer: associated how exactly, one may rightly ask, but at least our imaginations don’t float quite so easily toward composer bungalows/flophouses in the far attics of ye olde local orchestra halle (“in residence” means different things to different people, I’ve recently found).

The concept of placing someone who creates on the payroll of an organization whose traditional role has been to present and perform is rather new in the world of concert music, it appears. Although the special and rare composer/conductors, like Boulez, Knussen, and Salonen, have maintained a tradition of composers promoting other composers (harking back to earlier eras and personalities including Strauss and Mendelssohn), larger Post-War economic phenomena generally led to specialization and focus at earlier stages in one’s vocational training. Musicians were no exception. The performer/composer in the mode of Liszt or Rachmaninoff, known widely as stage soloist and vital creative voice, seems even more of a rarity on concert stages, but thrives in experimental venues and in musical personalities like Anderson and Monk, Zorn and Ziporyn. Such a separation seems to have contributed to a certain distance between full-time professional composers and performers (orchestras especially) as musical cultures splintered. The rise of specialist new music ensembles, computer/electronic media, and entrepreneurial composers invested in creating new opportunities for performance are all, to my thinking, positive developments, and are grown from seeds planted in the 1960s and ’70s. Today no reasonable assessment of the field could exclude those forces, but those who had witnessed a move away from the orchestra saw the need to create and maintain genuine connections and opportunities for new work to thrive.

My mind goes to the monumentally important Meet The Composer/Ford and Rockefeller Foundation Orchestra Residencies in the 1980s, which essentially brought American orchestras and composers together on a scale previously unheard of. With seed money provided via grants, organizations were able to design programs and commissions featuring one composer for a period of up to four years. Established figures such as Druckman, Perle, and Wuorinen were paired, along with those appointed while in their 30s, like Bright Sheng, Roberto Sierra, and David Lang, with major orchestras all over the country. Some seminal American works of the late 20th century, including Corigliano’s and Rouse’s first symphonies and Adam’s Harmonielehre, are the enduring result. Also notable are the many lasting associations between composer and organization (Adams and the San Francisco Symphony, Rouse and the Baltimore Symphony). In certain cases, including those like Steven Stucky with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Robert Beaser with the American Composer’s Orchestra, composers transitioned from the MTC residency to valued members of an organization’s creative planning team. In this role, composers, by example, have influenced orchestral programming and given voice to the next generation of Americans, providing composers like Derek Bermel and Mason Bates with early exposure; the cycle, nothing less than a miracle, thankfully continues.

I have the very good opportunity to be involved with two different organizations, serving both in the writer-among-actors world that thank heavens is promising to be much more pleasant than for poor Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation. For this and next seasons, I’m serving as the first composer-in-residence for the Reno Philharmonic, my hometown orchestra and the first professional ensemble I ever heard. And beginning next season, I’ll serve a two-year appointment as the 7th Daniel R. Lewis Composer Fellow with the Cleveland Orchestra, an ensemble I’ve adored since hearing them live for the first time in 1998, and for whom my respect as an organization continues to grow. Both jobs involve writing pieces, and both involve a whole lot more. The discoveries and surprises I’ve already made/had will certainly affect my music in the future; that itself is a shock to me.

As I’ve prepared for various aspects of my various roles, I’ve spent time contemplating what the essence of this, the larger role of resident composer, really is. Against the backdrop of a thriving regional orchestra in the Mountain West and a major touring orchestra with an international profile, I’m also reminded that the “American Orchestra Model” is more broad than is often spoken of. The symphonies of J. Brahms are important to both ensembles for good but subtly different reasons. Is it that the music of the young S. Shepherd should be as well, or is there perhaps a bigger picture? For better or for worse, composers are advocating more and more, whether for themselves, or for their art, or for art in general. Must the composer be a public figure to exist at all?

Over the course of my residencies, I thought keeping track of my experiences and impressions would be a useful exercise, and I intend to post every few weeks or so. I also hope to cull a thought or two from friends and colleagues who know the terrain of the pre-concert talk or the board meeting presentation, or like me, might be currently scaling those rock walls. I know the toughest part of the job is always going to be writing the music, but…well, now that I’ve come to think of it, that might be the definition of a pretty good job.

Back To Earth, Ever So Slowly

Last week, I wrote in this space from a kind of alternate reality that only the most spectacularly prolific composers get to experience with a certain regularity, but for most of us is still a pretty special occasion: premiere week. Major orchestra, major new piece. Major pressure, major attention, major excitement.

And now, a week later, in this final post on my week with the New York Philharmonic—easily among the most thrilling of my life—I find I don’t have that much left to say. The performances were beautiful: Saturday night’s was, as I said to Alan Gilbert before bowing onstage, the best I’ve ever had of anything. The reception was positive and supportive: over the course of each evening, the crowds’ initial curiosity seemed swayed toward a certain satisfaction. I felt that I was in terrific company on the program. Tons of friends new and old were there to cheer me and the whole endeavor on. And the chaos resulting from the volcano in Iceland seemed to directly affect nearly everyone involved except me, so there was a wonderful zany tension that lightly peppered so much of the last few days. While I really empathized (or tried to empathize? How does one even “go there” emotionally? Diabolical Ash Cloud Travel Drama was new to me last week.), I had the luxury of selfishly pushing all that spice to the side of my plate. In my mind, reCONTACT! (thanks, Q2) was a great event. Biased? Of course. But after spending at least a year lying awake at night imagining all the ways it might not go that great, I have to admit it: I’m pleased.


Photo by Stephanie Berger

So what did I do next? I packed it up, left some of my family still on vacation in New York, and spent a few days at my alma mater, Indiana University in Bloomington, to hear the New Music Ensemble play this very piece again. This group, rockin’ as usual (I played bassoon as a member way back in the 1900s), is led by composer/conductor David Dzubay, my first real teacher of composition (also in the 1900s). We slammed into each other at (Le) Poisson Rouge in January (I’d been back in New York for two whole American weeks, and he was in town on IU’s winter break), started chatting, and the rest happened very quickly. I had two sets of parts made, the Philharmonic kindly said, “Okay, sure.” Tickets booked, my April homecoming was fully scheduled: eight years in the making, two days after my New York Philharmonic premiere.

It was just the delightful shock, that perfect change of perspective that I needed at the beginning of this week. First of all, it kept me mostly away from the Internets: the place where one’s personal and professional neuroses are allowed to frolic, dance, and romp at will upon devouring any and every review or blog mention in the days right after concerts. We can Google-bate ourselves into a kind of psychologically tenuous ecstasy of narcissism that resembles poll-taking by phone and corporate feedback surveys. It’s a dangerous place in that very sensitive time when the sounds of the final concert are still ringing in our ears, and anyone who’s seen their name or work sliced and diced onscreen (unfairly or not—that’s far from the point) never forgets that sharp stab in the gut and never wants to feel it again. But yet. We still go looking, searching, scouring, as if this were that drop of water in the desert that will bring us back to life. Not necessarily for any kind of validation (which is what we crave, often at our peril), but more to complete a process of putting a privately rendered entity into the hands of a public—that final communication that completes the conversation. Although I know older and certainly wiser composers who make a point of not seeking out public commentary, I feel that as long as there is art, there will be the necessary counterbalance (even if, some days, it looks more like a wrecking ball) of arts criticism. The piece, once mine, is now ours.

My trip to Bloomington also threw Sean at age 20 vs. Sean at age 30 into surprisingly sharp relief. Unlike Al Bundy, I see my best days as being ahead of me (better a composer than a gymnast or dancer, right?). Eyes always forward, I tend to miss the fact that all of my travel, experiences, decisions and interactions are continually shaping both my character and my outlook. Ironically, the eyes have lots of limitations, and there is no way I was capable of seeing this reality as my future back then. I was invited to give a talk to composition students, and upon sitting in the lecture hall, immediately remembered that it wasn’t that long ago that what happened in that hall was my clearest window to what was going on in the wider world of music. I felt somehow scrubbed clean to be describing both the experience of greeting the members of the New York Philharmonic onstage two days before, and of those tough years in Indiana: figuring out how to get notes to work together, of feeling lost and overwhelmed and frustrated while watching my classmates thrive and find their way. It’s easy to look back now and see that at that time I was an efficient and absorbent sponge: I had a lot of information and training to draw in before I was capable of connecting the creative wires with those of technique and influence and getting any interesting sparks. I very much hope that I’m still close to the beginning of that path–I still see my best days (and certainly my best music) as being ahead of me.


Shepherd (middle) mingles with the crowd after the show.
Photo by Stephanie Berger

And that has brought me to the most severe realization of all. Writing music, as taxing as it is for me now, is only going to get tougher, especially if I expect others to listen to it, or if I would like to improve. If I was able to leap a mile between pieces ten years ago, the same effort on my part now may result in the improvement span of a foot today. With the experience and stronger sense of myself that I might expect by age 40, I can see that space shortening to an inch (while still a “young composer”). So my effort toward each piece must grow by inverse response; a commitment to a life’s work as a composer starts looking like a pretty massive challenge. But I’m not about to compromise my standards at this point—all of the composers I most admire went through the peaks and valleys of creativity in fascinating ways over the course of their lives: they may have suffered, but the music they wrote was not permitted to wane or sag in vitality. There are no shortcuts.

Those standards are similar to what the members of the Philharmonic hold themselves to, week after week. True, their brilliant playing got them through the audition. But getting through the 17-month tenure process or a 30-year career has much less to do with flashes of brilliance than it does with an attitude focused on spectacular consistency; if it’s worth doing, then it’s worth knocking out of the park each and every time. It’s a potent work environment, and one where things happen pretty quickly (like seven programs in three weeks). As I once heard a distinguished teacher at Indiana put it: there’s always room at the top. We are always capable of more and better, of being more curious, more focused, more prepared, more humble, more generous. In the end, as I see it, a commission is a statement by an organization of intent and an extension of trust. It need not hide a false altruism, nor need it mean anything beyond the signed agreement. I could have fulfilled my end of the bargain in any number of ways, but if I have been shrewd or calculating about this commission, it’s been toward doing my best to understand that the special sense of standards that they have set for themselves would most certainly apply to me and my work. My striving, stretching, straining best would be just barely good enough, and we would go from there. Lucky me—that happens to be just the way I like it.