Tag: Aaron Copland

Watching TV at Copland House

Copland's desk

The Desk of Copland! The Living Room of Copland!

I don’t know why Copland House has cable. Some residencies don’t even have internet access, let alone 200 channels. But Copland House did, and so while I was there, I watched TV.

At the time, I didn’t know why I was spending my time at this coveted, greatly anticipated residency watching television. I woke up every morning delighted to be there. I read Copland’s autobiography. I spent time studying Copland’s scores in tandem with the ample CD collection at the house, pouring over his work daily. It’s hard to sit at Copland’s desk without thinking: I am sitting at Copland’s Desk! The Desk of Copland! The whole house feels that way: I am in the Living Room of Copland! The Kitchen of Copland! I am doing laundry in Aaron Copland’s Basement!

When I did sit down to compose my own music, though, I got more frustrated than I’ve ever been with my own ability to create—or not create—music. My thoughts churned rapidly into a downward spiral of “Why am I even here?” “I’m wasting Copland House’s time and money.” “I don’t deserve to be here.” “I’m a terrible composer.” “I’m probably the worst composer they’ve ever let into this residency.” More than once, I imagined the scowling ghost of Aaron Copland wondering who’d let me into the house.

I don’t know why these feelings chose this particular time and residency to emerge. It didn’t help, I suppose, that even at the beginning of April, the woods surrounding the house were completely barren; the view from the composing studio was absolutely striking, but also a monotony of brown. One morning—in April—it snowed.

I’d experienced writer’s block at my last residency, but never to this paralyzing degree, where I immediately rejected everything I wrote as trite and terrible. So I walked away from the piano, from Copland’s Desk, to Copland’s Living Room. I walked away from composing, and I watched TV.

I watched the season premiere of Game of Thrones. I watched the series premiere of Silicon Valley. One night, I re-watched Can’t Hardly Wait, which I realized has an irrationally high percentage of actor-overlap with the cast of Six Feet Under. While eating lunch, sometimes I’d watch E!’s noontime reruns of Sex and the City. There may be no greater way to make yourself feel like a bad composer—the worst composer, really—than watching the fluffiest of all fluffy shows in the house of one of the Great American Composers while being paid, essentially, to live there and compose.

I was composing, too, for long stretches of time, but I hated everything I wrote. Somehow, this particular residency and this particular piece brought up every insecurity I’d flirted with in the past. I spent my days careening between total giddiness at my surroundings (Copland’s Desk! Copland’s Porch! Copland’s Basement! Copland’s Music! Copland’s Autobiography!) and the worst composing insecurity I’d ever experienced. Halfway through the residency, something had to change: I couldn’t spend the entire residency rejecting everything I wrote before I even set it to paper. I settled into a routine, and that routine revolved around two things:

1) Compose.

2) Feel good about composing, by any means necessary.

I’d wake up; I’d study two or three Copland scores; I’d eat breakfast; I’d read Copland’s autobiography. I’d compose something, anything, and gradually, I stopped judging what I wrote. I’d go for a walk. Sometimes I’d compose more.

In the evening, if I felt like I’d had a productive day, I’d watch TV. I told myself that Copland, who mostly composed at night and enjoyed having friends over to his house during the day, wouldn’t have minded my taking a break as a reward for getting through the day, for sitting at the piano for hours and getting the notes down. Was the music I was writing good? Maybe, maybe not. But I got something down every day, and that became all that mattered.

Near the end of the residency, I stumbled on a Patti Lupone masterclass on HBO. Patti was teaching several high school students; at one point, she tells one of them, “Failure is the only thing that teaches, success does not. Success limits you because you try to repeat your success.” I wrote it down. I felt like I’d spent the previous two weeks failing at composing.

I’ve established a few things that I do consistently at artist residencies, but not necessarily in my ordinary life: I go for long walks. I read books I’ve been meaning to read for months but have put off, or new books I’ve gotten just for the residency. And yes, if it’s there, I will watch TV. (I recently applied to a residency that doesn’t even allow cell phones, which would obviously offer a very different experience.)

I have to believe that taking breaks helps to feed the art. Everything that’s not composing, everything that offers rest—journaling, reading, a walk, even Game of Thrones—is important, maybe even necessary to the process. One feeds the other. Failure feeds success. Self-doubt makes, sometimes, for a stronger resolution, when one returns to the piano, or to Copland’s Desk, to get the notes down, without judging them in the process.

So at Copland House, I read Copland’s autobiography daily. I worked my way through almost every one of Copland’s scores. I went for long walks. For the first time, since I don’t have cable at home, I watched a Game of Thrones season premiere when it aired. I hit a double bar on the chamber piece, Footnotes to a History of the Jewelry Box—which I’d continue to edit, but only gently, for months afterward—and started three new choral pieces. Right before I left, the multitude of bright yellow tulips planted around the property came up all at once, just in time for me to return home and find my way forward to another routine.

Brooklyn in Austin’s House

Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland

Conceived and curated by Joseph Horowitz and presented in partnership with Texas Performing Arts, The Butler School of Music, The Austin Symphony Orchestra, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, “Copland and Mexico” was a four-day celebration of the music surrounding Copland’s trip to Mexico in the early 1930s. Copland, a Brooklyn composer of the last century, hoped to embrace the folk music of both Mexico and the United States, and this trip had an impact not only on his creative material but his sense of social purpose as a composer. His output following this trip includes works such as El Salón México and Billy the Kid, pieces that spoke to his new populist leanings. The former a hodgepodge of dance hall tunes and folk songs and the latter populated by cowboy tunes, both were wildly popular and signaled Copland’s desire to move towards a more accessible and nationalist means of expression.

Three shows (four nights counting the ASO’s repeat performance) focused on different portions of not only Copland’s output but also that of composers in similar veins, as well as other cultural and artistic endeavors that speak to the period. ASO’s show included wonderful performances of  El Salón México and Two Mexican Pieces (“Paisaje Mexicano” and “Danza de Jalisco”), plus Carlos Chávez’s Chapultepec and Redes (complete with film) with a score composed by Silvestre Revueltas. The final work is significant not only to the populist theme (fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico experience a labor-related political awakening) but also for its connection to Austin. Mexican nationalist composer Silvestre Revueltas is best known for a significant creative period late in life, but he is less well known for the time he spent in the U.S.A. in his early years, in particular the time spent at St. Edward’s College (now St. Edward’s University) in Austin. His contribution to Redes is significant in that, to quote Dr. James Buhler, associate professor of music theory at the Butler school, “Revueltas’s music is beautifully composed to sound as though it must labor mightily against the technology, a straining that is central to its affective character. In live performance this musical struggle with technology is transformed into an opposition, as music is freed from the grim determinism of the recording apparatus.”

I don’t know the original soundtrack version of this music, but the ASO performance was stunning, and the free, organic quality of live performance did make for a compelling contrast to the content of the film. Other events in the series included performances and workshops by Danzonera SierraMadre of Monterrey, Mexico, northern Mexico’s most prominent danzón orchestra, with UT music students and Patio del Danzón dancers as well as the UT New Music Ensemble, UT Percussion Group, and the UT Symphony Orchestra performing works by Copland, Chávez, and Revueltas. I only wish I could have seen them all.


Brooklyn Rider

Brooklyn Rider
Photo by Sarah Small

The second concert of Brooklyn Rider’s ten-day Texas Performing Arts residency featured new works by several American composers, as well as Schoenberg’s second string quartet performed by Brooklyn Rider with Dawn Upshaw. Following an opening volley in the form of Schubert’s Quartettsatz was a performance of one of the group’s “Brooklyn Rider Almanac” commissions, Dana Lyn’s Maintenance Music. Inspired by Mierle Ukeles, self-appointed artist-in-residence at the NYC Department of Sanitation , Maintenance Music was written to draw attention to the everyday workings of our daily lives. Starting from out of nowhere with a texture like tuning, the piece featured glissandi from one chord to another as the cello played a wandering melody, an arrangement that switched to viola in short order as the other strings took up harmonics. Quick arco interjections played back and forth with pizzicato, building then stopping with a five-note riff. A group of discordant, rising, symmetrical arpeggios marked another section, one of many moods that rolled by in the work.

This was followed by Evan Ziporyn’s Qi, a piece that, in an evening of heavy-duty tunes and stellar performances, stood out as particularly special. The opening movement, “Lucid Flight,” featured pulsing factory rhythms which made way for long, luxuriant lines that developed into pointed sixteenths traded among the players. Big, blocky harmonies reminiscent of the best of the minimalist tradition faded into one another, almost as if the parts were suspensions and anticipations writ large. The following movement, “Garden,” was particularly compelling. Ziporyn spread chords across the ensemble with plenty of double-stops and little vibrato, imparting a pedal-organ impression that was stunning. This was complimented by a later section in which a similar treatment with harmonics sounded somehow like a harpsichord without the attack, which is something I think we can all get behind. His sense and use of rhythm was absolutely spot-on. Though he used relatively little surface complexity (no tuplets were nested in the writing of this piece), Ziporyn’s ability to take a relatively simple harmonic fabric and lay it over a subtly shifting rhythmic foundation left me constantly wondering where the pulse would be next. Though it sounded nothing like the following, it reminded me of how the Pixies sounded when I first heard them; recognizable and alien all at once.

For the second half of the show, Dawn Upshaw joined the ensemble for Schoenberg’s second string quartet as well as a new work by the group’s Colin Jacobsen. The Schoenberg was wonderfully rendered, and clearly Upshaw is still at the top of her game. Jacobsen’s Suite from Chalk and Soot was a five-movement work drawn from a larger piece for quartet and dance with text by Kandinsky from Klänge. It should be noted for those unaware that Brooklyn Rider draws its name from Der Blaue Reiter, a group of artists (Kandinsky among them) based in Munich in the early 20th century, so the use of Kandinsky’s work is not random. The texts in Klänge focus on the sound of words as much if not more than their meaning, so it should come as no surprise that the narrative in each of these is heavy on the whimsical and light on the narrative. Highlights included the slithery sul ponticello edging around the opening movement “Look,” as the quartet juxtaposed Upshaw’s clear tone with a creepy, muttered, singing response. “Curtain” made a reprise of an initial declamatory gesture from “Look,” and then turned a corner with fevered tremolo and talking among the players. The final movement, “Table,” was full of joyful expression, with clapping gestures moving around the quartet and Upshaw in a 5/8 rhythm. Even the light guy got in on the action, bringing in total darkness once or twice before the actual final downbeat.


Sponsored by some of the heaviest hitters in Austin, both projects sought to present hidden gems of yesterday and today to the initiated as well as to an audience that might not otherwise uncover them. Providing great performances and cultural snapshots of Austin then and now, Copland and Mexico and Brooklyn Rider gave us an inside look into where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Copland House Announces 2013 Residency Awards

winners of the 2013 Copland House Residency Awards

Photo Top to Bottom: Fitch, Haddad; Hollowa, Ko; Omiccioli, Rohde; Theofanidis, Trombore
Image courtesy Dworkin & Company

Copland House has announced the names of eight American composers from five states and Great Britain selected for all-expenses-paid residencies during the 2013-14 season at Aaron Copland’s National Historic Landmark home in New York’s lower Hudson Valley.

The winners of the 2013 Copland House Residency Awards are:

Keith Fitch (47, Cleveland Heights, OH)
Saad Haddad (20, Northridge, CA)
Aaron Holloway-Nahum (30, London, UK)
Tonia Ko (24, Ithaca, NY)
Nicholas Omiccioli (31, Kansas City, MO)
Kurt Rohde (46, San Francisco, CA)
Christopher Theofanidis (45, New Haven, CT)
Dale Trumbore (25, Los Angeles, CA)

This year’s eminent jury, which included composers Eric Chasalow (himself a former Copland House resident), Daron Hagen, and Paul Moravec, reviewed the applications of 99 composers from 26 states and 5 countries.

The residents will live and work, one at a time, at Copland’s home for stays ranging from three to eight weeks. As Copland House residents, they will also become eligible for post-residency awards and performances that advance their work, including the Sylvia Goldstein Award, Borromeo String Quartet Award, Hoff-Barthelson Music School Commission, and others, and their work may be showcased in performance by the Music from Copland House ensemble.

Additional information about Copland House, its residencies, and other activities can be found at coplandhouse.org.

from the press release

A “Virtual Séance” with the Founders of the American Music Center

17 East 42nd Street, New York NY,
November 1939


  1. Personal & Musical Backgrounds of the Founders
  2. The Pre-History of the Center
  3. The Center Opens
  4. The Center’s Difficult First Years
  5. Great Teachers and Music Education
  6. The State of Music in the United States
  7. What is American Music?
  8. On Other Composers and Other Forms of Music
  9. Later History of the American Music Center
  10. Advice for Today’s Composers

The ‘virtual séance’ is a compendium of quotes from archival interviews, books and letters by the six founders of the American Music Center spanning their entire careers. Although the texts have been shuffled and re-organized to emulate a conversation relevant to the concerns of the American Music Center in November 1999, every statement contained in the ‘virtual séance’ is in the words of one of the founders unless otherwise stated. It is a product of intensive research conducted by NewMusicBox editor Frank J. Oteri during the months of September and October 1999 at Yale University (New Haven CT), the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (New York NY) and the Archives of the American Music Center. The efforts of many people have made this possible. NewMusicBox would like to thank: Vivian Perlis – Director of Oral History, American Music at Yale University; Deborah Bellmore – Administrative Secretary for Oral History, American Music; Suzanne Eggleston – Reference Librarian, Yale University Music Library; James Undercofler, Director Eastman School of Music; George Boziwick – Curator, American Music Collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; and Peggy Holloway, University of Nebraska at Lincoln.