Tag: composer conversations

dublab — Compositional Curiosities

Web Header co branding (New Musicn USA & dublab) - Beatie Wolfe & Mark Mothersbaugh

Presented as part of ON AIR LA ANNEX, Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh and “musical weirdo and visionary” Beatie Wolfe discuss the art of composition, building worlds, and how being a conceptual artist can further open up and inform these spaces. Straddling multidisciplines, the pair also revisit Postcards for Democracy, their 2020 collective art campaign in support of USPS, and chat about its impact and how they are still receiving cards today ahead of the next election.

This program is part of New Music USA’s web magazine NewMusicBox “Guest Editor series”, which aims to celebrate a plurality of voices from across the nation and will feature exclusive content written, produced, or commissioned by a rotating artist or organization. The series kicks off with dublab. NewMusicBox, edited by Frank J. Oteri, amplifies creators and organizations who are building a vibrant future for new music in all its forms, and has provided a vital platform for creators to speak about issues relevant to them in their own words since 1999.

The dublab partnership will feature new weekly content from at least 15 different voices through January 2023, presented in conversations, DJ mixes, articles, and live performances all exploring the current landscape of music composition.

The Guest Editor is the first such series in the magazine’s 23-year history and reflects New Music USA’s aim to deepen its impact across the many diverse music communities across the United States. This aim is also demonstrated by NewMusicBox’s ongoing “Different Cities, Different Voices” feature that spotlights music creation hubs across the nation.

Elena Ruehr: Turning Emotion Into Sound

 

Ever since I heard the Cypress Quartet’s first recording of three string quartets by Elena Ruehr over a decade ago, I was entranced by her music. And after hearing the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s 2014 recording of works of hers inspired by paintings of Georgia O’Keefe and David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, I made a mental note that I needed to talk with her for NewMusicBox one day. This fall turned out to be an ideal time for us to finally connect. Her opera Cosmic Cowboy, created in collaboration with librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs, just had a successful three-performance run at Emerson College, and Guerrilla Opera will give the first performance of another Ruehr opera, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, created with librettist Royce Vavrek, at MIT in February. Plus her Ninth String Quartet is receiving its world premiere the first weekend of November.

It’s a remarkable amount of activity after the last two and a half years of pandemic-related cancellations. But Ruehr was nevertheless extremely active during that period, composing over 30 new pieces, some of which were even performed during that time, either in virtual concerts or masked up in controlled environments. Ruehr’s prolific output is a by-product of her maintaining a consistent composing schedule (five hours every day from Noon to 5:00pm) as well as her never-ending inspiration from the visual arts and her constant reading (four books a week), plus her desire to communicate with listeners.

“Beauty is really important, but also accessibility,” she opined during a Zoom chat we had in late September. “I’m sure that your average non-classical musician isn’t gonna necessarily like what I do, but I think most people who like classical music, even standard classical music, will find that the music that I write is something that they can approach. And that matters to me. That’s important to me.”

All the other details that go into creating a piece–whether its her fascination with combinatorial diatonic pitch sets (an influence from serial music that sounds nothing like serialism) or how she sonically interprets O’Keefe paintings and novels like Cloud Atlas and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto–are ultimately much less important for her than the emotional impact she hopes her music will have on listeners.

“I write it not caring whether you know the references, because it’s the emotional transference of one thing to another, and that’s the thing that I hope that the people who are listening get,” she explained. “If they have the references, it enriches it. But, if they don’t, the emotional thing is hopefully contained in it. … I try to make a sound out of the emotion that I’m feeling. And when I say ah yes, I captured it, then I write it down, and then I work on it. So it’s all about turning emotion into sound. As far as I’m concerned, that’s my job; that’s what I do.”

Her love for O’Keefe makes a lot of sense. (“She was doing representational art at a time when abstract art was sort of the thing. … Her story gave me courage to do what I wanted to do, which I think is more representational and less abstract, or more narrative and about expressing emotion.”)  But sometimes the things that have inspired her are quirkier. She actually attributes her attachment to writing for string quartet as well as her music’s polystylistic inclinations to hearing the Beethoven and Bartók quartets when she was a little girl and mixing them all up, erroneously thinking that they were all composed by someone named Bella Bartók, a female composer!

From that formative mash-up, she went on to immerse herself in Medieval and Renaissance music, minimalism, world music, and even pop. Now it’s all part of her compositional language.

“Anything that I like, I will just incorporate or steal, or whatever you want to call it,” she said with a grin.

We had a very pleasurable hour chatting about all these things and I felt it could have gone on much longer. But I made sure we ended before Noon so she could embark on another composition.

  • Just to talk about the pandemic a little bit. ... I wrote like 30 pieces in two years or some kind of insane amount, I don't know, because I was working every day for five hours a day, and I had nothing else to do.

    Elena Ruehr
    Elena Ruehr
  • Anything that I like, I will just incorporate or steal, or whatever you want to call it.

    Elena Ruehr
    Elena Ruehr
  • Another thing about Georgia O'Keefe that I like is that she was doing representational art at a time when abstract art was sort of the thing. And she was very brave about it. Her story gave me courage to do what I wanted to do, which I think is more representational and less abstract, or more narrative and about expressing emotion.

    Elena Ruehr
    Elena Ruehr
  • It's all about turning emotion into sound. As far as I'm concerned, that's my job; that's what I do.

    Elena Ruehr
    Elena Ruehr
  • I write it not caring whether you know the references, because it's the emotional transference of one thing to another, and that's the thing that I hope that the people who are listening get. And if they have the references, it enriches it. But, if they don't, the emotional thing is hopefully contained in it.

    Elena Ruehr
    Elena Ruehr
  • I'm a real weirdo reader. I read three, four books a week. ... I only read novels. And I read everything from Pulitzer Prize-winning literature to the ancient classics, to the junk. I love sci-fi, mystery novels. I read everything.

    Elena Ruehr
    Elena Ruehr
  • Vivaldi would have totally flipped if he was just in a time machine and appeared in a shopping mall and heard his music being played perfectly, coming from heaven.

    Elena Ruehr
    Elena Ruehr
  • I thought that Béla Bartók was a girl composer who had written all the Bartók and the Beethoven string quartets. ... It wasn't until I was like 15-years-old and taking piano lessons, playing Bartók, and I said, "Oh, I love Bartók. She's my favorite composer." And the teacher said, Bartók's a guy, and I had a huge argument with her.

    Elena Ruehr
    Elena Ruehr
  • Being beautiful is very important as far as I'm concerned. I take it very seriously. Emotive is important too. I have this little phrase--the surface is simple; the structure complex. .

    Elena Ruehr
    Elena Ruehr
  • I'm sure that your average non-classical musician isn't gonna necessarily like what I do, but I think most people who like classical music, even standard classical music, will find that the music that I write is something that they can approach.

    Elena Ruehr
    Elena Ruehr
  • I was very aware of the fact that I'm white and I'm writing an opera about a black story. And I felt pretty uncomfortable about it. ... If I don't tell the story because I'm white, what does that mean? You know? Am I not telling a story because I'm white? That's sort of a racist thing, too. Right? So I just decided it was better to tell the story and let the chips fall where they may.

    Elena Ruehr
    Elena Ruehr
  • I changed all the religious words, so instead of saying Lord have mercy, I just say, oh have mercy. ... I'm not a religious person. Whenever I hear music that's religious and I see that religious word, I go, oh, that's not me. I'm not included. You know? If you are religious, it doesn't mean you can't be included.

    Elena Ruehr
    Elena Ruehr

Frank Ticheli: Overcoming Anxiety & Trusting the Subconscious

Frank Ticheli conducting

Composer Frank Ticheli shares his experience with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which manifested in his 30’s in the form of chronic pain and impeded his ability to compose. We discuss how Frank reframed his relationship to his writing process in order to reconnect with his work, difficulties with medication and therapy, and how cultivating a dialogue with one’s subconscious enriches creativity. Lastly, we discuss Frank’s An American Elegy, commissioned by the Alpha Iota Chapter of Kappa Kappa Psi in memory of the victims of the mass shooting at Columbine High School, and the role that educators can play in caring for and monitoring their students’ mental health during increasingly anxious times.

Andrew Norman: Anxiety & Creative Process

Andrew Norman sitting by his piano with pages of scores scattered on the floor.

Composer Andrew Norman shares how his creative anxiety has led him into a current period of writer’s block. We discuss how his frenetic language captures how thoughts move in his mind, the underlying sources of his anxiety, and brainstorm together how he can move forward to reconnect with the joy of his creative process.

Dale Trumbore: Recognizing Anxiety, Creating with Empathy

A series of pencil drawn images of possible covers for Staying Composed by Dale Trombore

Composers and best friends Dale Trumbore and Julia Adolphe discuss living with anxiety disorders and writing during a pandemic. Dale is the author of Staying Composed: Overcoming Anxiety & Self-Doubt Within a Creative Life. They discuss Dale’s choral works written specifically for Zoom, her experience with anti-anxiety medication, and how she addresses unhealthy thought patterns in order to return to her creativity.

Sarah Kirkland Snider: Illuminating Anxiety, Creative Process & Nurturing Support

Sarah Kirkland Snider standing in front of a lake.

Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider shares her experience with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder and how they impact her creative process. She unpacks the shame and stigma surrounding mental health challenges, the toxic myth of the tortured artist, strategies for coping and silver linings of hypersensitivity, and the importance of nurturing support systems within our families, universities, and professional communities.

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.