Tag: composer workshop

Musical Meal Prep: Managing Rapid-Fire Deadlines for the Aspiring and Evolving Music Creative

Alexandra Petkovski at her music work station overlayed with the New Music Toolbox logo.

Words like “organization,” “time-management” and “prioritization” are perhaps more likely to be first associated with the job of say, an accountant, however at the core, the foundation of the music industry rests on these integral pillars. Having worked as a composer, producer, songwriter, and artist throughout the Film/TV, contemporary, video game and commercial music worlds, I have learned that a good creative creates, a great creative finishes.

In my time thus far as a music creator, I have developed some go-tos when it comes to creating in the music industry profession. In a landscape of rapid-fire deadlines, the ability to create consistent, high-quality music is infinitely helped by preparation ahead of time. Think of it like meal prep. If you have all your vegetables cut and ready to go prior to starting your recipe, you will expedite the cooking process itself. (Et voila, quick and delicious stir-fry!) Here are several fundamentals I’ve come to lean on that help me in navigating through music industry deadlines, multiple project balancing, and multi-tasking generally.

Using A Template

There are a lot of varied stances on music templates and using them in the creative process. On one hand, it calls to question the amount of originality and authenticity present in a music cue or work. Are we just setting ourselves up for the cookie cutter effect? Will all of our work start to sound the same? Will our repertoire suddenly share similar sonic palettes? On the other hand, are we actually fostering and enabling our creativity in providing a foothold moving forward? Giving ourselves a gift – a catalyst for creation – ahead of time? I personally can see the validity in both these viewpoints, and have experienced both as such. Ultimately, I have found that for me, having at least some basic structure and set-up in place prior to jumping into a project provides me with a sense of support, and a better overall mental place to begin from. Below are the typical template elements I try to incorporate, and have “at the ready.”

Digital Audio Workstation Genre-Based Template

“Have template, will travel.”

Without going overkill (but also, feel free to!) having at least a handful of basic templates at the ready for different music directions and/or genres is a solid starting point. I have seen some insanely decked out templates, where all orchestral instrument groupings and their respective sample sound patches have been preloaded, a subfolder within the project designated for the music mix, the master subfolder, and the final stems printing portion (yeah…make sure your machine is equipped for the equivalent of a CPU rollercoaster ride of its life). I’ve also seen some very rudimentary, this-is-the-basic-breakdown-of-a-band ways to do it. I feel it really boils down to the type of project, and even further, what types of projects you really spend a majority of your time doing.

For myself, I like to have a template catered towards “trailerization” endeavors and orchestral projects. For context, “trailerization” is where an original or arranged music work is created in the sonic vein specific to Film and TV trailers, promotions, teasers, and in-show needledrops; although subject to change and definitely can vary, the predominant style of music here plays in the darker, epic and dramatic spaces. I will add that I have used templates to create music for specific briefs (a directive sent to music creator via supervisor, trailer house, advertising, and/or licensing agency outlining a specific musical aim and product goal dependent on project type) within the Film/TV and commercial realms, which I have found to be very helpful, whereas within the scoring to screen world have found that my personal preference is to work from a completely “clean slate.” This is largely in part due to the collaborative levels present in a project, and its overall customization. Scoring music for a film, for instance, relies heavily on the communication and dialogue between composer and director, possibly producer(s), and members of the film creative team in general. Sonic palette, although potentially drawing influence from music genres and references, will often be developed from ground zero. A call for song submissions for an ABC medical drama may be less pointed, and a bit more universal in the musical stylization process. Again, not always, but this has been my current bandwidth of experience. Either way, having a template to open and work from when hit with multiple project types and due dates can be a real time-saver, not to mention emotional crutch. Here’s what I like to have built into my “trailerization” template…

1. Covering the Sonic Spectrum – Sample Sounds and Sonic Palette

In my experience with “trailerizing” music cues and songs, having a definitive low and high end present in the sonic spectrum helps generate the dichotomy between tension and resolution throughout a piece of music. Contrast in sound creates musical pulse; a high airy synthesizer juxtaposed with a low oscillating bass can help evoke “anticipatory” “dark” tones, the pairing of rapidly rhythmic strings with low booming impacts, and subby hip-hop infused beats can create feelings of “epicness” and motion. In all cases, starting with a template where this sonic spectrum is represented (having respective sample sounds and patches preloaded) has been an excellent jumping off point in my work processes. The basic instrument and sample sound groups I’ve incorporated in my “trailerization” template are as follows: high synth, woodwind textures, choral/choir, piano (usually a felt piano), strings (high and low), electro percussion, orchestral percussion, band percussion, electro drums (beat kits), orchestral drums, basic drum kit, sub bass, low synth, FX (sweeps/impacts/crashes), and vocals. This is not to say I don’t add or take away instruments and patches dependent on where project creation takes me – maybe I decide to layer my bass with low brass, or I don’t want to use piano – but having something to start off from, and having instrument presets loaded already, really makes the whole creative process more efficient and thus enjoyable. Additionally, part of what makes a good template isn’t just having samples preloaded and/or designated instrument group tracks, but organizing within each patch/instrument grouping. Without diving into too much of the minutia, an example of this would be the way I approach my vocal groupings. Instead of just having all vocals organized as one large entity, I like to create labeled subsets consisting of leads, doubles, harmonies, BGVs (background vocals, often in the form of “ooh’s” “ah’s”), and ad libs. I do this simply by colour coordination of audio tracks, however whatever technique works for you is totally acceptable. A straightforward way of keeping groupings organized in the template is via track stacks. Which brings me to my next point.

2. Track Stacks

Track stacks–and/or folders, dependent on the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)–are the gifts that keep on giving. Although they are a supremely simple notion, you’d be surprised at how long it took for me to catch on about their existence. (Well, I did – and now I’m never going back!) In essence, one selects a particular number of MIDI and/or audio tracks in their project, and can right click, select create track stack – and boom! – organize said tracks together in one folder. In Logic Pro, the DAW I work within, there are two types of track stacks to select from – a “folder stack” versus “summing stack.” For these purposes, selecting “summing stack” is the desired course of action. The beauty of this lies beyond just the obvious visual benefit, but can actually anticipate and set up the process for printing audio stems down the line. (There could be an entire segment on the process and description of printing stems, but for this article’s purposes, let’s just keep it simple and say that track stacks can become the stem buses printed to audio final stems.) The takeaway – track stacks are where it’s at.

3. Signal Flow Set Up; All Aboard the Bus(ing)

Having desired signal flow paths predetermined, particularly in the form of presets and busing to auxiliary channels, enables one to create polished, industry-standard products at a faster rate, and allows one to (at least roughly) mix tracks simultaneously to composing and producing. This applies to all types of project templates generally. In a music mix, there are a couple options to consider. One may incorporate auxiliary channels to mix wet signal with dry signal on initial tracks, which is what the basis of parallel compression is. Respectively, one can also stereo output track stack groupings to auxiliaries, enabling the ability to add group compression, reverb, delay, and any desired effects. On this note, typically different instrument and/or sound groupings will have a varying kind of compression, parallel compression, EQ and/or reverb and delay assigned to them. In any case, if one has these respective buses set up ahead of time, it expedites the process of taking a fully composed/produced piece of music to its mixing stage. In my “trailerization” template, I like to incorporate at least a couple different reverb and delay types/presets assigned to track stack groupings, and have parallel compression ready to dial in for all. I’ve found through experience the ability to send stems dry (without effects) and wet is also an important one, so that if another mixer becomes involved with the project, one can send them dry stems so that they may apply their own respective effects. Overall, I find that having bigger reverb chamber sounds and mild delays helps create the “dramatic” tone of a trailerized cue. There may be other effective ways to set up signal flow, however, this template component works fairly well for me.

4. Presets and Chains

I find presets and “go-to” chains are a great way to save time, and especially beneficial regarding vocals. I like to have certain chain effects on the track, at the ready, but I also like to have presets saved for vocal specific busing too. For instance, in my trailerization template, I have a Vox FX 1 preset saved, which contains “Vocalsynth” – a means for creating a lower octave double on vocals. I have a Vox FX 2 and Vox FX 3 that I’ve got saved to help expedite real-time production and mix of vocals as well.

Additionally, as far as presets go, I find that having a mastering preset to apply quickly to a demo product (when sending a song or cue to a client for instance) of the music mix helps take a cue across the finish line, and also can help it stand out generally. This doesn’t have to be fancy at all, and in fact, my own “trailerization” master preset is super simple, consisting of Izotope’s plug-in Ozone 8 (for all our racing-against-the-clock mastering needs). For those unfamiliar, Ozone 8 essentially allows one to try out different cue sound outputs, playing with potential project polishing including but not limited to EQ, compression, and limiters. Especially in limited time perimeters, it is a reliable and user-friendly method of heightening one’s music work. In a similar vein, creating vocal chain presets is also a huge time-saver under rapid-fire deadlines.

Making Playlists

Another excellent tool which I feel helps promote efficiency, thus creative flowing of juices, is the simple yet effective act of making playlists. In short, no matter the project, it is extremely beneficial to put together sonic references in the form of songs, music cues, score, etc. to turn to for creative inspiration. Further, when working with clients on projects, it is so helpful to have material to refer to when communicating about energy, feelings, vibe and direction for a music piece or score. There are many ways to go about doing this; some people like to have general playlists at the ready for their own creative reference contingent on music genre type or stylization, others will primarily create playlists once a dialogue with a client is underway, shaping said playlist as a result (sometimes this playlist may actually already exist in the client’s mind, unbeknownst to them, on a subconscious level of what they’d like to hear. This is up to us to investigate and coax out). For me, I like to partake in both schools of thought, where I have several playlists in place specific to a project type, which ironically were developed as a result of client-communication and creative collaboration dialogue. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Who cares – does it sound good?

A Creator is Only as Good as Their Calendar

Well, in the music industry this may not always be the case. However, in the story of my professional (and personal for that matter!) life, one of the most undeniably sexy leading characters has revealed themselves to be…*drum roll please*…my calendar! It’s funny, but it is fundamentally true. I have found that keeping an up-to-date, organized calendar is essential. My recommendation: use a calendar on a technological device, like your phone. Every time a new deadline comes down the pipe, or a new project is underway, write that down. Have a color-coding system. Instead of just having a to-do list, which outlines the work that needs to be done but doesn’t convey much else in terms of saying when it’s getting done, a calendar creates a visual image for the day-to-day activities. When a new deadline arises, one is able to see what they can possibly move around on their schedule in order to meet it, and/or prioritize the level of importance a project has in real-time. I’ll leave it at this. Your calendar is your friend. Use it. Cherish it.

Applicability to the Wide Music Project Gamut

Anticipation and preparation techniques for managing rapid-fire deadlines specific to creating music for media-related projects are also very applicable and relevant to a wide gamut of music project types generally. In the case of templates, one is able to use this model, for example, in instances of writing a musical, composing an orchestral work for live performance, and/or arranging a piece for a band or recording gig. The key ingredient in all these cases is creating a foundational framework to use in a consistent manner. For instance, The Jones Family, a roughly two and a half hour musical which I wrote, composed, cast, and recorded, began with the development and solidification of my sonic palette, and the instrumental decisions of what would comprise its sound. Once I determined the instruments that would weave the fabric of the musical, I was able to use that template again and again, employing it for respective musical songs. Further, in the process of translating produced instrumental mock-ups to initial notation (for live instrumental performance purposes) having a consistent outline of instrument groupings, and organized MIDI data, expedited “putting the music to paper” overall. In addition to templates, making playlists to help spark creative fire or provide sonic reference to a music genre can help lend perspective and context for projects like composing for a string quartet, illuminating music elements like melody, harmony, and rhythm to better serve industry expectation. Having a strong understanding of the industry standard helps better inform the music direction and choices you make. Whatever the music project deadline type, you want to equip yourself to the best of your ability regarding the landscape you are working within. Beyond this, you want to use the tools at your disposal to cut down time and better achieve your goals. This is why using a calendar to help outline, organize, and solidify your schedule and manage your music project deadlines is so beneficial (and I cannot emphasize enough – so simple!)

Above all, managing rapid-fire deadlines in the form of organization, time-management and prioritization is in service of making art to the best of one’s ability. I feel it important to also note that one of the underlying key elements of managing deadlines is consistently working on something, no matter what. Anticipating the play is half the battle. Although it can be supremely difficult sometimes (seriously) try to always have something on the go – if you’re feeling less creatively motivated (and the deadline allows it) perhaps shift gears for several hours, focusing on admin or “house-keeping” to-do lists. Understanding how you maximize your productivity, and where your time is best spent, is vital to always staying as prepared as possible for when new deadlines arise. I believe that what partly defines a sustainable, long-term profession in the music industry is the act of honoring one’s craft and time, ultimately setting one up for success. As we all continue on our musical and artistic journeys, I hope these techniques and tips can provide some help navigating the landscape forward.

Warts and All


Last month I had the chance to work with the exceptional San Francisco chamber choir Volti as part of the choir’s choral arts laboratory for nascent choral composers. The singers in Volti are all new music specialists, and director Bob Geary and longtime composer-in-residence Mark Winges have brought countless works to life during the ensemble’s past seasons.

Volti commissions works by more experienced choral composers such as Stacy Garrop and Armando Bayolo, as well as performing contemporary classics by Aaron Kernis and David Lang, but Volti’s choral arts laboratory is all about offering younger composers a chance to learn the ropes in a supportive environment. It’s an experience that any young composer would be grateful for, and as I’ve yet to write a “real” SATB choral piece I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity.

This year, Volti decided to try something new: the big theater in town (the American Conservatory Theatre) had just opened up a new black box theater in Central Market, and Volti worked out an arrangement to use the space for an open rehearsal of new music. There’s a sense in which showing off a work-in-progress with all its warts to a roomful of strangers isn’t something that would make all composers sit up and exclaim, “Sounds good! Sign me up!” but I found the questions and response from the assembled audience to be provocative and ultimately very helpful. I sure wish that I could rehearse every piece several months prior to having it turned in; and even more wistfully, I wish that every ensemble I worked with was as invested, thoughtful, and eager to explore new ideas as Volti.

A.C.T.'s The Costume Shop, a 49-seat black box theater in Central Market

A.C.T.’s The Costume Shop, a 49-seat black box theater in Central Market
Photo by Dan Visconti

Which makes me wonder: Why don’t we do this all the time? The idea of a composition as a public work-in-progress (and composition as an act deeply integrated with the community it serves) is inherently attractive. It’s an opportunity for the composer to hone his or her craft, solving difficult problem while there’s still time. It’s an opportunity for the ensemble to connect to a new community of concertgoers, and an opportunity for the audience to follow the process by which a new work is created. And it does this in a way that deepens a sense of connection, in the same way that growing up with close friends or family members provides for a deeper knowledge that is the basis of intimacy. Why can’t workshopping a new composition be an important community event?

Finished products are great, but if we living composers have anything to offer that dead dudes like Beethoven cannot, surely it’s the creative process itself, which when it comes to the old masters can only be inferred indirectly. I hope that more arts organizations wise up to this approach to new projects, and also that presenters of music in particular will keep in mind that much of the value of engaging living composers has to do with so much more than the composition they eventually produce—those unseemly musical warts might have more value than the preened and often put-on affair of presenting painstakingly rehearsed works, cut off from the context of their own creation.

Writing Over: The Intimacy of Creativity / The Bright Sheng Partnership

In Mong Kok, tenements and market streets surround a five-star hotel and its Michelin-starred restaurant. In Kowloon City, landscape-architected Walled City Park eerily reminds you of the chaotic district that it replaced. In the city parks, locals practice Tai Chi in small groups. Evenings, expats teem into the streets of Lan Kwai Fong, and laze around Cameron Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. This is Hong Kong, begging you in every gaze to compare the old and the new.

Bright Sheng reaching for the stars.

Bright Sheng reaching for the stars.

I traveled here to participate in a contemporary music festival now in its second year called “The Intimacy of Creativity,” arriving two days early to explore the city, and to recover from jet lag. The program, the brainchild of composer Bright Sheng, aims to bring a workshopping culture to chamber music. It takes place at the astonishing Clearwater Bay campus of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), and it is organized around a course of rehearsals, discussions, and performances of music by invited composers (and of Beethoven—but more on that later). On the whole it was a fantastic experience, though not without its imperfections.

I should start by stating that my own compositional lineage is one probably familiar to readers of this site: a well-worn path through universities, degrees, and new music concerts. In the last few years, though, I have discovered joy in writing for musical theater, the workshopping process of which was a surprising revelation. As a member of the BMI Musical Theater writing workshops, I have seen writers’ works benefit immensely from constructive criticism. So it was exciting for me to see a chamber music program using this approach. Apart from opera, revision based on public feedback is generally eschewed in the world of classical music. Why?

Violin and violist Ara Gregorian holds court.

Violin and violist Ara Gregorian holds court.

For Bright Sheng, this question was a motivator for the festival itself. The other was to repair what he perceives as rift between composers and performers. To explore these ideas, he brought together seasoned composers Joan Tower and Mark O’Connor; as well as younger composers including myself, and a host of performers. Most of the composers doubled as performers during the festival as well.

For the composers, the open discussion and rehearsal of our music compelled us to see our own works more objectively, opening the door to revision. For the performers, it was an opportunity to engage and connect with the works, and to pass along that excitement to the audience.

Jonathan Wong and Ji-Hye practice their licks.

Jonathan Wong and Ji-Hye Jung practice their licks.

On the whole, the festival achieved these goals. But talking about instrumental music can be difficult, so the conversation frequently became mired in unspecific talk and interactions bordering on interrogation. The proceedings were protocol-less, and even further confused by the presence of hundreds of the university’s music theory and music appreciation students attending the open discussions in lieu of their regular lectures.

The Intimacy of Creativity, or IC as its architects are starting to call it, has the additional goal of the enrichment of HKUST students, and indeed, much of the profoundly generous funding for the program arises from the fulfillment of this purpose. Only a small minority of the students seemed engaged with the discussions, though. Others chatted with each other, or else stared into the glowing screens in their laps.

But on to the music. The trio I presented there was designed as a sort of puzzle; I wanted the music both to interrupt itself and maintain a narrative. I imagined myself as the director of a baseball game, switching between camera angles, but always staying with the flow of the game. So I called the piece Control Room. Through spirited discussion, we discovered that both the title and the music itself were working against its concept. The performers understood my description of the puzzle, but it didn’t give them any sort of direction. Flutist Adrian Spence discovered that a slight change in perspective could shed a different light on performing the piece: really, the piece is about distraction. Seizing upon this idea made my revisions and the performers’ interpretation much clearer. I extended a section, rewrote a few measures, altered rhythms, changed some registrations, and cut a page. And the new title became something that the performers, composer and audience could all rally behind: You are always distracted by something.

Emma-Ruth Richards confirming harmonies with Michael Djupstrom (left); Raman Ramakrishnan considers the discussion (right)

Emma-Ruth Richards confirming harmonies with Michael Djupstrom (left); Raman Ramakrishnan considers the discussion (right)

All the composers at IC identified aspects of their pieces to improve: smoothing out a blip in pacing, making a bona fide ending, lengthening lines without adding measures, spacing out beautiful passages, reigning in too-oblique variations, or making ingenious cuts.

In addition to the new works, the festival also included two early pieces of Beethoven—the Op. 11 Piano Trio and the C Major Piano Quartet. Since these works were receiving the same open discussion treatment as the newer compositions, I was hoping to witness some entertainingly blasphemous performance decisions or cuts, but they didn’t materialize. I suppose these pieces offered a crowd-pleasing way to end two concerts of contemporary music. Frank J. Oteri, who attended one of the concerts, wrote about how jarring this was for him, but I would propose the programming worked on a conceptual level after all.

The rather unhip full title of the festival is “The Intimacy of Creativity / The Bright Sheng Partnership: Composers meet Performers in Hong Kong.” Verbose, yes, but it actually describes the success of the festival. Over its two weeks, a dialog developed among all of the participating composers and musicians, simultaneously offering HKUST students a window into the artists’ creative and collaborative processes. Attempts to include the students themselves in the conversation played out awkwardly, but still, involving the students represents a compelling aspect of the project.

IC was very generous to us, with numerous events, classy dinners, and the gift of time to explore Hong Kong, even on concert days. So with a few hours off after sound check on May Day, I set out walking again. On Upper Lascar Row in SoHo, wunderkammern antique shops mingle with chintzy tourist versions full of knick-knacks and Mao-kitsch. On the side streets, there’s a different sort of antique inventory: dirty rotary phones, plastic toys orphaned from their sets, bygone electronics, fancy decanters, and piles of books and LPs. Down the hill then, past reeking streets of inscrutable dried fish. Past steaming noodle shops, dingy, but not hurting for customers. Doubling back now, walking toward Admiralty’s impressive modernist skyscrapers, and past the scores of Filipino maids on a day off, lunching, relaxing, singing, and dancing in the shade under HSBC, along the outside walls of City Hall, in the Star Ferry tunnels, and next to the barricades to the ongoing land reclamation into Victoria Harbor.

Adrian Spence, Trey Lee, and Haochen Zhang in performance.

Adrian Spence, Trey Lee, and Haochen Zhang in performance.

The original City Hall used to sit on the other side of Queen’s Road where I.M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower now stands. The current, blocky, 1950s City Hall rests on reclaimed land. But not far off, Asia Society Hong Kong boasts a new take on building over the past, namely by building magnificently around it. There, on a hilly plot, historic constructions mingle vibrantly with modern design. So finally stepping back into City Hall’s chilled echoing foyer, and ascending the stairs to the theater, I wonder if by presenting Beethoven amid modern music, we’re giving him the same treatment.


Author Matt Van Brink considering changing the title of his piece.

Author Matt Van Brink considering changing the title of his piece.

Along with Joan Tower and Mark O’Connor, Bright Sheng invited younger composers Michael Djupstrom, Emma-Ruth Richards, Austin Yip, Pedro Faria Gomes, Matthew Tommasini, and myself; Canto-pop singer-songwriter Jonathan Wong; pianist Haochen Zhang, cellists Trey Lee and Raman Ramakrishnan, violin and violist Ara Gregorian, violist Sophie Stanley, and Pacifica Camerata members flutist Adrian Spence, violinist Catherine Leonard, and marimbist Ji-Hye Jung. Matthew Tommasini doubled as the associate director of the festival. Both he, Pedro Faria Gomes and Sophie Stanley currently teach at HKUST.

The Big Day (The 2011-2012 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Blog, Day 4)

Dress rehearsal! We go in concert order, with Michael Holloway’s lush Rhythm: Theta Beta Theta starting. Michael is, I believe, the youngest composer here this year, having just finished his undergraduate education (which he did in two years). His piece is impressively orchestrated, and does exactly what he described in his speech about it: it opens with slow and more luxuriously paced music, with faster music in the middle like the more active Beta brain-waves, and finally the Theta waves return to close the piece. His music has a breadth that seems beyond his years, and the orchestra really sounds fabulous playing it.

Michael R. Holloway Orchestral Score Excerpt

Excerpted from Michael R. Holloway’s Rhythm: Theta Beta Theta. © 2011 by Michael R. Holloway. Reproduced with the composer’s permission. International copyright secured. All rights reserved.
Andreia’s piece, like the geographical place, Xántara, that inspired her, is mysterious, elegant, magical. Her delicate textures and transparent orchestration are impressive. In her score, she uses such adjectives as “Floating” to impart the kind of playing she wants from the musicians. The ending particularly I found really breathtaking: quiet, with the kind of presence that demands a moment or two of silence from the listener before any applause would begin.

Andreia Pinto-Correia Orchestral Score Excerpt

Excerpted from Andreia Pino-Correia’s Xántara. © 2011 by Andreia Pino-Correia, Aljezur Music (ASCAP). Reproduced with the composer’s permission. International copyright secured. All rights reserved.
My piece is in two movements: the GOD MUSIC movement, and the BUG MUSIC movement. In both, I was pushing canonic writing as far as I could, creating textures that feel to me colorful and exuberant, sometimes sounding statistical, sometimes highly organized. I’m very interested in the idea that my harmonies are organized by horizontal lines; and those lines are designed very carefully so that the harmonies will work out the way I want them to. I like my architecture to be clear, but I always strive for it to arise out of the materials I use: their details and internal directionality.

Hannah Lash Orchestral Score Excerpt

Excerpted from Hannah Lash’s God Music Bug Music: Two Movements for Orchestra. © 2011 by Hannah Lash administered exclusively worldwide by Schott Helicon Corporation, New York (BMI). Reproduced with the permission of the composer and publisher. International copyright secured. All rights reserved.
Shen Yiwen’s music has a certain meticulousness and clarity that are truly admirable. His piece does have a certain “American” sound, featuring broad, open sonorities and lush orchestration. It is brief: only about seven minutes. But one thing I noticed about all the pieces from my colleagues here is that each one is the right length. That’s not always the case—we’ve all sat through pieces that seem to last hours when in fact they’re only ten minutes. Or pieces that seem awkwardly truncated, as if the composer lost patience with his/her material.

Shen Yiwen Orchestral Score Excerpt

Excerpted from Shen Yiwen’s First Orchestral Essay. © 2010 by Shen Yiwen Reproduced with the composer’s permission. International copyright secured. All rights reserved.
Adrian’s piece Manchester is very quiet the whole way through, but incredibly detailed; it is about small things that happen within a broad framework—a framework that invites deep listening, meditation. It involves electronics that blend in and out of the live sound; their presence is never intrusive but rather they serve to expand the palette of sound. Adrian’s harmonies and timbres are inextricably linked in a way that displays real musical intelligence as well as a well-developed concept of what the music is. This is a piece that, despite its low dynamic level, has an extremely well-defined character whose presence commands the listener’s attention, pulls you in with its strong delicacy. It is anything but innocuous in its near silence.

Adrian Knight Orchestral Score Excerpt

Excerpted from Adrian Knight’s Manchester for Orchestra. © 2008 by Adrian Knight, Pink Pamphlet. Reproduced with the composer’s permission. International copyright secured. All rights reserved.
Brian’s Collective Uncommon is almost outrageous in its imaginativeness, but avoids any sensationalism (despite the food instruments and the Tickle-Me-Elmo voice boxes); instead the music is really haunting and beautiful—yes, we are given aural images that are truly bizarre, but they are sensitively used and we come away feeling we’ve experienced something far more meaningful than a freak-show: something human, something beautiful and sad.

Excerpted from Brian Ciach’s Collective Uncommon for Orchestra. © 2010 by Brian Ciach. Reproduced with the composer’s permission. International copyright secured. All rights reserved.
After individual mentor meetings all afternoon with Maestro Vänskä, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Steven Stucky, we had a brief break before the concert. Then we all filed into the Green Room to meet with Fred Child from MPR, who would host the event, interviewing each of us briefly on stage before our pieces. Fred is a wonderful interviewer; he had listened to all our speeches online in this blog from the Donor Dinner, so he already had a sense of each of us.

When it came time to go into the hall, we found out that the house was really packed—both on the orchestra level, and at least the first tier. I’ve never had a piece played to such a large audience before. The energy of the crowd felt overwhelmingly positive; there were a lot of different ages of people, and you got the sense that everyone was excited to be there and anxious to hear what was going on in new music for orchestra.

I won’t go through all the pieces again since I’ve already done that from the dress rehearsal, but I will say that the orchestra sounded even better than they had earlier in the day. It really is a thrill to hear such a tremendous force onstage, no matter what the repertoire, but to have them playing your own music is really exhilarating!

There was a brief reception for us in the Green Room during intermission; and the other opportunity we had to interact with the audience directly was in a Q and A session after the concert. It was great to know from people’s questions how interested they were in new music, and how much they wanted to encourage us as relatively newer composers alive today.

Talking About Our Music (The 2011-2012 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Blog, Day 2)

Wednesday started off with another public speaking workshop; this time our coach Diane Odash had us practice our pre-concert speeches on the orchestra stage. This was helpful for working out any kinks that might occur, and I felt much more comfortable with my little talk after receiving Diane’s feedback.

Following this were two seminars by James Kendrick, an attorney and the head of Schott Publishing. These were in-depth explanations of copyrights, licensing, commissioning contracts, and negotiating. Mr. Kendrick is an extraordinary resource, and the amount of information he has is truly impressive. Something we can all take away from these sessions is that as composers, we can’t just know our own craft; we also have to be familiar with those legal and business matters that protect our livelihoods and make our survival as working artists possible.

Bill Holab’s session on music engraving and copying was equally packed with important points, and was geared specifically to address matters that had come up in each of our orchestra parts. After feeling pretty good that the orchestra players yesterday had found no issues with my parts, I was taken down a few notches by Mr. Holab, who very helpfully pointed out several engraving issues that I should address in order to make my parts clearer and better from a music copying standpoint.

The highpoint of the harp seminar that followed was when Principal harpist Kathy Keinzle played Salzedo’s Song in the Night for us, (I think that was the piece, if my harp knowledge serves!) demonstrating various extended techniques on her lovely Salvi harp. As a harpist myself, I had a lot of fun hearing her thoughts on orchestral harp writing, and found her approach to the instrument in the orchestral context wonderful.

Finally, we had a short break to get ourselves ready for the Donor Dinner at the home of Gloria and Fred Sewall. This was a lovely event; the house was truly a work of art, having been designed about a decade ago by the eminent architect Charles R. Stinson. As you approached the front entrance, there was a graceful and life-like statue of a leopard looking out onto the side lawn, poised as if to stalk its prey.

Inside the house, the floors were light finish hardwood, playing into the light and airy impression of the interior structure of the home. The large living room featured angular and colorful art, arranged beautifully as if in a museum. To one side of the room was a large black grand piano. (I didn’t get a look at the brand, but it was quite a lovely matte finish.)

Sewell Piano

After meeting and mingling with the donors, board members, and the commissioning club who were all in attendance, our hostess Gloria gathered us together so that Michael Hensen, Aaron Jay Kernis, Osmo Vänskä, and finally the six of us participants, could say a few words about the institute and give thanks for the support of these many people.

So when it came time for the six of us to speak, we got a chance to practice our newly sharpened public speaking skills. Michael Holloway started us off, graciously thanking the donors and expressing his appreciation for the virtuosity of the orchestra before describing his piece, Rhythm: Theta Beta Theta, which is based upon brain waves (apparently he was having some work done on his brain and had an EEG which showed him his own Theta and Beta waves, which inspired the piece).

Portuguese-born Andreia Pinto-Correia followed Michael, sharing her very personal and dynamic story about how she came to be a composer. Her piece, Xántara, is about a place in Portugal near Lisbon, whose natural beauty has made it notorious.

I went next, describing a little about my background and then saying a few words about my piece, GOD MUSIC BUG MUSIC, whose rather flamboyant and irreverent title demands an explanation.

Shen Yiwen was next; his piece First Orchestral Essay, draws some inspiration from Samual Barber. His piece, like mine, is based on a five-note motive; his motive, unlike mine, is an ascending one. He told us that some people have described his piece as an “Americana piece” despite his Chinese roots.

Adrian Knight gave a thoughtful and characteristically insightful introduction to his work, Manchester, a title for which he hopes the audience will find its own meaning.

Finally, Brian Ciach spoke about his Collective Uncommon: Seven Orchestral Studies on Medical Oddities, a piece inspired by the Mütter Museum, a museum of medical oddities in Philadelphia. Apparently as you enter the museum, you see a 30-foot colon immediately in front of you, then a woman with a nine-inch horn growing out of her forehead, and many other strange medical relics. Brian depicts these oddities sonically with the help of what he describes as “food instruments” amplified macaroni and cheese and cabbage heads. He also uses the voice boxes from Tickle-Me-Elmo dolls to represent the shrunken heads in the museum. These “food instruments” are particularly intriguing because Brian, in addition to being a composer, is a professional chef.

The evening ended with a lovely dinner and lively conversation.