Tag: composer workshops

There’s Still So Much to Learn, But I’m More Confident Now

Early in 2016, one of my friends asked me to describe my career aspirations. Where do I see myself in five years, or in ten years?

I’ve always found this kind of question to be extremely difficult to answer. Careers and opportunities—especially in the world of classical music—can change so quickly, and sometimes quite arbitrarily. Often, planning and setting goals can seem like futile exercises. I’m always concerned that long-term planning will lead to disappointment, or will get in the way of larger opportunities.

So, in responding to my friend’s question, I kept my answer somewhat vague. “I want people to hear my orchestral music,” I said. “I want to write more of it, and I want opportunities for it to be heard!”

The past year has been extraordinary for me.

The past year has been extraordinary for me. Last November, I was attending rehearsals with the Yale Philharmonia as they prepared Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky for a December performance. The concert program only consisted of new works for orchestra written by composition students at the Yale School of Music. I learned so much throughout those rehearsals—not only from hearing my own piece, but from hearing my colleagues’ music as well. I didn’t imagine that Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky would have an interesting life beyond the December concert.

In February of 2017, I learned that I had been chosen to participate in the American Composers Orchestra Underwood New Music Readings. Later in the spring, I received an invitation to attend the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. I now had opportunities to rethink sections of Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky and make revisions.

At this point, Likely Pictures is a strong piece, and it’s also a practical piece. The musicians of both the American Composers Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra seemed to understand what it was about fairly quickly. After several revisions, the notation is very clear, and there are very few questions regarding my intentions. I have been present at every performance of my orchestral music; ideally, a conductor and an ensemble should be capable of assembling my music without my presence and input.

A conductor and an ensemble should be capable of assembling my music without my presence and input.

In the spring of 2017, I learned that I had won a commission from the New York Youth Symphony. This was extraordinary news—I was receiving my very first orchestra commission! In my application, I had submitted Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky as my work sample. In a significant way, Likely Pictures had made this new opportunity possible.

Hilary Purrington standing outside Carnegie Hall in front of the New York Youth Symphony November 19, 2017 Concert Poster featuring a photo of her and listing her world premiere performance.

This past weekend, I heard the premiere of Daylights, my newest orchestral work. Commissioned as part of First Music, the New York Youth Symphony’s commission competition, Daylights literally opened the NYYS’s 2017-18 season. The work is a short, active concert opener. When I began composing it, I knew I wanted to create moments that capture the sensation of staring into a brilliant light. The word “daylights,” most often found as part of the expression “the living daylights,” is an archaic idiom referring to an individual’s eyes or consciousness. The title takes on many meanings—personal awareness and perception as well as the brilliant light of day.

Very often, my compositions come in pairs. I discover a sound or technique while writing one piece, and then I seek to improve upon it in a subsequent work. In a way, Daylights is an expansion of what I learned while composing Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky.

As I explained in a previous post, early drafts of Likely Pictures were extremely episodic, and my transitions between sections were less than graceful. My teacher, Christopher Theofanidis, encouraged me to revisit these sections and compose elegant transitions. Chris taught me to be thoughtful and deliberate when writing transitional material, and this new, increased awareness has impacted everything I have written over the course of the past year.

Similar to Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky, Daylights opens with a very sparse, delicate texture. The violins sustain very high, fragile harmonics, and a solo flute sings out a melody. I add glockenspiel, a second flute, and—eventually—solo violin and a very rude bass drum. In the final measures of the work, the music returns to a thicker, more active version of the work’s introductory, chamber-like material before blossoming into a noisy, active conclusion. In both Likely Pictures and Daylights, I contrast moments of intimate chamber music with expansive orchestral passages.

When composing Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky, I experimented with combining instruments to create percussive, staccato “hits.” It’s a defining characteristic of the piece, and I chose to incorporate this element into Daylights (although, in a less significant way). In this case, however, the “hits” are orchestrated differently, and I usually use something to lead into these staccato punches. For example, in one passage, a crescendoing snare roll and solo flute terminates with pizzicato strings and a choked suspended cymbal. This is an example of how I grow artistically: I find a musical element or effect that I like, and I experiment with it in different pieces and contexts. It then becomes something that I can keep in my “repertoire” of sounds and ideas.

I’m extremely grateful for opportunities to continue experimenting and developing.

Following the American Composers Orchestra Underwood New Music Readings this past June, I learned that I had been awarded the Underwood Commission. Every year, one of the UNMR participants is selected to receive a commission for a future season. This is an extraordinary opportunity and privilege for me, and it will be my first commission from a professional orchestra. And, this opportunity is arriving at an interesting time for me, both artistically and professionally. I have learned so much about orchestral writing over the course of this past year. I’m a lot more confident in my ability to compose for orchestra, and I have so many ideas I want to hear realized. I also recognize that I still have so much to learn, and I’m extremely grateful for opportunities to continue experimenting and developing.

Daniel Schlosberg, Charles Peck, Peter Shin, Nina C. Young, Hilary Purrington, Andrew Hsu, and Saad Haddad talk through details in their pieces at a session with Minnesota Orchestra musicians during the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute.

Daniel Schlosberg, Charles Peck, Peter Shin, Nina C. Young, Hilary Purrington, Andrew Hsu, and Saad Haddad talk through details in their pieces at a session with Minnesota Orchestra musicians during the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. (Photo by Mele Willis, courtesy Minnesota Orchestra.)

Composing and Revising Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky

For a while, I’ve claimed that clarity is the most important aspect of my music. I want musicians to know what’s going on so they can musically react and interpret their part, and I never want an audience member to feel lost or perplexed. For me, a large part of growing and improving as a composer involves learning how to more effectively communicate with both performers and listeners.

There are two sides to this. Musically, I strive to create narratives that both performers and listeners can follow. On a more practical level, I carefully edit my scores and parts so that performers and conductors know what I’m looking for. As simplistic as it seems, I’ve learned to notate my music so that it will sound exactly the way I want it to.

The process of writing and revising has been transformative.

The process of writing and revising Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky for orchestra has been transformative for my writing. It’s my third orchestral piece, and it’s the only one I’ve been able to revise for subsequent performances. In its current form, the work is the product of important previous experiences and careful revisions.

I’ve been fortunate to attend schools that give composition students opportunities to hear orchestral works read and sometimes performed. In the summer preceding my second year at Juilliard, I began working on my second orchestral piece. I planned to apply to doctoral programs and, knowing that a reading at Juilliard would be my only chance to make a decent recording before application deadlines, I intended to compose something that could function well with very little rehearsal time. It needed to be simple and straightforward with the potential to sound polished by the end of a brief reading session.

This became Extraordinary Flora (2014). Composing a delicate, straightforward piece forced me to carefully consider how I presented and orchestrated my musical materials.  If I had composed this piece earlier, it would have felt counterintuitive, as if I was wasting the ensemble’s potential. But, this experience taught me that writing for orchestra with a sense of restraint can actually be more effective. Carefully controlling the energy of a massive ensemble allowed me to harness and focus it for moments that really mattered.

I began thinking about my next orchestral piece, Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky (2016), early in the summer before my second year at the Yale School of Music. In a continuation of what I had discovered while writing Extraordinary Flora, I wanted to create delicate, chamber-like moments that would contrast with expansive, more “orchestral” sounds.

The opening texture of Likely Pictures was my first significant idea; before anything else, I knew how I wanted the beginning to sound. I imagined a dry, sparse introduction with solo pizzicato notes sounding from within the strings section. Then, I wanted a slow, simple melody (unison piano and vibraphone) to soar over the pointillistic activity. A low, indistinct rumbling noise (tremolo basses, very low piano, and rolled bass drum) would slowly emerge.

And then I had to figure out the rest of the piece. This is how I usually begin writing: I compose the opening, and then pause to consider what happens next. On a large sheet of paper, I create a timeline and draw out the trajectory of the piece, determining proportions and how important moments will occur. I continue to refer back to these initial, basic sketches, often changing my mind and adjusting my plan.

During the first phase of composing, I always write by hand, usually at a piano. I improvise and sing and play until I find what I’m looking for. I compose with paper and pencil until it feels counterproductive to do so—that is, when it becomes apparent that I’m notating, not composing. I then begin organizing my materials into notation software. For me, notation software allows for greater flexibility as I alter and rework. And, I like the idea that the final barline is always there, waiting for me to meet it at the end of the piece.

I think it’s important to experience the passage of time like an audience member might.

At a certain point, playback becomes valuable, and I know many composers who would disagree with me on this. But, I think it’s important to experience the passage of time like an audience member might. Playing through the music at the piano, or singing, or conducting, or just closing my eyes and imagining—these exercises force me to actively participate in the music, and this participation drastically alters my sense of time.

When school started in the fall of 2016, I had notated a nearly complete draft of Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky. I brought what I had to my teacher, Christopher Theofanidis. In initial drafts, the piece was very episodic, and Chris advised me cover these seams and create smooth, elegant transitions between sections. This transformed the work’s continuity and overall cohesion.

We reworked individual sections as well. For example, I had initially imagined the solo pizzicato gestures of the opening section as coming from players within the section. Chris convinced me that the drama of seeing the individual players was important, especially as these subtle sounds recede. At a certain point, an audience member can’t quite hear the pizzicato notes, but he or she can see them. Visual cues can smooth over transitions, too.

Two months after the piece’s premiere with the Yale Philharmonia, I found out that I had been chosen to participate in the American Composers Orchestra’s Underwood New Music Readings. I took this opportunity to make some revisions, as I realized that my notation wasn’t always as clear as it could be.

The most significant and time-consuming change I made was to tie over sustained notes so that the pitch stops on a sixteenth note. Throughout the first section of Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky, I ask the first violins to crescendo through sustained tones. I noticed that many of the players seemed to back away before the completion of the note value, causing a sudden decrease of energy. Tying these notes over to sixteenth notes conveyed that I wanted the sound to persist and grow for the duration of the pitch. It’s not the most visually elegant notation, but I think it better conveyed my point, and I was happier with the ACO’s treatment of this gesture.

A passage from Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky

A passage from Hilary Purrington’s Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky showing how she notated sustained notes in a way that maintained energy for their entire duration.

I made other, far smaller adjustments. Yale’s music library had returned my parts, so I was able to consider the performers’ notes. Aside from small notational changes, deciding exactly what to revise was tricky. The Yale Philharmonia usually performs in Woolsey Hall, Yale’s largest performance venue. Visually, the hall is an ornate, dramatic space; acoustically, however, it’s not unlike an empty water tower. Although I was happy with the performance and the recording, the muddiness and other acoustic peculiarities made it difficult for me to decide what actually needed to change.

The Underwood New Music Readings took place in the DiMenna Center. Aside from clarifying some notation, I wanted to leave many elements of the piece untouched because I was curious as to how Likely Pictures would sound in a drier venue. The change in acoustics made an incredible difference; – staccato notes were actually staccato, for example. Each performance had its strengths, and I don’t think I could say that I substantially prefer one recording over the other.

One of the most valuable experiences was receiving direct feedback from the musicians.

One of the most valuable experiences of the Underwood New Music Readings was the opportunity to receive direct feedback from the musicians. As regular performers with the American Composers Orchestra, these musicians have seen and played an unbelievable variety of new works, and they are quick to catch on and understand a composer’s intentions. The instrumentalists gave the same advice to all the participating composers: Make an individual musician’s purpose clear. And, beyond this: Make it clear that the musician’s role is necessary and valuable. If a passage is particularly tricky, at least make it gratifying for the player.

Hilary Purrington receives feedback from Underwood mentor composers Derek Bermel and Trevor Weston. Hilary Purrington receives feedback from Underwood mentor composers Derek Bermel and Trevor Weston (Photo by Jiayi Photography, courtesy American Composers Orchestra)./caption]

For me, generating material is the most straightforward part of composing. Using Western notation and occasional words to describe an abstract idea and a musician’s role within that is often a complex task. In November, I have the opportunity to workshop Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky yet again, this time with the Minnesota Orchestra as part of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute. The skill of effective and efficient communication can only be sharpened by experience, and I’m very grateful for another opportunity to continue learning and improving my craft.

Rugged Individualism Meets the Orchestra—A Snapshot of the 2015 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute

The seven featured Minnesota Orchestra composers, Kevin Puts and Osmo Vanska standing on the stage of Orchestra Hall.

Pictured from left to right: Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Director Kevin Puts, Kati Agócs, Loren Loiacono, Matthew Peterson, Evan Meier, Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vänskä, Eugene Birman, Texu Kim, and Michael Schachter. Photo by Greg Helgeson courtesy Mele Willis, Minnesota Orchestra.

The composer as rugged individualist. Sink or swim. Every man (or woman) for himself.

The composer as Elon Musk, as Steve Jobs, as Walt Disney, as both publisher and publicist, as public as possible.

The composer as creator, editor, engraver, buyer, seller, middle-man, and perhaps above all artist and inventor but also protector of copyrights, of rights both grand and small.

And there was of course the man most independent, most individual and inscrutable of all, Osmo Vänskä, who, by now, everyone knows rides a Yamaha and comes from that dark, bubbling cauldron of conducting talent that is Finland—the man, who, when asked whether Matthew Peterson’s soaring Hyperborea evoked Nordic emotions answered with: “I think you know, I’ve had seven pieces to prepare.”[1]

Osmo Vänskä with hands raised conducting the Minnesota Orchestra.

Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra rehearsing for the Future Classics concert. Photo by Greg Helgeson courtesy Mele Willis, Minnesota Orchestra.

Those seven new pieces, most seeing their professional orchestra premiere, were more than simply prepared. While orchestra members began learning their parts not simply days or weeks in advance but some two months ago, Osmo touched down in Minneapolis Wednesday night and arrived at an uncharacteristic 9:03am the following morning for what I jokingly labeled to a Star Tribune reporter as “The Judgment of Caesar.” But there was no judgment. These were one-on-one meetings with one of the world’s great conductors, at the helm of one of the world’s great orchestras. Those seven new pieces and their seven new scores, carefully marked up in pencil from top to bottom, were about to be rehearsed—truly rehearsed, not simply read. This is why the best way to introduce this year’s Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute—a week-long program held at the coldest possible time of the year in a city whose commitment to music, old and new, quite profoundly reverberates all around the world—is to start at the end: the concert itself.

Orchestra Hall was full, energetic, anxious, as NPR’s Fred Child introduced composer after composer, piece after piece, proverbially twisting the key into the mind and heart of each composer until we felt, if not entirely like our own publicists, then, at least, surprised at our own ability to communicate without having to write any notes down. The topic of communication through the Institute was, if not often directly referenced, undoubtedly the dominant theme: communication to musicians through parts, to conductors and artistic directors via email and phone (though never by phone to Asadour Santourian, by his own request!), to audiences by public speaking—ultimately, to ourselves by how receptive we were to such a barrage of well-meaning information and advice. On Friday night, there was just the music, a seven-composer feast (this was no tasting menu but a concert of fully fleshed out orchestral works) spanning essentially every aesthetic, style, and medium imaginable.

Living mostly in Europe these days and having to play the role of explaining just what is going on in contemporary American music to my composer colleagues there, I’ve run up against the opinion that seemingly everything is probably minimalist and if not, it’s loud and ambiguously tonal with orchestral tutti upon orchestral tutti, European orchestral music is taut, lean, precise, sophisticated, timbral, and we can go on. That kind of conversation isn’t just held on this side of the Atlantic. I have a great composer friend who is convinced that no European orchestra would be interested in his music because of how “American” it sounds. Well, wouldn’t the Composer Institute’s final concert, christened “Future Classics,” be the perfect place to find out what American music ultimately does sound like?

Inconclusive. Diverse, aesthetically all-encompassing. And without wanting to ascribe greatness to my own work or anyone else’s, I will just quote composer Kevin Puts, who has taken on the artistic leadership role of the program: “Wow!” I think that single word encapsulated how we all felt about it, we meaning that holy trinity of audience, performers, and conductor. We were all wowed by the challenge of the music (in many cases, a challenge not entirely necessary), the dedication of Osmo and the orchestra, the support from Orchestra staff and Kevin Puts, our own camaraderie, and most of all, that we got to finally hear this music done at the highest level it possibly could be done. Music, itself, that aspires to exist on the highest level as well.

What is the Composer Institute and why does it even exist? Whither the appetite for new music?

Ours was the twelfth iteration of what cannot surely be called an orchestral reading session, nor a commission of any form, nor a purely educational program as it is, in the end, all about having the music performed on the grand stage. The Institute assumes certain things that composers might not be used to, namely that by writing a lot of notes, performers might actually learn all of them even if it takes practicing through their vacation. Or that the best way to get a publishing deal is to have one already. Well perhaps we already knew the latter.

Orchestra members, arts administrators, publishers, lawyers, even a certain NY-based NewMusicBox composer advocate, offered their insight, wisdom, complemented by a steady (but generally well-deserved) airing of grievances. The message was uniform: you’ve done well to get here. But your career is in your hands, and no one’s else’s. Rugged individualism. Sink or swim. Et alii.

John Snow from the stage of Orchestra Hall holding his part and talking with Eugene Birman in the audience.

Acting Principal oboe John Snow discusses a passage with Eugene Birman. Photo by Greg Helgeson courtesy Mele Willis, Minnesota Orchestra.

But no matter the entrepreneurial route, the audience in Minneapolis on Friday the 16th was hungry for new music. During the post-concert Q&A session, an audience member exclaimed that this is her favorite concert of the year. Many others voiced their allegiance to the same. These people were not forced to be there. They weren’t bussed in. There’s no university. They came because they love their conductor, they love their orchestra, and they realize that for classical music to thrive, it has to keep being made.

We, seven—alphabetically (and in concert order) Kati Agócs, myself, Texu Kim, Loren Loiacono, Evan Meier, Matthew Peterson, and Michael Schachter—wrote the music. But it was made by Osmo, the orchestra, and the people without whom the Institute simply wouldn’t exist or function, like Mele Willis and Kevin Puts. And most of all, the likely thousand-strong audience who clapped and cheered no matter whether it was the microtonally inflected alto flute solo in my own Manifesto, a piercing oboe mulitiphonic in Texu Kim’s resplendent Splash!! [2], the simultaneous musical references to Stravinsky and Wagner in Michael Schachter’s clever Freylekhe Tanzen, Loren Loaicono’s dizzying vibraphone cross rhythms in Stalks, Hounds, Kati Agócs’s hypnotic electric solo sextet writing in Perpetual Summer, or the expansive, searing beauty of the climax of Evan Meier’s Fire Music.

One must ask the question why, if the appetite for new music is so huge in Orchestra Hall, more American orchestras don’t do it this way? Does the Orchestra Institute have to be unique? Surely, if the American Composer Forum’s suggestion that there are 10,000 composers living in New York City alone is reality, there are more orchestral masterpieces from young composers waiting to be uncovered. What if the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco and Atlanta Symphonies, the Cleveland Orchestra and all the rest set up their own Institutes? What would the course of American classical music be then? And why hasn’t it happened?

There are no easy answers to those questions, I’m afraid. But I might return to that notion of rugged individualism, of entrepreneurship—now, no longer in the realm of composers. It took those qualities in Aaron Jay Kernis, in Osmo Vänskä, in others around them to create what Minnesota created, and now for Kevin Puts to lead it into the future. It took vision and a belief that young composers like us deserve a shot now rather than later, rather than never. May that vision spread.

The seven composers featured at the institute with Kevin Puts around a dining table at a restaurant eating and drinking red wine.

From left to right: Loren Loiacono, Michael Schachter, Evan Meier, Composer Institute director Kevin Puts, Kati Agócs, Matthew Peterson, Texu Kim, and Eugene Birman at Vincent for dinner.


1. Even in a masterpiece, there is some room for improvement–or so we found out during rehearsals. I asked each of my colleagues to submit a page that either didn’t go as planned, or did but elicited some meaningful gripes in the process. (Click on any of the seven score images below in order to enlarge them.) Michael Schachter’s opening page asks for horns placed in the audience. “They didn’t quite get the hang of the sound I was after,” he says, despite the effect working out marvelously during the performance. Matthew Peterson’s excerpt asked for a tempo so slow, it was off the metronome. “Despite the music being really easy here, Maestro really didn’t want to do it in q = 32!” The page from my piece, Manifesto, elicited the most consternation for asking way too much in too short of a period of time. But it, like everything else, proved no obstacle to the Minnesota Orchestra. They played it all perfectly.–EB

Page of orchestral score of Kati Agocs's Perpetual Summer

Perpetual Summer

A page from the orchestral score of Evan Meier's Fire Music

Fire Music

A page from the orchestral score of Matthew Peterson's Hyperborea


A page from the orchestra score of Michael Schachter's Freylekhe Tanzen

Freylekhe Tanzen

A page from the orchestral score of Texu Kim's Splash!!


A page from the orchestral score of Loren Loiacono's Stalks, Hounds

Stalks, Hounds

A page from the orchestral score of Eugene Birman's Manifesto


2. During his interview with Texu Kim before the performance of his piece, Fred Child asked Texu why it had two and not one or three exclamation points and Texu responded that it was too lonely with one.


Eugene Birman with his hand holding his chin.

Eugene Birman

With performances across the United States, Europe, Asia, and South America by leading orchestras, choirs, and soloists, Eugene Birman (b. 1987 in Daugavpils, Latvia) is a composer of music of “high drama” and “intense emotion” (BBC). His highly public career (appearances on CNN, BBC World TV, Bloomberg, Radio France, and more) has seen premieres and commissions from the London Philharmonic, Minnesota Orchestra, BBC Singers, and countless others. Eugene’s music can be found on commercial releases with Naxos, Abeille Musique, and on NMC Records’ 25th anniversary disc “Next Wave”. He is currently based between San Francisco, CA, London, UK, and Tallinn, Estonia.

Grant Enables Major Expansion of American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program

ALT Banner

From the banner on the American Lyric Theater’s website

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded a $150,000 grant to the American Lyric Theater to support capacity building and the national expansion of the company’s Composer Librettist Development Program (CLDP), which is the only full-time professional mentorship initiative for emerging operatic writers in the country. The new grant will enable the company to expand CLDP from a 10-month program offered annually, to a comprehensive three-year artist mentorship cycle through which artists will not only receive personalized mentorship, but also be commissioned to write new operas. In addition, newly acquired high definition videoconferencing equipment will increase the geographic scope of the program, allowing gifted emerging artists with an interest in writing for the operatic stage to participate regardless of where they live. Previously, the program was only able to serve artists living in the metropolitan New York City area. A total of eight new resident artists have been selected to join CLDP beginning in September, selected from a national pool of applicants: 4 from the New York City area and 4 from cities across the nation.

The eight new resident artists who have been invited to join this season are composers Clarice Assad (New York, NY), Elizabeth Lim (New York, NY), Evan Meier (Silver Spring, MD), and Kamala Sankaram (Brooklyn, NY); and librettists Rob Handel (Pittsburgh, PA), EM Lewis (Woodburn, OR), Jerome Parker (New York, NY), and Niloufar Talebi (San Francisco, CA). They will be introduced to the public during a salon featuring their work at the National Opera Center in New York City, on Wednesday, September 18, 2013. Biographical details about each of the new resident artists as well as previous participants in the program are available on the American Lyric Theater website.

The American Lyric Theater was founded in 2005 to build a new body of operatic repertoire for new audiences by nurturing composers and librettists, developing sustainable artistic collaborations, and contributing new works to the national canon. CLDP, which was established in 2007, is a tuition-free program that includes a core curriculum of classroom training and hands-on workshops with some of the country’s leading working artists and has been regularly recognized for artistic excellence by the National Endowment for the Arts. The principal faculty for 2013-2014 includes composer/librettist Mark Adamo, composer Paul Moravec, librettists Mark Campbell and Michael Korie, stage directors Lawrence Edelson and Rhoda Levine, and dramaturg Cori Ellison. Recent guest teachers and lecturers have included composers Kaija Saariaho, Anthony Davis, Ricky Ian Gordon, Nico Muhly, Stewart Wallace, Christopher Theofanidis, and John Musto, and librettists Stephen Karam, Donna DiNovelli, and Gene Scheer. Composers and librettists who participate in the program also have the opportunity to observe the development of productions at The Metropolitan Opera. Plus additional networking and membership resources are provided through a partnership with OPERA America.

(—from the press release)

EarShot Orchestra Readings Blog 4: The Last Day

The Buffalo 4

The four participating composers in the Buffalo EarShot readings—Daniel Schlosberg, David Marenberg, Stephen Gorbos, and Elizabeth Lim—go over their scores one more time after hearing their pieces.

To close out our experience in Buffalo, we spent around three-and-a-half hours with the mentor composers picking through our scores and the revisions we made, making some attempt to evaluate the successes and failures of our efforts. This was the session where the gloves came off: we all felt like this was the most pointed criticism we had received from them to date. What made this different, and a bit more personal perhaps, was that the mentor composers were finally commenting on and asking questions about aesthetics. Most of the comments prior to the last read through had more to do with the mechanics of orchestration: whereas on days 1-3 someone might look at your cello ostinato in terms of how it sounded in a particular moment in time, today it was very much about the effectiveness of the cello ostinato over the form of the piece, or, should we even be writing cello ostinatos. (To be fair to our mentor composers, we weren’t talking about something as basic as cello ostinatos: much of this conversation actually centered around the aesthetics of quotation and allusion.)

Though some personal biases definitely shone through, the words of our three mentors were still very supportive, and I do think that in most cases they were definitely working with us to plunge deeper into some idea or concept that we ourselves had articulated. That said, it seems to me that while there are some objective truths about timbral combinations, it sometimes just comes down to subjective personal taste. In that everyone was being so candid, it was interesting to watch these three heavy hitters occasionally disagree with each other: it’s a testament to their professionalism and self-confidence that, despite some differences of opinion, a collegial and friendly tone was kept throughout. I should also add that I think that it was really generous of them to treat us this way: all of us have heard “great piece—lovely” enough by this point in our brief careers. How useful is a generic complement, even if it feels good because it comes from someone you admire? Having some experience as a teacher now at Catholic University, I can recognize how difficult and mentally taxing it is to tell a student, particularly one that’s doing something different than you, what you really think of how they executed their intentions. While it certainly has something to do with the mix of personalities in the room, I think that this level of comfort being achieved also has a lot to do with the unique program that the American Composers Orchestra staff has put together.

The EarShot readings are an incredibly unique opportunity for emerging composers to hear and work on their orchestra pieces. Simply saying that a great orchestra read our pieces would be an oversimplification of it, though: at the heart of the EarShot experience is dialogue—ialogue between a composer’s ideas, an ensemble of quality musicians, and several different sets of eyes and ears, all determined to make this a very solid experience. What makes it an instance of, to borrow a line from the ACO’s website, “the best orchestration lesson ever” is several trips around the circle of dialogue I described above. Given all of that dialogue over a compressed amount of time, perhaps “an orchestration lesson on steroids” would be a more appropriate summation. (Hopefully the next person I show my revised score of Bounce to won’t accuse me of doping.) And, added to that, are the efforts of the various seminar presenters to show us the very practical ways, through community engagement, that one can gain entry into the orchestral world at a local level. So, while we were brought to Buffalo for the privilege of having an amazing group play our music, great pains were taken to show us how we could possibly interact with a world like this one in our own communities.

In addition to the mentor composers and workshop presenters that I’ve typed about at length in these posts, a big thank you needs to go out to four individuals I haven’t mentioned yet who were really the architects behind this amazing EarShot experience: on the Buffalo side of things, Dan Hart, executive director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, and Robin Parkinson, director of education for the Buffalo Philharmonic; on the American Composers Orchestra side of things, Michael Geller, executive director, and Greg Evans, operations director. Michael and Greg really shepherded us all through this week. Like a trip to orchestrational Disney World, I think it’s largely thanks to these people that we had such an amazing trip, barely ever noticing the seams behind this wonderful experience they created that ran like clockwork. To extend the Disney metaphor a little further, it was a completely immersive musical sensory experience: we all stayed awake for the electric light parade, but by the time they closed the door on the plane home I was out like a kid in a stroller.

Speaking of airplanes, with the weather turning a little sour we all ended up hanging around the airport for a bit. Here are some lighthearted parting thoughts from the participant composers:

EarShot Orchestra Readings Blog 3: The Reading

The first bit of our second EarShot day was spent finalizing any edits. The orchestra had set an 11:00 a.m. deadline for corrections and changes to be emailed to the library staff. Some of our edits necessitated a whole new part being generated, while other corrections could just be fixed via the infamous errata sheet: an itemized list of smaller things written as concisely as possible, such as “vln 1: m 4 beat 3 = F#”. Each of us had a fair amount of changes and adjustments, and at least one new part to print out in the case of major orchestrational shifts. In my own piece, the decisions I chewed on most had to do with some of my brass writing. What I had written for the trumpets at a particular 12-bar passage was certainly in their range, but it just wasn’t cutting through the orchestra. After talking with the player, he brought it to my attention that it was too low to have any carrying power, and that the horns could project it out much better (I ended up swapping the trumpet and horn materials in that section, to much better effect). Another issue in my trumpet writing had to do with selection of mutes: a passage I wrote for a trumpet with harmon mute seemed not to be speaking. In this case, the section was timbrally exposed enough that a switch to straight mute made it much clearer.

Between noon and 6:00 p.m., we were in a series of professional development seminars, with many local composers from the area in attendance (at least three local university composition departments were represented). Bill Holab gave two engaging presentations: one on engraving and the other on copyright and publishing. Bill is an authority in both of these areas, with years of experience at places like Schirmer publishing and running his own company (Bill Holab Music Publishing). Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras, gave an overview of the orchestra industry, speaking about the ever-changing ways in which composers and orchestras have been working together over the last 25 years. John Nuechterlein, president of the American Composers Forum, and Ed Harsh, president of New Music USA, participated in a panel discussion with our mentor composers on community engagement. Each member of the panel spoke about their own experiences interacting with their local communities of musicians and audiences. The common theme here could be summed up as no (successful) composer is an island: the panel members, whether talking about working with a major orchestra or starting your own chamber music series, hammered home the necessity of connecting and interacting with a community. Particularly in this last session, but in the earlier ones as well, the questions and stimulating discussion between panel and audience could have kept going for at least another hour.

At 6:00 p.m., we met individually with conductor Matthew Kraemer. This was to check-in on our changes, and also provide a chance to develop a plan of attack for the final reading session. Starting at 7:00 p.m., each composer got around 25 to 30 minutes with the orchestra. After an introduction by the composer for the assembled audience, Matthew spent a generous amount of time touching up a few choice sections, and then ran the piece down from start to finish. It was striking how much the pieces changed over the 30-hour period between the two readings: everyone’s score was in sharper focus; the forms and overarching reach of each piece were much more comprehensible. Part of this is obviously the excellent level of musicianship in the group shining through after an initial sight-reading, but I think the opportunity for editing really made a world of difference. As works in progress, many things still needed to be fleshed out in each piece, but the audience response was overly positive. A brief on-stage post-concert discussion, led by Derek Bermel, elicited some thoughtful reactions and questions from the assembled crowd.

In lieu of recordings, which haven’t been made available yet, I’m posting a page from each composer’s score below as an example of their work.

Disharmony of the Spheres

From Elizabeth Lim’s Disharmony of the Spheres

The Abyssal Zone Full Revised Score

From David Marenberg’s The Abyssal Zone

Grosse Concerto (Buffalo version)

From Daniel Schlosberg’s Grosse Concerto

Gorbos Bounce Excerpt

And a page from my own score, Bounce

After the show, we composers headed out to the Anchor Bar with ACO Operations Director Greg Evans, where we sampled a few different types of perhaps the best-known comestible innovation from our fair host city: the Buffalo wing.

Buffalo Wings Party

Stay tuned for my final post, which will be an EarShot Readings postmortem: one final look around the scores with our mentor composers, one final look around the program with the composer participants.

EarShot Orchestra Readings Blog 2: Nuts and Bolts

Early Wednesday morning we were all shuttled over to the beautifully historic Kleinhans Music Hall, designed in 1940 by the father-son firm of Eliel and Eero Saarinen. The morning was spent going over our scores in one-on-one sessions with BPO Associate Conductor Matthew Kraemer and in three-on-one sessions with mentor composers Derek Bermel, Margaret Brouwer, and Sebastian Currier. I was very impressed with how intimately the conductor knew each of our scores: Matthew had clearly spent time learning the intricacies of our music. My session with him was a tour through the piece, with him talking through how he might navigate a particularly dense section, or preparing me for what he thought might be problematic in the orchestra. Our sessions with the mentor composers (which we were able to listen in on for each of our colleagues) were likewise focused on spots that they thought might be opaque. Various solutions for some iffy orchestrational moments were suggested, and a few technically impossible passages on some of the instruments were found. Having all three of those very experienced sets of eyes on our scores was an intense orchestration lesson, yet was incredibly reassuring for what lay ahead: our first read-through with the orchestra.

Talking with my fellow EarShot participants throughout the morning, it seemed that we all had a similar time frame to prepare our performance materials. Once we were notified that we had been selected, and with everything else going on in our lives, this was really only around a little over a week. (To be fair, the quick turn-around time is something that is warned about in the application instructions.) After we happily committed ourselves to the EarShot program, however, the maddening reality of a quick window on a task that should ordinarily take a composer a much longer interval of time to do set in. I’m dwelling on this particular pre-Buffalo-but-very-recent moment to point out something that may often be overlooked by my non-composer readers. Composers will often finish a score, but wait to do the parts until they secure that important premiere, particularly with large ensemble scores that don’t have an immediate performance opportunity. Most of us had finished our pieces in the window of 5 to 10 months before our pieces were accepted. Digging back into a score to prepare parts is a bit like getting reacquainted with an old friend, like a college roommate or someone you met on an extended backpacking excursion. (Hey! Remember when we stayed up all night together, trying to decide how to orchestrate that crazy canon at Rehearsal I?) I personally find it a lot of fun to rediscover everything I packed into a piece, but the quick turnaround felt a bit like rolling up the welcome mat on said friend before getting one’s fill of remembering things past. My own greatest worry for today’s activities was finding something that would grind my valuable time with the orchestra to a halt. Another little-known fact in the non-composing civilian world is how quickly your rehearsal can deteriorate into chaos if enough little things are out of place: the larger the ensemble, the quicker the rebellion can start. Once you’ve lost that important trust of the ensemble, even the things that are clear can be performed flatly and devoid of life: it’s like running out of gas three miles short of the next service stop.

Thankfully, nobody’s piece broke down like that today.

Although billed as a reading, the Buffalo EarShot program actually gives their composers a pretty significant chunk of time before the performance day with the orchestra. We each had about 30 minutes with the ensemble this morning, which was enough time to run the pieces from top to bottom and work on several sections. I was struck by how, although only a first read through, the character of each work was brilliantly displayed. Even reading the pieces for the first time, the orchestra already had a command over each sound world. Elizabeth Lim’s Disharmony of the Spheres, written as an orchestral Scherzo that’s actually a movement in her Second Symphony, had crisp and vivid textures set in an ironic Mahlerian patchwork. Daniel Schlosberg likewise made a connection with the past in his Grosse Concerto, pairing elements of a slinking jazz shuffle with baroque gestures. The orchestra did a fantastic job shifting back and forth between Schlosberg’s two performance styles. Over the course of 30 minutes, the orchestra gradually got comfortable with the contrapuntal textures in my own piece, Bounce: the shifting timbres started to materialize as the conductor isolated a few sections. David Marenberg was inspired by the area 13,000 feet below the surface to create The Abyssal Zone, a swirling mass of sound where, like underwater explorers viewing bioluminescent creatures through a submarine window, listeners are subjected to exotic musical ideas swinging in and out of our focus in their aural field of vision.

After a break, representatives from the various sections of the orchestra joined us for lunch and, over the course of three hours, we got feedback on our parts and scores directly from the ensemble, conductor, and mentor composers.

The orchestra filled out comment sheets, all of which were placed in our laps after the session. It was a humbling experience to be sure, but, considering we were given the opportunity to fix any mistakes between the session today and the recorded reading tomorrow, well worth it. Having the performer representatives there to explain some of the comments on each piece was another extra step the EarShot program took that was so helpful. Anything ambiguous could be cleared up right away by the performer who would be playing the piece tomorrow. For me, this helped to make a more personal connection with the musicians who were playing my music. (The intrepid library staff was very enthusiastic about helping us implement anything we needed to make the piece better, from suggesting how to phrase a comment to helping print out a new part.) Robin Parkinson, education director for the BPO, then gave an interesting presentation on the administrative side of running an orchestra. She followed this up with a very thorough tour of the historic concert hall (joined by Maggie Shea, operations director). Day one concluded with a happy hour sponsored by the BPO at a local watering hole: members of the board and executives from the administration, all of the composers, and several members of the local Buffalo new music community were in attendance. After relaxing for an hour, we reluctantly headed back through some light snow to our hotel for a long night of editing.

EarShot Participants

Seated, l – r: Daniel Hart, BPO executive director; Earshot composers Daniel Schlosberg and David Marenberg. Standing l – r: Robin Parkinson, BPO eductation director; Michael Geller, American Composers Orchestra Executive Director; Earshot mentor composer Margaret Brouwer, Earshot composers Stephen Gorbos and Elizabeth Lim; Earshot mentor composer Sebastian Currier; American Composers Orchestra Operations Director Greg Evans, and Earshot mentor composer Derek Bermel.

Tomorrow’s post: the Big Day, or, did those edits really fix anything.

EarShot Orchestra Readings Blog 1: Climbing The Ladder Towards Yes

[Ed. Note: Last year, the Buffalo Philharmonic held a reading session of works by four emerging composers as part of EarShot, a national program that helps orchestras coordinate such readings. We’ve previously featured participants’ accounts of this vital program; most recently composer Michael Rickelton wrote about his experiences during the 2010 EarShot readings with the Nashville Symphony. This week the Buffalo Phil is about to embark on a second series of EarShot readings just one year after their first foray into the program. They’re actually the first orchestra thus far to participate in the program twice and plans are already underway for them to do a third series of readings in 2013! So given all this activity in Buffalo, we asked Stephen Gorbos, one of the four participants this year, to share his adventures there with us.—FJO]

Despite having arrived at my hotel in the late evening, I’m completely wired for our first day of the EarShot Readings with the Buffalo Philharmonic. The orchestra goes into labor at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow: along with a first rehearsal of the piece, tomorrow’s highlights for me definitely include meeting my fellow EarShot composers Elizabeth Lim, David Marenberg, and Daniel Schlosberg; meeting the mentor composers Margaret Brouwer, Sebastian Currier, and Derek Bermel; and having some one-on-one time with conductor Matthew Kraemer to go over the score. If all goes according to plan, the orchestra will be giving birth to a healthy litter of four new pieces by Thursday night. I’ll be treating these posts as a window into the goings on of the readings, and as a way to get to know the various people involved. As we get going with the week, I’m eagerly anticipating seeing the myriad ways one can approach writing for and working with an orchestra (with four different participants and three mentor composers, we’ll have a variety of perspectives). As a way to exercise my own nerves and demons (and to remind myself how I got here), I thought I’d use this first post to talk about the genesis of my own piece, Bounce.

For me, it was a stretch even writing Bounce: like many of my friends, in the years since finishing graduate school (years that composer Steven Mackey affectionately calls “the lean years…where people are no longer paid to care about your music”), most of the projects that I’ve worked on have been in the realm of solo and chamber works, written for friends who are at a similar place in their careers. A lot of what provides the creative spark for these pieces is my relationship with the particular performer or group: when sketching ideas for, say, a new piece for my friend the bassoonist, ideas for that piece are inextricably linked to that particular bassoonist. In composing that piece, I’m usually helping to coordinate some string of performances for it as well: I might be thinking of the performance space for the premiere as deeply as I’m thinking about my pitch collections and rhythmic grooves.

Managing the various aspects of my life (composing, work, personal relationships, a modicum of physical fitness) is a precarious balancing act of rationing precious bits of time. Even with the healthy living wage that comes with my academic job, I feel a pressure on my creativity to not only maximize the potential of every artistic endeavor, but to engage only in those endeavors that will bring maximum creative and professional benefit. After a few years of writing music to order for various smaller configurations of instruments, writing a piece for orchestra, without a definite performance opportunity (or even a definite ensemble or conductor) felt like a pretty significant, perhaps irrational, deviation from the path I’ve been on in my personal musical wilderness. Even once I established a satisfying pace writing Bounce, the specter of never hearing the piece loomed large in the background.

So, what motivated me? Well, the siren song of what I believe to be one of the greatest cultural inventions of Western civilization: the orchestra. Despite the baggage of a few centuries of repertoire, the politics of tradition, and the economics of reality, I think there is an inexhaustible potential in this resource for new ideas and fresh sounds. The orchestra is a completely different medium than chamber or solo music, a force to reckon with that can be at once monolithically brutal and preciously fragile. The choreography that goes into coordinating sound events is remarkably precarious, the possibilities for timbral nuances are staggering, and the challenge to convey some intimacy in a medium that can inherently be impersonal—if only due to the sheer number of musicians involved in producing the sound—sets a composer up for an interesting ride on the roller coaster of creativity. When considering things from these angles, I can’t help but feel attracted to the drama and adventure of composing for orchestra, like I’m climbing Yoko Ono’s ladder towards “yes.”

With the long break between spring and fall semesters, I had enough time on my hands to write; I also had enough projects lined up on either end of this time so that, if I did have to wait several years to hear this beast, I could psychologically deal with it and focus my attention on other work. Surprisingly enough, the gamble paid off: I get to hear Bounce a mere five months after hitting my double bar line. In this respect, I feel incredibly lucky to have been selected. I’m sure there are lots of reasons that Bounce is being included here, some of which I’ll understand by the end of this coming week, and some of which will remain a mystery. For now, I’m focused on honing in on the details in my score, sharpening my aural reflexes to the music so that I can get the most out of rehearsal tomorrow. In tomorrow’s post, expect details on the rehearsal and editing process, and an introduction to the other composers involved in this week’s readings.


Stephen Gorbos navigates a wide palette of genres and influences, creating a unique synthesis between styles as diverse as American rhythm & blues, Western classical music, and Javanese gamelan. His music has been performed in concert halls across the U.S. and in Europe by organizations such as the Minnesota Orchestra, the New England Philharmonic, and the Cuarteto Latinamericano. Recent commissions have come from the Strathmore Music Center in Bethesda, Maryland (Highway Music, for violist Wendy Richman and electronics), and the University of Houston Percussion Ensemble (Push, which was released on Albany Records in January 2012). Active as an educator, Stephen also teaches composition, theory, music technology, and music history, having served as a visiting instructor at the College of the Holy Cross and, since the fall of 2008, as assistant professor of composition and theory at the Catholic University of America’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music in Washington, D.C.

Warming Things Up in Minneapolis (The 2011-2012 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Blog, Day 1)

Hannah Lash

[Ed Note: This year the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute is taking place in January. Six intrepid composers from around the country have arrived in wintry Minneapolis for an intense week of artistic discovery and bonding. We’ve asked one of the six, Hannah Lash,to provide us with a daily account of their activities.—FJO]

Six of us arrived in Minneapolis yesterday for the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute. We all met at 5:00 p.m., scurrying as quickly as we could across the block of chilling Minnesota winter from the hotel to Orchestra Hall, where Institute director Aaron Jay Kernis awaited us along with coordinators Lilly Schwartz and Rick Hanson in the Green Room.

After a quick orientation and very welcome dinner of Indian food, Aaron and the six of us participants sat down to listen to each other’s music. Most of us had not been acquainted with one another prior to this evening. I must say that the experience of critiquing and receiving criticism for something so intimate as a creative act is probably one of the most intense and speedy ways to get to know others.

I felt the group begin to bond over this listening session. I’m sure this is mainly a reflection of Aaron’s warmth and generosity towards us, which sets the tone of mutual support: all of us working together but separately to clarify and hone our own music.

I sensed this care from Aaron when he called to talk about my score and parts a few months prior to the Institute. I was so impressed by his exhaustive perusal of my music and his meticulous and thoughtful comments and suggestions for notational clarification for anything from the layout of parts to a better way to beam a complex rhythm.

This generosity, thoroughness, and support seem to be the guiding principles of the entire institute. As I look over the week’s schedule that has been printed for me, I am impressed and even a little overwhelmed anticipating such a huge volume of seminars, feedback sessions, and rehearsals. This, I can tell, is going to be a truly unforgettable week: one of the most intense learning sessions one could hope for.