Tag: composing

Creating Music about “The Greatest”: Muhammad Ali

When I set out to program the final concert of our 2016-17 Festival of American Music, little did I know it would have so many incarnations! I’m partly to blame for what we internally call the “ever-changing program.” Originally the featured piece on the second half of the program was going to be a new work inspired by Muhammad Ali that I was writing, but it turned into an opera. So instead of a 15-minute work it became a 70-minute rap opera, The Greatest: Muhammad Ali. This shouldn’t have surprised me because taking on a subject like Muhammad Ali is not like turning a novel into an opera where the story is contained in the pages. Ali’s life was so much bigger than any one story about him. I thought I knew enough about Ali’s background that the composition would flow easily. But early on, I realized that I needed to learn more. Ali was so much more than a boxer, so much more than even just himself; he is a symbol and has a story that leads to broader implications and subjects.

I realized there would be no notes, not even themes, nothing—no music would get written until I learned about this subject. I hit the books in a way I haven’t done since college and basically turned on my old research brain. The first book I read was King of the World by David Remnick. That was the gateway book, because it is great writing and Remnick puts boxing into context so that it’s not just describing fights but also who the fighters were. It’s not just Ali’s fight with Sonny Liston; it’s the whole history of Sonny Liston, because you can’t understand the fight between Ali and Liston, or Liston and Floyd Patterson, unless you know who those people were and how they were portrayed in the media.

Then I realized that I needed to learn about the context of the time period including black history and culture as well as the Vietnam War. I read works by Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, and anybody I could find that would help me put things into the larger context of black history and culture that related to Ali. Finally I decided I’d never know enough, but now I knew what I need to know, and I needed to start writing this script. That was definitely challenging because I’m not a script writer, I don’t write librettos, I don’t do that; I write lyrics for my songs. So for the first time I was writing a libretto for a dramatic work that I knew was going to be an opera-like piece; a rap opera (and sung opera, too). Ultimately to do this now 70-minute opera right, we need to do it in its own performance with a full production. So that meant changing the program.

Muhammad Ali and Teddy Abrams

Now the final concert is a celebration of American musical possibilities—presenting composers from the past, showcasing the Louisville Orchestra’s involvement in the creation of new music, and supporting contemporary composers of today. So in addition to selections from The Greatest; Muhammad Ali, we have pieces from Samuel Barber, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Herbie Hancock, and Lou Harrison. And our guest artist is an amazing singer who focuses on American music and contemporary music, Susan Narucki. She is singing selections from Penelope by Sarah Kirkland Snider, who is an absolutely brilliant composer. I’ve been dying to do some of Sarah’s music and this is the first time I’ll actually have a chance to present it. She’s definitely a composer to watch!

Shifting gears, Herbie Hancock is an example of an American master musician/composer and likely one you will rarely find on an orchestra concert because he writes jazz charts. We did a trial run at recent education concerts where the orchestra played the chart for Cantaloupe Island. We didn’t arrange or orchestrate it; we just gave them the chart that Herbie would have played (a bunch of chords and a melody). We came up with a version of it as a smaller group, so that’s what we’re going to present for this concert. (This is not something you want to try out first in a full orchestral context if you haven’t had time to work it out.) Not only did that earlier audience love it, but it gave our musicians a chance to shine and improvise; last time we did it, we had two horn players get up and improvise a duo. This is not something I believe you’re going to see in any other orchestra. In the second half of the program, we’ll play three movements of Lou Harrison’s Suite for Symphonic Strings followed by selections from The Greatest: Muhammad Ali.

Our Festival of American Music is a serious commitment to the music and the composers of our time, the legacy of the Louisville Orchestra, and the broader legacy of American music. We are celebrating and featuring composers alive today, and we’re broadening the definition of American music that can be played by an orchestra. I hope that our audiences who are passionate about music, of any kind, are going to find something in the festival that resonates with them.  As I built these programs, I learned and heard things that I never even dreamed were possible in music and that’s inspiring for me. I can’t wait to share that with everyone!

Making Space

It looks like Q2 will soon be unveiling a new series of video guided tours of composers’ homes and studio spaces; the preview looks intriguing, and it’s a really good idea. Who doesn’t want to check out the workspaces of creative people? It’s like being a fly on the wall, sneaking a glimpse of what goes on in the daily life of an artist.

In fact, one of the best parts of traveling around to interview composers for NewMusicBox is often having the opportunity to see their living spaces! It’s always interesting, and in many cases surprising to see the spaces that composers create for themselves. Favorites of mine include the beautiful and serene workspace of Bunita Marcus, the big table overflowing with bits of paper, cables and electronic gear, drawings, and treasures—otherwise known as “deskpocalyspe”—in Nat Evans‘s living room, and the jaw-dropping Liberace-meets-Prince studio of John Mackey.

Some spaces have ghosts attached to them, like the studio of Chou Wen-Chung, who works amidst many of the belongings (including some fabulous gongs!) of Edgard Varèse. During my last trip to the MacDowell Colony, I fell in love with my studio, which was named after Irving Fine, and apparently it had also been the favorite of author Willa Cather. Every morning when I came in and turned up the thermostat, the heating system made such a huge and excellent gamelan-esque racket that I got into the habit of saying out loud, “Good morning, Irving!” Perhaps that’s crazy, but no matter; I really enjoyed the company of those ghosts, not to mention the grand piano, the enormous worktable, and the fireplace! Heaven.

Happiness is a HUGE desk.

Happiness is a HUGE desk.

Like a lot of people, I’m pretty sensitive to the energy of whatever space I’m in; not just the energy of other people who are in that space, but also the feeling of the space itself. As with the weather, a physical space can affect one’s mood, obviously one’s creative output, and even one’s physical wellbeing. For the first time in many years, my composing studio is an actual room, with walls and a door and everything! Although I have never really minded sharing workspace, or having it located in a common area of my home, this situation feels really luxurious. Although I prefer things to be neat and tidy, it’s honestly not my natural state, and every now and then I have to expend a little effort to avoid my own deskpocalypse explosion. My dream is to someday have a studio that is a separate space from my house—a place that requires going outside to get to!

My composing space, taken about 6 months ago.

My composing space, taken about 6 months ago. Still in progress!

But I wonder if the spaces in which we feel the most comfortable are always the best for composing? Maybe it’s not necessarily so great to always be in control of one’s physical creative setting. Some of my very best pieces were composed in odd locations, under unfamiliar circumstances. More than one work has been created while in the process of long-distance moves; in hotel rooms, in unfinished warehouses with only sawhorses and a chunk of wood for a table, on trains and/or airplanes. Although composing under such circumstances is not exactly enjoyable, I’ve learned how to do it and deadlines often demand it. A group of composer friends rent a space that is located just outside of their home city and alternate spending composing time there. It is an absolutely no-frills space in a very small town where there is not much to do, so outside distractions are minimized. Shaking things up can really work—maybe the jostle to the brain that being in a different space provides can also serve up some new ideas.

What is your composing space like? Are there particular arrangements of furniture or gear that you really need in order to compose? Do you have a private space, or do you share one? Do you have a dream working situation that you aspire to? If you have pictures of your working space, feel free to post or link to them in the comments section!

Summer Camp

The seasons have shifted again, as temperatures in many parts of the country seem destined to reside permanently in the triple digits and the trials and tribulations of the previous winter and spring months have been intentionally forgotten. As many families head for the beaches or other vacation spots, we have reached that time of year where many composers literally head for the hills. Some remove themselves from their typical day-to-day experiences in order to quiet their minds and allow themselves to create undisturbed as well as commune with other like-minded artists at an arts colony (as David Smooke told us about last summer). Others, such as myself, choose to immerse themselves in guiding younger composers during that particularly American rite-of-summer: summer camp.

Composition and theory faculty from last year: Zachary Wadsworth, Rob Deemer, Leah Sproul Pulatie, and Will Cooper

Composition and theory faculty from last year: Zachary Wadsworth, Rob Deemer, Leah Sproul Pulatie, and Will Cooper

Last year I had the luck and privilege to join the composition faculty at one of the oldest and most well respected of these institutions, the Interlochen Summer Arts Camp in northern Michigan, and this summer I’m back again. While I had attended many summer camps in my younger days, I had never studied composition or seen it taught within the camp context, so I was curious to see how such a program might work. I also had quite a bit of experience with pre-college composers through my work with the NYSSMA Composition/Improvisation Committee, but there would be many differences between a couple of clinics at NYSSMA’s Winter Conference and six weeks teaching both classroom courses and private lessons five days a week.

The composition program at Interlochen is a whirlwind experience, which is one of the aspects I like the most—it forces the students to write a lot and quickly, but with the opportunity for quick feedback through performance readings and concerts. Each student has two hour-long lessons a week with one of the four composition faculty members (Robert Brownlow, Leah Sproul Pulatie, Reinaldo Moya, and myself), as well as courses in composition techniques, theory, orchestration, music after 1900, and electronic music. Projects come in three different guises—reading sessions, student composer concerts, and interdisciplinary collaboration—and while students aren’t required to take part in anything other than two readings and one concert, many choose to throw themselves into as many projects as they possibly can.

The reading sessions alone are immensely valuable for a number of reasons. We’re lucky to have a number of talented student chamber ensembles on campus that are made available to the composers to work with, including string quartet, woodwind quintet, saxophone quartet, brass quintet, percussion ensemble, and piano trio, and twice this summer all of the students will get to write a two-minute work for one or two of these groups. In addition to the immediate feedback these performances give the student composers, they allow the faculty to customize the learning experiences of the students by forcing them out of their comfort zones—if they’re pianists with little experience with wind players, they’ll be asked to train creative muscles they didn’t know existed through such projects.

Some of the more experienced composers will only write for one chamber ensemble, but that’s because most of their summer will be taken up with writing a short work for choir, band, or orchestra. Most of these students have had works performed live, but have never worked with a large ensemble or a conductor, so they’ll not only be meeting with their composition instructors many times over the first few weeks, but will also have meetings with the conducting faculty (Jung-Ho Pak, orchestra; Donald McKinney, band; and David Fryling, choir) where they will be given critiques and suggestions before scores are finalized and parts distributed. All of the large and small ensemble readings are recorded, and many of the students from last year used those recordings as part of their undergraduate audition portfolios.

One of the biggest surprises I experienced last year was how intensely the students threw themselves into the student composer concerts. Allowed to program anything they had written, either before or during camp, several students took it upon themselves not only to write a new work for large ensemble—separate from whatever they were working on for their readings—but also to track down and cajole student performers to perform these pieces on their concerts. More than once did I have a student ask me to conduct their orchestra…or their concert band…or their mixed choir…that they had put together on their own. Watching (and guiding) the interactions between the composers and performers was one of the most satisfying aspects of the entire session.

If those projects weren’t enough, we brought yet a third ingredient into the composition curriculum through interdisciplinary collaborations. Starting slowly last year, we paired up our student composers with a claymation class taught in the visual arts division by artist Terri Frame; organized within a very short time frame, the students were asked to write a very short vignette based on an animal, after which the vignettes were strung together, recorded, and used as the soundtrack for an animated film. This year we’re already looking at other collaborations within the visual arts division, as well as working with student poets in the creative writing division.

Guest composers are also an important part of the program—working with the faculty on a regular basis is really helpful for the students, but it brings something new to the table when they get to meet some very well-known guest composers. Last summer the students spent several days with Libby Larsen and John Mackey, both in classroom situations as well as informally during their residencies. John in particular couldn’t believe the level of the composers in the program; like myself, John had never had a chance to be exposed to composing in such an environment at that age, and I know we both felt more than a little jealous. We’re looking forward to having Joel Puckett coming to work with the composers and ensembles next week—I’ve already met Joel through my composer interviews and I know the students will get a lot out of his music and advice.

As for my own experiences here so far, it’s more than a little awesome; I’ve made quite a few lasting friendships with some amazing performers and creative artists in other fields that have already borne fruit. If there will be one challenge this summer, it will be to balance the professional and social opportunities that tug at me every day with my composing responsibilities and preparations for my work back in Fredonia this fall. Nonetheless, as crazy as it sounds, even with the dorm living quarters and cafeteria food (not to mention the powder-blue uniforms), summer camp promises to be a very satisfying place for a composer.

Other summer camps for composers:


Brevard (includes both HS & College)

Boston University/Tanglewood Institute


John Adams Young Composers Program @ Crowden School (SF)

North Carolina School for the Arts Summer Session

The Walden School

Yellow Barn