Tag: education

What New Music Can Learn from Video Games

I’m always interested in how various artistic communities deal with the looming specter of experimentalism. With any art form, there’s almost inevitably some resistance to the experimental, leading to a reactionary defensiveness on the part of the experimenters. (“You can’t fire me, I quit!”) From my mostly-on-the-sidelines, grass-is-greener vantage point, the indie video game community seems refreshingly free of these trappings. Lately I’ve been wondering why this is, and what the new music community might learn from this.

One immediately striking thing about indie video games is that the line between experimentalism and commercialism is often fuzzy at best. If you look at it as a spectrum, it can be hard to figure out where the poles are even located. Lots of game developers—Stephen Lavelle, Andrew Plotkin, Anna Anthropy, and Terry Cavanagh, just to name a few—seem to dabble in both worlds, and even they can’t always predict which side of the fence a particular project will land on. Cavanagh’s Super Hexagon, an iOS game with a minimalist visual aesthetic and punishing difficulty, seemed like a niche  effort even to its creator until it became a surprise hit.

Part of this is certainly due to a different sort of market. At least right now, people seem more willing to pay for games than to pay for music, which allows for a little more leeway in what developers choose to work on. At the same time, these developers deserve at least a little bit of credit for creating this environment and inspiring such devotion. In particular, I’ve been impressed so far by the openness of this community, not just in the diversity of the things they make but also in their encouragement of others. In Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Anthropy argues that anyone should be able to make games, regardless of what kind of background they have in the field.

This is quite a contrast to the world of concert music, where performance and composition are regarded as elite professions that demand decades of highly specialized training. I don’t want to minimize the importance of this, but I do wonder what it would be like if we were a little more welcoming to others outside of the profession, not just as audience members but as potential creators. I sense that there is a fear among some that this would be like opening the flood gates—the derision that greets any new tool that makes it easier to make music is a pretty clear indicator here. But what if, instead of regarding them with suspicion, we viewed them as stepping stones to other kinds of musicianship? How could we help bridge those gaps? Instead of diluting the craft and rigor of concert music, new perspectives would enrich the field, and a more musically literate population would mean more fans who appreciate the effort and talent that goes into the act of making music.

As far as what this radical audience participation might look like, I’m not sure yet. But I’d like to find out.

Truth, Skepticism, and Art

In the comments section of my post from last week, Philipp Blume suggested that well-founded skepticism would be a beneficial element that can help to promote intellectual growth. While I agree that it’s important for students to learn to distinguish fact from fiction and that they need to understand that their teachers and textbooks can lead them astray, I found myself viscerally wanting to deny the role of doubt in education. As I vacillated between responses that supported and disagreed with his comment, I realized that the only way for me to reply to his well-considered observation would be to consider the nature of truth, how to be skeptical in a humanistic manner, and how to incorporate these values into the art of music.

This election season appears to be bringing us closer and closer to a postmodern paradise in which all truth is relative. Each day seems to arrive with news of another disagreement on basic facts, ranging from a grand parsing of exactly what noun was being substituted by the pronoun “that” (an instance of what Daffy Duck famously called “pronoun trouble”) to the economic impact of various legislative proposals. As our political leaders and contenders for office work to define statistical analyses and the public record in ways that suit their agendas, constituents can find themselves unable to determine reality from fabrication. Beleaguered journalists cede their attempts to determine the comparative veracity of each statement and instead report the claims from each side, peppering their articles with quotations of the standard dualistic ripostes.

On the surface, the best response in this sort of environment is to adopt a lack of credulity as our neutral stance. Every argument has an equal and opposite counterargument, and each can seem equally valid or invalid. Therefore, we preserve our independence and sanity by doubting every assertion. We assume mendacity as the order of the day and refuse to believe anything said within the political discourse. The problem with this reaction is that it equivocates between things that are unequal in value. Some statements contain more grains of truth than others. Sometimes the candidates engage in pure prevarication.

Sports provide a welcome safe haven during these times. Events that are timed seem to exist in a state of pure objectivism that allows us to compare achievements across eras and locales. If I tell you that I ran a two hour and 50 minute marathon, that simple fact conveys a world of information and allows you to place me within a hierarchy among every person who has ever participated in a timed marathon distance race. If I tell you instead that my marathon personal record is four hours and one minute, my commensurate standing shifts into an entirely different stratum. The world record in the 100-meter dash is 9.58 seconds, and anyone can mark off an equivalent distance and measure their skill in relation to this standard. But even in these instances relativism can creep in, as some marathons are run on more challenging courses and wind-aided sprints don’t count towards the certified records. Lines become blurred still further when performance-enhancing drugs come into play, as I can recall Lance Armstrong winning seven Tours de France titles that have been redacted from the official archives. In an almost-Stalinistic redrafting of history, when cheating is unearthed after the close of an event, the recorded results no longer match the outcome on the field itself. Even so, team feats achieved without fraud are preserved as they originally occurred. A perfect game in baseball is an inviolate accomplishment; even in that singular instance when a blatant umpiring error prevented the final out, the game was archived as a one-hitter for the pitcher in question—in this case, Armando Galarraga. Those people who witnessed the game can tell beautiful stories, but the chronicles of baseball history are unambiguous.

Our understanding of particle and quantum physics can lend further credence to a philosophy of relativism. The experience of time itself is a comparative phenomenon, begging the question of exactly how we even define 9.58 seconds. Seemingly solid objects in actuality contain vast amounts of space between their constituent molecules, and photons can act as waves or particles depending upon whether or not their action is being observed.

In such a mysterious universe, many people ask whether objective truth is achievable and knowable. I would argue that the answer to this question is a vigorous “yes.” Even though the activity of electrons is mysterious, we know enough about this behavior to predict the properties of subatomic matter with enough certainty to run the computers on which this article is published and distributed. While it’s theoretically possible to move through time the way we move through space, our limited ability to control time allows for standards like seconds and minutes to remain constant measures of human experience.

I would argue that objective truth is not only distinguishable, but that it should be valued and treasured. As citizens, we should strive towards the sort of skepticism that allows us to remain impartial as we determine the authenticity of the evidence laid out before us. We should attempt to learn how to discriminate between comforting falsehoods and well-authenticated facts. We should teach ourselves how to evaluate scientific theories that have little corroboration as distinct from those that have been corroborated until their margin of error is infinitesimal.

But as artists, we can embrace the impossibility of true surety. Music exists in that liminal zone where our experience of time is truly relative, and we should revel in our ability to alter audiences’ subjective experience of the passage of minutes and hours. Sounds operate beyond the realm of meaning, allowing for a piece of music to encompass as many personal interpretations are there are listeners and performers. We have the rare ability to engage honestly in those aspects of life that are emotional and intuitive. We should treasure this capacity for authentic relativism as a special aspect of our artistic lives, but should limit its role to our creative acts. In our quotidian existence, we should welcome skepticism as a path to discerning truth.

Learning the Rules

“You have to learn the rules before you can break them.”

I have no idea where I first heard this phrase. I may have heard it so many times, in so many different contexts, that it’s lost all meaning. I’m sure I’ve uttered it myself without giving it much thought. But lately, what once seemed like an innocuous adage has started to feel more and more like a poisonous platitude, something completely inimical to the actual methodology of artistic practice. I’ll try to explain why.

Regardless of where I first heard it, for me the phrase is inextricably bound up with undergraduate music theory courses, specifically related to learning four-part voice leading in the style of the J.S. Bach chorales. Almost all music students go through this rite of passage, with varying degrees of resistance. (Composers usually like it, instrumentalists tolerate it, and singers generally hate it.) But every now and then, someone will stumble on a chorale that doesn’t conform, a clear instance of Bach himself committing contrapuntal heresy. Instead of the anticipated “gotcha” moment, however, the aforementioned truism is trotted out, shutting the student down. You see, Bach knew the rules of voice leading so well that he knew just when it was appropriate to ignore them. When you are as good as Bach, maybe you can break them too. But until then…

The first problem with this statement is that it isn’t quite true. Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum wasn’t published until Bach was 40, and even there, voice leading rules weren’t laid down in the same way they’re taught today, with the modern degree of specificity and meticulousness. My main problem with the whole learning-before-breaking thing, though, is more broad, and more applicable to the many other situations where I encounter it. It begins with the question, “Which rules?”

When I’m composing, I often find myself negotiating between many different, often contradictory sets of rules. This is the inherently challenging and (when I am in a good mood) fun part of the whole enterprise. It’s also what makes it fruitful and productive; when everything’s working right, the music has a relationship to the past without being slavishly devoted to it. It has meaning. This kind of negotiation isn’t limited to composition, either. In a certain sense, our system of equal temperament arose as a succession of compromises between various musical needs. (Should we all learn to play in just intonation before we play in equal temperament?)

The question of “which rules?” is one that, I think, composers have to decide on their own at some point or another. The fact that different composers have different models and sources of inspiration is part of what staves off stagnation. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, at least in the States, some of our most influential composers (Cage, Reich) drew many of their musical ideas from non-Western cultures.

I was reminded of this, in a roundabout way, when reading Ethan Iverson’s recent series of insightful posts on the music of Thelonious Monk. Even now, Monk’s compositions stick out a little like unruly splinters in the jazz catalog, and the natural impulse of many players (including, apparently, Miles Davis and Horace Silver) has been to sand down those spiky surfaces until they feel more like jazz orthodoxy. Make sure every chord has a seventh; change a chord if it strays too far from a ii-V-I; give the melody a more sensible contour. It’s likely that many of these changes are unintentional and unconscious on the part of the performers, and Iverson is absolutely right to call attention to them.

But paradoxically, Iverson finds himself in a position where he seems like a stickler for defending one set of rules—Monk’s rules—against another. At which point he states:

The point of all this, by the way, is not to slavishly imitate Monk when playing his music. The point is to find yourself through immersion in authentic canonical detail.

If this sounds suspiciously like learning rules before breaking them, I’d like to make a slightly finicky distinction myself. What I think Iverson is describing is actually breaking the rules while or even before learning them. When a set of musical rules becomes fully codified, it has a tendency to be rather generic and inexpressive, like the one-size-fits-all chord scale style of improvising that Iverson mentions. Learning the rules before breaking them can breed a certain timidity of thought, and it can actually teach students to mistrust their ears and instincts, which may be telling them something contrary to what the rules are saying. In fact, musical creativity demands that you immerse yourself in different sets of rules with your critical thinking skills and aural intuition fully active, in which case breaking the rules is not only possible—it’s an absolute certainty, at every stage of the process.

More Tips on Learning

As August draws to a close, I find my focus turning away from my independent projects and towards the beginning of a new school year. Gloriously unscheduled days devoted to compositional contemplation gradually yield their thrall as syllabus tweaking and course scheduling clamor ever more loudly for attention. During these periods, I ask myself what I consider to be the most important aspects of each class, and exactly what I hope students will gain from our time spent together in the classroom. As I prepare the ingredients towards creating what I aspire to be a worthwhile intellectual experience, I reflect on how I can improve my teaching. I also keep returning to everything I’ve learned about how to be a better student. I find it somewhat ironic that I gained many of my best lessons on the latter topic only through my experiences on the other side of the desk, and I hope that I can help new generations avoid my copious errors.

Two years ago at this time, I offered some guidelines for composers about to embark on their first graduate degrees. Although I still agree with the three basic pieces of advice I proffered at the time, this year I would like to add some further guidelines for students about to commence a new year of learning.

4) Know exactly why you are enrolled in school. If you are working towards a diploma in music composition or performance, then you might be tempted to think about your studies as a vocational degree and to focus solely on your lessons and new pieces. In that case, you could have possibly saved tens of thousands of dollars by engaging in private tutorials and music making without participating in a degree program. You should only enter into academia if you intend to take advantage of the opportunities for intellectual engagement offered by these programs—including the vast research libraries and the constant contact with numerous peers and colleagues—that are less accessible to independent scholars. This self-awareness can help you to become an active participant in planning a course of study uniquely designed to help you achieve your goals, wherever they may lead you.

5) Remain curious about everything. The more you learn, the more you will be able to say as an artist. We can find inspiration for new works in bird songs, quantum mechanics, contemporary poetry, biological structures, economic theories, and in any other bit of knowledge. We create new avenues for self-expression whenever we develop a profound understanding of any aspect of the world around us. Sometimes our interests develop over time, and those subjects that once seemed boring and arcane can become sources for our most transcendent creations. These unforeseen enthusiasms can often become great treasures.

6) Remember that learning is a full-time job. While you’re in school, the search for knowledge needs to be both your vocation and avocation. If you only attend class and peruse the assigned readings, then your understanding will lack context and mastery. Meet with your professors beyond the classroom to talk through interesting insights that you might have gleaned beyond the class discussions. Gather your peers to deliberate over the further implications of new concepts and how they might apply to your lives. Go to art, theater, film, and literary presentations sponsored by your institutions or available in your general community. Attend lectures on non-arts topics that are open to the general public. Whenever possible, travel to those events that interest you but take place beyond your immediate area.

Best of luck on embarking on what I hope will be a most excellent year of learning!

The Education of Randy Gibson

Plenty of composers flourish within the halls and harbors offered by academia, developing their artistic voices and finding their professional footing; Randy Gibson understood pretty quickly that he wasn’t one of them. While his education now spans training in composition, electronic music, and percussion—including the study of Balinese gamelan, traditional Japanese music, and raga singing—only a portion of that instruction occurred within the confines of the typical classroom. After two years of part-time attendance at the University of Colorado, Boulder, his try at full-time composition study ended after two weeks.

“The university experience was not really for me,” Gibson admits with a shy laugh. A year later, he moved to New York and began studies with La Monte Young. “It was a much larger, more interesting education, I think, than I could have gotten at the school, and I’ve never regretted it.”

If the three-pages-and-growing list of compositions which now crowd his C.V. is any indication, it’s a path for which he need make no excuses. It is, however, one for which he offers a great portion of credit to the role Young has played in his development.

“As soon as I went to my first composition lesson with him, it really just opened my ears and my mind to what had already been present in my work,” Gibson recalls. “These repeated structures, these slow tempos, these longer statements—my studies with him really sort of freed me to be able to explore those and really take them as far as I could.”

The relationship proved to be “a perfect fit,” their first lesson beginning just after midnight and ending six hours later. Though Gibson began by studying composition with Young, that eventually expanded to include raga singing as well, providing additional revelations concerning the structure and the character of the music he wanted to write. He traces subsequent works such as his Aqua Madora (for just intonation piano and sine wave drones) firmly back to this study and the influence of Young, particularly the example provided by The Well-Tuned Piano.

While Gibson is careful not to simply co-opt the music that he’s encountered through his studies, the ritual of presentation in traditions such as raga singing speak to him deeply. Using lighting and incense, he surrounds his own audiences in an experience from the moment they enter the performance space. The compositions themselves explore form and tuning in a way that often leaves room for variation and further exploration with each performance. Out of just intonation, sine waves, extended durations, and close collaborations, Gibson is building a vocabulary for his work that has carried him deeply into a particular sound world alongside a special group of performers who are up for the challenge. This is particularly evident in the large-scale frameworks of pieces such as Doleo Æternus (for soloists, drone performers, and rhythmic performers [any variable pitched instruments] and computer; 90-120 minutes) and Apparitions of The Four Pillars (an evolving composition model for just intonation toy organs, variable pitched instruments, prime harmonic sine waves and harmonically related delay lines; variable durations). If these complexities mean the pieces are not destined to become part of the standard repertoire, that’s fine—that’s not Gibson’s goal. He’s looking, rather, to create a particular and immersive experience for his audience.

Yet even if the strategy of following “an all encompassing theory in which I can create new things” appeals to Gibson, he doesn’t need to yolk the audience with the details. “What I want to pursue is stuff that is beautiful and stuff that is powerful and emotional and is complex, but there’s a simplicity to it,” he explains. “The audience member doesn’t care if it’s the 81st harmonic or the 1331st harmonic. From the audience standpoint, it’s about how the music sounds.”

Admittedly, this may still not be for everyone. “But nothing is,” he acknowledges, “so why not just do the best that I can at what I really want to do.”

Additional video samples of Gibson’s work:

Games Played: ToneCraft


Released for Google Chrome browser only: ToneCraft
Developer: DinahMoe

Human beings only come to grasp new concepts by relating them to something they already know; our predominant way of understanding the world—and expressing ourselves—is via metaphor. Our reliance on metaphor makes possible the absorption and mastery of many new things, but there is always a point at which the metaphor breaks down and the new idea must emerge in its own right.

ToneCraft—a musical toolkit that takes advantage of Web Audio API as a workspace for free composition—provides a fantastic metaphor for introducing unwitting normal people to the zany world of composing, albeit one that is far too limited for anything beyond some rudimentary dabbling. Professional musicians can expect very little from ToneCraft other than a few moments of amusement; but for people who have never tried composing and possibly cannot read traditional music notation, ToneCraft becomes more than an entertaining plaything: it set up one of the most effective metaphors for exploring various types of aural experiences through spatial and visual relationships.

Swedish developer DinahMoe created a three-dimensional grid environment ripped straight from an earlier Swedish game called MineCraft, with various elements corresponding to musical tones. Colors suggest different instruments or timbres; the X- and Y-axes represent pitch and duration, respectively; and the vertical Z-axis allows users to layer sounds to create rich contrapuntal textures. This is a lot of fun and a great way to get budding composers—especially kids—thinking about the actual parameters of sound rather than the frequently unhelpful stylistic dictates that too often serve as the entry point into music composition.

Beyond this fresh, sandbox-style approach to toying with sound, unfortunately, ToneCraft offers little to sustain attention; greenhorn composers who have gotten bit by the bug will likely move on to another type of technology—be it sequencer, microphone, or one of those endangered notation programs—for any real in-depth explorations. It’s fun to make random objects, then “play” them back to hear what they sound like—but it’s exactly here where the metaphor breaks down as the user progresses, because as the “compositions” get more sophisticated, the results become gray and jumbled, the software failing to produce distinct expressions of more complex visual input.


Still, ToneCraft is a remarkable experiment (or “lab” as the developer’s site indicates), not intended for long-term use but created to provoke an immediate spark: here are the most basic elements of sound design, made as intelligible and accessible as a set of childhood building blocks. For this achievement alone, ToneCraft is one of the very few musical games with any appeal for those folk who are intimidated by the idea of music’s conceptual side—and unlike the mainstream console games Guitar Hero and Rock Band, this one is largely user-directed: a very small sandbox that for a few brief hours makes the very hyped and mystified process of composing seem like child’s play.

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

Out In the Woods

Summer camp is a great way to get the kids out of the house so that mom and dad can have a little quality time together. It’s also a great way for the little ones to see the world from a different perspective than the one they’d get if they went camping with mom and dad, something that could prove helpful in future forays in the “real” world.

My own experience with summer camp took two forms: (1) a one-week excursion as a boy scout at Camp Royeneh (pronounced “roy-en-ay”) and (2) five one-month long stays at the University of the Pacific’s music camp held on their Stockton, California, campus. While the music camp, with its orchestra, concert band, choir, jazz band, and composition classes, stimulated my interest in what I knew was going to be my life-long passion and career, its institutional setting in the auditoriums, class rooms, and dormitories of the university was slightly at odds with the idea of “camp.” I found myself wondering why something like UOP’s music camp couldn’t occur in the great outdoors. Of course, there were examples of music camps taking place in bucolic settings (Tanglewood, Lexington School of Jazz in the Berkshires), but I wasn’t yet aware of them.

I first heard about the Cazadero Music Camp in 1969 through a high school friend, bassist and composer Joey Holiday, but was never able to attend any of its sessions. The camp, a part of the Cazadero Family Camp network, is held in the redwoods in Northern California, not far from Camp Royeneh. The camp offers instruction in orchestral, concert band, and jazz band performance, conducting, composition, and theory training, as well as piano and guitar instruction. At one time adult and children divisions were available during the last week of its month-long session, but these fell by the wayside due to attrition (although the children’s program has been reinstated as part of a public school outreach effort). Holiday was exuberant in his description of the camp and how it had a jazz, as well as a traditional classical, component—like UOP, only out in the woods. I spent the rest of my time in high-school wondering about whether I should try to switch my music camp affiliation to Cazadero or continue with UOP, which offered me work scholarships every year. But I never did the switch, so, when I was asked to teach at the 29th session of Jazz Camp West, I jumped at the prospect. Imagine my surprise when I found out that JCW rose from the embers of the defunct Cazadero adult/children’s camp!

Dancer, visual artist, psychologist, and arts organizer Stacy Hoffman was an adult Cazadero camper who went there for jazz dance classes and, after hearing the music, became a jazz aficionado. When the adult program at Cazadero bellied up, she took action and, together with pianist/composer/educator Ellen Hoffman (no relation) and drummer Eddie Marshall and his wife, Sue Trupin, founded JCW near Santa Cruz, California. Marshall (who passed away last year) was well respected in the jazz community and was able to enlist stellar jazz artists and educators to join JCW’s rotating faculty. This year the roster has 50 instructors, which includes Stacy Hoffman, who teaches a class on performance anxiety, and JCW’s co-director, vocalist Madeline Eastman. Hoffman and Eastman have been working together on the current version of JCW for at least 18 years and have put together a fine curriculum to serve their campers. Each instructor is autonomous but well monitored by the camp’s directorship and its artist-in-residence. (This year’s is guitarist Bruce Forman.) The campers also assess their experience with instructors in end-of-camp evaluation forms. Beyond that, it’s up to the instructor to bring in something to show the campers, many of whom have been attending the camp for several years.

Because all of the camp instructors are also performers, or have performing experience, there are nightly concerts for the first four nights and student presentations for the last two. On the day between the last faculty concert and the first student presentation, there is an all-camp outing to a natural amphitheater called “Indian Bowl.” A special event is held there that includes a consecration of the site (this year by a representative of the Blackfoot nation), followed by music, theatrical presentations, and dancing. The emcee for the event, Brazilian-born pianist/composer Jovino Santos Neto, has been teaching at JCW for well over a decade. All of the music he introduced and performed at this event was programmatically, but sincerely, dedicated to the connection of humanity with the Earth. Even the comical “Trombonia,” a theatrical piece that has been evolving over the life of the camp, was based on the idea. I had requested a shot at presenting a bass trio comprised of myself and the other two bass instructors, Todd Sickafoos and Saúl Sierra, at one of the faculty concerts. I was told that all of the slots were filled, but that a bass trio performed at the Indian Bowl at JCW-28 and many of the campers and staff hoped it would become a tradition, so we performed “Witchi Tai To” by the Native American saxophonist Jim Pepper. It turned out that most of the people there knew the piece and we had a rather nice sing-along. At first I thought it was a little hokey, but something clicked the next day when one of the camp staging crew, who are also musicians and perform regularly at camp events, began to tell me about some of the history of the camp from a “hippie-dippy” humanist perspective. The gentleman is an excellent electric guitarist, playing mostly in the rock-n-roll idiom, but has been coming to JCW for the last ten years. He is currently earning his Ph.D. in physics, but intends to keep playing music as an integral part of his life after he receives the degree. He pointed out what has been staring me in the face since I arrived here; that this particular camp has a core group of campers that look at jazz, mambo, samba, funk, and spoken word music to be synonymous with living. Some of the campers I’ve spoken with are first-timers who want to learn how to perform better by taking classes with the skilled faculty. Some of them return to continue their studies, but some—the core groups—include this week as part of their reason to live. There are a few baby carriages going from class-to-class on the camp trails and at least one family has children who have spent 1/52nd of their lives at JCW. (And they play really good!)

Certainly, not all of the campers are proficient improvisers and performers. Some really need to take the classes offered, but some are very good performers who are here to gain a deeper understanding of what music, especially jazz, means to our species and how to best go about keeping the meaning of music in line with a good life. This part of JCW seems to be infectious and keeps the faculty coming back. Last year’s artist-in-residence, Allison Miller, has returned as a regular faculty member. Like Miller, many of the faculty and crew are from the East Coast and, for them, the air fare eats up far more than half of their stipend. Some of the faculty based on the West Coast, such as pianist Art Lande, trombonist Wayne Wallace, and percussionist John Santos, have been here since the camp’s inception. Others have taught at JCW a few times before, while others, like pianist Peggy Stern, guitarist Bruce Forman, bassist Todd Sickafoos, and myself, are here for the first time and hope to return as part of the camp’s rotating core faculty.

The guitarist from the crew I spoke with explained that the camp’s non-institutional environment and the lack of age limitations are what make the camp unique in this way. I would add that the lack of emphasis on jazz vs. funk vs. mambo vs. samba vs. hip-hop is a contributing factor. But probably the single most important factor in fostering this sense of community among the campers and faculty is the lack of cell phone service and difficulty in accessing the internet. We’re living in a world that, technologically speaking, lacks the most ubiquitous advances in communications in the last 25 years. If one wants to make a phone call, there are two pay phones one can walk to. I can’t even say what the stroke of luck is that allowed me an opportunity to send this entry, but I can’t send any photos or clips until I get back to “civilization,” which I enquote not to express myself as a Luddite, but to admit that I’ve found that talking to someone without having a cell phone to respond to is a bit more civil than the constant checking for messages and emails that typifies my social interactions at home.

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been teaching three courses and they’re going swimmingly well, although I was a little surprised to find myself with 10 students ranging in ages from 17 to 68! I was also surprised to see these students disappear from the class after a day or two and be replaced by new students. At first I was a little concerned, but have found out that this is the norm here. Students find what resonates with their interests and adjust their schedules accordingly. It is worth noting that the administrative staff takes special care to make sure that the course offerings are scheduled to optimize the campers’ chances.

I’m not trying to lessen the experience of summer camps like UOP or Cazadero. Their 28-day goal-oriented immersion programs centered around a schedule of rehearsal, practice, and study that could take up ten or more hours of the camper’s day (except on Sundays, when concerts took place). I wouldn’t trade a single day of my UOP experience and recommend the camp highly to anyone between the ages of 12 and 18 who has an aptitude for and an interest in pursuing the discipline of music. But Jazz Camp West has come upon a way of running a music camp that caters to learning jazz by listening to and playing jazz rather than taking classes. Jam sessions are held in two official camp locations every night and there are several “private” sessions held by campers around the site. I can’t go into too much detail about these sessions, except to say that music is made until well into the wee hours of the morning, which is what time it is now. My slot for sending this off is going to close soon, so until next week…

Copland House Launches All-Scholarship Workshop and Mentoring Program

Copland House

Copland House

Copland House has announced the launch of CULTIVATE, an intensive, annual, all-scholarship creative workshop and mentoring program dedicated to developing the talents of American composers in the initial stages of their professional careers. For the inaugural session this summer, five composers from across the U.S. have been invited to participate: Nathan Heidelberger, 25 (Westchester Community Foundation Valentine and Clark Fellow); Roger Zare, 27 (ASCAP Foundation Fellow); Michael Djupstrom, 31; Reena Esmail, 29; and Michael Ippolito, 27. Composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel, who will serve as director of the new initiative, noted that he expects “an intense week of workshops, analysis, inspiration, vision, revision, deconstruction, re-revision, contemplation, and perspiration.”

The inaugural sessions will take place July 31-August 5 at Copland’s National Historic Landmark home and various other locations in northern Westchester County, New York. The focus of the composer fellows’ work will be a brief, small-ensemble piece they will each write especially for CULTIVATE. On arrival, fellows will hear a rehearsed reading of each new piece by Music from Copland House, and daily sessions with Bermel and the ensemble thereafter will help fellows further hone and refine their works. CULTIVATE concludes with a public concert and live recording of all the new works on the afternoon of August 5 at Copland House at Merestead in Mount Kisco, NY. All costs of composer participation, working sessions, travel, accommodations, and meals are covered by the CULTIVATE program.

Evening sessions will feature explorations and analysis by Bermel of important modern works, and informal conversations with prominent, innovative industry leaders who are actively thinking about and re-shaping 21st century concert music. Among the discussion leaders are Alan Pierson, music director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and Alarm Will Sound, and critic and lecturer Greg Sandow. Major support for CULTIVATE comes from the ASCAP Foundation, Westchester Community Foundation Valentine and Clark Scholarship Fund, John G. Strugar, MD, and the Friends of Copland House.

Applications for the next CULTIVATE round will be due December 1. The program is open to all American citizens or permanent residents between the ages of 22 and 28 who are at the earliest stages of their professional careers. Selection will be based solely on the artistic quality of the submitted work samples, which will be reviewed by an outside panel of musicians, headed by Bermel.

(—from the press release)

Giving Life to New Opera: the John Duffy Composers Institute

Ed Note: Late last month I attended a portion of the John Duffy Composers Institute as one of the guest speakers. I was fascinated by the interactions between the seven composers participating in the program, the musicians performing their music, the various visiting speakers, and John Duffy, who is the mastermind of this whole project. So when Jake Runestad, one of the participating composers, offered to write a post about his experience there, as well as to make a short video featuring brief comments by the other participating composers and excerpts from performances of their works, I was delighted.—FJO

Sitting forward in his chair, leaning in to focus on every word being sung, John Duffy turns to me and responds candidly, “Well done Jake, but remember; clarity of text is paramount.” I heed every word John speaks not only because he is one of the kindest and most generous people I have ever met, but because he has a brilliant mind for music and drama.

John Duffy - Photo courtesy of John Polston Photography

John Duffy – Photo courtesy of John Polston Photography

Eight years ago, John Duffy, a respected composer and long-time advocate of new music, founded the John Duffy Composer Institute—an incubator for the next generation of opera composers. The institute brings together leading professionals from the opera world to workshop and produce new works by young composers. This year, there were seven composers selected for this two-week event hosted by the Virginia Arts Festival in Norfolk, Virginia.

I have participated in many different festivals, institutes, and readings, but the Duffy Institute is unlike any other. While it provides an opportunity to hear one’s work performed, it also fosters friendships and collaborations among the composers, performers, librettists, and directors in residence. During our morning and afternoon sessions, we discussed our operas in an open forum where feedback was encouraged and all opinions were respected. Guest composers and librettists presented about their works and initiated meaningful conversation about writing opera, the music business, and life as a creative artist.

When discussing our operas with John and the visiting faculty, a recurring theme was that of time. Time is very different in opera than in traditional concert music because of the staging element—each character’s physical movement influences his or her musical time. Libby Larsen, a member of the composition faculty at the Duffy Institute and one of my previous teachers, shared that when writing opera, she takes the furniture out of her living room and moves around the room as if she is on stage. This allows her to physically connect with a character’s movement and to more accurately represent a character’s sense of time and rhythm. I find this to be a crucial element of composing for drama, in order to create the most effective music possible. This also allows the performer to feel a stronger connection to his or her role that hopefully results in a more convincing performance.

Score samples from the works of several John Duffy Composers Institute participants

Another important and frequently discussed topic was that of setting text. John is a stickler for making sure that the words are clear and that there is no need for supertitles in our works. We studied the amazing textual clarity in the songs of Gershwin, Lesser, and Kern, and worked closely with the vocal coaches and singers at the Institute to learn as much as possible about writing for the voice. In response to these crucial learning experiences, I, and the other composer fellows, shared how vocal music is barely covered in our academic studies in composition. Most, if not all, of our classes and assignments are focused on instrumental techniques and orchestration for instrumental ensembles. Vocal music is one of the most immediate and powerful forms of expression, and I would love to see more schools (and teachers) take the initiative to teach and discuss writing for voices. If theory/composition teachers are afraid of all that the voice entails (yes, it is not an easy beast to tame), partner with the voice department! We can learn a great deal from working with those who practice the craft for which we endeavor to write.

I know I speak for the other composer fellows when I say that my music has greatly improved after my experiences at the Duffy Institute. John continues to be one of my heroes because of his love of people, his respect for artistic collaboration, and appreciation for all sizes, shapes, and forms of music (some of his favorites being Bach, Coltrane, and Eminem). John’s vision of giving life to new opera is an inspiration and is becoming a reality thanks to his tireless dedication to this program.


Jake Runestad

Jake Runestad

Jake Runestad is a composer and conductor based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has received commissions and performances from ensembles such as the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, VocalEssence, Seraphic Fire, the Dayton Philharmonic, and the Baltimore Concerto Orchestra. He is currently composer-in-residence with the Baltimore-based Lunar Ensemble.