Tag: inspiration

Elena Ruehr: Turning Emotion Into Sound


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creativity in the Age of COVID-19

Work table with books and blank music paper

It’s interesting how priorities change in this time of COVID-19. My petty concerns seem even more, uh, petty. What’s become important to me is to not spend what remains of my life in bitterness over roads not taken or career opportunities that never have arisen—or that I didn’t cause to arise. And let’s face it, in my early 60s, that remaining time may be much less than I might want. What is an effective way to spend one’s time? As musicians, I truly believe that one of the most important things that we can do is to continue to create. And the many musicians that have been posting joint performances online are a testament to this drive.

I believe that one guide for productive survival in these strange times is to maintain a consistency of creative work and to try not and focus on where it may or may not lead. My teacher Charles Wuorinen, who recently passed, taught me to not compromise my creative time. “Do something every day,” he said, “even if it’s just for an hour.” Compose, play, write, paint, every day. That consistency is anchoring for us psychologically and important for establishing a daily mental ordering for other work we may need to do on our homes, with our spouses, pets, and families. In the best of times I feel incomplete if I don’t compose in the morning. In the worst of times, I feel incomplete if I don’t continue the habit—it just seems to signify that things are even worse than I’d imagined. I need the diurnal foundation of the creative act in order to deal with the rest of each day.

Also, I try not connecting to the news every morning because that’s causing me to experience a sense of at least temporary despair. Perhaps one shouldn’t completely ignore the news, but we may quarantine media as well as social media items to a specific time of day, perhaps toward the end of the afternoon. If I look at the news early, then my creative concentration is blasted. If I look at it before bed, then I may have trouble sleeping. One article recommended that you rely on only one or two news services you trust so as to not overload and go down the rabbit hole of Internet links leading to this, that, and the other resulting in increased anxiety. And, let’s face it, while a lot of this may not be sensationalism, some of it is. It’s good to filter what we read and see in order to preserve some positive creative energy.

Better that we connect with one another. I’ve discovered that I have an interesting net of friends with whom I’ve been connecting through phone, Skype, Zoom, or messaging. A number of my friends are performing online. I’m planning long-distance recording collaborations with musicians in a variety of locations. This is an opportunity to connect with one or two musicians with whom I haven’t yet collaborated, and, if my stimulus check comes through, those funds will help support those musicians that record my music.

As an aside, I’ve discovered that happy hours with friends are great stress relievers.

To compose, practice, and play (albeit on the Web) is an act of defiance. It’s saying “to hell with despair” and affirming the prospective and, I believe, bright future of creative offerings, concerts held in communion with others, and the potential for a cache of wonderful works created now while social distancing.

Live and create today for present sanity and for the future. This won’t last forever.

Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
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Music Can be a Counterbalance to Hard Times

Sometimes music is a counterbalance to tragedy.  On 9/11 after the attacks, I walked among the droves of people in the middle of avenues normally packed with cars and got safely home. I thought of my day. I’d been on my way to a 9:30 a.m. workshop at the Foundation Center.  It was sunny and pleasant. When I got to the corner of Sixth Avenue and 15th Street, everyone had stopped and was looking downtown trying to figure out what was happening.  We really didn’t know yet.  The rest is history.

Sometimes music is a counterbalance to tragedy.

Like most of us, I was glued to the TV that night.  It was hard to watch, hard not to. I couldn’t stand it, couldn’t fathom it. I knew we were in for big changes, that the 21st century had just begun.  I went to the piano. Playing slow chords along with the news I felt my original connection to music, comfort, and wisdom, a balm for the soul.  There was something reassuring in that.

In 2012, the night that Hurricane Sandy approached. I listened to the changing weather predictions and felt like a sitting duck. Once I realized I’d be alright, I took to worrying about others. During this vigil, I went to the piano again; TV news was on low and was slow to change, but alerts would be known.

Hurricane Sandy brought devastation to our doorsteps; friends and loved ones were uprooted.  The storm approached at night, and I improvised the beginning of what turned into a solo piano piece called While We Were Sleeping. The music’s overall shape is a crescendo-diminuendo, though random acts of chaos surge and dissipate, the storm gathers and subsides. In the beginning, the notation is classically specified. As the piece progresses it becomes more of a graphic score, at times alternating between these two modes. Particularly in the more graphic, improvisatory sections, I hope to elicit an intuitive “heat of the moment” response from the performer.

In times of personal grief, I also turn to composition.

In times of personal grief, I also turn to composition.  After the loss of my father, I wanted to find expression for what I felt; it seemed there were no words for it.  The vocal expression of an infant conveys its meaning, the timbre of the voice before words. Thinking about this was the impetus for And So It Begins for tenor, sax, and string quintet.

If this were a story, loss and regeneration would be the themes. Imagining grief as a processional, the incarnate dissolves into the ethereal, a heart-beat pizzicato becomes a time-ticking drum beat.  The final movement brings regeneration through a series of dances.

I allowed my process to be more intuitive than ever, taking the first idea that came to me and developing it.  Sensing my way, low tones stir in the tenor sax, seeking to rise, strings join in.  Allowing chance to play a role, while listening to the MIDI playback, a bird sang a tone that harmonized so well, I wrote it in. Sometimes even a typo turned out to be a usable gift—while transposing a passage to use it as a sequence, I accidentally made it a step higher than intended and I liked it! A descending third dropped into the saxophone part, and I realized it was the whistling motif familiar from childhood when he’d call us from play.

A photo of a tea bag containing the words "Listen and you will develop intuition"

Before I knew what the words meant, I remember being aware of the rise and fall, the varying intensities, and patterns of sound of the human voice, and knowing that these sounds carried a meaning that I was intensely curious to understand. Later, in my teens, I similarly listened to the muffled voices of my parents and grandparents behind closed doors.  I couldn’t understand a word, but their tone was foreboding.

An old spinet was in my room. I closed the door, went to the piano and tried out something new for me at age sixteen.  I took out manuscript paper and lined it up in four parts for a string quartet.  Life went on, but these phrases haunted me through college and into my adult life. In 1988, I fleshed out that initial sketch into a movement, but returned again in 2015 to bring the music to full expression as a four-movement work. My initial sketch became the second movement of my first string quartet. That slow second movement is the heart of this work. Its theme reappears in varied guises in the journey of the piece. I found metaphoric connections for the music in the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. The titles of the movements are inspired by the light and dark shadings of his poetic imagery. As in the body of Lorca’s work, motifs recur, reinterpreted in echoing variation throughout the four movements.

Composing is usually a long-term project for me, but sometimes I struggle with returning to a piece if it seems at odds with the climate around me. I’d started a flute and piano piece in early 2016. A fantasy seemed apropos, a wedding gift from flutist Carl Gutowski to his niece. But after the election, it became hard to conjure this feeling, this expression of love, so in opposition to the political/social climate of the time.  How could I rally myself to it? Why was it important?  Journaling helped me find an answer.

After the election it became hard to conjure love, but strong bonds of love deserve celebration.

Strong bonds of love deserve celebration. Hope and optimism in the face of many unknowns can carry us through the struggles, both personally and culturally. It’s important to continue our lives as we mean to live them, celebrating our American freedoms, becoming more aware of how precious they are and how worthy of our energies it is to protect them.   We need to stoke the fires of love and hope within—raising our energy, hopefully not just to preach to the choir, but to find some common ground.

The sky on a bright day.

So I composed a series of variations for flute and piano that fall out of synch at times but are always linked to one another in harmonious partnership. The piece is in a loose rondo form to convey the enduring nature of a bond through the ever-returning theme of love. As with the individuals whose marriage inspired this piece, flute and piano are equal partners. Their relationship flows between discussion, duet, argument, and canonic imitation, each voice having the chance to be leader and follower.

It’s the role of the artist to dream beyond the borders of current circumstance.

It’s the role of the artist to dream beyond the borders of current circumstance, to dream the impossible dream and find a new way, not to be locked into the present trajectory or momentum, to know that something else is possible, even though we have to traipse through the unknown to get there.  We don’t always know the way, but we keep trying until we find it.  It’s the role of the arts to inspire persistence.  With creativity there’s always hope.  Art speaks truth to power. We need art more than ever now.  These are some of the things I’ve learned through my life in music.

Musical Experiences in Daily Life

What does it mean to live a musical life? How has my perspective as a dedicated musician shaped my experience of the world? How does that manifest in my life and music?

The idea that movement suggests music is an influence from my study of Dalcroze Eurhythmics, as is my interest in rhythmic flow—how to create momentum, and let it subside. And so sometimes life can seem to be a vast counterpoint.  And it can blur the edge between the quotidian and the musical while, at times, they become one.

The counterpoint of life is omnipresent.

Art imitates life, or life imitates art. Which is it?  Both/and? The chicken or the egg…? Looking at life through a musical lens, I see many correspondences that are perhaps easier to see in a city like New York, where the counterpoint of life is omnipresent.


Rush hour between Port Authority and Grand Central is a corridor of music – live, vibrating along subway passageways, on the platforms, or on the trains. Music pairs with the clatter and screech, the footsteps, the travelers, the dancerly crossings and those who come too close during rush hour when so many people are trying to get somewhere else. Then you’re walking through a corridor and hear a drumbeat. Rounding the corner, you see the drummer, Ah!  He drums you through the turnstile and gives you something you didn’t even know you’d needed.

The music fades as you walk away and seems to disappear, but it lingers in your head and pairs with your surroundings, the conversations in polyglot rhythms, the varied paces of the stream of travelers, each with their own tempo, weaving and tacking through the crowd.  Movement is music. Having improvised for a walk as I did in my Dalcroze days, I’m noticing the differing gates and the movement of weight. I weave my own line into the counterpoint as I move through the crowded platform, humming a vamping bass.

Commuters awaiting the shuttle train at Times Square


Walking home one night, I discover an Indian restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue. Turns out it’s good food but nearly empty due to delivery apps and the like, so I had the place to myself.  Soft Indian classical music in my ears, I order.  Waiting for the food, I’m looking out the window, sipping a glass of wine. It’s a charcoal black night lit by the storefronts across the way, the passing yellow cabs amid the vehicle sea, a colorful array of red, yellow, and white neon.  As I’m watching, I start to notice that there’s something more. Cars are going both ways on one-way Amsterdam Avenue.  Everything seems much busier!  Twice as busy in fact.  Comings and goings. Looking to my right, I notice the large mirror covering the entire wall of the restaurant.  These are mirror images; I’m watching contrary motion in practice!

There are various rates of flow.

There’s the direction – the coming towards, crossing at the center line, then moving away like partners in a dual, disappearing into the vanishing point.  There are various rates of flow. Cabs are the fastest, darting to the light, while cars and trucks may saunter.  Eventually, I see that the cab goes through an equal deceleration at the other end, accelerando and ritard referring back to their opposite.  The saunterers, whose speeds are less varied, bring an amazing but ordered complexity to the scene.  And then there are the people. Walking at a steady pace, self approaches self and departs from self.  If that’s not counterpoint, what is?

A baby cart and a car moving as seen from a window from within a restaurant, and their reflections through a mirror.

Contrary motion and variable rates of flow observed from an upper west side Indian restaurant.


My mentor lives at the West 86th Street subway stop.  When it’s cold outside, I take the subway home from her apartment. Waiting for the train, I hear Bernstein—“There’s a place for us…” The train across the platform is leaving the station, and that’s its song. A perfect Bernstein tribute, though unplanned.


I turn on the electric tooth brush in the morning; it sings C.  I join in humming “om” as it does its work.


My dancer friend tells me that she experiences everything in terms of phrase—waiting at a stop light, walking through a department store. Her years of dancing have given her an internal phrase clock. Sometimes it goes on in the background, but it’s always there.


Sometimes I swim in phrases, holding my breath longer to lengthen the phrase.  My mother once told me that she learned to swim in 6/8 time, three kicks to each arm stroke.  When I tried it, it propelled me through the water with much less effort. I tried it walking up the steps, it helped there too!  This must be the most efficient use of energy? A connection with the three-part beat of swing and the indigenous rhythms of African drumming and of original life?

A musician performing in one of the walkways between platforms at the Times Square station.

A lone subway musician at Times Square, but his music is just one layer of the sonic landscape there.

Channeling the Messengers

It was a lovely June evening in Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado. I was playing banjo with cellist Hank Rober­ts, bassist Robert Black, and Robert Mirabal, who sang and played drums and flutes of the Pueblo tribe. One of Hank’s tunes called for us to make animal sounds. Something about this evening’s performance induced in me the sense that I was channeling those sounds, not just making them. I closed my eyes and don’t even remember what noises came out, but it seemed as if they were not coming from, but through me.

That’s a sensation I occasionally have at the drafting table when composing and, sometimes, when soloing on stage, my focus seems more of a trance than just mere concentration. A lot of times, work I do at the drafting table seems like . . . well, like work. Ideas are hard to come by and I often will end up with 30 to 50 pages of pencil sketches before things begin to flow. Apparently, I have to get every bad idea I’ve ever had out onto paper before something else takes over. I think of this something as the muse.

And yes, I stereotypically think of the muse as a her, a Galadriel-like presence that demands to see a certain amount work and effort put into a project before she will add her thoughts, Elven Waybread, and much better ideas to the project. But she first needs to see obeisance to the work and effort. Otherwise, I fear, she’ll just move on to someone else. Always before this moment, I know exactly where the ideas come from and I’m conscious of a “pre-compositional” plan that I may have created and which I am trying to follow. Pages and pages of scrawls (and doodles, which I believe help me think) collect. But, when the muse kicks in, I get rid of the plan, get out of my own way, toss many of the sketches, and start to play. And I have no idea where the ideas come from.

A number of years ago I attended several workshops led by the iconic experimentalist in photography, Jerry Uelsmann. One time he counseled the students to “work every day. Don’t take any days off. But go into the studio and, instead of working, play.” That’s a lesson I’ve sometimes succeeded in adhering to. His images display a great deal of creative play and, in my mind, a metaphysical tap into a dream-like, surrealist land.

Careful analysis, planning, and past musical studies I believe are a part of the process for a composer and musician. All of the listening, performing, and writing I’ve done before are part of this. Technique is essential before one can make it non-essential. When I taught music theory, I told my students to learn the process of, say, part-writing, so that they could later forget it. The idea is to integrate the concepts of logic and structure that is inherent in creative development into their own work and to eventually bypass the specific rules for a larger concept of discipline and expression.

The fact is, if we’re really doing our jobs as artists, we don’t know what we’re doing.

The fact is, if we’re really doing our jobs as artists, we don’t know what we’re doing. It’s a timeworn argument that upsets a number of artists. (I know, I’ve been on the receiving end of this consternation.) Yes, the work needs to be applied and the technique needs to be in place, but, if we’re truly doing our job, then a certain level of informed ignorance is intrinsic to the process. A foundation of technique needs to be in place before that technique is discarded.

In The Shape of Content, Ben Shahn’s Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in 1957-58, the visual artist writes that “no artist will be at ease with an opinion that holds him to be a mere handy-man of art, the fellow who puts the paint on.” (Harvard University Press, 1985, p. 22). That’s not what I’m saying; if we’re doing our work, that means we’ve done our work, laid a foundation from which to develop our own creative expressions of the reality around us. We then open up to something larger than our individual selves. Shahn counters this later on:

But the subconscious cannot create art. The very act of making a painting is an intending one; thus to intend and at the same time relinquish intention is a hopeless contradiction. . . . But the great failure of all such art, at least in my own view, lies in the fact that man’s most able self is his conscious self—his intending self. (Shahn, p. 44).

All I can counter is that life is full of mysterious contradictions: individual consciousness succeeds nothingness and proceeds eventually to nothingness; and there is no absolute right and wrong in many instances, though we draw battle lines and die for our beliefs (especially in academic settings). Intention is important to hang on to before we then turn that intention over to the muse and let the unconscious take over.

As a student of Charles Wuorinen in the 1990s in Buffalo, I asked him to teach me serial technique, as I had never really studied it in much depth. Over time he showed me how to structure a composition using Milton Babbitt’s time-point techniques. Eventually I told him that I was concerned that this technique would just render my music similar to the music of many other composers at the time. “All creativity comes from a higher power,” he responded, “you just have to trust in that.”

“All creativity comes from a higher power, you just have to trust in that.”

I learned to put my faith in that maxim. I devoted myself to a daily practice of composition as taught by Uelsmann and as demonstrated to me by Wuorinen, Donald Erb, David Felder, Peter Maxwell Davies, and other teachers I encountered—not in order to create a large body of work for posterity, but so that I could keep improving and developing. Stephen Pressfield says in The Artist’s Journey, at the beginning of the chapter titled “The Artist’s Journey is Dangerous,” that “the artist, like the mystic and the renunciant, does her work within an altered sphere of consciousness. Seeking herself, her voice, her source, she enters the dark forest. She is alone. No friend or lover knows where her path has taken her.”

So, I invoke the muse each morning before composing. (Pressfield says that he “prays” to her before beginning work.) And I follow John Cage’s advice to “begin anywhere.” That truly works for me. Instead of staring at the blank page and thinking too much, I just start. And what I write may be crap, but it’s important for me to work, to be in motion. I think at the drafting table. Without Mozart’s precocious ability to compose an entire piece in my own limited brain, I show up at the drafting table and begin to scrawl. George Gershwin once said that “I write 15 songs a day, and that’s just to get the bad ones out of my system.”

Somewhere as a beginning composer, even though I lacked much technique or experience I somehow realized that if I was going to write anything good, I would have to compose “a number of stinkers.” And that was exactly what happened. It’s a diurnal habit and my day feels incomplete if I somehow don’t compose, preferably first thing in the morning.

Octavio Paz says in his epic poem, A Draft of Shadows:

Are there messengers? Yes,
space is a body tattooed with signs, the air
an invisible web of calls and answers
Animals and things make languages,
through us the universe talks to itself.

[ A Draft of Shadows and Other Poems New Directions, 1997, Trans. Eliot Weinberger, p. 147]

This is something I truly believe. As musicians and composers, not only do we need to craft the art of deep listening, as Pauline Oliveros might call it, but to extend that depth to channeling the messengers—ultimately and essentially our own interior voices—that speak to us.

The Books In My Life

All of this came from somewhere. Nothing exists in a void; ideas are in and of themselves a lineage.

All of our human ideas flow back and forth—between parents and kids, among friends, pressing in against relationships—tangentially, sometimes musty, and lent hand to hand. Often, we teach each other these ideas through books. In the process of writing that last essay, I realized that—particularly because I’m not an academic—I feel deeply uncomfortable citing or, more egregiously even, forgetting to cite something. So this essay is a collection of books that changed my way of thinking, as they do. This is like the footnote section, all on its own, annotated with how and why these things got me thinking and how they got me to the beliefs I’ve got now.

Though most of them aren’t in fact books, actually. More on that later.

Henry Miller—The Colossus of Maroussi

Of the things that have most shaped my ideas about making work and living in our world, Miller’s character Colossus, a normal guy with butterflies and retsina and guilt for taking a nap spilling from each hair, looms (though he is likely normal in stature) the largest. Miller writes aimlessly through Greece with friends until he happens upon a giant of a Grecian raconteur, in the guise of just an any-guy guy.

This is probably the reason I’ve been telling stories ever since. I identified with the Grecian (Katsimbalis), wheeling about those streets and hillsides, finding the triumphant in an egg, ecstatic and unabashed moment to moment, sad only about missing something important. The lesson: stay heart forward.

My Mom—Jennifer Rountree (who avoids the internet, so I can’t link to her website here)

To start again: my mom. My mother, Jennifer, is a person, not a book. When I told her I was writing about her in this post, she said:

You can “read” people, so why not. I wonder how we got to the term “read” people. Maybe it was body “language.” You must include Walt Whitman. I’ll paraphrase: Is it night? Are we alone? Who holds this book, holds a man. There’s this incredible interaction between your eye, a reader’s eye (some would call that the window to the soul) and the word (a writer’s idea and voice), and there it is! A conversation. And aren’t all quiet conversations between two people the best—the right way to meet someone. It’s just like reading a book.

So you can see why I included my mom here (who, by the way, is an incredible acting teacher).

She says often these two things I wanted to share in particular:

  • I rarely go to the show. The show isn’t the thing. I live for rehearsal. Rehearsal is the art. There are actors who lay down on the ground, pressing their foreheads into the edge of the stage, focusing their energies and honoring the space, before they’d dream of beginning a rehearsal. That’s intentionality.
  • Making new work, it’s always problem-solving. We’re all problem solvers.

She also says a few other things often too, like: “You can do this.” She’s pretty great.

Alex Ross—Applause: A Rest Is Noise Special Report

I remember with syrupy clarity the exact second I realized that (ostensibly) the pomp of not clapping during classical music concerts was a mistake made at one singular concert Wagner was overseeing—that only one moment, one transitive point of view, was the thing that led us to the deep divisions and divergent beliefs on stoicism we have in our artform. My view of the way we should go forward and that call to action to change our direction was bright blue, white hot—neon even!—in front of my eyes.

This Image

This is the best Venn diagram on the internet. I use this to describe how people should find what they love. I mean, I’ve always felt awkward, and multifaceted, and did I mention awkward? Haven’t we all. That’s enough on this.

Miranda July—You Me and Everyone We Know

Stark simplicity and the unseen depth of little decisions and so many other things come together in July’s work, generally and especially in this film: intense, brief insanity; emotions so complex that the only way to represent them is ritual; love represented as two shoes that keep moving closer and farther from one another; performance art as film as job in film as life; vulnerability as a source of power; neutral tones; helping other people; sex as simple and human and even childlike; the playful in everything.

Krzysztof Kieślowski—Three Colors Trilogy

I’m a visual person. When I’m writing music or thinking about a certain sound or envisioning the way a phrase will sound as a conductor, I see it—I visualize how it will look when it is sounding the way I want it to. I’m not sure when my brain became obsessed with the idea of the tableaux in my own work, but wow did it happen. There are movies, like these three from Kieślowski, plus Godard’s work and countless others, that struck something in me about beauty and how we should harbour it in our lives. Not guard it, but rather just cherish it, be curious about beauty, and seek it out in absolutely everything. In wild Up’s performances, I’ve been fascinated by what light does to the audience. What happens when they’re in just slightly more light than total darkness? What happens when they are in as much light as the performers? I’ve found that my favorite is when each member of the audience is in just enough light to see everyone else in the audience.

Steve Schick—Kurt Schwitters’s Ur Sonate

I so clearly see Henry Miller’s colossus of a raconteur in Steve Schick. I remember stumbling upon this video long before Steve and I had worked together and being floored. This can be music? And you made this thing of considered beauty out of that blank slate of a conceptual Kurt Schwitters piece? Anything is possible when you see it creatively enough.

Lao Tsu—Tao Te Ching

So I grew up in a spiritual community, in and around an ashram in Santa Monica, California, and sometimes an ashram in South Fallsburg, New York. My first experiences with music as a child were chanting Sanskrit words in large groups of people in a gender-divided and basically pitch-black room, with musical leaders intoning pentatonic melodies from one corner of the room and only one little candle visually lighting the way. I grew up learning about seeing God in people and in myself. In art, in nature, in human endeavor, in conflict and mostly in resolution, in fear and contentment and ecstatic bliss all the same. It’s a wonder it took 20 years for me to find the Tao. These teachings are on such an even keel, the words themselves seem to have the life of the teachings included. They somehow know you and your life and your struggles and exactly what’s happening for you and for you right now. Not to mention, exactly what you could do to just sit in it all and be totally saturated in flexibility and it all being ok, and just from reading the words. A favorite set of mine is this set, all numbered and clickable randomly, I keep this open in my web browser often and just click over to it.

Mathieu Kassovitz—La Haine

Just watch it (not just the clip above, the whole thing). I guess what I mean is: grit, activism, the beautiful, the heinous, people smashed against each other in too little space: all these things belong together in one black and white piece.

Kurt Vonnegut—in the preface to Breakfast of Champions

I feel like this could be the singular footnote for my previous NewMusicBox post, or maybe the complete content efficiently boiled down. Vonnegut, Unserious in Chief. The painful and the light, exactly next to one another, like the end of the world and this childish 50th birthday drawing.

G.R.R. Martin—A Song of Ice and Fire—Complete (WHY IS THIS NOT COMPLETE YET!)

I read the entire series in a summer, mostly looking up over a river to Half Dome in the Yosemite Valley while the (then) new Fleet Foxes album flowed through my (then) locks of hair. (Also back in a time when “vacations” weren’t a thing, because my whole life was workless).

Also a definitive moment to add here where a kid points at me—reading, sitting in a chair with my feet in the river—and says to her mother: Mom, why is that bear reading a book?

Back to Martin, here’s what surprised me: the details were so fleshed out, the forethought was enormous, the hell the characters were put through felt real and like so many artistic (read: diplomatic [read: hellish]) relationships that surround simply making things one believes in. Maybe it’s not fair to equate art making to warfare? Doesn’t it feel like it sometimes though? And what an arc! We’ve all got so much to learn from an arc like Martin’s.

Nico Muhly (with Nadia Sirota, Pekka Kuusisto, Valgeir Sigurðsson and others)—Drones

More on Nico’s writing in a second, but I listened to Drones while putting together most of this post, so maybe it’d make a good soundtrack to read it to. Oh, and I was listening to this.

Nico Muhly—this essay on depression

There have been a number of artists recently with whom I’ve been having a conversation about a life around and truly inside of art, and for whom their life makes up the subject matter or close inspiration for their art (as so much of mine does). Nico Muhly’s essay on his own wellness is included here, because Nico lives in this most beautiful way, unafraid to include the trials of his life as his art—and to help other people, as someone to resonate and identify with. My guess is some would likely say here that his writing isn’t his art, but that’s the crux of why this is included. It’s so clear: an artistic life is one lived deeply in artistic practice at all times. Yevtushenko said it best, and this while in a war zone dealing with being actually besieged:

[A]nd what if art be my torment, harass me on every side, I am already by art besieged.

Conversely, what if we all included our artistic selves in our moment to moment, most routine, lives. How beautiful it all would be!

Melancholia / Love Actually

I always watch these back to back on New Year’s Day. Things mixed, all at once. Sappy light, sappy, light, Wagner (so much, too much in this article), a forest, love as controlled falling down, rough edges (curated and considered in this case). This airport thing that is like way too much and why am I still crying, and do I really like Christmas music, and is this because I’m half-British? Also, is love always like this, and grief?

Chef’s Table

Watching people believe deeply in making something of kinetic, spiritual, and physical value with the level of intentionality that these artists do—it’s something else. Food inspires me. The people who make something that so often is unconsidered or momentary or just mundane is, for me, sort of revolutionary. And the way things are put together, the way that they look—the perfect tableaux again, breathtaking and perfect.

I remember watching chef Marco Pierre White (who’s not part of this show) give a talk about what great food is that summed the whole thing up for me. He said something like “great food is just the things, the right things, on the plate. Nothing extra, nothing extra-special. The thing itself, the things as you put them together themselves: they are special. They are pure. Don’t muddy it up.” That changed me completely. Also, he holds his index finger up the whole time while talking, just like Curly from City Slickers about the “one most important thing.” Also, apparently I do this.

Pina Bausch—Bluebeard

Once we’ve built our artistic brains, our critical, burning, on-fire-with-intentionality minds (or the ones we keep working toward) it’s incredibly rare that something actually strikes us as our art, our way of making, our people, our tribe. I’m about to make a most hopeful and heroic statement and I’m sorry about it: If my tribe has a leader that leader is Pina Bausch. So much humanity, the real and the surreal with hands-locked fingers-interwoven running in a line together toward all of us, the onlookers, the community of outsiders, the ones who paid to have our minds blown, and oh are they!

Where would I be forgetting the inspirations for this list: Henry Miller—The Books in My Life and David Foster Wallace—Infinite Jest (because isn’t he just the master of too long lists?).

There could be so many dozens more, even in the core set, but I’ll stop there for now. To sum all of this is a grand duty, one that I’m not sure I could do given any amount of time (other than the perfect amount of time—which as we all know is: not quite enough), but here goes:

All of our particles are resonating and reverberating, thick with our histories. There’s so much there, for all of us.

I guess—after putting together this list of things that inspire me—I’ve realized how immensely profound all of these possibly overlooked bits of culture have been for me. In hindsight, that’s the revelation. Beauty is a practice and I wonder what we’re all missing, day to day, moment to moment, and how all of those things would change us, if we just paused and took a minute to notice them.

Giving Voice: (Re)Discovering My Own

Twilight by a lake surrounded by trees

A view from the Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods Summer Camps (photo by Chris Cresswell).

“Hey Mom and Dad, I’m going to summer camp!”

That’s probably not what the parents of a 26-year old want to hear. Then again, I probably gave them a lifetime’s worth of bad news half a decade earlier with “I’m going to be a composer.” I’m currently in my second summer working as a teaching artist at the Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods summer camp. This work has had a profound impact on my own compositions and songwriting on a both spiritual and practical levels.

Prior to starting work as a teaching artist, I worked at Boosey & Hawkes in New York City. While this was a tremendous experience in which I learned about the music industry, listened to more contemporary music than I thought possible, and met, more or less, all of my musical heroes, by the end of my time there my relationship with music, by necessity, had become more about business than the creative practice.

In working with campers at Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods family of camps, I rediscovered my love for writing music. The young campers offered up creativity in its purest form. They were interested in making their own music without consideration for genre, marketability, or careerism, but rather with the intent of simply writing the music that they wanted to write. There was little angst associated with their writing process. While campers experienced hiccups along the way, there was none of the insecurities, impostor syndrome, or existential angst that impairs so many young composers, including myself. Rather, I found that all of the campers were open to suggestions, willing to learn, and ready to experiment as they discovered what the recording studio—and they themselves—could do. This caused me to reexamine my own self-labeling. Prior to last summer I’d always viewed myself as a composer who happened to write songs. I hid my songwriting from my fellow composers out of a fear that I wouldn’t be taken “seriously” as a composer. Spending a summer writing songs with campers resulted in me focusing more on my own songwriting craft.

This spiritual re-awakening coincided with a broadening of my sonic palette. As I mentioned in previous posts, campers shared their favorite songs, exposing me to a wide range of pop songs and entire genres that I was previously unfamiliar with. While I won’t be making a dubstep album anytime soon, I’ve fallen in love with the synthesizer sounds associated with the genre. Rather than writing folk songs with voice and a few acoustic instruments, I’ve begun to utilize the entire studio in my songwriting and recording process. This summer I’m recording several new tracks for future use, including the song embedded below, Advertising the Dalai Lama. What started as a simple folk song on an acoustic guitar has become a more nuanced piece of music. The process of creating this song showcases the cross-pollination between songwriting, composing, orchestration, and studio engineering, combining sounds from hip-hop, dubstep, and pop music with my own aural aesthetic which draws upon the work of Meredith Monk, Brian Eno, Cage’s Imaginary Landscapes, and contemporary electro-acoustic works.

When developing the instrumental section of the song, I approached the synthesizers the same way I approach orchestrating an art song. Rather than having a battery of strings, winds, and percussion, I have an array of electronic sounds, each one serving a specific function. Even though my instrumentation involves sounds labeled “Noizette,” “Scorched Earth,” “Dirty Wobbler,” “Swedish Ninja,” and “Mound of Wires,” I still approached the individual voices with the lessons I learned from Walter Piston’s Guide to Orchestration. The end result is, hopefully, a reflection of my previously bifurcated artistic selves.

On a practical level, working in a recording studio 14 hours a day has made me adept at writing and creating music at a quick pace. This summer, I orchestrated the middle instrumental section of a Broadway-style tune in a brief 45-minute window. Working at such a fast pace naturally means decisions are made without hesitation. There is no time to agonize over note choices. If it doesn’t work, we’ll simply try again; there is no need to fear getting it wrong. This increase in technical skill has helped with my work in sound installations and electro-acoustic work.

Last year, while working in the studio, I built the foundation for I was walking home…or at least I thought I was walking home… This sound installation created an imaginary soundscape by combining sounds from my last day living in New York City with sounds from my hometown of Cazenovia, New York, and electronically generated sounds. As I spent most of my days and nights in the recording studio, I was able to experiment with recording acoustic instruments and manipulating them to create sonic textures. The studio has become a part of the composition process, where ProTools waveforms are as valid as notation on a staff. This summer I’m combining these processes in a new work for the San Francisco-based group Wild Rumpus. My new work for them, From Dreams, We Emerge, combines electronic textures built inside the recording studio with live instruments.

The natural beauty of Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods, which is situated in Decatur, Michigan, a rural town in southwestern Michigan, has proven to be an alluring muse itself. I spend my summers living on a quiet campground next to a picturesque lake. On a clear night you can see a myriad of stars while fireflies seem to dance in the open fields. This is a far cry from my previous life living in an illegal basement sublet in Queens. This broad, open expanse has had an equal impact on my writing, be it acoustic compositions, electro-acoustic works, or songwriting. I’ve spent the last year working on an orchestra piece, The Decatur Fragments, inspired by the birdsongs I hear each morning while walking from my cabin to the recording studio.The work for Wild Rumpus, From Dreams, We Emerge, is influenced by this open expanse; it is a slow moving work with a dream-like quality, again influenced by my open surroundings.

A close up image of a tree by a lake at twilight.

Another view from the Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods Summer Camps (photo by Chris Cresswell).

Working as a teaching artist is a continual two way conversation. While my goal at the onset was to teach songwriting and recording, I ended up learning as much, if not more, myself. This work has reinstated my love of creativity and has demonstrated time and time again, the power of self-expression, in all of its forms. I’ve witnessed campers gain confidence as they’ve written their first songs, sang in front of their friends, and learned that they have the power to create themselves. In a culture where so much is dictated to our children, giving voice to their artistic ideas instills in them the belief that their thoughts, their ideas, and their concerns matter, that someone is listening to what they have to say and is providing a platform for them to say it. Working with a teaching artist shows that creativity can be a part of everyday life. Most of the music young people hear is mainstream pop, seemingly coming from this “other” faraway place. When students have a chance to work with a teaching artist, they have the opportunity to share their song, their dance, their poem, their painting, or whatever else they can imagine. What I hope to impart as a teaching artist is that creativity is not only possible but is encouraged.

On Not Composing


“What are you working on now?”

This is the default question that arises when two or more composers gather in the same place and, at least in my experience, I’ve found few—if any—composers willing to admit when we’re not writing anything. No one’s willing to answer “nothing.”

True, there’s rarely nothing happening for a working composer: maybe there was a spectacular premiere four months ago, or you finished writing a new piece a few weeks ago, or there’s a concert of your music coming up. It’s much easier to say, “Oh, I just finished a commission for [this ensemble]” or “I’m getting ready for a premiere” than to admit that we’re taking a break from creating. Universities perpetuate the need to constantly compose, or appear to be constantly composing, with weekly composition lessons and end-of-semester juries. For the rare subset of composers who have no shortage of inspiration and write daily, I imagine these arbitrary deadlines present no problem.

For me, though, when I’ve recently completed a set of pieces—because usually deadlines bunch together, and I’ll finish several new pieces in a row that are all due, say, September 1—I need a break. I don’t compose anything, usually for at least several months. I don’t feel an immediate need to keep composing, and so I don’t.

When asked what I’m working on, though, I become defensive, telling myself that no successful composer admits when they are not working. Instead of confessing that the last few weeks have been devoted to teaching, applying to contests, and watching the whole first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt in two days, I’ll mention a project I just completed, or a trip I just took to a premiere of my work.

It has taken years to recognize that this period of rest is absolutely vital to my process as a composer, and that I don’t have a choice in the matter: this is how I work best. Before this realization, I was afraid every time I took a break from composing that it was because I’d forgotten how to compose, or lost the desire to do so. But the period of rest is necessary. At the end of a yoga practice, savasana (or Corpse Pose) allows the body to rest and incorporate what it has learned. It’s time to acknowledge that in a creative practice, a period of rest can be every bit as necessary.

I use this time to go back and make small but important edits on the pieces I’ve finished, or to make parts for an upcoming premiere. I take care of small tasks I’ve been putting off for months, professional and personal. I research new competitions, grant applications, and residencies to which I should apply. I read books that end up feeding and shaping my artistic practice: recently, that’s included Dominick Argento’s Catalogue Raisonne as Memoir, Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, and Liz Lerman’s Hiking the Horizontal. I get back in touch with conductors about my work. I update my website. I read and re-read texts I’m planning to set to music for months before I actually put a note to paper. I think about what I’m going to write next when the inevitable need to compose comes back. I finally trust in this process: it always comes back.

In re-reading poetry by a favorite collaborator of mine, Annie Finch, during this most recent span of not-composing, I was struck by her translation of Andree Chedid’s poem “In Praise of Emptiness,” from Annie’s book Spells:

We need
The empty
To find
The full
So that the dream
So that the breath
Takes in

So that the fruit
We need
All the hollows

And the want.

The poem is on my list of poetry to set to music—but not right now, and I’m going to answer honestly the next time someone asks what I’m currently working on. I’m not composing anything, but I’m working on everything.

Dale Trumbore

Hailed by The New York Times for her “soaring melodies and beguiling harmonies,” Dale Trumbore has received commissions, performances, and awards from organizations including ACDA, ACME, Center City Opera Theater, Chanticleer, Inscape Chamber Orchestra, the Kronos Quartet, and VocalEssence. Hear Trumbore’s music at www.daletrumbore.com.

Right Place, Right Time

…Or, how I ran out of time to care about what other people think.


What’s your plan here? What’s your voice going to be? Is this music going to be current enough? How derivative will people hear you as? Are you going to play that game where there’s enough dissonance to prove that you are somehow “aware”?

…What are you even doing?

I bet these questions of mine are a common scenario that a lot of composers consider while they’re writing a new piece of music. It happens continuously as you navigate your way, bar by bar. You’ll be writing something, getting into the nuances of whatever has caught you ear, and the seed of doubt will creep in and distract your compositional flow.

I definitely think about this when I start and I usually approach the first question by listening to a lot of other people’s music to get my bearings. The problem with all of this of course is that it can terrorize you and inflict sleepless nights as you toss and turn, searching for an answer.

However with my commercial music production company, Found Objects, I face these first notes of a composition everyday but I don’t even notice these questions. Yes, it’s often a different kind of music, but it’s still music and in my experience it requires just as much focus as if I were writing an art song, etc.

At Found Objects, we write a lot of music. Your job is to get it right the first time and to do it better than 20 other composers and 5 other companies. In the best outcome, you pass the finish line with a win and then move on to the next one. It’s so temporary that you begin to forget what you’ve written the week before. Even if it’s a composition that explores elements I find interesting outside of the commercial medium, I sometimes forget it happened. This constant push to be more and more productive makes your attachment to what you’ve written minimal.

It was an interesting challenge to face coming from a conservatory-like atmosphere at the Yale School of Music and even from my own previous thoughts on the matter of composition. I always felt we were taught to suffer over the act of composing with thought and time. With every note you needed a reason and with every other note you need a direction. I would spend a few months writing a 12-minute solo piano piece. This now sounds like a crazy proposition.

As I moved further and further along the path of experience, music production, and the world of turning projects around in a few days, I learned to block out these concerns and focus on getting it done. Or else.

But that doesn’t mean you lower your standard of quality. I still maintain my attention to proper voice leading and orchestration. I even explore thematic development through rhythmic and melodic retrograde. In reality, it was more that I learned to ignore my doubts and fear of relevance and instead focused on completing the task at hand.

Here are 2 examples of a 6 part campaign that my business partner and composer Jay Wadley and I completed in an intense week for an IBM project:

IBM: Cloud

IBM: Watson

This abandon flowed from my day’s work into my night’s compositions, because there isn’t time to write other music during the day, of course. There’s a certain utility that I picked up that has since informed my writing of new music. Nothing is sacred and most things are functional.

So when I was writing Potential Energies, a 50-minute ballet, the process began at around 8pm and I left for the day around 11pm. That meant that for those 3 hours, when not occupied by social events like industry parties and gatherings, I had to move quickly.

This added up to a really thrilling experience as well as an interesting open collaboration with the director Sugar Vendil. There were two instances when I was told to scrap a piece and start over. This was a very strange request for the usually autocratic artistic role of a composer. But I did it and moved forward without looking back. That music is lost in the backup folders of the Potential Energies sessions.


What’s your plan here? What’s your voice going to be? Is this music going to be current enough? How derivative will people hear you as?

I figure the best way out of this is to just start writing and “Do it live!” to quote a Fox News hack.

Why I Make Music

Nick Norton's desk
Most of the time I take it for granted that I’m a composer. When I tell people that that’s what I do, the conversation usually turns to the music itself (“oh, so soundtracks?”) or to the sometimes-tricky financial side of the equation (“right, but what’s your job?”). These questions are similar to what I concern myself with in the day-to-day of it, too: What project needs attention? How does this transition sound? Are parts going to be ready in time? Who can I get to pay for this flight? The one question that no one ever asks, however, is simply “why?”

I don’t mean this in a condescending way, but in a curious one. What is it about making art that drives us to pick a path in life that involves thousands upon thousands of hours of dedication, serious financial risk, and, in many cases, rejection after rejection after rejection? This is not to say that you can’t make music as a hobby or just for fun and self-enrichment, but that’s not the way that I’m currently pursuing it. For me, there are quite a few answers to this question, which make themselves felt to varying degrees at different times. They all play a role, though, and they add up to something that, for me, makes it worth fighting through the struggles (both artistic and personal). Here’s why I make music:

Making music excites me, more than almost anything else I’ve ever experienced.

While growing up I’d always planned on doing something in or with music, but I can pinpoint the exact moment that I decided that something was composing. It was while hearing the third bar of the first piece I ever wrote for someone else to play. As an undergrad, I had started out as a double major in guitar and political science and had always written music for my bands, so I decided to take an introduction to composition course with Harvey Sollberger. Our first assignment was to write a short piece for flute, using only five pitches, which he would then workshop with us and perform. I spent the week coming up with something that I’d probably now find pretty dull. It didn’t matter. On the second beat of the first bar I was totally enraptured. I had an idea in my head, and now it was being turned into something real in the world. This was not considered a miracle? Somewhere in the second bar I did some calculations, thought about what I’d enjoyed in life thus far, how much I hate having a routine schedule and how much I like working with people, and on the downbeat of the third decided to change my major and abandon any plan B. No plan B makes me feel the way that creating music does.

I have some kind of artistic impulse, and I love introducing people to new things. Music is just the thing that I am best at.

I love to introduce people to new experiences—I worked as a tour guide in college, am pretty obsessed with finding craft beers that people who say they don’t like beer end up loving, and get a surprisingly similar kick out of making a mixtape for someone as I do from inventing my own sounds. Music is the thing that I’ve spent the most time with, and have the most experience in, so that aspect of my personality most often manifests itself in composing. Now, the things that get my mind going, and that I want to explore, could be equally well dealt with in any medium. I’d likely be just as satisfied and excited making visual art, but I’m a terrible painter. Music is my most developed skill, so it makes sense to me to use it to do the things I want to do.

Music has done so much for me. I want to do that for someone else.

This is more of a social answer than a musical one. When I was growing up, I was kind of a nerd or loner or whatnot. We moved a couple of times, and the town we ended up in placed a lot of value on adolescents’ athletic abilities and/or how hard they partied. I went a lot of years without a lot of friends, until I found the (rather small) neighborhood punk scene. Before finding it, I always had music to hang out with and work on, and after finding it I discovered that I wasn’t alone in my feelings and could use a shared interest in music to connect with people. There were even songs about just that, and I’d always read interviews with guys in little-known bands where they said, “if one kid [listener, regardless of age] connects with something in our music and finds something he can relate to or that makes his day a little better, we’ve completely succeeded.” I wish I could tell a lot of those guys how much what they did meant to me—I did write John K. Samson a letter once, and he actually wrote back!—and I do truly hope that I can do that for someone else.

There’s war and global warming and terrorism and corporate greed and student loans and corrupt cops and terrorism. The universe is probably meaningless, and we’re basically all screwed. Music is nice.

Why not, really? I’d rather be playing guitar or putting together a concert than fighting a losing battle against spacetime.
Norton at the beach


In re-reading these answers, the one that might not come across, and needs to be emphatically added, is that I love the stuff. I love making it, and I love listening to it, and I feel insanely lucky that our society makes it possible for me to pursue those things instead of pursuing subsistence. We have an extremely small amount of time in the universe. Spending it doing stuff that I don’t love just seems like a shame, and enough of a shame that I’m down to work myself to the bone to avoid it.

Onward, then. I’ve got a piece to finish.