Saturday, September 25, 2004


There is so much going on here, so many different balls that I'm trying to keep in the air, that I am trying to confine each journal entry to one particular area. This one is on composition.

I just went to a collaborative pianist's recital. There is a collaborative piano major here, although I found out tonight that there are only 5 of them! No wonder they are always so busy! It was quite splendid - works by Pizzetti, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Malipiero, who were all Italians working in the first half of the 20th century. What really made the performance was the performers - the pianist (whose concert it was) was excellent and the singers were as well. The two sopranos especially were just captivating.

Going to concerts generally puts me in a composing mode. I sit there and my mind drifts around to all sorts of good ideas that I could use as seeds of a composition. This reminds me of something Dr. Young said in class...he was talking about how many of the great composers would improvise, and how they always needed something to start with, some material to get their brains flowing...he said that Mozart or Chopin would play a little Bach first, and then from that get a few ideas and dive into an improvisation. The general idea is absolutely correct - whenever I go to a concert, I usually come out inspired. However, tonight it made me want to take out a couple of songs I wrote in college and dust them off and improve the accompaniments. I dug them out when I got home, and they're in more complete shape than I realized...which makes me wonder if someone actually performed them on a concert and I'd forgotten? Anyways, I'm still pleased with them, and if I get some time, I shall do some more work on them.

This composition class is interesting because it's demonstrating to me just how mathematical a project composition is. We're going on a sort of musical-history-composition tour...we started out writing a Gregorian chant, then some Notre-Dame organum, then a few lines of an isorhythmic motet in Machaut's style. (I was called "a virtuous example of isorhythm and melodic coherence" this week. ;) We also have to do all these counter-point exercises with various rules imposed (no parallel fifths, rules about melodic shape, etc.) that are quite fun...but highly mathematical. And since the goal of each piece is to produce something in the style of what we are imitating, I'm not trying to produce a great tune, I'm just trying to do things correctly, and get all the pieces to fall into place. This means that I am having a much easier time than I expected composing away from the piano. In fact, my method has become compose the piece lounging on the couch, go to the piano, polish it up, type it up, hand it in. And when I play it through at the piano for the first time, it sounds pretty good, even though I had composed it not thinking of sound so much as following the rules laid out for construction (what intervals I can use, what shape the line should have, etc.) Whereas at Williams, probably b/c our compositions were ensemble-based and not style-based, I always had to be at the piano, b/c I was always trying to come up with melodies and harmonies that I liked. It's rather fascinating that adopting a mathematical and logical approach to composition (which I had previously disliked on the grounds that music is meant to be heard and should have its roots in sound) has actually produced very pleasing exercises. (This doesn't mean I like Carter any better than I did before, though.)

I like this method of working out exercises in different styles following a historical timeline. The idea is that we are building a compositional toolbox - every style adds something (e.g. rhythmic modes, isorhythm, double leading-tones.) And then if we ever get into a place where we have to compose something without restrictions, we'll have something to work with. Dr. Young (whom I very, very much like, by the way) mentioned a Stravinsky quote in class that really hit the target for me. I don't remember it exactly, and neither did he, but it was something like, "If someone asks me to write them a piece, I'm at a total loss, I don't know where to start. If someone asks me to write a piece 4 minutes long for 3 saxophones and harmonica in 3/4 time in the key of Eb, I'm immediately overflowing with ideas, and can't wait to get started."

I wasn't able to find this quote online, unfortunately, but I found a similar Stravinsky quote (only more high-falutin'):

"My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit. "

Next up: a Binchois melodic line.

The one piece I'm dying to write right now actually had its inspiration in Choral Literature. We were talking about chanson, and how they were all about courtly love...and everyone started giggling, b/c "courtly love" sounds so very much like "Courtney Love." I am now absolutely and firmly determined to write a French chanson about Courtney Love. I am now accepting proposals for texts...French only, please, and they should follow the formula of praising the beloved and talking about how remote, unavailable, and inspiring she is. Adopting a forme fixe poetic style would be much appreciated.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Upcoming events

For those who are interested, here is a list of events that I will be performing in this fall and winter.

Thursday, October 21 - Sunday, October 24 Westminster is having a Brahms festival. The two events I will be performing at will be the conducting masterclass from 1-4 pm on Saturday (Dr. Flummerfelt will pick apart my conducting of one of the Zigeunerlieder) and a concert by the Westminster Choir on Saturday evening at 8 pm. There will be other concerts, both choral and solo, throughout the weekend, as well as lectures. If you wanted to come farther south than New York City at some point this fall, this would be the weekend to do it. *cough cough*

Saturday, October 30 at 8 pm, there will be a concert featuring the Westminster Symphonic Choir, and some of the smaller choirs as well. I will be in Symphonic Choir, performing Holst's Hymn to Jesus, as well as other works. Kantorei and the Williamson Voices, both very good choruses, will be performing in that concert.

The Jubilee Singers will be performing on November 6 at 8 pm.

The big one: The Westminster Symphonic Choir (with me in it*) will be performing the Brahms Requiem with Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos and the Dresden Philharmonic on Monday, November 8 at 8 pm in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. For tickets, call (212) 875-5656.

We will be performing the Brahms Requiem again with Neeme Jarvi and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra on November 19 at 8 pm in Trenton; on November 20 at 8 pm in Newark; and on November 21 at 3 pm in Newark.

Readings and Carols, featuring the Westminster Symphonic Choir (all of the Symphonic Choirs put together) will perform on December 10 at 8 pm; and on December 11 at 8 pm.

The other big one: The Westminster Choir will be performing Handel's Messiah with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic on December 15 at 7:30 pm; on December 16 at 7:30 pm; on December 17 at 8:00 pm; and on December 18 at 8:00 pm. All performances at the Riverside Church in NYC. For tickets, call (212) 875-5656.

I think it's obvious which two I think everyone should come to this fall. (Hint: they're bolded, and I included telephone numbers for tickets.) There will be EVEN MORE stuff in the second semester. For information about any of these concerts, go to Westminster's website.

*Symphonic Choir has been split into 2 choirs this year. If you see a concert by Symphonic Choir, I am not necessarily singing in it - ask me first before you go haring off to buy tickets. However, I am performing in all the concerts listed in this entry.

Monday, September 20, 2004


Long day. First class at 9:10 am, last rehearsal ended at 9:30 pm, only breaks in there were 1/2 hour for lunch and 1/2 hour dinner.

And let's look at the ratio here, eh?
Time spent in class: 1 hour + 1.5 hours + 1.5 hours = 4 hours
Time spent in rehearsal: 1 hour + 1 hour + 1.5 hours + 3 hours = 6.5 hours
And this doesn't reflect the fact that the last 1.5 hour class (Conducting I) was spent entirely singing.

Now, that's the kind of ratio I can totally get behind...but it is kind of tiring on the voice!

The last rehearsal was Jubilation. Jubilation is the first-year subset of the Jubilee Singers. Those singers who have been in the group a year or more are called Jubilee, and the newbies like me are called Jubilation.

I am of two minds about Jubilation. On the one hand, Donald Dumpson, the conductor, is great. He is taking a lot of time to get in our faces about our assumptions about music and style, and about race, and about the world in general, and he is slowly trying to challenge us to be honest with ourselves. He's doing exercises to get us to connect to the emotional core of the music, and to build up our confidence and strip away our self-conciousness.

But I am the only graduate student. Most of the students are freshman, and those that aren't are sophomores...and I'm having some problems confronting the impatient, snobby side of me that both has trouble relating to people that young, and is condescending towards where they are. I may be full of it, and of course I have more to learn, but I don't have the problem with self-conciousness or fear of looking stupid that these teenagers do. For the most part it's fascinating, and useful...but it is really hard to shake the feeling that I've already done a lot of the growing that most of the class has not.

Also, they all sing too loud, and not with each other. That is not singular to Jubilation, though, although I think it is exacerbated by the youth and nervousness of that class. I am learning here (and not just in Jubilation) that the idea behind the core definition of a chorus, "people singing together," is not that easy to achieve. Especially with a bunch of people who are here because of their voice, and that's what they want to prove themselves with.

The other challenge is personalizing the text. I can internalize text like "I love Jesus," but when I get something like this, it's tough:

Nothing between my soul and the Savior,
Naught of this world's delusive dream:
I have renounced all sinful pleasure -
Jesus is mine! There's nothing between.

Nothing between my soul and the Savior,
So that his blessed face may be seen;
Nothing preventing the least of his favor:
Keep the way clear! Let nothing between.

Nothing between, e'en many hard trials,
Though the whole world against me convene;
Watching with prayer and much self-denial -
Triumph at last! with nothing between!

Now, I can own most of that text. But how can I get behind a line like "I have renounced all sinful pleasure"? One of my main problems with much of Christianity today is that I believe it propagates hate of natural states of the body and portrays physical love as sinful - I think that philosophy has totally messed up the self-image of generations. Nor do I think this world is an illusion to be patiently endured. And I can't figure out way to twist those kinds of words to my mind. Singing about Jesus is not too difficult, b/c if I think of the man, and what he was trying to achieve, I feel enormous sympathy and care for him and his vision. It's not too hard to smooth that respectful opinion into a reverence and a willingness for helping those who believe in his divinity celebrate that belief. But how can I get behind a doctrine of self-denial?

Since the core of Jubilation is cutting right to the honest soulful heart of things, I can't really skim over it. Mr. Dumpson won't accept that kind of laziness. I guess I'll just have to wrestle with it. I can act it as another person if I have to, but I'd prefer to be able to incorporate a believable performance with my real self.

This entry has presented a disproportionate view of my problems in Jubilation, I fear - but then, we never need to discuss or write about that which goes well. :) These thoughts represent maybe 10-20% of my rehearsal time with them, and there are some excellent, moving, deeply thoughtful and people-binding moments going on. My favorite today came at the end of rehearsal, when Jubilee Singers (the experienced ones) had come it to work with us on a few pieces. After we had sight-read some hymns and worked on them, Mr. Dumpson said, "Ok, Jubilee, sing Jesus Loves Me - Jubilation, you just listen." Jubilee was sitting mixed in with Jubilation, mostly at the back, most of them focused and laid-back, and they had not called attention to themselves. But when he said this, and started playing the piece, they all rose up from their seats and came to the center of the room, with this easy, assured, laid-back, dancing step that was a joy to see, and then burst out singing together in perfect harmony. They, they sang together. It was a joy to hear as well, and then towards the end we (Jubilation) all joined in as well. They were a unit, and it gave me faith (Hallelujah!) that if they turned out like that, then he can take a raggle-taggle, immature, self-concious group of teenagers and a crusty, snotty graduate student and turn out the same kind of harmony.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Conducting lab

Into the third week. Yesterday was my first fully-scheduled Monday. This is because on Friday, I found out that I got into the Westminster Choir. Yippee! The Westminster Choir is currently the elite chorus on campus. I say currently b/c two new groups just started up this year, the Williamson Voices led by James Jordan, which is doing a lot of premieres, and Kantorei led by Dr. Megill, which specializes in Renaissance music. I have friends in both groups, and I hear they are both sounding fabulous, so there soon may be 3 elite choruses on campus. Or more...Jubilee Singers promises to be an experience entirely unlike the others, and I think in a very good way.

So perhaps it would be best to say that Westminster Choir currently gets some of the best gigs. ;) I will be singing Handel's Messiah with the New York Philharmonic this December, and best of all, the Westminster Choir goes to the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina every year from mid-May to mid-June, and gets paid to be the chorus for all the operas that are staged. So that should be fantastic. Don Giovanni, here I come!

Despite yesterday being a long day (Westminster Choir meets from 4:30 - 6:00 pm on MWF, so I had an extra hour and a half of rehearsal before Jubilee Singers began) today was much more exhausting, and it was all due to conducting lab. Conducting lab is a part of Conducting I, but it meets only once a week, on Tuesdays, and the point is to work on how you teach a piece, rather than how you conduct it (teaching methods versus conducting methods and gesture work.) Since there are about 10 people in the class, two people go each week, and they have half an hour each, and everyone goes up about once every month and a half. The class format is not much different from Conducting I (although in Conducting I, people usually get in the hot seat for in 10-minute chunks, and everyone goes once a week.) But for me, the lab was a very different experience.

I used Weep, O Mine Eyes by Bennet as my piece, b/c I love it so much. However, I remember having problems with this piece when I conducted it for the Elizabethans, and it seems I still have massive work to do. First of all, I started out trying to I stared at the music for the entire first read-through. I did this for a very concrete reason. I did this b/c Prof. Marvin at Harvard, w/ whom I audited a conducting class about two years ago, said, "On the first read-through, look at the music, so that you can tell if something goes wrong." It made great sense at the time (I found Prof. Marvin to generally be a man of emminent sense as well as good humor.) However, this proved to be not so good in this situation for several reasons. First of all, the conductors at Westminster are all such good sight-readers that they don't make mistakes that often. Secondly, I know the piece well enough that I don't need to be looking down to catch the mistakes. Thirdly, and most importantly, it meant I cut myself off from the singers, and the sound that came out was timid. The other problem was that I was listening for mistakes...whereas I should have been listening for the music. Listening in a negative way, for negative things, means they will happen, and listening for positive things, like the music, means that will happen. It's amazing what can happen if you just expect it to.

So they worked on getting me to look up...on getting me to make gestures to bring people in, to get them to sing, on expressing the line more with my arms...all things about making me be more giving to the chorus, and more concerned with inviting them to sing well. Now, this is all the sort of stuff that we also work on in Conducting I class, on Mondays and Wednesdays, so I thought I would be prepared. But for some reason, the half-hour session left me feeling like a wrung-out washcloth, and very much wanting to cry. I've discovered over the past few years that I may feel like crying not because I'm necessarily sad or angry, but just because...well, I'm not sure! I wasn't sure today! Too much emotion? What was the emotion? Inadequacy? Insecurity? Learning? Can simply learning make you want to cry? I know I did improve immensely over the half hour, though I wished at the end of it that I had started out doing all the things we worked on right so we could have worked on other things and I could have made more progress, b/c I feel like all this is stuff I should know. I think this overwhelmed crying feeling has happened before in lessons, come to think of it...

Prof. Jordan has written a lot of books, and I began to read one (before I got side-tracked by the Brother Cadfael mystery series.) In it he talked about vulnerability, and how it's an absolutely essential quality for a conductor. I wonder if that is related to this? Perhaps what I am feeling is exposed. And exposure is not a negative feeling, which is why I may be confused, but it can still be very emotional. Learning is very exposing. Perhaps that is why it comes up when I'm on the spot in learning situations - being exposed shakes me up and makes me feel like crying. I'll go with that theory for now.

Side note: This reminds me of the fact that my body will often register emotions that I'm not conscious of feeling. The most common one is getting shivers while singing in a chorus, or directing. I am not aware of hearing anything particularly more beautiful at that moment, but if I get goosebumps, I know something good has just happened. I think it happened for the first time when I sang the Brahm's Requiem at Williams.

Anyways. It was quite an exhausting day. Too bad I still have so much homework to do.

Monday, September 06, 2004

The first week

So, the first week of classes is over! I have had all my classes. And thankfully, I have today off.

I had two auditions this week as well, one for the Williamson Voices, which is conducted by James Jordan, and will be doing a great deal of premieres and recording this year. The other is the Westminster Choir, which is still conducted by Joe Flummerfelt, and is currently considered the most elite chorus on campus. (He is officially retired, but will still be doing some work with the college this year, most notably for me in the area of conducting masterclasses.) They meet at the same time, so I can't be in both ensembles, but hopefully I will get into one or the other.

The two other ensembles I'm in are Jubilation (the introductory level of the Jubilee Singers) and Symphonic Choir. I am still unsure about what to expect from Jubilation. The first rehearsal was all work on getting us to lose our inhibitions about how we thought we should act, mostly. So he had people get up in front of the class and imitate their favorite rock stars, for instance. Interesting - was I that repressed and fearful about looking like an idiot when I was a freshman? - but I'm not sure what sort of music we'll be doing. Perhaps tomorrow I'll go to the library and get out one of their CDs.

Symphonic Choir is fine. I think Prof. Megill is a little worried about keeping everyone up to the standards that Prof. Flummerfelt set, b/c he's a teddy bear when teaching class, but moves very briskly in rehearsal, and doesn't hide his annoyance when we don't keep up. Related to that, I had also hoped that Symphonic Choir would be a little more on the ball. It would appear that (as usual in my choral experiences) I'm quicker on the update than my neighbors. I wonder if this will ever again not be the case. Perhaps if I get into the Westminster Choir (cross your fingers!) Then again, I suppose, as a conductor, it's part of my job to be quicker on the uptake than everybody else. But I had rather hoped to be overwhelmed and awed by the Symphonic Choir experience, and intimidated by the expertise of my neighbors. As it is, I am merely deafened (one thing must be said, I have never in my life sung with people who produced such an enormous sound! Even Jubilee Singers left my head buzzing.)

Choral Literature, Choral Conducting 1, and Conducting Lab are all taught by Professor M, who I like very much. They all have approximately the same people in them - the choral conducting crowd. Composition class is mostly (perhaps all) undergraduates, a great many of whom appear to be loud adolescent boys who think they are very amusing. I don't feel very bonded to the class right now, but as we all listen to each others' compositions, I'm hoping this will change. I'm auditing The Operas of Mozart, which interesting, but in the deadly post-lunch hour when sleep raises its siren call. I'm also auditing Diction, which is hugely easy, but also will be hugely useful, I think.

That's pretty much it. As Prof. M said to me, most of the work here will be in rehearsal, as this is a conservatory, and the academics will not be as hard as what I'm used to, coming out of a physics major at Williams. Which is just fine by me.

I'm also gaining confidence that there will be good people here to make friends with. AN, a fellow first-year choral conductor, is sharp and funny, and SJ, another first-year choral conductor who just finished a masters here in vocal performance, has also been really friendly and kind. SJ took me to Wegman's yesterday - I'm so glad I finally found a grocery store I'm happy with in the area! All the small close stores are hugely expensive, and the supermarket down Harrison has rather wilted produce, as well as being moderately expensive as well. It's Wegman's for me! I shall have to figure out how to bike there.

Saturday, SJ and I had a picnic, with a couple of other people, and talked the afternoon away. Saturday evening I went to see Vanity Fair with a couple people from the picnic (I don't recommend the movie, by the way - not painful to watch, but very meandering.) I've also been hanging out with my Australian roommate, LG - on Friday we watched The Philadelphia Story and yesterday we watched City of God, a pair of movies that couldn't be more different from each other, and both of which I highly recommend.

Other than that, I've been correcting undergraduate theory homework for my graduate assistantship, and working on cleaning my room. Speaking of which, it's time to continue the work!