Friday, October 4, 2013



It has come to my attention that classical music has recently died.

City Opera is done. They have millions of dollars of debt. Operations ceased.

Minnesota orchestra. Vänskä resigns. Aâròn Jåy Kérnïs resigns.

Carnegie Hall stage hands went on strike for a day. (There are 5 of them.)

German orchestras also went on strike apparently.

RIP classical music.

Stay tuned for further updates (if necessary).

Artist's realization of the end times

Monday, February 11, 2013

How to win composing

One of the main reasons we all became composers is the thrill of competition. The hunt, the chase, the adrenaline rush, the sport of it all! The vibrant beauty of young lads, in the prime of youth, competing for the glory of being the best. We are lucky in that we have such a well formed and established competition circuit for the young composer to earn his chops on, which then turn into exciting and plentiful opportunities for the mid-career composer like the Rome Prize, all culminating in such Grand Prix as the Grawemeyer and the Pulitzer, two of the most closely watched and anticipated contests in all of music.

The Greek Olympics
As in Ancient Greece, the composer today is celebrated for the
intrinsic beauty of their competitive success.
It's no coincidence that "composer" and "competition" share the same root. From the Latin, "com-" means "together, together with, together in union," and hints at the true nature of the composition competition- a grand coming together, a coming together of coming togethers, a union of the fractured lines of musical thought which are worked out in communal fashion by expert panels and committees through the process of selection and reward, ultimately settling once and for all which music is superior in a culminating announcement of their decision. The competition is thus the apotheosis of cultural musical expression. This is why so many average music listeners refer so religiously to such famous competitions as the Masterprize when deciding what new music they are going to like.

With competitions holding such a valuable and important place in the career paths of young composers, many justifiably want to win as many as possible, so as to secure admission to more prestigious graduate schools of composition and thus win more coveted teaching positions at more prestigious universities. So many want to know: how can I achieve more success with the composition competition? Well being such an objective process, there are a few simple things you can do in your compositions and life to help improve your chances with the competition panel.

The first thing (step 1) that will really help you win competitions is to have won a lot of competitions already. This is very important. Many committees don't want to go out on a limb and decide that something is good for themselves- they feel much more comfortable selecting winners that other committees have already put their stamp of approval on. You will find that a small number of contestants tend to win the majority of competitions. This is not only because they are the best composers, but because they have a proven track record of success and so must be the best.

If step 1 proves problematic for you, I suggest applying to competitions where your teacher sits on the judging panel (step 2). Often the most prestigious competitions are reviewed by panels of older, respected composers who themselves have won many competitions and most likely teach at prestigious universities. This makes sense because who is better at judging hot new trends in music than old people? Study with them. Many of them will want to secure their own legacy as important composers and teachers by demonstrating that their students are very prolific competition winners, who themselves will one day make excellent competition judges. Take advantage of this.

What about the music itself you ask? Is there anything you can do there to help secure your competition legacy? Well there are a few simple things you can change in your music in order to be a more viable competitor (step 3). While not nearly as important as steps 1 and 2, these relatively simple steps won't hurt you either. After all, you didn't become a composer in order to get second place. If you aren't first, you're last.  There is no try.

1. Use Crotales. I simply don't understand composers that don't use Crotales in every single composition. They are the most versatile, wonderful instrument, which can be struck with a mallet, bowed, or even hit creatively with a knitting needle. Nothing says "competition winner" like constant, absurd saturation of your music with Crotales. Similarly,

Crotales, the most important instrument in modern composition.
2. Why not use 7 triangles? Better use of duplicate percussion instruments is one of the easiest steps to take towards competition success. You don't want to be labeled as one of those composers that only uses one triangle per composition when you just as easily could be using 7, or 11 different triangles, arranged stereophonically around the audience, each struck exactly once.

3. Use lots of tuplets of things- on page 1. Some composers might have some great tuplets of things in their compositions, but they bury them way down on page 20. Most panels don't have the time to wade all the way through a long and dense composition to find your best tuplets. You want those to be displayed front and center, right away. You want the first page of your composition to say, "I can make a tuplet of anything." Also, if you are European, the downbeat of the tuplet should always be a rest.
An example of some masterful use of tuplets.

4. Title your piece artistically- for success! Nothing is more difficult for the composer than coming up with a title that keeps up with the latest titling trends. While we seem to be coming out of a period where successful composition titles included a word with an internal part of the word enclosed by parentheses-  such as Inter(rupt)ions- which followed a long period of titles suggesting the deep mathematical or scientific understanding of the composer- Geopolymetrcisms- today's trends might suggest the need for something a bit more poetic. A good standby is to title your pieces beginning with a "... and." This helps to convey how badly you would like to win competitions, as well as how deep and mysterious your thoughts are, as though they are constantly on-going and the listener just happens to pass by mid-sentence. (Example: ... and how deep and mysterious ). It really works well with almost any sentence. (... and with almost any sentence ... )

5. Don't write slow music. What is this, the middle ages? Nobody has time for this. When the panel pops in your demo CD, you have about 10 seconds to keep them listening. This is achieved by showing how many notes and extended techniques you can fit in in 10 seconds, not by boring them to death with some long slow build to a climax.

By following these few simple steps, you will be well on your way to greater competition success. And should you find yourself discouraged by the competition circuit, you can always try your hand at Popular Music, where the best music always makes the most money and the most culturally important achievements are recognized annually at the Grammys.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

On making a scene

Two anecdotes to set the stage:

An untold number of years ago, back when I was involved in my first upstart entrepreneurial new music project here in Los Angeles, one of my collaborators thought it would be a good idea to reach out to one of the older, more established new music groups in town to ask, you know, for advice on what the heck we're doing. To seek any kernels of wisdom from those older and wiser on the highs and lows of striking out on your own to form a new arts non-profit.

The response: "we can't help you, you're our competition."

This has stuck with me for years since because I can't get over what a tragic answer it is. Not to get all Shakespearean, but it cuts straight to the core of one of man's fatal flaws- the misperception of self interest. I get it: the scraps of money seemingly available to the new music musicians are so small, our instinct is to fight ever more viciously over the precious crumbs of audience members. It's human nature. But in reality, this attitude is actually grossly self-defeating. It's like the individual Easter Islander fighting for the right to cut down a tree in order to roll a massive stone statue miles away to erect it facing the ocean. Yeah sure it might make the individual chief seem totally awesome- until there are no more trees and the civilization collapses. It's the tragedy of the commons - somebody should write an opera about it.


Composers in Los Angeles love to complain about never getting played by the LA Phil. They do have a point, at least in terms of the data. Esa-Pekka earned accolades and worship from New York critics for his adventurous programming of (mostly) Finnish composers + John Adams and the audiences that attended said concerts and applauded, but very few if any Los Angeles based composers ever received much (if any) love. As if adding insult to injury, The LA Phil now plans a "Brooklyn Festival" of new music, and the LA Chamber Orchestra continues to parade a familiar batch of young Brooklyn based composers across their stage.

On the other hand, we the Los Angeles composer might stand back a second and ask if we deserve it. We might individually believe our music more than worthy to grace the baton of our boy wonder conductor, but who collectively do we hold up as the best we have to offer? This should make apparent the bigger problem: there is no collective from which to choose our representative. I do believe Los Angeles and its new music makers have a wealth of exciting ideas and music. But it's Balkanized. At least compared to the current gold standard of Brooklyn (cue choir "ahhh"), what I see is great potential in search of scene.

Maybe this is the reason why Brooklyn keeps poaching some of our best prospects. Young composers move to New York for the scene, not the weather.

So what do they got that we don't? What are the components of a thriving new music scene? Starting from the assumption that New York has a thriving scene, as their PR people constantly tell us via twitter, we might think a good place to start would be to list all the things New York has.

1. Music publishers
2. Performance Rights Organizations (BMI and ASCAP)
3. Lots of New Music Ensembles
4. Centenarian composers with amusing stories about meeting Stravinsky
5. Lots of other composers
6. PR people
7. An audience (?)
8. Record Labels
9. Music Schools
10. Venerable blue blood investment in music
11. Bloggers
12. Agents and managers

OK. So there's a bunch of random stuff. New York has a lot of things, neat. And it better as the classical music business center of the country. But actually this list is quite useless. It's a business list, and Los Angeles is not about to compete with New York as the center of the classical music business, just as New York is not about to compete with LA as the center of the movie making business. Basic economic geography tells us that like businesses tend to cluster- there is mutual benefit to it. It's why all the new tech companies are in Silicon Valley, it's why there are all those furniture stores on La Brea. But I'm talking about artistic clustering- an art scene- and the number of agents your city has don't matter.  Basically, this list is utterly irrelevant to the fact of the LA Phil's "Brooklyn" festival. What LA composers and musicians need to foster is a clustering of artistic creation. The agents will follow.

An art scene has a lot in common with the industrial clustering of Detroit or Boston or New York. But let's think about what it is actually important to cluster. Seattle had a thriving grunge indie-music scene, and produced a lot of famous bands. The major record labels came to them. That should be the model.

So what is a thriving art scene? It's a bunch of people clustering together and doing art. And then talking about it.

Here's a new list:

1. Lots of new music ensembles
2. Lots of composers
3. Lots of people (mostly the same people from parts one and two) talking about it
4. An audience (?)

Now most likely this is something that happens organically, and can't be prescribed for a city by a central planner writing an obscure blog article. But think of this as descriptive rather than prescriptive. And it's already starting to happen. Enough elements of this list start firing, and what does it add up to? Hype. And what follows hype? All the other stuff from list one. Larger monied institutions. Audience members who aren't actually musicians themselves. PR people. Hipsters. All looking to milk some of hype for themselves.

There's something to this about the biological imperative for creating art in the first place. That's another blog post.

Here's what you can do to help: first, stop sitting in your room complaining that nobody is playing your music or that you have no where to play your instrument. Get out there and make it happen. We need a lot of ensembles looking to put on concerts. This is a lot of work. But as groups trail blaze a path, venues start to learn, and it gets easier. The next step is easy though: where there are new music bands putting on concerts, composers will follow like attorneys chasing ambulances. And the two actually form a symbiotic relationship. The composer looking to get his or her own piece played by an ensemble is a reliable audience member. In fact, they are probably the early adopter audience member. When you only have three audience members, two are the significant others of the band members, and the third is a composer.

But don't get depressed. We all have to start somewhere. Just remember, one or two bands playing in isolation a scene does not make. Don't forget about step three. It's the most important. LA already has a bunch of groups and a bunch of composers.

Talk about the concerts you see. Put on lots of concerts, and talk about them. If you are so inclined, blog or tweet about it. Or just talk to people in the old fashioned way, like in the middle ages. It's the appearance of activity that counts, but not just your activity. The scene's activity.

It's ok that your motives are selfish- you hope to get plucked out of the cutting edge scene by monied institutions who can help your music reach wider audiences. But to have any chance of that, you first need a hyped scene and you need to be an active part of that scene. Go to concerts! I simply cannot understand composers (and they are numerous) who do not go to concerts. Don't you like music? Why the heck are you putting yourself through all of this work if you don't? And once you do, be selfless in your promotion of others' work. Especially if you like it.

The more it seems like something is going on, the more others will want to be a part of it. It's human nature. Nobody wants to be left out.

The crazy thing about thinking of two small fledgling new music groups in the same city as each others' "competition" is that a single group could never possibly meet the musical needs of any true music fan. We are bands, not soft-drink companies. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are not each others' competition, at least not like Coke and Pepsi are. People might choose Coke exclusively over Pepsi as the cause of their Type II diabetes, but nobody chooses The Beach Boys as their band to the exclusion of all music. Nobody has ever said "Nico Muhly is my composer, please take your business elsewhere."

It is through the confluence of artistic activity that aesthetic direction is established, a scene is hyped, and ultimately, young talented composers stop moving away from Los Angeles to start their careers but to it. So if you want a true scene, it's time to come down out of your closely guarded aesthetic towers, your new music fiefdoms, and start attending each others' concerts. It's already happening. You are the audience and the creator. You are also the publicist. Talk about what you're doing. Argue about it. Remember, you're selling cool. It's the perception of cool that the audience and money will follow.

And oh yeah, there might even be some great music made in the process. Who knows.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Golijov raises the level of people's ire

There is currently a "big" (in new music terms) controversy over Golijov's perhaps less than honest use of others' music in his own. Now, you may recall I did a big blog post expounding on the virtues of his cello concerto Azul. So I thought I'd once again provide the links so you can hear for yourself what everybody is complaining about.

Here is a link to hear Michael Ward-Bergman's Barbeich (cool).

Here is a performance of Golijov's Siderius (which he says is based on Ward-Bergeman's "melody").

Worth noting: is it plagiarism if the two composers had an agreement? Michael Ward-Bergeman is not the one complaining here.

As I may have mentioned in the past, nobody stirs up the general hatred of other composers like Osvaldo Golijov seems to be able to, and I respect that. I'm torn because he has written (or maybe "written") some pretty awesome pieces, but that is not a relevant issue as far as a lot of other composers are concerned. (Related: composers' general dismissal of Danny Elfman, who I also seem to defend.) I mean, is there a point where we have to say, if the music is awesome, who cares where it came from? Isn't it still awesome? There have been some pretty great "plagiarists" in the pantheon of great Western composers (Mahler, Stravinsky, Michael Daugherty- inside composers joke- etc.)

Sadly, it doesn't seem Sidereus can defend itself on awesome grounds. Golijov, get it together! The world needs more composers that are actually good, so I'm not giving up on you completely. Maybe the pressure of being an A-list composer is getting to you? I'm going to go listen to The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind now.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Blogger's Conceit

Sorry I haven't posted in a while.

There comes a time in every amateur blogging composer's budding blogging career when they pause to reflect on the meaning of blogging. Because really, that's what it's all about.

Such important blog-centric self-reflection inevitably starts with an existential blogging crisis. This crisis is brought about by the realization that the blogger hasn't posted in a long time. This necessitates an important and heartfelt apology to the blogger's readers for their worrisome absence, with perhaps a simultaneous and ironic nod to the fact that such readers may not actually exist, let alone have noticed that the blogger had been neglecting their blogging duties.

The blogosphere can be a vast and empty sphere indeed for the lonely blogger who hasn't posted in a while.

The Blogoverse

Most blogging composers (and artists and creative types of all stripes) start out on their blog gangbusters, thinking "what a great way to generate an exciting buzz about myself. I'm so witty and charming." They are often so excited about the amazing and seemingly unlimited quantities of free publicity an amateur blog instantly bestows upon the blogger that they might initially post as much as once or twice a week. They daydream about all the additional revenue that will be generated from the advertising on their site. All their financial woes will finally be solved. And as I'm sure all their readers- who must certainly exist- agree, their cat can strike some pretty hilariously cute poses.

Eventually though it becomes painfully evident that generating interesting blog posts in a professional manner is actually a lot of work. Posts become more and more infrequent, as life and maybe the occasional actual creative activity distract the blogger. Eventually, the trickle of posts fizzles to vast nothingness, and an abandoned blog is left floating in the blogoverse, like a tiny seed of truth that never grew into a full-born tree.

Alone, lost in the digital backwaters of dreams unrealized, in search of meaning, the amateur blogger airs their crisis of being in public- which is to say, with possibly no one.

Step one: apologies.

Of course I'm not the first meta-blogger cultural critic to observe this fact. I started thinking about this thanks to the post-art conceptual artist (and music major!) Cory Arcangel, who has a re-posting blog where he re-blogs posts from around the web which are apologizing for not posting in a while. It's super meta.

However I intend to out conceptualize him. I conceive of my whole composition career as a conceptual art project, my blog about blogging included as a subset of that project. It's kind of a meta-tragi-comedy.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Micro-blog post (it's about conductors)

It was time for a blog post. I thought this would tie in with some of my previous irreverent comments on conductors.

Of course I'm really good at ignoring conductors, especially while I'm counting rests.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Everybody cover Radiohead. Go!

Maybe you are a hip young classical music group feeling down in the dumps about your number of YouTube hits. Or maybe you're feeling insecure about your street cred since that skinny-jeans and elvis-costello-glasses wearing singer/songwriter keeps stealing your lunch money. Well, did you know there's a sure-fire way to prop up your sense of cultural relevance? Believe it or not, it's actually the same secret method the singer/songwriter has been using for years: cover a Radiohead song. Everybody's doing it. Certain musicians have based entire careers on it. Some are semi-famous for it: Christopher O'Riley, Brad Mehldau. The Signal Ensemble in New York put Johnny Greenwood on a concert with Ligeti and Philip Glass. It's a cross-genre prescription. Here's the alternative-bluegrass group Punch Brothers:

Now just because everybody's doing it doesn't mean all these musicians, toiling away in the more technically virtuosic yet obscure musical genres, have an inferiority complex over Radiohead's insane worldwide popularity or something. Actually, yes it does mean that. But to be fair, it's only a small part of the story. Because also they want to get a lot of YouTube hits. And not be so down in the dumps about their street cred. And I'm pretty sure that many of these artists genuinely love Radiohead, which I suppose you could make the argument is a legitimate reason to cover Radiohead. But also, covering Radiohead has just become a thing that you do. Like Giant Steps, or law degrees. You gotta prove your chops.

One advantage that groups that involve singing have when covering Radiohead is that they involve singing. This is because often the vocal line and lyrics provide a great deal of interest in a good pop song. Here is the all-female Belgian choir Scala, which rocketed to stardom after their Radiohead cover was used in The Social Network Trailer. It turns out they do a little more than cover Radiohead. They also cover Nirvana.

Many listeners consider covering Radiohead to be the greatest thing ever. This is because many people love Radiohead so much, and because most people like to listen to music that they already know. Hence the popularity of Momma Mia! So when some strange combination of absurd instruments cover Radiohead, they experience the exciting arousal of recognition. They feel included. This is very important, and something that aspiring hip young classical groups ignore at their own peril.

As you get ready to cover Radiohead, take note that the most successful Radiohead covers are covers of Radiohead that you don't need to recognize as a Radiohead cover to enjoy. It is possible to create a Radiohead cover that is successful in its own right, as a stand alone musical experience. Try to bring something of your own to the table. This is the gold standard of the truly great Radiohead cover. It's got to be about more than just getting YouTube hits and street cred, though if in the process you gain some then good for you! You also included people.

Just remember, when you cover Radiohead, you are also in a way competing with Radiohead. You're also helping to increase their performance royalty checks. You are offering up your own creation to be judged alongside all the covers of Radiohead that ever were and that ever will be. It's enough to make you feel kind of down in the dumps. After all, the originals are pretty good.

If, by some chance, you find that covering Radiohead doesn't work, and that singer/songwriter is still giving you a hard time, one other thing that you can try is to wear an ironical t-shirt.