another piece is on its way


Looking back at the past year and a half, it’s actually been the most productive musical year I’ve ever had. By my count, I’ve composed six pieces, and another is on its way. That’s amazing, at least in my opinion. For the most part, I had tended to compose one piece of music per year. Maybe two on occasion, but usually just one. Sometimes it took me even longer to finish a piece; three years wasn’t uncommon. In terms of people actually hearing my music, I’ve had one piece premiered, only a few months after it was written. And a few weeks after that concert premiere, it was heard on the radio on WPRB-FM. That’s never happened to me before.

Similarly, Steve Layton released his beautifully crafted realization of my piano work textbook, and it was heard on the first Music from Other Minds broadcast of the 2009-2010 season, with the opening selected as the show’s theme music for this year.

So why have I been so productive composition-wise since April of 2008? Probably because I spend 1-2 weeks each month in the Bay Area for work, and when I’m in my hotel room at night can work on new pieces. Having the time to write has been extremely fleeting since I started composing music several decades ago. In order to compose, I had to compromise, and that usually meant giving up sleep, time with my family, etc. Since I’m home only half the time, I have no more time to give up for my music except when I’m out on the West Coast, so that’s worked pretty well. That doesn’t make the notes come any easier-if anything, it’s really hard to motivate oneself to write music when you’re sleep deprived, off by three time zones, and have to sit in a really uncomfortable position to get access to a portable keyboard and laptop because hotel rooms rarely have desks that can accommodate 88-keys.

So on to the new piece-it’s been a real slog, since it’s based largely on some improvisations I did over the past year and required me to notate them while scoring the output for a chamber ensemble. But this past week was the charm; I got past the drudgery and things started to come together. I was up until almost 1:30 AM last night getting a lot of the piece done. It’s not there yet, but it’s 21+ minutes and counting, not that that matters. If anything, that’s a pretty short work for me. The piece is scored for two female voices (soprano/mezzo), flute, bass clarinet, electric bass, marimba, violin, cello and piano. It’s an unusual ensemble, but was dictated by both my preference for some of the instruments along with the range requirements of the piece.

What’s it called? torture memos (a survivor from guantánamo). I wanted to write a piece that called attention to the crimes against humanity committed by the Bush/Cheney administration, and initially thought to set some poetry of US torture victims to music. However, the existing poetry by Guantánamo inmates that I found just wasn’t to my taste. So I thought that, rather than set words by the victims to music, it would be more fitting for the music to be the main focus. That doesn’t mean that the music is doom and gloom–I’m not Shostakovich, of course. To some extent, the music doesn’t seem to even have anything to do with the subject. And that’s the point; I don’t compose “program music.” But I do want the music to at least provoke some thought, even if only through a title.

I’m next out this way in late October, so hopefully I’ll have even more progress at that point to report. But in any case, this has been a very busy musical year, and with luck, it will continue. That’s great news if you like my music. If you hate it, then this has been the 18 months from hell. Sorry about that.

But if you aren’t freaked out by new music, here’s an eight-minute excerpt from the current draft of torture memos. Remember, it’s still a work in progress, but this is a good chunk of what I was working on last night. This part was a pleasure to write. Whether it’s a pleasure to listen to is beyond my pay grade.