I met Chris Allen in January of 2003. I had just started the undergraduate program at San Diego State University’s School of Music & Dance and he was the pianist for Laurinda Nikkel’s vocal studio. Chris played piano for me in my lessons, at my juries, and for a few of the ensembles I performed with at SDSU. Chris was my first real intense experience of working one on one, consistently, to prepare and perform a piece of music with another person. I was so green at the time I didn’t even realize that I supposed to pay the pianist for playing at my lessons. I’m sure I still owe Chris some money for a few of those lessons and coaching sessions and juries.
On April 7 Paul Simon announced the release of his new album, Stranger to Stranger. Rolling Stone has called the album “genre-bending” and “experimental,” and other websites have used similar descriptors. Stranger to Stranger features collaborations and sounds that are new to Simon’s work: African and Peruvian instruments, synthesizers, gospel quartet, and beats by Italian DJ Clap! Clap! Most notable (for me at least) is Simon’s use of some of Harry Partch’s instruments on the album; the sounds of the Chromelodeon and the Cloud Chamber Bowls (see below) can be heard on the albums opening track, “Insomniac’s Lullaby.”
Of all my experiences as a musician, the six years I spent as a Gentleman of the Choir at St. Paul’s Cathedral is perhaps the most formative of them all (possibly matched only by my experience as a barbershopper). I sang in hundreds of services, performing music that ranged from ancient chant to contemporary works that were composed by my fellow choristers. Some of the most memorable include Thomas Tallis’ Lamentations, Joseph Clokey’s Treasures in Heaven, and Poulenc’s O magnum mysterium. As Easter was last Sunday, I thought I might share some of the favorites I’ve sung over the years.
Back in November 2015 Shadows (a short overture for orchestra) was premiered alongside several other new works for orchestra by Composers Collective (a New York area-based group of composers). Throughout Shadows I explore changing, yet static harmonies that shift around the different instruments and timbres of the orchestra. I especially enjoyed writing for a small orchestra within tight time constraints. Special thanks to Daniel Ott for keen insight into the technique of orchestration; Brent Dutton for providing a critical ear during the composition process; David Štech for his excellent conducting; Alicia Lieu, who more than anyone else deserves the credit for making this opportunity possible; and Siobahn Sung and my family for their unending support.
Amid the hubbub of the last week’s Grammy Awards, many of the winners get brushed aside and go unmentioned. Among my circles on social media this usually manifests with celebrations and laments of the Grammy Awards for classical music (pop and classical do not compete against each other at the Grammys). However, even among the people proclaiming victories or lamenting the lack of press for classical music, almost no one has mentioned that this year John Cage was awarded a Trustee Award by the Recording Academy. Continue reading
On the recent Lunar New Year I spent the afternoon catching a classic film for the first time, Dirty Dancing. Many of you are rightly showing disgust with me that I waited 29 years to finally see this movie, but sometimes, for one reason or another, a person just doesn’t see a particular movie or other show or song or whatever. The movie was fun and entertaining, and said many things about how people from the 1980s see the 1960s, and despite the blunt handling of class and gender issues, and Roger Ebert’s one-star review, Dirty Dancing has become an iconic film from the late 1980s.
The first time I remember hearing about David Bowie was from Kurt Cobain. Track 4 on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York was Bowie’s “Man who Sold the World.” I’d never heard this song, nor of David Bowie, but I did enjoy it, and brought Bowie into my consciousness. (Many years later I recognized that a song my father had synched up as the music to a Seseme Street segment was “Space Oddity.”) A few years later a close friend of mine played “All the Madmen,” we listened to the track several times that afternoon while getting high. The themes of madness and conformity was especially evocative at that point in my life.
On the western end of the Manhattan-bound platform of the 21 Street – Queensbridge subway station in Long Island City, there’s a drain that always has the sound of water running. It’s surprisingly similar to the sound of a flowing creek or brook—but in a New York City subway station! Yesterday afternoon I happened to have my hand recorder with me, and I figured I should capture this beautiful and complex sound. Starting at about 45 seconds, you’ll here the Jamaica-bound F train arriving on the opposite track, stopping at the platform, and then rolling out of the station.
The sound was recorded at about 17:15 EDT on September 16, 2015.
For Thanksgiving 2014 I had the opportunity to travel up to Brewster, New York—about an hour north of New York City by train—and spend a few days with friends in their new home. It ended up snowing throughout the day before Thanksgiving and into the holiday morning, and although the snow had quickly melted away in the city, it remained on the ground in Brewster the entire time I was up there (and for awhile afterward I was told). When I was up there I began sketching out ideas for Untwelve’s 2014 Composition Competition, and my submission was inspired by the four days I spent in the snow and alongside friends.
White Thanksgiving is in four sections: Commuter train – Farmhouse blues – Staring at a horse – Ice on the path.
Special thanks to Sabrina & Peter for inviting me up to their home for Thanksgiving, and to Steven N. Severinghaus for the beautiful photo of me and the horse.
On July 23 and 24, Ensemble Musikfabrik (a contemporary music group from Cologne) performed Harry Partch’s final large-scale theater work, Delusion of the Fury as part of the 2015 Lincoln Center Festival. Since the work’s premiere in 1969 there have been only a handful of performances. This one is important to note because it’s the first performance in the United States featuring the near-complete replica set of Partch Instruments built by Thomas Meixner in 2012. The New York City performances were based upon the 2013 performance directed by Heiner Goebbels and produced by Ruhrtriennale, and although some aspects of the staging and costumes seemed arbitrary and distracting, the performance was executed with amazing musicality, impeccable precision, and the ensemble allowed Delusion to exert itself as a great work of art. Most importantly, the performance raises interesting questions about the legacy of Harry Partch now that more than one unique set of his instruments exists.