Category Archives: music

How did you do it??

 

400000

Just the other day, I hit 400,000 plays on Soundcloud. After announcing it on Facebook and Twitter, I’ve had several people ask me, “how did you do it?”, or, “I’d love to hear how you work Soundcloud!”. Rather than replying with a lengthy status update on Facebook that wouldn’t transfer to Twitter, I thought I’d write a short blog response to these questions.

The short answer is, there is no short answer. There is no magic formula. There is no trick, no method, and no gaming the site.

My success on Soundcloud echoes the same story of many other people that have had success in many different areas. Primarily, that I was ready when the opportunity came, or when the lucky break hit – however you want to look at it. This is the most important thing I can convey to those people that asked how I did it, and it doesn’t just work for Soundcloud – it works for everything.

In my case, I had a few lucky breaks with the right people hearing and sharing my music. This lead to Soundcloud featuring me as their ‘Soundclouder of the Day’, as well as featuring me regularly on their classical genre page. I have been heavily involved and invested in Soudcloud, and I try to release a steady stream of content in an attempt to keep the page updated and fresh.

I don’t limit the page to my compositions, although that’s the bulk of it. I include samples of everything I do that’s in the audio format – from my own works, to my performances of others works, to episodes of my podcasts. In addition, I make a real effort every week to listen to music of composers I know, AND to discover new composers that I don’t. I regularly share their music to my 430,000 followers. This gives exposure to those composers/performers, and makes my page a go-to spot for discovering the latest and greatest contemporary art music. This is called community, and it is VITALLY important to success as an artist.

Bottom line is, if the content wasn’t there, or my page was left fallow and neglected, those breaks would have passed me right by, and I never would have even known they came along.

So, keep your content coming, and your sites updated and engaged! You never know when your break will come along, and if you’re not ready for it, you never will!

To write (yourself) a concerto…

Writing a concerto is hard. Writing a concerto for yourself is maddening.

In late 2013, I was approached by Sean Kleve of the percussion ensemble Clocks in Motion to write a new piece for their May 2014 concert, of which was supposed to be all newly commissioned works by three living composers. It’s always been a dream of mine to write and perform my own concerto with a big orchestra, however since that opportunity has never come along, I thought that this might be an excellent way to fulfill that fantasy. I mean, 5 percussionists AND a pianist. This is a veritable orchestra in itself. So, I pitched the idea of an electric guitar concerto, and they were behind it 100%.

Now, it was real. No fantasy. Real. Really, really real.

When I was faced with this reality – the reality that I’m going to write a concerto for myself, I’m the soloist, I will be performing this in front of an audience; I realized that there are certain expectations that come with being a soloist in a concerto. Expectations that the audience will have – high expectations. These might include:

1) The soloist is a virtuoso, and a master level player of their instrument.

2) The part for the soloist will be virtuosic, technically dazzling and note perfect.

3) The writing for the solo instrument will be fresh and innovative – showcasing the composers ability and the soloists personal style.

4) There will be at least one solo cadenza that will blow the minds of the audience with it’s sheer awesomeness.

Knowing full well that these are the expectations that come with the term “concerto”, I was faced with the fact that I would have to deliver all of these things. Shit.just.got.real.

I have written one other concerto – my Three Lamentations on the Death of John Dowland for alto flute and string orchestra. This was a great experience, but completely different from this one. The entire mood of the concerto was different in character. I was also not writing for myself, but for flutist Kathryn Lukas, who I knew could play whatever I plopped down in front of her.

No, with this one I had to take a long, hard look in the mirror. I was forced to. I looked at many of my guitar heroes – Joe Satriani, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Tosin Abasi, John Williams, Julian Bream, among others. I had to face the fact that I’m not them. I had to weigh my strengths and weaknesses – especially my weaknesses – I had to look those right in the face and come to terms with them. I couldn’t write something that I would be struggling with on stage. I had to write to my strengths if I was going to make this work.

I started to think about the cadenza. Every concerto has one – it’s an integral part of the form. It’s a section where the soloist (me) is, in a sense, stark naked in front of the audience – it’s just the soloist and their talents for all to see – no orchestra – no accompaniment – just them. It’s usually one of the highlights of any concerto, and it is THE moment where the soloist really shows their stuff.

Probably my favorite cadenza of all time is the harpsichord cadenza from Johann Sebastian Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto. There’s one section of it where the keyboard player starts playing these crazy fast arpeggiated runs. You can hear it (and see it) in this video (the part I’m speaking of comes in at 7:50):

So, how do you do something like that for the guitar?? One option would be to write a long passage of sweep picking arpeggios, however I’m not Yngwie Malmsteen or Tosin Abasi – sweep picking is not one of my strengths. Then I thought, what about tapping? This is a technique that could mimic in spirit was Bach did in his monumental cadenza, and it is something that I could do. This is a technique that goes way back to why I wanted to learn guitar in the first place. I actually remember the moment that I decided to learn the guitar. It was in 1984. I was sitting back in my Dad’s recliner in the living room, with his Sony Walkman. Inside was the brand new album (cassette) from Van Halen – their 1984. I was 11 years old. I was listening to the first track on side B – Hot for Teacher. It starts with this trotting drum solo, which then breaks into this explosion of finger tapping by guitarist Eddie Van Halen. I heard that, I right then and there, I decided I wanted to learn the guitar.

Tapping is always something I’ve been good at. When in high school, I used to dazzle my friends with renditions of Joe Satriani’s Midnight – an all tapped kind of neo-classical piece.

So I thought, well, tapping. I can do that. It’s not something you see in “classical” music, but this IS an electric guitar concerto, and this IS a legitimate technique for the electric guitar. I expanded the idea to encompass the entire first movement, so that it is almost 100% tapping. I came up with a pattern that I personally don’t recall hearing in any tapping example I could think of, and I tried to create a tapping cadenza in the spirit (at least – I’m not claiming it’s anywhere near Bach’s) of the Brandenburg cadenza. And here’s what I came up with:

In keeping with the Bach influence, I kept the overall form pretty traditional as far as concertos go – a fast first movement – slow second – and fast third. For the second movement, I wanted to incorporate my experiences as a classical guitarist and renaissance lutenist. For the third, my experiences as a progressive rock and metal guitarist.

Now that I had an idea of how I was going to handle it from a soloists perspective, I needed a concept for the piece as a whole.

I usually don’t work from a specific story line – especially for my instrumental music, but the group Clocks in Motion – that name – it just inspired this whole set of images and this narrative in my head, which went something like this:

I imagined a lonely watchmaker in his small workshop. A well-meaning man who dreamed of doing bigger things to help his fellow people and his world. One day, he fell asleep at his workbench and had a fantastic dream of a large and benevolent automaton. He saw himself constructing it, and witnessed the great deeds that the mighty machine would carry out. He set to work that very night and worked for months on end until the work was finished. However, once unleashed, the automaton had ideas of its own!

That narrative, and those images conjured up a whole host of musical ideas, and evocative titles for the three movements:

I. Watchmaker’s Daydream
II. Workshop/Steam
III. …In Motion

So now, I had an idea. Next up – instrumentation. This was not like writing for orchestra where you have a set instrumentation from the beginning. A percussion ensemble can be almost any combination of – well, really, anything that can be hit, struck, slapped, scraped, dropped, kicked, broken or bowed, and make a noise. I decided to employ a strategy that I had employed on another piece of mine very successfully – my Instructions (on how to survive a fairy tale). Basically what I did was, I emailed all of the members of Clocks in Motion and asked them a simple question – what is your favorite instrument, or, is there a percussion instrument that you love, but have never been able to play in Clocks? The answers produced instruments that I would have never considered, and some I didn’t know at all – like, Pandiero, Riq, Cloud Gongs – huh? Learning about these instruments and incorporating them into my music was challenging and eye opening. It added something new to my sound – something that would never have happened if I had not taken that approach.

I also got to use a particular mallet keyboard instrument that they had essentially invented called the Galvitone. This is a xylophone-like instrument, but made with “bars” of galvanized steel piping. The sound was incredible. The color combinations I was able to get was so much more than an orchestra would have been capable of (and that’s saying something)!

Our plan is to record the entire concerto for Clocks in Motion’s next album. Hopefully I will be able to talk more in detail about the rest of the piece then. Until that happens, here is a perusal version of the score:

Kickstarter!

kickstarter-logo-k-color

The Kickstarter campaign is underway! I have many really great recordings of my music that I would love to get out on CD and LP. I had a great chat about it this morning with the crew over at SoundNotion.tv, and I need any help I can get in spreading the word! If you’ve enjoyed my music in the past, please head over to my Kickstarter page and become a backer of my project. There are many very cool perks and rewards for doing so, including free, signed CDs, and 12″ LPs with original art work by one of five amazing artists. Thanks to all that have supported my music in the past – please join me in taking this next step!

“There must be some kind of mistake?!”

“There must be some kind of mistake?!” was the first thing I said when I started to get some serious attention on Soundcloud.com. I couldn’t fathom why so many people – so many people outside of my little classical music world, would be interested in listening to my music. That old cynicism crept in – one that I think many living composers of this kind of music have. That attitude which says, if there’s a lot of people listening to my music, there must be something wrong, some kind of foul play, some kind of trickery! The double-edged sword would continue with something like, if many people are truly listening, this would imply that I’m compromising my music in some way – dumbing it down – selling out.

I’m writing this blog on the heels of hitting a quarter of a million followers on Soundcloud. Yesterday, I was invited to appear on a podcast that interviews viral artists. I guess I’m a viral artist now? It feels good, and unsettling at the same time. Recently, a good friend of mine, composer Jim Holt, had a similar experience when some of his piano improvisations started to receive a large amount of listens. He messaged me via Twitter:







 

 








My response:

 

















My advice to Jim came after I had accepted that people just might like my music – no baggage – no hidden agenda – no mistake.  I have to constantly remind myself of my own advice – “Have faith in your music.  It’s good.  People like it.”

It’s always a great feeling to be validated – by anyone.  This all begs another question though.  Does something like this matter to the classical music world – especially the contemporary classical world.  I’d say 99% of these listeners are not associated with that world.  I still don’t have big commissions or collaborations, etc.  But, I do have 250,000 people listening to my music.  In our small world, is that worth something?  That’s a question for another blog perhaps.

In any case, I’m elated, and proud that this many people would want to listen.  To all of you that have, all I can say is, thank you!

Palestrina and the Fundamental Difference Between Classical and Pop Music

I wrote this blog a few years ago and posted it on another site that I only used very briefly, and honestly kind of forgot about it until today.  I came across the blog and thought I’d re-post it.  It was mostly a blog about the Pope Marcellus Mass of Palestrina, but also gets in to the topic of what is the difference between our rock/pop music and classical music – a question that when I was starting out as a “classical” composer I would often ask, but never got answered.  I thought for a long time about it, mostly because I’m the kind of person that feels like I have to really fundamentally understand something to really do it, and I finally came up with an answer that satisfied me.  If you’re really interested, you can read the stuff about Palestrina too.

200px-giovanni_pierluigi_da_palestrinagene_simmons

Today I focused on determining the overall “key” of the Pope Marcellus Mass. This can be a somewhat difficult task, for many reasons. For one, the concept of “keys” did not exist in the 15th century as we think of them today. Music was based on a system of “modes”, and mode was determined by the range and melodic activity of the “tenor” – which was considered to be the most important voice in the choral texture. It’s strange to us, because this voice was in the middle of the texture. Our ears are always focused on the highest voice as being the most important – this comes from our perception of music being separated into a vocal and accompaniment – a concept that also didn’t exist during Palestrina’s time.It’s hard for us, living in 2009, to relate to this way of thinking, or even to understand it. Our society is surrounded by popular music – it’s our vernacular music, and it’s how we think musically. People often ask the question, “What’s the biggest fundamental difference between pop music and classical music?”.

My simple answer: pop music comes from a harmonic tradition, and classical music from a melodic tradition. So, what does that mean? When we write music, we think vertically (like a stack of notes – a chord) – we chunk, chunk, chunk out chords – we think in chordal relationships – this chord goes to that chord, etc – or I to V to I – whatever terminology you want to use. In classical music – especially music written before 1600 – music was thought of as separate, independent lines that could work together to create a tapestry of polyphonic sound – like threads woven together. The concept of “chord” didn’t exist – chords as we think of them were merely points of rest where the separate lines would converge after a moment of tension and activity. This is the way composers thought – from Palestrina to Bach to Mozart to Beethoven – this is the fundamental basis of “classical” music, and the biggest difference from our modern pop music.Coming to this realization was HUGE for me as a composer. No one had ever really explained this difference, and since I too came from a rock/pop background, I struggled for years with understanding classical music from a really fundamental level.Anyway, I kind of digress from my topic of Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus Mass – but it is important to understand how he thought of music to understand how he composed, and how he thought of “key” – which he would have called “mode”.We still use modes today, but essentially only use 2 – “Ionian”, which is our “major” scale, and “Aeolian”, which is our “minor” scale. There are 5 other modes though that you sometimes hear, although hardly ever in popular music. A good example of a different mode would be the very first three notes of Danny Elfman’s theme from the Simpsons – very clearly in the “Lydian” mode.Just to further complicate things, the medieval church modes were quite antiquated by Palestrina’s time. By 1547, the 16th century music theorist Glareanus had already put forth a theory of 12 modes (which is closer to our modern system of keys – 12 major and 12 minor). So, although there wasn’t a concrete tonal system of keys yet, composers were already moving in that direction, while at the same time still observing some principles of the old modal system.

So, lets get down to business and look at where the different sections start and end:• Kyrie I – Mixolydian (G major) to Ionian (C major)• Christe – Ionian to Mixolydian• Kyrie II – Mixolydian to Ionian• Gloria – Mixolydian to Ionian• Credo – Mixolydian to Ionian• Sanctus – Ionian to Ionian• Agnus Dei I – Mixolydian to Ionian• Agnus Dei II – Mixolydian to IonianIn typical tonal music that we are all most familiar with (this goes for classical music as well as pop music), you would typically have the piece, song, whatever start and end with the same harmony. So, if a piece is in C Major, it would typically begin with a C Major chord, and end with a C Major chord. However, as you can see, Palestrina hardly ever does this (only in the Sanctus). So, what mode is it in? If we go by how he starts the section, it looks like it’s in the Mixolydian mode (we would say G Major). If you go by the END of each section, it’s clearly in the Ionian mode (we would say C Major, although Palestrina would never have thought in that way).  So, which one is more important – the beginning or the end? Having established that the tonal system did not yet exist, we have to assume that Palestrina was still following many of the conventions left over from the medieval system of modes. One of the conventions of determining mode was the FINAL, or last note of the plainchant – and very often (it was the norm actually) for the plainchant to start on a note other than the final. So, observing this convention, we can safely say that the intention is Ionian mode for the Mass. Damn – all that just to find out what key it’s in!

What makes a musical prodigy?

I was sitting around revising Synaesthesiac today, and my fiancee Jenn showed me this amazing video of a 4 year old drummer. We watched a bunch of them and they’re amazing and hilarious at the same time. It got me thinking about what makes a kid this young able to do things like this? What makes a prodigy? Is it something in the brain? Is it some kind of divine gift?

We both agreed that it has to be a combination of an ultra supportive parent and the kid having whatever it is that makes someone naturally gifted at something (see Mozart). I used to teach very young kids classical guitar at a school in Austin, Texas. These kids ranged from 3-16 – but most were in the 6-9 year range. The lessons were taught in classroom style – usually 3-4 kids per class. A few times, I did have one kid in the class rocket ahead of the others. I always wondered what it was inside him or her that allowed them to just “get it”, while the other kids struggled.

Anyway – an interesting question I’m not even going to try to answer. Here are a few of the videos of the 4 year old drummer. The first is him playing Chop Suey by System of a Down, the second playing with a live band – he’s 4!!!!!!!!

(edit – they have embedding disabled – BOOO – I’ll post the links)

4 Year Old Drummer plays Chop Suey

4 Year Old Drummer plays live

Two Dowland Arrangements

dowland

I just received a recording of one of my John Dowland arrangements, and I thought I would share it because it’s really cool! This arrangement of In Darkness Let Me Dwell, a song, or aire for lute and voice was done for oboe, violin, viola and piano. The performers are David Weiss, oboe – Izabela Spiewak, violin – Xi Yang, viola – Alpha Walker, piano.

AUDIO: In Darkness Let Me Dwell

[audio:In Darkness Let Me Dwell.mp3|titles=In Darkness Let Me Dwell]

The second arrangement is one I did back in 1998 for myself and some friends while I was at the University of Texas. This arrangement of the aire Come, Heavy Sleep was done for soprano saxophone, classical guitar, electric guitar, vibraphone and bass. The performers are Valerie Vidal, soprano saxophone – Anthony Lanman, classical guitar – Bryan Clark, electric guitar – Todd Meehan, vibraphone – Henry Lugo, bass.

AUDIO: Come, Heavy Sleep

[audio:sleep.mp3|titles=Come Heavy Sleep]

When do you stop writing music for free?

Finally, a new post! Since my last post, I’ve moved from Fort Worth, Texas to Terre Haute, Indiana. Why have I moved? I’m getting married next year (06/19/2009) and I moved here to get a place with my fiancee and her two children. Everything’s been great so far, except for the job situation, which leads me to this post.

The question I ask in this post is directed at composers – and the question is, “when do you stop writing music for free?” The point we all want to reach as composers is that point where we’re writing all, or the majority of our music on commission. That means that some one, or some entity is paying us money to write music for them.

As a student composer, more than anything else you need experience writing for all the various instruments, and you need good performances and recordings of your music to build up a portfolio. Often in this situation, composers will write music for their friends and colleagues to play and record, and that’s totally how it should work. The tough part comes when you finish school, and you’re suddenly out in the world, and you’ve still got people that want new pieces written for them, but under the same circumstances as when you were both students – they want you to write them new music and consider a performance and/or recording as payment. The tough thing for composers just out of school, who don’t have commissions coming at them from all sides yet is, when do I start charging for my music?

I’ll start out by giving a personal example. I was recently approached by a duo to write a chamber work for them. They seemed generally excited about it, and also really liked my music. I said, “Awesome! Let’s talk about commissioning fees and see what we can work out.” At this, the person was like, “Oh, well…. uh…. We’ve never paid for a new piece of music before.” I wasn’t at all surprised to hear this, because somehow over the years, it has become standard practice to not pay composers for new pieces, and to consider a performance as a perfectly legitimate form of payment, even by professional ensembles – and many, many composers who are not students anymore still consider this form of payment completely legitimate themselves. If you’re in the position of simply needing more experience, or more recordings, then again, I think this is perfectly fine. But there has to come a point in a composer’s career when they have to stand up and declare themselves professional, and not write music for free anymore.

I gave an example to the person that I mentioned that wanted a duo. She was telling me about how her husband often performs on movie scores of John Williams at his personal request, and that he makes double scale, etc. So, as an example, I presented this scenario: John Williams’ people approach your husband about playing in the orchestra for the new Harry Potter soundtrack. They tell him “Now here’s the deal. The music is all new, and quite difficult, so it will likely take you 1-2 months practicing 6 hours a day to learn. We can’t pay you anything, but you’ll be recorded by the best sound engineers in the business in one of the most technically advanced studios available, and your performance will be heard by millions across the globe!” I think his answer would probably be no.

The other issue that composers need to grapple with is, when are we professionals? Especially now that the University jobs have all but dried up in the current economy, it’s not like we can mark a hire as a sign of becoming professional. Most of us just have to kind of declare ourselves to be professionals, and like the performer in the example I used, expect to be treated like a professional. The bottom line is, if we can’t be paid for our music, then we have to spend most of our time doing something else to pay the bills, which will make most composers perpetual amateurs, since the bulk of our energies will be spent elsewhere.

This is just an issue that’s been on my mind lately, and I never really hear it discussed too much. It seems to have a kind of uncomfortable, taboo aura around it. However, I think it’s an issue that should be discussed openly, especially if you get a commission from someone. Usually, if they are really into your music, you can all work something out, and a fair payment can be negotiated.

Now, back to revising 🙂

Vivaldi

Since the mid-90’s I’ve been a huge fan of Antonio Vivaldi’s music.  The recording that really turned me on to his music was a CD of his Four Seasons concertos performed by violinist Gil Shaham and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.  Prior to this, the Vivaldi performances I heard were always very light and delicate – almost gentile in character, and, well, boring.  However, the Orpheus recording was really the first balls to the wall performance I heard of Vivaldi – it was totally irreverent, down and dirty – it just rocked.

Since that time, more and more groups have been releasing Vivaldi performances in that new light.  Another particular favorite of mine was the recording of Vivaldi songs performed by Cecilia Bartoli and Il Giardino Armonico.  Today, a friend of mine on Facebook turned me on to yet another one of these recordings – the most balls to the wall I’ve heard yet.  It’s incredible to me that this 300 year old music (played on instruments of the time no less) can sound so vibrant and relevant to our modern ears.  This performance is so full of life and passion – so awesome.  I’ll link a You Tube video below – make sure you watch it in high quality if you can.  It kicks much ass – these guys rock harder than most rock bands – srsly…