The Muse

Winter Dreams was daunting for me to write.

The theme, which appears first in the English horn, was something that came to me in a dream back in the early 1990’s. When I have dreamed music, it comes to me in its full form, at tempo. I’m just listening, as if to a radio station or a live concert. It’s a strange dream-state: it feels different. I’ve had a few lucid dreams, which is a dream in which you are aware you are dreaming — and as most people recount, it feels quite different from a normal dream. This is similar, but it has an entirely different feel than a lucid dream, or a normal dream.

The tragic part about the Music Dreams is that I cannot remember the melodies when I wake up. Wherever that space is, I can’t bring it back with me. I remember at best only fragments.

In this dream, I was in a blue space: deep blue evening sky overhead, the color of that short moment just before the first stars appear. There was some kind of open pergola or gazebo around me, with an open, circular roof through which I could see that blue sky, in a gentle, restful space. In this space, a voice sang: a clear, pure soprano voice, singing a beautiful, somewhat sad melody. As I listened, a single French horn answered in harmony, balanced perfectly against that voice. Strings joined, and held the duet like a woven fabric. I could tell that the fabric was shaping itself to my own mind — I was actually composing the harmonies as I listened, but only the harmonies. The melody stood on its own.

When I woke up, I wept, because the music was gone. All but the memory that there had been music.

And one phrase.

One musical phrase that I clung to like a sailor clutching a spar after shipwreck. I wrote down that fragment, and it appears here, in the English horn, as part of the melodic line.

Writing this into a full piece of actual music was daunting because I wanted to get it right. To capture something of the sublime beauty of that solo voice singing in the deep cerulean darkness.

I think I came pretty close. And that feels good.

That’s where the real gratification comes from, for me. It isn’t seeking fame, or praise, or remuneration, though if something I wrote were to make me rich, I’m not going to turn it down. But I don’t expect it will — I’m in entirely the wrong style for that — and that doesn’t bother me at all. The gratification comes from getting it right.

Or close enough.

Winter Dreams Revisited

Two weeks ago, I fell in love with a piece of music. I posted it on the web. And then I fell out of love with it. I didn’t like the mix. I didn’t like the flute passage. I couldn’t listen to it.

This weekend, I reworked it, and I’m back in love with it.

I rewrote the flute passage, this time as a trio for solo violin, solo cello, and flute.

I also rebalanced everything. It sounds MUCH nicer, now. Check it out on the Music tab, in the “Other Works” playlist.

A Dream Realized

I’m in the midst of processing a complex blend of emotions.

We’re coming up on three years since our initial investigations into moving into this small-town community up in rural California wine-country. We came for a lot of reasons, but one of the plusses was what appeared to be a very active music scene.

In the last three years, I’ve been increasingly astonished by the depth and excellence of this music scene. I got to sing the Bach b-minor Mass in Mendocino with professional soloists and instrumentalists from San Franscisco, and the Mozart Requiem here in Ukiah with the Ukiah Symphony. There’s a Christmas sing-along at the Presbyterian Church a short walk from my home that packs the pews every year, and has featured harpist Anna Maria Mendieta, principal harpist of the Sacramento Symphony and well-known soloist, who comes up because she loves the community spirit of the sing-along; I found this out because I had the final rehearsal time wrong and showed up early, while she was sitting in her car waiting for someone to open the church, and we talked for a bit — a lovely, gracious woman, and a fabulous musician.

It’s just that kind of place.

Last night we went to the 26th annual Professional Pianists’ Concert. This was established in 1992 by Spencer Brewer, a well-known recording artist who lives in these parts, founded because — as he explained — he hated piano competitions. Instead, this concert is an informal and intimate inclusive affair, with a large, comfortable living-room set on the stage, and around a half-dozen pianists. Spencer says they all spent “moments and moments” rehearsing for this concert, and the general rule is, while they know who is going to play first, they have no idea who will play next, or what they will play. The pianists themselves decide; and sometimes, at the last minute, they change their minds and play something else. Or they drag one of the other pianists to the other piano and they do a mash-up.

It’s a very eclectic mix of styles, from boogie-woogie, to swing, to jazz, to New Age, to ragtime, to classical, and all of the pianists are well-seasoned performers who compose, improvise, do a little stage-theatre, and crack ad-lib jokes. Last night’s performance featured Spencer Brewer, Elena Casanova, Sam Ocampo, Tom Ganoung, Chris James, Elizabeth MacDougall, and Wendy DeWitt.

Last night, I heard my piano concerto from the stage for the first time.

Only snippets: as Elizabeth mentioned while introducing the piece, it’s 20 minutes of music, and she wasn’t about to play the whole thing. But it was my music, and it wasn’t coming from me, or my computer. Someone else was playing it. On stage.

She called me out as the composer from the stage before she began; the house lights came up, and I stood and bowed briefly to friendly applause. Then we all sat back and listened.

Though it was only snippets, Elizabeth did a magnificent job, and the audience loved it.

So many complicated emotions.

I think the closest I can come to describing it is to talk about watching my sons graduate, or get married. It’s the point when you realize that you are done raising them. They are really, truly all grown up. You’re still their father, and always will be, but it’s different — they are making their own way, now. You are so happy, you are so proud, and yet you are also sad. A phase of your life has ended.

The concerto was a surrogate daughter: I might as well put it that way. We lost a real daughter to SIDS in 1985, and it was sometime in 1986 or 1987 — I think, memories from that period are a bit fractured — that the first notes of the third movement popped out of my fingers one late night and surprised the heck out of me. I’ve been nurturing that music for thirty years, completing the movements, adding the orchestration, rendering again and again with ever-improving MIDI sound samples.

While I always knew it was good music, I never expected it to be performed in my lifetime.

Even in the heady days of the great piano concertos, it was almost always the composer who performed it first, and while I could play the piece in the late 1990’s, there are also issues of endurance, showmanship (the ability to mess up royally and just keep going with a smile), and stage-fright. This last is, for me, crippling, and it’s always worst when I’m out there playing at the edge of my ability.

Those heady days are gone, however: no one writes piano concertos any more. That’s not exactly true, but they’re quite rare, and the Western classical-romantic style of my concerto — with a tonality and emotionality drawn from all the music I loved most — is definitely out-of-vogue among the contemporary musical literati.

Plus, maybe it wasn’t really as good as I thought it was. After all, every child is beautiful in the doting father’s eyes.

I made a few tentative attempts to move the concerto toward performance in the 1990’s, which were generally rebuffed without interest. It wasn’t personal: it was business, and music, like writing or acting, has always been a difficult business for newcomers to break into. Unlike writing, there isn’t a lot of logistical support for the budding composer.

I think what kept the dream alive for me is that not even one of the gatekeepers I approached was actually interested in the music. I contacted one publishing house, and they explained that they were interested in following a composer’s career, not a single work by some unknown composer. Academics and web-based articles suggested that I go back to school and get a graduate degree in music, or submit my work to various national contests, like the Aspen Music Festival.

As with nearly everything in this time and place, it’s all about revenue streams. It’s about money.

For me, it was never about a career. The concerto was something sublime that had introduced itself into my life, unbidden. It was something I wanted to do justice: not just in terms of trying to reduce the music in my head to harmonious sounds from cat-gut, wet reeds, and brass tubes, but also to at least make an effort to let the rest of the world hear it. To give it wings. What a father would want for a child.

Over time, I wrote other music, and some of it has been performed. In the back of my mind was the idea that, if I could get a foothold as a composer, I might someday hear the concerto performed. But my hopes weren’t high.

When we moved out here, I decided to give it another push. I approached Les, conductor of the Ukiah Symphony, and pointed him to my website. I’d recently finished my Summer Symphony, and thought it might be of interest. He listened, and instead decided he liked the piano concerto. He wanted to perform it. He even lined up a soloist.

Last night, I heard bits of the concerto from the stage for the first time. In three weeks, I will hear it again, the whole thing from beginning to end, this time backed by a full orchestra.

It’s a little overwhelming.

 

Winter Dreams

I wanted to try something a little different.

I quipped to my son that the opening is a kind of chromatic fugue. He was mildly outraged. He asked, “Isn’t that like dry water?”

Well, yes. Or perhaps not — I’ll have to give that some thought. There are, of course, schools of musical thought where that isn’t any kind of difficulty. I don’t find them very listenable. But it is neither strictly chromatic, nor — formally-speaking — strictly a fugue. Whatever it is, I think it worked out quite nicely.

This chromatic fugue, or whatever it is, forms the recurring dark, fluid, ever-shifting part of the Winter Dream. Then the melody rises, first in the English horn, then in the flute, and finally in a full-on film-score rendition that was a lot of fun to write.

For your enjoyment.

More Music Up

I’m re-expanding my music page.

When I re-mastered my Piano Concerto and Summer Symphony, and put them on a CD, I decided to release the album through the CDBaby commercial machinery, just to see what would happen. That was about a year ago, at exactly the same time I switched from my self-hosted WordPress account to the WordPress-hosted WordPress account for my website. I had to completely rework the music page and push stuff to SoundCloud, and I deliberately started small, just to test out the new models.

So far, after a year, net revenues: $0.00. Net listens through CDBaby and their whole commercial release process, which includes iTunes and Amazon: 0.

Yes, all the commercial sites would tell me it’s my fault. You’ve gotta hype your goods, man. You’ve gotta put some sustained effort into selling yourself. It’s a full-time job, making your music work for you.

Screw that. I’ve got a full-time job, and it isn’t in sales.

Nothing has changed since I wrote Copyrights, Money, and Beautiful Music: that reflection is still as accurate as it ever was.

So I’m re-expanding my music page. Enjoy!

The Lady’s Waltz

This music has a long history.

I don’t recall the year it came to me, but I remember the moment. I was at Dragonfest, walking the lakeshore road, entirely at peace with the world, and the melody started to play in my head. I remember running to the nearest campsite and shouting something like, “I need a pen! And paper! My kingdom for a horse!” Or something like that. It was Dragonfest, so this wasn’t all that odd. They responded immediately, and I scribbled down the notes. The fragment went into my Pile of Unwritten Music to mellow properly.

It next surfaced, again at Dragonfest: one of the few years I brought my fiddle up to the mountains. There was another fiddler there, and a guitar, and next thing you know, we were performing an impromptu arrangement for the Saturday Evening Talent Show.

That would have been the autumn of 2007, because the next February one of our dearest friends got married, and I pulled an orchestration together and dedicated it to her for her wedding day.

It started tugging at me again a few weeks ago, and I decided to extend and rework the instrumentation, since I now have a better orchestra.

It’s first up on the Music tab. Enjoy!

The Joys of Scoring

The title is sarcasm. Yes, it is.

The Ukiah Symphony is planning to perform my piano concerto next season, and before that can happen, I have to get them a full score with parts. This has been a bundle of joy.

Here are a few examples of the kind of things I’ve had to figure out how to do in Finale (the software I’m using to score the music):

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 5.05.58 PM.pngScreen Shot 2017-03-09 at 5.04.39 PM.pngScreen Shot 2017-03-09 at 5.06.30 PM.png

Bleaugh! Of course, it looks gorgeous NOW.

So what does this process of scoring music look like?

The process starts with the Cuebase sequencer file I used to produce the CD. The first task is to quantize the sequence. You see, when I want a staccatto note in Cuebase, it looks something like this:

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 6.35.10 PM.png

If this came from a live performance on a keyboard, it isn’t nearly so regular. If I try to turn this into a score, I end up with a lot of very short notes, and lots of strange rests in between them. Editing those in Finale is actually worse than a root canal. On a plane. To Australia. So to make it easy, I want to convert it to something like this:

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 6.40.29 PM.png

Lining everything up with the grid lines is called “quantizing.” There’s some other prep I can do, like separating out the different piano lines. That takes a little creativity, because it’s usually not as simple as left-hand/right-hand, or even bass-clef/treble-clef. But after going through all the tracks and quantizing everything, separating everything, and testing it to make sure I didn’t move notes around to strange places, I can export the Cuebase data as a MIDI file — which is kind of like the basic CSV common file format for musical notes.

Then I need to import the MIDI file into Finale, and it converts all those dashes into notes.

I have a lot of complaints about Finale, but I have to step back and take my hat off to them on this: they do an impressive job of converting those dashes into notes. But now the real work starts, because impressive is still a long way from adequate.

The first pass through the score involves putting in the key signatures. It helps if I put that into the Cuebase file, but the key signature doesn’t make any difference to the sequencer, and I always forget. Finale has some algorithms for guessing, but they are … well, a little bizarre. Which I suppose is understandable.

The whole point of key signatures is that the Western chromatic scale over an octave has 11 distinct notes in it, but the musical staff notation used since A. Nony Mous scribbled out the first madrigal has room for only seven notes over an octave. They make up the difference using “accidentals” — flats and sharps — that push you up or down from one of the seven notes. Of course seven goes into eleven roughly 1.57142857142857 times, so there’s some black magic involving something called “modes” — there are seven traditional modes — two of which are “major” and “minor.” And that’s the easy part.

The thing is, musicians spend about twenty years learning to read music well, and so they get understandably irritated when you break the rules they’ve learned and hand them something that they can’t read and perform easily. So you pick a key signature, and the basic idea is to try to minimize the number of flats and sharps you have to throw around in the music. If you’ve written something in C# minor, and then rewrite it in C minor, the only place sharps or flats show up is right at the beginning of the piece, where you specify the key signature. All the rest is accident-free, and the notes will be otherwise identical.

It’s equally easy to add the key signature to Cuebase or Finale, which is why I generally don’t go back to Cuebase and just start over — which would also be easy, since all I’ve done with Finale up to this point is push a few buttons.

The next step is going through the score, staff by staff, fixing the accidentals that remain. As it turns out, that 11 versus 7 black magic ends up with as many as four different ways to represent the same note — as a sharp, a flat, a double-sharp, or a double-flat. This does turn out to be useful, and it’s way easier to show why than to describe:

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 7.06.49 PM Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 7.06.09 PMThese are both identical passages, but the one on the right shows the flow of the music a lot better than the one on the left. You want to follow the natural flow, because it will make it much easier for the musicians to play while they’re reading it. And that’s something you want to do — make it easy for them to read. After all, if you piss them off, they don’t have to play your music well.

Unfortunately, Finale doesn’t always do a good job of deciding which way to write the notes — it chose the one on the left. So I have to go through and correct all of these so that they make sense.

As I’m going through this, note-by-note, I’m also correcting all the errors that arise from Finale trying to guess note durations. Finale does a pretty good job with triplets. That 21-note run up at the top? Not a whisper of a prayer. And, at the same time, I can correct the clef notation, to try to keep the notes more-or-less grouped in the middle of the five-line staff.

All of these edits are judgment calls. The music is already correct, if unreadable. I’m trying to improve the readability, and that’s ultimately a matter of opinion.

Once I’ve gotten through that pass, comes the sniff test — that’s the test you give a jug of milk in the refrigerator that has been in there since you aren’t-quite-sure-when. Fortunately, Finale comes with its own MIDI performance software, so I can tell it to play the music for me. I can listen for errors.

It sounds terrible, by the way. Standard notation is intended to facilitate the performance of a human being who spent twenty years learning how to read music and play it well. The truth is, there simply isn’t enough information in the score for a computer to figure out how to play it. But — and this is the important part — listening will at least tell you if you have the right notes, with the right rhythms.

Now the tedium begins. Every note has potentially a dozen or so “articulations.” Staccatto. Marcato. Tenuto. Tremolo. Pizzicato. Palmetto. Con Gigolo. Mio Spaghettio. Yes, I’ve started making these up-o. Made-you-look-o.

Remember all those short notes I “quantized” way up at the top? Now I have to recover that lost information by putting a little dot over each note that should be played short. More decisions: staccatto, spiccato, or marcato? They’re all kind of the same — but they’re all different, with different markings. Each instrument will perform them differently, and each musician will interpret them differently. Get a little alcohol in them, and they’ll fight about it.

Then there’s phrasing — slur marks to indicate phrases. This is a tough call, because a lot of phrasing is just part of that twenty-year learning curve. Throw a bunch of dots out there, and musicians will make phrases out of them, and usually the right ones. All you’re doing is giving them hints, and there’s no point in insulting them with the obvious.

Even worse, slurs are also used to indicate bowing in the strings, and breathing for the wind instruments. You don’t want your oboist to pass out because you created a single long phrase of twenty-five measures. Of course, they won’t do that, but then you might as well not waste the ink on a phrase mark that is going to be ignored anyway. I always find myself swinging between minimalism — hey, they’re musicians, let them figure it out — and the kind of obsessive notation that I have to put into the Cuebase sequence to get it to sound right.

Dynamics. Forte. Mezzo-forte. Sforzando. Subito piano. Crescendo. Diminuendo. I absolutely hate this part, because it’s like trying to pick your nose with a hammer. Dynamic markings are a very blunt instrument. There are only eight gradations from inaudible to deafening. Fine, ten if you want to include pppp and ffff, neither of which is playable. In fact, it’s arguable whether ppp and fff make a lot of sense — really, there are only six. Again, these are hints, but they can be extremely important hints — like when you want a horn swell that sends all the squirrels in the rafters running for cover, versus the sound of a dream falling into a feather bed.

Then there is the expressive text, like molto agitato. Or perhaps like butterflies hovering over a glass of pinot. I’ve seen very silly notations, like a passage in Wagner for the strings marked interminably, oh dear God will this ever end?

I usually end up putting in the tempo markings last, for some reason. That one is pretty easy: the Cuebase file has utterly precise tempos — it needs to. So I could add notation that says, slow from 111 bpm to 93 bpm. I don’t, of course. It would instead be Allegro (quarter = 110) followed by rit. The conductor is only going to take it as a suggestion, anyway.

Sprinkle in fermatas, indicating that a note should be held until the winds are blue in the face. Add a break, or even a Grand Pause, where there is pregnant (or perhaps blessed) silence for a moment.

Finally, there’s all the print niceties: measure numbers, page numbers, rehearsal marks, title, composer, copyright, etc., etc., etc.

Still not done, however. Now the parts have to be broken out. Musicians don’t read scores. They read parts. A flute part. A violin part. A piano part.

Here, Finale is truly your friend. It’s pretty much few button presses, and you have all the parts broken out for you. They still have to be individually edited, because sometimes Finale makes some rather silly decisions. In particular, it always seems to put the last measure of the piece on a page by itself, a single measure across the whole page with one stupid note in it.

And then — finally — let it sit for a week, and then edit it again with fresh eyes.

I’ve just gotten to the tedium on the second movement of the concerto. First movement is done and mellowing for that final edit. Third movement should be quick and relatively easy.

Almost there….