Our New Concerto!

When I was approached to write a new violin concerto for Bella Hristova, I was thrilled at the idea of collaborating with this incredible artist whom I know rather well. But what can I say about her that hasn’t been said by people everywhere? The New York Times talks about Bella’s “lovely…soaring tone,” and calls her (just straight up) “the excellent Bella Hristova.” The Strad says it was “particularly struck by her commanding stage presence.” The Washington Post says she is a “player of impressive power and control.” I personally think she’s not only one of the great young violinists in the world, but one of the great violinists in the world of any age. I know that being engaged to someone might suggest that I’m biased (thus the strategy of leading off with whatother people have had to say), but I hold my opinion as self-evident. Go have a listen

Alan Jordan, the executive director of the Vermont Symphony, proposed the idea to me to write a concerto for Bella in honor of us getting married, and as a natural artistic partnership between two individuals who had worked separately many times with the VSO before. I had a wonderful residency with the VSO from 2004-2008 funded by what was then “Meet the Composer,” and this felt like a great new link to a Vermont audience community that I feel so close to already. Bella has been a soloist with the VSO many times, and we both owe so much to music director Jaime Laredo who has been an impossibly kind mentor and friend. We’ve come to realize that in music (and probably everything else!) strong relationships make strong results, and we have had an amazing relationship with the Vermont community.

Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco

But Alan being a bigger thinker wanted to expand that community for this project, so he approached colleagues in other orchestras where there were appropriate connections. He reached out to Kansas City, Louisville, Quad City, Reno, and Westchester symphonies to see if they had interest, and we got positive responses from everyone. The plan was to build a consortium of orchestras to commission and present the piece. They then applied to New Music USA for further support.

To my great surprise and delight (and general “yeehaw!”) we got funding from New Music USA. There were nearly twelve hundred applicants, and only 2% of them received support. That number is humbling, to say the least, and if anything it’s a great motivation to make this project the very, very best it can be.

The project is a new violin concerto to be written by me for Bella, celebrating these relationships–and ourrelationship–and to use the piece to build bridges between these many audience communities, connecting to them through meaningful personal engagement, and sharing all of our collective stories with each other closely and remotely. Bella and I have already focused a lot on engaging audiences and will always work to cultivate new ones in the project-based careers we are so fortunate share. We are looking forward to all of it–getting to know people from the orchestras, audience, and communities who are a part of this consortium, and introducing them to this new and living music.

It’s funny how, as a composer, you carry these ideas around in your head as if they’re stored like little folders in a file cabinet. Four years ago, soon after Bella and I began as a couple, I started imagining what a concerto for her might sound like. I thought about her explosive playing, how it could launch out of an explosive sonority in the orchestra to start the piece. I thought about the ending (will it be three movements? will it havemovements?) and how that can highlight her extraordinary technique with flashing bow strokes and the electrical energy of her concerto playing. There are definitely new ideas and sounds swimming around in my inner ear…thinking about a new pieces is one of the sweetest times, but then you have to get down to the long and (wonderfully) challenging process of writing.

So I guess it’s time to open those folders…

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Pale Blue Dot

Program notes for "Pale Blue Dot" commissioned by the Caramoor Festival for the Dover String Quartet


I am inspired by astronomy and always have been. I remember the first time I looked through a telescope as a kid: we were at summer camp taking turns looking at Saturn, a perfect marriage of icy rings and tiny diamonds for moons. And as a kid I first heard about the Voyager probes, launched thirty-six years ago; Voyager I now traveling in interstellar space; the space between the stars. It takes Voyager I 17 hours for its messages to reach us, sent by radio signal over the 9.5 billion miles it has traveled to this point. Awesome.

The Voyager project came from a time when, perhaps, we dreamt a little more and worried about material gain a little less. It was sent by NASA to study the planets of the solar system, but it had a second objective built sideways into the subtext: to leave our solar system as a message in a bottle, possibly received by some other intelligent species on some other side of the vast ocean of stars. To carry the message, Voyager is equipped with the “Golden Record,” an actual 12-inch gold-plated record that contains pictures and music electronically imbedded on it to describe our lives and history as a species. Amongst the sample images, there are scientific diagrams and photographs of elephants, schoolchildren, and highways. On the audio playlist are greetings to the universe recorded in 55 languages and music–some of the most glorious–by Bach, Berry (Chuck), Mozart, Stravinsky, and last on the album: Beethoven’s shattering Cavatina from his Op. 130 quartet, as recorded by the Budapest String Quartet. The people at NASA and the committee put an extraordinary document together in this Golden Record. In my experience, scientists have some of the deepest and personal connections to art of anyone.

In 1990, the visionary astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan, (who worked directly on the Voyager missions) asked NASA to turn Voyager around and take a deep space portrait of Earth looking back on us as it was leaving the solar system from six billion miles away. When you look at this picture, you see first the long rays of sunlight refracted off of Voyager’s little narrow band camera (everything is small on Voyager compared to today–it has 69K of memory; this text file occupies twice that amount, and the laptop I’m typing this on has 2.4 million times Voyager’s computing capacity). In the bottom right of the photo is a bright little speck, not quite even a full pixel, and that is our home, the Earth. The photo is titled appropriately “Pale Blue Dot” and Dr. Sagan wrote beautifully about it:

"From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

I’ve been watching the reboot of the TV show Cosmos, first hosted by Sagan and now hosted by Niel deGrasse Tyson, who is also brilliant. On the show, Tyson mentioned that it will take Voyager eighty-thousand years to get to the next star over from our own.

I like to fantasize about what that first encounter with Voyager will look like in eighty thousand, or eight hundred thousand, or eight million years from now. After so many millennia of lonely sojourn, I imagine intelligent life forms probing the probe, looking for the “on” button, debating with each other what it means and who we were? Is it a threat? A lost device? Or, most unlikely but true, a friendly introduction, a missive sent into infinity hoping to meet anyone at all that crossed its path. And what would that Cavatina sound like after all those years? Would it be warped and modulated, so distant in time and space from its source? And perhaps the aliens would learn what they needed to about us from Voyager and decide to send it back out into space, keeping its role as the most ancient and modern time capsule our civilization has ever assembled. Voyager could continue in the expanse to meet another civilization, as alien to them as they are to us, with a snapshot of ourselves at our most human, living on this pale blue dot.

Those thoughts and images are the inspiration for my new string quartet. 

Pale Blue Dot was commissioned by the Caramoor International Music Festival, on behalf of the Dover Quartet, for A String Quartet Library for the 21st Century. World Premiere:  July 11, 2014 at Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts.

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Seasons Lost (and Found): A New CD Release

This week the recording of my Seasons Lost double violin concerto is released on Cedille, with violinists Jennifer Koh, Jaime Laredo, and the Curtis 20/21 ensemble led by Vinay Parameswaran. I am in august company on the CD, with works by Philip Glass, Anna Clyne, and a lesser-known composer named John Sebastian Brook…or something. I wrote about Seasons Lost earlier on this blog, and I’ve been so excited to see it programmed.

The double violin concerto is a classic Baroque instrumental medium, and I used it again in Virtuosity (the string orchestra piece I wrote for ECCO last summer). This setup allows for so many layers of musical conversation: solos, duos, tuttis, and soloists and duettists (?) with the larger group. And though word “concerto” suggests playing together, it emerged as a form with soloist(s) cast in opposition to a larger group (which was often–hundreds of years ago–the community band).

And so, that’s clearly evolved. The folks performing on this recording are at the very top of the shelf, and I don’t think I can fit all of the superlatives they deserve in just a sentence or two. You just have to hear this playing; the sound this ensemble produces and the music that Jennifer and Jaime make together is next level stuff. There are no dull moments in this performance: every phrase has a color, a vibrancy, a concept behind it.

We made the recording a year ago in March with Judith Sherman. Judy is truly a legend, winning so many Grammys and accolades, and in our sessions I saw why. She is the ultimate producer; calm and composed, but totally meticulous after she establishes the big picture. I’ve often wondered why writers have editors but composers don’t. Isn’t that weird? It’s the most natural thing in the world for a writer to send her manuscript into her editor and get back major revisions, but composers—this is pretty much unheard of. Perhaps there are people out there who could do this kind of thing well? To listen to a composer’s work and say “this is too long, this we want to hear again, this is out of tune because the piccolos are playing…” As horrifying as the idea might sound to some colleagues, I see a niche profession for some enterprising instrumentalist.

Otherwise, the producer is as close to the composer’s editor as you get. Judy would listen to a take in our sessions and offer recommendations about how to take it again, including making alterations in my score in timing and dynamics. She was always “right–” there’s so much value of an expert–and objective–set of ears set on the music.

Recording sessions at a venue are not like you see on TV with the room-sized mixing board, the poshly dressed record producer (no one was wearing sunglasses), and the “talent” playing on the other side of the big glass wall. The gear is set up in a neighboring room cables lain like tiny tributaries from the recording space to the booth. There’s a PA put in place to communicate with the musicians from the booth (the so-called “Voice of G-d”) and a set of mics ranging in number from a couple to a gaggle depending. The recording style of the producer is reflected in the placement of those mics and the balancing of the recorded sound through the design of the sound engineer. Naturally, everyone and every setup is different.

Then the recording begins. Often you run through the whole piece first to get a sense of it and to get the bows and bodies moving. Section after section is worked through, and often over and over again, until it is nearest to the perfect representation of the music. The producer can make tweaks and changes later, but the idea is that the ingredients need to be the best they can before baking the CD (or burning it, as the case may be…) As we listen to each take, we make small notations in the score of what sounded good and what needed to be redone. Soon, our music is covered by red and green marks saved for future reference long after it’s “in the can” and ready to be mastered.

In concert music, the journey from recording to CD can take as much as a couple of years. Often the producer is the only one to edit the recording, and that person (hopefully!) has a backlog of jobs to take care of before getting to what you’ve recorded. Along the way, the sound files are shared with the performers and label to give input into the editing process. Smaller projects are faster, and of course people invested in knowing about the process in our DIY world are turning out their own projects on their own labels at record speed. (…)

So please go check out this new recording–it’s unlike most anything out there­–with this repertoire and these players–and I am beside-myself-excited for the release!

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Curtis Young Artist Summer Program: Composition Workshop

Young composers of the 2016 Curtis Young Artist Summer Program. I'm in the corner looking proud, and joined by colleagues Alyssa Weinberg Scott St John, Paul Demers, Mimi Stillman, Arlen Hlusko, and Charles Abramovic (and Julia, who joined us for the shot...)

Young composers of the 2016 Curtis Young Artist Summer Program. I'm in the corner looking proud, and joined by colleagues Alyssa Weinberg Scott St John, Paul Demers, Mimi Stillman, Arlen Hlusko, and Charles Abramovic (and Julia, who joined us for the shot...)

UPDATE! The YASP program has grown so much since I first made this post, that if you're interested in it, I'd urge you to go to the Curtis SummerFest webpage which is right here

OK, and now back to this ol' blog post... I should rewrite it soon!


Here's a big push for the composition program for high school and early college-aged (14-19) students at the Young Artist Summer Program that we’re doing at Curtis this July. It's going to be an awesomely unique music festival going into its third year which now includes COMPOSITION as a major. I say it's unique because I’ve taught or directed comp programs at about a dozen festivals over the years, and this is a truly extraordinary opportunity for young composers not to be found anywhere else. We have a master class with the inimitable John Mackey and will have several other special guests.

Participants in the composition program will receive:

• Daily seminar class: discussions about where music has been and where it is going, as well as classes with performers to talk about how to write for their instruments, conversations about commissions, competitions, publishing, and other issues facing composers in the 21st century

• Private lessons: meeting once per week with a Curtis Artist Teacher, guest faculty, and yours truly! Students will be working on pieces steadily during the course and have the chance to hear their works in progress.  

• Opportunities to sing in chorus, play in chamber ensembles and orchestra, and private instrument lessons. See a schedule here.

• Participation in the Young Artist Summer Program, which includes daily activities and residence in Lenfest Hall, Curtis's new state-of-the-art facility (with a lounge and wide-screen TV for the *ahem* study of film and video game music...).

• A performance and recording of a work by musicians from Curtis–faculty, alumni, and current students. This is the most important part of the program and what makes it unique!

I believe that you learn more as a composer hearing your music played well than you do in any class or lesson, and–as important as it is to study–you just can’t replace hearing your music performed at a high level. I can't think of another festival a young composer can sign up for that offers this level of constant access to these musicians. Students will be able to use their recordings for years, for college and grad school applications, grants, or just to generally impress everyone. 

(And here's a video about summer programs at Curtis, too):

Lots more info at the website, and here's the Facebook page. It's a very exciting time to be a young composer!

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