Thaw was set to receive its premiere this summer at Clarinetfest(r) in Reno, but that’s been postponed for obvious reasons. Which has given me the opportunity to finally write its program note:
I wrote Thaw during my third winter in Fargo, and it was an act of optimism, because spring hadn’t hinted its arrival when I completed the piece. My intent was to provide a meditation on the nature of melting snow and the slow, steady revealing of things last seen in November. I thought of the piece as figurative as well, hinting at the defrosting of our preconceptions, our assumptions, and our expectations. In hindsight, it seems appropriate that this piece was written in 2020, a year in which has seen a thaw in a number of ways.
Also, I’ve finally–FINALLY–written a program note for Joyride, which I wrote four years ago. I’m pretty happy with it.
Joyride is a duet that oscillates from being loud and raucous when it thinks you’re not looking to well-behaved and almost polite when it catches you watching. The back-and-forth motive suggests either a lack of control by either player or a complete abdication of any responsibility. Sure, there are some nice chorale-sounding moments, but even those get a little out of hand when in the hands of these two. Seriously, don’t trust them. Years later, they’ll look back on this and say “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Program note for One Sows for the Benefit of Another Age, which is new this summer:
I started writing what would become One Sows for the Benefit of Another Age in 2013, as I was sketching ideas for what became a piano trio. I liked what I had created, but two things became evident: The piece was destined to be for orchestra, and I was not good enough as a composer to finish it. Over the next seven years, I kept returning to this piece in my spare time, adding some sections, tweaking some others, and at some point I gained the experience to finish it. But the trade-off was that I no longer had the time. At least until Spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic put most of my projects on hold, and I was able to return to–and finish–the work.
The title came last. My ideas while I was writing centered around Americana (I was listening to a lot of Copland, Barber, and Ives) and infusing my history and experience in the Ozarks and on the plains. I knew I wanted to make use of the idea of illumination, of dawn. I wanted to start in the shadows and end aglow. The darkness was such a defining feature that my working title was Aegri Somnia, loosely translated from Latin as “troubled dreams”. As I continued working, I realized that the focus wasn’t the darkness–the focus was the change.
I discuss change a lot in my teaching. Students often see change as transformative change–massive, radical, sweeping change, like winning the lottery, or winning an audition. Transformative change is easy–it usually involves hoping for a situation or a Deus ex Machina, and if it happens, it benefits us immediately. Iterative change, however–small, repeated, incremental change that builds up over time–is hard. An extra half-hour of work every day, a little extra contributed to savings every month, these changes add up over time and become significant. But it requires intention and action, and it doesn’t reap immediate benefits. It may not end up benefitting us at all.
One Sows changes iteratively. It starts from a dark place, but is sprinkled with seeds of hope. A descending motive introduced in the violins brings us out of the darkness, albeit slowly. The idea spreads, develops, and eventually becomes part of a new idea, a new paradigm, that takes over.
In searching for a title, I came across “Serit ut alteri saeclo prosit,” North Dakota’s Latin state motto, whose English translation is the title of this work. It’s a recent addition to the North Dakota statutes, but a timeless message. Our work isn’t finished yet.
An upgraded program note for Creatures from the Black Bassoon:
Creatures from the Black Bassoon is, as the title suggests, a virtual menagerie of beasts and environments fashioned entirely from processed and unprocessed sounds of the bassoon. Key clicks, reed squeaks and squawks, multiphonics, notes played through various stages of assembly and disassembly, and other traditional and extended techniques are organized by similar properties into species. Some of our creatures appear to be cute, chirpy, fuzzy critters, while others are vicious predators. These beings are placed in a number of tableaus of length devised by the golden ratio, with certain sections designated as “windows” with substantial contrast to the surrounding sections.
We had like a thousand high school students in the music building at NDSU right before spring break. I had just flown in from Nashville at the beginning of March. Knowing what we know now, that’s kind of terrifying.
We had a pretty good warning that classes would move online, and I spent one evening writing a disaster plan for what I’d do if my teaching went online. Within ten minutes of NDSU announcing that we’d continue with online classes, my students had a copy of that plan in their inbox. I’m kind of proud of that.
The fact that the plan changed multiple times after I sent it is less impressive.
I planned on teaching from school, until over spring break I watched the cases in ND jump from 1 to 6 to 15 within a day. I quickly discovered where my comfort zone is.
I spent part of spring break shopping for new components for my studio computer. I did not spend spring break measuring my studio computer to see if those components would fit. I spent the next week shopping for a new computer case.
For spring break and the next couple of weeks, I had the worst sort of writer’s block. Most of my projects had evaporated or were delayed, and I didn’t have any real deadline. Some of my attempts to get rid of writer’s block involved trying to write bluegrass clarinet music (I failed) and setting government proclamations about COVID-19 to music (I didn’t fail, and that’s somehow worse).
I read a lot of words about how if you weren’t taking advantage of this opportunity to stay distraction free and work on your own projects then you weren’t doing it right. I also read a lot of words saying that if you weren’t actively grieving then you weren’t doing it right. I read a lot more words where people argued with each other about it.
I spent a lot of time thinking about how we metabolize and process events like this. Some of us need projects and distractions. Some of us need comfort and connection. There is no single right answer.
I spent some time thinking about how the above applies to education and teaching, and about how I can make my courses more customized, especially if we’re still online in the fall. I also thought about how in developing a career in music, there is no single right answer.
I think we’ll be online in the fall, despite our best efforts, and I’m planning my courses as such. An online class can be transitioned to classroom learning much easier than a face-to-face class can be transitioned online in no time. Worst case scenario, I spent this summer making resources that supplement my classroom teaching.
After all, never let a crisis go to waste (thanks Scott Meyer for that).
I have no idea how 189 (Skills for Academic Success) is going to become an online class.
I’ve been trying to create distractions for myself and my students. At NDSU, we’ve been having composition contests and an online creativity book club. At VCSU, we’re planning for our annual composer’s concert–all online.
I started an orchestra piece in 2015, but wasn’t good enough to finish it, and was fortunate to realize it at the time. By the time I got good enough to finish it, I didn’t have the time. This semester, I’ve had both for the first time, and I’ve written about eight minutes of orchestra music. Some of it is really good. The rest of it will be.
I remembered, for the umpteenth time, that my creativity is all-or-nothing: Either I have multiple projects, or I have zero. Picking up some coding projects kickstarted my reading and composing. I reinvented AudioAtlas and uploaded the code via Bitbucket.
I finished Ray Dalio’s Principles, Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft, and Scott Kaufman’s and Lindsey Gregoire’s Wired to Create. I’m working my way through Robert Greene’s Mastery and re-reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit.
I’ve ordered from Amazon less in the past two months than at any other time in my life since getting a prime membership. And I don’t miss it. I’ve ordered from SheetMusicPlus like three times already. I also discovered that you can buy online from Ace Hardware, and that changes everything.
I bought stamps. I didn’t need stamps, but I needed to buy stamps.
I remembered podcasts are a thing.
I set up our home media server, my new computer, and the NoteForge Backup Server to contribute to Folding At Home, which is a distributed computing platform for protein folding. One of their projects right now is COVID-19.
It’s been nice not being in the music building until 9 every night.
Like most of the world, I’m very much in need of a haircut.
I spent the beginning of the year planning to write a small blog post every day. Well, at least every weekday. I had a backlog of blog ideas, and I posted one every day. Trying to channel my inner Seth Godin. And then I got to January 29.
What happened on January 29 was that I had a grant application due on February 1, and I desperately needed to finish it, having never written a grant application before. So the 29th of January came and went with no post.
And then January 30.
And January 31
And the weekend of February 1st and 2nd.
And so on.
I did post on February 5 about booking travel, written more for my music entrepreneurship than for anyone else, but since then: crickets.
I attribute all of this to inertia: we do the things we’ve been doing. Despite a month of writing short posts, it took one day to derail, because I’ve not been writing a blog for far longer than I have been.
I could connect this to my students, and how they practice.
Or I could look at my own composing.
I took a break during spring break to make sure I could get all my classes online. And that break, combined with several of the projects I mentioned earlier being put on the back burner, my output the past couple of weeks has been slim, and the only thing that has kept me from transitioning from “composer” to “guy who checks his email” has been that the first three hours of my day, every day, are cordoned off as Dedicated Creative Time. Scheduling inertia.
Thinking about my own inertia, paired with teaching fully online for the rest of the semester, has led me to think about the inertia in our music curriculum: What sorts of things are we doing because we’ve always done them that way? Music doesn’t change quickly, but the technology with which we can teach does.
There’s a semi-rant in here about the number of schools wanting to something Eric-Whitacre’s-virtual-choir based, despite the fact that the idea itself is a decade old. A more useful question is “what can I do to escape inertia in how I teach composition in North Dakota and promote new music.”
That’s a separate blog post, which by this rate, I’ll post around July.
This post is primarily for my students, the ones in Music Entrepreneurship who do a similar project.
This evening, I finally booked my travel to SEAMUS 2020 at the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA. In all honesty, I was procrastinating putting together this week’s Comp II masterclass, but regardless it needed to get done.
SEAMUS is an electronic music conference, where they’re doing the US premiere of The Earth Shall Soon Dissolve Like Snow. I’d already paid the registration fee earlier this week, so the logical next steps were to handle the travel arrangements. This was complicated by two things, the first being that the schedule isn’t out yet (the conference is the 12-14 of March, but without knowing which day I’m on I’ll just have to stay the whole time), and the second being that Charlottesville isn’t particularly close to large airports.
Why not wait to book? I usually try to book no fewer than six weeks in advance, and we were coming up on that time. I don’t know that this is the best time to book, but I think I read that somewhere once and it’s stuck in my brain.
I have a Chase United MileagePlus card, so I usually try to book through them if possible (read: cheap). The first thing I do in this case is pull up ITA Matrix and look for Fargo (and close airports) to Charlottesville (and close airports). Matrix allows you to do trips to FAR-IAD with a return DCA-GFK or things like that–some of which I’ve done before. For this flight, I looked at flying to Richmond (RIC), Washington Dulles (IAD), Washington Ronald Reagan (DCA), Baltimore (BWI), and Charlottesville (CHO). Dulles on Delta turned out to be the cheapest option, so I picked that.
I could have gone cheaper if I’d done basic economy–I’ve done it before, and the Chase card makes it a decent option–but I like the control of picking my own seats. Aisle, left side of the plane, as far back as possible.
I also could have gone cheaper if I’d flown out of Minneapolis instead of Fargo, but once you add in four hours of driving each way, and parking (I’ve also done this before, it’s a decent option).
Personal preference: I don’t fly American. They stranded me in Dallas once, and I rented the last rental car at DFW at 2 am–but that’s a story for another time. Others have had great luck with them, but that’s not me.
So, flight booked, now to tackle the hotel. The conference has a hotel with a conference rate, and after some looking around it seemed like a good deal. I used to use Hipmunk to search for hotels, but they’ve gone away unfortunately. I usually use my AAA membership to bring hotel rates down further, but in this case the conference hotel won out. The hotel will be close enough to walk to the venues, so that’s good. However, getting from Dulles to Charlottesville will still require a car.
Extra charge: Hotel parking: $7/night.
Next, over to Hertz to get a car. I usually pick one of the SUV options if it’s not much more expensive than the basic rental (though the last time I did this I ended up with a full-size truck. At a new music conference.), I usually pay up front, and the Chase card substitutes as their damage waiver/insurance. Being a AAA member brings down the cost quite a bit.
A few words about AAA: We got a membership a few years ago less for the auto repair options (which I think we’ve used once) and more for the travel discount options. What we found was that with our travel, at worst we break even and at best we save a great deal of money. The only other better deal that we’ve encountered is the ND Government State Rates on ND Hotels or through Hertz.
So I get to Virginia the day before the conference at 1, which gives me the rest of the day to get to Charlottesville. The drive puts me pretty close to Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, so why not? Two fun travel things this summer were driving from Park City, UT down to the Great Salt Lake, and driving from Denver to Parachute, CO for the Aspen Composers Conference.
I get an inbox full of confirmations, all of which I forward to Tripit for keeping track of my travel plans.
As the semester
started, I hoped that things would be calmer than the fall, and thankfully in
most ways they are. In some ways, however, there’s more work. Here’s a list of
some of the things on my radar this spring, some moving into next fall and
At NDSU: I’m part of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences Course Curation Committee, which is looking at how to update/streamline some college requirements.
At NDSU: I’m continuing as a member of the NICE Faculty Fellows, which promotes and explores Entrepreneurship.
At NDSU: As part of the NICE center, I’m also helping out with the Civic Innovation Force, which will pair students with the City of Fargo to solve problems.
Through NICE I’ve happened to get involved with a project to promote nanotechnology by writing music about nanotechnology. It’s supported by an NSF grant.
Perhaps all of this
talk about our students knowing how to do something is moot–after all, I’ve
heard the argument that “our students learn what they need to despite what
we teach them,” and this is largely true. Most musicians I know (myself included)
haven’t had much in terms of entrepreneurship training, and yet we figure out
how to get our music performed or how to find performances.
An assignment I’ve
put into my music entrepreneurship class is a travel funding assignment. It’s
pretty open ended–Assume that you’re going to a professional conference and
you’d like to ask for funding. How do you construct a budget, and how do you
present a case for how much funding you need?
It’s a fairly
straightforward assignment: Look up airfare or mileage, look up hotels, list
your fixed costs like registration, and figure out a way to ask for per diem.
These are all very obvious things–if you already know how to do them.
Some assumptions we
operate under, and some mistakes my students have made on this assignment:
Flights are usually listed round-trip, as a total. Hotels are usually listed per-night. I’ve had students not realize that they have a 5-day conference and they have a one-night hotel stay.
There is a federal mileage reimbursement rate that many organizations use. If you claim mileage, or if you estimate your gas costs, make sure you calculate mileage there AND back.
If your hotel doesn’t offer a shuttle, then you have to get from the airport to the hotel somehow.
If you have oversize luggage (say, an instrument) then that’s another cost.
Trivial mistakes to
make on a class assignment. Disastrous if you’re on an actual trip. Compounded
even more so if the trip is international.
I’m writing a piece
for the NDSU Clarinet Choir, which they’ll perform at ClarinetFest 2020 in
Reno, Nevada. Well, I mean, I’m not actually writing it this very minute, I’m
writing this blog post. But I have been writing it. Except when I haven’t been.
Which has been a lot.
This post isn’t so
much a list of excuses so much as it is an exploration into the creative
procrastination that goes into writing.
I didn’t want to
start the piece until January–I finished the percussion quartet in
mid-December, and wanted to take a break. By the time I ended up getting back
to Fargo and got settled in, it was already the 10th, with classes starting the
I had no idea what
the clarinet choir piece was going to look like, so the first several days of
writing were just bouncing ideas around. I ended up with this weird musical
line in my head, which reminded me of some song I heard in college, and I
wanted to make sure I wasn’t ripping it off. That resulted in several days of
trying to remember what that song was.
It ended up being
Little Talks by Of Monsters and Men. And the line stuck in my head ended up
resembling this not at all. Score one for me.
So that line I
heard, I still haven’t worked into the piece, because every time I start
thinking about where it could fit in, it merges with MacArthur Park. I had
never actually listened to the lyrics of MacArthur park until I listened
through trying to figure out where it fit in.
Part of this time
has been spent looking for other clarinet choir pieces.
There’s a lot of
transcriptions, but not a lot of pieces originally for clarinet choir. So
inspiration is scarce. The NDSU Clarinet Choir will be playing Schickele’s
Monochrome III and Curtis’s Klezmer Triptych, so I know what else is on the
And I almost know
how this piece is going to go too.
All throughout my college career and the beginning of my teaching career, I never had a good system for keeping track of research–after all, my experience was in composing instead of research.
Within the past couple of years, I’ve finally figured out a system that works for me: Index cards.
As I read through books, I mark particularly interesting passages by earmarking pages and margin notes. Getting over the idea of writing in books took a while. When finished, I copy the passages onto index cards, note the author/title/page number, and give the card a sequential number.