Creativity November 2018: Finger Cymbals

It’s November, National Novel Writing Month, which means it’s time for another tape piece!*

*For some of you this might seem to be a non-sequitur, so let me explain. While I was in Norman, our group would have a creativity pact every November. Walter (writer of some of my best program notes) would participate in NaNoWriMo, Steven would work on album tracks, I’d write a tape piece. Prep work could be done outside of November, but the bulk of the work had to happen between the kickoff doughnut night at Donut King on Lindsey street (10 PM on Mondays), progress reports would be assessed at subsequent doughnut Mondays, and the project had to be completed in time for the December Third holiday meal. If you didn’t finish your project, you owed the winners a cake.

Given that I just finished that saxophone and percussion piece and I had a pair of finger cymbals lying around, I thought it would be cool to do a piece totally from finger cymbal sounds.

Turns out, finger cymbals only really have about one sound, so this project has been harder than I thought. To make it more interesting, I’m trying to write this as a tape piece AND as a finger cymbals and tape piece.

So here’s the progress thus far:

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Every Version of Pipe Dreams Ever

Last week, Pipe Dreams–a piece I started writing in 2009, received its second premiere, this time by the NDSU Wind Symphony. 

Second premiere? Am I even allowed to do that? Well, I did. 

Pipe Dreams started out as the last thing I’d write as an undergrad, and the first thing I’d work on as a grad student…and as a doctoral student…and as a “professional” composer. It received its first premiere in May of 2009 as a percussion octet. It was the first piece of mine accepted to a conference (an SCI Regional Conference at Kansas State in 2010). It brought me some attention with the Oklahoma Composers Association, which was my first real commission. Anyone who has played anything of mine written since will realize the beginnings of my infatuation with time signatures.

And then it was a slacker. I added a couple of movements to it, but neither movement was as impressive as the original. I came back to it again in 2012, reworking it into a band piece. And then I returned once more in 2014, tweaking the orchestration.

Because this piece exists in a bunch of different versions, I thought I’d run through how the piece developed.

2009-03-05. Piano Version
2009-03-17. Percussion Octet Version. This version received the original premiere in May of 2009.
2009-08-30. The intro has been moved to the second movement (not included). There’s also an expanded ending (you can see the end date and duration text block at the original ending), though it’s incomplete.
2009-09-05. The new ending is now more orchestrated.
2009-09-06. The next day, there’s a new minor section.
2009-11-01. All. Three. Movements. Listen at your own risk.
2012-06-25. Returning to it in summer of 2012, you’ll wonder why everything is tiny. I have no answer for you. You’ll notice that the first two movements are gone, and the orchestration is…doing its best.
2012-06-28 – The orchestration is doing somewhat better. There are still some wrong notes.
2012-08-22 – Orchestration is about as good as it’s going to get with this version. This was the final version…before the percussion got rearranged and condensed.
2014-06-06 – Better orchestration, better percussion writing.
2018-09-01 – Reworked ending, made some of the parts less boring.

Nine-and-a-half years later, here we are. It’s still a fun piece…but let’s not forget the best version of all: the 8-bit version.

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Opportunities for Personal Growth

My parents and I watch a lot of procedural crime dramas. Law and Orders of all varieties, NCIS, CSI, The Closer, and recently CK and I discovered Crossing Lines on Netflix. But my parents are obsessed with Criminal Minds. It’s basically all they watch. They’re either watching Criminal Minds or going to Menards.

In episode 8 of season 3, shortly after Gideon is replaced by Rossi, Morgan and Rossi are having a conversation in which both of them, at some point, utter the phrase “I was giving you an opportunity for personal growth”. This has become part of the Vanderburg lexicon, usually said in some sort of sarcastic way. Or, whenever dealing with things is hard.

I’m writing this percussion and saxophone piece. As it turns out, writing for multi-percussion is really hard, in really stupid ways. Despite having a basic background in percussion (go PBHS Drumline!), picking instruments was impossible. Where do I start? In an instrument group that includes basically anything I can imagine (and some things I can’t), how do I narrow down the number of instruments to something that is both engaging and logistical?

A second issue deals with the difficulty of the music. If I usually write rhythmic music, and percussionists are all about rhythm, then I need to up my rhythm game and write something nigh-impossible, right? Right?

The piece started out as a groove piece–like so much of my recent pieces (see also: Earmarks, Austerity, Joyride…). How do I keep from making this whole piece a groove piece? Or should it be?

Also, relying on computer playback for things like “swirled superball mallet” isn’t really a thing.

Most of these problems are mental–It’s seemed like I’ve been trying to drink from a firehose. Some of the problems have gone away by introducing boundaries. It’s like Stravinsky said, “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.” This was often expressed in my graduate lessons as “Give me limitations and I’ll give you the world”.

Some of these problems are solved by research–Steven Schick’s lecture “On the Bridge” helped tremendously, as did just listening to percussion things on YouTube.

Some of these problems are being solved by technology. Recording samples that I want to use, then dropping them into Pro Tools instead of using Sibelius, and then notating them later.

Overall, it’s a fun project–and an opportunity for personal growth.

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The Massive 2018 Summer Update

CK and I agreed that we wouldn’t travel much this summer. Maybe a conference, visit some family, but no 25-state road trip and no taking 300 high schoolers to Europe.

That idea was short lived, because here’s what we ended up doing:

Note: Squiggly lines are places we drove. We did not drive to Europe.

I’m going to paste a bunch of pictures, since I couldn’t do that before but now with WordPress I CAN!

The summer travel extravaganza started with CK judging the Musical Merit Competition in San Diego, while I drove to Missouri to visit my parents. CK joined a few days later, and we did our usual visit to Elephant Rocks and Johnsons Shut-ins. I broke down and finally bought an iPhone. And then it was back to Fargo.

Where we almost instantly put an offer on a house.

(this is still the only picture I’ve taken of the outside of the house)

We’d been wanting to not live in an apartment since the moment we moved into our apartment, and we’d been surfing Zillow for months, and we’d spent a few weeks looking, and the night we got back from Missouri–after a day of driving from Omaha to Fargo, we unloaded our bags and went and looked at three houses, putting an offer on one. The offer was accepted, and then we…left town again.

Trip number 3 was CK going to Madison for the MACRO theory conference. Trip number 4 was me flying down to Oklahoma to work with Jonathan Nichol and Marvin Lamb to record Marvin’s expanded Tenor Saxophone quintet, Woodcuts (previously: HERD!). Three incredibly busy days spent in OU’s recording studio before flying back to Fargo.

Here’s Marvin’s Woodcuts and Bartleby:

Shortly thereafter we headed west to Montana to visit CK’s family. Since our travels were far from over, we took Bartleby to stay with the Keoghs for the summer. Bartleby wasn’t thrilled with the car ride.

But I got my annual picture of Woodbine Creek

And Woodbine Falls

And, you know, nature stuff.

And then it was back to Fargo.

The sixth trip was the big one. The International Clarinet Association’s CLARINETFEST® was held in Oostende, Belgium this year. Last summer, CK asked if I’d be interested in writing a clarinet-saxophone-piano trio for NDSU’s Boreas Ensemble, to be premiered in Belgium. I said yes, knowing that if it got accepted I’d get to write a fun piece, and if it didn’t, I’d get credit for being agreeable. Well, it was accepted, the piece got written, and on the fourth of July we landed in Brussels.

We stayed the night in Brussels

We saw some churches

Église Notre-Dame du Sablon de Bruxelles

And some larger churches

Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula

And some pretty intense stained glass.

Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula

We saw some art

(Pieter Bruegel’s La Chute Des Anges Rebelles) – Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium

We saw the Manneken Pis

We saw…what is that thing?

(Trombone with seven bells, Adolphe Sax, Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels. Of course it would be Adolphe Sax)

And then it was off to Clarinetfest! Where we were greeted by the embodiment of the clarinetfest logo!

And of course we had to take a selfie

Oostende was nice, as a coastal Belgian vacation town, but not what you’d think of as stereotypical Europe.

And then it was back to Brussels, and then an express train ride to Amsterdam for a short trip. There was the Rijksmuseum, which we saw a tiny part of

And across the road, the Royal Concertgebouw!

And also more art:

(Joseph Klibansky’s Self Portrait of a Dreamer)

There’s something wrong with the clock at the Amsterdam Train Station

And then, back to Fargo again on Friday. But on Wednesday, we left again, CK to southern Minnesota, and me to New York for the New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival, or NYCEMF.

Andrew Allen at MSU Texas performed the New York premiere of Austerity for Soprano Saxophone and tape.

(Photo credit: the illustrious Joshua Tomlinson)

It’s a very long piece. Horizontally.

(Also Joshua Tomlinson)

So after all of that, we ended up back in Fargo, closed on the house, moved in, and stayed put for a while.

Until the next week when we had to go get Bartleby from Montana. Where he was enjoying nature.

After all that travel, we were all exhausted.

There’s more to report, but at some point summer stopped happening and the school year began, but that’s for later.

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New program note for Earmarks

Earmarks was commissioned by the Boreas Ensemble at North Dakota State University, and despite my best efforts, it took on a vaguely political theme. In the early stages of writing this piece, I shared online the idea of writing a work for piano, clarinet, and saxophone where the piano played for as long as the performer chose, the wind players were silent, and I’d call the entire thing “Filibuster”, after the political tactic of talking for as long as possible to delay any actual work being done. Among the comments egging me on, there were a handful of those who dissented. Oh, they agreed with my incredibly clever title idea, but they balked at the idea of a piece of music, especially one without a text, being political. After all, they said, Stravinsky tells us that music is unable to express anything.

I’m perhaps the wrongest person to tackle that criticism or to write a political piece, and the idea of writing a piece about politics in the United States in 2018 seems like cheating. It’s too easy. There’s already so much being said. And I’ve never considered myself a political activist–I’m far too introverted for that. I reject the notion that our political discourse is only effective when it’s loud, obnoxious, and riddled with expletives. I think that sometimes change is affected through the church sermon that makes you uncomfortable enough to put a little more in the offering plate. Sometimes change is achieved through laughtivism. Sometimes all it takes is a bit of quiet solitude in a voting booth.

And so, Earmarks is a musical (and hopefully humorous) view of some of the issues in today’s political climate, designed to make you make you laugh–or to make you think. And definitely to make you talk.

It starts out with Echo Chamber, where everything you hear is everything you want to hear. As we move more and more of our lives online, we’re at the mercy of algorithms that try to deliver more of what we like–and give us options for removing that which we don’t. The more time we spend in these echo chambers, the less we hear from dissenters. (The piano tries to come in with a new idea later in the movement, but is largely ignored).

The second movement, Filibuster, does what I initially intended. Although all three instruments do get to play, it’s a lot of repeated, pleasant-sounding milquetoast stuff without a great deal of substance that never really resolves. And it has a repeat sign at the end that allows it to be played as many times as the performers wish. How long this movement is depends entirely on the whim of the pianist.

A swing state is a state with a similar level of support for both parties that can go either way during an election. Likewise, Swing States is a piece for saxophone and piano, and a piece for clarinet and piano, and it’s a struggle to see who’s going to win. Will they sort out their differences? Will we?

Political opinions–like works of art, scientific discoveries, and everything else of value–are only improved when they are allowed to be constructively criticized, discussed, and defended.


Earmarks receives its premiere on July 9 at Clarinetfest in Ostend, Belgium.

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Hello wordpress!

When I started blogging like nine years ago, I started a blog with WordPress. As I built Liszt up and tried to do everything in-house, I moved the entire blog to Liszt. After working to streamline Liszt as much as possible, there’s not much need for a blog function. And also Liszt didn’t have fantastic image capabilities for blog posts, and I really want to start posting pictures of my cat.

So here I am, back on WordPress.

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Earmarks III: Swing State

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Earmarks Mvmt I: Echo Chamber

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Late last year, I launched OpenKyle, which was an experiment based on Austin Kleon's Show Your Work. It was a lot of fun, and it kept me motivated to push updates every day to YouTube while I worked on a saxophone and tape piece titled Austerity.

And then, I moved to the tape piece The Earth Shall Soon Dissolve Like Snow. And that got harder to update, as I'm on a limited SoundCloud account.

And then 2018 came, and the projects this year have been more collaborative, and it's not just my work that I'd be publishing online. So with that in mind, I'll be merging OpenKyle with the regular blog, and working to update this with more work-related things soon.

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Kyle Vanderburg