During one of my many trips back to my native South Africa, I picked up one of these beautiful instruments. They are easily available at craft markets, tourist shops, or just sold by the side of the road. Part of the Venda and Shona traditions, this type of instrument is also found further North, where it may be known as a Kalimba or Sansa.
The tuning of each member of this family is unique. For my mbira, the lowest notes are in the middle, the highest on the left and right, with different pentatonic scales in each of these two registers (see the note names below).
Temperament is a fascinating aspect. Some of the notes are a little sharper or flatter than my piano. It's weird at first, but after playing the mbira for some time, one is gradually transported into a new universe of amazing sound. These extraordinary notes don't fluctuate, even if you wiggle the metal bars back and forth. In that sense, metal is more economical than string as a method of sound production, because, unlike the strings of the piano, metal doesn't expand and contract. There is no need for constant tune ups!
The mbira has a great sound when you put your ear close, but quickly dies away from a few feet back. Not wishing to lose any tone quality, I clipped a flexible microphone to the edge, and ran it passed a receiver to a speaker with a nice handle for ease of moving around. Now I can place my instrument in a group of musicians and match them for volume.
Having started to learn the characteristics of this little gem, my thoughts began to drift towards composition. I had received a commission from the Dana Ensemble, a chamber orchestra in Youngstown, Ohio, and wrote The Garden Had Fallen Still for them. This piece throws the mbira in with winds, brass, percussion, guitar, harmonium and strings. It is played by a pianist, who is asked to alternate between piano and "thumb piano." Rehearsals were a blast, as we worked out ways of balancing dynamic levels and intonation, and gradually accepted this new member into the conventional ensemble.
The Garden Had Fallen Still will premier at Ford Family Recital Hall, DeYor Performing Arts Center, Youngstown, Ohio on Sunday, 2 May, 3:00 pm. Masks will be worn, and social distancing will be observed. Purchase tickets here.
My mbira, about 7 inches in diameter, with a clip-on microphone, and an alluring metallic sound
Life as a composer during the corona virus pandemic did not change that much for me. As a university professor, I am assured of a steady salary, with my time commitment to teaching still very much the same (and I quite enjoy the virtual lectures). The cancellation of concerts has made quite an impact on my life, however. The Akron New Music Festival was cancelled (I am the director, and was ready to feature myself as composer, pianist, and conductor), as was a piano duo/duet concert with several friends at the University of Akron, plus a trip to Nevada for the International Clarinet Association. Add to that all the concerts I would have attended as audience member, and suddenly I had much more time on my hands for composition!
Of course, there is an aspect to composition that fits in perfectly with social distancing – one needs to be alone! Notwithstanding the very necessary interaction with musicians ahead of the process (it’s best to have a really good idea of who is going to play the piece, what they like, how they sound, what sort of person they are), and once it’s ready (rehearsing, fine tuning, etc.), there is still large expanses of time that must be spent uninterrupted. With that in mind, I returned to some sketches made in February (when I was supposed to be practicing) and developed them into a fully worked out composition. The performers in mind are two colleagues at my university, an oboeist (Jack Harel) and a bassoonist (Cynthia Cioffari), and the piece is a trio for oboe, bassoon, and piano, for me to play with them. The occasion is the celebration of the Jack’s upcoming promotion to Full Professor of Practice, a title shared by Cynthia and myself. So it’s our chance to welcome him into our little club, as it were.
The very necessary research before beginning this “stay-at-home” project was already half done – I know my players pretty well, and played with them and written for them before, and have a sense for their personalities and tastes. The other half of preparation is knowing the repertoire for the ensemble (essential to the composers art – not to make mistakes already made, or invent wheels already invented) – so I bathed my ears in music for oboe, bassoon, and piano – works by Poulenc, Françaix, Glinka, Dring, Previn, etc. – and then launched into the work of creating the next addition to this ensemble’s beautiful tradition.
The last page of Plastic Ocean - a new work for oboe, bassoon, and piano, written during the corona virus stay-at-home, but taking inspiration from a different global challenge: our struggles with waste removal.
My inspiration for Cleansing Waters comes from the environment, and my strong wish that we take care of our planet. I learned about a natural water recycling process known as The Living Machine, and made a musical realization of the way water is purified by filtering it through plants and bacteria. I wrote Cleansing Waters in memory of Alex Chun, who devoted many hours as a student to this worthy project, and the work was premiered at a memorial service for Alex held at The Living Machine facility of Oberlin College in Ohio. The piece is dedicated to all those involved in operating this wonderful ecological venture. More information about the Living Machine is here.
The watery music that I came up with relies on waves of sound being produced by wind instruments and the piano. At first, the winds have calm melodies and the piano pearls of sound, with soft dissonances suggesting a slight muddiness to the water. Later, turbulence builds up to cascading waterfalls, the water's dirtiness revealed by dark, thick, dense harmonies. Then a recycling process occurs, with the earlier music being inverted: the calm melodies are now in the piano, and the pearls of sound come from the winds. Finally, the process of cleansing the waters is completed by a serene resolution of the music.
In this performance, I'm joined by three fantastic wind players: Lindsay Leach-Sparks, Stanislav Golovin, and Todd Gaffke.
As artistic director of the nineteenth annual Akron New Music Festival, I'm excited to feature brand new music written by faculty, students, and our guest artist Eric Charnovsky. All events are free and open to the public.
THURSDAY, April 25
MEET THE COMPOSER
5:00 pm, Guzzetta Hall 147
Lecture and Masterclass with guest composer Eric Charnofsky
THURSDAY, April 25
NEW MUSIC AT THE MUSEUM
7:30 pm, Akron Art Museum
Works by Eric Charnofsky, Robert Brownlow, Robert Beaser, and James Wilding performed by the Akron Contemporary Players
Reserve your free ticket here
SATURDAY, April 27
7:30 pm, Guzzetta Recital Hall
Student composers and performers from the University of Akron School of Music in concert
I am excited to announce the release of PICTURES!
The album features my solo piano music. Each composition is inspired by a picture, real or imaginary. Using my particular harmonic vocabulary I paint unique soundscapes.
I recorded the album last summer at Oktaven Audio in Mount Vernon, New York, with fantastic producer and sound wizard Ryan Streber. The piano is a Hamburg Steinway model D.
The album was released to an amazing group of friends at Steinway Piano Gallery in Cleveland, Ohio. Everyone enjoyed food and wine, a live performance, and a complimentary signed copy.
PICTURES now available from these venders:
After many hours spent in the recording studio, the time has come to sift through 176 takes and find the ones I like the most. When it's me playing my own music, the responsibility lies completely on my shoulders to choose the versions that project my concepts most powerfully, and suggest them to my producer. It looks like arbitrary mathematics, but it's a system that helps me figure out what is really usable content. The finished product to follow soon!
Watch me practice for a recording of my own music with Oktaven Audio. See how I go about solving the pianistic problems of my own compositional creation - what a profound and beautiful challenge it is to play the piano! The instrument in this video is my Steinway B, an excellent 7-foot workhorse for the preparation phase of this project.
Welcome to the eighteenth annual Akron New Music Festival. As artistic director, I'm proud to feature faculty and students from the University of Akron and guest artists. In our 2018 festival, we will present five events on Wednesday and Thursday, April 25th and 26th. Our guest composer Anthony Donofrio will give a lecture and masterclass. His compositions will feature on all concerts.
New this year will be the inaugural concert of the Akron Contemporary Players. I'm also pleased to present the pre-college student composer Cole Johnson, who for the past three years has won the prestigious Gillman Award of the Children's Concert Society Scholastic Composer's Contest.
All events will be held in Guzzetta Hall at the University of Akron and at the Akron Art Museum. Hospitality and operations management will be provided by the New Music Association, under its president, Cody Ray.
I am very much looking forward to seeing you there. Admission will be free for all events.
I enjoyed hosting award-winning Estonian photographer Kaupo Kikkas during his recent trip to the United States. His artistic vision is truly inspirational!
Composing for the Escher Quartet would be the ultimate career highlight for any composer, and thanks to the support of people who believed in me, I was lucky enough to have the honor! Working with the Eschers was a great pleasure: their music making is on the highest level. I never had to explain anything about my piece - they understood every gesture, knew where every line was headed, imbued the piece with the subtlest time changes and delicacies of instrumental balance. They took what I had given them (notes on a staff: black and white symbols) and transformed it into a kaleidoscopic world of musical meaning.
The occasion was the 130th Birthday Celebration of Tuesday Musical, a classical music organization in the town where I work, Akron, Ohio. My commission was to create something for this celebration that would resonate with people, both members of the organization and the broader community of Akron. I thought of memories of home, which are like etchings that live in the mind. Whether we think of our childhood home, or whether we travel and think back to the home of our present life, we can be quite nostalgic about these pictures inside ourselves. To begin tapping into the 130-year memory bank of Tuesday Musical, I hoped that listeners would think of their own memories of Akron, or wherever their home may be.
When I wrote Homeland Portraits, I reflected on the South Africa of my upbringing and the America where I live, two homes that are continents apart, yet bound together by my thoughts and experiences. I have always been struck by how people are more alike than unalike. No matter how often we see contrasts, our similarities are greater than our differences.
People Gathering is an image of a busy colorful market, or a family reunion, or a religious ceremony. It takes place anywhere in the world, in any place that any person calls home. The people I visualize in this movement are related to all of us, are one family.
Open Plain depicts the stillness of a broad landscape, a calm beauty stretching to the horizon, and clouds always changing shape. It is a tribute to the magnificent places on our planet, places reflected by the awe and wonder in the eyes of every person speaking of his or her home.
Fire is inspired by the homely warmth of the living-room fireside, or the adventure of the summer campfire, or the frightening rage of a bush-fire. But most of all, it is a portrait of the fire within: the creative spirit that lifts all of us.
I am pleased to announce a performance of my music on the opening concert of Tuesday Musical's main stage season. The premier of "Homeland Portraits" will be given by the Escher String Quartet on Prelude! 130th Anniversary Party, Concert & Extraordinary Experiences! The event also features 2016 Cleveland International Piano Competition winner Nikita Mndoyants and Tuesday Musical Scholarship winner Olivia Boen.
Read about my inspiration in this article in the Akron Beacon Journal, and about my compositional process in an earlier blog.
For more details and to purchase tickets, please visit Tuesday Musical or EJ Thomas Hall.
Last year I picked up an old book, and reading it inspired me to write a new piece. Nelson Mandela's autobiography is a story of supreme courage, determination, and unshakable belief in the human spirit. As I sat at the Casavant Frères organ of Christ Church in the nearby town of Warren, I was overcome by the supreme spirit of this extraordinary book and its author, and felt compelled to use the powerful timbre of the instrument to recreate this tale of triumph through adversity.
A short film of me in the early stages of composing the work may be viewed in one of my previous blogs.
"Meditation on the Holy Spirit" will be performed at Christ Church, Warren, Ohio, at 6:45 pm on Sunday, July 2, as the prelude to the Opening Worship Evening of the American Guild of Organists Great Lakes Convention. The performance will feature David Jonies (organ), Tim Winfield and Sue Sexton (trumpets), Stacie Mickens (horn), Jonathan Willis (trombone), Brian Kiser (tuba), and myself conducting.
Take an inside look at the creative process of writing a string quartet. See how it develops from the imagination to the actual sound. In conceptualizing this commission from the Tuesday Musical Association for the Escher String Quartet, I use a digital piano and computer software with amazingly realistic string quartet sonorities, an actual violin (which I play very badly), and my trusty friends, the pencil and paper.
The University of Akron Dance Company presents its Spring Concert in EJ Thomas Hall at 7:30 pm on Thursday and Friday, April 13-14.
I have written the music for one of the pieces on the concert, and will be accompanying the dancers at the piano.
It was an amazing experience to work with choreographer Cydney Spohn on our piece "Esoterica." When we first discussed the project, she encouraged me to avoid writing music that suggested movement. She didn't want the obvious pleasing waltz or crazy czardas. I went away and wrote quiet slow music, appreciating silence as much as harmony. When Cydney heard it, she imagined an extraordinary mix of ballet and hip-hop, that fits with my concept, yet endeavors to fill the spaces between my piano chords.
What was fantastic about this collaboration is that I often imagine movement when I write music, yet have no way of realizing it. Cydney had the inspired vision to turn my music into dance, and thereby creating a wonderful blend of our artistic ideas.
As Artistic Director of the seventeenth annual Akron New Music Festival, I'm proud to feature faculty and students from the University of Akron and guest artists. The festival will comprise six events, presented between Monday, April 3 and Saturday, April 8: a faculty recital, two student recitals, a masterclass, a dance collaboration, and the residency of acclaimed composer Jake Runestad. Events will be held in Guzzetta Hall at the University of Akron. Hospitality and operations management will be provided by the New Music Association, under its president, Cody Ray. Admission will be free for all events.
Concert pianist Caroline Oltmanns has released the concept album GHOSTS, including four specially commissioned pieces of mine, another successful episode in our partnership as a husband and wife team.
The first of these pieces is called Sphinxes, a work about silence, and a response to the following enigmatic piece in the middle of Robert Schumann's great piano cycle Carnaval.
The sphinxes are silent references to the notes that form the basis of Schumann's cycle, using a musical code that connected the composer's name to the home town of his girlfriend. How does the pianist play these notes silently? My Sphinxes can be inserted into the cycle at this point. I used the notes in a very quiet way, with a lot of pauses, and even wrote a section in which the pianist does not press down the keys at all, but merely touches them lightly on the surface, producing a faint tapping sound.
Caroline Oltmann's recording of my Sphinxes may be heard here:
The other three pieces composed specially for the album GHOSTS are my Passages, which bind together the other works (though they could be performed separately as a small group). The centerpiece of the album is Schumann’s Ghost Variations, a work left incomplete by the master on the day of his attempted suicide. While his friends celebrated the annual carnival festival, Schumann could not bear the voices in his head, and he threw himself into the river (he was rescued but never returned to composition). Caroline connects these events by playing Schumann's earlier work Carnaval, and I bridge her performance of Carnaval and Ghost Variations with Voices, in which seemingly chaotic flurries represent the composer's manic state of mind.
One of the "guests" at Schumann's Carnaval is Frederic Chopin. The theme from Ghost Variations is connected to Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu by my Ghost-Fantasy, a mosaic of gradually shifting harmonic progressions through which melodies appear and disappear like drops of memories.
An important friend of the Schumann's during the difficult time of Robert's mental decline was Johannes Brahms, represented on the disc with another set of variations, the Paganini Variations book 1. Brahms used the Ghost Variations theme himself, in a different work, and so I borrowed that usage in my Rising Subconscious.
I have always loved the music of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. In celebration of his 150th birthday in 2015, I wrote a piece called "Bells", which is inspired by the grand melody in his fifth symphony. Here it is again, on the same day one year later! After a meditative introduction, the Sibelius-inspired theme is introduced, accompanied by bold majestic chords, and reaching a tumultuous climax. Once the excitement has died down, the tune is heard softly again, wrapped in tenderness, before a final flourish.
Distill is a large-canvas version of my small sketch, “The Distillery,” which is one of the short scenes in Moving Pictures for piano and film. That short piece seemed to contain more possibilities than could be realized on piano alone, and so, with the addition of a horn, and some re-composing, I ended up with this larger work. The calm, lyrical opening, with its gentle watery accompaniment, is gradually transformed into more and more tumultuous ideas, opening up extended vistas before unimagined. When the lyrical melody returns, it is more serene than before, with the formerly flowing accompaniment distilled to the occasional spacious chord. The piece was written for Stacie Mickens, and I'm performing it with her here.
The idea of a litany is the religious repetition of a meaningful phrase, reaching a calm state of spiritual euphoria. In my composition, Litanies, I took a simple, beautiful tune, and subjected it to various repetitions and transformations, through changes of mood, instrumentation, harmony, and melodic direction. That single melody is heard as an idée fixe whether the atmosphere is calm, energetic, dramatic, or majestic. I'm performing here with Dan Laginya (organ) and Caroline Oltmanns (piano)
Recently I played the Sostenuto from my Sonata for Violin and Piano with my dear friend Semmy Stahlhammer, for whom I wrote the piece when we were at graduate school together. The concert at the University of Akron was a reunion for us, because we hadn't seen each other for many years, and Semmy complemented my piece with insightful readings of solo Bach and witty interpretations of some popular songs. As a gift, he gave me a book he had written about his father: it's an absolute page-turner, an amazing story and beautifully written, telling the tale of a Polish Jew who, through good intuition and great courage, managed to survive World War II. I realized how well the book fits to the music we played: the violin is a lonely voice singing with hope about a sad time, and the spycam-type camera angle reminds me of the title of this marvelous book: Codename Barber