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
Take a look at the process of composing music on the magnificent Casavant Frères pipe organ in the Christ Episcopal Church in Warren, Ohio. Explore with me the many facets of what this instrument can do, and get to know simple tips and tricks of composing music for the organ. In conceptualizing two new pieces involving the organ (amongst other instruments), it's such a pleasure to invent the music with these three manuals right under my fingers and the beautiful sounds surrounding me in this spacious church.
What an experience to play Moving Pictures for piano and film earlier this year! I created the films last summer while holidaying in Scotland, then composed the music to fit. It seemed that the various contrasting scenes were best accompanied by a wealth of different added-note triads and polychords, while the sepia tone that I used to edit the films contributed to an atmosphere similar to the old silent movies. During the concert in Akron, I sat at the piano with my laptop, and projected the films onto the TV screens at the back of the recital hall. The audience seemed to love it! For this recording, I played the music first, then re-edited the film to fit the performance.
I found these extraordinary pictures of the Swiss alps: the imposing Matterhorn against a dark-blue background, a sweeping valley with steep sides overlooking a far-off town, sunlight playing on the bright folds of the mountainside, a solitary cross on a lonely peak, a scene bathed in blue and white, a hut perched precariously on the edge of a cliff: how inspiring are nature's great creations! I had something like this in mind when I wrote the first movement of my second sonata: the grandeur of the opening repeated octaves in Lydian mode, the icy counterpoint at 0:12, the precarious tension of the soft melody at 1:12, and the majestic chords at 2:49. My penchant for harsh dissonance building into broad gestures, ebbing and flowing with brooding tremolos, seemed to match the darkness of the blue sky and the unforgiving white chill of the snow.
It's been a year of compositional adventures! In the piano piece Bells I revisited the powerful possibilities of triadic harmony, and in that sense wrote a more tonal creation than usual. Paying homage to Sibelius (born 150 years ago), I tried to imagine how the serenity of the fifth symphony could be reproduced on the solo piano.
A completely new direction for me is the work Moving Pictures for piano and film. I made the films myself from inspirational scenes in the Scottish countryside, and then composed music to fit.
But perhaps the most exciting project was the finale to the Bari Sax Sonata. Here I found myself engaged in a new compositional process. Whereas normally my compositions grow out of piano improvisations, I allowed this piece to float around in my head for several weeks, relying only on a tiny sketchbook to record ideas. By the time I brought it to the instrument, it was mostly complete. New music written, new ground covered in 2015. May the coming years be full of growth too!