Friday, October 28, 2011

I've been swamped with work and worry again, but I'd be remiss in my self-promoting duties if I didn't mention tomorrow's big event: the release on the Alba label of my first "solo" CD. The music in question is my hour-long cycle of piano pieces, Leaves of Grass, played by Risto-Matti Marin, a great pianist, and my great friend.

The release concert itself is being sponsored by the Espoo International Piano Festival. The highlight of the concert will be readings of the poetry that inspired the music by the renowned Finnish actor Hannu-Pekka Björkman. This will be the first time most of the twelve-odd poems will be heard in Finnish, and the translations were commissioned by the festival as a set from composer and translator Jaakko Mäntyjärvi. Between the three of us, we evolved a structure to the performance that turned out to be powerful and quite moving. I'm really excited about this, as you can tell. The CD will be on sale, in both hard copy and download form, in the coming days. Watch this space!

Friday, August 12, 2011


I've been mulling over topics for new posts, many based on conversations with other composers, students and performers about how composers are taught, how we learn, the many ways in which composers produce music. But one topic jumped out at me in the last day, and I bring it up here as a way of pondering its significance for my compositional process, and perhaps that of others.

A Finnish composer friend who now lives Stateside came over for dinner last night. He's a very articulate, very opinionated guy, just my kind of discussion partner. As usual, we immediately got into an evening-long debate about aesthetic values, composition training, repeating oneself artistically, and other topics we always seem to gravitate toward. Comparing our recent projects, I mentioned that I was currently about two-thirds of the way through a new piece for the Zagros ensemble, and it was the first time I'd composed a piece entirely with MIDI. It's an experiment I'd been conducting to see how I fared using this newfangled tool. I've admitted in the past, and proudly so, to being a very old-fashioned composer. Until now, I've hardly ever touched the playback feature on Finale/Sibelius while in the act of composition. I usually write everything by hand, from sketch to full score, using the computer for engraving only, much to the amazement of a lot of my colleagues, and especially my students. It's not so much a matter of habit, as that I feel I actually work faster this way, especially when I'm orchestrating. Being able to see the entire page, or twenty of them in a row if I want, being able to move my hand around freely and just scribble notes as the mood strikes me, gives me more freedom. While I enjoy working this way for the most part, I do admit to a certain amount of envy at the technical fluidity of my younger colleagues, who all seem to compose directly into the computer these days. To them, I imagine I seem quaint dragging around my huge architect's portfolio with my hand-written scores in them. (If you want to know real fear, carry your only manuscript tabloid-size copy of a 35-minute orchestral score around a city on public transportation.)

There are other reasons for my stubbornness and reluctance when it comes to integrating the computer into my composing routine. I've always looked at computer-based composition of acoustic music with a jaundiced eye. First of all, there was the sound quality of the playback. When Finale first came along, the sound was so bloody awful that I couldnt' stand it. So bad, in fact, that I couldn't even bring myself to use it to check the pacing of a section with it, because the tinny, awful approximations of acoustic instruments just ruined my sense of the harmony (back when I used such a thing), articulation, phrasing and dynamics. It was like trying to read with a strobe light in your face. Now, of course, the built-in sounds notation software packages come with have vastly improved, with some of them, woodwinds especially, being quite convincingly lovely. If they could just kill the James Galway-esque vibrato on the samples, I'd much appreciate it. Although I've recently divorced Finale, I admit that its human playback feature is pretty helpful in some circumstances. But still, as I grew to incorporate a modest number of extended instrumental and vocal techniques, and to use freer types of notation in realizing a texture, the software didn't. I was therefore left with no choice but to just feel my way by ear toward the result I wanted.

Then there's the impact of notation software on the compositional process itself, and the playability of the result. In my experience, one can usually tell when a composer uses the software to compose directly. There tends to be a marked favoring of cut-and-pasting of entire sections of music, entire patterns, wholesale transposition of harmony in favor of voice-leading. Not that any of these devices is bad in and of itself, but the medium tends to encourage a kind of compositional laziness in terms of creation and manipulation of material.

A side-effect of using MIDI playback in composing, I've noticed, is a lack of real-life playability of a lot of the rhythms. I've even noticed it in my own use of it. You can make a computer play back whatever you write accurately, but this can lead to the creation of irrational rhythmic layout whose goal is accurate playback by an electronic processor, not by a human. Of course, any decent composer will know about and correct this, but many don't. In this last piece, I've gone through it with a fine-toothed comb looking for things like downbeats that I wrote as offbeats to get the pacing right on MIDI, fast rhythms that might be better interpreted as grace notes, strict, complex rhythms in melodic writing that would be easier to read, and sound better if I were to relax and simplify them.

In the field of playability, instrumental or vocal idiom is also an issue. However good the human playback protocols of whatever program you're using, they just can't replicate the subtle difficulties of the physical technique involved in playing an instrument. Although such features can be useful in reminding one just how long it really takes a contrabassoon to sound its lowest notes after the initial attack, they can't tell you about how it feels to play through a difficult passage. The computer will happily play back whatever you tell it to, irrespective of whether or not it's really possible, which can lead to radically overestimating and instrumentalist's or singer's ability to realize what we write for them, disregarding their comfort in the realization of our compositional vision. Again, any composer worth their salt will compensate for this. Far too many don't.

Then there's the more intangible category of MIDI's effect on the inner ear, the composer's sense of instrumental or vocal sound. Frequently, when listening to a new piece, I can tell if it was orchestrated on MIDI. First of all, instrumental balance in MIDI is not, and probably never will be anywhere close to reality. When a piece of chamber or orchestral music has balance problems, it can usually, in my view, be attributed to its having been scored on MIDI, where any problem of volume or attack can be overcome by giving it more cowbell on the mixer. Learning orchestral balance takes a lot of time and experience. Not having had a terrible load of experience writing for orchestra early on, I attribute my success (so far) in the medium to my previous life as an orchestral/ensemble performer. Those years sitting at the back of the band with a score were the best education a young composer can get as to the inner workings of the orchestral beast, how a section of strings sounds at various dynamics, what kind of articulations produce the best results in the brass, etc. Sitting in choirs since I gave up instrumental performance has been equally beneficial to my choral writing. Spending years working with an ensemble from the inside, as a performer, has given me a bone-deep sense of what works and what doesn't. None of that is possible working on a computer with synthesized or sampled approximations.

Subtler still is the quality of orchestration MIDI yields. Again, when a piece has been orchestrated on MIDI, I can usually tell, because there's a marked lack of invention in the orchestration. (This is not to accuse anyone who works this way of being unoriginal, it's more of an indicator of my inability to come up with a better word.) MIDI, however much it's developed over the last decade, is still a very traditional, hidebound orchestral tool, meant largely for writing commercial music with simple orchestral solutions. Working directly into MIDI as an orchestrational tool encourages, in my view, obvious solutions in distributing orchestral material. The resulting music sounds like MIDI. It behaves like MIDI. The interaction of instruments is less idiomatic and timbre-based, and more about how easy it is to move material around in an electronic setting. There's very little sense, frequently, of the composer reaching for a sound, and as a corollary, there's less risk of failure, and failure at realizing an idea is a major component in creating a new or fresh sound. This is, in my opinion, the worst aspect of working directly with MIDI, the way it seems to dampen the imagination in terms of sound creation. What MIDI can't ever replace is a sense of "what if?". What if I did it this way? Wow, I've never heard muted piccolo trumpets and piccolo together, I wonder if that would work? How would the texture sound if I had a harp behind that string tremolo? These things are replicable to a certain extent in the computer environment, but will never sound real enough to give an accurate impression, so we're left to simply imagine it, to write it down and hope it works. The risk of utter failure has to be part of orchestration. As one of my previous teachers said, if you write an orchestra piece and it doesn't turn out exactly the way you expected and you're surprised by that, you're a fool. And if it does turn out the way you expected, you're a lucky fool. I'll take luck over certainty any day. "Huh, that didn't work out the way I planned, but it's still pretty cool."

Which brings me to my own recent inclusion of MIDI in my process. I started using it a lot to make quick mock-ups of sections of my viola concerto to check pacing of rhythm and pitch-field turnover, as well as to check the heterophonic counterpoint of a large section of polytonal melodic writing. The reasoning behind this move was that it was a huge piece, and a huge, very public opportunity, and I didn't want to mess it up when I could have checked these basic things in a controlled environment. I'm not too proud to admit that MIDI saved my ass at several points in the piece when I just couldn't work out things on paper, or had radically underestimated the pacing of a series of phrases. But I never – and mark this – ever turned to the computer until I'd figured out the entire pitch content and essential texture of a section. In a sense, the music wasn't composed at the computer, only arranged there. Wondering why I resisted integrating the computer into my routine so much, I realized that it was because I usually do a lot of the initial pitch work at the keyboard, or on whatever instrument I'm writing for if I can get my hands on one, and if I didn't have an instrumental interface, I lacked the confidence to just throw notes around on the screen. I'm not the sort of ultra-musical prodigy type who has music pouring out of every orifice and seems to just conjure things out of thin air with blindingly fluent technique. I'm man enough to admit the very real limits of my talents, and my very real attachment to sound in music rather than its technical or linguistic features, and make allowances in consequence. Getting the notes right, even if it's just five pitches, is a huge, time-consuming, doubt-ridden, long-dark-night-of-the-soul part of the process for me.

So as an experiment, I decided to buy a small MIDI keyboard and write this current chamber piece directly into the computer, just to see if I could adapt. So far, I'm finding myself comfortable doing it. It's certainly very handy to have quick access to all the instrumental sounds through the keyboard. It's an odd ensemble I was asked to write for: flute, clarinet, bassoon, harp and string quintet. There are tricky balance issues in play, made more so because they asked me to somehow spatialize the material so the wind players could move around the art gallery where the premiere will take place. But as a group of single instruments, the balances sound more realistic on MIDI, so it seemed like the right forum to conduct this trial in.

The resulting music is quite simple, very much like Feldman's Rothko Chapel in the way the materials relate. Not wanting to create a kind of mini-orchestra, or the obvious mini-concerto for harp (the ensemble is basically an extended version of the one in Ravel's Introduction and Allegro, which I know well from hearing my wife learn it last year), the instruments never play together at the same time. It's more a non-linear sequence of solos and ensembles, quite simple for the sake of coordination across a big space, but also because I'm deliberately keeping it simple for myself as a compositional exercise. I did, however, do some things I would never have had the guts to do on paper, like a section of Ivesian multi-stylistic counterpoint, where the wind trio babbles in rather banal atonal counterpoint over a diatonic bed of strings. I wouldn't have tried it without the playback as a guide, because while I could guess that the general effect would work, I couldn't be sure it would sound right. As I don't have a particularly good ear for contrapuntal structures, MIDI gave me more confidence in working out the idea, a greater sense of certainty, and allowed me to get the notes right where I couldn't have done it by ear on paper.

And that sense of certainty is what brings me back to my conversation with my friend. I told him that usually at this stage of a piece, my insomnia has gone into overdrive, with ideas looping in my head on infinite repeat as my mind works on the material, where to go next. But this piece isn't keeping me up at night. I attributed this in our conversation to my just being tired and a little burned out creatively. A part of it, to me, was the non-linear nature of the ideas. I'm not thinking about causal connection or development or transition because I don't want there to be any. I just sit down in front of the computer every day and think about where I want to go next, on a very basic, very intuitive level, like putting together an art exhibit rather than a single piece. My friend was kinder, offering that maybe it was because I've gained sufficient control over my process and critical detachment from the work that I'm able to walk away from it more easily, confident that I'll find my way back in if I don't think about it all the time. This has a certain validity to it.

But as I was brushing my teeth after yet another uncharacteristic night of sound sleep, the thought suddenly hit me: what if I'm not pondering this piece because in the very act of using MIDI playback as a tool, the music no longer holds any sense of mystery for me? I know the pacing of ideas is right because it sounds right, here and now. I don't wonder how two layers of contrasting material will sound because I know how it sounds, and it works. I don't need to worry about how my disconnected, stream-of-consciousness series of little episodes works because I know (or at least think) it does. What if the worst thing MIDI does to us as composers is kill our sense of fancy, our need to worry over the result? Why worry about a piece if you already know it's going to be successful? Working in real time, with a reasonably approximate result of our work available to hear at the click of a button, do we lose a sense of possibility? Do we lose our ability – our willingness – to fail?

I should follow this Sex and the City-style voiceover with the caveat that I don't think using MIDI as a major compositional tool is in itself wrong, or that it yields bad results, or that it inherently makes composers lazy. If nothing else, it makes bad or already lazy composers think composing is easier than it is. (This applies to other software as well. Open Music, it strikes me, is equally dangerous, albeit more sophisticated in its cut-and-paste, idiom-negligent potential.) Any good, sensitive, musical composer will be aware of these problems and correct them. In the end, there is no right amount of computer use in composing. Everyone has a different ratio that suits their needs. I've found a few limited ways of making it useful to me. I don't think I'll ever transition to full computer use in composing, especially in orchestral music, because I know that my ear and experience with the orchestra are pretty reliable, and generally more fine-tuned. But in the integration of computer playback into a compositional routine, do we become reactive rather than proactive in shaping the outcome of a piece, of a sound? There's a slippery slope here, one which I find myself sliding down despite my best efforts to remain aloof. Yet the lure of total certainty is a powerful narcotic. I wouldn't be the first ascetic to succumb to Bacchic debauchery in the name of maintaining the appearance of infallibility. And that's what the canonization of "great" composers and the music marketing world teaches us, that we need to appear infallible, assured, demigod-like in our creative powers? Where is the point of no return? I suppose that's for another day. For now, I still need four minutes of music on this thing.


Friday, July 15, 2011


Well, I guess I'm back from my hiatus. Forgive the awkwardness of the blog's appearance, I just discovered Blogger's new templates and am experimenting with a new layout. I'm usually loath to change things about the way I work once I find something simple and elegant that suits my purposes, but it's been a season of change.

Much of my long silence had to do with the unending process of getting my viola concerto ready for printing. I thought I'd gotten over the worst of my crippling doubts about composing, or at least had learned that the pressure of incessant project deadlines was a good thing, in that it kept me from getting stuck in my head for too long, getting overly precious about my ideas and material. As such, the piece itself was relatively easy writing. It flowed well, I didn't get too attached to my ideas if I found they weren't working, and the piece assumed the shape it wanted, which ended up being quite distant from my initial conception in many ways. More about the music momentarily.

What I hadn't anticipated was all the peripheral concerns that would assail me one after another during the process of writing the stupid thing. First, I suffered a months-long litany of health problems that would bore the most sympathetic (or sadistic) reader. Suffice it to say that between August and February, I spent an awful lot of time bedridden for one reason or another. Then came the perhaps the biggest shock to my family's collective system, the decision to buy an apartment in Helsinki, and all the busy work associated with that simple act: bank meetings, mortgages, the move itself, light renovations, etc. Then Finale had a complete meltdown during the copying part of the process, necessitating weeks of polite but terse back-and-forth with tech support to resurrect my poor maligned piece. Then the trouble with the parts started. Once again, I won't bore anyone with the details, but the end results of the constant malfunctions and other work intruding were that 1) a piece that was finished in December (on deadline, if I may boast a little) took until June to be copied and delivered, and 2) I was finally pushed past my breaking point and left Finale for good, a process documented lightheartedly here, and not so lightheartedly elsewhere.

Naturally, seeing the end of this work season necessitated a little time off. So after a couple of weeks of leisure, moderate intoxication and travel, I'm back. Another part of the long hiatus between posts was a simple dearth of productive things to say. It was an immensely bleak, depressing winter, a season of which I'm normally a huge fan, but this last one was just brutal: dark, unutterably cold, buried under feet of snow all the time, the kind of winter the North serves up once in a blue moon.

It was bleak for other reasons, as I watched the politics of my now-twin homelands take an alarming turn. First Finland's elections produced tears, anger, and so small amount of introspection in electing the odd True Finns (I shall not link to them. Fie!) with a whopping 20% of the vote. The resulting parliamentary negotiations ended up producing a much more palatable government than anyone had a right to expect, but it was white-knuckle time there for a while. The worst outcomes were the rise of euphemistic campaigning in Finland, where an openly racist, pseudo-intellectual pinhead is described in the media as an "outspoken immigration critic", as well as a rise in cowardly attacks on people perceived as outsiders, notably visible minorities and immigrants. There's always been an undercurrent of xenophobia in Finnish society, but everyone, myself included, allowed themselves to think it a minor problem in an otherwise tolerant people. The whole upswelling of anti-Other hysteria culminated last week, for me and mine, in the brutal assault of a very Finnish-looking colleague by a group of young men for making the mistake of stepping into the local in his new neighborhood for pint. In the long run, it's perhaps a good thing to air out these issues now, before they get worse, but it doesn't make it any easier to watch.

Then Canada, my dear, dear Canada... Oh, Canada! Maybe I'm feeling more and more distant from the land of my birth, geographically, psychologically, even spiritually. Watching the recent elections there from afar – barred as I am from participating in them as an expat – was painful, to say the least, as a government of snide, parochial bully-boys that time and time again displayed open contempt for the populace and ran a campaign that amounted to little more than "Coalition! Ooga-booga!" was rewarded with a majority stake in Parliament. Worse still, people absolutely gloried in the debasement and humiliation of a good, well-meaning, worldly, patriotic man for the crime of having spent a few years outside the country. People complain that career political hacks have too much power, and that our best and brightest should seek office, but when they do, they're derided for not being slick career political hacks. The hypocrisy is astounding, no? (Hmm, overidentifying, much?) The state of the CBC just seems to echo the mood of the land, where people aren't citizens anymore, they're just taxpayers, and everything comes down to money and what's in it for me, right now. Ironically, this all stems from a politician actually keeping a campaign promise. Our Prime Minister is right: I don't recognize Canada anymore.

Perhaps the buying of a house here is symbolic of my increasing attachment to Finland, a land where I can do my work and still hope to live in reasonable comfort. As far as colleagues in Canada tell me, things aren't going to get better anytime soon for the arts, so here is where you'll find me for the foreseeable future. It's a funny thing to live as an immigrant in the global age. Cutting ties to a place perhaps but for a letter now and then, the virtually inevitable result of moving to a new continent and starting a new life, is now virtually impossible. Our homelands haunt us, our home cultures ever-present rather than simply remembered. The dissonance of living in a foreign culture (and Finland does feel very foreign some days, even after ten years – ten YEARS!) never resolves, it just hangs in the air, Debussy-like, a hazy background against which one's current identity is always projected.

Nonetheless, here I am, back at work, with many more things on my mind that I feel are worth sharing. What's changed? Home, space, life, family. Finishing the viola concerto, with its constant references to past ideas and forays into different temporal worlds, felt like a closure or sorts. I found out a lot of things about my ways of working, and unintentionally succeeded in a long held ambition of mine to write a large-scale piece that relies entirely on heterophony rather than harmony for its structure. It wasn't until I finished it that what I'd done hit me. Harmony, that little devil on my shoulder for years, the notion of music moving through time in a linear fashion, finally gave up the ghost in this one, leaving a sea of pure melody, endless and ruminating. I also changed my work habits quite a bit, coming to rely on my computer to a greater degree. (I know, I know.) I'm man enough to admit the damn thing saved my life in a few sections of this piece, where I would have made a hash of things trying to do it by hand and trial and error. It's an interesting development, and I'm trying to find new ways of integrating the computer into my routine as a compositional tool rather than simply a copying one.

Much to do, much to say, little time to do it all. I'd remiss, however, if I didn't note this upcoming CD release, a quirky little project I got involved with through the pianist Antti Siirala. Track 8 features him solo, playing a tiny piece of mine based on the famous theme from the infinitely more famous, much larger preceding work. Note the incongruity of my present career profile and the label. I'm a bit chuffed.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Dear [name withheld],

By the time you read this, I'll be gone. It shouldn't come as a shock to you, given how we've been growing apart the past few years, but I know how out-of-it you can be at times, so I've taken the trouble to spell out exactly how I came to this decision. What it mostly comes down to is that I've changed; I grew up, became more sophisticated, and developed different needs, and you didn't. It's taken me a long time to come to this realization, but I deserve better. I deserve to spend time with someone who knows my needs and wants, who doesn't take me for granted, who treats me with respect. I've been faithful for years, but I can't do it any longer.

Part of the problem may be that we got together when we were both so young. I was new to everything in this life, and you were so fresh and attractive, I was blind to the potential downside of committing to someone so early. It's been nearly twenty years, and I've never known any other way of being. Looking back now, though, I see clearly the problems that have always been there, and I recognize that I can't fix them, and I'm tired of trying. Things used to be so simple and elegant, but you overcomplicate everything now. You're more difficult to talk to than you used to be, and when you don't outright ignore me, I still have to repeat the simplest requests over and over to get you to do things, when you even do them. (And don't think I haven't noticed that passive-aggressive thing you do where you rearrange stuff I put in specific places when I'm not looking.) I'm sorry, but I can't live with someone so indifferent to me.

The thing I feel most embarrassed about is the years I spent defending you to everyone in my life. My friends have been telling me to leave for years, get out, start over, find someone more compatible, more generous, less emotionally abusive. They wanted only the best for me, but I pushed them away. I'd been with you so long. I knew you better than they did. You could change. You'd improve. But we both know that didn't happen. My father was the only one who saw the potential in you, kept telling me to give you another chance, keep making that investment. I guess since he steered me in your direction in the first place, he felt he had a stake in our relationship.

And the money he gave me in our early days together! The money Dad spent helping me try to help you was the biggest waste, even after I had my own money to give you. He keeps offering to pay for your mistakes, did you know that? I kept throwing money at you, hoping you'd return my faith in you by making yourself better, but all you did was run after fads, buying trinkets and fancy accessories to woo the young kids, living it up at my expense and giving me nothing in return except the same old contempt. (Here's a tip: those kids you're trying so desperately to impress all think you're over the hill, a relic, too old and inflexible to even be interesting. You're practically a joke to them.)

And still, I defended you. You were seductive and charming, and I admit it got the better of me, got me to ignore my own instincts, that nagging feeling that you weren't ever going to change for the better, and that even your best traits were withering away, making it less and less worth my while to stay. But you kept coming back, saying you'd cleaned up, that you'd gotten yourself off all that stuff, that you were on the straight and narrow for good. But it was just an act, wasn't it?

So I've decided I need to move on, start fresh, make a new life for myself away from you. It may be too soon, but I should tell you I've met someone else. It's still very new, and I'm not yet sure it's for the best, but anything has to be better than this. I'm tired, and being with someone younger, who's more malleable and is more in tune with my needs and desires can't be a bad thing, can it? I'm sorry it had to end this way, so abruptly, but the way you ruined yesterday for me was the last straw. I have to go. It will be hard, I don't doubt. At my age, with my lack of experience with anyone but you, I'm going to need to learn a lot of new ways of doing things. But I think it will be invigorating in the end. A rebirth, of a sort.

So see you around, Finale. Have a good life. If you need to reach me, I'll be staying with Sibelius for a while. Maybe for good. At least until I decide what's right for me. If I've learned anything from our time together, it's that I should always take care of my own needs first.