Thursday, March 29, 2012

An Update

I'm pleased to be back curating this blog for Roscoe; my work was abruptly interrupted several months ago when I was accepted for a tenure-track position at City College of Outer Hartford (South Dakota, not Connecticut). However, some early suspicions of mine were confirmed last week when I discovered that the tenure track I was on actually led to a permanent post as the Glee Club pianist and not a teaching position, per say.

The Student Union Building at CCOH

Now, make no mistake, the Outer Hartford Harmoniers occupy a place of great prominence not only in the city college, but also in the town of Hartford, and indeed, the surrounding farmland for hundreds of miles in every direction. Hundreds of empty, frozen, desolate miles. The administration was even prepared to convert a custodial closet into an office for me and Dr. Ardvigrunssen, the shape-note singing instructor. However, as tempting as this future was, I cannot abandon my long-held commitment to teaching a new generation of musicologists and guiding them on their path into this bright musical world we inhabit. So, with a heavy heart, I took up my previous residence New York City. My mother had even kept the sheets fresh while I was gone.

Of course the first thing I did when I got off the bus was come and visit Roscoe; I found him up on the roof of his building chasing butterflies with a pointed stick. Once I had him safely back in his apartment, he gladly accepted me back as his technological advisor. I'm still working towards amanuensis status.
Just like my hero, Robby C.

In the meantime, I will begin posting Roscoe's thoughts shortly; for his next entry I've requested that he provide some details of his decades-long friendship with that well-known composer, musical philosopher, and mycologist: John Cage.

Saturday, September 3, 2011


Owing to the current structure of the compositional profession, even the most distinguished among us must sometimes condescend to take on a teaching post. I am no exception -- some have been temporary, some more permanent. These positions were at a number of institutions; including universities, conservatories, and on one occasion, at a state penitentiary.

The last example was the result of an ill-advised social welfare program that sought to rehabilitate Nebraska's most hardened criminals by teaching them the fundamentals of serial composition. It ended when Eight-Fingered Charlie put a crude, handmade shiv through the back of Pauly the Snitch in the middle of a performance of Schoenberg's Violin Phantasy. Later, when asked about the motive for the crime, he simply stated "I'd already heard that one."

Perhaps they should be taught to express violence through symbolist poetry
Teaching is hardly my first love -- it ranks fourteenth on my list, actually -- but I still enjoy it sometimes.
Private lessons have always been a disappointment for me because the maximum possible audience for my experienced and insightful counsel is one; or two, if I include myself. And I ought to include myself, because some of the greatest bits of musical wisdom I've ever heard came out of my own mouth.

Most of all, I take particular pleasure in presiding over masterclasses. Here is a rare opportunity to dissect the music of young composers and expose its flaws in the proper setting -- a large auditorium full of their friends, colleagues, lovers, and members of the public. I've discovered that on the whole, students receive more than enough praise from other sources, so when it's my turn to comment on their work, I feel free to concentrate on more useful criticism.

Still a bit too intimate of a space for my tastes
In general, I like to consider the following questions while I listen to a student piece:
  • Does it respond appropriately to the current musical trends and attitudes that I find important?
  • If my present attitude about music requires it, does the piece adequately address contemporary political and social issues? otherwise, is the piece sufficiently abstract?
  • Is it too short? Not long enough?
  • Are the performers able to present the music properly or is it as difficult to play as it should be?
  • Can the composer justify every note and articulation found in the score, preferably in writing?
  • Did any members of the audience whose musical opinions I do not respect appear to enjoy the piece?
  • Does the piece sound too much like my own music? Too little?
  • Did the piece result in general applause, a more appropriate stunned/confused silence, or, ideally, a riot?
Very few students are able to meet all of these criteria. That hardly surprises me; it requires careful attention to many factors, and the standards of what constitutes good music are mercurial at best. At Columbia in 1952, a student brought to me a piece including a number of major triads in root position. I encouraged him to find alternative employment in the accounting profession. At Brevard in 2004, a young woman proudly pointed out a 12-tone row around which she had built a piece in Webernian fashion. I suggested that perhaps the fashion she ought to be pursuing was fashion design.

The above instances demonstrate one of my signature teaching methods, which is to suggest a more suitable career path for people that are clearly going to fail as composers. As the old saying goes, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," or in this case "an ounce of directness towards an incompetent student is worth a pound of scathing reviews once he's left school and 'found his voice.'" The best way to combat bad music is to ensure it never gets written, and that is my duty every bit as much as the cultivation of actual talent. I never hesitate to burn my own music when it fails to please me, and why should I hold to any different standard with my students? I'm speaking metaphorically, of course; most fire codes prohibit open flames in public spaces, as I was informed after a particular incident in Berlin in 1992.
It had to be done

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Electronic Justice

As usual, Ed has the facts right, but is not giving the complete story. The events that led to the destruction of his computer are straightforward enough. Some months ago, my piece for Euphonium Duodecad Perfect Counterpoint had its premier before an audience of forty-four middle-school students at PS117. I assure you, the response was nothing if not rapturous to the extreme. I have seen it written that today's young people are unable to appreciate the subtleties of modern serious music, but these bright students were hanging on every retrograde inversion. In fact, some of them were so transported by the music, that they pulled out those tiny telephones people carry with them these days and spent the entire concert taking down notes about the music.

However, all truly revolutionary music finds resistance among the ranks of small-minded critics, and this piece was no exception. The next day's edition of the The Green Gopher Gazette, included a slanderous hit piece by that thirteen-year old harpy, Jenny Blankstein, who described it as "a chromatically saturated mess of a piece that pretends to great profundities -- while in fact revealing itself as the desperate ramblings of a composer who has long since depleted his limited stable of ideas."

Monday, August 22, 2011

Blog Restored

It has been a few months since we've heard from Roscoe; I'm not entirely sure why, but a few weeks after his last post he had the unusual idea of shoving his computer out of his sixth-story window -- monitor, tower, keyboard, and all. And when I say "his" computer, I really mean "my" computer, since it technically belonged to me, or rather, to be extra-technical, my mother, since it was her name on the warranty (which did not cover defenestration, by the way). Luckily, no one was harmed, although the repairs to the hot dog cart it landed on were distressingly expensive. Then Roscoe refused to collaborate with me on this blog until I could show him in person what I was going to post, and with no computer between the two of us and with him banned from the public library for various historical reasons, there just wasn't much of a way to keep the blog going.

At any rate, I managed to assemble the funds for a new computer -- this time a laptop that I don't have to leave unsupervised -- and we are back in business. Roscoe's working on a new post as we speak and you, the lucky reading public, should be able to enjoy it shortly.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Hard at Work

Ed reminded me yesterday that I had not added any new material to this web-log for some time. Many of you might feel yourselves owed an apology. Please take a moment and consider how remarkably selfish that attitude is. My time is my own to spend as I please, and any writings of mine that appear on this web site ought to be considered a rare privilege. While I feel as hearty as a seventy-five year-old, there is no firm evidence but that I am mortal. So soak up the wisdom while you can.

All that aside, these past few weeks have been particularly busy for me. Now and then I enjoy setting for myself a difficult compositional challenge, and the most recent turned out to be one of the greatest of my career. In late January, I received an unexpected phone call from one Horace Bertelmann, director of the Greater New York Area Euphonium Ensemble, a 12-member group whose name is self-explanatory.
Their concerts are surprisingly well-attended

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Christmas Miracle

I can't say how lucky it was that I found the Thornbys. They turned out to be incredibly gracious hosts to Roscoe, and provided him with what I imagine to be his best Christmas in years. Roscoe, of course, is doing his best to be aloof and distant about it, as always, but he came home looking at least three years younger and yelled a lot more politely when I came to see him the next day.

The fire really wasn't such a problem; the Thornbys were fully insured and are using it as an opportunity to add that third bedroom they've always wanted. And the kids are already asking when their "Uncle Woscoe" is coming to visit again.

No Hope for the Future

I despise children. In all likelihood there are many, many others who feel precisely as I do on the subject but are too constrained by social mores to make the confession. Since I make my living defying the expectations and hopes of those around me, I am in a unique position to admit this fact.
How repulsive!
I do not know if children are inherently evil, although that is entirely possible. What I do know is that contemporary standard parenthood practice is woefully inadequate to the task of molding them into respectful and productive members of society. Without meaning to sound like a cantankerous old man, I have to say that television, video games, sugary drinks, superhero comics, and possibly those tasteless matching sheets and wallpaper with images of some pre-adolescent pop star on them have done nothing but produce a generation of hyperactive, shrill, and obnoxious brats who, among other things, simply will not let a man have five quiet minutes to lie on the floor and hear the opening to his next opera.
I think I know what the plot will be, though
Such was my experience last month as I spent the winter solstice and New Year's with my alleged relatives, the Thornby family. Ed clearly had good intentions in connecting me with them, just like he had good intentions when he threw out my collection of priceless and irreplaceable pawn shop receipts from the golden age of 1947-1961. However, good intentions do not a truly valuable service make. Despite their friendly exteriors and welcoming (gasp!) embraces, I was quick to notice some signs of trouble ahead:

  1. David Thornby works as an entry level analyst at Merril Lynch.  Not only are they totally out of line with my socialist principles, but they once promised to sponsor a concert series featuring some of my pieces, only to pull out in a show of total cowardice when they discovered I was going to use live ammunition.
  2. Phyllis owns a large collection of "relaxing" "new age" "music" and listens to it religiously each night from the hours of 10pm-11pm as a way of going to sleep.  She often neglects to turn it off.
  3. Taggert and Jennyfer, ages five and seven respectively, subsist mainly on a diet of chocolate cake and coca-cola, and have invented a nefarious method of torture known as "cuddle attacks," which as often as not leave me at the point of nervous exhaustion.
  4. The dog, Bruno, is six months old, and, as it was determined after he discovered my pair of Zellis, not entirely house trained.
And they were my favorite pair, too
As far as the fire is concerned however, I can take no responsibility. It is certainly true that Taggert did ask me if it was all right for him to throw his army men into the fireplace, and that I said it was. I imagine he was playing some sort of ridiculous game with them, and as far as I am concerned, the fewer toys he has to trouble the world with, the better.  How was I to know that they were painted with some sort of flammable substance that would spark flames on the Christmas tree and then the curtains?  I wasn't of course, and I can at least say that the living room was not a total loss, and that despite any secret hopes on my parts, the boy escaped unscathed -- though perhaps a little bit wiser for the wear.  I expect next year I will be free to practice my One-legged King Pigeon in peace.