2010 February at John Mackey's Blog



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  • How I Spent My Teen Years
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  • February 9, 2010

    Heading to TMEA

    I’m off to TMEA — the Texas Music Educators Association — convention tomorrow afternoon. I expect it to be a fun week. On Friday night at 6:30, the Westwood High School Orchestra — selected as this year’s TMEA Honor Orchestra — will perform the original orchestra (!) version of “Redline Tango.”  I had a great rehearsal with the orchestra on Sunday afternoon, and I think this is going to be a hell of a performance.  It’s kind of astonishing that they’re a high school orchestra, and they’re having less trouble on some parts of the piece than I’ve heard with professional orchestras.

    On Saturday evening, the TMEA 5-A Symphonic Band (ie, the top Texas All State Band) will perform “Aurora Awakes” under the baton of Arizona State’s Director of Bands, Gary Hill.  I was completely floored by this band’s performance of “Kingfishers Catch Fire” two years ago.  (You can watch that performance via YouTube.)  Just trying to imagine the big climaxes of “Aurora Awakes” as played by a band of the best 150 players in the state — well, that’ll be sweeeeeet.  And, I predict, loud.

    (As a side note, I stopped by Lowe’s last night and bought drywall sanding blocks, and I’m going to loan these to the student playing the sand block part in Aurora Awakes.  Great big drywall sanding blocks make a lot more sound, and are a lot easier to control.)

    I’m also looking forward to hanging out with fellow composer friends Jonathan Newman (whose “As the Scent of Spring Rain” will receive a performance by the 5A Concert Band) and Roshanne Etezady (whose piece, “SHOUTOUT,” is on the same program as “Aurora Awakes”).

    Unfortunately, the weather looks like it’s going to be nasty, and my hotel is hell-and-gone from the convention center.  That won’t be a fun schlepp.  It also puts a damper on hanging out at Swig, the outdoor martini bar where I spend most of my TMEA nights.  Good thing the new San Antonio Hyatt has a nice bar…


    February 7, 2010

    Picking a school

    For some reason, I’m frequently asked for advice about college composition programs. “Where should I go to school for music composition?” or, maybe even more common, “where should my kid go?” I’m usually reluctant to name names and pick favorites (although I’m willing to after a drink or two — if you want my honest opinion about something, ask me around midnight at the bar at any music convention). There are a few things that I think you should consider when picking a composition program, and I hope that listing some of them won’t get me in too much trouble. Keep in mind that this is about picking a program with an aim toward becoming a working composer after you graduate, and this is just my opinion with absolutely nothing to back it up. In other words, I’m blowing smoke out of my arse.

    1) Who teaches there?
    This is the most important thing. You want a great teacher (of course), but also one who is connected to musicians and composers outside of your university. This doesn’t mean picking a teacher who writes like you, or who writes like you want to write. My teacher in undergrad, Donald Erb, wrote music that was completely unlike my music. His music was angry, and I often describe it (lovingly) as the ugliest music I’ve ever heard. My music sounded like a knock-off of Barber and Shostakovich with a little Brahms thrown in for extra earnestness. (You can hear an example of a piece from my teens by listening to “Elegy and Fantasie.”) Dr. Erb was able to help me learn to write my own music better, not write music that sounded like him. This is a rare skill for a composition teacher. You want a teacher who produces better composers, not one who simply produces clones. I don’t think you need to pick a composer whose music you actually like, and in fact, you’re less likely to simply mimic them if you pick one whose music you don’t love.

    I also said that you want a composition teacher who is “connected.” Let’s say you write a great orchestra piece, and you manage to get a representative recording. (See consideration #2 below.) What do you do with it? Well, you can send it do a conductor yourself, but I pretty much guarantee that if you do that, the conductor will never look at or listen to your piece. (This applies to orchestra music, not as much to band music, but that’s another topic.) If your composition teacher is a real “working composer,” chances are better that he/she knows some “real conductors,” and he can pick up the phone, call a conductor, and say “I have a piece by a student that is really quite good, and you should look at it.” Your chances of convincing a conductor to look at your piece just increased by a whole hell of a lot.

    2) Will you get to hear your music played well?
    This is very nearly as important as the first consideration. If you have this great teacher, and you’re writing all sorts of great music, but nobody at your school can (or will) play it, it doesn’t do you any good. You need to hear your music played — and played well — by other musicians. (Again, check out “Elegy and Fantasie,” bearing in mind that the performers on that recording were students. And they were actually part of a pre-college program, so they were only 15 years old at the time of that recording.) It’s also good, if possible, to attend a school where all of the instrumental departments are strong. You need to learn to write for everything, not just percussion ensembles, or band, or brass quintets. Pick a school with no weak studios. What if you want to write a piece for marimba, flute, viola, and piano? (Hmm, that’s not a bad idea, now that I think about it.) You don’t want to have to dumb-down the viola part because… Well, never mind. I’m going to get myself in trouble with a viola joke. Moving on.

    This isn’t really a tip for picking a school, but for learning to be a composer: Don’t perform your own music. Sure, I can’t play my own music, but even if I could, Donald Erb used to stress the importance of not playing it. If you’re playing in your own piece, you’re not listening to the piece the way an audience member would. You’re listening for ensemble, and balance, and intonation, and all of the things a player would think about, but your concept of pacing isn’t accurate. You’re feeling the length of rests differently than you’re feeling the pacing of the parts where you play. You may not notate things as clearly as you should, because hell, you know what you meant. You need to learn to notate music so that other people can figure out what you mean when you aren’t there. (Another Erb-ism: “You’re a real composer the first time somebody plays your music and you don’t have to be there to make it happen.”) You need to be able to listen to every player equally, which you can only do if you aren’t playing one of the parts yourself.

    Being a performer who composes is also risky because you may end up favoring your own instrument. Young composer pianists are particularly at risk of doing this — giving all of the hardest material to themselves as the pianist, or writing parts for other instruments that were clearly conceived on a piano. (This happens a lot with harp parts, or keyboard percussion parts.  You’ll also see it in string parts, where the pianist-composer will write arpeggios in the strings as if the violins are the right hand of the piano.) This is kind of another topic, though, so I’ll leave this alone for now… I’ll just say, once more: Pick a school where there will be people who can play your music as you intended it, and where you don’t have to be one of the people covering one of the parts.

    3) Will you be exposed to non-faculty composers?
    I still remember when John Adams came and spoke at CIM when I was there, and I learned that he, too, wrote everything on MIDI, and I was like, “wow, I’m just like John Adams!” (I wished, at least.) And of course there’s the Corigliano story. I got to study with John Corigliano at Juilliard because I met him (and sort of stalked him — well, not sort of. I stalked him.) when he was in Cleveland for a performance of his Clarinet Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra. I attended the Cleveland Orchestra rehearsals of his piece, sitting right behind him, and then I sat in the front row at the seminar at CIM when he came to speak later that day. I attended two of the three performances that weekend, and two pre-concert lectures, the implication being, “I think you are amazing, and I want to study with you.” He eventually asked me to send him some music, and a few months later, he invited me to study with him for my Master’s degree. This wouldn’t have happened if I’d been at a school where they never have guest composers.
    I also still remember having a lesson with James Mobberley while Dr. Erb was on sabbatical, and thinking after hearing Mobberley’s music, “wow, I had no idea music could sound like that.” I’m sure he doesn’t remember me, but meeting a visiting composer like him made a big impact on me.

    4) Does the school produce actual “working composers?”
    This one may not be fair, and really isn’t that crucial. There is a tiny number of composers who make a living writing music, so looking at the schools they attended may not show you many schools at all. Still, if you were picking a college for any other specialty — medicine, business, law, philosophy — hopefully you’d look at the job placement or equivalent. This is one category where it’s not hard to list schools with graduates who actually write music for any, uh, money: Juilliard, University of Michigan, Cleveland Institute of Music, Yale, University of Southern California, Eastman, The Curtis Institute of Music. There are certainly others — Indiana should probably be on there, and I’m sure almost everybody thinks their school should be on there. (There are also plenty of schools with a single successful composer here and there, but not a real track record of working composers.) If you look at the list, you’ll see that all of them offer the things for which I’m advocating: great faculty who not only teach well but have connections outside of school, great student performers allowing composers to hear and record their music, and lots of visiting professional composers.

    So those are things I’d consider when picking a school for composition. Here’s what I wouldn’t consider:
    Where will I get the best scholarship?
    This, I think, is the worst method for picking a college. If you have a choice between a great program with little financial aid and a crap program with tons of financial aid, I’d pick the great program. You may end up with lots of debt, but this is an investment in the rest of your life. I was offered a decent scholarship to attend the Cleveland Institute of Music (which is where I went for my undergrad degree), but I was offered a sort of ridiculously generous package to attend a tiny college near where I attended high school. I truly believe that if I’d gone to that “other school,” I’d still be living in Westerville, Ohio, and I’d now be working at a bank. I’d have never learned how to craft a piece well because I wouldn’t have studied with Donald Erb, so I’d never have had good music to present when I met John Corigliano, so I’d have never been invited to attend Juilliard, so I’d have never moved to New York. I’d have never written for dance, never worked for the New York Philharmonic, never met Graham Parker who helped me get the commission for “Redline Tango,” and therefore never written the band version of “Redline Tango” which essentially gave me my career today. If I’d picked the school with the better financial aid package, my entire life would be different now, and not for the better. I’d have less debt (or none at all), but my life, relative to what is is now, would suck.

    So that’s my take. The most important considerations are #1 and #2. Just because a university hasn’t produced a string of “working composers” just yet, it doesn’t mean that they won’t, particularly if the school meets the other qualifications (good faculty and good student performers who play your music well). If you can at least go to a school with those two crucial things, you’ll be happier while you’re in school, and have a much better chance of “success” (whatever the hell that means) after you graduate. You’ll also need some luck, so — good luck.


    February 6, 2010

    Who’s hungry?

    It’s been a while since I’ve written about any of our (seemingly endless) home renovations.  We did the family room (Elvis style!), the living room (which we’ve improved quite a bit since the original post; I need to take new pictures), the front door and foyer, and the multiple entries about our down-to-the-studs kitchen remodel (see the links on the left, “Design: Kitchen”).  What’s left to do?  Well, of course there are the two bathrooms, but we won’t get to those until summer.  The current project is our dining room.

    Like every other room in this house, the dining room was pretty sad when we looked at the house while it was on the market. As AEJ describes it, it was “droopy.”

    Wall-to-wall carpet. A tragic accordion door into the (gawd-awful) kitchen. Sad baseboards around the floor. Popcorn ceilings. And the chandelier. The sad, sad chandelier.

    Step one: replace the chandelier. Assembly required, but after the 48″ black chandelier in the family room, this was a piece of cake.

    Soon we had this:

    We also wallpapered one large wall. You can see the pattern in this shot. (It’s tough to tell, but the wallpaper pattern is a little reflective. It’s sweet.)

    Now we needed a dining table. It took something like 16 weeks, but we eventually received it. It’s tough to tell from this shot, but it’s a monster. It weighs over 400 pounds, and the delivery was scary. Turned out fine, though.

    But there was the problem of the other wall. The huge, empty wall. What on earth could go there? It’d need to be big — and if you’re going to go big, you want something pretty spectacular. AEJ, of course, had an idea.


    She conceived of a huge art work — larger than 4′ x 6′ — made entirely of real tropical butterflies. She found a place that makes custom art with mounted butterflies inside of acrylic cases, and she gave them her plans for this piece. Assembling it took months, but last week, we received four huge boxes from Butterfly Utopia in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Inside was AEJ’s custom-designed artwork.

    Wait, did you think that was it? Oh, no, no, no. That’s one box of butterflies. There are EIGHT. Mounting it was a huge task (“That’s what SHE said – ZING!”), but we did manage to eventually get the whole thing on the wall.

    She picked three different sizes and colors of butterfly. They look completely different depending on the angle, and the angle of the light source.

    Some are translucent. Some look blue sometimes, and green other times.

    There are 96 butterflies in this thing, each placed according to AEJ’s instructions. She wanted it to look like a flock of butterflies, flying from the lower left to the upper right corner.

    In person, it’s jaw-dropping, with its scale (the larger butterflies are probably 6″ across), and the colors, and just the realization that these are all real preserved butterflies. (As a side note, Butterfly Utopia actually helps preserve rainforests, because the business of providing a habitat for these butterflies prevents farms from clearing the land for logging. None of the butterflies are endangered. Well, at least they weren’t before our project.)

    Because it’s really not a re-design blog entry without the side-by-side before and after… Once more, the before:

    And now:

    I think AEJ has totally outdone herself on this one. Most important, Loki approves. (Hey, get that cat off the dining table!)