2010 April at John Mackey's Blog



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  • April 28, 2010

    New gig for an old friend

    My longtime friend, Robert Battle, was just named Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The NY Times described the company as “one of the nation’s most successful dance troupes.”  If people have only heard of one modern dance company, chances are, it’s Ailey.

    I first met Robert in 1998, a year after I graduated from Juilliard.  Robert had been a dance major at Juilliard, but he graduated the year before I started.  We were introduced through a mutual friend when Robert was looking for a composer for a dance piece.  I gave him a CD of my music, and he asked me to write something — something that would feature his friend Garrick Zoeter, a phenomenal clarinet player.  Pretty quickly, I had my first piece for Robert: “Damn,” for clarinet and percussion ensemble.  I had huge stones at the time, so I met with Mary Rodgers Guettel, then chairman of Juilliard (and daughter of Broadway legend Richard Rodgers) and asked her to fund live music for the premiere.  She agreed, so my first collaboration with Robert had a live performance of a commissioned score.  (Well, “commissioned.”  My fee, after paying the musicians and renting percussion? $0.00.  Actually I think it was more like -$100 — as in, negative $100.)

    Other pieces followed over the next several years.  There was “Strange Humors,” which now exists not just in its original instrumentation for string quartet and djembe, but also for sax quartet and djembe, and — the most-performed version — for concert band.  There was “Irish Ghetto,” a piece for accordion, violin, percussion, and double bass (a piece that’s no longer on the website).  There was “Mood Indigo,” commissioned by Ailey II (the Ailey junior troupe), for drum set and piano (also not on the website).  There was “Breakdown Tango” — commissioned by the Parsons Dance Company — for violin, clarinet, cello, and piano, which went on to become, in its orchestral and band transcriptions, “Redline Tango.”  There was “Rush Hour,” also commissioned by Parsons, for clarinet, string quartet, and drum set (and later orchestrated as the second movement of my Percussion Concerto).  There was “Juba” for electric string quartet and percussion, our collaboration for Ailey.  (You may catch a few snippets of “Juba” buried within “Asphalt Cocktail.”)  And finally there was “Mass,” a percussion ensemble work commissioned for the Juilliard dance and music divisions (and funded again by Mary Rodgers Guettel).

    (Yes, I had a goatee.  It was 1999.  What do you expect?  And this is not my house.  I wouldn’t be caught dead with those curtains.  The Henry Moore sculpture next to me, though…)

    I always had a great time collaborating with Robert.  This is a guy who choreographs with the score in hand, and gives the dancers the same metric counts that the musicians are counting.

    Robert is the reason why “Juba” has percussion.  (I wanted to write the piece for strings alone, but he kind of insisted on percussion, and it was the right call.)  Robert also asked that the first movement of “Juba” be reminiscent of the slashing chords of “Rite of Spring” (thus the “power chords” that I ended up using) and he wanted the last movement to be rhythmically complex and a challenge to count.  (I’ll never forget watching a rehearsal for “Juba,” with the Ailey dancers moving their lips at incredible speed as they silently counted along with the music.  “1,2,3,4,5,1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,1,2,3,4…”)  Robert is why “Breakdown Tango” is scored the way it is, because he wanted to involve his same clarinetist friend (for whom we wrote “Damn”), who was then part of a clarinet-violin-cello-piano ensemble.  Without Robert, I never would have written “Breakdown Tango,” which became “Redline Tango,” which means without him, I’d have to get a real job.  And all of our pieces were true collaborations, although the majority of the time, it was him making the requests, not the other way around.  (What am I gonna do, step out onto the floor during the dance rehearsal, and go, “no, Robert, I need more jazz hands.  JAZZ HANDS.  Here, I’ll show you.”)

    Here’s the video of  his choreography for “Strange Humors.”  If you’ve never watched the choreography for the piece, you really should.

    After we collaborated on “Mass,” I moved to LA, and the collaborations ended. Following our two pieces for Ailey, Robert has since made seven more works for them. I guess they like him and his work, ’cause they just offered him one of the biggest dance jobs in the world.

    Either that, or Loki — who has known Robert literally Loki’s entire life — provided a really good recommendation.

    Congratulations, Robert!


    April 22, 2010

    Not guilty

    If you’ve been following the gossip, you may have heard that a university recently performed “Asphalt Cocktail” without renting the materials, having obtained the materials from a third party.  There has been a lot of speculation about what school it might be that would perform a rental piece without renting it.  Although I will not “out” the school — they’re in the process of making this right, and I’m optimistic that they will, as this was hopefully just a paperwork misunderstanding somewhere along the line  — I also don’t want this to become a witch hunt.  This circumstance is, thankfully, very unusual.  Nearly every school respects the law and does the right thing.  I will say, if you visit the Performance List on this site, and you see a performance listed, that school is free and clear to give that performance.  Even if a performance isn’t listed, it may just mean that I failed to enter it into the database.  (I only list performances of rental works, not sale works like Undertow or Strange Humors, and I even forget to enter some rental performances, so even if they aren’t listed, the likelihood is that they’ve done nothing wrong, but a listed performance is, definitively, a licensed performance.)

    So please don’t email band directors all over the place asking if it was them.  It wasn’t them.

    1 Comment

    April 20, 2010

    In Defense of Marching Band

    Okay, first off, I can’t believe I just typed that subject line.  But I’m serious.  I’ll explain.

    Composers complain to each other. We’re like a sewing circle of bitchy. Bitching is fun. Ranting is fun. Give me a cocktail and ask me my opinion on just about anything, and I’ll happily and loudly tell you why it’s awful.

    So it’s not surprising that I read a very amusing rant by a fellow composer the other day — a rant intended for other composers. His topic of bitching? Marching band.

    This composer had licensed one of his pieces for marching use, and received a DVD of the show in the mail. Because he hadn’t licensed a lot of stuff for marching use, he was understandably curious, and he put in the DVD and proceeded to become… well, not super excited.

    He thought it was awful, that the music had no resemblance to what he’d originally written, and that the addition of flags was not doing anybody any favors.  I think he’s missing the point. Here’s my take on marching band:

    Big fan. Love to watch it? Well, honestly, I haven’t seen much. I never marched, but I did watch a few marching show contests back in high school, partially because I was curious, but primarily because I had a crush on the drum major. I still remember one show based on “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Elliott del Borgo. I remember thinking, “that’s crunchier music than I’d have expected in a marching show. Cool. Oh, and the drum major is cute. I wonder if she has a date for prom.”

    I license a lot of my music for marching band and drum corps use. Honestly, though — and this is what my composer friend didn’t consider — I rarely watch the videos. Why? It’s just because the marching arrangement never quite sounds “right” to me — at least not when it involves my own music. I have a particular way that I want every piece of mine to sound, and performances rarely match that “perfect version” that’s in my head — and that’s when the piece is being performed by the exact instrumentation that I intended! So if I hear a marching band arrangement of Asphalt Cocktail, and instead of it being in 4/4 and 7/8 (which is kind of the point, since 4/4 alone would be weirdly square), it’s arranged to be almost entirely in 4/4 for a marching band, and the clarinet solo is replaced by a mellophone, that kind of makes my brain go “?SYNTAX ERROR.”  (There have been arrangements of my own music that blew me away and that I’d watch again and again.  One was Marian Catholic’s show from a few years ago, arranged by Greg Bimm.  That was kind of astonishing in its faithfulness to the original, but that’s pretty unusual.)   The visuals, though — and maybe this is because I used to write so much for dance — always strike me as kind of cool. I wouldn’t say I’m a sucker for flags & rifles, but it’s kind of interesting to see how a designer will translate my music to a visual medium. The challenge for me is getting past the audio. That’s my own issue with my music, though.

    So what is it that I really like about marching band? It’s the fact that other people love it. Like, really, really love it. People who march in marching bands love it. People in drum corps? They’re even more obsessive. And if the size of the audience at a DCI final is any indication, many thousands of people love just being in the audience for these shows.

    Anytime somebody wants to use my music in some way — whether it’s performing the original version, listening to a recording, using it for synchronized swimming (go Team USA 2004!), or some weightlifting competition (yes, this has happened, too) — I’m just happy that somebody liked my music enough to choose it over his countless other options.  Hell, the weirder the use (assuming it’s used with permission, which is a whole other topic), the more I love it.  I mean, who wouldn’t love having a 10 year old girl arrange your music for Japanese “Electone” synthesizer, and then perform it in a pretty dress in a competition?  (She won the Gold Medal, by the way.)

    My attitude is that whenever somebody uses your music, at that moment they’re picking your music over every other piece they could pick, and that’s an honor. If a conductor programs your piece, they’re picking that piece for that place on the program over every other piece they could possibly play. So if somebody wants to use my music in a marching show — and again, if they, you know, get permission — I’m flattered and honored.

    And with marching band, those students are going to spend their entire fall (and possibly much of the preceding summer) working on your piece. Maybe those students will like your piece enough that in the spring, they’ll ask the director to program something else of yours during concert season. If they’d never marched to your piece, chances are they’d never have heard of you or your music. The audience? Same deal. Maybe somebody will hear your piece at a DCI show and go home and look up your website because they liked the corps version. But maybe they won’t. Who cares? Either way, because of that marching show, a whole bunch of people were exposed to your music that never heard it before.   It’s an audience that you’d probably never reach otherwise.  I like to think of marching band as a gateway drug. Next thing you know, kids are sneaking out behind the school to download your MP3. And take meth.

    I’ll never forget how much fun I had during the rehearsals of “Grease” in high school. (I was Vince Fontaine. You can find pictures on Facebook if you’re so inclined.) I had the greatest time that spring, and because of it, I still think fondly of the show “Grease,” even though, really, that show kind of sucks. But I’m sure people in marching band feel the same way. They’ll remember how much fun they had that fall during their senior year, marching to your music on Friday nights. They’ll get together at their 5-year reunion (and they’ll look like they’ve aged 15 years, if my 5-year reunion was any indication, and 75% of them will already have kids — WTF?!), and they’ll say things like, “remember that show we marched during our senior year? That was a blast.” (Or, “that show sucked.”) Regardless, the fact that they’ll remember the experience — and probably your music — is pretty amazing.

    Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

    Of course, they’ll also remember how much they hated Bill and Matt in German class.  Those guys were dicks.


    April 16, 2010

    Most performed Americans

    The League of American Orchestras has released their always-interesting list of the most-performed American composers. The rankings are only for orchestral performances, which makes them especially eye-opening when you compare these numbers to, say, band numbers. These numbers are for 2008-2009. Here are the top 5 living American composers, and their total number of American orchestral performances:
    1: John Adams — 52 performances
    2: Jennifer Higdon — 49 performances
    3: Michael Daugherty — 34 performances
    4: John Corigliano — 32 performances
    5: John Williams — 31 performances

    (You can see a more complete list here.)

    I’ve written before about the whole “band vs. orchestra” thing, but here, comparing the numbers is kind of shocking.  During the 2008-2009 season, John Adams had 52 performances by orchestras in the United States.  From his entire catalog.  This year, Asphalt Cocktail has 70 scheduled performances.  That’s one band piece.  Point: band.

    Also of note is the Boosey & Hawkes list of their most-performed pieces of the past decade.  Michael Daugherty’s piece for timpani and symphonic band (and also arranged for orchestra) “Raise the Roof” is number 8 on Boosey’s decade list, but I’m willing to bet that the majority of those 67 performances are from bands, not orchestras.  At number 2, it’s Christopher Rouse’s orchestra piece, “Rapture.”  Since 2000, it has had 97 performances.

    At number one, though — and this is only considering works published by Boosey & Hawkes — is Karl Jenkins Requiem.  How many performances in the past decade?  311.  311!  I feel pretty out-of-touch for not even knowing the piece existed.

    The lesson here?  If you’re a composer and you want to have at least the potential for a large number of performances, write for band.  But if you want to really get a shitload of performances, write a requiem!

    Apparently everybody loves a requiem.


    April 13, 2010

    Pulitzer Tub

    A big congratulations to Jennifer Higdon, whose “Violin Concerto” just won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for music.  I haven’t heard the piece yet (although it’s been recorded by Hilary Hahn, and is presumably due for release soon), but if Jennifer’s other music is any indication, it’s sure to be exciting and beautiful, and — and this is high praise — fun.  She has purely serious works, but one thing that strikes me about her work is its personality, and its willingness to recognize that music can show a sense of fun while still providing real substance.

    And in a typically gracious move, her first quote in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer: “It’s not so much about me, but my high school band director.”

    Love her.

    Also of note is that Higdon won with a self-published piece. I don’t know if that’s happened before. Regardless, it’s good for all of us other self-published-types. (Keep in mind that the Pulitzer is a publishing award.)

    It brings me to this, my favorite photo of all time, because today, it becomes relevant once again. This photo, from a party in January 2004, is a shot of Mark Adamo, Robert Spano (Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony), John Corigliano, Jennifer Higdon, Steve Reich, and… me.

    The reason I post it today is to point out that this photo now shows THREE Pulitzer winners: Corigliano, Reich, and Higdon. Note that those three are all sitting next to each other, and that the next person in the line is… me.  Clearly the pool of winners comes from this bathtub.   You’ve got my number, Pulitzer committee.

    Also, congratulations to Tom Kitt, who won the drama Pulitzer for Next to Normal. I knew Tom back when I lived in NYC, and my best bud Damien Bassman was the drummer in the Tom Kitt Band. (Damien, for whom I wrote my first Percussion Concerto, was the drummer in Next to Normal.) Back in the day, Tom asked me to provide orchestrations for a song on his first CD, but I was busy at the time and flaked on him. So imagine my surprise when Tom won the Tony awards for not only Best Score — but for Best Orchestration. Sigh. I could’a been a contender!

    I just saw that the Dallas Symphony is performing Higdon’s Pulitzer-winning piece next month.  That seems worth a drive up to Dallas…