Oh my... it's been a while since I've written anything. I should remedy this post-haste.
For starters, I should mention that the premiere of Tony Malone And His Skeleton Band went extremely well, and I'm already getting inquiries from directors about ordering the piece for their choirs. Many thanks to Patrick Walders and the Louisiana All-State ACDA for making this happen! Hopefully I'll be getting a DVD/Blu-Ray copy of the performance in the mail sometime soon, and when I do I'll put a recording of the piece up for you all to see and hear.
I have a few new projects in the works right now, all of which are quite exciting. I'm working on a piece for the Augusta County Honor Band called Skyline; very funky and rhythmic, should be a good time. There's also been some talk about reviving my rock opera, The Darkest Day, this next spring and making a studio recording of it, so that's quite cool. There are a fair number of revisions I would need to do (including one song that I would scrap entirely and re-write as a lengthy epic), but it would be great to get a few more performances out there and have the whole thing available for purchase in iTunes. I trust you'll all be up for some Lenten headbanging, yes?
Lastly, the VMEA convention was this past weekend, and it provided me with some much needed musical rejuvenation. It was great to see so many JMU alumni over the course of the weekend, proof that - yes indeed - talented and motivated people really can make a career in music. It was a fun weekend of going to sessions and seminars, then going to bars and pubs, and hearing saxophone superstar Dave Pope play the ever-living crap out of John Mackey's "Concerto for Soprano Saxophone" with the JMU Wind Symphony. Also, one of the booths on the floor was selling plastic trombones. I kid you not: full-sized, fully functioning trombones. Have a look see -
I kind of want one...
Greetings friends! I apologize for not having updated in a while, due in part to a recent illness that I'm still in the process of getting over (no worries, I'm fine, though I'm still on an aggravating and old-man-ish schedule of pill-taking). BUT, I figured it was time for an update, so here you go! Get excited.
I just recently put the finishing touches on my piece for the Louisiana All-State Jr. High Chorus - "Tony Malone and his Skeleton Band" for SATB Choir, Piano, and Jazz Vibraphone. Written in the style of an old Cab Calloway song, it tells the story of a legendary jazz saxophone player named Tony who is now a skeleton, and is feeling down because, without any "lips to blow", he can no longer play the sax. But, when he find outs that plucking on his ribs makes a sound (hence, the Vibraphone), he decides to start up a band of rib/vibraphone-playing skeletons. It's pretty goofy and ridiculous, but I think it will be a lot of fun to work on with the choir and could be a neat way of introducing them to jazz rhythms, harmony, and the concept of jazz improvisation. I'm looking forward to seeing how it all turns out!
Remember that Abbey Road Anthem competition I posted about a while back? Me too. Still waiting to hear something about the results... *tap tap tap*
I had a conversation with Randy Klein last week where we talked about the future of the Margaret Walker project, as well as some new projects on which I might not be at liberty to divulge much information yet, and I can tell you that there are some exciting things on the way! We're looking into new performances at new venues with new musical forces at work, and it sounds like quite a lot of fun. Also, if you haven't seen it yet, check out this YouTube video (also on my Multimedia page) of "Ballad of the Free" being performed with the JMU Chorale this past April.
On a note unrelated to composition or arranging, I'm going out tonight for my first legit theatrical audition in quite some time. I'll be going out for the Lynchburg Academy of Fine Arts' production of "Babes In Arms" by Rodgers & Hart. Here's hoping I break a leg, without literally breaking a leg since I'm still a bit sore from being sick. :p
And to end on a humorous note, I present to you another one of my memes that I created in my spare time:
My Face When I Listen To Certain Composers, As Represented By Memes
Hello all! It’s been a while since I updated with any legitimate information on here, so I thought I’d stop in at let you know what’s been going on lately as far as my composing is concerned.
I’m currently writing and arranging some Celtic-infused music for Wolfbane’s production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. For those of you in the Lynchburg area, the show runs the August 24-28 and September 1-4 at Randolph College’s Thoresen Theatre. Come check it out!
I submitted my entry to the Abbey Road Studios 80th Anniversary Anthem contest, and just before the deadline at that! I went BIG for this one, because hey, why not – full orchestra, chorus, rock band, the whole shebang. Now I just have to play the waiting game while Eric Whitacre and Harry Christophers give it the ol’ once-over, which is no way intimidating.
On the lighter side, many of you have probably seen the “Book Of Mormon” fugue that I wrote just for funsies recently, based off the first song in the Broadway show. In case you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the
Apparently, this has been forwarded along to some cast members in the actual Broadway production of The Book Of Mormon, who are now playing it in the dressing rooms before the show. Kind of amazing what can happen in the YouTube era!
So more and more offers or commissions for original compositions and arrangements are starting to come in for me. It’s definitely given me a sense of and “Yes, I really CAN do this for a living!” and “No, I don’t suck, because people wouldn’t give me money if I did!”, but now comes the slightly difficult matter of picking which projects I’ll actually have the time and energy to do! I suppose it’s a good problem to have, as problems go. Right now I’m carefully planning out this next year both professionally and financially, with the goal that approximately one year from now (grad school or no), I’ll be in NYC. It looks like there actually may be quite a few exciting projects between now and then (which I can elaborate upon in future posts), and who knows what might happen when I get into the city and start making more connections. Somebody out there has to write new music, so why not me? I say, onward and upward!
Greetings friends! So the Tony Awards just wrapped up last Sunday evening, and my guess is that you were either watching that or the Heat/Mavericks game (my Facebook newsfeed was pretty evenly split between the two). Either way, I always get to thinking about theater around this time of year, and in particular about the direction(s) that musical theater is currently headed. I decided to come up with a list of ways that I believe musical theater writers can make a change for the better in this day and age. Now, before we get to the list, I just want to make clear two things:
1) I’m not suggesting that all contemporary musical theater is bad. Some of it is really quite good. But a
lot of it sucks. Basically, these are problems that I think are currently holding back a fair number of writers in the modern musical theater scene, and therefore worth mentioning.
2) I’m also not suggesting by any stretch of the imagination that I am somehow an “expert” on the subject, and this list is not meant to convey a “holier than thou” attitude. I’m 24. I’ve written only one complete musical thus far, which premiered to mixed reviews (some of which bordered on death threats). I’m still very much a novice, I’m still learning new things every day, and I’m still trying to just get my foot in
the door in this business. This list applies to me as much as it applies to everyone else. These are just some observations I’ve made and opinions I’ve developed during my time as a musical theater writer.
So without any further chit-chat, I give you…
6 WAYS THAT MUSICAL THEATER WRITERS CAN IMPROVE CONTEMPORARY MUSICAL THEATER
#1. Stop Trying To Be Jason Robert Brown
I’m leading with this one because, let’s face it, it needs to be said. It’s getting to the point right now where a disproportionate number of shows feature scores that all sound approximately like this:
Now, just to be clear, I actually do like Jason Robert Brown, so I’m not disparaging the style itself, or even the fact that it’s a style that’s widely imitated at the moment. What’s problematic is the fact that nearly everyone who writes in this style still believes that they’re doing something wildly original. It’s a cliché that is not yet aware that it’s a cliché. So many times I can remember talking to people about a new show they’ve seen or heard, and when I ask them about the music they’ll shrug their shoulders and say “I dunno, it’s kinda Jason Robert Brown-y”. Some composers will even describe their own music this way, which I find kind of baffling since you’re essentially describing yourself as “I’m trying to be someone else”. The only advice I can really give is to just get outside of your musical comfort zone and explore some new things. Look to the entire history of musical theater for inspiration, and even beyond that into the worlds of pop music, art music, opera, global music trends, etc. You might not like everything you hear, in fact you probably won’t, but you’re expanding your musical worldview. To use a food metaphor (as is the favorite device of my composition teacher John Hilliard), don’t be one of those people who goes to visit a new city and skips out on all the local cuisine to eat at McDonalds because it’s familiar. Try the local cuisine, you just might find something you like. And getting back to non-metaphorical talk, just remember this: we already have a Jason Robert Brown. His name is Jason Robert Brown. And he’s better at being Jason Robert Brown than you are.
#2. Don’t Assume That Everyone Shares Your Depressing Life Experience
Not all of us are closeted homosexual schizophrenic ballet dancers who hate our parents and who were molested by our priest behind the toolshed at the church’s annual 5k Fun Run. Some of us are, sure, but not all of us. I’m not suggesting at all that we should only tell “happy stories” in the theater, or that every show should have a happy ending and view the world through rose-tinted glasses. Exploring dark subject matter is perfectly fine, and in many cases makes for great theater, but the problem comes when the author assumes that everyone in the audience is every bit as bitter and pessimistic as they are. I can remember seeing a fair number of workshops and new shows where just about the only thing that the characters do is complain, the author’s intent apparently being that the audience would think to themselves “Wow, I SO relate to that because I also hate everything and everyone!”. Ultimately, this just makes for a forgettable show stocked with vapid, aggravating characters. No matter what kind of subject matter your musical touches upon, it should address some aspect of the human condition that everyone can relate to, regardless of their unique life experience. Take for example a show like “La Cage Aux Folles” – how many of us can relate to having two gay dads who run a drag club on the French Reviera? Not too many. But all of us can relate to having a family, which is ultimately what the show is about. Or, to cite a more modern example and a drama instead of a comedy, take “Next To Normal” – most of us haven’t experienced the same kind of psychological burdens as the characters in that show, but we can all relate to lying to ourselves about how we feel in certain situations. Writing for musical theater is a particularly demanding endeavor, and there’s a fine line between personal and pretentious, but when push comes to shove it’s best to strive for a universal grain of truth. If the only driving idea behind your show is “Everything Sucks”, perhaps you should just consider starting a hipster band instead.
#3. Make Your Characters People Worth Caring About
This particular problem is not unique to contemporary musical theater, or even to musical theater at all, but it’s a problem worth mentioning because it remains rampant in many shows both large- and small-scale. In a poorly-written show, characters are vehicles for the plot; in a well-written show, the plot is a vehicle for the characters. Characters and their goals in musical theater should be larger-than-life, or at least be presented in a way that makes them appear as such. The problem nowadays seems to be that, in an attempt to create more “realistic” characters, writers are simply creating more “boring”characters. A character in a contemporary musical might spend the entire first act of the show with his only motivation being something as mundane as “Gee, I hope I can get that cute girl at the coffee shop to notice me”. Why? What’s at stake? What happens if she doesn’t notice you? Are you just going to go back your studio apartment and watch another episode of ‘True Blood’? What happens if she DOES notice you? You’ll have an awkward conversation and go on a date? WHY SHOULD WE CARE?!?! The stakes for the characters in a musical need to absolutely be life-or-death, or again, at least SEEM that way to the characters involved. And the situations don’t necessarily need to be over-the-top in order for the stakes to be high. Take for example Mama Rose in “Gypsy” – she reveals in the end that she “just wanted to be noticed”, at first glance a fairly common and certainly relatable goal, but her egomaniacal and larger-than-life personality made this common problem a matter of life and death, all or nothing, me against the world, and THAT’S what makes her an interesting character to watch. Characters should be memorable, someone who stays with us after the curtain is down; if your characters are mundane and forgettable, then odds are so is your show.
#4. Think Outside The “Belting” Box
Every time I see someone use the term “fierce belting”, a red flag goes up in my head. Nine times out of ten, this phrase is thinly-veiled code for “The song itself really isn’t very good but OH MY GOD LISTEN TO THOSE HIGH NOTES!!!”. Too often nowadays, “fierce belting” is used as a crutch to cover up poorly-composed material. If everyone in the cast is belting out amazing high notes all the time, nobody’s going to notice if the score isn’t very good on its own merit, right? Wrong (I hope). Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not preaching against belting itself – if done well and utilized at the right moments, it can be wonderfully exciting and really punctuate the climactic points of the score. What I’m preaching against is it’s rampant and excessive overuse. In my opinion (to use another Hilliard food metaphor), composers should treat belting like a powerful spice on the spice rack – if used in just right amount in a well-prepared dish, it can make it go from good to great; if used in abundance to cover up a poorly-prepared dish, it’s pretty gross. By being frugal with the use of belting in your show, you not only prevent the score from sounding like a
monotonous belty mush, but you free yourself up to explore different voice types and vocal colors. What ever happened to the true musical theater baritone? What about the lyric soprano? Can we not make better use of them in contemporary musical theater? I feel that too many theater composers these days fall into the trap of writing for all of their characters in approximately the same vocal range (men as high pop tenors, women as chesty/belty mezzos), which I believe not only makes for an uninteresting score but also negatively effects how many singers perceive contemporary musical theater. I remember not too long ago playing a song of mine, a down-tempo ballad, at the piano for someone after a show. At several strategic she would interrupt with “So is this where it gets belty?”, to which I could only respond “Er… no”. Afterwards, she asked with a confused look on her face, “So wait, where DOES it get belty?”. The whole
concept of “this song does not get belty” seemed downright strange. Now, the point of this story is not to make this individual seem musically ignorant (as quite the opposite is true), but to illustrate how the overuse of belting is negatively shaping our perceptions of what modern musical theater can and should
be. Yes, belting is great if done properly, but composers should treat the use of belting as one of the many tools in their toolbox, not the only tool they have. Explore the many diverse facets of the human voice. You’ll make some baritones and sopranos very happy if you do.
#5. Put Some Actual Work Into The Composition
This one seems painfully obvious, and could be followed up with a simple “Well DUH”, but hear me out. I just recently finished watching the Six Talks at Harvard by Leonard Bernstein, and one of the talks features a segment where, while examining Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”, he discusses how he thinks most non-composers think that a composer works. Most people, he says, imagine the composer sitting at the piano, dreamily improvising in some sort of hypnotic trance while “The Muse” takes over to deliver divine inspiration. His point being, of course, that this is NOT how composers work at all, and that even a piece as lush and dreamy as “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” was created out of extremely careful planning and a great deal of technical skill on Debussy’s part. However (and I am willing to admit that I may well be COMPLETELY wrong on this one but this is all based on my own observations), I get the impression that many composers of musical theater nowadays are doing just that, working almost exclusively in “dreamy improvisation” mode. They sit down at the piano, play what “sounds good” and what feels good under their fingers, and the work is done. These “white key composers”, as I have come to (rather snarkily) call them, produce music that can be summed up as such: pleasant but forgettable. I can remember just recently seeing a few friends on Facebook rave about a workshop for a new musical that had been posted to YouTube; I was actually pretty excited after reading what they were saying, so I clicked on a link to watch the video… and was utterly disappointed. Again, pleasant but forgettable. Sure, there were a few nice vocal performances, but the music was just inoffensively bland. Not only that, but (I kid you not) for the duration of the near 10-minute clip that was posted, the music stayed in one key. ONE KEY. The entire time. What was even worse was seeing how much people were just raving about this show, not only what I had seen from my friends on Facebook but reading the numerous comments on the video page saying things like “omg SO beautiful” and “Genius!”
and “This is AMAZING!!!!!!!!”. We’re getting dangerously close to the point where “it sounds nice” is indistinguishable from/interchangeable with “it’s a brilliant work of art”. We can do better than that, people. What makes a great theatrical composer like Sondheim unique is NOT that they have access to some kind of divinely-ordained source of inspiration that us mere puny mortals are not privy to, but the amount of work they put into their compositions. Every note, every chord, every arpeggio is examined and analyzed with a fine tooth comb to ensure that the work is both compositionally sound and appropriately enhances the drama as it tells the stories of the characters. We should all treat our work with such care and attention to detail. Don’t settle for anything less than the absolute best you have to offer. Deliver to your performers and to your audience something that is challenging but ultimately rewarding. Or at the very least, change the key every now and again.
#6. At The End Of The Day, Tell Good Stories
Times change. People change. Tastes change. What does not change, however, is our inherent need as human beings to be told stories. The kinds of stories we tell may change, as does the way in which we tell those stories, but the need for storytelling remains constant. We go to the theater because we want
to be entertained. The very word “entertainment” has taken on somewhat of a negative connotation in the arts community (we might say, for example, that a busload of little old ladies from the Midwest that goes to Broadway only to see “Mama Mia!” was merely looking for “entertainment”), but the literal definition of the word “entertain” is “to hold the attention of”.We want something that will hold our attention and capture our imagination, and when all is said and done, we want to be told stories that are worth telling. I think some modern musicals have tendency to be come off as a bit tentative – we don’t want to get “too big” or “too over-the-top” in an attempt to keep the story “personal”. But I say, don’t be afraid to be big and be over-the-top if you’re passionate about the material. If it really is too much, well hey, that’s what workshops and rewrites and previews are for. But don’t restrain yourself from being massively, wildly, hugely passionate; that’s what memorable theater is all about. So tell us a story, eh?
Comments, criticisms, foreign swear words, and projectile rotten vegetables are all welcome. ;)
Success! After multiple premieres, concerts, cabarets, operettas, and several fabulous costume changes, I managed to survive one of the busiest months of my life. So now I’m sitting back at my desk, sipping a Mike’s Hard Black Cherry Lemonade (Girly drink? Yes. Delicious? You’d better believe it.), and enjoying this brief moment of relaxation before life gets crazy again. I might even be able to go hiking sometime in the next few days, assuming it doesn’t rain nearly as much as the current weather forecast says it will.
Fortunately, I have a number of upcoming commissions that are currently in the works, so this period of relaxation can be enjoyed for what it is and in no way foreshadows that I will be sitting around in my boxers playing World of Warcraft all day for the next few months because I don’t have any work (which is not to say that there won’t be at least a bit of underwear-sporting MMORPG time). I’ve finished the first movement of my up-and-coming flute concerto and I’m quite happy with how it’s turning out thus far, so I count that as a significant win. I have a few other upcoming commissions that I may or may not be at liberty to talk about at the moment, but suffice to say they’re quite cool and another step in the right direction in terms of getting my music out there in the world of high school bands and choirs. And, as of just a day or two ago, I’ve decided to place an entry in this:
Sounds cool, no? Hard to say if anything will actually come of it, but I’ve already started work on a piece that’s big, loud, fast, and fun. Never content with simply showing up with a gun to a knife fight, I plan on
showing up with a squadron of tanks. Musically tasteful tanks, of course. Without giving any details of the music away, regardless of what happens in this competition, I think it’s going to be a pretty cool piece.
On a somewhat unrelated note, my good friend and operatic-superstar-in-the-making Sarah Davis has a new website up and running, and you all should check it out. I’ve put up a link on my “Links” page, or you can click here: www.sarahdavismezzo.com
Often times on this blog I try to add an intellectual element to my writing, discussing historical and philosophical aspects of music in addition to simply recapping what's been going on in my own musical career as of late. I've been thinking of topics I could write on that might be intellectually stimulating: composers who have influenced me in terms of style and technique, my preffered methods of notation and how this affects orchestration, etc. Instead of all that, this is what I came up with -
FAMOUS COMPOSERS AND THEIR MEME FACE COUNTERPARTS
So without further interruption, I give you...
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Innovate radical harmonic and structural ideas and change of the face of music forever... like a boss.
I betcha can't play that...
Strikingly brilliant, but also incredibly depressed
Just read his letters and you'll know what I mean by this one
Dodecaphonic music: you either REALLY like it, or REALLY don't
On May 29th, 1913, Stravinsky succeeded in trolling the entire audience of the Paris Ballet. Polytonality - you mad?
Apparently he just found out that Mendelssohn was billed first on the program
So... as you can see, I've been using my time wisely.
In my last blog post I said that I would update this thing more often. And then a few weeks went by and I didn’t post anything. Hypocritical? Perhaps. But now that I have some down time I can talk about what’s been going for me in the way of new music.
Two weekends ago (April 2nd) saw the premiere of Lineage in it’s entirety at JMU, and WOW. What a phenomenal concert.
Pictured is Randy Klein at the piano, the JMU Chorale, and Aurelia Williams belting her face off. The music sounded absolutely phenomenal, a big “Thank you!” goes out to everyone involved. Randy said he was thrilled with how the concert went, and we’re making plans for where this project could go in the future. There’s even some discussion of a performance at the Kennedy Center. Exciting stuff!
So as if that wasn’t a big enough event for one month, this past Sunday saw the premiere of my one-act rock opera, The Darkest Day. Once again, WOW. A phenomenal concert and a really tremendous effort from everyone involved. It’s been a while since I wrote anything that was really “rocking”, and this concert definitely rocked. A DVD recording was made, which will be available soon, and there’s talk of doing a studio recording sometime in the near future. Stay tuned!
The rest of my April mostly involves performing – the Madison Singers have their spring concert this Saturday, I perform in Liz Butler’s cabaret on Saturday the 23rd, and the last weekend of the month I’m singing in Sweet Briar Opera’s production of Too Many Sopranos. Lots of music to memorize, but it should be a lot of fun. Compositionally, the rest of this month is dedicated to cranking out more of this Flute Concerto (Stephen, if you’re reading this, IT’S COMING, it really is). And making a simultaneous piano reduction hurts my brain a little bit… but alas, that’s a topic for another day.
On a completely unrelated note, I’ve got into creating meme comics lately. If you’re not familiar with what a “meme” is, go to either Memebase or Know Your Meme, and after you’ve wasted several hours of your life, come back here. You back yet? Good. I can’t explain it, but I find the little bite-sized morsels of wit and (sometimes) cultural commentary that memes provide to be quite entertaining, and despite my lack of facility in the visual arts, I’ve been trying my hand at making a few. Here’s one of my most recent creations, something which I think all musicians (and pretty much everyone who’s ever been to a concert) can relate to:
Now, before my inbox gets flooded with a stream of hate mail, I would just like to point out two things –
1) This comic is not intended to be taken literally.
2) You KNOW that you think the same thing when this happens.
Greetings friends. You may have noticed that I haven’t updated my blog in quite a while, although chances are you haven’t noticed at all since a lack of updates would mean there really is no reason to visit this page (it’s a vicious cycle, I know). As you can guess, I’ve been quite busy. However, seeing as several months have gone by since my last update, I figure it’s about time I let you in on what’s been going on, and oh, just you wait for the moderately interesting tales I have to tell…
Nothing makes you feel like more of a badass than putting together a grad school application. You write up a curriculum vitae with every major accomplishment you’ve ever made, organize all of your best work into an impressive portfolio, get your colleagues to write letters about how awesome you are, and you feel pretty darn good about yourself. “Look at all this ridiculously impressive stuff,” you might say to yourself, “Why, when they see this, these schools are going to be BEGGING me to go there!” You send off your application, fantasizing about the plethora of acceptance letters that will inevitably begin flooding your mailbox. You wait. Then letters begin arriving that begin thusly:
Dear Mr. ___________,
We regret to inform you…..
Well crap. Any number of things can follow this opening statement. Some schools let you down easy, some just tell you flat out that you suck. Occasionally, you’ll just get a postcard with the following image on it:
What I’m saying, in a very roundabout way, is that every grad school I’ve heard back from thus far has replied with either a “No” or a “Meh” (translation: wait-listed). There’s only one school I haven’t heard anything back from yet, which makes me a bit nervous since this particular school is my #1 choice. My guess would be that they’re either taking their time to put together an exemplary acceptance packet, or they’re still searching for the words to tell me just HOW MUCH they think I suck. Let’s hope it’s not the latter.
Anyway, I don’t really have any grand philosophical point I’m trying to make here, other than perhaps “Applying to grad school is aggravating and I don’t much care for it at all, sir”. I just needed to vent in an online forum where I could offer a few cheap laughs to the unsuspecting reader. You know the feeling. But let us not dwell on unpleasant things, let’s move on to the insanity that is April for me! YAY!
So every weekend in April, I have either a performance of some kind or a major premiere of my work, and sometimes both. Let’s have a look, weekend-by-weekend, at what’s going on.
SATURDAY APRIL 2nd
Premiere of For My People at James Madison University
Okay, so this isn’t a premiere of my own composition, BUT I’ve acted as choral arranger for the fabulous NYC-based composer Randy Klein with the grand finale of his Lineage song cycle, which will be performed with the JMU Chorale and soloist Aurelia Williams. Randy will be at JMU this weekend to play for the premiere, and it’s sure to be a fantastic concert (hint hint, if you’re reading this and you’re in the Harrisonburg area, GO SEE IT). I must say that this project with Randy has turned out to be a most excellent collaboration; I’m like the Sondheim to his Jule Styne, only with less getting-yelled-at-by-Ethel-Merman. Some getting-yelled-at-by-Ethel-Merman, of course, just not as much of it.
SUNDAY APRIL 10th
Premiere of The Darkest Day at Heritage United Methodist Church
Thus spake the Lord: “Let there be ROCK!” And lo, He saw that it was good. The second weekend in April brings about the premiere of my Lenten rock opera, The Darkest Day, based on the seven last words of Christ. A lot of people have asked me if it’s going to be anything like Jesus Christ Superstar, to which I reply that it’s going to be more like Queen meets Iron Maiden meets Dream Theater, with a dash of Slayer and quotes of Gesualdo and Stravinsky. Doesn’t sound much like your typical church program, does it? Rest assured, it isn’t. I’ve sat it in on a few rehearsals, and the band sounds INCREDIBLE. I know I’m biased, but take my word for it when I say you DO NOT want to miss this concert. Oh, and did I mention that IT’S FREE?! Yea, because it’s free. So you really have no excuse not to be there. Also, kudos to my brother Wes for designing the awesome poster up top.
SATURDAY APRIL 16th
Madison Singers Spring Concert at James Madison University
Even though I’m an old (graduated) person, I’m still a-singin’ with the Madison Singers of JMU this semester, and our spring concert is coming up. There will be Ravel. And Vaughan Williams. And their pieces are quite cool. And I’m really struggling to come up with anything clever and/or funny to say for this one, so just be there, okay? Also, JMU alumni choir will singing Moses Hogan’s “Walk Together Children” since this will be Dr. Walder’s last concert here. So… yep. Be there.
SATURDAY APRIL 23rd
The Senior Cabaret of Elizabeth Butler at Lynchburg College
It’s nice having absurdly talented friends, especially when they put on sweet concerts and ask you to be a part of them. I’ll be singing the roles of Sir Gallahad in “The Song That Goes Like This (from Spamalot), Olive’s Dad in “The I Love You Song” (from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), and Henry in “Light” (from Next To Normal), as well as tickling the ivories for a piece my own musical Originals, “I Only Needed You”. Oh, and once again, FREE CONCERT. Seriously people, free awesome concerts. Go to them. I mean it.
THURSDAY APRIL 28th & FRIDAY APRIL 29th
Too Many Sopranos at Sweet Briar College
To cap off this crazy month, I’ll be singing the role of Nelson Deadly in Sweet Briar Opera Workshop’s production of Edwin Penhorwood’s “Too Many Sopranos”. My voice teacher runs the program there, and at asked me at the end of last summer if I’d be interested in performing a role for a young Tenor where I would get to dress up like a Canadian mountie. Obviously, I said yes.
So, as you can see, April is going to be just the teensiest bit busy for me.
I have one more tale with which to regale you, not for any particular reason other than I think that it’s cool. I was in NYC recently and met for lunch with a man named Tom Murray. Tom is a pianist and music director who has worked on a number of shows on Broadway, including Sondheim’s Sunday In The Park With George and A Little Night Music. So how do I know him, you might wonder? It turns out he took piano lessons for many years as a kid with my grandma, so he’s an old family friend. And now he’s working on Broadway. His current project? Music supervisor for the Broadway production of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, starring… *drumroll*… Daniel Radcliffe. Not only that, but he’s also acting as Dan Radcliffe’s personal music director, working with him about an hour every day on musical interpretation. So we had a lengthy and insightful discussion about the theater business and being a Broadway musician, but what I’m basically trying to say here is that I KNOW A GUY WHO WORKS WITH FREAKING HARRY POTTER. Hot damn. Perhaps Dan Radcliffe is looking to collaborate with an up-and-coming young theatrical composer of his own age bracket to put together a hot new Broadway show… ? Eh, probably not. Anyway, it was also mentioned during the course of this conversation roughly how much Dan is making per-week to be in the production, which I shall not mention on this blog both for liability reasons and because once I heard it I was forced to excuse myself from the room for a moment so I could go punch a small child in the face. Basically, it’s a LOT of money. But I suppose that’s what you get for being young, talented, famous, and British.
Anyway, if you stay tuned, I’ll make more of a conscious effort to update this blog regularly in the future. Sound good? Good. Peace out!
Greetings everyone! It’s been a while since I’ve written on this blog, but I assure you it’s not because of a lack of activity on my part. On the contrary, there’s actually been so much going on that I haven’t had much time up until now to update the website. Now that my musical affairs are (for the most part) in order, I figure it’s time to let you all know what I’ll be up to for the next few months.
Within the past few weeks, I’ve had two BIG new commissions officially come through for me, which is especially exciting not only because it’s an opportunity to write new music, but because… *drumroll*… I am now entirely self-employed as a composer. Of course, I’m still living in an apartment in Harrisonburg, so it’s not exactly like I’ve come into a comically oversized Scrooge McDuck-esque mountain of money that I can jump into from a diving board, but it does mean I can be mostly financially independent (still on the parent’s health-care plan, thank you Obama). So just what kind of new compositions am I cooking up that people are actually willing to pay me for? Why, I’m glad you asked… or rather, I asked for you…
THE DARKEST DAY
A one-act Rock Opera based on the seven last words of Christ
This is being written for a Lenten program for Heritage United Methodist Church in Lynchburg, VA. The whole work is comprised of seven songs, each one based on one of the seven last words of Jesus Christ from the cross according to the New Testament. Stylistic inspiration for the music ranges from composers such as Bach and Stravinsky to contemporary groups such as Pink Floyd, Iron Maiden, Deep Purple, and Dream Theater. Oh, and the work involves a MASSIVE, HONEST-TO-GOODNESS PIPE ORGAN. The church has a beautiful organ that doesn’t tend to get played much anymore, and they wanted a program that would put the organ front and center. I would have to say that getting asked to write a rock opera with a full pipe organ as the centerpiece is the kind of thing that’s just off-beat enough and certainly epic enough to be right up my alley.
CONCERTO FOR FLUTE
I come from a family of musicians, and my cousin Stephen is an absurdly talented flautist, who in the not-too-distant future will be auditioning for some absurdly prestigious music schools. To have something fresh and exciting and new to present at his auditions, I’ve been commissioned to write a flute concerto for him. It’s an exciting project and at the same time a bit daunting, as this is one of the largest-scale compositions I’ve ever had to work with before. I’m attempting to go the route that John Mackey described for writing his Saxophone concerto, focusing on exactly what aspects of the instrument make it unique and basing the thematic material off of said aspects. Without going into too much specific (i.e. boring) detail, let me just put it like this: it’s going to be really really cool, and really really hard. I’m writing the whole piece simultaneously as a full orchestral score and piano reduction (sounds confusing, but trust me, it’s easier this way), in hopes that a few performances of the piano reduction early on could lead to the full orchestral version being performed somewhere down the road… possibly with yours truly at the helm as conductor? Possibly…
That’s what’s going on for me compositionally at the moment. I’m still out there performing as often as I can – I’ve jumped back in to the Madison Singers for their spring semester this year (despite being an old person), and later on in April I’ll be playing the role of Nelson Deadly in Sweet Briar Opera’s production of Edwin Penhorwood’s “Too Many Sopranos”. I’d like to find more trumpet gigs, but for whatever reason they seem harder to come by; if you’re reading this and you’re someone in my area who happens to know first-hand of any trumpet gigs, hit me up! So that’s where I am right now, making it work as a musician and composer, and crossing my fingers that I’ll get accepted into grad school for the fall. But alas, that is a topic for another blog post. Check out the rest of the website for a few new updates, and I’ll be updating the “Events Calender” relatively often for the next week or two as my plans get hashed out, so stay tuned!
It’s a debate we’ve all heard countless times. On the one hand we have the advocates of “free music”, who believe that any and all musical properties (recordings, sheet music, etc.) belong to the general public, and that paying for music only serves to fatten the wallets of nameless, faceless corporations who want to extort you for every penny you’re worth. On the other hand we have people who work in the music industry and the musicians themselves, who want to be compensated for their work and believe that anyone who downloads or trades music without paying is a petulant brat and ruthless criminal who should be put behind bars. Unfortunately, the debate has recently become somewhat stale in my opinion, not only because of this painting of the two sides in extremes, but because both sides often revert to the same tired arguments, which, when closely inspected, don’t hold much weight.
The most commonly heard argument from those against the free distribution of music is incredibly straightforward: Downloading music illegally is stealing. From both a legal and logical standpoint, this is entirely true. So why then is illegal downloading still so common, from people who otherwise have no criminal inclinations at all? The answer is frustratingly simple: Downloading music illegally doesn’t FEEL like stealing. Think about the act of actually stealing a hard-copy CD or vinyl from a record store. You would have to sneak in late at night, probably break a window or bust a lock to do so, take the item off the shelf, and make off with it before being spotted. Compare this to illegally downloading an album from the internet. You click a few buttons with your mouse, wait maybe a minute or two, and it’s done, all from the comfort and convenience of your own home. Not exactly the same experience, is it? If you steal an album from a store, you face a relatively high chance of getting caught and facing legal prosecution, while illegal downloading takes place so frequently and with such ease of anonymity that the chances of being caught (much less prosecuted) are virtually negligible. But perhaps the biggest difference between the two techniques is the presence of a tangible item. In the first example, you have physically stolen an item from a retailer, and now that it is in your possession, the store has one less of these items than it did previously. In the second example, the online album can be electronically generated as many times as it is downloaded, so not only have you not taken a physical item, but you’ve taken something from what is essentially an infinite source. The concept of downloading as “stealing” for most people tends to break down because of these two factors. People arguing against the free distribution music will often use an argument like, “Why do you steal music? You wouldn’t still a car, WOULD you?!”, with the expected response being, “Oh no, I would NEVER do that! That’s horrible! Thank you, dear musician, you have saved me from my wicked ways!”. But ask someone, “Would you steal a car from an infinite source of cars if you could do so easily, instantaneously, and with virtually zero chance of serious legal repercussions?”, and you’d most likely get the response, “Hell yes I would”.
Herein lays the major difficulty surrounding this issue, which is that the technology to electronically copy and distribute music advanced much faster than the music industry could keep up with. We were able to download and share a wealth of music from the internet before the business could develop a proper way of regulating it. People quickly became acquainted and comfortable with programs like Napster and Limewire, and now we’ve developed to the point where music is simply expected to be a free service. Once people have become used to the idea of something being free, how is it possible to get them to pay for it once more? How can we offer something that is more significant and more substantial than just “free”? It’s a loaded question, and one that is going to be addressed later on, for now it’s time to take a look that flawed arguments of those FOR the free distribution of music.
We understand that music can be illegally downloaded quickly and easily, yet at the same time we must understand that it hurts people in the industry, not to mention the artists themselves. Why then is it still so rampant? I believe that the self-righteous attitude of many people who illegally download music comes from a misconception of WHO exactly profits when you pay for music. In one episode of the television show South Park, the boys decide to form a band and, looking for musical inspiration, download a few songs from the internet. They are immediately descended upon by a SWAT team, and when the boys explain that they didn’t think it was that big of a deal, they are taken by one of the agents to see the supposed consequences of their actions. They see that, thanks to illegal downloading, Lars Ulrich from Metallica might have to wait a few more weeks before being able to afford a solid-gold shark bar for his private swimming pool, and Britney Spears has had to downgrade to a slightly smaller private airplane. While I’ll be the first to admit that it was a pretty darn funny sequence, it unfortunately does represent what many people think about where their money goes when (and if) they purchase music. Many believe that the only ones who profit from music sales are extremely wealthy record company executives and artists who are already successful, popular, and rich, and that refusing to pay for music is actually some form of meaningful protest. People are quick to toss off quips like “Oh boo-hoo, Metallica, I feel REALLY bad for you!”, yet they all too often fail to realize that for most musicians, the difference between whether or not people pay for their music doesn’t determine what size of personal aircraft they can afford, but determines whether or not they can afford to pay the rent for that month. Many people will follow up with something along the lines of , “Artists don’t make that much money off of record sales anyway, so if you really want to support them, just go to one of their live shows”, but this is much easier said than done. Because of locations and scheduling, not to mention convenience, far fewer people are able to attend an artist’s live shows than are able to purchase their music, and the kinds of people who aren’t willing to pay $8 or $10 for an album are not too likely to pay upwards of $20 or $25 to see an artist live. While it is true that artists signed with major labels don’t make significant amounts of income from record sales alone, if the artist doesn’t sell very well (regardless of how many people download their music illegally), the record company will not put in the extra money to publicize them or to have them to go on tour and play live shows. In the case of self-managed bands and artists, they actually retain a significantly higher percentage of profits from record sales, so not buying music from these artists impacts them much more directly and can even affect whether or not they can go on tour or play live shows at all, not to mention affecting whether or not they decide to keep making music.
Then there’s the excuse we’ve all heard countless times, “Come one, it’s just one song, it’s not like my 99 cents is going to make a difference”. In the grand scheme of things, no, your 99 cents doesn’t make that big of a difference. The problem is that when hundreds of millions of people think that their 99 cents won’t make a difference, it ends up making one hell of a difference. Think of it as embezzling on a grand scale. If you take a few cents from the “Take A Penny, Leave A Penny” tray, it doesn’t make much of a difference, but if several hundred million people do it a few billion times, the store will quickly be run out of business. Each individual, though, could shrug off any responsibility by claiming that he or she didn’t take THAT much money.
And then comes the grand-daddy of all retorts from proponents of free music: “You can’t put a price on art, man; you shouldn’t demand that we pay you, you should just make music because you love it and it’s what you DO”. Many of us squirm upon hearing these kinds of arguments because, deep down, there is some kernel of truth to it. It’s a beautiful idea, this vision of a perfect world where we could just sit around being “artists” all day, making art for art’s sake and not having to worry about money. In fact, of the most brilliant composers of the modern era, Charles Ives, was an advocate of free music, claiming that once he finished composing a piece he did not consider it “his” anymore, rather it belonged to the rest of the world and they could use it and do with it as they pleased. However, it is worth noting that Charles Ives was also a brilliant financial businessman who developed and patented the modern system of estate planning, and by 1915 was making a yearly salary of about eight million dollars. Not all of us have a fall-back plan as good as that one. For professional musicians, making music is not a HOBBY, it is a JOB, and the sad fact is that many people do not have a concept of the difference. Because so many people make music as a hobby (and don’t get me wrong, it’s great that they do), they don’t understand the concept of paying a professional. As an aspiring professional musician myself, I can tell you that many people find the idea of paying you to make music is laughable at best, and offensive at worst. They believe that because it’s something people do for a hobby, nobody should get paid for it; after all, people aren’t surgeons and lawyers for a hobby, are they? But imagine someone who does carpentry as a hobby marching into an architect’s office and saying “I built a toolshed in my backyard and I didn’t get paid for it, therefore you shouldn’t get paid to draft that 20-floor office building”. The hobbyist has a basic working knowledge of his craft and works for his own satisfaction; the architect has years of intense training and study under his or her belt, a degree in his or her field, an extensive working knowledge of the craft, and is capable of producing work of a complexity and quality that the hobbyist simply is not. The architect deserves to paid, and the same should be said of professional musician versus a hobbyist musician. The simple fact of the matter is that a professional musician can provide a much more polished and, well, professional service than can a hobbyist. If you want someone to sing at your wedding or in your annual Christmas cantata, you’re going to get a much different result if you hire a professional singer with a degree and years of training than if you get “my friend Nancy who sings real good at karaoke night” to do it for free. If you want someone to write a score for your student film, you’re going to get a much different result if you hire a professional composer than if you get “my buddy Dave who plays bass in a jam band and totally writes his own songs” to do it for free. Being a professional musician takes YEARS of serious study, and if people don’t think that professional musicians deserve to be paid, then people will stop putting in the immense time and effort it takes to become a professional musician with a professional skill set. At that point, all we would have left is poor, uninformed musicianship and bad covers of pop songs on YouTube. You know which ones I’m talking about, and you know that we don’t want any more of that.
But then there’s the idea that we should do what we do solely because “we love it”. Yes, we love what we do as musicians, but there are also doctors, engineers, veterinarians, teachers, biologists, and countless others who love what they do and have meaningful careers. Should we suggest that these people not be paid for their services because they enjoy what they do, and that they should be content to simply “feel good about themselves”? No – they are professionals, they deserve to be paid like professionals. Most of us can agree on that, but still the fact remains that many people aren’t comfortable with the whole idea of paying musicians. I remember reading a very passionate article just recently about how paying for music is elitist and wrong because (in the author’s point of view) it would be reinforcing the old ways, in which the wealthy aristocrats would pay for music to keep it out of reach of the general public, and it was time for us common-folk to “take back the music!”. Clearly this author never bothered to take a peek inside a music history textbook. Do you know why we have the operas of Mozart, the symphonies of Beethoven, and the ballets of Stravinsky? Because some embarrassingly wealthy people paid them an awful lot of money to do it. Yes, these men were artists, some of the greatest artists who ever lived, but they didn’t write these masterpieces by sitting around and just being “artists” – they did it because someone PAID THEM to WORK. They were professionals, and they needed to be paid for their work so that they could continue to compose, not to mention pay the bills (and in Mozart’s case, buy booze). Paying for music ensures that quality music will endure, and your personal contributions are really not so much about stuffing the pockets of any particular individual but about respecting the work of the artist.
So we come to the inevitable question – in a world where people have become used to getting music for free, how do we get them to pay for music again, and how can artists be adequately compensated for their work? There is no easy answer to this question, and I can’t really claim to provide any brilliant insights, but a key piece of the puzzle I believe is to embrace the advancements of technology rather than shun them. Like it or not, the internet and file-sharing is here to stay, and rather thinking of it as inherently “good” or “bad”, we should think of it as “different” and adjust our business models accordingly. The opportunity to reach limitless numbers of people instantaneously via the internet is quite exciting - the challenge will come with how to regulate this technology and separate the musical wheat from the chaff. One successful idea I’ve noticed taking shape is professional artists’ accounts on YouTube. Anyone can see their music videos free of charge with slightly lower audio/video quality than the finished product, and can decide whether or not to purchase the music (at full audio quality) afterwards, AND the artists still get compensated because companies pay for advertisements before the clip begins. Not a perfect system necessarily, but it’s a start.
One thing that professional artists should keep in mind if they want to be successful is to make their music as (legally) available as possible. In many instances, people are tempted to steal music because they can’t find a way to purchase it legally; for example, many items in the “International” iTunes stores cannot be purchased in the U.S. iTunes store, so the only way to acquire the songs would be to pay to have the CD shipped from overseas (expensive!) or download them illegally (free!). I can remember one instance just recently where I was very tempted to illegally download a particular song for this very reason. I heard a clip of a song by a particular Australian singer on YouTube and thought, “Wow, that’s really great, I definitely want to buy that!”. I searched on iTunes and it wasn’t there – I looked into every legal means of downloading it that I could think of and came up with nothing. I finally decided to look up the actual album itself, which had to be shipped from Australia, and cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $80. Was I going to pay $80 for one song? No. And I remember thinking that I could just bypass all of this by downloading the song illegally, and there were probably many other people who had done just that. In the end, I did not download the song, and the clip was removed from YouTube within a few days due to copyright violations, but I also did not buy the $80 album. Instead of being able to make a little bit of money by making their music legally available online, this distributor made none. So while artists aren’t obligated to make their music easily available through legal means, I believe that doing so is in everyone’s best interests.
Lastly, I believe that there simply needs to be a more open and less hostile dialogue between the people creating/distributing music and the people purchasing it. If people have a clearer view of WHY they should pay for music, and what their money helps to pay for, there would be considerably less illegal downloading of music. There would still be some, and there will probably always be some, but we can change the conversation in a meaningful way and maybe find some creative new ways of making music available. I would just ask you all to remember one thing – if a song isn’t worth paying 99 cents for, then it’s probably not worth listening to in the first place.
James K. Ballard
A sometimes insightful, hopefully entertaining look into my career and everyday life.