New Piece


This coming Friday May 24th will be the premiere of my new piece “Rift” by the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra.

It’s a  brutal short piece (ca. 5’00”) for chamber orchestra. Very intense and, well, brutal. This is me returning to what I loved to do and probably do best. To give you a sense of it, it starts with the timpani playing solo with the indication “Like war drums. Fill the hall.” So I am looking forward to it and I hope the orchestra does well with it.

Here’s information about the concert. 


Lead the way

Still composing the VMO orchestral piece. I have some thoughts I want to put down in my blog and I’ll try to do it in short, frequent posts. Here’s the first.

I had many ideas for this piece, and being of longer duration, I had more material prepared to fill the formal plan I had in mind.

However, once things got under way, my themes would transform slightly, suggest different things and lead me somewhere else.

Sometimes I resisted if the direction they wanted to take seemed too obvious to me, and other times I would follow if the new direction made sense and wasn’t obvious. That’s the best place to be, when you write something that wasn’t obvious but makes sense, then you got a winner!

This reminds me of Elmore Leonard and how he described his writing process. First he forms the character, understands him and then he puts him in a situation and lets the character write the story.

This process of following where the melody wants to go reminds of life too. It’s good to have a plan, an itinerary, a goal to shoot for and a place to go. But if you keep your eyes open along the way you might discover little side roads and end up in marvellous places you had not even imagined when you started.

That’s what it’s been like writing this piece.

Orchestral commission: taking the time

The core idea for the VMO commissioned piece has been chosen and it’s time to write. Today I am exploring the idea freely, seeing where it takes me instead of going straight to paper. I will not write anything final today.

I am jotting ideas down and recording myself improvising freely.  I am exploring the sound world of the melody and harmony, seeing where this “character” will take me. (See previous post.)

Gradually, I am getting a sense of the whole, of the possibilities, of the form, of the arc of the piece, of what I need in terms of contrast and climax.

I am always looking for different avenues beyond what is obvious. I always fear that the obvious will be cliché, and it often is. So I look further and dig deeper. I could not do that if I started writing the final right away, at least not without fear of screwing up!

So for now I play and explore without committing to anything. Tomorrow I will likely start writing if I like what I have and if I can see where I am going. Otherwise I will explore some more.

How many more Traviatas?

Read this article about how orchestras all over the world are in trouble. Audiences are fleeing and why?

Today someone told me this story of this true patron of the opera, a lady who has had season tickets to the opera for 20 years and eventually decided to stop going because she said “how many Traviatas can I watch?”

By always relying on the same repertoire, orchestras are not bringing in young concert-goers and now, it appears they are also alienating their faithful audience as well. They orchestra managers and director may think that the standard rep brings in audiences and they need to play it safe, but when you are not creating new audiences and making your regular one bored, you need to change and fast.

I saw Gustavo Dudamel on a big poster at my local Cineplex, advertizing for a simulcast on the big screen of a concert with the LA Phil. The repertoire? Beethoven and Brahms. Give me a f#$%ing break. I am not even remotely interested, and I love this kind of music more than the average person.

I may be biased, but I think that the secret to saving concert music and orchestras is with new music. Not experimental music, but new music that respects the audience, written by composers who realize that being a “smart” composer means understanding the psychology of your listener and that any compositional “system” is ultimately stupid if it doesn’t put that truth first: music is meant to be listened to, and listened to by more than just other musicians.

I can’t help but think of Celine Dion. She doesn’t write her own music, she is simply an interpreter of songs, but she only sings new songs – either she picks them or commissions them, doesn’t matter. The point is she would never have been an international success if she had just done Beatles covers. Nope, she would have just been a lounge act somewhere.

Orchestras have everything they need to succeed now. It is still the most amazing listening experience a human being can have. They just need more new music, better new music, and to promote these new pieces as events!

You know what? I don’t want to live in a world without orchestras…

Film vs. Commissions

The traditional way composers work with commissions has not felt right for me for a long time. You get your commission, hole up and months later the musicians get a piece they have never seen and may not like then have to perform it.

That doesn’t work for me and I’ll tell you why: you risk not having the spiritual involvement of the musician(s).

No singer in the world of pop music, country and even metal would perform music they don’t like and don’t believe in.

The process in pop music is different too. Songwriters write songs without being commissioned and submit them without knowing if it will be chosen.

Well, this is fine for a 3 minute song but I would never do that for a 15 minute orchestral piece!

The solution for me has been to approach commissioned work like I approach film scoring.

First I write a ton of ideas. From those I pick a few ideas I like and present them to the musician(s) to see what they connect with, what makes them excited, itching to play and wanting to hear more.

From there the writing of the piece is very much an isolated process, but I send progress reports, questions on technique and also ask for aesthetic opinions whenever I am in doubt.

This is what I did on my latest piece “Battling Boggarts” which was premiered Wednesday April 27th. I emailed ideas (always audio) to soloists Gene Ramsbottom and Tim Phillips and they chose their favourites.

After the performance, Tim told me he had never worked like that with a composer and he completely loved it. It was fun and gave him great insights into the process of composition as well!

I had also done the same thing for my previous piece, “Resisting Euphoria”, where I presented conductor Ken Hsieh with my various ideas. He loved so many of them and was getting excited that he is the one who suggested “write a suite!”

But I’ll be honest here, I don’t do it just for the players, it is for me as well. Knowing that a musician is liking the direction a piece is taking gives me confidence in the music, and that confidence allows my creativity to flow unrestrained.

Because for me, nothing kills creativity faster than wondering if it’s good and if people will like it.

And since my audience is the performer, getting them involved right away solved that issue for me and I’ll never go back to the old ways!