Category Archives: music

Composing “Rain” Step-by-Step

Often, when I finish a long piece, someone will ask “How long did it take to write?” or “How many hours did you put into it?” To be honest, I’d never really chronicled the process before. Also, as a composer, I’ve spent hours searching in vain for other composers’ thoughts on how to create a piece from beginning to end, and what considerations come into play. So, I started a diary of a piece for orchestra and synth called Rain.  What follows is the composing-by-MIDI process (playing and recording the notes using a keyboard, synth, orchestral samplers and sequencer). After all of this, is when I convert it to sheet music (not covered here). Here is that log of daily sessions and times, stumbles, dilemmas and solutions:

Day 1 (5-hrs.)

We begin with the vast rocking and swaying ocean surface motion, in the strings. A blaring hot sun is relentless and almost painful, as it stirs the molecules into submission. Water relents to become steam, as the process accelerates. Basses make good ocean currents (mm1-17). Shrill violins make for a nice searing heat, and random staccato woodwinds can be vapor molecules rising (mm. 17-35) Sixteenth-sixteenth-dotted-eighth.

Now, I must find a motif, that is versatile enough to carry through all elements… fast and slow, angry and beautiful. Intervals are very important. For example, I up to III is happy. I down to VI is sad, I to V and back is powerful, as are repeated notes. F-minor sounded exciting, but not embattled. And after much experimenting, I settled on I, I, then down to VI, which has much in common with an augmented-5th. Repeated tonic (F, F) for power, then down to an unsettling Db, that begs the ear for someplace safe to go. It was perfect for the unpredictability of a storm in minor key, while easily replaceable (in happier moments in F major) with D-natural.

Day 2 (4-1/2-hrs.)

Nothing ever sounds as good the next day.  I spent much time mixing, changing tempi, adding harmonies, and re-arranging groups of finished measures. Now, I must get down to melody. I need a melody that sounds as good in minor as it does in major (for later). Using the water vapor motif I, I, IV), I construct a 4-bar tease (mm. 35-39), followed by 8 more bars of evaporation in motion (mm. 39-47). Then, complete the 8-bar statement in a cappella brass, and a new key. Now that all my water droplets are safely up in the air, it’s time to form some clouds.

Day 3 (5-hrs.)

The harmonious brass theme has led us to white puffy beauties (mm. 57-64). Now, it’s back to motion and wind. I must brew up a storm. The same type of building, swaying upper air currents remind me that I can use the opening rhythm that got things rolling on the ocean. Woodwinds again add motion and speed. An unsettling randomness is again necessary, as we must build fear.

Day 4 (3-hrs.)

Scrapped 16 bars for being too atonal. Enough randomness. It’s time for a recognizable motif and melody. I’ve also done a lot of trimming. No belaboring a point. High strings and brass build suspense and motion (mm. 72-80). We hear our first thunder crash at 81.

Day 5 (3-hrs.)

After sleeping on it, things always look differently. Made lots of revisions today. Bar numbers in previous entries may be a bit off. I wasn’t happy with the first try at a brass melody. Revisions have much improved it into a sentence instead of a collage of motifs. Also threw out a bunch of things I had spent a lot of time on. I’ve been having trouble working in woodwinds. This may be perhaps due to midi samples that do not flow well in faster sections. In building motion, woodwinds are easily drowned out by brass and strings, and seem to sound less important when played back. They worked really well as water droplets, though.

Day 6 (3-hrs.)

Tidied up a few things, like volume balance and crescendos. Added woodwinds to lead up to the first thunder. When I had left off, there was only a timpani roll and bass drum for thunder. Today, I filled that out with a bass tremolo, low brass and woodwinds. After the first two peels of thunder, the darkness builds with double-stop celli, brass and horns.

Day 7 (2-hrs.)

It’s time to start raining! Staccato drops form first in the piccolo, then other woodwinds, spelling out a new melody one short note at a time. To add randomness to the falling drops, I varied the rhythm, while keeping the intervals mostly constant. A tremolo and droning bed moves chromatically upward, for a short time, as momentum builds for a double-time tempo.

Day 8 (3-hrs.)

Added and embellished existing music. Some passages seemed a little thin, and needed more going on. Trying to keep all the parts busy, by adding woodwinds, motion, and bonus harmony. For example, I changed the melody slightly and added flute, tuplets, timpani, and embellished the “droplets” section with more woodwinds.

Day 9 (4-hrs.)

Moved some things around for better flow. Started the real rain sentence at 109, with a variation on the (sixteenth-sixteenth-dotted-eigth) rhythm, to make it more melodic. That was a lot of fun, adding motion in high strings with a low brass and horn bed. Started stretching the “rubber band” with higher highs and lower lows. Timpani helped with the call and answer.

Day 10 (6-1/2 -hrs.)

After being away for awhile, things always need re-doing and improving. Spent much time re-mixing, deleting, adding and changing parts. Unfortunately, 2-hrs was lost trying to fix a software issue that crashed the application several times. The work-around solution involved reverting to a much older backup. If time permits, I will transfer notes from other backups rather than re-constructing. Sometimes though, it can even be better to start fresh from where you left off. Everything came to a slow-motion pause with a supernatural synth chord at 141 with crashing cymbals. But, it’s only temporary, until the falling water carries on 4 bars later.

Day 11 (5-hrs.)

Made the transition from falling rain to flowing water. Majestic horns slow down the torrent of droplets, as they collect into a body of water. The stream takes on movement (tuplets), and ominous bass lines. Things are much more tonal and recognizable here… less random and independent. Call and answer.

Day 12 (2-hrs)

Added synth pad part from 03-109. Long portamento-like tones to both stitch things together and provide a solid ethereal background. The piece needed a more modern feel.

Day 13 (2-hrs.)

What a difference when you’re away from a piece for a while. Spent the whole time “cleaning up” mixes, tempos and melodies.

Day 14 (6-hrs.)

Finally got a day with few distractions, and added tons new music, as well as many improvements. The synth part had been lacking. The woodwinds were getting bored, and it was time to make a run for the finish line. The rain has let up, and the streams and waterfalls are flowing. I needed to wash them out to sea and slow things down. Horns synth and strings round out the piece in harmonic dissonance (my term). The strings recap the opening notes, to come full circle, and all sounds fade. Work is not completed, as there is a lot of fine tuning to be done, mostly with the mix. Recorded it onto cd, to listen in the car and make a list of ideas.

Day 15 (4-hrs.)

After listening several times in the car, I’ve knocked down to some serious editing… mainly on the “falling rain” section. Doubled lots of parts in the woodwinds. Copy/paste rearranging various 4-8 bar phrases for better flow, hoping to build to a climactic moment. Deleted some phrases that didn’t quite fit. I hard to “kill your young” sometimes.

Day 16 (3-1/2-hrs.)

Much more of the above same type of editing to the falling rain section. This time, I moved ahead to the ending, which was already in rough draft, getting the water back to the ocean. Deleted about 16 measures there too. A shorter piece now, but more efficiently laid out.

Day 17 (1-1/2-hrs.)

Shortened and tidied up the ending, as well as did much volume mixing. It was important to recap at the end with the ocean rocking motion motif (half-quarter-half-quarter-hold).

Day 18 (3-hrs.)

Spent mostly mixing volumes and recording. Due to technical issues with the K2000R module, I finally got a decent recording on take 12, that I can critique in the car for further improvements.

Day 19 (3-hrs.)

Removed a few repetitive rhythms and dissonances. Also spent much time trying to get a clean recording, in spite of very persistent MIDI issues. Finally, on take 13, it seemed to come together. Now I must proof the recording in other settings, and hope no major improvements are needed.

Day 20  (2-hrs.)

Made a few modifications based on last recording: smoothed transitions, reworked some rhythms and lots of volumes, as well as added one more timpani swell in the lighting section. Then recorded to disc, and saved MIDI files. Now, on to notation.


Music That Evolves

Lots of things Evolve: history, landscapes, relationships, your entire life! Even the size, shape and character of the universe is constantly changing. It’s all a work in progress, with Mother Nature leaving nothing stationary. The music itself Evolves from chaos to beauty. Evolve chronicles the process, which is similar for all of the above, and more. Pick something you’re familiar with that is still evolving, and listen along for stages and turning points.


-The Universe Evolves: from perfect silence and nothingness, a slight little wobble off balance of the most basic chemical elements leads to a building tension. When they can no longer contain themselves, they erupt into a violent explosion that sets everything (and I mean “everything’) in motion. Chaos and disorganization spews out from the center with no rhyme, reason or destination, until stars can fly without constantly hitting each other, and things finally start to settle down.
There’s still very little sense to things, but gravity takes hold and begins to form galaxies, systems and spheres. From a distance, beauty takes shape but up close, the volcanic turmoil continues. Even after much time, landscapes cool, but trouble still bubbles beneath. Always changing, but in smaller ways, predictable patterns of shapes and currents become beauty and wonder. Though the music ends at this point, there may still be more to come.

-A Life Evolves: a microscopic change of plans bursts into an unstoppable and multifaceted explosion of growth. It takes some time before a recognizable form takes place, but even childhood awkwardness goes from cute to brilliant over time. As we all know, unsettled stages of turmoil can come at any time, and usually do. Often torn between our impulsive youth and a responsible future, years of emotional peaks and valleys lie ahead. Maturity usually brings a little order, confidence and stability.

-Relationships Evolve: An often directionless chance meeting can lead from one thing to another. Discovering another’s personality is challenging, yet inspiring. Held together by a personal gravity, navigating the twists and turns is fraught with emotion and tension. Periods of bliss regenerate the experience, and help us through tough times. Experience and familiarity brings happiness.

-Humanity Evolves: We all know the physical changes man has made since the amoeba, but when you follow that with thousands of years of intellectual development, historical upheaval and wars, our own work in progress seems like only few moments in time. From a daily struggle for survival, to periods of invention and industry. From dark ages and enlightenment, to Teslas and terror. It sometimes seems like one step forward, and one step back. This too, is still playing out in search of nirvana.

-Music Evolves: from ancient dissonant noisemakers and unpitched instruments, came rhythms and simple, crude and imperfect melodies. Beneath it all was the natural beauty of harmony rooted in physical science. Musicians and composers can only marvel at its impact, and try to unlock its secrets. That holy grail of reaching the perfect aural sunset, is often at the end of a very difficult road. But, beauty is often fleeting, and the forces of nature keep things moving. So, once the goal is in sight, it’s easier to plot a path to that golden sunset moment.

Classical Music’s Need for Speed

Is faster really better? Classical music performances are expected to be meticulous, impeccable and proficiently accurate. Artists hope to be called a “virtuso.”  All the thousands of notes must be delivered spot-on. So what then, distinguishes one soloist or ensemble from another performing the same timeless piece?

Interpretation is what it’s called, but what are the boundaries of interpretation in classical music? At least in jazz, that door is wide open. Musicians can choose their own notes and rhythms for a solo passage. Not so in classical. The only things that can be messed with are tempo and dynamics (loudness/softness). The notes (with only few exceptions) are etched in stone.

On paper, in the sheet music, tempo is notated with the use of descriptive words, not numbers: largo, moderato, andante, vivace. The dynamics are also written in a flexible way: pianissimo, piano, mezzo-piano, mezzo-forte, forte and fortissimo. Relative speed and volume are a matter of  taste.

This is why you might hear mood swings of tempo or dynamic variations. Given how lengthy some classical pieces are, you probably won’t hear an orchestra play one piece the same way another orchestra would. A familiar passage might clip along nicely as the New York Phil plays it, yet be noticeably drawn out by the LA Phil. What sounds soft and gentle in Boston, may be much more assertive in Chicago. This is really the only way for a conductor, ensemble or soloist to make a name for themselves, and deliver something in a way you may have never heard it before.

The familiar classical repertoire (the pieces we all know and love) is essentially a collection of cover tunes, played by different groups hoping to not sound just like the last one that played it.

But, with so little wiggle-room in interpretation, how does an artist stand out from the others and get noticed? For a soloist, usually the answer is speed. If you can play a difficult passage faster than someone else, an audience is more likely to be wowed by your performance. Fair enough, but what does that do to the music? How did the composer want it to sound? Will some notes fly by so imperceptibly fast that they will never be heard? Will some parts drag so slowly that you’ll lose the sense of melody, waiting for the next note?

Take for example, Tchaikovsky’s famous 1st Piano Concerto… a piece so well known, even listeners who are not regular classical concertgoers would notice variations. There are tens of thousands of notes, hundreds of multi-note runs, and many of Tchaikovsky’s signature grace notes (quick neighboring notes). The faster it’s played, the fewer the notes that can be savored, or even heard. A 64-note run can fly by in a 1.5-second blink of an eye.

However, knowing what we know about the composer, he may have even meant it to be just a challenge, that only a limited number of people can accomplish.

Still, some of the beauty and harmony of the music is often lost to the racing competition by its performers. You simply cannot enjoy a sound that lasts only a millisecond.

Composer Saint-Saëns was much the same. He was a child keyboard prodigy, and his piano works are often only played by those with hands as fast as the composer’s. For a composer to achieve fame in his or her lifetime, they too customize their music so that only they could play it. But, as pianist Arthur Rubinstein reached his later years, he began playing more deliberately, even  the Saint-Saëns pieces. As you can see in a number of YouTube videos with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, as Rubinstein reached the age of 88, the musicality was much easier to appreciate without the flare and ferocity, that he was famous for as a younger man.

The need for speed is not unique to competitive soloists and small ensembles. Conductors will often push orchestral musicians to the envelope of their abilities with faster moments, and (even in the same piece) draw out the slower phrases to a snail’s pace, just for contrast.

So, that leaves us with a dilemma. What IS a good interpretation? As always, that depends on your interpretation of the interpretation. Given the limitations, is it okay with you that liberties taken with tempo and dynamics often change the character and flow of melodies to the point of distraction? Are you excited and impressed by extremes in performance, or would you prefer to hear the music without histrionics? Do the composer’s intentions have any relevance, or are artists free to manipulate?

Perhaps, as we hear different interpretations of the compositions we enjoy the most, we’ll reach our own conclusions about whose version was best. I’ve heard several recordings conducted by and performed by the composers themselves, that I thought weren’t as good as others I had heard. It is a matter of personal taste. Yet, I am always aware that every performer’s first job is to impress the audience, not just faithfully play a difficult work without any mistakes. Some musicians may see performance as an extreme sport, and pushing boundaries should be encouraged. But sometimes it can be distracting,

fingers 2

Do You Like the Lights On or Off?

Do You Want the Lights On, or Off?
… when listening to classical music? Do you like to close your eyes, or watch what’s going on? There are, of course, pros and cons to both.

Lights On:
Watching a great performance can be like the olympics. Musicians don’t just sit or stand there. It’s a physically demanding task that requires much control over both subtle and forceful movements . It takes a real physical talent.

If you’ve never been a musician yourself, one might think that all the histrionics are contrived and exaggerated. That’s not usually so. Many classical musicians often see themselves on video and gasp in embarrassment when they view their own contortions. It’s not always pretty to watch, but it still can be very exciting and entertaining.

No doubt, every profession has its drama queens. But, you just can’t get emotional music from your instrument by sitting stoically. Liszt composed very challenging pieces, and certainly let one know it by his performance. He was, perhaps, the flamboyant Liberace’s biggest influence.

A “micro” experience, like a performance video full of closeups, brings you closer to the details of the work. It’s the difference between viewing a painting with a magnifying glass to appreciate every brush stroke, and viewing it from 6-feet away, to take in the whole effect.

A “macro” experience, can leave you feeling like you’ve engaged all your senses. Like fireworks and the 1812 Overture, it adds a larger real-life dimension to the music. It can excite your brainwaves on many levels.

Declining concert attendances are forcing orchestras to think of new, and often visual ways to draw and entertain a crowd. A good music-synched show can brighten the score with flourish and bling.

But, do visuals (other than musicians performing) always bring attention to the music itself? Film and ballet scores have always added to storytelling, but can an accompanying plot enhance the music? Some say, the best film music is never heard, because it promotes the story so well, you don’t even know it’s there.

And then there’s YouTube. Now a primary source of music listening for millions, the classical music video collection is ballooning. Granted, some of them are only still photos of a composer or old album cover.

Unlike pop musicians, classical musicians aren’t always young and sexy, so the videos tend to be less storytelling, and more performance related.

Lights Off:
Shouldn’t music be heard, and not seen? Sounds are not visible, and we only use one of our five senses to hear them. Shouldn’t we isolate that sense, to avoid distractions, so we can enjoy and appreciate the subtleties of the many carefully chosen sonorities floating around our heads? The invisible twelve tones of western music mingle in so many wonderful ways. It’s as if musical notes were objects you could only see in a darkened room with a blacklight.

Much of my early adulthood was spent searching for really good headphones, speakers, tape decks and amplifiers. Now that you know about how old I am, you might understand why I find it amazing that none of that seems to matter much anymore.

Digital recordings are often compressed for sharing and streaming. Ear buds let in a lot of extraneous noise, and home audiophile systems are all but gone.

But, try this sometime:

Take the best headphones you can find, with a nice long extension to reach to your favorite recliner. Put on a quality cd recording of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise. Turn out the lights, so you’re not tempted to open your eyes and stare at something. Then listen carefully to the dozens of beautifully crafted complex harmonies.

Don’t surf, post, or text… just listen! If the lights were on, likely all you’d hear is the melody.

If you really want to discover what makes a Bach fugue or concerto a masterpiece of organization, find a recording of the original Switched on Bach (1968), and listen in the dark, trying to follow each different synth sound, as they play parts of equal importance. You simply can’t do this with the lights on, and objects in the room to steal your attention. It requires too much concentration.

For a Space Mountain style adventure, try this with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. Be sure your easy chair has sturdy arms to grip.

To truly eliminate distractions, you might need to arrange some “alone time.” for this. But, even after sitting perfectly still, in a dark room, muted from the world through headphone muffs… if you listen carefully to all the nuances you can find, you might be exhausted after 20-minutes. Exhausted, yet exhilarated by the journey. And, you will have heard the music, not the music show.

Try it!


Why Money Can’t Buy the Best Seats in the House

Obviously, the conductor has the the best acoustic position, at an orchestra concert. But, since maestros usually stand, let’s forget about that spot, for now. Anyone who’s played in an ensemble of any size, knows that the best seats are right there– inside the group.

The very first time I played in a band as a child, I was right in front of the brass. When they blared at fortissimo, I could feel my rib cage rattle. I could literally feel a bass drum resonate through the wooden floor. The stereo effect of clarinets to your right, and horns to your left, can’t be equalled by any recording.

Within the ensemble, you can feel the crescendos, and appreciate the nuance between pianissimo and piano. You can see the eyebrows raise and the shoulders dip with expression, in a way that is far more dramatic than from a distance.

So, why aren’t the top dollar audience seats next to the musicians… side by side? Who wouldn’t want to enjoy Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony sitting next to the 1st chair clarinet? Well, for one, it can be highly distracting for musicians with intense concentration. But, let’s face it, there are some pieces of standard repertoire that professionals could play flawlessly in their sleep. A larger audience would just be impractical. Musicians need to be near each other to hear and take cues. But, a few strategically placed extra chairs wouldn’t really get in the way.

Granted, there are some venues with seats in the wings, or even behind the musicians (in the round, as they say). But, there is a traditionally formal separation between audience and performers. One is often delivering a paid product for the other, so coziness can be awkward for both.

So, why not use the experience as an educational or promotional tool? Why not invite potential patrons, donors and young musicians to share the joy on occasion? Imagine a local festival, where an ensemble offers the opportunity to sit next to an orchestra musician for 5-mins, during the 1812 Overture? Or, bring the audience on stage, and right up to music stands for an afternoon concert or dress rehearsal? After the work is done, maybe some one-on-ones or Q&A about each instrument, or life as a musician.

In baseball, they sometimes call them the “10th player.” Nine are on the field, the 10th is in stands. When a team has a roaring, involved crowd cheering them on, they often play better. At a concert, the fans can do much more than just sit silently, as if at a lecture. They can react with smiles, nodding heads, and gasps, when they are closer to the action. If there’s no room for the fans on the field with the team during the game, perhaps they could at least be invited, once in awhile, close enough to experience a practice, or hear a locker room pep talk. If you can find them, usually the best seats at a baseball game are at ground level with the players, behind home plate.

Quartets and smaller ensembles can draw people even closer, and engage in ways that would endear and personalize the performance. There’s a curious little kid inside each of us, who thinks the front row just isn’t close enough. Maybe, if a few 5th graders pull their headphones out of their ears, and realize the fidelity is better in real life, youth orchestras will have more applicants. Perhaps, peering over the shoulder of a soloist playing Saint-Saëns “Egyptian” Piano Concerto #5 could sell a few season subscriptions.

As we debate declining attendances, shrinking endowments, and a general lack of new interest in classical music, maybe it’s time to huddle closer to the campfire, from which hundreds of years of beautiful music once grew.


Orchestral Composer: Finding Inspiration and Connection


Writer’s block is one thing,  but starting a new piece can be daunting. Obviously, it must be unique, and something never done before. It must be emotional, exciting and engaging. Breaking new ground, and connecting with an audience that prefers solid ground, can be as challenging as building a house on a cliff.

Here’s the dilemma:

Classical music has very well-established styles, traditions and no-no’s. It was classical that established the rules of western music that all pop musicians make a living with. There isn’t much in pop that doesn’t conform to a 12-note key signature. Atonal dissonance just doesn’t sell Taylor Swift tracks. Therefore, playing by the rules DOES pay. (We’ll talk about rap and Gangnam another time.)

Yet many classical cliches have developed that some audiences expect and demand, while others may find them tiring or old-fashioned. So, how does one create something NEW, in an older style? How do you dare use the word classical to define your music, if you don’t sound like a Mozart or Tchaikovsky? If your venue is symphony hall, and your instrument is an orchestra, how do you connect with an audience that paid good money to hear something impeccable, yet familiar?

IF an orchestra is bold enough to premier a contemporary piece, it will likely be on a program with classics that have survived the centuries. So, whether it’s the show starter, or the encore, it can be like a first grader telling the President what’s great about the country. How does a modern composer step into those enormous shoes?

In order to be contemporary classical, and not pop (or for that matter, jazz, blues etc.), there is usually an absence of a standard drum set. (See also: What IS Contemporary Classical Music??)

So, what’s the solution?

First of all, know your audience. That’s not as easy as it sounds, because classical concertgoers range from musicians (young and old), to devoted spouses, to introverts and socialites. Classical music is so GOOD, it touches many generations! But, unless people are there just to see Lang Lang or Josh Groban, you have to assume that there is something about traditional classical music that has touched their lives. They have connected to it in some emotional or sentimental way… a memory of family (Nutcracker Suite), an unforgettable melody that mended a broken heart (Grieg Piano Concerto, 2nd Mov’t), or perhaps the emotional excitement of a wildly dynamic orchestra (Beethoven’s Ninth).

Second, build on the current structure. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel, and present it to an audience of wheel makers. Music evolves. From Bach, who essentially became the father of music theory, to Mozart, who fiddled with the established styles just enough to piss off the aristocracy. From Beethoven, who added a slew of instruments to the orchestra, to Tchaikovsky who used each and every instrument to its greatest emotional effect. From Rachmaninoff and Debussy, who added color and chords with 9ths and 12ths, to Copland, who mastered the art of unison. There is much to draw on here for inspiration. There is a lot that has NOT been done. There is common ground that has not been traveled.

Third, give them something new.  A new sound, a new technique, an unexpected chord progression, is a composer’s contribution to the evolution of music. A truly classical piece is often a journey, or a story. It has a beginning, middle and end. It plays to your heart, and often takes one on a wild ride of emotion, excitement and relief. This may be the toughest hurdle for a composer. It has to “make sense.” It has to be intuitive, and not just random. You can’t just have an orchestra screech an obnoxious sound, and say “well, that’s never been done before.”

Fourth, find inspiration from something you’re familiar with. Don’t try to write your own version of Romeo and Juliet if you’ve never experienced anything like it in your lifetime. Draw on your own trials and tribulations, struggles and victories. You can exaggerate them, that’s okay! But, inspiration should be real, if you want your music to be emotional. However, if you’re after a musical experiment, using new tools, like adding electronic elements, don’t let the technology become un-musical. If you’re on a docket with Mozart, they’re not gonna leave the concert hall humming YOUR melody.

The demands on an orchestral composer today, are much different from those who compose for smaller ensembles, with a greater variety of venues and audiences to choose from. It’s not like you can call the orchestra “my band.” As money remains tight with professional orchestras, risk-taking remains restricted as well. University orchestras may be less constrained, but biased toward student compositions. It’s a delicate balance between new and old, familiar and unfamiliar, new ground and solid ground. Compose with caution, not abandon!

Joe Wiedemann has been a broadcast television composer for Orchestronics and Wiedemann Music, since 1981. Orchestral compositions have been recorded by the Kiev Philharmonic and performed by the Colorado Youth Symphony.

The Avoidance of Harmony

It’s no secret that contemporary composers tend to avoid standard musical traditions.  What composer wants to sound like some other composer, right?  There’s so much highly structured, traditional Western European repertoire out there already, it sometimes seems like everything’s “been done.”

So, what does that leave for today’s modern composers in search of a niche?  Is it time in the history of music to reinvent the wheel,  remodel the basic structure, or even replace the foundation?

The struggle to find a new architecture seems to go back as far as Prokofiev.  His sometimes playful aversion to tonic, opened a door that has never shut.

Richard Danielpour reaches somehwere between Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff with this piece
John Cage experimented with the “prepared piano” by adding objects to the strings that would change the sound 
played amplified cacti
and even notated silence as music

Philip Glass’ minimalist style seems to have survived the decades with monumental works like Einstein on the Beach, the beautiful Truman Sleeps
and Mad Rush

Though minimalism sometimes depends on repetition for character, it may seem a bit simple to some.  But, compared to more ambitious experimenters, Glass’ use of recognizable chords is less unsettling than those who would opt for dissonance as a tool:

Ellen Traaffe Zwilich

Joseph Scwantner

The search for something new, sometimes forces an almost apologetic explanation, as seen here:

Many fine contemporary composers have poured their hearts and souls into the search for new and exciting formulas and sounds.  Exploration is necessary. Pushing the envelope should be encouraged and rewarded.

But, what of more mainstream modern orchestralists like Samuel Jones:,
Eric Whitacre:,
and of course, John Williams ?
Please comment.

Is there anything left that hasn’t “been done,” or is it time to rewrite the rules of western music, and start fresh?  Should we tear down the world’s tallest structure because it was built on a strong foundation, with tried and true construction principles? Should we “throw out the baby with the bath water?”

Is harmony all that bad?  There’s little evidence that audiences are anxious to jump with both feet into a world of ambient dissonance, and atonal ambiguity. Different can be enlightening and exciting, but it is occasionally brilliant. Experimentation, whether in music or in science, needs to be encouraged, yet challenged.

So modern composers may be charged with the task of honing the current musical models, and working with the established laws of musical nature. There are many scientific, natural and physical relationships in music (i.e.: frequencies, timing, and tonality) that form the mere definition of “music.” And technology may be the key to exploring new instruments, sounds and sonorities, without toppling the beautiful structure that took hundreds of years to build.  

Before imploding this beautiful 100-storey building to experiment with new building materials, we should first stress-test the synthetic composites, and the glue that holds them together. Will it stand the same test of time that its Parthenon of predecessors have? Remember: Bach has been dead for 263-years, and he still gets airplay on the radio every day. Embrace Harmony!

The Classical Music Recession

Is classical music on life support, or simply in a cyclical recession? Certainly, its long history of survival beyond the lifespans of other types of popular music, doesn’t foreshadow an early demise. But it may be facing some significant health issues, such as aging benefactors, and a technological upheaval of its current business model.

It’s a form with a short list of superstars, unlike rock or pop. Lang Lang and Joshua Bell can guarantee a sellout. And, while you may face a waiting list of at least 6-years to see the Vienna Phil, your local orchestra may be giving away tickets to fill seats.

It’s no secret that many of the people now filling those seats are of generations that can’t keep going to concerts forever. Sure, younger ones turn out for the big names, but who will attend the next show, after Lang Lang has left town?

The aging concertgoers are often the most generous financial contributors. This could spell budgetary doom in the near future.

Money that classical ensembles once counted on from sales of recordings, is also drying up, thanks to the changing technology of music distribution. Streaming royalties are negligible compared to the profit margin from a cd sale.

You Tube has become a popular means of music discovery and free entertainment. While that can be good and bad, sparking new interest in classical might draw new audiences to live performances, or viewers may be content to watch from home for free.

So, now the question becomes, can classical find a new business model, as it has before? Some local groups are reaching out to a much younger audience, requiring musicians to spend plenty of hours in schools and other mentoring functions. Engage them while they’re young, and have many years of classical enjoyment ahead. Though it may be many years before they replace the current donors, the seeds are being planted.

But, what to do in the meantime? Even the next-up demographic expected to provide financial support, grew up with Michael Jackson, Cheap Trick, Madonna and U2. It’s going to take some doing to bring them under the tent as converts. A more contemporary program and image may be necessary. Shedding the white tie and tails could be a start.

No one seems to appreciate classical more than musicians, because it’s the most popular music for instruction. A Suzuki Violin 2nd-grader is more likely to be a classical lover than his/her non-musician parents with ipods full of Mariah Carey and Eminem.

It would be easy to say that schools are the answer to classical’s problems, but school districts in recession have cut music programs. This reduces, not only interest in classical music, but the number of classically trained musicians for the future.

The current business model that keeps classical music playing, is definitely in trouble. It may be a very long recovery. The quality of the product though, has never suffered, so the art itself will surely be with us for centuries more.

What IS New Classical Music??

What IS it??

Classical Music, as most
people know it, is everything from Bach to about John Adams.  This is not to be confused with the Classical Period/Era, which technically only
includes music written between 1750 and 1820.  Think of the
Classical we all know, as the mother genre, for a group of sub-genres
that were popular during different periods, or eras. Chronologically,
they would be baroque, classical, romantic, impressionist, and 20th

Contemporary/New Classical then, by definition, must include
21st century music.  But, is there really any classical music being
written today?  That probably depends largely on instrumentation.
However, not every modern arrangement that includes orchestral
instruments can be considered in the classical style.  If Lady
Gaga’s arrangers add a string section to one of her songs, does that
make it classical?  A summer Pops concert employs a full orchestra
to perform pop, rock and jazz tunes.  Is that classical?  You
hear a remix of Beethoven’s Fifth set to a dance beat.  Is that

Perhaps we should look at history, as well as
orchestration.  If a new(er) piece harkens back to the sounds of
that Bach-to-Adams genre, that may be one clue.  If the style
doesn’t derive from some other established genre, like jazz, rock,
dance or ethnic music, that may be clue #2.  If it adds something
new, or different… advancing those classical sounds, then you may have found New Classical.

Think of the evolution of classical music as a progression, like making your way across monkey bars.  Each rung is a different “great master,” who added something new to the advances of the predecessor.   From Bach to Mozart, to Beethoven, to Brahms, to Tchaikovsky, to Debussy, to Stravinsky, to Copland, to Adams.  Each of them reached for something new, while using the previous rung for support.

More than a decade into the 21st century, we may be, arguably, stuck on a rung, waiting for the next great master.  While many fine recent composers have experimented in countless ways with orchestration, open tonalities, serialism and other styles, a new recognizable “genre” of classical music has not really caught on.  Not one recent composer has either solidified a modern style, or matched the popularity of predecessors.  Even though, all these compositions to date are loosely referred to as “contemporary classical,” for lack of a more descriptive, unifying classification, they often have little in common. Young people coming of age today, could well make the case that Beatles music could be considered new classical, adding a new genre to the “classical” category.

As experimentation continues, and audiences approve or disapprove, eventually classical music will evolve, redefine itself, and grow as it always has. It’s not over yet! Classical music has no expiration date.


The Future of Classical Music

Symphony Orchestra Conductor
Classical Music for the Future

This is a new Blog, to discuss the future of classical music, in homes, in education, in entertainment and in our lives.  The proliferation of free music on demand, and declining demographics for concertgoers in some areas, threatens the viability of the classical music industry.   Even more, the decline in demand for new orchestral music, stifles its evolution.

More to come…