Welcome to my blog

I have created this site in order to provide performers, listeners and composers with a description of a composer's experiences with the creative process. The posts will provide discussions of the inspirations, challenges, and successes of a composer from the inception of the piece to the culmination in performance. I will provide a link to where you can see and hear the works in progress. Comments and questions are always welcomed. They will not posted unless you grant me permission.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Developing Win-win Projects

When I was in graduate school and just beginning my composing career, I became aware of the limited publishing opportunities for contemporary composers and on a whim, started my own publishing company called Manuscript Publications. The idea was to have print-on-demand publishing so that no stock was involved. After putting an announcement in several composer publications, we began to represent about a dozen composers. We did mass mailings to college and university professors and we were off and running. This benefited me as it gave legitimacy to my publishing company by representing several better-known composers than myself and it also benefited the composers I represented as they had an opportunity to get their music heard.

As a result of starting the publishing company and selling some of my music, I was approached by James Houlik, a well-known tenor saxophone soloist, about writing him a piece on a “performance commission”. The performance commission is where a composer writes a piece for a musician and instead of receiving money, the composer is guaranteed several performances. This is a win-win situation as the performer receives a composition written especially for him/her and has the premiere rights. The composer receives several fine performances of the composition in important venues as well as a fine recording.

I ran Manuscript Publications for over ten years and participated in several more performance commissions, all of which were very beneficial. Manuscript Publications became too big and too time consuming to run, but it served its purpose as a win-win opportunity for myself and other composers and performers.

In 1983, I started Co-op Press, my current publishing company, this time publishing only my music. The intent of Co-op Press is to offer my music to the public at reasonable prices and to use those profits to support more win-win opportunities. When we were fortunate to receive some funding from an anonymous donor, we started the Co-op Press Fund which offers grants to performers to enable them to commission me to write them a piece. The purpose of the grant is for the performer to experience the excitement of working directly with a composer. A residency is also a requirement of the grant so that both the composer and performer are trying to create audience interest and excitement about contemporary music. This competitive program whose applicants are evaluated by a committee of judges has been very successful, resulting in approximately 30 compositions composed, premiered and recorded over an eight-year period. The performer and audience feedback has been very positive as well.

In 2005, we expanded the grant program to include a recording grant. This competitive program is a collaboration between the performers and Emeritus Recordings, the CD arm of Co-op Press. The performers provide high quality digital recordings and Emeritus does the artwork, licensing, manufacturer, and promotion of the CD. Profits from sales are split between Emeritus and the performer. Ten grants have been awarded to date with our latest release of Cristina Ledford on piccolo and Michael McGhee on piano coming out by September 1. This win-win project enables the artists to produce a CD that includes many compositions not previously recorded including about 15 minutes of my music. Sharing the cost and profits makes this win-win as well.

In 2003, we began our annual recording competition for recordings of my music. This competition that is judged by a panel of musicians has resulted many fine recordings of my music. Cash prizes and a CD release of the winning recordings are awarded to the winners. In order to fill some of the CDs, we have often put a call out to composers to submit their fine recordings of their music. We have released two recordings that contain my music along with other composers. We do not charge the composer anything for being on the CD and pay the composer mechanical license fees based on the number of units sold. This win-win project provides prestige to competition winners, prestige to the composers included on the CDs, and is another vehicle for getting my music heard. Airplay over classical music stations, retail sales and music downloads has been very favorable.

Our August release of Collage that contains performances of my chamber music by Cincinnati’s premiere chamber music ensemble, Conundrum as well as the winners of the 2007 Co-op Press Recording Competition is an example of this win-win project. Details and samples from this CD and our other recording projects as well as our grant programs can be found at http://www.cooppress.net

I hope that this article will inspire both performers and composers to come up with win-win projects of their own. The internet and advances in technology makes all this possible in this ever-changing music industry.

Dr. B

Friday, August 15, 2008

My Recent Activities

When I first conceived this blog, I intended it to be a daily posting of my compositional activities. Recently, I have realized that daily posts are too time consuming and not all that interesting. There are also times where composing takes a back seat to other activities. Therefore my posts will be less frequent.

Lately,I have been transcribing a piece I wrote for flute, clarinet and piano for woodwind quintet at the request of John Rush, who was part of the group that originally commissioned the piece. John now holds the principal flute position in many of Tulsa's professional music organizations. The transcription of "Scenes from Tom Sawyer" is going well. I have been mainly able to put the piano part in the oboe, horn and bassoon, but there are times where I have needed to re-orchestrate the music to achieve the desired sound. It is challenging to give a piece new life in a different instrumentation because of the idiomatic writing one tries to incorporate while composing. Piano lines do not always transcribe easily for single line wind instruments without some tweaking. It also creates some balance and register issues that also need to be addressed. So while this is not as challenging as creating a new piece, it is still time consuming.

The other project I have been working on is the release of the CD "Collage" which contains two pieces of mine performed by Cincinnati's premiere chamber music ensemble, Conundrum along with the three winners of the 2007 Co-op Press Recording Competition. The Co-op Press Recording Competition is an annual event for recorded performances of my music. We have a fine panel of judges that select the winners from many worthy entries and we award cash prizes and a CD release to the winners. The 2007 winners were a trio from the New World Symphony, a duo from the Hartt School of Music, and a duo who freelances and teaches in the central Pennsylvania area. One of the pieces recorded by Conundrum is the "Scenes from Tom Sawyer" mentioned above in its original instrumentation.

For more information about the CD, you can go to http://www.cooppress.net/page18/page19/page19.html

Dr. B

Inspiration and Developing Ideas

I received a very nice comment from a Carlton who asked about where does a composer get ideas and how does he/she develop them. Composers have many different ways of going about this and this is a very common question from developing composers as well as from audiences. My blog addresses these questions through my discussions of the pieces I am creating, but I have also written a book, "A Composer's Guide to Understanding Music" to help composers develop their technique. But this book also helps listeners learn how to listen to music and it also helps performers and conductors with interpreting music. To answer the part of Carlton's question dealing with getting ideas, I have reproduced below the chapter from this book on inspiration. The rest of the book would help Carlton learn how to develop his ideas.

The book is available from http://www.lulu.com/content/446374 as either a printed hard copy or as a download. There is also a free download of the musical examples that accompany the book and purchase of the book entitles the reader to join a free discussion group about the ideas presented in the text.

Here is the chapter on Inspiration:

One of the most frequently asked questions of composers is “where do you get your ideas?” Inspiration can come from many sources, both musical and extra-musical. The concept that a composition comes to a composer in a moment of divine inspiration is true only on rare occasions. Most of the time, composing is a laborious process where initial ideas come slowly and much time is spent developing and reworking the ideas until a finished product is achieved.

Any of the components of music that were discussed in previous chapters can be the source of an idea. For example, timbre was the source of inspiration in my composition “Echoes” for double euphonium choir. Faced with the challenge of creating timbral variety when writing for a group consisting of the same instruments, I thought of the possibility of dividing the group into two choirs and placing them on opposite sides of the stage. This would enable the timbres to have spatial variety with one choir imitating the other in the manner of double choir compositions from the Renaissance. I then expanded upon the imitation by having imitation occur within each choir as well as between choirs. This gave rise to the idea of echoes, which is imitation, that gradual gets softer through the course of several repetitions. The challenge of creating variety with homogeneous timbres enabled me to come up with a title as well as a blueprint for developing the musical material.

Literature, art, poetry, national causes, and environment can provide some of the extra-musical inspirations for composers. The challenge for composers working with extra-musical inspiration is to find a method of allowing the music to convey extra-musical ideas while at the same time, remaining cohesive from the purely musical perspective. Program notes, visuals, narration, and sung text can assist in conveying the extra-musical idea. Because music emphasizes repetition (unity) and drama emphasizes development (variety), the composer is faced with reconciling the different characteristics of the two art forms. Richard Wagner’s concept of leit motifs is an effective solution that composers still use today. The leit motif is a short musical idea that represents a person, event, place, or emotion. As these extra-musical elements develop, the leit motif also develops, therefore creating musical unity and variety without interfering with the plot development.

In my “Scenes from a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” for brass quintet, Mark Twain’s social satire was the source of inspiration. The piece contains detailed program notes to help the listener understand the relationship between the story and the music. The piece can also be performed with a narrator in order for the musical representations of the story to coincide. When working with large literary works as a source of inspiration, an additional challenge is deciding what to include and exclude. Much of the detail of literature does not translate well into music. Length is also an issue that must be addressed.

Inspiration does not always occur in the order that it appears in the finished product. A composer’s initial idea, while having potential, may not be best for the beginning of the piece. It is important for composers to save all ideas, as they may be used later in the piece or even in another composition. An example would be my inspiration for my “Celebration Overture”. This piece was composed as an entry in a composition competition sponsored by WITF-FM to celebrate their 25th anniversary. The competition gave rise to the title and general nature of the piece. The first section I composed was something I really liked, but I had difficulty moving on from that point. After stepping back for a short period of time, I realized that what I had written was too complex for the beginning of the piece, but was perfect for the end. I then created a simpler version of the material and the remainder of the piece developed more easily. “In my end is my beginning” said T.S. Eliot. That is exactly what happened when composing my “Celebration Overture”.

Dr. B