First steps toward a new look

I am trying out a new theme for the blog. The old one was one I designed myself with the aid of Artisteer. It’s a useful program, but using it doesn’t make me a website designer any more than owning a hammer makes me a carpenter.

Bottom line, the site just looked amateurish and I got tired of it.

I am now trying out Twenty Ten as a blog theme, which I plan to customize a bit as soon as I figure out how to do it. It looks a lot nicer, but needs a more appropriate header image, which I’ll change when I come up with a good one. The rest of it I think I’ll leave alone.

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New blog title

After giving it a bit of thought, I’ve decided on “Imperfect Consonance” as a title for this blog. I’m hoping it’s better than my last idea.

Next will be to consider a new design. I really have to come to terms with my limitations and accept the fact that I really don’t know how to design WordPress themes. So…stay tuned.

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I know, I know

Regular readers of this blog (and I know there are one or two of you–Hi, Mom!) may have noticed that I haven’t written one of my project updates for a few months now. Sorry about that. I kind of lost interest in doing it a long time ago, and there hasn’t really been much to report that’s at all interesting. I keep plugging away at everything a little at a time, and everything’s inching toward completion by slow degrees, same as usual.

I think I’m going to try something different. I will continue to post occasional updates from time to time, but I’m not going to try to be regular about it. Instead a post will go up when there’s something interesting to report.

So, having said all that, here’s a little update on things.

Work on Auspicious Light took an unexpected turn a few days ago, followed by an equally unexpected turn around. I had been working on a long passage that I was expecting to be the beginning of the piece, but something didn’t seem quite right about it. After a while, it seemed to me that something was missing, and that something was an introduction. The music I had been writing seemed to need something in front of it.

So I sat down to try to come up with a brief introduction, which came pretty quickly, but then something unexpected happened. The piece seemed, of its own accord, to go of into an entirely different direction than I had intended. It was as if I had accidentally started writing an entirely new piece.

Bad idea! I don’t have time for this!

Today, I started making a few adjustments that I think will make my introduction work with the music I’ve already written. It feels a bit like a carpenter trying to force a badly fitting joint, but I think it will be doable. So, Auspicious Light is still on track.

So, that’s about the most interesting thing that’s happened recently.

While I’m here, I might as well mention a little progress that has taken place on Death Carol. Some weeks ago I worked out two drafts of a sketch for the beginning of the piece. Some interesting things are starting to happen, but at the moment it sounds a little too Gorecki-like to suit me. When I have time to come back to it, I’ll need to try to make it sound a little less Eastern European.

Also in connection with Death Carol, I entered my sketch for the second section in Finale, mainly so I could hear what it sounded like. The texture is still pretty bare-bones at this point, but I’m quite satisfied with it. I’m looking forward to working on it further.

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Possibly not my best idea

When I first started this blog a few years ago, I called it “Works and Progress,” a title I never actually liked. So when I migrated it over to my own domain, I decided not to bother thinking up a clever title, so I just called it “Daniel Powers, composer and arranger.” But I recently realized I don’t care for that either; it lacks pizazz or something.

In trying to think up a better title, I remembered an old idea from college years; I would write my autobiography and call it “Difficult Resolutions,” a play on the motto for the last movement for string quartet that Beethoven ever wrote. Since I have no actual desire to write an autobiography (and who would read it?), why not use it for a blog instead?

So I changed it.

Of course, the minute I did, I realized that “Difficult Resolutions” isn’t that great a title, either. It’s clever, I suppose, but not really appropriate. After all, I’m not struggling with difficult questions or writing blunt, agonizing essays about the inner turmoil of an artist, bla bla bla. All I want to do is chronicle what I’m doing, and maybe link to a few sites I find interesting. Nothing heavy or anything like that.

So, I need a new title. I’m open to suggestions.

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Dance to your own music

A while back, Alex Ross posted a link to an interesting video of the Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen dancing to his own music (Tryticon for percussion and orchestra).

I linked to the same video on my Facebook page, along with the comment “Admit it, fellow composers. You do the same thing when nobody’s looking!”

So far, though, nobody has admitted to it.

I don’t blame them. I don’t plan to admit to it either.

(BTW, I thought the music was interesting enough that I ordered the CD. I haven’t had time to listen to it yet. I may post my reactions when I do.)

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Six degrees of Daniel Powers

Ever play Six Degrees of Separation? Yesterday NPR’s classical music blog, Deceptive Cadence, did a post linking Mozart to Neil Sedaka. Briefly, it begins with Mozart, whose youngest son Franz Xaver taught somebody who taught somebody who taught Rosina Lhévinne who taught…Neil Sedaka (and a lot of other people). It’s completely pointless but kind of an interesting and unexpected connection.

OK, I can play too. I can link myself to two of my favorite composers, Brahms and Mahler.

It starts with me, then works backwards in time. One of my composition teachers at Oberlin was Richard Hoffman. In the 1950s, he was an assistant to Arnold Schoenberg, who had been a student of Alexander Zemlinsky, who had received encouragement from both Brahms and Mahler.

So there.

Now if only I could figure out a way to link myself to my other favorite composer, Bach. That would take some research, but might be an educational project for the future.

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Trio for clarinet, bassoon, and piano

Last Wednesday, my Trio was premiered in London, Ontario, by the commissioning group, TriofuS. I drove up to hear it, and with their permission, made a recording of the concert on my handy Zoom H2 recorder. They also made a video recording of the concert, which I will link to as soon as it becomes available.

I had a fine time in London, with thanks to Bob and Judy Riseling for their hospitality. I wish I could have stayed longer, but I had to leave immediately after the performance so I could be back in Terre Haute for a rehearsal the next day. April is usually my busiest month, so it was probably a fairly insane thing for me to drive all the way to Canada only to stay for a few hours. Still, I enjoyed the concert, and the adventure.

I also received a bit of good news while I was there. The ensemble had just gotten together the resources needed to record their third CD during the summer, and my Trio will be on it! More on that as it develops.

Until then, enjoy my recording of the performance.

I. Fast, with volatile energy.

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II. Moderately slow, relaxed and flowing

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III. Fast

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Am I famous yet?

A few items for the performance log:

  • Last night, the Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra with Kate Hamilton presented a concert of Great American Songs. Seven of my arrangements were on the program, including the premiere of my new version of Shenandoah.
  • April 13 will be the premiere of my Trio for clarinet, bassoon, and piano, performed by TriofuS in London, Ontario. (It isn’t that far from Terre Haute, so I’m planning to attend.)
  • Sylvia McNair will be appearing with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra on April 29-May 1. Her program will include two of the arrangements I did for her last year.
  • Cameron Carpenter will be appearing with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra on May 6. He’ll be performing the premiere of one of his own works, and all five of the arrangements I did for him over the past couple of years.
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Meet the Gusli

I like searching through YouTube for performances on obscure instruments. Today I got interested in the Kantele, a Finnish folk instrument, and came across this video by accident. This is actually a Gusli, which a quick Google search reveals is similar to the Kantele. I will look for more, but for now, check out this amazing performance by Olga Shishkina of a Scherzo by Viktor Panin.

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March 2011

Wow. I remember that at one point not too long ago, I had decided to post here more frequently. But last night I realized that almost two months have gone by without a peep from me. The usual excuses are in force (too busy, etc.), but since I’m currently in the last days of Spring Break, it would seem to be a good time to get caught up.

So, first of all, let’s get caught up on the piano/percussion quartet. In my last post, I mentioned that the piece finally seemed to be getting under way after I had cut a lot of material and reorganized the expected form. I could almost say the same thing here, since I’ve cut more and simplified the expected form even further. One of the ideas to go was the idea which got the piece started in the first place, the idea of the long, evolving electronic drones. The more I worked with it, the less interesting it seemed to be. Plus, the difficulties of combining live instruments with recorded electronics just felt too daunting, and dealing with it was holding the piece back.

So. Gone are the drones, gone are the electronics, and the piece finally seems to be moving along.

Also, I have a new working title: Auspicious Light. I’m not willing to commit to it yet, but I like it better than Iris.

A few other things have also gone through. At the request of the Terre Haute Symphony, I did a new arrangement of Shenandoah for their upcoming concert next month. This one is completely different from my previous arrangement, being set as a jazz ballad for voice, rhythm section, and strings. Hopefully I can post a recording later.

The last half of Spring semester is always the busiest time of year, what with teaching responsibilities, orchestra gigs, and whatnot. So I won’t make any promises to post more frequently, but I’ll try.

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Small breakthrough (?)

For several weeks now, I’ve been struggling with getting “Iris” under way. It’s been frustrating, a weird circuitous process of reworking the same ideas over and over, trying to find a way to get them to go together, and largely failing.

A form for the piece seemed to have been emerging, more or less as follows:

A. Slow, ametric, based on drones and largely quintal harmony.
B. Moderate, 12/8, based on a short melodic ostinato with slower melody developing.
C. Slow again, more etherial and ambient in quality.
D. Fast, rhythmic, dissonant, with jagged mixed meters, increasingly tense.
A’. Sudden return to drones, etc.

I was having no trouble coming up with ideas, but they just weren’t coming together; they seemed too much like random, disjointed rambling, and I couldn’t figure out how to make them fit with each other into an organized, coherent piece.

This afternoon I realized that a lot of my problems could be solved if I simply got rid of everything I was thinking of doing for the B section, and instead replacing it with what I had originally been planning for section D. I hate to lose the B material; a lot of it was very interesting, but it will sound better in a different piece.

So now, what seems most likely is for “Iris” to be in an extended arch form: ABCBA, where both B sections are the dissonant, rhythmic idea. As so often happens, the solution lay in simplification. I’ve had to learn that lesson so often over the years, its a wonder it isn’t second nature to me by now.

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2011–Looking ahead

The year is now only nine hours old. Time to look ahead at what I hope to accomplish in the next 365 days.

Composition for 2 pianos and percussion. This will be my principal project for the foreseeable future. As I noted before, the commission has been “officialized” and I’m ready to begin. Work has actually already begun, but as of now, most of it is in my head as I try to come up with a broad outline for a piece of approximately 20 minutes.

One thing that’s been much on my mind recently are some of the haunting and fascinating sounds that can be coaxed from a piano by playing it in ways that it was never intended to be played. One of the best examples of what I’m talking about is the Bowed Piano Ensemble, which needs to be seen to be believed.

I had the idea of including some of these techiques in my piece, and that gave me the idea of beginning with some extended drones for bowed bass piano strings, played by the percussionists, while the pianists play normally. But there are problems with that idea. For one, two players aren’t enough to create some of the rich textures I imagine. There’s also the concern that some performance venues may not allow the insides of their precious pianos to be touched, for fear of causing damage. As well, one of the conditions of the commission is that the piece can be brought into the community and performed in places other than professional concert halls. That means that baby grands or uprights may be the only pianos available. So that idea isn’t going to work.

But I’m not giving up on it completely. I am now considering the possiblity of including an electronic component to the work–what I’m thinking of as a “soundtrack” (even though I know that’s not the most useful term)–which will consist partly of sounds derived from extended piano techniques, as well as synthesized sound. I’ve purchased and am currently downloading a package of sample libraries by Tonehammer which include some pretty wild piano sounds, and I plan to use them along with Omnisphere to realize the soundtrack.

Of course, if I do this, I’ve only traded one set of problems for another. How will the players synchronize with the soundtrack? How prominent will it be? Will it be equal to the acoustic instruments, or in the background? I have yet to make a decision on these (and no doubt many other) questions. And it’s still entirely possible that I’ll just forget the whole thing and try to come up with a different idea.

That’s about all I can say at this point. Hopefully I’ll have more to say soon.

Oh, and one other thing. I decided I needed a working title, so I came up with “Iris.” It’s better than calling it “that piece for pianos and percussion” for the time being, but I’ll probably come up with something better by the time I’m done.

I’m also planning to work on a setting, for chorus and orchestra, of Walt Whitman’s Death Carol. This is something I’ve wanted to write for years, possibly decades by now. But I haven’t been able to interest anyone else in the project, so it’s been languishing in the back of my mind for far too long. But I can’t stand not writing it any longer, so I’ve decided to go ahead and do it. As of now, I’ve gotten most of the first stanza in a rough sketch, which needs a bit of polish still. This will have to be a lower priority project, but I’m determined to continue.

There are other things on my mind as well as some smaller pieces that have been started over the past several years, but never finished. Some of them deserve to be completed, and I’m going to make an effort to rescue them from the bottom of the drawer.

Also, even though I want to put the focus on composition for a while, there are some arranging projects that I’ll be working on as well. More on those later.

Well, it looks like my little vacation is over. 2011 is shaping up to be a pretty busy year!

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