Thursday, April 28, 2011

If no news is bad news, is some bad news good news?

Here's a little blurb I've been meaning to post from BYU's newspaper, about Fall 2010's student composer concert. You may have to enlarge your screen to see it...
Also, this semester they did an article for BYU's School of Music site, which prominently features quotes and a picture of yours truly! Check it out here! (sorry it seems the link is down)
Too bad they labeled the picture as Michael Christensen...
And maybe they didn't quite get it when they asked what I'm going to do after graduation, because it says that I'm not sure exactly what I'll be doing after my degree.
Well, I'll be composing!
And getting my doctorate!
And then getting a teaching gig at a university or college!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Bolero at Ballet West

Just as I've recently come to appreciate sculpture, in the last year or so I've also come to really love the art of dance, particularly ballet. There is something so divine and beautiful about having such mastery over the body and its motion. As Martha Graham says in the excellent clip A Dancer's World, a dancer strives to achieve "divine normal...what the human body is capable of doing." As a composer, there is also a lot of appeal in the fact that dance relies so much on music for its existence. So while I can't really dance, I can compose music that is interpreted not only by musicians but by dancers also. (Is there some megalomania thing with composers?

As part of our anniversary getaway, Qait and I spent a couple days in Salt Lake City. Besides a stay at the vintage Peery Hotel, a stomach ache inducing amount of great food, and a generally romantic time, we also went to the April 14th performance by Ballet West. Three pieces were on the program. It was all world-class, but Nicolo Fonte's choreography to Ravel's Bolero was the most stunning ballet I've ever seen. (Runner up would be last fall's performance with live choir of Orff's Carmina Burana)
The curtain came up to reveal a number of thin, tall sheets of corrugated metal suspended from above. A loud, industrial noise filled the hall, like the sound of a large factory air duct. A solitary dancer (Christiana Bennett, the iconic red-headed principal dancer of Ballet West) took the stage, not with the tentative steps of a beginning, but rather in the ecstatic throes of a climax. Each minute she danced alone, the noise volume dropped imperceptibly. Finally, she was joined by a male dancer, both dancing as though the music were the high point of Swan Lake. It was as though we had been thrown into the middle of something mysterious and passionate. When the sound finally died down and the familiar strains of Ravel's Bolero took over, it was the feeling that a whole epic story had already been told, and what was to follow was beyond a story, beyond a happy or tragic ending - in a word: transcendent.

Dancers gradually filled the stage, limb by limb peeking out from behind the metal sheets where they had hidden all along. As the music grew with its inescapable inevitability (I think that with Bolero Ravel had set himself the challenge: How many times can I repeat the same exact melody and still maintain momentum?) the sheets of metal began to lift up out of sight, one by one. Mesmerizing virtuosity of swirling dance filled the remaining space, until the whole stage seemed to be on fire with human forms. (It helped that the costumes were red, almost a sort of stylized soviet factory uniform.) Finally, a blood-red curtain began to pour from above into the middle of the stage. As the music reached the dissonant penultimate chord, (the one deviation from the main melody,) the female soloist leapt backwards with abandon into the curtain, only to be caught by unseen arms behind the curtain, while all the other dancers clicked into their final gestures with the last chord of the music.

Christiana Bennett makes the final leap at the end of Bolero

Curtains down, and then up for a standing ovation.
Overall, a breathtaking and symbolic performance that opened my mind to a whole new world of expression in dance - beyond pantomime, beyond tutus. Leaping into the beyond: transcendent.

Basically, my mind has been made up and in the near future I plan on doing some collaborative dance works. Who knows, maybe a year or two or five down the road and Ballet West will feature something by me in their Innovations program? Or maybe Nicolo Fonte will choreography some of my music?

Above: a preview clip for the season, including some of the bolero choreography.
Here is a clip of another ballet company's performance of the same choreography.
Here is a clip of Ballet West in rehearsal for Bolero.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Introducing: The Spectacular Composer Influences Questionnaire

For any living composer, the question of 'influences' is just as important as it is to any musical artist. Other music-makers have helped to form our conception of what music can and should be. This is not only an inevitable result of musically growing up, but also a healthy process that every good musician experiences. I've said before,
"If you want to write good music,
you've got to listen to better music.
If you want to write great music,
you've got to listen to the best music.
If you want to write the greatest music,
you've got to listen to God."
Ah, the polemical statements of youth! I still agree with myself, however. This pursuit for the best and divine in music has informed my whole musical outlook since I first knew that I would be a composer. It has also led me to specialize my knowledge in a rather esoteric and obscure genre of music. It's hard to define - 'modern classical music' or 'contemporary art music' or 'non-vernacular music' or even 'avant garde/experimental music' - in any case, this is the music that the composers of today are writing, though ideas of genre and category are increasingly fuzzy.

What it comes down to is that there are relatively few people in the whole world, most college trained musicians included, with whom I could hold a completely knowledgeable conversation about all of the composers who influence me. Even with my very smart professors, there are still discrepancies: They've barely heard of some of the composers who are my greatest influences, (Norgard, Gubaidulina, Schnittke) while I know very little about some of composers they idolize (Partch, Birtwistle). In all of this I don't mean to neglect the large and ongoing impact of jazz and popular music in my development.

I'd like to do a little questionnaire, in the spirit of the great email personal surveys of days gone by, only with the aim of disclosing my musical influences and revisiting the history of these influences on my music. Hopefully any reader will become more interested in this great music that means so much to me, and at least gain a better understanding of where I come from musically. I intend to break this up into several different entries.

Let me know if you have any questions along the way or if there is any music in particular that you'd like me to focus on in more depth in later entries.