The Anchorage Civic Orchestra will be giving our 2013 Fall Concert on November 22nd. Back in late August, when we began our once-per-week rehearsals, a member observed that our concert will occur on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The theme of our concert is Four Centuries of American Music, with works written in the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries being programmed. After mulling over the idea for four days, I wrote this simple, direct elegy over Labor Day weekend.
The music doesn’t take a point of view in a sense of reflecting my opinions on why or how President Kennedy was killed. It is merely a civic tribute to the man, and what he gave that day. The sound track of the Youtube is a MIDI version, created with Finale notation software and Garritan orchestral sound samples.
I will conduct its premiere on Friday, November 22nd, in Anchorage.
No musician matures by herself, or by himself. From the beginnings, child musicians search for ways to express themselves from their own hearts and minds. Even if drawn toward music from within, they usually seek to emulate someone older, though. Eventually, they gain craft and intricate skills through guidance from teachers, mentors, siblings or parents, and from occasionally hearing or seeing prominent or famous performers.
When I was a kid, my initial inspirations to explore music came from my older sister, who was a serious piano student, and from playing in school bands and orchestras. Beyond that, it was through being helped by adult musicians who recognized my deep love of music, and helped nurture it, that made a huge difference. Even though my parents payed for private lessons on brass instruments, I got many hours of free help from adults, assisting me in finding my way as a beginning composer and conductor.
That was over fifty years ago. Since then, I’ve tried to repay the gifts of curiosity, knowledge and technique they bestowed upon me. Although I get paid to teach young people about the intricacies and simplicities of musical art, I long ago silently promised those who helped me, to always find the time to help young artists who want or need help, no matter what our professional relationship.
I’ve been fortunate to be able to watch young musicians advance from grade school, through conservatory, and on to professional life, where they, in turn, now teach young people to fulfill their intense love of art.
The biggest challenge for young performers is preparing major solos for performance, or competition. Whether the kids are eager to dive into the work, or reluctant, there is something there for them to learn. Helping them assess what those lessons were after their performance can be almost as important as helping them prepare the piece in the first place. Sometimes it is easier for them to learn lessons from a performance that enhance what they do next, if the performance wasn’t up to their or others’ expectations.
One of the most exciting things for me is to accompany, either on keyboard or as conductor, a young soloist in a performance that sees that person through to another level of understanding, musicianship, or personal satisfaction. My favorite of all time was perhaps back in 1998.
A fifth grade trumpet player had heard me direct an adult performer in Johann Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto. The kid came to me a week later, and said “I want to do that!” I asked if he was sure, and he was affirmative.
A week later, he played it for me. From memory.
Two months later, when this 11-year-old performed the concerto flawlessly, the audience jumped out of their seats in awe. I stepped down from the podium and picked him up, holding him up high enough so everyone could see him beaming with pride (and a bit of shock).
Last fall, I directed the same young man, now a college graduate and best young jazz trumpeter in Alaska, in the Haydn Trumpet Concerto. Once again, the audience jumped out of their seats. This time, however, I didn’t pick him up. He’s six feet four inches. It’d be easier for him to pick me up.
Since September, I’ve been the conductor and music director of the Anchorage Civic Orchestra. All three of our soloists so far have been high school performers or young adults. We have more planned, including a new work for Japanese Taiko drum ensemble and orchestra. Our winter high school concerto competition had two soloists so outstanding, we couldn’t decide which one deserved to win. Rather than toss a coin, we decided to feature them both.
Here is the younger of the two, Dane Breitung, a junior, performing Claude T. Smith‘s Fantasia for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra a week ago:
Musical performance, like much of art and life, is a continuity of young people learning to render something inanimate into a breathing, vibrant reality. All around the world, hundreds of thousands of kids, teens and young adults are struggling to conquer a tricky passage, a new concept, a unique approach to sound. As much joy as I get from helping such talent and dedication, I do love learning from them that there is such good as this in a terrible world.
Next Saturday, March 16th, will mark the tenth anniversary of the death in Gaza, of Rachel Corrie. Rachel, then a senior at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, had gone to Gaza at the beginning of 2003, to fulfill aspects of her senior thesis. While there, she became active in efforts by the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), to protect Palestinians from outrages of the Israeli occupation forces.
She was killed by an Israeli Army D-9 armored bulldozer, with two people aboard in the cockpit, one there to drive, the other, to observe. During the same time period, Israeli forces in Gaza shot and mortally wounded Tom Hurndall, a British photographer, also working with the ISM (April 11th), and mutilated Brian Avery (April 5th), another American ISM activist, in Jenin in the West Bank. This time period coincided with the American invasion of Iraq – March 19th to May 1st.
A notable aspect of Rachel Corrie’s legacy is the sheer volume of art her life and sacrifice evoked. Between March 19th 2003 and April 24th 2004, I collected over 160 poems written in the young woman’s honor, and posted on the web, in the English language. I used two of them in my 2003-2004 cantata, The Skies Are Weeping. California composer, Paul Crabtree composed another cantata about Corrie, American Persephone.
Corrie’s journals and emails from Gaza became the basis of the most widely viewed and highly regarded work of art about Corrie, My Name is Rachel Corrie. Written by Katharine Viner and Alan Rickman, the play premiered in London on April 5, 2005, in a highly evocative solo performance by actress Megan Dodds. Premiered in a very small theatre, it was revived in the 2005 fall London theatre season in a larger venue, and proceeded to win many awards.
The first attempt to produce My Name is Rachel Corrie in the USA, at the New York Theatre Workshop resulted in a cancellation, when the NYTW caved to threats from militant Zionist expansionists. (Incidentally – the article about the cancellation in The Nation, by writer Philip Weiss, and the pushback that writer got in the publishing world for having written so sympathetically about Corrie, and critically about the NYTW, was one of the epiphanies Weiss underwent that led him into new directions, now expressed most fully at his web site, Mondoweiss).
The play was derived from Corrie’s written material with cooperation of the slain activist’s family. Some of Corrie’s writings had been posted on the web soon after her death. Some soon became the basis of poems or lyrics. For instance, the concluding lyric in The Skies are Weeping is my editing (with the Corrie family’s approval) of one of her last emails home: Read the rest of this entry →
Thousands of dancers from scores of groups have been here since Wednesday, when over a hundred participants arrived by canoe (traveling many miles!), fishing boat, ferry boat, or airplane. You do not drive to Juneau.
I am here, learning more about Tlingit culture, before I embark upon a musical work in which I hope to tap into this rich, vibrant, changing and growing legacy. I knew I knew too little before I came here. I’m beginning to think there is no way I may ever know enough to present this music honestly through my own.
The renaissance of ritual song and dance art in Alaska Native musical culture is a story of resistance to attempts by our federal and state governments and various religions to force assimilation or eradication upon Natives and their ties to their tribal traditions, many of which pre-date the model upon which Western civilizations have been built, by many thousands of years. If you can eradicate the songs, dances and rituals tied to spirituality of a culture, and make use of its language difficult to achieve, eradication will follow.
In the lower 48 states, this has been achieved 100% in hundreds, if not thousands, of cases. In Hawaii and Alaska, the first Peoples have been more fortunate, though “fortunate” barely qualifies as a description of what has happened in these two states since the late 19th century.
Alaska Native tribes sought to redress government and religious encroachments all the way back into the early days of our country’s possession of the territory. The city of Angoon, commemorates its 1882 destruction by the U.S. Navy through song and dance.
The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 established entities that were supposed to benefit the many tribes, peoples and villages of aboriginal Alaska. Some have been more successful than others. Few of these resultant corporations have understood the importance of the arts to language, culture, education and pride as deeply as has the Sealaska Heritage Institute. The dominant tribes of Southeast Alaska, over which Sealaska Corporation oversees many programs, are Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian. Read the rest of this entry →
Over the generations, the Pacific Northwest has produced a number of iconoclastic visual artists. Perhaps the first to become notable nationally was painter Mark Tobey. He became known as the founder of the Northwest School, initially based mostly out of Skagit County, between Seattle and Vancouver, BC. The big four of the first generation, Tobey, Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, and Morris Graves, came to prominence between the two world wars. They taught or influenced a number of artists who became a second generation, such as Richard Kirsten (influenced by Morris Graves), Philip McCracken and Dale Chihuly.
McCracken’s most important student was sculptor James L. Acord, Jr. Acord studied and lived with McCracken and his family on Guemes Island in the early to mid-60s. Among the influences from McCracken Acord brought into his art was an appreciation of how to match dissimilar materials in three dimensional objects of art, and an understanding that drawings can be produced while working on long-term sculptures, so as to pay one’s bills.
Over the 40-plus years of Acord’s serious work as an artist, he created thousands of drawings. Many are not more than refined sketches, with coffee, beer or whisky stains around their edges. Others were minor masterpieces of intricacy, virtuosic pen and ink hatchwork and shadow play.
Here are two sheets from Acord’s 1981 notebook related to a hero, taken down by nuclear radioactivity that he copied and mailed to me then:
I first got turned on to Garfunkel and Oates here at fdl back in 2008, when a commenter linked to one of their early songs. Soon afterward, their song about Pat Robertson and Proposition 8,Sex With Ducks, became their first big Youtube and internet hit. Their early work as a singing group was markedly low tech and low budget, with Ricki Lindhome (Garfunkel) playing a cheap electric keyboard and Kate Micucci (Oates) playing ukelele. They were gifted with a sense of self parody from the beginning. With Sex With Ducks, they began producing fairly slick music videos that not only are more expensive to produce, they sometimes parody such videos made by others.
The “official video” of Save the Rich does just that – it parodies such iconic music videos as We Are the World. Here is the official version of Save the Rich:
On March 6th, the Anchorage Youth Symphony gave the premiere of my newest orchestral work, The Wild Coast, as part of their Winter Concert. Their director, Linn Weeda, commissioned it last summer for the March concert, and for their upcoming June 2012 European Tour.
It is a difficult work. The kids in the orchestra – some as young as 14 – worked very hard to pull it off. I wasn’t able to attend the premiere, as I had to rehearse my own (at least for now) orchestra, the Anchorage Civic Orchestra, that night for a concert we performed on March 10th. But I did get to watch and listen to their dress rehearsal on the 5th.
I wrote about this music here back in November, right after I finished writing the piece. And I posted a Youtube I made of the MIDI version of it, with sampled electronic sounds emulating orchestral instruments, rather than real people.
Please go there to hear these talented young people.
A few people have asked why I wrote such a difficult work for kids. My response is that the music is about an amazing physical and mental feat of endurance by two young people. To do it justice, the music had to present enough challenges to demand remarkable efforts from the young people in the ensemble.
Erin McKittrick contemplating crossing Icy Bay, November, 2007.
I. Derided by notable music historian Richard Taruskin in a New York Times essay famous among new music writers, as an opera that “cater[s] to so many of [Western Europeans'] favorite prejudices — anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-bourgeois –” and by Leon Klinghoffer’s daughters Lisa and Ilsa as “exploitation of our parents and the coldblooded murder of our father as the centerpiece of a production that appears to us to be anti-Semitic,” San Francisco composer John Adams‘ second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, may be his greatest achievement.
Commissioned in 1989 by a consortium of five opera companies in the U.S. and Europe, some of the companies reneged when they realized the controversies the resultant opera had brought about. Since then, most of the opera’s productions have been met with combinations of demonstrations, dueling op-eds in the news, and fairly large audiences, as Adams’ music is some of the most vital now being written or played. Had the controversies and accusations surrounding this music drama been attached to a lesser composer, it would have ended any possibilities of future commissions, fellowships and awards. Fortunately, John Adams was too famous, too honest and too candid for this to have been the result. Alice Goodman, the work’s librettist, was somewhat less well-known, so wasn’t let off so easily:
Goodman and the rest of the creative team – composer Adams, director Peter Sellars and choreographer Mark Morris – had expected, and perhaps even courted, controversy. (They were, after all, following their 1987 triumph Nixon in China, another opera based on a news event, albeit a much less provocative one.) Adams had been disappointed that the world premiere weeks earlier in Brussels had been so tepidly received. The reaction in New York more than compensated: it proved a devastating shock.
“I couldn’t get work after Klinghoffer,” says Goodman. “I was uncommissionable. John was almost uncommissionable.” Adams’s next work was a violin concerto. “No words,” says Goodman. [emphasis added]
University of Alaska Anchorage Professor Christopher Sweeney held his annual concert last Sunday at UAA’s Fine Arts Recital Hall. It was well attended by trombone aficionados and people eager to hear all the offerings on the program. Dr. Sweeney is playing very well. The audience certainly realized this.
His program varied from the opening work for trombone and two percussionists, to the Anchorage premiere of my recent Aleutian Sketches, for trumpet, French horn, trombone and piano. The Chugach Brass, premiered the work back on May 13th in Unalaska. This week was the first time I had heard it. Seldom have I appreciated a performance of one of my works as much as theirs.
Dr. Timothy Smith, Chairman of the UAA Department of Music has put the Chugach Brass performance of Aleutian Sketches up on Youtube. Here is the story the music tells:
I. A Yankee Whaler Enters Iliuliuk Bay: I imagine a 19th century whaling vessel, coming into the small bay near Unalaska, seeking shelter to make repairs before it exits the Bering Sea after a successful voyage. It opens and closes with a theme meant to convey a wooden ship under sail. The center section features two iterations of the sea chantey, Leave Her, Johnny, Leave Her. Read the rest of this entry →
I’m posting this for markfromireland, whose Saturday chorales are always a favorite here.
I’m composing a set of four very short a capella wordless settings for eight-part chorus. Each will be about a tree that grows at our place in Wasilla, Alaska: Feltleaf Willow, Sitka Spruce, Paper Birch and Diamond Willow.
This chorale, Feltleaf Willow, is to be vocalized with “Ahs.” Some of the others are using harder sounding vocables, with biting consonants, like “K” and “D” and “Teh.”
This is the first time I have used Quicktime‘s capability to capture video shots on my computer screen. The result isn’t very spectacular. Actually, it sucks. I’m not sure how to get better overall results for a project like this. Maybe someone has a suggestion or two.
What you see is a Finale file of my chorale, scrolling on by, with the green vertical line indicating where you are in the notation. What you hear is a very poor audio rendition of the sampled sounds of female and male voices, using the samples of a software program called Garritan Personal Orchestra.
Humans will start singing the completed set this Fall.
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