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Classically Speaking

Classical music in West Virginia and Beyond

A Method to the Madness

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By Jim Lange
 · May 8, 2012

bliss station
The small area in the kitchen I reserved for the "morning scribble" has gotten that "overrun" look. How did that happen?

Kurtz: "Are my methods unsound?" 

Willard: "I don't see any method at all, sir." 

~Apocalypse Now

I quit for many years.

Composing music, that is.

But then, one day, a really simple thought occurred to me: What ever happened to that sketch called "Night in St. Cloud"? Why did I suddenly care about a piece I had abandoned years ago? Why did it bother me?

At that point, someone should have stopped me. Or slapped me. Hard. This should have been followed by a very gruff and deadly serious dressing down: "Look, buddy, do you remember what happened last time? Huh, huh? Is that what you want to become again?"

What I had "become" was a composer. Oh yeah, a fully fledged (in my mind at least), full-time writer of music. Sure, I have been throwing together "pieces" since I discovered the joys of the guitar and a Montgomery Ward tape recorder since I was a teenager, but to call yourself a composer is crossing a distinct line. (One of my colleagues snidely remarked about another: "He fancies himself a composer." Ouch.) And it is to embrace a certain aesthetic and a lifestyle. It became more than a title. It became a monster - an all-consuming madness.

At the height of my passion, I had every kind of mechanical pencil that Pentech made, various commercial and home-made manuscript paper, an abundance of erasers, drafting tools, a stopwatch, pencil sharpeners, ink and stamps (not sure what that was for) some of which was kept in a bag that my wife thoughtfully bought me for Christmas. I carried that lumpy, heavy bag everywhere I went.

I composed at every opportunity. For example, while my wife was shopping in Macy's, I would sit out in the car and arrange Bach for guitar ensemble or work on a dozen or so pieces I was juggling all at once. Or review works that were completed (Are they ever?) for an upcoming performance. Day and night, night and day, I wrote, listened and reflected on the music that seemed to pour out of me. Hours would pass without notice. The outside world was an intrusion. I was lost, like a first love, in the sound world I was creating. This was more akin to meditation and prayer than a mere fascination with the structures of music.

Even my colleagues were noticing. At rehearsal, one flutist friend took one look at me and said, "You've been composing, again, haven't you?" My appearance must have spoken of that faraway look and predisposition towards a real and delicate introversion during and after hours of solitude.

When you do something so obsessively, there is the law of diminishing returns. The voice of doubt grows stronger as fatigue sets in and so knowing when to stop is as valuable as the work itself. Plus, I was trying to prove something to myself. Or rather, composition was a way of disproving a few personal doubts. In any case, composing should be about, as George Crumb says, "pushing notes around." In other words, however soul-stirring the music may be to the writer, ultimately it has to be able to "stand on its own two feet (Hans Zimmer)." It must be able to be presented to a group of performers and ultimately an audience. They get the final word in my mind.

Somewhere along the line, I felt that it was stupid to be such a slave to what should be an enjoyable diversion. I backed out of music for a while. All of it: performing, practicing and especially writing. I had to be free and enjoy life, as a colleague says, as "a civilian."

Back to the present: have things reached overload yet? No, not really. Watching TV is not interrupted in my mind with the constant swirl of musical ideas as I control my composing rather than the other way around. One grace of being older is that a minuscule amount of wisdom is acquired (bidden or not). I confine my writing to the morning and small dabbles in the evening. And although my mind is constantly trying to figure out where the next passage is going, I do not let it overwhelm me.

To try to be objective here, whatever profundity or greatness is missing from my music, I think the constant influx of ideas and certainly the peace and rapture that I feel while writing is something enviable. Does it make up for other shortcomings? Probably not, but I plow forward

In the time I have taken to finish the not-yet-finished "Night in St Cloud," I have written and finished three other projects and started another. I have added a computer and plan to purchase notation software. And yes, the piles of sketches grow, but this feels much better and ten times more focused and healthy an activity.

At least I tell myself that.

This audio player requires Adobe Flash
Listen to Grant Cooper.

grant
WVSO Maestro Grant Cooper is also a composer. I asked him about his process and thoughts on composing.

And by the way, the whole time we were talking about composing, Grant never mentioned this:

CHARLESTON, WV - As a part of the National Symphony Orchestra’s (NSO) American Residency Program in 2010, the maestro of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, Grant Cooper, has had a composition selected to be performed by a National Symphony Orchestra chamber ensemble.   

Maestro Cooper’s winning piece titled “Octagons,” is a chamber music work written for clarinet and string quartet and stylistically includes “folk tradition with a touch of Middle Eastern flavor.”  Maestro Cooper was chosen through a competitive process by a selection committee made up of NSO musicians and conducting staff.   

As a result of his selection, the premiere of “Octagons” will be performed as part of the Millennium Stage series taking place at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on Friday, May 18, 2012 at 6 p.m. The one-hour long prelude to the NSO’s full concert will be streamed live online at www.kennedy-center.org/programs/millennium for viewing.  

More Events!

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By Jim Lange
 · May 3, 2012

student art work
Samantha Watson's “The Pain of Conformity” is just one of the student art works featured at the Clay Center.

TO SEE:

See artwork from local students at Clay Center 

(Charleston,W.Va.) 5/2/12 – See impressive artwork from Kanawha County students at the Clay Center beginning this Saturday. Two- and three-dimensional pieces in a variety of media including pencil, pen and ink, paint, photography and sculpture will be on display through May 13.    

Student work was chosen by teams of local educators and artists, and this exhibit showcases the top finishers in each category in grades K – 12. The Clay Center partnered with Kanawha County Schools on this exciting exhibition.   

The artwork will be on display in the Center’s Mylan Explore-atory. Gallery admission is free for Clay Center museum members or just $6 for kids and $7.50 for adults. Museum hours are 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Wednesday – Saturday and noon – 5 p.m. on Sunday.  

For more information on this and all Clay Center programs and exhibits, visit www.theclaycenter.org or call 304-561-3586. 


Chas Civic Chorus
Founded in 1952, Dr. Truman Dalton and the Charleston Civic Chorus.

TO HEAR: 

Charleston Civic Chorus   

3 pm

Sunday, May 6

Charleston Baptist Temple

Works by John Rutter, Eric Whitacre, Mark Hayes, Andre Thomas, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and more!

Get Out of Thy Cave

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By Jim Lange
 · May 2, 2012

hermit card
While being in hermit mode can lead to self-discovery, going out to concerts refreshes the spirit like nothing else.

I am so awful.

For a guy who espouses the virtues of live concerts, my attendance at such events is very limited. In fact, it's rare that I drag myself out of my house and go to hear some live music.

But, I am trying to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.

There is no DVD or CD recording of a concert that can capture the experience of having been there. It's the x factor that makes live music so special. Plenty to hear:

Kanawha Forum.

 WV Symphony.

Wheeling Symphony.

Pittsburgh Symphony.

Obviously, I have omitted some concerts and events. Want me to post yours here? Then, email me: feedback@wvpubcast.org.

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