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Mezzo-sopranos from Outer Space

In 2015, the writer Lisa Bolekaja published a short story in Uncanny, a magazine for science fiction and fantasy, called “Three Voices,” inspired by the Morton Feldman piece of the same name. At the climax, a vocalist’s skin pigmentation drains from her body and her eyes pop out. “How could she sing with no head?” […]

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Brandenburgs and Buffalo

Downbeat was in less than 24 hours for the inaugural concert on the ranch. A herd of trucks and tractors still rumbled through, as hundreds of construction workers added finishing touches to buildings, and cleared roads to the eight sculpture sites placed among the dips and rises of the 11,500 acres of this working cattle […]

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Performing Creativity

When I was starting out as a composer, in Canada in the early 1990s, being a composer was the opposite of being a business person. A few composers devoted a small amount of attention to promoting their work, which seemed both admirable and quirky; but if anyone was too self-promoting, it seemed like they were […]

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Mental Composers

Throughout history, artists, composers, and musicians have been plagued by personal demons. As a society, we adore the works of Beethoven, perhaps due in part to the crippling emotional impact his deafness had on his music. We appreciate Schumann, though he went insane through the latter stages of syphilis. But is there a more modern […]

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Postcards

Ojai Postcard #1 On Pauline Oliveros’s “Sonic Meditations” Sitting and listening to live music from a source I cannot see can be a strange experience. As a student at Oberlin, I spent a few half-hours staring at the front wall of Fairchild Chapel as friends and visiting luminaries played the famous organ from the loft […]

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Program Music

Recently, I played a series of symphonic movements for a class. Some were by Mozart, and others by other composers. With a little practice and guidance, the class picked up a rough impression of Mozart’s style, as distinct from the other works. The last piece I played was by David Cope’s software Experiments in Musical […]

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Unfinished

A few nights ago, I sat in Berlin’s Philharmonie listening to the Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin under the direction of Kent Nagano. The program was practically a Greatest Hits of German romanticism and late-romanticism: Wagner’s “Tristan” prelude and “Liebestod”; the orchestral version of Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht”; Schubert’s Unfinished; Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs.” I thought about […]

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Sound Color

In his gripping and provocative memoir Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa (1997), the journalist and former Washington Post Africa bureau chief Keith B. Richburg writes, “White people traveling in East Africa are rarely stopped, rarely questioned, rarely instructed to open their bags. They jump to the front of lines, they scream and […]

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One Night’s Chord

At the heart of Schoenberg’s string sextet “Verklärte Nacht” stands a chord. In the midst of the work, an ambiguous, complex, chromatic tone poem, the chord stands out as uniquely ambiguous, complex, and chromatic. The work was controversial when it was written, its lush, shifting harmony having been too much for many early listeners, and […]

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Chalk Spaceships

1. After graduating from Juilliard in 1997, I moved to Berlin on a lark, escaping from the untenable pressure of finding work in a city that needed no more musicians. In 2001, two years into my studies with the great Boris Pergamenschikow, I found myself in my first orchestral job as principal cellist of the […]