Last night, we kicked off the new season with a fabulous Groupmuse house concert on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Literally steps from Lincoln Center, we performed a program for about 25 people in a lovely, intimate setting. For those who don’t know, Groupmuse is an organization that helps pair musicians and house concerts hosts. A big part of Groupmuse’s philosophy is bringing neighbors together through music, so there’s socialization time before, during intermission and after every performance. Our host, Sheila, had a lively assortment of people. They gathered for about 30 minutes before hand. Matt, Suzanne and I were hanging out in the bedroom, which was acting as our green room during that time. At 6:30, Sheila introduced us and off we went. The audience was close….but honestly, not as close as our concert at 405 Shrader in San Fransisco. At that performance about 60 people were packed into what had been a storefront, and the greenroom was the space under the grand piano where we stored our cases. At Sheila’s Groupmuse, we had a bit more space though audience member Joshua could have tuned pages for me if he had really wanted to.
It was a house concert, but that doesn’t mean that we tamed down our programming. We did start with a lovely and appropriate CPE Bach Trio Sonata, but then segued into Doug Anderson’s, Reverse Variations on Arkansas Traveler (with Jokes!, as the composer says). An audience member told Matt afterwords that she cringed inwardly and thought “this could be awful” at the proposition of us telling jokes, but was pleasantly surprised that we told them so well. Proof again that practicing helps!
At intermission, it was socializing time again. Groupmuse concerts feel a lot like concerts up in rural Lille, Maine, where the intermission can last up to half an hour, because people come from long distances and want to have time to reacquaint themselves with friends.
Then we were back in for an all 21st Century second half. We began with Daniel Lemer’s Who knows? or ¿Quién Sabe? for those practicing their Spanish. This is a work by a young American composer, that employs a lot of extended techniques. It takes turns being super edgy with a lot of harsh squeaks in the strings and multiphonics in the flute, to beautiful, serene harmonies that kind of unfold, not unlike Lux Eterna, by Ligetti. And it rocks! Then we gave a very unofficial premiere of Pamela Sklar’s Two Journeys. We’ve performed the first movement before, but this is the first time anyone besides the three of us have heard the whole work. This is a haunting and subtle work, and you should just come hear it, rather than have me describe it to you.
Finally, we finished with Eidos II by Jorge Amado, our 2018 8SW Composer Competition winner. A big contrast with Pamela’s piece. Joyful, vigorous and a bit primal. I have to say, it was pretty loud in a Sheila’s apartment. I wonder what her neighbors thought was going on.
After it was all over, we had a nice time meeting some of the audience members and sipping a little wine –– not to mention some really delicious bread!
Now we are getting ready to head to New Orleans to present this program, plus Siegfried Thiele’s Trio. We will be working with some composition students at Tulane while we are there too, and of course, eating some beignets
If you want to catch this works, we will be playing them 4 more times this fall. Check out our full schedule here. And you can read more about Doug Anderson, Pamela Sklar and Jorge Amado in our Featured Composer Section. Just follow the links above or click right here.
Spring is popping up all over… or in our case, 8SW is popping up, which is definitely better then pooping out.
Over the last season and a bit, we have had two Pop Up concerts, and we’re doing it again to celebrate the end of our 2018-19 season.
The Pop Up concerts happen in a variety of spaces. So far, we’ve played at Alchemical Studios in lower Chelsea (not sure that is a legitimate real estate term, but let’s go with it) and Shetler Studios in Midtown. Our next one will be in the Theater district, at a studio we chose because we liked the name. Why studios? First, they tend to be less expensive than a more formal concert space like Tenri, or one of the halls. Also, they are smaller and more casual, which is the aesthetic we’re aiming for. And there are so many options in New York. These performances give us a chance to try different places and acoustics in a pretty low risk way. In the future, we are looking at spaces in the outer boroughs. (Yes, I’m originally from Queens, so I can say “Outer Boroughs”. I still think of Manhattan as going into “the City”.) Maybe even… New Jersey. Who knows?
These Pop Ups are short too. We like to keep them to about 30-40 minutes of music. They are a chance to try pieces out. With any piece, but especially with new music, it’s hard to know what you have till you trot it out in front of actually living people. With these concerts, we can see what works and what doesn’t — what we need to change or adjust. And most importantly to us, get direct feedback from the audience about what they heard.
On June 11, we will be playing three pieces. The first is by NY composer, Pamela Sklar. Pam is a flutist and composer. She and Matt spent many years trekking around Maine and Japan performing with the New York Ragtime Orchestra. I still remember Pam in her flapper dress playing “Whistler and his Dog” on the piccolo. Her work, Third Eye, is a long way from Ragtime. We have actually performed this work once before and Pam is currently working an a second movement that we will premiere in the Fall. You can read all about Pamela and her music in our Featured Composer Section.
Then there is the entrée of this little concert – Aribert Riemann’s Canzoni e Ricercari. This piece was written in 1961 and has been sitting in our library for a long time, waiting for the right program. It’s an interesting set of works that has solo, duo and trio movements.
Finally, a little CPE Bach. I know, not new music, but you know…variety. And of course we’ve messed with it –– Viola instead of a violin, so a few (maybe a lot) of octave changes, altering the timbre just a bit and no pesky harpsichord to get in the way of that nifty Basso Continuo.
These Pop Ups are free to attend, but, of course, we’d never pass up any donations. We do have a new recording to fund, and our 2020 8SW Composer Competition. and a few other projects that you’ll be hearing about soon…I guess I know what the next 3-8 blogs will be about!
Want to come to our June 11 Pop Up at 6PM? Great!! Drop us a quick email at email@example.com. Space is a bit limited so we want to make sure we have a chair for you and of course, tell you where exactly the performance is happening.
We are thrilled and honored to have been invited back to the Festival de la Habana this coming November. We’ll be posting news about the exciting program we have planned soon. Stay tuned!
Listen and watch and get blown away as Jorge performs his Sonata No. 1.
Welcome to our revamped website!
Having a website that functions on every conceivable platform is a necessity today. But as we launch this one, it has give me a chance to think back. When we came together 20 years ago (or is it 21? 19?) the thought of needing a website didn’t exist. Our first press photos were taken on actual film, with hard copy proofs, and were in black and white (ok, that was a style choice, though it may have been budget…who can remember). We had a hard copy brochure that we would mail to presenters, with an actual demo CD, that Matt would laboriously apply our labels to.
Of course, it’s not just media that has changed. We’ve grown — yes, older, but also musically. Recently we applied for a grant and needed to choose recorded samples to include. It’s been quite a few years since we’ve done this. I recall having a hard time in the past — every sample had a flaw. Not something that would destroy a live performance but under the microscope of adjudication could be an issue. This time we listened to five works from two recent concerts and they were good. Really good.
I don’t say that easily. As musicians we are incredibly self critical and always looking to improve but all three of us listened to these excerpts and were actually happy with what we heard. For me, it is a sign of how we have evolved over the last two decades. I don’t know if we will be around in 2039, and if so, what new media we will have to keep up with, but I do know we will continue to grow and learn for as long as we keep playing.
Please take some time to look around. Special thanks to Carol Lasky and John Hofstetter of Cahoots Design for giving us this beautiful new look!
Ina, Matt and I are very excited to introduce you to our first ever 8SW Composer Competition winner, Jorge Amado. Jorge is currently a student at ISA (Instituto Superior de Arte) in Havana, Cuba. His submission to the competition, Eidos II, is a very well crafted, powerful and energetic example of the potential future of chamber music. Eidos II is the second of what will be a set of independent pieces for diverse instrumental ensembles. Its title, a Greek term that means “type” or “species,” is a reference to the diverse possibilities with the instrumentation of chamber ensembles. The piece is greatly influenced by Afro-Cuban rhythms and the folkloric ensembles used for Santería ceremonial music. Please do join us at the Tenri Cultural Institute on November 16, 2018 for the World Premiere of Eidos II. For more information please visit here.
Jorge is a delightful, humble and very gifted young man. I find his generosity of spirit and his love for music to be apparent in this interview.
Suzanne: Who are your favorite composers? Which do you feel have had the most influence on you and why?
Jorge: Honestly, I do not have a favorite composer. They each have unique characteristics that appeal to me, from their own musical language to their personal historical context. How Shostakovich and Khachaturian could create such good music despite the social and political limitations in which they lived, for example, always amazes. In my earlier compositions for violin, my points of reference were J. S. Bach, Eugene Ysaye and Béla Bartók, thanks to their significant contribution to the “sonata a solo” genre for violin. However, many other composers have influenced my way of composing since then. I believe that a composer can never forget his identity and roots. Presently I am inspired by the music of composers like Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Tan Dun; With regard to Cuban composers, I feel that those who have influenced me the most are Leo Brouwer and my composition teacher Juan Piñera.
SG: When did you become interested in composing and why?
JA: I began composing at the age of 9-10, when my piano teacher, Dr. Claudina Hernández, assigned me the task of composing a work, which would be submitted for evaluation in an exam for Cuban works. This sparked my curiosity in composing and it became a sort of hobby. At the age of 17, I took the Carlos Fariñas composition workshop, which is taught by my current professor, Juan Piñera. Professor Piñera polished my way of thinking about composition. I think this new musical facet enriched my performance skills and improved my interaction with audiences. Nowadays, composing is like another instrument that gives me the joy of being able to play.
SG: We know you are a serious violinist. Do you find it difficult to balance playing the violin with composing?
JA: For playing the violin, like other instruments, you need to dedicate time and daily practice, and for composing, you must listen to a lot of music and then analyze it. There are also projects involving other media, such as arranging and composing for audiovisual media or theater, which nourish me. These are projects that also take a lot of time, and the day only has 24 hours. To find the balance between the violin and composing is not difficult. The challenge is to save time, and to find space and time for everything.
SG: What kind of impact does being a violinist have on your composing?
JA: Composing has enriched me as a performer, and the violin has helped me with composing. It is a bilateral relationship that has opened many doors for me. As a violinist, it has allowed me to know many masterpieces, from solo to chamber and symphonic music. These are means that allow me to study works in depth, and to study what works and what does not. Also, understanding the process has given me greater interpretive understanding, as well as experience dealing with rehearsals, nerves on stage, etc. These are resources that I draw from and utilize when I compose: like when music should have a peak moment, when it should be calm, and others. But, as I explained before, being a composer has given me many resources for performing as a violinist. They are like bridges that connect and allow me to pass from one side to the other.
SG: Can you tell us about your compositional process? What inspires you – and how do your pieces come into being? Does it start with a melodic idea, a rhythmic one, or a visual image – or some sort of broader concept?
JA: This is a very interesting question, because I am still figuring this process out. Usually, it is very linked to my moods; depending on how they are, that’s how the work will be. It starts with an essence, something that can mix melody, rhythm, and then it develops when I start to write. I do not rely on elaborate concepts and rarely rely on an unwritten narrative. I do not attempt to musically retell an experience, yet an experience might motivate me and inspire music that does not necessarily have a relationship with that experience.
Weekdays are the most productive for me, because I keep my mind busy and I listen to a lot of music in the hallways of my university. When I listen to music, I am not necessarily referring to instrumental music. It could be the birds that fly between the foliage, the contractors working on the restoration of the university that sometimes work to a rhythm, or sounds in the atmosphere that invade my home, like the cars horns and the loud sounds of buses and other things.
SG: In your program notes about Eidos II, you explain that “Eidos” is a Greek term meaning “type” or “species” and that it is a reference to the diversity of musical instruments that can be combined in chamber ensembles. The term “Eidos” can also be further defined as “the distinctive expression of the cognitive or intellectual character of a culture or social group.” In your notes you also write about the folkloric traditions that inspired the piece, and in this sense it seems that this extended definition is fitting. Was that your intention?
JA: I became inspired by platonic philosophy in 2015, when I delivered a lecture related to philosophical musical language based on the elements that propitiated the cosmological formation of the universe (this work obtained third place in the scientific philosophic event of my university). I found out that the term “Eidos” acquired a philosophic meaning in the Theory of the Forms and I conceived the idea for Eidos I at this time. Later, I learned about the etymology of the word, its pronunciation, the context in which it can be used, etc. through a student from Cyprus who studied at my university. Although it might link closely to the hypothesis which extends to the social groups of humanity, it was not intentional.
SG: How is Eidos I different from Eidos II?
JA: The most significant difference is that Eidos I is for clarinet quartet. I was composing works for violin, violin and piano, violin duos, etc. at that time and wanted to create something different. Most of it is written using an asymmetrical rhythm, something very unusual in my compositions. Since I was happy with the results, I decided to create a set of pieces for different ensembles. Eidos I was composed in 2017 and received an honorable mention at the Musicalia contest sponsored by my university every year.
SG: In 2015 you were part of a group of Cuban students who took a trip to Chicago as part of a cultural exchange with the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. Please tell us more about this experience. Did you have a chance to go to a lot of concerts/hear a lot of music while you were there? What was your impression? -Did you hear any new music – by this I mean anything written in any genre but by a living composer? What are some of the similarities and differences between what young composers are doing in Chicago and Havana?
JA: It was incredible, I still remember it as if it were yesterday. When I was there, I could not believe it. This was my first trip and the cultural shock was very strong. Chicago is a city that is frequently featured in American movies and television series and I was reminded of them while I was there. The opportunity to meet and share music with North American musicians was astonishing. Artists are sensitive to everything, but to be able to share what you love is something else. I was able to participate in a concert performed by the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic (CJP) and directed by Orbert Davis at Roosevelt University.
I also remember a frustrated desire when I went by a theater and saw an announcement for a concert of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with no other but Zubin Mehta at the podium. I was not able to attend because my visa expired the day before the concert. Regardless of this disappointment, everything else was wonderful: the orchestra, the musicians, the management team, and the family of the conductor. They are all great people.
I did not have a chance to interact with young composers because the agenda was so tight. After my trip, I dedicated a composition titled Reunion (Encounter) to CJP, which the orchestra premiered in November 2016.
SG: In your bio you mention being a guest speaker at events that appear not to be related to music. Can you tell us more about these interests? Do they influence your composing in any way?
JA: It was an event at which I delivered a lecture on a famous Cuban violinist from the nineteenth century, Claudio Brindis de Salas. I presented at the Escuela Nacional de Artes (middle school level,) as part of a workshop named “Afropalabra” (Afro-word,) sponsored by the Casa de Africa (Africa’s House). This institution is dedicated to highlighting the contributions of black personalities in Cuba. The connection with this violinist was shaped before I was born. My maternal grandmother had a spiritual bond with him to the extent that my maternal uncle studied the violin. I apparently followed in his footsteps. I think my interest in composing works for violin inspired by my family history became stronger as a result of my research.
SG: What is life like in Cuba for a young composer? What kinds of opportunities, other than entering competitions, are there for young composers to get their music performed?
JA: I believe that there are many talented young people with strong interests in composing in my country. I am not referring only to those who have formally studied it, but also to students who demonstrate a good level in their work without having studied it. My teacher offers a composition workshop to music students of all levels, from elementary to higher. His students develop confidence in their own work without being afraid of what it is considered correct or not. If a composer begins at a younger age, he/she will have a lot of time to find his/her own way of thinking about music, and I am very grateful for this.
Since Cuban popular music is more recognized internationally than its concert music, there is a strong desire in Cuba to develop concert music more. My university posts information about national and international contests and encourages students to participate. Such festivals as Casa de las Américas or the Contemporary Music Festival also support the participation of young composers.
SG: Do you think there are any common elements that are currently influencing young composers such as yourself in Cuba?
JA: I don’t think there is a common element among young composers here. Even though they may have the same teacher, students do not necessarily all follow the same aesthetic trend. They are all influenced differently and compose using their own language; some are based on intuition, others on calculus, etc. This has allowed for a community of diverse musical opinions that generates debates that converge and exchange in a bilateral way.
SG: What kind of music/which composers are you listening to at the moment?
JA: Currently, I am listening to a variety of musical genres that are different from what I do: from film and video game composers such as Howard Shore, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer and Jeremy Soule to Brazilian popular music and traditional Asian music.
SG: What will the next steps be once you have completed your studies at ISA?
JA: I really do not know what awaits me exactly because there are so many things I’d like to do. I want to continue working, studying and learning new things. I would like to explore orchestral conducting. I have wanted to do this for a long time. I feel that it is a very wide-ranging specialty that could help me develop musically as well as personally. I would also like to study music abroad, but if it is not in the future as I dream, I would be happy if I could teach composition at my university (ISA).
Jorge Amado is an up and coming young Cuban composer and violinist. He is the first prize recipient of the 2018 8SW Composer Competition for his work, Eidos II for flute, viola and cello. Jorge has been recognized for his work by competitions such as the Instituto Superior de Arte – sponsored by Concurso Musicalia (First Prize in 2015 and 2018, two honorable mentions in 2017 and one in 2018), the Concurso de Composición “Harold Gramatges” sponsored by UNEAC (First Prize, 2015), the Alfred Schnittke Competition and Composers’ Forum (Ukraine, Finalist, 2016). Additionally Jorge’s work has been presented in several festivals including the Festival de Música de Cámara (Havana, 2015), the Festival de Música Contemporánea de la Habana (2016 and 2017), the Austin Chamber Music Festival (USA, 2017) and the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival (USA, 2018). He has composed solo, chamber and vocal works, including both acoustic and electro acoustic pieces. His orchestral work, Reencuentro, was premiered by the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic in Chicago in 2016.
As a violinist, Jorge has performed with orchestras such as the Orchestra of Cuban Radio and Television, conducted by Miguel Patterson, the project Chicago-ISA’s orchestra, conducted by Orbert Davis, and the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic (2015), also conducted by Orbert Davis. Additionally, Jorge has performed in concerts and workshops presented by Casa de las Américas in Havana, as part of their Composition Awards concerts. He has participated in the recording of two albums, sponsored by the AHS and Colibrí Productions.
In 2015, Jorge participated as a speaker at the XIX Scientific Workshop on Social and Cultural Afro-American Anthropology and the VII Meeting of Orality “Festival Afropalabra.”
Jorge is currently a student at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), majoring in Composition with Maestro Juan Piñera and Violin with Maestra Carmen Amador. He graduated with a specialization in Violin and Music Theory from the Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA) in 2016, where he received honors for his comprehensive academic and civic achievements.
Please visit here to hear Jorge perform his Sonata No. 1 for solo violin. It will take your breath away. Want to hear more? Please visit here to hear a performance by the Fear No Music Ensemble of Jorge’s Triptico Cubano and here to hear a performance of his Sueños Ancestrales for violin and piano performed by Abel Rodríguez and Jelger Blanken.
I am very excited to introduce you all to the wonderful flutist and composer Pamela Sklar. Pamela has had an extraordinary career performing with the likes of Dave Brubeck and touring as a soloist with the ever popular Claude Bolling, just to name a few. We are honored that Pamela composed her work, Third Eye, for Eight Strings & a Whistle.
While she might not, I still do remember the first time I met Pamela. It was on a Metro-North train to Bronxville, shortly after I had graduated from college. I was on my way to my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, to perform on a concert of flute music that had been organized by my former teacher, Gerardo Levy. I was with Gerardo and a few other people who were performing on that program, and Pamela was on the same train. What I don’t remember is if she was playing on that concert with us, or if she just happened to be on the same train that day –– Funny, you’d think I’d remember the concert instead! I was struck by Pamela’s down-to-earthedness. She seemed so centered, curious about everything, open minded and confident in a way that was a pleasure to be around. Pamela and I have crossed paths many times since then, but I don’t think we really had our first substantive conversation until about ten years ago, when we were performing together on another concert of all flute music. Pamela and Matt toured for many years together with the New York Ragtime Orchestra in Maine and Japan and she knew about Eight Strings & a Whistle. I think by the time we started really talking at that concert in 2008, there was an established rapport between us. Shortly thereafter, Pamela starting coming to our annual concerts at the Tenri Cultural Institute. She has been such an enthusiastic supporter of our work and when we talk about what it is we are all trying to achieve musically, she still reminds me of that first time I met her on that Metro-North train.
Pamela’s Third Eye was completed and sent to us in December, 2017. Since Eight Strings & a Whistle was formed, we have been very lucky that so many composers have written such wonderful works for us. But Pamela is a FLUTIST, and for me personally, her wanting to compose for us was a very welcome addition to our repertoire. Third Eye interweaves the viola and the cello with the colors of the flute in a way that I love so much, creating a painting of tremendous beauty and spirituality with sound. We premiered Third Eye in March of this year at Bronx Community College. We plan on more performances next season – we’ll keep you posted!
In the meantime, please enjoy my interview with the wonderful Pamela – “La Reine” Musicalement, Flutistiquement, Jazzistiquement et Amicalement – as Claude Bolling so beautifully put it!
Suzanne: What drew you to composing? Can you describe how you sought to develop as a composer while maintaining a career as a flutist?
Pamela: I loved making up colorful characters and playing music as a kid. I was drawn to composing basically the same way that I just had to write stories as a child; about comic book characters I invented (Sky King, Onion Lad, for example), and the same way I just had to play the flute. I never studied composition formally but I did write some brief piano pieces during childhood, a flute duet later, and a brass quintet in college.
I was a performance major at Mannes College of Music in New York, and was very focused on my flute playing during the early part of my career. Composing was not a priority at that time. I came back to it in about 2009, when a colleague of mine heard something I’d attempted and told me that I should compose. He was forming a new composer-performer group and invited me to write a work for it. His best advice was, “Don’t judge. Just write.” He was sharing with me what his teacher had told him.
I began developing further as a composer while maintaining a career as a flutist without much particular planning or thought, actually. I always understood from childhood that I would be a musician, so writing for colleagues and groups is a natural extension of playing for me. Also, I’ve always loved playing chamber music, and I equally love composing for small ensembles.
Suzanne: What is your process and how has it changed as you have matured?
Pamela: For me, the composing process is aided by having specific people or themes in mind. A particular instrument and player, or a nature theme such as a setting, a climate, or element, for example, give me a mood, a feeling, impressions, imagery, and/or a dynamic. These integrate and enable me to combine energy, rhythm, tempo, pitch and colors which involve synesthesia. This whole process gives me greater musical detail and direction. I feel as though I’m maturing through – or almost maturing! – because of my writing! In any case, using some of what I learned in music theory classes and from what I hear and have written earlier changes some of my writing, but I’m not certain the process itself has changed much, if at all.
Suzanne: You and I started talking about you writing a piece for Eight Strings & a Whistle a few years ago, and then we revisited the idea this past Fall. How did you come up with the material for Third Eye? Can you describe your process a little bit in terms of how Third Eye came into the world and what inspires the musical ideas you choose to explore in your work?
Pamela: Third Eye was something of a distilled version of what I feel from the three of you when you play together, as well as the way your energy connects when you communicate verbally. You share a very focused, pure blend with a spiritual link. So, in terms of a theme/material I wanted to write something spiritual – something felt but not seen physically: like a third eye. I was practicing one day and suddenly just started playing a rush of notes. I quickly recorded them and realized this was the introduction, which needed to begin with flute. The realization of the title took longer than creating some of the music.
Suzanne: When I hear you play and listen to your recordings, I am struck by the variety of influences that both color your playing and your composing. You are such a versatile artist. While this is an interview about your work as a composer, I’d be curious to know who some of your greatest influences have been both as a flutist and as a composer. I would guess that the two sides of you come together often. Would you say that there is overlap in terms of how the various people you have worked with as a flutist throughout your career have influenced you as a composer?
Coming back to the influences I hear in your work, I hear the ethereal and spiritual drawn from Middle Eastern and American Indian senses of tonality, but I also hear influences in other works, which seem to draw from other parts of the world. And then, there are of course the distinctly American Jazz works – and I can hear how you draw from all of these to various degrees to create a whole. How do you work with this, how does it come together for you?
Pamela: Thank you, Suzanne. I believe I have more than two sides, which come together for me in ways that change and are like different traits ofone bigger thing –– almost like contributing strands of inherited DNA. It’s all music: styles, rhythms, instruments and grooves. In fact, I’m almost embarrassed to say that I never thought about any of these styles as being different from one another! Again, this all goes back to my childhood and coming from a musical family. My brothers both played keyboard in fantastic rock bands which rehearsed at our house, and I also heard a lot of other music they listened to such as the WHO, BB King, Zombies, Wilson Pickett,The Doors, Blood Sweat & Tears, The Kinks, etc. My parents had Classical music playing on the radio in the morning and evening, and they took us to orchestra concerts. I also had a well-known violinist cousin whose recordings we listened to. All of these styles were just like different dialects of the same language to me.
Working with musicians such as Larry Coryell, Bob Mintzer and Don Sebesky at different times influenced my improvising more than my writing. My greatest musical influences in general are equally my favorite composers and performers which are rather random stylistically and genre-wise. Classically they include Prokofiev, Verdi, Faure, film composers Bernard Hermann and John Williams. Non-classical musicians/bands range from the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Motown groups, Moody Blues and Hubert Laws (with whom I performed while touring with Claude Bolling). I love Native American flute sounds and Middle Eastern music, but these ancient cultures themselves are what fascinate me; many Native American tribes were very spiritual and connected with nature and animals, and their artistic and colorful styles, personal beliefs and philosophies offer us much to learn from. Likewise, Ancient Egyptian architecture, ornaments, symbolic ritual objects and fashion are compelling to me and I have great respect for some of their rulers who advocated for peace. So, I’ve drawn much musical inspiration from them.
Suzanne: What is your view of music being composed in our lifetime?
Pamela: I like a lot of different styles and I want to listen to more contemporary music.
Suzanne: One of the questions (usually the last one) we ask many of our featured composers is if they have any advice for composers who are trying to get started. I remember a conversation you and I had a very long time ago about our careers, or rather it was more about the stuff in our careers that motivates and excites us. You made a comment about how important it is to grow – I think you even said something to the effect of, “as long as you are doing something to help you grow/get better, then whatever it is that you are doing is worth the time and effort.” It’s clear to me that this is the way you have lived your life in music. What more specific advice in that vein would you give to a composer who is just getting started with that part of their life?
Pamela: I can only say that we’re wired to like, to need, to do –– or not do –– very specific things. So, if you want to be a composer (a musician, actually) then do what you must to follow your path. Find a way (or create it!) to continue growing, move forward; learn more about the instruments or voices you want to write for; make connections with others who are playing and writing –– younger or older. For depth and balance, take in historical references like dance, visual art, architecture, museums and read about places and events. (My favorite genre is historical fiction.) Also try to travel and be exposed to other cultures, even if briefly.
I completely had to do what I’m doing and never felt that it was a choice. It was a path, which lead me. This path was and still is very difficult at times. There have been sacrifices along the way, but I absolutely needed to persevere. If you must do something you truly believe in, then you must be certain that it’s right for you. Keep stretching and learning and growing. You must live in that world and take chances.
Pamela Sklar’s compositions are performed in concerts, workshops, schools, on broadcasts and themed programs in the New York area and elsewhere, including the National Flute Association Convention in Chicago and the International Double Reed Society Conference in New York City, both in 2014. Her two original recordings A Native American-Jazz Tribute and Silver Pharaohreceived high praise from American Record Guide, Jazz Weekly and several Flute publications, among others. Her quartet Chains of Love, based on a poem by Cervantes, was premiered in Madrid in 2017 and received its American premiere in New York City in early 2018. A copy of her score of Spell 166 for five flutes and organ is included in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.
Pamela has been awarded seed grants for performances and a recording from New York Women Composers for her duo 2Flutes with Laura Falzon. New York-area ensembles that have premiered and/or performed Pamela’s music include Threeds, Englewinds, Double Entendre, Eight Strings & a Whistle, Northern Westchester Flutes, Women in Music and the Ramapo Valley Chamber Ensemble.
Pamela’s performance highlights include international tours as flute soloist with Claude Bolling, concerts with Dave Brubeck, Alan Hovhaness, Pulitzer Prize winner Karel Husa, TV appearances with tenor Andrea Bocelli, performances in orchestras for the GRAMMY Awards, jingles, films and recordings for many other artists including Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga and Paul Simon.
Pamela received her Bachelor’s degree with honors in performance from the Mannes College of Music. She has studied with John Wummer, Samuel Baron and Karl Kraber.
Upcoming performances include an original premiere for a Flute Gala tribute by the Hoff-Barthelson Music School and a program of original music by one of her bands Intuition Quartet. Upcoming recordings include 2Flutes’ debut Tapestry, and two more recordings of mostly original music by her two bands.
For more information, please visit www.pamelasklar.com.
A few years ago, one of Ina’s teaching positions included a chamber music class at The City College of New York. It was structured such that the students who signed up for the class got placed in one, maybe two or even three ensembles. The class time itself consisted of a combination of rehearsals and coaching sessions. It attracted a variety of instrumentalists with different levels of expertise and experience. Given the wide enrollment and range of instrumentation, Ina had to be creative in creating ensembles and assigning repertoire –– often including interesting arrangements of standard (and not so standard) repertoire.
Spencer Snyder signed up for Ina’s class in Spring 2015. He was working towards his Master’s in composition at the time. Spencer had started off in undergrad (New School) studying jazz as a drum set major, found his way to composing and joined Ina’s class as a pianist. It so happened that six, yes six!, singers had decided to take the class that semester as well. Ina was stumped – how was she going to be able to place all of them?
Fortunately, Spencer had made it known that he was a composer. Never one to waste a potential opportunity, Ina asked Spencer what he might have. Lo and behold, he had written, An Open Letter to Time Warner Cable, an unaccompanied work for five singers! I think the title speaks for itself – a good time was had by all, I am sure!
Fast-forward to the planning of our 2017 benefit. As many of you know we have decided to start a composer competition. Established composers have been so generous in writing works for us in the past, and it is time to start encouraging future generations. At our benefit, we wanted to get our donors excited about this project, and thought a short work by an up-and-coming composer might help. Ina immediately thought of Spencer and Red and White, which he had sent to us earlier in the season.
We enjoyed working with Spencer so much that we’ll be playing more of his work at our concert at the Tenri Cultural Institute on October 27 as well as in Cuba in November! We were also intrigued by what he had to say about his experiences in school and learning to compose chamber music. Given that we will begin accepting submissions for the 8SW Composer Competition this coming September, interviewing Spencer for our next featured composer article seems to be more than perfect timing. I hope you enjoy Spencer’s sense of humor and practical outlook on his budding career!
Suzanne: How did you become interested in composing? Please describe your experience with making the transition from being a drum set major to composing.
Spencer Snyder: Film scoring was my bridge into composition. I don’t remember why I suddenly became interested in it but it became a big focus of mine at Berklee. Once I transferred to the New School I continued pursuing it. I think I knew that I wanted to write concert music but I didn’t know enough about it. I felt as though anything I wrote would be invalid because I knew so little about the literature. Film scoring was easier because so much of what you have to do is laid out already in the film or in the director’s notes; “this scene is sad, make it sound like that one Postal Service song, can you have it by Friday?”
Compared to the creation of composing, drums were less satisfying as a creative vessel. I started feeling like my role was obligatory and my playing in one tune could be swapped for my playing in any other tune in the same tempo. Drums felt like the flour in the cake; and if I felt that way, whether or not it was true, I shouldn’t have been playing drums.
Because I was at the New School for Jazz, I was able to take classes at Mannes College of Music, part of the New School. The Mannes classes were sort of my gateway into more classically oriented music. Classical music was barely talked about at the jazz school. When it was discussed it was framed more as a curiosity, or maybe a quirky influence of a specific jazz musician. But there were a couple of experiences that helped push me over to the other side of the bridge. A friend invited me to see the American String Quartet play Ravel, and another friend lent me a recording of Boulez conducting Mahler 2. After Mahler, drums were just done for me. I bought every Mahler biography, every score, started learning German, and stopped practicing drums.
SG: You have mentioned that writing for non-standard instrumentation, such as 8SW’s, is what most/or a lot of composers end up writing for in the earlier stages of their career. Can you comment on your own process with this? Tell us about your experience learning to compose for more standard instrumentation as well as non standard instrumentation.
SS: I think it’s interesting that the topic of writing for chamber instruments effectively hasn’t been as formalized as other topics. A curriculum could be devised on how to teach it in a class, but it would be hard because the principles would be broader. In symphonic orchestration you learn things like typical doublings and how to arrange notes in the right order for a particular choir. It’s easy to break down the effects and the colors and learn how to use the choirs and the appropriate doublings. While orchestral writing is drilled into students, it is something only a tiny minority of composers actually get to do. Composing for non-standard smaller ensembles, on the other hand, are going to be the bulk of opportunities after school, but the process doesn’t follow typical orchestral rules.
Orchestration for small ensembles is hard to teach because of the varied nature of chamber music. You would have to have a class on string quartets, a class on ensembles featuring piano, a class on strings plus a single wind, etc. The coloristic choices of chamber music are subtle and less uniform and relegated to case by case. Appropriate couplings change in the context of something written for piano, violin, cello and flute, for example. How to use each voice effectively and how to have the piano part fleshed out with multiple voices but still have the other instruments participating in a meaningful way, is difficult to teach in the context of symphonic orchestration. Every voice is distinct. Having a multitude of lines becomes incredibly important. Private lessons are mostly where you get tips on how to negotiate these territories.
Everything sounds great when it’s played by an orchestra, but getting a satisfying sound out of something small is something different. You are no longer able to hide behind the power of 40 strings. The music has to speak for itself a little more.
SG: Tell us about your studies with David Del Tredici and any other composers who have influenced you.
SS: The foundation of my musical understanding was jazz so of course I do draw influence from it. I could circle the places in my scores that come from Wayne Shorter or Brad Mehldau. A lot of my rhythmic tendencies are lifted straight from Elvin Jones.
I got incredible and invaluable instruction from Del Tredici. It is immediately apparent that he is a master. His knowledge of the literature is staggering and he uses compositional devices with absolute autonomy. Del Tredici taught me how to be objective. He gave me more concrete instruction as well, (repetition, invention, orchestration) but most importantly he helped me understand the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of a piece of my writing.
SG: What compelled you to take Ina’s class?
SS: Ina’s class was the first time I had ever played chamber music, so through her and her class I got a lot of insight into navigating the actual interaction with the other players and what’s expected of me as a pianist. I wasn’t good enough at piano to have played any chamber music in my undergrad, and nobody was playing it anyway. I mainly joined the class because I wanted to experience that side of the music.
SG: Was it difficult to get readings or performances of your music as a student? How have you gone about that since being in school?
SS: Readings and performances in jazz school aren’t really a thing. It’s common to bring in a lead sheet to the ensemble you’re playing in, but that’s about it. Then at City College readings and performances weren’t really a thing because the department basically had no resources. Although at the end of each semester Del Tredici would get a chamber group together for a reading.
Performances post-school haven’t been that tough actually. Showing up to concerts, being cool with everyone, and organizing concerts yourself will at least keep you writing as much as time will allow.
Spencer Snyder (b. 1988) is an American concert composer from New York City. Spencer began his professional studies at the Collective School of Music in Manhattan. Then, after a brief stint at Berklee College of Music in Boston he went on to the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music where he completed a BFA in jazz performance. Most recently he earned his MA in composition from The City College of New York. He has studied with such distinguished composers as Conrad Cummings, Charles Fussell, Sonny Kompanek, and David Del Tredici.
Spencer’s concert works have been performed by The Manhattan Symphonie, Ensemble Mise-En, Eight Strings & a Whistle, The Mother Falcon String Quartet and many others. Upcoming premieres include a chamber opera with The Fresh Squeezed Opera Company and a piece for flute and piano by Novelette13. For more information please visit Spencer”s website here.
Merrill Clark composed Sinfonia Ternion Gestalt for us in late 2009/early 2010. It is a five movement through-composed work, centered around a lamenting non-vocal setting of William Butler Yeats’ The Second Coming. Yeats used Christian imagery in his 1919 poem, evoking post World War I, and Merrill uses his musical take on the poem as a means to reflect on our contemporary times. Sinfonia Ternion Gestalt is demanding, harmonically challenging and rhythmically intricate, and it intrigued and intimidated us at the same time. Never ones to be stopped by a challenge, we premiered the piece at the Tenri Cultural Institute in November, 2010. We chose to bring it back into rotation this season, including it in a program of works of varied styles, all of which make use of elements of the past to reflect the present. Please visit our Upcoming Concerts page for details.
One of the most exciting aspects of revisiting any wonderful piece of music, old or new, is hearing or discovering things you haven’t heard before and enriching your relationship with that piece. Asking Merrill to be our next featured composer has given me an excuse to explore with him what we have discovered during this recent rehearsal process and then share it with you. Learning about how the old European masters, traditional Indian music and jazz have found their way into Merrill’s musical language has been fascinating. Merrill is also our first featured composer to articulate thoughts about chamber music as an illustration of ways in which society can cooperate as a whole. I hope that reading this interview will inspire you to learn more about Merrill’s work, and come out to hear his Sinfonia Ternion Gestalt on November 18 at the Tenri Cultural Institute. For ticket information, please visit here.
Suzanne: What drew you to composing?
Merrill Clark: I’ve always enjoyed making things. Kinetic vibration sculpture narratives happen to be something I’m good at.
SG: How would you describe your harmonic language?
MC: My first great musical love was J. S. Bach. I heard my first real stereo at a party in high school. ‘Switched on Bach’ by Walter, now Wendy, Carlos. I was dumbfounded. I went to the local music store and bought everything I could find with that magic name on it. I got the Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin and tried to play them on guitar. I got the Inventions and Sinfonia and the 48-the Preludes and Fugues and tried to play the bass lines on bass guitar and the melody on guitar. I didn’t have over dubbing capabilities – or any recording devices at all – so I harassed every musician I knew to play Bach as duets or trios with me. I carried them with me everywhere even going so far as to put them inside my typing manual during class. (That was one angry typing instructor.)
I didn’t have piano skills so I learned to stack up and hear, by mentally arpeggiating, the harmonies in my mind. A skill that has served me well as conductor and composer. I then went to the library and started bringing home counterpoint text books. Goetschius, Kennan, Piston, Gradus ad Parnassum and eventually Taneyev, which introduced me to the concept of multiple subject fugues and stretto manipulation. The result was a disdain for homophonic music. (I have since recovered.) Even now when I want a striking harmony I will try to arrive at it as a confluence or convergence of independent melodic lines.
My harmonic language now is most often incidental to the structures I make. I am keenly aware of dissonance, which I use in more of a 16th century sense (although I don’t have much use for those rules of strict counterpoint which seem to me to be designed to prevent parishioners from dancing in their pews) and I think in intervallic tension flow, as I do in rhythmic tension flow, at the same time. So I have abandoned thorough bass, I guess. I can and do write well in consonances, if I choose to, without really establishing a mode or key.
SG: Please describe your musical influences and how they carry over into your work.
MC: I think it would be accurate to say that I have never heard music that I didn’t learn from and that didn’t change my musical boundaries and vocabulary in some way. When I listen I try to find universal principles – the things that are the same in music that is made in every culture. It is sometimes difficult to hear past the European/American paradigm that I grew up with, but I can find things to admire in almost everything I hear.
The most important principles I have formulated for my own work are:
1. Continuity of the center of mass in a musical structure. That is to say, making the ensemble a collective and the weight of its notes and rhythmic tensions move together in some kind of logical manner. A sub heading of this is what I have labeled “brake and wake”: When a mass changes direction or stops the Newtonian momentum (my term is “muta-inertial curve”) some part of the mass remains stationary (the “brake”) while the rest of the mass continues in the same direction until the tonal gravity acts on it and pulls it back toward the stationary mass. This model can apply to a single melodic voice as well. This principle, although probably intuitive for most musicians, is fundamental to jazz. So-called “tail gate” trombone is an early example. When jazz players talk about “feeling” the music and “swinging” I am convinced this is a big part of what they mean. This principal is also found in the works of most of the classical and romantic era masters and those of my preferred 20th century composers: in the string quartets of Schönberg, Webern and Berg, in Bartok’s work, in Berg’s chamber concerto, as examples.
2. The drum is an organizing principle equal to the human voice. I have been fascinated by drumming for four decades now. It is an intellectual challenge of a high order to create musical environments and narratives with just a small handful of sounds. I always keep a music manuscript notebook handy to jot down ideas that come up at odd moments. A good percentage of those ideas are modeled on drum rudiments. My work, Trombonist from Hell, for example, started out as a rudimental drum figure that was expanded into a double fugue subject in complementary rhythms so a single player could play both simultaneously.I still teach that pattern to my drum students. (That pattern is LRRRLRLRRLRLLRLR – RLLLRLRLLRLRRLRL if you want to try it at home.)
3. The actions of voices in an ensemble should, most of the time, affect each other. For me two of the most perfect examples of this are a) in Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra in the third movement Elegia, when the high woodwind and low string descending scales repeatedly hit the heavy chords and the trumpets react to the impact, and b) in the Second Piano Concerto, at the end of the second movement, where the strings return to the choral style of the opening: the piano plays a trill and Bartok marked the strings tremolo. That kind of color and motion interaction is something I value greatly.
4. Music should have a viable social/psychological interface with its intended audience. The primal connection between the listener and music, before words and before melody, is the rhythmic content. And that means body rhythms; rhythms which range from the fastest movements possible to human fingers to the slowest music to which we can still pay attention, with the common denominator being a predictable pulse. As a young composer, I found that I wanted to connect as directly with listeners as I thought jazz related musics, such as African and Hindu derived musics, did. As I became semi-proficient at twelve-tone composition, about 25 years ago, unlike many composers of the Schönbergian stream, I made a decision not to abandon pulse or thematic development.
5. Musicians spend a lifetime in the practice room learning to make their instruments sound good. A composer should respect that. I try to give them opportunity to display their laboriously acquired skills, and, perhaps a result of my jazz background, where written melodies were regarded as no more than suggestions, I also try to leave some room for interpretation. That makes me a traditionalist in some sense.
I may ask a player to make a harsh sound but it will always be for some kind of musical effect.
SG: In addition to being a composer, you are a pianist, recorder player, guitarist, bass player, have studied the tabla and percussion. Can you elaborate on how these particular experiences have influenced your work as a composer?
MC: Glad to. That is all by design. My recorder playing keeps me in touch to some degree with wind playing and phrasing. My bowed bass playing connects me to the rest of the string section. My piano playing in jazz keeps me in touch with what Stravinsky called “the wisdom of fingers.“ My piano playing as I explore the classical and romantic piano literature gives me little glimpses into the musical thinking of some of the greatest musical minds that have ever lived. My guitar playing, my first instrument and first instrumental love, exercises my ability to reduce ideas to their simplest form- essential skill for any composer. My drumming studies (toying with Persian drumming right now-it’s amazing stuff) keep me connected to the body rhythms I mentioned above and are the closest I come to meditation and transcendence. The fact that I am able to teach everything I’m interested in privately (what institution would put up with that?) keeps me almost in shape on all those instruments and connected with the physical aspects of playing. The teaching, 5 year olds to adults, keeps me connected to what listeners can be expected to assimilate and digest.
SG: How might playing the tabla influence how you write for the flute or strings?
MC: Indian music is a big influence on almost everything I write. When I want a line to stand out, be a ‘solo’ for the player, I use two main devices (aside from the traditional European tricks – contrasting dynamics and colors, separate registers, contrasting phrasing etc): One is to use polyrhythms so that all the attacks are done by that instrument alone rather than in unison with another instrument. The other is to use the Indian principle of Tehai: a series of temporary rhythmic “tonics” are created which are out of sync with the underlying pulse of the Tal, (what we call the meter or cycle) and the final rhythmic tonic coincides with the “sum”, or first beat of the Tal in a very satisfying conclusion to the phrase group or the entire performance. This is a basic and ubiquitous structural component in Indian music. Both devices give similar effect. With Tehai, however, it is possible to be much more irregular and asymmetrical.
SG: Are there things apart from music that have influenced your work?
MC: Indeed. My first compositional success was a piece for Jazz band that included what I called a “geodesic canon”. The meter was 9/8 divided 3/8 + 3/4. The canon treated the large bar and small bar the same so it seemed to balloon – shrinking and expanding. (What can I say? I was 19. I understand Fuller better now.)
I am influenced by film, computer graphic art (I love G Force. Hat[s] off to Andy Meira. Genius), architecture, Joseph Campbell, Zen, Gurdjieff and Ouspenski, Picasso, Dali, Van Gough, Manet, Pollack, Escher, Mandelbrot, Poe, a large raft of science fiction writers, dance, biology, philosophy, informal logic, astronomy, sculpture, history, language, physics….pretty much everything I’m interested in finds its way into my music at some juncture.
SG: To us, Sinfonia Ternion Gestalt flows outward quite organically from the central Aria movement. How did you arrive at setting Yeats’ The Second Coming for this central movement? What made you decide on this particular poem?
MC: That is an excellent observation. Redemption seems to be a theme that I keep returning to lately. In writing the Sinfonia the idea actually hit me midway through the first two sections when I was thinking ahead to how I wanted to feature your playing. I was also thinking about chamber music as a conduit for the preservation of civilization and as a civilizing factor in society. In a flash I decided to use the phrasing and emphasis in the Yeats poem and to name the movement Aria. So I guess in a way it did grow organically or perhaps just subconsciously.
SG: What is your view of the music being composed in our lifetime?”
MC: I’ve already spoken to that in a previous question somewhat. I would add that it’s a wonderful time to be a composer as long as you don’t expect to make a lot of money at it. We have fingertip, instant access to music from all over the planet. Traditions that are centuries old and the newest fantastic explorations of the best composers on the globe are ours to draw on. I listen for a couple of hours before breakfast most mornings. It’s always a feast for my ears. A violist friend of mine some years ago placated me when I was apologizing profusely for not knowing some staple of the string quartet literature by saying: “There will always be new music to hear. I find that comforting.” My sentiments precisely now. It used to be a truism that only the best examples of any artistic style would survive and thrive and the rest would disappear. Now in the age of the Internet, everything remains. Who am I to say one artist or one style or any one tradition is superior? I like what I like not because I want to impress anyone but because it pleases me to listen to it.
SG: Do you have any advice for young composers trying to get a start?
MC: Do it if you love it. If you want to make money, learn to create virtual reality environments or become a stockbroker. Write something every day no matter how short or trivial it might seem to you. The only way to be good at this is to do it for a lifetime. Don’t limit yourself to a single style but do find your own voice. That is what has value.
Merrill Clark has composed many works in a wide variety of genres, including the musical theater piece Sanctuary commissioned by Joseph Papp, a six-hour operatic mini-series Dorianbased on Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, and two Bass Concertos. Recent works include The Sorceress Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin, premiered by violinist Hlif Sigurjonsdottir in New York City and in Iceland in 2016. Ms. Sigurjonsdottir’s recording, Dialogus, features the sonata and was nominated for CD of the year in Fanfare Magazine. Prime Divisions for piano trio was premiered by the di.vi.sion piano trio in New York in 2014; the trio’s recording, di.vi.sionpremieres The Music of Merrill Clark, featuring Prime Divisions and Eighth Avenue Tango, was released in 2015 on Albany Records.
Merrill has collaborated with Brazilian violinist/violist, Eliano Braz in a concert of original music, which premiered Retrato do Eliano, written specifically for Mr. Braz, at the Fazioli Piano Salon in New York City. His long-standing collaboration with German trombonist Dirk Amrein resulted in a series of works for trombone: Trombonist from Hell for solo trombone (2008) which has enjoyed over 67,000 views on YouTube; The Wild Hunt for Alphorn, Piano, and Electronics, premiered in 2009 in New York City; and Bone Shredder for solo trombone, premiered in Germany in 2013.
Merrill received his early training at the University of Utah, where he studied with William Fowler, Joyce Newman and Ramiro Cortes, and graduated magna cum laude in 1978. He later studied with film composer, Pat Williams, contra bass virtuoso, Lisle Atkinson, tabla master, Samir Chatterjee, and Latin percussionist/arranger, Louis Bauzo. At the age of nineteen he was Winner in Composition of the American College Jazz Festival which resulted in his conducting a concert of his works at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, and the publication of a work by DownBeat Magazine. In 1985 he received a grant from Meet the Composer to present a concert of original compositions at Manhattan’s 13th Street Theatre, featuring jazz violinists, Brenda Vincent, and John Blake, Jr. Merrill has resided in New York for the last 34 years and maintains a private teaching studio. His book, Mastering Blues Keyboard, (1997) is published by Alfred Publishing Company.
Photo: Peter Gannushkin