Friday, 24 June 2016

Lehigh Choral Composers Forum: Day 5

No rest for the wicked I guess.... #workingbreakfastselfie
Thursday morning, and there's definitely a slight air of tension and urgency in the Zoellner Arts
Centre this morning, as people are frantically trying to pull together their pieces for the afternoon readings. It's noticeable that, every morning at breakfast there are less and less people in the room (and those in the room are still on their laptops). However, that's not to say the spirit is not still of fun and enjoyment! Us composers - we know how to multitask!

The morning seminar was focused on Dr Sven-David Standstrom; hearing him talk about his process as a composer, and showing us his works. I've mentioned before how Sven-David is so personable, direct but compassionate, and this was just highlighted even more in his presentation of his works. It's also worth noting how energetic and enthusiastic he is for a man of 75! A lot of his general comments come out as amazing 'inspirational quotes' without any forethought, one of my favourites of the morning being, "music is less about how you feel, and more about deeper forces inside you, which are there when you need it - especially when you need it!" - Sven-David's music is incredibly powerful, and there was a couple of times I got chills listening to it. His use of harmony and vocal texture in particular are incredible, and I strongly urge you all to listen to his work (you can find him on youtube, this is a link to popular works of his:
Sven-David Sandstrom, sorting out his recordings
His work 'Passion of St John' for 6-part choir, counter-tenor and baritone soloists, string ensemble and Tuba was particularly evocative, featuring some incredible vocal ranges for all the singers, and indeed the Tuba player! When talking about using extreme ranges, Sven-David told us about a performance of his 'High Mass' where the conductor and the singers complained of the high vocal ranges, and his answer was, 'Yes, the ranges are high... it is a High Mass' - delightfully funny, but also highlighting a very valid point. As composer (or indeed a creator of any art), there will always be people who find fault, or just find something to complain about in your work - but if you can stick to your guns and justify your artistic decisions, people will have to accept it.

Another working lunch for us today, this time Casey Rule, both a participating composer and intern for the forum gave talk on the realms of self-publishing, and self-publishing models, based on his own independent publishing platform NoteNova. I myself have chosen a self-publishing platform route, at least for now, as a way of getting my work into the ether as a purchasable product (which, by the way, you can find on There was a lot of discussion about how to market yourself, and that you need to think of yourself as a business (nothing new, I had many lessons on this at LIPA), and how the most profitable means for a composer today are direct commissions. Royalty payments are barely worth it, unless you make it big as an artist (although, I quite enjoy that moment when I get a statement for £2.84 once a year...), so the best way to make money as a composer is to build relationships with choral/ensemble directors. Another good way to, perhaps not make a profit, but get your name out there is to do a commission exchange with another composer, for example "I'll pay you for your piece for my choir, you pay me for my piece for your choir". This is a concept that has actually already come up amongst this group of composers - I know I'm already talking to several of the guys here about them possibly performing my works, and I'll look at their works for groups I work with. Again, it's all about who you know!

The mid-week madness has definitely set in....
My one-to-one today was very much a technical lesson. I'm now in the hyper critical stage of composing, so Dr Sametz and I really picked at my piece in terms of articulation, vocal setting, dynamic controls and phrasing. I'm now on version four of this piece, and I guarantee there will be at least one, if not two more revisions before the concert on Saturday! It is an amazing luxury to have both Dr Sametz and Dr Sandstrom available to review my work and pick out things that need fixing, even if it is only a layout issue! And actually, there is a lot of camaraderie amongst the composers; proof-reading each other's pieces, or offering advice on a layout issue, or a technique that perhaps is new to someone but you've done before. This is very much a 'safe space' here, with no-one being big-headed or precious about excepting help from any source. As Dr Sametz stated at the beginning of the week, "you will learn from everyone here!"

The Princeton Singer sessions today were definitely more in-depth, with more focus on performance specifics of each piece, with most people at the point where their piece is near completion. Even though we're not expected to attend the session if our piece is not being read, I've turned up to every one, even if I'm doing other work whilst in session. Being in the room whilst a session is on does teach you a lot, even if you're not actively participating. It's not just about hearing the music, there's so much to pick-up. Dr Sametz has explained professional rehearsal conduct to us, for example, how composers should speak only to the director, not the performers, unless there is a direct question from a performer, and also how we should refrain from 'shadow conducting' (essentially, conducting along to the piece), as it's distracting to the singers.

Maybe it's the build in tension as everyone is pushing to get a finalised piece, but there was a definite air of, 'let's go out tonight' about the end of the night. First (yes, first) we made our way to a little speakeasy-style bar called 'The Bookstore' - absolutely brilliant place! Amazing cocktails (with American measures, thanks very much!), and a live Jazz trio were playing in the corner. Awesome place to unwind after a long day of serious choral music! After kick-out time, Casey Rule treated us to $1 pizza slices at Sotto Santi, where we found out it was Karaoke night - now, I don't know what it is about composers and Karaoke nights, but we like to take over the entire event (as evident from Charlotte New Music Festival last year!). We had the most amusing version of 'My Way' (or, 'I did it 'sideways') from Mark, a classic 80's belter 'Alone' from me, and a pretty sexy version of 'Feeling Good' from Casey (yeah, right... he's never done Karaoke) - but the winner of of Karaoke (not an actual competition, but yes, he just won the night in general) was Michael Fairbairn performing 'Somebody to Love' by Queen. Sir, I salute you!

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