Welcome for Pierrot Ensemble Premiered in Mexico City by Ónix Ensamble

My work, Welcome, commissioned by the Ónix Ensamble, has enjoyed two performances on their 25th Anniversary Season. It was truly a dream to write a piece for this ensemble that is capable of doing such extraordinary feats of virtuosity. They were amazing collaborators and wonderful to get to know during the process of this collaboration. For all of my fellow chamber music enthusiasts, I would highly recommend any of their amazing albums on their website which you can access by clicking here.

To read more about this piece, please go to it’s home on my website by clicking here.

ACA Artist Residency with Timo Andres

Timo Andres; photo by Michael Wilson, Cincinnati, OH, January 2017

I have been selected as an associate artist under composer-pianist Timo Andres as a part of the ACA Artist-in-Residence program. I’ll be mentored by Andres at the center in New Smyrna Beach, FL from February 13th to March 5th. I’m really excited about this, as Andres is an artist I have long looked up to, and whose music I find really stirring and beautiful. You can read Andres’ residency statement here.

Anthony Ratinov

I’ll mostly be working on a new commission from pianist Anthony Ratinov. Check out his performances on his youtube channel here. In the wake of receiving this commission, Anthony has really wooed me both by his virtuosic playing and amazingly warm personality. Normally commissions are the fruits borne from close relationships with a performer, which is why I feel simultaneously surprised and blessed that this commission has resulted in a wonderful friendship.

Reality’s Edge released on album A Contemporary Ukulele

My new work for solo ukulele, Reality’s Edge, is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music. It is featured on Giovanni Albini’s new compendium of commissions for solo ukulele released by Da Vinci Publishing. I’m sitting alongside a number of great composers, including my composition teacher from Estonia, Toivo Tulev. Giovanni Cestino provided liner notes, including a wonderful description of my work, Reality’s Edge:

A similar, hard-to-track borrowing is to be found in Reality’s Edge by Oliver Dubon, a highly introspective piece based on a quotation from a work (Grace and Decay for guitar solo) by his first mentor in composition, Brendon Randall-Myers. Despite of the strong relationship with the author’s life story, the atmosphere of this work spans from the rock-star introduction to a more lyric and scattered mid-section, where the reminiscences of tonal poles work as attraction elements to balance a quasi-fantasia writing, that finally comes back to an exuberant, yet delicate, strumming ending.

You can check out more information about this work at it’s page on my website here.

The Biggest Fish

Arvo Pärt (left) and me (right)

Since coming here to Estonia I’ve had an odd recurring feeling that people in the US are looking at me and holding their breaths for me to dish out some Arvo Pärt stories and content. This thought turns out to be surprisingly justified. When I was applying for the Fulbright Grant that allowed me to come here to Estonia, I reached out to a number of previous Fulbrighter composers who did their grant in Estonia. The two I actually got to have conversations with were boastful about the fact that they had one or two interactions with Pärt at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theater. I believe I am accurate in saying boastfully, but I should note that that might stem from the fact that they both adamantly told me I would almost certainly not get the grant and therefore the act of them relaying their experiences to me took on a bragging tone. Additionally, I’ve had numerous conversations with people from back home who have referred to EMTA as “the place where Arvo Pärt studied,” indicating that there really are a lot of people whom I am good friends with back home who would like to hear about my interactions with him (I can only imagine this is strengthened by me now being a resident composer at his centre).

I honestly did not think that I would run into Pärt very much over the course of my time in Laulasmaa, but as of right now I’ve seen him quite a lot every day. As I mentioned in my last post, it was really amazing when I first arrived and he so avidly shook my hand and told me he was happy I was there. He’s visited me while I’ve composed, said hi to me a lot in the halls, and just generally been a really amazing person to be around. Furthermore, without being prompted, each of the staff members at the centre will talk nonstop for hours about how much they love him, about how Pärt makes them want to be the best version of themselves, and how just his presence in a room can brighten everyone’s day. I suppose this is just a very American thought, but it’s really pleasing to meet someone so esteemed that is genuinely really lovely to be around (and also legitimately amazing to hear people say “my boss makes me want to be a better person;” don’t hear that a lot in the US).

Not to get too vulnerable or sappy, but I have been in so many instances over the course of my time composing where I’ve met quite harsh discouragement either from peers who were much more skillful than me, or from really big figures whom I looked up to. Those words really affected me in negative ways. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think that one could reasonably argue that the trajectory of people’s careers has a profound effect on their mental well-being and therefore on the energy that they exude. People who are further down the ladder therefore are probably in a worse mood, but just about everyone is in a pretty bad mood because everyone is looking up. Everyone always wishes they had a better career, and everyone enviously looks up to someone for inspiration. There’s always a bigger fish, and it’s tempting to think…well, maybe I simply met the biggest fish? For most of the 2010’s, Pärt was the most played living composer on earth. It would be completely reasonable to think that level of success comes with a profound peace of mind.

Well, I don’t actually think that’s right at all. My hypothesis about this is that negative personalities in the arts stem from being jaded, and then the subsequent moving up into stardom (if it happens) causes them to weaponize their negative relationship and history with their art against those below them. At any point in this process, they could attempt to be nice, but they aren’t because there are genuinely powerfully corrupting forces working against them. This makes a lot of sense given the variety of biggest fish. For instance, James Levine was probably one of the most skilled conductors ever and he was a horrifyingly evil person. Wagner was a profoundly prolific composer and became one of the most influential artists of all time (and if you don’t believe me, read Alex Ross’ new book) despite a slurry of awful behaviors.

The other side of the coin (which Pärt occupies) is that of the good person. I honestly don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it takes an enlightened-level of kindness to be as nice as Pärt. To be the most played living composer in the world, attending classical music concerts….CLASSICAL MUSIC CONCERTS where people (no joke, this has happened a lot apparently) scream that they love you and not let it go to your head, that takes work. It’s actually a kind of emotional labor that you have to expend in order to be so humble in those circumstances. Fame, even the niche academic kind that is enjoyed by a lot of composers, is actually really powerful in how it effects your mind. It takes a lot of energy to not simply be subsumed into the corrupting forces that could so easily make you bitter. I won’t go into specifics about what Arvo Pärt does with his time that allows him to be so wonderfully easy to be around. I don’t actually know, but now having spent a good amount of time around him, I have some guesses that aren’t particularly groundbreaking. Still I want to respect his privacy so I won’t even make an attempt, but there’s really no secret formula for taking care of yourself, it’s actually (at this point, at least in American consciousness) a public formula of physical and mental well being that will not just help you, but all of the fish around you as well.

Turn Away

My first day at the Arvo Pärt Centre was surprisingly stressful. Unbeknownst to myself and the staff in charge of the residency, some folks were taking the opportunity granted by the Monday closure of the centre to test the fire alarms. I spent a good amount of my day frantically scribbling sketches of the middle section of my latest work for chamber orchestra trying to get as much done before the alarms went off. Luckily for me, they alerted me before the alarm repairpeople arrived. And they were considerate enough to arrive later than they had initially planned, and then were fashionably late to their new arrival time. I also lucked out by the fact that there were no fire alarms in my room. Instead, all noise-making devices were tastefully far away from my room. I was, however, acutely aware of the alarms as they were going off, which is probably good and means that I won’t catch on fire for the rest of my time in Laulasmaa.

It was an interesting way to begin my residency, and I mean that quite literally and neutrally. This day and the sounds of the fire alarms were, literally, thought provoking. It reminded me of a story about John Cage where he was sleeping in an apartment with a number of his good friends and the fire alarm went off in the middle of the night. While his colleagues were tossing and turning and trying to figure out what to do as the alarm was going off, Cage recalls the following:

“I remained in bed, listened carefully to its pattern, and worked it into my thoughts and dreams; and I slept very well.”

When the repairdudes arrived and I was told that the alarms would be sounding soon, I walked over to the beach and back. Despite the fact that I was already thinking about John Cage and the possibility of just trying to vibe with the alarms, I had one too many cups of coffee from the centre’s actually very good coffee machine (and high quality beans) to trust my heart with staying in my body at the screeches of a fire alarm, especially one that gets me when I’m in flow state. Once I got back to the centre, I realized a bizarre parallel between Cage’s story and what I was experiencing. The Arvo Pärt Centre is phenomenal in it’s objective of acting as a sort of non-existent space. In the project of the residency program, it’s goal in “taking you away from the distractions of every day life and allowing you a quiet space to be with your thoughts and creativity” implies that the centre will exist in your consciousness as unobtrusively as possible. Much like Cage’s acceptance and integration of the sounds of the alarm, the APC as an architectural marvel takes itself very seriously as able to be intrusive of the minds of people who visit and obtrusive to their experience of that nature. There are many design choices that take this into account and are effective in minimizing their footprint on your perception. I could go on for awhile about the interesting philosophical implications of this design choice and what they say about the act of the creation of art, how it’s really just a sliding scale of impact, or how this design choice mimics the aesthetic of Arvo Pärt’s music itself, but I’m going to keep these APC blog posts as brief as possible. Only fleeting thoughts and stream of consciousness writing in this part of my website.

Despite the fact that I applied to this residency program with the intention of getting the silence to listen to myself, today was a reminder that there is in fact an outside world which deserves listening to. And sometimes, despite whipping out the essential oils, chai tea, Calm app, artist residencies or what have you, the world will still grab you by the collar and force you to listen to it. This again reminds me of a John Cage quote (which I kid you not I coincidentally read for the first time yesterday in a book that I brought to the APC with me to read in my down time),

“Music is continuous. It is only we who turn away.”

On a much more positive note, thank you to Arvo Pärt for greeting me with such enthusiasm today. Shaking your hand and seeing you smile so brightly was truly one of the most amazing things that has ever happened to me. I am immensely grateful to be allowed to take part in creating music alongside you in Laulasmaa.