We Built America: Friendship on the Erie Canal

Though I didn’t write about it here, I was fortunate enough to have been cast in Capital Repertory Theatre’s production of The Secret Garden in the winter of 2014. We ran for a month, and it was a life-changing experience. I hadn’t appeared on stage as an actor since 2011, when I played the role of Seymour in a production of Little Shop of Horrors at my alma mater, SUNY Albany. I made so many friends, with most of whom I still keep in touch. That production was staged in the actor-muso style, meaning I was also seen playing guitar and viola on stage. But if that production revived my love for acting, my participation in CapRep’s TYA tour of a new show, They Build America: The Workers of the Erie Canal, revived my love of people.

Without psychoanalyzing myself on the internet, I’ll say that in the past few years, I haven’t had many close friends. I’ve met so many great people through work, BMI, and Stockade Kids. But many of those relationships have been based on proximity and convenience. But I can truly say that I’ve made five close friends during my six-week engagement with They Built America.

But it was not all smooth sailing. First, the rehearsal process was intense. We had only 14 rehearsal days, eight hours each, to put together an hour-long show in which four actors play 20+ characters complete with costume changes. The show also featured a number of songs from the Erie Canal era (did I mention this was an educational show for kids that toured all over New York State?), and I was made the musical supervisor, meaning I was tasked with making sure we stayed in tune and sounded good. I learned how to play banjo in three weeks because our director thought it was sound good. There was a lot to do in a very short amount of time. Secondly, we had issues with a cast member that ultimately led to his being let go from the production. A replacement was brought in for the final week (week 4) of the tour. It would be extremely unprofessional to discuss the details of that. However, what I can discuss is what I learned from having observed this person during rehearsals and on tour. It was a masterclass in unprofessionalism. While I’ve always believed that I’ve always behaved professionally in the theatre, my cast mates and I found ourselves on our bast behavior at all times. His actions were a reminder of what happens to personal and professional relationships when trust is broken, both on- and backstage. Actors don’t go into a production alone. We depend on each other. The show falls apart if even the smallest of characters doesn’t pull his weight. But in a show with only 4 actors who also act as the orchestra and stage crew, each person must be focused 100% of the time. This show taught me focus and reminded me how to trust other people (something that hasn’t always been so easy for me). It also taught me how to be proactive. When things were at their worst, it was with the support of the rest of the cast and stage manager that allowed me to be able to discuss the issues we were having with our director and theatre management. I learned to stand up for myself and the standards of my art. And that brings me to week 4 of the tour. That week is the reason I wrote that I learned to love people again.

I was fortunate to share the stage with Jared A. Barton, Erin Ouellette, and Kristyn Youngblood. On the other side of the table were stage manager Charlie “C.W.” Owens and director Margaret Hall. I love these people. After our former cast member departed, there was a tremendous weight lifted from our shoulders. Jared stepped in to fill the role, we had an extra rehearsal to integrate him into the show, and we finished the tour with ten amazing shows (two shows a day). Our van rides to and from locations were filled with non-stop laughter and genuine conversation about innumerable subjects. Each day gave birth to five new inside jokes. Each day my heart grew. We found new moments on stage each performance, including that final show in Schenectady, NY, during which we gave the strongest performance of our tour, giving so much energy, buoyancy, and sincerity to our characters, to the point where I found myself actually elated and deeply troubled when my characters felt those emotions. In the final moments of the show, I have a moment where I turn to Kristyn (we play brother and sister who, at the end of the show, find themselves reunited after a year apart) and explain why the workers of the Erie Canal weren’t allowed to march in the celebratory parades when the canal finally opened. In that moment, I felt she was really my sister, as if we’d spend our entire lives caring for one another. That’s how close I felt to my fellow actors (and Charlie and Margaret, of course). That feeling hasn’t faded. I hope, if they read this, I’m not sharing feelings which aren’t reciprocated. But I can’t imagine, after the taxing and equally satisfying experiences we shared on this tour, they don’t feel similarly. We’ve got plans to go out for Indian buffet in the coming weeks.

Equally exciting for me was the fact that I was able to join Actors’ Equity because of this show. I never thought it’d ever happen. I consider myself lucky, but know that it wouldn’t have happened without many things coming together serendipitously. I went to college with Charlie Owens, who was taking submissions for CapRep’s EPA call this past summer. It was because of his Facebook page that I knew CapRep was holding auditions. It was fortunate for me that Secret Garden was looking for a violist. And when Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, the director, found out I also played guitar she was thrilled, as Secret Garden has a guitar book as well. Maggie told Margaret that she should look at my résumé when Margaret was casting They Built America, and that’s one of the reasons I was looked at for the TYA tour (I didn’t even know CapRep did these things). It was a series of fortunate circumstances that led me to be cast in They Built America, and I’m grateful for every person who helped me get to this point in my career.

I have a feeling I’ll be sharing more good news on the acting front with you all in the very near future. Stay tuned.

The 57th GRAMMY’s

The GRAMMY’s are tonight. And whether or not you believe the GRAMMY’s still matter (unfortunately, they do) here are my picks for the winners tonight. These are not predictions of who I think will win, but who I think should win. I’ve listened to the music in every category I’m listing. I’m skipping most categories because, frankly, I don’t care about them (especially Country; I hate country music; all of it; a lot). So here goes nothing. Let me know who you think should win in the comments section.

EDIT: My choices will appear in bold. All GRAMMY winners will appear in italics as they are announced.

Record of the Year (A Producer and Engineer’s Award)

Fancy – Iggy Azalea
Chandelier – Sia
Stay With Me (Darkchild Version) – Sam Smith
Shake It Off – Taylor Swift
All About That Bass – Meghan Trainor

NOTE: A producer should serve the music and stay out of its way. That’s way I have to give this one to Sam Smith’s team.


Album Of The Year

Morning Phase – Beck
Beyoncé – Beyoncé
X – Ed Sheeran
In The Lonely Hour – Sam Smith
Girl – Pharrell Williams


Song Of The Year (A Songwriter’s Award)

All About That Bass – Meghan Trainor
Chandelier – Sia
Shake It Off – Taylor Swift
Stay With Me (Darkchild Version) – Sam Smith
Take Me To Church – Hozier


Best New Artist

Iggy Azalea
Brandy Clark
Sam Smith

NOTE: I love Haim. Days Are Gone was one of my favorite albums from this past year. And I didn’t think Sam Smith’s album was that great on the whole. But damn it if I don’t think as an artist he’s going to take the cake here.


Best Pop Solo Performance

All Of Me (Live) – John Legend
Chandelier – Sia
Stay With Me (Darkchild Version) – Sam Smith
Shake It Off – Taylor Swift
Happy (Live) – Pharrell Williams


Best Pop Duo/Group Performance

Fancy – Iggy Azalea feat. Charli XCX
A Sky Full Of Stars – Coldplay
Say Something – A Great Big World with Christina Aguilera
Bang Bang – Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj
Dark Horse – Katty Perry feat. Juicy J

NOTE: I care for neither Ariana Grande nor Nicki Minaj, but this track is hot fire.


Best Pop Vocal Album

Ghost Stories – Coldplay
Bangerz – Miley Cyrus
My Everything – Ariana Grande
Prism – Katy Perry
X – Ed Sheeran
In The Lonely Hour – Sam Smith


Best Dance Recording

Never Say Never – Basement Jaxx feat. ETML
Rather Be – Clean Bandit feat. Jess Glynne
F For You – Disclosure feat. Mary J. Blige
I Got U – Duke Dumont feat. Jax Jones
Faded – Zhu

NOTE: There was something quite special about this track. Maybe it’s because the members of Clean Bandit actually play cello and violin. You can’t beat live instruments.


Best Rock Performance

Gimme Something Good – Ryan Adams
Do I Wanna Know? – Arctic Monkeys
Blue Moon – Beck
Fever – The Black Keys
Lazaretto – Jack White


Best Rock Song

Ain’t It Fun – Paramore
Blue Moon – Beck
Fever – The Black Keys
Gimme Something Good – Ryan Adams
Lazaretto – Jack White

NOTE: Is “Blue Moon” really “Rock”? I don’t know.


Best Alternative Music Album

This Is All Yours – Alt-J
Reflektor – Arcade Fire
Melophobia – Cage The Elephant
St. Vincent – St. Vincent
Lazaretto – Jack White

NOTE: I didn’t like St. Vincent before this record. The only time I really appreciated her voice was on Andrew Bird’s “Lusitania” and on “Who” with David Byrne. But this record really drew me into her world and made me take a second look at her earlier albums.


Best R&B Performance

Drunk In Love – Beyoncé feat. Jay Z
New Flame – Chris Brown feat. Usher and Rick Ross
It’s Your World – Jennifer Hudson feat. R. Kelly
Like This – Ledisi
Good Kisser – Usher

NOTE: “It’s Your World” is a really close second.


Best R&B Song

Drunk In Love – Beyoncé feat. Jay Z
Good Kisser – Usher
New Flame – Chris Brown feat. Usher and Rick Ross
Options – Luke James feat. Rick Ross
The Worst – Jhené Aiko

NOTE: My friend made the comment that Jhené never really sings, but rather makes “sleepytime rap”. That’s pretty accurate, I’d say. But in a year of massively over-produced records, “The Worst” stands out as something simple. Plus, the off-beat timing of the chorus really caught my ear the first time I heard it.


Best Urban Contemporary Album

Sail Out – Jhené Aiko
Beyoncé – Beyoncé
X – Chris Brown
Mali Is – Mali Music
Girl – Pharrell Williams

NOTE: This category has gotten significantly less interesting since its inaugural year in 2013


Best Rap Performance (the most exciting category)

3005 – Childish Gambino
0 to 100/The Catch Up – Drake
Rap God – Eminem
i – Kendrick Lamar
All I Need Is You – Lecrae

NOTE: Fuck! This was hard to pick. The “Catch Up” part of Drake’s smash is the best few minutes of rap I’ve heard in a long time. Eminem absolutely slays the entirety of “Rap God”. 3005 is that indie rap that’s been growing on me. But come on. “I”. There isn’t anything like it on the charts. There are so many flows on that song. The song is everything. And it’s been my anthem since it dropped.


Best Rap/Sung Collaboration

Black Majik – Common feat. Jhené Aiko
The Monster – Eminem feat. Rihanna
Tuesday – ILOVEMAKONNEN feat. Drake
Studio – Schoolboy Q feat. BJ The Chicago Kid
Bound 2 – Kanye West and Charlie Wilson

NOTE: There is no rapping on “Tuesday”. Why the fuck is it in this category?


Best Rap Song

Anaconda – Nicki Minaj
Bound 2 – Kanye West and Charlie Wilson
i – Kendrick Lamar
We Dem Boyz – Wiz Khalifa
0 to 100/The Catch Up

NOTE: See Best Rap Performance.


Best Music Video

We Exist – Arcade Fire
Turn Down For What – DJ Snake and Lil Jon
Chandelier – Sia
Happy – Pharrell Williams
The Golden Age – Woodkid feat. Max Richter

NOTE: A lot of people will want to award this to “We Exist” simply because of it’s message about transgendered people. I’m allabout equality. But a political message does not a good music video make.

AUDIO: maggie and milly and molly and may

I don’t often post demo recordings of works because they’re often of poor audio quality and there are frequently things I’d like to change about the piece. The demo recording of maggie and milly and molly and may, however, is pretty spot on. This work is part of a collection of works titled Songbook that feature acoustic guitar and male voice. Much like many of Charles Ives’ art songs are his takes on popular themes and sounds, Songbook is my take on American popular and folk music, much of which has been played on acoustic guitars.

100 Poems at the Year’s End

At the beginning of the year I made a resolution: to set to music 100 poems by E. E. Cummings. So I did. I’ve never composed so much in such a short time. I doubled my entire compositional repertoire. It was more than just an exercise in stamina, it was an exercise in creativity, having to make each piece sound different, to imbue each one with its own aural identity. I hope someday to hear them all.

And it is on this first day day of 2015 that I make the resolution to do it again, to set 100 poems more. And to keep doing so, 100 poems a year, each year, until I’ve set E. E. Cummings’ entire poetic output. At this rate, I’ll finish when I’m about 55 years old. But what’s a life without goals?

So who wants to help me plan a recital?

Here’s a complete and numbered list of this year’s works:

2. s.ti:rst;hiso,nce;ma:n
3. !
4. my lady is an ivory garden 
5. Lady,i will touch you with my mind.
6. pieces(in darker
7. who are you,little i
8. a like a
9. n w
10. sentinel robins two
11. off the pane(the
12. rainsweet
13. applaws)
14, 15, 16. Three Poems for Tenor
17. Doveglion
18. for Sean Harold
19. o to be in finland
20. insu nli gh t
21. the sky
22. IN)
23. annie died the other day
24, 26, 27. Three Poems by E. E. Cummings
25. for Cecelia
28. D-re-A-mi-N-gl-Y
29, 30, 31, 32, 33. Five Songs of War
34, 35, 36, 37, 38. Two Women
39. for Christiana Little
40, 41, 42. Three Songs of Rest
43, 44, 45, 46. Four Songs of Life
47, 48, 49, 50. Four Poems by E. E. Cummings
51. Three Women
52. i walked the boulevard
53. brIght
54. 102
55. plato told
56. a thrown a
57. wild(at our first)beasts uttered human words
58. Night shall eat these girls and boys.
59. air,
60. Couplet
61, 68, 69, 71. Four Songs for Baritone
62. the(oo)is
63. a politician is an arse upon
64. un
65. youful
66. & sun &
67. beware beware beware
70. Summer Song
72. r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r
73. out of bigg
74. Tumbling-hair
75. plant Magic dust
76. Young m
77. fl
78. a gr
79. n
80. n
81. this
82. love is the every only god
83. from the cognoscenti of radaw leschin
84. may i feel said he
85. this is a rubbish of human rind
86. no time ago
87. e
88. !blac
89. never could anyone
90. mr u will not be missed
91. or who and who)
92. may i be gay
93. twi-
94. wee people
95. cont)-
96. says ol man no body—
97. economic secu
98. this(that
99. Songbook: Jimmie’s got a goil
100. Hokku

Artist Guilt

I’m halfway through performing in a month-long run of the musical The Secret Garden at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, NY. The 3-week rehearsal period was one of the most intense creative experiences I’ve ever had, and that’s to say nothing of the stellar cast and crew involved in this production. But the show is not what I’d like to write about.

Last Friday (11/28/14), just blocks before reaching the theatre by car, my route was unexpectedly diverted. North Pearl St. (where CapRep resides) was blocked off at one end. I saw that hundreds of people had gathered. On that day, it could have been for only one reason. A grand jury had chosen not to indict Darren Wilson, the white officer in Ferguson, MO, who’d fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. The throng had gathered to protest this decision, and thousands (if not millions) of people all over the country were doing the same that weekend. I was slightly annoyed at this convenience of having to drive a few extra blocks to park. When I did reach my destination, the protest had begun, and a march had started up North Pearl, right past CapRep. On one side of the street: protesters of all ages and races carrying signs and softly chanting; on the other: the mostly-white, mostly-40s-and-up-year old audience filing into the theatre for opening weekend wearing beautiful coats and and suits and dresses. The incongruity of this juxtaposition was not lost on me.

I had, in that moment, feelings of guilt. My heart was with the protesters across the country, but my mind was focused on The Secret Garden and the job I was being paid to do. As an artist, I’m often confronted with conflicting feelings about imbuing my projects with politically- and socially-conscious messages. There are times when I feel it’s appropriate, and when I to find an appropriate medium to remark on the tragedy in Ferguson, I might be compelled to do so. In this instance, however, I was hired by the theatre to perform in a work of musical theatre that was written 30 years ago and remarks neither about race, police states, nor the criminal justice system. For the three hours I’m on stage, I’m merely providing entertainment, taking people away from goings-on in the United States and dropping them into a world where a little girl whose parents died of cholera finds a garden and miraculously cures an wheelchair-bound boy through mystical chants with the help of spirits from Colonial India. What am I doing to help better the social climate in this country with that? How can I ease racial tensions through classical Indian dance?

In earlier writings (which may soon be posted here) I’ve explored the idea that art is a non-essential part of our society. We do not need art to survive. It may the most important and integral non-essential activity I participate in. But never singing again is not the same as never eating again. With this philosophy in which I’ve come to believe over the last few years, I’m often riddled with guilt over not participating in more (read: any) actions to directly affect social change. My life will not end if I stop writing music, but more and more black teenagers will die if these protests do not result in changes in the way police departments conduct their business in the United States. It is a matter of life and death for minorities across the countries. So why would anyone waste their time in the theatre? in concert halls? in the movies? Disregarding works of art that directly comment on important social events and injustices, what role does Art play in affecting change? I’d like to believe in the idea that simply providing a space for anyone to enjoy art is something of a step. Perhaps that’s why I believe pure music is the most important tool we have in bringing people together. Money often gets in the way in theatre. Tickets to The Secret Garden start at $25 and go up to $65. Even I don’t often have an extra $25 to spend for a night out. Disenfranchised and impoverished minorities certainly would not waste $25 on a frivolous night at a musical if it meant not eating. Music is significantly less expensive and can be enjoyed endlessly if purchased. Music-listeners can create their own spaces to enjoy art in their homes, on the street, in a club, wherever, and those spaces are not framed by what is all-too-often the upper-middle-class-white experience found so frequently in theatre and movies. That’s not to say that upper-middle-class whites don’t and can’t have a role to play in bridging the gap with minorities, but minorities might be mistrustful of space set up by said non-minorities. Admittedly, our audiences have been mostly white. I expected that much. With all that said, I still want to believe that some art is better than no art. And if through school outreach and discounted ticketing we can entice more non-Whites to come to the theatre, I think the experience would create a feeling of inclusion and solidarity among all the audience members, and that would positively affect our lives. It won’t put body-cameras on police officers, but it might brighten someone’s day. That alone helps to assuage any Artist Guilt I’m feeling.


After posting this commentary on Facebook, I received many excellent comments that I feel are worthy of sharing here. My Facebook friends are labeled “A” and “B” below:

A: I love that you brought this up. I often have these feelings. You as a composer could do a lot by creating work that speaks to us all as human beings, acknowledging our differences and celebrating them. Yes, eating is necessary for survival, and (biologically) the arts are not. That being said, though, isn’t that what separates us from the rest of the planet? As human beings, there are many things that ‘feed’ us. Music, art, drama, dance, film. I’m am repeatedly thankful that I am getting to do what I love as often as I do. Let’s continue the conversation. I’ve said ‘human beings’ a lot, but we are all on this planet together, and I hope that as life continues we can all understand each other a little better.

ME: I very much agree, [A]. Most of my work deals with inner struggles, psychological struggles, without ever dealing directly with larger social issues. But there’s something to be said for speaking to personal struggles which have experienced or will experience. Knowing that these experiences are not limited to any sector of the population (nor any one period of human history) will hopefully bring people together. And I’m very grateful to be human, to have been afforded the opportunity to create art and share it with people like you.


B: I appreciate your writing and sharing this. I crave these kinds of questions, Justin, because they are crucial in getting us artists to talk about what we do, why we do it, and if it is really doing anything at all. How can we cope with the sometimes seemingly pointless work we do while our attention feels a pull towards bigger issues than, as you mentioned, telling the story of a young girl finding a garden? To this I say that as artists we have a collective responsibility to use our art in the most effective way possible. Because artists experience the world on a different emotional, spiritual, visual etc, level, we have the great and terrible burden of pointing out naturalized injustices, systems, beliefs in a way that affects ourselves and others and incites the desire for change. Your question, “Why would anyone waste their time in a theatre” (I’m focusing on theatre mainly here because it is the art form I am most familiar with), is a great one. You’re right that those who are “disenfranchised and impoverished” would not waste $25 to go see a story that might not seem to have absolutely anything to do with them, which is why I strongly feel that theatre needs to begin to head in a different kind of direction than where it has been living. Beautiful, tragic, life changing things happen onstage in theatres but those theatres are telling those stories to a very small portion of society. I’m very interested in changing the normalcies of experiencing theatre to avoid just that, to make it more accessible and attainable. We as members (more importantly, friends) of this artist community have the responsibility to not only continue to create the art we love so that it can be experienced but also to realize that the pre-existing conventions for how people experience art might not be working for everyone, especially for the people we might specifically want to be reaching. Yes, having a space for art to simply be enjoyed is a step, absolutely. I’ll add to that thought and ask what might the other components of that space be? Are these components helping me in sharing the message I want to share? Can they be changed? Can they be emphasized? I feel confident in saying that all artists experience this battle of guilt in full every so often. If that is the case, than I would love nothing more than to continue this conversation with you and our friends and fellow artists about what we want art to be individually and collectively and figure out how to get it there.

ME: It’s a bit of a paradox isn’t it? Outreach is important: “How do you get more people of color, minorities, etc. into the theatre?” But it’s often whites who do this outreach. Then the task becomes how to get people from disenfranchised communities who have artistic careers to go back into those communities for outreach. All the while this process has to be organic, not “We’re doing this show because we want black people to come our theatre to keep them off the streets.” Unfortunately, projects like this have failed commercially. There’s a real task at hand, but it needs to be approached carefully so as not to seem forced, as “realness,” I think, is the key element to integrating (and yes, I mean this in the Little Rock, AK sense) the arts, theatre especially. Everyone—including, and especially, Art as an idea—would benefit from this.

B: Yes, how to make those who don’t often go to the theatre (or any art form really) want to walk in the door and also flipping that idea by saying how could the space and all its components be shared outward to those people and communities that might have little interaction with theatre and other art forms. The work that artists do that deals with personal inner struggles and psychological struggles is absolutely crucial, for how can what we create be meaningful if we aren’t constantly figuring out the inner workings of ourselves? You’re so right that many of those inner struggles are not limited to just one section of the population; so many human experiences are universal. Your music reaches people and reaches out to people. It connects them by helping them see that you have also experienced something similar. I so agree that ‘real’ connection is key.

Composition as Problem

Several weeks ago I watched Painting, the illuminating documentary of Gerhard Richter. The film is somewhat of a wormhole, a portal, that opens up itself briefly to allow the audience to watch Richter create several paintings, to travel to his world, before closing, spitting us back out and leaving us to ponder the strange land to which we were afforded the privilege to travel. That is to say: Richter’s process seems ongoing, that each painting seems to always been in some state of being-composed, and no camera crew could have captured the entirety of a single painting’s composition because at any moment, Richter may have taken plank and plexiglass to any one of them—even one that may have been considered finished—continuing the process as if it had never been halted.

I found in this process a correlation to my own work, both current projects and early pieces. That which struck me so profoundly was what was clearly the Problem in Gerhard’s work. I don’t mean to say something is work with his process or the results, but the question that needs answering: When is it done? Each piece begins the same, with a blank canvas. Each piece ends at a point in the compositional process that is unknowable. Not only is that end-state unknowable, but the course that must be traversed to reach the end-state is also unknowable. Richter’s motto seems to be: “I’ll know it when it’s finished.” He’s looking for something specific, some balance in the painting, perhaps a feeling that jumps from the canvas, but he won’t know what these are until he’s painted them. And it is entirely possible that when he’s painted it, this result will seem unsatisfactory because it has occurred at the wrong time—Richter’s state of mind has changed; the physical dimensions are in array, but they are not in alignment with the temporal dimension. Therefore, what may seem complete one day may not be complete the next. This is why he lets the paintings sit on the walls for long stretches, so that he may become accustomed to them, so that he can see how they live on the walls. If, over time, they continue to seem complete, then they will remain as such.

Weeks after I watched Painting, I began to work on several short works for baritone and trombone quartet. And these pieces reminded me very much of my early work, going back to 2005, when I began working my first settings of E. E. Cummings’ poetry. Something that has always interested me is harmonic progression, and my ideas about harmonic progression today remain just as they were in 2005. Maybe someone has already created terminology for this, but at the time, I was thinking about harmonic progressions in terms of what I called choral melody. This is the idea that chords in a harmonic progression function as do single pitches in a melodic progression and that traditional functional harmony is replaced by this sense that a chord is a single unit of sound rather than a collection of discreet pitches. Thus, as we move from chord to chord, one should consider the entirety of the sound when choosing which chord comes next. (Again, there may exist language already to describe my philosophy, but I’ve yet to encounter it.) In 2006, I began work on String Quartet No. 6 (Elegy for Morton Feldman). The balance of this piece rests on the idea that each movement has fixed beginning and end points and the goal is to get from one to the other. Movement I: Get from a C chord to a C#chord. Movement II: Get from a C# chord to a D chord. (Major and minor start to break down in this work, so I identify the beginning- and endpoints using only the roots.) And so on, and so on. Here is where I encountered the same sort of problem as did Richter. Though I had identified endpoints, the routes to arrive there were unknown. Composing each movement was a bit like asking myself: “What sounds good today?” There are an infinite number of ways to get from A to B, but at that moment on each day, what I wrote down was what was decided upon. Listening to that work today, I clearly find what appear to be faults in my routes, missteps and shortcuts taken. But that is me listening with my 25-year-old mind, not my 16-year-old mind. The different between Richter an myself is that I’m too afraid to change it now. What’s done is done.

The great difference between music composition and painting is that I can know what different aural combinations sound like before choosing one; Richter must move the paint, affix it to the canvas to be sure of what it will look like before deciding on what he wants. And he cannot second guess himself; if he makes a change, but does not like it as much as what came before, he’s stuck with it and must proceed from there. The problem evolves with every choice. In music composition, every choice doesn’t need to have consequence because many choices can be tested first, like hypotheses, before arriving at a final conclusion: the decision of which pitches to notate.

The works for baritone and trombone quartet differ from the early Cummings settings because I have no predetermined starting or ending points. But I do have a vocal melody which is composed first, underneath which the trombone quartet moves. The problem for me to solve in these works is how to move this chordal melody to best support the vocal line. And I play will all sorts of pitch combinations, but I’m looking for the one that is correct. Despite all my training, all my practice, all the hours spent hunched over the piano, I’ve not found any shortcuts to arriving at the solution. The only thing I know is that I’ll know it when it’s finished.

AUDIO: Three Unspecified Locations

As you may remember, I was commissioned last year by the cello at Crane School of Music to write a piece for 10 cellos. The third movement of the resulting work, Three Unspecified Locations, has been uploaded to YouTube, accompanied by images of the students who performed the work.

This is the first time I’ve heard any of the piece performed, and I can’t wait to hear the piece in its entirety!

Always More

Last week, more than halfway through 2014—and less more-than-halfway through my 100 Poems Project (I’m only on No. 61 as of this post)—I was feeling discouraged. If writing 100 vocal works in a year is the goal, does quality go out the window? I was less than enthusiastic about the more recent works. They were sounding too similar. Was I phoning it in? Was I running out of creativity?

This week, a realization: Always more. Write rather than don’t. Rather than being an exercise in enduring creativity, the 100 Poems project has become a lesson about staying motivated. The bottom line is that whether these most recent 100 works are written in the span of a year or over several years, I will, either way, like some more than others. So why not write more? If I am to set all 3000+ Cummings poems, I should be setting goals that will help me do so before I die.

And I do think that I can keep this pace up for the next 30 years. At this rate, I’ll have at least finished the Complete Poems: 1904-1962 by 2020.

VIDEO: “The Wife”

I’m very excited to finally have in my possession the video footage from last year’s premiere performance of all the musical selections from “The Wife” (music by me, lyrics and book by Rocco Natale). The video was recorded at the Time Out New York Lounge on June 2, 2013 as part of [h]Our concert: new musical theatre selections by Bobbie Lee Crow III & Justin Friello, and features Kristie Wortman as The Wife, and Willem Oosthuysen on piano. What is not included are the book (also written by Rocco) and the musical interludes (for violin, viola, and 2 cellos) which underscore the monologues between songs. I do believe, despite the omission of interstitial material, that one will still fully understand the dramatic arc of the show, made easier by my own introduction at the beginning of the video.