My long history of attempting to learn French goes all the way back to high school-lessons that centered on the exploits of “Margot et Mon Oncle.” It was never entirely clear what Mon Oncle’s relationship to Margot was. The language lab at Easton Area High School was full of speculation on this matter. I didn’t learn French then, or during any of several subsequent efforts, but now I am reinvigorated because I have a deadline: my jazz band, Chaise Lounge, will be playing in Paris in June of 2018. I also have a new language-learning method: Duolingo, a free site that serves a number of noble purposes—one of them being to help translate Wikipedia in its entirety. I am astonished at how perfectly crafted this service is. If you get a sentence wrong, the computer gently drills you on it until you get it right. And, unlike most human teachers, the computer has infinite patience. Of course, the site acts as a reminder that, sooner or later, robots are coming for a lot of people’s jobs. But in the meantime it also makes me wonder: could this teaching method be applied to musical sight-reading?
Even though I helped raise three spectacular daughters, I have never been drawn to the idea of playing children’s concerts. But earlier this year, I was commissioned to write a new string quintet for a regular Takoma Park, Maryland, kiddie event called “Peanut Butter & Jam Sessions.” My first instinct was to write something harmonically and melodically simple. But aside from it being a boring task, I realized that it probably wouldn’t work for this concert. The “Pixar” model of bi-level sensibilities is what kids—and their parents—expect now. So in the end I wrote a pretty interesting piece that had enough surprises in it for a three-year-old, enough musical meat in it to hopefully be satisfying for the adults in the audience, and just enough of a technical challenge for the quintet. The Takoma Ensemble string quintet also performed the third movement of my Three Completely Workable Perpetual Motion Devices. What fun! The players did an outstanding job with both pieces, and I discovered something about children’s concerts that hadn’t occurred to me (or that I had forgotten): music has an instant visceral impact on kids. Just hearing live music makes them fall on the floor—rolling and laughing. I’ve had some great nights in my life, but I can’t remember hearing my work played for a more appreciative crowd. A big thank-you to Maestro Vicki Gau for making this happen, and to the string quintet who took the work so seriously, while clearly enjoying the day.
A few weeks ago, my cello concerto Noir was premiered by soloist Lawrence Leviton and the Central Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra. I wasn’t able to attend, but I heard the recordings and am proud and grateful the piece got such a fine welcome to the world. Lawrence did a stellar job, as did Maestro Pat Miles and the orchestra. (You can listen to a recording and view the score here.) For a composer, it’s never easy to get a new work premiered. Even harder: finding the second performance of a new piece. But I’d love to make that happen with this one.
Usually if I am playing in public, I’m playing jazz on the piano, guitar, or accordion. I hardly ever have to play the exact notes of a piece—especially since there often aren’t exact notes to play, only chord changes. But on April 2, I will be performing a piece of mine called Four Cities with the wonderful violinist Teri Lazar. It is a four-movement suite for violin and piano that I wrote in 1997. It’s about 40 minutes long—and it is hard! I’ve been shedding for this concert for weeks already. I find it somewhat unnerving that Teri, because she is an excellent musician, will be expecting me to play precisely the notes I wrote. It is a reasonable expectation, to be sure. And if I were sitting in the audience, as I usually am when one of my pieces gets played, I would have the same expectation. But the prospect of sitting on the business side of the stage, playing a difficult piano part, and having the soloist fully prepared for me to nail it, is a little frightening. The movements are all named after cities: Fredericksburg, Virginia, where I spent my early years; Hollywood, California, where I’ve worked off and on for decades; Damariscotta, Maine, where my mom’s people are; and Memphis, Tennessee, the throbbing heart of American blues music…and a place I have never been. In some oblique way, this grouping makes perfect sense to me. Each of these places inspired a kind of sonic dreamscape—especially the one I’ve only dreamt about.