Tag Archives: music

music in the garden

Painting: Giverny revisted
Raisy Derzie. Giverny Revisted.

None of us live by gardening alone. Lately I’ve been going back to some of my earlier days, composing music. If you’ll be anywhere near Long Island later in July I invite you to a performance that’ll include one of my new pieces, Afterimages, for clarinet and cello, composed for Thomas Piercy (clarinet) and Suzanne Mueller (cello).

There is a gardening tie to all this: the premiere will take place at the Old Westbury Gardens as part of the Sunday Afternoon Concert Series. The date is July 22, and the concert will commence at 3 p.m.

The New York new music organization Vox Novus invited composers to write something in reaction to this painting, Giverny Revisited, by Raisy Derzie. And, oh yes, the piece had to be sixty seconds long or shorter–talk about a big limitation! They then picked fifteen of the submissions for their ongoing Fifteen Minutes of Fame series of concerts, and my piece will be one of them. In keeping with the idea of the painting, where the artist has taken up the subject matter of Monet’s garden through a modern lens, my piece uses contemporary harmonies and rhythms to riff on the opening of Reflets dan l’eau, the first piece of Claude Debussy’s first set of Images for piano.

Southern view of Phipps estate

Also on the program will be pieces by all sorts of composers from Leopold Mozart, Beethoven, and Bartok to Charlie Chaplin. Cool music, all performed on the very manicured grounds of the old John S. Phipps estate on Long Island in New York.

I had another short short work selected for another of Vox Novus’ concerts, this one featuring the West Point Wind Quintet in a concert designed to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. I was feeling a little contrary, so not only did they get a piece less than a minute long, the piece was a three-movement suite, all of which clocked in at about 54 seconds. It’s all a little square and academic but it was fun to write.

The piece: Field Notes: Three Volleys for Wind Quintet

The movements (linked to the YouTube performance):

[ Program notes to the whole concert, including videos of the concert, in two parts ]

The entire world premiere performance on April 29, 2012:


distractions, distractions

I’ve been MIA from reading my favorite garden blogs, and I’ve been AWOL from posting. You know the story…life happens.

At least the first distractions was garden-related.

I posted this photo months ago. It’s of the backside of an outdoor fireplace after we removed a rotted wooden fence that the previous owners poured concrete around to form a garden bench. The world has only a certain amount of abject ugliness and a big pile of it sat in the back yard. So…what to do with it?

We thought about cladding it in something, maybe some cement panel pieces leftover from a previous house project. Or maybe grow a vine. Ryan suggested stuccoing the ugly mound.

We ended up with one of the more radical solutions: Make the whole mess go away.

Well, actually, it’s been several weeks of chiseling out the old bricks, one at a time, trying to save them for some something. But hopefully not another house project using brick. I’m coming to hate the stuff. This house 25 years ago came with brick walkways, brick walls, brick patios, brick everything. Enough already! There may be a Craigslist ad in our future.

And after the brick there were a few hundred little tiles that had to be chipped off the bench. I can blame the ugly mortar mess on the back of the fireplace on the previous owner, but the tile was my own bit of youthful excess, trying to prettify a seriously imperfect slab of concrete. Paint is easy to undo. Tile is not.

So that’s been distraction #1.

Distraction #2 hasn’t got much to do with the garden. Recently I got it in mind that I wanted to learn a new piece of music, the piano part for John Adams’ wild Road Movies, for violin and piano. Here’s a YouTube video of a nice performance of the last movement, particularly of the swinging piano part. (Ignore the screaming child near the conclusion.)

The garden project should be done before too too too long–more to follow for sure. But this music is going to take a while longer. It almost makes you pine for living in a climate where the garden shuts down for six months, leaving you with little to do but indoor stuff…like baking and art and music.

concert review: concerto for florist

George Schlatter, creator of the late 60s/early 70s classic TV show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In, recently said this about entertainer Tiny Tim of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” fame: “One time we filled his dressing room with flowers and he came out crying because he said we had killed the flowers!”–Quoted in the Los Angeles Times

Well, I didn’t cry, but by the end of the world premiere performance of Mark Applebaum’s Concerto for Florist and Orchestra many flowers had given their lives in the name of art. I wrote a quick post last week about this odd little bit of music theater that was going to be played by the La Jolla Symphony with florist soloist James DelPrince. Saturday night I went to the concert.

Some of the buckes of flowers before the soloist and orchestra took to the stage

Over the course of three movements the solo florist arranged flowers manically while the orchestra plunged into a score that had some really strikingly beautiful passages as well as some butt-kicking moments. In one of the movements the strings slid around in quietly dissonant clouds of sound while tuned gongs sounded above the clouds. In another the orchestra bounced along on tricky rhythms, egged on by the percussion. And at the end the ensemble pretty much fizzled out in an orchestrated dissolution of the music. All this time the florist attacked buckets of raw floral material and stabbed the stems into bricks of green florist foam.

The set piece that was constructed during the second movement

While all this was happening I kept withing the florist would disappear so that I could just concentrate on the music. I’m sure there were others who’d have preferred the orchestra take their dissonant chords home and let the florist arrange away in peace. Whatever. In the end it wasn’t much more than a stunt. Still, the stunt pretty much filled the hall, and the piece got more applause than you’d have experience downtown at the more staid symphony.

Part of the floral creation that was made during the third movement grand finale

Before the concert the composer had a chance to speak, and said something like how he was bored of a lot of regular music and that he’d “rather fail in an interesting way than succeed at doing something normal.” So yes, I think he managed to fail interestingly.

As far as the floral creations, they were nice enough, but I think I’ve seen much more compelling avant-garde arranging done. Just think of the amazing Japanese ikebana creations that you can see every now and then. The arrangements reminded me of the monster showpiece “cakes” that you see assembled on the reality TV subgenre devoted to cake decorating and cake decorating competitions. They’re always impressive because of the sheer size and fragility, but so often the ideas behind the cakes just seem trite. Sorry. I sound like such a snot sometimes.

At the conclusion of the Concerto for Florist and Orchestra everyone with a cellphone camera had to make their way up on stage to snap some shots of the finished arrangement

So, are there any reality TV shows devoted to florists? Florists working with stressed people trying to prepare for a wedding? Or dealing with grieving families after a loved one has passed on? Or working with the hapless bachelor trying to impress the new love interest with a pile of so many dead roses Tiny Tim would be bawling? If Bravo or Lifetime suddenly comes up with one, remember you saw the idea here first.

music for the eyes

Here’s a fun one: My local community/university orchestra will be premiering a new piece this weekend. Stanford University composer Mark Applebaum has composed a work for orchestra with a special, unusual soloist: a florist.

The Concerto for Florist and Orchestra riffs on the traditional notion of a concerto, where one or more virtuoso solists duke it out musically with an accompanying ensemble. In the new work, the orchestra will play and the florist will…presumably array flowers and leaves virtuostically all over the stage. Some musical concerto soloists have reputations for being high-strung individuals, and to my mind the new piece also riffs on the idea of florists sometimes having a reputation for being just as high-strung.

The work’s soloist will be James DelPrince, Associate Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences with a specialization in Floral Design and Interior Plantscaping Design at Mississippi State University. On his campus biography page DelPrince writes, “The aesthetics of horticulture involve recognition of the intrinsic beauty of plants and flowers along with the practiced skill of floral design and interior plant placement. I enjoy and value the opportunity to bring understanding and appreciation of floral and plant design to people.” And this weekend’s performance–the second time DelPrince has worked floral magic with Mark Applebaum’s music to accompany him–seems like a great way to bring some of that appreciation to a different sort of audience than people looking for something to decorate their wedding.

If you want more traditional fare, the all-concerto concert opens with Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, with Hannah Cho, winner of the orchestra’s 2009 Youth Artist Competition. Closing the evening will be another “conceptual concerto,” Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, a concerto with no soloists at all other than members of the orchestra, all of whom will have to work pretty hard to play the score.

One of my music profs from many years ago, Robert Erickson, was famous for shutting his eyes when listening to performances. He wasn’t bored; he just didn’t want the visuals to get in the way of truly hearing the music. You won’t want to shut your eyese for Saturday’s and Sunday’s performances.

The La Jolla Symphony performs. Steven Schick conducts.

loud music and sage

I drove all the way up to Los Angeles for an organ recital last night. I knew I was in for trouble when the usher handed me a program and offered me a pair of earplugs. But more on that later.

John hates the idea of me to taking my scooter to LA, so I grudgingly drove the gas-devouring Jeep. But to turn the situation to an advantage I stopped by the Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano. It’s a few miles east of I-5, but ten ten minutes of driving off the interstate beats an hour and a half each direction from San Diego.

I’d been planning on doing something with the unclaimed zone between my house and the neighbor behind me, and I wanted some native plants to fill in the zone. This would be a good chance to pick up some plants without the ridiculous commute.

at-the-tree-of-life-nursery_0001The plantings around the nursery featured some vibrant spring flowers, including this stand of California poppies and vivid violet phacelia.


And this traffic cone mallow was pretty spectacular as well (probably desert mallow, Sphaeralcea ambigua).

While there I picked up some plants for my project, including some more plants of white sage (Salvia apiana) and a clone of purple sage (Salvia leucophylla ‘Amethyst Bluff’). I’ll post more on that project later in the week.

Negotiating LA rush hour traffic can be an ordeal, and doing it with a dozen plants in the back of the car wasn’t anything I was looking forward too, especially if I had to jam on the brakes. But traffic was fairly light and I got to my destination with plenty of time for a relaxing dinner before the concert.

And now, on to the concert: When the lights dimmed, a man got up to introduce the performer for the evening. Charlemagne Palestine was one of the figures active in the avant-garde music scene, first in New York around 1970, and slightly later in Los Angeles. The man introducing him apologized that during earlier rehearsals they’d blown three fuses on the organ, and that they might need to interrupt the concert to replace more fuses.

The concert location, the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, claims to have the world’s largest indoor church organ, a monster with well over 20,000 pipes. What would the sound be if you got several thousand of them going at the same time? The audience got to find out about an hour into the piece.

What had started out as a wispy cloud of delicate sustained notes had gradually gown in intensity as organ stops got added. When the composer/performer finally did a face-plant into the keyboard around the 60 minute mark and remained there unmoving for a good ten minutes, the hall shook with a throbbing earthquake of sound that with zero doubt was the loudest, most intense, most jarring ten minutes of anything I’ve ever heard in my life. (There’s a recording of Schling-Blägen, the piece Charlemagne Palestine performed in concert, but that in no way gives prepares you for the physical assault that the you’ll experience live.)

When the piece ended, I was still shaking. I wasn’t sure I could drive home very reliably, and I was glad I wasn’t on the scooter.

As I opened the car door, the smell of sage escaped from plants behind the back seat. It’s said that sage tea is good for calming the nerves, and the same could probably be said for the aroma from the plants. With all my nerves still firing on overload, it was probably the perfect remedy for what I’d just experienced. When I got home two hours later, I lay down, and went right to sleep.

PS: I’ve only talked about the loudness of the piece, but in the final analysis there was a lot of beauty and delicacy in it as well. I loved it. Music can take you many places. This piece took me somewhere I’ve never been.

celebrating summer–medieval-style

Ah summer, the season when the meadow blooms and the stag farts! Here are some sprightly words celebrating the season we’ve just begun. They’re the lyrics to a bouncy little ditty circa the year 1260 that most students going through music history courses will have have run across. If your Middle English is about as bad as mine, I’ve provided a translation.

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes þu cuccu;
Ne swik þu nauer nu.

Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

Summer has come in,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow blooms
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag farts,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing, cuckoo;
Don’t you ever stop now,
Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!

You can sing it all by yourself, but it’s designed to be four-part round that you sing over a two-part ground. If you’re tired of “Row, row, row your boat” as the only round to sing at summer camp this might be just the ticket. Below is the music (click it to enlarge). And if you want to sing along, click here for an mp3 file [ source ].

notation to sumer is icumen in

Sumer is icumen in, transcribed from the ca. 1260 manuscript by Blahedo, used under a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.5 license [ source ].

Warning: Once you listen to it a few times–and maybe even sing along–it gets to be one of those “It’s a Small World” earworm tunes that you’ll have a hard time getting rid of.

Find out more.
And if anyone’s reading this in the Southern hemisphere, here’s Ezra Pound’s winter parody. (I guess he wasn’t particularly fond of winter.)