Tag Archives: New Mexico composers

The Value of Retrospect

I had a boss once who’d say, “I don’t care what’s on your resume. I don’t care what you did before; I care what you can do right now.” I saw his point when it came to certain b-schoolers on staff, but for my own purposes I thought of it more like, “Hey, sweet! Every day is a new opportunity to do something amazing! No baseline needed!”

Yeah, I’m Pollyanna like that.

Well, last week, I gave a talk about my composing work to a class of composition students, several working on their masters’ degrees in composition. It turned out to be a great opportunity for retrospection: how I started, the multiple paths I’ve maintained (so like a Gemini), my graduate studies, my many and varied extra-curricular pursuits, the incredible people I’ve gotten to work with, what about my work has changed and what hasn’t.

The Spreadsheet For Section 2

Evidence that during my thesis composition process, I was clearly out of my mind. In a good way.

Given that my audience would be a bunch of students preoccupied with thesis work, I decided to spend the bulk of the talk discussing my own. When I began preparing my slides, though, I realized that I might have to turn to my not-terribly-consistent journals for details about how I constructed my thesis, because it was 10 years ago. Like a place I used to live, it’s got certain landmarks that I’ve retained and used to navigate conversations about such things over the years: It’s called Name Day and is for electronics, oboe and cello; it’s based on the prose poem of the same name by the remarkable Teresa Phillips; it deals with her diagnosis with bone cancer as a toddler and the aftermath; and it employs serial techniques – the use of external information (in this case, the poem itself and aspects of Teresa’s post-op X-rays) to drive musical decisions. That much, I can recite on command. Any deeper, though…

Because, you know, I’m not crazy about paper at this point; I try not to collect or keep it. And to my memory, I’ve only recently become disciplined about documenting how each of my pieces is put together and especially how it’s performed. I’ve had to, though, because so many of my compositions – in contrast to my thesis piece – use some new/different combination of gadgets than the last; are performed by me as structured improvs and so not typically scored; and are performed once, maybe twice, right after completion and then not again for months or even years. So by comparison, I wasn’t sure how much I would’ve documented 10 years ago about a piece that resulted in a definitive score. What more was to document? And how much of the supporting material would I have bothered to keep?

Chicken Scratch

From the trusty blue spiral manuscript notebook.

But I looked through our bookcases anyway – and was rewarded with the spoils of being supremely Type A (about some things). Each item I unearthed brought a bigger smile and a stronger rush of memories than the one before. There was the original master print, complete with front matter describing the compositional process (phew!). Behind that, photocopies of the original hand-written score. In another section of the same shelf, the abused but still-legible prints of the spreadsheets in which I painstakingly tracked certain details of the piece – one for each of the three sections of the piece, and each one a taped-together tiling of 9 or more letter-sized sheets. Sooooo OCD!

Each of those documents represents hours upon hours of teeth-gnashing and triumph, self-doubt and certitude, and above all, complete surrender to the process. I worked so incredibly hard on it. I can see the spreadsheets tacked to the wall of my bedroom studio, the blue spiral music notebook I carried everywhere for months, and the lights hitting the performers as they took the stage for the premiere. These memories, and what they say about my capacity for hard work and even healthy obsession, could reinvigorate me on the worst of days.

Page One

Page 1. Beginnings, endings, all good.

To that former boss, I’d throw a well-worn business maxim: If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. In Composing Kitchen language, I’d say that retrospection doesn’t have to be a consolation, an indulgence or a crutch; it can be a tool. Knowing what you’re capable of can propel you to do something that’s not just amazing, but even more amazing.

So go ahead: Read over your resume – be it literal or figurative – and then vow to exceed everything on it.

If you’d like more detail about Name Day and/or to hear excerpts,
leave a comment. I’ll be happy to tell you a ridiculous amount
based on my copious documentation.

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The Rally, and the Tally

For the last few years, I’ve spent the first weekend of November attending a music-industry event called the TAXI Road Rally. If you’ve read this blog since it started this summer, you’ve heard of TAXI; it’s the independent A&R company I use. As part of my membership, I get two tickets to the Road Rally, TAXI’s annual convention.

It’s… well, not to sound all fanboy about it, but it’s pretty incredible. Keynote speakers for the last few years have been hot tickets like Jeffrey Steele and Kara DioGuardi, and legends like Charles Fox and Lamont Dozier. Panelists include folks like Kevin Kiner (composer for CSI: Miami, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and the brand-new Hell on Wheels), seven-time Grammy-winning producer Rob Chiarelli, and on and on. It’s three jam-packed days of classes and panels on everything from current vocal processing techniques to how to use social media for your band, to how to get past writer’s block. This year, Kiner actually scored a scene from an upcoming CSI: Miami episode as a panel session. Pretty informative (and funny – Kiner’s a riot).

The Rally Hotel's lobby, after hours – spontaneous jams of all shapes, sizes, genres, ages and hair colors. I'm at far right, soaking up the love (and a little bourbon).

I suppose it’s just like anybody else’s convention: you come away exhausted and – depending on what you accomplished, or didn’t, in the last 12 months – some mixture of all fired up and inspired, and downright despondent that you aren’t progressing quickly enough. You get a million great ideas, but you also overhear a guy at the bar talking about having had 273 placements of his music so far just on one cable network. If you haven’t, that can sting no matter how far you’ve come toward your own goals.

I’ll interject here that the Rally consistently provides an undocumented, unscheduled perk: a huge dose of love and support from fellow TAXI members, who befriend and help one another online throughout the year and then have a massive hug and lemme-buy-you-a-drink-fest once we’re together in person. Without fail, newcomers each year are stunned by the support and encouragement they get from people who are, in some cases, the competition. I adore my TAXI friends. They make a famously solitary occupation feel practically communal.

But anyway, back to the hard stuff – if you’ve been following along here at Composing Kitchen, you can probably guess how I felt coming off the conference: I’m not doing enough, and I’m not doing it quickly enough.

That’s how it feels. But… really? Let’s take stock for a minute. Just since leaving my job in July, I’ve had three pieces of music used on TV and one in a Breaking Bad webisode. I’ve signed music with three more libraries and have been asked by an indie label for a genre-specific CD. I’ve produced about 50 unique pieces of music. Some of those are short show-theme bits, but most are song-length, and most have homes already (that is, they’ve been picked up by music libraries). One is sitting, as I type, with an ad agency, because I tackled the type of high-bar, quick-turn opportunity that used to scare me to death. I’ve started scoring a local documentary and am in discussions regarding a feature film for early 2012. This is when I’m not busy teaching two university courses, freelance writing and editing, serving on the board of the New Mexico Post-Production Alliance, and being a decent partner to my sweetie.

I started this adventure in mid-July. I knew that the risks probably had nothing to do with actually going broke and starving, but instead with taking on too much non-music work to cover the bills and winding up still short on composing time. That’s exactly what happened, and I have to make peace with that and honor my commitments.

So it’s not perfect, yet. It’s not 273 placements. But if I’m completely honest with myself – and I try really hard to be – I can say it’s working.