Village crawl in Ukraine

Now that I’ve exhausted myself jumping around my condo, I am calm enough announce that I was awarded my very first Canada Council grant! I’ll be traveling to the motherland (Ukraine) this fall to research Ukrainian folksong and experience it first hand. I’ll be living in Kyiv and going on short trips to villages to meet singers, record their songs and sing with them. I will also join one of the ensembles that specialize in authentic performance of folksong. I hope that through singing I can better understand the different tuning systems, the slinky vocal ornaments and the unique way of using the voice common to this practice.

This research will result in a couple of new pieces. One will be a song (or set of songs) for Calgary-based soprano Edith Pritchard. I am hoping to track down some possibly folk-inspired modern poetry for this while I’m in Ukraine. The second will be a piece for The Thin Edge New Music Collective’s Wind, keys and strings tour (which will include a performance in Vancouver in early February).

Ukrainian folksong has been an important influence in my work over the last five years, so I am extremely excited to have this opportunity to experience it first hand. I am currently finishing up a chamber opera inspired by this practice, entitled On the Eve of Ivan Kupalo. I will be blogging about this experience regularly in the fall so check back for updates!

All the images in this post are from the Lira Surma, a collection of Ukrainian folksong, which first appeared in early 20th century and has been reprinted several times in different countries. I own a black-and-white version released in the States (can be purchased here) and was really excited to find the original edition at the University of Alberta library. Here all the section title pages are in colour and so are the first songs in each section. The cover is hand-embroidered.


Trained to look for a job

“Culture changes to match the economy, not the other way around. The economy needed an institution that would churn out compliant workers, so we built it. Factories didn’t happen because there were schools; schools happened because there were factories.

The reason so many people grow up to look for a job is that the economy has needed people who would grow up to look for a job.” (Seth Godin’s Stop Stealing Dreams ,section 13)

In this free ebook available here, Seth Godin dissects the public school system arguing that it was designed to produce the ideal factory worker and that this goal is no longer meeting society’s needs.

Most of us don’t associate art music composition with factory work and mass culture. We like to think that we are above all that garbage and compliance, that we are doing something different with our lives, that we are changing the world and leaving a mark.

But how many composition students do you know going through school with the aim to find a university teaching position? How many of them complain that there aren’t enough such positions? How many think that their career is hopeless because of that?

How many music departments train their students to be composers? How many train their students to be university professors? Those concepts are not at all the same.

For many aspiring, talented young composers, composition becomes a factory job and university is designed to get you to that job, if you can find it. You spend years of your life perfecting your craft so that you can teach rudimentary theory, counterpoint and ear training to the next generation of musical factory workers.

Is this what you wanted when you decided to study music at university? Or have you just fallen into the rut that mass education created for you?

If you did actually want to be a teacher, then think about what you really wanted to teach and how you wanted to teach it. Are you doing that? Or are you a cog churning out more cogs?

If chosen well and approached critically, university can be a wonderful place of learning and passion, a time for you to hone your skills in relative safety and financial stability. But it’s worth reminding yourself of your goals from time to time and to check if your path is still leading you there, else you become an automaton being pushed along the assembly line.

Economies of Paper Sizes

Recently, I had to produce a set of parts for my new ensemble piece, The Unanswered. The whole experience got me thinking about paper size and its effect on cost.

I had to format said parts according to the MOLA Guidelines for Music Preparation, which suggests parts with a staff size of no less than 8.5 mm printed on 10×13 inch paper. Also, “to avoid show-through of music from the reverse side, to ensure durability, and to stand up to on-stage wind patterns caused by ventilation systems” the paper needs to be 60-70lb.

What got me here was the 10×13 inch paper. What kind of a size is that? It’s a weird size that you can’t buy in a store and that’s not carried by everyday print shops like Staples or Kinko’s. According to this fairly extensive Wikipedia article, it’s not a standard size anywhere in the world. Some CMC offices carry it, but we are not all fortunate enough to live close to one (and I don’t think the stuff they carry is quite so heavy).

So, to get something like this printed in a smaller city like Halifax, you have to go to a professional print shop where paper can be cut to any size. For me to print my 52 pages worth of parts at such a shop would cost approximately $45 + tax (Etc Press).

What if you use the FAR more prevalent 8.5×11 inch paper? Simply reducing the whole part creates a staff size that is too small (only 7.0 mm), so you need to reformat somewhat. That adds about an extra page to each part. So, let’s make it 65 pages to be on the safe size. Because these parts can now be printed virtually anywhere, what does that do to the cost? Printed at Staples, which tends to be the cheapest, it would only be $11.05 + tax. Yes, that’s a quarter of the cost. The more specialized the product, the more expensive it is to produce.

My piece only requires 11 parts and it is only 8 minutes long. Now imagine scaling that up to an orchestra of roughly 100 people performing something longer. The price difference gets into the hundreds.

This is probably not a big concern for music publishers who print huge volumes. But what about an orchestra having to produce parts for a brand new piece they commissioned? A lonely composer forced to prepare parts without any support from the performing organization? It seems silly to spend so much more for the sake of convention, especially when the piece will likely get only one performance.

In an industry always complaining about lack of funding, why not break with some traditions and switch to the standardized and cheaper option? It’s one way to cut cost where the music won’t suffer at all, but the musician’s wallet might suffer a little less.

What did I end up doing? I printed the parts on 11×17 inch paper and trimmed them myself, one page at a time. I hope I never have to do that for orchestral parts.

Composing through the tears

On Friday I finally shipped off the score and parts of the newly completed The Unanswered. I birthed this baby for the National Arts Centre’s Composers Program, which will take place in late June.

The piece ended up being quite a struggle with a lot of hair pulling and cursing and moaning involved. It was one of those projects when you seem to be short on everything but complaints, a project that just makes you go “wah” and has you wallowing in the deepest anguish only an artist is capable of.

In addition to these artistic woes, our building was also undergoing a roof reno and having fiberoptic cables put in. For the last few weeks our halls and chambers have been steeped in the sweet fumes of boiling tar and echoing with the glorious song of concrete drills. And we’ve also been painting our living room (great timing). I’ve been feeling a little like a rat being fumigated out of my hiding hole.

So what did this experience teach me? Music is a very beautiful thing. Most of the time.

If you are trying to be a freelance composer, sometimes music is a job and it just needs to get done. If you want those opportunities to keep happening, you can’t rely on inspiration or your love for the art itself to get you to the finish line. Sometimes you hate it, but you lock yourself in that office and plough through, squinting through the tar-induced tears and doing your best to forget that you are not particularly enlightened that day.

There is a good side to this experience though. I usually discover that no matter how painful the composing process was, given some time and distance from the offending score, I usually end up liking the result when I actually hear it in performance.

Or at least I do a lot of growing. If the Muses are not blessing me with a torrent of ideas, I have to rely on skill and pure stubbornness to get me through that piece. I have to challenge myself to use every tool I have and try new methods of working. And sometimes, while fighting the beast that the piece becomes, I discover that I am actually more capable than I feel.