NAC Workshop: Day of Truth

Tonight is the climax of the NAC Composers Program with performances of five premieres at the Southam Hall of the National Arts Centre. There will also be a piece by Chen Yi. After a week of sweating, correcting and second-guessing, we have to release our babies into the world. The info for the “Future classics” event can be found here.

Last night was the penultimate and ultimately more ‘important’ event of this whole summer institute – the conductors’ concert. The five conducting students got their big break to conduct the NAC Orchestra through some favorite classics. This is the event that attracts all the donors.

Because it’s the 10th anniversary of the composers’ program, I was asked to represent all the summer institute participants with a ‘thank you to the donors’ speech. Naturally, since few of these people actually come to the composers’ concert, they had me speak at this event instead. It was a bit of a funny concept, but I’m happy that the composers were at least present in some form in the donors’ consciousness. Public speaking is also a kind of performance outlet for me so it was pretty cool to address about 1,500 people. Maybe some of them will even be curious and come out tonight to see what this being alive and composing thing is all about.

The pieces are all sounding great. The ensemble has done a fantastic job. I feel that they’ve really invested themselves. My piece has improved astronomically from the first read through. Once the players realized that they could be much more expressive with my material, it just turned into a different piece. It sounds much more like what I hoped to hear in terms of the intensity of the individual sounds and gestures. The all-too-typical structural problems endemic to young composers are still there, of course, but the piece seems to be standing and continuing to generate a barrage of earworms with dirty legato flavour.

There is also some sort of composers’ panel happening in the city today. It’s not open to the public and no one, not even the participants, seem to know what it’s about. There are representatives from all over the country and they are supposed to be at the show tonight. I finally get to meet a few names I hear everywhere and they’ll add a few bodies to the audience.

Speaking of the audience, apparently they do this concert ‘differently.’ Instead of spreading a 10-person crowd through a 2000 person hall, they just put everyone right on stage with the performers. I am really curious to see how that will work.

Dirty legato and musical parenting

I’ve been in beautiful Ottawa since Friday afternoon. After three intense days with the NAC Composers Program, I am enjoying a semi-day off. I have an interview with the CBC Radio 1 this afternoon (tune in around 4:45 EST). I also did an interview for the NAC blog earlier. You can check it out here in English or en français.

The last three days have been very emotionally conflicted. We spend our mornings in readthroughs and rehearsals, and in the afternoon the composers hide away in a little hot cave in the dungeons of the NAC to discuss matters great and small. Our mentors are Gary Kulesha and Chen Yi. Gary tends to be very provocative and blunt, while Chen Yi is always laughing and gesticulating excitedly. It’s a very contradictory dynamic.

There is a very talented bunch of young composers gathered here with different issues and strengths. Some pieces are very colourful and energetic, full of shimmering and juicy orchestration. In sharp contrast to that, there’s a piece that explores the idea of urban blight and the stark, decaying landscapes it generates. My piece seems to be a mishmash of earworms, which were plaguing people for hours yesterday. I’m also responsible for a new musical term – dirty legato.

We get to work with a dedicated ensemble drawn from the Orchestre de la francophonie conducted by Jean-Philippe Tremblay. The musicians are great, eager to make things work and try new things. They ask lots of questions and offer suggestions. Jean-Philippe jokes around all the time producing a welcome calming effect. They are playing new music from 10:30 to 4:30 every day. It’s quite a physical and intellectual marathon.

I was very depressed after the first two rehearsals, through no fault of the musicians. I am apparently not very good at communicating my intentions through the score. My markings are too classical and when executed with the precision with which performers tend to approach contemporary music, things just sound flat and shapeless.

After spending two days wallowing in self pity and berating myself for writing and awful piece, I decided to kick it into shape. I was a lot more vocal in the last rehearsal and tried to explain what kind of sound I was going for. That’s how we ended up with dirty legato. I really needed them to play more harshly and aggressively with more glissando and bow pressure, less like Mozart and more like Ukrainian folk singers. We all had a good laugh and it worked. I am really looking forward to the next rehearsal.

I think it can be much easier, emotionally, to simply throw away a creation you are not immediately happy with, to distance yourself from it, to disown it, to forget it ever happened. It’s harder to force yourself to really look at it, accept its faults and figure out how to highlight the strengths. Maybe it’s like being a parent and giving your work unconditional love while still seeing it for what it is. You made it and you are responsible for giving it a fighting chance. I’ll call it musical parenting.

The highlight of the week so far has been a visit from Ana Sokolovic. She spent the day with us yesterday sitting in on rehearsals and joining us for discussion in the afternoon. She talked about her own approach and gave us little private sessions. I love her music and she seems like an amazing teacher, combining very astute critique with a kind of excitement that is extremely encouraging. With some teachers, you come out of this kind of session feeling like you have so much to learn still that it is almost insurmountable and you will never measure up to whatever ideal they set up. Ana has a way of delivering critique that makes you excited about what you are doing and eager to improve.

Off to Ottawa!

I am at this very moment on the last leg of my 24 hour train journey from Halifax to Ottawa, where I will be participating in the National Arts Centre’s Composers Program with Gary Kulesha and Chen Yi. I will be workshoping a brand new piece, The Unanswered, for an 11-part chamber ensemble. I am super excited to meet the performers and the other participating composers. Check back for regular updates about my adventures.

This is also my very first North American train journey. Growing up in Ukraine, trains were a big part of my life. That is still the main mode of transportation out there and I often find myself feeling a little nostalgic when I see passenger trains pass me by. The experience has been quite pleasant (much more so than the bus), but a little cold. They are sure not stingy on the air conditioning.

Crowdfunding as a leveraging tool

Crowdfunding is a platform that allows many people to contribute varying amounts of money towards a project. It is the idea of patronage broken up into small pieces allowing a multitude of dedicated and curious people to participate in the creation process. The idea has been very successfully implemented digitally through websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, where the creator can offer various rewards for different levels of support. I am seeing many successful examples of this fundraising tactic in the art music world for things like commissioning, concert production, tours and recording projects. I recently came across a project initiated by the Kronos Quartet to raise money for their next Under 30 commissioning project. It’s something that I’m itching to try myself.

Seth Godin, a marketer and non-fiction author who fearlessly navigates the turbulent terrain of the modern world, just launched a project that uses crowdfunding as something more than a purely fundraising tool. Through The Icarus Deception project, he is harnessing the power of Kickstarter to blend new and old media for the dissemination of ideas: the internet with its ebook and blog, and traditional paper publishing.

The project was set up to essentially presell his new book in various forms to dedicated fans, giving them rewards for jumping on the bandwagon early. If the project reached its goal of $40,000 by a set date, the new book would be published in paper form and distributed through traditional channels. The genius of the idea is that he is not really using Kickstarter to fund the publishing process, but rather to simultaneously gage and create interest in his new book before he writes a single word. It becomes a kind of leveraging tool in the risky and costly world of paper publishing.

What if you were to apply this idea to the risky and very expensive process of producing a new orchestral work? An opera? These require huge investments in time and money with extremely uncertain payoffs (and I don’t even mean “payoffs” in terms of profit, but rather audience interest).

What if, as a composers, you took matters into your own hands rather than waiting for a giant behemoth of an orchestra or opera company to warm up to such a risk? You fundraise your own commission fee while simultaneously measuring and generating excitement about the work before it’s even on paper, before you’ve invested so much of yourself into it. Now you are coming to the producer with something more tangible, you have leverage. You are bringing a ‘tribe’ of dedicated followers who have already invested money and curiosity into your idea. No, you haven’t taken away all the risk, but maybe you’ve made that leap a little more appealing.

Crowdfunding can seem magical. Godin’s project reached its goal within the first two hours and 24 hours later it was sitting at almost $190,000, nearly five times its goal. But he has a huge tribe of dedicated readers already.

The success of such a venture really depends on how hard you’ve worked building up your following. You can’t pop out of nothing and expect explosive results. First, you need to take the time to build up a trusting network of supporters. Second, you need to offer valuable* rewards for their faith. This kind of initiative, if done right, can help you reach out beyond that close circle. It’s about using the fast, low-cost digital platforms to encourage the slow and expensive institutions to bring your art to life. You also get to really connect with your fans in the process, which is priceless.

* Your followers should really be getting something unique for their bravery and dedication, be it an unforgettable experience, a limited-edition object or an exclusive peek inside the creation process. It’s not worth thinking about this as a pity donation with a token trinket attached.

Idea blackboard

Last week I discussed the life-changing organizational virtues of the Musical Laundry Line. While the laundry line is great for keeping track of small items, at some point you might wish for a larger surface to work with. When you feel that no sheet of paper is large enough for your grand ideas, you turn to the wall.

A one-litter can of blackboard paint can transform a fairly large wall into a creative idea surface. Throw some coloured chalk into the mix and you can quickly turn into an idea-organizing master (or doctor, whatever your qualifications).

This is my attempt to organize one of the scenes in my chamber opera. After spending all day trying to do this on paper, I turned to the blackboard wall. Somehow seeing it all in large, simple blocks made it all seem much simpler.

The blackboard is also great for any kind of collaborative work. Break out the wine and the ideas start to flow on their own. And when the wall is not doing work duty, it can relieve you and your guests of any other artistic angst you might have accumulated along the way.

A small can of blackboard paint costs about $20 from a Benjamin Moore retailer. If painting your actual wall is not an option, you could probably try doing this to a large piece of plywood and simply lean it against your wall. I suggest a small railing on the bottom to catch the chalk dust, which fall surprisingly fast and thick. I also hear that you can paint white boards to use with markers.

Happy idea organizing!

Musical laundry line

Our living room window looks out onto the backyards of some typical Halifax heritage houses, the kind with rickety wooden fire escapes and various mismatched protrusions added on throughout the last century. The life in these houses – with their odd assortment of cats, dogs and humans – provides endless entertainment and fodder for artistic contemplation.

One of the features, which both fascinates and baffles me, is the superbly organized laundry line. The assortment of articles changes with each drying, but the system is followed with the highest degree of strictness. Items are always:

  • arranged according to size (from smallest to largest)
  • matched by function (underwear, shirts, towels, etc. all grouped)
  • and paired up where appropriate (think socks).

This level of organization is awe-inspiring.

When working, I always have this desire to stick things on walls. It makes me feel more productive, more organized, more in control of my life. And when dealing with endless scraps of an almost-finished piece, sticking them up makes it easier to comprehend the whole.

Lately the volume of “pin-ups” has been getting a little out of control. Inspired by the uber-organization confronting me every time I look out of the window, I’ve installed a similar system in my studio. The Deka Curtain Wire ($9.99 at IKEA) comes with two pieces of hardware, a long wire and twelve little alligator clips. The clips are on hooks and can be easily removed allowing you to rearrange the items at will without unclipping.


I mostly use the little laundry line to put up partly finished scores or libretto text so I can keep track of holes that need filling, or rearrange sections. While working on Mirror, mirror, I hung large sheets of packing paper to turn my wall into a giant sketchbook where I could glue bits of vocal line, and draw arrows and notes with coloured markers (this method really make good use of all those skills you learned in elementary school).

If you run out of the little metal clips, you can always substitute with wooden laundry clips or fashion something out of existing office supplies (see illustration).


Happy score drying!