The Weird Obsession Phase: shortcut or obstacle for young composers?

Recently in a conversation with a composer some years my junior, I was fascinated to recognize a younger version of me: utterly bored with familiar sounds and positive that their unique ideas around some musical niche or theoretical quirk will pave their way to genius status and shape the future of Western classical music. For me, this Weird Obsession Phase, as I’ve decided to call it, began with an excessive enthusiasm for Elliott Carter’s method of combining minor thirds and tritones to create all-interval tetrachords, and ended in several pieces of music and a slightly fanatical paper with terrifying color-coded charts, the substance of which is summarized in the meme above. As I listened to Younger Version of Me expounded upon their devotion to a similar obsession, I began to wonder if this Weird Obsession Phase, awkward though it may be, is a necessary rite of passage for every young composer, a vital part of the growing pains that eventually lead us to a more grounded, well-informed, and individual artistic identity. When I reflect on my own Weird Obsession Phase, I can identify at least three positive outcomes that proved essential in my development:

I became a post-tonal theory badass overnight.
My Weird Obsession was the key that unlocked music theory for me. Given the sad and tormented history of my freshman and sophomore theory classes, I never imagined I’d walk out of an advanced theory class with an A…but that’s exactly what happened a few months after the onset of my Weird Obsession. I began devoting numerous hours of my personal time to messing with my crackpot all-interval tetrachord ideas, and this resulted in two incredibly useful skills: I developed a very strong “mental piano” that could be adapted to any audiation or mentalization exercise, and I become completely secure with the ins and outs of integer notation, pitch class sets, and tone rows before I ever set foot in my first post-tonal theory class.

I got better at analyzing what I was writing.
Creating nerdy, overly-complicated theoretical frameworks for composition – if somewhat naïve in its aims and imagined scope – was like a shot of growth hormone for my budding composer brain. Those crazy color-coded graphs, for all their retrospective silliness, trained me to be more self-evaluative and take a step back every so often to analyze what I was writing in terms of the theory that had sparked my compositional decisions. This in turn taught me to adapt my analytical approach to the aims of the particular piece I was working on, as I found myself often departing from my initial theoretical framework during the composing process to incorporate other kinds of musical ideas…which brings me to my third point…

I learned to balance theoretical ideas with following my intuitive musical sense.
Happily for me, my all-interval tetrachord obsession was grounded in a liking for the actual sonorities, and not just their theoretical coolness. That being the case, whenever I found the pre-compositional map I had created to be in conflict with where my ear intuitively wanted a melodic line or harmonic progression to go, I felt free to experiment with those intuitive options rather than remain rigidly within the bounds of my pre-compositional work. I found real joy in this push-and-pull between my theoretical frameworks and my musical intuition, and embracing that tension significantly revved up my maturation as a savvy musical decision-maker.

What about the drawbacks?
Though it certainly increased my overall social awkwardness score by a good many points, my Weird Obsession Phase was an incredibly valuable shortcut to greater musical competence and compositional maturity. That said, I feel there are two significant pitfalls to the Weird Obsession Phase that young composers should watch out for, even as they embrace the useful aspects of this particular form of nerdom:

Rigid adherence may stand in the way of further learning.
One student composer I knew in my undergrad days was so enthralled with their Weird Obsession that they refused to try other compositional techniques or even incorporate the feedback their teachers offered to help them develop versatility and technical prowess. If your Weird Obsession is preventing you from exploring new territory and developing a variety of skills, then it’s no longer serving you. Instead, it threatens to stifle your creativity and impede your development. I think most of us have the ability to recognize when our Obsession is no longer serving us, and will move on accordingly. So, by all means enjoy the adrenalin ride of your Weird Obsession while it lasts, but be willing to allow other interests and even short-term practical goals like meeting a deadline or learning a new skill to organically edge it out of the way.

If it starts to define your creative identity, a crisis may follow.
Around the same time as my own Weird Obsession, I knew another young composer with an equally intense Weird Obsession who followed said obsession all the way to an expensive overseas degree program that catered to devotees…only to become profoundly bored with the obsession to the point of choosing to abandon the writing of concert music altogether. I want to honor this person’s journey and point out that this was probably exactly what needed to happen to launch them into a musical career that will bring them more fulfillment. However, it strikes me that some drama could have been avoided if their Weird Obsession hadn’t been quite so central to their creative identity. Even at the height of my own all-interval tetrachord obsession, I managed to recall that the joy I found in musical experimentation and my more adaptable and run-of-the-mill talents (e.g., a strong melodic sense) were the real guiding lights of my creative identity. For this reason, my caution to young composers is to realize that your Weird Obsession is what you’re into right now, and NOT who you are as a creative artist. Your potential as a creative person always transcends the bounds of whatever you are creating right now!

We could all do with a Weird Obsession Phase, or perhaps even several, so long as they’re tempered by a good dose of self-awareness and willingness to flex as new creative needs and interests enter our lives. The real value of our Weird Obsessions, however enthralling we may find them in themselves, is in their ability to provide us with a fun and effective path to continuous discovery and personal development.

The Gift of Immediacy: A Meditation on Being Late for a Concert


Andrew Wyeth – The Carry

Me senté
en un claro del tiempo.
era un remanso
de silencio,
de un blanco silencio…
I sat down
In a space of time
It was a backwater
of silence,
of white silence…

Claro de reloj (Pause of the clock), Federico García Lorca, trans. Stanley Read

Actually, I stood up – at the back of the King Center concert hall with two of my friends, because we had arrived late. As the Lorca lyrics of Morton Lauridsen’s Cuatro Canciones wafted to us in a shimmer of vaguely Messiaen-ish harmonies and Crumb-ish timbre-textures, it was a backwater of crystalline sound – an unexpected music. The usual ritual of sitting down, clapping, and program reading foregone, we had walked in at the start of the Playground Ensemble’s October 26th, 2015 performance of this movement as though it had always been happening in that space. We had entered with no idea of who we were hearing, or of what; immediately, our empty hands had been filled with the molten, colored jewels that adorned that white silence.

One of the gifts of lateness and of not having sufficient time for anything (once you let go of the stress and the self-condemnation, that is) is immediacy. Immediacy is the elusive treasure of the 21st century, arriving secretly and remaining for a time veiled and useless to the possessor behind daily layers of panic and dissatisfaction. If those layers are peeled away, immediacy is revealed as the resolve to jump in and do what can be done now without fear; to let go of unhelpful expectations and worries that get in the way of now; to listen to intuition, allowing an experience or an atmosphere to have free reign in your consciousness without your own interference; to capture the absolute essence of something without trying, painting a truth in the broadest possible strokes; to engage in listening and conversation without the background noise of ego and preconceived notions. Immediacy is the sensory experience of a child – all eyes and ears and uninhibited fingers that reach without hesitation for the crayon.

Actually, come to think of it, we did sit down – once the Lauridsen piece was over and the stage was being reset. But for me, at least, the immediate hearing remained – that coming in out of the cold and dark to meet unknown sounds without context or expectation. I looked with only half an eye at my program, not wishing to spoil the feeling, and I half-learned that Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union was for “any group of loud-sounding instruments.” From the stage, one of the performers explained that Andriessen’s notation only specified rhythm and contour – not exact pitch. Then the framework that is Workers Union began to unfold, and I recognized again the gift of immediacy, remembering a quote by Andrew Wyeth: “That’s why I like fencing so much…it’s very much like painting. It’s that decisive, sharp, quick stroke that captures the essence of a subject.” I could hear how Andriessen captured the essential vision in the broadest strokes, and how the performers seized it, bringing their communication, their letting go, and their commitment to the immediate interpretation of those strokes.

When Workers Union came to an end, a conspicuously immediate conductor (viz., clothed in a tattered ball cap, unsuitable pants, sweatshirt, and well-worn shoes) took the stage and began to direct the Playground’s closing soundpainting. I’ve heard many soundpaintings before, but none as fresh, as energized, or as seemingly-composed-yet-also-seemingly-improvised as this one. A construction of sound emerged with flawless logic but the unmistakable torn edges of the immediate vision. I heard sounds I wanted to hang onto and dwell with for a while, letting the immediate experience continue on without me…But still immediacy held me in its grip, embodied in the hyper-alert musicians and their conductor. Together, with effortlessness and razor focus, they animated the living, growing organism of structured sound.

Actually – now that I think of it – we were neither sitting down nor standing up when the first movement of the Lauridsen began. We were hovering in the foyer, our own backwater of silence, because Claro de reloj was already underway, and the ushers were softly preparing to open the doors for us between movements. “When you go in, try to grab a seat at the back, or just stand until the piece is over,” they said, and handed us our programs. They might as easily have said, here, you lucky latecomers; take a double portion of the gift others left behind –

anillo formidable
donde los luceros
chocaban con los doce flotantes
numeros negros.
a formidable ring
wherein the stars
collided with the twelve floating
black numerals.

Yes, you missed the first piece; you are tired, you are late, you are burned out, and you have no good ideas left.

But your inheritance is immediacy.

Intimate Conversations: Thoughts on Loretta Notareschi’s String Quartet OCD and Stephen Bailey’s Love Story

love story
A few months ago I had the privilege of hearing Denver composer Loretta Notareschi’s String Quartet OCD performed by the Playground Ensemble at Regis University. As I sat in the concert hall and watched the composer approach the podium – about to deliver a prepared talk as a preface to a panel discussion of postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – I had my doubts about the appropriateness of conducting a mental health discussion in a concert setting. A few minutes later, however, I was fully engaged, listening to Notareschi and the other women on the panel share their stories of struggle with postpartum mood disorders, and eventual healing with the proper support. Much to my surprise, I was in no hurry for this personal storytelling to end and the music to begin. Yet, when the music did begin, it felt like an organic continuation of the stories I had just heard, a way for my intuitive brain to engage with the information about postpartum OCD that my intellectual brain had just acquired. It was a poignant experience that challenged all my previous notions of what music is and how it functions; Notareschi’s quartet – presented in the context of this postpartum mental health event – demonstrated that a piece of music can function as a vehicle for conversation, creating a safe space in which listeners can grapple with concrete ideas. This realization raised a number of questions for me about the writing of socially conscious music, or music that involves personal storytelling.

 Just a week after the Notareschi concert, I heard Nebula Ensemble premiere a new electroacoustic work by my colleague Stephen Bailey called Love Story, created in close collaboration with soprano Emily Gradowski. Like Notareschi’s String Quartet OCD, Love Story addresses a serious issue that affects many women in our culture and does so by telling a deeply personal story while inviting listeners to construct their own stories. The storytelling and the music are fully integrated in Love Story, as the pre-recorded voice of Gradowski poses several personal questions to the audience, and then answers a few of the more difficult questions, constructing a truthful narrative that reveals the body image and self-confidence struggles affecting an overwhelming number of women in our society. As the story unfolds in the electronic element, the acoustic instruments help to create an emotional environment for that story, a space in which the audience can ponder the questions Gradowski and Bailey pose, and contemplate Gradowski’s answers as well as their own (unspoken) answers.

Several weeks before the premiere of Bailey’s work, and shortly before hearing Notareschi’s String Quartet OCD, I had an email conversation with Bailey about his goals in the creation of Love Story. Bailey expressed the opinion that music must be allowed to tell these kinds of intensely personal stories in order to be relevant in today’s culture. In his view, then, the benefits of writing this type of socially conscious music  – music that strives to inform and provoke an audience to wrestle with a particular issue through the sharing of a personal narrative – outweigh the potential risks. I agreed with this view; an important lesson I learned during my time as a creative writing major was that the telling of stories that seemed weird or extremely personal to me would always earn peer comments along the lines of “I totally know what you mean,” whereas any deliberate attempt on my part to write something with “broader appeal” would leave my readers cold and indifferent. It’s a lovely paradox: the more particular and personal the story, the more universal it actually is.

This conversation with Bailey was in my mind during the performance of Notareschi’s work. Prior to the performance, Notareschi explained that one audience member at a previous performance of the work had confessed to initially “hating” and “judging” the composer as she spoke about her personal struggle with postpartum OCD, and then “loving” the composer – in other words, being reconciled to the personal story and gaining a better understanding of it – after hearing the music. Clearly, if a composer chooses to make difficult personal disclosures through a piece of music, there is always the risk that listeners will find this off-putting. For that matter, a listener’s preconceived negative idea of a composer’s personality could lead them to judge the music unfavorably before they even hear it. That Notareschi was able to win this audience member over through her music is a testimony to her compositional skill and judgement; the risk was mitigated by the high quality of Notareschi’s music and its ability to serve as a compelling and comprehensible emotional context for her personal story.

It isn’t difficult to find less successful examples of this type of personal storytelling through music. For instance, I once heard a microtonal “protest” piece (written for a specially constructed electric guitar with quarter-tone frets) that told the story of the composer’s unfair arrest and time in jail during the 1970s. At the conclusion of the performance, I overheard another audience member – who had found the piece painfully long and grating on the ears – comment that they wished the composer had remained in jail to prevent him from writing the piece. If the composer’s intent was to illustrate his experience and protest his incarceration by plunging the listener in the same monotonous suffering he endured, then he succeeded. If his intent was to raise awareness about unfair arrests and gain sympathy for other individuals in his position, however, his musical efforts failed to reach his audience. The audience as a whole remained unmoved by his story, and several audience members made unflattering jokes about the piece during intermission; sadly, the audience member who wished the composer had remained incarcerated was not the only person I overheard expressing such sentiments.

So, I suppose the takeaway for me is that a successful effort to write socially conscious/deeply personal music of this type must achieve two things: the telling of a personal story with profound honesty and humility (hubris must be left outside the door), and the creation of a high-quality musical representation of (or context for) the story that a listener can readily connect to. The composer who chooses to write music of this type undertakes a far more difficult task than the composer who writes “absolute” music, or the composer who is inspired by less intensely personal ideas related to nature, art, or spirituality. Notareschi’s and Bailey’s efforts in this arena are exciting to me because of the hyperengaging cognitive-emotional experience they created for me as an audience member, vastly different from the usual experience of hearing new music. Let us hope that they and other composers will continue to make successful experiments in this genre.

Worth the Risk? Thoughts on the Music of Eric Mandat and the 2014 Colorado Clarinet Days Composers Competition

clarinet3At the Colorado Clarinet Days Composers Competition concert in September, I had the unique opportunity to hear three new works for solo clarinet by emerging composers – including myself – alongside the music of veteran composer and clarinetist Eric Mandat. This experience initiated a great deal of reflection on my part about what it means to write well for a particular instrument, and whether composers ought to push the technical capabilities of an instrument to their outer limits, or stay within friendlier parameters. The works I heard on this concert made convincing arguments for both approaches, making this question a difficult one to resolve.

Of all the works on this concert, Mandat’s works were the most impressive and also the most technically challenging. The Jungle (1989), performed by Jacob Beeman, necessitated circular breathing and involved the very unusual extended technique of muffling the bell of the instrument using a pillow that the performer held between his knees. The Moon in My Window (2007)which Mandat performed himself, also presented special technical challenges; this delightfully whimsical yet extraordinarily difficult piece involves copious multiphonics, many of which seemed highly unpredictable. Mandat executed these with incredible skill, but I sensed that many of these multiphonics were very difficult to control. I found Mandat’s works very satisfying in terms of their overall shape, pitch content, and musicality, but I was also a bit awed by the difficulty level of these works, and reflected that very few clarinetists possess some of the specialized skills that Mandat’s works demand. For example, not all clarinetists can circular breathe, and I suspect that a large number of the multiphonics in The Moon In My Window are only obtainable with very skillful adjustments of the oral cavity. Still, the performances and the works themselves made a convincing argument in favor of taking such risks.

With the sounds of Mandat’s unpredictable multiphonics – and the questions they raised – still ringing in my ears, the second half of the concert featuring the works of the three finalists commenced. I was very impressed with Ryan Kargoll’s Polvo Lunar, an atmospheric piece that also involved multiphonics. Kargoll’s work was given an excellent performance by Jacob Beeman that almost made the difficult moments sound “easy.” Still, as with Mandat’s works, I sensed that this was a technically difficult, risk-taking piece.

Multiphonics in Ryan Kargoll’s Polvo Lunar

My own piece, Devotions and Dialogues, enjoyed a highly skilled and thoughtful performance by Michael Moy, but just as I noted instances of technically challenging writing in Kargoll’s piece and in Mandat’s pieces, there were a few moments in my own piece (in particular, passages that made heavy use of the altissimo register) that made me question why I had made such great demands on the player. The execution of my piece was highly musical, virtuosic, and sensitive, but I sensed that my performer was anxious about the high potential for mishap in certain sections of the piece, and I felt strangely guilty about putting him in that situation.

Use of the altissimo register in
Sarah Perske’s Devotions and Dialogues
(audio to be posted soon)

Of the three finalist’s works, my personal favorite was Tim Girard’s Complements V. In the weeks following the concert, I asked Tim to share a bit more about this piece, and I was fascinated to learn that he was working within very specific technical limitations set by the commissioning performer (e.g., no extended techniques). For this reason, Complements V is comparatively unintimidating in the demands it makes on the performer, yet it is expressive, enjoyable to listen to, and convincing in form. Tim was good enough to share the score of his piece with me, and I was struck by his sensitivity to the performer’s need to breathe – demonstrated by a large number of skillfully incorporated rests, breath marks, and frequent fermatas over rests – and the fact that the pieces stays within a very friendly register (presumably another stipulation of the performer). The highest note of the piece is the written E natural (sounding D natural) three ledger lines above the staff, and though this pitch sounds quite high and climactic (particularly if this register is reserved for key moments and approached carefully, as it is in Tim’s work), it is well within the bounds of what the average clarinetist can execute successfully without much danger of mishap.

The climatic ending of Tim Girard's Complements V

The climatic ending of Tim Girard’s Complements V

Tim’s work makes a convincing argument in favor of “playing it safe” with regard to instrumental technique, and suggests that this kind of “safety” does not in any way limit a composer’s ability to write good music. Why, then, do so many of us – including myself and veteran composer Eric Mandat – persist in writing difficult music?

In my own composing, I often feel trapped into writing difficult moments; the music seems to want this or that, I can’t find a better solution, and so I ask the performer if this or that is possible. The answer is often “yes – unfortunately.” Some years ago, I was present when guitarist Jonathan Leathwood recounted a conversation in which a fellow performer made a distinction between “impossible” music like the work of Brian Ferneyhough (which invites a certain amount of “faking” on the part of the performer), and music like Elliott Carter’s string quartets, unbelievably difficult yet “unfortunately possible.” Mandat, who is both a performer and a composer, seems to think that the “unfortunately possible” is worth writing, even if it may not always come off exactly the way he wants in performance. Perhaps the answer to my initial question – should we take risks or play it safe when it comes to instrumental technique – really depends on the individual who asks it. For me, I think the answer hinges on the answers to a few other questions: am I willing to accept something less than technical perfection in the performance? Do I care enough about this or that musical idea to run the risk of it possibly not happening at all? Finally, is this kind of writing in my best interests and in the best interests of the people I’m writing for? I continue to search for the answers to all of these questions with each new piece I write…



Fear, Pride, Discourse, and the Emerging Composer: Some Thoughts on Mark Applebaum’s “Existential Crises”


by Sarah Perske

A few months ago I read an article by Mark Applebaum called “Existential Crises in Composition Mentorship and the Creation of Creative Agency.” In addition to exploring many other topics, Applebaum suggests that faulty self-perception – a lack or excess of self-confidence – can negatively impact a composer’s development and the quality of the music he or she writes.[1] These claims caught my attention because some of my own teachers in both composition and performance have made similar comments; I have often heard professors remark that a timid individual would achieve more if they had greater self-confidence, or that an overly-confident person needs to develop some healthy self-doubt in order to improve. Applebaum’s article provided me with an opportunity to reflect more deeply on this subject, and to question how such problems should be addressed.

Applebaum suggests that fearful and prideful attitudes both have the potential to thwart an emerging composer’s development and cause the writing process to founder. He claims that individuals who are “too self-confident have a tendency to accept their first idea, they are unwilling to revise, and they stunt their growth potential by complacent satisfaction with their current outlook…”[2] Furthermore, this “hubris…enables a garrulousness that, in a community context, threatens to overcome the communal discourse and silence alternative voices.”[3] Individuals who are plagued by fear, on the other hand, suffer from what the author calls “masterpiece syndrome,” a state of bring excessively “self-critical” to the extent that “fear and self-loathing replace joy and agency.”[4] Both modes seem very dangerous to me. The proud, self-satisfied composer is less willing to question his/her decisions, to listen to criticism, or even to take notice of different approaches. The fearful, self-hating composer, on the other hand, may self-question to the point of being unable to make decisions, and be either too willing to listen to all sorts of advice (which may lead them in directions that are contrary to their true interests), unwilling to implement advice because of fear of failure, or simply unable to listen at all because of the stifling, stupefying effect of fear.

Applebaum generally treats fear and pride as opposites that demand different pedagogical approaches, explaining that he strives to bolster the under-confident student by “ lower[ing] the stakes of the enterprise” and “cheerleading,” while he works to “push back on ideas” and “purposefully destabilize…the artistic comfort zone” of the over-confident student.[5] This corresponds with the way most of us view fear and pride and their respective treatments; in daily life, the most commonly suggested “cure” for either malady often involves a good dose of the opposite attitude. In my own experience, however, elements of the two modes can alternate with one another quite rapidly or even exist simultaneously, making this approach problematic. For example, one aspect of a piece I’m writing may stagnate because of fear (anxiety about making a change, or uncertainty about whether a change should be made), while another may suffer because of pride (inability to notice or admit that a change ought to be made). For this reason, I’m beginning to think that fear and pride are actually symptoms of the same disease: an excessive preoccupation with self at the expense of the music.

Interestingly, although Applebaum seems to take the traditional view that fear and pride are opposites that need to be brought “into balance,”[6] he hints at a common cure for both ailments in interactions with others, emphasizing the importance of “communal discourse” and the need for conversations with peers as well as mentors.[8] On the subject of community and interaction, Applebaum believes “that the most puissant source of inspiration comes not from formal teachers but from student colleagues,”[9] in part because students can learn from their interactions with one another what it means to be a mentor, and this in turn helps the student to become a self-mentor, able “to reflect questions internally.”[10] I would add to the author’s discussion of community the importance of having a sense of real camaraderie in the interactions of the community members; this is implicit in a number of Applebaum’s comments, but not explicitly stated.[11] I’m hopeful that camaraderie within “communal discourse” is the antidote to the self-preoccupied attitude that leads to fear and pride: if one can learn to fully appreciate one’s colleagues, hold them in high regard, feel “safe” expressing one’s difficulties and listening to their input, and see one’s individual efforts as part of a common effort, then the stakes are not so high. There is less to fear, less to feel puffed up about, and there are more reasons to simply enjoy doing the work and sharing it.

[1] Mark Applebaum, “Existential Crises in Composition Mentorship and the Creation of Creative Agency,” Contemporary Music Review, 31, no. 4 (August 2012): 259-60, accessed May 5, 2014,

[2] Ibid, 259.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 260.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 259.

[7] Ibid, 260-262.

[8] Ibid, 261.

[9] Ibid, 261-262.

[10] Applebaum’s descriptions of his seminars on collaborative composition are suggestive of a community that includes real camaraderie as well as competitiveness.

Sofia Gubaidulina, “Offertorium” Part II

Crucifixionby Sarah Perske

In my last post, I discussed the suffering-redemption narrative of Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Offertorium” and explored the influence of this narrative on Gubaidulina’s approaches to pitch, dynamics, register, and orchestration. This suffering-redemption narrative is equally influential in Gubaidulina’s approach to form. “Offertorium” is, on its most basic level, a set of variations on the royal theme of Bach’s Musical Offering (a theme given to Bach by Frederick the Great). However, Gubaidulina departs far from traditional variation form – which generally reflects an additive process of embellishment – and re-interprets it as a subtractive process in which pitches are gradually removed from the theme “to symbolize the idea of sacrifice.”[1] Gubaidulina’s comments suggest that she thinks of the gradual “death” and eventual “resurrection” of the theme as the defining principle of the form:

“The first section consists of several variations, where the theme “offers” itself, “sacrificing” one note from the beginning and one from the end in each variation. In the climax, just one (central) note of the theme is left. Frederick’s theme gradually returns in the third section (the second section is devoted to images of “cross suffering” and the Last Judgment). The main event of the concerto, the Transfiguration, is in the coda: Frederick’s theme appears in its complete shape, but in retrograde motion, and nobody can recognize it.”[2]

Gubaidulina’s description, though it certainly captures the main action of the piece, remains a somewhat incomplete portrait. While the appearances of the varied theme are of great structural importance, they actually comprise a fairly small percentage of this nearly 40-minute piece, as the “sacrificing” of the theme necessitates its gradual replacement with other materials. Furthermore, the soloist’s role is somewhat removed from this process, as the solo violin does not play an assertive part in stating the theme until the third section of the piece. For these reasons, I hear this concerto as an interweaving of three different structural threads: the gradual transformation of the theme, the distinctive repeated materials of the solo violin (derived from the theme), and sections of orchestral music that often use material from the theme and/or the solo violin material, but are generally most notable for their presentation of sweeping, dramatic gestures that recur throughout the piece.



For the first five minutes of the piece, the listener can easily track these individual threads. The theme (pictured above), though gradually diminishing with each repetition, appears at 0:012:46, and 4:50 in recognizable and increasingly dramatic statements. The solo violin has its own distinctive material (first introduced at 0:19), varied appearances of a repetitious lament derived from the descending chromatic scale and final half-step motive of the theme. The orchestra, for its part, supports the soloist in these moments and then takes over, offering commentary on various motives of the theme and finishing with a dramatic gesture, often involving glissandi or chromatic scales (1:20, 4:21, 5:26). Gubaidulia presents these three elements in a clearly demarcated manner until 4:50. Following this third statement of the theme, it becomes difficult to distinguish between statements of the increasingly amputated theme and the fragmentary appearances of related materials that Gubaidulina has interspersed from the beginning. With the exception of the violin cadenza at 15:44, the three threads remain more closely woven together for the remainder of the piece.

Each of these threads plays a vital role in making the form comprehensible; the gradual death and resurrection of the theme forms the structural backbone of the concerto, while the other two elements serve to unify and support that structure throughout the gradual disappearance of the theme. The soloist’s material helps us to hear a cohesive narrative even in the midst of the chaotic middle section of the piece, partly through its use of thematic material and partly by virtue of a symbolic connection to the suffering-redemption narrative; Gubaidulina’s initial inspiration for the concerto was “the total surrender of self to the tone” that she perceived in the playing of violinist Gidon Kremer, and her remarks on the subject suggest a parallel with Christ’s “surrender” on the cross.[3] Similarly, recurring descending gestures in the orchestra contribute to thematic and symbolic unity by recalling the descending chromatic motion of the theme. These gestures denote suffering both through their traditional association with “sighs” or “falls,” and through the symbolism of chromatic material (associated with darkness or suffering) mentioned in my previous post. These gestures appear throughout the piece in miniaturized, understated versions (like those at 5:26 and 28:42) as well as a number of larger, more dramatic versions (like those at 1:20 and 37:00) that serve as structural pillars; such a gesture at 27:55, for example, signals the close of the second section and the beginning of the long journey back towards a resurrected theme.


The coda is one of the most interesting moments of the piece for me. Here, Gubaidulina brings the three threads together: the theme returns at 36:06, but now it is stated by the soloist, presented in retrograde, and subjected to embellishment, repetition, and octave transpositions (image above). Rather than simply end the piece with the transfigured theme, Gubaidulina unites the theme and the soloist with the third element, engaging the entire orchestra in a final chaotic downward sweep (37:00). This moment fulfills an expectation set up by earlier uses of this gesture, and complicates the expected trajectory of the suffering-redemption narrative in an interesting way; Gubaidulina emphasizes the ultimately redemptive character of the narrative by letting the solo violin’s high D continue through the chaos to emerge as the last sound we hear, but the dramatic descent seems to remind us that we still await ‘the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.’


[1] Vera Lukomsky, “Sofia Gubaidulina: ‘My Desire is Always to Rebel, to Swim Against the Stream!’” Perspectives of New Music Vol. 36, No. 1 (Winter, 1998), 26.

[2] Ibid., 26-27.

[3] Michael Kurtz, Sofia Gubaidulina: a Biography (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007), 194.

Sofia Gubaidulina, “Offertorium,” Part I

Sofia Gubaidulina, Offertorium (1980), concerto for violin and orchestra

This is the first installment of a two-part exploration of Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Offertorium.” This piece became a favorite of mine several months ago, and between the piece itself and what Gubaidulina has to say about it, there is quite a lot of fascinating ground to cover. Part II will follow in two weeks.

Part I

Some have described Sofia Gubaidulina’s unique sound as “polystylism” or “eclecticism.”[1] These are convenient, catch-all labels that attempt to explain Gubaidulina’s eccentric blendings of diatonic and fully chromatic elements, occasional Bach quotes, and timbres and forms that could only be imagined in the 20th or 21st centuries. In agreement with the composer’s own view, however, I would argue that works like “Offertorium” remain resistant to stylistic labels; Gubaidulina’s music is better understood from the perspective of the Christian mysticism that shapes her understanding of musical materials and forms.[2]

As its title implies, “Offertorium”  is the result of Gubaidulina’s contemplation of surrender, sacrifice, and the narrative of suffering and redemption (or death and resurrection) that is central to her Christian faith. A conversation with some of my colleagues in composition seminar last year made me realize that this type of suffering-redemption narrative is deeply engrained in Western culture, and particularly in the way humans have traditionally organized narrative structures in the Western world. In “Offertorium,” Gubaidulina seems to ask what this ancient narrative means in the 20th century, and how this story can be retold in a language unique to the era of the piece.

The suffering-redemption narrative shapes Gubaidulina’s compositional choices on the most basic levels of pitch, dynamics, and orchestration. Gubaidulina explains that she chose to use the royal theme of Bach’s “Musical Offering” (stated at the opening in an orchestration reminiscent of Webern’s orchestration of the Ricercar) not as a reference to a stylistic past, but “to symbolize the idea of sacrifice.” [3] In this work, as in other Gubaidulina works, diatonic materials generally represent light (redemption), while chromatic materials represent darkness (suffering). Register and dynamics also appear to be endowed with symbolic significance in this concerto; very high sounds are often paired with primarily diatonic material, soft dynamics, and thinner textures (at 3:29, for example), while the lower register is most often combined with fully chromatic material, harsh dynamics, and dense orchestration. My favorite sounds in this piece are the loud, dramatic downward sweeps –representations of suffering – that Gubaidulina creates through string glissandi, rapid descending lines, tam tam and bass drum rolls, and other percussion (1:20-1:39 is an early occurrence; the most dramatic instance appears at 37:00).

My next post will examine how the suffering-redemption narrative influences form in this piece.

[1] Vera Lukomsky, “Sofia Gubaidulina: ‘My Desire is Always to Rebel, to Swim Against the Stream!’” Perspectives of New Music Vol. 36, No. 1 (Winter, 1998), 26- 27.

[2] Ibid., 27. Gubaidulina expresses somewhat amused impatience with musicologists who impose stylistic labels on her music. She explains that “in my case, it is never a stylistic issue. Musicologists do not know how to describe my music and just attach inaccurate labels to my music!” The composer goes on to remark that similar labels are imposed on the music of Bach: “…I protest against the label ‘eclectic,’ which musicologists pin on Bach…Bach did not care about style at all. He thinks about God, he talks with God in his music!” It can be inferred from these remarks that Gubaidulina sees her own music in a similar light.

[3] Ibid., 26.

How do you hear new music? Three lessons in creative listening from St. Thérèse of Lisieux

St. Thérèse rosesby Sarah Perske

Sometimes insights turn up in the most unlikely places; I’ve stumbled across intriguing ideas that apply to new music in the writings of poets, novelists, philosophers, and – in the present case – the autobiography of a 19th century nun. Consider the following odd story about the act of listening told by St. Thérèse of Lisieux:

“For a long time I had to kneel during meditation near a Sister who could not stop fidgeting; if it was not with her rosary, it was with goodness knows what else…I wanted to turn around and glare at the culprit to make her be quiet, but deep in my heart I felt that the best thing to do was to put up with it patiently, for the love of God first of all, and also not to hurt her feelings…In the end, I tried to find some way of bearing it peacefully and joyfully…I even tried to like this wretched little noise…so I turned my whole attention to listening really closely to it, as if it were a magnificent concert…”[1]

This story contains three ideas that I find inspiring:

  1. Listening is a creative act

Listening is a creative act, as intentional and generative as composing itself. In this story, the way St. Thérèse listened to the sounds was more important than the sounds themselves. Ordinary noise was transformed into “a magnificent concert” through her imaginative listening. It’s easy to find examples of composers whose works have been influenced by listening creatively to their environments; Messiaen’s extensive use of bird song and Xenakis’ bullet-inspired ideas in Metastasis come to mind. Lately I’ve been trying to listen to my daily environment more creatively, taking note of dishwasher noises, paper rustling, the wind moaning through an open window…and so on. I have also found it valuable to spend extra time listening imaginatively to the work of other composers, especially if I don’t respond to a particular piece with immediate admiration. The most noticeable result of these efforts so far is that I’ve been dreaming about sounds with greater vividness and variety than I have ever experienced before. I’m beginning to think there is no such thing as “ordinary noise;” every sonic event is a miraculous event with infinite value…if I choose to hear it that way.

  1. Intentionality is key

An attentive, open-minded audience member once told me that she occasionally feels some young composers do not really “mean what they say” in music. In other words, this audience member feels that committed, authentic creative intent is sometimes missing from a given composer’s choices. In St. Thérèse’s story, the sounds became musical through the efforts of the listener, but there was no discernible creative intent behind the actual production of the sounds; the Sister with the rattling rosary was presumably unaware of her own noise-making. As a composer, I want to be sure that I’m meeting listeners halfway in terms of my own sincerity and commitment to the kind of music I write. How can I be certain that the music I write is ‘intentional,’ that my compositional choices are choices I really believe in, and that my decisions are not merely guided by default responses to the difficulties I encounter?  If I succeed in writing ‘intentional’ music, will this necessarily translate into ‘good’ music? I’m still looking for answers to these questions…I would be interested in hearing what others think about this.

3. Music is the result of collaborative listening

Finally, this story made me realize that only when someone decides to approach sound with sincere creative intent do we cease to call it “noise” and begin to call it “music.” I think this transformation of “noise” into “music” is only complete when at least two or three people – a composer, a performer, and an audience member – make a commitment to perceive sound in a creative, intentional way. This makes the creation of music a collaborative effort in which each participant’s contribution is indispensable. It seems to me that the participants achieve this collaboration by listening with an awareness of one another as well as an awareness of the music itself. The production and reception of the sounds are, after all, products of human choice, and I think we always approach music with a consciousness of and appreciation for the human minds, hands, ears, and vocal chords that cause it to exist. For this reason, no concert is commonplace; a concert is an active exchange of ideas with very little reliance on words, a mysterious communion of intellects that is found in few other settings.

[1] St. Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul, trans. Michael Day (Charlotte, NC: Saint Benedict Press, 2010), 147.
I found this story inspiring enough to make it the subject of an electronic piece a few years ago. If you’re curious, you can hear it on my YouTube channel:



A few words about Stephen Bailey’s “The Uncurling Nautilus”

posted by: Sarah Perske

Nautilus - Version 3One of my goals for this blog is to periodically say a few words about works posted on the “Listening” page in the hope of initiating conversation about those works. This week I’d like to highlight Stephen Bailey’s “The Uncurling Nautilus” for cello and laptop. Please take a moment to listen to the piece if you haven’t already done so (click the image on the left). For that matter, take a moment to listen even if you’re already familiar with the piece! I’ve heard the version for horn and laptop in live performance several times now, and new details have emerged upon each hearing.

Both versions of the piece strike me as particularly compelling integrations of electronics and an acoustic instrument. The electronic element functions both as a virtual space in which the cello resonates (I think this is most audible in the outer sections of the work), and as an “instrument” in its own right (this can be heard in the inner sections, starting at 2:37 in this recording). It is also notable that the laptop performer’s role is truly performative, with a high degree of interaction between the laptop performer and the cellist. At 2:37, for example, the laptop performer must trigger groups of notes in response to the cellist’s pacing. I appreciate the sonic depth and richness that the electronic element creates in this piece, and the timbral variety created by the use of vocalization and percussive sounds in the cello part.

Stephen Bailey has interesting things to say about the structure of the piece:

“Many notable composers have had a fascination with the Fibonacci sequence. This is a series of numbers where the next number is reached through the addition of the previous two. The order of these numbers is 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 and so on. Another important element of this sequence of numbers is the ratio between each consecutive number after the third. This ratio is about 62% and has for many years been known as the golden ratio. This ratio also describes the spiral curling of the shell of a nautilus, a sea-dwelling cephalopod related to, but far more ancient than, the squid and the octopus.

The Uncurling Nautilus is not me expressing my own fascination with the Fibonacci sequence, though I do use the sequence as a compositional tool. The initial concept behind this work was one of gradual accumulation of elements over time and the Fibonacci sequence stuck out as a significant and interesting pattern through which to accumulate elements that wasn’t simply 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 etc. The work is split into three main sections: in the first, the cello plays brief gestures which are played back by the computer as microtonal clusters through a delay. The Fibonacci sequence governs the accumulation of attacks in this section. So first the cello plays one note, then one again, then two, three, five, eight and so on. This creates micro-level call and response periods of growth and decay which, together, create a macro-level accumulation of sound. In the second main section, the cello plays a lyrical, rhythmically free melody and is accompanied by chords played by the computer. The accumulation of texture within the accompaniment is governed by the Fibonacci sequence: first the cello is accompanied by one note, then two, three, five and so on. The third section is a shortened recapitulation of the first. Each of these sections is separated from the next by a cadenza, first improvised by the cello, and then played by the computer based on recorded and highly altered material from the cello’s cadenza.”

About Stephen Bailey:

SBaileycolorcropA fierce experimentalist, Stephen Bailey is a Colorado-based composer of chamber, choral, and electronic music. Stephen’s music embodies a language in which the primary concern is expression, and the primary tool is texture. This language borrows techniques from composers of minimalism, sound mass, and post-serialism. The result can be both ecstatically serene and forcefully chaotic, both sumptuously beautiful and disturbingly ugly.

Because of a strong background in audio engineering and music production, Stephen fully embraces the incorporation of technology into music, while also respecting the beauty and expression of classical forms, genres and instruments.

Stephen’s music has been featured twice on the Playground Ensemble’s annual Colorado Composer’s Concert, as well as their 2013 New Creations concert. Stephen was also one of
three composers to have their music performed at The Classical Salon at Dazzle Nightclub. His devotion to modern music has garnered him commissions from the Metropolitan State University of Denver Men’s Choir, Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church and a number of Denver-area musicians and chamber groups. He has studied composition with composers such as Conrad Kehn, Leanna Kirchoff, Fred Hess, Cherise Leiter, Abbie Betinis, Brian Johanson,
 and Chris Malloy. He holds an Associate of Arts degree and a Bachelor of Music degree in music composition from Arapahoe Community College and Metropolitan State University of Denver respectively and is currently pursuing a Masters of Music in composition from the University of Denver.

Means, ends, and “the law of the gift:” What should I write, how should I write it and…why am I doing this?


by Sarah Perske

After reading a bunch of articles about the writing process in connection with my writing center job this year, I was inspired to embark on a yearlong obsessive inquiry into the composing process. I searched for language to demystify the compositional thought process, tested different working methods, and tried to develop personal solutions to the age-old problems of procrastination, “composer’s block,” and indecisiveness.

When I discussed some of these explorations with my colleagues a few weeks ago, Stephen Bailey made the comment that for him, the question of “what” to write is more important than “how” to go about it, and that thinking too much about the “how” without enough attention to the “what” yields poor musical results. In other words, as Stephen pointed out more recently, “the process is usually less important than the result.” I agreed with him – and sent Nathan Cornelius into fits of convulsive laughter – by remarking that sometimes the “what” is the “how” more than the “how” is the “how.” Chaya Czernowin states the same idea in more elegant terms when she writes that “every separation between means or technique on the one hand and expression or concept or idea on the other is totally false.”[1] Czernowin explains that different ends demand different means. As she humorously puts it, one composer may conceive of his/her music as “a circus of freak creatures” while another conceives of his/her music as “a garden,” and it’s important to realize that “a circus of freak creatures will lead to very different techniques than a garden.”[2] In other words, the “what” must determine the “how,” and not the reverse.

I’m beginning to think my extensive search for answers to the “how” of music composition was partly motivated by subconscious unwillingness to confront the “what.” It isn’t difficult to find something to say musically, but sometimes it can be difficult for me to determine whether what I said is really what I meant, and whether the means I chose to communicate a particular idea were really the most effective means. Did I really feel a strong commitment to this or that harmonic language when I chose it? Does my choice to write this particular kind of music come from a place of authenticity?[3] Am I communicating something that I truly believe in? Or am I just rehashing the languages of composers I like, practicing techniques my mentors said I should get acquainted with, and filling pages with notes because I have a deadline?

At the risk of making Nathan laugh again, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if the “how” is dependent on the “what,” the “what” is dependent on the “why.” If I have trouble discovering the “what,” or if I have any doubt about whether what I’m saying musically is really what I mean, the reason could be that I have failed to come to grips with the “why.” As composers, we’re motivated by a variety of “whys;” sometimes the “why” is that we have an opportunity to write for a particular performer, or that our deadline is next Thursday. Sometimes the “why” is that we want to write something as good as the piece our colleague so-and-so wrote last quarter. These kinds of “whys” are often the most immediately compelling, but I would argue that they are unlikely to produce satisfying, believable results unless they are accompanied by a deeper “why.”

The deeper “why” is slightly different for each of us, but it always has its origins in the idea that writing music is an act of communication. We write music because we have something to say to a human “other,” and that something needs to be more than just “look at me, I’m writing good music.” If my compositional choices are excessively influenced by trying to be “as good as so-and-so,” or by worrying about how others perceive me, the process is miserable and the product is unsatisfying. If, on the other hand, I compose with the feeling that I am secretly wrapping a present to surprise and delight a beloved friend, the process is fun and the product is something I can be proud of.

This reminds me of something violinist Danica Smith once told me: that the deepest truths of any discipline are reflections of universal truth. Ceasing to be “self-oriented” and becoming “other-oriented” is a necessary part of becoming a better person; for me, at least, it’s also an essential part of becoming a better composer. I’m convinced that the creation of good music demands that an individual composer reach his/her full human potential through what the Polish philosopher and theologian Karol Wojtyla called “the law of the gift,” the necessity of making a gift of oneself to others.[4] For these reasons, discovering the “what” and the “how” of music composition is more than a step in artistic or intellectual growth. Writing music must be, by its very nature, an action or series of actions oriented toward affirming the intrinsic value of human life – other’s lives as well as one’s own.


[1] Chaya Czernowin, “Teaching that which is Not Yet There” (Stanford Version), Contemporary Music Review 31, no. 4 (August 2012): 285.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Czernowin also has interesting things to say about authenticity – I hope to cover this in another post.

[4] Better known today as Saint Pope John Paul II. To the best of my knowledge, Wojtyla’s ideas about “the law of the gift” derive from lectures he gave as a professor at the Catholic University of Lublin in the 1950s, though these ideas were further developed in some of his post-election writings as John Paul II. See George Weigel, Witness to Hope: the Biography of Pope John Paul II (New York: HarperCollins, 1999),136-37.